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Labels

What would you say to me if I asked you these questions: What shelf do you belong on? in the grocery store? in a clothing store? on a toy aisle? If you had to place yourself upon a shelf anywhere, where would you belong?

I invite you to linger on these questions for a moment, a long thoughtful moment. Consider your answer or better yet, if you’re feeling it, tell me to go fuck off. Yep, you read that correctly. Read it again, if you’d like.

You may be wondering why I would invite you to tell me that, to go fuck off. Essentially, because. Really, because two things center for me in the discussion surrounding labels, words, language: (1) if someone asked me these questions, I would think (and maybe even be brave enough to actually tell them) to go fuck off, that labels are creating a world where our youth see suicide and self-harm as an option better than enduring their young realities of violence, discrimination, and invisibility, and (2) I’m going to explore the power of language with you in this piece, mainly because one ten-year-old and one eleven-year-old brought me to my knees recently in their profoundly wise assessment of the eternally complicated world within which we find ourselves living.

One thing you should know about me if you don’t already, is that I hold the belief that language has only the power of weight we impose upon it. So, I swear. A lot. And, I’m unapologetic about it. Swear words often precisely communicate what I want to say, actually. So naturally, why shouldn’t the language I use in my life make its way onto the page I write upon? Why shouldn’t I use the precise words and language, that evoke the ideas I want to communicate with you, in the way I want to authentically write them? Because it’s not academic, not scholarly, not appropriate if one wants to convey a serious point? Fuck that. And, just to be clear, one can say or write with swear words and still communicate ideas that hold weight, that are thoughtful, and poignant, and profound (not that I claim mine will be or have ever been, just that a swear word used to communicate an idea, used purposefully, does not negate the validity of one’s message). I’m here to add a data point to your world, and even though I intend to swear throughout this piece and if you still choose to read on knowing this fact, I will attempt to communicate something profound. Again, if you told me to go fuck off, I’d smile at you because I’d know our conversation was real.

And one more critical thing you should know about me: I hold the belief that equity work, of any kind, should never be monetized. Ever. The equity work I’ve been engaged in since 2016, has never enabled me to put food on the table for my two young boys and me. The work I do, and if you follow anything I’ve written for the past two years here on this site, has been centered because it’s the only thing I can do to actively work against a cissexist world that would render my firstborn invisible and non-existent in the world around him. I do the work I do, seeking pathways forward toward educational justice for all children, our youngest children, because doing nothing is not an option. Standing idly by is not an option. Participating in a culture of silence towards the trans youth of our nation is to actively choose to be an oppressive force toward children. To profess you stand for socially justice ideals and then to choose to be complacent, doing nothing to seek to live an anti-oppressive, ethically and morally just life, both personally and professionally, is to live a reality of hypocritical proportions. Fuck that, but I don’t need to tell you that truth; you already know it. So, I choose action. I choose never to monetize equity work on the shoulders of youth who’ve powerful voices that adults rarely hear. I choose to live life in constant introspection, growth, revision. I choose to live messily, unabashedly, without self-doubt, and in constant self-checking to outgrow my often inexperienced missteps because of my unknowing and painful growth.

The Journey Project has always been a place that centers on equity and inclusion, provides spaces for multiple kids and adults’ voices to be amplified, stories to be shared, and resources to be freely accessed for those who seek the support, knowledge, and community.  In this vein, I will bury something important in this writing piece. Those of you that follow along with the journey, the activist educators that seek to create emancipatory spaces in your classrooms and schools, will find this important thing I’m about to share. I know you’ll read through it below, carefully and mindfully see your entry point into it or expand upon your already expansive work, and allow it to spark an idea in your world. I trust you to use the growing notions I’m sharing mindfully, with the utmost care for the children in front of you that we tirelessly advocate for on a daily basis. For everyone else, I choose to use the word bury because what I’m about to share with you, something that I’m terrified to have live and breathe in the world, scares me to no end because I don’t want it to do more harm than good. You agree that once something’s been inked and released into the universe, it grows a life of its own, to be used in any which way folks interpret it to be used. So, in that regard, I urge you not to do anything I write below. Not to try an ounce, even a drop, of what I write unless you find yourself living a reality of conditions that I’ve found make this work of inclusion possible. Folks have told me to monetize, to capitalize on the notions I’m going to communicate below, but I’ve said to them, and continue to say to them, fuck that. My important thing? My thoughts on pathways forward, thoughts that have been developing over nearly twenty months of inquiry, research, travel, and hearing the children of this nation cry out, speak up, and tell their truths. I may be right, I may be wrong, I may have missed something big and important and critical. But you know what, that’s why the work below will remain unfinished, ever-growing, revised in my mind on a weekly basis. Before we get to that which I seek to bury, first, I’ll provide some recent context centering the oppressive ideology surrounding labels, and then, some pathways forward.

Language

Words. Language. Communication.

In essence, the words we use, the language we construct, the labels we create; they all mean nothing. Nothing. Nothing at all. The only weight a word possesses is the value we place on it, the meaning we give it, the power we allow it to have over us and toward those around us. However, in our cultural construct, essentially the arbitrary set of notions we’re all socialized to believe hold value, coupled with our human need to communicate our thoughts, feelings, needs, wants, desires, fears, and dreams, the words and language we use to communicate our ideas mean everything. Everything. Especially to our children and youth.

Language holds power. It has the power to include, to amplify, to divide, to render someone silent and powerless and invisible.

Language evokes ideology. It reflects, in a diversity of forms (verbal, written, signed, and so on) our mental model of the world, our belief system of values, and morals, and ethics.

Language shapes ideology. It communicates these constructs of our mental models of the world, our belief system of values, and morals, and ethics to those around us. And, if you’re honored enough to be adults who walk the path of life with children in any fashion, as parents, guardians, family members, educators, coaches, community members, the language we use shapes the ideological underpinnings of the youth around us.

In an attempt to understand how ideology and constructs of language are formed, I’ve been hearing kids and their teachers for nearly twenty months, in public schools across this nation, as they seek to expand the minds and hearts of their students. I’ve journeyed alongside one particular educator, Ms. J, because she epitomizes everything an activist, socially just educator should: she’s a transparent learner herself, making visible her process of understanding the world so her students can see a model of how one might live a life in constant pursuit of growth. She’s humble and honest, taking ownership over her missteps or unknowing or own growth as a learner, communicating to her students when she doesn’t know something or gets something wrong. She believes in the power of a dialectic space, where students negotiate the co-construction of knowledge through dialogue, respectful conversations of dissent, and hear one another’s points of view, debating ideas and not people’s personhood. She trusts her students, centering the reality that they come to her classroom with immense knowledge, understandings, and experiences. She centers these in her curriculum and classroom culture, knowing that making learning relevant to the learners in front of her is foundational. She knows her content, her methodology, and her kids inside and out. And, above all, she co-creates a classroom space that is safe, inclusive, and privileges student voice, agency, and choice. She is who I seek to be when I grow up. I hope you see yourself in her, as I hope to one day myself. She creates a living and breathing reality within which the conditions are ripe to explore and privilege this work of inclusion in the classroom, and she does it so very well. This is why, on a weekly basis for months and months and months, we have inquired together. And why, for months now, we’ve begun to share some of our emerging thinking with educators at schools and conferences, both locally and nationally.

I Am NOT Black, You are NOT White

I Am NOT Black, You are NOT White by Prince Ea

So, when Ms. J recently sent me this video link, by Prince Ea, and I watched it, I knew this would layer poignantly into our study with her fifth graders. We’ve been using a lens of critical literacy to leverage the methodology of interactive read aloud and shared reading, by strategically incorporating images, lyrical poetry, and songs, and digital and good-old-fashioned paperbound texts, to center an exploration of identity, bias, privilege, power, and oppression, with her ten, eleven, and twelve-year-old students across two academic years. An archive of some of that work, student work, and our reflections can be found on this blog, including here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. (Trust me when I say to you that I dislike hyperlinks within articles I read so very much, so I can only imagine your disdain right now, but fuck it, if you want to see our evolution of thought, here’s an insight into that through some of our older posts). Please take a moment to watch this video, and perhaps some time to scan some of the other posts I highlighted above, before reading on, if you’ve time; it’ll lay the foundation for the construct I’ll illuminate below. Honestly, a construct that I’ve been writing and rewriting and writing again for nearly four months and is one major reason why my blog hasn’t had new content; it’s been held captive in my heart and mind these past months until I finally decided today to say, fuck it, I trust the breathtaking educators and advocates of this nation to take what I’ve to say with a critical and mindful lens and go forth in their already stellar work, perhaps with a new spark or two from what I’ve to share.

Portrait of a Dialectic Space

Now that you’ve watched this video, here’s how today played out. We shared these four questions for Ms. J’s students to grind on in their Identity Notebooks before sharing the video:

What are your multiple identities?

Do you reveal them to everyone, always? Why or why not?

Is it fair for people to label others? Why or why not?

Who has the right to name your identities?

Before pushing play on the video, I gave a purposefully short introduction, with this one thought, for Ms. J’s students to consider: Think about the idea of identity we’ve been exploring all year long through our inquiry work together. This video is going to explore the notion of labels. How might these two ideas relate? Consider your reactions, thoughts, and wonderings.

Ms. J’s fifth graders watched the video, shared ideas with a partner, engaged in a larger whole-class grand conversation, and then jotted their lingering thoughts in their Identity Notebooks. Kid words are more poignant than mine could ever be. In an effort to always communicate their thinking from their own words, as we know words are powerful in kid’s minds, here they are.

Partnerships and Whole-Class Grand Conversation: Some Student Thinking

  • “I don’t understand why we have labels, it’s not fair.”
  • “You don’t have the right to give labels.”
  • “I can relate to that judgment: they don’t know who you are on the inside. It’s not fair to label, they don’t know your true identity.”
  • “Wars are started by labeling, it’s always started by -ism like racism.”
  • “It’s like my two little sisters always fighting and saying stuff to each other.”
  • “If we didn’t have labels, then we wouldn’t know who we are, but it’s cause and effect with labels, mostly negative labels.”
  • “Maybe you’re given a label and you build upon it to create your identity.”
  • “Every time a label goes down, an identity comes up. We change the label when we grow on the label to becomes an identity.”
  • “How can labels cause wars?”
  • “There’s a good half of labels – you wouldn’t know yourself, like animals and humans as labels. But there’s a bad half of labels – some others don’t know you and label you.”
  • “It’s not okay to put labels on someone.’

An Idea Grown From the Dialectic Space:

We realized the notions of identity and labels were interconnected, but might be able to be untangled with careful examination. An emerging thought graced my mind, that which I shared with Ms. J’s students. I told them it was just formulating in my mind and that their reflections were more bright and thoughtful than most adult’s fixed notions of language, so they really were helping to expand the mind of adults ever so expansively. The notion is below. I’m not sure where it’s going, perhaps you’ve thoughts. Here’s what a room full of fifth-graders and two every-in-awe-of-kid-thinking educators (that would be Ms. J and me!) began to deconstruct:

Reflective Quick Write:

At the end of the grand whole-class conversation, Ms. J and I asked her students to write a reflective quick write in their Identity Notebook, exploring what was lingering on their minds. We also centered the line from the video: Who would you be if the world never gave you a label?  Wow, I seek to read through each notebook entry once I’m back with her class in two day’s time, but for now, one notebook entry that jumped out at Ms. J and I is below. These eleven-year-olds poignant thoughts, words that brought me to my knees today:

  • My reaction is tears because this is so true and it really touch my heart. I’m now knowing who I really am “Im not black, I mean I’m not a label” all I have to say is I know who I am “I not a label & Im a car from the dealership that I have to live with for the rest of my life.
Fifth Grader’s Notebook Entry Reflecting on Labels

The notion that a label, one that someone else attaches to us, to others around them, is not our responsibility to take ownership over, is freeing. It’s hard as hell to push back against when those labels come from influential, trusted ones in our lives, such as our family and close friends, and teachers (yep, literacy friends, we’ve been engaged in debates on the devastating effects of kids labeling themselves as non-readers or non-writers because of the invisible, and dare I say sometimes, active, things we do to categorize readers into fixed notions of self, i.e. reading levels, fixed reading groups, intervention groups, etc. You’re familiar with these conversations and the push to help kids get away from labeling themselves as particular reading identities that hinder their self-perception I imagine. Well, it’s the same thing: there are devastating effects on our children when they are labeled, actively or passively by those around them, especially as educators, as particular kinds of learners based on other parts of their multi-faceted identities, those based on race, ethnicity, class, ability, gender identity, sexuality, religion, socioeconomic status, free and reduced lunch status, head of the household status, family structure, and on and on the list grows. And, as an aside, as an educator for eighteen years, I’ve heard these conversations before; I know you have, too. They come in the form of, “Oh, those groups of kids can’t learn” or “Yeah, but they couldn’t handle that, you know, because they come from…” All these biases and harmful rhetoric shape our ideology and dangerously often leads us to action that is inequitable and unjust. Just as an aside…).

