Ready to Vote!

I’m eager for Tuesday. Yes, I’m very much looking forward to the cessation of incoming election spam. I’m also looking forward to voting in support of candidates I truly believe make the world a better place.

I know, I know. We’re not supposed to talk about politics. Yeah, well I think that’s a big part of how we got ourselves into this current mess. We feel/are divided in large part because we’ve divided ourselves. In her book, I Never Thought of it That Way: How to Have Fearlessly Curious Conversations in Dangerously Divided Times, Mónica Guzmán notes three dynamics at play in this regard: sorting, othering, and siloing. She’s quick (like, on-page-1 quick) to note that our inclination to sort, other, and silo is part of human nature. And, she notes, “[W]e can totally hack them if we know what we’re doing (so we’re still the boss of them, yay!)” (1).

Generally speaking, I don’t think we know what we’re doing. I include myself in that “we,” of course – I mean, I checked out this book, right? And while I waited for it to be delivered via interlibrary loan, I watched Guzmán’s TED Talk, “How Curiosity Will Save Us.” Here she notes how all this sorting, othering, and siloing results in a distorted view of the world. And, that “curiosity busts through the reality distortion fields that are blinding us to each other for one beautiful reason: every human being wants to be seen.”

I’ve come to realize that this quality – curiosity – is what draws me to the candidates I’m most excited to vote for. To be clear, I don’t necessarily agree 100% with all of the plans or actions of any of these candidates (and I’d be happy to discuss further if you’re curious). And that’s really no different than any vote I’ve cast in the past two decades. It all comes down to priorities (another important point Guzmán makes in her discussions) and mine align most with my chosen candidates.

Ultimately, we’re electing folks to public service. In order to best serve the public, they must understand their constituents. Understanding starts with curiosity. They must work to ensure that every human being is seen.

It’s a tall order and I believe Mike Van Someren, Mandela Barnes, and Tony Evers continue to prove they are up for the challenge.

Make your plan to vote with the help at Vote.org or, fellow Wisconsinites, at myvote.wi.gov

Boobs (for lack of a better title)

I had my second mammogram last week. In terms of medical procedures, I don’t think it’s one of the worst. I’d actually rather have my boobs pulled, pushed, and squished than my teeth cleaned. And as lady tests go, I definitely prefer they stay north of the border, if you know what I’m saying. I’m saying I’d much rather have a mammogram than a pap smear (for all the confused gentleman readers), but I understand that all these procedures are recommended by medical professionals for optimum medical care.

I hope everyone has someone in their life who lovingly and annoyingly pesters them about scheduling routine appointments like these. (Ben is my someone, if you hadn’t already guessed. Your clue was “pesters.”) I also hope everyone has the resources needed to obtain such care. I’ll avoid sharing my complaints about finding a provider and navigating the insurance system, not because I don’t have them (and likely use them to avoid/delay uncomfortable medical appointments) but because I recognize such complaints come from a place of privilege and it’s probably gross to read about them.

I’m sharing some insight from my experience and perspective because (a) I think it might help others and (b) it might help end the stigma on women’s health. Please remember that I’m “just” an English teacher. I’m a nerd who has breasts, who has had those breasts examined by medical professionals, and who is sharing her experience. More professional insight and advice is provided by folks at the Susan G. Komen organization and the Office on Women’s Health. A Google search for “about mammograms” results in over 40 million other hits as well. I also found a resource that provides information about free or low-cost mammograms (which isn’t perfect, but may help) and want to remind/inform you about Planned Parenthood’s women’s medical health services. Not only does Planned Parenthood provide access to critical preventative care, but they provide incredible and accessible information on health and wellness, as illustrated on their site about clinical breast exams (which has links to additional information about mammograms). Like I said, this might simply be a reminder to you. Personally, I was unaware of all that Planned Parenthood offered for too long. Until my mid-twenties, my understanding of the organization was limited to the fact that they provided abortions. (And, again, we come back to my privilege. I’ve been provided adequate medical education and care, so never relied on the services or resources this organization provides. I appropriately digress, but back to my boob exam…)

I am happy to say that I’ve been made to feel comfortable in all my breast examinations to date. Primary providers have always been considerate when performing breast exams and, when it comes to mammograms and follow-up procedures (we’ll get to the latter there later), I’ve been impressed with everyone – from those who have helped schedule my appointments and the receptionists at the clinics, to the mammographers and radiologists who have pushed, pulled, and squished my boobs and informed me about what they see. I’m not all that modest when it comes to that stuff, but I’m admittedly critical and it says a lot that I honestly have no complaints about the care I’ve received. Kudos across the board, boob-related medical professionals!

