The Trauma of Racism

(Click to hear audio. Please note, text includes several links that I do not refer to in the audio.)

Derek Chauvin was found guilty on all charges last week — he killed George Floyd and will serve time for this crime. As I was listening to the verdicts, I felt “At last — one small step toward justice.” And then I became aware that before the verdict had even been read, a fifteen year old girl in Columbus, Ohio had called the police for help and was instead shot and killed by an officer within moments of his arrival on the scene.

Yes, the girl had a knife.Yes, the scene was chaotic. Still, did a fifteen year old girl have to die?

Is there a way for police officers to arrive at a scene and de-escalate a situation, even after weapons have been drawn?Are law enforcement teams trained in trauma-informed procedures that they might utilize when responding to traumatic situations? Is their goal to control and subdue or de-escalate and restore? How might this scene have played out differently if the goal was restoration? Officers may still have arrived with their hands on their guns — a knife was drawn and visible after all — but might they have found a way, short of death, to separate the young women involved in the altercation? Might they have secured the knife? Could they then have found the space to ask, What happened? We got your call, and we’re here to help. Fill us in. What’s going on?

Might Ma’Khia Bryant have had a chance to say why she was holding that knife, why she was lunging at someone with it? Why she had reached out to the police for support?

Look, law enforcement can’t be easy. I can’t imagine how complicated and stressful — even traumatic — it must be to arrive at a scene where violence is in progress. I have no idea what it feels like to have a gun on one hip and a taser on the other. I can’t fathom the impact of such day in and day out stress on the body.

Researchers, however, have studied trauma and its impact — how cortisol and adrenaline, though crucial in moments of crisis, can wreak havoc on the body during periods of sustained or ongoing trauma — the kind that law officers witness every day. Costello, Wachtel, and Wachtel, three practitioner-researchers in the field of education (The Restorative Practices Handbook) have used such research to inform strategies that have been impactful in mitigating undesirable behavior and restoring problematic relationships. Is it possible that such strategies might be replicated or adapted for use in law enforcement and beyond?

Isn’t it safe to acknowledge at this point that large swaths of the general public have experienced trauma? Research has shown that one out of six women will be the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, one in seven children has experienced child abuse or neglect in the last year, and one out of five students report being bullied in school. Trauma, it seems, is ubiquitous. Yet, even if we are aware of widespread trauma, it may be difficult to measure the pervasiveness of trauma in communities of color where many live with the daily fear of violence, the impact of systemic racism, and what trauma specialist Resmaa Menakem calls “the historical and current traumatic impact of racism on the body.” For generations — for centuries — nonwhites have been subjected to repeated traumas, many of which are recorded in history.

We could go back to colonial days to look at the ways in which Native Americans were traumatized by the colonists who showed up first needing assistance after a long and certainly traumatic sea voyage on the heals of their own traumatic othering experiences in Europe, having been persecuted themselves to the extent that they were willing to board a ship powered only by the wind to travel for months to a land where they hoped to find liberty but certainly no family, no existing structures in which they might live, and God only knows what dangers. Native Americans were at times helpful to the settlers but also subsequently used, dehumanized, brutalized, and all but exterminated in the colonists’ attempts to overcome their own trauma and secure their own livelihood.

In their further attempts to create and attain the American Dream, white Americans engaged in the slave trade by which they participated in or sanctioned the abduction of Africans from their own homes. These Black humans were shackled and chained like animals by white humans, the likes of which they had never seen before, crammed into overcrowded holds of ships, and transported via their own perilous and traumatic months-long journey. Once on North American soil, those who survived the journey were then bought and sold, beaten and abused, raped, and forced to work to secure the prosperity of their owners.

After hundreds of years of this type of existence, when slavery had been outlawed, the trauma persisted in the bodies of both white and Black Americans. The dehumanization — the othering — of Black bodies was hardwired into the fabric of the nation, and it was perpetuated through Jim Crow laws such as segregated schools, restrooms, bus seating, etc., not to mention the racist beliefs that fueled hateful speech, intimidation, lynchings, and the like.