As Ms. J’s students went along to PE and she and I had a bit of time to debrief on the morning spent immersed in their wisdom and insight, we both began to realize the power in children constructing knowledge alongside one another in a safe, expansive environment such as her classroom, the power in creating experiences for them to make visible these invisible processes of socialization into a particular mindset within a particular culture, time and space (in this instance, gender diversity within a larger conversation about identity, privilege, power, and oppression), and the power in children coming to the realization that they see the world around them as unjust in many ways, ways they’d like to actively step away from, shake up, and rebuild to something they see as more fair and equitable and just.

Enter, a window into my mind (oh, I’m sorry if it’s a bit messy and jumbled in here; I’ve got lots rolling around in my brain these days…).

Pathways Forward

Here is a diagram that has been formulating in my mind, and in my eight notebooks worth of scratches of ideas I’ve jotted in my two-years worth of reflections and travels and studies and noticings. It represents a visual representation of what I’ve realized I’ve been trying to think through for some time now. Here it is below, in its current state of formulation:

Diagram of a Pathway Toward Educational Justice, Perhaps…

Here’s the portion of the evening where you’re going to begin to loathe me; sorry, I had to name that before I type what I’m about to type. You’re going to say to me, “But yeah, I see that diagram and I’m wondering, what does that LOOK like in the space of a classroom, of my classroom?” And yes, you have every right to ask those questions. So, here’s my unsatisfying answer (*braces for the eye glare and shaking of the head; I get it*).

It depends. It’s all contextual. Ms. J and I, and the other incredible educators I study alongside and apprentice myself to, don’t exactly know how it’s going to go day by day, week by week, year by year, experience by experience, text by text. And here’s why: all kids are different; every class is different. Yep, you know this. And, this is why it’s been different every year with Ms. J, every classroom I’ve been in. Age, teacher, community, class culture, school culture, region, and state all make a HUGE difference in how this work lives and breathes in a classroom setting. That’s the beauty, and yes, the organic nature, of this work. It’s all contextual, fully built upon what the kids in front of us are saying, thinking, questioning, grappling with, trying to make sense of, building conceptions around, clearing up misconceptions of, having a dialogue or debate around, or generally trying to grow in awareness of. This work is multi-faceted, organic, student-centered, unpredictable, flexible, ever-shifting, ever-evolving. It’s messy, raw, responsive, and real.  And you know what? That reflects life: messy, raw, real.

I’m okay with that for now. I hope that you are, too.

I can send you a book list, a list of inclusive texts to use for each piece of this ever-expanding pathway I’m seeing live in emancipatory classrooms. I can send you links to digital texts, video clips, and images that teachers and I have been studying with students to support their co-construction of the socialized notions of gender that are invisible in our culture. But they might be different when you try them out in your inclusive classroom. Lists of books and images and digital texts that have helped children grow expansively with their notions of visible construct and begin to say, “Hey, that’s not fair, I don’t agree with that.” Those beautiful comments show kids are beginning to divest from systems they deem oppressive, unfair, and unjust. Lists of books and images and digital texts that enable kids to understand characters and people that divest from these oppressive systems, center gender equity, that gender diversity are the reality of our species, that binary notions of gender are a myth, that our constructs of gender are contextual, situational, ever-evolving, and completely arbitrary. Lists of books and images and digit texts that expand our notion of gender as a fluid concept, gender identity as something defined by the individual, and the concept that our gender may not be aligned to the sex we were arbitrarily assigned at birth. Books and images and digital texts that explore notions of gender identity, transgender and gender non-conforming identities, written by authors within the trans community especially. All of these resources and ideas and pathways forward are possible.

Invisibility

Visibility

Divestment

Disruption & Dismantling

Children’s Vision Forward

Understanding Gender Diversity with Young Children

A Possible Way to Use Critical Literacy and Inclusive Texts to Center Conversations about Gender Diversity with Young Children

So, why do I choose not to write them explicitly in this piece? Because. This work is too damn important to be lost in translation or my inability to communicate the nuances to you in written form. If you’re ready to begin this work or to expand upon the years-long inclusion work you’ve been engaged in already, and I know you’ve been, connect with me. Reach out and we can talk. I’ve connected with educators across this nation, personally and via phone, to talk into this work, from states that mirror my own progressive state and those that do not. In places thousands of miles away to places in my backyard. Please, reach out. I’m here to be a thought partner with you. I may not be able to offer the exact ideas you’re seeking, but I can offer this: I’ll think openly, honestly, and expansively with you. I will be that person with you, an accomplice in the work toward educational justice for all our children. It just takes reaching out. I’m here.

Labels

Yeah, fuck judgmental, prejudicial, and artificial labels, as Prince Ea would center. When we know our identities, our multiple ever-expanding and deepening and growing identities, and we can grow in community, as a nation, in the safety to be able to express these identities in ways that do not bring harm, judgment, and isolation from others, that’ll be the day I know this world is ready for my child. And, yes, the profoundly wise words the ten-year-old spoke to me that brought me to my knees. His words, and then, my last lingering thought for you.

“I want people to know I’m a transgender boy, I just don’t want them to judge me for it and think I’m different and sensitive. I don’t know why, but sometimes I like to hide this part of me. I don’t want it to control my life.”

Fuck labels and the assumptions people make upon these labels. What if we envisioned a world where kids could just be kids, multi-faceted, multi-layered, and multi-dimensional, where all their identities were defined by them, revealed in their own time, and honored, privileged, and valued by those around them? What then? Friends, we have a part to play in this vision. Namely, it’s to co-construct a world with the youth around us where this expansive thinking, feeling, and envisioning is possible so kids, and only kids, can recreate a world where equity, justice, and love are enacted.

I’ll leave you with the quite poignant question, borrowed from the digital text we explored with a group of wise, expansive fifth graders today.

Who would you be if the world never gave you a label?

___

Published with permission from an educator and parent in our advocacy network – C

 

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Dream Big, Children

They have a lot of love. See, mom, they really get it. Did you hear their words? They are full of that love thing you’re always trying to do in schools – almost ten years old

These words floored me today, they truly left me speechless. This is so personal for me tonight. I’m okay with that, though. I hope you will be, too. These were words uttered to me this morning from my child, my own flesh and blood. My eyes swelled when he spoke those words to me. And here’s why: this is one of the first times he has expressed the compassion he’s beginning to see in his classmate’s words and hearts. These words were spoken to me by my son, a person who is beginning to realize the way the world works and the ways of a country eternally flawed, violent, and hostile toward folks that inhabit the identity he wears visibly; that of a transgender person.

Honestly, as I sit in this coffee shop tonight, I was really intent on writing for the myriad deadlines I have coming up for other important things in my life’s work, but I cannot get my mind off the words he spoke to me this morning. They are just so much more important than the things of my life that I label “important.” So, I’m going to scrap what I was supposed to be writing tonight in favor of this: to explain to you why it is critical that we, as educators and influential adults in the daily lives of children, get out of the way of their unbelievably wise minds and create the conditions within which they can uninhibitedly express their innately expansive, innovative, and fresh thinking to peers, to adults, and to the world at large. Because really, the creative minds of youth are where we’re going to find the answers to everything, in the end.

Let me be explicit in my thinking by naming my argument to you, providing a bit of context for how my child’s words came about today, and then suggest something for you to consider. The consideration may be controversial, resulting in me sitting upon a proverbial limb by myself. But, here’s a truth I hold: I welcome occupying this limb by myself because I believe in what I’m about to present to you. I don’t really mind the solace of being out on that limb alone. Such is life. But maybe, just maybe, you might crawl out onto that limb with me and join me in my evolving thinking. You never know. Only one way to find out…

My Argument.

In our attempt to create the conditions within which children see their hopes and dreams realized, we often stand in the way by silencing these hopes and dreams before they are fully realized, voiced, or even explored, by youth. This seems like a bold or even assertive statement to make, and yes, I acknowledge it may be a bit unclear to you for now, but give me a chance to expand upon the why behind it. And, here’s a full disclosure: I was completely guilty of exactly what I’m about to argue against, for so many unknowing years as an elementary classroom teacher with my students and as a staff developer with the teachers I worked alongside. But, as I choose to live my life in daily revision of thought and action, I hope with all my power the shifts I write about tonight express my evolving thinking as an educator and as a human of this world.

Essentially, my argument is this: as we frame the work of writing with our students in such a constricted prepackaged box, even as writing workshop teachers intent on creating a world of choice and independence within which our writers can thrive, even as we religiously follow along with thoughtfully written units of study from many resources, and even as we adhere to the tenants of process writing, we inexcusably limit our students’ ability to dream the biggest dreams they can. This sometimes happens explicitly by our actions, but more often, I think it happens subtly through our words. It’s something I’m going to boldly label as microaggressions we assault upon our students’ expansive curiosity, completely without intent, but as the definition of a microaggression would suggest unintentionally, it’s an assault on their ideas nonetheless. Here’s what I mean more explicitly: as an educator for nearly twenty years, one that is a faithful believer in the power of a workshop classroom and process approach to the teaching of writing with young people, I think we do a disservice to students when we try to proactively set boundaries for their ideas in an attempt to support meaningful, focused, and tangible writing pieces. Let me build my argument to you here with some concreteness from today and then see if you agree with me. It’s worth an attempt. Here’s why: to have a trans child, who has been navigating the world visibly for nearly two years now, in a time of our country’s unraveling before his very eyes, speak these words of hope to me today, ones that suggest the growing compassion he feels from the classmates that occupy his very learning spaces, it’s remarkable, truly so.

The Context.

Let me make concrete what happened today, in one amazing fourth grade classroom, to support the notion I’m going to argue for tonight. The teacher is creating a speech writing unit of study from scratch, using some ideas borrowed from various resources, but attempting to create something anew. As she wanted to immerse her students in stellar mentors of breathtaking speeches, she had her students listen to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous I Have a Dream speech from 1963. She wanted her students to take a constructive approach to unpacking the beauty of speech writing instead of naming all the moves speechwriters make; she wanted them to cultivate a growing knowledge of why folks write and deliver speeches. After listening to the seventeen minutes of Dr. King’s poignant words yesterday, she asked her students to name what impacted them from his speech. She asked me how I might suggest recording what her students named out, as I often support her in the classroom with her writing workshop. I suggested we jot their ideas in categories that reflected the qualities of writing (meaning, focus, structure, elaboration, voice, and conventions), without naming each category for her students upfront, but merely jotting the ideas down in distinct spaces of the whiteboard as they shared their ideas. She loved the idea, so I became her scribe for this inquiry lesson.

As her students reflected upon what moved them about Dr. King’s speech, two really big realizations emerged: first, just how moved her students were about the meaning behind what Dr. King spoke of; the want of freedom and justice for all people in the future, especially for children. Second, just how impactful the craft moves or elaboration techniques Dr. King employed as a writer were. After her students shared their reflections from hearing his speech which I scribed on the board, I named out how I categorized the various ideas they shared. You can see how their ideas reflected the qualities of writing.

To make this experience more concrete, I named this notion: one critical reason Dr. King’s speech resonated so powerfully with them seemed to be because of the meaning behind his words: the message he was communicating was critical for our collective humanity. It is the notion that we write to say something important, important to us, but more critically, important to others around us. Meaning is paramount as writers. Building upon this, to create a space for her writers to reflect upon their own lives, the teacher presented an opportunity for her writers to engage in a quick write to reflect upon their growing thoughts, centering what their hopes were in our world.

This is where things got very interesting. As her students began their quick write in their writing notebooks, she and I walked around to confer with writers and check-in to research what they were writing about. I conferred with two writers that wrote these profound statements.

The first writer: North Korea and South Korea uniting.

The second writer: Gender doesn’t matter.

I literally ran back over to where the teacher was researching other writers and communicated what I had read from these two writer’s notebooks. The teacher then turned to me and asked this question, “Oh wow. But, aren’t we supposed to help them write about making changes they want to see happen more concrete and tangible, like things they can see change in their local space. Like what the unit of study suggests.” And friends, that’s where I just kind of went for it (we have a really trusting relationship) and I told her what was on my mind, my argument I’m building for you tonight, essentially. Here’s what I said, in paraphrases of course…

Me: You know what? I’m tired of opinion units, speech units, persuasive writing (whatever you want to label this type of writing these days…) focused on this: changes to the lunch menu, changes to the playground rules, changes to the littering kids see on a school campus, changes to the hours in a school day, or the time the school day starts, etc., etc., etc. When I taught similar units of study when I was in the classroom, I did this same exact thing that the unit of study you’re using as a resource suggested to do: something like “Make sure students choose topics that are in their local school campus, or community, or space so they can see tangible change. Try to support them in picking a thing to change that is close enough to their immediate world that it has a chance of changing. Make is closer to home, smaller in nature.” So, in my classroom for years and years and years, I got the thesis statements or claims from my students that centered change around lunch menus, school hours, litter on campus, start time to school, etc. etc. etc. And yes, perhaps these kinds of topics are worthy of needing some change and yes they effect kid’s immediate lives and yes, I’m all for healthier school food and yes, for more balls on the playground, or a longer recess and yes, I’m not a proponent of litter and yes, kiddos, I’m not a supporter of homework, long school hours, early start times, etc. etc. etc.

