When You Realize You Are Complicit

The post initially ran in EdWeek Teacher as “The System Wasn’t Built for Us”

First, it was the lack of an indictment for Sandra Bland’s death. Then, it was the lack of an indictment for Tamir Rice’s killing.

As days and verdicts pass, I am only able to ask this question: if the basic structures built for “safety” will not protect us, then what will? 

Moreover, as a teacher, what does this question mean for my students and for me?

For students:  Students need the space to learn about and discuss these stories, as well as process what is going on. Thumbnail image for 17130711447_ca7635c0cb_o.jpg

I’ve seen some teachers say, “I don’t know how to talk about this, so I’m going to move past it.” That fear is understandable, but we must also understand that silence is compliance, and silence is violenceWhen the system is failing, we are compelled as educators not to act as “a cog in a wheel,” as John Dewey once said. We must support our students as they deal with and question the mechanisms in our society that allowed this to happen. We may feel rage (which can look like a lot of things), and that’s okay. Even acknowledging current events, as well as our own frustration and lack of answers can be powerful (Teaching Tolerance and Youth Radio had some great resources if you’d like to do a more in-depth lesson).

Even if your students, like mine, may not directly feel a personal connection to these stories, part of our job is to expose them to questions regarding the larger world and teach them to empathize with communities frustrated and hurt by these situations. For students with whom these events hit closer to home, it’s important to remember this, from Ta-Nahesi Coates’s Between The World and Me:

…all our phrasing – race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy – serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, breaks teeth.

If racism is a “visceral” experience, the space to heal from it is all more important.

dewey.jpgFor educators: We must begin to reframe our understanding of the system that we work in and, thus, are compliant in. Current events have only strengthened my belief that, frankly, the system wasn’t built for me and other people of color or people from marginalized backgrounds. The system will consistently perpetuate existing hierarchies of power.

Unfortunately, our current education system is one of those hierarchal structures. We can either remain silently and willingly compliant, or we can question and change the powers that be at work in our schools. The questions might appear small at first: whose values am I measure by in a teacher evaluation? Do my students feel like they have a voice at my school? Are the parents I work with feeling valued?

As we move forward, though, those questions will get bigger, and the commitment to the work gets stronger. Hopefully, all educators (and administrators and entire communities) will understand this: our job is not to feed content to students. Our job is to prepare young people to dismantle systems that are currently failing them, and help them uplift the voices, and ideas that showcase the best of their generation. 

Recently, Trent Gillis of On Being posted a reflection about Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s final Christmas sermon. King’s feeling that we were a “bewildered human race. We have neither peace within nor peace without…” resonate now.  

The sermon goes on, though, to reminder us of the need for hope:

Yes, I am personally the victim of deferred dreams, of blasted hopes, but in spite of that I close today by saying I still have a dream, because, you know, you can’t give up in life. If you lose hope, somehow you lose that vitality that keeps life moving, you lose that courage to be, that quality that helps you go on in spite of all. And so today I still have a dream.

I leave these words here, as a reminder of what we must hold dear in 2016. Our students still have dreams. We do too. We must continue to push so that those dreams can reach the full majesty of their potential.


Protest image via Flickr: Fibonacci Blue
Quote image via Awo Okaikor Aryee-Price.


Students as Change-Makers: Pushing the Edge Podcast

Earlier this year, I had the chance to speak to the amazing Greg B. Curran for his podcast Pushing the Edge. We talked about what I’m learning and want to learn more about regarding student voice and agency, as well as the term “minority.”

You can listen to the episode here or find it on iTunes here. I had such a good time recording it, I hope you take a listen! Plus, I sound like a SoCal-hippie teacher about 25% of the time (28:15 is my favorite, and I would like, “Man, are we teaching kids to think about the SYSTEM?!” to be on a t-shirt), which PJ and I had a good laugh over.

Exactly Where I Need To Be: On 28

Well hello, there, 28. You’re three or so hours away on Hawai‘i time, but I’ve had some red wine and a delicious calzone, so let’s do this right now.


Last year’s celebration

Normally, I come into my birthday very reflective. Last year, I wrote about wanting to accept things as they are.  I like to think I did that.

