Black & White

Last week, our first full week together, my students and I explored the colors black and white and created gorgeous art using only those colors. It was an intentional instructional move. We will study primary and secondary colors next week. Tertiary colors will follow and on and on. . .until we mix the colors that are us.

When I thought aloud as we explored black and white photography, “I wonder why an artist would choose to use black and white when our world is full of so many colors,” a seven year-old boy said, “When it’s black and white, we know what to focus on. We could get distracted by all the other colors. You don’t know what to look at sometimes when there are a lot of colors.”

The wisdom of tiny humans never ceases to amaze me. Just as his eyes were drawn to the intimacy between Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera and Madiba’s triumphant spirit in black and white photographs, I too have been moved by what I see when I pare down, when I slow down, when I take time.

In these nascent days of the school year, when things are still relatively black and white, I am learning so much about my students — both those I’ve loved and those with whom I’m falling in love. The colors will come with time. Our classroom will become more nuanced and I will probably get lost in the details and lose focus on what is most important time and again. For now, though, I’m thankful that I can see.

As the week wound down, I became anxious to plan equally meaningful experiences for next week, but there was a Saturday commitment looming. I have to renew my National Board Certification this school year and, unlike ten years ago when I lived in bush Alaska, I have access to a cohort of educators with whom I can undertake this challenge. But the first meeting was today. On Saturday. The first Saturday after the first full week of school.

I’m tired. I have a million things to do outside of lesson planning and preparation. I don’t want to travel all the way to Stanford. I don’t want to talk to any humans much less strangers. I don’t want to get dressed. 

I was whiny when I woke up this morning, but something — maybe professionalism, or memories of how overwhelming it was to do it all alone the first time, or the pull of the Universe — something compelled me to will myself out of bed and go to that meeting.

The meeting was pretty standard at first. There were introductions. There was a presentation of slides. We read documents and asked questions. But as we wrapped up for the day and the presenter offered us future meeting options, one of the participants said, “I would like to meet every month. I need you guys. My husband, soon to be my ex-husband, asked for a divorce. He was cheating and now I’m a single parent.” Another chimed in, “I need you, too. I was just diagnosed with Parkinson’s.” She had driven two hours to join us today.

My eyes welled up, but I didn’t let the tears fall. . .

Teachers will barrel through any barrier to improve their craft and reach their students. Teachers are some of the most amazing human beings on the planet.

As I walked away from my new friends, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone living under such harrowing circumstances could find the strength to overcome them and travel such great distances just to be part of a cohort of teachers on a Saturday morning. I thought about this all the way home. And then I remembered what my tiny human friend said,

“When it’s black and white, we know what to focus on.” 

 

.

Upon Their Return

Last school year was exhausting. Gloriously so. I didn’t write as much publicly for many reasons. I was helping children to reclaim their time. I was busy. I was tired. I was thinking.

Zora Neale Hurston wrote, “There are years that ask questions, and years that answer.” In a classroom of thirty-one children with an amazing and overwhelming composition of demographics, strengths and opportunities for growth, I spent the 180 days with my tiny loves deep in inquiry. Three days into this school year I already know that this is a year that will answer.

I began this blog incredibly excited to have the opportunity to teach kindergarten during my twentieth year in the profession. I loved it. We had a great year. But as it was coming to an end, my principal came to me with a request, “I am wondering if you would be willing to teach second grade next year?” Reread the sentence with “overwhelming” above. I. Was. Handpicked. I am a team player. I obliged.

One of my principal’s arguments in her pitch was, “You’ll get to teach your kindergarteners again when they’re in second grade.” She knew how much I loved them. She knew I wouldn’t be able to turn that opportunity down. And upon their return, I am so glad I didn’t.

“It feels so good to be back in here with you.”

“I couldn’t sleep at all last night. I was so excited to see you.”

“When I saw you were my teacher, I was like, ‘YES!'”

These tiny humans, they are my people. They are my heart walking around outside of my chest. We haven’t been in school an entire week yet and our classroom is already so full of love, even for those who are just joining us this year.

I am on a bender again. It’s not a kinder bender. And second grader bender is not as cute. It doesn’t rhyme. But it’s just as intoxicating! I look forward to sharing all the answers this year gives with you here.

Love,

A

To Washington, With Love

One Saturday a few months into last school year, I caught myself smiling as I thought about how completely happy I was at my new school. I was immediately suspicious. Me? Completely. Happy. Completely? Something had to be awry.

I am always blissful in the divine presence of children. Even when they’re driving me insane, as little ones are apt to do from time to time, being with my students brings me deep, abiding joy. I love them. Completely! They are my people.

