At First I Thought… But Now I Know…

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Who am I? I am a white woman, wife, aunt, educator, writer, reader, fitness instructor, runner, and… the list goes on. Yet today I want to focus on one aspect. I am a white woman and until recently I didn’t realize how much being white has clouded my view of the world. And I say this as a woman who is married to a black man and has many friends of different ethnicities. I also say this being someone who has studied “whiteness” in education; critically reviewed my own work for racial bias; had implicit bias training; advocates for equity in the school system; and more. I am as Dolly Chugh would say, a believer. I have a lot of knowledge base about my whiteness and it has influenced my thinking yet until recently reading Chugh’s book: How to Fight Bias- The Person You Mean to Be, attending the undoing racism workshop and the work we have been doing with the Noblesville Diversity Coalition, I am finally starting to understand how to become a “builder” and take action. There is so much I could write and I will write yet first must say that I am being vulnerable right now. I know everything I say in this blog will not be “right” but it is my attempt at being “good-ish” (thanks for this terminology Dolly) and knowing that it’s better to try (to start putting my thoughts out there) than it is to do nothing. So, after reflecting on ideas that have been swirling around in my head here are a few “at first I thought but now I know entries…”

At first I thought I was not racist but now I know that I am a part of a system that perpetuates racism. This is not something that I asked for yet it is a reality. In the beginning, we identified by culture. There was no “black or white or brown” – difference between people was acknowledged in various laws in the 1600’s and in the late 1600’s the classification of “white” came about. From there, our system continues to oppress people of color and sadly I am part of that system.

At first I thought I learned about history in school but now I know that I had learned a narrow perspective of history – the one that makes America great – one we can celebrate. Yet, knowing that Columbus coming over and taking the land of the Native Americans and killing them does not give me pride in celebrating a holiday for him – so I don’t. Knowing that there are many narratives that I do not know but want to know has encouraged me to expand my readings to learn more and share more. Looking forward to reading Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen and A People’s History of the United States along with A Young People’s History of the United States, both by Howard Zinn.

At first I thought that classism was equally troublesome as racism, yet now I know that racism is the acid that continues to corrode what America could be. Having experienced situational poverty and other adversity in life, I often feel as though I understand “the struggle” yet even my struggle has a “leg up” on others due to my white privilege. Yes, life is hard sometimes yet I can go places and not be followed. I’m not worried about not getting a job because I’m white. I’m not thinking about the cops pulling me over. There are so many luxuries that I inherited just because of the color of my skin (if you are not familiar with White Privilege, read Peggy McIntosh’s article, White Privilege: Unpacking the Knapsack). So, racism is an oppressor that then grows even more deep when other “isms” interconnect with racism.

At first I thought I was being an ally, but now I know to be an ally I need to learn more and do more. I need to be willing to listen to hear; be more aware of my actions and others in being inclusive; be supportive; and be willing to confront others when they say something. The system and culture is in place yet we have the power to look at what is in place and change it with our language. We have the power to show others within the various systems we operate what is acceptable and what is not. We have the power to make a difference. When Cornelius Minor spoke this summer at our CLC Summer Institute and challenged us to think about one small thing we do not like about the system, study it, do something about it, and reflect he helped many see, including myself, that we can start small and make a difference.

At first I though I could help “save” others (another faux pas of being white and in savior mode) yet now I know it’s not about saving the individual it’s about coming together to transform the system. I had a professor once that said, “You know that poem about saving the starfish. Yes, how great it is to save the starfish one-by-one but if you really want to make life better for the ocean you have to change the ocean.” Therefore, it is our system that needs work and we all have a moral responsibility as a part of this system to realize that we can influence it.

This is not perfect. This is where my thinking is now. I believe strongly in equity and realize that in order to become a builder I need to be willing to learn, grow, make mistakes, and lean on others. I also know that I need to speak up more in situations when someone says something that may be offensive or oppressive. I’m learning words to use in order to be more brave in this work. Finally, our words matter. I say this all the time, yet our words create our worlds (just saw this on a chart recently) and therefore, just changing the language of the system – the words we use and the way we talk with one another can be the impetus for transformation of culture. Semantics truly matters.

References:

Chugh, Dolly. 2018. How good people fight bias. The person you mean to be. Harper Collins Publishers. New York.

Loewen, James W. 2007. Lies my teacher told me: Everything your American history textbook got wrong. Touchstone. New York.

