Click the arrow to hear the audio recording of this blog. Last Saturday night, an 18-year-old white man drove 3 hours to a predominantly black community with the sole intent of killing Black people; he succeeded. He, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, was peacefully detained before he could complete the rest of his plan, killing more […]The Trauma of Racism — Next Chapter
When I was hired, I was told that one school-wide goal was to improve attendance. As I stood in the hallway, looking at a bulletin board that illustrated the attendance goal of 80%, I remember thinking, “You mean attendance is lower than 80%? Certainly we should be able to improve that.”
I mean, I did get hired in July of 2020, the summer after much of the country was sent home from school, but when I mentioned that, the hiring agent said that attendance had always been a problem — even before Covid.
This was puzzling to me.
Most of the schools I had taught in prior to 2020 had had a few students who struggled with attendance, a few who for whatever reason — chronic illness, anxiety, trauma, family issues — had difficulty getting to school every day, but most of the schools I’d taught in regularly had higher than 90% attendance. Most of my students have come to school, so what is it, I wondered, that keeps 20-30% of kids from coming to this school every day. Certainly those numbers couldn’t be accurate.
But guys, they are accurate.
During my first year, attendance was a struggle. All of my students were at home with not much else to do, and they all had Chromebooks so that they could log in to virtual school, but some had poor wifi, some had the power cut off from time to time, some were in charge of caring for younger children or were needed to provide transportation for parents or other family members. Some were sick. Some just couldn’t will themselves to join online instruction.
When we returned to the building last September, I thought, “now attendance will improve,” but it just hasn’t. Some students stayed home in the beginning of the year because they were still wary of Covid, some got Covid, some had to stay home to care for family members, some had to go to work, and some had been away from school so long, they just didn’t care any more. They just couldn’t find the will to get up and get to school.
All year long, I’ve taken attendance and posted the percentage present on the white board in the front of the room. Surely my efforts to build relationships, to reward hard work, to acknowledge growth, and to celebrate wins would bring students to school. If I posted the percentages we could all watch them rise, and we could celebrate that, too, but they haven’t risen. On a typical day I’ve seen between 67 and 79% attendance. In the course of this entire school year, I’ve had one class period with 100% attendance. That’s one period of one day for this whole school year.
Why so low?
One of the biggest factors is transportation. Our school provides bus transportation, but students might miss the bus if they oversleep or if they aren’t willing to walk to the stop in inclement weather. And, the bus may be their only option; not all of our families have access to a vehicle.
Another factor is family responsibility. I have at least two students who regularly miss sleep or school (or both) because they are caring for younger siblings while a parent is at work, and if that gets in the way of schooling, so be it.
Illness also keeps students away from school. We still have kids testing positive, and we have also had more students coming down with common ailments like colds and flus than we had when everyone was consistently masking.
Work is also a factor. If a student has to choose between going to work to earn money to pay their bills and coming to school, work is going to win almost every time.
But probably one of the biggest factors that keeps my students chronically out of school is trauma. It’s hard for me to know the specific ways that trauma impacts each of my students, but they do give me a glimpse from time to time. I know that one of my students watched her older brother get killed in a drive by shooting a couple of years ago. I have many students who have lost a sibling or parent to illness or violence. I have students who have been sexually assaulted, students who have been or are currently homeless, and students who have witnessed all manner of violence.
Do you think that gets in the way of them coming to school? Of course it does.
Because of this awareness, I am careful not to give students a hard time for missing class. I try to just be genuinely happy to see them whenever they actually do make it.
Recently I had two young men go absolutely MIA. It started during our last virtual stint. They didn’t log in to the zoom room for the entire month. I wasn’t surprised — honestly, if my school would have moved to a virtual platform in the final months of my senior year, I don’t know if I would’ve logged in. Anyway, when we returned to school on May 2, these two young men did not return. Not the first day; not the first week. Not even the second week.
Finally this past week, one showed up on Wednesday and the other on Friday.
In the past — at one of my other schools — I might’ve made a sarcastic comment like, “Nice of you to join us,” or something like that, but not here. Here I see them coming down the hall, I smile, I call them by name, and I say, “It’s so good to see you.”
Then, when I get a moment, I pull them aside, and I say, “So, how are you doing, what’s been going on?”
Both of these young men answered the same way, “I got put out. I had to go live somewhere else. I don’t live close to the bus route, and I don’t have any way to get here.” Two months before graduation, their families put them out. Yeah, they probably broke the rules. They were probably disrespectful. They probably had multiple warnings, but now what are they supposed to do?
They are supposed to pick up starting right now and do their best — even after six weeks of absence. And do you know what? Both of them did.
