Seven

Language.

Language holds weight; immense weight, in fact. Words have the power to communicate ideology and shape world view. The words we use matter a great deal. The words we remain silent about and refrain from using also matter a great deal; their absence sends a message of denial of reality often times. So recently, when I found out a word that describes my young child’s identity, a beautifully glorious and complex identity that he’s brilliant enough to know describes his personhood as a transgender person, emerged as one of the seven allegedly banned or eliminated words that our country’s largest health agency, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the Center for Disease Control (CDC), had been allegedly communicated to that they were “forbidden” or “banned” or urged to “rephrase” or “eliminate” from using in their official documents, it felt surreal. For more specifics on this unbelievable newest unfolding assault on some of the most vulnerable people in our country, read this original article from The Washington Post here  and some of these follow up articles from other news outlets attempting to decipher the specifics of what is truly happening in this unfolding reality (here and here and here and here). Honestly, I’m really still in shock and cannot fathom the reality that there might truly be an attempt to ban or eliminate the use of or rephrase particular words, phrases and language from our government’s vocabulary, essentially preventing their ability to mindfully communicate about everything from budgetary considerations to potentially critical research that could save lives, lives that could be my child’s trans peers, even my own child one day. I have no words to express the thoughts spinning around in my mind and heart, except, well, these seven, which I want to shout at the top of my lungs to anyone who is willing to center space for me (sorry fellow writers at my local coffee shop right now, perhaps you will all bear witness to the words I want to be heard by everyone, of every age, of every identity…):

Transgender

Vulnerable

Diversity

Entitlement

Fetus

Evidence-based

Science-based

As I continue to process what this means, for a family like mine, for a kid like mine, one thing I know for sure, is the more we talk about topics that folks want to avoid, the more we engage in dialogue around the concepts that grown adults find themselves too timid to address in any real ways often times, the more we read inclusive books that year after year end up as the most “challenged” or “banned” books on lists across this eternally complex nation (link here), the more we push back against a narrative of hatred and bigotry.

Sometimes We Take Action in Dialectic Ways.

It is with this line of thinking that I want to propose something to you, my fearless accomplices in this work of fighting, with every molecule of power we have, for educational justice for all of our beautiful children.

Talk about it.

Talk about it ALL.

Engage in dialogue about all of these words and concepts, with all the language that is now in question from our government to even ink out on official documents for alleged political purposes.

We’ve power to do this; we’re creative and eternally innovative.

If you’re looking for a way to do this, let me shine light onto one pathway that a compassionate teacher, Ms. J, and I, as her steadfast educator colleague, researcher, and friend of the classroom, went about engaging in conversations with her 5th graders at her Title 1 school in our local big city recently. Ironically, Ms. J and I engaged in this work, work that I’ll illuminate with the most clarity I can describe, the actual morning The Washington Post first publicized this unfolding news, unbeknownst to us at the time. I’m going to sit with that reality for a moment; I invite you to sit with that, too: on the same day of this newest potentially shameful news, young minds were engaged in revolutionary work to push back against the very thing the alleged ban was centering. And you know what? That’s the power of our work as educators: we powerfully center justice. Always.

That’s What Researchers Do.

Ms. J and I have been engaged in anti-oppressive critical literacy work with her 5th graders over the past two school years, unpacking conversations with her students that center notions of identity, privilege, power, and oppressive structures that often seek to render many of our incredible children invisible. We often find ourselves in conversations with students about critical concepts, including racism, sexism, and class; big concepts that find themselves woven artfully into the inclusive texts we read alongside her students. As an emergent researcher (read: trying to figure out this newest layer to my identity as an educator), I’ve been very interested in the construction of knowing lately. I’ve been thinking tons about how children construct their thinking and the ways they go about figuring out the big things of life. Ms. J, in her eternal desire to make her curriculum inclusive, was recently talking to me about upcoming research units, in both reading and writing workshop, which she wanted to create. As we discussed some initial ideas for the units, it struck me how we were attempting to create curriculum in a vacuum of sorts, without actually knowing what her students were interested in figuring out. As we’ve been engaged in work around concepts that unpack racism, sexism, and class, we thought it would be really important to consider where her students were with these concepts.

I want to make a distinction here for a moment. We were interested in what her students had to say, not to merely complete some sort of nod to the act of asking kids what they know and want to know (ala the old “KWL” charts of my early teaching career 18 years ago), all the while, having the unit already built, so their ideas really would not have the opportunity to take center stage in the creation of the unit. We were truly interested in hearing what their growing knowledge was of these big concepts so we could craft a unit around that thinking, craft a unit with them at the center.

