Hi there. It’s been a minute, I know. But I’ve been doing some things: trying to live through a pandemic, starting a new job, and, well, writing a book.Literacy Is Liberation: Working Toward Justice Through Culturally Relevant Teaching with ASCD is coming out in February, 2022. CAN YOU BELIEVE IT?
It’s definitely been a process. And, because I’m celebrating submitting the page proofs a moment ago, I immediately wanted to capture a few feelings before I forgot them. Here they go, in no particular order…
You can write a book. I interact with so many different people who are doing amazing things. If you want to write a book, please, write your book. Then, I hope that if you want to find a publisher you can find one like ASCD that made the process one that made sense to me, that figured out how to work with me, and that shepherded me through from start to finish. Much of this was all about belief: once I wrapped my head around acknowledging that I HAD to write about my practice if I wanted to really understand and own it, then the universe kind of opened up. That said…
You have to commit to actually writing that book once you convince yourself. As much as I hoped, it wouldn’t write itself. That meant that I had to get a system together for keeping track of my references (Zotero, FTW), getting myself on a schedule, and reaching my goals I’d set for myself. I channeled much of the discipline I thought I’d never need again once I wrote my dissertation, lol. Indeed, having a schedule and a timeline, while also telling folks who will hold you gently accountable, definitely helped.
Take the time to write your acknowledgements. I asked for more space for my acknowledgements and STILL didn’t get to thank all the people I wanted to. However, I did the best I could. I also know that people will read them, so I wanted to be sure that when and if they did, they would know how grateful I was for them. Thus, even if you feel like you don’t want to do any.more.writing, get some water (or something stronger), jot down a list of all the people, see them in your head cheering you on, and write to them. It’s a fabulous way to wrap up a project.
You have to reconcile the worry you feel about putting your ideas out into the world with the bigger picture of why it matters and, well, DO IT. I mean, look, Gloria Ladson-Billings is the GOAT, and here I am, talking about culturally relevant teaching. Does it feel new? No, in some ways, AND YET, we still ain’t getting it right. So, there was lots of space there to really think through how we can do it while also helping educators build community, talk about race, and get ourselves together. But I still have dreams about “OMG, is she gonna yell at me?” Well, I hope not, and I also hope this book contributes to the requests so many teachers have about all the issues I address in the book.
Build in small rewards and play with your people along the way. I am trying to uncouple myself from the productivity industrial complex, but OMG is it hard sometimes, especially when there are deadlines to meet, meetings to attend, and dinner to at least consider making. I’ve realized that small rewards are actually quite big for me. I enjoy doing absolutely nothing, watching Grey’s Anatomy, writing letters, dreaming about home…so many things. When I’d get stuck, or needed a bit more motivation, I’d do those things and, lo and behold, I’d get my mojo back long enough to wrap up a paragraph. I also am grateful for my people who were NOT writing a book and therefore insisted I eat, play, scream, dance, play BeyBlades or Pokemon, draw some pictures, read a book, write a poem, or anything that made me realize I am a human being. We are connected to other people. Writing a book didn’t come in the way of that, and I’m happy my work on boundaries, while often aspirational at best, enabled me to love on them, be loved on, and still complete this project.
I know this picture above might be familiar to some people, as I posted it on social media, but the FEELING of having the page proofs in my hand, and to be celebrating over hot pot with my dear friend after so much time apart, was something I wanted to hold on to. Thus, I put this picture here to remind myself of the joy that also accompanied this project.
I am going to put in a plug for finding yourself a really good editor to bring you along. I worked with the fabulous Acquisitions Editor, Allison Scott, from ASCD who presented me with a timeline and helped me get my goals together. She was also the best warm demander/cheerleader I needed. I also got experience writing for ASCD in different mediums: shorter pieces that helped me define my voice, get feedback, and make decisions about what I wanted, and needed to write about. It’s like the low-stakes practice we get young writers to do daily; so much so that when the bigger thing comes along, you’ll have been mentored, received feedback, and feel ready to take the next right step for you.
Please, now, write a book. If you want to. Or reach out to someone (like emailing Acquisitions at ASCD) to talk through ideas and help chart a path forward (plus, it’s FREE). I mean, people have been telling me for a looong time I “should” write a book, but it was only when the time, place, and publisher aligned did it make sense for me to do. If that time is for you, then, I hope you’ll do it, because, especially for BIPOC folks, there is SO much we know and do that others need to understand, and there are publishers who are so interested in our stories that they’ll help us along: mentorship, guidance, and publishing. Our stories are powerful; get to writing!