Still today, in 21st century America, we see racist practices that persist in education, health care, criminal justice, housing, etc. Centuries after the colonists arrived on the shores of this continent, the mistreatment of people of color in the pursuit of the white man’s American dream continues to be elemental to this country. Not only Native American and Black, but also Asian and Hispanic blood has been shed; bodies of all kinds of colors have been dehumanized in the making of the land of the free and the home of the brave.

Resmaa Menakem suggests that these many traumas and others like them produced biological responses that continue to live in our bodies — not just Black bodies or brown bodies, but white bodies, too. We all carry the trauma of our collective history in our bodies. All of us have been shaped by the racism of this country. All of us believe and feel things about race as a result of the “historical and current trauma of racism”.

So when a police officer arrives on the scene to find a 15 year old black girl lunging at someone with a knife, he interprets that in his body much differently than he would if he arrived to find a 15 year old white girl lunging at someone with a knife.

Did you see the difference in your mind? I did. And that, my friends, is racism.

And because this racism — this dehumanization — lives in our bodies, in our minds, in our societal ethos, we continue to traumatize one another. And the impact of the trauma multiplies and spreads, a sickness hurting everyone it touches.

When are we going to decide it’s time to deal with this hundreds-years-old disease?

When are we going to create the space in which we can turn to take a different way? When will we take the time to come into a circle, to share openly with one another what happened, what we were thinking, what impact our actions had on one another, and what actions would begin to make things right (Costello, et al)?

Can you imagine the healing that might happen if we were willing, in small pockets across the country, to start this practice — not a one and done act, but an ongoing practice of confession, repentance, and restoration? Wouldn’t we be partnering with God in His work of reconciliation?

Isn’t that the most loving way we could spend our lives?

What does the Lord require of you, but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”

Micah 6:8

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

The Camera’s View

Click the arrow to listen.

The camera can’t catch everything.

Over the weekend, a friend sent me a photo to show me how she was spending her evening. In her shot, I could see the television screen and a Piston’s game in progress; I could see her polished toes propped up in front of her, but I couldn’t see her face or who she was watching with. She showed me what she wanted me to see — just a slice of the whole.

Media cameras give us a slice, too. They use selected images and create a neatly packaged narrative to create a story about what’s happening in the world, and while a picture paints a thousand words, actual stories with all their nuances, often take thousands of words to write.

Although we’ve been watching news of Covid-19 for 10 months and we’ve seen images of sickness and death every, we have not seen the true devastation caused by this disease. The screens in our living rooms can’t show us the pain of the 375,000 families who’ve lost loved ones since March. They can’t convey the stress, the weariness, the weight that our health care workers have been carrying. They can’t transport the heaviness of heart of those who are lifting bodies into refrigerated storage units because the morgues are full.

The camera gives a glimpse, but it’s can’t convey the whole.

Last Spring, along with shots of the empty streets of downtown Manhattan and the long lines of people waiting for food, the camera also held its focus for over eight minutes as a police officer kneeled on the neck of a man while officers stood by watching him die. It turned its gaze to another man out for an afternoon jog and watched as he was chased down by men in trucks, assaulted, and killed in the middle of the street. Not long after, the camera found in its frame a man taking the last steps of his life moments before a police officer shot seven bullets into his back severing his spinal cord and rendering him paralyzed.

It showed us these moments when everything changed, but it hasn’t shown us the ongoing impact in the lives of the people who loved those men.

It hasn’t shown us the grieving families — how they struggle to face another day in their forever-altered reality, knowing that those who inflicted violence on their loved ones get to keep right on living, some not facing any consequences at all. The camera hasn’t focused on that.

Throughout the pandemic, we have watched scenes of citizens responding to circumstances that seem unjust. We’ve seen outraged masses demonstrating against police brutality and others infuriated at orders to stay at home and wear a mask. The cameras have marched along, capturing images, and creating narratives.

