Coronavirus Diary #21: Tales told in School

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

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

“I’m good,” he answered.

“Nice to see you.”

“Nice to see you, too.”

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

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

“Yes — next hour.”

“She won’t be here today,” he said.

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

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

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

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

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

“Yeah, they’re doing good.”

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

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

Me in my Zoom Room.

Ciara emailed me on Wednesday afternoon.

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

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

“Thank you, I will do that.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I’m ok.”

“Alright, just keep me posted.”

“Ok, thank you.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

It is truly my pleasure to do so.

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

Proverbs 3:27

*All student names have been changed, of course.

Coronavirus Diary 17: Of Zoom Rooms, and Cameras, and the SAT

For six weeks, I’ve been driving 35 miles from my house to the school where I teach.

Each of the 28 instructional days we’ve had has been broken into 3 blocks of 87 minutes. I sit alone in my classroom, peering into a computer screen. I take attendance, provide instruction, assign some classwork, insist on a screen break, then return for questions and one-on-one assistance.

Then I do it again.

I have 126 students. Not all come every day. Some have jobs. Some are sick. Some are helping the family. At least one has lost her mother since school started. At least one is expecting to become a mother before Christmas. Several have insufficient wifi or are experiencing other technical difficulties. Some join the Zoom room while they are still under the covers of their bed, then fall back asleep before I’ve even finished attendance. I’m supposed to insist that they put their cameras on, and I try. “I know this is hard,” I say, “doing school from home, but it’s what we’ve got, and it will be much easier for you to opt in and get what you need if you turn on your camera, sit up, put your face on the screen, unmute to ask questions, and do your best.”

But they chat me privately, “I’m not at home,” or “Other people are here with me,” or “I’m sick today,” and even, “I’m at the hospital right now, but I’m hoping to home by tomorrow,” and their cameras stay off.

“When you turn your cameras on,” I explain, “I’ll get familiar with your face. When you come to school, I’ll call you by name. I will know who you are.”

A couple cameras come on. A few put their face in the screen, give me a flash — a few seconds to see that they are there — and then they turn off their cameras again.

But last week, we had a day with no cameras.

Wednesday, October 14, was the mandatory SAT test for students in the state of Michigan. And, since the SAT must be completed in-person and because it’s a requirement for a Michigan-endorsed diploma, our students made their way to school by 7:45 am where they received a rather unimpressive state-funded breakfast and then filed into socially distanced classrooms, clad in masks.

Eleven of them entered my room. Eleven whole living breathing humans. They spoke. They smiled. They complained about the food, the temperature of the room, the length of the test, and the fact that they have to learn from home.

I couldn’t stop looking at them, beaming.

At 8:30, I started reading the scripted instructions, and they started bubbling in the circles to indicate their name, address, date of birth, and such. I walked up and down rows, checking to see that their answers were in the correct spot, answering their questions, sharing their space.

They were in my classroom!

At 9:30 they began the first section of the test. I wrote the time on the board and let them know they had 65 minutes to read the passages and answer the questions. Then I announced when they had 30 minutes left. Five minutes left.

They were allowed a 10-minute break which they used to walk down the hall to see their friends, to stand in a clump, to “be at school”.

And then we were back in my room. They sat in their desks from 8:30 until 2:00 taking test after test after test.

They were stressed, of course. They’d been away from this building since March, these seniors, and they know that their performance on this test — the one that they should have taken last Spring — will help determine where they go next year, if they go anywhere at all. Although I have dragged them through Khan Academy’s SAT prep, insisting they do practice sets, discussing test strategies, and reminding them of rules, they feel ill-prepared. The reading passages are difficult, especially when you are reading with your head on a pillow trying to drown out the noises of the other family members in your house. The Writing and Language passages are tricky — why should they care about the most effective placement of sentence 5? Who even knows where the comma should go?

They didn’t get to finish Algebra II last spring, and they can’t really remember how to use the functions on the graphing calculator, so during the 55 allocated minutes for calculator math, many closed their books, put their heads down, and fell asleep.

I’m talking deep-breathing REM sleep. My room, with all its fluorescent lighting, sounded like the cabin of an international flight.

I woke them, of course, when they had 5 minutes remaining in the math portion of the test. Then, I collected their test booklets and told them to get up and stretch because we would start the essay, according to SAT directions, “in two minutes” after they’d already been testing for four straight hours.

