I’m excited to announce the start of my column editorship for the Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy.
“Students and Teachers: Inquiring Together” is aimed at early career educators, and I’m thrilled that such excellent educators have agreed to share their work with all of us.
(The abstract) Young people in literacy classes sometimes think their teachers are not listening to them. The practitioners featured in this column listen to questions posed by their students and respond to them, with the goal of enhancing English language arts instruction for a range of young people and educators.
Friendly suggestion to purchase any of these from your friendly Black-owned bookstore. In Boston (and all around the US b/c they ship), that’s Frugal Bookstore.
Have you read any of these texts? What do you think? And, most importantly because my TBR list is always growing, what are YOU reading and would recommend? Leave me a comment if you’re so moved. Thanks.
Cinco de mayo 2020, Battle of Puebla (1862), Puebla de Zaragoza, México (observed)
They had not had an English language arts teacher of record for most of Fall 2019, so the job position remained unfilled.
I applied for and got the teaching job in December.
A total of 196 students awaited me.
I met my students in early January across two days with our block schedule.
I wanted to know their names. I needed to know my students’ stories and what they knew independent of school. As I planned for our first meeting in early January, I needed to learn their names quickly.
Yes, a social contract would be helpful as well as classroom procedures, but I had to become the person and teacher who knew and valued their names.
On the first day of the Spring 2020 semester, I folded over some plain, unruled index cards and in time for first period. Across the six class periods, I invited the eleventh graders to write their names on one side and in their own handwriting. (This was their first writing assignment with me!) The instructional coach had given them a letter writing assignment before Winter Break on what they wished their new teacher knew about them and what they expected from him. I was learning a lot about them.
The students wrote their names willingly on the cards and wanted to know more about me. Several tests of their own design awaited me and to determine my qualifications.
Later that evening at home I wrote their names enlarged on the other side of the cards for our next class meeting.
Soon thereafter their name tent cards stood upright and at attention in class. I had memorized where they had chosen to sit, so I had placed their name tent cards at their tables. I was getting to know their names and preferred pronunciations. (“Hey, you!” seemed dismissive, inhumane, and, well, less than.)
“Mister, mister!” some students would call out to get my attention. I did not want to be anonymous to them either, so I spoke up.
In a clever twist, I’d command like the Destiny’s Child band does: “Say my name! Say my name!” They laughed and said I was odd or otherwise.
Indeed, I was aged by the lyrics and video from the 2009 title album song delivered by Beyoncé Giselle Knowles, Kelly Rowland, LeToya Luckett, and LaTavia Roberson. I thought I was speaking their language. To them, I was drawing up ancient history—an ELEVEN-year-old song!
“Real funny, Mr. Road-ree-guess. Really funny,” they said, and I heard as a chorus.
Face in Oneself
Over time I got to associate their faces and voices with their names and stories. One by one. Each student gave me a glance, glimpse, or full dive into their adolescence, families, and schooling, which together comprised of their lives and ways of knowing the world and how it works.
Some students shared more about themselves via the journal notebooks than in person. I valued their thoughts and as we practiced close, slow reading. Also, I annotated the margins as I read about aloneness, belonging, betrayal, body image, family, friends, happiness, humor, misunderstandings, pride, romance, and silence.
Our exchanges were essential and necessary as I prepared to invite them to write and practice their rhetorical knowledge and acumen. In each dialogue, we enacted our abilities, empathies, and literacies.
In the volume of essays Nobody Knows My Name (1961), James Baldwin noted, “The questions which one asks oneself begin, at last, to illuminate the world, and become one’s key to the experience of others. One can only face in others what one can face in oneself. On this confrontation depends the measure of our wisdom and compassion” (pp. xiii-xiv). I reminded myself that Baldwin understood the world of teaching, teachers, and students and the struggles as a witness.
Even today Baldwin’s words are a balm when some teaching days seem tougher than others in the academic calendar. Though fleeting, the days that illuminate our world are many and include our students.
In the push to engage students, however, sometimes the curriculum and instruction can be at war with one another even as we hear a lot about student-centered curricula. For instance, a bookroom at a school can be an oxymoron. Why keep books locked up in a room or closet from the rest of the reading world? Why not place them in the hands of adolescent readers who seek books to read as their own? Yes, some may flat-out decide not to read a book, and this is understandable if we listened more.
What students seek to read and may also decide NOT to read are done with good reason I have learned. Student experiences with reading and books reveal how they perceive and practice their literacies. Some students have not experienced the invitation to write and much less read from their teachers. Moreover, some have not experienced a teacher writing or reading with them—together and in cooperation—free of comprehension questions, reading levels, and competency scoring.
When I got access to the bookroom in late January, I found a class set of the middle-grade novel Accidental Love (2008) by Gary Soto. The novel became our selected book for the month of February. I was seeking a book that would be engaging and also dramatic with adolescent angst, humor, and romance. The novel opens, “At fourteen Marisa welcomed any excuse to miss school. But today she had a good reason for cutting class. Alicia, her best friend, lay in the hospital with a broken leg and a broken heart, all because her boyfriend had crashed his parents’ car when a tire blew” (p. 1).
