All posts by Audrey Homan

Audrey Homan is a Vermont-based digital media producer, and producer of The 21st Century Classroom podcast. She's worked in non-profit communications for more than a decade, and in her spare time writes tiny video games and mucks about with augmented reality and arduinos, ably assisted by five dogs. Interviewing students and yelling in PHP are the best parts of her job.

Teachers, we appreciate you.

This year, for Teacher Appreciation Week 2021, we decided to do something different.

We love and respect and miss and admire teachers so much, and really, nothing we could do this year could adequately express that. You all deserve everything your heart desires. Certainly you deserve so much more than you’ve gotten. And that got us thinking: who were the teachers we’re still appreciating? Who were those educators who rocked our middle school worlds, and made us the education nerds we are today?

Reader, we have them.

Also some truly spectacular photos from our younger years. Truly.

So for Teacher Appreciation Week 2021, we salute educators everywhere fighting the good fight. And we have a couple special shout-outs for a chosen few.

Susan Hennessey

Susan Hennessey Teacher Appreciation Week 2021


“Mr. Camille’s reputation as a tough and demanding English teacher was well known. Seeing his name on my 9th grade course schedule instilled fear in my heart. But it turned out to have been wasted energy on my part. His love of language, constant punning, and acrobatic word play was as delightful to me as was his demand we understand how to use gerunds properly. It was his modeling of matching your work life to your passions that inspired me to become an English teacher. Forever grateful!”



Emily Hoyler


Emily Hoyler Teacher Appreciation Week 2021


“Mr. Hamilton, my second grade teacher, played the guitar for us, cooked squid for us, and most memorably brought us to the small copse of woods behind the school and had us hug trees. (We also watched them change throughout the year, did bark and leaf rubbings, and sat under their boughs to write poetry.) I eternally grateful for these experiences and know that they shaped who I am and my work today.”



Life LeGeros

Life LeGeros


“Mrs. Vasa put up with a lot from me in 5th grade. I’ll never forget how empathetic and kind she was about my unsatisfactory behavior grades at conferences with my parents. She encouraged me to write my irreverent and borderline inappropriate stories. She once let me “read” anime comic books my grandma gave me, even though I didn’t understand Japanese. And she allowed me to perform my rap song that was misaligned with the assignment and probably far off the beat. And that time I accidentally spontaneously told her “thanks, I love you” in front of the entire class, she laughingly defused my humiliation. She had competed to be part of the Challenger mission and when our class watched the disaster unfold together she found a way to comfort us without shielding us from reality.

Thank you Mrs. Vasa for being a real one, and for letting me be me.”



Rachel Mark

Rachel Mark Teacher Appreciation Week 2021


“When I was in 7th grade, my math teacher Anthony (Tony) Stanco made a lasting impact. He was an unusual man and was unlike any teacher that I’ve ever had. Mr. Stanco was silly, creative, curious, and a divergent thinker.

I remember most that Mr. Stanco was completely authentic and unique. He encouraged me to find that same confidence in being who I was. I now realize that he truly created an environment where I felt like I belonged. For that, I am forever grateful.

Mr. Stanco only stayed a year in this teaching position. Turns out he was a bit too quirky and divergent for some of the parents and school board members in my school. When he left, I was devastated. I felt like this teacher who really saw me and accepted me unconditionally, was being taken away. Because of my heartbreak, I could not adequately say goodbye and thank him for all that he’d done for me.

In the thirty years since, I’ve unsuccessfully tried to find Mr. Stanco on the inter webs. I hope to someday to find him and let him know that he made a difference in my life.

Thank you, Mr. Stanco. And thanks to all teachers who make a difference in a child’s life.”



Robin Merritt

Robin Merritt Teacher Appreciation Week
Mrs. Kus was my middle school physical education & health teacher and my middle school volleyball coach. She created an atmosphere in PE where regardless of ability, we all found a way to love being active. And in health class, she approached the topic of sexual education (tee hee!) with ridiculous humor, exaggerating the awkwardness of it all… mostly so we didn’t have to feel self-conscious about our own awkward feelings toward and questions about the subject.

But the personal influence that Mrs. Kus had in my life was during my 8th grade year when we had a conversation helping me to weigh my future high school athletic options.

You see at Sweet Home High School (yes, that was truly the name of my school), girls volleyball was a powerhouse. One that saw many female athletes earning athletic scholarships to universities all over the country.

As an eight grader planning my future, I asked Mrs. Kus straight out if she thought that I could eventually be a scholarship volleyball student-athlete.

In her typical positive and humorous way, she painted the pathway of possibility as a volleyball player who is really good in a specific position, perhaps a setter or defensive specialist.

And she pointed to the reality of my genetics.

The tallest person in my family generously stood at 5’6. At the time, I was approximately 4’6 and needed friends’ help to reach items on the top shelf of my locker.

She painted the picture of the other path, highlighting the accolades that I had already earned as a field hockey player and then shared her own story. The legendary volleyball coach, Sally Kus, was a field hockey player. She confessed that she had learned the rules of volleyball out of a book after being asked by the athletic director if she would consider coaching.

Mrs. Kus encouraged me to choose with my heart, to put in the hard work, and I left that meeting feeling that whatever I decided to do, she believed in me, believed that I could reach my goal. I did eventually reach my 8th grader goal, and did it as a field hockey student-athlete.
I am so grateful for Mrs. Kus’s honesty and guidance, while also oozing confidence in me. Above all, she is a mentor and an educator. She cared for all of her players and her students. And made sure we all knew it.”


Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips, Teacher Appreciation Week 2021


“I will never forget the year I fell in love with reading: 4th grade with Miss Polink. Everyday she read aloud to us from a novel: Island of the Blue Dolphins (a problematic choice and one I would no longer recommend), Charlotte’s Web, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

I had already learned how to decode and read text, Miss Polink taught me that stories could take your breath away, provide an escape from reality, and transport you to another time and place. When we finished a novel she would loan it to me so I could reread it at home on my own.

I did not come from a family of readers. I am forever grateful that she shared her love of reading with me, a gift I treasure and cherish and aspire to share with others. Thank you, educators, for all of the read-alouds and the seeds they plant!”



Scott Thompson

Scott Thompson


“I am forever grateful for my 11th grade chemistry teacher, Mr. Michael Revison. Affectionately know as ‘Rev.’