I loved concluding the series this year. It allowed me the time to go back, reread and savor the gift that #31DaysIBPOC is. I was able to be moved over and over again at the range of experiences, the brilliance of the writing, and the complexities of living.
Thank you to everyone who wrote, to everyone who read and shared these essays, and who will continue to revisit them in the year to come. To our growing family of supporters: Pleasesupport these professionals! For the ones who have Venmos or causes they support, donate in solidarity or to say thank you. If you are looking for people to lead your professional development, please, hire these folx and all the folx who have written for the series over these three years. And, of course, please pay them what they are worth.
I pulled lines from all this month’s posts to compose this found poem of gratitude for all of our writers and to close out May.
The highest gratitude goes to my dear friend, Tricia Ebarvia, who is the very best collaborator I could have wished for and who is proof that I am abundantly blessed with so many good people in my life. Be well, everyone.
Found Poem for #31DaysIBPOC
Because I come from a lineage of strong-willed, determined, fierce women I foolishly thought I was invincible.1 I didn’t talk about this Black soul scar with my parents until I was 43 years old.2 Imagine being afraid to sleep for days, months, years, and lifetimes and you will still only understand a fraction of my rage, my exhaustion, my fear, my loneliness, and my deep, deep sorrow.3
Today, I am ready to tell the story of my darkest times, to reckon with these times publicly because in the light, there is healing.4
I knew the power of stories, that’s why I began telling stories in the first place.6 I shudder to think of all the cultural pride I sacrificed at the altar of attempted assimilation over the years.7 What is “excellent” about lacking the courage to face our history, learn from it, and forge a path forward that is not built on the backs and blood of Black people, the theft of indigenous land, and the criminalization and imprisonment of those we fear?8 A Palestinian mama has no control over her fate or the fate of her children. Her daughter is a Palestinian.9
If we truly believe that we want schools to be a safe place for students, why aren’t they?10
Despite my own experiences and intimate knowledge of the variations of being Black, here I was limiting my view of Black students and what they would need and where they would be. 11 I will not traumatize you based on YOUR cultural identity and connections to family, place, land, tradition, and language; rather it will be a celebration ALL year.12 I want more parents to ask questions. I want educators to welcome their questions, and when necessary, I want us to change what we’re doing in the classrooms or spaces where we teach.13
And all that I had lost, willfully lost…was it too late to reclaim? 14
But she has shown me, even still in these struggles, we resist, we love and we find joy.15
Sitting next to all that is too much are also other things, things like truth, community, kinship, and love.16
The difference between me as a child and me as an adult is that as an adult, I don’t listen to other voices to validate my own experiences anymore.17 I center Black joy and Black folx living they regular degular lives in my instruction.18 We need to resist through joy. We feel it deeply. We feel it urgently.19 Our power resides in our collective strength. We are what we are seeking.20
As a Black person I couldn’t believe that escaping for freedom was even debatable.21 They may fire their cannons or launch their missiles, but I stand firm with my flag erected, for I will fight no more. Representation is important but that is only a step toward liberation.22
I am getting better at reminding myself that those who harbor hatred need to work on themselves…and get out of my/our way.23 You are a divine being worthy of rest.24 You, showing up exactly as you are, isn’t just good enough–it’s inspiring, and brave, and powerful.25 We can be the love we need and the joy this world tries to take away.26 We can come to realize how small our world is and how big the rest of the world is but, even with our wings clipped, we can visit beyond the margins of our cage.27
This blog post is part of the #31DaysIBPOC Blog Series, 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 shea martin(and be sure to check out the link at the end of each post to catch up on the rest of the blog series).
I’ve taught writing with fantastic students in the Crimson Summer Academy at Harvard for over a decade. It’s one of the most important jobs I’ve ever had, and it’s the job I’ve loved the most in my career.
So, imagine my face when the process was completed and I could finally announce that this happened…
I appreciate this book for breaking me out of my reading rut. Fabulous, thoughtful, complex look at a young Black girl who is wealthy, goes to school in a predominantly white environment, and is trying to figure out all the identities she has and wants to be. I’d also use this book as a craft study b/c Hammonds Reed can write a brilliant sentence, and this book has so many. One of my faves of the year at this point.
I continue to turn to YA as a way to get my reading life restarted. Liz Lighty is an overachieving Black girl who wants to go to the local PWI more than anything. She’s queer, which is hard in a small Indianapolis town, made even more complicated because she runs for prom queen. I felt for Liz, who has be to exceptional in every way, struggles with anxiety, and the loss of her mother, and, well, being working class in a white midwestern town.