The students were drawn to the tough-talking Marisa and her geeky boyfriend-by-complete-surprise René. Some grew frustrated with a few of the novel’s characters who kept on making mistakes or not seeing their classmates as who they were: not in their best interests or for their well-being. They were hooked.
The struggles of communication, friendships, popularity, relationships, and stereotypes came alive for the adolescent readers in my classroom. They recognized some commonalities with the youth whose lives resembled their own experiences and questions—even if they were from the Central Valley of California where the novel takes place.
“These kids don’t read! They aren’t going to read even if you put a book right in front of them. They’re just not going to be readers,” a teacher said during a meeting. After hearing this, I realized why sometimes adolescents refuse to listen to adults: they’ve good reasons and examples in their everyday life.
Reading together and writing about the novel permitted more learning to unfold as we made connections to adolescent life and also completed what was outlined in my lesson plans and our state standards: career and college readiness, creative and expository writing, journal notebooks, multimodal literacies, persuasive appeals, and research.
In addition to these responsibilities, attendance was taken regularly, and we administered the SAT on campus. Overall, so much howled and hummed as we read and wrote together across the six class periods.
I was so moved by their reading interests that I brought most of my books from home to build a classroom library for us: children’s books, middle-grade novels, young adult literature, and contemporary classics.
“You won’t see those books ever again,” a teacher from another subject told me upon stopping by and for a peek from the doorway.
“What do you mean?” I asked in a probing way. I was proud of myself for no longer getting defensive by such remarks over the years.
“They prefer texting or TikTok over learning,” the teacher explained.
Next, a science teacher offered, “This looks great! You really believe in reading like I do. I’m gonna borrow what you’re doing in here with some nonfiction books I have at home.” I made sure to memorize the teacher’s name.
No book went missing. In fact, several students dropped by on Fridays to borrow a favorite book over the weekend. I caught several students reading books as if in hiding from me.
Adrian, for example, read in three class periods the book Speak: The Graphic Novel, which is written by Laurie Halse Anderson (1999) and illustrated by Emily Carroll (2019).
Artemis was drawn to the novel Light It Up by Kekla Magoon (2019). Another student named Arianna would reluctantly stop reading I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter by Erika L. Sánchez (2017) during my direct instruction. She would channel all her energy to complete the assignment, and then return to the engrossing novel that held her homemade bookmark.
Jay became a revived reader through the book Preaching to the Chickens: The Story of Young John Lewis by Jabari Asim (2016) and illustrated by E. B. Lewis. The boyhood of U.S. Congressman Lewis comes alive as well as the civil rights movements of the past and those that persist today. Six short weeks in, and I knew their names, their fears, their stories, and their tastes. Each was as distinct as could be.
14+ Students and Teachers
While writing the article “Somebody Knows Their Names” and the poem “They Know Us by Our Names” for #31DaysIBPOC 2020, I read an article titled “14 Black Students in a Class” by Mark T. Sneed that left me baffled and hurt. It appears in the May 2020 issue of the California English journal and is filled with caricatures about student behaviors.
The article reads like an opinion editorial essay, or even a Swift-styled satire about any student, but it is not listed as such. In a retrospective of his teaching career, Sneed depicts his African American students as possessing behaviors that led him to label them as leaders, followers, manipulators, rule-obsessed students, nerds, jocks, skeptics, jokesters, young adults, advocates, fighters, saboteurs, or rabble rousers. Some of the descriptions create caricatures and forms of segregation with mixed expectations by a teacher.
How could the editor and peer reviewers have overlooked the research and narratives on culturally relevant, subtractive versus additive, responsive, and sustaining pedagogies by Ladson-Billings (1994, 2009), Valenzuela (1999), Gay (2000, 2018), and Paris (2012), respectively? The decision to print the article—as research and not as an editorial or satire—was a mistake.
As a caring educator and critical researcher, I wrote a letter to the editor to explain that views against students in a stereotypical manner are counterproductive, hurtful, and unethical. I wondered how a teacher could harbor such feelings, but then I was reminded of what many adolescents endure daily from some adults. At the same time, what if students were asked to write about the personalities of 14 teachers of one particular race or ethnicity? What would be revealed to us? Bias? Indifference?
Like the situations presented in Twelve Angry Men by Reginald Rose (1955), I considered the reasonable doubts that I held after reading Sneed’s article. So much was missing about the lives of adolescents and their challenges, environments, and future.
There must be conflict, outrage, and action from teachers when we read that students endure hurt in the presence of adults. We are to protect them and their names, and they believe in us to do so.
Friday the 13th of March
Dawn came with a splendor of sun that seemed to summon us from our fist of sleep. Hence, there was no reason for me to be superstitious or to consider the fictional character Jason Voorhees of the horror series. Nothing like that seemed to take over our Friday at all.
Instead, Friday was a lighter day for all of us and before our Spring Break. Attendance was lower than usual, but I had a lesson planned that I wanted to present. Friday, like other school days, began with a Quick Write.
The students laughed when they saw the photo of the artist Raúl the Third, holding a homemade flour tortilla as a Halloween mask in the daily slide presentation.