The list of adults whom I claim, however, is almost always a short one. But something was happening to me at this new school. I was beginning to … enjoy all of my colleagues? Do I actually like all of them? This is strange! I needed to check in with myself. I had to figure out these uncharacteristic feelings. I needed to know why I was beginning to deconstruct the walls I’d so tediously built around myself … brick by brick.

* * *

Brick 1: Hello, Aunt Jemima.

Brick 2: You look so pretty when you straighten your hair. You look like one of us.

Brick 3: The KKK isn’t all bad. They began as a great organization that made strong white men. 

Brick 4: What do you people like to be called these days? Is it still colored?

Brick 5: You’re just a one-woman show.

Brick 6: Check your ego at the door. The people at your school care about children.

Brick 7: I don’t like the way you ask so many questions.

Brick 8: If you want to be on my committee, everything you say must go through me or you keep your mouth shut.

Brick 9: *Did the superintendent really just hang up on me? Did he really just yell at me because I calmly cited research?

Brick 10: You need to get back in the box. You are too far out of the box.

Brick 11: Don’t get too excited about your students’ test scores. They are probably just a false positive.

Brick 12: Okay, I still don’t understand what you’re doing in there, but it works. Your scores are so high. Great job, Arielle! 

Brick 13: *My name is A-E-R-I-A-L-E.

Brick 14: Did Martin Luther King, Jr. even earn a real doctorate?

Brick 15: There’s no such thing as black culture.

Brick 16: She is toxic. She has borderline personality disorder.

Brick 17: *Thank you, armchair psychologist. No, I’m not. No, I don’t. I just find the way you treat children untenable.

I could go on and on … brick by brick, but:

a) I have anxiety-induced asthma attacks and the administrators and fellow teachers who made these comments have already wreaked enough havoc on my body.

b) I could have stopped after the “Aunt Jemima” greeting and have provided enough evidence to prove that when I say that it takes courage, grace, and the patience of Job to show up every day to teach while progressive, black, and female in the midst of such, dare I say it, toxic whiteness and masculinity, it’s the whole damn truth.

* * *

And there it was. My aha moment! Almost every administrator and teacher in my new school is indigenous, black, or of color! Those who are not are allies or accomplices. Is that what this is? Is it possible that all of these years I thought I was mostly (“There’s no such thing as black culture” is pretty clear!) fighting the good fight for my students to receive the progressive, child-centered education they deserve, I should have actually been fighting against anti-blackness? Have I been wielding the wrong weapons all of this time? I texted my principal immediately.

Thank you for giving me an opportunity to work at our school. I’m standing, nearly frozen, in the middle of a sidewalk downtown because I just realized that I work primarily with teachers of color. I have never had this opportunity before. It already feels gloriously different! I know I’ve shared some of my trauma with you, but I think this is going to be okay. I think I am going to be okay. It feels like the next step in my awakening, my decolonization. The first took place in my friend Tiana’s classroom. I wrote about it here. Maybe someday I’ll write a piece called To Washington, With Love.

And so I guess that’s what this is.

It’s a love letter to my dear colleagues who accept me, embrace my eccentricities (even when I come in dressed like the Incredible Hulk because it’s ‘I’ day), and promote a school culture where staff and students alike experience a sense of belonging, just as we are.

It’s a celebration of the joy I have found in your divine presence.

It’s an expression of gratitude for this awakening, this decolonization, this realization of what can be when I can bring my entire being, including my blackness, to work with me.

Your acceptance has calmed me. Your hugs have brightened my days. Your language and culture have deepened my humanity. Your love has healed me.

I love you.

Completely!

You are my people.

Gracias. Soy una persona nueva porque te conozco. Aquí no hay paredes.

Yours,

Aeriale

This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars.

#31DaysIBPOC_BADGE

The Best Teacher Ever

I struggled to find the words to express my thoughts about the most recent (why are there so many of them?) school shooting. I sat in my coffeeshop last night, NYT in hand, and pulled a few words from yesterday’s cover story until I found my voice. The resulting poem follows:

A kindergartener proclaimed
You’re the
Best teacher 
I’ve ever had

Me: (Unflattered
Unimpressed)
I’m the only teacher
You’ve ever had
So why do you think so

Her: (Enamored eyes
Head pressed into my soft belly
Without hesitation)
You protect us
You keep us safe

Armed
With a semiautomatic AR-15
A 19 year-old gunman
Expelled
Had prepared for the
Attack

Students
Huddled in horror
Training cellphones on carnage
That began with a few shots
Then continued

More
Oh my God!
More
Oh my God!

Adults
Dead
Children
Dead
Over and over

Death toll 17

The aftermath
An eerie shrine
Of floors stained with blood

Computer screens
Shattered
with bullet holes

Lives too

Noelle was in history class
The second amendment
Undaunted
Is still there
An unyielding
Eagle perched
On the teachers’ bookshelf

The shooter wore a gas mask
The President tweeted
Thoughts and prayers

Oh my God!
Oh my God!
Why the hell are THEY okay?