McIntosh, Peggy. 1989. White Privilege: Unpacking the invisible knapsack. Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom.

Zinn, Howard. (2007). A young people’s history of the United States. Harper Collins Publishers. New York.

Zinn, Howard. (2003). A people’s history of the United States. Seven Stories Press. New York.

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Give a little, love a lot!

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I was chatting with a friend over pizza and wine tonight. As our educational conversations intersected with our past, I was reminded of what my father has always told me, “We come into this world with nothing and we leave this world with nothing.” This saying always makes me pause to think about our purpose. It is not about the material things we have. It is not about the money. It’s about the life we lead, and the people we love. A little about me (being totally vulnerable right now):

My first few years of life I lived in a trailer park. My favorite memory was standing outside and eating processed Kraft American cheese on the small little step right outside our door. We then moved to a much larger house near the country. It was beautiful. My memories are rich with celebrations and sorrows. Then one day, no house. No dad. We were homeless. Like that, life as I knew it was changed. We lived in our car a few days, slept in a couple motels and then landed at my aunt and uncles house where we stayed for awhile. I had two memorable moments from that time in my life that I don’t want to share, yet they were painful. It was hard to see the hurt that my mom experienced. It was hard to act like all was okay when it wasn’t.

Then, my dad was back in the picture. He “put us up” in a motel. We lived there for a while before moving into the apartment my mom currently lives in. We “lost” our car when I was in 5th grade (well it was taken away) and we walked everywhere. I don’t think I appreciated it then as I do now, but my mom wanted things to seem normal. She wanted us to appear as life was good but it was broken. You know the kind of broken you don’t talk about.

I made it through high school and then off to college. I worked my way through college – 4 nights a week and almost every Saturday. I was fortunate to have a job I loved – gymnastics coach. Our summer before our senior year my friends and I got an apartment. I could only afford that and my car payments. That summer we ate a lot of Ramen noodles and peanut butter sandwiches. I will always remember the one and only evening we treated ourselves to Steak-N-Shake.

From there I’ve had my ups and downs when it comes to money yet I’m always reminded of what my dad says: “you come into this world with nothing and leave with nothing.” Therefore, I consider every bit of my life a treasure. We had difficulties yes, but we had love. Love that was so strong that it held us together (even when we were apart). Love that was so strong that even after all we had experienced and the hurt we put one another through, we could move past it and remain in contact. Family|Blood|Matters.

Whenever I begin to stress, I remind myself of what my dad says and it all makes sense. You don’t have to give a lot. It’s not about the material things, it’s about the love you show; yet when you do have the means to give – you might as well do so because we do not take our material things with us when we leave. We do not take our money with us. Share your wealth with others rather it is spiritual, material, relational, etc. – it all makes a difference… and remember how you affect others is what lives in memory. What you have doesn’t.

“We come into this world with nothing. We leave this world with nothing.” Knowing this, what will be your imprint on life?

Believe into Being

believe 1Believe into being is a phrase that I have chosen to live by since I began my career in education. When we believe in others we have the power to influence actions. You see, our identity, who we are, has been built over the years. We have layers and layers of experiences that have impacted us in some way. Frank Smith (2006) writes, “Personal identity is not something that we find by looking at ourselves in the mirror, nor is it given to us by the efforts and opinions of others. Identity is constructed from the way others influence the way we behave and see ourselves. We learn from the company we keep, and the greatest learning is generated by our perception of the way other people see us” (91). Knowing that our “learning is generated by our perception of the way other people see us” it is time to start thinking about how, in education, the identities we influence in and out of the classroom are crucial. We influence our young learners, their families, and our colleagues. Therefore, it is important to think about how our language matters and that one of our goals in education should be to believe in others – the children and families we serve as well as our colleagues. With this said, we need to change the rhetoric in education. We need to start thinking about how we approach everything with a growth mindset (Dweck, 2007). This is a journey that my colleagues and I have been on over the past few years. How do we change our language to truly help those we work with (both children and adults) build a positive identity and have strong self-efficacy?

I’m sitting at my desk (a few months after writing the above paragraph) and I’m thinking about the Title I meeting that we have tomorrow – thinking about the questions that need to be grappled with in order to consider how we are best serving our children. Our school system is truly a gem, yet like any systems, we have work to do. We are constantly thinking about how to move forward in our work and challenge one another so that we can do what’s best for kids. It’s why I love working here and yet it is hard. It’s hard to think about how programming might look differently when it means change. Let’s face it, change is hard. It takes time.