There are, however, some things I would have liked to have known in addition to the helpful “know before you go” information provided, such as:

  • You’re asked to hold your breath while they take the x-ray images. This is not a big deal, really. You don’t need to train for it or even think much more about it now that you know. But I didn’t know this until my boob was smooshed between two plastic plates and the technician told me to take a breath and then hold it and I was suddenly convinced that I was about to screw it all up (which I didn’t). Again, no biggie, but now you know.
  • Balance plays a part in the exam. Not a big part, but enough of a part to mention here. Now, they did ask me if I had any concerns with standing or balance when I made the appointment, but I didn’t think much of it. Nor did I think far enough ahead to realize that I’d have to stand still momentarily while my boob is smooshed between two plastic plates and my cheek is smashed flush against the machine. Again, I don’t think you need to train for this, but maybe simultaneously push your boob and your face against a wall and hold for approximately 7 seconds to get a feel for what you’re in for.
  • You may get some unsettling news at your appointment. I did at my first. They told me that there were a couple spots they wanted to take a closer look at and referred me for a follow-up ultrasound. They were kind and calm. I guess I knew that there was a possibility for news like this, but I had been more focused on the logistics of the boob-smooshing procedures than anything else going into that first appointment, so I was a little shook leaving my first mammogram.
  • It might help to talk to other women about your breast health. I didn’t really do so until I was worried after receiving my initial results. Then I called my mom who, as it turns out, had similar initial results. Ben was incredibly understanding and supportive, but talking with someone who had been through a similar experience was comforting. In lieu of texting, calling, or otherwise talking with others, I hope reading a post like this and accessing the resources embedded might help to provide some additional insight and comfort.
  • The first few mammograms help to define “your normal.” This is a phrase physicians repeated several times during my appointment last week. Last year’s ultrasound revealed that the spots they wanted to examine more closely after the mammogram were not cause for immediate concern, but they wanted to take another close look at the same areas this year. In fact, this year my primary provider proactively ordered an ultrasound. The physicians conducted it at the same appointment immediately following my mammogram. In my case, it seems they got a better indication of what “my normal” may be. They didn’t identify any additional areas for further examination and determined that the original spots had not changed in size or shape. The doctor explained that they look for similar results two years from your baseline (first) mammogram to comfortably say such areas are not cancerous, but that there is less than a 1% chance for me at this point.

Before I left the clinic, I scheduled my mammogram for next year. I would love to tell you that this is because I’m becoming a more responsible, proactive adult. It’s actually because they prompted me to do so. I appreciate them helping me become a more responsible, proactive, and healthy adult. In an effort to pay it forward… schedule your mammogram, yo! 

Bird by Bird…by bird

I tell people that I read Anne Lamott’s book Bird by Bird annually. The truth is that I’m perpetually reading it, slowly. There’s always a bookmark in it (right now there are two, for some reason) and it’s rare that it’s not in the bag of books I tote around almost everywhere I go. I read it in spurts, which allows me to appreciate different passages in different ways at different times. Today, for instance, I opened up to the chapter “False Starts.”

The chapter itself opens with mention of a story Lamott (apparently) shares earlier in the book (I mean, I’m sure she does, but it’s been a while since I read the referenced passage and I appreciate the reminder) about an artist who experiences false starts. “He keeps covering his work over with white paint each time that he discovers what it isn’t, and each time this brings him closer to discovering what it is.” The story is an apt metaphor for life, which is likely why the subtitle of Lamott’s book is “Some Instructions on Writing and Life,” but rather than meditate on the life lesson, I was taken back to a graduate poetry workshop I took with John Skoyles.

I should mention that there was no prerequisite to enroll in the workshop, otherwise I would have never been allowed to take the course. Thankfully, my tuition to Emerson College afforded me the opportunity and I took full advantage and signed up for two semesters with Professor Skoyles. Despite his patience, guidance, and feedback, I can’t say that I became a better poet that first semester. (I take all the blame, of course.) I did, however, become a more thoughtful person, which is why I was eager to spend a second semester with him.