And, they sat up, asked for sharpened pencils, and did what they could. They wrote and wrote, read their writing, and wrote some more.

And then their heads went down again.

And they slept until I told them they had 5 minutes remaining.

When I had gathered their materials, they began to chat with one another and my room started sounding like a classroom. I stood in the front of the room, overlooking minor expletives, simply glad to hear the voices.

They had to stay in the desks until all the test booklets and answer booklets, every last College Board printed material, was taken from my room, and then they were dismissed to the cafeteria to get their state-funded bologna sandwiches.

Suddenly my room was silent, so after a quick dash to the bathroom, I followed them. They couldn’t leave so soon! I had to see their faces, to hear their voices, to discover that this one was taller than I imagined, that one shorter.

“Hi! It’s so good to see you!”

I made my way through the clumps of students, asking again and again, “What is your name? Have I seen you in my Zoom room?” I had no judgment for anyone, just sheer joy at finally, six weeks after the first day of school, getting to meet my students. I then went to grab the lunch provided for me — corn ships, guacamole, seasoned chicken, lettuce, and tomatoes. I filled a plate and walked to my room.

The teacher from across the hall stood at my door, plate in hand. Would I mind if he joined me for lunch? Neither of us were ready to go back to our solitary confinement. “Please, come in, let’s chat.” And as we chatted, students trickled in. Two or three would walk past my room, peeking in, looking for permission to enter. I practically begged them to come in, to hover over my desk as I ate, to tell me who they were, how they were doing, how they felt about the test.

One young man came in and stood near my desk, “Hi, Mrs. Rathje!” I looked him over head to toe, trying to fill in the facial details that had been covered by the mask.

“Hello! Now help me out, what is your name?”

“You know who I am.”

“I do? Have I seen your face on the screen?”

“Yes, you have.”

“Hmmm….I am thinking that you are LaRon Davis*…but let me think…”

“I always have a background on.”

“You do? Then, that’s my answer — you are LaRon Davis*.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Hooray! Thank you for coming to my classroom! Would you like to pick one of the prizes that I’ve been collecting for today?” I showed him a table covered in lanyards, bottles of hand sanitizer, pens, face masks, wrist bands, and the like. He moved forward and made his selection.


“I can have this?”

“Yes! That’s your reward for taking the time to come see me.”

And my reward, I thought to myself, is having you in my classroom.

These are not small things. Before Covid-19, when I taught in the classroom, students often stopped by to get help with an assignment, to borrow a pen, to ask for a snack, to find a safe space. I was always glad they felt like they could, but I also often hoped they wouldn’t stay long — I had papers to grade, lessons to plan — I needed time to work.

But now? I can’t imagine a time when I will be ready for students to leave.

Our leadership announced last week that we will be continuing 100% virtually through the rest of the semester — through mid-January. And I do believe it’s best. But I sure will be happy when my classroom is full and loud again.

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers.

Ephesians 1:16

*not the student’s real name, of course

Zooming in Detroit: Week One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

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

It’s a lot.

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

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

One week in, how do you imagine they responded?

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

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

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

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

Proverbs 16:3

Giving less than 100%

The first day of school is tomorrow! I’m excited — so excited! — but I am also grounding myself with intention. For the first time in my life, I am planning to give less than 100%.

Don’t get me wrong — I’ve written lesson plans and have had them reviewed. I’ve organized my classroom — putting up posters and alphabetizing my classroom library. I’ve prepared Google slides and have read through them aloud. I’ve planned my scope and sequence for the first quarter and have already analyzed the interim assessment. However, when it comes to the day to day interaction with students — my output is going to look much different this year. I’ll be giving less than 100%.

The last time I was a classroom teacher, I gave so much of myself to my classroom and my students, that I forgot to take care of myself and I failed to fully take care of my family. My classroom got the best hours of my day, and my family got the scraps that were left.

It’s got to look different this time.

In my previous chapter, I launched out of bed at 5:30, hit the shower, dressed, and was in the kitchen prepping dinner and nudging teens to breakfast by 6:00. I’m sure my eyes scanned what my kids were wearing and what they were carrying as they piled into my car so that I could drop one at another school and drag the other two with me. I’m sure we talked through check-lists and after school activities in the car as I simultaneously scanned my mind for any lingering tasks I needed to complete before my students started trickling into my room.