How come he’s just the third? What’s his last name exactly? They wanted to know more and more about Raúl the Third.
This was just the beginning of the changes to come: gloves, masks, to-go meals, quarantine, learning packets, remote learning, physical and social distancing, and stay-at-home orders.
Through the waiting and online instruction, I gathered my ideas into a narrative poem. I sought to present an adolescent speaker’s reflections of learning and living in a new world dominated by epidemics and pandemonia.
They Know Us by Our Names
School was like home, in a way—
yes, far from home, but still home.
But now so much has changed.
We got this new kind of school.
I miss what we had all the time:
a nod, smile, hand, high five.
Cheers, books, sports, coaching,
and friends; these matter to us, too.
We have these, but not next to us
like in a room or hall or gym.
The laughs, riddles, sounds I miss.
Now we chat or a vid appears.
Same with friends who call or text.
Brave we got to be no matter what.
And our teachers reach us, too.
They reach out, and we see them.
They reach in to know us more.
They care after school, too.
We are let in and see them at home,
in their homes, in our own homes,
and it feels like their families
and lives are close to our own.
They know us by our names.
They call us by our names.
They believe in our goals.
They know our dreams.
They know who we can be and be. (Rodríguez, 2020)
With pride and acknowledgement, I know their names. I know my students’ names when I reach out to them at home or via Google Suite (Classroom, Hangout, Voice).
Friday the 13th is a distant memory, and their senior year seems closer than ever. As the Class of 2021, my students yearn for a senior year that lets them come back to a time that held more friendships, protection, sanity, and security.
Our Students’ Names
Each year teachers learn students’ names—over and over again—as if from the very beginning of the school year and as new students enroll in our classes. In literary works, we read often the stories of students whose names are abbreviated, mispronounced, revised, or altogether altered to extremes by their teachers.
For instance, in the poem “Names” from the novel-in-verse The Poet X (2018) by Elizabeth Acevedo, the protagonist Xiomara Batista explains:
[. . .] I even tried to come into the world
in a fighting stance: feet first.
Had to be cut out of Mami
after she’d given birth
to my twin brother, Xavier, just fine.
And my name labors out of some people’s mouths
in that same awkward and painful way.
Until I have to slowly say:
I’ve learned not to flinch the first day of school
as teachers get stuck stupid trying to figure it out. (pp. 7-8)
Similarly, in the poem “On Listening to Your Teacher Take Attendance” (2018) by Aimee Nezhukumatathil, the speaker notes:
[. . .] Your teacher means well,
even if he butchers your name like
he has a bloody sausage casing stuck
between his teeth, handprints
on his white, sloppy apron. And when
everyone turns around to check out
your face, no need to flush red and warm. (p. 11)
Sometimes I say my students’ names in my sleep. My spouse says I repeat them like a litany or prayer. I send their names to the sky and wind, hoping they are safe, sound, and sane in our new world. Their faces I recall often.
A New World Together
Even nature seems alive with new tunes as less vehicles pollute the air and a quieter earth appears. A few days ago, I saw a noiseless, unhurried spider at rest in our living room that made me think of Whitman’s (1868) poem.
Nature appears outdoors: more birds sing symphonies as if in unison throughout the day and night. Even the bird from Dickinson’s (1891) poem comes down the sidewalk with less caution and more grace than ever. We are listening to nature and others who surround us with their sounds and words.
At a faculty meeting earlier this year, a fellow teacher raised her hand and said aloud, “We were our students. Think about that! We were our students once.” She reminded us that in our generation, or one before our own, we were working-class and with limited means in various forms while we were coming of age.
We are our students. Her words mean more today as we reach for our students and remember to reach them.
Sometime soon I may get to re-enter my classroom at our school campus. I look forward to entering the building and my classroom. I will gather my students’ journal notebooks, re-read their words, and the comments I offered them before our school building closed.
I know students’ names. I am getting to know more of their stories as they unfold before our eyes. We face a new world together.
Acevedo, E. (2018). The poet X. New York, NY: Harper Teen, HarperCollins Publishers.
Anderson, L. H. (1999). Speak. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Anderson, L. H., & Carroll, E. (2019). Speak: The graphic novel. New York, NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Books for Young Readers.
Asim, J., & Lewis, E. B. (2016). Preaching to the chickens: The story of young John Lewis. New York, NY: Nancy Paulsen Books, Penguin Random House.
Baldwin, J. (1993). Nobody knows my name. New York, NY: Vintage International. (Original work published 1961)
Gay, G. (2018). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice (3rd ed.). New York, NY: Teachers College Press. (Original work published 2000)
Ladson-Billings, G. (2009). The dreamkeepers: Successful teachers of African American children (2nd ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, Wiley. (Original work published 1994)
Magoon, K. (2019). Light it up. New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company.
Miller, C. (Ed.). (2016). Emily Dickinson’s poems: As she preserved them. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, Harvard University Press.
Nezhukumatathil, A. (2018). Oceanic. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press.
Soto, G. (2008). Accidental love. New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers.