One evening that first semester, we deviated from our typical class schedule. Professor Skoyles wheeled in a TV on a cart, very 1980s-like, and popped in a VHS tape (very, very 1980s-like). He pressed play and we watched a painter paint. Aside from seeing some clips of Bob Ross back in the (1980s) day, I had never really watched an artist create before. Professor Skoyles was obviously excited to share this with us. I assume he had viewed the video many times before, yet he still smiled while he watched and fast-forwarded through parts, eager to show us some highlights. He didn’t explain much, nor do I remember any narration or even sound accompanying the video. So we all just watched as the painter approached a large canvas and began to paint.

I think a sailboat emerged or some other kind of nautical scene, but just when I thought I could see where the artist was going, he stopped and painted over the entire canvas with white paint. (Yeah. Just like in Lamott’s anecdote!) I remember being a bit shocked. Like, why didn’t he just take out a new canvas? What was wrong with what he was doing? All that work gone?! Is this how painters paint?!?

Maybe that’s when Professor Skoyles pressed fast-forward or maybe the video cut to a little while later, but we did get to see the artist begin painting again. The weird thing was, he didn’t start that same scene again. There may have been some similar element or something, but to my eye, this was a whole other painting. And I was even more confused and intrigued.

I don’t remember how the video ended or if it didn’t and Professor Skoyles simply stopped it so we could move on, but I do remember him saying, “I just wanted to share that with you.” There was really no explanation. It was more like, “Hey. You should consider this.” And I’ve considered it a lot ever since.

I first read Bird by Bird for an undergrad course in education. And by read, I mean “read.” I skimmed much of it. For some reason, I failed to connect to the text as a 21-year-old.* I ended up latching on to the idea of the intimidating blank page and writing a paper in which I tried to simultaneously convince my instructor that I thoughtfully and carefully read the assigned book and that I was also already empathetic to my soon-to-be students. Fake it ‘til you make it, I guess? It was more of a fake it ‘til you get it situation, but that doesn’t have the same ring to it.

And I probably only think I get it now. Surely my next reread will provide further insight into writing, teaching, and life. I’m already looking forward to it.


*On the very off chance that Lamott is reading this, I just want to note that it wasn’t you, it was me. (This likely goes without saying, but I feel better having said it.) 

Words When No Words Suffice

I often turn to Mary Oliver’s work during difficult times and the past two days I’ve been thinking a lot about her poem “Wild Geese.” It starts, “You do not have to be good.” I love that line. Every time I read it, I feel like Mary Oliver is giving us permission. Not permission to be bad, but permission to be human.

I think we need such permission more often than we admit. I know I do. I know I think I’m supposed to be able to handle anything that’s thrown my way. That, if I’m strong, I’ll be able to do it, and if I’m not, I should be stronger.

Of course, this isn’t true. And now seems like an important time for a reminder.

You don’t have to be strong. We don’t have to be strong. Strength will not bring back those we have lost. Strength will not mend broken bones. And strength will most certainly not rid our minds of the horrific memories of this tragedy.

Love, comfort, care — this is what we need right now. Permission to feel, to cry, to rage if need be.

Now is not the time to be strong. Now is the time to be what we need to be to get through today and tomorrow and all the days after until we feel we can move forward again.

And then we should focus on being strong — not as individuals, but as a community.

Life is hard. Even the best-lived life includes significant heartbreak. If we’re lucky, there is also significant beauty and joy. The beauty, the joy — that comes from loving, comforting, and caring for one another.

I don’t know the meaning of life, but I believe that we’re here to support one another. We’re not put alone on an island. We’re not meant to survive in isolation. Still, we live that way all too often. In our efforts to survive and succeed in the misguided ways we’ve defined success, we’ve lost sight that, as cliche as it sounds, we really are in this together. We’d be much better off if we acted like it.

Let’s not insist that we be strong right now. Instead, let’s insist on being loving, comforting, and caring for one another.

This post is an effort to spread love, comfort, and care. I can’t cook you a meal (at least, I can’t cook you a good one). I am not a trained counselor (I called mine to make an appointment today). I don’t know that it’s a superpower, but my power lies in words. If you need a hug, I can provide that too. Meanwhile, I hope this acts as a virtual hug of sorts.

Sending love, comfort, and care to all.


Listen to Mary Oliver read “Wild Geese.”