Another entry to the #blackboylit canon that gives us a nonbinary young person living their best life. This was a great example of all the ways young people can grow up whole, free, and supported by a loving community. A memoir in vignettes, too!
I read this one with the Johnson book above in preparation for moderating a panel for SLJ’s Day of Action. Another #blackboylit title. I so appreciated the main character, a bisexual Black boy who experiences depression, a missing parent, and falling in love. I loved Gio so much, and also appreciated his comments about school, lol, especially being dragged through a reading of To Kill A Mockingbird.
This book got me OUT of my reading rut. Just an excellent collection of short stories about Black women that is beautifully written, funny, sad, healing…just everything. I wished it was longer, have recommended it as my favorite book this year, and gift it, too.
I stan for Dr. Givens and his scholarship because it helps me locate myself in the tradition of the art of Black teaching. Lots about the life of Carter G. Woodson, Black teachers, and why what we do matters even more today. It’s also an important reminder that as teachers we need to be “scholars of the practice” and make time to read scholarship.
This queer love story set during enslavement was moving and reminiscent of Morrison in so many ways. I loved the love and resistance of characters and felt such deep sorrow to read about the ancestors, real and imagined. Once I started, I read right through the days to finish, and the two men at the center of the story, and their insistence on loving each other, was so very powerful and beautiful.
This book came up at the library and I’ve been wanting to read it. The story of Kossola, the last survivor of the Clotida, is devastating. It’s important for understanding the impact of enslavement, how Africans were treated by African Americans, and the lasting legacy that so many of us carry with us. Required reading. Plus, it’s a powerful account of the anthropological work of Zora Neale Hurston.
I’m a Danielle Evans fan. Her first short story collection is one of my all-time favorites. This second collection is even more brilliant. She can write a beautiful sentence and tell a brilliant story while breaking your heart and affirming your Blackness and brilliance all at once. These short stories are definitely teachable in high school classrooms, too, and ones I wish I had access to when I was looking for something different for my own short story units…
Seems like the universe is trying to help me find my way back to my reading life. These short/micro stories are delightful. Lots take place in Kentucky, so that’s even more special to me, and Cross-Smith is SO good at writing about women in the everyday. I felt so seen while I read this collection in all parts of my life: high school, college, post-college, now.
I finished the final book of Hibbert’s trilogy and found it quite satisfying. Hibbert’s characters are funny, thoughtful, smart, and real. A great easy breezy read that also features characters with autism, depicted multidimensionally, where the characters are so much more.
I try to read books on Black motherhood because there are so few out there. I would like a mirror for that part of my experience, too! Austin’s book is an interesting take on adoption and makes a strong case for why and how to do it. I found myself bothered by her perspectives on birth parents and there was an air of respectability that was hard for me. I’m glad this book is out there for folks, though.
Just when I needed a good romance that centered on a single mom suffering from debilitating migraine headaches who was an amazing writer and got back in touch with an old flame, this book delivered. A solid rom-com, filled with some great humor (the tween daughter is well-written, much because I bet Williams drew on her success writing your a YA audience in a couple of her earlier books). Love this, too, especially for the summer.
I wanted to immediately teach this book with juniors, especially in all those discussions about the “American Dream.” A story of two Chinese girls in the west, their family, their hopes, their dreams, and, well, what happens as they try to survive during brutal settler colonialism. So many beautiful, heartbreaking sentences and characters who I absolutely loved.
How I appreciate Black women for being able to lovingly gather us. bell hooks lays it down about why we need to actively choose love again and again, and how we can heal ourselves. I found myself stopping and rereading so much of this book; so much resonance, especially right now.
My reading slump continues, apparently. I love Oak Bluffs for many reasons, some which showed up in this book about a Black fairy godmother and her goddaughters. There were a few juicy plot twists, and, if you’ve been to MV and OB, a few details that spark great memories. Nice summer read but, seeing as I wasn’t reading it in the summer, lol, it was easy breezy and enabled me to finish October able to reconnect to some steady reading.
This book is EXCELLENT. Daunis Fontaine is an Ojibwe young woman who is deeply connected to her community, the elders, and her family. The mystery at the heart of the complex story kept me reading straight through the weekend. I felt all the emotions and I so appreciated this specific, beautifully written novel. It definitely needs to be in kids’ hands. One of the best books I have read this year.