Valenzuela, A. (1999). Subtractive schooling: U.S.–Mexican youth and the politics of caring. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Long ago, the younger R. Joseph Rodríguez taught imaginary students in the utility room or family garage right after school while a kindergartener and up to third grade. His models were his parents and public school teachers. Today, he is the language arts teacher of 196 students who are eleventh graders, soon-to-be seniors.
In the past two months, Joseph has been greeting his students via Google Classroom and Voice where they remain just as talented and a little extra cantankerous and inventive. They say in jest, “We hope you’re enjoying your quarantine, Mr. Rodríguez.”
Joseph’s articles, chapters, poetry, and research have appeared in several books and periodicals. His most recent book project is titled This Is Our Summons Now, a poetry collection. He is coeditor of English Journal. Joseph lives and teaches in Austin, Texas. Follow him @escribescribe.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Dr. Liza Talusan (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).
In our house, we use that phrase as a playful, cautionary reminder to be thoughtful about making decisions and to not be fooled.
When school was called off seven weeks ago and I became my child’s full-time teacher, I almost did, indeed, fall for the okey doke.
How could I help my sun master–wait; let’s be real here–maintain the skills he’d been working on if he wasn’t in school daily? It didn’t matter that I’ve been teaching young people and adults for nearly two decades. An almost-six-year old is not a high schooler, no matter how much their dispositions are similar on a given day.
I immediately went down the online rabbit hole of fancy schedules, programs, and apps that had no diverse books or materials, and what seemed an endless stream of worksheets for printing (and my annoyance for the prevalence for these with a lack of regard for those of us without a printer).
Around the same time, I started leaning really hard into rituals and routines that have always anchored me, especially during chaos and transition (cue current moment). Those include running, journaling, and reading. And by reading, I mean fully immersive reading, where I lose track of days, what my kid is doing, everything.
I’d picked upA Black Women’s History of the United States (ABWH) by Drs. Daina Ramey Berry and Kali Nicole Gross at Boston’s fantastic Black-owned Frugal Bookstore, with every intention to read it some day. But once #pandemicreading ensued, I couldn’t quite find a book that spoke to me. Young adult authors, contemporary fiction– books that usually were the perfect balm–weren’t working. When I remembered the copy of ABWH in my car (my greatest fear is to be stuck somewhere without a book, so I have them everywhere), I went looking for it, thinking (hoping?) that it might be an answer to getting my reading life back on track.
I could not put it down, and the voices of all these Black women ancestors shook me, telling me: look, you got this!
This being educating my child and building on the traditions that Black women (and in this case, Black women educators) have been doing for Black children, families, and communities since we were in this country.
An educator and activist, Burroughs’ dedication to Black women and girls, and her belief in the brilliance of them, led to her founding of the National Training School for Women and Girls among many other accomplishments. The writers summarize: “…she embraced both industrial and classical education, and expressed early Black Nationalist and feminist ideologies. She encouraged race pride by celebrating dark skin, and she remained a champion of Black women’s voting and labor rights” (p. 2). I also kept circling back to Burroughs’ motto for her school: “We specialize in the wholly impossible.”
Throughout the book, I read and learned about SO MANY Black women who have done (and do) just that: specialize in the wholly impossible by dedicating their lives and work to collective struggles for Black freedom for Black women, girls and femmes, especially during times when so many others denigrated and dismissed us.
ABWH reminds me that the ancestors are always watching and helping if I just listen. Black women have been here educating children and adults for generations. With schools that have systematically attempted to destroy us, we’ve made our own classrooms in places within our communities, written or revised texts to make them affirming and empowering for Black children, and been the teachers, time and time again. While adversity that included racism and sexism was consistent, our responses to it have always been to creatively organize ways to help as many folks as we can, with whatever tools we have. We have consistently specialized in manifesting the wholly impossible, and we’ve always been creative and resourceful.
Who am I to forget that or to not do the same?
Because there is a foundation of Black women educators who have assured the flourishing of Black children (and many others), certainly I can teach my sun and in the process heap tons of love on him. Surely I can understand that schools can be damaging, traumatic places for Black children and decolonize my own thinking that what we do at home isn’t as good as–if not better–than what schools might be trying to teach. Absolutely I could reach out to all the wonderful early childhood educators I know (his teacher included), and figure out how to design instruction that resonates with his deep desire to know, ask questions, and be immersed in learning.
I would merely be doing what Black women educators have been doing all along, and what Black women educators have been doing for me all along.
And along the way, we could read books written by Black authors that reflect my child (like The Brownies Book); books by other authors of color that offer mirrors into experiences he needs and wants to know more about (like We Are The Water Protectors); and have a few moments of transformation. We also could be aspirational and think about the skills, dispositions, and experiences I want him to have and then think about how to realize them beyond the nearly oppressive chatter of “gaps” and “deficits” and “learning loss” that threatens to drown out any other more important talk about normalizing high achievement for all children in the district.
