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 

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.

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.

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. 

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. 

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.

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Published with permission from two educators in our advocacy network.

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.

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. 

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.

___

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

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.

___

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

Endangered

Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.

-Ta-Nehisi Coates from Between the World and Me

I sit with this. Please sit with this, too, for a while. Read and reread it over and over, as I did. Please.

I am a white cisgender mama. I cannot begin to profess that I tangibly know what it feels like to be a parent raising a black child in the America of 2017 within which we find ourselves living today. That would be disrespectful of me to try to prove otherwise. What I can attempt to articulate to you is this: it feels like it must be frightening, disorienting, and disillusioning to raise a black child in our oppressive society today and this feeling must certainly span the history of our country since its inception.

What I can speak to, however, is how it tangibly feels to be a parent raising a young visible transgender child in the same America within which parents are trying to desperately raise their black children to not only survive, but thrive, in a landscape branded by white supremacy culture, racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, classism, ableism, and religious intolerance.

I am the mama of a visible transgender boy who is of elementary age. I’m going to take immense liberty right now and draw parallels between the words Mr. Coates uses to express how he feels toward his only son and how I feel toward my only transgender son. I ask your mind and heart for permission to explore this notion. My intent is to express the visceral reaction I had to these two lines from Mr. Coates’ book Between the World and Me: “Black people love their children with a kind of obsession. You are all we have, and you come to us endangered.” (p. 82)

His words sliced my heart open and what poured out was bloody truth that I’ve long been afraid to confront. My liberty, if I may, Mr. Coates, and you, my reader: Parents of transgender children love them with a kind of obsession. They are all we have, and upon realization of self, come to us endangered.

The idea of the word endangered and its meaning dramatically disrupted my thinking as I read it just mere minutes ago. I could not go on reading before getting my thoughts down here. I acknowledge that I’m not sure where Mr. Coates will lead me on a journey of thought next, as I near the second half of his prolific book, but I must pour this out right now. I’ve never looked at my child as an endangered being. That is what he is, though. That is what society has rendered him; endangered. My only association with the word endangered has been its affiliation with endangered species, of both animal and plant variety. My child is a human being, therefore, of the animal variety. He is an animal, in the physical sense of one’s notion when thinking of humans as animals, right? Is he to be treated like an animal by systemic societal oppression, though, for the mere realization of self? This is a notion that my brain cannot attempt to answer, one that my heart cannot begin to reconcile.

My heart cries out in reaction to this.

My beautiful boy is NOT an animal. He should NOT be treated as such. His rights should NOT be systematically stripped from his personhood. He is a human being who deserves every right and privilege any cisgender peer would be afforded. He is light for my eyes, music for my soul, and admiration for my heart.

Yet, he is an endangered boy. He will endure a life of lived oppression. He will navigate a world inhabited by people that by sheer right privilege affords them, will render him invisible by their inexcusable inaction to fiercely walk visibly in allyship with him; inhabited by others that more devastatingly actively seek to erase his personhood and perhaps even his very life.

My two boys are all I have. My family, friends, and colleagues are beautiful and yes, I have them. But, my boys are all my heart, soul, and blood have at the end of the day. They are the legacy I give to the world as I pass one generation’s fierce wisdom and inexcusable mistakes to another. Their happiness, well-being, and future are my heart’s every breath. They are my obsession. Mr. Coates put to words what my soul has been trying to articulate for years.

I see myself in his parenthood.

I see myself in his humanity.

I see myself in his pursuit of justice.

One of my boys comes to me endangered. While I seek with every last fiber of my body to create a world of justice and equity that he will one day inhabit, I know the reality of his larger identity’s narrative. I seek to change that narrative. I seek to change that narrative for him, his trans peers, and the families that journey with their endangered children, too. I seek a world that will be reflective of his brilliant image, his kind heart, his gentle eyes, and his humorous stance on life.

I am a white woman speaking the only truth I have. I am an ally to the black community raising their endangered children. I act in the bravest ways I know to push back against a systemically racist society that would actively seek to erase their personhood. I talk about what I’ve seen, heard, learned. I engage.

I seek to make something in my mind’s eye a reality, too: that my child and his trans peers are no longer endangered children eradicated by a populous not brave enough to stand with him, with them, with me, with us.

Are you brave enough to stand with us, visibly?

Then prove it. Prove it to him. Prove me wrong, that my son is not an endangered boy. I beseech you: be a disruptive force and work actively with me to change this narrative for my child, his trans peers, and the families that obsess over them. Be a force for visible change in your family, in your community, in all the realms of influence you have in your life.

Be brave. Stand tall. Speak up.

I revisit Mr. Coates with you once again. I will carry his words, and the meaning they hold, with me for a lifetime as his parental prose has created new language for my heart to frame my mind. Please shift the narrative that renders children living today as endangered beings by mere right of birth or realization of self.

You’ve power, use it for justice.

___

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

Bravery

I felt brave when I was telling my friends about me.

I felt brave when I was still friends with a girl after she told almost everyone in my classroom that I was transgender.

I felt brave when I stood up for myself and stopped a girl from shacking my shoulders and telling me to stop being transgender.

I felt brave when I got my first bakest in bakestball in my coed lege.

I felt brave when I started bakestball because I was scared–I was a newb.

I felt brave when I stood in front of my class and gave a presenteation about Steve Jobs.

I’ve not always been me–I’ve been somebody else.

I felt brave that I acallel got through the year.

___

Published with permission, in original form to honor the agency of this young writer, from a transgender child in our network.

Silence No Longer, Families

Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.  -Dr. Maya Angelou

I’m going to ask you a few pointed questions up front, I sincerely hope you don’t mind.

Still there? Brilliant! Here goes…

If you’ve children under your care (as a parent, guardian, foster parent, grandparent, auntie, uncle, or myriad other ways children might grace your life) have you talked to them about the concept of a trans identity, especially, that of trans youth, transgender children, or non-binary youth?

If you have, what lead you to bridge this conversation with the children around you and how’d it go? (Oh goodness, I wish I could connect with you. Maybe send us an email if you want to share your story…one can hope, right?).

If you haven’t, what’s stopping you?

Perhaps…

  • …it’s not occurred to you to do this yet?
  • …you feel your children are too young?
  • …you think they’ll learn about this identity from the schools they attend?
  • …you think this topic doesn’t affect your family, so why bridge the conversation with your children right now?
  • …the topic makes you feel unsure, uneasy, or nervous to talk about?
  • …there are other things creating obstacles for you to venture into a conversation around this topic?
  • …you’ve been considering it, but you’re not quite sure what you might say to your children, other family, or community members?

I understand. It’s complicated, right?

Tonight, my focus is on those of you who haven’t ventured into a conversation about a trans youth identity with your children, which I might wager to guess is the majority of you? Not sure, but that’s the feeling I get from the world around me these days, especially since the events of the last eight months have unfolded in layers of deeply felt horror in the communities I’m a part of. Why, you might ask, am I going to focus on those of you who haven’t yet broached this conversation with your children? Because. Really, it’s my earnest hope that by the end of this thought piece, you’ll find it in your heart to rethink the obstacles preventing you from having this conversation with those little ones around you, dive right in, and make your way through your first (of many to come, I hope) conversations about a trans youth identity.

Disclaimer: there is no “one” trans identity, as there is no single narrative that defines any of the myriad identities that we all hold dear to define ourselves. Everyone lives a life that is uniquely different, based on time, space, born and identified identities, and so on, right? With that said, though, I’d assert it shouldn’t prevent you from venturing into an open and honest conversation with your children about the fact that trans children do indeed exist in our societal landscape, in our communities, in our neighborhoods this very moment. Trans children exist all around you and your children. In your children’s schools. On their sports teams. Sitting right next to you in your house of worship or on the train as you travel to work. Trans children are in line in front of you at the grocery store and grabbing a bite to eat at your local diner. They are walking down the street past you holding their family’s hands for safety, just as your own children do yours. You may never know just how many trans children you and your very own children come in contact with throughout your daily life, as many prefer to live a life of anonymity and not reveal to the general public their identity for personal reasons, and truly, you should never assume one’s gender identity at a glance, especially that of a child, but you’ve met a few trans children, as have your children, without ever knowing it. I’m pretty comfortable stating this as a truth. And, you and your children will meet more trans youth as you progress through your lifetime. You’ve such a beautiful opportunity right now, yes, this summer, to jump into your first conversation with your children about a trans youth identity. Tonight, it’s about bravery and acting in a just way.

So, not to dissuade you from jumping into a thoughtful conversation on this topic with your children, but I want to briefly unpack a few of the reasons adults have named as to why they haven’t jumped into this conversation with the little ones around them yet. My intent in unpacking these reasons is to offer you some novel thinking that may help you unpack the rationale behind this kind of thinking and ultimately help you dismantle the validity of each reason. Truth be told, for transparency sake. I most certainly do not intend to deny these reasons live invalidity in some adult’s minds, as I respect everyone’s initial hesitation to jump headfirst into uncharted territories with their children. With that said, however, what I cannot respect, again for transparency’s sake, is the notion that with new information and learning, we do nothing with it to change our actions.

“When you gain new insight, it is really important to change your life to match your new understanding. To choose not to change is to embrace ignorance.” A brilliant mentor of mine stated these powerful words that have echoed through my mind and heart ever since I heard them stated. They sliced me in such a visceral way. You, as well? It is my eternal hope, that after reading this thought piece, seeking to grow your knowledge a bit more, checking out a resource or two (some great ones can be found here), and thinking more deeply about what your true role of influence is as you follow alongside your children through life’s windy path, you seek to begin having these conversations with the children in your life. My stance: to do nothing with the new insight you gain, to not shift your actions going forward, even ever so slightly, is to embrace ignorance. Harsh? I don’t think so, at least I hope not. Honest and direct, completely. As Dr. Maya Angelou once famously named, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” I hope that by the end of this reading, you’ll know more, enabling you to do more, to do better for all our precious children.

Roll up your sleeves, we’ve work to do unpacking some of these adult reasons for not engaging in conversations with their children about a trans youth identity. But guess what you’ll find at the end of this proverbial rainbow? The ways inclusive adults in my life have engaged with their own children about a trans youth identity. I want to provide you a bit of a road map as you edge closer to beginning this work with your own children this week, this month, this summer.

It’s not occurred to me to talk about a trans youth identity yet.

Beautiful, I hope by the end of reading this, and perhaps some of the other posts on our Journey Project Blog (found here) or our Resources for Families (found here) it now occurs to you to do so.

Aren’t my children a bit too young for this conversation?

When did you first realize you were a boy? A girl? It’s a real question. Consider and then keep that age in your mind. Perhaps four, five, maybe six years of age, right? Well, that’s the same for transgender children and trans youth. Research has shown that children as young as these ages know their gender identity. Sometimes this gender matches the gender they were assigned at birth by the doctor (based often solely on external sex characteristics). The name for individuals who identify this way is cisgender. But sometimes, the gender we were assigned at birth by the medical team does not match the gender we’ve come to realize defines us (or perhaps a gender that’s more fluid, non-binary—neither completely male or female or no gender at all). When our gender assigned at birth does not correspond to the gender we identify with, even at the young ages of four, five, six, a child might self-identify as transgender, trans, gender non-binary, gender fluid, gender non-conforming, agender, gender expansive, gender creative, or a myriad additional terms individuals have the beautiful opportunity to self-identity as. My point here? If your children are three, four, five, six or older, nope, they are not too young to venture into a conversation around a trans identity, because chances are, they’ll have friends at preschool or in kindergarten or at daycare or in your neighborhood who identify as trans.

They’ll learn about this identity from the schools they attend, won’t they?

Perhaps, perhaps not. It really depends. What I’ve found to be true over this past year of researching this very exact thing across this nation, when it comes to public elementary schools jumping into this work of inclusive classrooms that privilege gender-expansive youth, including transgender children, it depends on the state, school district, school, grade level, and teacher. So much depends on so many factors, that I’d be comfortable to state that your child has probably gone to school and never heard an adult in that space utter the words transgender child or read a book that included a trans character in their class. Just as you might feel it’s a bit tricky to navigate as a parent, teachers have a myriad reasons why it’s just as tricky for them to navigate with their students. Those that I’ve had the pleasure of learning alongside as a colleague have the intent to delve into these conversations, but perhaps not the support of those around or above them. Other activist educators are venturing into this work in boldly inclusive ways. What I can tell you is a sentiment from some school districts, those that represent perhaps more conservative communities: let’s trust the parents will decide when to talk to their own children about matters such as this. Well, if that’s a sentiment that pervades the nation, therein lies the paradox: if parents are waiting for schools to delve in and schools are waiting for parents to delve in, no one delves in, no one talks about this year after year, and we maintain the status quo stance that “we don’t really talk about those things with young children.”

Deep breath. Sigh. Not just. Not one little bit. You can sense my frustration. I assume you’d feel the exact same way if something you wanted to happen to badly was caught in a circular argument.

Let’s continue to unpack.

This topic doesn’t affect my family, so I’m not sure what the need is to bridge this conversation with my children right now.

To unpack this point of view, I’m going to draw some parallels from a recent Heinemann podcast on Dismantling Racism in Education (you can find a link here — it’s a breathtaking conversation and you must listen to it soon if you haven’t already). Where the educators spoke of dismantling racism, I’m going to parallel that to the dismantling of transphobic notions. Where they centered much of the conversation around the realm of our schooling system, I’m going to center my thoughts in our homes and community spaces we share with children. I appreciate the generous leeway to draw on their brilliance. Heinemann author and educator Sonja Cherry-Paul’s brilliance in the podcast moved me and one particular thing she said really spoke to me. She asserted, “We can get better at having these conversations about race and racism. They can be more fluid. But the way for that to happen is not to not have them. To have them more. In my work, I’ve been reading a lot of research. There was a study that said 75 percent of white families never or almost never talk to their children about race. When we just think about the intent behind that, whatever it is, if we just ask ourselves, is there any evidence that this assumption works? That our kids are going to be more tolerant and more accepting if we don’t talk about race? Where is the evidence for that? It’s certainly not true in 2017. It’s not true in 2014. If we all just don’t talk about it, we’re going to have these children that grow up to be really amazing. That’s not what they do. They grow up and they take these silences and they try to attach some sort of meaning to it because they’ve been forced to work it out themselves.”

Powerful, right? When I heard her state that 75 percent of white families never or almost never talk to their children about race, I froze. It was truth ringing from her voice to my ears. I think about my own two boys, both in single digits, my youngest can count the number of years he’s been alive on one hand. As a white person, raising two white children, racism touches their lives because unless they learn to actively take steps to address, dismantle, and work against overt and systemic racism, their inaction and complacency to stand against it deem them part of the problem of racism. In the same podcast, Heinemann author and educator Cornelius Minor drew an analogy between racism and sexual violence. He named so clearly, racism “isn’t something that was created by people of color. It isn’t something that is perpetuated by people of color. It isn’t something that people of color benefit from. When I think about solutions to racism, people of color can’t be the only folks doing the work. It has to be white folks doing the work…it has to be white folks saying that this has no place in my community.” I’ve been actively doing this work he speaks about for a while now with my two boys because I know it’s the just thing to do and also, some of their dearest friends are children from a multi-racial family. In our family, we talk about race and racism a lot, more lately. We talk about it when another black body is murdered, especially when it’s that of a child. We engage in conversations about law enforcement and my boy’s role in interacting with law enforcement as they grow older. We watched the PBS documentary “The Talk: Race in America” (you can find the link here, it’s really vital you watch it if you haven’t already) and then engaged in a conversation about it. I constantly tell my boys there is more that I don’t know than I do know, but my stance as a learner is what’s crucial to making steps toward more justice for those around us. I’ve never personally experienced overt racism directed toward me, but I’ve occupied spaces in my nearly forty years on this planet where due to the color of my skin, I’ve witnessed the baseness of racist comments and discussions. The moment I’ve opened my mouth to push back against these comments, there’s been a palpable shift, mouths quiet, stances change, and no longer are these comments said around me. I suspect they continue to be said, but not in my presence, as those assumed my stance on racism was dictated by the color of my skin. How wrong they’ve been. So, you’re wondering why I’m speaking to you about all of this. Because I actively work to be part of the 25 percent of families that do talk about race and racism with young children that Sonja’s research spoke about. I actively take on these conversations with my boys because it matters and as Cornelius said, “It has to be white folks doing the work…it has to be white folks saying that this has no place in my community.” As parents, we are powerful in our children’s lives, do the work. It’s a step toward dismantling racism in the spaces we’ve influence over, our homes, neighborhoods, community spaces.

I ask you now to follow me into my analogy of transphobia. I am a mother of an elementary-aged visible transgender child. I am cisgender. So, too, is my youngest child. We talk about a trans identity all the time in our home. We journey with my oldest in the fiercest way: we are one another’s accomplices in life. Always. As a white person, I agree that racism was not created or perpetuated by people of color and they most steadfastly do not benefit from it, transphobia was not created by or perpetuated by trans individuals nor do they benefit from it. In actuality, the cisgender-created transphobia has caused the trans community tremendous lifelong pain, hurt, and in far too many cases, self-inflicted death and violent murder as a result. So, just as you may be a cisgender person and those in your family are as well, talk about the existence of a trans identity, especially that of a trans youth identity. Name this as an identity that exists in our communities. Make the invisibility of this identity, that so many of our trans kids feel, visible in your home—namely, talk about it.

Not sure how? Below, I’ll delve into that…

Perhaps the topic makes you feel unsure, uneasy, or nervous to talk about?

I’m going to lean on another hero of mine featured on that Heinemann podcast I keep bouncing ideas off of (you really must pause a moment if you’ve not listened to it yet and then come right back. For real.). Heinemann author and literacy coach Sara Ahmed spoke directly to this notion of engaging in conversations even if we’re uneasy and unsure of what to say. Although the context with which she spoke was about racism, I’d like to open her words to encapsulate conversations such as that of trans youth. She stated, “…we don’t have to have the answers when we approach the conversation, right? You can approach the conversation with humility. As a society, we are always looking to have the answer at the end of a conversation. But if we leave that conversation asking more questions, then democracy can evolve. We can progress our democracy if we are asking more questions than having to be confident that we have the answers to everything.” This is incredibly true, right? We often feel nervous and unsure of how to engage in conversations when we don’t know enough or don’t want to say the wrong thing, but Sara urges us to bring our most humble self to the conversation, embody a stance as a learner who does not have all the answers, and that through dialogue and discovery of new questions, we grow more inclusive and more progress toward evolving democracy. There is so much in what she layered here, but the one idea I want to pull from her thoughts is this: we are never going to know everything about a topic; that’s impossible, so don’t let your feelings of not knowing about a trans youth identity personally prevent you from approaching a conversation about a trans youth identity with your children. The humility you model to your children when you are open to talking about things you don’t know about but want to know more about shows your children you’re a learner too, willing to be honest and transparent with your thinking, and show them that it’s more important you stand on the side of talking about the diversity of life’s gifts instead of shying away from talking about topics of life. That stance you embody is almost more important than what you respectfully attempt to say.

There are other things creating obstacles for me to venture into a conversation around this topic with my kids.

I get it. I’ve heard many reasons that adults state that create obstacles for venturing into this conversation with children. Believe me, SO many reasons. I’d still urge you to critically reexamine these reasons and see how you might build pathways around them that lead to an open conversation with your children. I just must insist that you at least consider reexamining your reasons.

I’m considering opening this conversation with my children, and perhaps with others in my family or community, but I’m not quite sure what I might say.

Absolutely. It can be daunting to venture into a conversation that seems out of our wheelhouse. That’s where our shared stories have the brilliant effect of building community, compassion with one another, and the opportunity for you to live another’s experiences before it becomes your reality in your family. What follows is your opportunity to do just what a favorite author spoke of when he so famously said “A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies…the man who never reads lives only one” -George R. R. Martin. You have the opportunity, my reader, to live through a few vignettes, in the parent’s own words, of how they’ve bridged conversations with the children and other adults in their lives, with regards to a trans youth identity. These are all cisgender adults raising or in the lives of children, whether their own, or coaches, or community members. The children in their lives are, at present, cisgender children, but life’s revelations happen at many ages…

Garden Grows

So, I’m in my car with the kids after their last day at school. I’ve got two newly minted fourth-grader boys in the back seat and a brand new eighth-grade girl in the front seat. The boys were chatting about building forts and my daughter was talking to me about her friends. She has a friend who just started dating a guy who dated two other girls and one boy this year. My daughter informs me that he’s bi. She then tells me she has a friend that’s pan. I asked her how “pan” was different and she said she had to Google it, but essentially, she thinks it means that the person falls in love with another person regardless of their sex or gender. While I think about that, she mentions a girl in her grade that she thinks is trans because she dresses like a boy. I ask her how the girl identifies and she says she doesn’t know her well enough. So, I said, “Maybe you shouldn’t label her trans until you know her better because she may not identify as trans.” 

Just then, the talking in the back seat stopped and my son’s friend piped up, “There’s a kid in my class whose trans!” He turns to my son, “You know him.” My son agrees because yes, our whole family knows him. The friend continues, “He’s really nice. He’s just super shy. I can understand that because I used to be shy, too.” 

I glance into the back seat to see his expression and realize he’s just being matter-of-fact about the whole thing. I find this a little surprising because I know his mother is a rather conservative Christian who has specifically told me that she thinks gay people are “not natural” and “weird”. I had asked her if she grew up around gay people or knew any and she said no. I then explained that I had and I did and my impression is that gay people are born that way and they are really no different from us. I didn’t lecture, but I wanted to say more. So, I went on to share some personal stories in order to plant a seed that I hoped would grow over time. With this in mind, I said to my son’s friend, “You know, he might be shy because he’s worried people will bully him. I bet he would feel better knowing that you two boys would stick up for him if anyone said something mean.”

