Transformation Ready

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Over the past week I’ve participated in quite a bit of professional development with the other members of my team. The main focus has been on the brain science behind trauma-informed instruction. We are using a book called Culturally Responsive Teaching and the Brain to learn the why behind some of the strategies we use in our school. A guiding principle in our community is that a large number of our students have experienced trauma or adverse childhood experiences (ACES). Our population is predominantly students of color who qualify for free or reduced breakfast and lunch and who live in the Detroit metropolitan area. Many have experienced racism, poverty, and various other traumas, but even if they hadn’t before 2020, they have certainly experienced trauma (loss of schooling, loss of family members, financial hardship, etc.) because of Covid. For that reason, our network of schools has adopted a whole suite of practices that fall under the umbrella of trauma-informed instruction.

We understood from this week’s training that the brain’s ability to think and process information can be interrupted if it feels the body is in physical or emotional danger or if it doesn’t feel a sense of belonging in a community. Brain science teaches us that the brain stem is continuously searching for danger; if danger is perceived, all of its energy goes to reducing the threat through actions many of us know as fight, flight, freeze or appease. So, before we can hope to build community or engage our students in learning, we must first create a space that is safe, predictable, and consistent.

Slide from Champion Education Network, Summer Summit

With that in mind, we have always emphasized common building norms and expectations such as teachers standing at our thresholds to greet students, having a strategically arranged classroom, and using consistent instructional practices such as Do Nows, Exit Tickets, and other practices of the No-Nonsense Nurturer model. This year, our school is being additionally intentional, using the first week of school to set culture and behavioral norms across all classrooms through common slide decks that the instructional coaches and I have prepared for use by ALL teachers. The first period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same community guidelines — focused on ensuring our students that they are safe in our school. The second period that students are in the building, ALL teachers and students will review the same school-wide behavioral expectations — focused on ensuring our students that they are partners in keeping our school threat-free for all. Throughout the first week, teachers will ALL play community-building games and review classroom systems that they will use throughout the school year so that students, who are hopefully beginning to feel safe, can begin to feel engaged within their classrooms.

That’s the second function of the brain, the limbic system’s focus on finding relationships and belonging, also a prerequisite for learning. Our network, with the understanding that the highest functions of cognition cannot happen until students’ safety and belongingness needs are met, has initiated the school-wide adoption of a social-emotional learning curriculum that was piloted last year. This program, Character Strong will be used in every classroom every Wednesday morning. Its content focuses on self-awareness, goal-setting, and community building. The hope is that the more safe, the more connected, the more self-aware our students feel, the better they will be able to engage with rigorous curriculum.

And they do need curriculum! Our standardized test data from last year is not great — I’m not sure that anyone’s is post-Covid! This makes sense! The whole world was collectively in survival mode — our brain stems were at high alert!! It’s no wonder we suffered socially and academically — we were all collectively fighting, flighting, freezing, and appeasing ourselves into a tizzy! This is evidenced by the ways that we treated each other — not as the collective that we are, not as members belonging to each other, but as freaked out individuals trying to scratch our ways to survival.

But guys, it’s time to return to our right minds, and the only we can do that that is by taking actions that remind ourselves (and our brain stems) that we are safe, held, loved, supported and part of a community.

In my classroom, that looks like order and predictability. It looks like standing at my door each morning, greeting each student by name, smiling, and tracking their language (verbal and non-verbal) so that I can attend to any signs of distress and minimize any further triggers. It also looks like an orderly room — I have desks facing one direction; seats will be assigned, but those assignments are flexible based on student feedback. Everyone has adequate space, all can see the screen where I project the goals and content for the day and the white board where I display my students’ learning data so that they can track their progress. We track this progress as a whole class — where are we together? what do we need to do so that all of us can succeed together? We set goals together; we work together; we celebrate together. We are a community.

In my personal life, it looks like continuing my practices of healthy eating, regular exercise, and plenty of physical and mental self care and adding community practices such as a ride-share with a colleague, which will ease the driving burden for both of us and provide time for building relationship in our 25-minute drive each day. We will both have heavy loads at work, so we are intentionally building in support because we are caring for ourselves while caring for each other.

