On “Difficult” Conversations

In my email inbox this morning was a newsletter from ILA (International Literacy Association) Conference. The first article in the newsletter has a headline,

Facilitating Difficult Conversations in the Classroom

It links to an article about a panel at the 2017 conference titled “Disrupting a Destructive Cycle: How Literacy Drives Social Change.” I highly recommend reading the article.

What stuck with me for a bit was the language of “difficult conversations. I’m writing here to help me think through why this stood out to me….

  • I have heard and used this language of “difficult classrooms” in the past and have been thinking about the ways it can be used to position teachers and students.
  • Who is the conversation difficult for? Clearly this is about teachers because of the audience of the newsletter and the positioning of the conversation in a classroom.
    • I think this is more specifically for teachers who have never discussed race, ethnicity, inequality, etc in any aspect of their lives. In other words, middle class white teachers. This makes sense given that more than 80% of the teaching population in the US is white.
  • Part of what troubles me about this language is that I have heard the language of “difficult conversations” used as an excuse to NOT have discussions around race, ethnicity, gender, orientation, SES, etc in the classrooms. Some examples sound like this:
    • These conversations are too difficult for my students.
    • These conversations will make my students uncomfortable and I want to create a safe space for my students.
    • I teach elementary age students, they don’t see race so it isn’t appropriate to have these discussions.

This is what bothers me about this language, why it stood out to me when I first read it. If these discussions are difficult for you as an adult or teacher and you use your students as an excuse not to have them, that is irresponsible pedagogy.

If the discussion is difficult for you, as an adult or teacher, then it is your responsibility to do some work to help you learn how to work with and past your own discomfort and have these necessary conversationsA great place to start is by reading this article and watching the archived video of the ILA Panel.

 

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Teaching: delivery is not most important…

I spent a good portion of my day today working with a teaching intern. We observed each other, we analyzed some assessments, we designed instruction, we reflected, we learned. One of the things I love about helping people learn to teach is that it is very much a coaching relationship. I can provide feedback and insight, but ultimately the intern is the one who has to practice and do the teaching. I also learn things every time I work with teachers, regardless of the stage of their career.

Today as we worked, I had a realization. Teaching, like many act that are performative, can appear as if the delivery is the most important component. But it is not. It is in the planning, thought, practice, and rehearsal. For a musician, it is the hours in a practice room, private lessons, etudes, scales, and master classes. It is learning about a specific piece of music – the composer, time period, other performances, tempos, and accompaniments. And more practice. And the practice isn’t just about learning notes and rhythms. It’s also about knowing the music so well that the performer can interpret it. It’s about being able to improvise a cadenza and take license with the adagio to make it just a bit more sultry.

The most important component is preparation. It is what allows the musician to tailor the performance. Preparation is often lonely. There is rarely applause or acknowledgement. But it leads to a  performance unique to each musician, audience, and environment. Preparation is what allows a teacher to do the same, to tailer lessons and instruction unique to the specific context. It allows the teacher to make adjustments based on the students’ needs on a particular day. Are they grasping the material more quickly than expected? Do they need extra support? When a students makes a fascinating connection, does the teacher go off plan or stick with it?

The teacher needs to know their students, the content objectives, materials, assessments, and if it is a full moon. This is the intellectual work of teaching. The reason that not just anyone can teach. The reason that delivering a lesson is not the same as teaching a lesson.

we need to READ diverse books

The We Need Diverse Books movement is important for so many reason. Yes, we need diverse books – diverse in representation, in authors, in editors, in illustrators.

We need these books for readers – for ALL readers. The other day I wrote about relatability. Books can be mirrors and windows and sliding glass doors. They need to be that for EVERY ONE. It is imperative that readers are able to find their identities in books. And not just find their identities – but find authentic representations of those identities. Complex and multilayered representations.

It is also crucial for readers to find identities in books that are not like there own. It is AS important – if not more – for these representations to be complex, multilayered, and authentic. As a straight person, I need to read books with representations of gay characters that are more than the persecuted or hated by their family. As a white person, I need to read stories of other races that are more than just what has historically been written.

The #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement is crucial because we need these books to be published and readily available. I was reminded of this when a friend shared an article titled 18 Books Every White Ally Should Read. I was excited about the list because I just finished listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and have been searching for something to read next. So I went to my local library’s website reserve some of them. For the titles my library did not have (over half of the 18), I searched the state wide inter-library loan system. This was even more interesting to see because I could identify which communities had which books as well as what types of libraries had some of the books. Often they were found in University Libraries but in fewer public libraries. When titles are available in public libraries, they are often either in Urban areas or University towns.

So what is my point? The point is that books that represent a variety of races and cultures need to be available to all readers in all communities. I know that it isn’t possible for libraries to have every book and it is fantastic that we have an interlibrary loan service. But we also need to work to make all readers aware of what is available.