My son agreed. His friend, said, “Oh yeah, but he might still be super shy. Some people are just shy.” I said, “Yeah, you know, some people are just born that way.” My daughter looked at me and we exchanged smiles.

The conversation continued as my son’s friend reach out some more. He said to me, “Did you know the new Kindergarten teacher is gay?”

“Wow,” I said, “That’s great. Is he good with kids? Do you like him?” I knew the boys had seen him on the playground.

“Oh yes, he’s just a regular person. He’s nice.” So, I decided to press a little. I said, “What does your mom think?”

“Oh, she hates him! But I like him.” I was so surprised by his frankness that I just glanced into the back and saw my son nodding at his friend and giving him encouragement. I waited a bit to see if he had anything else to say. The boys went back to talking about forts.

We pulled up to my house and walked inside. I apologized to my son’s friend that it was a little messy. The kids had not cleaned up their books or toys from the night before and the living room looked a little messy. My son’s friend looked at me and said, “It’s ok. I don’t mind. I love it here. I want to live here.” I couldn’t help but smile and feel all warm inside. Whatever is going on in that kid’s life, he feels comfortable exploring his feelings and the world around him when he is with us. I hope that the seeds planted by a shy trans boy in his class and a nice gay Kindergarten teacher will continue to grow and bloom. I’m more than happy to offer him water whenever he comes over.

I am new to this kind of gardening. As a teacher, I have researched and been trained in the fundamentals of child development. But where are the case studies and academic suggestions for parents or teachers navigating these conversations with our newest generation who is rapidly exploring, defining, and creating new language around sex, gender, sexuality, and identity? I find myself buried in my daughter’s Teen Vogue to learn the latest. Basically, I am letting the kids guide me until the world of academia can catch up! I am simply following my instincts and doing my best. I’m probably going to make mistakes but I will own them and make amends. Meanwhile, I will model an open mind, provide a safe place for conversation, and give unconditional love. I can’t wait to see the garden grow. ️

Unconditional Love

“While we try to teach our children all about life, our children teach us what life is all about.”—Angela Schwindt A year ago, my very good friend came to me to share that her daughter was transgender and would now be identifying as a boy. Our families have been friends since her child was two and mine was just an infant (they are now 9 and 7). Our families have shared play dates, BBQs, and family camping trips. At the time, my perspective was to emotionally support my friend in any way she needed as she navigated a new reality of advocacy and support for her child.

A few weeks later, we were getting together for a play date. It was time for me to talk to my two children about what it means to be transgender and wanting so badly for them to be at that play date and be the friends they needed to be. I sat the kids down and explained to them that their friend that they know as a girl feels strongly in her heart that she is a boy and will now be living life as a boy. I explained that it means that she will be dressing as a boy, we will say he instead of she, and she has changed her name. My daughter accepted, in such a simple way of true unconditional love, this truth for her friend. It was very simple for her: she wanted her friend to be happy. She also thought it was amazing that he changed his name and she too wanted to change her name to Katy Perry. I quickly explained to my daughter that unless she is transgender or 18, she is not going to change her name! They arrived for the playdate and for the kids, it was basically as if nothing had changed. For a while, my daughter was a little advocate for her friend. If anyone would use his previous name or accidentally say her or she, she would be the first one to correct them. She especially loved to correct the adults because it took them a little bit longer to adjust because of habit.

There are many times in my life where I feel that my job as a mother is the daunting task of teaching my daughter an overwhelming amount of lessons each day. How to work hard and be proud of your work, how to navigate friendships, how to be responsible, how to be loving. My daughter is a wonderful teacher for me on how to unconditionally love the people who are close to us and hold their happiness above all else, including gender.

Hearts and Minds

My eight-year-old son and I were riding in silence in the car together when he said “Mom, do you know what I think is boring?”  I reply, “No, what do you think is boring?” he continues, “I think it is boring that there are only boys and girls.” I responded to my son with a question: “Do you think there are only boys and girls or do you think people can be something else?” “People can decide to be something else,” he said, “but there are only boys and girls.” 

As my conversation with my son continued, it occurred to me that he did not have the language for what he was attempting to express.  In that same moment, it occurred to me that I did not have the language either and that it is important for my son to know that he can be his total self with me. We talked about his transgender peer.  We talked about his peers who have two moms and two dads. I told my son that the most important parts of people are their hearts and minds. He told me that “people should get to be something different.”

We Are Who We Are

In second grade, we were crossing the crosswalk to our cars.  C said very loudly, “I have a penis!  I have a penis!”  Later that night, I talked to my daughter, R, about it, since C is her best friend.  R told me, “C says if we pull on the little thing between our legs, it will become a penis.”  She has always been so accepting and not judgmental of C, I loved that about her, it was just all no big deal.  I explained to her how she wouldn’t just grow a penis, but sometimes people are born in the body that isn’t right for them, and that C could have a penis one day if he transitions to being a boy (at the time, he was still living as a girl at school).  My two kids had a lot of questions about it, and I explained what being transgender means.  Both of them took it so matter-of-fact, it was not a big deal at all.  My son’s only concern was “I hope C never has to have surgery,” because in his mind, surgery was scary.  It was interesting to me how the children understood it immediately and it was simple and not a big deal. 

I am so grateful they know C.  I feel so blessed that they can experience, at such a young age, that life is full of surprises, that people are so very different, and it’s a much better world when we accept each other and are kind.  There is no need to control other people, to tell them how to live.  R was so happy the day there was an “All Gender” bathroom sign at their elementary school.  She was unhappy when the sign was removed.  I was able to explain to her that not everyone in the world is accepting, but all we can do is continue spreading kindness and acceptance.  They know being transgender is just another thing in the world, just as people are different colors, speak different languages, live in apartments or houses in different cities.  It’s just not a big deal. I think the adults make it into something more, due to their own fears or prejudices.  Children see it’s just not a big deal, we are who we are.

Out on That Field

It was the fall soccer season and the kids were in second grade.  It was the team parent meeting, and then the coach got the girls in a circle on the ground, with me as assistant coach part of the circle too.  The coach said something about there being seven girls on the team.  Then J tapped my arm or somehow got my attention, and I didn’t hear what the coach continued to say.  J’s face was serious and he said to me, “Just so you know, when we are out on that field, there will NOT be seven girls.  There will be six girls and me.  I’m a boy.”  I just said something like “Sure, of course,” because what else is there to say to that?  If J says he’s a boy, he’s a boy. 

He Spoke Out and People Listened

We were making posters for a Girl Scout food drive.  D asked if he could put “Boy Scouts” on the poster, too.  I loved having him in our troop, but it made me sad that it was focused so much on girls.  I never would have thought of that without having D in our troop back then. For the Daisy Tea, he seemed traumatized almost, he was very unhappy to be at such a “girly” event, with dresses and bows.  I am glad he was able to express his feelings, though, and didn’t smother and hide them and just act the part of a girl.  He spoke out and people listened.

Addressing Other Parents

One adult I remember said, “I think W is too young to make this decision.  Do you think his parents are pushing it?  Why doesn’t he wait until high school?”  I was glad to be there, to be able to talk to this adult about what being transgender means.  To ask this person, what if you felt you were in the wrong body, wrong gender?  Would you want to wait years, in discomfort and distress?  I was able to explain how gender is not the same as sexuality.  And how judging someone else is pointless anyway.  It’s discouraging that adults still have fixed, rigid, judgmental ideas like that.  But it’s the world we live in.  Some people have to experience something themselves before they believe it, I suppose.  I know if this person knew W the way I know W, there would be no question and no judgment.

Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about the things that matter. -Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

You matter. You matter a great deal to me and families like mine. If you are one of those adults who does talk about this with the children in your life, please do me a solid. Talk to your friends, adult family members, and other adults in your realms of influence. Share your story of how you began having these conversations with your children. Then, urge them to do the same. Won’t you consider this? It matters that you talk about a trans youth identity with your children. It matters that my kid and his trans peers don’t journey through life with their identities rendered invisible because of our inability or unwillingness to talk to our children about it. I’ve loved the work of radical feminist Adrienne Rich for some time now and have quoted her before, and now, I will again. “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game done with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul — and not just individual strength, but collective understanding — to resist this void . . . and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”

What if we substitute the word ‘teacher’ for ‘parent’ or ‘guardian’ or ‘influential adult in your life’? What would happen then? I’ll tell you: it would be violence against our youth. By refusing to acknowledge the beautifully complex identities of trans youth in our communities, we conceivably erase their personhood from existence in our communities, our schools, our places of worship, our sports teams, our youth activities, our neighborhoods, our homes, our lives.

That, my reader, is not acceptable, it never has been. I implore you: join me, and those other adults I’ve featured through their words in this thought piece and others in your community, in a sweeping movement to take steps toward talking to our children about the things that matter, not only matter to me and to other families journeying with incredible trans youth, but matter to you and your family, too, if we are to progress toward a more inclusive, equitable, and just world for ALL of our breathtaking children.

___

Published with permission from adult allies in our advocacy network. 

The Empowering Impact of Love

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. -Dr. Maya Angelou

A few things I believe, at this point in my life:

  1. No one listens to what you say, not for very long anyway.
  2. No one really notices what you do, perhaps for a split second, but that’s fleeting, really.
  3. Feelings, however, have something really big to do with being able to create the conditions within which change in others, truly deeply felt the change, occurs in folks’ hearts, minds, and actions.

These are my hunches, for now, anyway…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we have such power, as human beings, to influence the way those around us feel. Not necessarily what those around us should feel or certainly not why, but how they are made to feel by our presence in their life. It seems nuanced, but it’s really not. As an adult, cisgender, white, educated woman in a society that privileges most all of the identities that I hold, I have much power in nearly all of the spaces I occupy in my life. I’ve been keenly aware lately of how my examination of this power and privilege I hold is essential in mitigating its effects on those around me. I’ve also come to understand, through much reading, studying, talking to people around me, living and just personal introspection, how dangerous this unchecked power and privilege can truly be.

A professor, who I consider an influential mentor, recently stated on a Twitter chat, “…we need to carefully teach folx how to ‘lift’ + ‘empower’ in ways that de-center priv. no more ‘white savior’ w this work” -Dr. Dana M. Stachowiak. First, this statement froze me in my tracks. It’s true, right, we don’t lift others or empower others. We can only create the conditions within which others feel lifted or empowered, so that they are truly the ones doing the lifting or empowering of themselves. Second, de-centering privilege is key here: to think so much of ourselves that we are the saviors who anoint others lifted, empowered, given a voice, and so on is quite arrogant of us. This goes back to my first point: we can only create conditions where people feel lifted, empowered, heard. Dr. Nicol R. Howard, a professor at the University of Redlands, recently commented, “I know you’ve heard this before: ‘Give students back their voice.’ Resist the idea of ‘giving back’ something that never belonged to you.” Isn’t that the truth? Another’s voice, especially that of a child, has never belonged to adults; that’s essentially adult privilege speaking. Third, when you think about how Dr. Stachowiak urges us to “carefully teach folx” how to do this work, I really want to emphasis her use of the word ‘carefully.’ I believe there is a careful balance of providing adults with the opportunity to outgrow their best selves with new learning, but the careful part comes when they’ve direct influence over children’s lives, as an educator or a guardian/parent/family member/coach/etc. I can’t stress enough how much I agree with her use of the word ‘carefully’ here.

So, let me bring this together for you in a more coherent way, as I may be creating a bit of a tangent. My big idea for this thought piece is this: adults hold much power over children. Unchecked power and privilege are dangerous in our society. If adults hold unchecked power over children, it is just plain dangerous. No one can empower another person. With care, however, one can begin to create the conditions within which others, especially children, feel empowered and gain the tools to empower themselves from an oppressive system that privileges adult perspective, adult voice, and adult presence over that of children. This is my story of how one amazing activist teacher did just such a thing, that both Dr. Stachowiak and Dr. Howard wrote of. I invite you to journey along with me as I unpack how this all came about and attempt to privilege the voice of children by creating space for you to experience this journey through their voices, their eyes.

Have you ever felt like this and asked yourself this question: Is everyone doing this thing and I didn’t get the memo on it? Like, did every have access to this secret knowledge that I someone was absent for, missed the book recommendation for, or (had I been on Twitter when I had the honor of having my own classroom) missed that Tweet about this ultimate amazing teacher thing? (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention to you: I’m an educator on a quest to research exemplar educators across this nation to find out what it is they are doing so artfully to create conditions of inclusivity in their classrooms so all children, including my visible elementary-aged trans child and his peers, feel seen, heard, and privileged within the context of the school and classroom landscape. It’s my eternal drive to make sure my kid and his trans peers across this nation not only survive the systemically oppressive schooling system that has historically defined the nation within which I was born, taught in, and now attempt to actively shift to become more equitable and just for all children, but that they thrive due to the courageously compassionate minds, hearts, and actions of amazing educators, whom I believe to be the most noble of professions in our society today. Phew, so I’ll jump down from my soapbox and attempt to refocus my writing for you…).

Well, one snowy Manhattan morning just a few months ago, I felt this exact thing in a beautiful classroom I visited as a guest researcher: I hadn’t done enough as a classroom teacher, I didn’t know enough then. If only I’d know what I know now. Alas, there is only the past and the eternal present, so although I’d love to go back in time and jump in with both feet to recreate, in my own way, the brilliance I experienced in this activist educator’s classroom, I can only paint you a beautiful picture so you may see yourself in her work and try it out yourself with the children you spend time with regularly, in whatever capacity it is you find yourself in the space of children. My intent for this writing tonight is to center children, but I must also advocate for this amazing educator, as I realize the need for the world to live in this activist educator’s classroom, as I did, and certainly hope to again, one day soon. Ms. T embodies what Bernice A. King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr., speaks of when she says, “LOVE is the most fierce proactive and reactive force. Love is aggressive, intentional, wise, courageous.” I have come to know Ms. T, both as a person and an activist educator, as intentional, courageous, and oh so wise. Here’s why I hold these truths for her. Believe me, once you’re to the end of this thought piece tonight, you’ll either (1) want to be her (2) want your children to be in her class or (3) want to live in her classroom, too, as I do. For this writing, I call her Ms. T, as I honor her request for a bit of anonymity, but she did mention I could share her Twitter handle with you, so if you’re on Twitter, you must absolutely pause from reading this to follow her (@tianasilvas). Okay, you’re back. Let’s continue.

I’m going to sneak in one more belief I hold, and this one is a non-negotiable for me: Adults need to get over their need to control the world. Yep, I said it. I’ll say it again: we need to get out of our own way, and that of children, too, if we are to truly make our belief, that we seek to see the children around us feel empowered a reality. Stick with me, I promise you’ll see why soon. Although I make this statement with the sincerest of intent, I get it, I was once there in my need for control over the world, especially in my classroom with the glorious students that I had the pleasure of teaching. But you knew what, I’ve begun the process of outgrowing that me. I’m not thereby a mile, mind you, but the process of shedding that me that seeks to control the world is happening. I’m consciously working hard to de-center my privilege as an adult around children, and that includes the need for control over their lives, their thinking, their actions, their ability to independently navigate through the world, both as a mom and an educator.

Let me make this more concrete for you: if you’re an educator, for example, think about the context of an interactive read aloud. If you’re a parent/guardian/family member, think about a bedtime story where you’ve read the book to yourself ahead of time and have a sense of how you might want to read the story to the child in your life, perhaps where you plan to emphasize particular parts. You with me? Beautiful. Now, let’s think more deeply about the planning of the read aloud. Essentially, the planning is solely controlled by us, by adults. We control the text selection, how the text is read, when we want to stop and think aloud, when we want to illicit interaction: either through questions to a child or students, and in the classroom context, moments for turn and talks and stop and jot or act out or sketch. As adults, and I know I did, we pride ourselves on the planning of these interactive read aloud of texts. Perhaps we stop for student reactions on the spot, of course noticing reactions from the children around us and responding to these moments as opportunities to tap into the innate human reaction. But at the end of the day, aren’t the read alouds we plan, especially in the context of a classroom setting, mostly controlled by adults, our perspectives, our privilege on what we want students to gain from the text, from our power to control how the text is unpacked for children, from our power to even choose which texts to read aloud? You disagree? Okay, you’ve that right. But, some of what I say must resonate with you. Perhaps you agree and you’ve already been attempting or considering attempting ways around this idea of adult privilege controlling texts. Exciting…I’d love to know more!

So, here’s what I’d like to explore with you for the rest of this thought piece: What would happen if we decentralized our adult power and handed over the responsibility of planning and facilitating an interactive read aloud to children? If we created what Dr. Stachowiah and Dr. Bettez call emancipatory spaces, “spaces in our classroom where there are multiple opportunities to learn about, examine, discuss, and challenge privilege, power, and oppression.” Okay, forgive me, but I must tangent a bit more here to explain why these emancipatory spaces are so vital in this work and then I promise we’ll venture back into the glory of Ms. T’s classroom. If you are interested in learning more about empancipatory spaces, you can follow this link here to their webinar session for The Educator Collaborative’s Spring 2017 Gathering entitled Literacy Classrooms as Emancipatory Spaces: Enacting Radical Love in Times of Hate. It is brilliant, revolutionary, and something that any social justice educator must watch (it’s about 45-minutes, so if you want to go view it and come right back, I’m cool with that. It’s very much worth it and I’m super patient, I’m a mama and an educator, so of course, we must have patience in spades). Dr. Stachowiak speaks of Radical Love, a concept that has stuck with me for eight months after first hearing her speak of it at a national literacy conference. She defines Radical Love as “love amplified. Not just telling someone you love them a lot, when we operate through radical love we are operating through this place of making a conscientious choice to have critical conversations about privilege, power, and oppression in a loving way with other people.” As I’m a steadfast believer in the power of love, her perspective and work move me, influence my work immensely, and guide what I hope educators lead with in every interaction with children: love.

We when co-create the conditions within which students have space to be heard, to bounced ideas off of one another, and to learn from the kid perspective, we all find out what children find important in the text, what they find critical to craft thoughtful dialogue around, and gain the tools to feel empowered and act on this empowerment in big ways throughout their life. This is my hope anyway. Oh, and by the way, the choice of text matters. It matters a great deal. When tackling topics draw directly from what’s happening in the world around children, in their families, in their neighborhoods, their cities, their nation, it matters. Ms. T not only co-created a space where her students felt empowered to plan and facilitate student-led read alouds, but they did it with beautifully inclusive text, one that even included thinking around the LGBTQ community. In her article entitled Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times, Maxine Greene asserts that “Teachers concerned about illumination and possibility know well that there is some profound sense in which a curriculum in the making is very much a part of a community in the making. Many are aware of the call on the part of hitherto marginal groups—ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians—for an inclusion of their own traditions in what is sometimes thought of as the “core” of intellectual and artistic life…There are, of course, thousands of silenced voices still; there are thousands of beings striving for visibility.” And to be transparent, all of the current event articles Ms. T’s student facilitators planned and read aloud were those that touched on topics from the world around us, that I’m sure Maxine Greene, Dr. Stachowiak, and Dr. Bettez would consider under that umbrella of dark times in our present and past history. “That, in part, suggests what is meant by teaching as possibility in dark and constraining times. It is a matter of awakening and empowering today’s young people to name, to reflect, to imagine, and to act with more and more concrete responsibility in an increasingly multifarious world” -Maxine Greene. Dr. Stachowiak and Dr. Bettez also advocate for teaching with radical love in classrooms in times of hate within the world around us, these dark times and constraining times with which Maxine Greene reflects upon. More on the exploration of inclusive text shortly.

So, I promised we’d return to the brilliance of Ms. T. She did this. Yep, ALL of this. She lived radical love in the way Dr. Stachowiak and Dr. Bettez spoke of in their webinar, one snowy day. Forgive me ahead of time, but my words and analysis are far less valuable than the actual words of children. If you know me well, and I hope that you’re coming to do so, you know I take copious notes of student interactions, conversations, and talk. So, I hope the following highly descriptive events enables you to jump into Ms. T’s fourth-grade classroom, in the middle of NYC, to experience the beauty of what transpired that morning.

Student-Led Read Aloud Purpose: Empowerment, Perspective, Ownership

The amazingly talented activist teacher Ms. T had been working with her fourth graders to co-create space for them to become the leading voice in critically analyzing text. She met with a small cohort of student facilitators at lunch to support them in planning a student-led interactive read aloud of current events articles. If you think about it, aren’t interactive read alouds really just a Balanced Literacy component with a supported methodology to enable readers to dig deeper into text, experience listening to text read fluently aloud, to promote reading comprehension skills, conversational strategies, and reflective thinking? They can be more than this, yes, but I’d assert these are essential pieces of the purpose of an interactive read aloud. For the morning I visited her class, Ms. T set up the context of the experience for her readers, one which they’d had some experience with this school year. She reminded them that student-led read alouds were about empowerment, perspective, and ownership. She then reviewed the roles of the group members: the facilitator would be reading the text and questions to consider and the audience would be listening with intent. She also referred to the chart below to help these small groups consider types of questions that often lead to critically questioning perspectives in the text.

Chart of Questions that Lead to More Thinking

The small group of five children, including the student facilitator, a young boy who planned the student-led interactive read aloud, and his four classmates who were ready to jump into the current event’s text, gathered in a tight circle in a space near the front of the classroom. I, naturally curious and admittedly so super excited to experience not only the empowering nature of the student-led interactive read aloud, which was absolutely student-planned, driven, facilitated, and managed, but to see how the fourth graders tackled a text about civil rights involving the LGBTQ community, I was literally ready to jump for joy with anticipation. I cozied on the rug near the group, so as to watch the experience unfold, but to honor their autonomy and space to explore without my adult presence interfering with the process. Essentially, I attempted to be a fly on the wall.