Fair to say I was a late bloomer with school and Mr. Revision was the first teacher that helped me be excited about learning. He was a lot like Bill Nye the science guy. Lots of flash but incredible knowledgable. It was his passion for science that inspired me. Every day he had me captivated, curious, and consumed with the material. It wasn’t like that in other subjects. He was also a real person with personality and emotion. He also took a real interest in me. And he was the first teacher I felt I could just have a conversation with. I knew he cared about me and my success. Plus I emailed him a few years ago to say thank you and he remembered me. I am grateful for him.

Sometime you never know the true difference you make in someone’s life. But know you DO make a difference. Thank you for all you do educators. Keep inspiring!”

Lessons Learned from Vermont’s Virtual Academies

We asked three Vermont educators to share some of the most powerful lessons they’ve learned from teaching virtually during the pandemic. Sona Iyengar, Robin Bebo-Long, and Emma Vastola joined us to share. Iyengar works at Winooski Middle School, in Winooski VT. Bebo-Long and Vastola both work in the Two Rivers Supervisory Union, down in southern Vermont. And all three educators touched on equity, student engagement, mental health, and much, much more.

Below, you can find a fully captioned video recording of the event.



How to Build An Anti-Racist Bookshelf

Who’s Outside? How to Build An Anti-Racist Bookshelf is an interactive online workshop for educators we offered in January 2021. We offered it in collaboration with Shelburne Farms. Additionally, educators Jeanie Phillips and Aimee Arandia Østensen courageously co-facilitated this workshop.

Below you’ll find a recording of the workshop, optimized for solo or team playback. 

The workshop contains a number of prompts for reflection. We encourage you to listen to these materials as a solo practitioner, or with your teaching team.


Additionally, you can find the slides from the workshop below. We encourage you to share these slides with your collaborators. And finally, we release all materials under Creative Commons license 4.0: available for non-commercial use and remix, with attribution.



This workshop was made possible by a collaboration between the UVM Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education and Shelburne Farms. Check out our upcoming online workshops and webinars, Or, sign up for our newsletter to stay informed about new professional development opportunities as they become available.

Looking for something specific? Please feel free to reach out to us to suggest topics for upcoming events, or to request a quote for a custom professional development offering for you and your teaching team. We offer two-hour, half-day and full-day in-services, on topics ranging from the anti-racist bookshelf, through to personalized learning, student identity, project-based learning, proficiency-based assessment, and many more.

One breath at a time is an acceptable plan

This is not a new year’s post.

And everything seems to have gone terribly wrong that can
But one breath at a time is an acceptable plan
She tells herself
And the air is still there
This morning it’s even breathable
And for a second the relief is unbelievable

–Ani diFranco, “Tamboritza Lingua”

Over the winter break, in addition to reading all the things, we took a break from social media.

We stepped back and walked away. We went outside. And we cried for the people and energy and love 2020 stole from us all, and then we sat down in the snow for a while and just looked up at the sky.

Maybe this is sounding familiar. Maybe this is sounding cliché. Happy new year.

But as the days passed, one by one, with no notifications ringing our phones and disrupting our long walks, we began to see the bigger picture.

And that’s this: this new year can only be managed in tiny chunks.

There’s no way we can make resolutions for the full year ahead because who even knows what that’s going to look like. Just asking the question feels like inviting disaster.

But we also know that we need a plan. We need to support educators and students, school communities and families.

Once we stopped wandering around in the snow and came back inside, one of the first things to greet us on twitter was this:

That footage, shot by photographer Angela Kelly, stopped us cold (ha!).

A bubble in an inhospitable environment survives by accumulating ice crystals. Crystals appear, one by one, as the bubble struggles against this hostile environment. They grow, as much as they are able, and most likely in ways and environments they hadn’t anticipated.

(There’s a joke in there somewhere about “snowflakes” and current politics that we’re not even going to touch.)

Known as “the snowglobe effect”, the process is actually kind of violent: as a bubble continues to grow, in freezing temperatures it also freezes, with the still-liquid parts ripping ice crystals off the frozen parts and tossing them around. Which… may feel kind of familiar to educators.

It shouldn’t, no, but after the past year, it probably does.

And that’s the energy we’re moving forward with right now: one crystal at a time, one bubble, one breath. Growth that depends on adapting to an inhospitable environment. Growth that depends on coming together as best we can, even when we’re prickly and icy and fraught.

And that takes slowing down. It takes being in the moment. It takes prioritizing today, this morning, the next hour, the next sip of coffee. The very next breath.

It also means letting go.

Small, intense focus necessarily means letting go of the longer term stuff *for now*. What with Everything Going On Right Now, trying to hold onto everything that was and that could be — both good and bad — feels overwhelming.

To-do lists that cover a day first, rather than a week. And when that feels like too much, to-do lists that cover a morning, or the next hour. Whatever makes right now feel manageable. Because the past year was so extraordinary, it’s time to regroup, and slow down. Reconnect with our purpose as an organization, and as citizens in our own extraordinary communities. Revisit why we do what we do.

Even when that means saying no to extra activities. Even when that means not becoming an astronaut this year, or the next. That letting go of things makes more room for people. That one breath can be used to say hello, how are you, to our colleagues, and to students and their families.

No, the next breath says, “How are you *really*?” Because we’re thinking of you and holding you in the frozen bubble of our right now.

One breath at a time.

We’re seeing a lot of focus in this particular new year on choosing a word for the year. Vermont superintendent Brian Ricca has written a powerful piece on choosing “Connection” as his word for the year. We also love Lucie delaBruere’s “Regroup”, and are enjoying the powerful energy of everyone jumping into the #OneWord2021 stream.

But we’ll just sit over here and think for a bit on what one word could, for us, encompass so much unknown and so much that needs to be done, fixed, broken, fixed better, gathered, mourned, celebrated and boggled at?

This morning it might be “flexibility”, but looking at the day’s to-do list, we’ll get back to you tomorrow morning with any changes.

(You might say we want unlimited re-takes on choosing a word for the year. That’s true; that’s one of the things we’ll become proficient at this year.)

One breath at a time.




For your convenience, an audio version of this post is also available below.


“Because internet”: learning to communicate in different online spaces

When is a “lol” not a “lol”? Would a “ftw” hit as hard by any other name?

Two things:

  1. Shakespeare’s now spinning in his grave like a turbine, powering most of greater Stratford;
  2. That’s absolutely fine with us.