This year, as I move into the last few years of my twenties, I realize that… I’m empty. Not in a bad way– October is the first full, meaty month of fall. The time of harvest, reaping the benefits of what was sown in hot summer months. My birth month is one of patience, balance, and hard work. The pregnant pause of the year. It’s not the beginning of fall, nor is it the holiday season. That’s okay. I like living in the pauses.

I normally lament how rushed and tired I feel around my birthday, but this year, I am choosing to celebrate it. I see now that my exhaustion, my emptiness, isn’t a sign of lacking. This year, and hopefully from now on, it is a sign of preparation for the new. We cannot fill a cup that is already full.

I come to a new year of life completely spent: I have tried to give my words, my voice, my work to my classroom and loved ones. I have tried to ensure that I don’t refuse new lessons because I am so full of old ones that may no longer serve me. Instead of  feeling full and satisfied, I quite like the idea of coming into a new year on earth empty and open: there is a hunger in my belly that is still not satisfied. I am excited to spend another year filling it again.

So, 28. Here I am. I am blessed with amazing family, friends, partnership. I understand now, more than ever, what the work feels like (I am always adapting to what it looks like). I am eager to see what comes next.

I’m moving away from making highfalutin plans for 28. Instead, I am excited to spend this year working, listening, and reveling in the joy and stability my life, love, and work has brought me thus far. If I learned anything this year, it’s that I am best served by reading my life like the waves: there are times to savor the momentary calm, wait within pause as a set comes in, and there are times to ride the waves into something marvelous.

Here’s to reading the ocean. Here’s to trusting my gut. Here’s to 28.

PS: I am still blogging over at EdWeek. I hope you come and check it out. 🙂

Teacher-Student-Human– An Embodiment of Love

“I’m worried I’m not asking the right questions,” I admitted to a colleague a few weeks ago. My school’s curriculum asks us to read aloud with our students and stop to question or guide them as we read. “Or, maybe I’m not asking them correctly?” I scrunched my face and tilted my head.

While it’s my fourth year in the classroom, it’s only my second year at my school. Our curriculum, which was designed and researched by teachers at my school (including my colleague) years ago, is wonderful but unusual to me. I don’t always know what to ask students, and I was worried that I go off on tangents that don’t properly teach them literary techniques.

Bill, who has been at the school for nearly thirty years and helped create the darn thing, is only understanding. “It’s really hard,” he says, “and there’s no right way.” Then he pauses and asks, “Why do you like the books?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you chose them for a reason. You should stop to point things out to students about why you like the book. The author can speak for themselves. We’re teaching our students how to love reading.

It’s been a long week, and with all the field trips I’ve gone on or chaperoned, both my kids and I have noticed my absence.

This year, I’ve been very lucky to have a sense of freedom and ownership of my classroom that I lacked my first few years. Yes, this gives me a sense of professional worth and dignity that’s an important factor to teachers staying in the classroom.

Moreso than that, however, is that it reminds me how much love is at the root of all of this— students, why I teach, even the content. Bill, who I consider a mentor, often reminds me that “the canon should be the books we love to read.” Kids can tell when we love things, and that level of authenticity, of acknowledging that I’m not this automaton teacher who forces “knowledge” down their throats, is key.

Love is a huge part of our humanity, and we need to share that with our students if we’re asking for theirs. I hope they know I still learn every day, often from them (I do my best to show them that, too). I hope my students see me fangirl over a story we’re reading or something they write or say. I hope they know I want them to be a fan of something too.

In reading Jose Vilson’s reflection in “The Eleventh Honeymoon,” I was struck by his reminder to acknowledge the “totality” of what we do. It’s not facts or definitions. It’s a whole human experience.

I am very tired this week, but I would be lying if I said that, even in this state, even in my second-year-back and fourth-year-in mindset, I love what I do very much. I laugh quite a bit nearly every day. I am trusted and cared about and for by a group of small (and not-so-small!) humans who are much, much more brilliant than me. I wake up most days and know, with certainty, that I love my job. 

Is there anything more blessed than that? Is that not grace, this fortuitous stumbling into the confident joy of knowing one’s vocation, in action?

