14 days

The same butterflies I usually have on the first day of school fluttered in my stomach. I have been teaching for twenty-two years, but I still get nervous. I’d like to think it’s because I’m still vulnerable. I still have so much to learn. I still have so many risks to take to outgrow myself for children. I still have so much to learn from children,

And this experience, this #teachinginthetimeofcorona, has caused me to feel more incompetent overnight than I have felt in decades. So when I logged onto Zoom donned in a zebra costume, I took a deep breath and whispered a prayer that I wouldn’t ruin the first day of school we’ve had in 14 days.

My goal for today was for us to learn about the features of Zoom and lean into each other to restore the collective brilliance and humanity we’ve found in our classroom community all year long. We chatted. We giggled. We shared toys, pets, and our families. Then we listened to Maya Angelou read aloud her poem, “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me At All,”, while Jean-Michele Basquiat’s beautifully haunting illustrations flashed on the screen.

I told the children to use all the strategies they know to think about the poem as we listened. It was thrilling to see the excitement on their faces when I told them we were going to listen to a poem. We begin each day with a poem and I could tell the familiarity made them feel safe. When it was over, thumbs shot up all over the screen (I’m going to have to get used to this.).

“It’s again and again!” a woman child shouted.

“I wonder why the poet did that. I wonder what it means,” I thought aloud.

We thought about a time when we’d repeated that we weren’t afraid over and over again. A thumb shot up.

“I think the person is trying to convince herself that she’s not afraid. She probably is afraid,” said a man child.

Several children agreed with him. We discussed how this kind of self-talk is one way to get through difficult moments. We decided that it’s okay and important to experience our feelings. But sometimes feelings can overcome us and send us on a downward spiral into anxiety, stress, depression, and even physical pain. I told them that self-talk is a strategy that I use when I’m reading or watching news about COVID-19 because otherwise I become extremely anxious and my chest begins to hurt. One student typed a comment into the chat box, “My mom, too.”

“Have you been having strong feelings about coronavirus?” I asked.

Heads nodded and thumbs flew up.

Once we’d shared some of our feelings and our family member’s feelings, I asked the children how they could regain some control while we live through this pandemic. This is what they said:

  • hugging
  • loving
  • helping keep the house clean
  • being thankful for what we have during this time
  • taking care of the baby while my mom works

And that’s when I knew that everything is going to be okay, folks. Everything we have done throughout the school year prepared us to transcend physical boundaries and stay connected through our hearts and minds. Poems still heal and inspire us to think deeply and problem-solve. We are still us — individually and collectively. And I’m going to figure out how to be the best online educator I can possibly be — with their help.

It was a long 14 days, perhaps the longest I have ever experienced. But I can see the light again. It is the children. And in 14 more days, it will still be them.

COVID-19’s Got Me Feeling Some Kind of Way

I’m angry.

I’m shamefully content.

I’m angry that I live in a country where science is not heeded by government officials.

I’m shamefully content that I probably won’t be the one to die because I am educated.

I’m angry that I live in a society that is so grossly inequitable that children who live on the margins of it have to worry about food security during a pandemic.

I’m shamefully content in the joy the unexpected opportunity to spend time cooking my favorite recipes has brought me.

I’m angry that my students’ hard-working families will struggle for ends to meet for a time yet undetermined.

I’m shamefully content that my paycheck will continue to show up in my bank account because a way for me to work from home is being made.

I’m angry that I have been sitting at home for over a week without permission to teach my babies as a solution is found for me to do my job without my input.

I’m shamefully content in the rest this time away has given me.

I’m angry that our school year was brought to a screeching halt right at the moment that children blossom in early childhood classrooms after months of lovingly nurturing them.

I’m shamefully content that if I fail at this juncture, families are places where children learn, too.

I’m angry that I am not learning from and growing with my school colleagues.

I’m shamefully content with the online content that is being created in the midst of this crisis and in my ability to access it when others cannot.

I’m angry that my summer plans will probably not come to fruition, that I will not build relationships or fulfill contracts that would have brought me emotional and financial overflow.

I’m shamefully content in knowing the meaning of enough and that I possess it in a time of scarcity.