One of them came to my room over lunch on Friday. He was sitting next to a young woman who had also missed some school. They were listening to Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime on Audible so that they could respond to a discussion post that was worth a test grade.
Both of these students sat listening, looking on the same book together, desks pushed side by side. They listened quietly to the whole chapter, then worked on their posts. The young man finished and headed out. When the young woman finished, she asked, “Can I take this book home?”
“Of course,” I replied.
“Ok, because I won’t be here tomorrow.”
“You won’t be here tomorrow?”
“No. It’s my brother’s funeral.”
I moved closer, “Your brother’s funeral? What happened?”
“He was shot a couple of weeks ago.”
“He was shot?! Have you told anyone else here at school?”
“Can I hug you?”
“Yes,” she laughed, “Mrs. Rathje, you can hug me.”
“I’m getting emotional. I am so sorry.”
“Yeah. It’s been a little rough.”
It’s been a little rough. Her dad died during the Covid shut down, and her brother was killed two weeks ago.
Two young men were put out of their houses.
Our entire school moved to virtual two months before graduation.
And Saturday night, a white supremacist drove into a highly segregated area of Buffalo, NY, walked into a grocery store and shot 13 people, eleven of them Black. Ten of those people died.
And that kind of news — like the news of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other senseless Black fatalities — is a trauma for my students who have already in their 17 or 18 years experienced more than their share of trauma. Trauma upon trauma upon trauma.
So, you know, sometimes rolling out of bed first thing in the morning, getting dressed, and walking to the bus isn’t front of mind. The connection between attendance, academic preparedness, and future success can seem irrelevant when you aren’t sure where you are living, if you are safe, or if someone you love is about to be gunned down while they are getting their groceries.
So if you’ve got the will, the resiliency, the wherewithal, the cojones to get to my classroom today, you can be damn sure I’m gonna clap you in, support you, and maybe even give you a hug. I’m gonna do whatever I can to make sure you feel safe, secure, and loved inside my classroom for as long as you are in attendance.
What else can I do?
How long, O Lord, will you look on?Psalm 35:17a
I am packing my bags and loading up my car — again.
This morning I will drag materials back into the classroom — again.
I’ve been teaching in a Zoom room from our home since March 25 — more than a month — again!
And it’s not because of Covid this time!
My students and I have been in and out of the building multiple times this year. In fact, I can’t even remember how many times we moved to virtual and then returned to the classroom. Sure, it’s been convenient to have the option to move to a Zoom room when Covid numbers are high or staff counts are low. It’s great that we have the technology in place so that we can be flexible, but let me tell you, these students — especially the seniors, who have had to be flexible since March of their sophomore year — have had to bounce back an extraordinary number of times, and their resiliency is waning.
This last move to virtual proved too much for many, and it could have been avoided.
Here’s the thing, though — many of the inequities my students face every.damn.day could be avoided.
Picture if you will, if any school in a predominantly middle or upper class community — dare I say, any typical white community — would tolerate any of the following:
A parking lot with a crater-like gaping hole the size of 3-4 parking spaces that regularly fills with water.
Classrooms heated by a hard-to-control boiler that often reach temperatures upwards of 80 degrees, some of which only have 2-3 working windows that must be propped open to lower the class temperature to an only partially-stifling point.
No air conditioning — so, again with the windows and an elaborate system of fans and cords that create an obstacle course throughout the classroom.
And, until this week, a disintegrating roof. I mean, the materials were literally falling off the sides of the building. When a heavy rain came last summer, the gym floor was covered, wall-to-wall, with more than a quarter inch of water.
What would you do if your child went to school under these conditions? Would you complain? Would you pull them out? Or can you not even imagine such circumstances?
Let me tell, you, friends, these kinds of “circumstances” have been normalized in city schools, predominantly serving students of color, for literal generations. This is not the first time I have worked under such conditions or witnessed them first hand — in Detroit, in St. Louis, and in cities across the country. Such “circumstances” have become so normalized, that the students who attend these schools [and many of the teachers who serve there] can not even imagine any alternative circumstances.
And what does that do to you? What does it do to your sense of safety, security, and self-worth, to day after day, walk into an aging building in disrepair? Do you feel valued, encouraged, celebrated? In that building can you be inspired to learn, to achieve, to hope?
Now, let me tell you, that our building leadership was well aware of the issues of this problem building that we lease from a major religious body in Detroit. They had been asking for roof repair, window repair, etc., etc. I am not privy to the full story, but I do know that we are under contract with a long-term lease and that the people on the other side of that lease required legal pressure to finally agree to get the roof repaired.