I Said What I Said, and I’m Not Done

If we’ve talked recently, you know that I’ve spent a fair amount of time reaching out to the School District of Waukesha’s Board of Education regarding issues of equity. If we haven’t talked recently, which is much more likely, it’s because I’ve been busy (and overwhelmed) with the start of the school year and reaching out to the School District of Waukesha’s Board of Education regarding issues of equity. To be clear, I don’t know that any of my efforts have made a difference. I heard Rashad Robinson, president of Color of Change, on an episode of How I Built This with Guy Raz yesterday, and I’m heeding his advice of “not mistaking presence for power.” There is real work to be done. I do think it starts with conversations to create understanding and build empathy, but I’m not sure I’ve been successful in my efforts. I’m trying and I will continue.

At this point, it often feels like I’m yelling into a void. At the risk of continuing to do so, but with the hope that sharing here will encourage some crucial conversations, below are the messages I presented to the SDW Board of Education in the past three months.


Comments to the Board – July 7, 2021

Last fall, a student said, “Honestly, I’ve learned more about Black history from Instagram and Black-ish than I have from school.” Her peers agreed. I immediately grabbed a Post-It note and jotted that down. That note sat on my desk as a reminder of a few things…

One, that we can do better. Of course we can — and we need to. In our equity efforts at Waukesha West, we often remind each other of something Maya Angelou said. She said, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” This student feedback puts us in the know. And we need to do better.

It also reminds us that students are learning all the time. (As we all should be!) What’s most disheartening about recent conversations regarding equity is how often and easily students are undermined in these discussions. Do we really think that if we don’t talk about racism or inequality in the classroom that students won’t hear about it or talk about it or experience it? Folks, we have intelligent, inquisitive, thoughtful, and compassionate kids. They are curious about what’s going on in the world and eager to try and understand it. They deserve the opportunity to do so. They have a right to ask questions and to grapple with complexities and they are more than capable of doing so.

This board, this district needs to support all efforts towards building a more equitable society. Failure to do so not only fails our students, but perpetuates the systemic racism that some claim does not even exist.

Comments to the Board – August 11, 2021*

I’m here to address issues of equity again. As a reminder, I’ve provided my contact information with all of you via email. I would love to continue and deepen these conversations with each of you. For now, I’d like to share some insight that may help provide additional context to understand the importance of this work.

I was in a room with 20 or more of our Black students while they talked about their experience at Waukesha West. At one point, they talked about hearing other students use the n-word in school and someone posed the question, “How many have heard the n-word used at West?” Every single student raised their hand.

I was shocked and saddened. I hope you have a similar reaction. I assume we are in agreement that this is a problem.

My question is: How do we address this problem without talking about race?

It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because we can’t. We can’t best serve our students if we’re not responding to their lived experience. Every student deserves to be seen, heard, and valued.

They deserve to know that equity is something we value in the School District of Waukesha. They deserve to feel the support of equitable policies and practices.

My guess is that many, perhaps most of you had no idea that this was part of the lived experience of many of our students — in our schools, nonetheless. This cannot be an excuse.

We need to consider whose voices are being heard in these discussions and whose are not. We need to ensure that all voices are heard. If folks are not coming to these meetings (and the vast majority of students and families are not attending these meetings), we need to seek them out, because every student deserves to be seen, heard, and valued.

I see those students. Now you’ve heard their experience. Use your power to show that they are valued.

Comments to the Board – September 15, 2021*

Good evening. Once again, I thank you for the time to address you, and remind you that I have emailed each of you previously and am more than happy to continue discussions at your convenience. Please reach out if you would like to discuss further. I hope you do.

Tonight I’d like to share a story with you. It starts as a story about me — 19-year-old me, who was a resident assistant at UW-Whitewater. I welcomed students on move-in day and was their designated go-to person when they locked themselves out, had a question, or just needed someone to talk to. As part of my training, we were provided safe space stickers to place on our dorm room doors, but I didn’t put them up. It wasn’t that I wasn’t a safe space for my residents — I was adamant that I was — but I figured that that was the default, right? We were resident assistants. It was our job to assist. Everyone. I didn’t see a need to display a safe space sticker, so I didn’t.

I’ve since learned that such signage does make a difference to those it’s intended to help. According to the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network, safe space stickers and posters help students “identify school staff who [are] supportive.” The research goes on to explain that “students who had supportive staff by their side reported higher perceptions of safety and overall academic performance.”

Nineteen-year-old me didn’t know this. I really did think that the world was a safe and welcoming place for all. And that’s the thing…we don’t see things as they are; we see things as we are. As a white, ciscender, heterosexual woman, the world is a relatively safe, welcoming place…for me.

