The Frontier of Education

“The idea of progress persists only because we have forgotten more than we have remembered.” – William J. Lines, Australian writer

One month ago, I read this quote in Terry Tempest Williams’ book, Red, while overlooking a Days Inn parking lot in Provo, Utah.  It was a sunny Sunday morning and I had a few hours to kill before boarding my flight back to Vermont.  I sat on a second floor balcony, watching the world awaken while enjoying my coffee with the inspiration of one of my favorite authors.  Most of the world was still quiet, and the sun peeked over the Wasatch front, bringing a gleam to the frost lying heavy on patches of grass and parking lot windshields.  My heart and mind were full with myriad emotions that I was, and, honestly, still am, trying to fully understand. In one line, this author, unknown to me, was able to put into words this feeling that had been circulating in my mind and pulsing through my veins with each beat of my heart. 

I had just emerged from a two-week wilderness expedition with BOSS, the Boulder Outdoor Survival School.  For over 50 years, this organization has been taking people into the deserts of southern Utah to learn primitive skills, wilderness travel, a conservation ethic, and something else… something more.  

And while the name might suggest that you would find a group of people living on the fringe of society – backwoods hermits lacking social skills or doomsday preppers readying for the zombie apocalypse – this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Well, the fringe part is true.  

What I found, instead,  was a community of people engaged in the act of remembering.

Simply put, they were remembering what it means to be human.  

You see, we live in a world in which we are becoming increasingly disconnected – from ourselves, from one another, from our communities, and from the natural world.  There are many reasons for this disconnection, some of which are in our control, and many more of which we aren’t even aware. We are influenced in ways, and by powers, that we can’t begin to imagine.  We are changed by all of this, and we call this change progress.  It seems inevitable, as we march towards a better future, as if we can do nothing to resist it.

At some level, I think most of us recognize this disconnection in our own lives.  We wish we were closer to our family and friends, more engaged in our communities, or that we were more intentional with our time.  And yet, it’s so easy to throw on Netflix or scroll through an Instagram feed, all the while feeling like something is missing in our lives.  We live in a world of constant connectivity, yet most of us, in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “lead lives of quiet desperation.” What is it we lack, with so many luxuries in this modern age?  Connection, I think.

So, the act of taking people into a vast wilderness with extremely limited gear and resources (and no technology), in order to learn “survival” skills, becomes a fringe, even revolutionary act.  When we make fire with our own hands, procure our food for the evening from the surrounding landscape, and sit around that fire together until stars fill the night sky, we remember. This is what it means to be a member of a community.  This is what it means to contribute. This is what it means to really be human.

And this level of connection – to ourselves, to others, and to the natural world – is what so many of us are missing.

I am convinced that the future of education lies not in technological gadgetry, bigger and better assessments, or finding countless new ways to put lipstick on the proverbial pig.  The frontier of education will be in “remembering” all that we have forgotten about how we can best prepare our children to be the humans that this world needs in the future. We will gain insight by looking back, not mindlessly marching onward with the blind assumption that the future must be better than the present, let alone the past.  Like any “frontier”, we will need to strike a balance between the knowledge and insight that we bring with us, and the energy and promise of the unexplored. We must adapt and be open, but we also cannot forget.  

Let’s face it, Homo sapiens, as a species, has been around for over 200,000 years; our hominid ancestors, millions of years more.  In all that time, we somehow managed to rear and raise offspring whom became the community members that were necessary for the survival of our kind.  In many cases, based upon historical records and studies of indigenous cultures throughout the world, children transitioned into adulthood, with all of its responsibilities and privileges, between the ages of 12 and 16.  This is nearly a decade earlier than it was for me and many of my friends, and even more than that 30 year old you know who still lives in their parents’ basement, playing video games and eating Doritos. 

On top of all of this, it can also be argued that our ancestors did so sustainably, that is to say, none of those previous generations of humans brought our planet to the brink of disaster quite like we moderns.  And this isn’t the fault of our youngest generations. It can be attributed to a social programming and cultural apparatus that has us believing that the mindless march forward must be progress.

So what is progress?  

I like to turn to Doug Tompkins- adventurer, former CEO of The North Face, and philanthropist- who, along with his wife, Kristine, purchased, and then gifted, millions of acres of South American wilderness to establish the first national parks in Chile.  Tompkins is quoted as saying, “What happens if you get to the cliff, and you take one step forward? Or you make a 180 degree turn and then take one step forward? Which way are you going? Which way is progress? The solution to many of the world’s problems is to turn around and take a step forward.”

