A Letter to Middle School Lauren

Inspired by my eighth grade students and Cheryl Strayed’s letter to her twenty-something self.
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A Page From My Reader’s Notebook

Author’s Note: Identity is a central tenant in my classroom teaching.  This year, after introducing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s  identity intersectionality framework to my students, I could tell the class was intellectually interested, but the heart of the lesson seemed to be missing. In this piece, I reconnect with the topics and struggles that mattered most to me as a middle schooler. In doing so, I aim to bring a little bit of softness back into our identity analysis.  

P.S.  You can read more about how we approach identity here.


Dear Lauren,

Middle school is hard.  It will be one of the hardest, goofiest, and most interesting times of your life.  You will struggle with almost everything—friends, “dating,” school, figuring out the hobbies you like to do—figuring out who you are.

Know it gets better.  Being popular doesn’t matter; it isn’t what makes you happy.  Having good friends is. You have good friends. Treasure them.

At ski club, when your super-smart-friend-who-has-been-acting-kind-of-weird-lately asks you to ride the ski lift with her, say yes.  When your other friends ignore her and exclude her, ride with her again, and again, and again. You don’t know it yet, but her parents are going through a divorce, and next year, she will move to a different school. You won’t learn this until it’s too late, but you don’t need to know this in order to be a good friend.

Start a book club.  The school librarian will love you for this.  You’ll get the school to buy new books, and you’ll get to hang out with your friends in the library during lunch.

Play the flute, and enjoy every moment of it, especially when you play duets with your best friend and your mom.  There is a special type of bonding that happens with music, and when you quit playing later because you start doing other things, you will miss this.

Go to summer camp.  It’s worth going away for two-weeks or four-weeks at a time. Weeks hiking and canoeing in nature will mean more to you than soccer camp or band camp ever can.

When you make eye contact with that girl in your seventh grade math class and get butterflies in your stomach, honor the fact that those were real butterflies.  When you ask your mom later if you could be a lesbian and she says no, you can believe her—you have always liked boys—but also know she can’t determine your sexual orientation, only you can.  Know you can have crushes on boys and girls. There’s a name for that: you can call yourself “bi” if gender is important to you, or “pan” if it’s not.

That one time you try to sneak out of the lunchroom early, don’t look furtively around you like you’re guilty.  Walk upright with confidence and purpose, and I bet no one will even notice you are breaking the rules.

Know your true friends are the ones you don’t have try around.  When you are attempting to figure out which lunch table to sit at, sit at the lunch table where you feel like people see you.  Sit at the lunch table where you find the conversation interesting, and you laugh a lot at things that are genuinely funny and not mean.  Pay attention to this laughter. This, more than most things, is a sign of real friendship.

When you think you’re middle class, know, you’re not.  You may be in the middle of what people have at your school, but realize, what people have at your school is more than most.  Be thankful for what you have and question why life is unfair. Grow up, and work to change this.

Read. Read as many books as possible.  And when you finish the reading the last Harry Potter book, don’t spend years griping about how you can’t find anything else as good—pick up something different. Discover nonfiction.  Read the news. You’ve learned all about a magical world. Now, learn about the real one.

One afternoon, in the parking lot, there will be a time when your guy-friend from elementary school asks you out, in sign language, through a bus window.  You will think this is romantic, but, say no. Tell him you like him as a friend, and that’s all you want. It takes more courage to say this, than it does to say yes, avoid him at the school dance later that night, and then break up with him one week later.

Run for student council president.  However, come up with your own speech topic—don’t use the same topic as the girl who won student council last year.  Everyone will know you copied her, including her. When you lose the election (probably because you plagiarized your speech), and when your friend wins (because he is capable and confident and probably wrote his own speech), be happy for him.  Also, recognize that it is super awesome your class voted for a president who is in a wheelchair. How many presidents in wheelchairs do you know? When you are offered the consolation position of class secretary, take it, and work with him. You will learn a lot.

Finally, recognize the difference between good grades and true learning.  You can get good grades and learn almost nothing, and you can get bad grades, and learn more than you ever thought possible.  Focus on the learning—it is this, not the grade—that will stay with you far-past middle school.

Be kind, make mistakes, and pick yourself up when you fall.  Middle school is hard, but as you grow up, you’ll realize the rest of life is too.  For whatever difficult, challenging, dysfunctional thing you are going through, know there are people around you who are going through, or have gone through, the same or similar thing.  Lean on them. Trust them. Be there for them.