I told you that this story starts with me, but it ends with us — all of us. We can learn from my mistake 20+ years ago. We can ensure that policies, procedures, and directives empower educators to support some of our students who need it the most. When you know better, you do better. 

We need to do better for our students.


*I remember making a few edits prior to speaking. I think those edits have been reflected here.


A month or so ago, the rationale provided to support what I believe are misguided and inequitable practices and directives was that we, as a district, need to avoid messaging that may be deemed political. The rationale provided more recently is that we need to create neutral spaces for learning. All of this reminds me of the words and wisdom of Romanian-American writer, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, who said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.”

I understand that some people are trying to politicize these issues. The reality is that people’s identities are not political. What is political are the policies, practices, and procedures that either support or deny individuals a safe, supportive environment in which to learn and grow.

My Nightmare

I’m not prone to nightmares, so the fact that I had one last spring that continues to haunt me is reason to write.

I was driving. An unfamiliar car, but I’m not sure that matters. Ben was with me. That definitely matters. It was night and my lights were on, but I’m not sure where we were or where we were headed or whether any of that matters. Suddenly we were in an uncontrollable spin. I don’t know what caused it, but I couldn’t stop it and I had the very distinct feeling, a very certain feeling that this was it for me. I was going to die. The driver’s-side door, a door for a coupe — larger and longer than those on my Honda Accord — flew open and the force of the spin propelled me out of the car with it. Was I wearing a seatbelt? I don’t know. In real life, I always wear my seatbelt. But this was a nightmare.

I grabbed a hold of the door as the car continued to spin. The headlights shone on trees and gravel in flashes. I didn’t know how much longer I could hold on and I was sure that this was it. I couldn’t see Ben, but I just needed him to know I loved him. That was all that mattered. I started yelling, “I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!” over and over and over again.

Then Ben woke me up. I was mid-scream when I realized I was in our bed next to him. I was sobbing, tears streaming down my face, and all I could do was hug him. I couldn’t explain, didn’t want to explain.

And I still can’t. Well, not completely. The lack of control, I get. Surely we’ve all felt that many things are out of our control over the past year and a half. Long before the pandemic, loss or lack of control was a regular topic in discussions with my counselor, thanks to the trials and tribulations of stepparenthood. Teaching through a pandemic has made it a staple in our meetings. But the fact that this nightmare still haunts me, the fact that I still dissolve into a puddle of tears each time I think about it (and definitely when I sat down to write about it)…well, there must be something more to it.

I can’t help but wonder if the whole thing is a metaphor for everything — especially everything we’re dealing with right now in the School District of Waukesha. Administrative directive to remove all safe space signage has left many of us reeling. We’re worried about our students in underserved populations, students who already don’t feel connected to and/or safe in our communities, students who need every sign of support we can give them, literal and otherwise.

Right now, per administrative directive, I cannot put this sign up in my classroom:

I could have this sign up at the start of the year, but have since been told to take it down.

Administrators assure my colleagues and me that they know we can build strong relationships with all students and ensure all students do, in fact, feel welcome without such signage. I’m not so sure.

But as the world continues to spin out of control, I continue screaming, “I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU! I LOVE YOU!”

Summer Learnin’

A few years back, a student wrote something that stopped me in my teaching tracks. She said, “I feel like this class gave me the opportunity to slow down and think more.” I…well, I hadn’t set out with this objective in mind, but I have since made it an expressed intention. It’s become one of teaching tenants. It’s also become a personal goal. And, for me, summer provides the ultimate opportunity to slow down and think more.

This week I started a new book. I started a few, actually (yup! total nerd), but one that’s got me sitting down to write right now. It’s Five Practices for Equity-Focused School Leadership. So good, really thought-provoking. And I mean the latter quite literally. The authors regularly prompt readers to pause and reflect. 

PD on the back patio

Today was a deep dive. Chapter 2: “The Stories We Tell About Why We Don’t Do Better.” Lots to unpack, as they say. And then something interesting happened. And by interesting, I mean awesome. And by awesome, I (of course) mean synthesis.

I get downright giddy about synthesis. Meaning making. Pulling thoughts and ideas and texts together to come to a deeper understanding. It’s what gives you that “ah ha” moment or that “Ohh, so…” moment and, really, there are few nerdy feelings better than that.