We have been on a journey in the past 4 years to operate from the growth mindset mentioned earlier – that’s our vision… working from strengths… thinking about how our language impacts children and one another. Yet, putting that into practice is difficult. Why? Because we know what we know and how we’ve done it in the past. It’s why that change is slow and takes time. We honor where educators are and we nudge one another forward (Thank you Matt Glover for always reminding us of the power of a “nudge”). It’s thinking through how our language builds the system.

That’s why I’m excited about tomorrow. Often times, Title I is portrayed in a negative way. Language about children across the US that receive “Title I services” is often a language that creates an identity for children that more than likely is not reality. This language influences beliefs about self as learner and about school.

My wonderings for tomorrow and the future are:

  • What does it mean to make our programming joyful?
  • How does the work we do align with MTSS (Multi-Tiered System of Supports)?
  • In what ways do we identify emerging strengths opposed to weakness? How might this look? How do we celebrate opportunities for growth?
  • How can we positively “brand” our important work?
  • How might our processes be fluid to meet learner needs?
  • How might we give more choice and voice to the supplemental supports designed?
  • How are supplemental supports authentic?
  • In what ways might inquiry be used to support our most striving learners?
  • How can supplemental supports be engaging?
  • How can we present information and teach in diverse ways so all learners (adults and children) grow and learn?
  • How is our instruction and assessment learner-driven? What ownership do children have in the work they are doing in the classroom?

As you may notice, in our language we have chosen to think about the work we do in a positive manner. Some key differences are:

  • The use of supplemental supports versus intervention. An intervention is something you do as a last resort… our learners are young. They learn differently and our system needs to celebrate that and realize our job is to support learners to move along this continuum of learning – it is not to identify them early on as “at risk” and label them in a way that shuts them down. In From Striving to Thriving (2017), Harvey and Ward discuss the need to “Table the Labels.” They suggest 5 things that we can do to grow confident capable learners: “Let go of the labels; champion a true growth mindset; encourage empathy; get to know your kids, ASAP; and create conditions for interaction and boundless reading” (p.38). This book goes on to explain that we need an “intervention on interventions.” This is so true. Therefore, let’s not call it intervention – let’s call what we do a supplemental support – we are not RESCUING kids, we are facilitating learning so they can become independent readers, writers, mathematicians, thinkers, etc.
  • The use of opportunities for growth instead of weakness, gap, or need. We all have opportunities for growth yet when we label someone as having a weakness or being behind causing the gap we typically then think of all the ways to close the gap – how are we going to fill in those “deficits” whereas if we focus on our opportunities for growth we have now created a space for learning to happen and think about those emerging strengths versus deficits.
  • Let’s face it. We are all striving in various ways. So let’s call it striving instead of struggling which has such a negative connotation. You can also say developing or emerging which speak into building an identity. Our entire life we are building who we are, asking the question, “Who am I” and those around us help us answer that question. Just think of the power of our words in the way we describe things can help someone build a positive identity as a reader or a negative identity. Our words can either make or break others. Let’s choose to use those words that build others up.
  • And let’s not label someone as doing something good or poorly. Speak into the identity that you are trying to “believe that person into being“. So instead of saying, well good readers do… or good writers… just say, as a writer you will… as a reader you… Look what you just did as a mathematician… Build them up and then nudge a little…

I think about these four things along with the importance of building resilience, nurturing risk taking, and helping learners be comfortable with the uncomfortable… this, along with purposeful language, creates identities and communities for everyone to thrive. So as I think about this meeting tomorrow, I feel as though we are at a crossroads. As a team we have the power to align our programming with our beliefs – our mission, vision and instructional model. We have the power to make a difference and see how we can approach learning with our striving readers, writers, mathematicians, and thinkers in a way that builds confidence, understanding, a love for learning and brings joy to their hearts. Learning should be joyful so our supports need to nurture that joy!

 

 

Language has the Power to Influence

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I have been spending time everyday, typically mornings, talking with my dad on the phone. He’s almost 76 and is really at a point in his life where the core of his being is who he is and often times when I try to say something different from him, he says, “Jennifer, you need to listen to your old dad. I’ve been around for a while and I know.” I have been taking a lot of time just listening to him and what he has to say. I’ve been impressed with his way of  living – a life that is a beautiful kind of simple. He reminds me often that I need to slow down, he encourages me to follow my dreams and to write – start now – don’t wait, and he makes me laugh so hard. His words, every day, influence me in my thinking. They have made me look at life differently and realize that slowing down is important. This feedback from him was from the heart and I know he’s right. I need to slow down. He did not say anything negative toward me in regards to the fast paced life I live, instead he models a simple life, shares his life, and said two words “slow down.” Those two words have lingered in my soul for the past few weeks.