Me (still talking to the teacher): But really, this thinking is boxed in. These ideas that kids gravitate to when we, as adults, try to frame writing as centering around only local ideas from the beginning in an attempt that their writing stays focused on things they can tangibly change, limits their expansive thinking. And truthfully, how many times have you successfully followed up this kind of writing with having kids deliver their writing to the intended audience? I always did, right, but then thinking back, did kids ever get a tangible response from their audience and see change happen because of their writing? Maybe, kinda sorta, but actually, not really, not often. This reality was communicated to my students, to many students experiencing this phenomenon, that this writing we were doing was more of an academic exercise in writing in this genre than a true attempt to really change the hearts, minds, and actions of others.

Me (yep, still talking to her): What if we ignored what the unit suggested we do, namely, steer writers to choose topics that were more local to begin with (e.g. debating shorter school days and longer recesses?), and go with what was already in their hearts and minds, go for those big, expansive, innovative, worldly dreams and hopes from the beginning? What if we never mentioned that suggestion of making their topic something local to them (school, classroom, campus) and instead created a space for them to dream big, dream lofty, dream expansively? What would they want to see change about life, the country, the world?

Me (yeah, I know, still talking to her): What if we sent the message that their dreams and hopes for our collective humanity are the most important in the world because they will one day inhabit the world and their thinking should be centered starting now, perhaps, starting like yesterday? And frankly, I want to know what solutions they have to the issues of the world because as adults, we’ve failed miserably in being innovative enough to come up with solutions of our own. And then, once her students centered their big dreams, big hopes, big ideas, we could support them in finding tangible local ways of offering solutions that might work toward these big goals. Local, concrete, and actionable ways of supporting this change. And that’s essentially what I think units of study or other resources argue for, right? Kids seeing tangible ways of seeing their hopes of change actually having a chance to take hold. But I’d argue boxing in kid thinking by making it local from the beginning is not the way to do this. Reversely, it’s supporting their big, innovative, expansive hopes and dreams for our world that needs to be centered first, and then, and only then, we can support them in finding local solutions and offering local tangible ways of approaching these big worldly problems. And when we do this, I’d argue, we’ll learn immensely from kids’ innate fresh, expansive, innovative thinking.

The teacher’s response, eyes wide after I finally took a breath and stopped speaking my mind to her, was this: okay, let’s see what happens, let’s do this. (Yesssss, that’s reason #3,675 why I adore her, truly).

Here’s what fourth graders want for our world, when afforded the space to dream big, expansively, and honestly, free from boxed in adult parameters and what lead my son to notice the love and compassion in the hearts and words of his peers. Here are some of ideas that reflect their expansive, honest hopes and some things they wanted to change in the world:

North Korea and South Korea uniting. This means a lot to me because my ancestors come from South Korea. And if they do not unite, more death will happen to so many people.

Gender doesn’t and shouldn’t matter.

Gender equality. Some people think boys are better than girls, but they shouldn’t; they are equal.

World peace.

World War III not happening.

No more smoking or doing drugs.

Walking instead of using the car because gas pollutes the air.

Not hunting endangered animals.

No more killing animals that are wild.

Not wasting electricity and water.

Don’t be racist.

Freedom.

No wars.

No weapons.

No criminals.

No more war.

No more crimes.

Stop war.

Stop graffiti.

Don’t bully.

No bullying.

Freedom!

For Your Consideration.

Yes, I want all these things, too, and I hope that you do as well. And you know something, I don’t know how to see these things come to reality. So, I want to hear what kid’s ideas are, what they suggest we do about these majorly critical hopes for the world, for us all. Don’t you?

Racism. I want to know what some of their solutions are local, things we can begin to do in our communities, for the global idea of “don’t be racist” so people like my best friend, whose children are biracial, don’t have the daily worry that she will not see her husband or two young boys return home due to the grave systemic racism experienced in the brutal form of police violence against black men and boys that has resulted in so many murders in our country.

Bullying. I want to know what kids suggest we do locally about the global systemic problem of bullying. Bullying that results in so much aggression, assaults, and discriminatory acts against some of the most vulnerable members of our communities: transphobia against my trans son and his peers, who are twice as likely to consider suicide as an option due to school-based discrimination and assaults; religious intolerance against people like my dear friend’s husband, a Muslim man who is not yet a citizen of our country; classist judgment against children like my own, who receive government assistance in the form of free lunch because, despite how hard we work, being a single mother solely supporting my boys in our grossly expensive society today, I choose to center my life’s work around educational justice, and that often does not help our financial ends to meet.

Gender Identity and Gender Equity. I want to know what kids’ local solutions are to the global issue of the myth of the binary and the inequity experienced by people identifying a female across this world, in our country, and in our local communities, from the discrimination experienced in the workplace as a woman to the assaults upon the women of this nation, this world, from patriarchal systems of sexism and abuse. What would a nation of children growing up with the belief that gender binary is a myth, pushing back against socialized notions of gender, and fighting against discrimination and assault based on perceived gender be like? I want to know, don’t you?

Weapons. I want to know kids’ local solutions that we can begin to work toward to the idea of “no weapons” so senseless gun violence, especially in the schools of our nation, is eradicated for good, and no more innocent lives are lost.

War. I want to know what we can do to change the hearts and minds when it comes to the hope of “no more war” “no wars” “World War III not happening.” I want to know what kind of expansive thinking kids have to convince adults that war is not the answer to conflict and dissent; that peaceful measures should always center first.

Environmental Catastrophe. I want to know what kids’ suggestions are for reversing the catastrophic effects humans are having on the planet, what we can do in our local communities to combat this assault on our planet that provides life for us, and what we can do to combat environmental racism. This reminds me of the young eleven-year-old, Gitanjali Rao (link here), who created a device to test the lead levels of water, to lend help to the Flint Water Crisis; an example of environmental racism in our nation that pervades so many other communities across our nation, too.

These expansive ideas, things children want to explore and hope to change in the world, that were expressed by my son’s peers, are what lead him to pull me aside after they shared out and tell me this (again, I want his words to resonate here): They have a lot of love. See, mom, they really get it. Did you hear their words? They are full of that love thing you’re always trying to do in schools. Yes, my dear child, children in your class, in your community, across this nation, are full of “that love thing” so many revolutionary, equity-and educational justice-seeking educators are trying to work toward in all the realms of their influence. Working for love justice is really the crux of my personhood and my argument, that in our attempt to create the conditions within which children see their hopes and dreams realized, we often stand in the way by silencing these hopes and dreams before they are fully realized, voiced, or even explored, by youth. So, one thing we can do to work toward love justice with the children in our lives? Create the conditions where children dream big, dream expansively, dream globally, and then have the space to innovate local solutions that work toward seeing these big dreams become a reality. I seek to create the conditions where a generation of children are big global dreamers who seek local solutions, so they work toward peace for all of our collective humanity, as children now and adults one day soon.

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Published with permission from an educator and parent in our advocacy network- C

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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 oftentimes. 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 oftentimes, 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 the 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 the 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 a 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 you get your 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 on what social scientists do as researchers, as well as to create units that center on social studies, science, and literature content. It’s a transferable process to center our work of creating an 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 the ownership of the two educators.

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The Danger of Assumptions: Silent Beats

“That’s called racism!” a wise 5th grader recently stated during a whole-class conversation this December. “Yeah, isn’t that called racial profiling?” said another.  Their amazing teacher, Ms. J, and I, a guest collaborator, researcher, and friend of the class, looked at one another, eyes wide and nodding at one another with the acknowledgment that: yep, they got there. Her students are the best. The absolute best. And really, of course, her kids would get there with their thinking. Here’s why: kids are beautifully capable of always getting there with their thinking when the conditions of possibility are created that enable them to explore big ideas with one another in mindfully respectful ways and their voices are amplified and centered by honoring their thinking space and decentering the space that adults occupy in the room. Plainly: when adult bodies get out of the way of kid spaces and adult voices take a back seat to the brilliance of kid thinking during class conversations exploring big social topics that need to be tackled with children of every age.

For sixteen months, Ms. J and I have been engaged in work with her fifth-graders at her Title 1 school in our big city, tackling critical conversations exploring ideas that center around privilege, power, oppression, identity, racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and ableism. Much of our work together has been documented on this blog, and for those of you who have followed along with our work; thank you for engaging with us; I hope our journey has become a part of your own activist journey with children in the spaces you occupy. This thought piece is a reflection of something poignant that happened just recently in her room, as we continue our critical work of trusting in her kids, as they continue to grow in awareness and compassion around these big conversations, because you know what friends, kids can, and have always been able, to do this big work. Always.

A few truths I hold, truths that are under no dispute in my world: kids are wise, insightful, and notice how things work in our eternally complicated world. And this, too: assumptions are dangerous, especially assumptions about people’s myriad identities. Not only are assumptions often the reasons for the distance we feel toward one another as humans, but they can also lead to violence and death.  A bit of context for you and then a synthesis centering her students’ brilliance, because, at the end of the day, children are our future and will be the ones that artfully dig us out of this complicatedly unjust world adults have created.

Inspiration.

At the end of November, I attended the National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Annual Convention in St. Louis. I chose sessions to attend that would speak to the work around inclusive classrooms, centering justice, and equity in our school settings. One session I attended, a panel created by Heinemann Fellow and New York City public school teacher, Tiana Silvas, was breathtaking, as it centered actions educators must take to push back against the narrative of silence, a shameful reality that inhabits the culture of so many schools across this nation. Namely, taking action as teachers built upon the values and beliefs we hold true: that all children deserve to see themselves in our school spaces, that children deserve to be honored and trusted to tackle big topics in their classrooms, and that they are capable of engaging in ideas that center pushing back against systems that lead to oppressive realities for much of our youth across this nation. A critical notion, that we must engage in anti-oppressive work with young children and take a stand against the kind of silence we see in schools that often robs children of their very personhood.

The session was truly a transformational experience. During one part of it, specifically, another incredible educator, Heinemann Fellow Anna Osborn, shared a video with us. As I watched it, I grew increasingly unsettled. By the end, I was struck by a feeling of rage. Anna provided a moment for us to process the video with a partner at our table. I processed my thinking with a fellow activist educator and expressed to her just how enraged I felt at the injustice of what I was witnessing while watching the video, an injustice that reflects the shameful reality of our nation for so many youth. As the annual convention continued into the weekend, the video sat with me, on my mind and in my heart. The feeling of rage around the injustice of the content in the video and its reflection of the reality within which our nation finds itself continued to also sit with me. So I can build background knowledge for you, here’s a link to the video, entitled “Silent Beats.” Have a view of it, a few times perhaps, and then come on back to continue on the journey in Ms. J’s room that follows below. When Ms. J watched the video for the first time back in our home town, she had this reaction: “I felt sad. I felt sad because it is so much the reality of the world and it is so ingrained. I felt guilty of the same assumptions. I felt curious about what the kids would say. Curious about what they would walk away with.” It is with rage, and sadness, and curiosity that we went into the latest work with her students recently.

Classroom Context.

I knew Ms. J and I needed to incorporate this video into our work with her fifth graders and our exploration around assumptions and identity work grounded in critical literacy tenants. We’ve lately been using digital texts, short video clips specifically, layered into our work. It’s been masterfully engaging for her students, to be sure.

To provide context for her fifth graders, we wrote this question on the board for them to ponder before we jumped into viewing the video: Why might assumptions be dangerous? We hoped her students would link this video to the larger work we were engaged in across this school year. Ms. J also suggested they note-take during the viewing, to capture their thinking to support processing their ideas, both with partners after the first viewing and in preparation for a whole class conversation, at the end of the second viewing. Many of her students created a space in their reading workshop notebooks to capture their overall thinking, and specifically, their thinking about the three folks in the video: the boy, the man, and the lady. We also layered in the possibility of considering what assumptions they were possibly making as they viewed the video and asked them to consider what they might do if they were in the store at the same time this happened. (If this context feels confusing, please go watch the video if you haven’t already; it’s really critical you see it). We wanted to leave this experience as open-ended as possible, as we always strive to, to create possibilities of expansive thinking in any direction her students’ minds and hearts took them.