Once I pulled into my parking space, my mind, fueled by the first cup of coffee I had sipped greedily on the drive, was fully engaged in the day’s instruction. What did I need to pull up on my screen? Did anything need to be printed? Was there a student I needed to speak to? Was a parent already waiting to meet with me?

I launched out of the car, grabbing bags full of papers, lunch, and a change of clothes, climbed two flights of stairs, unlocked my classroom door, and began the perpetual motion of the day — straightening desks, erasing and writing messages on the white board, wiping down surfaces, checking displays, and moving stacks of paper — so many stacks of paper.

In my classroom, students entered knowing that I would expect their engagement, their participation, and at least feigned interest in whatever essay we were writing, poem we were analyzing, or story we were reading. I loved the content I was teaching — composition, poetry, literature — and I operated under the assumption that if I threw all my passion into my teaching, that love I have for the content would spill over onto my students.

However, along with all my passion, I threw all my energy, all my resources, all my emotions, all of my self into the hours of the school day, and then when the bell rang at the end of the day, I didn’t sit down and take a rest. No — I found another gear and kept going. In the early days, I accompanied two of my children to cross country practice, ran their drills with them — all of their drills — and then drove them home. I finished preparing dinner for the family, washed dishes, showered, did laundry, responded to needs and demands, and sometimes even did more school work.

I don’t think there was ever a day that I didn’t make sure everyone had their physical needs met for the next day, but I am quite sure that I routinely missed checking in with their emotional needs — seeing the hurts they experienced throughout the day, stopping in my tracks to give them a hug, or taking the time to just sit in their presence and be. I know I missed doing all of that.

Sure, I got up early on Saturdays, went for run, drove to the outdoor market to buy fresh produce, picked up enough groceries to feed a small army of teenagers, and made sure the house was picked up, vacuumed, and wiped down, but did I, on those packed Saturdays, parent my children? come beside them in their own personal struggles? help them access their emotions? or did I merely model how to power through?

I’ve had to come to terms with the harsh reality that what my children ultimately saw from watching their mom power through for 10 years in a high school classroom was that she couldn’t sustain it. She was a tough old bird, and she kept that pace going strong for about 9 of those years, but that last year? Whew! That last year’s performance was strictly mediocre. Very average. Just so-so.

The body can only take so much powering through. And when it has had enough, it will shut right down on you. My most important students, the ones who lived in my house with me, learned that lesson right along with me. They learned that when you power through and fail to attend to your emotional and spiritual health, when you try by the force of your own will to do all the things for all the people, you miss some of the most precious parts of life — the face to face, nose-to-nose, cheek-to-cheek moments that give life meaning.

For the past six years, I have been sitting with that reality and tending to my body and to my emotions — intentional every day tending in the form of yoga, writing, therapy, massage, walking, talking, and sitting with all of the joy, hurt, pain, love, anger, sadness, and happiness that life has brought because of and in spite of my actions.

I have experienced so. much. healing.

And so, though my children all now live in their own homes and I have lost my in-person chance to model a better way for them, I am going into the classroom this time with re-set expectations for myself and for my students. I will be doing things differently.

I’ve been practicing a phrase that describes my new approach: giving my best without giving my all. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, because this mindset is new to me, but I am picturing a me that is more present, that walks a little more slowly, who leaves her stack of papers on her desk when she walks away at the end of a long day, who decides in the moment that we aren’t going to finish the lesson as planned.

Will my students still know that I am passionate about writing, about reading, about poetry, about literature? I hope so, but more importantly, I hope that they see me demonstrate compassion, balance, flexibility, integrity, and kindness. I hope that I am able, in the moment, to say, “It seems we are all a little overwhelmed right now, how about we just pause for a minute and breathe?”

I never allowed myself that space in the last chapter. I never gave myself a moment to recognize that I was overwhelmed. I never took the opportunity to take a long calming breath. I kept on pushing, giving my best and giving my all.

And it showed — maybe not always to my coworkers or the students in my classroom, but it was definitely evident to my family. I was overtaxed and in denial, so I was often detached, preoccupied, reactive, and short-tempered with the people I care about most.

I’m planning to do it differently this time. Even in the season of Covid-19 where all of my students will be online, where I have to create a Google slide show for every class I teach, where I will be training my students to move from Zoom to Google classroom, to a short story, to Khan Academy, to a physical book right in front of them. Now, more than ever, it’s important that we take a breath, check in with one another, and allow ourselves to be mediocre, average, and downright so-so — even on our journey to excellence.

