My Name is Sangoel by Karen Williams and Khadra Mohammed

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Before I even begin, I must tell you that when I read this book today TWO classes of 5th graders clapped at the end. I’ve been teaching 5th grade for a long time and I can’t recall many times kids clapped at the end of a book, but this book literally brought the house down- TWICE IN ONE DAY!

When I think about why… why was this the book that made them clap, the book that so deeply resonated with two separate classes- I think the answer is two-folds. On one hand my kids can so relate to Sangoel, but also Sangoel is just such a lovely character. He is composed and calm at times when he is frustrated, he doesn’t give up on who he is, and in the end he gets his whole class to say his name properly- he’s winning!

Most of my students are from India and have traditional Indian names. When I asked them today to raise their hand if someone has ever said their name wrong most hands went up. I then asked them to keep their hand up if they have ever gone a whole year in school with their name being said wrong every single day. Most of the hands stayed up. When I asked why the answers were as I expected- they felt too shy to tell the teacher, they didn’t want to be disrespectful, they tried to tell them but the teacher still didn’t say it right, and more.

What I find with my students is that most say, “It’s ok, say it the way you said it, that’s the American way.” But when we do that, when we accept the American way as “good enough” because the kids told you to, you are robbing them of their identity. I’m not going to pretend I can say all their names right- I have a few I’m totally butchering, but I told them that their job is to help me, daily, until I get it right. I go over to them quietly and have them help me. I practice and practice, at home looking at my roster, and in the classroom next to them. I am not going to rob them of their identity by accepting their permission to call them their “American name” when I know it’s not their real name.

What made Sangoel so incredible was that he held strong. He thought outside the box and found a way to show his classmates and teacher how to say his name. He also opened a door for deep, rich conversation with my students as we discussed the importance of our names. Sangoel provided my students with a safe place to discuss a topic that they often are too shy or embarrassed to discuss because they don’t want to correct their teacher, but when we discussed this concept through Sangoel, they were so incredibly comfortable sharing their stories.

And that, my friends, is the power of diverse children’s literature and why it matters. Not only does it show representation, but it allows conversations to naturally occur in a safe space. Kids deserve it.

The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson

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This summer I created a Donors Choose project to try to get more diverse picture books into my classroom. As the supplies came in last week I sat there, surrounded by all of these beautifully illustrated masterpieces, and thumbed through the pages. The first one I decided to read was The Day You Begin by Jacqueline Woodson. Something about the cover called to me.

As I read the story I immediately knew this would be my first day of school read aloud. The story shares the tale of a first day of school for kids who are perhaps not just like everyone else in their class. We meet characters who face kids that laugh at their name, their lunches, or something else about their identity. As I read this I saw my students. Most of my kids aren’t named Nancy or Tom, with peanut butter and jelly in their lunch box. My kids come from all over the world, their names and lunches reflecting them. I just knew this story had to greet them on their very first day.

However, the part that pulled on my heartstrings the most was when the one character feels “less than” her classmates because she doesn’t have exciting stories to share about her summer, stories filled with travel and far away places. When I read this I felt like the author was reaching into my classroom, touching my students who are just like this character, and reminding them that does not make their story any “less than” their peers. While many of my students spend their summer in far away lands, many also spend it at home. With family. Reading books, playing outside, and living their life much the same as they do during the school year. Seeing a character embrace this and learn to be proud of her story was so inspirational that I knew it had to be shared immediately.

Both of my classes loved this story. They saw the beauty in diversity but also saw the underlying sameness, that we all just want to feel included and part of the whole.

A New School Year

Tomorrow is the start of a new school year. I have lunches to make, bags to pack, and yet I’m sitting here watching clips of soccer drills for 6 year-old kids. Why, you ask? Well… it’s a bit of a funny story.

I have never played an organized sport. In fact, I’ve spent the majority of my life avoiding any situation where my lack of athletic prowess would be witnessed by others. I was often picked last in gym, I missed many balls in volleyball when my team was counting on me, and I’ve never played soccer. But this Saturday I will be coaching my son’s soccer team at the first game of this season.

That’s right. Me. The girl who has never played. You see, in April when I signed my son up I clicked the box that said I’d be willing to “help.” There was also a box for coach, but I didn’t click that one. I assumed I’d cut up some orange slices or maybe help organize picture day. Instead, I’ll be on the field, coaching. Me. The girl who has never even worn cleats.

