Love Justice: School as a Rehearsal for Life

I’m going to begin this reflection with a poem by the American writer, poet, teacher, and political activist Grace Paley. A dear mentor recently introduced me this poem to me and it resonated with my heart in such a visceral way. I’d be humbled if you honored me with a quick read of it. I’ll circle back to it in this reflection, I promise. For this moment, though, please read it and feel.

Responsibility

It is the responsibility of society to let the poet be a poet

It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman

It is the responsibility of the poet to stand on street corners giving out poems and beautifully written leaflets also leaflets you can hardly bear to look at because of the screaming rhetoric

It is the responsibility of the poet to be lazy to hang out and prophesy

It is the responsibility of the poet not to pay war taxes

It is the responsibility of the poet to go in and out of ivory towers and two-room apartments on Avenue C and buckwheat fields and army camps

It is the responsibility of the male poet to be a woman

It is the responsibility of the female poet to be a woman

It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power as the Quakers say

It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the powerless

It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no freedom without justice and this means economic justice and love justice

It is the responsibility of the poet to sing this in all the original and traditional tunes of singing and telling poems

It is the responsibility of the poet to listen to gossip and pass it on in the way storytellers decant the story of life

There is no freedom without fear and bravery there is no freedom unless earth and air and water continue and children also continue

It is the responsibility of the poet to be a woman to keep an eye on this world and cry out like Cassandra, but be listened to this time.

My grandfather was a high school English and theater arts teacher. He taught me to love prose and poetry in a deeply reverent way. He would send me cards with his original haikus and limericks he wrote especially for me. He would send me books full of love poems and Shakespearean sonnets, thinking I was never too young to delve into the complex world of longing and tragedy. I developed a deep appreciation of the written word through his eyes at a young age. A gift I’ve treasured my entire life. My grandmother was a community college philosophy professor. She taught me the love of the spoken word and the art of the circular argument, and most importantly, how to get out of one. She was a trailblazing woman in higher education at a time when women weren’t given their due in academic circles in the 1960s and 70s. She lived through poverty and hardships, losing her first daughter to the state for lack of resources to care for her when she was a baby. She lived through three husbands and dreams lost due to life’s struggles. She was a political activist and an all-around fierce woman. My mother was an elementary school teacher for thirty years. She taught the littlest ones, choosing to begin the first decade of her teaching career in the amazingly complex city of Watts, California through the decade of the 1970s. She immersed herself into the community within which she taught, knowing her families well and looking to know the child, not just the student. An important distinction that’s had a profound effect on my perspective in my own teaching career these past nearly two decades. My dear friend, J, is an amazing human being who I’ve come to think the world of. She’s a colleague, a teacher, and a fierce woman who lives her activist stance in the classroom with her students. I’ve learned so much from our friendship and professional relationship. She is a woman who inspires my daily work. You should know her one day: I hope through my words that you will.

What do each of these human beings have in common, other than the admiration I have for all of them in a deep way? They all fiercely live or lived their truth for the benefit of their students. And, they know or knew something important about the responsibility we all have toward one another. And that, my friends, is what this reflection is about: How do we, as human beings who also happen to be educators, responsibly live our lives in the service of the children who inhabit our classrooms? And for the sake of transparency, I’ll be up front with this truth: I’m going to have an ask of you at the end of this reflection. I hope you’ll do me the honor of considering it.

Let’s revisit Ms. Daley’s words once more and focus in on the parts that profoundly touched my heart and my conscience and made the work that Ms. J did in her fifth-grade classroom all the more profound.

It is the poet’s responsibility to learn the truth from the powerless 

Those with no voice are often powerless. Without power, one has little room for self-liberation, and thus, freedom. Herein lies the tension for me as an educator. I fiercely disagree with the statement that children are powerless. Children are honest and possess a raw truth. Children are wise. Children are our future and I learn more from them each day than I do from most adults. That named, I believe that society has a different truth for children: I see children consistently being talked over, talked around, or talked for. I see children being silenced. I see children’s voice, knowledge and perspective being discounted, discredited, and ignored. You may say to yourself, “Oh no, not my children or my students or the kids I know.” And I agree, not yours. But, in the view of society as a hegemonic structure that seeks to violently protect and maintain the status quo and dodge most attempts at confronting the patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic inequities that pervade its very core, I see this truth about children’s and youth’s positionality alive and well. And, I’ll name this truth, too: it’s violence against children perpetuated by a society that needs to desperately shift in systemic ways. And shift now.