As we move through the fall, using these safety and community-building practices, we will increasingly become available for academic challenge. After learning about brain science and viewing our student data, I identified a couple areas of focus for this year. I will, with everyone, focus in those first two weeks to build safety and community so that I can increase the rigor of instruction and the independence and agency of my learners. I met with my instructional coach (everyone in our building has a coach!) who agreed with my goals and to thought-partnering, challenging, and supporting me as I work toward them. I am very excited about this partnership.

Some teachers I know go back to their classrooms two days before school starts. They arrange their rooms, they make a seating chart, they pull out supplies, and that is enough for them to feel ready. That is not me.

I need every minute of the past week and the coming week to fully shift my mind from the relaxation and freedom of summer to the intentionality and rigor of the school year. I need to remember the traumas my students have endured; I need to be mindful of how my attitude can make or break the culture of my classroom; I need to remember the importance of every moment of instruction and the potential impact it might have on the futures of my students.

My principal says — and she’s dead serious — “We are saving lives here, team.” We are the potential last educational stop for many of our students. What we do and how we act can change or solidify the trajectory of our students’ futures. Our practices, our climate, our culture might just create the safe space in which our students can try to trust, begin to believe, and turn toward a life of transformation — one for themselves, but also one that impacts everyone they touch.

And isn’t that the most powerful thing we can give one another — the space, the safety, the confidence, the support, and the encouragement to be transformed?

I am looking forward to transforming right along with my students — what a privilege I have been given!

be transformed by the renewing of your mind

Romans 12:2

A few 18 year olds

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On May 14, 2022, an 18 year old male drove three hours to a grocery store in a Black community with the intention of killing Black people. He killed 10 in the attack that he had been planning for months.

On May 24, an 18 year old male shot his grandmother in the head then drove to an elementary school where he fired shots in the parking lot and inside a fourth grade classroom. Nineteen students and two teachers died in the premeditated massacre.

On May 25 at 8:30 am, three 18 year old males walked into my classroom. With under two weeks remaining of their senior year, the biggest event on their horizon is graduation.

I don’t know why these were the three that showed up on the morning after a deadly school shooting — the kind that makes teachers across the country catch their breath and wonder how can this keep happening?

Why, of the eighteen students on my roster, were these the only three that showed?

When I had woken up that morning, I had been thinking, what can I do today to create a space for my students to speak about these shootings? I had tried to create a space on May 15, but I had rushed it — tried to cram it in to an already full day — and it had not gone the way I might have hoped.

But this particular morning, May 25, was a Wednesday, a day that my first hour is always dedicated to social-emotional learning (SEL), a time when my students and I typically use a curriculum called “Character Strong” to build relationships and explore emotions. We’d been doing so since January, and my students had been demonstrating varying degrees of engagement. They participated in activities like group discussions, watching videos, and journaling, and I felt we were making progress, growing a bit closer.

So as I sat at my desk early that morning, I thought, this is the second-to-last time that we will be together. What if, instead of using the curriculum, I pass out their journals and give them an opportunity to write. Maybe that would create enough space for them to share .

I imagined I would have 4-6 students to start, the same 4-6 that showed up on time most days, and that others would trickle in. I did not imagine that I would have just three 18 year old Black males.

I didn’t imagine that these three would show me that they were on the verge of being men.

I gathered us together. We did a little warm up activity, and then I said, “Ok, guys, it looks like it’s just us today. You may have heard there was a school shooting yesterday.” They confirmed they all had. “And, you are probably aware of the shooting that happened a couple weeks ago in Buffalo, NY.” They were. “It’s a lot guys, and I just wanted to provide some space today for you to process either these shootings or our time together this semester. I am going to put a few prompts on the board. You can choose the one you like, and we’ll all spend about five or so minutes quietly writing.”

I put this on the board:

I sat at my desk with my notebook. They sat at their desks with theirs. We all started to write.

Can you picture the scene? One middle-aged white woman in jeans and a pink “Detroit Kids Matter” t-shirt and three young black men in jeans and hoodies all bent over their desks writing silently in 5 x 7 notebooks.