So now, I am trying to trust myself. When I take the tangent to connect The Giver to the pathways of revolutions or To Kill a Mockingbird to #IStandWithAhmed, I feel good about that. When I also stop to nerd out about the metaphor in a sentence, I’m okay with that too. I want them to know I’m not just teaching them, but trying to share with them what I– as a student, reader, and human, just like them– experience with that book.

If anything, I hope my students see it as an olive branch, an offering to make this a space to be excited, be strange, and fall in love with something in a story they may not have thought to notice. I hope it lets them know that when they take that leap, I’ll be there cheering them on. If we do that, I think it’s a pretty good year.

Hello, I Am Trying to Write Today.

Hey! Hi! I have a page and here it is! Hello!

I know it hasn’t actually been that long since I last wrote, but it feels like decades. We’re in the second day of school and I’m already tapped out. Beat. At the end of the first day, I sat there thinking I forgot how tiring the job is. 

Overall, I’m loving the work so far. I can already tell, though, that trying to juggle it with the other writing and work I’m supposed to do is going to be a bit of a struggle.

BUT, I think it’s important to remember that creativity isn’t a finite well of stuff we pull from. Hopefully this will push my teaching and my writing to improve. We tell our students this all the time: getting things onto paper is the warmup drill of good writing. It’s the calisthenics. It has to get done to get to the good stuff.

I’m excited for that good stuff (wherever it’s hiding), and dive headfirst into the next year. I can already tell that this one will be vastly different than last– and it’s awesome to see last year’s students grow up so fast.

But for now… I’m just really, really tired.

What Does It Mean to “Win”?

I’m on the launchpad of the school year, which is weirdly yet incredibly exciting. I thought I would be sad and, while I am bummed to lose my free time, it feels good to get back into the classroom.

With the school year coming up, it makes me think a lot about what I want for my students. Where will we go? What do I want them to do by the end of the year? What skills do these students need so they succeed out in the world? What will “success” look like in room 206?

I know that I’m lucky to have that freedom as a teacher– I haven’t always. “Success” used to be pretty strictly defined for me: 80% of my students making “Proficiency” on a test created by the organization running my school.

Of course, the charter school I was at did this because… everyone does this. Everyone tests their kids. Now. To this day. Students across the nation began taking Common Core State Standards (CCSS) tests last year, after years of taking the STAR or CST or HSA or whatever acronym the state used for it’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) test requirements.

I’m a lifelong product of these. Ever since early elementary school, I can remember having to sit and take day-long tests. A few months later, my parents would happily show me a piece of paper, and while I didn’t know what anything on it meant, I was happy they were happy. The scores on that paper opened doors for me: I was given awards based on the score, I was allowed to test for the Gifted and Talented program at my school (which I’ve written about here). My ability to do well on a long test directly impacted where I am in life.

Now that I’m in the classroom, knowing just how much that ability to test well gave me opportunity, I ache with knowing what so many teachers do: the ability to take a test does not come close to measuring the brilliance of my students. 

I won’t spend too long on this– plenty of folks have written tomes about how testing hurts students.

While testing isn’t a thorough measure of ability for any student, it is especially harmful for students of color (SoC). More and more, studies are finding that there is a racial bias favoring white students in standardized testing.

Knowing this, I had some mixed feelings when I listened to Nikole Hannah-Jones‘s report on This American Life (also below).

[FWIW: This is part 1, with the second part airing in two days. If that drastically alters my response, you can guess I’ll write about it. 🙂 ]

Of course, the reporting is great, and highlights some very necessary things we need to talk about in education: white fragility, biased beliefs about Black studentslack of teaching talent for SoC. These are all important and must be discussed.

My issue, overall, is that the piece still sees “success” and “the achievement gap” using the measuring stick much of the country uses: tests scores. Tests that only look at one small bit of our students’ capabilities.Tests that are inherently racist. Tests that reinforce the hegemony‘s idea of what it means to be successful in American education.