Language evolves. It grows and bends and twists and curls back on itself like you wouldn’t believe. And nowhere is this more evident than online.

If you, like us, are “an old”, this may be alarming.

You may, depending on your geological age, remember being instructed never to end your sentences with a preposition. Or you might have learned the correct forms of address for a business letter or a job application, or memorized when to use “that” versus “which”, or bemoan how, like, “like” appears in like, every sentence you’ve heard in like, forever.

Here’s the thing: all these rules or norms are correct, and all of them are out-dated.

The internet changed everything, and it’s here to stay.

The more people began to have to type, the more that entering characters on a computer keyboard or virtual phone keyboard changed person-to-person communication. In large part, that’s because people’s brains think faster than they can type. So the internet caused language to evolve in ways that reduced the number of characters in words (looking at y’all, flickr, Razr, and TikTok) and reduced the number of words in sentences. The internet opened up entire worlds full of shiny things, which added a dimension of excitability and wanting to see all the things in a way that made determiners such as “a”, “an” and “the” much less enticing.

Why? Because internet.

Plus, back in ye day, you had bandwidth constraints, so rather than pay to send multiple texts, you tried to squish the whole thing into one. Remember when tweets could only be 144 characters long?

(The internet also brought us 133t $p34k, but the less said about that the better.)

because internet : leetspeak

The other thing about talking online is that when you’re communicating via screen, you can’t see each other’s faces. So historically, to try to minimize being misunderstood, emojis leapt onto the scene (originally typed out using punctuation marks), and each different online space developed its own norms for communication. Norms, different than actual grammar rules, pertain to acceptable and expected language use. For instance, you expect very different communications norms for commenting a collaborative Google Doc, than you do commenting a Facebook post.

And now think of just some of the different online spaces where we communicate:
  • Commenting collaborative Google Docs
  • Asking a question in the chat box during a videoconference meeting
  • Asking a question during a livestream event
  • Facebook Groups, Pages & Posts
  • Tweets
  • Instagram posts & comments & comments on Stories (oy)
  • Fan fiction forums
  • Email
  • Texts and SMS
  • Ravelry knit-a-long forums
  • Gmail’s new poking functionality where you just choose a canned response and move on
  • Gif reaction threads (double oy)
  • Blogposts on such fine fine blogs as this
  • Commenting on blogposts such as this one

And therein lies the issue.

All this means that we’re going to have to help students learn different norms for navigating online spaces.

Now, this can be confusing for us as educators, because half the time we ourselves are learning the norms of a space.

But for better or worse, knowing how to communicate online — respectfully, clearly and well — is a skill that isn’t going away anytime soon. It’s a 21st Century professional skill.

Let’s tackle two very, very big online communications tasks: videoconferencing, and commenting.

Let’s start with the comments.

Don’t read the comments.

It’s long been an accepted anthropology maxim that health and happiness depend on never ever reading the comments section. But what if that wasn’t true?

We encourage students to blog as part of reflection. We encourage students to blog updates to their PLPs, to document their research work, and as contributions to group work. And part of that is encouraging them to comment each others’ blogposts.

But that’s a pretty wide-ranging assignment.

Commenting the work of a colleague or peer is very different from leaving a comment on Uncle Joe’s Facebook post, or leaving a comment on an “influencer’s” YouTube video. But you can break it down into two overlapping realms: audience and platform.

Who’s in the room?

When we leave comments for peers and colleagues, it’s just as if we’re in the classroom. A blogpost or a collaborative Google Doc is a piece of writing shared by someone you’re in a professional relationship with. If learning is your profession (so to speak), then both educators and students are your colleagues. There’s an informality to commenting — you rarely begin a blog comment with a formal salutation, for instance — but that informality doesn’t extend to internet acronyms or emojis, unless it does.


If you have created a space where you have talked about:

  • emojis;
  • how they are generally interpreted;
  • how they can be interpreted and misinterpreted (please note that article will likely be out of date six weeks from now, because internet)
  • what you all as a community will agree on as a “lexicon” of emojis

Then emojis may be perfectly acceptable in comments. But! It’s important to note that you all can’t assume that anyone outside your learning community will agree on your emoji definitions. Leave them out of comments in general?

Again, who are you leaving the comment for, and where.

Here are some good prompts for scaffolding a discussion of how to comment each other’s work:
  1. Do you know each other in real life? How have you spoken with this person face-to-face in a similar learning situation?
  2. What kind of a learner are you? How does that factor into what kind of feedback you find most valuable?
  3. Do you have anything to add to our comments policy?

Ah, yes. The Comments Policy.

We have found, through six years on this here blog, that it’s helpful to have an official comments policy. It can be fairly simple (“Be kind. No swears or hate speech. You have to sign in. Management reserves the right to follow up on comments at its discretion”) or more detailed, but having a document at hand that spells out both the expectations and consequences is invaluable.

“I don’t know what to say”

Here are a few commenting prompts to get you started:

  • One Thing: one thing you liked about the post, one thing that made you wonder, and one thing that made you want to know more. “I liked how you cited your sources. I did wonder whether the math is correct on those demographics. I’d be interested in hearing more about the school’s plans for handling traffic in the new circle, though.”
  • Yes And: add a new piece of information to the post. “I loved this post about community radio! Did you know: there’s a new community radio station being built one town over. I’m doing my Passion Project on it!”
  • One Wish: If you could change anything about the situation you describe, [panda conservation, alien invasion, water filtration], what would you change?
But don’t take our word for it…

Los Angeles-based educator Linda Yollis sat down with her students, and they explain what the parts of a good comment can look like, along with additional prompts and demonstrations!


Am I muted? I’m muted.
…I’m not muted? Oh, ^%#$%#$.

After this pandemic’s over, let’s all take a six-month break from Zoom meetings of any kind. Six months, minimum. Face-to-face meetings only.

But until then, let’s talk about scaffolding communication norms for videoconferencing!

We’ve all, at this point, heard apocryphal stories of Zoom meetings dissolving into utter chaos for one reason or another. Some of those reasons will be entirely out of your control. Perhaps a student is minding siblings in the background, or needs to be monitoring a stock pot while y’all debate the socioeconomic pressures exerted on the 1850 trial of “Bristol Bill” (Vermont history, anyone?) or the bandwidth bonks, or any number of other chaotic forces intervene.

Setting those types of things aside, you likely approached the arena of meeting via Zoom with your classroom norms in hand, and those may or may not have been sufficient for keeping your sessions organized.