I’m learning much about early literacy as my sun learns how to read, and I’m also remembering how my own grandmother taught me. She collected scraps of wood from my uncle’s shop. As a carpenter, there were always remainders amidst the piles of sawdust. She had him cut them into smaller sizes, and on those she wrote letters and words. As I gained proficiency, she’d add more combinations of words, requesting more scraps as she needed. She, too, specialized in the wholly impossible. The everyday, wholly impossible. She didn’t see it that way, though; rather she’d simply say “I haven’t done anymore than I should have done.”
Let me remember the foundations on which I stand.
Let me not fall for the okey doke.
Instead, I find myself feeling relief and gratitude for being able to learn about the phenomenal history of Black women who have actively worked to make this world better. I am working hard to remember their names and to make sure my sun learns their names and their accomplishments, too. Daily, I inventory more “funds of knowledge” (Amanti, Neff, Gonzalez, 1992) our family has (and that we’ve always had), and think about how we can use those to connect to other things we desire and need to learn.
I hope to make my world a bit smaller by figuring out how to work together with other Black educators who have the ability to teach through their screens and make it feel like their children never left. I’d like to be able to think about how they can share their brilliance to even more families who are working hard to help their children thrive.
Together, we channel the spirit of Nannie Burroughs–and the millions of Black women who have and will continue to be here–as we continue specializing in the wholly impossible: yesterday, today, tomorrow.
I realize that I keep most active on Twitter, and if you’ve found me there recently, or even stopped by here, I want to first welcome you and thank you.
Over the last bit of time, I’ve chatted with authoress Erin Entrada Kelly at the Boston Book Festival about her new middle grade novel (a must read), Lalani of the Distant Sea. Erin’s selfie game is strong as you can see below. I love this picture so much! (BTW: if you are looking for some fabulous short stories, I also can’t say enough about Erin’s; that’s how she got her start writing MG novels–her short stories!).
I completed my time as judge for the Boston Globe-Horn Book awards. The winners are incredible. Please, read, buy, and share these amazing books. I was definitely fangirling HARD the entire night.
I presented about equity and literacy a few times, including the Scholastic Reading Summit in Greenwich, CT (Black Boy Lit); at ILA with my favorite #squad: Aeriale Johnson and I about Black and Brown boy lit (I love working with Ms. J; I’m going to see if we can make this a permanent thing!), with Julia Torres about how literacy affiliates and chapters can really, truly think about diversifying their affiliates, and with all of my favorite people–Anna Osborn, Tiana Silvas, Aeriale, and Tricia Ebarvia about teachers and action research. Anytime I can spend with them is self-care. We laugh. We cry. We plot revolution. We go to Sonic. I wouldn’t have it any other way.
I should also note that none of my ability to get up and chat with folks would have been possible had not Lizabeth Moore been my ELA and Speech Team coach for all those years in high school. I have eternal love and gratitude for her for seeing and nurturing something in me when I was just a teenage mess, and for also building and supporting a community of young people, some of whom are my dear friends to this day.
In the last two months of 2019, I’ll hope to reflect on the year, be grateful for the abundance that grows in my life, from friendships, to family, to mothering my boy (and am still getting powerful feedback from folks who have been moved by that post), and remember that I’m happier when I’m disconnected (Cal Newport’s Digital Minimalism has been good for this), but I have a Twitter habit I just can’t quit. Shrug.
Three quick things that are saving my life right now:
-committing to cooking a few nights a week. I’ve decided to cook from two cookbooks, Julia Turshen’s Small Victories and Lucinda Scala Quinn’s Mad Hungry. Both have easy, delicious recipes that I can pull together with minimal planning and shopping, and my kid tends to like it. Oh, and Smitten Kitchen. Always, always.
–Occupational Therapists for children. I’m convinced all young children need them. ALL. I’m learning so much from the one who works with us and how much the body’s core regulates, well, everything.
–returning to a reading habit. I have been able to read only what I want, and I realize how much of a privilege that is after judging the award. I’m making up for lost time and reading nearly 100% exclusively BIPOC authors. ONLY. And I’m making sure to read BIPOC authors that I don’t have a lot of experience reading so I can build my own windows and sliding glass doors (Bishop, 1992).
I have a number of 2020 PD dates already on my calendar. If I’ll be spending time with you in the new year, I’m looking forward to learning together. If you’d like to bring me to your school or workplace, please send me a message. I have some limited availability and love working with departments, districts, and community organizations.
I’m aiming to update the rest of the site with articles, podcast links, and sundry information that helps to know what’s new around here, with an eye to returning to a regular writing flow soon. I promise!
I knew someone years ago who told me that, during moments when something happened that was either unexpected or undesirable, her father would encourage her to “Do something different (DSD).” My sense is that those words were not always welcome, especially during particular moments of frustration, but what it did was to encourage her to stop, to gain some perspective, and to make a change.
Doing something different created #31DaysIBPOC and it also was a factor that influenced my participation as a judge for the Boston Globe Horn Book Awards.
