Lift Their Voices

I gave a LIFETalk at my school’s convocation about our responsibility to undo oppressive narratives about our kids. This is part 2 of 3 of the speech, edited and expanded to better fit a written format.LIFETalk

Last week I wrote about my love for movies and how reading reviews relates to the oppression of our students. Something I love less than movies but have nonetheless participated in is dating. I was wondering (I would say not recently, but…) what is the proportion you are supposed to achieve in terms of how much talking each person does on a date?

I assumed that I should be talking 10% and she should be talking 90%, so that I don’t end up saying anything that ruins my chances. The less you try, the less you fail, right? Don’t make that a classroom poster, by the way. Terrible advice—for dating and teaching.

What I actually found, after extensive Googling (again, I’d like to say I embellish details sometimes, but…) is that ideally you want to achieve the rule of 50-50, in which each person talks an equal amount of time. That makes perfect sense when you think about a healthy, equal relationship, but it is so hard to do, both on dates (if you’re me), and in schools.

In the classroom, we assume that we should talk more because we get paid to teach and hopefully know what we are talking about more than 50% of the time. However, when we create a teacher-centered classroom in which we are the authoritative holders of all knowledge, we create a system where we are the experts and no one else is allowed to be smart on the subject we are discussing. In the same way that we oppress our students by reading reviews about them, we oppress them through actual silencing of their voices.

I hear a lot of teachers make flimsy excuses like, “My students don’t want to talk. They sit silently when I ask questions.” What we often fail to consider is why our students are not talking. If we establish a 90-10 relationship from the start, we communicate a clear message to our kids: “I am the authority, and you are the subordinate. I hold the knowledge, and you absorb it. I know everything, and you know nothing. Soak up my wisdom.”

When we only trust students with 10% (or less) of the conversation, we excuse them from their responsibility to participate. When students learn that all of the knowledge is at the front of the room where you stand, they are content to sit back with the understanding that the knowledge is not with them.

Oppression lives in the subconscious signals we send our kids. The passive belief that we are the only experts in the room actively silences our children’s ability to take ownership of their learning.

Worse, we not only excuse them from taking ownership of their learning, we then blame them for it. We ignore the fact that we have effectively silenced them to wonder why we do so much of the talking. We start sentences with the finger-pointing phrase, “These kids never…” rather than starting sentences with the self-owning phrase, “I never let my kids…”

“These kids never answer my questions,” is often a stand-in for, “I never let my kids answer questions.”

“These kids never turn in their homework,” is code for, “I don’t maintain high expectations for homework to begin with.”

“These kids never do better than this,” is oppressive and lazy language for, “I don’t ask my students to do better than this because I assume they won’t.” Or, conversely but equally oppressive: “I set unreasonable standards and then don’t offer support when they flounder.”

If we ask our kids questions, and there is silence, we have to learn to be comfortable with it. If we ask a question, and let the silence simmer, eventually someone will talk. It cannot always be us. We must learn not to cave in uncomfortable, eerie silences. Silence in the room is not oppression; silence of our students while we keep talking might be.

We must also learn to maintain high expectations even when they aren’t met immediately. Often we assign homework Monday, make it due Tuesday, and then change the due date to Wednesday when no one turns it in. Or Friday. Or stop giving homework altogether. Lowering the bar does not help our students jump higher; it just makes it easier to step over a very low bar. Keep the due date on Tuesday. Maintain the bar. Offer support. Then wait. Consistently expect the best from your students, and eventually they will rise to the challenge.

I have a student who is in my first period, and then is my aide in second period. After hearing me teach the lesson, she asked if she could teach it the next period. Without hesitating, I gave her my place and sat in her seat. She rocked the lesson. She did not just read my PowerPoint: she explained the concepts and asked questions. The rest of the class took notes attentively and participated. As I tweeted about her teaching, a girl leaned over and said, “Excuse me, we don’t use phones in this class. Just trying to help you.”

Another student asked if, when I start grad school next week, they can create lessons to teach the class. I will be out of a job by December when they are running the class without me.

Our kids are a lot smarter than we give them credit for. Donald Miller writes that “the world would be fixed of its problems if every child understood the necessity of their existence.” Are we the reason they don’t already understand?

May we not stand in awe of the kids who succeed in spite of the obstacles, but move those obstacles—our perceptions, low expectations, oppressive power structures—out of their way. May we come to understand the necessity of every child’s existence, and may we lift their voices higher than ours.

Miller, D. (2011). Father FictionBrentwood, TN: Howard Books.

That’s Progress

Growing up, I remember when my friends would tell me that they got paid $10 per A on their report cards. Some of their parents paid them on a scale, and even doled out $5 per B. Some of my friends were stacking up $80 every grading cycle, and I envied them for it. They were getting rewarded for something my parents expected of me.

Granted, I got paid too. But I only got $10 for the whole report card, and all 8 grades had to be As. I recognize that many children are not paid for their grades, and I’m speaking from a place of privilege as well, but I never understood the difference in pay scale that existed between my peers and me.