My dad’s words have influenced me. They have all my life and they are a perfect example of how language can influence what we do on a daily basis. The words we use, the tone of our language, has the power to influence. I’ve seen this in the workplace, at Studio G where I workout, with my run group, on social media, and really, everywhere I go. The words that are used have the power to influence in both positive and negative ways.  This is not “new news” as many have discussed the power of our words: James Gee (who studies discourse closely), Lave & Wenger (in their work with community of practice), Holland & Skinner (as they discuss identities within a figured world), Peter Johnston (who discusses using choice words in the classroom) and many more. Many of these authors discuss in some form or fashion how our identity is formed by those around us, the communities with which we participate, and the words that are said within those communities. Language is powerful.

Knowing the power of language and it’s ability to influence, it is our moral imperative to truly think before we speak. It’s not just a “cliché” that has been handed down over the years, it is the truth. We need to recognize how what we say and how we say it influences others. Life is about influencing others. There are 5 things I hold dear as I think about those that influence me and those that I influence.

  1. Be honest. In order to influence, you first need to be honest. If you are not transparent in your thinking and honest with what you say, then it will be a false influence that will not be sustained.
  2. Have a growth mindset. You need to be willing to look at everything from a growth mindset (Dweck, 2007). We all can achieve if we are determined, use initiative, are resilient, and so much more. We have to realize that being successful is not “born” it’s “developed.” When working with others, approaching your work with them using a growth mindset can encourage and nudge them to greatness.
  3. Be vulnerable. Vulnerability is important. Brene Brown (2012) discusses vulnerability in her book, Daring Greatly. A great read if you have not read it yet! By being vulnerable we show that we are human and our actions help nudge others. Being vulnerable allows others to see that you mess up too. Through our vulnerability, we share our stories in hopes that others can learn and grow.
  4. Have a sense of humor. We all need to laugh every now and then and we need to share that laughter with others.  I recently read an article, Laughter is the Best Medicine, where I learned laughter relaxes you, boosts your immune system, protects the heart, and may even help you live longer?
  5. Lead with heart. This one is so vital. Relationships are at the core of what we do, therefore when thinking about influence it is not enough to just know what to say or do; you have to genuinely care about what you’re saying and doing. You must put the other’s interest at the center, listen, learn and then share your “words” with them.

I reflect on these five areas and realize that this is what I strive for in my relationship with my dad right now, in my career as an educator and a fitness coach/instructor, with my friends and so much more. By being honest, having a growth mindset, being vulnerable, having a sense of humor and leading with heart I know I can influence others as they have influenced me. It is through the words I use in these 5 areas that I can truly make an impact. So can you.

A Reminder: Why Language Matters

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The Super Bowl. Everyone gathers around food, drink and game to cheer on a favorite team. Well, some do that. Others are watching the commercials- determining what they like and don’t like. Then there’s those that say, “stop interrupting my JT concert with the football game!” We all have different purposes for the reasons why we gather around the television to share a common experience with the Super Bowl yet our perspectives are different depending on our focus – our why.
This why transcends into everything we do. Why we do something matters. As Simon Sinek says, you must know your why before you can get into the what and how. Today, as I listened to Lucy Calkins, Natalie Louis, Celeste Larkey, and Shanna Schwartz at Teachers College Reading & Writing Project I was reminded how important the why is in the classroom. Natalie Louis shared “You should know why – always. You should never do anything in your teaching that you cannot answer why… otherwise how do you make choices in your teaching?” Natalie spoke from the heart. She spoke from experience – sharing the feedback she had received from Lucy Calkins. So why is the language we use in the classroom so important?
  • Our language has the power to influence.
  • Our language has the power to create identities.
  • Our language has the power to bring a community together.
  • Our language has the power to change our environment.
  • Our language has the power to defeat the odds.
  • Our language has the power to transform.
There are so many reasons why our language is important and why we have to choose our words carefully. Throughout the next six weeks, we will dig deeper into each of the above “whys” listed \to see how our words have power and purpose to transform our community.
So, as I finish my blog while watching the game at a local pub in New York, I hear, in unison, everyone harmoniously singing the lyrics of stand by me – a commercial that brought everyone to song. I’m reminded that song, that words, stick with us. The meaning that runs through what we sing brings us all together. It’s underlying why gives us hope as we know we have so many in our lives that stand by us. Knowing this, think about the following:
  • How are you that hope in someone else’s life?
  • How are you using your language to affect those around you?
  • How are you remembering that our words matter?