I watched the contractors, a whole team of middle aged white men (I am just reporting the facts; I am not making them up) came, climbed up on the roof, measuring tapes in hand, laughing and joking in the middle of our school day. Then, a couple weeks later, we were informed that the lessor of this building had scheduled the roof repair — which from my understanding was like a whole new roof — for Spring Break and the week after. That would be the last week of March and the first week of April.
I don’t know if you’ve been to Michigan, but March and April are very unpredictable when it comes to weather. In those two weeks, we might’ve had rain, snow, sleet, hail, or sunny days in the 70s. It was a coin toss heavily weighted toward inclement weather.
And I bet you can imagine which way that coin landed. It landed the way my students often experience it to land — in a way that would further disadvantage them.
The rain and the snow came and came, and the roofing project stretched out. The students could not be in the building during the project — obviously — so for an entire month they were at home, in their beds, or at their jobs, or caring for their siblings, or fully and completely checked out of the educational process.
And can we blame them?
What would your children do under these circumstances? Would they muscle through? Would they take one for the team? Would they “do what had to be done” because “it is what it is”?
Please do not answer that question unless your child has, since his earliest days, experienced school in a setting like the one I’ve described, where even before Covid, he likely didn’t have a fully-staffed school, or after school programming, or sports, or arts, or any of the things that we (middle class white folk) count on to inspire our kids to love learning, and achievement, and excellence.
We. do. not. know. what this experience is like. We have not lived it.
But I am bearing witness to it — again — and I am angry.
Because the last month of virtual learning pushed many of my seniors over the edge. They are beyond caring. They may not have all the credits they need to graduate in just five weeks.
Take that in.
Yes, some hung in there. They came to the zoom room. They showed up. They opted in.They worked hard. They finished strong. And their grades show it.
But many didn’t, wouldn’t, or just couldn’t. They might’ve gone to work to earn some money during this time — like one of my students who got a job as a nurse’s aide and did her 40-hour in-person training last week. They might’ve been needed for their families’ needs — like one of my students who cares for her disabled mother and uncle whenever she is at home. They might’ve stayed high the whole.damn.month — like a few of my students have said that they do whenever we go virtual.
I have not one ounce of judgment for them. Instead I am disgusted that we allow this system to continue. That we do not pour resources into our communities of color to show these students — these kids who are created and loved by God — that we, also, love them. That we want to see them learn, thrive, and grow. We want them to have a hope and a future. I want them to see that we are willing to say hard things, to put our money where it matters, and to hold people accountable so that all students — these students — my students — our students — all of our freaking students — can walk into a building in the morning where they feel comfortable, safe, secure, welcome, supported, and encouraged.
That is not too much to ask.
If your children do not, or have not had to learn under the circumstances I’ve described, I am happy for them. No child should have to.
Do you hear me? No child should have to. What, my friends, are you willing to do to make sure that not one more child has to go to school under these circumstances?
For my part, and the part of the dedicated professionals I work with, we will show up tomorrow morning before our kids do. We will stand at the thresholds of our doors. We will welcome the students into our rooms, calling them by name, and not giving them any amount of crap for whatever they chose to do over the last month.
We will re-set expectations, examine the reality of each of their situations, and do whatever we can to encourage, support, guide, and even carry our students across the finish line.
Why? Because we do believe that each of these kids matter, regardless of their zip code, skin color, family income, or educational history. We believe they have a hope and a future.
We cannot continue to do this alone. Teachers are leaving the profession in droves because the system is broken and it won’t continue to be tenable under these circumstances.
Defend the weak and the fatherless; uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.Psalm 82:3
*I encourage you to look in your community for ways that you can let every child know that he or she matters.
**As always, if you want to help support, guide, and carry our students across the finish line, please email me firstname.lastname@example.org for my current wish list.
A friend asked me recently, “How are you doing with pain now that you’re back in the classroom?”
I appreciated her asking — it was an acknowledgement that she remembered how far I had come and that my move back to the classroom was not taken without much prayerful consideration regarding the impact such a move could have on my health after the years-long journey I have just taken.
It’s a good time to ask because a) last year wasn’t a real test since the students were learning from a distance and the physical demands were not as great and b) we’re now back in person, and the first quarter will end on Friday.
It’s an important question, too, because this blog started when I had to leave my teaching career due to health issues. I was struggling with pain, fatigue, and issues with my skin and eyes, and I just couldn’t bring quality care and instruction to my students in that condition.
My body, it seems, had gone on strike after years of overwork complicated by a failure to process my emotions or take care of myself. Inflammation was so prevalent in my body that I could feel it– it bubbled into my joints making them hot and stiff, it irritated my skin causing scaliness and itching, it inflamed my eyes sending me time and time again to a specialist for treatment.