And this week cameras were in the crowd as the leader of the free world — a man who has never experienced police brutality or had to stand in a line to get food, who has never been forced to stay at home or wear a mask — stood on the mall in Washington, DC, dressed in a fine suit and freshly coiffed, and spoke to thousands who adore him, who view him as the answer to society’s ills, who believe him to be a man of God and a fighter for the people. Cameras recored as he spoke to these people who had travelled across the country at his bidding, paying with their own hard-earned money, or charging flights and hotel rooms on credit cards they may or may not be able to pay back. They were dressed as warriors and carrying weapons; they brought strategies and tactics and stood there ready when he told them to march. The President of the United States said “you can’t be weak” but you must “save our democracy.” And, after listening to him decry our nation for over an hour, these thousands of citizens followed his orders and marched. The camera caught them screaming war cries, pushing police out of the way, breaking windows, climbing walls, destroying property, and terrifying the nation.

Not long after, the camera showed most of them walking away without consequence — not with knees on their necks, not with bullets in their backs, not chased down by vehicles and killed in the street.

And since Wednesday, as we’ve heard cries for justice, for impeachment, for accountability and watched the tapes of that attack played and replayed, we’ve been tempted to shake our fists at our screens, shouting at the ineptitude of the local and federal governments that respond unequally to the actions of black and white bodies, at the corruption of politicians, and at the devastating division in our country. And certainly, we are justified to do so, but all of our shouting and fist-shaking will not, of itself, cause transformation.

However, if we dare, we might turn away from the camera and its limited gaze to see that the issues plaguing the United States are both national and local. They are both political and personal. The same divisions we saw through a camera lens last week, and that we have been seeing for the last several years, are present in our own communities, in our own friend groups, in our own families, and in our own selves. We are a nation — a people — infected with selfishness, pride, racism, and self-righteousness.

And, as our pastor, Marcus Lane, said this morning, “We cannot confront evil in the world without confronting it in ourselves.” No, we sure can’t.

We will not change as a culture until we, as individuals, take intentional steps toward change — toward self-examination, confession, repentance, and walking in a new way. It’s going to take a collective effort to turn the dial, and to right our course.

We’re going to have to step away from our screens and the limited view of life that they display. We’re going to have to take a broader view, putting down our finger-pointing judgmental attitudes and extending not only consequences but grace to those who’ve gotten it wrong, including ourselves. We’re going to have to open up space so that as those around us try to change course, they will find the room to do so.

Look, we are all guilty here. We are all complicit — we’ve all contributed to this very tragic narrative.

We can no longer deny that much of what the camera shows us not only illustrates but perpetuates systemic racism and the privilege of the few. We saw with our own eyes that among the insurrectionists, who were mostly white, were those who carried Confederate flags and wore t-shirts emblazoned with anti-Semitic and racist messages. It is nauseating to see such hatred so blatantly on display — right on the cameras –but really, that’s where it should be, out where we can see it, because for too long it has been carried surreptitiously inside our hearts.

I’ve been idly watching this narrative for too long.

I feel compelled to take an inward look to face the evil within myself so that I will be better equipped to call it out in our world and to give the camera something new to look at. We’ve got to right this ship, friends. We’ve got to change the trajectory of our story.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts. See if there is any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!

Psalm 139:23-24

Intending for Change

Click the arrow to listen to me read this post.

Many of us enthusiastically waved goodbye to 2020 with a hopeful eye toward the new year, but if the first few days of 2021 are any indication, all that’s changed is the calendar. The Covid-19 pandemic is far from over — we topped 350,000 deaths over the weekend, and the vaccine distribution is way behind schedule. Political divisions are stronger than ever — just two weeks before the inauguration of our next president, the sitting president and many governmental leaders, not to mention a large number of loyal citizens, are still attempting to contest election results. Millions across the country are struggling financially — though some got a little relief from a $600 deposit in their bank accounts this weekend, those who need it the most likely won’t see checks for weeks or even months. And certainly the racism that plagues our nation and flared undeniably in 2020 is as strong, if not stronger, than ever.

