Slice of Life: The Classroom Keys

Yesterday, I got my classroom keys.  Now, time feels a little bit tighter.

Mornings now include a stop at school to drop something off, run a few copies, check in on the status of my room (is the carpet cleaned?). Classroom supplies are the focus, grocery shopping an afterthought.

Yesterday,  my errands included a trip to JoAnn’s. I entered telling myself: Just. Choose. The. Cheapest. Fabric. You’d think after years of teaching, this would not be a big deal. Yet, I stood there debating. I know this fabric will disappear once we start generating charts, and still, I stood there, thinking. Purple? No, blue. Red? Too much. Does orange make you hungry?  Silly. I walk out with a blue nondescript fabric. Ah well, I accomplished the cheap mandate. Total cost translated into the cost of one paperback book.

Yesterday, I got my class list. Now, the abstract of planning had children’s faces attached.  The list included names of former students’ siblings, a boatload of neighborhood kiddos (even though I’m teaching magnet students that come from around the district), names that come from diverse heritages. These are my kiddos for the coming year. The ones I’ll find books with and for, the ones who will design contraptions, ask questions, and write a lot. These are the ones that will make me smile and test out my ability to lean into who they are as humans.

Yesterday, I read Jess Lifshitz recent blog post on how she plans to begin her year. Her post and Carla Shalaby’s book Troublemakers, has me thinking about questions to ask on our first day; how to establish a classroom that honors each others’ needs. A room where we could, in Shalaby’s words, “create a parallel world — a world that is safer, fairer, freer… the world we want, hope for, dream of, rather than the world we have now.”  A world to learn, grow and if needed heal in.

What if, we open up and ask kiddos to think of ways to live and learn together. What if we listen for each other’s goodness. What if we can make this classroom, not like school, but like learning.


Thank you, Two Writing Teachers for Slice of Life Tuesdays. Thank you for this place that gets me to writing. Read more posts here.




Slice of Life: Expanding my Universe

Last week it arrived. Our monster refrigerator. Once I adjusted to LED overload, its wingspand, and the ice maker’s whir, I was off to buy perishable food.

refridgerator.JPGFirst stop, Trader Joe’s and a half hour later I’ve reached the cart’s capacity.
I push toward the checkout, and lucky me, only one person in line ahead of me.
The cashier hands the customer his receipt.
My turn. I push the cart. Glance back.
Behind me, a woman holding a few items. No basket handheld or otherwise.
Go ahead, I tell her. Seemed the obvious thing to do.
“Oh, my! Thank you! This lovely woman has done such a nice thing,” she said to the cashier. “Thank you so much!”
“Of course, no problem,” I mangaged feeling overwhelmed by her gratitude.
The cashier had no response. I hope because this is the norm.
Off she went, thanking me again.

My Trader Joe’s shopping lady popped into my mind later this week as I read chapter 5, Find the Humanity in Ourselves and in Others, of Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change.
One of the activities in the chapter asks students to define their “Universe of Obligation” to realize and all the people who we would stand up for; those folks we’d be there in times of need.  Identify them and in the end realize the size of our universe.  See how inclusive it is. It starts with those who are the ones you’d be there for no matter what: your family. And then add in those who are your friends, your colleagues, the people in your community. The intent is not to rank groups or individuals but to realize who you are connected to in terms of responsibility and trust.

Doing this exercise was hard. Not that I couldn’t do it. It was the realization that my universe felt so small.  The world feels close. I read. I pay attention. But who I am proximal to is tiny. being the change.jpg

I live, shop, and work around people who are a lot like me.  By being aware and open, it’s easy to move a complete stranger, like my Trader Joe’s shopping friend, into my circle of obligation. But what about those who are outside my proximal and socio economic space? How I extend my universe? These questions made the last few chapters of Ahmed’s book hard. The concept that we, all of us are in this together. What happens to one, effects all. That’s the idea. And yeah, I got it, but actively doing it, day to day.  That takes purposeful action.