The reason things get better even though life stays hard is because middle school is a place where you will start building resiliency that will help you bounce back from challenges and difficulties for the rest of your life.  Take advantage of this time. As your mom says, learn to bounce.

Believe in yourself.  Listen to yourself. Trust yourself.  Stand up straight; open your heart, and know, you’ve got this.

You cannot fail at being yourself.

Yours,

Lauren


 

Follow-Up:  My passion project this year is having students create well-developed, intellectual, and reflective Reader’s and Writer’s Notebooks.  Today, I shared my letter as a sample a notebook entry with students, in a lesson on what it means to take risks as a writer and how to design your own journal prompts. 

Before I introduced the piece, we talked about what taking risks means—what it feels like in our bodies and our minds. Then, I set a purpose for reading by challenging students to look for the risks I took as a writer.  I read the piece aloud, and afterwards, we had a conversation.  Students first discussed their thoughts with a partner, and then we came together as a large group in which students shared their noticings, asked questions, and began a dialogue with each other. 

At the very end of the conversation, one student asked me if I had come out to my parents and if they were supportive. 

“Yes,” I replied. “It’s a journey, and we are in a good place.  I told them, because I think they deserve the opportunity to know me.  And I think you do too.”

The year is just beginning, but I can’t wait to see where our Notebook projects lead.  In our class, it’s through reading, writing, and reflection, that we aim to open our hearts and our minds.

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On the Power of Small Groups

For the last couple of years, I’ve been struggling with how to make small group lessons work in the middle school classroom.  Sure, I taught the occasional successful one here and there, but I never seemed to understand how to properly and systematically plan for and implement small groups.

Switching schools and grade-levels this year, I was intimidated by the thought of teaching small groups. The task of looking through student work each night and grouping students based on their previous day’s work seemed daunting.  The idea of pulling eighth graders away from their workspace to meet elsewhere in our teeny-tiny classroom seemed embarrassing. The idea of coming up with just the right teaching point for each small group seemed impossible.

Then I had a training with Dr. Mary Ehrehnworth from Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  Currently, I am part of a Secondary Learning cohort of teachers from the American Schools in Spain. We meet a several times a year to train and teach together.  In our most recent training, we met at the American School of Madrid (ASM) for labsite learning. Our focus for the two days we were together was to plan and implement small groups. 

This professional development was one of those magical combinations of theory and practice.  Each day, a typical training cycle went something like this:

  • First, Mary introduced a teaching strategy, based on the Unit of Study.  This teaching strategy was chosen for a specific classroom at ASM. Mary had coordinated with teachers ahead of time, to be sure her training would be useful for the day we were there.
  • Next, Mary explained to us the large-group mini-lesson she was going to model.  Then, she outlined potential small group teaching points that could accompany the lesson.
  • After hearing Mary’s ideas, we, as teachers, discussed, planned for, and created materials for a small group lessons we would teach.
  • Then, we headed out to the labsite classroom.  Once in the classroom, we would watch Mary teach the mini-lesson.  After students were released to workshop, we tried out our lessons teaching different small groups. 
  • Finally, we returned to our training space to debrief and reflect on the lessons.

Between the theory, discussion, planning, and teaching, I left the weekend not only armed with already-made materials for small groups, but also with a framework for moving forward.

Here are three strategies I learned from Mary that changed how I plan for and teach small groups:

  1. Make it about a mentor text.¹
  2. Manipulatives are not just for math.
  3. Get students started quickly and walk away.  Multiple small groups should be happening at once!

1. Make It About a Mentor Text:

For too long, I had been trying to sort through all of my students’ work to figure out exactly where they were, and then plan small groups based on a specific next step in their individual reading or writing piece.  While that sounds lovely in theory, in practice, that meant in order to plan small groups, I would have to be continually reading through student work every night.  Between planning, assessing, and being a human, this was impossible to sustain.

When we worked with Mary, we approached it differently:  We first talked through the whole-group lesson, and then discussed common problems we could anticipate the students would have.  Drawing on learning progressions and the teachers’ knowledge of the curriculum, we were able to identify skills and next steps that needed to be taught for students who were approaching benchmark, at benchmark, and above benchmark.  Then, we created materials based on a mentor text to address these skills.  Students used our materials and our mentor text to practice the skills, and then they would transfer their learning to their own work.