Are we on the edge of a cliff?  Yes, unfortunately, I think we are.  Our cliff is social, political, economic, cultural, climactic… you name it.  And it’s clear to me that we aren’t going to find our way out of this predicament by being bull-headed and trudging onward.  Progress, in this case, means having the sense to turn around and look backward.

Progress means remembering.

Our children, our students, need not only know how to operate the latest iPhone, but how to really connect with others, in person, and especially those that are different than themselves. They can’t exist only in virtual or augmented realities, but must be grateful for the lives they lead, not envious of the ones that they don’t.  They can’t be so hypnotized by screens that they fail to notice the brilliance of nature unfolding around them, and the reality of the destruction that our lifestyles create. They can’t be so focused on their “followers” that they fail to recognize their power to become a person worth following.

There are powerful forces that aim to shape the minds and souls of our children.  To these forces, our students are consumers meant to be influenced and political pawns meant to be polarized.  They are not the independent, autonomous, thoughtful, caring human beings we aim to create… that our communities so desperately need.  We must endeavor to push back against these systems and to question what is meant by the relentless pursuit of progress.   We need to engage in the fringe and revolutionary act of “remembering.”

Luke Foley, a 2019 Rowland Fellow and the 2014 Vermont State Teacher of the Year, teaches at the STAR Program at Northfield High School.  Foley has a unique educational background, having worked as a wilderness guide, field instructor, and program director for several schools and programs in Vermont, the western United States, and around the world. Foley received his Masters in the Arts of Teaching from the University of Vermont and has a B.A. in International Political Economy from Colorado College in 2004.  He is a 2015 fellow for the Lloyd Milken Center for Unsung Heroes and a 2017 National Park Service Climate Resiliency Fellow. 

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Vermonters Who Dare to Lead

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles… The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming… who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” 

– Theodore Roosevelt, April 23, 1910

Brené Brown included this quotation early on in her book Dare to Lead. Since reading the book earlier this fall, the quotation has stuck with me.  I read the book for two reasons – it is a book we are reading as an administrative team and the book was the backbone of a weekend retreat of female Rowland fellows.  Reading the book with two different purposes and groups of people allowed me to melt into the ideas and apply them, reflect, re-read, and try them again. 

I find something magical in reading a book with complex ideas with colleagues. It is something that I do not do enough of. Reading and discussing a book with purpose with colleagues – in your school/district or with peers in the same field – brings with it a depth that I find hard to achieve on my own. I also find it a nourishing experience to read a book and talk about things that have happened and how the ideas are now shaping my thinking in a different way. 

Two years ago, I was fortunate to be at a school where the staff wanted to read The Body Keeps the Score together.  Not everyone read the book, but enough people did read it and voluntarily come to discussions that the ideas about trauma influenced the learning we continued to do as a school, the systems we built to support students, and the culture we built together the following years.  

My reading of Dare to Lead with two groups has been equally formative on my practice as a leader.  I have read each section of the book at least two times but between the first read and the second, I had a chance to consider how I was practicing the idea that “clear is kind” in my work and how I did – or didn’t – rumble with vulnerability.  Then, I was going back to the text and reading it again in the context of my new thinking and learning. It is pretty interesting to me that going back a second time I often focused on new parts of the book. The ideas that most speak to me depend on what I have experienced and the shared learning conversations with colleagues. 

The part of the book that has most influenced the way I am thinking about leadership now is around core values.  While I read the chapter on core values by myself, it was only through conversation and learning with other Rowland women that I understood how my core value of love exists in my daily practice.  After doing this learning with other women, I find myself checking my leadership moves and conversations and choices based on my core values. This conscious leading through love allows me to get out of my inbox and calendar and be much more present with students, colleagues, families – and just as importantly with my own family.   

I am grateful for being part of two groups that both chose the same book to read together. To have the chance to consider the idea of leadership as conceived and shaped by a female leaders’ work has been tremendous. To have this opportunity as part of my job and professional network has allowed me to grow in ways I could not have without out focused and purposeful conversations.  I wonder how we might create these common reads for more staff and families in our schools. If we had these opportunities, we would build more common understanding, civility, and reflective practices in our whole school community. I suspect they would foster a strong school culture, one of continued learning.