Many times I’d landed on the couch or in my bed for days at a time. In the early years of my recovery, I had to lie down several times a day even though I slept 8-10 hours a night. I often found myself limping through the house or lying on the bathroom floor waiting to throw up. I was miserable, and I couldn’t imagine a time when I would be able to return to the rigor of the classroom.
However, over six long years, I learned strategies that began to reduce those symptoms and that have kept me on a path to improved health. Among those strategies is a diet that is rich fruits, vegetables, chicken, rice, and fish, and that avoids gluten, dairy, beans, and corn. I also exercise every day, write every day, and see a therapist, a physical therapist, a chiropractor, and a masseuse. When I do all of these things on a regular schedule, and get plenty of rest, I mostly stay well.
The progress has been slow and incremental, just as my return to working has been.
If you’ve been tracking the saga, you know that I didn’t work at all for six months, then I started by tutoring and proofreading. I moved on to part-time work in an educational agency, then progressed to teaching part-time as a college adjunct instructor. From there, I moved back to the agency and eventually worked full-time in a leadership role, but I still didn’t believe I would ever have the capacity to teach in a classroom full of students, managing their learning, their emotions, and their movements five days a week.
It was at this time, about almost six years into recovery, that Covid hit. We as a nation were knocked down by this highly contagious pandemic, and, as we social distanced from one another, we had some time and space within which other ailments — widespread poverty, systemic racism, educational inequity, and the like — became more evident.
The situation looked familiar to me because I had just lived through something similar — autoimmunity had knocked me down and forced me to take some time and space to recognize that I hadn’t been attending to my mental or physical health or to that of my family. I had to acknowledge that they were suffering, too.
And as I observed our nation’s symptoms in real time, something just clicked. It was like I had been training and preparing for this moment. I was in good shape and ready to step back in the ring, and if I was going to do it — if I was going to put myself out there and see if I still had the juice — I was going to do it in a place where I could turn the dial, be it ever so slightly, by identifying and using strategies that might reduce the impact of poverty, racism, and trauma for students who had been knocked down the hardest.
If you’ve been reading along for the last year, you know that I am intoxicated by the opportunity I’ve been given at Detroit Leadership Academy — I can’t keep my mouth shut about it.
But that didn’t answer my friend’s question, did it? How am I doing with pain now that I am back in the classroom full time?
I’d say I’m doing better than I might’ve hoped for. As I’m writing this, I’m tired, and I’m on the second day of a headache. I’m not surprised. It’s the weekend before the final week of the first quarter. We are still short one staff person, plus we’ve had one out due to Covid for over a week. I’m working in a setting that is rich with trauma and the impacts of trauma, and it shows. The students are tired, and worn, and often quite raw. I see all of this, and it weighs on my heart.
And, if I’ve learned anything through this journey, it’s that emotions are stored in the body. My students’ bodies show it, and my body shows it.
So, yes, I do have some pain — in my heart, but also almost always in my right sacroiliac joint, often in my low back, a little less in my hips and neck, and today in my head, and much to my dismay, my left eye.
That left eye — he’s the lookout — he always lets me know when I have pushed too far, when I need to take a down day, when I need to attend to self-care. Today I think he’s shouting because on top of a long week, I pushed a little further on Friday night, went out to dinner with my husband and a coworker, then travelled through a downpour to an away football game where my students were playing against a team with far greater resources — a well-lit turf field, cheerleaders, a marching band, and stands that were 1/3 full even in the downpour. Our side of the field had about a dozen fans including us. Our guys, after arriving late because the contracted transportation was late picking them up, fought hard, but they were outmatched; the final score was 42-6. The other team was jubilant — they had claimed their victory. Our team was despondent — their hopes were dashed. It felt emblematic of the divide in our country — the inequity of resources and opportunity I see in my work every day and the impact that inequity has on the lived experiences of students like mine. It was hard to watch.
We got home after 10:30, damp and chilled, and I crawled into bed to sleep. Through the night I felt a headache and some nausea. This morning, my body has the hum of inflammation — the heat and a quiet vibration that calls for my attention. Less subtly, my eye is shouting, “For the Love of God, take a break!”
So, I’m spending my morning writing and doing some yoga. Next, I’ll eat a breakfast of non-inflammatory foods, slowly go pick up some groceries, then come home, sit on the couch, and watch some football.
I’ll take the weekend to rest, recover, worship, and see some friends, and by Monday, I should be ready to step back into it again.