Because true excellence is recognizing your strengths AND your weaknesses; it’s knowing when to work hard AND when to walk away; it’s knowing when to push through AND when to sit down.

It’s knowing that it’s probably best to give less than 100%.

He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

2 Cor 12:9

Coronavirus Diary 16: Back to School Edition

Can you hear that? Can you hear the subtle hum? It’s the thrum of collective anxiety coursing through the nervous systems of every teacher, parent, and student who has already or who is about to start the school year either in person, online, or in some kind of hybrid format. The theme of the song? Uncertainty.

Never before have we approached a school year in such a “wait and see” posture. Schools and districts that have chosen to open in person have plans in place “just in case” a student or many students, a teacher or many teachers, a school or many schools get infected with Covid-19 mandating a move to partially or fully remote instruction. Schools that have chosen to open virtually have committed to several weeks or months of online instruction with plans in place to move to partial or full in-person models as soon as possible.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing the uncertainty about where they will do instruction this year.

Some schools have provided their teachers with training on using Zoom rooms, Google classroom, and myriad online instructional tools. Some have done this well and thoroughly, some have taken a more haphazard approach, and others have told their teachers to “figure it out”. Some teachers are very proficient with Internet technology, some manage just fine, and some have avoided using technology for as long as possible and have no idea what a URL is. While most students in middle- and upper-class communities have been raised with a device in their hands, many in lower-income communities are learning to access technology for academic purposes for the very first time. Whether they are technological novices or pros, they’ll be “doing school” much differently than ever before.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainty about how they will do instruction this year.

Some schools started the year early, to get in as much instruction as possible before another potential stay-at-home order. Some schools have students coming to school on alternate days to space out the number of bodies in classrooms. Some schools are having shorter instructional days to allow for added cleaning in buildings or to allow for time away from computer screens if students are learning from home.

Teachers, students, and parents are facing uncertainly about when they will do instruction this year.

Teachers are wondering about how we will build relationships, how we will have enough time together to get to know one another, when we will find time to share stories and tell all the corny teacher jokes that are critical to every classroom. We’re wondering where to pick up in the curriculum, knowing that our students’ learning was disrupted way back in March and that individual students managed that disruption and the virtual learning that followed much differently from one another. We’re wondering how to allow students the time and space to process trauma — the trauma of leaving school in the middle of the year, the trauma of losing a friend or loved one, the trauma of being continuously at home with a family that may or may not have fared well in the face of a global pandemic, the resulting economic crisis, and the concurring racial unrest.

We’re wondering how we’ll manage to reach students who we may only see in the gallery view of our Zoom rooms, how well we’ll adapt to distributing and collecting assignments via Google classroom, and how efficient we’ll be at transitioning from task to task, student to student, class to class, from in-person to online learning, or vice-versa.

Parents are wondering how safe their kids will be at school, how long they will stay there, and how they will manage to juggle all their responsibilities — again! — if their students are moved home. They are wondering if they’ll be able to keep their jobs — or find a job, if they’ll be allowed to work at home, if they’ll be able to find child care, and if they’ll have enough money to pay for it. They’re trying to explain the unexplainable and answer the unanswerable for their children who are also feeling the stress of the uncertain.

These children wonder who their teacher will be, when they will talk to their friends, if they’ll be able to have recess, and how they will eat their lunch. They are worried that they’ll have to keep learning at home, that they won’t understand the assignments, and that they’ll have have to sit in front of the computer for all of their lessons. They are asking when they’ll get to go to practice, will they have to wear their masks, and why they can only go to school on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

Where? When? How? Why?

All of the answers are, “Well, let’s wait and see.”

It’s so uncomfortable to live amid so much uncertainty when we’ve been following the same rhythms and patterns for so long. We just want to go back to ‘normal’ — to do things “the way we’ve always done them” — and to be beyond all this Covid-19 nonsense.

But we’re not there yet. We’re here, in the midst of a global pandemic, where we do things differently than we’ve ever done them before.

We wash our hands more, we wear masks, we stay home, we do family Zoom meetings, we send packages in the mail to loved ones we wish we could see in person. We stand further apart, we ask more questions, we decline more invitations. We become accustomed to the phrase, “we’ll have to wait and see.”