2. Manipulatives Are Not Just for Math:

In the past, gathering students around me in a small group to watch me try to teach them something had been like torture.  I would usually use one of the student’s pieces as a demonstration piece, which was awkward for the student and everyone else looking at it.  After the small group, one student would leave with their piece marginally revised and everyone else would leave confused.  This structure made small groups feel boring and remedial.

New possibilities opened up for me when when Mary introduced the power of sticky notes for small groups.  Mary recommended creating small group activities that are game-like, reminding us, “Manipulative are not just for math.”  She also encouraged us to prepare sorting and ranking activities for small groups, saying, “When you get kids sorting and ranking, they are automatically doing higher level thinking.” 

What this meant is we would use a mentor text to create materials the kids could manipulate and sort into categories in order to practice a skill (see the photos below for examples).

3. Get Students Started and Walk Away:

Previously, when I attempted to implement small groups, I would spend upwards of twenty minutes with one group of students.  I would give a compliment, introduce the teaching point, and then demonstrate a focus-skill with one of their pieces. After that, students would stay in the small group area and work on applying this skill to their own piece while I coached them and, all-too-frequently, helped them prevent mistakes. All the while, I would be scanning the classroom, making sure the other twenty students I wasn’t working with were on-task and doing what they needed to be doing.

Mary’s advice was that we should be teaching multiple groups at once, rather than focusing on one group at a time.  The idea is to get a group started by giving a quick compliment, setting-up a concrete task, and then informing you are going to walk away, but you’ll be back to see their thinking. This gives students time to work together and talk with one another, and it gives teachers time to  start another small group, conduct a one-on-one conference with a student, or give a couple students a quick tip.  Then, upon return to the original small group, teachers can check-in on student progress as students share their accomplishments and explain their thinking. Structuring small groups in this manner creates space for authentic student interaction, teamwork, and accountability.

Putting the Framework to Practice

This past week, my co-teacher, Lauren Freer, and I have been hard at work planning and implementing small groups.  For me, a typical 70-minute lesson looked something like this:

  • Read Aloud: 8 minutes
  • Mini-Lesson: 12 minutes
  • Workshop: 45 minutes
    • Small Group 1 & 2: 15 minutes
    • Small Group 3 & 4: 15 minutes
    • Small Group 5 & 6: 15 minutes
  • Share: 5 minutes

Each day, I planned three small groups:  One for students who needed a little more support on understanding the mini-lesson, one for students who could use a quick review of the mini-lesson and then were ready have their thinking pushed a little further, and one for students who were ready to think more deeply.²

You can check-out some of the lessons we’ve been working on below:

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Note: We are currently in a History Unit, in which students are studying the American Revolution and Revolutions around the world.  The final project is a TED Talk representing their findings.  

Moving forward, Mary’s wisdom stays with me.  She said, “You want students to want to be in your small group.  Small groups should be fun!”

Small groups should be fun.  Fun to plan, fun to teach, and fun to watch students transfer their skills to their own work.  What I’m realizing is planning small groups is a great way to open up a discussion with my team teacher around student learning, student needs, and the progression of our curriculum.  In all of this, collaboration is key.

I’m only at the beginning of my small group experiment, but I am excited for all of the learning in store–both for me and the kids!


  1. Shout out to our Literacy Coach, Jennifer Killlion for helping me solidify this one.
  2. I have a class of 23 students.  For each unit, students have a learning partner. For each small group, I pulled two learning partnerships (4 students).  As I ran six small groups in each class period, I got to work with every single one of my student  in a small-group setting in everyday. I can firmly say this something I had never accomplished (or even really thought possible) in my professional career before now.

How We Talk About It: Processing Parkland, FL

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It was first period. The agenda for the day was displayed neatly on the board, class planned out to the minute.  I had just finished reviewing it with everyone, when a student’s hand shot up in the air.

“Ms. Gould,” he said, “Are we going to talk about what happened in Florida?”

My mind flashed back to my reaction this morning, while listening to BBC, when I heard about the school shooting in Parkland Florida. My stomach sank; my knees went weak. My thoughts jumped back further to the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the last time we discussed gun violence as a class.  I remember that day, I cried in front of my students as we read about it.

I looked at my agenda on the board.  There was so much to get to today.

Then, I looked out at the class of eighth graders sitting in front of me.

“Do you want to talk about it?” I asked.

“Yes!” a body of voices answered.

“It’s one of the most pressing issues of our time,” added the initial student who raised the question.

The agenda would have to wait.