It takes vigilance to stay well — everyday attention to self care that puts the oxygen mask on myself before it dares to assist the person next to me. It’s counterintuitive to how I always imagined I was supposed to live — squaring my shoulders, gritting my teeth, muscling through, grinning and bearing it — and it’s a better, richer way.
I have way more gas in my tank, way more capacity to put my work down when students gather in my room like they did on Friday morning — a bunch of seniors huddled around my desk, asking for snacks, chatting, busting on each other, making me laugh.
Pain? Sure, I have pain; my students do, too. Somehow, we’ve landed in the same space, and we are learning how to be together, how to learn from each other, and, on the richest of days, how to laugh with one another.
For this, I am so thankful, and so committed to staying the course and attending to my wellness so that I can keep on showing up for these kids.
He picked me up
And He turned me around
And He placed my feet
On the solid ground
Hallelujah, hallelujahCorey Asbury, “So Good To Me”
As I’ve written about racism and posted about it on social media, I have been reminded that not all people believe that racism even exists.
You may be shaking your head, saying: Come on, Kristin! Why do you keep beating this drum! I’m not racist. Racism is a thing of the past. All this talk just serves to further divide us.
I disagree, and I think our denial of racism is further evidence of its insidious nature — proof that it is way beyond individual acts of prejudice to being deeply rooted in our collective ideology.
Over the past couple of weeks in this space, I have explored the use of Critical Race Theory in the classroom. Some may think I use this framework principally because I teach Black students, but that’s not true. I would use CRT and other antiracist strategies in any classroom — even if my students were all white.
Why? Because racism impacts all of us — most dramatically and tangibly people of color, to be sure, but no less tragically white people.
Think about it. Way back when European explorers came to this continent, they saw its beauty and expansiveness and determined to have it for themselves. Native Americans, of course, had been inhabiting this land for quite some time, and surely some colonists befriended them and sought to share the land peacefully. So, what happened? How did Native Americans end up being called ‘savages’? How did it happen that as this land was being ‘settled’, countless Native Americans were killed or displaced?
Do we ask these questions in school? Or do we take at face value the fact that colonists came to the continent, met the Indians, had Thanksgiving, and, yeah, there were a few massacres here and there, but ultimately the white people got the land and lived happily ever after?
Do we assume that the white people made out pretty well? Certainly, they got what they wanted. Whatever actions they might have taken toward the Native Americans — assimilation, displacement, or the decimation of an entire people group — had little negative impact on the white people, right? Or did they? Did the ‘success’ they found feed the belief among white people that if we want something and fight hard for it, it can be ours? Isn’t this the American Dream? Don’t we all aspire to dream big and succeed, just like the early explorers did? Does it matter if our success comes at someone else’s expense? Isn’t it a dog-eat-dog world, survival of the fittest and all that?
Are we proud of this characteristic of the American ethos? Do we want to perpetuate it further?
What if in teaching this history to American students we asked some questions? What if we sat at a table, map spread wide, and examined what happened? What were the Native Americans doing? What were the white people doing? Who had the right to be on the land? Who won? Who lost?
A question-based strategy such as this, which is informed by Critical Race Theory, encourages learners to ask questions that enable them to see a fuller picture of the story, from more than one perspective. In asking questions, students become critical thinkers. As they ask questions, they find they have more questions: What happened to the Native Americans next? What impact did the colonists’ actions have on their lives? What long-term effects did these events have on the Native American people as a whole?
In asking such questions, students might discover that colonization had a dramatic impact on Native Americans. They might discover the practices connected to Native American residential schools, legislation impacting Native American tribes, and statistics around addiction and suicide among Native American people. They might connect some dots and realize that when we ‘fight for what we want’ and ‘win’, almost without exception, someone loses.
They might develop empathy.
Are there other parts of history where racism played a role? Let’s consider slavery, the practice of kidnapping, buying, selling, beating, and exacting labor from another human. From as early as 1619, Black humans were brought on overcrowded ships by slave traders to the shores of this continent.
What happened next? Weren’t these ships unloaded at American docks where plantation owners bought and sold humans like cattle? Weren’t these humans forced to work to ensure the financial prosperity of their owners? Weren’t laws enacted to protect the slave owners and to allow them to use any means necessary to force these people to work for no money while living in uninhabitable conditions with little food, clothing, or health care? Weren’t most slave owners white? Weren’t most slaves Black?
Who benefitted from slavery? Who suffered? While Black people worked hard and endured abuse, were they the only ones who were adversely affected by slavery? Or did white people — slave holders, people of the community, citizens of our country — ‘learn’ through slavery that they were superior, that Black lives were expendable, that their own wealth was more important than human rights, that in order to keep and maintain their wealth, they would have to create systems and laws that safeguarded their practices, even if those practices were inhumane?