Here’s where I have to admit that I sometimes study like the kids. I can be just as susceptible to my phone and social media and the internet rabbit hole as the next twenty-first century human being. So I was scrolling through Facebook when I came across an article titled, “Swimming Caps for Natural Black Hair Ruled Out of Olympic Games.” Huh, I thought, that doesn’t seem right. It’s not, and yet it’s happening. The International Swimming Federation did not approve this particular cap for use in Olympic competition. According to the article,

The body said the caps did not fit “the natural form of the head” and to their “best knowledge the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require … caps of such size and configuration”.

Here’s where I started thinking back to chapter 2 of the book in which the authors state, “Our purpose is to highlight the role of stories and how they can encourage or inhibit your progress toward equity.” It seems to me, the International Swimming Federation based their decision on stories they knew/told themselves rather than listening to the experiences of athletes and making progress toward equity.

And here’s where I get real…

As a swimmer and a swim coach, I was completely unaware of such consideration. It does not affect me, personally, as an athlete. Although, it definitely does factor into my work as a coach. And I could have used this insight this past season when working with an athlete. I was frustrated that he kept stopping every few lengths to adjust and readjust his cap. It was a time-consuming process that, admittedly, I thought was his way of skipping out on yardage. I told him he needed to figure it out. I told him that he needed to keep swimming. I told him that he wasn’t going to reach his potential, that he wasn’t going to reach his goals if he didn’t put in the work. I told him all of this because I thought it was for his own good.

Yes, I had good intentions.

No, that does not matter.

I was wrong. I need to, as the authors of Five Practices encourage, “Step back from certainty and engage with curiosity.”

Can you imagine how much goodwill I could have gained with that student-athlete had I considered that perhaps trying to gather his curls into this “one-size-fits-all” cap may not be as easy as me wrapping up my ponytail into one? Actually, forget about gaining goodwill as a coach — I could have been a more thoughtful, compassionate human being. But I was certain I knew what was going on when I should have engaged with curiosity.

I should have slowed down and thought more.

I owe him an apology. Moreover, I owe him a promise. I will do better.

Our Students, Our Schools, Our Future

As I begin writing this, I’m taking a few deep breaths and trying real hard not to press the caps lock key. It’s a challenge. Because I’m fired up.

Eh, to heck with it…

STUDENTS ARE LEARNING!!!

Did you hear me? I said, STUDENTS ARE LEARNING!!!!!

It seems like a ridiculous thing to have to say, but apparently it needs to be said. And I’m here to say it. Loudly and confidently. STUDENTS. ARE. LEARNING.

Yeah, I’m failing at that caps lock restraint thing.

Speaking of failing, that seems to be a big concern as of late. I get it. I mean, I understand that, as a society, we’ve embraced a fairly silly notion that learning is linear, that all knowledge and skills worthy of learning are easily assessable, and such assessment boils down to numeric values and letter grades that are, apparently, clear indicators of learning and, thus, achievement or lack thereof. In that sense, I get it. In every other sense, I do not.

Thankfully, despite the alarm I’m seeing and hearing, others are pushing back in thoughtful ways. In “The Ridiculousness of Learning Loss,” John Ewing addresses the panic-inducing concept of “learning loss” as it pertains to decisions made about schooling during this global pandemic. He writes, “[T]he term ‘learning loss’ comes from the language of test enthusiasts. For them, learning is a substance that’s poured into students over time.” I am not a test enthusiast. I agree that, as Ewing further explains, “Learning is complicated. Plutarch famously wrote that minds are not vessels to be filled but fires to be kindled. Fires don’t leak. You don’t measure them in months. Learning loss is a calculation masquerading as a concept–a rather shallow, naïve, ridiculous concept.”

This graphic I came across on Facebook helps to further clarify:

Now, this is all further complicated by the perception that there’s a finite amount of time in which to educate individuals. This flies in the face of our efforts to create life-long learners, but I digress. Or do I? Aren’t all these philosophies related? Doesn’t this entire conversation speak to our thoughts, understandings, and beliefs about what education is, what it should be, and, perhaps, what it might be?

In an op-ed published in The New York Times titled “Make Schools More Human,” Dr. Jal Mehta writes:

The pandemic is giving us an opportunity to make a pivot that we should have made long ago. We have been on a treadmill of short-term fixes, pretending that if we just get the right test, the right incentives, put the right pressure on teachers and students, they will achieve what is good for them, like it or not. But we are realizing what we should have known all along: that you can’t widget your way to powerful learning, that relationships are critical for learning, that students’ interests need to be stimulated and their selves need to be recognized.

