My Why (In a Time of Cultural Crisis)

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I became a teacher 13 years ago, not because I had some dying desire to teach kids about conjunctions or writing essays, but because I wanted kids to feel loved and seen. I knew that I had the power to make kids feel accepted and safe, and to this day, I can proudly say that my greatest strength as a teacher is creating an environment in my classroom where diversity is not only accepted but appreciated.

My goal is simple. I want kids to know that they are loved. I want them to know that they are valuable and that they have a place in this world.  I want them to feel accepted and safe. I also want them to respect others. I want them to understand that their culture is not the only culture, and that there are many ways to celebrate holidays, pray to God, live your life, and be your true self. But how do you teach these things in a world that is ever-evolving, and not always in a positive way?

Ignorance breeds hate. People fear and hate what they do not know. We live in a political climate where it is completely acceptable to say things that were completely unacceptable just a few short years ago. This past weekend we have had more hate spread in our country than many can handle. We had 13 lives taken (11 senior citizens in Pittsburgh at a temple,  2 in Kentucky) all due to hate. Hate, brought on by ignorance, and a lack of acceptance for people not just like you.

This is why I am on a mission to push diversity in children’s literature. I can’t stop all of the evil in the world and nobody can. But we all have to use our voices, in whatever capacity we have, to spread the importance of acceptance.  It’s important that books serve as both windows and mirrors, and while mirrors are very helpful for children to see their own cultures and identities reflected to them, windows open children’s eyes to the “others.” It is essential that kids see other cultures, religions, and experiences, because we fear what we do not know.

As a teacher you get 180 days with a kid. In 180 days you can’t save the world, but you can show kids a window into cultures they may not know about. When we learn about others we often see that we are all quite similar on the inside. It is essential to share about the power of diversity. To share books that show how divisive hatred can be and to show the power of coming together.

I’m not foolish enough to thing a children’s book can prevent an act of terrorism. I am, however, a strong believer in teaching kids to love others while they are young. All kids come to us with the innate ability to believe in the power of good over evil. When we, as educators, expose them to other cultures through deliberate choices of books, news stories, and lessons, we are opening their eyes. Ignorance fuels hate. Hate fuels terrorism. And hope fuels the future. Hope fuels children. Most children believe in the power of kindness and acceptance. We, as teachers, wield the power to show kids a vision of the world that is positive and possible. We can provide kids windows into the world in a safe environment. And perhaps, when kids grow up with exposure to the unknown, they will come to see that the unknown is quite similar to their own lives… maybe then we can have a future with a little less hate, and a little more hope.

Authentic Voices Matter

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My students had the great fortune of having Gita Varadarajan come visit our school again last week. Her book, Save Me a Seat, was a large part of what pushed me to see the immense need for diversity in children’s literature. Her visit to my school last year was the turning point for me; my experience with diverse books went from awareness to advocacy. Seeing the connection she made to the students was life-changing for me and I knew I’d make it my professional mission to give kids and teachers tools to provide all children with windows and mirrors to their identity.

This time when she came to my school she spoke to my 5th graders about authenticity- the need to tell authentic stories, based on your identity, and the impact that has on the stories you create. The statistics on diversity in children’s literature are pretty dismal. While 31% of children’s literature published in 2017 features people of color, only 7% of those books are written by people of color. So who is writing these stories? And how can they authentically tell the story of a person of color? Why is there such a gap? And what does this say about the publishing industry?

Last year when Gita was at my school she ran a writing workshop with students in 4th and 5th grade. She told me to take note of the names my students chose to include in their writing. While most of my students are Indian, Asian, or African American, they often choose very “typical” American names and not names that reflect their own identity. What kids are telling us with this simple choice is that they do not feel people of their culture are characters in stories. This simple action of selecting to name a character “Bob” or “Mary” when their family is full of “Arnav” or “Sanjana” or “Tyree” means they don’t believe their story, their identity, is what stories are about.

So how do we fix this? How can we, as educators, help this? How can we help kids to tell their authentic story? Over the past year I’ve found a few strategies that have really helped.