It can be hard to face the answers to these questions, unless we discover that things truly have changed. And have they?
How would you describe the experience of Black people today? Where do we see them working? Are they gaining wealth or do they continue to work hard to support the wealth of white people? In what ways has the experience of Black people changed in America? What evidence do you find for a shift in the beliefs and attitudes of white people? Do you see an acknowledgment of the impact of racism and slavery on our collective culture?
This Socratic questioning provides students an opportunity to look at the information that is presented and to interrogate it. When we ask questions, when we look for answers, we learn.
In our quest to discover how racism has shaped the American experience, we must start in the beginning with the treatment of Native Americans and Blacks imported through the slave trade, but we must then trace racism’s path through educational practices — what education has been provided for white children, Black children, Native American children, Latino children? Has any group of people received better or worse schooling simply because of their race?
We must continue to follow racism through voting practices — who first held the right to vote? When did others get to participate in elections? Are all groups of people equally able to participate in the electoral process? If not, how can it become more equitable?
We can continue our quest by exploring health care, law enforcement, the prison system, athletics, and higher education, and we can keep on going from there.
What happens when we encourage our students to interrogate both our history and our current practices, to ask: Who is benefitting? Who is hurting? Whose life is positively impacted by this action? Is anyone, intentionally or unintentionally, made to pay a price so that someone else can ‘win’?
When schools allow students to ask these types of questions, particularly about racism in our country, we will begin to see an unveiling of this sin that we often try to hide and deny. Saying that racism does not exist or that it is a thing of the past not only perpetuates the sin against people of color, it also further advances the sins of pride, selfishness, greed, and apathy among people who are white. Refusing to have compassion for all of humanity denies our own humanity.
Discussing race does not divide us — the division is already there. The only way toward healing is to expose the infection, see its pervasiveness, and get on a path toward healing. This work cannot be done in Black communities alone. White people must also acknowledge the impact of racism, the crime it continues to be against humanity, and work to expose it in all its forms and eradicate it. And the only path toward such acknowledgement is a willingness to ask some questions.
For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?Mark 8:36
Across the country and around the world, countless teachers and students are beginning to return to the classroom. After eighteen months of pandemic, some will be together in the flesh for the first time.
If you listen closely, you can hear the hum of anxiety.
In addition to the usual back-to-school jitters, teachers and students alike are also shouldering Covid 19 fears — do we have to wear a mask? will I get sick? will we return to remote learning? what will it be like to be in the building again? how can I be sure I will be safe?
The seniors who will walk into my classroom in just a few weeks have not been in a classroom since March of 2020 — their sophomore year. They have been zooming into class (or not) from their homes, their cars, and their workplaces for the last eighteen months. Many have rolled over in bed, still wearing pajamas, and logged into class; others haven’t joined online class at all.
So what will I do in the next few weeks to prepare for them — to create a space where they feel comfortable re-entering, where they feel safe, seen, and loved? How will I create a culture inside my classroom where students can trust, engage, and learn?
It’s gonna be a little trickier than usual, to be sure. All of my students live in Detroit, which has been ravaged by Covid. They have all experienced loss — loved ones, friends, a beloved teacher — and most have suffered economically, physically, socially, and emotionally because of Covid. I have to take this into consideration as I prepare for them. Also, 99% of my students are Black, Latino, or Middle Eastern. While the pandemic has changed life for all of us, the impact on communities of color has been disproportionately worse. I have to acknowledge that as I think about how I will create space for grief, for transition, and for learning.
I also have to acknowledge that the impact of racism is an every day reality for my students — their lived experiences are the result of systemic racism. I have to see and admit that my students have had less access to fresh foods, health care, high quality education, and safety. I have to believe that they have been pulled over by the police, followed in a store, or turned down for a job because of their skin color. I have to understand that because of their lived experience, they may not show up in my classroom “ready to learn”.
It’s not because they are less intelligent, or because they are “bad kids”; it’s because many have experienced poverty and most have experienced trauma. In fact, we recognize at our school that all of our students have likely experienced trauma — even before Covid — in the form of homelessness, neglect, abuse, or violence. Knowing this, our whole educational framework revolves around a model of trauma-informed instruction. And, since we know that much of this trauma is rooted in racism or the impact of systemic racism on our community, we also hold as a core value that we are anti-racist. We cannot fully care for our students who have been traumatized by racism if we do not actively work to dismantle racist systems that perpetuate this harm.
Our director of instruction says we need to ask ourselves in each moment, “am I replicating oppression or am I tearing it down?”