After the first viewing and while Ms. J and I listened in to their first partnership conversations, it was clear to us that some of the filmmaker’s craft moves, using flashback to illustrate both character’s assumptions as well as their memories, was causing much confusion for many of her students. So, we spoke into the idea of why writers use flashbacks and were able to clarify the times in the video when the flashbacks denoted real memories and the times the flashbacks denoted character assumptions about the other characters, assumptions that were often built off of stereotypes based on identities the characters inhabited.

Some initial reflections from her students, as they processed what they were witnessing in the video, that really stood out to Ms. J and me, that led to a really powerful whole-class conversation mostly student-led, as we tried to decenter our voices and just sit back and listen to where they went follows:

“Why did the man assume he [the boy] was gonna steal just because of the color of his skin? He didn’t do anything!”

“That’s my point! Why would they think the boy was bad when the lady stole the chocolate?”

This led Ms. J to ask: “While you were watching the film, what assumptions were you making while watching?” And here is where the brilliance of kid thinking while tackling big ideas in conversations that honestly, some adults are too fearful to engage in themselves, shone so brightly:

“I was assuming the man was racist because he assumed the Black boy was a criminal.”

“I assumed he [the boy] was a criminal in the beginning because of the images [of the fake mug shot] but I revised my thinking.”

“I assumed the man thought the boy was a suspect.”

We wanted to probe into where her students were getting their thinking a bit further, so Ms. J interjected for a quick moment, to explore this line of thinking by asking her students this pointed question: What do you feel their assumptions were based on?

Here’s the list they came up with to describe why they thought the man and lady thought the young boy was a criminal:

  • His race; he’s a Black kid
  • His clothes
  • His age
  • His facial expressions
  • His movements
  • His appearance

In my pursuit to understand where they were connecting these descriptors to the idea of identity, I asked her students this question: Why do all these identities you listed denote a criminal; why did these parts of his identity make the man and the lady assume he was a criminal?

And, here’s where their wise, insightful kid thinking just centered exactly where our racist, patriarchal, sexist, homophobic, transphobic nation finds itself today:

“That’s called racism!”

“It’s all based on identity and people make fun of different races, ages, clothes they wear.”

“Isn’t that called racial profiling?”

“He [the man] isn’t paying attention to her [the lady’s] race [white], he’s paying attention to the boy because he was Black.”

“They probably thought he was gang-related.”

“I think assumptions are based on experiences, based on his race.”

Ms. J’s students were able to astutely process and synthesize what they were seeing in this video, combining it with the reality they see in the community and world around them, to come to big realizations that reflect the state of our country today, that which many adults remain silent about: namely, the racism that surrounds us in all communities, in all contexts, in all spaces. Kids see it all, they see how the world operates around them and what is happening. The more we refuse, as adults, to engage in trusting kids’ ability to engage in this big work of tackling big conversations about the world around us and then coming up with ideas about how to work against this current narrative, the more we choose the side of silence, the more we are part of the problem, friends. Ms. J’s students are currently following up their thinking on this video with a reflective write about this notion, “Why might assumptions be dangerous, both in this video and in life…?”

Assumptions Are Dangerous, We Must Do Better.

As we await Ms. J’s students’ thoughts about why they feel assumptions can often be dangerous, I will take a moment to name a few ideas we’ve been contemplating for some time now and taking action upon.

Dangerous Cycle of Assumptions. From Ms. J: “Assumptions are so dangerous because they are so easy. It makes me think of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. Something that stood out to me in his writing was how society/media/images have such a powerful grasp on our thinking that we are even afraid of our own people. Assumptions are made in a millisecond and that is what is so dangerous. It is hard to back out of assumptions fast enough to do right. Assumptions are dangerous because they leave out so much. I love teaching through the lens of assumption because it teaches children daily that they don’t have all the information they need to make harsh judgments; or judgments at all for that matter. The practice of mindfulness and the work around assumptions go hand in hand. As we get more “control” over our natural desire to react and respond, as we become more present, we are able to slow ourselves down and be more mindful of our outward reactions. It will take some major deconstructing over a long period of time to stop that blink of an eye gut reaction, but being in the moment allows one to carefully process their initial reaction and move forward with more care and consciousness. The danger of assumptions is when we begin to live by them. Accepting that our narrow view or our narrow span of information is gold, we close ourselves off to all the possibilities. The stereotypes and the oppression just continue in their cycle as long as we continue to base our knowledge on assumptions. On the other hand, not trusting that gut feeling, that blink of an eye reaction, can be dangerous, too. We have that in our bodies to protect us. It is primal. This animal response was not meant, however, to pass judgment and generate stereotypes; it is in us for survival. No one needs to judge another to survive. This is what we need to teach children (and ourselves!). We need to teach them that to assume is human, but what we do with our assumptions, whether we stop or seek more information, is key. One must keep looking, keep asking, and consider other options, so as not to perpetuate the cycle.” Ms. J’s thinking and stance as a human being inspire me daily; as an educator, mama, and human being traveling this path alongside her.

Violence of Assumptions. Assumptions based on a person’s perceived identities is dangerous and often leads to violence and sometimes death, both self-inflicted and upon others. As a mother of a young transgender child myself, the assumptions made about the trans community by folks that have little information or center their reactions out of fear and hatred, has led to murders, assaults to personhood, and countless daily bullying and discriminatory actions toward trans youth across this nation, both by peers and by adults. It terrifies me to think about the country we’ve created that one day our children will inhabit as adults. What brings me hope is the action I see so many mindful adults, specifically revolutionary educators, taking to work against this scary reality. If you’re an educator, speak up about what you see around you on your school campus and in your community. Seek the support of your local LGBTQ center or other resources to support your efforts of creating a more inclusive school campus for all your students. Work against identity-based bullying and take action to ensure that all of your students feel safe. While I cannot speak to the myriad identities we all inhabit, I can boldly speak up traveling alongside a child who is just trying to grow up and thrive in his childhood whilst feeling the oppressive nature of being his authentic self visibly in all the spaces he occupies. We’ve big work to do here, friends.

Distance Created By Assumptions. Assumptions we make toward one another, within even five minutes of meeting, often create distance between us. If we are to truly know one another, we must take the time to put aside preconceived notions of who we think one another are based on the identity stereotypes that come to mind, and truly take the time to hear one another; to know one another’s stories; to know one another’s layers. This is one way we break down fences that divide us, we choose to engage with one another. Assumptions based on identity get in the way all too often. If I truly know you and you truly know me, how can you wish me harm and I you? I think the first step is prioritizing hearing one another, with expansive minds and open hearts. It’s a start, one that can begin with us as educators, with the very students in our shared spaces daily. Do you truly know the children in your shared spaces? What can you do to take action toward truly knowing their authentic selves? My first step, hearing youth more while talking less.

Action.

If I may, my ask of you at this point in my thinking, trying to process the brilliance of kid thinking, the notions that we explore in Ms. J’s classroom with her students on a weekly basis, and the reflections rolling around in my head and my heart. I’m inspired by your action and the ways you are stepping up on behalf of the youth in your communities. They deserve our best. If you’re an educator, you’re among a movement of educators who’ve been working steadfastly on creating anti-oppressive educational spaces for children to inhabit in inclusive, just, equitable classrooms for a long time now, a movement I’m humbled to be welcomed into and be an active part of. I am nothing if not for the mentors and steadfast activist educators and thought leaders who’ve come long before me. I am eternally grateful for them in this world. If you’re a parent, you have the power to support your children as they tackle the big ideas in life, with eyes wide, minds expansive, and hearts open. If you’re an adult in the care of children in any capacity, I urge you to find your place in this work; there is room for everyone to stand up, speak up, and work toward educational justice for ALL our children.

I want to send you off with a lingering thought from my synthesis of sentiment that two inspiring educators whose work I follow closely, Tiana Silvas and Aeriale Johnson, recently made on a breathtaking podcast produced through Heinemann as Heinemann Fellows (you can find a link here. Please have a listen; it’s a critical conversation).  Tiana speaks to the notion that empathy is not enough, we are working toward compassion with one another. “Empathy is feeling for someone, but compassion is the action behind it, to bear the burden, to carry the weight, to lay your life down for another person, where your heart is in it.” She challenges us to consider what part of our comfort zone we are willing to give up for the humanity of us all. I can not agree more with the brilliance of these two thought leaders. Educator friends, what are you willing to give up, to center the work of creating just educational spaces for ALL our children where we tackle the big topics of life, support student thinking in expansive ways, work toward anti-oppressive inclusive learning spaces, and break down the danger that assumptions create for one another? This is no longer about contemplation, study, and talk; it’s about action, in all the realms of your life. The lives of children depend on your action. Please choose to live a life of compassion and action with us.

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Published with permission from two educators and parents in our advocacy network. All rights to classroom images reserved with the two educators. -C

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Children Hear and See All

As I approach my fortieth year in this crazy thing called life, I appreciate the little bits of wisdom my mama imparted to me over the years of my youth. She, most likely, gained this wisdom from her brilliant parents; I’ve no doubt. I wish to impart bits of wisdom to my two young boys, too, as I suspect every parent hopes. Here’s the thing about that, though. I seek to impart bits of wisdom through the way I intentionally choose to live my life, centering my belief in our ethical and moral responsibility to one another as human beings. Action is critically important to me, as I suspect it is to you; words stall, actions live. Before I digress too much into philosophical musings, as my philosophy professor grandma was famous for in our family, let me circle back to my mama’s wisdom. As she imparted bits of wisdom to me, one such adage, probably as old as time, was centered recently with a group of brilliant 5th graders in a classroom that I’ve been adopted by, as a researcher, collaborator, and friend.

The adage? Do as I say, not as I do. You’ve probably heard this, right? In our family, though, we don’t believe in this saying nor the belief its core is built upon. It’s wrong. Just plain wrong; for us anyway. At the core of my belief system: I’ve no right to force anyone to do as I say or do; that requires consent, a concept that’s grown to critical proportions for me, as it should be for you, too.

What I do believe is this: I actively choose to live my life centering my values and beliefs in how I want to be in community with others in this world, what I hope my boys see is the strength of character and responsibility to a greater good to see justice and equity live for every child, everywhere. This is big; I’ll center why I seek your reflection around this, right now in your life, wherever my words find you.

The Pathway

I spend much time in collaborating and researching in a breathtakingly amazing fifth-grade classroom in an urban Title 1 school with the most insightful children I’ve ever known; truly. They tackle life with more grace and humility than most adults I know; they teach me more about humanity than anyone else. Recently, Ms. J, the brilliant teacher and my accomplice in this work of finding pathways of creating more inclusive classrooms for all our children, and I were engaged in a read-aloud of Tomie dePaola’s inclusive book Oliver Button Is A Sissy. We chose this book as a way to edge into a conversation about gender equity with her students.  It’s one beautiful text in a series of texts we’re using to build a curriculum of inclusive texts that enable us to engage in courageous conversations with children about big topics that live in our world, including conversations around identity, privilege, power, and oppression. If you’ve followed this blog for any time at all, you’re on this journey with me; us really.

That morning, I wrote this centering question on the board:

Then, Ms. J provided a bit of context for the conversation to land within, or so we thought it might land within. Wow, how wrong we were, though; more on that later. Ms. J centered with her students that we’d need to dig deep in this conversation and decenter ourselves from perhaps what we personally thought and expand our minds to what society would say about expectations for boys and girls, men and women. She explained society meant ideas gleaned from social media, ads, radio, billboards, community spaces, the playground, on T.V., and so on. All her students nodded that they understood this would be tough work but they were ready to jump in and try it out. As we had planned, Ms. J read the book aloud, stopping at moments to think aloud, at other moments to elicit thinking from her students through turn and talk moments.

If you’re not familiar with this beautiful book, you need to be: Oliver loves ballet, he’s bullied for liking something society often socializes young children to like or not based on societal notions of gender roles; in the end, he gains the strength of personhood and is proud of who he is and his affinities. A great book to begin a discussion around societal expectations of gender norms and all. This is what Ms. J and I were thinking anyhow. But, as teachers, any amount of planning and intention never prepares you for the reality of what unfolds when brilliant young minds jump into the mix, right?

The Debate

What follows is how this all played out that one morning this fall and three life lessons I’ve learned from the wise minds of youth. After Ms. J finished the read aloud, she opened up to the class an opportunity to engage in a grand conversation centering their ideas about what they felt society thinks boys should be like and what society thinks girls should be like. Here’s the evolving list they created.

So, it would be an interesting study to analyze what they came up with and why at least for my nerdy researcher brain it would be. But, that’s not what I want to center with you right now in this thought piece. I want to center something that happened in the room that an image or transcribed list could never capture. It truly will be hard for me to capture what Ms. J and I witnessed unfold in words here, but I will do my best to communicate the essence of the moment.

As students were sharing ideas in the meeting area and Ms. J and I were facilitating their conversation as observers and scribes mostly, one young girl said the following:

I think women should have jobs and men should stay home and babysit.