Now, in general, humans learn early how to take turns. We learn how not to talk over one another. And then technology comes along with a shiny thing and our tiny monkey brains get overwhelmed and we (briefly) forget everything and have to start over.

Again, take it back to your classroom norms.

Post them somewhere prominent — maybe have them up and shared on your screen when everyone else arrives.

This is standard operating procedure at this point for online conferences. When attendees arrive, conference organizers go over the Code of Conduct and take questions on it so that everyone knows. Clarity is kindness. And in this case, you’re prepping your students in a ritual that is becoming and will become more commonplace in the future. Well done!

Hey, let’s talk about the chat box.

*removes lid of box labeled Chat, mouthes ‘oh no’ as multiple evils fly out*

As an organization that hosts monthly online events, part of our planning process involves who, specifically, will be responsible for monitoring the chat box. Chat, in videoconferencing, generally has three functions:

  1. To solicit written responses to a question posed by whoever’s speaking on Zoom;
  2. For attendees to pose questions to the speaker on Zoom without a spoken interruption;
  3. For attendees to communicate with each other during the course of the Zoom activity.

In general, when we assign someone to monitor chat, it’s to pay the most attention to that second function. Attendees — your students included — always have thought-provoking questions that can add to the discussion. Plus, that first function’s a doozy: you can take attendance, or measure engagement, or crowd-source ideas for the next section of the activity.

That’s the good bit about chat.

The more challenging aspect of the chat box comes from, by and large, that third aspect. Don’t get us wrong: it can absolutely go well, such as when a student requests clarification and help and another student answers that request right there in the chat, thus confirming that they both now are on task and ready to tackle the activity.


What happens when the chat gets clogged with conversations that are off-topic, or worse yet, entirely derailing? It’s one thing to blog about your alien conspiracy theories, and quite another to begin expounding on them in the chat box of the 3rd period algebra Zoom.

Here are some strategies you can employ:

  • Decide to stop then and there and focus on the side conversation. Perhaps it’s actually adding in some way to the main conversation. Perhaps it’s important enough to step in and talk to the participants involved. You know your students and your learning community best.
  • Have a norm that specifies how chat should and shouldn’t be used, and draw attention to that norm. Put the norms back up on screen if you need.
  • Turn off chat.

Yep, we said it.

This is, in fact, a lot.

It’s so much that indeed, if you feel like your life would be easier if you didn’t have chat around until you have all your norms in a row, no one will blame you. You can absolutely turn off chat in Zoom.

because internet: disabling chat in zoom

The key, though, is to turn it back on once you have the additional support you need to make it productive, whether that’s additional personnel, or revised norms, or a revised norms discussion, or remediation with the students that need more support. These instructions will work just as well at turning chat back on. Because at the end of the day, students are going to need to know how to conduct themselves in this particular online setting.

Is it KIND? You know the drill.

Your students are amazing. They’re funny and loud and smart and creative and perplexing. They’re opinionated and strong.

And you? You’re even more amazing, because they look to you for guidance and support. And before you all even got on devices, before you logged in for the very first time to your Google Classroom, you all sat down and talked. You got to know them. You did some identity exercises.

As you built your tiny community of learners, you set some classroom norms. As a community, you talked about the ways you each wanted to be treated, and codified them. You came up with a restorative plan for when things went wrong.

And we know you’re doing your level best to create a welcoming, inclusive and supportive learning environment for your students.

The late great Ned Kirsch, longtime educator and Vermont superintendent, used to insist that digital citizenship is just citizenship, but online.

And he was right.

The way we treat each other online — the way we believe we *should* treat each other online — reflects the way we treat each other offline. Even when things get awful and we’re all frayed to a worn nub by the mere thought of one more Zoom meeting.

Boiled down to one guiding ethos:

Is what you’re writing, in chat or as a comment to a blogpost, in that email requesting a project update, or that post to a forum announcing you may have found an error in a pattern, is it kind?

Scottish comedian Craig Ferguson unpacks it here. Before you say anything, in person or online, ask yourself:

  • Does this need to be said?
  • Does it need to be said… by me?
  • And does it need to be said by me… right now?

Additionally — and this is relevant — perhaps the most powerful phrases in any language but especially English and especially online, are:

  • “Please.”
  • “Thank you.”
  • “If I’m understanding you correctly…”


  • “I’m sorry.”

All of which carry just as much weight online as they do face-to-face. Because no matter online or off, we all need to learn how to be kind, and reach out to one another. But that’s a topic for another blogpost…

5 keys to a successful virtual parent night: 2020 edition

How do you blend a time-honored tradition and an unprecedented moment of social, civil and personal upheaval? Carefully. Very carefully. So, in order to make lemonade from 2020’s truckload of lemons, currently broken down in the fast lane of our lives, let’s look at 5 keys to a successful virtual parent night.

1.Provide choice — for both educators and families

Model what you offer learners and provide choice for families.

Choice can look like different platforms, or different times.

Choice can look like some families not showing up to an event but reading all the handouts diligently and asking questions in your Slack channel. (Hey! Choice can look like a Slack channel instead of a Facebook group!) Not everyone is going to have the spoons right now to attend attentively, but as y’all are diligently using The Scott Thompson 17 Methods Of Family Communication bingo cards to stay in touch with everyone, we know you’ll catch up with those families another time.

virtual parent night

And what’s the best way to offer and act on those choices?

2. All hail the feedback loop

Ask ahead of time what your families need, act on the data, then close the loop with exit tickets.

It can in fact, be just that simple.

Methods on offer: Google Forms sent to family emails, paper forms sent with students or via US Mail.

Sample pre-survey questions could range from most convenient times to preferred video-conferencing (and non-video-conferencing) platforms. Questions on individual student progress, and questions on school policy. Much of this is exactly the same as the pre-surveying you’ve been doing with more traditional parent nights.

And then after parent night, sending out a survey can not just tell you how well you pulled it off, it can also tell you what additional topics families wish you’d covered, or where there’s still some confusion.

Best of all, it’s a way to invite families to continue the parent night conversation with you. Everybody loves being asked for their opinion!

3. Prep as much as you can in advance

Time flies when you’re having trouble finding the “mute” button.