All of this, my friends, fits inside the framework of Critical Race Theory. The fact that I believe that my students have experienced loss at a higher rate than white kids, that they are more likely to experience poverty and trauma, that they are more likely to have an incarcerated family member, that they need a different educational approach because of their lived experience, all fits inside the CRT framework.
And how does this paradigm impact my instruction? Immeasurably.
First, the design of my classroom and the structure of our time together is based on the assumption that my students need to feel safe and supported. Our school uses a model called The No-Nonsense Nurturer so that in every classroom, students experience the same expectations, the same language, the same reinforcement as they learn how to be learners. My students can expect when they walk in my classroom, or any classroom in the building, that they will be given clear directions and held to high expectations. The model provides acknowledgement, praise, and rewards for those who are on track and redirection, one-on-one remediation, and further support for those who need it to get on track. Our teachers believe it is critically important that our students opt in to learning, that they earn a high school education, and that they go on to post-secondary education, the military, or work after high school. We believe it is literally a matter of life and death. We already know the trajectory for students of color who do not complete high school, get a job, or go to college — we already know that it doesn’t end well.
We can either replicate the experiences they have had in the past or we can try a different, research-informed practice.
I expect that most of my first week or two will be spent building culture and systems. After eighteen months outside of the classroom, our students (and our teachers) are going to need some time to re-acclimate to the ways of being in the classroom. How do we manage sitting next to each other? How do we function without watching our phones for notifications? How do we contribute to classroom conversations? How do we collaborate? How do we celebrate one another?
And, as we learn those ways of being together, I will slowly begin to integrate content — common core curriculum — using strategies that have high impact for my students. With this group of students, I will start almost immediately with journal writing which is useful not only for building writing muscle but also for developing student voice. Throughout the year, we will incorporate grammar instruction, reading, discussion, and more writing. As I get to know my students and their strengths and weaknesses, I will tailor instruction to best prepare them for what’s next — college, trade school, military, or a career.
I will be supported by a team — our college access counselor and other counseling staff — who will help our students identify their long term goals and explore ways of achieving those goals. Most of our learners, if they so choose, will be first-generation college students, so they need extra supports, and we provide them.
We meet our students where they are, support them as they envision where they might go, and then provide them with the tools they need to take steps toward that goal.
How can we do otherwise? If we can see with our two eyes that our students need love, support, and a path forward, how can we do anything else than use all the tools we have at our disposal to provide these things? If we know — and friends, we do know — that inequity is a fact in our experience as Americans, that people of color have long been feared, subjugated, controlled, and misrepresented, than it is unconscionable to do anything less than our very best to change this course.
We have replicated oppression in the past — knowingly or unknowingly — we must refuse to do so moving forward.
Our students are counting us. Their very lives depend on those who will stand up and insist on a new way.
The Lord God has told us what is right and what He demands: “See that justice is done, let mercy be your first concern, and humbly obey your God.”Micah 6:8, Contemporary English Version
*If you would like to partner with me in this work, please request my wish list.
**If you’d like to read more about educational disparity, check out a post I wrote last year: “What World Are We Living In?”
***To learn more about my school, check out this video.
I was minding my own business, enjoying a summer full of family visits, sleeping in, and reading indiscriminately when not once, not twice, but several times, the words critical race theory or CRT were set in front of me.
How do I as a teacher feel about critical race theory?
or, more recently, If you are a teacher and believe in CRT, then you really need to stop teaching period.
To be honest, I was at first a little baffled. I was unsurprisingly aware of critical race theory because of my background and work as a teacher, but I was unsure why people outside the classroom were talking about it, and even more confused about why were they upset about it.
It didn’t take me long to figure out that Fox news has spent a sizable amount of time (and money) talking about CRT — one source says Fox has mentioned CRT 1300 times since March. What’s their point? Why do they care so much?
You may be asking yourself, “What is critical race theory, anyway?”
I’m glad you asked.
Critical Race Theory “is a theoretical and interpretive mode that examines the appearance of race and racism across dominant cultural modes of expression. In adopting this approach, CRT scholars attempt to understand how victims of systemic racism are affected by cultural perceptions of race and how they are able to represent themselves to counter prejudice” (Purdue Owl).
In simpler terms, CRT is a viewpoint or lens which acknowledges that racism exists not only in personal acts of prejudice but in established systems; it seeks to identify the impact of racism and to do something about it. The work of CRT is done in several contexts — education, sociology, the legal system, etc. Most familiar to me, as a teacher of students, most of whom are people of color, is its use in rhetorical analysis — examining texts such as To Kill a Mockingbird to see how racism impacted not only the action of the story but the telling of the story. In other words, it not only points out that the unjust conviction of Tom Robinson in TKAM was an outgrowth of the racist beliefs of the fictional community of Maycomb, Alabama, but it also examines the fact that the author, Harper Lee, was a wealthy white woman and questions the impact of her race and class on the telling of the story.