It is the responsibility of the poet to say many times: there is no freedom without justice and this means…love justice

There is no freedom without justice. What does this mean to you? What does freedom mean to you? What does it look like? Is it access and who has this access? Is it choice and who has the right to make choices? Is it opportunity and who has access to opportunities in our society? What does justice look like and feel like to you, especially for children? One can easily recognize injustice, right, but if you were asked to name what justice looks like for children, ALL children, what would you say? Think about this for a moment. Then, think this concept, one I borrow from a wise mentor of mine: the distinction between our realm of influence and our realm of concern. He names our realm of influence as tangible spaces we can effect change and our realm of concern as all the things that we see so desperately need to change but may be out of our control (paraphrasing here, of course). As educators and compassionate human beings, what is within our realm of influence to change so that we edge closer to what we see as just for ALL children? As a classroom teacher, literacy coach, staff developer and educational research for the past seventeen years, I assert this: what is, and has always been, within our realm of influence, is our classroom. This is our true realm of influence where we have the responsibly and opportunity to live our truth as activist teachers. I hope you’d agree with me here.

In her first novel, Go Set a Watchman, Harper Lee asserts, “…it’s always easy to look back and see what we were, yesterday, ten years ago. It is hard to see what we are. If you can master that trick, you’ll get along.” (p. 269). This is tricky, right, seeing who we are today. It takes a steady conscience and spirit of growth to do this challenging introspective work of living our life in revision. I have faith all educators can do this, though, because we come to this work out of a desire to serve children and serve them justly. So, I’ll have you do me this wee favor: ask yourself, “Does my classroom reflect the truths I wish were reflected in our society for ALL children?” If you answered yes, I want to live in your classroom, I want my kid to live in there, too. If you answered no (and thank you for your honesty), why not? What’s giving you pause? I get it. This is hard work. But I also want you to consider this: if not you, then who? If not now, then when? If not for my kid and his trans peers, then for who? What are the conditions within which you’ll find space to begin the process of outgrowing your best self and moving in big ways on behalf of ALL children tomorrow, this summer, next school year?

Additionally, what’s wrong with creating our classrooms in the image of the world we wish we all lived in? What’s wrong with using the space we create in our classrooms as a rehearsal for the things kids are going to confront in their life? The conversations they are going to have? The situations they’re going to navigate on their own? Having a chance to rehearse some of these “life things” in a space they feel valued, trusted, and honored, why not create this space? What’s the problem with this? We should do it, right? We can agree on that at least.

Here’s the tricky part, though: how do we do this? How, you might be wondering, right? I get it, bringing in the identities of our students, perhaps our LGBTQIA identifying youth specifically in the elementary grades, is new to so many of us across the country. I understand that this identity at a young age is new to many educators. Believe me, I understand, I was you once, too. You know something, though. You know who this identity is not new to? The kid living it. His peers. The trans identity, or any identity for that matter, isn’t new for the kid living it. So, it’s our responsibility as adults who love and teach and inspire our kids daily to step up to the responsibility of this deep work and do everything we have in our power to do right by our students. There is no freedom without justice…love justice. We cannot liberate others, but we can create the conditions within which children grow to liberate themselves out of this patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, and transphobic society within which they’ve been born. It is our grave responsibility to create these conditions within our classrooms and school cultures. If not, I’d assert it is violence against children to ignore this responsibly.

There is no freedom without fear and bravery

At the ripe young age of thirty-nine, I acknowledge my positionality in this work is raw and unrefined. Yet, I press on and work through my fear: my life’s work is too critical to spend time in the unproductive space of self-doubt. It takes bravery, tireless work of shedding one’s skin, and revising one’s sense of the world (and a dope crew, I might add). Truthfully, I’ve been fearful every day since my young child emerged to the world as a visible transgender boy nearly a year ago. I’ve lived in the tangible fear of what this means for his daily life and the abstract fear of what this means for his life ahead. Likewise, I’ve seen the bravery of a person triple his age emerge from his very being, that which has accelerated my own daily acts of bravery in myriad ways. If a nine-year-old can find his voice to stand tall for who he is and self-advocate in bold ways, what excuse does a thirty-nine-year-old have for living in fear and not following suit with brave acts? None. So, I have. And it’s been messy and painful and real. But I’ve been fortunate that so many around me have joined me on this journey, too.

With all of this said, I want to make this very concrete. And here’s how I’ve decided to do that for you: with an example of how one teacher lived this truth of fierce bravery as she worked to create the classroom she hoped the world would become one day so her students gained the tools to liberate themselves and seek the freedom she knew was their truth. You may see yourself in her stance and action; beautiful. She may inspire you to take act in bigger ways next school year; amazing. You may not yet see your path in all this; and that’s okay, but please reach out, we’re in this together.

A bit of context, then some analysis, then a few final thoughts.