A one-hour virtual parent night will whip by. Time will do wild loop-de-loops; you will struggle to fit everyone’s questions in. Y’all know this. So, take the opportunity to prep as much of the information you want to give families in advance. It will give them time to pre-read, if they’re pre-readers. It will give the people who can’t make it access to the information as well, and it will save your together time as a community for genuine interactions.

Here is a fabulous example from Newark School, in West Burke VT:

virtual parent night

Look at all the information in Newark’s agenda! Links to tutorials and parents guides, schedules and remote plans, and — be still our beating hearts — a Code of Conduct.

(That’s not a joke; Codes of Conduct are incredibly helpful documents, never more so than as we all began spending so much of our lives shouting at each other through lighted, moving panes of glass.)

So in addition to providing this information to families for pre-digest, the document also lives on as an amazing quicklinks resource, after the event! We’d copy that agenda to our Drives in a heartbeat.

Now, we know what you’re thinking: that looks like a *ton* of work, and it is. So. Who do you know who might be interested in writing or recording some tutorials, or tech guides for families?

We’ll give you a moment there…

….rhymes with “shmudents”…

That’s right: students.

Bear with us but: what might it look like to ask your students to write up a Zoom Code of Conduct for their family community?

4. Make it accessible

Embrace accessibility. As we are now all highly dependent on these beautiful beautiful screens for a further couple of months, we’re all becoming much more aware of the accessibility needs related to technology. If you’re going to have a spoken presentation, find out your options for including an ASL interpreter or even getting real-time, CART captioning services.

Include in your pre-event survey any needs for translators. Translation services exist in your community and online both.

Other aspects of accessibility may be less obvious.

But for instance, avoid scheduling your virtual parent night on a high holy day (there are a bunch coming up). Yes, we’re talking about Hannukkah. But we’re also talking about Diwali, Solstice, and Veer Samvat.

Consider re-labeling your virtual parent night as “virtual family night”, as not all students live with their parents. Families take many forms.

Another aspect of accessibility involves choosing the method of virtual delivery for parent night. Platforms or tools that require very modern software or hardware, or lots of bandwidth can unintentionally exclude families who don’t have access to all those things. Offer a phone line option, and record your presentations or conversations for sharing with families who aren’t in attendance (standard consent rules apply for digital recording.)

Phew! That all sounds like a lot, right?

It is, and it’s worth it to make sure all your students and their families feel welcome and can actually access your well-planned and successful virtual parent night.

And again we ask: do you have any students who might be interested in helping plan virtual parent night? Any students passionate about community activism, or disability rights, who might love to research these topics and their implementations?

Sure you do!

And as a bonus, they’d love to get school credit for it. Go off. Turn it into a whole unit, tying to history and public policy, and funding-based math and school boards.

Proficiencies? Transferable skills? WHY NOT BOTH, Y’ALL. Why. Not. Both.

5. Most of all, make it manageable.

Your virtual parent night is going to be amazing. So whatever else you do, y’all, make it work for you and your team or staff. Parent nights are about families, but they’re also about you.

Look, everyone in a classroom, near a classroom, or managing a classroom is about on the ragged edge of having had the smooth rock enough already. Everything’s on fire, everything hurts.

The solitary fact of you pulling off a virtual parent night — whatever that looks like? Is enough.

Hats off to you. You’re doing a great job.

De-Colonizing Your Thanksgiving Curriculum


De-Colonizing Your Thanksgiving Curriculum is the title of an interactive online workshop for educators offered in late October and early November of 2020. It is a collaborative project of Gedakina, the UVM Institute for Innovative Education, Shelburne Farms and Vermont Learning for the Future. The courageous  co-facilitators of this webinar are Judy Dow, Emily Hoyler, Jeanie Phillips and Aimee Arandia Østensen.

An Invitation to Question Tradition

The “First Thanksgiving” is something we’ve learned about since we were small children. Happy times, family, food and football seem to be the theme for the day in many homes.  There are books brought to the forefront in libraries and bookstore windows, and special foods like pumpkin bread, apple cider and cranberries that line the end caps of the shelves at food stores. Holiday shopping ads, with everything from airfare sales to big screen TV’s blast every digital device we own. All of these things contribute to the misinformation and disinformation around this holiday that we first learned about as children.

As educators, what can we do to decolonize the myths that encircle our traditions around the “First Thanksgiving?”

Along with the problem of perpetuating myths, stereotypes and the whitewashing of history, Thanksgiving presents an opportunity to teach the essential skill of critical thinking and to expose students to the power of multiple perspectives.

Here is a gift of resources from us that will help you to see this holiday in another light and hopefully contribute to changing the cycle of myths that people in this country have found themselves embracing year after year. Why? Is it because the holiday brings us together as a family to give thanks? Or maybe it’s because we never bother to question what we’ve been told? Can’t we remember that to understand another perspective we must “question authority”?  Let’s hope so.

Develop a Classroom Gratitude Practice

How do you show gratitude and give thanks in your daily life? Thanksgiving promotes the idea of a day of gratitude. For Abenaki and other native people, gratitude is a daily act.  Many teachers are finding small and large ways to weave gratitude into their classroom culture. It may be as simple as holding space for a gratitude circle at the beginning or end of the day or expanding the exploration and expression of gratitude into a writing practice or art project.


  • Giving Thanks: A Native American Good Morning Message by Chief Jake Swamp
  • A Rhythm of Gratitude by Elizabeth Barbian in Rethinking Schools
Explore the Diversity of Passed-Down Traditions Celebrated in your Community

The ways in which families and communities come together to celebrate is vast and diverse. We need to challenge the assumption that there is a singular way that “we” celebrate any given holiday or moment in our lives. Start by investigating the multiple ways of celebrating that are alive within your own classroom. For example, consider asking your students to do some intergenerational research on a dish that is significant to their family during holidays. How is this food connected to the backstory of my family and our geographic and cultural roots? Create a class cookbook to share their findings. The key to doing this type of work successfully is creating a trusting and safe space where all experiences and voices are welcomed, valued and respected. You may be surprised by the richness of experience within the circle of your classroom community.