Providing a Pedagogical Framework

When discussing intense current event issues, a conversation with a parent from last year, when I was teaching in McFarland, WI, is always on my mind.  This very wise parent said to me, “My son really likes talking about current events in your class, but sometimes he gets so worried afterward.”

This conversation left me wondering:

How can we give students a sense of agency in situations that are far beyond their control?

How can we discuss tough, complex, and unresolved issues in a way that leaves them better off?

As I quickly pivoted my lesson to dealing with current events for the day, my mind also raced to learning standards:

How can we tie current events in with skills we’ve been working on this year?

Read Aloud

We started with read aloud.  I pulled up the article, “Florida Shooting: At Least 17 Dead in High School Attack” from BBC.  I projected the article, and read it aloud, modeling my thinking as I read.  After each section, students turned and talked, sharing what they noticed, and asking questions.

At the end of the article, I posed the question, “What questions do you have now?”

Students talked in table groups, and then shared their ideas with the class.

After a class discussion, we came to one central question: What problems contribute to gun violence?

Research

Then, we moved into workshop.  Students were informed their job would be to find an article related to gun violence, read it, and take notes on the problem.  We related this back to our earlier learning in the year by reviewing what makes a credible source, and briefly touching base on note-taking strategies.  We focused our attention on our purpose for reading (discovering problems contributing to gun violence), and then students were off.

Group Work

After reading and researching, students came together as a table group to share what they noticed.  As a group, they began to list factors they were noticing as problems.   Their responses included ideas such as school protocols, security, the availability of guns, and gun culture in the U.S.

Then, we moved into problem solving.  Building on the strategies we used to address the problems we were having independent reading, today, we approached the issue thinking about spheres of influence.  Students brainstormed potential solutions that could be implemented on a personal level, in our school, and by the government.

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After this, two table groups combined to make groups of eight.  In these groups, students shared their diagrams, which lead to rich discussions on their noticings, facts they read in their articles, and their thoughts.

Individual Reflection

Finally, students returned to their seat and completed a write-out.  They answered the following questions:

  1. After having this discussion, what is one thing on your mind?
  2. Moving forward, what is one thing you can do today to have a sense of agency in the situation?

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Overall, the lesson wasn’t perfect.  Our knowledge on this topic is only beginning to emerge.

But today, the kids had real conversations.  Today was a day where even the ones who struggle to engage were on task, reading, and contributing.  Today, students left the lesson with a specific action they could take to make our school a better place.

Moreover, the reason this experience happened is because one student braved to ask for what he needed.

Our thoughts are with the families of the victims, and all those in the school and community who are affected.  Our thoughts are with those in the U.S. who are intimately impacted by this.  And our thoughts are with the problem-solvers and policy-makers who we hope will help fix this.

However, in the midst of the devastation, I think it’s also important to check-in and acknowledge what we have:

We have a classroom where we can ask for what we need.  We have a community where we can discuss tough issues, try to make sense of the world, and problem-solve together.  We have each other.

And that, I think, is no small thing.

Catalonian Independence: Current Events in the Classroom

“I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”

– Eighth Grade Student, Humanities 8C

The last couple of weeks in Barcelona have been challenging.  We have seen the Catalonian people organize and hold a vote on independence. We witnessed the Spanish police react with violence to the very people it is charged to protect, and we experienced the people of Catalonia respond with a workers’ strike.  Now, we face the uncertainty of whether or not our region will declare independence from Spain.

As a foreign teacher at an American school, I have constantly been wondering:

What is my role in all of this? How do I teach about this?

Current events have always been a large part of my teaching, but in a new classroom, in a new country, most of my knowledge about history and social relations, which made me relevant and interesting in the U.S., has been thrown out the window.  Since I’ve been here, I’ve had a lot of catching up to do.

Following-up with my commitments to learn about and discuss current events, here’s how I am approaching teaching about the conflict:

