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





A Love Stance

“Ms. J, you have a love stance!”

I was trying to help my students understand what it means to assume a particular stance as they prepare to read a particular type of text. I explained it briefly and then said,

“Ms. J has a way of seeing children that helps me decide what to do when I’m teaching you every day. If I don’t say to myself, ‘This is the kind of teacher and person I am. This is what I believe about children,’ I might not see you or the situations we find ourselves in each day the way I truly want to when things get tricky. I wonder what kind of stance I have. . .”

I imagined my students might say that I care about kindness and holding them to very high standards academically and behaviorally. And they did. But I was taken aback (I literally took a step backward) when my tiny human friend told me that love is what he sees in me as we grow together each day.

I am replete with faults. There is not a day that goes by that I don’t say to myself, “I really messed that up.” I recently read an article that said that current research indicates that elementary school teachers make an average of 1,500 decisions each day. How can I not fail at something despite my intentions to be the Mary Poppins of educators under that kind of pressure?! But I try. And my impact on this little boy’s life is clearly aligned with my intentions. Thank goodness!


Earlier today I was scrolling through Facebook and came across a post from a high school friend. He’d made an observation that most of the people he comes across who say that their parents spanked them and they still turned out okay are actually not okay. There were several interesting comments on his post and I decided to chime in.

(In full disclosure, I do not have any children of my own. I have been actively involved in the lives of several children of friends and family, including caring for them full-time in the absence of their parents. I have also been a teacher for more than half my life. This year is my twenty-second in the classroom.)

In my comment, I wrote about how long I had been teaching, the overwhelming number of children I had worked with (100+ when I was a high school assistant band director), and how I had never had the desire to use corporal punishment to discipline my students because those who struggle with behavior do not need violence. Children who fail to make the best choices in any context are first and foremost children, who by their very nature are in the process of learning how to navigate their way through a very complex world. What said children need most of all is relationship. They need LOVE.

It seemed easy enough to offer my two cents and move on with my day. But another teacher commented. Hours later, I cannot stop processing what she wrote. According to her, the foundational problem in education, the reason she has lost all control in her classroom, is because so many, though definitely not all, school systems and states have banned or outlawed corporal punishment.

Wait. What?! You want to hit your students? 

My heart is still somewhere on the floor of my bedroom where I was when I read her comment. That there are people who think like this teaching our most precious and vulnerable resource is unbelievable. And heartbreaking.

Children are the epitome of all that is right and good in this world, the embodiment of our dreams for ourselves and our hope for humanity. Everything that is to come is being nurtured in the wombs of their hearts and minds right now. And you want to hit them? Because YOU feel out of control?

Which ones will you hit? For what reasons will you hit them? How often will this happen? How hard will you hit them? What object will you use so that you yourself do not feel the pain you are inflicting? I have so many questions, but I have known this person since high school and suspect posing them would be fruitless. I have to expend my energy within my sphere of influence.


Our job is to guide children to their power, not wax nostalgic about the “good old days” when educators could abuse their power and enact violence against them. As Frederick Douglass wrote, “It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken (wo)men.” The only force in the world that builds strong children is love. Embracing love is also the only way any of us will ever feel in “control.”

Though I be but one little teacher, my love for children is fierce. I am so thankful that the students whom I am fortunate enough to have in my care find this love in me despite my imperfections. They make mistakes, too, even after they have grown beyond them. I love them still because that is what love is. . .

“All of me loves all of you. You give your all to me, I’ll give my all to you. . .”

“Ms. J, you have a love stance!”

Yes, I do, my darling. And I love you. . .

Noticing and Noting

Today I taught my students how important it is to write stories that really matter to us. “Stories that are important to us will move our readers because we will write with passion and conviction. I’ve been wondering if we used what we notice and note in the stories we read — if we used the signposts during writing time — that would help us find stories that really matter to us,” I told them.

“A long time ago,” I began my “signpost” story, “Ms. J didn’t have an afro. My hair was long and straight.”

They were floored. How could you just be revealing this to us when so many of us have been with you for so long? This is an important detail, Ms. J! How old were you? It was as if I’d failed to tell my very best friends my deepest, darkest secret. . .

“I had been thinking about growing out my natural hair for a very long time, years, but I was afraid. I hadn’t seen it since I was a child and my grandmother decided she was tired of combing it one summer. She let her sister convince her that a relaxer was what what I needed. I wasn’t sure what it would look like, so I hesitated. But, as fate would have it, one summer I was going to college (I was actually doing a summer seminar with a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, which is basically ‘going to college’ to seven-year-olds.) and my suite mate was a beautiful Gambian woman with an afro so beautiful it looked like a crown. One day I told her how much I liked her hair and how I wish I had the courage to grow mine out. That’s when she told me her hair story. She cut her hair very short, then shaved! her! head! And, you guys, you won’t believe what she said when she looked at herself in the mirror! She stared into her eyes and said, ‘This is the first time I have ever seen you, my face. I didn’t know you were beautiful.’ I could not believe she did not know she was beautiful not only because she was, but also because she had won beauty pageants. She was a beauty queen and she didn’t know she was beautiful. I immediately realized I did not have a choice. It was time to meet myself. I knew what I had to do. . .”

My students were riveted as I showed them photographs of my transformation from colonized hair to the powerful crown God gave me. I wasn’t sure it was working, that such tiny humans would be able to transfer what I was doing to their own work. But as children have been wont to do for the past twenty-two years, they showed me once again that they are the truth. I wasn’t prepared.

“I’m writing about a difficult question. My mom asked me if I wanted to move schools and I chose to stay here with you,” one of my former kindergarteners told me.

Another with a chronic illness said, “I’m writing about the day the doctor finally figured out what was wrong with me. It was an aha moment!”

“I had an aha moment the day my great grandmother died. I’m writing about that,” an old soul in a seven-year-old body told me.

As I walked about to confer with them, one child after another told me with clarity and brilliance what they were doing as writers. I couldn’t believe it, but I also could. Because. . . Because children are the most incredible beings. They are the perfect fusion of truthfulness and fearlessness. They just are.

As I think about the journey from “I went to the Santa Cruz boardwalk and it was fun” stories fourteen days ago to the stories they began to craft today, it all comes down to teaching children to pay attention to what is essential, ask questions about those things, and still more until we find our truths, however slowly. Children do not need their instruction scaffolded until they become helpless to find their own way. They need “stances, signposts, and strategies,” as Dr. Kylene Beers and Dr. Bob Probst wrote, to help them see the world (which is itself a text Freire taught us), notice its details, and name them, so that they can use that knowledge to construct their own knowledge and worlds.

As one of my students wrote to Kylene last year, “I am so. . . happy you found a aha moment is a thing because if it wasn’t a thing I wouldn’t be thinking that hard when I read my books. . . Thank you for thinking really hard. Sincerely, B”

Same, mija. She’s (and Bob, of course) got me thinking really hard, too!

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.



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.


You are my people.

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



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.


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
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

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

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

Oh my God!
Oh my God!

Over and over

Death toll 17

The aftermath
An eerie shrine
Of floors stained with blood

Computer screens
with bullet holes

Lives too

Noelle was in history class
The second amendment
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
Then it does

I kept
My classroom door

I’m the
Best teacher
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.