Wait–How Many Books?! I was honored when Roger Sutton selected me because, well, free books! Then, the books began arriving (from June ‘18-May ‘19), and I quickly understood why I needed to be careful what I asked for. Some days, I’d receive boxes of hundreds of books, combinations of picture books, nonfiction, young adult novels and everything in between. I explained to someone that we were essentially looking for a needle in a haystack. The criteria was simple: “excellence,” but as you might figure out, excellence can be a moving target, especially because we read books through the lenses of who we are. Roger knows about my work as a literacy organizer and he also knows I’m vocal about equity, so I’m certain he knew what kind of lenses I would bring as a judge.
I also adhere to the words of my dissertation advisor, Dr. Arlette Willis, who told me, “You never know if they’re going to invite you back.”
My lenses are particularly attuned to looking for books written by BIPOC authors and illustrators, and as I opened the boxes, I read through all of the books and kept tallies of the ones from writers and illustrators of color. At one point, there were at least 25-30 books featuring animals and fewer than 10 about BIPOC kids. That snapshot was fairly typical. I’d say out of the nearly 1300 books we read, a slim number of those were about BIPOC, and an even smaller number were #ownvoices. And while I always knew this was the case, to live through the process of unboxing book after book after book about white children who might have an incidental Black or Brown friend–if that, as often there was just whiteness– was demoralizing. It’s no wonder BIPOC authors and illustrators have such a hard time gaining any recognition: they’re simply outnumbered by volume. When so many books arrive in such a short time, with a tight deadline for reviewing and considering it for an award, unless a person is looking for who and what is missing, the absence can go unquestioned.
Selecting a Winner
The next challenge could come from whatever processes the committee uses to narrow the selections. I will say upfront that the chair of my committee, Monica Edinger, was a pro. She’s served on other awards committees, so she was able to offer guidance while moving us along and providing reminders that helped us to record our favorites, discuss our thoughts, and meet deadlines for winnowing the selections. I’ve said in several places that this experience was what it was for me because of the chair, and that’s another takeaway: the chair has incredible power to guide or derail a selection committee (and keep in mind I’ve been on one, and only one, of these committees) because if there’s no process that gives all the final choices an equitable discussion, (if any diverse books have made it to the final rounds in the first place), then all books don’t get the same consideration. I appreciated that all the books we’d put forward as individual favorites received equal time in deliberations.
There were also moments when that same white woman chair called me out on my love of a book that, when we got down to it for example, glorified poverty, another that had rhymes that didn’t quite work, and other points that I needed to have made to me because, as I said, I read through my own biased lenses, and I’m still learning, too! She also spoke up about whiteness and named issues that I’m not so confident other white folks would be able to name and own so readily. I was grateful that I had the opportunity to learn more and read more (my TBR list is going to last me the rest of the year). And, as compared to other situations I’ve been in where white women have been condescending and have felt they needed to wield white knowledge to “teach” me something, I always felt I was in high-caliber, thoughtful, respectful discussions that were grounded in a broad definition of excellence about a range of texts that were not derailed by white fragility, maybe for the first time in my life in the context of working with white colleagues.
Again, because we read through the lenses of who we are, if we are in spaces where folks tend to share the same ideas, and where everyone upholds white supremacy, well, then, nothing different happens. We need challenges, even if we feel strongly about a book, in this case. I will also say that I’m often surprised when white women, particularly, speak up about inclusivity and diversity, and actually do something that changes outcomes. It seems like this is a bit of a broken record, but if you’ve not seen the Horn Book Award winners for 2019 yet, here they are. I emailed one of my doctoral professors, Dr. Violet J. Harris, to ask if she’d seen the winners and she said something along the lines of being “shocked” about the number of authors and illustrators of color and then looked more closely at the judges (waves hand). A diverse selection of winners is still shocking and surprising, unfortunately, but it shouldn’t be. There are so many excellent, truly excellent books for children and young adults that are consistently written by BIPOC authors and illustrators.
Now that I’m on the other side of the judging, all I can say is that I get it. I get why it’s so difficult for a book by a BIPOC author or illustrator to get picked up (see the current comments on my timeline in response to Black scientists attempting to get their books published and getting no traction from publishers). If it does get published by some small miracle, then it is even harder that the book will catch the eye of enough people who will think it should be considered for an award. For most books written by BIPOCs, that’s really the end of the line. Many will go out of print before most know they even existed in the first place. Maybe some of those texts find niches or gather momentum through word of mouth or advocates, but it’s still unpredictable, especially if the people in positions to make the decisions are refusing to look.
Wrapping Up May
This month’s #31DaysIBPOC blog circle was a project that began with a desire to do something different and to stop wishing and waiting for white spaces to incorporate the robust, powerful, important voices of BIPOC folks, many of whom wrote for #31Days, but extend far beyond just one month. We honestly could have done #365DaysIBPOC.
Asking all the contributors who wrote posts this month was sheer delight–I was absolutely giddy when we reached out and people said yes so enthusiastically. Then, once the posts began, I was most proud of how well received they were by such a broad audience, particularly by so many who did not know about all this excellence that has always been here: in your classrooms, in your universities, in your communities, in your conferences. We did something different for May, and now, as we close it out, I’m curious to know what happens next. Do we say this was a great project and return to the way things were, or do we linger and reflect on all the ways we have been pushed and challenged to reflect on our identities and literacies and make ourselves do something different tomorrow and every day after?