So dear friends, dear teachers, dear parents, dear students, I’m sorry that this is where we find ourselves, but alas, here we are. So, since we’re all in this together, can we find inside ourselves, under the hum of uncertainty, a way to extend a virtual hand of support — a cheering on, a forgiving smile, a gracious response? Can we find a way to see one another’s uncertainty with understanding and compassion? Can we hear one another’s worries, share our frustrations, and commit to being kind to one another in the midst of uncertainty?

Can we, as teachers, be patient with one another as we learn all the things, even if the fog of our Covid brains requires us to hear the instructions multiple times? Can we be gentle with our students who may not know how to submit an assignment online, answer an email, or right click on a hyperlink?

Can we, as parents, be supportive of our teachers and administrators who are trying very hard to meet the educational, social, and safety needs of our children and their teachers? Can we be respectful with our questions, offer our assistance, and send a note of encouragement? Can we remember that our kids are managing uncertainty, too, and that they may not always regulate their anxiety, their fears, their frustration, their anger? Can we give them an extra measure of grace as they navigate the “wait and see”?

Can we, as students, show up and do our best to attend to our teachers and let them know when we are getting lost or don’t know what to do next? Can we be patient when the technology doesn’t work right, when our teachers seem flustered, and when our parents are at their wits’ end? Can we try to communicate when we ourselves are at our wits’ end?

It’s gonna take all of us doing our best, assuming the best, and overlooking the less-than-best. We’re doing a lot here — trying to focus on the tasks in front of us while trying to drown out that insufferable hum of uncertainty. If we have any hope of success, it’s gonna be because we all leaned in to the uncertainty, saw it for what it is, and accepted the fact that we’ll have to do what we can and wait and see.

We can do this — together — we can do this.

Be kind to one another, forgiving one another, even as God for Christ’s sake has forgiven you.

Ephesians 4:32

Reality Setting In

I drove to Detroit yesterday, walked into a building I’ve only been in twice before, went to a room to see someone I’ve never met, to check out a laptop that’s different than any I’ve ever worked on before.

And reality started to sink in — this is all gonna be new.

I was struggling to type my name on a non-Mac keyboard when the principal walked in and greeted me. She’s a six-foot tall Black woman with red-orange hair, an air of confidence, and a gentle smile. I was so happy to see her. She wondered if I’d seen my room yet, and when I said I had not, she offered to take me there.

As we walked, she shared that Detroit Public School teachers were striking over safety concerns regarding in-person instruction. She (and I) understood the teachers’ concerns and also the reality a strike might mean for students across Detroit who’ve been out of school since March, who’ve missed the stability and routine that school can bring. We shared our compassion for teachers who have not been equipped with the time to plan, the tools they will need, or the training to use those tools in order to effectively teach remotely. Our understanding of a system in need of funding, reform, and repair remained unsaid as we walked down a newly polished hall and found my room.

“My name’s on the door!” I gushed.

“Yes.”

As I walked into the room, I saw the neatly arranged desks, the fresh green wall, a box fan near the front of the room, “Do I get to keep the fan?”

“Yes.”

“Do I get to keep the books?”

“Yes.”

“How about these supplies?”

“Everything in here stays.”

“It looks great!” I practically shouted as I took in all the shelving, the Smart Board, the white board, and the tape, stapler, and other supplies behind my desk area.

I began to picture myself working in this room, knowing that it would be me, alone, at least for the first quarter. All of our students will be remote — from their homes — on tablets and laptops that the school has been acquiring through the generosity of community partners, grants, and purchases. They’ll be able to come to the school to pick up supplies and food, which the school will continue to provide, but they will learn from home. I, on the other hand, will be in this bright classroom four days a week, and working from home on Wednesdays when my students will have assignments to complete, books to read, and journals to write while I meet with my colleagues, hold office hours, grade student work, and write lesson plans.

We left the room and she showed me who would be my hall neighbors — a new math teacher, a social studies teacher, and a master English teacher right next door to me, for ease in collaboration. The computer lab and several computer carts are a few steps away. I could picture myself moving down the hallway to the lab with my students, dropping into the classroom next door to ask a couple of questions, and moving back to my room for instruction. I had to keep editing my mental movie, which kept auto-populating all of the hallways, classrooms, and desks with students. I had to keep reminding myself that this year was going to be different.

I’m going to be in my classroom, in front of my laptop, greeting my students, providing instruction, responding to questions, and — hopefully — making a difference.