Celebrating Our Roots: Multicultural Recipe Book, a project of the Burlington School District

Cooking with History by Judy Dow

Deconstruct historical myths and critically assess your sources

Our actions can either perpetuate the status quo or act to shift perspective, understanding and culture towards decolonization. It’s important that we do this in an informed way. Taking a critical look into the stories we tell and traditions we pass on to our students is the starting point for re-envisioning our curricula. What would it take to get underneath the myths and surface a more accurate history? We suggest searching for primary sources from multiple perspectives. As you do that, don’t forget to ask:

  • What is this a primary source of?
  • Does my view of valid and reliable sources stem from a colonial mentality?
  • Whose story is being told? By whom?
  • Whose perspective is missing?
Examine your own perspective and teach many perspectives

As unique individuals, our present day actions and decisions stem from the unique quilt of the stories, beliefs and knowledge we’ve gathered along the way. In order to shift what and how we teach, we must first shed light on our own internalized structures and biases. What do I carry within me that hinders my contribution to the process of decolonization? What do I carry within me that is a gift in this work? Who else can I and my students learn from as we examine our curriculum together?


Our gift of resources to educators as you tackle this essential work is much greater than this! We invite you to connect with us to do the challenging work of decolonizing your curriculum in community with others. We also invite you to watch the recording of our recent webinar on this topic, paired with the slideshow which is also packed full of resources.

With gratitude, hope and resilience,

Judy, Aimee, Jeanie and Emily

4 tales of outdoor education in Vermont


What does outdoor education and place-based learning look like right now? One of the recommendations from leading health officials is to conduct classes outside. But what if you’ve never done that before? What if you could use some pointers? How are other educators tackling this topic? And why should we keep taking students outdoors, even when the pandemic is over?

We sat down with a panel of educators from around Vermont, who provided some advice, pointers, and stories from what they’ve found works for outdoor education.


This article was originally presented as a webinar in the 2020-2021 Tarrant Institute Professional Learning Series.

Resources from the webinar are available here.

1. What is place-based education?

Aimee Arandia Østensen, outdoor education

Aimee Arandia Østensen
Shelburne Farms
Shelburne VT


“My name is Aimee Arandia Østensen, and I work as a professional learning facilitator in education for sustainability at Shelburne farms and Shelburne Vermont. I’m currently coming to you from the ancestral, un-ceded and contemporary lands of the Haudenosaunee people of New York State.

What is place-based education? So there is no singular definition of place based education; it’s an evolving practice and approach.

But for this session, we’re going to use this definition from the Promise of Place website:

“Place-based education (PBE) immerses students in local heritage, cultures, landscapes, opportunities and experiences, using these as a foundation for the study of language arts, mathematics, social studies, science and other subjects across the curriculum. PBE emphasizes learning through participation in service projects for the local school and/or community.”

We find ourselves in an interesting situation right now, where schools and teachers are needing to reinvent how we teach to meet the needs of this COVID-19 crisis. Many schools and teachers are being encouraged to use the outdoors as a site of learning in a time when we need to social distance. While this is a great solution for this crisis, it’s also a great opportunity for many teachers to connect to the practices of place-based education. The benefits go far beyond solving the challenges of social distancing and teaching through this global pandemic. While it does meet the needs of the moment, it can be an enduring piece of our education practices.

I want to take a moment to acknowledge that outdoor learning and place-based education are related and separate practices.

One can be an outdoor educator and not consider place-based education much, or one can be a place-based educator and use the outdoors in a limited capacity. As you see in this graphic, there is an overlapping space between outdoor learning and place-based education for the purpose of this discussion:

outdoor education vermont

We want to expand that overlapping space and explore that overlapping space where outdoor and place-based education are happening simultaneously.

Where does place-based education happen?

This is a graphic that we use at Shelburne Farms:

outdoor education vermont Shelburne Farms Sustainable Schools Project

Place-based education happens everywhere.

It begins with the individual connecting oneself to their space and their environment and their neighborhood.

And as students get older, they might be exploring wider realms of place, from their community out to the globe. There are unending answers to the question of where place-based education happens, but in order to do it, we need to start looking beyond the classroom and beyond the school walls. To explore connections to our curriculum, and what possibilities for taking action and learning exist out in the world.

There is no singular process for place-based education, but we like to consider how we could begin with wonder and carry students through to action by layering inquiry with knowledge, understanding a sense of responsibility, and caring. We hope that students develop a deep, caring relationship with the places they inhabit and the relationships that exist in their surroundings so that they can take informed action right now as students, and in the future as adults– practices and outcomes that we hope stick with all of us. Place-based education helps students learn to take care of the world by understanding where they live and taking action in their own backyards and communities.”

2. Integrating the middle school curriculum outside.

Cliff DesMarais outdoor education
Cliff DesMarais
Flood Brook Union School
Londonderry VT


“My name is Cliff. I teach at Flood Brook School in Londonderry, Vermont. My pronouns are he, him and his, and I’m coming to you from the heart of the occupied Abenaki territory in Southern Vermont.

I’m gonna just tell you a little bit about my story of outdoor Ed down here at Flood Brook School to begin with.

One of my core values is that students really need to feel ownership if they’re going to have any passion for learning.

So I really like to think about the year in terms of cycles; it plays really well into what we teach. When the blackberries are starting to ripen, that’s the time of the summer where I start to think about like: what do I have to get going? What’s going to happen this year in school?

Then here we are a little bit further and it’s apple season. The cider apples are coming in, and it’s kind of the time where you started to see the things coming on the vine and the apples are going out. You’re finally seeing the fruits of your labor. That’s kind of the metaphor of where I’m at right now.

outdoor education vermont Flood Brook School

Here at Flood Brook, we have seen a few different phases of outdoor education.

We started with some service learning in our integrated studies program. Oh, and I teach social studies here at Flood Brook. In the seventh and eighth grade. I’ve been a sixth, seventh and eighth-grade teacher in language arts, social studies, and what we call integrated studies, which is a combination of science and social studies taught through the project baselines.

My seventh graders who I had for language arts, would start with work in the garden with our science teacher. They started by doing writer’s notebooks outside. And we saw this to be a really developmental approach for where our kids were at in seventh grade. And that it would benefit the entire program if we really doubled down on it.

So in phase two, we spent about two years moving out and spending our time out on the campus.

We’ve got nearly 24 acres here at Flood Brook. It’s about half forest and half school, with open fields and pastures. And we took a Forest Friday approach and started what we call “Fridays On The Land”, where students are taking control of some of the stewardship of our campus. They’re working on trail systems, they’re working on the garden help our, our farm to school program. Those kinds of activities.

We also use the social studies classroom for collaborative ethnographies in outdoor education.

We had an integrated unit in our science and social studies class where we connected with a few other schools and some of the local nonprofits here and started telling the story of the people in our place.