Vermont Many thanks to the Rowland Foundation for supporting the Rowland Women’s Retreat this year as a way to pull together fellows around a common text and experience. 

Jen Kravitz 2012 Rowland Fellow. Principal Mary Hogan Elementary School

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Life – Work balance

We took our daughter, Louisa, to her first day of kindergarten this morning. We took pictures as the morning sun lit up her blond hair and reflected off the damp grass. We followed the bus to school in our car. We stood in the back of the classroom with other nervous parents we didn’t know and watched her settle in. 


We watched Louisa play her first soccer game as a seventh grader this afternoon. We cheered with the other parents we now call friends. We stopped for pizza on the way home. We talked with the Louisa about her new responsibilities and independence.


We will say “goodnight” to Louisa with nervous anticipation some evening soon.  We will think about how it will be to have her spend the last night sleeping in her own bed before we take her to college in the morning. I hope we will feel like we took advantage of every opportunity to be with her – to truly be present with our daughter. I hope she will feel the same way.

I expect I’m not the only one who sometimes feels like life’s moments are slipping away while I’m working a job that is hard to contain in a regular schedule. Don’t get me wrong – I thoroughly enjoy my job. I feel like I’m good at it. I feel like I make a difference. I want to do everything I can to help my students – but sometimes that comes at a price. So the question is…how much am I willing to pay? Perhaps a harder question is “How much should I be willing to pay?” And how do I know when to say “no”?

There are plenty of reasons why maintaining appropriate boundaries with work is so challenging. Teaching is personal; teaching is a passion. Students seem to have higher needs every year. Saying “no” or doing something for ourselves can produce feelings of guilt. Our culture has an obsession with busyness – sometimes it can feel like I must not be working hard enough if I’m not working all the time. And then…aren’t teachers supposed to spend evenings and weekends planning and grading? Shouldn’t our vacations be spent working through the projects we assigned? Shouldn’t our summers be filled with classes, workshops, and professional readings? 

Just in case you’re wondering, I haven’t figured out how to contain my professional responsibilities within a clearly defined workday. It’s not possible. There are late nights and early mornings of grading and planning. There are weekends and vacation days spent reviewing student work and reading books about grading practices and implicit bias. There are summer days spent taking classes and reviewing and designing curriculum. And by the way – I don’t have any complaints about this (mostly). I find meaning in my work. I enjoy learning and growing as a professional. If I ever reach the point that I don’t enjoy it anymore, then it’s time to move on to something else. Hopefully I win the Lottery before then, but I guess I have to buy a ticket in order to have any chance at winning.

I sit writing this up against the deadline because my workday has been so full I couldn’t even find time during my lunch to write over the past two weeks. My afternoons and evenings have been filled with coaching my son Lincoln’s soccer team and cheering on Louisa from the sidelines. It’s now early in the evening and I have found a (mostly) quiet space in Louisa’s school to write as I wait for her to complete her basketball tryouts. Despite this impending deadline (and several others breathing down my neck) I didn’t stay late at work to write. I could have stayed late to work – there is plenty of it. But I didn’t. I didn’t because today was the only afternoon this week that I will have the chance to ride my mountain bike. So I rode. I did it for me. I didn’t stay late at work today because I am trying to follow the advice I wrote for Louisa upon entering middle school this year – “make yourself a priority”. 

It is essential that we take the time to take care of ourselves. So how do we do that on a regular basis? How do I do it? 

Not well, but I have a growth mindset about my life-work balance. I’m getting better, and living a life that aligns with my core values has been a boon for my wellness.

My core values drive my decisions and actions every day. When something doesn’t feel right, it is usually because I’m living a life that is incongruous with those values, some of which include “Family first” and “Work hard, play harder, play often.” Perhaps I should add a core value – “Make myself a priority”. Here is how I explained this to Louisa: 

This is a big one. We spend so much time talking about not being selfish, that sometimes we lose sight of [taking care of ourselves]. You are important. What you want is important. What you need is important. Advocate for yourself with your teachers. Don’t let others be mean to you or walk all over you. Make sure your relationships (yes, even any romantic relationships) are built on trust and respect. Don’t let anyone pressure you to do something you don’t want to do.