 

Struggling or striving… words matter.

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I am struggling with my writing today. When I struggle I often resort back to wondering why I am even doing this work. Why have I decided that no matter what, every Sunday, I am going to write; I am going to post something new to my blog. The word struggle has a negative connotation to it. It’s not a good thing. In life we don’t like to struggle.  I struggled growing up with my self image. My mom struggled to make sure our life seemed “normal” (whatever normal is?). I struggled with truly comprehending what I read. I had to read it again and again to make sense of it. It wasn’t a good thing to “struggle” yet all my life my struggles have helped me be stronger.

I am then reminded of hearing Ellin Oliver Keene speak one time and she said, “Savor the struggle.” I have held onto this idea that we should savor the struggle. When looking at it through this lens, the “struggle” is positive, right? Yet, in education (and life), we often use this word to define someone. We might say that a child is a “struggling reader” or a “struggling writer” and this is seen as the child being behind (another concept to grapple with). I’m going to be honest. I don’t like it when we define someone as “a struggler.” We all struggle. We all are working through something and trying to learn and grow.

So what words might I use instead? I don’t think “the struggle” itself is negative, it’s identifying someone as struggling. Instead, let’s think of different identifiers. Let’s think of using words such as striving readers and writers or developing readers and writers. When looking at it this way we all are striving or developing in some way. When I work with a child (or colleague), my goal is to find out what his/her next steps are… what are they striving for? What is it that they need help with developing next?

So yes, I am struggling but I don’t consider myself a struggling writer. I have many strategies and words to use to put on the page, yet sometimes I don’t know what direction to go. I am a striving writer- one that is developing who I am as a writer and wondering where this road may take me.

The words we use to describe ourselves and one another impact identity. “Personal identity is not something that we find by looking at ourselves in the mirror, nor is it given to us by the efforts and opinions of others. Identity is constructed from the way others influence the way we behave and see ourselves. We learn from the company we keep, and the greatest learning is generated by our perception of the way other people see us” (Smith, 2006, 91). It is important to think about the language we use and how that builds an identity for someone else. If I am seen as a “struggling writer” then I will enact that identity. If the responses I receive from others do not lift me up rather make me feel badly about my writing then I will retreat and not want to write anymore. It is our responsibility to use our words and “labels” to build others up. Next time you are in a conversation and want to identify someone as struggling I urge you to change your language and talk about that person as “striving” or “developing” or possibly use another word. A simple shift in language can begin to influence the way you see that person as well as how that person sees him/herself.

I am not going to identify as a struggling writer. I am a striving writer who is choosing to take this moment to savor the struggle.

References:

Smith, F. (2006). Ourselves: Why we are who we are. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum   Associates.

Our Song, Our Words…

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Music… it’s a universal language, right? Think about how we all connect to the rhythm of a song or the message it’s trying to portray. Think about how it is empowering to sing along and say the same words, and with all of your heart – mean it! Music tells a story. Life is about telling our story. And within our story, guess what, words matter.

I’ve reflected a lot over my years as an educator on what we say and how we say it. The power of our words is far beyond our understanding of what the power truly is like. I’m sure you are thinking, what does that mean? Well, think about it. You sing lyrics to a song. Over and over and over. Those lyrics have meaning yet do we really understand the power of those words from the talented artists that created them. Probably not. Those words come with history. Those words come with experience. Those words come from the heart. It is hard to replicate what we can’t understand, yet what if the power of words allows us to do more? What if the power of our words allows us to create a new identity? What if the power of our words leads us on a different path?

Guess what? I believe it does. My next series over the next few weeks will deal with the power of our words. First, I will look at that power in education. Then I will look at it in various other areas of life. My world is about using words and language to help others believe in who they can be – who they are and who they will be. My world is about creating conditions for others to build a strong and positive identity about themselves. My world is about kindness, compassion, love, excitement, and more. My world is influenced by my words and the words of others. I look forward to digging into “semantics” over the next few weeks. Yes, it may be something others laugh at, but to me our words are life so how we use them matter. We create our own song through our words.