I paused and watched them — these three 18 year olds — and I felt my throat tighten. These three [out of the 18 that could have been there] were engaging in this activity that I had tossed together at the last minute.

After about 5 minutes, we paused, and I said, “Anyone want to share?”

The first raised his hand and shared that he’d written that 18 year olds need to stay focused on their goals and to surround themselves with people who had their backs.

The second said that 18 year olds need to stay busy — get a job, earn some money, and stay out of trouble.

The third said he’d learned about his emotions during this dedicated class time.

And their teacher got choked up. She saw the poignancy of the moment and she said, “This is why we have created this space guys. We want to provide an opportunity for you to reflect, to think about your goals, and to imagine ways that you can get there. We want you to know that you are loved and seen, that you have a future, and that we have your back.”

They saw their teacher getting emotional, and all three looked her in the eyes and smiled tenderly.

They knew. No matter how messed up the last couple of years have been, no matter that they don’t have a yearbook, or a decent gym, or air conditioning, they know that we love them. They have received the message.

And yet, next week they will walk out of this school into a world where people will drive three hours just to point a gun at their bodies, a world where the senate cannot be bothered to bring gun reform laws to a vote, a world where Detroit Kids have not seen the evidence that they do indeed matter. They will walk into that world less-equipped than they ought to be, with not enough resources or knowledge or scaffolding because systemic racism has perpetuated educational inequity.

They all plan to go to college or trade school — all three of these young Black men — they know it is the way to a better life, but even though we have tried to prepare them, they have no idea what it will really take — the dedication, the perseverance, the kind of digging deep that they have never experienced before.

Nevertheless, they’ll line up in their caps and gowns, their families filling the seats, and I will be the one calling their names, lovingly looking them in the eyes, as our whole team cheers them on their way.

We pray that as they leave they will carry with them the knowledge that they are loved, that they are not alone, and that their lives do indeed matter.

May God protect them, and may we be emboldened to make the kinds of changes that ensure that these 18 year olds and all those that come after them will have a chance at the kind of future we envision for them.

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace.

Romans 14:19

Reflections on Round Two, Year One

Last year at this time I was in the middle of interviewing with various high schools in the Ann Arbor/Detroit area. Amid the last Spring’s swell of cries for racial justice, my husband I and agreed it was time for me to pursue a return to the classroom. (I wrote all about that journey in a series of blogs starting with this one.) Now, a year later, I’m sitting in my office, sun shining through two corner windows, taking a moment to reflect on my first year back — what an unusual one it was!

Going back to the classroom during a global pandemic might seem like the worst idea in the world. However, the situation — a high need for teachers in light of Covid-related attrition — gave me an opening. I figured I could get my foot in the door to see if I was able to hack the demands given my health concerns. I soon realized that this year would give me only a partial answer to that question. With mostly online instruction, limited behavior management, and a large percentage of time spent working from home, I had the time and bandwidth to get re-acclimated to writing lesson plans, communicating with parents, and meeting deadlines without the long demanding days of managing teenaged bodies within the classroom, without interruptions in the middle of planning, without extra hours attending sporting events, and without the constant posture of supervision that teachers wear in a building teeming with students.

The building, in fact, was the opposite of ‘teeming’.

It was so quiet that every time I walked down the hall to the bathroom, the office staff could hear me coming because of the squeak of my shoes against the tile floor. The former Catholic elementary school that houses Detroit Leadership Academy held around a dozen people on a typical day this past school year. Some instructors worked from home the entire year due to health concerns. Only the custodians, office staff, and a handful of teachers came to the building each day, and we were all isolated from one another in our own classrooms. If I wanted to interact with anyone, I had to be intentional. I started leaving candy on the sign-in table every few days — hoping these treats would draw out the humans. I saw the candy diminish, but I rarely saw who was taking it or, as I had hoped, teachers clustered around the table chatting like I remembered from my pre-Covid teaching days.

Sometime mid-year, after weeks and weeks alone in my classroom, I started doing laps inside the building at lunch time in an effort to get away from the computer screen and get in some steps. I wore a mask, and sometimes I saw a person or two in my path, but never did we stop to talk. I resigned myself to a year of limited contact. Then, one day, after several weeks of lap walking, a colleague stopped by my room.