I’d like to leave you with the advice my department chair, Carl, offered me on my first day as a new teacher. Carl was the consummate professional. He worked hard for his students. The quality of his work was always top notch. He had high expectations for himself and the members of his department. He struggled with his life-work balance. The advice he offered was to “Take care of yourself first so you can take care of your family. Your distant third priority is this job.” 

I encourage you to find ways to take care of yourself. Take that mountain bike ride right after work every now and then. Feel the sun on your shoulders and the wind in your face. You’ll breathe deeper at work the next day. Find ways to feed the fun in your life – you’ll be glad you did.

John Painter (@802Painter) is a 2014 Rowland Fellow whose work has focused on advisory. John has partnered with the Flyin Ryan Foundation to bring the writing and sharing of core values into Vermont schools. He is currently the Curriculum Area Supervisor for the Mathematics Department at South Burlington High School.

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Improving Equity and Empathy at School

Last spring a group of students representing our Gender Sexuality Alliance asked to have a meeting with our district’s curriculum director and myself. We sat down in my office and the students began to make a calm, thoughtful, and well reasoned case for more LGBTQ+ representation in our curriculum. The students made a persuasive case that essentially asked the question, “Why not?” 

Giving students meaningful voice in our learning community has made our school more equitable and created a more empathetic place to learn and grow for all of our students. The recent case made by the students for more LGBTQ+ representation in our school ran parallel to a similar conversation that I had two years ago with a few of our students of color. They had helped us understand just how complacent we were in the dominant narrative’s deeply embedded systemic implicit biases, prejudices, and perpetuation of marginalization for those historically marginalized. On February 1st, 2018, their advocacy led to our high school being the first known public school in America to raise a Black Lives Matter flag. The flag raising sparked national and international attention, and more importantly has been a visible symbol of our local school community’s commitment to making our learning environment more equitable and empathetic. 

So how exactly does a predominantly white, middle class, rural high school like ours go about being more inclusive and equitable? Here are five strategies that we are using to improve. 

  1. Know thyself. As administrators and teachers we owe it to all of our students to examine our own biases, privilege, reflect on our practices, and pursue professional learning opportunities to deepen our knowledge and commitment to equity. Helping students understand their place in time and history means we as educators need to have a stronger understanding of our own. 
  2. Do the homework. The students from our Gender Sexuality Alliance raised such a simple and poignet question, “Why not review existing units and look for ways to be more inclusive?” As we improve our school’s clarity around targeted skill-based competencies, it ought to render more unit content choices more neutral. In other words, if reading comprehension is the goal, the selection of which materials and authors to read should be flexible to include more diverse authors, themes, and topics. One of our science teachers recently uncovered that a longstanding biology unit about DNA had vast and meaningful implications to inequitable incarceration rates, systemic judicial bias, and the use of cutting edge science to improve those problems. Holding up an equity lens to almost any of our units can yield similar connections and opportunities for inclusivity.
  3. Use data. The achievement gap is as troubling in our school as it is anywhere in the country. We have consistently lagged in literacy and math skills among students from low socioeconomic status. Use of data through an equity lens pushes us to ask who(?) more often. Who is accessing our afterschool program? Who is utilizing our social worker? Who is being referred for special education? Who can regularly access technology? Who is accessing our flexible pathways? Who is represented in faculty and leadership? Some of the answers to these questions illustrate the stark disparity in our system for the historically marginalized and those numbers can spark more targeted intervention and proactive problem solving. Recently adopted local school policy will also provide more strength and urgency to answering these questions with equity at the forefront of our work.   
  4. Interrupt microaggressions. Our students have reported hearing microaggressions, usually masked as jokes, on a regular basis. There are two ways that we have worked to improve this issue. One is to improve knowledge of history, context, and status of historically marginalized members of our society–in an effort to help raise awareness of the pain and implications “jokes” can have. The second is to simply improve our ability to interrupt. Relying on resources from Teaching Tolerance, our faculty actually practiced interrupting microaggressions and biased comments. It proved challenging, and having more practice and chances to collaborate on strategies has been useful faculty time together. 
  5. Look around. We have simply been looking around to reveal what implicit messages are in our system. What and who are on the walls? What gender normative language can we remove from our forms, class groupings, bathrooms, student management system, graduation, etc. Is special education a place in our school? Who is in leadership positions? How can our posters, art, book displays, school motto and hiring communicate inclusivity and celebration of all? When we examine our environment closely through the lens of equity for our historically marginalized it is incredible just how strongly and frequently the implicit biases reveal themselves.  