  1. I am doing my homework:  As I wrote in “You’re doing it now” and “How do we move forward?,” since Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, I’ve been committed to reading the news, both about the U.S. and abroad.  Accessing U.S. news has been relatively easy.  Thanks to the Internet, I am able to use all my favorite news sources from before.  Accessing Spanish news has been more difficult, however, because I do not know Spanish well enough yet to read or listen to the local news. After scouring the web and asking friends for recommendations, I’ve settled on listening to BBC World Service radio every morning, regularly accessing BBC articles, and reading El Pais in English.  It’s frustrating to me to be getting news about the area I am living in from outside or translated sources, but it’s better than nothing.
  2. I checked-in with my students: As tensions rose about whether or not the vote would occur, I asked my students if they wanted to study and discuss current events relating to the Catalonian Independence movement in class.  Through a written vote, a large majority of students said yes. However, a sizable minority said no.  On their ballot, students were asked to provide an explanation for their opinion. Some students did not want to discuss the news because they felt it did not concern them (remember, about 35% of my students are Spanish, 20% are American, and 45% are International Students). Others were worried it would get too tense.  However, several of the no votes also expressed that although they would prefer not to discuss it, they would be okay with the decision to discuss events in class.
  3. I checked-in with my administration: Taking into account my students’ opinions, I decided to move ahead.  In planning discussions about current events, I always want to ensure I comply with school guidelines while teaching.  I’ve found policies for class discussions around controversial issues vary across schools and districts.  When I checked in, our school director, Mark Pingitore, provided guidance that staff are encouraged to discuss current events in age appropriate ways.  He offered that productive lessons may include teachers helping students learn the main facts of events and provide tools to understand multiple perspectives.  Additionally, Mark instructed that teachers are not to share or advocate for our personal position on issues.
  4. We set class guidelines.  Based on a Positive Discipline training I attended two weeks ago, I set aside time for our class to truly dig into expectations we wanted to hold for ourselves while discussing Catalonian Independence.  We first set a purpose for discussing current events in class.  Then, we brainstormed all the expectations we thought we should have.  I wrote down every student idea that was shared, exactly as they shared it, not editing their words for clarity or concision.  Next, after the brainstorm, we evaluated each of the expectations, comparing them with the purpose of our discussion.  You can see our process below:img_9905-2.jpg
  5. We used current event texts to learn specific, transferable reading, writing, and researching skills.
    Before the vote, we read news articles from multiple sources, using nonfiction reading strategies to gain information from headlines and preview texts before reading.  During reading, we made charts of facts we knew and questions we had.  We discussed the limitation of studying events occurring in Spain through news sources written in English.  We split up into research coalitions, with some students researching events through Spanish-language news sources, other through Catalan-language news sources, and yet others from English sources or sources from their native country.  We discussed source bias, and the importance of evaluating news sources to understand what we read.
    After the vote, we dug into the personal, writing narratives of how the events of the weekend impacted us personally.  We had an author’s chair, and students shared their experiences and opinions.  We studied the structure of police forces in Spain, learning about the different levels of the force (The Guardia Civil, Nacional de Policia, Policia Local), and we tried to make sense of what it means when the police attack the very people they are charged with protecting.  Then, we moved into a larger analysis, looking at global and local factors that affect and influence the Catalonian Independence Movement.
  6. We connected our learning to our current Humanities unit.  And through all of this, our current curriculum continues.  We are in the midst of an Immigration Book Group unit, another topic that is both relevant and timely.  To make all of this fit, we usually spend the first part of class studying current events and the second part of class studying immigration. Lately, a typical class will start with reading a mentor text. We spend about 10 minutes of class studying a news article, watching a video, or listening to a clip from news broadcasts or a podcasts about Catalonian Independence.  Then, I model a reading, writing, or researching skill to help us analyze and understand the content presented.  Next, students apply the skill I demonstrated to their research and reading on immigration, so they can more deeply understand their book book. Finally, students bring what they learn and are noticing both about Catalonian Independence and immigration to their book group discussions.

Yes, we are little behind in our curriculum, but it is so, so worth it. A conversation I had on Friday morning, solidified this for me:

We were on a middle school overnight trip in the Pyrenees.  On the final morning of the trip, I stayed back at the lodge with students who were not feeling well.  After resting, the students and I strolled the grounds.  We picnicked in the grass, and took in views of the mountains while discussing current events.

One of the students is in my Humanities class.  She told a story of WhatsApp group message that included many students from the eighth grade class, and discussed how people were sharing ideas and debating what they thought through messages.  She said she was thinking about the event from different sides, and realizing that she can have her own opinion on the issue.

At the end of this, she looked at me and said, “I don’t think I would even really understand what was going on if we weren’t talking about it in class.”

To watch this student strengthen her voice, realize she can think for herself and form an opinion that is both unique and informed, might be the coolest thing I’ve seen in Barcelona yet.