An opportunity. That’s what this is: an opportunity. That’s all…and that’s everything.

We can learn from this. We should learn from this. But we have to take advantage of the opportunity to do so.

This is exactly what I tell my students a dozen times a day. Learning isn’t a given in schools or anywhere else. It can’t be forced and it doesn’t magically happen even if your English teacher is crazy about reading and writing and research and dances around the front of the classroom touting the benefits of using your noggin.

All I do is offer students opportunities to learn and grow. I carefully craft units and lessons that allow them to further develop their skills. I can’t do the learning for them and I can’t force them to learn.

And

STUDENTS ARE LEARNING. 

This may be hard to believe since you have likely heard a lot to the contrary, but I’m witnessing it. Every day. I’m working with students, I’m checking in on them, answering their questions and encouraging their efforts. Students are learning.

Is my grade book riddled with missing work? Yes. Does this affect the calculated grade? Yes. Does this mean that students aren’t learning? Heck no. Will I take this all into consideration before declaring a final grade? Of course! As a professional educator, I understand and appreciate that learning — real learning — is messy.

As if this business of learning and growing wasn’t challenging enough, during a global pandemic, nonetheless, students are being undermined at nearly every turn. “Kids aren’t learning,” people say. “Kids can’t learn like this. Kids are going to be behind.” Folks, the kids hear you. And, unfortunately, they believe you. 


Earlier this year I posed a question to my students: True or false? It’s possible to fail a class and actually learn something. Not one student argued that this was false. We all agreed that letter grades are not the definitive indicator of learning we’ve been made to believe. Then I switched it up a bit: True or false? It’s possible to get an ‘A’ and learn very little. They contemplated this a bit and we discussed, but we came to the collective conclusion that this, too, is true.

So school is a tricky thing, hey? It’s not as cut and dry as we make it out to be. That should make sense because school is all about people. Individuals. Human beings. And human beings are complicated. It makes this all (life, really) quite nuanced. To ignore these nuances is disingenuous and, actually, detrimental. No, we cannot “widget [our] way to powerful learning,” and we should stop trying to do so.

We’ve been faced with a lot of complicated problems throughout the past 11 months and, by and large, we continue to seek easy answers. When will we learn?

Our students are learning. It’s time we caught up.

The Good…

…because the bad and the ugly are already well documented.

Life is rough right now. For everyone. In different ways, for different reasons, and a little grace would go a long way but we seem to have a supply and demand problem in that regard. I would elaborate on that analogy, but I don’t even know if it really works, given that my high school econ class is a blur at this point, and I don’t have time to look it up right now because I have work to do. Lots of work to do.

As a general, and relatively (considering this is my 17th year teaching) new rule, I don’t do school work on the weekends until Sunday. I’m not procrastinating; I’m protecting. I’m checking myself before wrecking myself. I (finally) came to realize that if I started tackling school work prior to Sunday, I could and usually would work the weekend away. A teacher’s work is never done.

This newish habit did not come easily. I identify as a teacher. (I know this may be probably is unhealthy). I navigate the world with a teacher lens, always on the lookout for the next bit of inspiration. “That would make an awesome project,” I think, or “I have to share this with my students.” I don’t know how to shut this off, nor do I necessarily want to, but I do know that I can’t actually be working all the time. My husband deserves better, my stepson deserves better, my friends and family deserve better, and, well, I deserve better.

So I trained myself. I do not work on the weekends until Sunday. Except when I do.

I worked yesterday (Saturday). Yes, I broke my self-imposed self-care rule, but I couldn’t handle the idea that I would have a bunch of nagging tech issues for another 24 hours. It’s worth noting that my decision to work on a Saturday meant that I nagged a colleague with tech questions via a barrage of texts on a Saturday, and it’s worth double-noting and publicly acknowledging that she was awesome enough to respond (thanks, Stacy!!).

I think I have my virtual sh…stuff together for this week (the jury’s still out on my personal sh…stuff, although my counselor may have some insight for me come Thursday — and, actually, time/my students will tell whether I got my virtual stuff together, so stay tuned?). There’s still more to do. Before I closed my laptop yesterday, I decided to take a moment and do something I had been meaning to do all week. I listed the highlights of the week.