The student facilitator began the interactive read aloud with a moment to linger on the title of the current events article as well as the image. He planned for his audience (the four students in his group) to “jot down what you think civil rights are today.” He asked this question of his audience, “What are civil rights? Turn and talk.” What a way to begin this student-led read aloud, right? Lingering on the title builds context for readers and this student facilitator knew this important technique.

His audience had these various responses, including “Civil rights are like race, gender, democracy.” The student facilitator also noted on his planning page to have his audience linger on this photograph in the article and consider “What is going on.”

Jot down what you think civil rights are today

What is going on

The student facilitator read the first line of the article, “All Americans have the same rights. This was decided when the United States was formed.” He had his audience use a note-taking technique of ADD (add, detail, detail) to turn and talk and then jot in their notebook. He posed this question, “Is this true: did we have equal rights when the country was formed? From what you know? Turn and talk with a partner.” What a poignant question, right? In her twenty-year-old article, Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times, which I’d assert is still incredibly timely today, Maxine Greene states that “without a sense of agency, young people are unlikely to pose significant questions, the existentially rooted questions in which learning beings.” This student facilitator’s question, which pushed his peers to critique the text and decide whether or not they believed that people had equal rights from this country’s inception, was the kind of significant question within which deep learning does begin. As the audience pairs shared ideas with one another, the student facilitator actually coached into their conversations, “Make it a statement, not ‘I think,’ you might want to restate the question before you say ‘no’.” No joke, the student facilitator was coaching into the talk of his classmates. It was breathtaking. Let’s continue! The student facilitator then had the partners switch to add on to one another’s thinking further. As the students shared their thinking, some of the ideas they presented were:

  • “Not all are free, like with their race and gender differences, they didn’t have equal rights.”
  • “Muslims and Jewish people didn’t have equal rights.”

The student facilitator then continued reading the text: “The United States became its own country in 1776. The leaders decided that everyone should be treated the same. It does not matter how people look. It does not matter what people believe. We are all Americans. All Americans have the same rights. This is the law. Sometimes it is not always true. This was the case both today and a long time ago. In the late 1700s, the U.S. government was new. It worked to form the country’s first laws. The laws explained the rights of citizens, the people who are Americans. These laws also did not treat all Americans fairly. They discriminated against Native Americans, African-Americans, women, and others.”

The student facilitator posed this question for his audience to consider with a partner, “What is the definition of discrimination?” A few student responses to their partners were:

  • “It means a little different, they don’t have equal rights.”
  • “They are discriminated on color and gender.”

You’ll notice in the image above that the student facilitator made a few notes on the margins: “What is about” and “Who has power, T T (turn and talk).” He did not explore these with his group at this time, before moving on to page two of the article to continue reading aloud. You know something, often when I plan an interactive read aloud, I plan for stopping points to elicit thinking from children, but I don’t always end up using each place I intended on stopping. This student facilitator didn’t either. It seemed he was responding to his group’s needs and moved along.

The student facilitator continued reading on to the next section of the article, “Different Racial Groups Treated Unfairly. The country soon began to grow to the West. The country now had even more races. For example, a deal in the year 1848 promised Mexicans in the United States the same rights as Americans. In the end, they were not treated fairly. Chinese people were important workers in mines and on railroads in the West. A law in 1882 would not allow them to become Americans. Another law in 1857 took away rights for African-Americans. These laws left African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native-Americans segregated. This means they were separated from whites. By the late 1800s, many of these groups could legally become Americans. Native Americans were not allowed to become citizens until 1924.”

A group member jumped in with this reflection as the student facilitator finished reading that section of the article, “That’s not a long time ago, then.”

“I know!” reacted another group member, in shock.

“Exactly!” reflected another classmate.

The student facilitator then suggested each group member take a moment to process the section in the article, “So, why don’t you, um, summarize this in your notebook.” Each of the four group members spent a few minutes summarizing that section. They then exchanged notebooks, read their partner’s thoughts, and commented in their partner’s notebook. The student facilitator then had his audience share out their thinking. The group agreed this section was about segregation and people not having equal rights.

The student facilitator then read aloud the final part of the article: “Many Who Became Citizens Had to Fight For Their Rights. By the late 1880s, Jim Crow laws separated blacks and whites. For example, black people had to use their own drinking fountains. Blacks and whites sat in separate areas in restaurants or on buses. Most people who finally became citizens found their rights ignored. Certain groups had to fight for the rights they had been given as Americans. They did not really have these rights in their daily lives. Over time, the discriminated groups of Americans has grown. Today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual [transgender is the preferred terminology] people often have to fight for rights. Other groups are disabled people [people with disabilities is more people first inclusive language] and others. The struggle was once about fair treatment for all races. Now, it is about the fair treatment for all groups.”

The student facilitator then asked his group: “Does anyone have any questions about that part?

The kids responded, “No, I’m not asking any question” “Not really, it’s just clear.”

So the student facilitator probed even further, “Any of the words?” And here’s the genius of the student-led interactive read aloud and why it’s such a powerful methodology of youth empowerment: On his copy of the article, where he had made notes as to where to stop and illicit interactions, next to the part in the text where it stated: “Over time, the discriminated groups of Americans has grown. Today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual [transgender is the preferred terminology] people often have to fight for rights.” The student facilitator had underlined ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual’ and asked a question in the margin: “What is about.” He was unsure about what these terms perhaps meant or perhaps was anticipating his classmates might have questions about the terms. The genius about this is as adults, we can only speculate as to what knowledge children bring with them to our classrooms, to the spaces we occupy collectively. It isn’t truly until we step back and listen to what children actually think, look closely at the notes they take on a text, read the questions they want to pose to classmates to unpack complex concepts or terminology, that can we truly have a window into their prophetic minds.

The student facilitator’s audience members responded to his question about the underlined words, “Not really” “Ah…”

Then the student facilitator jumped in and stated, “I would like you to turn and talk and um, can you connect about discrimination.”

One of the group members asked a clarifying question, “Wait, what do you mean connect, like, about discrimination?” to which the student facilitator clarified what he wanted his group to think about, “Have you faced it before?” Groups members stated that they hadn’t experienced segregation or separation themselves.

How has power changed

The student facilitator then posed a question for his group members to consider and asked them to jot ideas in their notebooks. Here was his powerful question: “How has power change? What is the theme of the text?” After students spent a few minutes jotting their ideas, they shared out ideas.

One student stated, “Segregated people want power, too.”

“This is why I think the teacher had us read the Newsela texts after the Declaration of Independence text. There was that travel ban that Trump did. We read the Declaration about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but not all have it now.”

When I now read what the student facilitator wrote on his planning page for the article, “How has power changed?” I’m drawn to bouncing this question against Dr. Stachowiak and Dr. Bettez’s work on radical love: “Radical love…is an invitation to say that we are going to commit to really having these critical conversations about what it means to operate in a system that’s driven by privilege, power, and oppression.” I also witnessed this exchange of truly student-centered dialogue, completely facilitated by students. These professors talk about dialectical ability. They borrow a bit from Paolo Freire’s thinking in his 2005 work “Teachers as Cultural Workers.” They assert there are indispensable qualities for teaching  where “you are creating a literacy classroom space where not only are you having this, using this gift of talking to your students through critical topics, but you’re also teaching your students this ability so you can have dialogic spaces where you can have talk collectively about things that matter.” It’s the part about teaching your students this ability that catches my attention here. Remember my assertion that one role of the interactive read aloud is really just a Balanced Literacy component with supported methodology to enable readers to dig deeper into text, experience listening to text read fluently aloud, to promote reading comprehension skills, conversational strategies, and reflective thinking? Well, just like staff developers and literacy coaches can create conditions where teachers gain tools to create effective interactive read alouds and become expert at this methodology, so too can children: they can expertly become planners and facilitators, using techniques and methodology of the interactive read aloud, to create these spaces of student-led, student-centered learning.

Below is another current event text that another of Ms. T’s groups tackled. I wasn’t able to observe them, but I wanted you to peek at additional student thinking:

As Dr. Bettez asserts, a goal should be to create spaces where “people can come together in conversation, from who they are, people from different backgrounds, people who have different power in society, basically have an equitable space to speak with each other and that those perspectives that we bring are respected, and there is space for us to speak to each other, without voices being shut out.” Don’t we strive for that in society, in our community spaces, with those around us in our professional and personal lives? Why not also strive for this in our nation’s classrooms? If we can agree that adults need to get over their need to control the world and instead invest time in decentralizing their powerful position in classrooms across this nation, we can begin to create the space for empancipatory classrooms to exist, where children feel empowered with tools to tackle text critically on their own terms, to express their thinking, bounce ideas off one another, and create what Dr. Bettez means by critical communities, where “people who, through dialogue, active listening, and critical question-posing, assist each other in critically thinking through issues of power, oppression, and privilege.”

I want to revisit the words of one of my favorite writers, poets, actresses, and human beings in history, Dr. Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Here’s what I believe, and I acknowledge that this is number five and I appreciate your patience with my evolving belief system. I kind of think Ms. T’s students may one day forget exactly what she said to them and did with them day in and day out for 180 days in the fourth grade of their schooling career, but you know what they’ll never forget? How she made them feel: empowered, strong, courageous, capable, wise, trusted, heard, loved. That’s how she made me feel, so I cannot but imagine that’s how her students will always remember her. And I hope for you, my adult reader, that’s how you make the children who surround your life feel: empowered, strong, courageous, capable, wise, trusted, heard, and above all else, loved.

___

Published with permission from an educator ally and a parent of a trans child in our advocacy network. 

Spark, Tinder, Breeze: Conversations As An Act Of Love

“But something else was in the air, something that would become clearer in the years to come. Sometimes the right person tells the right story at the right moment, and through a combination of luck and design, a creative expression gains new force. Spark, tinder, breeze.” -Excerpt from Hamilton

Recently, I was listening to a thought-provoking podcast about dismantling racism in education. You must listen to it. In fact, go listen to it now and then come back and finish reading this. I’ll wait for you, I promise. (You can find a link here). Brilliant, right? Okay, so about midway through the discussion, the topic of having conversations about race and racism came up. My ears instantly perked up, as I’ve been thinking so intently about the experience of sharing our stories with one another as a pathway to build empathy and awareness about our humanity. That feels like really big and really critical work. So, one part of the podcast in particular got me thinking really deeply. The moderator, Heinemann’s Brett Whitmarsh, made this statement to the panel of educators, “Choosing not to have those conversations is a choice to do nothing” to which one of the panelists, author and insightful literacy coach Sara Ahmed, responded, “…what I hope I can bring is the fact that I’m becoming more comfortable with the discomfort of having these conversations.” The idea that the more we engage in conversations that place us in uncomfortable spaces, the more comfortable we’ll become over time. Absolutely. Such a simple statement, yet so profound, right? As the podcast moved along, another panelist, author, and staff developer Cornelius Minor said something that lead me down the path of deep introspection. He asserted upon his reflections of difficult conversations, “This can be something I’m going to engage in this thing with my colleague because I love her…Always just putting humanity at the center of all of this.” The educators on the panel continued their deep discussion about having these difficult conversations around race and racism. My mind was stuck though, struck really by the idea of conversations as an act of love toward one another and a way to act on our deeper humanity. And, something that if we were to do more often, would enable us to become more comfortable in the act of doing.

I sat with this notion all night long. And when I mean all night long, I mean ALL night long. I lingered on this idea of conversation as an act of love. The beauty of lingering on a thought long enough, well for my brain anyway, is that the pieces of my lived experiences that don’t quite fit together in any coherent way, begin to match up in ways I never could have ever anticipated. I agree with the educators on the panel when they expressed the notion that racism and racist structures need to be disrupted and dismantled and white folks need to be active participants in this big work. If I may have permission to borrow from this line of thinking for a moment of reflection in this piece tonight. I believe that systems that perpetuate transphobia need to be disrupted and dismantled and cisgender people need to work actively to dismantle these oppressive systems as well. I hope that drawing these parallels respects the great work that needs to be actively done to address systemic racism in our society while also laying a foundation of thought to the piece I’m writing about tonight. I really hope it’s respectful.  I recently experienced something similar to what this panel of educator scholars discussed on the podcast around difficult conversations, with a slight variation on topic, namely, the transgender community.

As a quick aside, please consider your role in how you position yourself with children: perhaps you’re a classroom teacher, a support staff member, a literacy coach, a staff developer, an administrator, an academic, a writer, a family member, a community advocate, or any one of myriad other roles that keep you in close proximity to youth. I encourage you to keep in mind your role with children as you continue to read this thought piece. It may inform you as to your next steps after you read this. Oh, and yes, I’ll ask you to make a bit of a commitment after reading this, just so you know and all.

And now, just for you, my reader: my exploration of conversations as an act of love.

In a recent article, by Dr. Jamila Lyiscott entitled “If You Think You’re Giving Students of Color a Voice, Get Over Yourself” (you can find her brilliance here), she wrote these words that struck me deeply and frame out what I’d like to explore here: the notion of being heard. When speaking of the young men at Riker’s Island she worked with, as they shared their work with her, she named this truth: “…all we did was lend them an ear. They woke up like that. We did not give them a voice. What we gave them was space to be heard. Students navigate powerful spaces of learning every single day in their homes and communities. Especially when it comes to students of color, the skills, experiences, and rich knowledges that shape their voices are devalued in the classrooms, but are still powerful.”

I cannot innumerate the number of times I’ve heard adults say how proud they were to give students a voice. And, for the sake of transparency, I’ve said that many times before, too. You know something, though, once I read the way she framed it in her article and spent time reflecting upon just how critical the language we use reflects how we think about the world around us, I quickly adjusted my language use and the way I see my role, educator’s roles, really adult’s roles, in children’s lives. We cannot give children a voice, rather, we can create the conditions within which their voices are heard. It’s the same notion here: we cannot empower children, but we most certainly co-create the conditions within which children feel empowered, gain tools for agency and their own self-liberation. A similar idea may perhaps be asserted for the idea of feeling heard as an adult; perhaps. As an educator that has the privilege of working alongside other educators and inspiring their philosophy and daily practice, I have the opportunity to create the conditions within which they are heard. This is a powerful position and with it comes a serious responsibility. So, if you’re like me and hold any professional position within which your direct realm of influence is teachers, their pedagogy, and practice, I’m writing directly to you tonight. Everyone else, again I urge you to find yourself in this narrative and draw parallels to your realms of influence. Now that I’ve laid my cards on the table, literacy coaches, staff developers, teacher leaders, language arts specialists, I urge you to find yourself in the picture I’m going to paint for you in this thought piece. It’s you I hope to really reach tonight.

As a colleague and personal friend, I’ve been working alongside Ms. J for the past three years. Recently, we’ve been working toward something big this entire school year. In a quick synopsis, Ms. J and I took her 5th graders on a journey of thought studying identity through characters in read alouds in her classroom this school year. The last identity we learned about was that of a trans character in Alex Gino’s groundbreaking middle-grade book George. You can follow our journey of study, if you’ve time, along this very blog. So as the school year ended and we reflected upon the year’s study, many things stood out to us. Children have the most empathetic hearts, are ready for big conversations about big topics happening in the larger world around them, and when we as adults create spaces for this critical work to happen, children’s hearts grow deep and minds grow broad. Profoundly affected by the experience of navigating the uncharted territories she and I explored this year in her elementary classroom, Ms. J decided she wanted this work to reach a larger audience than just my writing does, her Facebook posts do, and our mamas who faithfully read about our journey on this blog. Serendipitously, she was scheduled to teach at a local literacy conference the first week of summer. Even more exciting was the fact that her course was designed for educators seeking to learn more about the Balanced Literacy component of the interactive read aloud. Now, I’ve taught a similar course over the past years and I know what it typically entails: defining the component, experiencing a bit of it with students live or watching a video that teachers later discuss, tips on how to pick texts, the parts of planning for it, trying it out with a colleague to get feedback, studying reading skills work…WAIT. STOP. Rewind…how to pick texts for it… That. There. Did you catch that? How to pick texts for the interactive read aloud. As Ms. J reached out to bounce ideas off of me as she planned for her course, she mentioned she’d like to use George as a book to demonstrate the way an interactive read aloud might go. When she told me of her plan, I about jumped off the couch I was sitting on and screamed at my phone: YES, oh please, YES, use George as the text you use in front of the teachers next week. Here’s the thing: as a coach or staff developer, we can choose to use any text we want to demonstrate the methodology we want teachers to see, right? We can choose any text we want when illustrating the joy of the interactive read aloud live with students during a literacy conference or live in a lab in a school that we’re working at, right? So, if we have a belief that all children deserve to see themselves reflected in the fabric of their classroom through the text choices we make, wouldn’t it make sense that as coaches or staff developers we’d want to choose texts that reflect all the glorious children we know our teachers support? And, naturally, wouldn’t this include books that feature trans characters?

You see where I’m going with this, right? Keep that thought in mind. To honor you, I want to make this acknowledgment right now: It’s kind of a big thing to consider, using trans inclusive texts in your work with teachers. It’s kind of a tricky thing to consider, I get that. It’s kind of a political statement to make, I get that, too. Believe me, as a mama of a visible trans child who also happens to be an educator who has a small realm of influence within the spaces I occupy, I get it’s a tricky notion to consider using trans inclusive texts in my work. But you know what? I do it anyway. I do. And you want to know why? Because it’s the right thing to do. It’s the just thing to do. I know you agree with me here. You may be asking yourself, “What would happen if I actually did put down my copy of a beautiful book I always use to demonstrate to eager teachers what an interactive read aloud sounds, looks, and feels like and instead pick up a book that features trans characters to do the same exact work?” Well, it’s your lucky day. I have the story. Well, a story, anyway. As said in Hamilton, I hope I’m the right person who tells you the right story at the right time to be a catalyst in your evolution of self. Maybe, just perhaps. I’m about to open up a virtual conversation with you, a difficult one at that, so that we may engage in an exchange of thinking. And then, don’t forget, I’m going to ask you to act upon what you learn tonight. I just cannot help but ask for your action. Here’s my story, well actually, our story, of how this went for us…

Ms. J created the conditions within which she created spaces, twice in fact, where student’s powerful voices were heard by educators while also opening up the conversation about using trans-inclusive text in the classroom, all because she chose to put down a book she’d used a million times before and instead chose to pick up a book that featured a trans character to do this same exact work. Simple, profound, and revolutionary. Here is how this unfolded over two incredibly poignant days this past week.

Spark

On day three of her literacy session on how to design effective interactive read alouds to support a Balanced Literacy approach, Ms. J invited ten middle schoolers to join her session. She intended for the teachers in her section to experience the beauty of the interactive read aloud in real-time. She intended to have them watch how she did a quick book introduction, modeled her thinking through strategically planned think-aloud moments, how she elicited student interaction through turn and talk moments, stop and jot in a notebook moments, and so on. She really could have used any compelling text to demonstrate this work with teachers. Knowing just how impactful the work we’d just finished exploring days earlier with her fifth graders was, she chose George, as I mentioned before.

Around twenty teachers and administrators, with their notebooks and pens ready to jot notes on the experience, gathered their chairs close, as ten adolescent girls formed a semi-circle around Ms. J, notebooks in hand as well. Ms. J told the teachers: I’m going to demonstrate the parts of an interactive read aloud. Teachers were ready for the experience. Administrators were poised to learn, too. I, however, was beside myself with anticipation about how this was all going to go—I had bigger ideas on my mind with broader implications, as you can probably tell…

Ms. J began with a quick book introduction, focusing on a discussion of the concept of identity, urging the students to think about what identity meant to them. They had a quick discussion with a partner and then shared out their thinking. She wanted teachers to see how this builds a bit of background knowledge within which to place the book and also a quick assessment of what content students already bring to the conversation. Below is some of the student’s thinking.

After this quick conversation, she jumped into reading a portion of chapter one, with a goal to demonstrate the methodology around the teacher think aloud, the idea of the student turn and talk, and the interactive stop and jot technique. All conventional moves in an interactive read-aloud, all through a decidedly unconventional text selection, that I’d assert needs to become a decidedly conventional one in our curriculum in big ways. The beauty of what unfolded next was truly breathtaking, as an educator, a person who thinks children are the wisest people I know, and as a mother of a visible trans child who has felt invisible all year long at school.

Teachers saw Ms. J demonstrate a few think alouds, stop a few times for students to process ideas through strategically planned turn and talk or stop and jot in a notebook moments, but what they internalized was an entirely different thing altogether. They witnessed insight from adolescents that was arguably wiser and more inclusive than most adults I know these days. Sorry, it’s just true. Some of the big ideas the students grappled with their partners around are in the image below.

If we revisit the notions of what Dr. Jamila Lyiscott asserted in her article, Ms. J had just created a space in the room for student’s voices and ideas to be heard and privileged. Teachers were there to learn from Ms. J and the moves she demonstrated to them, but that’s only one thing that happened. At a deeper level, twenty educators experienced the way these ten adolescent girls processed their understanding of the trans-inclusive text George, engaged in conversations around what it means to be a transgender person in our society, and how they could relate to the character in a deep way for the common theme of feeling judged by what society expects of you versus who you know you are at the core. Powerful. All this in a span of twenty minutes which I’ll never forget in my entire life. To end the interactive read aloud demonstration for that session, Ms. J asked the students to jot some words of wisdom and advice they would give to the main character of the story, a trans girl named Melissa. You’ll have the privilege of hearing from their voices a bit later, I promise.

After she thanked the amazing students, Ms. J intended to debrief on the experience with the teachers and administrators. She was hoping to have the teachers reflect on the parts of the interactive read aloud they experienced: the teacher think aloud, the student turn and talk, and then stop and jot opportunities. Instead, what occurred was another twenty minutes I’ll never forget. Let’s circle back to that podcast I mentioned at the beginning of this thought piece, namely when we engage in conversations that feel difficult with colleagues, we can use this opportunity as a chance to grow our understanding of one another, grow our minds broad, and our hearts deep. Conversations as acts of love.