I’m angry that I am struggling to read and write because I cannot focus.

I’m shamefully content knowing that when the anxiety wanes I have shelves of books and plenty of Moleskines waiting.

I’m angry that I have to distance myself from the people I love.

I’m shamefully content that I have found peace in the independence that over a decade of living in rural Alaska grew within me.

I’m angry.

I’m so incredibly angry.

I’m content.

I’m so shamefully, blessedly content.

I like America a little bit. . .

“I like America a little bit because I like school and my friends.”

A young child

Formerly detained

Found healing

Within our walls

They try to tell me

Teaching shouldn’t be

Political. . .

But they’ve never

Seen a tear-stained face

Brighten with a smile

Wails full of heartache

Turn to laughter

A Spanish tongue

Become bilingual

A bright-eyed boy

Offer a little bit

Of forgiveness

To a government

That held him hostage

Because he found love in

Our public school that

Belongs to everyone


A young child

Formerly detained


“Get Love!”: A Review of Matt de la Peña’s Book, Love

“Twice this fall I was left speechless by a child.” Matt de la Peña begins his January 9, 2018 essay, Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from DarknessIn response to a student’s question he cannot stop thinking about, he poses his own important questions:

How honest can an author be with an auditorium full of elementary school kids? How honest should we be with our readers? Is the job of the writer for the very young to tell the truth or preserve innocence?

Because of Matt’s picture book, Love, I too have been at a loss for words — until now, that is — reeling with questions of my own over the past two days. Really, it all began two years ago.

Matt and the illustrator of Love, Loren Long, came to my favorite local, independent bookstore, Hicklebee’s, to promote the book in January 2018. I got my autographs and photographs like any dutiful professional author/illustrator stalker would and walked into my kindergarten classroom the next morning ill-prepared for what was to come.

I gathered the children in a circle on the meeting rug, opened the book, told the children that I’d met Matt the night before, and how excited I was to read this absolutely beautiful book to them.

“It’s so beautiful that I experienced the kind of feelings that led me to cry,” I whispered dramatically.

To my disappointment, the read aloud was not evoking the same emotions I’d experienced during my own reading. Until I turned to this page:

Screen Shot 2020-02-27 at 6.26.52 PM

de la Peña and Long were asked to “soften” this illustration prior to publication because it was perceived as “too heavy” for children. Thankfully, they declined.

Upon seeing this illustration, the room filled with the buzz of comments.

“I see what’s happening,” said one little boy, “the mom and the dad had a fight. The dad
had a drunk. That’s why the mom was mad. The dad turned over the furniture and now
he’s leaving. The little boy is hiding under there because he is scared and he needs to be
safe. The dog is taking care of the boy. It makes him feel better.”

Other students made further observations and we finished reading the book. As we stood up from the meeting area to go to recess, the little boy made a beeline for me, wrapped his arms around my waist and buried his head into my soft belly. It was the first hug he’d ever given me.

“I love you, [student’s name],” I said, giving him my signature kiss on the crown of his head.

“I love you, Ms. J.”

I later discovered he’d been temporarily placed in foster care.

Love was a turning point in our life as an emotional unit that school year. The children spoke candidly about the domestic violence and verbal abuse that occurs in their homes and this vulnerability drew us closer together and gave us the opportunity to be one another’s healers.

Fast forward two years and I have the great fortune of teaching many of the same children who were in the room the first time I read Love to students. They are second-graders now. I reread books we read in kindergarten to them regularly and am often amazed by the depth of thought living to the wise, old ages of seven and eight has given them.

We are working on writing book reviews with text evidence in our current unit of study and I thought Love was a perfect picture book for us to study together and write about for many reasons. And, once again, I wasn’t ready.

I gathered the children on the meeting rug in their writing partnerships ready to reread the book and gather text evidence.

“Oh, friends, I am so excited about writing a review of this book together. I think it’s one we all agree is wonderful,” I said, placing the text under the document camera.

To my surprise, there was no chatter, as there often is, about how we had read the book in kindergarten. Disappointed — I thought Love really meant something to us — I opened the book and began reading.