If nothing else, judging the Horn Book Awards and working alongside the #31Days contributors has reaffirmed that BIPOC excellence has always been here, in all ways. All we need to do is look.
Thank you for supporting #31DaysIBPOC. Look for us again next May in what we hope will become an annual tradition. In the meantime, please continue to follow, make space for, and support the brilliant work of our contributors.
Have a restorative summer.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by LaMar Timmons-Long (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle) and start at the beginning with Aeriale Johnson’s Day 1 blog.
History and Repetition: Removing the Cloaks for Socially Just Practices
“There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away[.]”
—Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886), from Poem 1263
I was an adolescent in the 1990s when I first read Emily Dickinson’s poem “There Is No Frigate Like a Book.” After reading the poem twice and asking myself some questions as a reader, I used the American Heritage Dictionary and learned that a frigate could be a light boat or even a kind of warship. I was drawn to Dickinson’s language use and arts to communicate the human need for escape and also to travel through one’s imagination—accompanied by books—for an adventurous journey.
If it were not for our teacher, Mr. Lincoln Pettaway, inviting us to question what we read and guiding us to challenge the ideas in our textbook World History: People and Nations, Texas Edition (Mazour & Peoples, 1990), I doubt I would have gained the mindfulness and persistence for deeper thinking as an adolescent student and reader (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. World History Textbook.
Cover of the history textbook adopted in 1989 and used in a high school in Houston, Texas.
While reading history and even literature via state-approved textbooks, students can gain a humanist-oriented education with metacognitive inquiry and self-efficacy practices. Students can be guided by teachers and teacher educators who practice critical and multimodal literacies.
My interest in becoming a teacher began when I was in grade school and carries me forward as a teacher educator today. Through the years, I remember the approaches, methods, and strategies used by many of my teachers in my schooling and in my becoming educated. In fact, I recall my study of prehistoric cultures and civilizations during high school that also included the contributions by the Egyptians, Sumerians, Phoenicians, Lydians, Hebrews, Indians, Chinese, and numerous dynasties and empires.
As we advanced to the Mediterranean world in history class, Mr. Pettaway asked us to examine the textbook authors’ point of view in the opening of “Chapter 6: Greek Civilization Triumphed During the Golden Age and the Hellenistic Age, 478 B.C. – 148 B.C.” First, there was reluctance from us to open the book during our final class period of the day. However, we persisted and opened the book to Chapter 6, Section 2. Second, we rarely questioned texts we read in school and much less the tellers of history. This was a new learning move we were invited to consider and adopt.
Mr. Pettaway said, “Students, start by reading the two sentences before the section on Socrates. Then, write down in your notebook what you believe the historians Mazour and Peoples want us to understand.” This encouragement was welcome and sustaining to keep going in the labor of reading. We read:
The Greeks have been honored through the ages for their artistic and intellectual achievements. No people before them—and few since—have demonstrated so clearly the capacity of the human hand and mind. (p. 128)
Figure 2. Passage from World History: People and Nations, Texas Edition (1990)
The textbook authors Anatole G. Mazour and John M. Peoples recognize one civilization to the point of editorializing with bias and ethnocentrism.
The authors Mazour and Peoples attempted to “take us lands away” like the speaker in Dickinson’s poem states, except in this case the narrative was cloaked with inaccuracies and also misleading histories (see Figure 2). Instead, Mazour and Peoples—and even other professors, curriculum specialists, and field test teachers in complicity as members of the Editorial Review Board—favored inaccurate portrayals and intentional exclusion of civilizations that contributed then and now to the humanities—all across the ages and globe. (In fact, we find new discoveries about human inventiveness as reported by journalists and researchers around the world every day.)
Through the textbook, we learned about whose civilizations mattered most in the ethnocentric vision of the authors and Editorial Review Board, while also considering Socrates, Sophists, and philosophers. Even the calendar created by Pope Gregory XIII, which was introduced in October 1582, dominated the wobbly, one-sided textbook. These practices favored ethnocentrism with limiting points of view—all in the cloaked guise of innocence, merit, and objectivity.
In “Linking Autonomy and Humanity,” Wiel Veugelers explained, “Human beings have the possibility to give meaning to their lives and to create coherence in experiences. [. . .] Education, in the family, in civic institutions, and at school, can contribute to young people’s meaning giving processes” (p. 2). A teacher possesses the power to remain complicit or to create change by inviting students to think and question to gain greater understanding. In our case as readers of history, Mr. Pettaway was guiding us to make our thinking known and audible and secondary-school scholars in formation.
Teachers like Mr. Pettaway—and many others here in the United States and around the world—understand the ways we humans can make meaning and can come to name ourselves and the societies we live in, study, and understand. Sometimes these teachers are also historians and philosophers today and across schools and institutions.
In addition, students can join the conversation in the age of fake news, mistold truths, and untold facts. The seriesLies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen is an example of books that provide readers more artifacts and primary sources about the conflicts and drama in the making and writing of American history and public monuments (see Figure 3).