You never think
This is going to happen to
You
Then it does

I kept
My classroom door
Locked
Today

I’m the
Best teacher
She’s
Ever had

I don’t
Want to be
The only one

I Still Believe

I left on a jet plane. I know I’ll be back again on Sunday, but I’m not going to let knowing that the hallelujah teacher revival known as NCTE will come to an end damper my spirits. There’s a lot of rightful frustration and negativity surrounding our annual gathering this year. I’ve decided not to let that drag me into the doldrums either. Why? Because. I’m. Totally. Selfish. There. I said it. I NEED NCTE.

I need NCTE for so many reasons, the least of which is not doing some deep thinking and tough self-analysis to hone my teaching. But more than anything, I need NCTE for the same reason I’ve needed it since I began attending the conference a decade ago: I need my people. I need my people to vindicate my beliefs. I need my people lift my spirits and reenergize me. I need my people so that I know I am not in the battle for child-centered, progressive education alone. I need my people to hold my hands as we rededicate ourselves to the cause for all children because, though it gets disheartening to stay the course, I still believe.

I still believe that children become better readers because they spend increasingly more time with increasingly complex texts – both those they read and those that are read to them – and have all the time in the world to talk about them, not because they practice discrete skills through endless mouse clicks. Speaking of those mouse clicks, I still believe that the best way to assess young readers is for a real teacher to sit next to them with real texts and listen. I still believe there is no substitute. I still believe children need teachers who listen and books that speak. I still believe that carefully curated classroom libraries are the most essential component of nurturing lifelong readers and, incidentally, educators living in the opportunity gap.

I still believe that readers are made in the loving arms of other readers. Hence all young kids, but especially those who are experiencing word poverty, need to be read to all day, every day at school. I still believe that oral language is the foundation of all knowledge, but especially all literacies. I still believe that because of this and SO many other reasons, kids need to be provided with authentic opportunities to engage in thoughtful conversation, which means they must have sacred, uninterrupted choice time every single day that teachers guard with their lives. So, yeah, I believe that reading aloud to children and play are intervention!

I still believe that anyone who says they are preparing kids for “the future” while prioritizing their interactions with computers over those with books, repeatedly presenting children with texts where they do not see themselves, and engaging in any practice that suggests that one size fits all – you know, a script – has lost their way. I still believe that anyone who says they value human diversity in all its forms while imposing a narrow definition of success on all children and failing to provide access to the resources needed to achieve that success is fooling themselves. I still believe that our education system as a whole, not necessarily its parts, is colonizing the minds of our children and their families.

I still believe that words do not bring realities into existence no matter how great they sound. I still believe that actions – our collective, everyday ones – are what matter most. I still believe that we teachers, not I or you, who work with children day in and out, are the smartest in the room and ought to be the ones who decide what happens to the kids in our care. I still believe that those of us who fail to think and reflect in the company of others are enacting violence.

I believe all of these things because I believe in children. And I believe children are the truth. I’ve got their backs! The research does, too!

#ncte17, I’m coming for you. I’m coming to get my learn on. I’m coming to get my deep conversation on. I’m coming to get my solidarity on. I’m coming to get my hugs! And, you know it, I’m coming with an empty bag to get me some of dem free books. (Yeah, I still believe in being a teacher vulture, too!) And then I’m gonna go back home with the progressive teacher blues, yet renewed and ready to wage on, beliefs intact.

 

Ten a Day

For more than a decade, since I began teaching the beautiful Native children of northern and western Alaska, I have committed myself to not closing, but living in (more on that later, in another post) the opportunity gap that impedes children who are marginalized from realizing their potential and achieving their personal goals. This has led me to change my philosophy and practices in radical ways.

I believe now more than ever before that the primary difference between children who do well in school, and ultimately life, and those who do not, the one thing that I can personally and dramatically impact during the one year children spend in my early childhood classroom, is their language. Language is everything. It has been used to subjugate some folks and has empowered others. Oral language is the foundation of all other literacies. I often call oral language “instruction” (there are better terms, but I can’t with that right now) the manipulative – the bear counters, ten frames, and base ten blocks, if you will – of the development of reading and writing skills.

If we ignore this critical component, if we don’t deliberately integrate this manipulative into our work with children, we are engaging in malpractice. We are perpetuating violence. I know it sounds harsh, but without the power of words, our precious students are doomed to become casualties of those of us who have mastered them, myself included.