We have been fortunate to have students with voice helping to lead the way in our school. Our job is to hold up our end of the work too. That means not only listening to their voices, but also raising the expectations for ourselves. Waking up to the systemic biases in our school is difficult–even painful work at times. And recognizing our own privilege–no matter our life circumstances, is internal work not everyone is eager to do. Despite the challenges, making strides to create a more equitable learning environment is not only the right thing to do for our historically marginalized students, it is crucial for our advantaged students and all members of our community to lead deeper, more just, and more empathetic lives as well. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow. 

Written by Mike McRaith in June of 2019. Mike is the recent Montpelier High School Principal and now serves as the Assistant Executive Director for Vermont Principals’ Association. Mike is a 2013 Rowland Fellow.

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So Long, Summer!

After sixteen years as a teacher, I’m well-accustomed to the internal rhythms of the school year.  August sows seeds of anticipation and excitement for a fresh start. By October, we’ve found our stride, having established a strong classroom culture and systems to fuel daily learning.  Over time, however, the accumulation of minor stresses and struggles can begin to erode that early exuberance. By February, there are days where it feels like we’re in survival mode!  

Fortunately, spring offers a renewed burst of energy for the home stretch.  And by June, students and teachers alike are beginning to embrace the promise of summer vacation and exciting opportunities on the horizon.  Sunshine, hiking, gardening, travel, backyard barbecues, fishing trips, pleasure reading, mountain biking, camping…and so much more!  Peter fishing tackle

Those outside the realm of education often point to teachers’ summer vacation as a cushy luxury unknown to others in the real working world.  In what other profession do people get so much time off simply to relax and play?  But, I would argue to be at our best, teachers need this prolonged time away from the intensity of the school year to reflect, relax and recharge. 

In truth, many of my educator-friends use the bulk of their summer break to work a second job, complete coursework for recertification, or to attend a variety of other workshops that introduce new instructional practices and strategies to better support students.  Certainly, these are all worthy endeavors that help rejuvenate us without the high-pressure backdrop of returning to school bright and early Monday morning. But this doesn’t exactly sound like summer vacation.

Is there a deeper benefit to stepping back that actually makes us better educators?  What do we gain by distancing ourselves from the world of education even more?

peter-daughterDuring the summer holiday, my family makes an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest to reconnect with family, friends, and to soak up the natural beauty of the region.  With many miles logged and memories made, a few of this year’s highlights include several days in Portland, Oregon, sampling a bounty of amazing food and reconnecting with the quirky energy of one of my favorite cities; a family trip to the Oregon Coast to play in the sand and watch migrating gray whales from the cliffs overlooking the Pacific; a three-day father-son flyfishing trip to Idaho’s wild and scenic Lochsa River to commune with massive cutthroat trout; daily mountain bike rides with my brother exploring the foothills of the North Cascades mountains; and a side trip into the Canadian Okanogan in British Columbia, a rolling landscape dominated by several large lakes and hills dotted with beautiful orchards of apricots, cherries, and peaches. (Even more, the area boasts a growing number of vineyards that produce a variety of amazing and delicious wines to enjoy while relaxing and soaking in the views).Peter son

Interestingly, for me, it is precisely these experiences where I begin to reflect on my role as a teacher and feel that sense of inspiration and renewed enthusiasm begin to blossom.  Gazing out over the Pacific, I contemplated how to enhance our recent project, Blue Planet, which explores the impact of overfishing, plastic pollution, and climate change.  Visiting parks along the coast, I took photos and gathered resources that will help improve the project during the next go-around.  I didn’t set out on the trip determined to redesign a project. The opportunity presented itself organically and I had the presence of mind to take notice.

Peter riverDuring our three-day fly fishing adventure in northern Idaho, I took the opportunity to get lost in Timothy Egan’s The Big Burn, which recounts one of the largest and most destructive wildfires that swept through the region in 1910.  The book presents an incredible history of Theodore Roosevelt’s effort to conserve broad swaths of America’s most beautiful natural places against the onslaught of industrialists and speculators.  In many ways, the conflicts and themes explored in the book are playing out again today. On the drive home, brimming with new insights and ideas, I mapped out the next iteration of our See America — National Parks project.   