Yes #WeNeedDiverseBooks. But also #WeNeedtoREADdiversebooks

 

 

 

 

 

Swimming out to the raft

I had a coaching meeting today with a teaching intern. Learning to teach is incredibly complex and often a very bumpy journey. 

As we were talking, I came up with an analogy to help her manage the incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance she is experiencing right now. Remember the raft from my first blog post, we’re going to revisit it again. 

This time I described my eldest daughter – when she was much younger, she hated the feeling of not being able to touch the ground when she was in the water. She was fine, as long as she knew she could reach her toes down and feel the bottom. Otherwise – no thank you. She desperately wanted to go out to the raft. But to do so meant that she would have to be in water too deep to touch the bottom. But oh, to jump off that raft and make a glorious splash. 

She had a life jacket, she had someone with her, but she was just not ok with her legs floating with no bottom to touch. It made me a little crazy at first, then I realized that I just had to let her do it when she felt ready. I would be there to support her, I would make sure she had a life jacket, but she had to decide to pick up her feet and move forward. 

Doing things that create cognitive dissonance in our lives require the choice of picking our feet up off of the ground. Sometimes it takes a little while. The tricky thing about learning to teach is that it isn’t possible to know everything you need to know ahead of time, it just isn’t. So you put on a life jacket (mentor teachers, field instructor, faculty, other teachers) you take a deep breath, and you pick your feet up off the ground. And it is so so so worth it because when you get out to the raft, there is a classroom of students. And it is exhilarating. It is HARD work, but you will never be sorry you picked up your feet. 

Swimming out to the raft

I had a coaching meeting today with a teaching intern. Learning to teach is incredibly complex and often a very bumpy journey. 

As we were talking, I came up with an analogy to help her manage the incredible amounts of cognitive dissonance she is experiencing right now. Remember the raft from my first blog post, we’re going to revisit it again. 

This time I described my eldest daughter – when she was much younger, she hated the feeling of not being able to touch the ground when she was in the water. She was fine, as long as she knew she could reach her toes down and feel the bottom. Otherwise – no thank you. She desperately wanted to go out to the raft. But to do so meant that she would have to be in water too deep to touch the bottom. But oh, to jump off that raft and make a glorious splash. 

She had a life jacket, she had someone with her, but she was just not ok with her legs floating with no bottom to touch. It made me a little crazy at first, then I realized that I just had to let her do it when she felt ready. I would be there to support her, I would make sure she had a life jacket, but she had to decide to pick up her feet and move forward. 

Doing things that create cognitive dissonance in our lives require the choice of picking our feet up off of the ground. Sometimes it takes a little while. The tricky thing about learning to teach is that it isn’t possible to know everything you need to know ahead of time, it just isn’t. So you put on a life jacket (mentor teachers, field instructor, faculty, other teachers) you take a deep breath, and you pick your feet up off the ground. And it is so so so worth it because when you get out to the raft, there is a classroom of students. And it is exhilarating. It is HARD work, but you will never be sorry you picked up your feet. 

Learning to teach…

Learning to teach is hard.

It is complex and layered and about the teacher but also not about the teacher.

It is about being vulnerable in a world that discourages vulnerability.

It is about being vulnerable in a career where people who know nothing about your career are trying to quantify the unquantifiable.

Watching people learn to teach is incredible. Watching them choose to engage in the deepest part of themselves while engaging with everything that every student brings with them.

I have had some challenging moments this week. But I would not choose anything else.

Listening, not relating

In the children’s literature courses that I teach, I ask students to consider the concept of books as “mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors”. I did not invent this analogy, that must be attributed to Rudine Sims-Bishop. I choose to use this as one framework for reading because it provides language for the students (and me) to talk about our responses to books.

Every time that I teach about children’s literature and reading, someone brings up the notion of “relating to a book.” For example:

  • I really couldn’t relate to this book, so I read it but it wasn’t interesting.
  • Because I couldn’t relate to the book I just wasn’t engaged.
  • Students need to be able to relate to everything they read.

This phenomenon of relating has been evident to me across institutions, undergraduate students, graduate students, experienced teachers, novice teachers, librarians, parents, formalized education contexts and informal. And no matter how often I hear it, it bothers me. It bothers me deeply. Sometimes I have to take deep breaths and count to 10 before I can respond.

Because here is the thing. If you think that the only way for you to engage with a book as a reader is for you to ‘relate’ to it, that is a huge problem. It is a huge problem because as humans, the world is not always about relating. We are NOT all the same. And giving yourself or your students permission to disengage because you can’t relate is irresponsible. It is irresponsible pedagogy and irresponsible human-ing.