I’d like to paint the picture of this conversation for you, as I know how complex the work of digging deep to navigate conversations with children is. I’d argue, though, that it is our responsibility to facilitate these conversations with students in our classrooms daily. Likewise, I acknowledge the conversations we have with colleagues can be difficult, too, especially around topics that are more challenging to navigate. I believe there are no controversial topics, only controversial opinions on these topics, so I’d assert that using literature that features trans characters in our elementary classroom is not a tricky concept but I acknowledge adults have tricky perspectives on this that need to be mindfully navigated through dynamic conversations. And you know something, I agree with Sara Ahmed, the more I have these conversations myself, and believe me I’ve had lots of opportunities for these conversations to happen time and time again this past year, I get more comfortable having these uncomfortable conversations. It just happens with practice and time. At least it has for me, that’s my truth.

Now, back to Ms. J and the conversation that unfolded over the next twenty minutes. Teacher’s stances could be categorized into three big containers, defining the perspective of the educators in the room:

I am a person who doesn’t see gender (think the person who is colorblind) and thinks this conversation is one that isn’t necessary because we love everyone and if only we could just love one another, it would all work out in the end…

I am a person who has tried this, kinda sorta because I’ve had a trans child in my school, and I know this can be tricky, so more study and guidance would be really helpful, please!

I am a person who has never delved into this conversation or used trans-inclusive texts with my students, but I’m processing what I just experienced from the brilliance of middle schoolers, and am thinking about how this might go in my classroom next year. I’m almost there, I could just use a little support.

Here’s the thing, friends: instead of writing the entire transcript of the conversation that ensued between these thoughtful adults, and if you’ve read any of my writing and you know me, my notebook is full of the play by play of this conversation, truly, let’s pull back for a moment. These educators were engaged in a conversation about a tricky concept. These strangers, essentially, were engaged in the challenging work of expressing their viewpoints, their experiences, and reconciling it alongside what they had just experienced collectively with ten astute middle schoolers. Powerful. I’m going to say that again: POWERFUL. They were engaged in the work of conversation as an act of love. This is what happened when Ms. J chose to use a trans-inclusive text. So, language arts specialists, literacy coaches, staff developers, if you’re wondering what happens when educators experience you using a trans-inclusive text during one of your sessions or lab experiences, they learn what the component is that you’re demonstrating, yes, but they also have an opportunity to engage in conversations as an act of love, deepening their already empathetic hearts and broadening their minds, while building community with other educators traveling into uncharted territory. It’s a beautiful thing to behold, I invite you to step into it with us if you’re not already delving into this transformative work already, which I hope that many of you are.

And, when you thought it couldn’t get any more intriguing, guess what? Here’s where you’ll need to grab the box of tissues and where I think you’ll choose to step onto the path with Ms. J and me if you aren’t already or haven’t already decided to. On the last day of the conference, sessions presented some of their learning from the week. Ms. J decided to center two things here: create a space for student’s voices to be heard, as Dr. Lyiscott spoke of, and center the words of a trans-inclusive book so that over fifty additional educators would have the opportunity to experience how this work could come alive in their classrooms in a mere few weeks after summer’s end. Ms. J read excerpts from Alex Gino’s book George, pausing at strategic times for the adolescent girls to read their written words of advice to the trans character for all the educators to hear their powerful thinking.

Tinder

I want you to experience the magic of this moment intimately. So, I apologize ahead of time, but there will be a ton of reading of excerpts from George, followed by the poignant words of adolescents, then back to George, and so on. My purpose for this is two-fold: (1) If you’ve never had the pleasure of reading George, you must hear Alex Gino’s incredible words, and (2) The unedited words of these adolescents must live larger than that room of those over fifty incredibly lucky educators.

The scene: a bit of Ms. J reading George, a bit of adolescent’s poignant words.

Ms. J read:

On the next page, two girls sat laughing on a blanket, their arms around each other’s shoulders. One wore a striped bikini; the other wore a polka-dot one-piece with cutouts at the hips.

If George were there, she would fit right in, giggling and linking her arms in theirs. She would wear a bright-pink bikini, and she would have long hair that her new friends would love to braid. They would ask her name, and she would tell them, My name is Melissa. Melissa was the name she called herself in the mirror when no one was watching and she could brush her flat reddish-brown hair to the front of her head, as if she had bangs (George, p. 3-4).

The first two adolescent girls read their advice to Melissa:

“Don’t be afraid. No wait, being afraid is okay. You have the right to be afraid, but you also have the right to be happy.”

“People won’t judge you by the way you look like, but by the way you treat others.”

Ms. J read on:

“What’s this about?” asked Mom. Her expression was flat. George’s denim bag swung slowly in the air, hanging from one crooked finger. The zipper was open.

George’s heart pounded, and for a moment, she thought she might burst on the spot. She took a deep gulp of air.

I was feeling under the weather today, so I came back home to do some cleaning,” said Mom. “Your closet was a mess…and I found these. Did you steal them?

“No!” George’s face was hot. “I…I collected them.”

“Don’t lie to me. Where did you get them?” Mom pulled out the copy of Seventeen from last October, the smiling twins on the cover unaware of Mom’s tight grip.

“I found them in different places.”

Mom eyed George, her eyebrows thick and heavy. She stood, with a deep sigh.”

“George, I don’t want to find you wearing my clothes. Or my shoes. That kind of thing was cute when you were three. You’re not three anymore. In fact, I don’t want to see you in my room at all.

“But I didn’t…,” George began, but Mom ignored her.

Mom disappeared to her bedroom with the denim bag in her hand. George remained by the front door, her mouth slightly open.

She couldn’t believe her friends were gone. (George, p. 93-94).

The next two adolescent girls read their advice to Melissa:

“I would tell her it’s okay to feel the way she does; that everyone is different.”

“It’s okay to show yourself. Show the world who you feel you are. It’s okay to show the inside. The outside isn’t all that matters.”

Ms. J read on:

George had never been in the principal’s office before and was surprised by how bright it was. Orange curtains framed windows that reached nearly to the ceiling, and piles of books were stacked around the room. Principal Maldonado sat at a large desk in the center of the room and invited Mom and George to sit across from her in two brown cushioned chairs. The principal had short gray hair and wore a turquoise necklace over a black turtleneck. She was a fat woman whose broad shoulders filled her chair with any easy self-confidence.

“Now, Mrs. Mitchell, George had defaced student property, and that is a serious offense. However, given the nature of the incident, as well as a lack of a prior record on George’s part, I would just as soon resolve this as simply as possible.”

As the principal spoke, George’s eyes scanned the wall behind her. List upon list of phone numbers and email addresses were taped up to the lower half, interspersed with handwritten notes held up with thumbtacks pressed directly into the wall. Dozens of signs hung above, telling kids to eat right, not to take drugs, to do their homework, and not to be a bully. A sign in the far corner showed a large rainbow flag flying on a black background. Below the flag, the sign said SUPPORT SPAFE SPACES FOR GAY, LESBIAN, BISEXUAL, AND TRANSGENDER YOUTH.

Reading the word transgender sent a shiver down George’s spine. She wondered where she could find a safe space like that, and if there would be other girls like her there. Maybe they could talk about makeup together. Maybe they could even try some on. (George, p 124-125).

Two more adolescent girls read their advice to Melissa:

“Don’t let the way society’s mental image of ways things are supposed to be intimidate you from being who you are or keep you from achieving your dreams.”

“There is always going to be people that disagree in a subject, but there is also people that are open to new ideas. People will still treat you the same because your personality isn’t going to change your appearance is.”

Ms. J read this final excerpt:

“Yeah, well.” George looked over at Mom, who was still picking out lettuce for her salad. “I kind of got into a fight at school.”

Scott’s head shot up in surprise and his brow grew heavy. “When I got into a fight at school, I got grounded. How did you work Arnie’s out of it?”

“I kind of also told her something.”

“It must have been big. Mom’s staring at the beets like a zombie.”

“It was.”
“Did you tell her you were gay?” Scott twisted his fork into a pile of mashed potatoes. “You know I’m okay with that, right? Before Dad left, he made me promise to take care of you. He said you were like that.”

“I’m not gay,” George said. Why did everyone think she was gay?

“Whatever. I don’t care. My friend Matt is gay. It’s not big deal.”

But it was a big deal. “I told her I think I’m a girl.”

“Oh.” That was all Scott said at first. “Oh.”

Scott chewed, swallowed, and took another bite of pizza. The background noise of the restaurant throbbed in George’s ears. She wished Scott would say something, even if it was mean.

“Ohhh.” Scott took a bite of turkey. “Ohhhhhhhhh.” Scott began to nod slowly. He turned to George, whose stomach had jumped with each oh and was now nearly in her throat.

“That’s more than just being gay. No wonder she’s freaking out.”

“I know.”

Scott put down his fork. “So do you?”

“Do I what?”

“Think you’re a girl?”

“Yes.” George was surprised at how easy that question was to answer.

“Oh.” Scott ripped a hunk off a roll with his teeth and chewed thoughtfully.

Mom returned with a green salad, topped with raw vegetables and vinaigrette dressing. She finished it quickly and dropped her plate off in a dish bin. Mom always started her meal at Arnie’s with a salad. She said it was healthy, not to mention delicious, but she always ate it quickly and then returned with a plate just as decadent as George’s and Scott’s.

Scott had gnawed silently on a chicken wing while Mom ate her salad, but once she got up and approached the appetizer bar, he dropped the bone onto his plate.

“I know about your magazines,” he said.

“Mom told you?”

“Naw, I found them this weekend. I knew Mom was upset about something, and then I saw the bag sitting on her bed. Dude, I thought you had porn or something in there, so I took a peek. You know, just to find out what kind of stuff my little bro was into. So I figured you were gay. But I didn’t think you were like that.” Scott popped a corn fritter into his mouth. “So, like, do you want to” –he made a gesture with two fingers like a pair of scissors—“go all the way?”

George squeezed her legs together. “Maybe someday,” she said.

“Weird. But it kinda makes sense. No offense, but you don’t make a very good boy.”

“I know.” (George, p. 138-141).

The final adolescent girl read her advice to Melissa:

“Don’t be afraid to show who you really are, people will love you no matter what. Different is beautiful and it doesn’t matter what you look like, you’ll always be beautiful. Don’t ever hide who you want to be!”

Wow, let’s just pause and reflect on the breathtaking moment that just unfolded in under ten minutes to a group of educators at a literacy conference this summer. To capture the feeling in the room after the last student spoke to the room full of educators, I asked Ms. J to reflect upon the moment. Here are her words to capture the spirit of the experience:

As the last reader finished her words, there was a hearty applause of support. I stepped back next to the girls and just admired them, and their proud eyes smiled back at me. They were frozen in the moment, so much so that I didn’t recognize the audience, also frozen in the moment in a different way.

Was it the excerpts? Well, they laughed at all the right parts. Was it the girls and their openness and bravery? Still not sure why people are surprised by the beautiful hearts and minds.

I don’t know. But as I went back to my seat and walked back in the space I had been occupying just 5 minutes before, silence filled the room. Huge eyes. Hands up near faces. Eyes brimming with tears. “Was that too much?” I mouthed to Jessica. She replied, “No, it was great.” Still, silence in the room. And not just silence but stillness. There was no movement. The breath had left the room. I felt my back being rubbed by a colleague.

“Was that too intense for this moment?” I whispered. Heads shaking in response.

But the reality was, I didn’t care if it was too much or too intense because it was too perfect. Too perfect of an opportunity to not honor Alex Gino’s Melissa. Too perfect of an opportunity not to highlight the teenage volunteers who experienced so many things this week, but knowing this is the part that will stick the most. This will be the experience Alex Gino talks about at the end of George. One day, these girls will meet someone who is transgender and be presented with the most awesome opportunity. To put their study of this one chapter and their empathetic words to action. They will feel the impact this moment allowed them.

This was also too perfect of an opportunity to show adults that children can and should be having these discussions. I wish I had said more, but truthfully, the words of Alex Gino were the only words I read in this experience and the only other words were from children (aside from the intro) and no more words were needed.

This moment opened a heart. This moment upset someone and then continued to upset them as they questioned themselves for being upset. This moment moved people. This moment opened up other impactful people’s hearts and minds to this possibility.

Be brave.

Speak up.

Don’t sit in the river, saying no or yes, comfortable as a non-racist, non-homophobic person.

Push that river upstream.

Make big moves in small ways.

Teachers leaving this week of BL study might remember how to craft a minilesson. They might recall the difference between shared reading and read aloud. But I can promise you, when they hear the word George or Melissa or transgender, they will only think of this moment. They will remember me and my fearless co-presenters. And I am so proud to be remembered for such an important, necessary conversation. -Ms. J

Breeze

As Ms. J and I reflected on what happened over these two days this summer, she quoted this beautiful metaphor from a reading in National Geographic: “The waters under Antarctic ice are like Mount Everest: magical, but so hostile that you have to be sure of your desire before you go. You cannot go half-heartedly; you cannot feign your passion. The demands are too great. But that’s what makes the images you see here unprecedented, and the experience of having taken them and of having seen this place so unforgettable.” -National Geographic Magazine. If you have the desire to walk alongside us, you cannot go half-heartedly. The work is simultaneously magical and unforgettable while also hostile and unprecedented. Walk with us eyes wide open.

We both agreed this quote reminds us of the work we are doing, work I’ve been steadfastly attempting to do coast to coast across this nation this past year. Here’s where you, my reader, come in. You’re my breeze. You. Yep, you are my breeze. I think back to this quote I read from American poet, essayist, and radical feminist Adrienne Rich: “When someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium as if you looked into a mirror and saw nothing. Yet you know you exist and others like you, that this is a game done with mirrors. It takes some strength of soul — and not just individual strength, but collective understanding — to resist this void . . . and to stand up, demanding to be seen and heard.”

Here’s my reaction to Ms. Rich’s words and my call to action to you, my breeze: When someone with the reverence, knowledge, and political power, such as a literacy coach, staff developer, language arts specialist, literacy panelist, or however you position yourself in this work of inspiring adults that work tirelessly with children in classrooms and schools, uses trans-affirming texts in their work with teachers and schools across the nation, it matters. “Curriculum is both a window and a mirror: a window to other’s experiences and a mirror to their own reality” -Emily Style.  The texts we model with, as presenters, hold weight. The texts we highlight in our curriculum, hold weight. The texts we recommend to complement our units of study, hold weight. We have the power to mirror children’s identity during our demonstration lessons for reading workshop, as part of interactive read aloud study, as part of mentor text work for writing workshop, as passages for shared reading. We must do this at all levels, with our youngest readers and writers in TK on up. The inclusion of these critical texts, many beautiful choices found here, sends a powerful message.

The message to children?

We see you.

We value you.

We stand with you, child.

The message to teachers, coaches, administrators?

Take our hand, you will be okay.

Take our lead, it’s our responsibility to do right by children.

Take our call to action.

All our children’s realities become part of the tapestry of our classroom, school, and educational culture. We see our lives reflected in the space of school in an inclusive way. This does not other us. This does not exploit us. This does not label us. This does not expose us. Quite the opposite effect happens. This includes us, privileges us, makes others aware of identities such as ours, as a natural part of life’s diversity. This honors our identity, our journey, our story.

By using these texts in our work, we pave the way for others to do so. My commitment is to include trans-affirming texts in my work with teachers, on behalf of students. Please make this commitment with me, with Ms. J, and some of the other incredible educators who’ve been sparks this year. Be our breeze and let the fire of equity and justice sweep the nation this summer and next school year in all the realms of influence you have.

___

Published with permission from an educator ally and a parent of a trans child in our advocacy network.

Living Life in Revision

“I am saying that a journey is called that because you cannot know what you will discover on the journey, what you will do with what you find or what you find will do to you” –James Baldwin in I Am Not Your Negro.

Disclaimer: this reflection is not going to make much sense tonight because the world doesn’t make much sense to me tonight, either. If you’re okay with that and have time to read about 4000 words from my mind and heart that are trying so desperately to make sense of the incomprehensible world within which we all live right now, beautiful, then keep on reading. I welcome you. If you’re not into reading an exploratory thought-piece tonight, believe me, I totally get it and won’t be offended in the least if you cease reading on; I won’t even really ever know.

If you’ve stuck around, here it is: I’m on a journey, a journey of living life in revision, both metaphorically and literally. But aren’t we all, whether we recognize it or not? Andrew Solomon, in his seminal book Far From the Tree, speaks about vertical and horizontal identities. For vertical identities, think of those traits often aligned, not always, but often aligned between parents and their children: skin color, hair color, body type, and so on. For horizontal identities, however, think of those pieces of children’s identities perhaps not reflected in their biological parent’s identities: gender identity, sexual orientation, religion, and so on. He asserts parents of children whose vertical identities match their own tend to have a deeper lived experience with their children around these identities; they often understand what it’s like to live a life in that same identity. On the other hand, he argues it’s trickier for parents raising children who have identities that are not reflected in their own, horizontal identities like being a prodigy or identifying as a transgender person. Why am I talking about this tonight? Well, because I am raising a child with a horizontal identity to my own: I am a mother of a young visible transgender child. Please know this truth, one of many truths that I’ll reveal to you tonight: I write this thought piece tonight to open a window into our journey for you. I am trusting that you will be responsible with what you read and learn from me tonight, as writing so personally as I intend to is an act of sheer vulnerability.

And now, I invite you to journey alongside me. You’ve stuck around this long, so you should get my personal invitation, right? It’s a painfully raw journey and I won’t represent it as anything other than such. If you’re open to rawness tonight, let me bring you along. If you aren’t in a mindset for that tonight, come back to me when you are, I’ll be here waiting patiently. I’ve but time.

I am staring at this blank page below now. It’s full of possibilities, full of hope really. Sorry, though, you won’t get that from me, not tonight at least. These feelings do not match my heart tonight. I hesitate to even write further right now, as I feel really raw. I feel too heartbroken. And enraged. And disappointed in humanity, too. But, maybe this is the ideal time to write so you can live my reality uncensored, unedited, untouched by the clarity of the new day’s sun. Perhaps, but I don’t really know.

I usually write in the comfy space of my hallway “office”: a tiny desk space carved out of the long hallway that attaches the front of my home to the back. But, not tonight. Tonight, I’m on my laptop lying in bed, feeling too emotionally weary to sit in my usual writer’s stance. So, as I lay here trying to make sense of my mind and my heart, I look to my right. Beside me is my sleeping five-year-old. Yep, he’s still at the young snuggly age that when he has a bad dream, he comes tromping down the aforementioned long hallway, blankies in hand (of which there are five, no joke) ready to snuggle in beside me for comfort. Often, he then ends up sticking around until the wee hours of the morning when the sun cracks through the blinds of my two bedroom windows. If you’ve raised young kids, you remember those days, right? My kid will get some great sleep; me on the other hand, well, I’ll end up relegated to the edge of the bed, fighting to commandeer some blankets back, and trying not to get whacked in the head by a flailing arm as he shifts his sleeping position for the twentieth time. Ha, you get it. And, I want you to know this about my life right now. Why you might be wondering. Why would I want you to know this about my life? Because. I want you to know me, rather, know my story. As I’ve young children who deserve my protection from the harshness of visibility, you’ll only know of me through the written words of my stories, you understand and respect this, right? And here’s why I want you to know me through my stories: because I want to know your stories, too. I want to know you better. And I understand that’s probably not possible as the anonymity of the internet enables you to know me without me ever knowing of your existence. And I’m alright with this. Here’s why: think of the “you” and “me” in more of a metaphorical sense. I want you to know me through my stories because I hold the belief that we need to share our stories with one another.

James Baldwin said the following words in the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and they hit me in a very raw way tonight: “Apathy and ignorance, which is the price for segregation, that’s what segregation means: you don’t know what is happening on the other side of the wall cause you don’t want to know.” I want to know what is happening on the other side of the wall and I hope that you seek that knowledge and understanding, too. We need to know one another at deeper levels. We need to have shared experiences with people around us that look like us and don’t look like us. We need to know the stories of the people in our families, in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in the spaces that we frequently occupy. Then, we need to branch out of the places we occupy and seek to know others, too. Other families, other neighborhoods, other communities. I fear that if we stay in our comfort zones, in the places that reflect people who look like us, think like us, act like us, how are we to ever know what it’s like to live a life we don’t recognize? How will we ever have the opportunity to grow our awareness of other people, grow our understanding of what it’s like to live a life we don’t recognize, and to grow our minds broader? How will we ever grow empathy in our hearts if we don’t seek to truly know one another? How will humanity begin to make big shifts toward compassion for one another? And for goodness sake, when will we really begin to engage in dialogue around these issues, within our communities and across our communities, so we can begin to tackle the critical work as human beings of knowing what is happening on the other side of the wall?

I sit with all of these questions rattling around in my heart and mind tonight, as I try to tug back a bit of blanket from my five-year-old. Ha! No, seriously, I just had to put my laptop down a second ago to try to wrestle a bit of covers back. I know you get what I’m saying if you’ve ever been in my shoes before. If not, you can imagine the scene, right, and you’re rallying for me to snag a bit of covers back? And that’s what this reflection is essentially about: no, not blanket procurement, but rather whether or not you’ve actually walked in my shoes and can viscerally get what I’m talking about, including trying to hold my ground in bed-square-footage and blanket space with a sleeping five-year-old, if you’ve never lived this in your life, you can imagine what it’s like, right? Either way, you now know something about me you didn’t before. And that’s where awareness, understanding, and empathy start: knowing one another’s stories. As James Baldwin lamented in the documentary, “I’m terrified at the moral apathy that is death of the heart which is happening in my country.” I see this as the work of empathy-building and the work of leading with a life defined by the stance of love, really.