And when we arrived at the aforementioned page, which is pretty far into the book, there were audible gasps and what seemed like a million tiny hands flew up.

“Ms. J! We read this book in kindergarten!” one girl said.

“Yes, I remember this page.” a boy added.

“Me too!” said another boy.

“Wow, friends! I wonder why you just remembered this book when we got to this page?” I asked.

Another boy, the boy whose head is still imprinted in my belly from that hug we shared two years ago, said, “I remember now because I took a picture of this page in my mind in kindergarten. It’s still there!”

My eyes welled up with tears as I turned the page, and each thereafter, and finished Love.

This emotional moment was powerful, but it didn’t deter me from accomplishing our instructional goal. We had grand conversations about Love over a couple of days, wrote a shared review of the book, and then the children wrote their own. The boy had this to say:

One reason everybody should read Love is because it shows some sad stuff that can happen to you a lot. For example, when the mom was crying, the dad was knocking over stuff like a chair and leaving the house, and the son was hiding under the piano, it was 100% sad because that can happen. . .

In Why We Shouldn’t Shield Children from Darkness, Matt concludes by answering his own questions:

In the book world, we often talk about the power of racial inclusion — and in this respect we’re beginning to see a real shift in the field — but many other facets of diversity remain in the shadows. For instance, an uncomfortable number of children out there right now are crouched beneath a metaphorical piano. There’s a power to seeing this largely unspoken part of our interior lives represented, too. And for those who’ve yet to experience that kind of sadness, I can’t think of a safer place to explore complex emotions for the first time than inside the pages of a book, while sitting in the lap of a loved one.

Brené Brown wrote, “Everyone has a story or a struggle that will break your heart. And, if we’re really paying attention, most people have a story that will bring us to our knees. You would think the universal nature of struggle would make it easier for all of us to ask for help, but in a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there can still be so much shame around reaching out, especially if we’re not raised to understand the irreducible nature of human need. . .  To know pain is human. To need is human. . .  Need is the most beautiful compact between humans. . .”

Experiencing adversity and processing pain are a part of the human experience. As much as many of us, myself included, deify them, children are human beings. Our classrooms must be places where children are permitted to experience, talk about, ponder, and heal from the trauma caused by “this largely unspoken part of our interior lives.”

I have said and written it a million times and I will do it a million more: Children are the truth! They are better equipped to navigate the emotional landscape of life with honesty than most of us. And books like Love create space in our hearts, minds, and classrooms and engender the vulnerability required for us to “reach out” and make that “beautiful compact between human beings” children need to experience to lay the foundation for living authentically their entire lives.

So, as a little girl wrote in her review:

“One reason Love is an amazing book is because there is strong feelings. For example, on one page a father and his daughter were practicing dance. This showed me that the father has a heart full of love for his daughter!

If you want to get a book that shows deep feelings, get Love.”

Inference, Empathy, & Erasure or Overthinking?

I recently attended professional development focused on guided reading, specifically how to teach young children to make inferences about characters’ feelings. It was great PD! The presenter gently pushed us out of the comfort zone of our school colleagues and embedded multiple opportunities to work with children. The goal was clear. Make children aware of the cognition in which they engage when making inferences by teaching them a simple, three-step strategy:

  1. Retell what is happening to the character.
  2. Think about whether or not you have been in a similar situation and how you felt or speculate about how you might feel if you were in a similar situation.
  3. Make an inference.

Easy peasy. I had no complaints. If I’d filled out an evaluation, I would have given the presenter (I love them!) 5 stars and lots of praise for providing teachers with meaningful, tangible PD that they could use the very next day to nudge children along the continuum of skill development.

But I’m Aeriale. I overthink everything. And I just couldn’t let go of a thought that came to me in the middle of the day. I’ve been thinking about it ever since, every day, for nearly a week:

What if the character doesn’t feel how you felt or might feel? Should there be an additional step that asks children to confirm their inferences with text evidence (the character’s behavior, dialogue, facial expressions, etc.)? If there is little or no evidence, do we teach children how to think about other possibilities or tolerate the ambiguity? And, finally, the question I really can’t let go of: What are we teaching children about empathy if we tell them that they can make inferences about a character or a real live person’s feelings based on their own experiences and interpretations? Is making inferences really this simple or am I, as I’m wont to do, overcomplicating this?