Most teachers are well aware of the thirty-million word gap between children who live in poverty and those who do not Hart and Risley (1995) discovered in their studies. This disparity is, however, rarely considered in most school reform efforts. And when it is, the solutions are too often contrived or too heavily scaffolded without gradual release to make any lasting difference. We measure our success with computerized assessments that test a narrow range of isolated skills, never expecting children to transfer those skills from one context to another. Basically, we do what is easiest, what is expedient, what is best for us. We put a band-aid on a hemorrhaging wound and pass the victim around until it’s no longer our problem. Willfully ignorant, we perpetuate the problem. We are content to enact violence.

Yesterday while chatting with my roommate, a high school ELA teacher, and ranting about I don’t remember what specifically (it’s hard to recall when you feel like you’re in a constant state of rage, ALWAYS ranting about education policies) . . . Oh, I do remember. Cueing systems. I was ranting about teachers only teaching kids to use graphophonic cues to “read” texts. I was telling her how much it frustrates me that we provide the exact opposite of what kids who live in poverty need to experience when they come to school. I was telling her how colonization today is less visible because we are colonizing minds. And, and . . . Anyway, that led me to do some calculations. I landed on the number ten.

I have been teaching for two decades, but I still have so far to go! I have so much to learn. Because of this, I believe in questions. To the frustration of many, I question everything. Everything!

Most people are aware that one of the most important things a caretaker in any capacity can do for children is engage them in read alouds. Teachers (should) do it every day. But, after my rant, I had to ask myself some questions, “are we reading aloud with the urgency and conviction our students who experience word poverty need us to? Do MY practices reflect my beliefs, the very things I’m griping about?”

Though I read, at the least, twenty books to my kids a week, after calculating how many texts a five year old would have had read to them by the time they enter kindergarten if their caretakers read one text to them each day, I decided that I am still missing the boat. I’m not living in the gap.

Ten. That’s the number of texts I should have been reading my kindergarteners each day since the first day of school to even begin to approach meeting their needs. Unfortunately, I didn’t start on August 16, but I will begin fixing that up right now. I am challenging myself to do whatever it takes – read in the lunch line, read while we are in savasana, read all types of texts, sacrifice something less important – to read ten texts to my students every single day.

There are all kinds of nuances to consider and discuss, but I’ll save that for later. For now, I just want to make my commitment public and go on record saying that I believe in the power of books to promote language acquisition and development. I’ll document what happens next – our, mine and my students’, progress and reflections – here on Kinder Bender.

 

Highway to Heaven

Today was the fifty-sixth day of school. During our daily Number Corner mathversation about how many days we have been in school, a woman child said, “hey! I’m noticing something!” as we did a “close reading” of the numeral. She confidently marched up to the front of the room and said, “it looks like when we’re counting. First five, then six. Five. Six.”

“Hmm,” I thought aloud, “I wonder what would happen if we started at one and tried out what you’re thinking.” I scrawled 12 onto the board. “One is in the tens place and two is in the ones place. One. Two. But is that how we read that numeral? What is that?” A chorus of students sang, “twelve.” I kept going. They kept responding. Two, three. Three, four . . . Eight, nine. “Oh dear! If I keep going and write nine and then ten, I’m afraid that numeral is going to be too tricky for us. What are we gonna do?!” I said as I wrote 910.

As I expected, a few kids said that’s ninety-ten. “Do you guys remember the other day when it was the fiftieth day of school and we talked about needing a new column in our place value chart for hundreds when we get to the one hundredth day of school?” I asked. All the tiny heads in the room nodded back at me. “I think we need the hundreds column to help us read this numeral, too,” I suggested. “Let’s see, nine is in the hundreds place. One is in the tens place. And we have zero ones. Hmm . . .” Eyes squinted and fingertips met chins in deep thought across the room.

“I think I wanna give it a try. I think I got it,” a big voice shouted from a little body across the meeting area. “Oh my gosh! YOU’RE SO BRAVE,” I exaggerated. He took a deep breath and said, “nine hundred (another deep breath) ten. NINE HUNDRED TEN!” “WOOHOO! Ooh, chile! You’re a genius. They seriously gave me all the geniuses this year! Is this even kindergarten?!” I exclaimed while doing my signature, five-year old giggles inducing black church praise dance. “Seriously,” another child shouted, “you are so smart. You are so brave. I think he gets five jumps!”

Jumps. These are the kindergarten equivalent of hitting the jackpot. “No, girl, he gets fifteen jumps on the trampoline! Go! For! It!” And boy did he.

This wasn’t on my lesson plan for today. Reading three-digit numerals isn’t even a kindergarten standard. They tell me I should post and articulate a content, behavior, and language standard every day to be an efficacious teacher. I think we did okay today with a few manipulatives and lots of bright, inquisitive five-year old minds. I don’t do what the big people tell me to do. Or even what I want to do. I go where the children lead me. That always seems to be the right destination, the highway to heaven.