Truth: I’m naïve. I just am. I always have been. And, I have trust issues. Again, I always have. Two truths that in combination have led to some tricky situations in my four decades on this planet. But, they are my truths, so I have to own them and figure out ways to work through them. So, now you know two more things about me. Okay, ready for more? I am feeling really shaken by what my eyes have witnessed, my heart has felt, my mind has processed over this past year, longer than this past year really, but most vividly, during my life’s journey this past 377 days. Why so specific with the digits? Those are the number of days my young child has been bravely living a life of visibility, hence, our family has been living a visible life alongside him. There are so many things I could tell you about this journey, so many twists and turns along our path, so many small wins and big losses. And, in time, I will as I continue to process them all. And, soon, he will tell you, too, in his own words because I’m a firm believer in the power of a child’s voice in telling their own truths. But tonight, my voice is what you get, for better or worse.

Truth: when your young child is both verbally and physically assaulted by peers at school for his identity and you learn about it from his teary-eyed heart, you break. Your heartbreaks, your soul breaks. When I reflect on what James Baldwin named in the documentary about one’s journey, that one cannot know what they will discover on the journey and what these discoveries will do to them, what I can tell you is what it has done to me.

It has broken me.

Broken me in the most painful ways and the most glorious ways, too. My soul has been cut, my heart has bled for my child. I have lost friends over my child’s realization of self and our family’s stance of fierce support of him as he explores what this identity means for his life. I’ve painfully chosen to cut certain family members out of our life to keep my child safe. I have struggled through navigating within institutions, educational and medical, and legal. And honestly, I have struggled with all the relationships in my life, as well.

“Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.” When I reflect upon James Baldwin’s words here, I think about the idea that nothing can change until we face it, on a large societal level as well as a more introspective level of one’s self. It’s the deeply important work of living a life in revision. As I’ve broken into tiny pieces this past year and attempted to fashion them back together into a human being that no longer resembles who I was for nearly four decades, some of the pieces fit beautifully, some I struggle with making fit, some simply don’t fit any longer. Some pieces of my old self I gladly leave discarded at my feet. I’ve made space for new pieces to fit into the new mosaic of me that’s forming and that’s been glorious. This means I’ve redefined every single one of my relationships in my life because I’m forever changed by the discoveries I’ve made, and continue to make, on this journey. This has been exhausting, I’ll be honest. Some relationships have been easier to revise than others: in some cases, I chose people in my life well, or rather they chose me, in other cases, though, it’s been trickier. With the loss of relationships has come the opportunity for newness. New relationships to form with people who I choose to journey with going forward. I’m very mindful to align myself with folks that compliment my newly evolving self and that of my family. That’s been incredibly exciting and daunting, as well, for one with trust issues, as I named before. But, such is life, I guess. Maybe that’s my naivety speaking, I’m not sure.

Gosh, this is feeling a bit like a therapy session and I don’t exactly mean for it to be. But, if you want a glimpse into what it looks like to travel this path with a child such as mine in the terrifying world within which we live today, well, this is what you’re going to get. At least, get from me on this particular night.

Truth: I’m deeply affected by the documentary I Am Not Your Negro. I’m actually angry that it’s taken me nearly four decades to see the world for what it really is: gloriously beautiful and unjustly cruel. I’ve come to know the truth of this statement this past year, but before this past year, I was blind to its truth. I’m going to explore a few things James Baldwin said in the documentary and then try to make sense of them alongside the journey I’m traveling. I do this both as an attempt to make sense of the world as I’m coming to know it and to help you know me better, my family better, so honestly, I can humanize what it means to live the life we’re living and hopefully help your beautiful heart to grow in empathy and your mind to expand in broadness. And while I know James Baldwin’s words in the documentary were an exploration of race and this work is one of the most important explorations we can take on to make our world more just, I want to ask your permission to use his thinking to explore two things. First, to make sense of something a wise group of fifth-graders opened my eyes to in the last days of the school year. And two, to draw parallels from my understandings of what it means to live with a skin color that is systematically oppressed and violently targeted in a racist society with a transgender identity that is systematically oppressed and violently targeted in a transphobic society. The underpinnings of the racist history our country has led since before its inception are far deeper seeded than the struggle of transgender civil rights, this is known as truth. I hope, though, that you will allow me space to respectfully draw on these parallels without negating the gravity of the lived reality of the historical and present-day racism that has defined the country within which we all find ourselves living today. I’m not sure if this parallel of identities is even just and I fear I am being incredibly disrespectful, but I also know that I’ve been shedding skin for the past year and reexamining everything I see around me, so I thank you for your trust in me as I navigate these two areas and try to make sense of things that are far from comprehensible in my mind and my heart tonight.

“I attest to this: the world is not white, it never was white, cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power…When you try to stand up and look the world in the face, like you have the right to be here, you have attacked the entire power structure of the western world” –James Baldwin.

I sit staring at this chart tonight, as my five-year-old has finally settled in and seems to be content with the amount of covers I’ve negotiated with him, for now anyway. This chart was created by thirty-four fifth-graders, mere days ago, as they tackled the notions of societal privilege, power, and oppression with their teacher and me. I’ve written about how the thinking around this chart came about, here, here, herehere, and here, so tonight I want to tackle this final version of the ladder of privilege as seen by a group of insightful children of color. In short, this is the way these children view society privileging myriad identities they see in our country. Take a moment to study the chart and really internalize what message it sends to you. Now, jump out of your privileged adult perspective and look at it through the lens of a child. Notice what stands out to you now. Go on, I’ll give you a minute to study it, as I place my laptop down again to give a tug to my blankets as I spoke too soon and my kid just shifted again; my feet are getting cold.

When James Baldwin clearly stated that white is a metaphor for power, this image struck me as I reflected on this chart. Who is clearly at the top of the ladder of societal privilege: rich, blue-eyed, educated white male adults. The world is not white, as James Baldwin states, but to attain power in our country, the closer you are to whiteness, a metaphor for power, the more privilege and opportunities you have access to. You see this, I see this, and kids see this reality of the way in which the world works, too. Look at where all of my friends, family, and the children that I support personally and professionally, fall on the ladder of privilege: at a level of ‘3’ or below; on the bottom 3/5 of the population of our country. Notice who these fifth-graders placed in the top 20%, who historically and presently hold all the power in our country. It’s quite disturbing, both that so much power is held by so few and denied to so many, and, that kids see this reality at such young ages. Damn, what are we to do with this information? I have one big idea: share it and talk about it. Talk about it with children. Talk about it in your family, in your neighborhood, in your community. Share your thinking, and worries, and outrage, and experiences, and reality with those around you. Share your stories in the realms you have influence over, be it your classrooms, your community centers, your places of worship, your places of business. “…nothing can be changed until it is faced.” Please face it and talk about it. It’s a start.

This reality of the systemic oppression of identities that don’t conform to the notions of whiteness is a reality I’m realizing is defining our journey, as our family has chosen to be visible while living it, as our child has chosen to be visible while living his truth. Patriarchal, sexist, racist, homophobic, transphobic institutions define our country and hold the majority of the power while systemically and overtly denying this to anyone that does not check the box of metaphorical whiteness of which James Baldwin speaks. This is also true for my child. To painfully learn how to self-advocate by using your voice to fend off harmful words and aggressive actions toward one’s self, at the young age of seven and eight, is nothing I could have imagined for my child’s life when he was born. I don’t seek to define who he is, I never really have and at the same time, to see him struggle just to survive in this violent world has forever changed the way within which I navigate this world, too. So much I want to say here, but I’m not really sure where to start. Perhaps, as I process my thoughts, I’ll bounce off another of James Baldwin’s poignant thoughts. I hope you don’t see that as a deflection, but rather as a sign that I’m still sorting out some serious issues in my head. I appreciate you giving me space to process.

“What can we do? I don’t know how it will come about, I know no matter how it comes about, it will be bloody, it will be hard. I still believe we can do in this country something that has not been done before…we think we need numbers, you don’t need numbers—you need passion and this is proven by the history of the world…History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us, we are our history.” When I heard these words from James Baldwin in the documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, they pierced a hole in my heart, especially the image of how bloody things are, have been, and will continue to be as we struggle along this path of change toward a more just world. The countless innocent bodies that have been killed due to racism in this country alone make me want to curl up in my little cave, close my eyes, and cover my ears. That is my white privilege talking: that I even have a choice to do that reflects my privilege in our racist society. But here’s another truth of mine: I will not hide from this cruel reality. I will not blind myself to the reality of our country and close my eyes. I will not cover my ears when I’m notified that another Black transgender person is murdered. I will not. When James Baldwin asks the question of what we can do, it reminds me of a similar question we asked this group of fifth-graders at the end of reading a trans-inclusive book. We asked, “What is our call as humans? Our responsibility now that we have knowledge is…in our home, school, community, the world? What are some actions we can take?” Below are their ideas of actions they felt they could commit to taking to channel their aware empathetic hearts into action. Many responses from these wise children were poignant, but one really stuck out to me: “Be open to hearing them, be an “open door.” This struck me because it goes back to my essential truth in writing this thought-piece tonight: knowing one another’s stories is where awareness, understanding, and empathy can grow from.

“It’s a problem whether or not you’re willing to look at your life and be responsible for it and then begin to change it.” I want to leave you with this thought from James Baldwin to linger upon. Are you willing to look at your life, reexamine what you hold as truth, your positionality within those around you, and take responsibility for the privileges the system affords you? Are you willing to begin to break a little in order to change the way you navigate through life to work toward creating more justice around you? Are you willing to take what you’ve learned from a bit of my story that I’ve revealed to you tonight, hold it in your heart, and begin to shift your thinking and actions in ever so slight ways, to bend the moral arch toward justice? I hope you are. It’s the only way we can collectively shift the narrative I see in our country, in our world, defined by so much hatred, aggression, anger, and inhumane treatment of one another. I will no longer stand idly by while these atrocities happen to my child, my family, my friends, my community without using my voice to speak up for them and my hands to actively work toward justice. I’ve spent far too long as an empathetic spectator watching life flow by. Life has thrown me in the deep end of the pool and while I’ve spent much of the past year drowning, gasping for breath, I’m learning to swim. I invite you to swim alongside me. We must all get wet. It’s the only way to make strides toward a more just world defined by love, compassion, empathy, and understanding. A world that I hope my two boys will one day inherit.

___

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

180 Days of Love

Love.

Tonight, my writing is going to be about love.

Why, you may ask, why are you going to dedicate a whole reflection to just one word?

This.

“We’re not evolving as a civilization. We’re devolving…What is it going to take?” These were some of the poignantly raw words Valerie Castile, the mother of Philando Castile, spoken upon hearing the acquittal of her son’s murderer tonight. My heart broke for her and my mind raged against the thought of the injustice of another innocent life taken at the hands of another human begin.

So you may ask again, Why all about love tonight? Because. I have to. I have to focus on love tonight. At the end of the day, at the end of all days, love is the only force powerful enough to create the space for our humanity to redeem itself. For the collective “we” to recognize the humanity in others. I steadfastly believe that if we were to truly know one another, how could we possibly commit atrocities on other human beings that I see in our world today? So much injustice in the world exists, so many acts of hate are perpetrated on the lives of innocent human beings. So much unkindness meets my eyes, my mind, my heart as I look to the world each day. I fear that the people I hold in my heart will not live to see gray hairs. Those whom my heart bleeds for each day, may not live to see gray hairs upon their heads. I sit with that for a moment. That’s the reality within which I live my daily life. You may not understand my perspective nor why I name this as my truth, and that’s alright with me. But know this: the lives that surround me are the most magnificent beings I’ve ever had the honor of knowing. I cannot reconcile the truth that the beauty that exists around me may not one day reach the age of wisdom that affords us gray hair. I sit with this and my heart breaks little by little, actually for 373 days since my young child emerged to the world as a visible transgender boy. Although you may tell me not to worry, things are changing, we’re progressing month by month, I don’t believe you. And, that’s my right.

I think it’s unfair that my kids, being young White boys of relative societal privilege by sheer right of birth into a patriarchal, racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic country within which we live, never have to have the talk that so many Parents of Color have to have with their children. A few months ago, we watched the PBS documentary The Talk: Race in America (found here), which illustrates “the increasingly necessary conversation taking place in homes and communities across the country between parents of color and their children, especially sons, about how to behave if they are ever stopped by the police.” So tonight, as I told my boys about the injustice that just happened against another innocent life, we circled back to when we watched the documentary. My boys had so many questions, “Mama, why would they shoot him in front of a child?” “Are the mom and daughter okay?”  “He worked at a school with kids, why would they kill him?” I didn’t have answers for my two boys on so many of their questions, so I named what I saw: “Guys, we live in a racist society and this is what happens as a result. I am of the belief if we truly knew one another, knew one another’s stories, knew one another’s humanity, we would grow closer because we have empathy toward others. Then, atrocities like this perhaps wouldn’t happen.” But, I don’t really know. I just don’t know anymore.  I went on to remind my boys of the conversation from The Talk. I told them about what so many families were probably talking to their children about tonight, again, hoping they would one day see their child develop gray hair. I know my best friend has had this talk with her three precious children of mixed race, who are dear friends of my two boys. She’s had this talk countless times, and again, was having this talk with them tonight. I told my boys, “If auntie and her three kids have to have this conversation again tonight, so do you.” After we reviewed what to do in the circumstances of danger, my young transgender son thought for a minute, then asked me this soul-slicing question: “Mama, will I get shot, too, because of, you know, I’m trans?” Damn. Trans identities are often ones that aren’t visible upon first glance, as skin color is, but my child has experienced many circumstances of overt aggression from folks around him this year and is beginning to, unfortunately, learn the oppressive nature of his identity in our society. So when I looked into his big brown eyes, it was one of the first times I didn’t know how to answer him. So, I was just honest with him. Here’s what I said, “I don’t know, babe. For most of my life I thought absolutely not, but now I question everything and I just don’t know. I guess it depends, it depends on who you’re interacting with if they know your identity if they empathy in their heart. I want to tell you absolutely not, but I just don’t know. I so sorry, but I’ll do my best to keep you safe.” He just stared at me, thought for a minute, and then continued eating his dinner. The air was thick tonight.

I try to reconcile the fact that my young child has to live in a society within which he even has to ask the question if he is confronted by authority of any sort, will he make it out alive. First, my heart breaks: I would gladly trade places with him in that circumstance in a heartbeat, as I’m almost assured by the privileges society affords me, that in the same situation, I’d walk away unscathed. It’s just a plain fact that because of my skin color, hair color, eye color, and my way with words, I’d be walking away alive. That’s unjust and that’s the reality I see. Second, he’s now old enough to recognize how the world works in increasingly unjust ways. And finally, he’s awake enough to see the parallels between his marginalized identity, which renders him invisible in much of the public spaces that he occupies, to others experiencing similar realities. My heart breaks here, too.

So, with all the ways my heart screams against the injustices I see in the world, in our country, and through my child’s eyes, I have to focus the rest of this reflection on the one force that I believe will have the most impact on shifting this narrative for generations to come: love.

The day after the devastating national election mere months ago that rendered our future, specifically that of my visible trans child, less safe, our family began to repeat this mantra, one that has become the words we speak to one another each morning before leaving our home: “I choose love today.” We borrowed this language from a hero’s words that gave us some comfort during the unsure dark days after the election: “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that”-Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This is the stance I hope my children take as they navigate their paths in life and one we repeat religiously daily. I truly believe love is really the only way we have to move forward as a society. So, I want to shine a light on some of the ways I’ve seen or been apart of watching this love become reality, namely, how children, and the adults who create space for their voices to be privileged, be known, be heard, are making love a verb. I invite you to experience the beauty of love enacted by children and adults as a way to live this truth: if we truly know one another, we have no other choice but to grow our empathetic hearts and our love for all of humanity’s gifts.

Photography of Love: Safe Spaces

When a teacher saves your child and makes his life possible, you are indebted to this teacher for life. That’s what happened to us this year. Here is but a glimpse of why my child’s teacher is the best human being on the planet. I wrote about this in a previous reflection, but for the purpose of setting up what his teacher did in a beautifully human way, let me give a bit of context and then illustrate what she did to respond.

The context.

Within a few weeks of my third grader’s transition at school, where he bravely chose to live his truth as a visible trans boy, he heard hateful words uttered to him by a peer. How my child responded and ultimately, how his teacher responded to this painful situation, are something we can all learn from in big ways, so that the actions and words of fiercely brave children around us, and the adults who advocate for them on the daily, will be seen and heard. When a child confronted my son telling him that who he was, as a transgender boy, was wrong, my son responded by quoting the words from a book we’d read a few weeks prior. My kid had remembered this poignant scene where the main character had first seen the word transgender in print on the poster in the principal’s office and the poster’s association with safe spaces: “We support safe spaces for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender youth” (Alex Gino’s George, p. 125). I remember how excited my kid and I were when we had read this scene and how the character had responded. We had talked at length about how that must have felt and how the main character was finally finding an adult to support her at school. Wow, impactful at the time, but I had never truly known how impactful those words from that scene had been in my kid’s life.

So, a few weeks later, during a transition meeting for my child, attended by all the key players in a child’s academic team, I turned to the room full of adults and asked them to indulge me for a moment as I read aloud a few paragraphs from the book George. After reading the excerpts, I recounted the experience that transpired for my son. His teacher hung on every word and every part of my son’s experience. All adults in the room were blown away by his self-advocacy in finding his voice to stand tall for his identity so early on in the school year. His teacher, though, was thinking more deeply, I could tell. Over the coming weekend, my child’s teacher purchased the book, read it cover to cover, and approached me the following week. The idea of safe spaces had struck her so vividly and she wanted to delve deeper into this idea. As a truly compassionate educator that wanted to know her students on a deeper level, she discussed her desire to follow the idea of safe spaces in a visible way. We collaborated on what happened next: an experience that illustrates the notion that when a teacher truly understands who their students are, it makes all the difference in the world for how children navigate through the landscape of a classroom. They are seen, they are heard, they are valued.

We both believe in the power of children’s voice: namely, listening up when children have things to say. As adults,  we can agree it is our responsibility to listen to children when they’ve things to say, right? I’d assert to know a child or a person for that matter, you need to seek to see through their eyes and have empathy for their lived experience. So, my child’s teachers and I embarked on a journey to truly know her students, not only through their words but through their eyes. And, here’s how: she asked her students this question: “What makes you feel safe? And think, especially at school.” She wanted to know her new students in a deep way, through their eyes, so when they were having a hard time a school or feeling complicated emotions, she would know what brought them a sense of safety. As a teacher, this is the kind of life work that’s essential in the spaces we create with children. As they thought about what made them feel safe, they began to realized there were particular spaces on the school campus that created a sense of safety for many of them. Instead of having her students merely describe these spaces, we decided the metaphor that a “picture speaks a thousand words” was apt here. We accompanied groups of students as they went to the places on campus that made them feel the safest to snap pictures of these spaces and reflect upon why the space made them feel safe. Using the art form of photography to illustrate their voice was a beautifully inclusive way for children’s artistic spirit to shine through while being vulnerable to reveal the spaces they held sacred. Below, I hope you find joy in reading through the ideas of why these particular spaces brought a sense of safety to these young children while also getting a window into how their sense of safety lends comfort to their world.

“No one can see me, so if I feel sad, I can sit by the pole in the small space.”

“Friends make me safe because I feel comfortable.”

“It’s safe because you can sit on it whenever you want, even when you’re lonely.”

“The library is a safe spot because you can just focus on reading and the book can take you to a good place.”

“There are teachers here, so it feels safe.”

These are but a few of the poignant images and reflections from these young children. The last makes me smile: “There are teachers here, so it feels safe.” What an immense responsibility we have as adults in children’s lives to create spaces where they are known, seen, and listened to. This kind of work begins our journey into truly knowing one another, not just at a level of interests and hobbies, but at a deeper level of our emotions and sense of safety. My kid’s teacher now knows when her students come to school feeling any complicated emotions, some may need space that is quiet and alone to work through their thoughts, while others might need to curl up with a comfy pillow and a good book in the library to sort out their thoughts. It’s this kind of work to actively know and build our empathy toward one another that can be a first step into building a more just world that we seek. If we know one another in deep ways, how can we interact with anything but love in our hearts?

Words of Love: Chalk Messages

Children have a multitude to say–anyone who spends any amount of time with kids knows this truth instantly. In the dark days after the national election, that illuminated feelings of divisiveness illustrated by a nation with hatred just bubbling under the surface, children were feeling the effects of the nervous energy adults were exuding, too.  We all felt it, right? Anyone with children in their care, as parents, guardians, family members, educators, coaches, community members, you felt their unease, right? Whenever people have visceral reactions to situations, I’m a big believer in taking action. Putting our minds and hands to work feels like we’re working toward something larger than ourselves and creates a space for us to feel productive and work toward a bigger goal. So, having the honor of working with third and fourth graders the days after the election, we decided to do two things: read the beautiful story, Doreen Rappaport’s Martin’s Big Words, a picture book that speaks to Dr. King’s life’s work through his own words, and two, we decided what big words we wanted adults to know from us as children. We decided we’d write these words all across our campus, so when adults emerged, they could read the words children wanted them to see, hear, and know.

Here’s what unfolded from children’s hearts and minds, including the brainstorm of the words and phrases children wanted adults to read and some images of the chalked words on the campus.

Our Words for Adults:

Love

Freedom

Peace

One

Together

Bravery

Boldness

Safety

Equality

Stronger Together

Kindness

Positivity

Choose love

Happiness

All

Respect

Radical Inclusivity

One Family

Brave

Letters of Love: Voices of Empathy

Another illustration of making love a verb actually happened on the most commercialized day of love in our country: Valentine’s Day. As a firm believer in showing love daily and resisting the draw to celebrate a capitalist’s version of the intent of this day my entire adult years, a group of adults created a space where the young children in our lives could shift the narrative of the day in big ways. We created a gratitude party, comprised of six families, around fifteen children ages five to eleven, big hearts, and broad minds.