1- Have diverse books, written by diverse authors, on display. While I have a large collection of books in my library I make sure to prominently display books that reflect my students on the end caps, at the front of baskets, etc. I don’t want these books buried in the library and missed!

2- Feature read-alouds about diverse children, in diverse countries, written by diverse authors! It’s not enough to just have them housed in the classroom- share them!

3- Use diverse names in your own writing! Anchor charts, math story problems, scenarios you write out in science labs… anywhere you are writing a name is an opportunity to “normalize” your students’ diversity. If all of our math word problems show names like “Mike” or “Kelly” why would kids feel comfortable writing one about “Palak” or “Tyshaun”? How are we, as teachers, providing kids with mirrors to their own identity?

4- Support diverse authors! Buy their books! Share THEIR stories! Follow blogs that support diversity. I cannot speak highly enough about Lee & Low Books. They are my go-to resource for diversity in children’s literature.

5- Use your authentic voice and encourage kids to do the same. I am a white woman, so I cannot write from the perspective of any other racial group. I can share authentic stories of my culture, my religious upbringing, my family dynamics, and my life experiences. Similarly, my students can share stories of their own backgrounds! Embrace and encourage them to use their strengths of their own identity to find their voice.

6- Don’t be scared. I spoke to my superintendent today about how sometimes I fear having a voice on this topic because I feel I don’t “deserve” to have a say on a topic that isn’t something I’ve personally experienced. Feeling this way is normal- but we all need to stand up for diversity and helping children to be proud of who they are. Remember, kids spend 6+ hours a day, for 13+ years of their life, in a classroom. That comes out to about 14,040 hours. That’s a LOT of time! We as educators have power to help shape lives with all of that time, but we can’t be scared. Be brave- no change will come from stagnation!

 

I’m Not “Just” A Teacher

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(Pictured: Monica Goncalves- Union County TOTY 2017, Maire Cervenak- NJ DOE, Mandy Manning, 2018 National Teacher of the Year, and Me!)

Today I had the immense pleasure of spending time with incredible educators at the NJCTY Fall Leadership Conference. As the 2015 Middlesex County Teacher of the Year I have increased my Professional Learning Network to include so many amazing educators from across the state and beyond. This network has afforded me the opportunity to view myself as a leader in education and to imagine having a reach that goes beyond the four walls of my classroom. A few times a year I get to spend time with these incredible people and each time I leave an event I am reinvigorated.

Since my year serving as the County Teacher I’ve watched many of my peers leave the classroom. I’ve watched them enter administration, jobs at the DOE, working for companies as presenters, etc. Each time someone else left the classroom I felt a slight panic. I felt like I was being “left behind.” I felt like if I didn’t push myself to find what was “next” for me I’d be wasting this experience. I felt like I needed to do more because people expected me to do more. I felt like being “just” a teacher was not enough.

You see, in all other careers when you are high-achieving you get a promotion. In education all moves are lateral moves unless you leave the classroom to go into a different role. I quietly watched as each person left their room and I wondered, “What about me? What should I do next?” It was a quiet panic because I didn’t have something I wanted to do next…. I wanted to teach. But was that enough?

I applied for a job I thought I really wanted. When I didn’t get it I began to doubt if I was good enough. I began to wonder if there was a “next” for me. At the urging of many well-meaning educators I applied to graduate school to get my administration degree. I got in, I paid my deposit, I enrolled… and then, a few weeks before classes were to begin,  I deferred my enrollment. You see, at this point in my career, I don’t want to leave the classroom. I don’t want to do anything other than what I’m currently doing. I’m young and my career ahead of me is long, so I reserve the right to change my mind at some time, but for now I am CHOOSING to be “just” a teacher.

There is a push for teacher leadership. To allow educators to stay in the classroom but have a bigger voice. This is what speaks to my soul. I look at Pernille Ripp, who has a hugely transformative role in education and is arguably a “household name” in the world of reading instruction, but she’s still in her classroom. I look at Colby Sharp, who is pushing us to think about reading and book access for kids, and he is still in his classroom. And I think… maybe I can find a way to lead… but not leave.