And the end goal is that we’re looking to develop a semester-based outdoor education program here. Either a rotation through our middle schoolers or through our entire consolidated district. This is where we’ve been and that’s where we’re going. We focus a lot on character development and how kids socialize both with our classroom community and with the larger Londonderry community. We do a fair amount of social-emotional learning and focus on the skills there and everything.

outdoor education vermont Flood Brook School

And our outdoor ed work uses project-based learning, and really a large focus on transferable skills.

So while we have social studies and science standards that our proficiencies are geared towards, we also have learning scales for them. We spend a lot of time talking about how this shared experience can contribute to a kid’s ability to clearly and effectively communicate. To problem-solve, to be an engaged citizen.

So when they’re out on the trails, they get to problem-solve and try to figure out what can we do to improve the land for who’s going to be here next, but also to be an active participant. For instance, we had some students here who had a tree right across our main lane of trails and they wanted to move it.

So it got bucked up with a pulley system.

outdoor education vermont

And we had a full advisory’s worth of six, seventh and eighth graders They used a three-to-one system to learn about mechanical advantage, and they hauled that massive sugar maple right out of the way.

Then, of course, we not only got to use that sugar maple as a balance beam for team-building, but it actually became lumber that was milled at one of our local sawmills, and then got used for student projects. Problem-solving with authentic, transferable consequence.

Which brings me to the here and now.

Right now at Flood Brook, we have a group of kids who are here in what we call Phase One. And as we slowly bring kids back to the middle school, that’s only six kids. But most of their friends are remote learning and there’s this feeling of parts of our community getting different things.

Our Phase One learners masked up and worked on benches. They made some out of wood from that maple tree we pulled off the path. They’re getting to give back in addition to having a safe place, if their parents are essential workers, or if a school is the best place for them to learn. They’re kind of getting a little bit of a taste of what the rest of our students will have in outdoor education when they get back here. We’re all trying to get back outside in a deliberate, intentional manner.”

3. Fire rings and transferable skills in the White River Valley

outdoor education vermont bonna wielerBonna Wieler
White River Valley School District
Bethel VT


“I have two pods of middle-schoolers at the Bethel middle school: a Monday / Tuesday group and a Thursday / Friday group. Everybody else has one pod and does academic work remotely. But I just get kids outside. We’re looking at the biodiversity of life: you can touch anything that’s living and do something with it.

I’ve been doing this with Bethel, teaching outdoor ed for 30 years now. We really want to get kids connected to themselves and to the outdoors and as much nature as possible. We want them not to be afraid of it and to look at it for their solace, you know?

outdoor education vermont goals

We have a system where we’ve got “sit spots” or magic spots, so to speak. The kids will take their journals and their pencils and go up and find the spot they want to hang out in for five to 15 minutes every day that we can.

And they come back different.

They get time to sit with themselves without a big rush. Without the pressure of social stuff going on amongst them. Cause they’re in their own spot.

And then they grow.

They get together and they share that we’re helping with their self-esteem. And I’m finding that every kid who was once way behind or way out in front — and everyone in between — now has some leadership skills that I’m finding we can help nurture.

You watch them very closely when you teach a new skill or get connected with some kind of content area.

You watch them because they’ll spark.

outdoor education vermont

Right now there’s a burn ban in Bethel. But we’d already started building our fire pits.

They go to the woods and they’re developing their own campsites. And part of that, the biggest part, of course, is safety. So anything that has to do with fire has to be extremely safe. We had been putting more than three inches of gravel underneath where there would be a pit. We had been putting a screen over it and surrounding it with rocks or bricks, and having water on hand. But right now we’re not doing any fires because I want the children to really get it; I want them to get that burn ban, and why it’s in effect, even though we did all this safety stuff in advance.

outdoor education vermont

Now, I want to talk a little bit about when Phase 3 for Vermont (.pdf) comes around, where kids will be in the building.

I personally will still be out of the building.

I’m having them send me kids and the teachers, if they will come. We’ll still go back into the woods and be working on our skills and our perseverance and our fortitude, with biodiversity as a topic. But we’ll continue with the negotiated curriculum in outdoor education that we’re doing at this school. The kids come up with what they want to study in their pods. If all the kids have something about animals, for instance, they ask each other: what do they have in common?

Finally, here’s a little bit about transferable skills.

Last fall, we were building a trail. We worked with the Maine Guide Association Certification program.

outdoor education vermont


There’s a middle school and high school program and the high school it’s based out of Maine. Anybody who’s going to be a Maine guide has to pass a certification. But now they’re training the kids, the middle and high schoolers very intensely with very directed and thorough trainings. How to lead trips, and how to be a leader as well as how do you do all the skills and take care of other people as well. So we’ll keep doing that work as well.”

4. Growing an outdoors program at the high school level

outdoor education annie belleroseAnnie Bellerose
Champlain Valley Union High School
Hinesburg VT


“Like Cliff, I’m a humanities teacher. And I come from a background in outdoor education and farming. And this has really just worked for me at the high school level. And it’s very much a work in progress and very much an experiment. But I wanted to talk a little bit about the strengths and challenges of working with a high school age population. I don’t know how many folks in our group right now are working with 9 – 12. And then also just about kind of how to really think about designing curriculum that’s created with place in mind. It’s not: completely moving your English or social studies class outside. It’s more: is place really integrated into what you’re doing?

I’m finding this whole outdoor, place-based initiative is really helping kids develop their own leadership skills and become self-confident, and wise, and caring, and a community member in a way that I don’t see in the classroom.

I think we’re on the right track.

All the teachers are happy.

The kids are happy.

To the point that I worry about them going back in doors.

They’re developing their own projects of what they want to learn and fitting everything else into that.

Of course, getting everybody outside is amazing, no matter what that looks like. In teaching outside, I try to make it as low tech as possible. No screens, essentially. And some of the research and, and film watching is done outside of our class time together. But when we’re present, we’re really present.

Like, yes, we have those folks who were wearing flip flops in December. But I would say for the most part it’s a really wide variety of personalities and backgrounds. Students are really thrilled to be outside.

Often, particularly at the high school level, there’s sort of this idea that you get off the bus or out of your car and you immediately go into the building and you’re there all day. We don’t really come outside. Then maybe you go to sports practice, but that’s pretty structured. But so this idea of play and exploration, and being calm outside I think was really novel.

outdoor education vermont

And kids are really hungry, hungry for that.