Empathy. It’s one of the laudable character traits our school teaches — and uses to select students of the week and month — based on Kristi Mraz and Christine Hertz’s phenomenal book, A Mindset for Learning. Well, most of us teach it. I don’t. (No shade thrown. I have talked with Kristi about this. I love her, too!)

Anyone who has spent any amount of time with me over the last few years knows what I’ve come to believe about empathy. It’s a feeling. Furthermore, it’s a feeling rooted in assumptions because it does not require interaction. Walking a mile in another person’s shoes doesn’t have too much of an impact if you don’t have to walk alongside anyone and you get to trade in said shoes for your own at the end of the journey. Empathy can easily become a form of erasure.

I have begun teaching children to embody compassion instead. Compassion was derived from the Latin word compati, which means to suffer with. Empathy sees injustice and thinks, “How sad! I’d be so broken-hearted if that happened to me.” Compassion shows up in the middle of the storm, remains long after it has passed, and centers the individuals having the experience, giving them space to identify their own feelings and solve their own dilemmas, be their own heroes.

We talk so much about how nurturing young readers helps raise up better human beings who are fully prepared to engage in our democracy. I wonder if this, too, is not a bit more complex than:

  1. Teach skills.
  2. Read books.
  3. Make a better human.

Teaching children the skills of reading — decoding and comprehension — is critical. Reading skills are, after all, thinking skills. If they master the strategies we teach them, children will indeed be readers who get it — inferences and so much more — “right” much of the time. But will those strategies lead them to be the kind of citizens whose life lives, and ultimately those of others, are galvanized by their reading lives if we fail to teach them to dig deeper and see beyond themselves to other possibilities and move beyond empathy to compassion?

In an interview with Education Week’s Larry Ferlazzo, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad talks about the equity framework in her book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy and in it, I found my answer. About Part Four, Criticality, she says:

“Criticality is the capacity and ability to read, write, think, and speak in ways to understand power and equity in order to understand and promote anti-oppression. I define oppression simply as any wrongdoing, hurt, or harm. This can be racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, or any other oppression. In my work, I discuss the difference between lower case “c” critical, which is just deep and analytical thinking. But Critical with a capital “c” is related to power, equity, and anti-oppression. It is helping youths to be “woke” socio-politically. Criticality calls for teachers to connect their teaching to the human condition and to frame their teaching practices in response to the social and uneven times in which we live. This means helping students understand content from marginalized perspectives. As long as oppression is present, students need spaces to name, interrogate, resist, agitate, and work toward social change. This will support students toward being critical consumers and producers of information. It will also help to build a better humanity for all. With each lesson or unit plan, teachers should ask, How does our curriculum and instruction help us understand power, equity, and anti-oppression?” 

When we teach children to read with criticality, we help them understand how power works. Empathy has long been used as a tool of oppression, a way for the haves to wield power over the have nots by “helping” while maintaining control of resources and perpetuating erasure. In fact, many components of the US school system are built exactly this way and, often, for this very purpose.

If we want our children to build a new world order, we have to teach them to consume, ideate, and create with criticality. This doesn’t begin once they learn to decode or when we adults deem them ready. They are already doing it right now, as they read the world and the word.

So let’s ask children to retell, yes. And they should think about how they felt or might feel in a similar situation. But after that, let’s ask them about what they are noticing in the text that might confirm why the character might have the same feelings. Let’s help them ponder what other feelings the character might have. (They might even get these ideas from their peers who have divergent thoughts about the same character.) Let’s talk to them about who has the power to decide how the character, their friend, their family member feels and what happens when we make these decisions for others. And, finally, let’s think alongside them about how the inferences people make, sometimes with false information and biases, impact the past, present, and future.

Or maybe I’m just overthinking. . .



For Black and Brown Boys Who Have Considered Unworthiness When School Isn’t Enough

February 16, 2019

A doe-eyed boy looks down at me, tears streaming down his face. He is slumping in a “teacher chair” in the library. We have migrated there from our classroom where it all began. I am bowed before him on my knees the way Black church mothers supplicate at the altar.