Even if school integration would drastically increase scores for Black students… I have to follow that up with “but at what cost?” Students would not only have to bare the emotional brunt of negative stereotypes (as noted in the piece), but I can’t help but wonder if their “success” is built around their ability to assimilate to White dominant culture’s ideas of “successful.” We can ask kids to do that, but we also know that comes at tremendous emotional and cultural cost.

So, a part of me says… I want more for students. If success built on integration is one rooted in assimilation, I’m not so interested. I’m not interested in perpetuating a world where my kids can’t be all of their amazing selves and not get called “ghetto” or “moke” or “unprofessional” or “angry” or any other coded, racist term we might use.

Beyond that, assimilation didn’t save Sandra Bland from unfair policing. Good test scores will matter less when unfair housing practices still make it hard to find a place to liveWill arming SoC with skills to do well on tests really be what ends inequality in our country?

Still, I also feel Ms. Hannah-Jones’s overall point, made at around 51:30 in the piece:

…What you’re saying is small, incremental progress. But meanwhile, there’s kids in those classrooms. There are kids who are going through these schools and not getting the education that they deserve while everyone’s trying to fix it. It’s not like those kids are removed somewhere and getting a good education while you guys figure it out. 

And therein lies the crux of the issue. We can call for takedowns of power and privilege but… there are kids in seats who need to be taught, who need to be given the tools to succeed in today’s society. How much longer can we ask students to wait while we dismantle centuries of racist educational practices?

Some argue that getting students into these traditionally “white” schools will be the wedge that starts breaking down some of the larger issues mentioned above. I’m not so sure, but I understand why, for many of us, it’s a place to start. I can’t protect my students from bad policing or unfair housing. All I can hope is that I can give them the strength I hope we all uncover within ourselves: the ability to stand up and say, “This is wrong. We need to fix this. Now.”

Stop and Figure Out What’s Yours

It starts with checking your phone in bed. You wake up at 5:30AM, because it’s a habit you never really learn to let go of, even over summer vacation. Your eyes blink open, and your brain shoots a rapid fire message to all channels: “HOLY CRAP WHAT TIME IS IT AM I LATE?!”

You ignore the warm body stirring next to you and reach over. Grab your phone. As blue light bounces off your face, you get not just the time, but a reminder of the million other things you could look at right now. Your twitter notifications, what email came in over night. You decide a quick peek won’t hurt.

The peek turns into just answering an email or two. Then maybe a tweet. You chuckle as someone replies, begin to reply back, then try to quiet down so as to be considerate. You decide to quickly skim the news. It’s all important– an email from your principal, outstanding actions from fellowships, requests to host this chat or read this piece. It’s all good stuff. This is what it means to be a 21st-century educator, right? You’re always on. You’re always up-to-date. You’re always connected. You have to be ready to go at any time, because the world is still turning when your body is in bed.

All of a sudden, it’s 7:00AM. The person next to you kisses your cheek. “I love you,” you say, blue light bouncing off your chin as you look up. You don’t want them to forget as the rest of the world gets your attention.

“You too.” They patter off to get ready for their day. The shower runs. You find an article to share out. A witty note to add before the link. Scrape the meat off so it’s at 140. Good to go.

You put your phone down while your partner gets ready. You take a second, ask them about their day. You’re on summer break, so they don’t really ask about yours. Not because they don’t care, but because they can probably guess: gym. work. Summer can be a time to recharge, but you’re amusedly surprised to find out that constantly trying to better everything about yourself— your practice, your writing, your understanding of the world, your body– takes up a lot more time than anyone realizes (you included).

They have to go, you kiss them goodbye. “I love you,” you let them know, almost desperately. They know, and you know they know, and you trust that they love you too. The desperation isn’t that love isn’t there, but that it’s the only thing about yourself that feels constant and true anymore. It’s the knowledge that the sun rises in the morning. Everything else is a series of hop-skip-jumps along a path you’re trying to figure out as you go and that you’re pretty sure you’re going to screw up at some point.

They leave, and the phone is right back in your hand. You respond to a message, there’s another email. It should be made clear that none of this is drudgery, you love what you’re doing right now. It’s what fuels you. It’s the main part of you that feels talented, strong, smart. 

Before you know it, another hour has gone. You hop a bus home. You go to the gym for a few hours. Write, email, tweet in between sets, at stoplights. You’re never not-available. You’re never disconnected.