When I got the email saying I was the coach my first reaction was ABSOLUTELY NOT. Sure, I can teach kids, but to coach 6-7 year old boys one would assume I should have at least played this game before. But the league was desperate, there were no coaches, and I was needed. I will not disappoint my son, or other kids, who want a chance to play, so I’ll research the heck out of this and I will go out on that field and act like I know what I’m doing.

I’ve spent the majority of my life hiding from fear or failure. As a child I didn’t raise my hand for fear of not knowing the answer. As a teenager I didn’t try out for teams or activities for fear of losing. As a young adult I didn’t run for president of my sorority (even though I REALLY wanted to) because I was scared I’d lose. I’ve spent my whole life hiding from opportunities because I didn’t want to learn I wasn’t good enough.

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As an adult I was a finalist for State Teacher of the Year in NJ in 2015. The process was long, with many essays, videos of me teaching, and a panel interview at the end. I ended up not winning, but it was the first time I put myself out there, lost, and learned the world kept turning.

Last year I put myself out there for a few opportunities I didn’t get. And it crushed me. I spent most of the year sinking into a hole of self-doubt. I told myself that this was why I don’t try, that it’s better to wonder “what if” than to learn you just weren’t good enough. I did the exact opposite of what I’d tell my own kids, or my students, to do. I believed that these situations of failure meant that I was a failure.

When my superintendents back to school letter came into my inbox this year she asked us to think about what we will try this year and all I could think of was that this year I will try to let go of my fear of failure and the limitations that imposes, and instead focus on modeling for my students that there is so much possibility in stepping outside your comfort zone. Sure, sometimes you won’t win, you won’t succeed, but you will learn. You’ll learn what didn’t work, you’ll learn a new way to try something, and maybe you’ll learn a little something about yourself.

So tonight, the night before a new school year, I am committing to letting go of my fear of failure and embracing the possibility of trying something new. I am committing to creating a classroom environment for my students where they’re not scared to raise their hands because it’s OK to not be right. It’s OK to try something you’ve never done before because that simple act of trying is a success. It’s OK to not get something you really want because you may learn you have something else more to give.

Oh, and I’m also going to be a soccer coach. A good one at that!

Save Me a Seat

When I decided to buy my own domain and expand my vision for my blog I knew I wanted a focus of my writing to be on “reviews” of diverse books. Not reviews in the sense of giving a book a rating, but more so an explanation of how this book approaches diversity and how my students have responded to it. It was natural that the first book I’d focus on was Save Me a Seat by Gita Varadarajan and Sarah Weeks.

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It’s shameful to admit but prior to a few years ago I never really thought about the (lack of) diversity in the books I exposed my students to. Sure, there were books with diverse characters, but it was by chance- not a result of conscious effort to have all my students represented in the books they read.

Two summers ago I was browsing Twitter when someone mentioned the book Save Me a Seat and I was immediately intrigued. My students are largely South Asian (about 85%) with the majority being from India. It’s rare to find books with Indian main characters so I immediately picked it up, thinking, “Oh, this will be nice!” Little did I know that this one small gesture would revolutionize my teaching, my philosophy on education, and the way I structure my library.

I opened my school year with Save Me a Seat, setting aside my usual choice of Wonder for the first read aloud of the year. My kids were entranced. They corrected how I pronounced the words (which I still get wrong- but I try, boy do I try!), they shared ways their family structure was similar to Ravi’s, and above all else they enjoyed the story for what it is- an amazing tale about friendship, feeling like an outsider, and the struggles of being yourself in a world that often pushes us to be someone else.

I was so enthralled with this book that I connected with the authors who graciously participated in a Twitter chat with my class. A year later we had the opportunity to have Gita Varadarajan come to our school and share with us her writing, her story, and her experience of immigrating to America from India.

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(That photo is of Gita and I reading the beginning of the story, she is reading the part of Ravi while I read as Joe).

But what made this experience so life altering for me was watching the kids react to Gita’s stories…. they laughed at jokes I didn’t understand, they ooohed and aaahed at mentions of foods I had never tried, and they connected in a way I didn’t know how to reach them. They saw themselves in her, and she in them. I sat there with literal tears in my eyes and thought, “THIS is the power of representation. THIS is what happens when kids read books and can relate.”

Save Me a Seat shows diversity by sharing with us the lives of two students in the course of one week in their 5th grade year. Joe, from a Caucasian American background, and Ravi, straight from India, are forced to face their bully, Dillon Samreen, another Indian student who is more “Americanized” than Ravi.  The dynamic between Dillon and Ravi was particularly interesting, with the aspect of being “more Indian” or “more American” bringing up interesting conversations with my students as they decided whom they related to more.