I gaze up at him, my hands clenching the armrests. “What is happening to you, love?” I ask. “Just go away! I hate you! You’re the worst teacher ever. I wish you would move away. Just go to another school!” he replies. And he says it over and over again. I say something like, “I love you. I will never go away. That is non-negotiable.” But mostly . . . I wait.

I wait for him to take a breath deep enough to inhale my unconditional love for him. I wait for his tears to land on my own Black skin, so I can soak up his pain. I am the teacher. He is the student. He, amidst this emotional meltdown, has hit and kicked me. Yet there I am before him, offering up prayers to this Black sun because I know, deep in my heart, that I am the student. And, he, he’s MY teacher.

December 8, 2019

Dear sweet boy,

Your loving, exhausted momma tells me it’s all happening again despite the hard work she did finding a school that was a good fit for you. She’s getting emails and phone calls. You’re “taking a couple of days off” and going into work with her. You’re five years old, yet you’re being pathologized, ostracized, and minimized by people who should instead recognize all that you are, the fullness of your humanity.

I know of a boy who seems a lot like you from what his family shares on social media. He’s a handful and his parents, just like your momma, do everything they can to make sure he receives all the services he needs to navigate the complexities of early childhood and transitioning to “big kid” school. But from where I sit, which is admittedly a great distance, it seems like his teachers help him and his parents out. His teachers seem . . . compassionate.

Rather than being managed, he is co-regulated. Rather than being sent home, he sets goals. Rather than receiving the hard bigotry of high expectations, he is permitted to take tiny steps toward independence.

I wish I didn’t know why this is true. I wish I had to research this disparity and could find an answer that is not your carob brown skin. I cannot. You are a Black sun. And while this means that so many of us will love you unconditionally, there is a throng behind us that will join hands with supremacy and systematically work to dim your light.

I struggle to keep going after writing that sentence. It knocked the breath out of me. I want to tell you that they won’t win, that your light will always pierce through the darkness. I cannot. I’m an optimist, but I’m not a liar.

Your Black body will always be cause for suspicion and the reason you’ll never get the benefit of doubt. While your peers get a “boys will be boys” pass, even for the most egregious behaviors, you’ll be punished for acting your age. Teachers will ostracize you to teach you a lesson without knowing that the learning outcome is, “The student will know and articulate that he is less human than his peers with 100% accuracy.” But, at five years-old, you already know this.

Even if you manage to skirt physical isolation, they will still come for your Black soul. Well-meaning teachers will offer you a hefty serving of empathy and standard English grammar when you need justice and to tell them in AAVE that they ain’t gone call you outside yo name. They’ll offer you Keats, Dickinson, Thoreau, and Shakespeare on a silver platter. And DuBois, Hughes, Morrison, and Baldwin will come on a paper plate, if they’re served at all.

I wish for you to have the greatest teachers. I really do. I want you to be with people whose hearts will burst at the sound of your intoxicating giggle and melt in the presence of your smiling eyes. I want you to have a teacher who knows at least ten things about you within the first few days of school. They should know that you have a cat named after a terrible singer, a huge collection of books with main characters who look like you, and a momma who loves you so much she’s covered a whole section of a wall in your house with heart-shaped affirmations of your worth.

I want you to have someone who will humble themselves, bow beneath you, soak up your tears, and allow themselves to learn from you like another Black boy who was expelled from a number of schools before he came to my class taught me to. But what are the chances of that? Oh, no. We can’t wait on that.

What I’m saying, dear boy, is that school isn’t going to be enough to keep beautiful, Black you intact. You will probably, eventually, have a few good teachers. And though I hope they’ll love you until it sticks, there are no guarantees. That’s why I need for you to pay close attention to what I write next. . .

Your worth does not come from a school. It does not come from teachers. It does not come from your peers. It doesn’t even come from your momma, though she will always be your biggest fan. Your worth does not come from having “perfect” days at school or at home. It comes from your divine presence in this world.