When I was offered this position, I agreed to teach freshman English, but on the day I accepted the offer, I was asked if I’d at all be interested in teaching seniors (Yes!) who need to be prepared for college (Yes!) who haven’t taken the SAT and need some preparation (Yes!), even if I have to help write the course (Are you kidding me, Yes!).

Then, last week, I was told that I would also have a section of freshmen (Let me at ’em!) and a section of just SAT prep, an elective, presumably for juniors (Hooray for juniors!). When I left Lutheran North, I had one section of freshmen along with juniors and seniors. This feels like home.

So, I’ve been dabbling in curriculum and reading Common Core Standards while also taking an online course called The No-Nonsense Nurturer, which all teachers at Detroit Leadership Academy (and many other schools across the country) take. Its focus is on setting the classroom climate for high expectations and academic achievement in communities that have historically been marginalized. The training is solid — through it I’m recognizing some of my tendencies toward enabling students because of my inherent biases, and I am also being affirmed in some of the strategies I’ve used in the past to build relationships that motivate students to excel. Taking this course is helping me shift from where I’ve been to where I will be.

And in all this preparation, though I am elated and so excited, I am starting to feel the hum of anxiety — am I really ready? can I really develop this new course in time? can I actually learn to go with the flow? will I really be able to make a difference in the lives of these students?

Yesterday, when I picked up my laptop, I also got a lanyard with keys, and a staff T-shirt emblazoned with the name of the organization that houses Detroit Leadership Academy — Equity Education. It’s just a black T with one word on the front, but that one word is a reminder of why I am taking this step — back to the classroom, back to the city, back to students who might not know that they matter.

I’m ready to put that shirt on — I’m ready to suit up! I’m a little nervous, a tiny bit terrified, but I am ready. I’m stepping into this role knowing that I might not get it all perfect, but I am going to show up each day for the sake of these students, for the sake of their futures, for the sake of equity, and, as I’m sure you’ve gathered by now, for the sake of myself. I know I’ve been prepared for this moment, and I am thrilled to step into it.

Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1: 9

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.

Facing Change

I don’t want to brag or make it seem like I’m an expert on change, but here are the facts:

Before I graduated high school, I had lived in six homes (ok, I only remember four of them). During and after college, I lived in nine locations (counting separate dorms). Since we’ve been married, we’ve had eleven homes. You might call me a moving expert, because I was Marie Kondo-ing way before Marie Kondo was a thing.

I’ve gone to two elementary schools, one middle school, one high school, two colleges for undergrad (transferring after freshman year), and have taken graduate courses at three universities.

Not counting babysitting, I’ve held at least 25, yes twenty-five, jobs in my life, and I’m sure I’m overlooking some gig-work like that one summer that my stepfather got me an “opportunity” handing out samples in the deli of the grocery store that he managed.

I’ve walked into plenty of new situations, and I’ve learned a few things along the way.

First, I always come with the gusto: This is gonna be great! Imagine all the possibilities! Won’t it be fun? I am at that point a glass-hall-full-and-expecting-more kind of girl. I come on full speed and give it my all. (Exhibit A: I’ve already organized and alphabetized my newly-forming classroom library, and I’m not even in my classroom yet.)

Because I come in with so much enthusiasm, I have been known to overlook critical details, such as, I don’t know, the fact that the people in my life are also feeling the shift of change and they might not be as enthusiastic as I am. My daughter recently reminded me that when we uprooted our family and moved to St. Louis, my husband and I full of gusto and optimism, our children were reeling with grief, anger, and fear. They were not thrilled to be clinging tightly to the flying capes of their superhero parents. They just wanted us to stop and hold them, which I will graciously remind myself that we did from time to time, but we were, I’m afraid, quick to resume our flight — to conquer our mission and save the day.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that I quickly adapt to culture and expectations. In a new setting, I will likely watch quietly for a few days or weeks, until I see how “we do things around here,” but once I have the lay of the land, I bring myself to that situation in the truest way that I can. I remember the faculty retreat where I met my coworkers at Lutheran North. We were at a camp about an hour away from the school, all in shorts and tennis shoes. We gathered for the morning in a conference room to “talk business,” but after lunch we made our way to a challenge course complete with a zip line. Since it was my first day or two with this community, I was in that ‘quietly watching’ phase of entry, so when my team (people I’d never met before!) needed to lift me over a chest-high obstacle, I let them, and when they asked me if I would like to climb a rock wall and do the zip line, activities which I would under normal circumstances politely (or not so politely) decline, I said ok, I would do it. I was trying to go with the flow and figure out the culture, so I went out of my comfort zone and wouldn’t you know, I climbed that wall and zipped that line, and I felt great! These early successes, and others like them, gave me confidence to take some other chances with that group that would soon become family. I thrived at Lutheran North, where I became a leader, and my team embraced me in my truest form which is always honest (sometimes to a fault), often loud, and frequently emotional.