We began by talking about who in our lives we admire and why. We generated a list of the people we admire, why, and possible ideas of love we could communicate to them. We then created postcards with the words of gratitude we wanted these personal heroes of us to hear (and a few pleas to the newly elected president, too). Below are just a few of the words of gratitude these young hearts wrote about their heroes, which we promptly sent along that afternoon.

Our list of people we admire and why

 “Help us hillary clinton trump won’t help”

“To: Gavin Grimm All of us give you hope and bravness. You can do what you want to do. Love,”

“Dear Michelle Obama, you are a great speaker and also inspired me. you have true girl power. I love that you speak your mind. For these reasons you are amazing.”

“Dear President Trump, I think that black people and people from other countries are the same as white people. They might have different colored skin or talk different but they still love people and are loved the same. People that haven’t done anything and live in a different country.”

“Dear Mrs. Yates, Thank you for standing up to President Trump and fighting for Muslim rights. Although I am not Muslim myself, I still appreciate you because  you are a wonderful role model to all women -young or old- who are quietly mourning in the shadows. You have encouraged them to fight for their rights openly and write letters, email, call, and text, to tell the person they are writing to that they appreciate them, such as I am. Keep doing what you’re doing!”

“Dear Senator Elizabeth Warren, When we heard you speak for the first time, you inspired me to speak up more. We love how you don’t give up! You remind us that we must speak up for ourselves and for others. Thank you for being a great role model. Love,”

When spaces are created that render children’s voices heard and words visible, we grow closer to one another. Our love expands to envelop our communities into spaces of visible compassion.

Poetic Love: A Window into our Humanity

I am a firm believer in this statement: poetry is a window into one’s soul. To know one’s stories through the medium of the poetic stance is to truly embark on a journey of radical empathy.  Adults have the responsibility to co-create spaces with children so their voices can be privileged, be known, and be heard, not silenced and erased from the spaces we occupy together. If we agree that love is a verb and we show our love toward one another through actions, creating space for kids to explore their world through poetry is one pathway to seeing this love take flight. And, once we begin to truly know one another at this deeper level, we have no other choice but to grow our empathetic hearts and our love for each other.  A dear mentor of mine recently sent me these words from a poet’s perspective on the notion of silence, “The study of silence has long engrossed me. The matrix of a poet’s work consists not only of what is there to be absorbed and worked on, but also of what is missing, desaparecido, rendered unspeakable, thus unthinkable. It is through these invisible holes in reality that poetry makes its way — certainly for women and other marginalized subjects and for disempowered and colonized peoples generally, but ultimately for all who practice any art at its deeper levels. The impulse to create begins — often terribly and fearfully — in a tunnel of silence. Every real poem is the breaking of an existing silence, and the first question we might ask any poem is, What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken?” -Adrienne Rich. 

Wow, right? What kind of voice is breaking silence, and what kind of silence is being broken? So powerfully beautiful. Three teachers and I embarked on a study of student voice and expression, to get to know their student’s young minds in a deeper way, through the study of one technique from one of my personal heroes, author, and poet Georgia Heard. We used her technique of the “Six Room Writing” to guide second grade, third grade, and fifth-grade students, through a journey of poetic thought. Below is the illumination of our study: both the technique we used and the masterful poems that emerged from the souls of these young minds. The depth of insight is going to blow you away, it did for us.

Six Room Writing Technique

We had the young poets jot a quick structure divided into six parts. We then guided them through each “room,” modeling what it looked like for us, then they tried it out. They shared their ideas periodically with a thinking partner. In the end, we modeled many ways they might to use this six-room writing technique and invited them to create their own ways of using these ideas to create poems. Some students even jotted their technique on the board and named it after them, highlighting their ownership of the work in powerful ways.

Room One: Think of a memory or observation of the world around you. Jot words and phrases.

Room Two: Ask yourself, “What did you see?” A hyper-focus on the visual, lights, and colors. Jot words and phrases.

Room Three: Ask yourself, “What did you hear?” Jot words and phrases.

Room Four: Ask yourself, “What do you wonder about? Be authentic, if you don’t have a wonder, leave it blank.” Jot your wonderings.

Room Five: “Describe what you felt in that memory.” Jot words and phrases.

Room Six: “Read over your words and summarize your thoughts by picking the essential words that stood out to you. Repeat them three times.” Jot the words or phrases three times.

Below is an example of the chart build out with the description of each room’s focus:

Below is an example of some possible strategies of what to try out with all the words and phrases populated in the six rooms, with some student strategies as well.

Now, for the window into children’s hearts, minds, and souls. When we know one another, how can we help but grow our hearts bigger and minds broader?

This young poet’s six-room writing memory of a hospital waiting room with his grandparent…

The Waiting Room

Just silence

in the waiting room

nothing

A pen to sign

in to go to the room

but

I had to

stay

and wait

I got a licorice

This young poet’s six-room writing memory of a car ride with their mom…

To worried

night

dark

In the car

car’s Engine

mom’s phone rings

Who’s in the Phone?

what is my mom crying about?

Im worried

scared

worried

worried

worried

This young poet’s six-room writing the memory of the birth of a new baby brother…

Early at the Hospital

A new baby brother

Thinking of names

A happy baby cake

cake throw up

Baby Brother crying

Laughter, loving tears

Why was I mad about having a brother?

Why is he loving?

Why was he born on my b-day?

loving, caring and tears from happness

Landy!

Landy!

Landy!

This young poet’s six-room writing memory of feeling denial in the face of death…

11 o’clock

she’s dead

11 o’clock

She’s…

gone

crying

Denial

Why did

she go so

soon?

She had

6 years

and only

lived 3

11 o’clock,

dead, denial,

11 o’clock

If we are to know one another in a deeper way, in so doing grow our love and humanity toward one another, one pathway to begin to build this understanding is through the power of poetry. I want to comfort the young poet who was denied entry into his grandparent’s hospital room upon a trip to the hospital, where he clearly sees the injustice in this situation of being made to wait separate from everyone else. I want to provide space for the young poet to talk about the worry they felt at watching their mother cry during their car ride. I want to celebrate the joyous feelings the poet felt at the birth of their baby brother, even if it was on their same birthday. And most strikingly, I want to explore the feelings of denial in the face of loss. All of this I want to explore, with the consent of these young minds. As poetry is a window into our deepest feelings and reflections, ideas that emerge must be fiercely protected, shared only in deeply safe spaces, and always with consent. The power of the written poetic word to build our connections with one another and grow our love is innumerable.

180 days of love.

I’ve spent the past 180 school days enveloped in the love and compassion of children and the adults who labor on their behalf daily. I think a lot about our responsibility toward one another. I think a lot about parents who’ve lost children to violence and children who’ve lost parents to the same. I cannot reconcile my feelings of deep sadness of this narrative in our country, in our world. The only thing I can do, though, is seek to understand the people in my life, in my community, in our country and world, at a deeper level. And teach the children I have under my care and the children in the spaces I have the honor of being a part of, to do the same. I believe it begins with our children. As Frederick Douglass once stated, “It’s easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.” I believe if we can make a daily commitment to grow our minds broad, our hearts deep, and take action in the spaces we have influence and teach our children, students, and youth we’ve relationships with to do the same, it’s got to make a small difference toward creating the world we hope our children will one day inherit: one illustrated by empathy, compassion, kindness, awareness, respect, equity, justice and above all else, love for one another.

___

Published with permission from the educator allies featured in this writing piece. 

Institutional Power Playing With Fire

Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have -James Baldwin

Before beginning this thought piece with the wise words from one of my literary heroes, Jaqueline Woodson, I am going to name a truth I profoundly believe and if you don’t also believe this truth, well then, herein lies an opportunity for you to live in a bit of aspirational discomfort until you shift your thinking in big ways. It’s okay, I’ll wait for you and welcome you with an open heart when you’re ready to walk alongside my deep belief. So, ready to hear it and see where your positionality places you along this spectrum of alignment with me?

Let me bounce my belief off of a quote from one of my favorite authors, Ray Bradbury: “There is more than one way to burn a book. And the world is full of people running about with lit matches.” Well, friends, I, unfortunately, encountered an institution choosing to play with fire recently. I steadfastly believe the act of censorship of books coupled with the overt act of denying children and teachers access to read books in the elementary school classroom is an act against children’s ability to grow their minds, hearts, and actions in empathetic ways. It denies children the opportunity to have access to information and create their own thinking from this knowledge. It’s essentially what James Baldwin spoke about in his famous quote referring to the unchecked ignorance of power named as the most ferocious enemy of justice. I’ll explore this notion more later, but for now, do a self-check for me: you with me? Beautiful. If not, keep reading, I hope you’ll walk alongside me soon.

In her Author’s Note of the brilliant picture book The Other Side, prolific author Jaqueline Woodson states her intent in writing the book and why it was so meaningful for her. Among many things she stated, these words stuck with me in a profound way: “I knew two things: One—that I wanted this to be a story about the way in which young people change the world each day through their seemingly simple acts of resistance. And two—that I wanted it to be a lyrical story that brought with the telling hope… Always, I would say—‘What about right here in this classroom?’ And slowly, the young people would begin to look around and notice, perhaps for the first time, that there is still work to do.” Her poignant question, “What about right here in the classroom,” struck me so profoundly, that I decided to explore her wondering charge with a yearlong study in just such a place, well actually, two. Two classrooms, starkly different in many ways, except one critical thread that wove them together: the empathy and compassion in the hearts and minds of the children and teachers that inhabited them. This is their story, their journey. I’m just a mirror to reflect the beauty and struggle to you. My hope is that by the end of this thought piece, you find your pathway to action that will join with my actions and those actions of thousands of others across this nation, as we become a movement of change together.

For a mama of a young visible transgender child, living his life bravely and boldly for this past year, our world came crashing down in a big way after our nation’s election seven months ago. So many outrageous things have transpired since that dark day, which this reflection will not be about. Instead, this reflection will center what light was shone in the spaces we have a small bit of influence within. Namely, the spaces occupied by glorious children. As a mama who is an educator by trade, who has many dear educator friends that found themselves just as shaken by the results of the election as I was, we decided to shift a bit of the focus of how we use literature in the elementary classroom to begin creating spaces for an exploration of compassion and empathy through the deep study of identity. Alfred Tatum’s profound words echo my belief system about the power of literacy instruction in creating the conditions within which children can gain tools for their own self-liberation: “Literacy instruction should never get in the way or postpone our deeper humanity. Every time we fail to teach a student to read, we put a bullet in a chamber.” Pause on that statement he recently made at a literacy event hosted by Columbia University’s Teachers College Reading and Writing Project this spring. It’s big, it’s visceral, it’s truth.  I’d add: every time we fail to equip a student with the tools to think critically, push back on what they are learning, and voice their ideas through the spoken and written word, the same metaphor is true.

We chose to center our study on the Balanced Literacy component of the interactive read aloud, because as one of my literacy heroes, Lucy Calkins asserts, in her Guide to the Reading Workshop, “We read because this is the best way we know to come together in a community of care…how powerful it is to read aloud, right smack in the midst of the hope and heartaches of a classroom, amid friendships that form and dissolve…children work out their life and death issues” (2010, 79-80).  As a foundational belief that literacy instruction is one pathway toward our larger humanity, where we can explore the important work of life in the context of a safe supportive learning space, this spirit guided the two teachers and I as we explored multiple identities through a series of beautifully inclusive texts read across the school year. Our intent was to create safe spaces for children to explore what it means to show our hearts to one another in this new national climate illustrated by so much hate, aggression, and divisiveness. As this journey unfolded, none of us quite expected what happened: both from the hearts and minds of children and from the painfully short-sided privilege of institutions in positions of power to deny children access to opportunities to build empathy toward one another.

How does one push back on the narrative of privilege, power, and systemic oppression that pervades the nation within which we live today? Confession? I’m not sure. Sorry, that’s the transparency of my stance as a learner and realizing I know less the more I learn. Want to hear my growing theory, though? Well, I believe many pathways might emerge for one that wants to do this deep work of pedagogical shifts, depending on your positionality within the system, your identity, your profession, your ability, and so on. If you’re an educator, though, who has the honor of inspiring and being inspired by young minds and hearts on the daily, beautifully inclusive texts read to groups of incredible children is one way, one very big way. And, this is exactly what I explored with the two teachers this school year as they took their elementary-aged students on a journey of thought, studying identity through literature. Let me paint a picture of the context for each learning space, explore some of the literature and student thinking along the way, and then process a devastating obstacle to this narrative, one that this literacy-loving educator and mama of a visible transgender child cannot yet reconcile: powerful institutional ignorance that flies in the face of the growth of children’s minds, hearts, and actions.

Let me paint the scene.

To get an image of why this work was so profound for us this year, let me set the context of each learning space in a general way: One learning space, an upper-grade classroom in a Title 1 school in a large urban city, was comprised of children of color. The other space, a primary grade classroom in an award-winning school in a suburban neighborhood, was comprised of children of relative societal privilege. Different in more ways than not. What tied these two starkly different classes together, though? As it turned out, two things: first, the compassion and empathy within the hearts and minds of the children who inhabited both spaces, and second, their teachers: they were bold, experienced, activist teachers who both took on the task of responding to what the world offered them as opportunities to tackle in the classroom.

I invite you to journey with these two teachers, a group of young minds, and me, their consummate collaborator and fellow activist educator.

Our study began with a favorite from Jacqueline Woodson’s work for young readers, The Other Side. In a few sentences, her book explores the ways children push against societal norms to discover the ties that bind: friendship and a common goal to find humanity within one another. As this book was read to these young minds, children instantly connected with the two main characters, a young Black girl named Clover and a young White girl named Annie. Children from both classrooms instantly expressed an understanding of the underlying theme of the book: the girls pushing back against the societal norms at the time around segregation and racism. They even clearly understood the symbolism behind the fence, that literally and figuratively, divided them. Of course, they would, right? But here’s the thing: as adults, we may recognize that children have a sense of these topics in the world, but do we co-create spaces in the places we have influence over (homes, classrooms, community spaces) for these conversations and exchange of ideas to occur on a regular basis? I linger on the answer to this question…

When we do, here’s what happens: we form a shared understanding of what it means to be humane, compassionate, and respectful of one another. In essence, our empathy grows. In opening spaces for these conversations around race, racism, segregation, and societal responses to these notions, children’s ideas began to grow in big ways. As the teachers and I explored this book and the symbolic nature of the fence in the story with both classes, the children made incredibly profound connections between the acts of racism in history and the acts of racism that pervade our communities today. Here are some ideas from both the spoken and written words of insightful youth.

  • “People of Color and White people were not allowed to be together but Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wanted to knock down that old fence” -primary student
  • “If you knock that fence, all kids could be friends with one another” -primary student
  • “All the children are good and really want to put that fence down so all can play. They could knock that fence down all together and then more friends will come” -primary student (Please, children, I’m counting on you to do just that: knock down that fence, together alongside your fellow peers…)

Some primary students’ written words:

The upper graders had parallel reactions and discussions like the primary grade children, relating what the book spoke of in a historical sense to what was emerging in today’s reality.

  • “We had an inauguration recently and it makes me think of this. In the book, this segregation happened because it had been the way it had always been about skin color. We can’t change the past, we can only change the future, because that’s the way things were. Dr. King changed things between black and white people” -upper grader
  • “Just one fence can do so much—they are being separated and the girls don’t even know why” -upper grader (Children can recognize the big implications of a societal structure with the unwritten rules of power and privilege that render particular subsets of people powerless. “Just one fence” and the reflection that kids don’t even know… That’s the big work of creating the conditions within which children begin to learn and reflect, in our homes, our classrooms, our community spaces.)
  • “Just because their skin tone is different from them, they shouldn’t be separated. It’s like separation like our border between the US and Mexico” -upper grader (notice just how similar this thought was to the primary grader’s writing above…children understand the world in big ways, they listen to everything, and make these deep connections that we should provide space for them to process further with their peers).

This reflection made one classmate ask this question: When did this story take place and could this happen today? Wow, right? I’d consider this book under the historical fiction umbrella, so after many conversations, the class settled on the book taking place decades ago. To clarify what this student’s thinking was edging toward when he made the connection between the fence and the US border, we decided to follow up his thinking and the second part of his question: Could this happen today?  What followed in the whole class conversation was poignant and left the teacher and I with this one thought: kids get it. They get it in big ways.

  • “I think the president today is going to make segregation today by different types because he plans to build a wall between the US and Mexico. This makes it all much worse” -upper grader
  • “Wait, we’ve been together for decades and it would be heartbreaking to happen. What about mixed race families? It doesn’t make sense. You need to consider what others want and think about others’ feelings and make them happy. Some families that are White and Black would be separated and that would be sad” -upper grader (notice how similar this statement was to the writing of the primary grader upon reflecting on her sister and herself).
  • “Some of this segregation is happening today. It’s still segregated in the south. People don’t care about the law and they break it” -upper grader
  • “Our new president might split us apart. He already is doing that with Muslims and other Muslims are standing up for them at the airport” -upper grader (to which point the class gasped at her statement that it’s already happening today, the teacher and I looked at one another with awestruck faces to the poignancy of her comment, and I layered in with this: It’s not only Muslims standing tall at the airport, my family and I just marched in our local airport this past weekend to show our solidarity and support for the Muslim community. When something is important to us, we stand tall. I wanted the students to know it takes action on all our parts to stand tall for our beliefs).

The upper grader’s writing below echoes this perspective. The last line is incredibly poignant: “But if you resiste you can change history because of your action.” Yes, kiddo, that’s exactly right, YOU all can change the future of how our history is shaped by your ACTIONS.

Below, you’ll notice one primary grader’s and one upper grader’s list of items they can try out as small acts of resistance. Who’s with them, with us?

  • Doing a march
  • Running for president
  • Being together as one
  • Preventing separation
  • Protest
  • Destroying barriers
  • Find way around
  • Taking a stand

       

Primary Grade Student Upper-Grade Student

It was clear to the teachers and me just how profoundly impactful the “stuff happening in life” was on the minds of their students as they grappled with the notions of what to do to push back against it and the implications of what it meant for their lives. I hope this is some of the types of work you are a part of with the youth around you, either as a parent, teacher, or community mentor. And you know something? I know this deep work has been going on for so long and the poignancy of children’s ideas is nothing new, except they are attaching the concepts of beautifully inclusive books like this to some very pointed things occurring in the landscape of our nation today.  We need to steadfastly continue to do this deep work of having conversations around race, racism, and our history of segregation, always and to continue t0 take actions against hateful views and actions. We positioned this beautiful book as one pathway into the study to open a space for this exploration of identity work with elementary-aged kids. And full disclosure here, my reader, as to why. I was looking for a way to thoughtfully layer in books that explored identity in a variety of ways as a foundation that eventually edged us closer to exploring the uncharted territory of the one identity that pervades my every waking thought: that of a trans identity, specifically, a trans youth identity. Just so I’m transparent and all with you…

With this evolution of thought emerging, we decided a next move was to continue the study of identity through a book that tackled another aspect of identity through a reading of Michael Hall’s Red: A Crayon’s Story. In this book, the author explores the notion of who we really are on the inside, despite the way we present on the outside. It’s a beautiful way for our young readers to explore the notions around gender expansiveness and the responsibility we have to love, see and support those around us. To be frank, this is a book that I lovingly name as the “gateway text” that gets the conversation going with young children that layers in the idea that just because one is born with a particular “crayon color wrapper” doesn’t necessarily mean that person actually identities with that wrapper. Plainly, when the red crayon tries to color, his color always turns out blue, not red. When he is finally supported in his identity of coloring blue, he empowers himself and those around him beautifully see him for his authentic self: a blue crayon.

In both the primary and upper-grade classrooms, we began with a quick conversation about hidden messages from authors. We made the assertion that authors sometimes reveal hidden messages through the characters they choose to write about and that we needed to pay close attention to what authors are trying to teach us in stories through the character’s experiences and the notion that perhaps the crayon represents the human identity in a deeper way. Both the classes were up for the exploration of hidden messages.

Before reading the book aloud, in the upper-grade classroom, we moved into a conversation about the notion of change (we’d do this with the primary grade students next time, too). We posed this question: What in life might change about someone’s identity? After thinking through possibilities with a thinking partner, the upper graders generated a quick list of possible ways a person might change over time. A few that stood out to me in a big way were: one’s heart, one’s thinking, and one’s respect for themselves. All really big ideas. Before beginning the read aloud, we posed one additional question to the class: Can one’s gender change, too? After defining what gender was to clarify this term, students processed this question again with a thinking partner. Some weren’t quite sure while others said sure. One partnership even named the idea of a transgender person. As we shared out highlights from our conversations, this pair shared out their idea that transgender people exist, they’d even heard of them, too. The class agreed that we could add the idea of gender to our chart, so we did.

In true form, both the primary and upper graders understood the notions underlying this inclusive text, in big ways I might add. Let’s explore some of their ideas, both through transcripts of class discussions during the read aloud in the primary classroom and the written word in the notebooks of the upper graders.

Exploration of Thought During the Read Aloud

In one turn and talk moment, we asked students to process how Red felt when he couldn’t color red. Here are some of the primary grader’s ideas:

  • “Red feels upset, like he can’t do what he’s supposed to.”
  • “Red is sad, he wasn’t really red, his wrapper, he’s really blue. He should have a blue wrapper.”
  • “He’s supposed to be blue, by accident they have him the color red.”
  • “What’s so bad about this part is when he was born his parents thought he was red and named him red, but he was actually blue.”

In another turn and talk moment, when children were responding to how Red felt as the other crayons around him were being incredibly unkind to him, here are some of the primary grader’s ideas:

  • “Red feels left out of the crayon group, they are being mean to him, not nice and saying bad things to him.”
  • “Just because of what color he uses, it doesn’t match his name. You can’t judge others by the color they are.”
  • “It’s like the book The Other Side, the dark skin and the light skin and the wrapper.”
  • “I think the hidden message is that Red is actually a blue crayon and he was switched. You should not boss people around for their skin color.”