Inquiry Process We Gave A Go.

Two initial things we did to begin this inquiry that Friday morning recently. First, we wrote three questions on the board to frame what we were asking Ms. J’s students to consider:

  1. What do you already think you know? (Critical to frame this as initial thinking, not fact and truth; a starting point to build off, really.)
  2. Where did you get your information? (Critical to find out where students are getting their thinking. What are their sources, are they reliable, are they local, and how can we crowdsource what youth are already accessing to build off of?)
  3. What are you wondering? (Critical. We want to truly know what students are curious about, what moves them to seek more information about, and how their minds are building and synthesizing information and building upon prior knowledge. This personalizes the inquiry in an authentic way.)

Second, we wrote three words on charts so we could document Ms. J’s students’ thinking and build upon it across the unit, across the year, across our conversations that circled back to these big concepts.

We started with the concept of racism, then moved to sexism, and finally concluded with class. The process we tried follows below.

  1. An ask. (What do you already think you know about the concept?)
  2. A moment to process. (Turn and talk with your thinking partner about the concept.)
  3. A share. (Moment to crowdsource and document their ideas on the chart.)
  4. An ask. (Where did your get you information?)
  5. A moment to process. (Turn and talk to your thinking partner about the places you’ve accessed to figure out ideas around this concept.)
  6. A share. (Moment to crowdsource and document their ideas on the chart.)
  7. A final ask. (What are you wondering about?)
  8. A moment to process. (Turn and talk with your thinking partner about what you’re wondering about the concept. What questions are on your mind as we go forward?)
  9. A share. (Moment to crowdsource and document their ideas on the chart.)

We repeated this process three times, once to build out their thinking for each of the concepts often centered in the inclusive texts we read: racism, sexism, and concepts around class. The beauty, though, of this process was in the kid thinking revealed, partnership conversations had, and the experience of creating space for kid thinking to take center stage in the classroom (and for the two adults in the room to sit back and bear witness by hearing, clarifying for scribing purposes, and be present in the moment of inquiry).

Kid Thinking is the Very Best. The VERY Best.

What follows is Ms. J’s 5th graders’ thinking for each big concept during the inquiry. Take a moment to process each, including their original thinking of concepts in blue, their sources in green, and their wonderings in black. It’s breathtaking thinking, through and through. Ms. J and I believe this process can be used to create units that center what social scientists do as researchers, as well as to create units that center social studies, science, and literature content. It’s a transferable process to center our work of creating inclusive curriculum that includes the thinking of the kids in front of us: their thoughts, their wonderings, their passions.

Racism

Kids’ initial understanding of the concept of racism.


Kids’ sources for their understandings of racism.


Kids’ wonderings about the concept of racism.

Sexism

Kids’ initial understanding of the concept of sexism.


Kids’ sources for their understanding of sexism.


Kids’ wonderings about the concept of sexism.

Class

Kids’ initial understanding of the concept of class.


Kids’ sources for their understanding of class.


Kids’ wonderings about the concept of class.

Possibilities of Pathways Forward.

Here’s the beautiful thing about our profession, friends: we’ve not control over everything in the global world, but in our local world, we’ve some power and influence to make decisions, decisions that center inclusive and equity-seeking practices that center our pursuit for educational justice for all children. Children like mine might now find the word they’ve mindfully chosen to describe their very personhood potentially now on the list of allegedly banned or eliminated words and phrases that their own government is perhaps questioning their use of in official documents. This is a shameful reality, one I am still seeking to reconcile alongside some of the most revolutionary work I’ve seen educators engage in to disrupt these oppressive systems that seek to erase the very personhood of so many of our precious youth across this country.

So, friends, I’ll let you in on a little knowledge that I’d love for you to sit with, process, and then go forth and see yourself in, in all the spaces you share with the glorious children in your life. You know that process I mentioned above, the one that supported Ms. J’s students in unpacking some big life concepts that we found centered in the inclusive texts we’ve been reading? The one that enabled them to collaboratively co-construct thinking together and enabled us a beautiful window into kid thinking? We’re going to shift the plans we had for our time together tomorrow and instead, seek to replicate the process of inquiry around critical concepts again. But this time, we’ve new words to choose from. Yep, a whole new list of beautiful words to center. (Tomorrow’s concepts: diversity, entitlement, and transgender person, some terms already on the kids’ minds we work alongside and learn so much from. More to come in the next post…stay tuned, fellow justice-seeking family…)

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Published with permission from two educators and parents in our advocacy network; all classroom photos under ownership of the two educators.

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