I will forever be thankful to Sarah Weeks and Gita Varadarajan for creating such an incredible novel that captures my students in a way no other book I’ve read to them has. Representation matters, and Save Me a Seat was the first book to open my eyes to just how important that is.

“TEACHERS DON’T PICK GOOD BOOKS.”

I’ve always been a reader. My mom loves to joke about how when school would get out the first thing I’d want to do is buy my summer reading books and get started. Not shockingly, when I think back to my summers as a child my favorite memories involve my public library. I used to love going and picking out books, recording them on my chart, and taking said chart to the librarian to “check in.” I remember this with such fondness… it was truly a part of the summer that meant more to me than most other aspects of those 9 glorious weeks of freedom.

Now, as a parent, I try to recreate that with my own kids. I signed my son up for the summer reading program and we went religiously once a week. I can’t say he approached this with the same luster I once did…. but he enjoyed the weekly tradition.

Typically while we were at the library he’d grab some books and I’d grab some for him as well. He is reading now, but on a very primary level (he is entering first grade next week), so I’d choose some books on his level for him to practice his skills, while he’d choose some books for “fun.”

A few nights ago I very excitedly told him I had chosen a book I was excited to read to him. He groaned and said, “This won’t be good.” When I asked him why he said, “Because you’re a teacher. Teachers don’t pick good books.”

Well. I’m just going to let that set in for a minute. Reread that. Picture me, sitting on the bed, grasping my heart, and fainting…. because that’s what I felt like doing. Instead I composed myself and asked him why he said that. He said, “Because teachers always pick books to make you learn.”

Huh… what an insightful six year old I have on my hands. While I really wanted to yell, “NO! Teachers pick great books and you, my friend, are WRONG!” I calmly told him that he was right, but you can learn from any book. (Please note, this probably fed directly into his feelings that we are trying to make him learn and only further irritated him… just saying.)

But let’s think about this. When Landon is left to his own devices he picks a few things…. he chooses superhero books, Scooby Doo books, Fly Guy, and Avengers books. He chooses characters he feels comfortable with and that meet his interests. He really never walks down the “literature” aisles where traditional picture books are kept…. he bee lines for his section. At this point we have read every superhero book the library has… many we have read twice or three times.

So as teachers, when we cultivate our libraries, are we thinking through the lenses of kids like Landon? Kids who like the familiarity? Kids who want stuff that might be seen as “garbage” or not “real literature”? Are we trying to force a square peg into a round hole to meet our standard of what “good books” look like? Are we providing enough choice and opportunity for all of our readers?

I can remember being a new teacher and being told to keep the classics in my library. To shy away from the graphic novels/Diary of a Wimpy Kid/Captain Underpants of the world. I remember hearing people say those books were garbage and they weren’t “real” books. I guess I question then who decides what “real” is. How does one determine what book has value? Because to a kid like Landon, he is going to learn to read fluently by being allowed to explore Fly Guy and similar silly books.

Once again my son has taught me a lesson about teaching that I could never learn from my years in college, or even my years as a teacher without the inner insights of a child. He has taught me to see my job as the teacher as more of a provider of a buffet of books, and not a prix fixe menu. He has taught me to expand what options are presented to my students and see through the eyes of a child. He has reinforced to me the importance of taking time to ASK what they want to read rather than selecting it for them. He has reinforced that books aren’t just for learning… they’re also for fun…. and if we want to catch all of our readers, we need to find what they find fun.

A LETTER TO TEACHERS, FROM A PARENT (WHO’S ALSO A TEACHER)

Dear Teachers,

I am one of you. I joined your ranks 13 years ago and have been in the trenches of education for these years, right by your side. I consider myself so lucky to have this job, and yet I’m also so aware of the challenges that we all face every single day. I know about the long hours, the constant to-do list, and the feeling of never being quite good enough. I spend my days wondering how I am going to do all that needs to be done, and also realizing there’s nothing else in the whole world I’d want to do.

This past school year I had the interesting experience of sitting on the other side of the desk for the first time. I was now sitting at the shiny red table, surrounded by other adults in tiny plastic chairs, at Kindergarten orientation. While I sat there, staring at this stranger who would soon become the most important adult in my son’s world, I had an awakening. As I listened to her explain how his year would go, I hung to every word she said. He was my whole entire world and I was going to turn him over to her- to let her shape him, mold him, and make or break his impression of school. I knew that she held the power to make my son love or hate school…. a belief that could be very hard to change once it was formed. As I left orientation it clicked- Oh my goodness, my job is REALLY important. Like, REALLY REALLY important. You see, not only did this wonderful woman who would go on to be my son’s world hold this power, but I TOO held this power… for someone else’s child.