You get home. Write, edit, read a new piece (you’re a teacher, after all). Suddenly, it’s 4:30P, and you know that the day is rapidly coming to a close. You wonder where the time went. You wonder if you used it well. Didn’t you want to try and go on a hike today?

Now, you’re a little annoyed. At what, you’re not sure, but you are. You have to figure this out.

You get up. You look in the mirror. The contents of the apartment you’ve been in for less-than-a-year are still scattered about, so you never really moved in. It barely feels like yours anyway– no more so than the last less-than-a-year apartment, or the one before it. You’re always looking for something better, and when you think you’ve found it, something else always pops up.

You stop looking at the apartment and back in the mirror. Your face is there. Nose, eyes, mouth. You like your face, generally, but some days when you actually look at it, it’s a shock that it’s yours. It doesn’t really feel like yours.

It takes a second, and then you realize what’s been frustrating you for the past hour, day, week, months: when did you stop taking a second to quietly revel in ownership of yourself? When did your actions become a reaction to everything you thought you needed to do to be yourself?  Did you actually ask yourself what “you” (in all senses of that word) looks like right now? 

You tilt your head– one way, then another. Put your hand your collarbone, feel the body stretch and grow beneath the skin as you breathe in. Breathe out again. Your chest collapses. Your heart beats. Yours.

The mark of the modern educator may be connectedness, but if the mark of a great educator is being authentic to yourself, I should probably take a second to figure out who that person is. That process doesn’t end, and it doesn’t need to be public. If anything, it needs to be in the quiet moments of my own breath, or the soft spaces with people where the walls are down and my own existence feels like enough.

I’ve been beating myself up all week because I didn’t have anything to say here. I realized that I’ve been so focused on authoring myself for other outlets, I lost sight of my own center.

I don’t have a lot of time left, but I think it might be enough to stop and make sure I understand where I am right now. So when the real work begins, I know exactly who is in the classroom with my students, and not the approximation of who I was trying to create.

These Are The Parts of Me That Suck

It is probably no surprise to anyone that there is a solid list of things that I am… not good at.

When I worked in a non-profit organization, we were really big about knowing “our work styles.” We took a lot of tests to better understand what we were good at– and what were “areas of growth.” We identified what made us more effective leaders and productive humans.

And I actually really love and appreciate that, because once I did them it made me realize that the things my job was telling me I wasn’t good at were part of why I needed to leave my job.

It’s an easy stereotype, but that’s perhaps because it’s true: I’ve always been a little bit of the black sheep in my house. My parents and older brother are incredibly neat humans. While I grew up in a cluttered house, it was always very neatly organized. My brother is able to juggle and multi-task many projects at the state senate. My mom and dad often catch mistakes quickly as they write.

I am… the exact opposite. My apartment is often a mess (NOT unhygienic– I take out the trash, don’t leave food, clean up messes– but clothes. Clothes everywhere), my desk is covered in hastily made stacks of paper.

These are the parts of me that suck. I am not always good at organizing names or papers. I am often fluttering about, trying my best to get as much down, on the page, and out for feedback as possible. I don’t know why I developed like this, but I’ve always felt that I’d often rather get out my ideas– rough, raw, messy, unwieldy– and worry about the polish later. My best (i.e. highest graded, most awarded, etc.) work is often written hours before it’s due. My most successful, innovative lesson plans appear in my mind at 5:45AM that day.

I don’t mean to say that I’m throwing out papers, emails, etc with no grammar and a ton of typos, but I’ll definitely cop to missing a few commas, leftover articles, and occasional typos in my time. Clearly, the final draft of something really important will get multi-checked with my crazy-English-teacher-grammar lens, but most other things (blogs, informal emails) tend to be done how I speak– imperfections and all.

There are other things I struggle with. If I’m not interested in something, I am very good at justifying “tabling that project” until “the spirit moves me with a new idea.” I’d like to say I’m great at keeping myself accountable, but I need to really love something– my students, writing, running, fellowships etc– to actually do that. I will jam for hours, focused and unending, on something I really want to do. If you force me, though, it might take a little more arm-twisting.

