Friday, May 29, 2020

Don’t Wait for February

My fellow Well-Meaning White Lady teachers out there…there are so damn many of us, it’s downright embarrassing. Isn’t it? The best of us recognize how marinated in white privilege we are, no matter who we voted for, no matter what the percentage of pesticide-free organic produce filling up our reusable shopping bags.

That’s…a start, I guess. But even in our awkward state of alliance, we kind of suck. The high-achieving Hermiones among us miss the point completely, tripping over each other to earn the most house points for woke-ness. And don’t even get me started on the Mean Girls among us who’ve managed to weaponize anti-racism against each other – couching pettiness in equity jargon to get the edge in an argument, looking for weakness everywhere but the mirror.

We speak in terms of “gaps,” and how to “close” them, rarely if ever acknowledging that the so-called achievement gap itself is a cultural construction. It’s not random. Somebody had to decide what counts as “achievement” in the first place. Somebody had to decide what tools we were going to use to measure said achievement. Somebody – despite piles of research that quantifies teacher-student relationships and student voice as crucial for equitable success – somebody helps us teachers feel justified in pushing those things aside because “There’s just so much to cover!” to get our students ready for those achievement-measuring tests.

And somebody – in the name of providing The Best educators for public school students – decided that you can’t get through the door without a battery of expensive degrees, internships, and piles of standardized tests. Somebody put up locked gates instead of windows. Those of us who got in are smart, talented, and passionate…but those qualities alone wouldn’t have gotten us anywhere. We needed money and time and more money – we needed privilege, in other words – to truly unlock those gates. And here we are, disproportionately white.

Many of us are grappling with how to be anti-racist while knowing that we got here in the first place through a labyrinth of racist systems – and we continue to run through the hamster wheels of inherently racist systems that built our city and our state and our entire nation and the demographics of every Seattle school. Folks…it’s messed up. And I won’t attempt to resolve it here beyond acknowledging the stark, messed-up, racist reality of it all. There’s no way to reconcile or justify the cognitive dissonance and inequities that got us here.

But…here we are anyway. And what now?

I don’t know, man. I’m no expert. But here are a few little baby steps toward anti-racist practice that I think we white teachers can take:

Let’s stop telling our students of color how to feel about…anything. If they want to exclaim that George Washington was racist, let’s engage that, or at least give them room to rant it.

Let’s lean in to tangents and off-topic questions. If we don’t know, let’s be honest about that and maybe model how to find an answer, or have an answer ready for them the next day.

Let’s make a point of speaking respectfully to and about their parents and grandparents – to the students and when we’re talking with colleagues.

Let’s own our mistakes and apologize to our students with sincerity and grace.

Let’s acknowledge when things are terrible, and that we care. “Yes, I did hear about that lady with the dog in Central Park. Isn’t in awful?”

Let’s really work as hard as we can to NEVER flipping be that lady with the dog in Central Park. I’m looking at you, Nextdoor.

And speaking of Nextdoor, let’s also work hard to not be NIMBYs. Our ancestors either stole this land from indigenous people or benefitted from the co-option of that land. I think we can all put on our big girl pants and be okay with some new building that’s going to block our view of downtown and bring in more renters.

Let’s spend a lot of careful, intentional time planning our lessons for Black Lives Matter at School: Week of Action. And if our school doesn’t participate in that…let’s advocate for participating in it next year.  
Let’s not wait for MLK’s birthday and Black History Month to put this stuff at the forefront. The resources are there. It is completely possible to put intentional anti-racist focus into all subjects, all lessons. Because we can’t afford to wait until February. 

Please don’t wait for February.

Monday, May 4, 2020

Pedagogy of a Plague

Me, kind of not sucking at distance-teaching...
I’ve been wanting to write about this for weeks, but it’s been impossible to settle on one particular way to feel about teaching in the midst of a pandemic. Ultimately, I guess, I don’t have any one particular way to feel about it.

There are moments of success, connecting in real ways with families and students over the phone or video chat or whatever. I kind of LOVE creating video lessons, like to the point where I’m tweaking out on it a little. I’m not saying they’re any good. I’m just saying I love this shiny new tool in my toolbox and I will now build 50 different dilapidated birdhouses in a variety of shapes and colors because TEACHING!

And there are moments of struggle and fail. Many of them. Trying to teach myself how to schedule a video IEP meeting on Microsoft Teams had me flat on my back in grown-ass-lady tantrum mode a few weeks ago. And, as much as I love making video lessons, I dread doing “live” shit. My “live” shit  is weak, sparse, redundant, and not super-well attended. I hope to balls it’s not part of our performance evaluation this year, because holy moly, is all.

But the sharpest and most persistent stick in my side is this: I still can’t seem to find the cognitive balance between the voices that want so much more teachy-teaching from us (administrators, mayors, state officials, newspaper columnists, lawyers, tiger parents, etc.) and the voices that want so much less (parents, generally). The closest consensus between all of these voices seems to be “NO NOT LIKE THAT!”

Last week I got super salty about a McSweeney’s article, of all things, that mercilessly exposed the sad fact that we classroom teachers kind of suck at digital marketing distance learning. It’s almost as if most of us have had no training or practice in the field. It’s almost as if we’re using clunky technology that makes a grrrl really lean in to those tech skills she acquired growing up on the farm in the 80’s, twisting the TV’s rabbit-ear antennae to hear and see MASH through the static. We’re doing the best we can with the flimsy-ass tools we’ve got, trying to calibrate our skill set to parameters that just don’t fit.

The crankiest part of me wants to ask…. “And for what?”

Because is any of this actually helping? Or is our hard work and Apollo-13ing basically just…performative? Expected of us? Defensive, even, against the many, many detractors of public education and its teachers? Does anyone who might truly benefit from our work even want us jumping through all these flaming hoops?

We’ve done a lot of good, meaningful work, too. I’m proud of us for keeping our students fed, and for how we’re providing families with books and laptops and various and sundry gap-narrowing devices. That’s essential work.

But this so-called “continuous learning” rollout…I mean…What even was school in the first place that we’re scrambling so hard to maintain its status quo? What do “grade level standards” even mean when people are dying of plague-on-crack and class inequities are blazingly exposed like never before? What am I even doing when I reach out to a family that I know has been hit hard by all this COVID mess and I'm all like “Good news, dude. Phonics lessons!”

So, yeah. I get it. I’m disappointed in us, too. I wish I could do more. When the schools first closed I saw it as this tremendous opportunity to revitalize what public education even means. We were free! We could keep what was working and toss the rest; help our students follow their passions and start a whole new public education revolution!

The thing is…I was tired. So were my students. Any attempt at psyching them up for the revolution left them kind of shrugging and asking for a nice, safe, predictable worksheet. I’d be lying to say I wasn’t relieved. I’m too weary for revolution right now, folks. Maybe another day.

So, for now, I wake up every morning, down a pot of coffee, and twitch and tweak my way through this brave new world of digitizing the status quo. It’s not good, and it’s not bad. But, you know. What is? All of us have strengths and weaknesses, and now we get to see them play out through the filter of a global pandemic, hopefully learning some new skills along the way.

No easy answers. But I guess I can think of worse ways to spend a plague.
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