Last Monday in my blog (post here), I wondered if now that we’ve more clearly seen — thanks to the pandemic — our systemic failures, our economic inequities, and our blatant racism, we would be content to continue on the course that we have been on as a country. Are we ok with what we have seen? Or are we motivated to make change?

You might be tempted to think that any attempts at change would be futile — our systems are so established, our paths so forged — how can we expect transformation? Certainly we can’t reverse climate change, eradicate poverty and homelessness, right the wrongs of racial injustice, or even get rid of Covid-19 with the flip of a switch.

And it’s true, the idea that change could happen over night — that we might restore the polar ice caps, provide housing and jobs to all the unemployed and underemployed, make up for the all injustices that have been committed against people of color, or even immunize 80% of Americans within the bounds of 2021 — is fantasy-thinking even for the most hopeful among us.

However, it would be criminal for us to throw up our hands and say, “It is what it is. Nothing can be done.” Because, my friends, something can be done.

We may not be able to flip a switch, but we can certainly turn a dial.

I have been learning about the power of dial-turning through my years-long continuing journey to health. In January of 2013, I was diagnosed with autoimmune disease which has been characterized by limited mobility and decreased energy. The severity of symptoms led me to leave my teaching career in 2014, presumably forever.

However, that summer I started making one small change after another. First I took a long rest, then I landed within a network of very supportive friends, altered my diet, found a team of health care advocates, and began daily yoga and walking. Week after week and month after month I continued despite my inability to see much progress. However, recently, six and a half years into the process, I was looking through a pile of photographs when I spotted one from just a few summers ago that took my breath away. I could barely recognize myself! I vividly remembered the day it was taken — one in which I experienced pain, limited mobility, and the ever-present need to rest.

I am no longer that person.

A few seemingly small changes and the power of our restorative God have transformed my health and enabled me to re-enter my teaching career after I was certain I was finished. My choices didn’t flip a switch, but they have certainly turned the dial.

Change, restoration, healing, and progress are possible, but they don’t usually happen over night.

While we long for sweeping transformation right this very minute — that we could eradicate the coronavirus, feed all the hungry, or have affordable high quality health care for everyone in our country, for example — these kinds of changes are going to take some time. However, if we are willing to take small intentional actions, over time we will begin to see change. Who knows, maybe a few years down the road, we’ll be watching a documentary on the Covid-19 pandemic and we won’t even recognize ourselves.

God can do anything, but He often invites His people to get involved in making change.

So, where to start? In my last post, I asked you to consider what you’ve seen over the last several months that just didn’t sit right. What bothered you? Where is God drawing your eye?

For me, the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbury, and Breonna Taylor were personal. These folks, in my mind, represented students I’ve worked with over the years and their families — people I know and love. I watched in horror as their lives were senselessly and abruptly ended. How could I live in a country that so devalued human lives and not do something about it?

Witnessing those events and the slow and inadequate response of our justice system dared me to return to the classroom. Wanting to tangibly demonstrate that I believe Black Lives Matter, I pursued positions in communities of color that have been historically underserved, and I got one.

I have been so excited to 1) be back in the classroom, even if it is a Zoom room, and 2) interact with students and their families with respect, professionalism, and empathy. However, after four months with my Black and Muslim students, I have also become more acutely aware of the racism that lives deep in my bones. It catches me off guard sometimes, and I am horrified to find myself making assumptions and judgments that have roots in ideologies that I — that we — have been learning all of our lives.

So, now that I have seen this — this racism that continues to live inside of me — what do I intend to do? Well, I have a few intentions that, with the grace of God, might cause some slow, incremental change — that just might turn the dial.

First, one of the ladies in my “breakfast club” suggested that we all take an 8-week facilitated course designed to help us interrogate our own beliefs and to expose inherent racism. Six middle-aged white women have agreed to enter a safe space, to be vulnerable, and to take an introspective view that might challenge our long-held beliefs.

At work, I have asked to join a process-oriented group of colleagues — Black, white, and Muslim, administrators and educators, experienced and novice — who will be invited to share stories, examine experiences, and engage in conversations about race. Our goal is to expose our racial biases and to challenge them so that we can better walk beside each other and our students.