The story, you may remember, is told through the eyes of a young white girl, Scout, who learns that “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view… until you climb in his skin and walk around in it.” Critical Race Theory might ask if Harper Lee, Scout, or any white person for that matter, is actually able to do that — to climb into the skin belonging to a person of color and actually experience what they experience.
The main reason why we can’t, CRT would suggest, is because white people are not impacted by the racism that is baked into many systems within which we must function — education, real estate, employment, law and public policy, and the like. Scout can’t understand what Tom Robinson experienced through the legal system because she would’ve been presumed innocent until proven guilty by virtue of her skin color, which is great for her. Unfortunately, Tom Robinson, a black man in mid-twentieth century Alabama did not have that privilege. He was assumed guilty the minute a white girl pointed her finger at him.
CRT is not only used to examine literary texts, but also to interrogate cultural practices. According to the Purdue OWL, CRT “scholarship traces racism in America through the nation’s legacy of slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and recent events.” It looks at historical events and asks how race played a role, how were systems built, and how we got where we are today. Why is it, CRT asks, that a group of mostly Black people demonstrating at the steps of the Capitol are seen as ‘dangerous’ and dispersed by use of tear gas while a group of mostly white people, brandishing weapons and shouting racial epithets, are allowed to invade the US Capitol building during a legislative session with very little immediate consequences or threats to their bodies?
What is it that makes us see a group of Black people as ‘threatening’ and a group of white people as ‘exercising their right to protest’? CRT would say it is the racism that we have been raised with that teaches us that white people are safe and Black people are dangerous. White people are nice; Black people are menacing. These insidious messages are woven into policies that shape our schools, our neighborhoods, our legal system, our health care system, and even our entertainment and business practices. Racism is so deeply embedded in our culture that some of us deny its existence.
We claim, “I am not racist,” while acknowledging that Black students have less funding for education, fewer course options, and are less likely to be prepared for college than white students (UNCF). We say, “I stand for equal opportunities for all,” while knowing that the black unemployment rate has been consistently twice that of the white unemployment rate for almost fifty years (Center for American Progress). We say, “I love all kinds of people,” as we go on attending our all white churches, hanging out with mostly white friend groups, and shopping in predominantly white spaces. We benefit from the systems that keep Black people away from us — away from our schools, away from our jobs, away from our neighborhoods. We don’t like to admit that, because it sounds awful and makes us feel bad, but if we take a look through a lens shaped by critical race theory, it will be very difficult to deny.
So you might ask yourself, why is FOX news spending so much time telling its viewers to keep CRT out of the classroom? What is it afraid of? Is it afraid that our children, if they are taught to use critical race theory will see what we refuse to see? that they will change what we refuse to change? that our experience as white people in America might be transformed?
Might our children and their children actually work toward a more perfect union where all people are seen as equal and endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights? Might our brothers and sisters of color, yes, fellow members of the family of God, more freely and equitably experience life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?
Fox News can say whatever it wants; I am going to employ any tool necessary to dismantle racism in my classroom. I am going to teach my students to ask all the questions — even the ones that make me uncomfortable. Why? because for my students, it is a literal matter of life or death — prison or freedom — poverty or prosperity — despair or hope.
In the words of my school’s director of academics, “in each moment, I can either replicate oppression or tear it down.” If CRT is a tool I can use to identify racism and tear it down, then let me get to it.
My students are counting on me.
For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”Galatians 5:14
**If you would like to partner with me in loving my students, please reach out to me at email@example.com and I will share my classroom wishlist.
Last Saturday night, an 18-year-old white man drove 3 hours to a predominantly black community with the sole intent of killing Black people; he succeeded. He, a self-proclaimed white supremacist, was peacefully detained before he could complete the rest of his plan, killing more Black folks at a neighboring Wal-Mart. The racism that has infected our nation since its inception continues to poison our minds — we are desensitized to this kind of violence and the more insidious systemic racism that plagues us. When the extreme happens, we wring our hands, shrug our shoulders, and go back to what we were doing.
That is not enough.
Here, I am re-posting a blog I wrote about a year ago, imagining a different way. I challenge you to consider what small steps you can take — today — to see, expose, and push back against racist ideas that certainly live deep in your (in my) DNA. We can — slowly and methodically — make change, but it’s going to take all of us.
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 heels 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
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
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.