Ms. J and I looked at one another with a look of “we need a bit of clarification on this one.” So Ms. J asked her why she thought this and to clarify her thinking a bit. Her powerful response back was this simple, yet infinitely complex, statement from her lived reality:

Because, most of our dads stay at home and be lazy.

Wham. Ms. J and I looked at one another, eyes wide and hearts skipping a beat. Immediately, half a dozen boys’ hands shot up to respond. As we don’t really believe in hands raising in conversations and try to support dialogue with other nonverbal systems, we eyed one of the boys and he responded:

That has been happening forever. People think boys deserve more than girls, that they are valued more. There’s an invisible wall for girls.

Bam. Half a dozen girls’ hands shot up to respond and Ms. J and I immediately found ourselves witnessing one of the most breathtaking debates about roles of women, girls, men, and boys from the perspectives of ten and eleven-year-olds that would rival any adult debate in recorded history. Why? Because of the raw honesty of what we heard. Wow. To our adult folly, at one point we foolishly tried to steer the conversation back to the idea of socialized roles of boys and girls that we had intended to center from the text. We quickly realized her students immediately circled back to their debate on adult roles in the family structures they were familiar with and experiencing in their own lives. Quickly, we just let go and focused ourselves on bearing witness to the unfolding moment. And really, who were we to hijack their conversation with our intents? It was about their thinking and pathways of synthesizing and hearing one another that was critical; is critical. It was not about us, but wow, it was about adults a big way; truthfully about her students’ perspectives on the adults in their lives. Synthesizing the experience we witnessed through three lessons I’ve learned seems the most concrete pathway for me; this is going to be raw and I hope not too personal, but such is life. Welcome to wise children, my heart, and why I believe the old adage Do as I say, not as I do, is, well, bullshit. (Yep, language expresses thinking and I went there. No apologies.)

The Lessons

Children Speak Truth. Get out of their way. No, truly. Get out of their way. Get out of their conversation. Get out of their head. Get out of providing sentence stems that box children’s thinking in. Get out of feeling the need to control by steering the conversations in the ways you want it to go. Why? Once you do, the brilliance of children’s thinking will shine through. This sounds harsh and I’m guilty of doing all of these things in the pursuit of academic conversations, centering skill and standards work, of “doing deep academic work” with kids. Please stop that need all the time, though, friends; I am. Consider the context and purpose. If your purpose is to truly open up big conversations about critical issues we face in society and you want children to have safe spaces to engage in real talk, real conversations, that center real thoughts, and perspectives, then get out of their way and create the conditions where this can happen. Truly.

Children Hear and See All. Once adults are out of children’s way to express their honestly raw thinking, we’ll learn genuinely insightful, innovative, wise things. One glaringly raw thing I learned from this moment, and honestly, from working alongside children and teachers for nearly two decades, and as a mother for nearly a decade myself: children see and hear all. All. Of. What. We. Do. And. Say. And. Don’t. Do. And. Don’t. Say, adults. They get things so innately. They see it even when we try to hide “adult” things from kids. Yeah, you’ve been there before I’m sure, they pick up on it. When the young girl who lives with her single mama and siblings said, “Because most of our dads stay at home and be lazy” she was speaking from her lived reality. When the young boy, who also lives with his single mom and one sibling, commented on the oppression women have been experiencing forever, their devaluing and their invisible wall, he was speaking from personal lived experience traveling with his mother, in some very hard times that I am not under consent to speak to. And really, that’s not the point. The point is, as parents, guardians, and adults with children in our care, in our families, in our community spaces, they hear and see all. Be ready for that reality, friends. I’m learning that the painful way right now in my life.

We Are Our Children’s First Teachers, Do Right by Them. Now that we can agree on the reality that children hear and see all, what are we going to do with that knowledge? My assertion: live our lives in a way that we do right by children. I am actively choosing to live my life centering my values and beliefs in what I hope my boys see is a person of immense strength, that takes actions upon the injustices I see perpetuated upon others, especially upon the souls of glorious children by adults who often mean no harm but do not perhaps know the grave effects of the choices they make in their shared spaces with children. I am eternally flawed and hopelessly naïve, but I seek to continuously grow myself, grow my knowledge, grow in my action, and grow in my love. It is not easy, immensely painful at times if I’m honest with you, but it’s what being alive means; change. My thoughts for you: be that person for the children in your life, whether as a teacher, parent, guardian, family, or community member, or however you come into shared spaces with children. The way we choose to live our life models exponentially what it means to be a person in our world in service to others. If you believe in inclusion, equity, and justice, then live your life in an inclusively just way that centers equity, in all you say and in all you do. It’s the model of your living and process within which you choose to navigate through life that children truly learn from.

So, here I find myself not quite sure how to end this thought piece, and that is kind of rare for me. Perhaps it’s because much of this is raw for me and hits close to home, perhaps because much of what’s on my mind and in my heart I would not be able to center here with you right now, or perhaps my words are really not the way to close. Perhaps it’s the words of children that need to close this thought piece. In that realization, I’ll leave you with this last lingering thought, from the mind and heart of a wise fifth grader, that I hope you sit with for a long while in your heart and mind. It’s a reflection that created a smile upon my face as it simultaneously slashed my heart in two: “Our parents are our first teachers.”

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Published with permission from two educators and parents in our advocacy network. -C

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Assumptions: Is Our Curriculum Weaponizing Children?

If we agree that what we teach in the classroom must have relevance in the lives of our students outside of our four walls, when we teach kids to analyze characters in the books we read, without acknowledging and naming the work we’re doing as that of creating assumptions, are we essentially weaponizing children with the skills to label, judge, and profile others based on a set of character traits filtered through their own personal biases, and as a result, to falsely think they ultimately have the power or right to do this to people in their lives?

Assumptions.

The concept of assumptions has been on my mind for many days now. This word is deceptively simple, with infinitely complex layers in need of unpacking. While the nuances of the definition and the myriad synonyms have many connotations in our vernacular, for me, the concept of assumptions is a dangerous one. Here’s why: when we make assumptions about other people in our shared spaces and presume to feel the power over them to make these assumptions of them based on a set of characteristics that we’ve deemed relevant from our own biased perspectives, we have the power to cause more harm than good. You might agree? Consider this for a moment. By looking at me, you’d presume I’m a woman. Your assumption would be based on a few cursory characteristics you’d have used to make this assertion: my physical appearance, the sound of my voice, my expressive mannerisms, my choice of dress, my given name, perhaps even my way with words. You’d unconsciously and quite quickly put these particular set of characteristics together, determine you think I’m a woman, label me as such, and categorize me in that way in your mind’s memory. By looking at my child, you’d presume he was a young boy. Your assumptions would also be based on this same set of cursory characteristics, like his physical appearance, expression, name, and perhaps some of the affinities you observe he engages in (e.g. gaming guru) or things he talks about (e.g. gaming!). Your assumptions in both cases would be built upon your skilled ability to size us both up based on a set of criteria or traits you’re used to using to categorize things you see in the life unfolding around you.

I’d assert the ability to analyze and categorize and label and assume we’ve figured out folks around us is a learned ability, cultivated over time. Often, implicitly socialized in our culture, but also explicitly taught, especially in our classrooms. As an educator for nearly two decades and having experience in both elementary and middle school settings, it strikes me as so prevalent that through the grades, we teach our students to analyze characters year after year, in both the reading work and writing work we engage in with them. In nearly every grade level beginning in transitional kindergarten and all the way up, we spend much time in fictional reading and writing units teaching into the skills of character analysis and character development. This work is good, oftentimes, it’s incredibly profound. I engaged in this work with my students every year I was in the classroom and now, I see the teachers I work alongside, doing it every year with their students. And, to be clear, this is a good thing, it anchors readers’ ability to make sense of narrative texts and writers to develop layered characters in their stories. But, the concept of teaching children to create these assumptions about characters needs some re-examining; some major reconsideration, really. And here’s why: if we are teaching children to become expert character analyzers without regard for what we’re really teaching them to do, namely, become expert profilers, while simultaneously not naming with clarity what it is we are doing and the dangers of profiling people in our lives outside the four walls of our classroom, we are engaging in some of the most subversively dangerous work with children, without even being aware of it ourselves. That’s a scary thought, indeed.

A bit of context, a tough question I’ve been asking myself, and some ideas about pathways forward.

Context.

During a read-aloud of Jaqueline Woodson’s beautiful picture book The Other Side a few days ago, a young fifth-grade reader said something very pointed and it has lingered on my mind ever since. As the teacher, Ms. J, read aloud the beginning of the story, she paused to ask her students what they had noticed about the characters so far: how their identities were alike or not alike. One young reader stated that the two young characters were of different races; one was Black, the other, white. Another reader stated they exhibited different actions in the story so far. And then, this young reader raised his hand and stated with some sense of certainty, “The two girls are from different families.”  He saw two little girls with different skin color and had concluded they must be from different families. The moment he stated this, I looked at Ms. J’s face. She was taken back. I was thinking deeply about why he had made this statement. I turned to Ms. J and she expressed how this page represented her actual family, as she has a white mother and Black father; one of her brothers looks exactly like she does and her other brother is white, as he has a different father than her. She said much of her childhood was spent with people assuming she and her older brother were not related because of their skin color. That’s when I said to Ms. J, “Your student is making an assumption that because their skin color is different, they must not be in the same family.”

And that’s when it hit both of us like a ton of bricks: what we were asking readers to do when diving deep into character analysis work, was to make all sorts of assumptions about characters. We were having them look at the identities they saw characters inhabit based on textual evidence, create an assertion about that character, and make a statement that seemed awfully definitive: “I think…” “My hunch is…” “My growing theory is…” “I notice…based on evidence from the text…”  All of the language we modeled in our work with students around character analysis created the impression to her students that our job as readers (humans) was about:

  • Using a set of criteria or character (people) traits that, if used systematically, could lead us to label and categorize characters (people)
  • That it’s our right to do this work of labeling and categories characters (people) into these boxed identities based on our notions of the world of story (real world)
  • That this work is encouraged because as teachers, we ask of our student to do it year after year, so where we spend our time must be important, and kids notice this

What are we as educators leaving out of our work with students around character analysis? I’d assert we’re failing to frame this work as assumption-making (perhaps we know this in our minds, but do we ever explicitly communicate this to our students?) and that making assumptions is a dangerous engagement. Even more problematic is the notion that when we transfer this work of assumption-making with the characters in our books to the people in our lives, as we hope the work of the classroom is the work of life, it’s a slippery slope into labeling, categorizing, and ultimately, often making judgments of others based on our assumptions.

Dangerous.  So very dangerous.

Why? Because, we are often so very wrong.

A Tough Question.

If we revisit the previous notion that if you met me and spoke with me at any length, you’d assume I’m a woman and meeting my child, you’d assume he was a young boy. You’d be wrong, so very wrong, indeed. Your perspective, your expectations based on a set of preconceived criteria on what it means in our society to be a woman or to be a boy, would frame your assumption that we were as you assumed. You’d probably even find comfort in the notion that you were able to fit us each into some sort of box in your mind that was neatly filed away under woman and boy. But, what if you were wrong? What if your expert ability, socialized over your years on the planet and sharpened over years in the schooling system that explicitly taught you how to analyze characters based on traits, lead you to make incorrect assumptions? And, imagine if these assumptions you made lead you to label us, and then judge us based on these assumptions? And, just what if the judgments you made of us were not positive and your overt actions towards us were unkind or dismissive or oppressive?

Then what?

This. This is what happens, is happening. The current state of our nation.

You see it; I know you do.

Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on racial profiling.

Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on religious profiling.

Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on gender identity profiling.

Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on sexual orientation profiling.

Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on gender expression profiling.

Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on socialized norms of gender.

Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on ability.

Example; oppressive discrimination and violence based on class.

I could continue to list more and more aspects that work in concert to create the complex identities we all wear. I won’t; you understand my train of thought.

Pathways Forward.

As educators, though, we’ve ways to combat this, to shift this narrative, and to create pathways of empathy with our students. Here are a few of my initial thoughts based on some adjustments Ms. J and I tried this week after we realized just how profound this work of character analysis and identity study is with her students.

Name it. We began to name what it truly means to do the work of analyzing characters. We said these were assumptions based on our world view, on our set of preconceived notions of what particular identities meant in our lives, based on our growing understandings of these identities. We began to offer language to frame the work of character analysis as we continued with our read alouds this week: “I assume…” “I can assume…” “I’m assuming…” Ms. J relayed some of our developing thinking with her primary grade colleagues and they also began to rethink the language they were using with their young readers. They created language to use, too: “It is possible that…” and “Maybe…” “It could be that…, but not necessarily…” felt like complementary language for younger readers when talking about assumptions; it felt less definitive and final, just as assumptions are not truth.