You are worthy of all the good this world has to offer simply because you are. And I don’t mean to get all cheesy on you, but learning to love yourself, just as you are, is going to be the greatest love you experience. It is the love that will bring the love of others to you and sustain you your entire life.

We’re all here for you, to show you how to fall in love with the boy who already has our hearts, not in spite of school not containing you, but because your spirit is so big it cannot.

I love you because you are. You are love.

You are loved,

Ms. Aeriale



Simple Gifts

“A free person retains her power, her right to self-determination, her opportunity to flourish, her ability to love and to be loved, and her capacity for hope. . . I am calling on all educators —those in our classrooms, in our homes, and on our streets — to embrace and to respond to the urgency of our collective need to teach love and to learn freedom.”

-Carla Shalaby

I’ve been off my public writing game for nearly two months. At first I thought it was the busyness of parent-teacher and professional conference season, fall holidays, and just plain old having to teach 19 tiny humans. But when I decided to be honest with myself, I realized that I was struggling with situational depression. I have seen some very dark days in my lifetime. There have been days when I could barely muster enough emotional energy to get out of bed and force myself through a school day. Because “situations.”

This wasn’t that. I wasn’t that sad, which is exactly what made me shrug it off. “Girl, your hair isn’t falling out of your head. No one who you’ve given up your entire way of being for has told you that they ‘don’t have time to be a positive force in your life!’ Get up and go see about those babies.” But that was just it. Seeing about the babies was wearing me down.

Every single day of my teaching life is an act of resistance. My convictions to live and teach with authenticity require me to show up prepared to teach children, yes, but I must also bring my sword and shield so we’re prepared to defend ourselves against the many things that get in the way of our learning from one another. Sometimes all of this makes me so weary that even my copious reserves of energy, patience, grace, and unconditional love get depleted and I cannot find my way.

Most people would have you believe that teaching children of color who experience poverty is hard because of the children. Nope. That’s a lie. (It’s societal systems, including and beyond the institution of school, but that’s another blog post.) The children are a healing oil running down my brow. And I don’t have to ask them for what I need. They don’t say, “Call us if you need anything,” or “Let us know if you want us to drop by, if you need some company.” They just show up, unannounced, with exactly what you need.

On Wednesday, a woman child gave me a simple gift. She left a note in my mailbox that read:

from: D

I Love you


Ticket for Love!

Wait. What?! A “Ticket for Love?” What do I get when I redeem this? 

I had a lot of questions. But I was also enchanted. D got me thinking. . .

I wonder what would happen if I made tickets for love? What if I put a basket of blank hearts out and invited the other children to write tickets for love? What would they do with such a provocation?

I had to know. On Thursday I asked D for permission to share her note with our friends and, with her permission, offered this provocation to the entire class. They too were enchanted. When we asked D how the “Ticket for Love” worked, what happens when the ticket is redeemed, she said that she had been wanting to give me a book she knew I would love and thought the ticket would be a fun way to surprise me.  We wondered aloud together if a ticket had to yield something tangible or if there were other ways of expressing our love for one another, or if we could even ask the recipient what they would like to receive.

After inviting the children to a display where I’d placed blank hearts, Sharpie markers, baskets for holding the blank and redeemed tickets, and the book Everyone Says I Love You, tickets for love started being written immediately. They showed up in children’s personal boxes (and mine) all day.



The love flowing through the room brought us a new energy. Watching the children redeem the tickets for hugs, high fives, words of affirmation and so much more was really a sight to behold.

One man child waited until after the other children departed for the day to place a ticket in his best friend’s box. “I didn’t want him to see me put it in there,” he said. After he left, I violated his seven year-old trust and took a peek:

Dear J,

You’re always it for tag so I’ll try not to.


Your Bro J

And by their love — for me, but especially one another — I was healed. Instantly. Because the children had led me back to the truth, the few simple beliefs that guide my work with them:

I believe vulnerability is the rarely beaten pathway to happiness so I will allow myself to be seen.

I believe children are fully realized human beings who deserve to be treated with dignity and respect so I will listen to them in wonderment and with joyful expectation.

I believe childhood is a unique stage of the human experience that demands mindful presence now, so I will gaze at children with awe and protect their right to experience learning and life as they are, as children, rather than who I hope they will become.