Perhaps it back to being aware and open. By making a practice of noticing, asking questions and for other’s opinions. By listening and connecting our day to day encounters to what is happening in the world. By reaching out and trusting that person, in line or behind the counter is a part of your Universe of Obligation.



Slice of Life: Hidden Biases

This weekend our refrigerator died.  Equipped with research and measurements, my husband and I walked into Home Depot. We opened doors, slid drawers, removed ice makers, closed doors, imagined the contents of our freezer in the compartments of each. After debate and elimination rounds, we had the one. Time to place the order.

Like magic, Nick (the name written in black sharpie on his orange apron) walked up. Mitch told the young man what we had decided. Nick nodded. And then Mitch said something that changed our course, Nick, what’s your opinion?”

Without hesitation, Nick said, “I don’t like that brand.”  We went on to have a conversation about the attributes and limitations of each. Nick not only sold these machines, he also dealt with customer complaints and service requests. Thanks to his input, we ended up choosing a refrigerator we had not considered.

As we walked away, Mitch said, “He was great!”

I agreed. He was. And said, “I don’t think we have seen that side of him if you hadn’t asked his opinion. You invited the conversation. You allowed him to share his knowledge. Otherwise, I don’t think he would have.”

And I wonder, if I was alone, would I have asked Nick his opinion? I know I was surprised by his knowledge. Twenty-something guy. (That’s my bias speaking.)

And I wonder, had he been older, would have seen him differently? Age and experience are something I link together. (That’s my bias again.)


pilot.jpgI write this after reading Chapter 3 in Sara K. Ahmed’s book, Being the Change.  One of the many benefits of working through this read is learning to examine my biases.  The automatic assumptions I make that lead me to action or inaction. I know my experience at Home Depot was different because of Sara’s words and the exercises she suggests.

In the chapter titled Candor, she asks kids to quickly sketch a pilot, scientist, doctor,  or teacher. My drawing of a pilot is on the right. Yep. That’s how I see a pilot. One that is based on my experience.

I could and do beat myself up about this, but being aware of my bias and addressing them is a better step to change. Sara calls becoming aware of your bias is “activating system 2.” System 1 is your unconscious behavior (action or inaction) that shows a bias.

I can see many of my biases. For example, airline pilots. I know they are there and need to be addressed. My experience with Nick at Home Depot highlights a subtle bias one I was not aware of. Being open, asking questions, reflecting, and be ready to activate your system 2 will help deconstruct bias. These are all steps that I’m working on so I can better lead students to do the same.


If you have not started Sara K. Ahmed’s Being the Change, I strongly suggest you add it to your summer reading stack and check out the inspiring group of educators who are studying the book for this year’s  #cyberPD.

Celebrating: Hot temps and Jason Reynold’s Sunny

Summer has gone to the extreme. Temperatures exceed 100º in the late afternoon. Our air condition-less house harbors the heat; cool zones vary depending on the location of the sun and the number of hours it’s beaten down. The breeze moves heat towards cooler hallways. Trapping it. My cat stretches out on the tile, the hardwood, the back of a couch.  I keep his water dish filled with cold water thinking, grateful that I’m not in a black fur coat.

This morning I find a cool (er) spot and read, finishing a cup of coffee as I get to the halfway point in Sunny, the third in the track series by Jason Reynolds. I’m not a fan of storytelling via diary entries, but in Reynold’s hands, it’s humorous, varied, lyrical, moving. Bit by bit, I’m loving this character and Reynold’s poetic voice, marking pages as mentors for writing entries.


“That soft green, like the color of grass just before it gets hard in the heat?”
That color, you know it. You can feel it. 

I read on. Celebrating the fan spin spinning and a fistful of pages ahead.


#cyberPD: Being the Change

A few years back, I saw Sara Ahmed light a conference room up. Her passion and presence would make anyone want to be in middle school again.  No small thing.  Remembering this brief group encounter, I was thrilled to buy her book on social comprehension. Thank you to all who are writing and thinking about how this work fits into our lives and our classrooms.

These social comprehension strategies must be woven into my plans. This work is not just about getting to know each other it is about understanding each other so we can work together across our day. From math to recess to writing to PE. Many of the lessons and ideas Sara puts forth are familiar. I have done much of this work, but not to the extent I should have done them to bridge differences and build community.