Model it. As we began to use this language more in our work during read aloud and point to it on the board near the meeting area, Ms. J’s students began to work this new language into their conversations, too. We heard them both use the language in their moments of turn and talk with their partners as well as in sharing out thinking with the whole class. As we know that language shapes thinking, we suspect as we all continue to use the language of assumptions more and more, that her student’s thinking will also shift: that our work of analyzing characters is based on a set of assumptions, but that those assumptions may not be and often are not truth. This notion is one we’re delving deeper into in the coming weeks.

Contextualize it. Creating a framework for learners to tuck new learning into is incredibly important. Helping students to understand that when we name our assumptions about characters, even if they are based on textual evidence and seem so very true, that they are still only based on our perspectives and biases and experiences with text and with the world around us is vital for students to understand. We need to be so very mindful of the assumptions we make of characters and even more critically aware of the assumptions we make of those around us in our lives. Furthermore, we need to teach children that it’s not our right to declare what another person’s identity is; the only person who holds the power to declare who one really is, is the person themselves. We need to take care to communicate this essential truth to our students. We need to also communicate that it is paramount that we do not take action toward others based on assumptions we may have developed about them, especially when these assumptions have the potential of being oppressive in nature. This is a strand of thinking we’re following with her students as well in the coming weeks.

If we seek for students to transfer the work of the classroom to the work of life, we need to be explicit about how we might mindfully go about doing this and when the work of the classroom creates spaces of unsafety in our world, our work as educators become even more critical. Assumptions around character work in the classroom is one example of these critical spaces to reconsider. And it’s a big one because it’s so pervasive in our curriculum. When unnamed and unchecked, the skilled ability to use assumptions to profile others can lead us down a path toward divisiveness and violence in our lives. We must work against this reality, especially if we are to hope for a future where people are safe to know one another in authentically transparent and compassionate ways.

Oh and if you were still wondering, yes, I self-identify as a woman; my son, self-identifies as a transgender boy. And why this matters? Because, it’s our right to identify ourselves in the ways we see best define our authentic selves and your right to respect and love us for that. Our children can do this work of building broad minds and deep hearts and not making assumptions that lead us to tear one another down. Rather, children have the power to build one another up. I hope that as adults, we can do this work, too.

___

Published with permission from two educators in our advocacy network. -C

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To Know Me, You Must Know You, First

The youth of our nation cries out.

Are we hearing them, all of them? Are we truly centering their collective cry in our hearts and in our actions?

No. Tragically, we are not.

We can, though, especially in emancipatory spaces, those critical spaces where the voices of youth are centered as they unpack thinking around privilege, power, and oppression, where knowledge is seen as a co-constructed process constantly in negotiation between children and adults, and where adults seek to de-center their power by critically re-examining their positionality with children. Many of these spaces are emerging in classrooms across this nation by critical educators who see education as the practice of freedom, as Paulo Freire eloquently outlined in his seminal work Pedagogy of the Oppressed. As a nation, though, we shamefully are not hearing youth, not even attempting to listen to children in many cases. Adults are caught in the falsity of their adult privilege web, believing that speaking for, over, or around children is their right as elders to a younger generation. We are not listening as a collective adult group, to dire ends.

I am a straightforward and transparent person; there is little time to position myself as anything other. As such, I will be explicit with you about what I want, why, and how you have a critical role to play in this narrative, to make it one of hope for children, not an unending tragedy.

What I Seek, and Why

I seek to see my child survive to adulthood.

And I seek to see my child thrive along the way.

I seek to see my child’s peers survive to adulthood, too.

And I seek to see my child’s peers thrive along the way. All of them.

My child is a transgender person, proudly living his life visibly in all the public spaces he occupies. This matters; it matters a great deal that you know this part of his identity. While it by no means defines the essence of his entire self, it is a part of him, an important part of him. It is one part of the myriad melodies that work in concert to form the glorious person that he is and the breathtakingly powerful person he is becoming.

It matters that you know this aspect of his identity, that of a transgender person, for many reasons, two of which I’ll highlight here. First, you’ve the power to effect change; I’ll get to that in a moment. Second, it matters that you know this aspect of his identity as a transgender person because of the urgency of this matter.  A recent peer-reviewed paper, based on a study of transgender youth (found here and here), outlines the current state our transgender youth find themselves in: transgender “adolescents are twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts as the general population” of adolescent youth, with factors of depression and school-based victimization factoring heavily into this reality. Take a moment to read the articles, please, so you have the words from the researchers themselves. Now, please re-read that sentence I just typed above once more and pause to think about the ramifications of what that means: twice as likely to have suicidal thoughts, much due to school-based victimization. My heart aches for my child and his transgender peers for the world they have to endure, for the situations they are made to confront in the spaces that are supposed to be some of the safest for them: their schools.

Pathways Forward: We Talk About These Things

This is where my first reason for centering my child’s gender identity comes in: I seek you out as an accomplice in this work.  As an educator of children or as a family or community member who has children in your life, you have the power to change this often tragic narrative for a nation of transgender youth who are just trying their hardest to survive the harshness of growing up and simultaneously confronting the school-based bullying, harassment, and often victimization on school campuses.

In addition to seeking for my child and his transgender peers a childhood where they not only survive but thrive, into adulthood, I also seek out pathways that begin to enable educators to create the conditions within their classrooms and schools that can ensure that all children are cared for in safe, inclusive spaces that do not silence their voices or identities. Specifically, I’ve been researching pathways educators are creating in their classrooms that enable them to create these emancipatory spaces, where students engage in transformative dialogue with one another about their growing understanding of the myriad identities we all inhabit, including a growing awareness of transgender youth identities. Ultimately, I seek to support teachers in their efforts to support student’s minds to grow broad and hearts to grow in depth with empathy and compassion for one another.

To make this work concrete for you, I will center Ms. J and her students, a dynamically critical 5th-grade educator in a Title 1 school in a large urban school district. I will attempt to illustrate the work she and I, as a guest co-collaborator in her democratic classroom, created in her classroom at the beginning of this school year to begin this critical work of creating dialogical spaces where children have the opportunities to use critical literacy to center dialogue as they grow in awareness by learning about ideas of identity, privilege, power, and oppression. All this, while also pushing back against the hegemonic narrative that would render much of their lived experiences silent and funds of knowledge underutilized in their school spaces.

Ms. J and I have been colleagues for many years now and we’ve centered this work together going on two school years (you can find some posts outlining our work together last school year on this blog). A question on our minds as we went into the beginning of this school year was: How do we artfully edge into the conversation of power, privilege, and oppression and the societal implications of wearing identities that are constantly being pushed to the margins by those around you? Our developing answer to this initial question of ours: With humility, honesty, and critical literacy practices that center identity, so children can begin to deepen their awareness and empathy of all the breathtaking identities we all wear, can be respectful and compassionate toward one another, can begin to understand how power is linked to certain privileged identities in our nation, and how they can work against this narrative to change it in big ways. Essentially, we seek for children, and the adults they will one day become, to have concrete ways to show one another their humanity. Because I am transparent with you, I’ll name this plainly: I hope you see yourself in this journey of ours and can find it in your will to construct a pathway of your own to center this deeply critical work with the youth in your life.

Empancipatory Spaces: Curriculum, Methodology & Structures 

As Ms. J and I pondered ways to imagine her democratic space as one of transformative power, where her students could begin the deep work of delving into these courageously brave and critical conversations around identity, it hit me. What do kids love beyond love? Anything visually captivating, especially if it’s of digital origin, right? Using an artfully visual documentary to begin to unpack the concept of identity seemed like a beautifully engaging way for her students to co-construct their understanding of the identities we all wear. Through the methodology of shared reading with much room for exchange of dialogue among peers, we used visual literacy as our first step.

Visual Literacy In Dialogic Spaces.

Kalhil KJ Adames’ award-winning short documentary entitled “Identity” is truly magnificent. It’s essentially about the creation of self and evolving identity. You can find it here. It’s under 5 minutes, so have a look, and then come on back. If you go watch it now, it’ll build much-needed schema for you. Okay, you’re back! So here’s a bit of how we designed this first step: All Ms. J’s students were gathered in her meeting area, ready to take in this film. We set them up to watch it three times, each time with a different lens in mind.

  • First, I asked them as they watched it to think about what they noticed. After watching it, they did a quick turn and talk with a thinking partner about their noticings.
  • Second, I asked them as they watched the short film again, to think about how it made them feel. After watching it a second time, they checked in again with their partners to add to their emerging dialogue.
  • Third, I asked them to consider what they thought the adult filmmaker/writer wanted the audience to take away from watching the film; essentially the author’s message to their audience.
  • They watched the film for the third time and again discussed their thinking. We then opened up a grand conversation with the entire group of 34 students to build upon one another’s discussions to see what themes emerged.

Wow, did they all have a depth of thinking. Kid thinking always captivates me (I often tell children I work alongside I learn more from their thinking than I do from most adults daily, and that’s true). Ideas are below from students’ moments of turn and talk with their thinking partners and our grand conversation with all students after the last viewing of the film:

Students’ Noticings:

  • The students wore masks because they didn’t want to show their emotions to others.
  • The girl thinks others will be scared of her.
  • It’s like August in Wonder, he doesn’t want to reveal to others and have them take advantage of who he is.
  • The teachers didn’t have masks because they didn’t care what people think about them.
  • Some kids had two masks just to fit in with different groups.
  • All the students were in groups, but not the girl.
  • When the girls bumped into the one girl, no one helped her.
  • All the people looked at her when she took her mask off.
  • People were disgusted by her because they didn’t see a face without a mask.
  • People weren’t looking at the teachers, all their heads were down.
  • The girl had a notebook with sketches of a dad leaving and the child’s head is down.
  • The teacher was talking and the girl’s sketches made sense: the teacher talked about a cave like a dark wall, that one person tries to escape, like a teacher without a mask.
  • The girl realized the mask does not make you beautiful.
  • I noticed the girl said, “Today the truth found me” and she found her true identity, she finally looked at herself for the first time.

Students’ Feelings.

  • Makes me feel like you don’t have to wear a mask as long as you love yourself.
  • This makes me feel bad because they are wearing creepy masks and you shouldn’t have to wear a mask to feel beautiful, like in Wonder, just love him the way he was.
  • Makes me feel sad because in real life it was the truth about people, people hide how they look.

Author’s Message.

  • You shouldn’t care how you look, love yourself the way you are. Keep your opinions to yourself.
  • Be yourself. You are the best you.
  • Be ourselves because no one can control us.
  • You need to stand up for others and stand out and not be like others.
  • You can spend a  life covering your face with a mask and they won’t ever know how beautiful you really are.
  • Be yourself, instead of like everyone else.
  • You should find your identity and reveal your identity and not be behind a mask and fake.
  • Don’t let other people’s words and actions offend you.
  • In real life, masks are invisible.
  • Everybody isn’t better than other people, they’re not better than nobody; we’re all the same.
  • Some people act like others to be cool, be your own self, it’s way better.

Centering Youth Voice to Lead the Way for Emerging Curriculum.

As a way to help Ms. J’s students process this initial shared reading experience and the conversation had among their peers, we provided space for students to spend a few minutes capturing their thoughts in a quick write. They collected their ideas for a few minutes as they wrote out their reflections. Interestingly, as I read all their ideas that night, a theme emerged that did not emerge much during the in-class discussion that day. Her students reflected a ton on their feelings about the film. They had not spoken much about their feelings during the class discussions or the partnerships moments, in fact. This was curious to Ms. J and me. Even more curious, though, was the fact that nearly 90% of her students expressed sadness from watching the film, with one writer even expressing, “This film made me devistated.” When speaking that evening, Ms. J and I decided to follow her student’s thinking to lead our discussion the next school day.

We spent some time in a new grand conversation centering student’s voices around this question: What made you feel sadness from this short documentary? Below are the ideas Ms. J captured of her student’s discussion around their feelings of sadness.

One other theme that emerged from both their discussion of the film and their reflective writings was this: the message from the film was one of being proud of yourself and showing everyone who you really are. As Ms. J’s students expressed sadness that the children in the film weren’t revealing who they really were, it occurred to me that perhaps talking about the reasons why it’s hard to be who you are, might shed some light on their noticings in the film. I posed this follow up question to the group: Why is it hard to be brave enough to be who they are? Below are the captured responses during our discussion.

As they delved deeper into the idea of why it was hard to be brave to reveal who you are to others, many students spoke of being judged for your true self. So Ms. J and I followed this line of kid thinking to explore this notion of judgment. We posed this question: What are other times people judged? As her students revealed their ideas about why people judge one another, we noticed they began to discuss the notion that particular identities caused some to judge others. And there it was: they began to delve into a discussion of identity naturally.

Democratizing the Classroom: Centering Students’ Cultural Capital.