Glass 8% Empty
Sometimes I am a glass 8% empty person.

My parents always expected me to do my best, and in their definition of ‘best’, my best had to be the best. If I came home with a 92, my parents would inquire about the missing 8 points. Glass 8% empty kind of thing.

I’m not saying any of this to dog on them (hi, Mom and Dad). My parents are the most supportive people in my life, and they tell me they are proud of me on a weekly basis. Sometimes I feel they tell me they are proud of me just for breathing (sometimes that is enough).

It is also because they pushed me so hard that I am the person I am. I am eternally grateful for their blend of immense love and high standards. Not every child gets that.

When it comes to my life and my work as an adult, I often remember to keep my parents’ high bar, but just as often I forget to hold their deep pride for me. No one is harder on me than me. I beat myself up far easier than I celebrate myself. If I succeed in something, I feel the briefest sense of pride before I ask, “What’s next?” If I fail, however, I welcome an extended sense of shame that I will hold until another one comes along. 

Next week my students are taking their state-mandated exam in English. As we prepare for the test, I relate to the anxiety they feel over these test scores that mean very little. I remember when I got my first B in college, and the resulting fear that I had lost some self-worth I would never get back.

I do my best to encourage them while giving them results on reviews and assessments and retests. If I give them a grade that is less than stellar, I try to remind them that this and any other number have no correlation to their value as humans. 

But it is hard for us humans to not overburden ourselves with the weight of numbers or labels that society has told us are important. We are categorized in innumerable ways that mean almost nothing but are treated as everything. Who has truly learned how to overcome these boxes we are told to shrink and squeeze into?

I can write and talk about how state tests are unfair and biased, but I would be lying if I said the scores don’t worry me. If my kids don’t pass, they have to take the test again. If they don’t pass the second time, they go to summer school and take it a third time. Those promises I make about the test score not defining their value start to fall on deaf ears as self-doubt mounts in their minds.

Where is the peace for our troubled minds?

One of the ways I am preparing my students for the test is by having them look at the score for each individual standard from their benchmark. They may have received a 40 on the test, but perhaps they scored an 80 on poetry. That is something to celebrate. Now they can focus on nonfiction, where maybe their score brought the overall average down. It is a great way to take the pressure away from one big number to focus on small, attainable goals.

Last week a student brought a reassessment to me so that I could grade it and give him feedback. He scored a 40 on the assignment. I handed it back to him, and his shoulders slumped as he started to walk away. That shoulder slump resonated deeply with me.

That's progress.But then, something else happened that caught me by surprise. Halfway through his first step back to his desk, he stopped, turned to me, and said, “Wait a minute. I got a 0 for this standard on the benchmark. This is a 40. That’s progress.” His shoulders were now straight, a smile coming across his face.

We high-fived, and he walked with pride back to his seat. It hit me hard. He hadn’t passed. He hadn’t reached his goal. But he got a little closer.

There are things I do as a teacher that will never show up on paper, and yet they are the greatest things I will ever do for my kids. I have mentored boys to speak with respect to girls and not make homophobic comments to one another. I have talked girls and boys through drama and breakups and all of the hard parts about being a middle schooler. I have spent time off taking my students to see movies and events that I knew would have a meaningful impact on them. I have loved them deeper than I thought possible.

Trust me when I say that I do not mention these moments as boasts. I forget that I do them all the time. I focus on the wrong parts of my day and remember my worst moments far more than my best. 

They are moments that do not return an immediate impact. Sometimes I feel like I have repeated the same sentence to the same student for two years now, with no visible effect. But every day, every time I do the real work of a teacher, I need to remember that I am getting a little closer. When a student acts just a little bit better than yesterday, I need to say, “That’s progress,” and hold my shoulders high. There are small moments of progress every day, if we would just choose to look for them instead of moments of failure.

You > Test Scores

This year I started a project to send my poetry and music to anyone who was interested in reading, listening, and being my pen pal. One of my dear friends purchased a set of my greeting cards for her students to give to them before their state test. Yesterday I received a package from her that included one of the greeting cards, returned to me. The card reads, “You > Test Scores.” She reminded me that I am more than test scores too. She knows my heart, even though she is miles away. I am grateful for her.

Perhaps I am not writing you a personal letter, but I want you to know that you are more than test scores, more than labels, more than anything anyone could ever put into words. You are valuable beyond measure, and someone is immensely proud of you. If you can’t think of someone who is, perhaps that person should be you. 

Your day should not be measured by the moments you failed; it should be measured by the times you picked yourself up and kept going. Your life should be measured by the immeasurable impact you have on others. It won’t come back as a number. It might not come back at all. The only indicator you will have is in the moments you remind yourself or someone else reminds you that you are worth so much more than what is expressible.

Earlier today, I texted my mom to tell her I will be performing my first hometown show in a few weeks. She texted back, “Proud of you!” with a lot of emojis. My first thought was, “Why?” I haven’t done anything yet. I might mess up. But then, I stopped myself mid-thought, turned around, and smiled. She was proud, and that was enough. I’m a little closer to something, and it feels like home.