Even when it’s going well, teaching is an inherently stressful profession with ever-increasing demands and few easy answers.  We become teachers because we want to make a positive impact on the lives of young people. We want to inspire, cultivate curiosity, and help students acquire knowledge and skills to solve problems and lead fulfilling lives.  This all takes a tremendous amount of energy.Peter bikes

To be at our best, we must ensure that we have the enthusiasm, patience, and emotional fuel to give to our students.  Summer adventures offer a much-needed respite from the intensity of the school year. More importantly, the extended break provides the time and space to be present in our surroundings and helps us to be open to the possibilities and connections that will inform and enrich our practice.  

Peter view

 

Here we stand on the precipice of a new school year, rejuvenated and ready to embrace the opportunities and challenges that await us.  So long, summer! See you again, soon. Hold onto your seats—school starts bright and early on Monday morning!

 

 

peter-headshotPeter Stratman (@peterstratman) is a teacher-leader and instructional coach at Cabot School where he helped design and implement a dynamic project-based learning program. He has extensive experience with community-based education, youth voice, and service-learning. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, Peter is the co-creator of LaunchPad, a web-app that helps students and teachers build and share awesome projects.

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Does this Spark Joy?

In fourth grade I told my teacher that I wanted to be a high school history teacher because the content was “more complex” than in fourth grade. This moment ushered in what I like to call the “Hoarding Years.” I saved [and moved to too many houses] all of my history projects, notes, and books in the off chance I would need them in my future classroom. The need to save also trickled over to DVDs, wall decorations, costume jewelry, socks, mugs, pennants, seats and university sweatshirts. After my first few years with my own classroom and curriculum, I realized I was falling into the same pattern.

booksWhen I moved back to Vermont in 2015, I made a commitment to myself that I would get my act into shape and organize the mayhem I had been schlepping from place to place. What I realized in the unpacking process was that I had brought more than a decades worth of notes and textbooks; I had been carrying with me an overwhelming sense of perfectionism I needed to bring to my new classes as well. Starting at a new school I quickly fell into the trap of trying to be the ultimate teacher with all of the answers. I tried to make my classroom student-centered, proficiency-based, universally designed and project based with a curriculum that was progressive and representative of my students. Needless to say, my classroom was a mess, my apartment was a mess and so was my head.

A few years later, I experienced a significant realignment in my personal/professional life that changed all of this. While visiting a dear friend, I was sharing how I felt like my life was in disarray. My lovely friend cut me off and revealed she just could not stand my “historical collections” any longer. She pulled out her phone, and blunt stated, “I’m ordering a book for you. When you get home, read this, and then we’ll get to work.” What I didn’t realize in the moment was she had just volunteered herself to spend an entire weekend watching me contemplate whether or not a pair of soccer socks from my traveling soccer team in 1998 brought me joy.

IMG_3983Let me explain- my friend had bought me Marie Kondo’s book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing (2014). She included with the book a note reminding me that in order for long-term learning to occur, I must do the work myself… who knew accountants can see deep into the soul of educators? For those of you who have not yet read Marie Kondo’s book or watched her now popular Netflix series Tidying Up (2018)),  she has an uncanny ability to persuade you to fold your underpants. To me, Marie Kondo’s magnificence is boiled down to three main ideas:

  1. Before organizing, you must take everything out from where it’s been stored
  2. As you decide which things to keep, donate, or throw away, you must hold the item and wait to feel whether or not the item “sparks joy.” If it doesn’t, thank the item for the joy it did bring, however brief, and move on. 
  3. The process is fully immersive – tidying up is more about surrounding yourself with joy and less about cleaning up. A small, yet powerful mental shift.

The second point is where the greatest learning has occurred for me. Kondo writes, “To truly cherish the things that are important to you, you must first discard those that have outlived their purpose.” As I think about my role and responsibilities as an educator, I keep coming back to this quote. As a World History teacher I feel the weight of my task – to provide my students with an understanding and appreciation of cultures, countries, and people from all walks of life and time periods. I want my students to feel empowered, to be confident in their bodies, and to make informed and powerful change to the status quo. I am also becoming increasingly aware of the barriers my privileges as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, able-bodied, middle class, English-speaking, Jewish woman create as an educator. My blind spots are massive. These blindspots do not spark joy. Thank you for the privileges that have allowed me to get to where I am now. I began to crack open my curriculum to critically evaluate whose voices are amplified in my curriculum and whose are limited to whispers. I need to get outside of echoing the euro-centric curriculum I was taught and intentionally learning more about the people, areas and ideologies of the world I have not yet explored.