“I’ve seen you walking,” she said. “I’ve been running laps on the other side of the building. You want to walk with me at lunch time?”

“Yes!” I said, and before we knew it, we had another colleague join, and then another. Our walking club was born.

For the remainder of the year, whenever we were in the building, we walked — first inside, and then outside when it got warmer. We built friendships by chatting about students, the struggles of Zoom instruction, the engagement of one, and the graduate studies of another. It was a slice of collegiality in a sparsely inhabited space. I clung to those friendships like a lifeline, because building relationships with students was even more difficult.

In the beginning of the year, I could convince about 75% of my students to turn on their cameras in the Zoom room. By the end of the second semester, that number dropped to about 10%. I could hardly blame them. Most had been sitting on their beds for an entire school year, logging in to three classes a day, listening to their teachers present information, struggling to stay engaged, and trying to complete at least the minimal number of assignments in order to pass. While teenagers often complain about school, they typically enjoy the perks of seeing their friends, competing in sports, or at least getting away from their homes for several hours a day. This year had none of that.

This year was something different.

Looking back, I see a blur. The first few weeks of orienting my students to the online platform — using a Chromebook every day, checking their email, submitting documents in Google classroom — followed by a big push to get them somewhat ready for the SAT that they had missed at the end of their junior year. The actual testing day on which students I did not recognize came masked to my classroom and sat for six hours listening to instructions, filling in ovals, trying to stay awake, and waiting to be dismissed. The weeks of researching and applying to colleges, attending virtual college visits, and completing the FAFSA, followed by creating resumes, writing college essays, and attempting a virtual peer review.

After Christmas, we started the second semester. My students came to the building for senior photos in their caps and gowns then carried out Trevor Noah’s Born a Crime, a composition book, and a set of highlighters. In the following weeks, I tried to engage them in journal writing, joining clauses, and reading Noah’s book — a memoir of growing up in a racist society. We listened to Noah read his book on Audible, and my students completed reading guides, discussion posts, and written paragraphs to communicate their comprehension, their observations, and their processing of what they had read.

And then, all of a sudden, we were having a senior pinning ceremony, prom, and graduation rehearsal. In the blink of an eye, they lined up alphabetically, clad in caps and gowns, processed into the sanctuary to Pomp and Circumstance, stood in unison, moved their tassels, and walked out of the building, diplomas in hand.

Just like that, it was over.

Do I sound sad? I think I am sad — sad that I didn’t get to know these people a little better, sad that we couldn’t give them a little more — more contact, more encouragement, more content, more support, more everything. I am sad, but I am also impressed by these students who showed up, opted in, worked hard, and finished as strong as they could having had to walk a path that none of us had ever walked before.

And as I reflect on all that we did — together and apart — I am already looking forward to the next round. I am wondering how we might make the experience different for next year’s seniors. We’ll be in person — at least that’s the plan — so I’ll be entering phase two of my journey back to the classroom — all the stuff I did last year, plus bodies in the building, butts in seats.

It’ll be a transition for me to manage up to 30 students in a classroom at a time, but it’ll be a transition for them, too. They haven’t had their butts in seats since early March 2020. They’ve been logging in to Zoom rooms, on time or not. They’ve been joining class in their pajamas, hair combed or not. They’ve been at home, following house rules or not. And now, they are going to have to put on some clothes, get themselves to school on time, and follow school rules. We’re all in for some change, and it might not be easy.

So, for the seven weeks that I will not be in my classroom, I will be preparing for that change. I am going to start with some rest — some self care, some family time, some writing, and some sleep. I am going to sprinkle in some high quality instructional planning, and I plan to do some deep reading on educational equity, building a classroom culture, and fostering group trust, because that is where we need to start.

After the trauma of this pandemic — the loss of loved ones, the fear of contagion, the isolation, and whatever else my students have experienced in the last sixteen months — they are going to need some support, some anchors, some structure, some intentionality, some consistency..

I am not sure what that will look like, but our whole team is talking about it. We’re committed to giving our students what they need, which is likely very similar to what we all need — some grace, some time, some understanding, and some love.

Love one another.

John 13:34