I’ve been studying with Ms. J and her fifth graders this entire school year, jumping in to try out some of my “literacy research things” and to observe the brilliance that is her teaching. In her classroom recently, continuing my research with her amazing students, I made this statement to her: I believe school is a rehearsal for life. The moment I named this aloud, she steadfastly scribbled it down in her notebook. I paused. I said that statement again in my mind and then realized what Ms. J had been cultivating in her classroom culture, her methodology, and her curriculum all served this exact central purpose: creating a space in the classroom so her students could rehearse life before life was thrown at them so forcefully the next year in middle school and frankly, for the years to come. Ms. J and I had taken on the big task of exploring students’ multiple identities through the methodology of the interactive read aloud across the school year. She knew the power of a good book, knew the way to plan a dope read aloud, knew the way to facilitate a deep conversation among her students, and most importantly, she knew when to refrain from speaking to enable her students to take ownership over conversations (each of these talents were learned over time and are areas I intend to explore in future writings). With this foundation well established in her classroom, she and I decided to tackle one more read aloud and one more identity before the year’s end: that of a transgender child through our exploration of Alex Gino’s George during her daily interactive read aloud.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel” are famous words spoken by the legendary poet, writer, actress, and activist Maya Angelou and they encapsulate how it feels to be a member of Ms. J’s classroom culture. So, when Ms. J began reading George and realized many of her students, actually most, had never really explored or talked about the trans identity in their lives before, we knew it would be a huge opportunity and more importantly, critical responsibly for she and I to facilitate her student’s ability to talk about the trans community in a respectful and knowledgeable way. We looked at it as a bit of a rehearsal for life so when her students immerged into the world and became friends with future trans middle and high schoolers or found themselves chatting it up with a trans person on the weekend at the local coffee shop or skatepark, they’d have some decent practice at using respectful language and respecting the identity as one of the myriad diversities of life that the trans identity is. To borrow a sentiment from George’s author, Alex Gino, “I don’t care if cisgender people understand what it’s like to be trans. I want them to respect it.” As a mother of a young transgender boy, I agree. While I’d love for the world to understand what it’s like to be trans, they won’t truly ever understand. So, I spend my time working toward the goal of folks respecting, honoring, and privileging his identity through their words and their actions.

Ms. J tackled this rehearsal for life work in a myriad ways, but I’ll outline three key ways she accomplished this through the power of reflection: reflecting upon ways to talk about the book through the author’s own suggestions, creating conditions within which students could reflect on their immerging questions through the written word (channeling my grandpa here…), and a space for her students to process their thinking through the power of the spoken work in conversations (channeling my grandma here…).

Reflections Through a Study of How to Talk about the Book George:

Ms. J, in seeking ways to gain knowledge about an identity she was admittedly less familiar with, sought out resources to educate herself and in so doing, found resources that she could use to give context and content to her students. One of many of these resources was an article author Alex Gino wrote to accompany their book that had suggestions on how to talk respectfully about the book and the characters within: it addressed how to talk about pronouns, the name of the main character, how to refer to her identity, and so on. This was all amazingly important information that informed the moves that Ms. J made in setting up the context of the book for her students. But, this is not what stood out to me, as a consultant, researcher, and honestly, observer in awe of her amazingness and that of her students. Here’s her simple, yet powerful statement that stood out to me and created the most critical context for the work at hand. Ms. J said to her students, before beginning chapter one, “It’s important to know how to be respectful in addressing others and how they want to be addressed. We’re going to learn about it in George and then shift it into our real world.” Right there. Did you catch that subtle statement? I bet you did. If not, I’ll name it for you, “…then shift it into our real world.” This. This is critical: naming the why in everything we do as teachers. It honors our students in the fact that we respect their ability to understand the reasoning behind why we choose to spend our time on a thing in class while also sending the clear message that all we do in the classroom can be and should be applied to the real world outside our four walls. Simple, right? Ms. J was using her classroom as an incubator for life: enabling her students in a safe, supportive, respectful environment to explore unfamiliar ideas and gain knowledge and tools for talking about them, so when game time came in real life, they’d have preparation on how to tackle the real work of respectfully interacting with and respecting trans folks in their life. I imagine most students may not be having these conversations around the trans community in other realms of their lives, so the context of the safe classroom environment, where their voice is honored and growth mindset is encouraged, is one ideal place this big work to happen. And big it is, indeed because ask yourself this: when did you learn to talk respectfully about the trans community with socially accepted terms in an informed way? In fifth grade? Nope. Probably when I did, in this last year; or perhaps you’re ahead of me, or perhaps you’re seeking to join me. Wherever you find yourself on this spectrum, we can all agree the classroom is a beautiful place for our rehearsal for life, right?