I believe that the world I hope will exist for children grown into adults when all that is left of me is a legacy must be created by them right now in democratic classrooms, schools, and homes that permit children to embrace a radical imagination, and where they do more than learn about freedom and love; they live it.

Being authentic means living our truths. Children are my truth. And it is their simple gifts, even on the darkest of days, that set me free.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

-Joseph Brackett

Filled Up: Desperation & Hope

“Only the creative mind can make use of hope. Only a creative people can wield it.”  ~Jericho Brown

A dear friend recently texted a link to an episode of the On Being with Krista Tippett podcast to me. The episode features poet Jericho Brown. I was struck by so many things he said, but when he talked about the confluence of “love and brutality,” I stopped dead in my tracks. He expounds:

“So I’m interested in where love goes awry or where people use violence as an excuse for love. . . It’s something that I don’t understand. And I think poems are better built out of what we don’t understand, not what we do already know, but what we’re trying to figure out and better understand.”

What am I to make of this dichotomy? Are there other ideas that appear mutually exclusive that actually must coexist? Is poetry a space especially suited for the interrogation of thought? My mind wandered into an inquiry of its own as I listened to this brilliant man speak.

I eventually settled on thinking about dichotomies and whether or not the ones to which we most stubbornly cling might not be false. We Western-minded folks are so quick to create binaries — love and brutality, male and female, black and white. . .desperation and hope — leaving out nuance, thus the possibility of other and yet unfounded realities. But there is an exception: artists.

No matter the raw material, artists lay it in the cradle of their bosom and, through sheer will, nurture it. Jars of paint become masterpieces. Cacophonies become symphonies. Phonemes become morphemes become words become vows. Artists forge meaning out of that which is seemingly meaningless. Where most experience desperation, creative folks find a way to carve out hope and wield it.

A few days ago I posted a manifesto of desperation, Fed Up: A Change Has Gotta ComeI still stand by every word. I carried each one with me as I entered our classroom early this morning to prepare the third teacher for the arrival of the tiny humans. Classrooms are inherently hopeful spaces, though. So I found myself at the confluence of desperation and hope.

Because I am a teacher, I am an artist, a creator. Creative people are uniquely qualified to “make use of hope.” At this merger of my heavy-hearted desperation and the undeniable hope that is found in children and the spaces they occupy, I seized the opportunity to design an environment wherein hope could become a masterpiece, a symphony, a vow of joy unfettered.

When my darlings entered our classroom today, I wasn’t fed up. Instead, I was instantly filled up. Their uncontainable excitement about the changes in our classroom — new books on display, new calendar markers, Halloween decorations, fresh flowers, so many opportunities to notice and wonder — is just the reason why, the only reason, I barrel through the turmoil of teaching.

My students of the past, present and future are how I know that dichotomies are false. All things must exist at once if one is to exist at all. Teaching is both desperation and hope. It is brutality and love. I’m here for it all.


Fed Up: A Change Has Gotta Come

Twenty-one years ago, I naively stepped into a school ready to change the world. There I met a classroom full of rambunctious (and hilarious) middle schoolers with alleged special needs who would challenge me beyond my capacities as a first-year teacher, just barely in my twenties. The job was hard.

Since I was the only special education teacher in the building, I did not have a mentor in this tiny, out-in-the-sticks school. I sought the mentorship of professors and the classroom teachers who had mentored me during my field work. I problem-solved, stayed late — sometimes after midnight — and I somehow lived to tell the story.

I survived, but not without drawing a conclusion: You either have to be a martyr or an idiot to teach. I decided I was the former. I still am.

Don’t get me wrong. I love my job. I cannot imagine a life without teaching. It is my life, the air that I breathe. But every moment that I teach is a sacrifice.

In this country, you simply cannot teach well, really well, without losing, without surrendering so many parts of yourself, and so many of your possessions, that when you walk away for summer, or even just a week, you feel the pangs of emptiness. But you also mourn when it’s time to go back because you know what awaits you. Teaching is like being in an abusive relationship with someone you desperately love.