So, while uncertainty looms ahead, and we’re not sure what country we’ll be living in next week, for now, our classroom is a solace.  It’s a place for us to explore, to process, and to study events as they unfold.   Come what may this week, we’ll have each other to help one another figure it out.

 

Social Justice is in the Small Things

“Social justice is not just joining marches and protesting. It’s all the small ways we treat each other.”

-Mary Ehrenworth

We’re mid-session the first day of the Teacher’s College Institute.  Teachers are crowded around tables in the library of the American School of Barcelona, simultaneously nervous, excited, captivated and jet-lagged.  Mary Ehrenworth, the instructor, has drawn us in with her stories, modeled specific areas of the workshop, and now, she tells us to get into writing partners.

There is a flurry of commotion as teachers look across their tables to pair up.  Before Mary even finishes uttering the words, my table mates and I have done the math.  There are six of us.  Three pairs of two.  We make look at each other, making a visual contract: a pair on either end and a pair in the middle.  I’m in the pair in the middle.

We finish, looking up at Mary.  We are pleased with ourselves for having made our pairs so quickly.  However, Mary quickly shatters our feeling of self-importance.

“Whenever you give students talk time, it is important to give them feedback on their work,¨Mary says. ¨So here’s feedback on yours: Social justice is not just joining marches and protesting. It’s all the small ways we treat each other.  How many of you looked beyond you and your partner to help others at your table?  How many of you looked beyond your table to see if other people needed partners?  This is where we have room to grow.”

That’s when it hit me.  In my reflections from this past year, I felt that I developed a strong relationship with most of my students.  However, in the last few weeks of school, I realized that they had not developed strong relationships with each other.

A collaborative mindset, is what Mary called it.  ¨Sink or swim together¨ are the words Prof. Gloria Ladson-Billings writes in Dream Keepers.  Building trust between students and developing a sense-of-self as a classroom is how I’m thinking about it as I am reflecting and planning for this upcoming year.

I moved to Barcelona two days ago. I will be starting at the American School of Barcelona in fall, as an eighth grade Humanities and English Language Learner (ELL) teacher.  For now, I moved here early to attend the first International Teacher’s College Writing Institute.

I showed up on Saturday full of hopes and fears and dreams, and a keen awareness that I currently do not speak Spanish. Upon my arrival, my soon-to-be roommate,  who I did not know before moving here, cleared her schedule to welcome me.   She is from Tunsia, and has been studying here in Barcelona since April.  While she is new to the city herself, she took time to show me the neighborhood, taught me how to rent locks and carts at the grocery store, and helped me navigate the tram.  She ate with me, laughed with me, and shared her story with me.

Social justice is in the small things.

How will I foster a sense of social justice in my classroom this year?  How will we include the student who is ostracized, the one everyone prefers not to work with?  How will we push each other to grow?  How can we realized that the greatest form of respect in school is building up each other’s learning?

I’ll start with Mary’s words: “We don’t leave anybody behind.¨

Every students deserves to be here.  They deserve to belong, and they deserve to fit in.

How Do We Move Forward? A Classroom Teacher’s Response to Current Events

In the aftermath of the white nationalist rallies in Charlottesville and the terrorist attacks in Barcelona, one thought lays heavily on my mind as I prepare for the school year:

How do we move forward?

After reading countless news articles, listening to podcasts, and having multiple discussions about the events, I’ve decided I’m going to renew my focus on helping students develop a framework for understanding identity.

I’m starting here because I think once we have a deep understanding of ourselves, we can begin to understand the complexity of our communities and make choices that are inclusive and justice-oriented.

For the last several years, a large piece of my teaching with middle schoolers has focused on identity development and specifically, the intersection of identities within an individual.  This concept comes from Kimberlé Crenshaw, a civil rights advocate, professor, and founder of Critical Race Theory, who coined the term “intersectionality.”  In Crenshaw’s work, intersectionality explores how different aspects of identities- such as race, gender, and class- impact and affect individuals’ experiences in the world.

To be clear, Crenshaws work on intersectionality specifically studies black women’s experiences.  Her work critiques the frequent lack of acknowledgment of black women’s experiences as both black and female. As Crenshaw writes in “Mapping the Margins,” “Although racism and sexism readily intersect in the lives of real people, they seldom do in feminist and antiracist practices.”1 Crenshaw argues that black women, who have unique experiences because of both of their blackness and femaleness, are often disregarded or forgotten in decisions and movements that are meant to be antiracist or anti-sexist.