I came into my experience at Lindamood-Bell much more quietly. Illness had sucked the confidence out of me, and the intentionally positive and congratulatory environment of the company culture seemed, although very welcoming, quite foreign. The first two weeks I sat in a room with a coworker (who was my first on-the-job bonus kid) learning the programs, quietly taking notes, and reluctantly participating in role plays. The job was very scripted to start, and I was thankful! Because I was still visibly struggling with autoimmune disease, my gusto was suppressed; I was happy to have clear expectations and structure. I wouldn’t have to lead in this position, well, not at first…not until I was much stronger.

Yes, I come in with gusto, I quietly learn the culture, and then I am who I am.

At Lutheran North, my students called me Momma Ratch. Two of my own children were students at the school, and though while they were in my class, they were students first and treated as such, they were also my children, who rode in my vehicle, dropped by my classroom for a snack, needed to be driven home when they were ill or forgot their running shoes, and invited their classmates to our home. My students who were not my children, saw me in my role as teacher and my role as mother. They came to understand that I was imperfect in both roles, but that I continued to show up and try. They could come to my room with difficulty or to share celebration. They could borrow a few dollars or raid my stash of feminine supplies without asking. I had a stockpile of notebooks, folders, pens, and books in my room that I collected each year when students cleaned out their lockers. Anyone in the school knew they could come get what they needed no questions asked. I had firm and high academic and behavioral expectations, but I also learned what I could let go, what I could negotiate, and what really didn’t matter much at all.

At Lindamood-Bell, my coworkers called me Momma K. This probably started because I am the age of the mothers of all of my coworkers. They are almost all in their twenties (the age of my children), and though I didn’t always feel like it, particularly in the beginning, I think they have valued my experience, my perspective, my age. Often, it was me who was asking them for support, for encouragement, for understanding, as I navigated some of the most difficult years of my life. They were mostly oblivious to the grief that I was carrying, but it seeped out in moments of unprofessionalism. I would snap in a moment of frustration or glare at a coworker who told me something I didn’t want to hear. Yet, they, too, accepted me for who I am, and even celebrated me. In fact, the culture of Lindamood-Bell, the clapping, the parties, the dancing and balloons, reminded me of the importance of celebration, of noticing small victories and big ones even (and especially) in the midst of grief and transition. My coworkers dress up in wigs and hot dog costumes on a Wednesday just to make learning more fun. They hide pictures of Guy Fieri inside a closet to surprise you and make you laugh. They help kids set a trap of plastic spiders to scare you when you walk into a room. They cry because you are leaving, but send you off with books for your new classroom, a gluten-free cookie for the road, and a bottle of Malbec for your next celebration.

As I’m gathering my gusto to walk into Detroit Leadership Academy I want to be mindful of those around me who in the midst of Covid-19 and all its uncertainties might not be feeling as enthusiastic as I am; I want to be sure I stop and attend to the needs of others instead of just powering through. I know I’ll take the confidence and flexibility I found at Lutheran North and the kindness and celebration I learned at Lindamood-Bell. I’ll walk in quietly, even though I’ve already stocked my closet with teacher wear and powerful shoes. This is a brand new culture, and I want to see how “we do things around here” before I find the expression of myself that will work best for these kids, these coworkers, this school, this season.

As in every other change I’ve navigated over my fifty-plus years, I know I am going to learn at DLA — I don’t know what yet, but if the lessons I learn are even half as impactful as the lessons I’ve learned at Lutheran North and Lindamood-Bell, I know I’ll be changed forever.

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.

Joshua 1:9

Note: If you are in or near Ann Arbor and have surplus school supplies: notebooks, pens, folders, index cards, feminine supplies, etc. I would be happy to take them off your hands and put them in my new classroom so that students can come and take what they need no questions asked.

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