Figure 3. Book Cover of Lies My Teacher Told Me: Young Readers’ Edition (2019).
James W. Loewen’s book was adapted for young readers and makes American history come alive through challenges, conflicts, and dissenting views.
Forms of bias, bigotry, colonialism, ethnocentrism, and racism appear in our everyday lives and require deeper study and dialogue to uncloak the untold through our pedagogical work. Daily, people stand up for the common good and for the humanities in our classrooms across the country (Nieto, 2013). Their contributions and labors make the humanities remain alive with truths to uncover and restore.
For instance, just last year Susan Goldberg (2018), the tenth editor of National Geographic, shared the results of a research study conducted by the historian John Edwin Mason on the magazine’s coverage of people around the world and since its founding in 1888. Goldberg stated,
[U]ntil the 1970s National Geographic all but ignored people of color who lived in the United States, rarely acknowledging them beyond laborers or domestic workers. Meanwhile it pictured ‘natives’ elsewhere as exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages—every type of cliché. Unlike magazines such as Life, Mason said, National Geographic did little to push its readers beyond the stereotypes ingrained in White American culture.
The editor’s courage and also honesty to communicate the harm and injustice a U.S. mainstream periodical committed over a century and spread around the world are testimonies of change, hope, and vision.
History and repetition must be challenged by removing the cloaks of authors and institutions for socially just practices and teaching to unfold in our classrooms. One recent resource is the booklet titled Speak Up at School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Bias and Stereotypes (2018) by Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Figure 4. Cover of Speak Up at School (2018).
Teaching Tolerance provides numerous resources with the mission to “to help teachers and schools educate children and youth to be active participants in a diverse democracy.”
In addition, the pocket guide and mini-video to assemble it provide immediate and responsive action for students and all of us to take as upstanders who can remove cloaks for change, progress, and humane treatment in our lives (see Figure 4).
The work of teachers in the lives of students and their colleagues is immense and life-changing through small, yet necessary and essential, acts of questioning and deeper thinking. Sometimes the work we do requires an openness to our students’ stories, which are filled with doubts, fears, knowledge, questions, and wisdom.
In the bookTeaching, a Life’s Work: A Mother–Daughter Dialogue (2019), Sonia Nieto and Alicia López shared their visions and values for teaching and learning (see Figure 5). They noted, “Every student has a story and every student needs an adult to watch out for them in school. Knowing a student’s story can give teachers great insights into who they are, both in the classroom and out” (p. 54).
Figure 5. Book Cover of Teaching, a Life’s Work: A Mother–Daughter Dialogue (2019).
Sonia Nieto and Alicia López share their teaching journeys and include the challenges and joys of a teaching, fulfilling life among students, families, and colleagues.
If history can become an act of repetition, then we must enact multiliteracies with our students for learning and understanding by removing the cloaks in our lands and shores for socially just practices to unfold in our classrooms and teaching. We can “watch out” for each other in our schools, through the books we adopt and question, and in our professional dialogue for socially just experiences in our learning institutions. In our teaching journeys with our students, we possess the intellect and imagination to name history as it is unfolding and to change course.
This blog post is part of the #31DaysTOC Blog Challenge, a month-long movement to feature the voices of indigenous and teachers of color as writers and scholars. Please CLICK HERE to read yesterday’s blog post by Nessa Perez (and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog circle).
I ordered Martellus Bennett’s forthcoming Dear Black Boy. His essay in the Washington Post is simply beautiful and is a powerful reminder for why we need a range of texts and representation for Black boys.
“We can begin to change that — not just by integrating those mostly white realms but also by allowing black boys the space to dream differently. Accept them for who they show you that they really are. When you look at black boys, see them as the future writers, composers, chefs, tech moguls, presidents, film directors, architects, illustrators or fashion designers that they are. The world is more beautiful when we let black boys dream big.”
I’ve been loving some new titles (or new to me) that I’ll either be book talking in upcoming presentations or suggesting when folks ask. Here are a few. All make worthy additions to the on-going list of resources distributed at workshops and available here.
The Season of Styx Malone, Kekla Magoon (MG): funny, buddy novel that includes a realistic Black family living in rural Indiana
Where’s Rodney? Carmen Bogan (PB): fantastic way of thinking about why Black boys (and ALL kids) need to be able to experience nature and what happens when they are outside and able to LIVE
Finding Langston, Lisa Cline-Ransome (MG): a gentle, slim, beautifully written novel about a boy who moves to Chicago with his father during the Great Migration and struggles to find his way. Literacy saves him, and so, too, does love. Oh how I love this book.
The Parker Inheritance, Varian Johnson (MG): another on my TBR list. It’s picked up a bunch of awards and I’m thinking this is a good model for boy-girl friendships and could spark some healthy discussion about being a good friend, especially for tweens.
Dream Country, Shannon Gibney (YA): I do think this is the first example of a YA novel that covers the relationship between African immigrants and African Americans. Reminded me a lot of Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi, in that it’s intergenerational and takes place in Liberia and in Minnesota. Be sure to read Gibney’s acknowledgements, particularly about why she wrote her book and about Black boys. Image credit