Sara’s words set the stage for social comprehension: decenter the normal, enter with humility, and cultivate compassion.  We are drawn to what is comfortable. It pulls us together, but at the same time, it pulls us apart. By noticing and naming who we are and what we value is the work of the first two chapters: identity and listening with love.

Building identity webs with students pack so much good into a classroom, I can’t imagine not starting with it. In reading this book, I realize how I have underutilized this great tool to build conversations and connections with other students, parents, and literature. Reading this I can’t help but want to turn the clock back to the beginning of last school year.

Using the story of our names is something I have done to inspire writing. Not to connect with others. Huge mistake. Our names, particularly in a classroom of diverse backgrounds, could be a starting place for understanding each other. Every year I have students who have stories attached to their names, but I may have been one of the few people in the classroom who knew the stories.  The work Sara does is not only about connecting it’s about listening. “When we tell stories, we get so excited that we go on forever, or we don’t always listen to the speaker because we start making connections. So make sure you really listen and honor your partner’s name story.”  This work builds how to talk to each other, how to listen to an author’s voice, and how we see ourselves.

Writing a ‘Where I’m From” poem based on Georgia Ella Lyons’ poem is something I’ve done with students. During poetry. Again. I failed to weave this academic work into the social-emotional work of how we see ourselves and others. By trying out the lesson in my notebook yesterday, I discovered a few things that colored my growing up. Understanding where I come from shapes how I see the world.   I love how she weaves this identity work with content work and then back to students: “Revisit the lens of noticing and studying artifacts in any literature, news, or history you approach…taking note of how inanimate objects carry great weight for individuals and societies. This … brings the work back to the students; nothing is ever in isolation when doing the work of identity and social comprehension. We are constantly searching for connection.”

Last year and every year, students struggle to listen to each other. And every year I spend a fair amount of time working toward the goal of active listening.  Learning how to listening actively means we must do it throughout the day and  we learn to see “listening to someone else as an act of love.” Whew! We must learn to stop, pause, speak, ask question reflect, and then talk. It is not just young people who struggle with this concept. Many adults have yet to master this work.

What is different and essential about the listening work discussed in chapter two are the actions and words for disagreeing. Each of the scaffolded prompts Sara offers implies we are respectfully disagreeing. And, that is ok. In fact is a place to grow from. The work here is not about winning or changing someone’s point of view. It is about listening in a way that shows empathy with the speaker and how they developed their ideas.

Prompts like: “We need to take some time to think more. We agree to disagree for now” and “I know that I disagree with what you are saying, but I also need time to build a more imformed opinion to discuss this” allows each to step away with respect; understanding that the ideas are worthy of further consideration.

Prompts like: “Can you say more about that? I want to make sure I understand where you are coming from” and “Can I tell you what I hear you saying?” ask for clarification. They say I’m trying hard, but I need more explanation. Help me understand what you mean.

Prompts like: “Thanks for making the effort to understand where I’m coming from” and “I appreciate that we can talk about this even though we are coming from two different places” say I honor and respect you and your thinking even though I have different ideas.

This is listening with love. Engaging critically, thoughtfully with care for the other human.

Looking forward to reading on with #cyberPD 2018.



Slice of Life: Intersections

The light changed to yellow and I speed up. I’m in the intersection, halfway, before the light turns to red.

The next light, I’ll make it. I think.

But, this is uncomfortable. I don’t speed up when lights turn yellow. Correction, amber. And with that, the next amber signals me to slow and stop.

I continue on my familiar route, in my usual way, the YA novel I’m reading comes to mind. A book for those in the process of discovery. For those who run the intersections without a thought. Those coming of age are allowed, expected to do this. It is a part of the work.

Sometimes we slip back and test the waters. Wondering. What might we have left behind? Missed?  If we had zipped through more of those lights. Who might we have become?

Then again. As I sit a bit longer at each crossing, I find moments.  Wait time. And I think, of who I have become because I brake with the amber light.