Reflections Through the Written Word: Stop & Jot and The Silent Conversation

Ms. J did two things to encourage students to process their understanding of the book, the main character Melissa, and their growing understanding of the concepts of transgender people. First, she had students bring a notebook with them to the meeting area during the read aloud. They jotted ideas as she read along and she also paused at key spots in the book or noticed when they reacted to something and created space for them to process their ideas in their notebook. This teaching methodology aligns with a Balanced Literacy and workshop approach to the teaching of reading and writing. Many of you are well-versed in this methodology to encourage your students’ thinking to grow in reflective ways. If this is you, nice. If this resonates with you and you’d like to jump in as Ms. J did, do it.

The second thing Ms. J did to encourage her students to process their immerging thinking during the interactive read aloud of George was the technique of the silent conversation. For example, at the end of chapter one, Ms. J had her students grab a piece of loose-leaf lined paper and consider this open-ended question: “What are you trying to figure out right now?” Students jotted their ideas at the top of the paper. They then passed this paper to the student to their left. They were now instructed to read their peer’s idea and then add onto that idea, perhaps to clarify, add onto, respectfully disagree, push their thinking further, and so on. This cycle of pass, read, and respond went along until each student got their original paper back. They then read all the responses to their original idea to process it further. This was a great formative assessment for Ms. J and I to notice what students were tackling in their understanding so we could respond to and imbed these ideas across the coming days of read aloud.  Most powerful, though, was to have a space in the classroom for students to voice their ideas through the written word and to have these thoughts metaphorically heard by their peers and responded to in multiple responses. Those who have voice have power. Those who hold power gain tools for their own liberation. The more students have the opportunity in a classroom to have their voice heard, honored through thoughtful responses, and made to feel they are a valued part of a community that seeks to learn from their perspective, the more their stance as having agency over their own personhood is reinforced. Overtime, this becomes the foundation within which the tools of liberation emerge. That’s powerful.

Reflections Through the Spoken Word: A Grand Conversation

Ms. J did multiple things to encourage an open dialogue around immerging understanding of the concepts imbedded within the book George, two of which I’ll highlight here. First, she designed her read aloud to incorporate many opportunities within which students could pause and chat with a partner to clarify ideas on their mind and ask questions of the partner, all serving the purpose of processing thinking publicly with a peer.  Honoring students’ voice by creating space for them to bounce ideas off one another as a way of processing new information is incredibly respectful of the social nature of learning. The one doing the talking is the one doing the learning research has found. If kids are talking, they are learning. The more we embed purposeful places for talk to occur, the more our students are rehearsing for the life work of processing the world around them.

Secondly, she had students build upon one another’s thinking in a whole class grand conversation at the end of the chapters. This enabled the cross dissemination of ideas among all her students. She astutely framed the context of this with this statement, “We are going to talk respectfully about the characters so we can respectfully talk about it in life. You are good character watchers, so we’re going to put what we learned from the book and bring it into life.” She and I were also able to hear all the comments being made and interject with ideas if needed. Mainly, though, her students facilitated the conversation, added onto one another’s thinking, respectfully disagreed when needed, and had a space to come to a larger shared understanding of the information immerging in the book. In essence, if her students are good character watchers in books, perhaps they’d be good people watchers in life, too. If they are well-versed in talking about the trans identity with the characters in a book in the classroom, they might become well-versed at talking respectfully with trans people in the real world, too. A rehearsal for life, right?

Love Justice

If we can imagine the realm of influence we have, and as educators we can agree that our classrooms are the most powerful places we have influence over, wouldn’t it make sense to live our beliefs in action in these spaces? Wouldn’t it make the most sense if we want for our children better than we had for ourselves, better for our students than what we had as students, better for our society than it deems to offer to us today, that we’d begin to or continue to disrupt these systems that lead to inequitable outcomes for many vulnerable populations of children, including my son and his trans peers? In her poem, Responsibility, Grace Paley introduced me to a new concept that is going to guide me in big ways in the way within which I position my life’s work: love justice. I want the world to be just for ALL children and I think a big part of this work comes through love. I steadfastly believe that love is a verb: it is not enacted through words and sentiments but through actions. I ask myself this question daily, “Are my actions toward others conveying the deep love I have for them? Do they feel my love in actionable ways that honor their voice, empower their position in the spaces we occupy together, and respect their perspectives in authentic ways? Do all students see themselves in the fabric of their classroom tapestry? Do we provide curriculum that incorporates the multiple identities that walk through our classroom doors day in and day out, year after year?” These are big questions. I sit with them. I hope you sit with them, too. I still live in the fear, I know you probably do, too. But, I welcome you to join me in the brave, too. It’s the only way we move forward.

So here is my ask of you, the question I hope you consider this summer as you rejuvenate your spirit and imagine the students that will inhabit your classroom community next year: “Are your actions toward your students conveying the deep love you have for them? Are you living your goal of love justice for ALL of your students?”

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Published with permission from an educator ally, who is also a mother of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C

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