With members of our church community, my husband and I are committing to an 8-week facilitated course on ways that we, as Christians, can join in anti-racist work.

These are beginnings — they are first steps. We will likely not see big sweeping changes immediately. However, participating in such conversations might shift attitudes, reshape language, and perhaps even transform beliefs and behaviors. It’s a start.

Way back in the fall of 2014, I had very little flexibility or strength. If I bent at the waist, I could not touch my toes; I could not hold a plank for any length of time, let alone do a pushup. I felt frustrated in yoga and Pilates classes because others around me seemed much stronger, much more flexible. However, one instructor after another reminded me that I had to start somewhere and that I would see progress over time. So, I kept showing up, doing the best that I could, even when it felt like I was making no progress at all. Six years later, touching my toes is still a work in progress, but I can sure hold a plank and do several push-ups. It didn’t happen with the flip of a switch, but I have gradually been able to turn the dial.

I am wondering if you might be willing to make a few small changes this year? Maybe you were moved by the economic disparities that surfaced in 2020 or by the strain on our health care or criminal justice systems. Maybe it is heavy on your heart that all the PPE we’ve used this year is going to end up in a landfill somewhere. Whatever your eye has been drawn to, I wonder if you are feeling like it’s time to take action.

None of us is responsible for fixing all of the world’s ills, but perhaps each of us can find a few small ways to nudge the dial.

Work willingly at whatever you do, as though you were working for the Lord rather than for people.

Colossians 3:23 NLT

p.s. If you have an idea for how you might nudge the dial, leave a comment, either on this blog, or wherever you found it — Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter. Let’s inspire each other as we lean into the turn and change the course of this ship.

Back-to-School, 2020 Teacher Edition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Colossians 3:23

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

You want to go back to the classroom? Now?

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

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

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

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

I really had no serious intention of pursuing anything different.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think it might be!

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

And I believe they can.

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

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

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

Psalm 103:6

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

The Choice: Changing Course, pt. 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ephesians 4:20-21

Getting Here: Changing Course, pt. 4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I think you already know the answer to that.

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

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

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

I’ve been preparing for this my whole life.

So, yes, I took a position in Detroit.

Yes, I’m going to be teaching English.

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

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

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

Esther 4:14

Ready, Changing Course, pt. 3

During the twelve weeks that I was working remotely, my husband and I developed some rhythms to break up the monotony. We walked a mile or so every day at lunch time to get away from our desks, we walked again at the end of the day to get our mail and talk about the events of our day, and we tuned in each night to watch the national and local news.

We’ve watched the numbers of Covid-19 cases continue to rise. We’ve watched reports of businesses closing, of economic stress, of overcrowded hospitals. For weeks, we caught the daily White House Task Force briefings, and then, when the eyes of the nation turned to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Brionna Taylor, and Rayshard Brooks, our eyes turned, too. When we heard the nationwide sound of wailing and protest for the sake of Black lives, we leaned in to listen.

The sound was not new to us. We’d been aware of systemic racial injustice for quite some time — not because we heard it on the national news, but because the trajectory of our lives has given us relationships across racial and socioeconomic lines and we have seen the impact of school inequity, racial profiling in policing, red-lining in real estate, inequities in access to health care and quality food, and racist practices in institutional hiring. We haven’t done much about it, if I am going to be honest, other than bear witness and believe that these systems exist, but we have seen the impact on people that we know and care about.

So when thousands across the country took to the streets carrying signs emblazoned with Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and Arrest Brionna’s Killers, we were not horrified. We were not surprised. We were looking for ways to support, ways to ally, ways to join their voices. How could we do otherwise? How can we sit quietly watching repeated senseless acts of violence upon people of color, knowing that these blatant killings and attacks are a symptom of a much more insidious disease. Racism in our country runs deep — it has surreptitiously found its ways into our thought lives as all ideologies do, so that even when we believe ourselves to be free of racism, we make judgements about others because of their language, their skin color, their clothing choices, and their hairstyles. We use people of color as it benefits us (for sports, for entertainment, and to prove ourselves to be non-racist), but we rarely come to their defense or speak up on their behalf.