I’ve been reading at this book for a long time and finally finished it. Really reflective way to think about one’s friendships and to determine if there are “big friendships” in our life. I also appreciate how the authors go there and take up how hard it is to maintain a real friendship and that it’s worth the work. Makes me want to definitely also reach out to the folks I’m in big friendships with (okay, one person, lol), and make sure she knows how important she is to me.
Leslie’s book about the death of her husband is both tragic and hilarious. I was so sad for her, especially after she found the love of her life and lost him so unexpectedly. Leslie doesn’t sugarcoat the grief that she felt and how she dealt with it, but her writing is also so funny that I laughed AND cried while reading. Oh, and Leslie also was in the process of adopting her sun, a story arc for which I cheered. I’m so happy I’ve been able to read Black women’s words this year; such a range of diverse voices that are needed so very much.
This book was exquisite. So much history here: a Black free doctor raising her daughter, helping Black folks who had freed themselves. Many themes here that are classic and eternal; the ones that stuck with me the most were about the relationship between mother and daughter and what one does for independence and freedom, as well as the ways that we find and keep friendships, especially among women. I would definitely teach this one in the classroom.
This short story collection was uncomfortable to read in all the best ways. It’s filled with every day characters trying to figure out all the things in life that are, well, worthy of taking up in short story form. I cringed, I reread, I felt all the feelings, and was deeply appreciative for all of them.
I couldn’t put this one down. A fascinating portrayal of the role of white women in enslavement and all the ways Black folks resisted, persisted, and remained free within themselves. A thoughtful look at a white family bent on maintaining their whiteness at all costs. So many complicated issues here. I would couple it with They Were Her Property to build a text pairing that can help readers understand–really, truly understand–history.
We need diverse books has to include disability justice, or else it’s an incomplete movement. Here is an excellent collection of essays that expanded my own understandings, pushed me to confront my own biases, and has made me think deeply how my work has to center disability justice. I’d definitely have this book in my classroom library and I’d regularly pull essays from the collection for whole-class discussions.
I always love reading folks’ year-end reflections. I’ve rarely gotten it together to write one myself, but think that, in this moment I have between working on my book that’s slated to come out in 2021 and procrastination, a year in review seems appropriate.
First, thanks to everyone who’s reached out in solidarity, in purchases of coffee (thank you!) and in love to express their support for #DisruptTexts and my co-founders. The greatest thanks is doing the work; thus, please continue to #DisruptTexts in ways that fundamentally normalize high achievement for all students, and especially Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other POC children and youth. Please, keep doing that.
There were also lots of hits around the site about me, how to work with me, and publications/podcasts. I am limiting my professional development work in 2021 to allow me to be intentional about what I say yes to, to continue existing relationships with departments who have already contracted with me, and to be able to continue doing my own work that enables me to be authentic during my PD work. Thus, if you’d like to work with me, please reach out, knowing I have limited availability, but I’d love to work with you if possible.
I had a few favorite things from 2020.
My #Blackboylit faves include:
Ty’s Travels from Kelly Starling Lyons–so great for emergent readers!
I was in a significant reading rut because pandemic. I know there were such great young adult and verse texts for #blackboylit that I intend to read in 2021. Once I do, I’ll update my favorites to include those as well. Thanks to Black Children’s Books and Authors for their comprehensive lists that help me to keep my TBR abundant (and I also donated during Kwanzaa in the spirit of cooperative economics, BTW).
I did enjoy expanding to #bipocboylit because I collaborated with one of my favorite brilliant people and educators, Aeriale Johnson. We wrote “Literacy As a Tool for Liberation” for ASCD. In 2021, I am hoping for more opportunities to write with people I admire and who push my practice. Ms. J and I are working on a book together; send us your energy so we complete that project! That’s why I loved editing the JAAL column; such fantastic voices that we should be paying attention to in the field of literacy work.
I had the most fun interviewing MacArthur Genius Fellow THE Jackie Woodson for the Horn Book magazine with some of my favorite Black women. There was so much love for her and for Black children in that moment.
2021: Looking Ahead
ASCD is insisting I complete this book, lol. So, look for that to be out at some point. It’s about how we can do the work of creating culturally relevant intentional literacy communities for Black and IPOC youth. I’m excited for that.
I’ll continue presenting nationally and leading PD for districts. Reach out if you’d like to think about working with me. I’m energized by the work departments are undertaking to push their own understandings forward as they select texts that can make a difference on readers. The best way to find me is through the Find Me/Work with Me page.
I’m grateful for the abundant opportunities to engage in such a broad range of literacy experiences, even during the midst of a global pandemic that has impacted so many. I am encouraged that I am in community with people who are committed to equity, liberation, and justice.
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.
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.