Does it have to be this way? No. Absolutely not. It’s not the children. It’s not their families. It’s not moral decay or the decline of the “traditional” family unit. It’s the system. It’s society’s expectations. It’s misogyny. It’s racism. This whole gig is a setup.

Anyone who truly wants to impact the lives of children in sustainable ways has to overcome so many obstacles, has to fight so many battles, has to slay so many dragons that, at the end of the day, scarcely anything remains for the people we love outside of our schools, ourselves included. In too many schools, teaching hurts (so good?). And in the places where it’s “better,” the likelihood that I’ll look at my students and see a sea of Black and Brown boy joy and Black and Brown girl magic is negligible. If I cannot teach BIPOC children, I cannot teach. Catch-22.

I don’t mean to be dramatic or depressing. I only mean to tell the truth. My truth. I am so tired of being tired. I am demoralized from expending so much energy and spending so much money to become everything that children need me to be, and continue to acquire everything they need to have, only to arrive at this destination more than two decades later and not be professionally respected enough give it to them.

I’m not calling out any particular school system for which I have worked. It is all of them. The American school system is broken, from sea to shining sea. James Baldwin wrote, “Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” So this is me no longer naive, in my twenty-second year in the profession, facing it.

I have outgrown myself personally and professionally over and over again. I have read. I have studied. I have reflected. I have earned some of the highest honors in the teaching profession. And, still, my job is just as hard in 2019 as it was in 1998. I still seek mentorship. I still stay late. I still problem-solve. These days it’s just a different kind of difficult.

I’m no longer willing to be a martyr. I’m fed up. A change has gotta come!



Those Are Our Treasures

Last Sunday I was in my classroom, rancheras blasting, sorting guided reading books. Our alarm system does not allow us much movement around the school on the weekends. Even though we are all in the same building, we have to text to communicate and walk a long, circuitous route if we actually want to chat face-to-face. It is rare that I see my colleagues at school on the weekend, though I know several of them are there.

When my outer classroom door flew open without warning, I was petrified. I slowly peeked around the wall to discover the San Jose Police Department had sent officers to greet me. I raised my hands in surrender, away from the books. No weapons here. Just a teacher and some books. A female officer of color and her white, male colleague walked into the room and she asked, “Is everything okay? Are you a teacher here?”

I’d pushed the wrong button and failed to disarm the alarm. They were following protocol to ensure that thieves weren’t running off with my miniature rocking chairs and Clorox wipes. We chatted for a few minutes and she finally asked, “What do you teach? This classroom is so cool. . .

I want to learn in here!

I take great pride in designing and maintaining a classroom environment that is beautiful, comfortable, instructive, and, most of all, reflective of the tiny humans I serve each day. I believe that the spaces we create for our students teach them as much, and at times more, than we do about our beliefs about them, the materials we offer them, and what our expectations are at that intersection.

Each year I listen for some confirmation that my efforts are not in vain. I know they are not, but every child responds differently to an environment and listening deepens my understanding of what speaks to them, how, and why. So much is implied by an environment and sometimes children do not make the inferences we intend. Sometimes they do.

Just the other day, as he sat down in the meeting area, one of my tiny human friends glanced at the contents of a beautiful wooden box that looks like a treasure chest that a volunteer gifted us and said, “Those are our treasures,” while grinning from ear-to-ear.  What’s in the box? Books. More specifically, all of those I have read aloud since school began a month ago. These books represent our first tears and giggles, nostalgia from our time together two years ago in kindergarten and the beginning of new memories, our burgeoning individual intellects and our collective soul. They are, indeed, our treasures.

Somehow I managed to disarm the alarm this Sunday. There were no surprise visits from police officers. But as I organized the space — arranging flowers, organizing books, shifting anchor charts — I thought about what the officer said. “I want to learn in here, too,” I thought. Actually, I already have.


If you’re looking for resources to help you think about your classroom environment, I highly recommend thinking deeply about your philosophy of education. Make a list of the values that are your highest priority, then ask yourself how the physical environment reflects and aligns with them. When I cannot find an answer, I know that it is an area of growth for me. The following texts have been essential to my thinking:

Working in the Reggio Way

The Third Teacher