While this unique experience of the intersection of race and gender belongs to women of color,2 the analogous experience of being forgotten or disregarded due to the complexity of one’s identity is something many people who hold oppressed identities experience.  Furthermore, for those of us with privilege, it is important to be aware of the multiple areas in which we hold privilege, so that as we move forward, we can do so in a way that benefits our community, rather than solely ourselves.

Translating this to middle school, what this looks like for me and my students is building an understanding of the multiple dimensions of our individual identities, and exploring how these identities relate, intersect, and impact our experience in the world.

Before I get ahead of myself, let me explain a little about what this looked like in my classroom last year.

Near the beginning of the school year, we started with an identity sort, an idea I adapted from Beth Leah Sondel.3 First, drawing from Crenshaw’s work, I introduced the idea of identity as being composed of multiple facets.  We focused on nine areas: race, gender, sexual orientation, class/SES, religion, nationality, generation, ability level, and a hobby/interest.

From here, students spent time analyzing their own identity in each category.  After creating a list for themselves, students were asked to rank their identities in the order that they were most important to them.  Then, students were asked rank them in the order they felt others perceived them.  Afterward, students compared the two lists and wrote a reflection on their experiences.

While the writing produced in this activity was solely for the students (due to the personal nature of responses, I did not ask students to turn it in), this exploration of identity provided a foundation for the understanding of literature and world events in the year to come.

We transitioned this idea of identity intersectionality to analyzing the identities of characters in books.4  We created identity molecules, in which we placed a character’s name in the center of the paper, and then wrote aspects of their identity (which we learned or inferred from text evidence), around their name.5  We studied how characters’ identities impacted their experiences, looking at the areas in which characters held privilege and areas in which characters experienced oppression.

Soon, students were transferring this understanding of identity and perspective to the world around them.  Our class was asking questions like, “Why would people vote for the candidate they did?” “Whose voice is heard in this news story?” and “Whose story are we missing when we learn history?”

Our understanding of identity helped us analyze current events, make sense of choices, and figure out stories we needed to seek out and pay closer attention to.

Additionally, our understanding of identity helped my students understand themselves. We know that in middle school, students are constantly questioning, exploring and figuring out who they are.  Students are grappling with issues of identity everyday, in the small daily choices, like figuring out what to wear, to big choices, like choosing friends and taking stances and sharing ideas in class discussions and debates.

The importance of developing an understanding of  identity is evident in the reflections of my students.  During a write-out last year responding to our conversations around identity, a student wrote, “I came into class feeling confused about a lot of this stuff.  Writing about it helped.”

I’m with my student on this one: I think writing about it helps too.  And foundational for writing about it is building vocabulary, knowledge, and a framework to help us understand and analyze human experiences in the world.  By starting with identity, my students work on developing a sense of who they are, how they move throughout the world, and where they need to grow.

This won’t solve terrorism. It won’t solve racism.  But it’s a place to start.

For once we know who we are, once we know where we stand- the areas in which we hold privilege, and the areas in which we may face oppression- we can move forward with nuance.  We can listen, we can begin to understand, and we can recognize areas in which we should take up more or less space.  With this knowledge, we can build an authentic community that struggles together, succeeds together, and is a place where each of us, in all of our differences, belongs.


Footnotes:

  1. Crenshaw, Kimberlé. “Mapping the Margins: Intersectionality, Identity Politics, and Violence Against Women of Color.” Stanford Law Review, vol. 43, no. 1241, July 1991, p. 1242.
  2. For more on this, read Cameron Glover’s “Intersectionality Ain’t for White Women,” in which she argues the word “intersectionality” and the specific experience of it belongs to black women. If you’re doing identity work, and especially if you’ve been doing this work for awhile, I recommend checking this article out.
  3. Beth Leah Sondel is an Assistant Professor at NC State University.  Previously, she earned her PhD in Curriculum and Instruction at UW-Madison, where I had the pleasure of taking a social studies methods course from her.
  4. Jen Breeze, my previous district literacy coordinator, was instrumental in helping me plan how to transfer this learning to age appropriate text for middle schoolers.  Thank you, Jen!
  5. I adapted this idea from the “Identity Molecule” resource published by Keshet, an organization dedicated to creating LGBTQ inclusion in Jewish Life.

To learn more about Kimberlé Crenshaw, check out her bio page on UCLA Law, her work through the African American Policy Forum, or follow her on Twitter.

To learn more about Cameron Glover, check out her website or follow her on Twitter.