So right now, when Covid-19 is disproportionately impacting communities of color, specifically because of the impact of inadequate access to healthcare, the wealth and educational gaps that keep people of color in service industries and on the front line, and the pre-existing conditions that disproportionately pervade these communities due to centuries old inequities, when even now people of color have to contend with incidents of injustice like the George Floyd killing, we must be moved to action.

So when my husband and I were standing in the kitchen one night in the middle of the stay at home order and he said, “Are you happy doing what you are doing right now?” I reflexively responded that what I really wanted was to be in a school where I could be part of the dialogue during this time that has potential for unprecedented transformation in the lives of communities of color. I felt ready. After a long journey back to health, I felt we were facing the moment I had been preparing for.

He said, “You’re right. Let’s do it. Toss your name in the hat. Let’s see what happens.”

I said, “Really? Even if it means I have to drive to Detroit?”

“Don’t be bound by geography. Apply broadly, and we’ll cross the next bridge when we get to it.”

Oh. My. Word. You’d have thought he had given me the keys to any car I wanted to drive off the lot! If he thought I was ready, then I knew I actually was ready!

I started combing Indeed and district websites like never before. I applied to positions in Ann Arbor, Ypsilanti, the Detroit metro area, and beyond. And though I’d been doing this to some degree for years, this time was different. Within a couple days of submitting applications early in the morning, on my lunch hour, and after work, I started getting phone calls and emails.

I was different. I felt different — healthy, strong, and impassioned like never before. While I had believed for quite some time that my career was over, I was beginning to believe that I might just have another round in me. Not only that, the landscape was different. Due to Covid-19, many teachers have been choosing to leave the profession, take a sabbatical, or move into a different sector — away from classrooms, particularly classrooms in hot zones like Detroit. While before I may have been passed over because my Master’s degree and years of experience put me a little higher on the salary schedule, suddenly I was a prime candidate. While many teachers were ill-equipped to manage the unavoidable transition from in-person to online learning, I have been using online platforms to work with students for the last several years!

As the interviews started, I could hear the skepticism in the voices of those questioning me. What is your experience with urban schools? Why are you interested in this position? How would you build classroom culture among students who are 99% Black? 99% of whom receive free or reduced lunch?

I could hear the subtext, “I can see, even over this video interview, that you are a middle aged white woman. Are you sure you are up to this? Do you know what you are getting into?” But guess what, kids, I’ve heard these questions before, and I was ready for them.

What I wasn’t ready for was learning that many of the schools I was applying to had been operating with long-term substitute teachers in core subject areas, because they could not find highly qualified teachers and they had to fill slots. I wasn’t ready to learn that many of the students in these schools did not have devices or internet in their homes when the stay-at-home order began. I wasn’t prepared to realize that because 5,000 people had died in Detroit and a disproportionate number of them were Black, chances are high that the students in these schools have experienced loss above and beyond the loss of their routine, the daily contact with teachers and friends, and life as we once knew it. They’ve likely lost people they love.

However, I was excited to learn that several of the agencies I was interviewing with were working to meet the needs of these students. They were delivering devices and personal hot spots — teachers and administrators getting in their own vehicles and driving to student residences across the Detroit metro. Not only that, all of the schools I interviewed with were still providing food to families — five days a week. One school was providing food not only to their own students’ families, but to anyone in the community who pulled into the parking lot to receive it. They were also working hard to secure more devices for the coming school year and making plans (state-mandated) for how to return to school fully in-person, fully online, and a hybrid option that would allow families to choose.

I met dedicated educators who care about kids — inner city kids, kids of color, kids who matter.

And one of these schools made me an offer.

And then another one did.

And I still had my position at Lindamood-Bell.

I had a decision to make, and it wasn’t going to be easy.

But I was ready. More on that next time.

He loves righteousness and justice; the earth is full of the steadfast love of the Lord.

Psalm 33:5