As Ms. J and I reflected upon the day’s discussion and the very astute thinking her class had engaged in, the same thought emerged to us: what did her students already know about the concept of identity, what identities did they see in themselves, in their community, in the world, and how might they come to expand their notions of identity through a dialectic engagement with peers? This emerged as our next day’s focus: finding out what students already knew about these concepts, what funds of knowledge they already possessed about these topics, so we could leverage that to build an inclusive foundation upon which we could anchor all future learning we delved into about identity. We de-centered the power that comes with adult “knowledge” and created spaces where student knowledge would frame the entirety of the study of identity this school year.

The next school day, we posed this question to build upon the previous day’s work: Identity. Who are you? How do humans categorize themselves? We jotted a few ideas on the board from the previous day’s kid thinking to get the conversation going with her students (e.g. interests, language, abilities, styles, action). Students then turned to a partner to discuss what they defined as identity and who they were. As we listened into partnerships, they continued to restate the ideas on the chart from the previous day: interests, actions, styles. They were staying in this realm of thinking. Ms. J and I checked in with one another really quickly as her students wrapped up their thinking in partnerships. I mentioned to Ms. J that they were seemingly not yet delving into more complex ideas of identity for some reason. She noticed the same thing. We were trying to figure out what was preventing her students from naming some of the really big pieces of people’s identities and that’s when it occurred to Ms. J. She said to me, “Maybe they are afraid to name some of these identities.” That’s when it hit me, too. The power dynamic was off: her students thought they couldn’t discuss some of these identities because two adults were in the room and they thought they weren’t supposed to “talk about these things.” She and I eyed one another and that’s when she said to me, “I’m gonna try something.”

Ms. J gathered her student’s attention back and made this statement to her class, one in which she decentralized her power as an adult and handed over collective power to her entire class, essentially democratizing the classroom in one statement that changed forever the space and created what I’d consider an empancipatory space. The shift was palpable.

“I’m gonna challenge you to say things you think you’re not supposed to say. Say what you want to say, say what you think you might not think you are allowed to talk about or what you might think is wrong,” Ms. J stated to a room full of wide-eyed 5th graders. As I scanned the meeting area to notice her student’s reactions, smiles spread across the faces of many, side glances to classmates occurred, and one student even said, “Like certain words?” to which Ms. J responded, “Naw, not like foul language.” A little giggle from some students. To both process what she had just said to the class and to have a chance to think about additional ideas, we had her students check in with their thinking partner again.

That was the critical moment that rendered her classroom a truly inclusive and democratic space that honored all voices: her students began naming all the identities they’d been too hesitant to name just moments before. Almost immediately, one student yelled out, “Genitalia,” to which Ms. J clarified, “Gender?” and the student said, “Yeah, that.” One student said, “What’s gender?” Students clarified, “Like female and male.” Immediately, three students said at the same time, “Transgender!” And that was the moment: the class was off and running with all their depth of beautiful cultural capital that they were now centering in the classroom as Ms. J and I facilitated and admired the liberation of their profound knowledge. Here are some of their responses and some of the thinking that was expanded upon with each identity as we asked if they knew more about each:

  • genitalia (Ms. J clarified, “Do you mean gender?” Yep, the student answered)
  • gender, female, male, transgender, non-binary, agender
  • heterosexual, homosexual, gay, lesbian, straight, bi
  • skin color, race
  • wealth, class
  • beliefs, ideologies
  • religion
  • size
  • aspirations
  • illness
  • homeless
  • age
  • traits

Below is an image of the messy thinking from our discussion that day (isn’t thinking always messy!) and an image of the chart that will anchor future discussions. We intend it to be used as a living, breathing space designed to grow as their knowledge grows.

                

Our next steps with her class tomorrow are to delve deeper into personal identities: how do we self-identify, how does the world perhaps identify us, and who has the right to identify us? We are hoping this co-constructed learning creates the foundation for us to grow thinking across the year, anchoring all our study around identity, privilege, power, and oppression through critical literacy practices, shared reading, read aloud, and writing.

Our Collective Humanity.

I will revisit with you what I seek and how your action in this narrative is essential.

Again, what I seek:

I seek to see my child survive to adulthood.

And I seek to see my child thrive along the way.

I seek to see my child’s peers survive to adulthood, too.

And I seek to see my child’s peers thrive along the way. All of them.

I also seek for your children to thrive into their adulthood, too.

I hold the steadfast belief that if we can all collectively commit to talking about things with one another, all things that truly matter, that children and adults alike will be able to find the humanity in one another in all the spaces that our shared realities reveal. It is my hope that as children are able to explore the notions of identities more in inclusive spaces, those empancipatory spaces that privilege their ideas and amplify their voices, that perhaps it will have an effect on reducing, and even eradicating, the school-based bullying and harassment that so many of our youth, especially our transgender youth, feel in spaces they share with other youth and adults. Perhaps if children grow up with notions of how identity is woven into the larger narrative of privilege, power, and oppression and they come to realize they have the opportunity to challenge, dismantle, and shift this oppressive system in big ways, that one day they will be successful in creating a society within which everyone feels belonging to one another and they are seen, heard, and honored for who they authentically and gloriously are.

For you to really know me, you must know yourself, first. It’s critical we re-examine our role in this narrative, create pathways in the spaces we share with children and youth to do this critically important work, and take giant steps toward living out our humanity toward one another in compassionate, just, and liberating ways. Our youth are counting on you. My child and I are, too.

___

Published with permission from two educators in our advocacy network. -C

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Be Present. Hear Children. And Just Love, Fiercely.

“Mom, you just don’t understand me,” he said to me with every molecule of impatience his adolescent self could muster on a Friday night after a long week of school, the first week in fact, of this new school year.

Two things about these six simple words I’d humbly like to communicate to you.

First, if you’ve children under your care, you’ve probably been there with me, right? You’ve heard these words echo through your head, echo through your heart, really. If you haven’t, just wait. I promise you, they’re coming. I wrote the words above in plain text, but the drawn-out emotion behind the words I can hardly begin to articulate to you.

This is my best attempt:

“Mooooooooooooooooooooom” (drawn out the length of a roller coaster with every consecutive ‘o’, complete with the ups and downs echoing the moving cab on the rickety wooden structure).

“Don’t” sounded more like “don’t”(with the eye glaring emphasis of a newly minted adolescent, fresh into the declared realization that mom “knows nothing” “isn’t cool” and “just has never lived a life” kind of emphasis).

“UNDERSTAND ME” should be in all caps. (Raised voice, eyes rolled, completely aggravated with me).

All at the same time. Sigh.

Second, he’s right. I don’t understand. But I’m trying. I’m trying so very hard. I don’t understand what it’s like to be a young adolescent trans boy trying to navigate through life and just be.

Just be settled.

Just be happy.

Just be included.

Just be loved.

Just be seen for more than that trans boy by his peers.

I just don’t understand the feelings of marginalization his identity bestows upon him. I’ve never lived my life in a marginalized identity. This reality I’ve learned these past years as I’ve journeyed with him during his on-going transition to live his life authentically and more visibly. I’ve never lived my life as a trans person so I agree with him: I don’t understand. But it’s my maternal instinct to do just this: understand my child. Hold his pain. Hold his worry. Hold his frustration. Hold his heart during these trying adolescent and teen years ahead. I cannot help myself or my heart.

His six simply complex words humbled me instantly.

Let me back up and give you a bit of context for his six seemingly simple and infinitely complex words on a Friday night and then three things my young son taught me, a person four times his age. And for transparency’s sake, this is a truth I hold: the wisdom of children is uncanny for creating seismic shifts in my heart, my thinking, and most especially, my actions.

Context.

Wanting to debrief on his first week of school, I naturally asked how it was all shaking out in his new class. Our dialogue:

Me: “How’s it all going, dude? How’s the class and how are the kids treating you?”

Him: “Fine. They’re all being nice, really nice.”

Me: “Oh, that’s good to hear. They’re being nice, that’s great.”

Him: “No, mom, they’re being too nice. Like treating me too nicely or something.”

Me: (pause, to figure out where he was going with his) “That’s a good thing for the kids to be nice, right? Remember last year, it took some of the kids a long while at the beginning of the year to finally get it and call you by your new name, use ‘he’, and understand. Remember?”

Him: “Yeah, but they are being too nice, like, because I’m transgender. They must think I’m, like, sensitive or something. I just want them to treat me normally, like everyone else. I’m not sensitive, mom.”

Me: “ There is no such thing as normal, love. And isn’t it a good thing they are being kind toward you?”

Him: “Mooooooooooooooooooooom, you just don’t UNDERSTAND ME.”

(Me: he’s right…)

He was expressing to me a desire to be treated kindly but just like everyone else. That’s what he was expressing, a desire to be treated “normally” and not to be treated differently because of his visible identity as a trans boy. Yep, he’s right. He’s completely one hundred percent right. While I’d assert that the notion of normal is a myth, I get what he was expressing to me: he wanted to be treated like every other boy in his class and not differently because of an aspect of his identity. It was noticeable to him and upset him. As a mama, while I’m grateful children were not being overtly unkind to him, as they had been for a large portion of the beginning of the school year last year, I could also see his point that being treated with kit gloves wasn’t the ideal either. I understand now. I wish I did during our conversation, but that’s what a bit of time reflecting and a whole lot of writing does for me: gives me clarity.

My Clarity. (e.g. How I’m Growing as a Human Being Through an Ever-Expanding Book of Life Lessons Taught To Me By My Nine-Year-Old)

Be Present. A hard ask for so many of us, to be truly present, right? It seems nearly impossible in the fast-paced world within which we live, filled with the myriad things that need to be accomplished, checked off, attended to on a daily basis. Being present does mean a sacrifice, yep, it’s true. It means we must prioritize our time, our focus, our attention. And the priority must be on the young lives we have in our life. It’s a non-negotiable. They deserve our time, our focus, and our presence in their life in a present state.  It’s not enough to just occupy the same space as the young people in our life if we’re distracted by our own agenda and our minds are a million miles away. It’s superficial: we are physically there but we are not present. Put down the cell phone. (Guilty). Quiet your mind. (Can hardly). Close your mouth tightly. (Getting better).  Focus your eyes on the child in front of you. (With pleasure). And listen with the intent to hear. And don’t respond. Just quiet your mind, mouth, and heart and just hear. It’s possible. With anything, you get better with practice. So, try it. It’s worth it. Children are worth it.

Hear Children. Kids know the difference between listening with the intent to talk over, around, and for them, as if you’re just waiting for their words to end so you can interject your words of wisdom, shut them down, and then move on. It’s clear and kids get it. They also, though, feel it when you’re in their space to actually listen with the intent to hear them. To actually take all your interjections, responses, thoughts, words and push the pause button so you can clear you mind and heart to create space to truly hear them. It is human nature to want to be heard by others, especially those you value around you. Being heard by another human being is arguably one of the most grounding experiences we can hope for.  When children are truly heard by influential adults in their life, it makes all the difference. Don’t just listen; strive to hear those young voices around you. It matters a great deal to others and it should to you, too.

Just Love. Above all else, just love, fiercely. Love unapologetically. Love with your heart pouring out in words and actions. Love authentically, showing through your undying stance with the children around you that you truly care about them. You are consistently there for them. Always. Unconditional love is a non-negotiable in our family. That’s what we do. We love. We strive to always make our love visible, actionable, not just through our words, but through our actions and our intent. It matters a whole lot. To have the core around you know your authentic self and love you unapologetically and unconditionally makes all the difference in creating a solid foundation within which you venture into the larger world to make your mark. My kid is going to change the world; he already has, and he’s going to be stepping out into the big wide world with a foundation of undying love from those in his life that will catch him forever more. Just love. You have the ability. Do it, fiercely.

I will never be an adolescent trans boy trying to navigate the world around me that at every turn seems to conspire against my very existence. I will never understand what it feels like to contemplate how to, when to, and to whom I should come out to. I will never deeply understand what it feels like to question why everyone around me is being so “nice” to me. I will never understand the myriad things I don’t know. But what I can understand and make actionable? Be present for my child. He needs this. Hear him. He understands this. And love him unconditionally and unapologetically. He deserves this. He is a change-maker of his generation. One day, you’ll come to realize this, too. Remember this, friends: right now, we are raising the future generation of change-agents of our eternally flawed nation. Don’t we want them to be a generation of children who have loved ones around them who are present, who hear them, and love them unconditionally and unapologetically? I know I do. It matters to my child, it matters to yours, too. So, it should matter to you.