Folks, it was surprisingly easy and even more surprisingly encouraging. Check it out:

  • “I’m not a reader” is “liking [their book] actually”
  • student came in before school to share their personal writing (on the subject of trust)
  • student excited to share the book that they’re reading with another teacher
  • student admits to losing a classroom library book, offers to pay for it…and then finds out it was returned to me by another teacher
  • a student embracing the advice to overwrite a first draft
  • students actually sitting down to brainstorm prior to writing
  • readers having a hard time finding a place to pause in their books…and then taking advantage of the opportunity to read more later
  • students making poor decisions, owning it, and moving on
  • students eager to start up student organizations again
  • writers indicating interest in this month’s writing contest
  • writers sharing some awesome, creative approaches to their college application essays
  • writers being willing to share their work for next week’s class workshop
  • finding an old thank you letter from a former student
  • colleagues inspiring me with their work
  • colleagues supporting one another
  • students helping each other
  • students demonstrating patience with me and with themselves
  • students rolling with the proverbial punches

That last one reminds me of this, which I’m pretty sure is the teaching/learning gif of 2020:

I should have known this practice would lead to fulfillment. Making this list was kinda like filling a nerdy gratitude jar. And it was a bit of self-care. I’m going to need to do a lot more of this to make it through this year. As Jason Mraz suggests, I’m going to look for the good…

Why YA

I just finished reading Wonder by R.J. Palacio. I plucked it from the shelf as a way to lighten my reading a bit. Per usual, I’m reading a few books right now, including The Awkward Thoughts of W. Kamau Bell, So You Want to Talk About Race, and Convenient Amnesia. (And in the time it took me to start and publish this post, I started and finished The Book of Unknown Americans.) It’s all really good stuff. And pretty deep stuff. Between that and the news, I needed a little levity. Enter YA.

I say that knowing full well that young adult (YA) literature is not for the faint of heart. Just like all literature, conflict is central to the story, and teens and tweens (especially teens and tweens) experience challenges too. Did I cry reading Wonder? Yes. Is it exactly what I needed right now? Yes.

In fact, I think we all need to read YA literature.

I know we’ve all “been there before.” I also know the surest way to get a teen to tune out is to utter the phrase, “When I was your age…” Yeah, they don’t care. And why should they, really? How do our experiences as teenagers — during that ancient time before everyone had a computer in their pocket — even begin to compare to theirs? Sure there are some universal struggles. But have you ever dealt with, say, hormones and social media? Yeah, they didn’t think so.

Life is kinda crazy for teenagers these days. Ask them. If you’re lucky, they’ll tell you, but it’s much more likely that they’ll shrug and say, “Fine,” or “Good,” or roll their eyes and say, “Whatever” because they’re teens and some things (cough, ANGST, cough cough) don’t change all that much. As much as we think we know what’s going on, it’s a very different view from the outside looking in.

You may or may not be lucky enough to get a glimpse from the teens you love. You can definitely get a really good look, though, through YA literature.

Wonder, for example, is told through the perspectives of six different characters, ranging in age from 10 to 14. There’s some overlap in the storytelling so we get a chance to see how different people perceive the circumstances. Different young people, that is. And you know what the “old” people (parents) are doing in the book? Worrying. Doing their best, of course, and also…worrying.

Worrying is why some of the best YA selections get banned. Sure, people say it’s because of the content, but it’s really about the complainant’s concern (worry) about kids’ ability to handle the content. It’s not that this worry is unjustifiable; it’s inherent to parenting and nurturing. It’s also uncalled for. At least, as taken to the extreme of censorship.

Kids can handle tough stuff. I see it every day at school, quite often at home, and every time I open a YA book. It might be nice to think we can shield kids from tough stuff, but we’ve all lived some life so we all know…that’s impossible. We’d be much better off helping kids deal with the tough stuff. Which, again, gets us back to YA literature.

“People who read more fiction [are] better at empathy and understanding others,” according to a study conducted by cognitive psychologist Keith Oakley. Oakley writes, “…reading a work of fiction can be thought of as taking in a piece of consciousness.” Read that last line again. Seriously, folks. Where else can you get a piece of consciousness?? That’s some magical stuff right there. And it’s all there for the borrowing at your local public library.

Look, I’m not here to lecture. After reading Wonder, I was just thinking that:

  1. kids are amazing,
  2. books are amazing, and
  3. kids’ books are amazing. 

Read for yourself.