I always knew being a teacher was important. Once I became a parent I became a much better teacher. I realized that every child in that room was loved in a way I didn’t know was possible prior to becoming a parent. Yet, now that I was a parent of a school aged child, I realized just how much what I do every day can impact a child, a family, and a life- long beyond the 180 days we spend together.

As teachers, do we recognize that a child has a life outside of our four walls? Are we assigning homework that we would want our own child to do? Are we providing a home-life balance we would want for our own kids?

As teachers, are we making a personal connection to every child? Especially those quiet kids who blend in to the background? Because my son… he can be one of them. And I don’t want him forgotten.

As teachers, are we facing each situation with kindness? Every year we face kids who are so challenging we stay up at night thinking about them. Are we treating them the way we’d want our child treated? Do we realize that other kids watch how we treat them and model their behaviors off of us?

As teachers, are we giving it our all, every single day? Are we not giving up on a child before we even give them a chance? Are we forcing ourselves to try something new when the old trustworthy plan isn’t working?

Above all else, as teachers, are we loving these kids? Because really, as a parent, I can let a lot slide. I can overlook many things, but I can not overlook how my child feels in your presence. Are we remembering that how a child feels about school can be the single most important factor when it comes to determining their success?

So, to all my peers out there- near and far- have a great school year! Get some rest while you still can, or take some time for yourself if you’re already back. But at the end of the day, every day, remember that to every child you encounter you are the most important factor that determines their success- academically and emotionally. It’s a lot of pressure, but you’ve got this!

All my love,
Stephanie
A mom, a teacher, and a believer in the power of kindness

REFLECTIONS FROM A BREAK

Reflections From a Break

When I graduated college a well-meaning relative gave me a gift- a wooden sign that said, “I can give you three reasons I teach: June, July, and August.” I remember the chuckles around the table as I showed it to the other guests. It seemed to be an acceptable belief that the benefit of teaching was the summers off. That, in fact, maybe the best part of teaching was the summers off. I remember leaving this gift in my closet for a year or so until I threw it out. While I see the humor, it didn’t align with my beliefs and I certainly couldn’t imagine where one would hang such a sign. For me, it did not represent what I considered to be the “reasons I teach”, and in fact aligned with something I consider to be a larger problem of public perception facing teachers, magnified now by the ever-present influx of social media posts and funny memes.

Summers off have never been truly “off” for me. Prior to having children I always worked full time, whether it was at a day camp or teaching summer school. Once I had children my summers were still busy with school work. Last summer I taught three PD classes, took 30 hours of PD courses, wrote 30 hours of curriculum, and presented at a state-wide conference. Sure, I didn’t “work”, but I still had my teacher brain on fire. I was constantly involved with education, even if I was working on it at my pool club.

This summer, for the first time in 12 years, I took a summer off. I left school in June making a decision that I needed a break. I didn’t teach PD, I didn’t present at a conference, I didn’t log on to Twitter, I didn’t read a professional book… I just experienced time off. And in it, I developed a fear. I said to my husband, “What if my spark is gone? What if this means I don’t love it like I used to?”

I used to crave teaching over the summer- I spent countless hours reading blogs and professional books, researching, and planning. When I didn’t find myself craving it at the end of July I was scared that I was losing my love. But now, now that we are approaching the mid-point of August, I can tell you that I have not lost my spark. In fact, in some ways, this break gave my spark a chance to build up the energy it needed to turn into a blazing flame.

I am on fire right now about a new school year. I cannot wait to get in that room, set up, prepare, and meet these kids. Because, like most teachers, I do not teach for summers off (although a lovely perk)- I teach for the kids. If I had to create my own wooden sign it would say “I can give you three reasons I teach- relationships, relationships, relationships.” It is all about building relationships with kids so they can see the benefit of school. If the teachers don’t see the benefit, if the teachers only see it as a means to an end, a job, a way to get summers off… how will the kids see it?

Let’s work this year on not holding kids to standards we don’t hold for ourselves. If you expect them to give 100% every day- are you? If you expect them to be excited about a new project- are you? If you expect them to be excited for a new school year- are you? And if you’re not… what can you do to get excited? The beauty of teaching is that we, the teachers, are the magic maker- if you don’t feel the magic, go make it! Find what sets you on fire and set the room ablaze! You’ve got this.