Now is the time to surround myself with people and things that spark joy. I have learned that the greatest joys often begin as moments of discomfort, whether that is spending two hours folding clothes or acknowledging that many times my students know more than I do and embracing the opportunities vulnerability presents. 

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I am a work in progress and I encourage you to spend some quality time whether that’s looking at your curriculum or your sock drawer to make more space for joy. 

 

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Emily Gilmore (@Queen_Gilmore) is a 2017 Rowland Fellow and Social Studies teacher at South Burlington High School. Current sparkers of joy include: donuts, Children of Blood and Bone by Tomi Adeyemi, her cats (Minnie and Daisy), Queer Eye on Netflix, and planning her next adventure (roadtrip through Algonquin National Park, Michigan, and Toronto).

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Allyship is About Asking

When I was sixteen, I took the first steps of a lifelong journey to learn about the privilege I live in as a white, hetero, able-bodied cismale; and also the power that I have because of that privilege. All of that learning, then and since, has helped me realize one thing I’d like to share with you now: 

Allyship is not about assumptions; it’s about asking.

This is a slightly fictionalized story to protect the involved persons and bring in more current and relevant terminology.

You might recognize a student of yours here. I hope you do.

I lived in a dorm at boarding school with two guys — let’s call them Kyle and Steve — who hated each other. Even though it was never said aloud (at least not that I heard), and even though Kyle was too stoic to tell us, there was definitely something racist going on. Steve was white, and his father was a politician from Kentucky; Kyle was black, and his mother was a public defender in The Bronx. Steve exuded WASPy pretentiousness, always playing with metaphor and innuendo, baiting people into ideological arguments. 

Something made Kyle finally reach his breaking point, they wanted to fight each other, and it became increasingly apparent that I was the only one who could stop the impending melee. I was the closest thing to a mutual friend that they had, even though I didn’t feel close with either of them.

I played sports with Kyle, but I didn’t feel like he ever really let anyone in, not completely. Steve and I were Physics lab partners, so we got together to do work out of necessity, that was it.

“I think it might end in blows tonight,” one of my friends said after we returned in a large crowd from an off-campus trip.

“It should,” said another friend. “The kid’s dad is messing with voter I.D.s, and Steve said—”

And that’s when we heard the roar of voices from behind us. A bunch of people peeled back to get a better view of the quad we’d just left. I peered over their shoulders.

The masses were moving from the quad to the small field behind the library. Steve and Kyle headed toward the pine tree at the middle, a huge crowd forming a circle around them like a scene from a bad movie script.

Sly, I thought. That area would definitely be out of earshot of the faculty meeting taking place on the other side. I started walking toward the dorm again. It wasn’t my fight. It wasn’t my problem. Who was I to say that two guys couldn’t go toe-to-toe if that’s what they really wanted to do?

I was almost through the door when two of my best friends caught up with me.

“You have to stop this,” one said. “You’re the only one they’ll listen to.”

 “Please,” said the other.

 I thought about my dad in that moment. He taught me two rules about fighting: 1) Never start a fight. 2) Nobody wins in a fight. 

Something on my friends’ faces convinced me to follow them back to the throng. They looked so concerned.

Steve and Kyle were pushing and shoving, cussing and spitting, fists beginning to rise. Their icy breaths creating a slight fog around their heads.

The crowd parted to let me through. Walking up to Steve and Kyle, I was fully committed to breaking them up. But then I saw their eyes: pure fire, crazed beyond anything I’d ever seen up until that point. I was convinced that stopping it then wouldn’t have stopped it forever. Not with the way they were looking at each other.

So instead of breaking up Kyle and Steve, I stayed on as a referee. I made them touch fists and swear to only throw punches like it was a real boxing match. Some twisted part of me believed that was the correct choice, like I was personally in control of the power struggle and had made things equal and “safe.”

I’m not sure if that means I broke rule #1. Rule #2 definitely came true. Those guys mangled each other that night, and I don’t think it solved anything.