And I can imagine this is annoying, especially when those mistakes ended up affecting something important. I’m not trying to excuse them. They are definitely things about myself that I should and am actively working to improve.

And yes, I’ve gotten better. Sometimes now, when I’m about to leave something for later or rush through it, my mother’s voice floats through my head, sing-song and sweet, saying “haste makes waste, mija!” I groan inwardly, stop, and make sure I properly complete the task (e.g. writing and mailing my rent check) so I get it done properly.

Still, at a certain point, I sort of had to stop and ask myself: at what point do I accept who I am, and work with my natural gifts (and challenges) instead of against them? Instead of forcing myself into jobs that asked me to be good at things that, time and time again proved were skills I lacked, when would I decide to find jobs and projects that actually helped me succeed?

This is part of the reason I became a teacher.

Let me clarify: you will be a much better teacher if you can do the things I listed above well. I’m not saying being a teacher is an easy job (ha!). Being a messy, disorganized teacher can be really annoying for students (especially when it affects grading) and co-workers. You also need to be able to sometimes get things done that you just don’t like.

What I mean is that I realized that my classroom afforded me with an extra set of eyes and ears that would keep me accountable all the time: my students. My classroom isn’t (nor should it be) Ms. Torres-getting-everything handled. It’s not really “my” classroom at all– I see my students as empowered enough to know they can correct me, work with me, and make sure that OUR ship runs smoothly throughout the year.

While being a teacher does ask me to be good at skills I struggle with, those challenges are often overridden by the fact that I really like my students. It’s cheesy, but because I want them to do well, even the parts of my classroom that cause struggle become a bigger priority. I mean, I hate grading sometimes, but man, I love my kids. I know that my consistent grading of their work makes them feel successful, so it gets done (not always as quickly as I’d like, but it does).

Here’s why I think it works though: I’m open about my imperfections with my kids, and I ask for their help all the time. I tell them, often, that I’m not perfect. I let them know that if they see something they think is a mistake, they should tell me about it. “Everyone makes mistakes!” I tell them, we laugh, and sometimes they even help me fix it (hello, teachable moments!). Because I grade pretty often, it gives them plenty of opportunity to ask me questions about why they got that score and correct it in a way that makes sure it doesn’t affect them too much (caveat: I don’t take heavy-hitter grades, like papers, lightly, and double and triple check them before I publish them. It’s only, for example, missing easy homework assignments).

The other important thing: I (try to) take feedback with humor, grace, and gratitude. If they and I both know that, sometimes, Ms. Torres is scatterbrained and needs help, there’s less of a fear that they’ll hurt my feelings if they try to help me. It also means that I need to know that people are trying to help me, and their feedback isn’t meant to hurt my feelings (this took time, but I got there!).

I’m not trying to say I’m going to remain bad at these skills forever, or that I should throw my hands up and say “TAKE ME OR LEAVE ME!” That said, I am trying to get better at leveraging the things I am good at– listening to others, respecting their opinions, being open and vulnerable about myself– to help me be better at the thing I really do love: teaching.

Anyway, this wasn’t the cleanest post, and I’m sure you’ll find a typo or two. It’s been a helluva two, crazy weeks, and I’m just so happy to be home for the next few months, and wrapping up the end of the year strong with my kids.

The Paradox of High Expectations

Recently, I received an invitation to a group on Facebook that filled me with a strange joy and abject terror.

Screen Shot 2015-03-28 at 7.42.17 AM

Yes. It is, in fact, time for my 10-year reunion. Time seriously flies.

I do want to make something clear: I loved high school. I had a great group of friends, and thankfully still have many of them in my life. I had great teachers who pushed me, challenged me, and also humor me with a visit when I come back. All-in-all, I was very, very lucky, and look back on high school with great fondness– a privilege I know that not a lot of people have, even at my own school.

Still, I dealt with taunting– some of it the normal high school stuff, but some, as  I’ve written about, around race. In middle and early high school, I remember quite a bit of racially charged taunting, and I know my older brother faced similar things. Anecdotally, I always felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb– one of a small handful of dark-skinned kids in my classes.

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