I spent a good portion of my life thinking that part of my responsibility was making people comfortable. Not upsetting anyone by talking about things that might make them uncomfortable. I realize now, that is hugely problematic. Because that mentality asks 1)for me to anticipate everyone else’s comfort & discomfort (an impossible task) and 2) for me to place EVERY ONE else’s comfort and needs ahead of my own. I’m not ok with that. It took becoming the parent of two daughters for me to realize this, that and some really amazing people in my life.

Two things happened in the past 24 hours to shake me from my comfort. The comfort of creating this blog and then “belly-button gazing”. The first thing is that I have been listening to the audio book of Ta’Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me. It is read by the author. I finished it today, and I will start it again tomorrow. I will write more posts about it but right now, I need to listen.  I need to listen closely. I will listen over and over again. I will especially listen to the parts that make me uncomfortable in my own white skin.

The 2nd thing that happened is not my story to tell, it is the story of two friends. Two friends parenting a young son in middle school. A young son who is thoughtful and kind and so so so aware of the injustices in his school that are being allowed. Injustices that are happening because administrators “don’t want to upset anyone”. Here is the problem, that isn’t possible. My two friends initiated a conversation with administrators. A conversation that is so so important for every single student in the school, not just their son. They are having a conversation, even though it is taking more energy than it should because they want to yell and have every right to yell. At one point in my life, I would have though, “they are so brave”. That is BS. They are not brave. They are human and kind and they are not willing to place the discomfort of some ahead of the expense of any one. And the discomfort – that comes from a place of privilege.

And so here I am on day 4 of my new blog, putting in print – words on a page – publicly sharing, saying to you that I have spent the first few days being a good middle-class, white woman. I was not saying anything that might upset anyone. I was sharing my inner thoughts and ponderings because others might be able to relate to them and find comfort. I will still do that I’m sure. Because I am, in fact, a middle-class white woman. Because connecting with other people is at the core of who I am as a teacher and person. But that cannot be all I am. That is not I all I want to do in the world.

I can also push myself to say what I am thinking and pondering as I listen to stories and experiences that are not my own. I can share how I have learned to listen, REALLY listen and engage with experiences that I don’t relate to, because that isn’t always important. What is important to me now, is listening to experiences and stories and ideas that are not the same as my own. With the goal of listening and learning, not just relating.

Staying in touch…

Most of my closest friends do not live in the same town as I do. In fact, they all live at least an hour drive away. Some live more than 10 hours away. Some live as far away as the west coast. Others are in another county. These are people that know me in depth. Some I’ve known for over 25 year, others for 7 or 8. These are people who have seen me at my best and as I have struggled. These know me as an individual, as a parent, as a basketball fan, as a phonathon novice, as a brand new Ph.D. Student, as a faculty wife, as a children’s literature scholar, as a novice writer, as a person living with an anxiety disorder (pre- and post-diagnosis), as a transplant from another state, as a high school friend, as a teacher, as a neighbor, and so so so many other ways. 

These people are more than important to me. They are part of my story. 

So why is it then, that I am so terrible about staying in touch with them across the miles. It doesn’t matter if it is 100 miles or 1000. I am not great at long distance friendships. I think it’s because it makes me miss them more. That’s pretty selfish me though – especially considering they remain friends with me in spite of my failures. 

Thank you friends. I am going to do better. 

Jumping in the Deep

When I was a kid, one of our favorite things to do in the summer was to jump off the raft. When we first got it, my sister and I paddled out on eager to plunge into the water. But then we got there. I remember looking down and thinking I wasn’t so sure I wanted to jump anymore. What had seemed like an exhilarating and excited idea suddenly seemed downright scary. It was difficult to see the bottom, I did not like that sensation at all. But it was hot (and we did not have air conditioning).

I know that eventually I jumped that day, and many more times over many summers. However I still do not like the feeling of not being able to see the bottom – either literally or figuratively. I get a similar sensation when I think about writing and even more so when I think about sharing my writing. I have blogged before, and will continue to over on my other blog Children’s Literature Crossroads. That blog is focused on my work as a children’s literature scholar and teacher educator. So why a new blog? Because over the past few months, I’ve been feeling the urge to write more broadly about life. I wear many “hats” as do many people. Mother, teacher, scholar, wife, friend, colleague, student, daughter. For much of my life, I tried to compartmentalize when I wore the different hats. The thing is, that doesn’t work. When I am teaching, I am still wearing the other hats. They may not be obvious to those around me, but I know they area there. Recently, I have been finding myself making those hats more explicit in interactions with other people and with myself. These interactions have resulted in lots of thinking.

Thinking in my head that I need to get out as words on a page. Thinking that I want to share with other people. I’ve been staring down and waiting to write, just like I stared over the edge of that raft. It’s time to jump.

 

image

Me, jumping into West Bay.