___

Published with permission from a parent of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C

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365 Days

I’ve been trying to figure out how to save my child for 365 days. I’m going to say that aloud to myself, so my soul can hear what I just wrote: I’ve been trying to figure out how to save my child for 365 days. That sounds weird to say, perhaps even a bit arrogant or presumptuous, right? But, as a mama, it’s true. So, I don’t really care what it sounds like too much, because it’s my truth right now. Please know this too: when I say that I’m trying to figure out a way to save my child, I do not mean it in the white savior complex way that so many western white folks say it with hubris and devastating outcomes. I say it with pure humanity and love in my heart to see my child survive into adulthood. And it’s devastating that I’m naming it even as surviving and not thriving instead, but I’ve learned enough to know that surviving is what this game of life is about; thriving is an unrealistic goal, sadly. A bit of context for you, first, and then three lessons I’ve learned these past 365 days of steadfast work and research across this nation trying to figure out how to save my child.

Context.

Essentially, I am trying to figure out a pathway, any pathway, that saves my child’s life, and that of his young trans peers in a country that is built upon this shameful truth: we privilege those closest to whiteness in a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, religiously intolerant, hypocritical world. If you’re with me on this truth, I appreciate you not judging me for realizing this reality within which we live more recently; I acknowledge you’ve known this truth your entire life. If you’re not there with me yet, you will be soon, I suspect. On August 1, 2016, I began to search this nation to figure out what human beings were doing to create the conditions within which we could shift the oppressive narrative that renders trans youth essentially powerless in our nation, which leads to over forty percent attempting suicide over their lifetime, and that creates little space for them in much of our public world, in our communities, and in our school cultures. My path has led me to seek knowledge in myriad realms: community spaces such as churches and our local LGBTQ center, academic settings such as universities across the nation and the published work by scholars in this field, school settings such as elementary and middle schools coast to coast, literacy spaces such as national and international conventions, and connections with authors, researchers, community members, educators, religious leaders, and just about anyone who would spend time talking with me. I’ve been trying to figure out who is doing the work to shift this narrative, both in a time when I had hope for a progressive future for our country and now, in a time after the devastating blow characterized by our nation’s election, which has centered an unending oppressive stance toward the trans community within the last seven months, a part of which my beautiful child has found community within.

Lessons.

Humility. I read a quote by Dr. Christopher Emdin (follow his work on Twitter @chrisemdin) the other day that I’ve essentially had to learn the hard way. He wrote, “Never work FOR marginalized communities. Work WITH them. Working FOR brings hubris forth. Working WITH brings endless gifts.” I’m in one hundred percent agreement with him: my goal is to work with a community my child has now entered by the realization of self. I am a cisgender heterosexual white woman and those identities bring a ton of privilege, translated into our society as power. And with power, I’ve made a ton of mistakes in 365 days. Big ones, small ones, and ones in between. The small ones hurt just as much as the big ones, especially those that have been at the expense of another’s feelings. Of course, none have been made purposefully, but out of my unknowing, naivety, or ignorance. But, none of that matters, really, at the end of the day. My intent is not as important if my actions render someone feeling hurt. So, as I’ve made mistake after mistake, I’ve learned what it means to really apologize. A real apology. The other week, I was watching a panel with one of the minds and voices I look to for mentorship, Alex Gino (follow their work on Twitter @lxgino). They were on a We Need Diverse Books panel at Book Expo America in June and the first question began with defining what an apology is. Alex’s explanation was essential (they borrowed some thinking and adapted it from a workshop they attended at NOLOSE). You can find their words here; go have a listen, the panel is breathtaking. Here are the words Alex has given to define the actions I try to lead with as I make mistakes, as I know I will continue to engage in my life’s work and enter spaces I’m not sure how to navigate. Mistakes are inevitable.

Alex defines an apology as having “three parts, plus homework.” Alex’s words below:

  1. “The first part is where you actually say you’re sorry for what you did…I did a thing.”
  2. “The second part of that apology is: thank you, thank you for pointing out to me that I have wronged you, thank you for saying something. It is not fun to call someone out, so thank you for trusting me with that information.”
  3. And in the future, I’m going to ____…so that you don’t do the same thing again.”
  4. Homework: “You still have all those emotions, your homework is go talk to someone else about that…you need to figure out why it happened, so go talk to a person who shares that privilege.”

Their words are immensely important and have really solidified language for me to guide how I address the myriad mistakes I’ve made and am bound to continue to make. I appreciate their clear stance on each part, especially the last part: go work out why you did a thing, but don’t do it with the person you’ve wrong; that’s just oppressive to think the person you’ve wrong now has to spend time trying to make you feel better by helping you unpack why you did a thing. That’s just the hubris of the person making a mistake. I agree with Alex, don’t do that. Work it out with folks who share your privilege, perhaps it will help them unpack the mistake and try to avoid making one similar by learning from you. That’s the approach that leads my actions, now, anyway. Thank you, Alex, for guiding my heart and actions with language. And by the way, I’ve been clear with my children when I’ve made mistakes. I’ve told them about them and what I’ve done to try to make it better. I’ve shared examples of how I’ve used Alex’s three parts in my apologies. In our family, we now try to follow those three parts, too, as my two children have lots of opportunities to practice them. Any parent or guardian or adult with youth in their life can attest to this fact: children, especially siblings, have myriad daily opportunities to practice the art of meaningful apology. I hope their ability to express a real apology follows them into adulthood, as they are both bound to make endless mistakes along their life’s journey, as I do in mine.

Community. We cannot do this work alone. Period. If you think you can be a lone person on a mission barreling through life at hyper speed, negating the work of others around you, you’re wrong. Just plain wrong. That’s your own privilege, your own hubris. We’ve all a ton to learn from one another, a ton to learn from the folks doing this work for decades before us. As I’m newer to this work, not to the world of education as I’ve been in the profession now eighteen years, but newer to trying to figure out this specific piece of the puzzle of life, I’m nothing if not for the beautiful work of incredible mentors who came before me. The arrogance to even assert that I’m anywhere near folks who’ve been in this fight, in this research, in this world decades before I would be disrespectful. And, here again, is where humility comes in. It’s something I’ve had to learn: unlearn my privilege in a way that recenters myself in this narrative, in a respectful way to build upon the foundation of those before me, when given permission, and to know when to step aside so my voice does not presume to speak over important voices in this work. It’s been a huge learning curve for me, one I’ll spend a lifetime continuing to work toward I’m sure. I’ll continue to make mistakes, but this work cannot move forward without a collective community behind it. I am grateful every day to be welcomed into this community of thought, research, and action, but I’m always mindful to know my place and navigate with great focus on how I position myself within this community.

Revision. I am not the same person I was 365 days ago. I will never be. I cannot. What I’ve seen my child go through. What I’ve seen his peers endure. What I’ve seen the parents of trans children endure this past year. None of it was I remotely prepared for. Nor was my heart. Nor my soul. I’m broken because of it. I’ve spent the past 365 days breaking slowly, finally recognizing my personhood lay scattered in pieces at my feet, and it was my responsibility to piece myself back together, part by part, to engage in this work to the best of my ability. I call this living life in revision, to borrow a beautiful phrase from Arlene Casimir-Siar. If you don’t know this amazing soul, and how could you not, you should follow her breathtaking work (follow her work on Twitter @ACasimirSiar). Life is dynamic, the only three things certain are birth, change, and death. If we are not in constant change, constant revision, then I’d assert we are not living, just merely existing. I choose a life of living, not simply existing. And for me, it’s not a matter of choice, really, it’s a matter of life or death for my child and his peers to see themselves survive to adulthood. If trans youth are six times as likely to attempt suicide than their cisgender peers, our nation must address this epidemic of thinking death is the answer over life. How can any of us sleep at night knowing that our child or the friends of our children are six times as likely to attempt suicide? I cannot sleep, haven’t been able to in any real way, since my child revealed his beautifully authentic self to our family and became visible to our community. All this and his age is still in single digits. He’s living a life in revision, so what makes us adults think we don’t have to live our lives in revision, too? Hubris and privilege, that’s what. What I can say is this: living life in revision is both a mindset and tangible action. It’s the only way I see defines a life worth living, so that’s what I choose: to live my life in revision, welcoming the pain and the beauty change brings.

On my 365th day of trying to figure out how to make sure my child sees his eighteenth birthday, and then that of his twenty-eighth and every decade after, I will not waver. That’s a mother’s promise to her trans child. I will fight for his right to exist in a world that I exist in. I will continue to do the work I’ve been doing, with humility, with community, with revision. It’s the only truth I know.

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Published with permission from a parent of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C

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Freedom

A question for you tonight: When you were a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up?

Consider this question and hold the answer in your heart. Yep, I said heart. You’ll know why in a minute, I promise when you’ve had a chance to read further. Perhaps you changed your mind multiple times, as many of us do, right? Perhaps you’re still trying to decide what you want to be when you grow up. Some days, I am, too.

The reason I ask this? Because. As a kid, you probably revised what you wanted to be when you grew up multiple times, with no other thought on your mind other than that of what was in your heart. What I mean by that is this: you probably never considered that any avenue was closed to you in life. Am I right? If I am, that’s called privilege. Am I wrong and you did feel barriers to achieving the dreams of what you wanted to be when you grew up? That’s called oppression, but I, as a cisgender white heterosexual woman, don’t need to name that for you. That would be disrespectful of me. You already know that was a tangible manifestation of oppression; you already knew that before I even ever realized that’s a manifestation of the white racist sexist homophobic transphobic society within which we find ourselves living today and perhaps have always lived in. I’m late to the game, I apologize, but I’m here. Thank you for welcoming me.

I became a mother nearly nine and a half years ago. I had dreams about what that would be like, feel like. I’ve been in an amazingly dynamic space to travel with my child, now children, for nearly a decade now. What I’ve realized is this: my children continue to teach me about the world in ways I could never imagine. I’m blessed beyond words for their presence in my life; I feel honored to travel the journey of life with them. Why would I spend time centering my children in this thought piece? Well, other than the fact that I think, as adults, we talk over, for, and around children on the daily, I think we’ve tons to learn from children and their perspective on life’s events.

Case in point: this. Today I had the unimaginable responsibility to tell my nine-year-old that his government just told the country that trans people could not join or continue to stay in the military in any capacity. That if young trans children or trans youth had a dream that one day they would grow up to become a pilot in the air force, a soldier in the army, or a medic in the navy, that they were not allowed. They were not allowed because of an identity they hold as a human being.

My son is a visible transgender boy navigating a world that seeks at every turn to render him invisible in his everyday life in public and actively strips away his human rights, piece by piece. My son is more than just one identity that he holds. Why would the fact that he’s a transgender person disqualify him from joining a profession his cisgender cousins could join, his cisgender brother could join? Does he want to join the military? No. Has he ever considered joining the military? No. Is that the point? Nope. It’s not. The point is, he now no longer has the option to join. He no longer has the choice to choose his destiny in life.

Let’s think for a minute. What if the marginalized identity was not that of a trans person but that of another identity? What if our government said today that cisgender women were not fit to serve in the military any longer? A bunch of parents would need to speak to their children and tell them that the dream they worked so hard to imagine would never become a reality because of one facet of identity they inhabited. What if our government said today that if your identity inhabited a particular race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religious affiliation, physical disability, and so on, that rendered you unfit to serve in the military going forward? And they have, haven’t they? Recently and historically, too. We’ve been here before as a nation, how can we be here again so soon? My mind rages. How many parents would need to speak to their children about a dream being yanked away from them because of one identity they inhabited?

To continue down this rabbit hole of what if’s based on the myriad identities we all hold dear is futile and infuriating, I won’t, and I’m assured you know where my mind is going with this.

So instead, I’m going to return to the original question I asked you to consider in your heart at the beginning of this very raw writing: When you were a kid, what did you dream of being when you grew up? But this time, I’m going to shift the question slightly. As an adult, in the myriad ways we position ourselves with young people in our life as a parent, guardian, family member, educator, community member, were you prepared tonight to communicate to the young people in your life that the dreams they had for their life would no longer be an option because some unforgiving person rendered their dreams invalid? No? Well, me neither. But you know something? I had no option, but to face this disgraceful new reality with honesty and humility for my trans son. No, he does not want to join the military. Never even considered it. But you know something else? That’s not the point. Not at all. The point is this: if he as a transgender person ever considered this as a passion in his life, or ever considers this in the future, it’s no longer an option for him. He’s no longer free to choose this as a career path, his life’s goal. He’s no longer free to choose his destiny in the land of the free. So, in my world, in my family tonight, we no longer live in the “land of the free.” My nine-year-old child is not free to choose his destiny. Sit with that. If you had any question of whether or not you lived in a free society, I have the answer: if my son does not, you don’t either.

Outraged? Then stand tall and visible with us and the myriad families scared beyond belief living their life day by day. Talk about this injustice in your realms of influence. Talk to your friends, families, children. Inform them of your outrage. Talk to your children’s teachers and tell them to speak. Take action in the spaces you occupy, on behalf of your deep beliefs and on behalf of my child, because if he’s not free, none of us are.

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Published with permission from a parent of a young trans child in our advocacy network. -C