To learn more about Beth Leah Sondel, check out her bio page at NC State or follow her on Twitter.

To learn more about Keshet.org, check out their website.

 

“You’re doing it now”

It was Sunday afternoon, and I sat in a café scrolling through Twitter.  My heart broke and stomach churned as I read story after story about the violence in Charlottesville, Virgina.

Finally, I read this tweet by Aditi Juneja, a lawyer, activist, and writer:

Screen Shot 2017-08-14 at 2.53.10 PM

Answer:  I would have been….. sitting in a café in Spain, sipping a late?!

Not the scenario I was anticipating for myself.

The question of “What does it mean to be an American living abroad?” has been on my mind since I moved here.  Today, at a time when I am simultaneously grateful to be away from the country and aching to be with my students at home, the question sits differently with me.

Today, the question is not just about navigating my privilege or claiming my culture, it’s about figuring out how to exist, teach, and live abroad as a critically conscious citizen. How can I be committed to racial justice from the other side of the ocean?

In thinking about what I can do moving forward, the answer for me, is the same as it was when I lived in the states:  My job is to make a difference in the community in which I live.  Right now, that community is my neighborhood and my school in Barcelona.

So, in these communities, here are some of the things I am doing and can do to make a difference:

  1. Commit to Discussing the US with Nuance:  As an expat, I am often asked questions about the U.S.  Some are thoughtful, others blunt, and others still shed insight on the ways in which people around the world think about us.  A small sampling of the questions I’ve been asked by folks from all over the world include: ¨What is traditional American food, anyway?¨ or ¨Do you like your President?  How did he get elected?¨and ¨What is the difference between free speech and hate speech in your country?¨or ¨What’s the deal with Walmart? ‘Fo Real.¨ While it’s easy to brush these questions off with a joke or sarcastic remark, I want to commit to truly discussing and exploring them with the people that ask.  The truth is, the American experience is complex.  It’s intensely personal. The intersection of our individual identities, our family histories, and our location causes us to have a million different experiences all while living in one place.  And while I understand folks who ask these questions aren’t looking for a lecture on the past 400 years of race and class in America, I am committed to explaining my point of view with a critical and compassionate lens.
  2. Take Stock of My Classroom Library:  Moving to a new school, I am not entirely sure what my new library will hold.  Whose stories will be represented?  Whose voices will be missing?  Can my students see themselves reflected in the material? Or, for the students who always see themselves, can they find books that are windows and doors, rather than solely mirrors? (Thank you Rudine Simms Bishop for that framework.) My task is to figure out the books I have and the books I need to get.
  3. Take Stock of My History Curriculum:  Again, starting a new curriculum, I am not entirely sure what the year holds.  As I gear up to teach eighth grade American History at an American School of Barcelona the questions on my mind are: Whose stories are we telling?  Whose stories are left out?  How can we represent history through multiple timelines? And, as I teach in a school that is comprised of a myriad of nationalities (the student population is about 20% American, 35% Spanish, and 45% International Students), the largest question on my mind is: How is American history relevant in Spain?
  4. Commit to Reading the News…. Now, more than ever before, it is important for me to know the news in order to be able to teach it.  For me, that means reading my traditional American news sources, seeking out world news outlets, like BBC, and also, finding local news sources in Spain and the community of Catalonia.
  5. …And Incorporating Current Events in the Classroom: In addition to reading about the news, incorporating current events into the classroom is paramount.  With student news sources, like Newsela, I am able to teach about world events through developmentally appropriate texts.  My thoughts this year lie with how to layer historical knowledge with current events so students can see build a narrative of past events that impact and affect the present.
  6. Get to Know My Students:  Of course, most importantly, I need to get to know my students.  Their likes and dislikes, their preferences, what makes them tick. I can’t wait to begin to learn the knowledge they come into the classroom with, the values and beliefs they hold, and their understanding of right and wrong and justice. I can’t wait to read with them.  To write with them.  And to grow and explore with them.  For after all, we are all in this crazy mess together, trying to make sense of the world, one day at a time.

What are you communities?  Remembering Mary Ehrenworth’s words, “Social justice is in the small things,” what can you do to make a difference?


Shout out to Aditi Juneja and Rudine Simms Bishop, who inspired much of my thinking in this post. 

If you want to read more from Aditi Juneja, check out her website or twitter handle.

If you want to learn more about Rudine Simms Bishop, you can check out this short biography or read her books,