Category Archives: Writing

#31DaysIBPOC: We Begin, Again

I almost fell for the okey doke. 

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 up A 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. 

Ms. Nannie Helen Burroughs
Photo from Library of Congress

I keep thinking about Ms. Nannie Helen Burroughs, particularly.

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. 

Be encouraged.

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.

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Why Conferences with Kids Matter

There are lots of kids in my classes this year. It’s only now that I think (think) that I know all of their names (a fact that is both embarrassing and infuriating to me because I feel I should have it down by now).

Getting to know them as writers is much harder, particularly given attempts to turn papers around regularly. I write fewer and fewer comments on their actual papers and encourage them to schedule a conference with me to really talk about their work.

Those conference slots tend to fill up around the time a paper is due, which is what happened this week. While we get some good discussions about where they’re stuck and what they’re thinking, for me, the most important aspect of the conferences are that I can actually get to know the kids. In those moments, when they shyly push forward sentences and paragraphs, make the apologies full of fears of their work not being “good” (whatever that means; I tell them we are all in a state of revision, no apologies are necessary), I ask them how the class is working for them, let them talk through their challenging parts…I take notes then we make a plan for next steps, which I make them write down, because they are young people and they forget and one-on-one conferences are intimidating, I know.

It’s amazing, too, because the kids who sit in class and are the quiet ones, or the ones that seem so self-confident, are so different in conferences. So open, I guess, so willing to engage in a conversation about how to improve their writing.

I learn as much about who they are as people as about what they need to do to strengthen their thesis, in those conferences, and I never regret having them. I also have my student teacher conduct ones with students to understand how to be kind, how to listen to kids, how to give pithy advice that will send them confidently on their way. I find that once students come for one, and generally find it useful, they’ll return for more, and their confidence develops, their questions about their work gets more complex and nuanced, and that growth helps me to understand their development as young writers.

I continue to keep in touch with students I’ve taught over the years (though after 11 years, it takes me a moment to remember where I knew a kid, given that I’ve taught in so many different places; I guess I need to do some more Sudoku). I recently worked with a student who I taught as  a freshman four years ago. He’s a senior now, preparing to go to college. His mom contacted me, worried about what he needed to do, what she needed to do, to get him ready. So, I met him on a Saturday at one of the local public library branches to discuss the Common Essay application prompts. This is the prompt that resonated most with him:

Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

Apparently, he tried out for the high school basketball team as a freshman. Didn’t make the varsity or the JV. The following year, he didn’t make it as a sophomore, either. Ditto for junior year. I asked if he planned to try out this year and he nodded yes. What if you don’t make it? “I guess I’ll run track,” he said. Not bitterly, not quite resignedly, but factually. He wanted to do something that would keep him physically active and track seemed to be it.

We talked about what he learned over the years, when he didn’t make the team, and he said he kept trying out because he felt like he got a little bit better every year, and that people encouraged him to keep working. That this kid was willing to keep trying, even when there the chances of making the team are so small, was quite telling to me. He plays in local leagues, practices, hopes to make the team. Perhaps I’m even more impressed because so many kids would have just given up–heck, I would have given up, probably, after the second time. There definitely would not have been a third or a fourth time. Talk about grit, and perseverance and resilience…

“You have a great story,” I said. “Write it.”

I’d want that kid at my college. He seems to have the qualities that we want: being able to pick yourself up after things don’t go your way, to keep trying even when there is no guarantee of a winning outcome…and you’re 17 years old? Yeah, you’re gonna be just fine.

I never would have had the opportunity to be blown away had I not spent some time on a Saturday conferencing with a kid about what he learned about failure, and why he’s going to keep trying. Kids have great stories to tell and write; thankfully, I can listen and learn when I carve out time to sit beside them.

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