You see, as a parent, when I think of my child’s teachers, they are not “just” a teacher. They are the person I am trusting to form my child’s educational journey. They are a name we say daily in our homes, a person we discuss at dinner. They are the person he respects more than me most of the time. They are rock stars… they are not “just” a teacher.

The need for leadership, to have a voice, to be heard, has been sparked and cannot be dimmed. My experiences as a County Teacher of the Year and the ongoing role that it plays in my life has lit a fire that cannot go out. I will never look at education as just what happens in my classroom, but always as a part of a larger picture. I will continue to push myself to achieve more, to increase my voice and my reach, but I will never be “just” a teacher. I am a teacher. I am a teacher leader. I am someone who believes that people who choose to stay in the classroom have something to bring to the table. I do not believe that the only way to be heard is to leave. I refuse to believe that I am “less than” because I do not have ambitions beyond a classroom. I believe that strong passionate teachers are the backbone of this society, and because of that, I am NOT “just” a teacher.

Fostering Lasting Relationships

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I consider myself to be one very lucky teacher. Every year I get a new crew of kids and I think I’ll never love them the way I loved my previous class, and every year I learn that (much like being a mother) your heart can expand to fit more and more kids within it.  I love my students, I call them my kids, and my kids they will always be.

Those two girls were both former first graders of mine and both have kept in contact with me since they were in my class. These pictures represent times that these girls wanted to include me in their lives outside the classroom long after they were in my class; as a speaker at her Bharatanatyam Arangetram, and visiting another while she worked. Both events made me so proud of how these two have grown, evolved, and changed since they were in my class.

Over the years I’ve been lucky to have many relationships last long beyond their tenure in my classroom. On the first day of school this year I had emails from 12 former students, ranging from high school seniors to sixth graders I had last year. When I think about what makes these relationships last, what makes these kids still see our classroom as a place they can call home, I think it’s a combination of a few things… all of which are so small, but add up to a lasting impact.

1- “Relationships First” is not just a cute phrase or hashtag on Twitter. It’s the driving force behind my teaching. There are definitely teachers out there who are more talented than I in the craft of teaching, who have better anchor charts and flipcharts, better lessons and assignments, but I know my kids always know that to me they are #1.

2- I show that I’m human. I admit my faults and my wrongs, I apologize if I overreact, I check back in if I think I hurt a kid’s feelings, and I write private notes to kids who maybe need to know that I’m here. I share stories about my kids and my husband, I show videos of my kids and their silly antics, I read books that were my actual physical books when I was a child and share the pages that made me swoon. I tell them about my dreams and fears and I model my beliefs every day.

3- I respond. If a child reaches out to me in email, I respond immediately. If they write me a note, I write back. If they draw me a picture, I hang it up. I’m also human and sometimes I forget. Then see #2- I say I’m sorry and fix my errors.

4- I use humor. Everyone is different, but my kids get to know me and my humor. I can be silly and dramatic, I overemphasize and act out my feelings, and we all laugh… every day. Kids like to laugh. I like to laugh. It works!

5- I like them. I have never met a kid I don’t like. The most challenging kids I’ve ever had are the kids who carve their way into my soul. They keep me up at night years later wondering where they are and how they’re doing. That doesn’t mean I don’t struggle, that there aren’t kids who bring me to my personal brink, but when that happens I step back, often turn to humor, and also give space. A whisper of “I care about you and know you are better than this behavior. Let’s take a breather and come back when you’re ready” can solve more problems than I can count. Even with the toughest kids.

There is no magic formula that leads to lasting relationships, but if at the base of all of your interactions is a belief in mutual respect you will be golden. Respect kids time, respect kids space, respect kids lives. They don’t all come to us with Brady Bunch parents, three well-balanced meals, and a fully stocked library in their homes. Some of them come to us from chaos and school is their safety. Some of them come to us having it all but still need just a little bit more. You don’t have to be a superhero to create lasting bonds- you just have to care. Every day. No matter what. Kids can tell, and kids deserve it.

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!

“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