__________

Days later, Kyle gave me a fist-pound when I arrived at the bus stop. “What’s up?

“This is my first mandatory community service,” I said.

 “Same.”

“I can’t believe the school is making you miss the game today. They didn’t even see the fight happen.”

“The school isn’t doing anything yet,” said Kyle. “They might, but I’d still be allowed to play while the investigation runs its course. It’s Coach Scannell, man. I missed practice because of disciplinary meetings, and you know what that dude says about missing practice.”

“Screw him.”

“Yeah, I wish.”

 “You wish?”

 Kyle bit his lip, like he was having an argument in his own mind. “You don’t get it do you?”

“Get what? That guy’s one of the worst coaches I’ve ever had. He doesn’t care about us. So, yeah, screw him!”

Kyle shook his head. “Don’t be so stupid and selfish. It’s not that easy for everyone. I can’t afford to take risks like you. Do you know that coaches from Oswego and Plattsburgh were planning to watch me at the game today? Those are New York state schools, man. Do you know how huge that would’ve been? I’m a couple of notches up on their list because I can get in-state tuition. I don’t cost as much to recruit. But now? I don’t know. Now I’m one of those guys.”

I tried to stay with him. “What guys?”

“Wake up. I’m a black hockey player from the City, and now I won’t be at the game because I fought some white kid? C’mon. Those coaches will probably just run for the hills now.”

 “Hurley just got into Tufts.”

 Kyle shook his head and paced around, muttering and mumbling before looking up. “You really need me to teach you this, too?”

 I nodded. “I’m trying to understand.”

“Then it’s about time. You see, people meet Hurley, and they’re like, oh, yeah, this is one from that other set of black people, like the Obamas or something, not the normal black people who make this country a shit hole.”

“I’ve heard some of the comments he’s faced.”

“I would never try to speak to his experience, but the this or that is true. People meet Hurley and they see skin that’s a few shades lighter than the portrait of black in their minds. They hear a kid talking like he’s a reporter for NPR. They see the khakis and the polo shirts. They make up all sorts of stories to help them justify why he’s part of that good side of black people, no matter what else he is or isn’t.”

“There are a million types of black people, just like in every race.”

“No, there aren’t. Not to most people. There are two. There are the ones who get to live in the white world when the white people decide that’s okay, and then there’s everyone else. No white world. Ever. No gray area. Black and white. The binary is in full effect.”

I didn’t know what to say.

“You have to check your privilege and look around. I know you accept everyone. You’re not sexist, xenophobic, homophobic… You’re not racist. But that’s not enough. You have to be anti-racist. You have to listen. You have to be willing to give up the power of your privilege, in all its forms, if you ever want to truly understand. If you ever want to really put the power dynamic on the level for good. You think I really wanted to fight Steve? Man, I’ve been trying to avoid him and survive for a year, and then you make us touch fists and box. That was my one goal for the year, to not fight that kid. Remember when Ms. Armagh had us write letters to ourselves in class? That’s what I wrote. I told myself to make sure no one had an opportunity to see me as the angry black guy, no matter what. Even if someone hit me first. But here we are.” He held up his hand. “I can imagine what you must have thought. I can imagine your justifications and motives. But the only truth here is that you never asked me what I thought. You never asked me what I felt. Never once. Your assumptions about what I needed in that moment changed my existence here forever.”

I let out a deflated gasp, like I’d been the one punched in the gut.

He mock-laughed and shook his head. “Screw Coach Scannell? I wish.”

I stared blankly ahead for a long time, rooted in place, trying to keep myself from hyperventilating, Kyle and Steve’s landed punches echoing in my head over and over and over and over and over.

Finally, I held out my hands to hug Kyle.

 “What’s this?”

 “It’s something I need,” I said. “I know it’s selfish, but maybe you need it, too.”

  We hugged each other and cried together at that bus stop.

 I knew the balance of power would shift in my favor again the moment the bus arrived, and I still didn’t fully understand all of the forces that created that power, but I knew two things:

I wanted to.

I had to.

Peter

Peter Langella is a librarian at Champlain Valley Union High School, an English Instructor at Northern Vermont University, a library instructor at the University of Vermont, and a 2017 Rowland Fellow. He is currently reading Five Midnights by Ann Dávila Cardinal.

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