As we neared the end of the book, when Red realized he was really a blue crayon all along and as his peers and family began to see this, too, and support him, the primary graders reflected on the hidden messages in the text:

  • “It matters who you are, not matters what you look like.”
  • “Doesn’t matter what you are, don’t give up on who you are, try your hardest.”

Exploration of Thought Through Written Reflections

To explore the realizations the upper graders made after hearing the book Red, I’m going to center their own written words to express their deepest empathetic reflections.

Recognizing the depth of knowledge these sets of students had brought to the conversations in class and their reflective writings, we decided to read another beautifully inclusive text: Jessica Walton’s Introducing Teddy: A Gentle Story about Gender and Friendship. This is a book about a teddy bear revealing her truth to the child that loves her and how friendship preservers over time. Both The Other Side and Red: A Crayon’s Story were read alouds that I read as a guest in these incredible teacher’s classrooms. I am both their friend and colleague. We had a sense of trust and they knew my rapport with children. But, here’s the thing. As we got closer to a book that edged into conversations on topics that seem to be trickier in our world today, we recognized this. I’d assert there are no controversial topics, just controversial viewpoints upon these topics, especially with conversations centering around LGBTQIA identities. Knowing this and reflecting upon the world within which we find ourselves today, we agreed that the teachers would take on the read aloud of this book this time.

To frame the reading of Introducing Teddy, the upper-grade teacher began by posing this question for students to consider: What are some things you enjoy doing with your friends? She continued: Things change in stories based on events and other things that move a story. Pay attention to what things change and what things don’t change.

Read Aloud

In a first opportunity to reflect upon the story with a partner, the teacher posed this question to the students: How do you think Tilly the Teddy felt when she shared with Errol (the boy) “I’m a girl teddy not a boy teddy”?

  • “Tilly felt nervous and didn’t know what the boy would say. Would he be a friend or not keep a secret? She was tired of the boy calling her Thomas. She was disappointed by the name Thomas.”
  • “Tilly felt disappointed and given the wrong name. She always knew she was a girl Teddy—she always knew.”
  • “She’s expecting a negative effect on the relationship. She’s feeling uncomfortable and nervous.”
  • “Tilly feels sad because she knew she was always a girl and given a boy name. The boy didn’t know. Would the friendship break apart because of her gender?”
  • “Tilly felt guilty because friends tell secrets but Tilly kept this secret from him, so not to feel bad, she told him.”
  • “If Tilly was always a girl, why didn’t she tell Errol in the beginning? If she knew the whole time, why did she feel bad now and not back then?”
  • “Why did she wait so long to say something?”

We decided to build off this last student’s thinking with this next question: What might be some reasons, then, why Tilly did not tell Errol a long time ago that she was a girl teddy? After the students processed this line of thinking, here are some of their developing theories:

  • “She didn’t want to tell because she still wanted to be friends and was scared he wouldn’t be friends.”
  • “She didn’t want to break up the friendship and hurt him.”
  • “Because Errol was a boy and he wanted a boy Teddy, not a girl. She wants to do girl stuff and they always do boy stuff.”
  • “Little kids might not understand how they act and Tilly waits for Errol to be an age he can understand. She didn’t want to ruin all the fun stuff.”

As the book continued, Tilly revealed her truth to Errol the boy, upon which he declared his stance that they will remain friends no matter what. The students were relieved that Errol continued his friendship with Tilly and Tilly felt empowered to express herself in whatever way made her feel comfortable, moving the ribbon she’s worn as a bowtie to her hair as a bow. Really, this book is such a beautiful illustration of the enduring depth of friendship and compassion.

Whole-Class Conversation

To create a space where the students could process the book in a deeper way and build upon classmate’s thinking, the students next engaged in a whole-class conversation. The teacher set up the context: “We have the ability to stretch the conversation outside of the text—this is making me think of the language we use. Let’s consider this idea from the beginning: What doesn’t change and why? Our goal is to build off other’s thinking to grow our ideas of off others, too. Let’s wait five seconds before we jump in so we can build onto others’ thinking and process.” The teacher handed over the conversation to the students. Here is the brilliance that transpired:

  • “The one thing that didn’t change is their relationship, their friendship.”
  • “It didn’t affect their friendship: they’re still friends.”
  • “I agree, Errol doesn’t care about her gender, he cares she’s a friend.”
  • “I agree, it hasn’t affected their friendship. She named the change and he didn’t care. Life just went on.”
  • “The relationship stayed the same—they still did the same things they loved.”
  • “When Errol found out, well it’s just a change in gender, I don’t care who they are before, I only care about they are my friend.”
  • “Outside the bow changed, but inside they’re still the same. They have the same relationship and do boy stuff and hang out more often.”
  • “All makes me think Errol and Ava [another friend in the story] are very accepting people because they both thought Tilly was Teddy but Errol didn’t care, Ava didn’t care. All they thought wasn’t true in the beginning—they are very accepting people.”

As we realized just how much the upper graders understood the message in the story, the teacher posed this question: What we can learn from this is…

  • “If you have a friend that wants to be a girl or boy, don’t give up your friendship.”
  • “Look at the front cover—that’s who she is, who she imagines herself to be.”
  • “It makes me think: that she was a girl on the inside instead of a boy.”
  • “Not to give up on a friendship when someone changes their appearance or what they feel on the inside.”
  • “She knew she was a girl inside, a boy on the outside. Now I can see you as a girl.”

Kids get it, right friends? To link this with the other stories we’d been exploring this identity work through this year, the teacher asked the students to consider Red: A Crayon’s Story, The Other Side, and Oliver Button Is a Sissy by Tomie dePaola (the teachers had been studying additional books, as they do so well, many of which I was unable to join them for!). In true fashion, here are some of the upper grader’s poignant assertions as they connected with other inclusive texts:

  • “It doesn’t matter black or white, boy or girl, they can be friends.”
  • “Black or white, you can be friends no matter what. Introducing Teddy, he thought he was a boy, but he was really a girl, so don’t give up on friendship.”
  • “In videogames, there are some characters of boys that can’t do it, so I don’t think of gender and I use the character I want.”
  • “There’s nothing wrong with a boy being friends with a girl.”
  • “The opposite gender, accept people for who they are, they are still human.”
  • “We shouldn’t treat anyone unfairly because of gender.”

Again, I’m going to name this: kids get it. Clearly, the upper graders followed the thread of the book and really focused mostly on the message of being friends no matter what and that boys and girls can be friends with one another. They really didn’t explore the notion of the transgender youth identity. So, the teacher and I decided not to, either, as we always try our best to build the curriculum off where children take it. To conclude our work with this book, for the time being, the teacher created an opportunity for students to do a quick reflective write, both living in the text and lifting thoughts off the page into “life” and the “world.” A few sentence stems to get students started are below, as well as some of the upper grader’s thoughts. I’ll give you some time to read through them…

No matter what, I love friends the way they are. I’m sitting with this child’s reflection for a while, as it reflects the way I wish for humanity to position themselves with friends and others around them, always. Don’t you? And I want you to know, this upper-grade teacher went on to read other inclusive texts such as R. J. Palacio’s Wonder and Alex Gino’s George, and the upper grader’s awareness, compassion, and empathetic hearts grew by leaps and bounds.

The primary grade teacher, knowing the beautiful book Introducing Teddy was a discussion around gender, mentioned it to their local site administrator, who also agreed the book was wonderful. Just to check-in, the site administrator went up the ladder to confirm support for reading this book. This is where the chapter ends for your glimpse into this beautiful primary classroom. Why you might ask? Because I have nothing to write. I have nothing to show you as to student thinking or work. I have nothing to reflect to you as to what transpired in the classroom as children’s empathetic hearts and minds grew by leaps and bounds like the upper grader student’s hearts and minds did.

Why? Because…

Because the primary grade teacher was told they were not supported in reading this book this year to their students. They could not proceed. So, I will leave a big blank space below where I wish with everything in my being the words of the primary students could live, their ideas could flourish, their realizations could amaze you.

You might be wondering why the book Introducing Teddy was not allowed to be read, right? That’s human nature to have a curious stance on the world around us, especially when we hear injustice against children. Why was this teacher told they were not allowed to read the book Introducing Teddy this school year? Honestly, does it matter? When an institution delivers the message that a book is not to be read to students, any reason given for this censorship of inclusive texts doesn’t matter because there is no justification for this stance, this message, this action.

None.

Ignorance allied with power is the most ferocious enemy justice can have -James Baldwin

To revisit the words of James Baldwin, that have rattled around in my brain and heart for a while now as I’ve tried to process the gravity of this situation, I have a growing rage in my heart toward institutional power that would seek to deny information to children to keep them unaware of the world around them. I can’t help it. I lead with a stance of love and hope that the compassion in our hearts will prevail and create conditions where we can come together to know one another in deep ways. This has been my stance for a long time now. But here, with this, I feel rage. That’s just my truth right now. When I reflect on what was just perpetuated upon the minds and hearts of the children who inhabit the spaces where this institution has power, it angers me deeply, it cuts my heart. I bleed and that’s just the truth of it. I don’t just bleed for my child, I bleed for the children that have been denied the chance to grow their already empathetic hearts even more, so perhaps one day when they meet my kid and his peers, they think, “Wow, just like Tilly. I understand it. I respect it. Let’s go play, friend.”

If school is a rehearsal for life, where children have the right “to come together in a community of care…to work out their life and death issues” through the books we read together and books that center LGBTQIA characters are keep out of classrooms and out of the hands of compassionate, wise educators, how are children ever to understand what it feels like to have an identity like my child and his peers? If we negate our responsibility, as caretakers of children, whether as parents, guardians, mentors, teachers, or whatever capacity we position ourselves with youth around us, to share the reality of the world we live in and use literacy as a pathway to access our deeper humanity, then where does that leave us? Are we playing with fire when we deny children the opportunity to form their own ideas based on access to information around them? Are we censoring access to information based on our own adult insecurities and hesitations? Tell me the justice of institutional censorship in moving our collective pursuit of justice for all forward?

These are questions I have no answer to right now. Well, that’s not exactly true. I do have one answer to give you. Actually, it’s not an answer, it’s an ask. While I understand to shift pedagogy, it centers on larger entities than a book, it centers on system shifts toward more inclusive practices. I get that. And while I get this isn’t just about a book, it is. Well, it is, and, it isn’t. It isn’t about a book, but more so, about what this book represents. It’s about access to information, knowledge, and opportunities to grow as human beings. It’s about the denial of access to these opportunities by the few affecting the many. So, it’s about what the book represents. If, after reading this, you are so deeply affected by the opportunity denied to these young children, I have a move for you to make. In her book, The Other Side, Jacqueline Woodson advocates for small acts of resistance. I do as well. Here’s my ask of you: read the book Introducing Teddy, and other inclusive texts, to the children in your life. If you are a teacher, read this book and other inclusive texts like it, to your students. If you’re an administrator, support your teachers in their pursuit of inclusive curriculum and texts in their classrooms. If you’re a director or superintendent, seek to understand why teachers believe this work is vital and books like these are essential in this work, and then visibly let them know they have your support in this critical work. If you’re a parent or guardian or grandparent, read these books to the kids in your life and have these honest conversations. If you have any stance with children in your life, I’d argue it’s your responsibility as an adult to provide the conditions within which children have access to the reality of the world so they can continue the work of building understanding, empathy, and respect toward one another. If you believe children are to inherit the world after we are gone, let them inherit it with knowledge, eyes wide open, hearts large, minds broad, and hands ready to do the work of building a more just world for one another.

One last thing to keep you lingering on your next move: I’m an adult, which positions me in our society with power, power that is systemically denied to children. As the daughter of Dr. King, Bernice King, recently said, “Love is not passive. Love does not cooperate with inhumanity. Love is an active force for peace, justice, and righteousness.” Ask yourself: How will you enact your love toward children? If you don’t want to take my word as to why inclusive texts are so impactful to our children, won’t you take the word of youth for truth? Here are upper graders’ words for you, urging you to take this big work on. Please read, ponder, and then I ask you to join us in moving forward to continue the work of doing right by ALL children.

[Here are two links, here and here, to inclusive book lists we’ve compiled, for your youngest readers. Please read through these lists, consider, and then go forth reading these beautifully inclusive books, with an open heart, to the children in your life.]

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Published with permission from the educator allies featured in this writing piece. 

To Be Flawed Is To Be Human

My writing tonight should not be about me. While I recognize the irony that centering myself while trying to unpack adult privilege is laughable at best, disrespectful at worst, I cannot think of a way to tackle this conversation without centering my personal experiences to reveal how eternally flawed I am. While I wish this writing tonight was not about me, as I’ve been quite conflicted with the notion of adult privilege usurping the agency of youth lately, and to be honest, I’m kind of sick of hearing my own voice, it will, unfortunately, be about me, as I’ve no one but myself to take responsibility for my actions, or rather, inaction.

What’s shaken me to the core and has struck me so deeply is this: the humbling effect I felt today from the words of an insightful fifth-grader. His words and those of his classmates, in fact. Twice he and his classmates humbled me with their insight and forced me to reexamine truths I’d either thought I’d come to terms with or didn’t even recognize I needed to consider. Let me give you a bit of context within which to center your image of me (yikes, a scary notion to be so transparent to you my reader, but alas, a necessary process). I am a cisgender mama of a young visible transgender son who is an educator by trade. If you know me today, you may think what I’m about to confess to you isn’t possible. And I thank you for your belief in me. If you don’t know me, well then, you’ll be getting a window into the humility one goes through as they journey along the path of transition with a young child and try to make sense of the world around them.

Ready for a few confessions? Bet you are, so let’s get started.

Confession One: I am guilty of exactly the kind of shameful behavior this young fifth-grader expressed was unjust toward kids. That’s painful to name and seeing it in print right now makes me want to cry. But, if we can’t look truth in the face and grabble with it, how will we ever learn to revise ourselves? I’ll explore his assertion further after I state it and then state my confession two. His assertion: Parents shouldn’t have the right to decide their children’s destiny and the life they will have.

Confession Two: I am responsible for not seeing my own adult privilege after a year’s worth of shedding skin and revising my notion of self. Even after spending ten months researching such notions of identity, privilege, power, and oppression. Even after nine days of intense research in one fifth grade classroom exploring these very notions in-depth, I didn’t see my own privilege as an adult. I’ve no excuse for this. I accept responsibility for my own unknowing and now recognize growing pains cut. And they cut deeply. I revise myself once again.

Now that I’ve admitted my two truths (the most recent truths of which there have been many lately) they feel really big and really raw. I’ll attempt to unpack each and then try to reconcile my soul with a reflection on what I’m trying desperately to do about it to shift this narrative.

Tackle One: The Wise Words of Youth Forcing a Revision of Self

The fifth-graders and their amazing teacher, Ms. J, that I have been studying with this year, have been doing deep work at unpacking the notion of identity and empathy through characters they study in books read in class. It’s been a beautiful process to be a collaborator with this teacher this year and I’ve learned so much as a researcher, educator, mama, and human being. In their most recent book exploration, Alex Gino’s George, they are studying the identity of a young transgender girl. A scene in the book today struck the children and elicited a poignant response from the fifth-grader. A bit of context about the scene in the book: the trans girl, Melissa, was caught by her mother possessing magazines that centered on teen girls. Her mother accused her of stealing the magazines and questioned why she’d even want to have them. She went on to shame Melissa by telling her she wasn’t to enter her room and not dare to ever wear her clothes again, as she did when she was younger. As Melissa tried to explain herself, knowing the truth that her mother still saw her as a boy and not her authentic self as a transgender girl, her mother silenced her and shut down the lines of communication between the two of them. As the teacher read this scene today, her student’s reactions were terribly raw: so many faces of shock, disgust, and confusion as to how the mother could treat her child this way and how an adult could silence a child in just a mere few reactionary words. Students expressed a feeling of being scared for Melissa, confusion as to why the mother didn’t understand her child, and then the kindest young fifth-grader, with his black-rimmed glasses and eager smile, suggested this reality: “It’s not her decision what her child is supposed to be—she gave birth to George [Melissa] but it’s not her decision to hold George’s [Melissa] destiny and what life George [Melissa] will have.” Mic drop. There is was. Truth from a fifth-grader. And, my shame.

When my child first began to express himself with more masculine characteristics in first grade, my initial response was one along the lines of, Oh babe, that’s wonderful. Girls can do anything boys can do. Just because you want to dress like a boy and cut your hair, just because you are powerfully talented at Jujitsu and take down any boy twice your age with your master skills at the armbar move, just because you want to wear rash guards and swim trunks instead of a one-piece swimsuit, just because you can’t answer the question of what your favorite princess is at a birthday party but can rattle off your most favorite dinosaur at the drop of a hat, you can be all these things as an empowered young lady who knows who she is and fights back against the societal genderized notions of what girls are supposed to be. Right on, babe, girl power…you’re gonna be a woke feminist like your mama…

Ugh, that was my mindset for a bit of time, when my child first began on their path of realizing their authentic self. And believe me, admitting this truth now feels really uncomfortable. And it should. And likewise, I should be made to confront it and own it and never forget where I came from. It’s my history, my shameful truth. I live with that, but tuck it away somewhere deep inside. Today, however, I was made to confront it once again upon hearing these simple words from this insightful fifth-grader. My initial approach for a few weeks upon my child, trying to explore their authentic self as a first-grader, was one of trying to hold onto the fact that my child was born a girl, therefore, was supposed to be a girl and that my child’s gender destiny was determined by biology and my mindful guidance through childhood to be an empowered, kick-ass girl, but girl none-the-less. Damn, I don’t even recognize that self of four years ago. But she existed for a bit of time and I have to own that painful truth.

It doesn’t matter that when my child finally approached me and said it was more than just expression and affinity, it was who they knew they were and the fact that I jumped right in with both feet to become the biggest advocate for my child. It doesn’t matter that I’ve revised my narrative in powerful ways, becoming my child’s consummate accomplice on this journey of self-discovery. That does matter, but what also matters is the fact that at first, I got it wrong. I lived for a short time with what this fifth grader warned against: I thought I should have the right to decide my child’s gender destiny. Truthfully, I never named it in this way for myself, but my words, actions, and inaction to shift swiftly all supported this truth. And for this truth of four years ago, I’m eternally flawed.

Tackle Two: The Oppression of Unchecked Adult Privilege Forcing a Revision of Self

Let’s return to the classroom I was a part of today. In revisiting the context of the classroom, where the students were reflecting together upon the scene between the mother and child, the teacher proceeded to skillfully facilitate this conversation, sensing her students needed to further unpack ideas underlying this scene and this student’s assertion that parents shouldn’t have the right to decide their children’s destiny. She stated that adults should listen to kids so they feel heard and understood. She noted that in this scene, as in life, society would see adults as having more power and the mother wasn’t even listening to her child at that moment. She asked her class this question, “Does that happen with adults in life and how do we change the mindset of cisgender adults?”

And that’s when one student pointed out this glaringly troubling fact: “Hey, we should add adults and children to our ladder of privilege.” Shocked, the teacher and I look at one another with such shame in our hearts. Umm, yeah, of course. That probably should have been one of the first identity pairings we’d explored with her students. How in the world could we not have seen the need to add the identities of adults and children to our ladder of privilege? Well, because it was our blind privilege to our status as adults that we didn’t even see the need to add this identity. To make it even more shameful, we facilitated student’s working through of this chart over the past few days, with the idea of where society would place these multiple identities through the lens of an adult who embodied the identity, not a child. Damn, how adult-centric that was, right? We just shook our heads and said, “Oh yes, of course, let’s add these identities to the chart.” Upon reflecting on this tonight, we probably also missed an opportunity to express to her students our own biases illustrated by the fact that we did not even recognize the need to include adult and child identities on the chart. But, we didn’t name it for her students. Perhaps next time as we revise the exploration, and revise ourselves, we will.

And consider this: we wonder why the main character’s adult (mother) in the book George didn’t see her authentic self, didn’t listen to her and silenced her through words and actions. Well, isn’t that what we had just done to these fifth graders as we talked about this entire conversation of privilege, power, and oppression from the perspective of the adult identity? So irresponsible we’ve been, I now embarrassingly recognize. So, once we quickly regrouped, Ms. J asked her students to consider where they thought society would place the identity of adult and child on the ladder of privilege we’d been constructing across the past couple of days. Children expressed the consensus that the adult identity should be placed at a ‘5’ denoting that adults have all the power. Students then expressed the notion that children should be placed around the ‘2’ because “we can’t do anything and have no ability to go where we want to and are always being told what to do.”

And that’s when the kind young man, with the black-rimmed glasses, said this, “But wait, what about children of privilege, wouldn’t they be placed higher on the ladder of privilege than just ‘regular’ children?” Umm, wait, say what? Ms. J tried to clarify what he was asking. Meanwhile, I dropped my note-taking pen while simultaneously dropping my jaw to the floor. I looked intently at Ms. J with frantic eyes reflecting the notions that I think this child was beginning to edge toward. She asked me to clarify his question and then asked me to proceed with this part of guiding her classes’ exploration of thought. And here’s what unfolded, that with which I will carry through my adult self forevermore.

I asked this young man if he meant that those children with privilege are already placed higher in the ladder of privilege by right of birth? He said, yep. I then turned the conversation over to the entire class by posing this question, “If you all agree that privileged children begin life at a more privileged place on the ladder with more opportunity and power, where would you place them? And think carefully, because where you decide as a class to have your teacher write the phrase ‘privileged children’ is going to make a huge statement.” I’m not sure they knew the huge statement I was referring to, but you do, right? After much discussion with partners, here is where the identities of adults, children, and privileged children were placed on the ladder of societal privilege. Take a long while to study this image below if it’s your first time seeing it. If you’ve read my previous writings, focus on the blue marker.

These thirty-four fifth-graders from a Title 1 school in the middle of a large urban city, placed the identity of privileged children above children. But even more poignantly problematic to my mind is who else that identity was above: adult people of color, adult women, homosexual and transgender adults, and uneducated, old, poor adults. Wow. “Children of privilege are born into their parent’s privilege,” was the consensus as to why the class placed them at a ‘3’ above all these other adult identities. A child of privilege, at their status as a child, has more privilege, power, and access to opportunities than me, than you, and most everyone I know. That’s the raw truth. And not untrue, right? Sit with this truth that children of color just named for us. (Ms. J and I did. We also reflected upon our national election and many revelations became clear. I bet you see them, too. Damn).

So, that’s where I’ve ended up tonight: lost in my own thoughts, my own adult privilege, in my reflection of my own flawed old presumption of adult’s power over their children’s gender destiny, in my own shock at how this ladder of privilege turned out. I intend to explore this ladder of privilege study more in future writings, but for tonight, I sit here staring at it. I can’t seem to take my eyes off the image and the implications. It truly haunts me. I know it haunts you, too. How can it not?

I did mention at the beginning of this thought piece that I’d add a reflection at the end on what I’m trying desperately to do about these confessions I’ve named. Well, I’m living my life in revision. Revision of thought, of words, of actions. It’s really all I can do at this point. Be willing to live hard, study hard, act hard upon what I have control over in the small spaces of my life. This doesn’t seem satisfying to you, does it? I apologize if you feel this way. I kind of do, too. But, it’s my truth right now. I intentionally live my life open to revising myself daily if it means I learn to live justly on behalf of my trans son and his peers. It’s small, but I think powerful. If we were all open to living life in such revision, just think about what we could achieve collectively. I’ll leave you with this last thought from a wise mentor of mine: If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go with others. I want to go far to outgrown my best self, so I’ll need others with me. Won’t you join my journey and allow it to intertwine with yours? Together, we’ll go much further hand in hand.

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

How Are We To Know Unless You Let Us? An Exploration of Access & Power

I will name a few painful truths I see of the world within which we live. Then, explore what some wise children (and their activist teachers) are doing to rise up and push back on these narratives. I hope to leave you with this truth: when conditions are created within which children can assert their agency against what they see as injustices in the world, their world, everyone’s heart and mind grows broader and may just be what makes all the difference in the end.

My Truth One: I’m a cisgender mama of a young visible transgender child.

My Truth Two: I’m an adult who feels ashamed to check off that identity box right now, but I have a feeling you can begin to help me shift this feeling. I hope.

My Truth Three: I’m an educator with eternal optimism and faith in educators’ hearts, talents, and commitment, but simultaneously believe the schooling system has perpetuated atrocities on the minds of children since its inception by denying them access to knowledge and tools for their own self-liberation. (Not educators as individuals, but the system within which we find ourselves navigating and pushing back on our entire careers).

With my truths named for you upfront, I now have an ask for you: please follow my journey of thought here. It’ll be a painful journey, certainly, and I fully expect many of you to close your browser or close this thought piece on your phone. Fair enough. Your choice to read on or not will not change the fact that I’ve more to say below. If you choose to honor me by reading on, you humble me.

Here’s what challenged my truths one, two, and three, all in one wise fifth grader’s response to her teacher today. Context, then let me back up, and then move forward with something that fills my eternal optimism with hope…

How are we to know unless you let us? were the honest words from a wise fifth grader today in class. My heart, already weary from the violence of words and actions that adults have perpetuated on the young souls of youth across this country these past months, past years, going back really decades, years, centuries, was cut deeper and bled this afternoon while studying in the incredibly amazing fifth-grade classroom within which I’ve been a faithful collaborator all year.

The Context

The incredibly prophetic teacher, Jamaica Ross (Ms. Ross gave us permission to use her name because she is incredibly proud of the deep work her students are doing along this journey and I’ll refer to as Ms. J in the rest of this thought piece), and I have been exploring topics around identity with her students all year long through the vehicle of the interactive read aloud. We’ve been expanding our knowledge of the identity of transgender children in Alex Gino’s groundbreaking middle-grade novel George these past few weeks. Today, our conversation around the book led us into an exploration of the concepts around justice and injustice, as a scene in the book gave many students a visceral reaction.

Let Me Back Up

I hear folks state this fact: many adults across the country are scared that books that center LGBTQ characters or themes might be brought into classrooms for children to read or be read to. They say these adults are scared of what might happen when youth gain knowledge about these topics. They say these adults are terrified, really, about what reading these books with LGBTQ-themed stories might do to our young, impressionable youth. Alex Gino said something quite poignant to a group of fifth-graders in NYC recently, “A book cannot make you trans, but can make you trans aware and accepting. There is no age before which to be compassionate.” Mic drop, right? Awareness is the first step in building empathy toward others. And, their assertion that there is no age before which to be compassionate? That’s the plain truth.

So, I ask you this: do you want a small window into what happens when adults honor children enough to trust that they can navigate big thinking around complex topics? If you’ve said yes, brilliant! In an attempt to paint a picture for you of one way this can look, I’m going to amply the voices, both through the written word and spoke word, of youth across the country, coast to coast. Granted, these are only windows into two sets of fifth-graders, one class in NYC and one in LA. While I acknowledge this is a small subset of the general population, well, it’s what I have access to provide you a window into and second, I ask you this additional question: where else are these glorious books being read in our elementary schools? Your classroom? Please reach out to me and share your experiences; we grow stronger together. Your town? Again, please reach out to me and tell me where, I’d love to hear about their story. The painful fact is, though, these books aren’t being read in elementary schools across the country for myriad reasons, reasons which my colleagues and I continue to unpack.

Consider this fact from the American Library Association, who compile a list of the top ten most challenged books yearly, as they make this poignant assertion: The American Library Association condemns censorship and works to ensure free access to information. Every year, the Office for Intellectual Freedom (OIF) compiles a list of the Top Ten Most Challenged Books in order to inform the public about censorship in libraries and schools. The lists are based on information from media stories and voluntary challenge reports sent to OIF from communities across the United States. The lists are found here, for those of you that would like to read up on this further. The five top most challenged books for 2016 have one big thing in common as the reason stated for their challenging or eventual banning: LGBT characters or themes emerge in the book. Just look:

  • Book one, Mariko Tamaki’s This One Summer: “Challenged because it includes LGBT characters”
  • Book two, Raina Telgemeier’s Drama: “Challenged because it includes LGBT characters”
  • Book three, Alex Gino’s George: “Challenged because it includes a transgender child”
  • Book four: Jessica Herthel and Jazz Jennings’ I Am Jazz: “Challenged because it portrays a transgender child…and offensive viewpoints”
  • David Levithan’ Two Boys Kissing: “It was considered to include sexually explicit LGBT content”

Wow, the theme is crystal clear: books that center on LGBTQ characters or themes are central reasons as to why some adults across the country request these books be challenged and banned from their inclusion in school and classroom spaces. Consider what that means: denial of access to information by adults towards children. We’ll revisit this notion later.

So, back to this: what happens when these books, with trans characters and LGBTQ themes, are read to young groups of children and safe spaces are created within which children can process new their learnings, realizations, and wonderings with one another? THIS: their awareness and empathy grow. And, they rise, in mind, heart, and body. And here’s what I mean.

Here are some NYC 5th graders’ reflections on the experience of reading George as a read aloud this spring with their dynamic activist teacher Lauren Brown (Ms. Brown gave us permission to use her name because, as she enthusiastically expressed, she wants to be visibly tied to the work because she is so proud of her students’ thinking and work). All student work is represented in an original unedited form to honor the agency of these young thinkers.

Building Awareness

“This story effected me like no other. It changed the way I see people and it helps me realize how hard it is to be yourself. I am gratefull to have people who are Lesbian, Gay, Bysexual, Transgender, Qeer and many more types of people in my community…I also thank Alex Gino for writing this book. It can change the world.”

“I think it will inspire people and teach people how to be respectful of people who are transgender and to call them by the name they want to be called. The book also teaches you how to respond, if you’re a good friend of their’s or a parrent when he or she come out to you.”

“The book George also made me think how awful it is that through out history people haven’t been able to be themself, either because of their skin color or their religion or anything else.”

“This book was amazing it really got to me and my classmates I think that it is important to let kids know about these things and this book showed it amazingly.”

“This book means alot to me because theres not alot of books out there like this about trangender people and I think there should be alot more books like this. I think this book will inspire kids to be there selfs and that they can be who ever they want to be.”

“I feels this book is important to me because it shows that something sosiety may think is wierd is actually not like for example it’s considered wierd if a boy likes pink or if you are trans. I think it is important to learn about these things at a young age because you will know better in the outside world.”

Deepening Empathy

“I think this book taught me all about Transgender people, and how hard the struggle is to be who you are, and inspired me to have a more open mind about who people are and made me notice, and want to fix, all the sexist, and racist, and unfair things in the world.”

“It’s telling people to stand up for what they think is right, and its showing that you always have to be yourself no matter what other people tell you to do or who to be. Because theres only “one” you, and no body else is the same it’s a very powerful story because it shows the struggle and how Mellissa’s story begins. It also shows what it was like to be her, and everything she had to overcome. Mellissa is an examples of “follow your heart” because she did what she thought was right with many struggles to overcome.”

“What this book means to me is that anyone can be who they want to be and that you have to look out for people who had trouble like Mellisa and instead of being like rick and letting someone like Jeff hurt them you should stand up to them and accept of who they want to be because that person is probley going through a hard time. This is what this book means to me because some kids get tortured every day and have to keep transfiring school until someone like Kelly is there to help them. Also some kids get kicked out of their house if they tell their guardian their LGBTQIA. But mostly I think we should but ourself in Melissa shoes how would you feel if you were teased about being a boy and acting like a girl.”

“This book taught me about other people feelings which helped me be more considerate of other people.”

“This book means alot to me. it has taught many things I did not know about before. For instance, learning how to be as respectful and kind to the LGBTQIA community.” “Furtheremore it has taught that I should be who I want to be and not what other people want me to be. In conclusion, this book has been a great experience for me and taught me how to be the best person I can be.”

A Move Forward

As a parent, as an educator, as a community member surrounded by children, I’m going to ask you to imagine with me for a moment.  Get an image of the children with whom you have contact daily or weekly. Take a moment to imagine them in your mind’s eye. Ready? Now, consider them when you read this excerpt from Maya Angelou prophetic poem entitled Still I Rise:

Just like moons and like suns,

With the certainty of tides,

Just like hopes springing high,

Still I’ll rise.

Did you want to see me broken?

Bowed head and lowered eyes?

Shoulders falling down like teardrops,

Weakened by my soulful cries?

You may shoot me with your words,

You may cut me with your eyes,

You may kill me with your hatefulness,

But still, like air, I’ll rise.

I rise

I rise

I rise.

Student’s Rise into Action

Two children rose up. Yep, I witnessed it with my own eyes and I’ll attempt to paint the picture for you. This is what I witnessed one rainy day during lunch in Ms. Brown’s NYC classroom: two fifth-graders sat down with author Alex Gino to ask them about a list of trans themed books they were compiling. When asked a bit about the background of this list, here’s what we all found out. These two girls, inspired by the book George, that they’d just finished reading in their class, had decided upon this truth: why did they just learn about the trans identity and the trans community now in fifth grade? Why hadn’t they learned about this and read books about this earlier in their life? They decide that they wanted children in their school to have access to books at all levels earlier than fifth grade so they could understand what this identity was all about at younger ages.  So, here’s what they did (mind you, I’m tearing up just reliving this moment of revelation). They began a lemonade stand. Yep, a lemonade stand on the street in the middle of New York City. They earned $136. They took this $136 to the school library and told their school librarian that they wanted to purchase trans inclusive texts at all grade levels for the school so that kids at all ages could read about this before reaching fifth grade. And, with Alex Gino on campus for an author’s visit day in May, they sat down with them at lunch to make sure their list of books was mindful and asked them for any additional books to add to the list. Below is their write-up of their experience. Take a few minutes to really read through it and reflect upon what these two young children actually began: The Zosie Transgender Rights Organization:

 

Perhaps you noticed the two printed tweets on the bottom left and right (sorry, I had to amplify their activism right away…spread their idea into the world in big ways, right?). One of the girl’s moms responded to her daughter’s activism on the tweet thread: “As the mom of one of these students, I’m so proud of them! Their vision, ideas and FOLLOW THRU to make change. Bravo!” In case you were wondering how parents responded to their children reading George and learning about the trans identity, here’s one feeling: PRIDE.

Big Work To Be Done

So, let’s circle back to today, shall we, and revisit one 5th grader’s statement in Los Angeles when her class was tackling chapter 5 of Alex Gino’s George. Remember she asked this pointed question, “How are we to know unless you let us?” In response to a scene in the book where Melissa, a fourth-grade transgender girl who has yet to reveal her truth to anyone in this part of the book, tries out for a school play of Charlotte’s Web. She presents visibly as male, so she is told by the adult holding the auditions she may only try out for the male characters in the story. She, instead, decides to live her truth by trying out for the part of Charlotte the spider. Once Melissa finished Charlotte’s monologue, this is how the adult reacted, both through actions and words: “Ms. Udell was frowning, and a think crease had formed across her forehead.” “Was that supposed to be some kind of joke? Because it wasn’t very funny.” “You know I can’t very well cast you as Charlotte…Besides, imagine how confused people would be.” “Ms. Udell pushed her chair back into the classroom, shaking her head.” (pg. 70-71).

In a silent conversation response, Ms. J’s students were asked to respond to this thinking stem, What are you trying to figure out right now with regards to the book, the characters, events, topics, our study? Many of the student responses centered around trying to figure out why an adult would react this way, both by words and actions, toward a child just trying to live their truth. From their words:

“What I am trying to figure out is why doesn’t Ms. Udell be accepting to what people want to do that’s unusual?”

“What I’m trying to figure out is why Ms. Udell was being so rude about George [Melissa] wanting to be Charlotte.”

“I think Ms. Udell was being rude because she thinks it is weird seeing a boy wanting to try out for a girl part.”

“Me, too because she did not care about how she feels.”

“George feel sad because the teacher thinks it was a joke but it was nerves to talk.”

“I agree because George [Melissa] was telling the truth but they never believe and thought it was a joke.”

“Also the fact that Ms Udell said is that a joke boy doing a girl part when she said joke gorge went blank.”

“She is letting girls do their part but not vice-verse so people aren’t free.”

Catch that? …people aren’t free.

Concept Building: Exploring Language

As Ms. J and I reflected upon these wonderings from her students later that night, it struck us: children were reacting against the adult’s treatment of a child, both by the adult’s words and actions. They were reacting against the oppressive nature of the positionality of the adult and the child in the story. To facilitate her student’s unpacking of this concept of the often unjust nature of the power structure between the identity of adults and children, we decided to follow a line of thought before beginning the next chapter the following day. Ms. J began the conversation with this question: Justice: when you hear that word, what do you think? What does it mean to you, think maybe of a song, poem or phrase you’ve heard. Below are some of her student’s responses as they tackled their understanding of the concept of justice.

Building a Context for Empathy

To make this concept of justice even more concrete for her students, Ms. J asked them this question: Think about a time when you’ve been told no—no ice cream, no toy at the store, no I don’t want to be friends with you, no I don’t accept you for who you are. It gives you a feeling. How does that make you feel or imagine how you’d feel. Her students met with a partner to share their ideas before revealing their truths as a whole class. Below are the ideas generated from the question:

Agency and Power

Ms. J continued to facilitate her students’ thinking by stating that when people are not accepting who you are, all of those feelings occur. This is when one of her students asked this pointed question: “Why doesn’t Ms. Udell understand? She’s an adult.” And here’s where students began to put the pieces of the conversations we’d been facilitating for weeks together. A student responded with this truth: “On the ladder of privilege transgender falls down on the ladder—she’s against it and she doesn’t accept it or hear about it.” “Because maybe Ms. Udell thinks Melissa doesn’t know about that stuff and Melissa is just playing around.” “Yeah, because in fourth grade, I didn’t know about being transgender.”

Ms. J chose to support her students’ lines of thought around the concept of adult power over children, by layering in exploration around the idea of agency next. She stated, “Melissa wants to play Charlotte but the adult in the story takes away her agency.” After defining what agency was, she stated that it was dangerous to take away one’s power and choice and that the adult in the story does this visibly in two ways: both by her actions (shaking her head, not letting Melissa try out for the part of Charlotte) and by her words (saying, “Is this a joke?”).

To continue to support her students’ understanding of the concepts of agency and power, Ms. J asked her students to consider this question, What would you think if someone said I couldn’t read George in class? What do you think about that? After giving them time to process with a partner, here are some of her students’ thoughts. Get ready, because herein lies the crux of the point I’m trying to make: when adults make the conscious decision to deny children access to information, texts, and experiences to explore the world around them in the context of the classroom, they essentially rob children of their agency to build their knowledge base and to gain tools within which to push back on the injustices in the world.

“That’s rude. This is someone just trying to teach about this and prepare kids for the future. It’s great to hear from our teacher about this, she’s being open about her life. You must not care about the trans community if you won’t let her read this book.”

“That person is messed up that they don’t want to share this information with students.”

“That’s rude because we have to learn about transgender so we don’t feel weird about the transgender community.”

“If that person said no, they are probably immature because they don’t think kids are ready and we’ll joke around and not take it seriously.”

“Adults just think kids are not mature enough, but this is maturing kids.”

“Whoever says no isn’t ready for the book themselves—they are just scared. Or don’t want to know—scared about the facts.”

“That person is just rude. Knowing about trans, gay, lesbian people, that’s maturing us on how to respect people, like using she not he. How are we to know unless you let us? You are maturing us. You don’t have to do this; you’re choosing to do this so when we come across people, we know how to do this.”

Injustice

Ms. J decided to name the elephant in the room that her students were edging toward at this point and tackle the concept of injustice in this context. She stated: “This is the absolute opposite of justice. This would be called injustice. We need to learn this. And, this injustice is happening in the world.” She went on to say that in some places, adults are telling teachers they cannot read books like George, and others she’s read to her students this year that explore similar themes. Plenty of evidence nationwide supports this fact that censorship is alive and well in our national culture, if we think back to the top five challenged books from the ALA’s 2016 research, right? Her students were viscerally shocked, with one little boy, jaw-dropping to the ground, stating, “What, the book about the bear? But that’s such a good book.” Yes, kiddo, I agree. It is such a good book and yep, even that one. Before she continued her read aloud of the next chapter of George, she left her students with this thought to linger upon: “What can kids do about that? Now that we have this information, what are our responsibilities to do? Our minds are broad and open, more than others. You have a responsibility. What are you going to do to push back with the knowledge you have? This knowledge is allowing us to push back. You guys have a lot of power. What will we do with it?”

Responsibility to Speak Truth to Power

Phew. Wow! Let’s take a breath and pause to process this artful tapestry of thought Ms. J just wove with her students. Ready? I keep circling back to this one line from Grace Paley’s poem entitled Responsibility, as I process what I witnessed in her classroom today: “It is the poet’s responsibility to speak truth to power.” I’m going to suggest something to push this line further, though: it’s also children’s responsibility to speak truth to power. And you know something I steadfastly believe? They do. Children do every day. But here’s my concern: Are we listening? Are adults being mindful of the words our children, our students, the youth around us are speaking every day? It’s our grave responsibility to listen. To listen up to our children’s truths, to our student’s truths, to our youth’s truths. Why? Because on the ladder of societal privilege, we hold the power. We can render children silent and powerless. We can render them invisible by our words and actions. We have a grave responsibility to do right by them. I believe this starts with listening. Listening with the intention of knowing their authentic selves in our homes, our classrooms, our communities. Then, following this up with creating safe spaces where their ideas have a platform for expression, and others hear their words, their ideas, their perspectives. And then, a responsibility to act. To act upon the injustices we see perpetuated upon the souls of children we advocate for daily across the nation in our homes, our schools, our communities. When children look to us as the power-holding adults in their lives and ask of us to act, our only humane response should be to act: act swiftly, mindfully, and justly on behalf of ALL children. And now a painful truth that I urge us to examine while looking in a collective mirror as adults and reflecting upon the truths these fifth graders expressed about how vital they think it is that we read trans inclusive texts in our home, our schools, our communities:

How dare we use our adult power to deny children authentic opportunities to voice their ideas and to be truly listened to.

How dare we use our adult power to deny children access to information in our homes, schools, communities.

How dare we think so little of children and teachers to challenge books with the intent of keeping them out of the hands of skillful teachers to read them and facilitate revolutionary conversations with students that build their awareness, depth of empathy, and create spaces for students to rehearse “life stuff.”

As that one wise fifth-grader in Los Angeles stated, “How are we to know unless you let us?” Students trust us to provide them access to what they’ll need to navigate life, not just school. Are we doing right by them? Are we robbing them of the experiences these two sets of students had when they studied the trans-inclusive text George on their respective coasts?

I’ll leave you with this idea to consider, and I hope you do: Justin Trudeau, the Prime Minister of Canada, recently met with President Obama, and wrote this response to their meeting: “How do we get young leaders to take action in their communities? Thanks, @BarackObama for your visit & insights tonight in my hometown.” One way? By creating the conditions within which youth gain the tools for self-liberation, their actions are amplified, and they grow into adulthood empowered. Love is actionable. Respect is actionable. Trust, that’s actionable, too. Trust that children can tackle these complex conversations and rise up in big action. Trust that children can read these books with LGBTQ themes and characters and come out on the other side not only more empowered but with larger awareness, broader minds, and bigger hearts. Won’t you join my colleagues and me and the glorious children doing this powerful work? I bet you will, or perhaps already are in powerful ways, in your homes, your schools, and your communities. Together, we rise.

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