Even sometimes it’d be like 45 degrees and raining and we’d sit down in our hoophouse and say like, do people want to go for a walk? What do people feel? And always students said let’s go out and be in the elements. One of the great things about working with high school students is that they are so independent.

For us, it’s been the pace of change that students and teachers have been ready and excited to get outside. Before, administrators weren’t quite as ready to get their heads around what that might look like or how to figure out the logistics of that. But I do think that now is a great time to kind of leap on some of the momentum of that. One challenge that comes with that is: how are you doing it intentionally and thoughtfully?

I could say:

Go do this for 35 minutes. I have a rough idea of where you are, and I’ll trust you to come back.

And I felt really safe and comfortable doing that with them.

One of the things that I was unsure of was: are our kids going to enjoy a sit spot where they’re finding this place where they, you know, sit and connect, and go there every day?

That turned out to be silly, because the consistent feedback from students was that they were pleased with outdoor education and that it was too short.

That chance to play and slow down was so important. Did sometimes people fall asleep in their sit spots? Yes. But that also felt important too. A lot of these kids are really busy and really scheduled, so being able to take a nap in a tree was really rejuvenating for them.

I’ve had the benefit of having a chance to plan with place in mind. And I know that many of us are in the situation of suddenly being thrust outside. But I think that designing curriculum that allows you to respond to the place that we’re in, from the very local level to a more global level, to the news, to who we all are as individuals is invaluable.

outdoor education vermont

The classes that I teach are an environmental lit class with a focus on the literature of climate change (both fiction and nonfiction and poetry), and a climate justice course that really focuses on environmental racism and creative writing on the trail. Both get kids out and about exploring Vermont.

You can still do research.

You can still do really thoughtful discussion.

And you can still use protocols to really get at some of these ideas.

All our learning targets were really connected to communication.

  • How do you clearly communicate about things that you’re passionate about?
  • How do you understand the history of what we’re talking about?

What’s been really satisfying, I think, is seeing how rewarding it has been for students. They talk about the rest of their day differently.

I often teach outside for the first block of the day. (We have a four-block schedule). And that introduction to the day has been meaningful. It brings a different kind of calm and focus for the rest of their school work. So I think that’s been huge.

Also just seeing their willingness to make change.

Whether that’s the whole class pledging to be vegetarian for a semester or going to a protest together or doing some writing as a form of activism, I think just that it’s been really relevant for me as a teacher to see students authentically and passionately engaging with the world.

Another great thing about high school students that I found is that there there’s a real willingness to dive in. A real interest in rigorous discussion and a desire for action. They really want to do something. It’s an interesting balance of supporting them and taking action, but also allowing them the space to slow down and just sort of be. To sort of connect with the place around them. I think a really key thing, particularly at the high school level is to, to know that a slow pace doesn’t mean a lack of rigor.

outdoor education vermont

I was really lucky that I got a chance to pilot a course this summer in the time of COVID.

This was an all-day outside summer intensive. And more than ever, that ability to connect, that ability to be outside and able to socially distance and take your mask off and have some great conversations? We brought a bike chariot along to carry our portable handwashing station and some folding chairs that allowed us to be really movable. We started off simply. A five gallon bucket is great for carrying your stuff and sitting on. Plus it’s waterproof.

The thought I want to leave you with is just that I think place-based education has the power to be so transformative.

Keeping it simple and low tech I think is really helpful. And starting small.

I had initially proposed a much bigger interdisciplinary program, but the administration was reluctant. Yet over time, they became more and more supportive and encouraging. And I think the more students were in those classes and able to share that and talk to other students? The more enthusiasm and support we received from the administration.

outdoor education vermont



4 ways to re-take taking attendance

Because being “present” is very different from simply being here.

Everyone reading this blog has very clearly moved on from beginning each day by simply reading out a list of names and putting a big old checkmark next to each one. Everyone.

Those horror stories we’ve heard, about students being marked absent simply because they turned their webcam off, those aren’t you; you would never.

But maybe you’re looking for ways to mix things up a little, keep it fresh. You’re in luck! Here’s four ways to re-take taking attendance.

1. Judge My Jam

Especially in middle school, music makes the world go round. Your students, no matter how quiet or angsty or vocal, have opinions about music. Throw a harness on that energy and get your attendance taken while also a) bringing your students explicitly into a conversation together, and b) picking up some fly new tunes yourself. (Is “fly” still a good thing? This is an old asking.)

Calgary educator Erin Quinn takes attendance each day with “Jam or Not a Jam?” As students enter the classroom, she has a song queued up and playing, and students use Google Classroom to respond whether they like it (“Jam!”) or not (“Not a Jam!”). It’s simple and brilliant and everyone please go follow Ms. Quinn on twitter @luckybydesign.

Of course from there, California middle school educator Chris Flores remixed the jam idea (yesss) for “Bump It or Dump It?”, soliciting additional student feedback in the chat function, as well as setting chat norms (“feel free to have a conversation there as well”). We love seeing educators build and mix and stretch and create online spaces where it’s clear they’ve thought about how to welcome students in and make a space where they can be their whole true selves. Go follow Coach Flores on twitter as well.

2. Use a Google Form to check on your students’ health & wellness …quietly.

“Maybe one would be nice…”

Y’all know that Burlington VT-based educator Laura Botte is a superstar (video). But among the many amazing things she’s done, Morning Check-In with Google Forms has to be close to the top.

Way back in 2014, Laura set up a Google Form for taking attendance that specifically asked about their wellbeing. Not whether they’d finished their homework, but how they were feeling each day, and what was foremost in their minds that morning. But most of all, the Google Form asks if any student could use a one-on-one check-in with their teacher.


Why? Because a Google Form set up in this manner removes any stigma a student might feel about asking for help. It’s a sub rosa way for students to open the door to a responsible and loving adult who genuinely cares about who they are as a human being and wants to make sure they have all the resources they could need to be fully engaged learners for the day. And using technology in this specific way makes sure even the shyest student has a quiet way to connect with that adult. Laura Botte, theydies and gentlethem. Laura. Botte.

3. A Real World Poll

No, not one where you get to decide who stays in the house and who has to go. Instead, consider the Jam or Not a Jam? example above, but make it current events.

WE KNOW. Trust us: we KNOW.

And yet: your students are not living in a vacuum. They know too. They’re seeing the exact same current events you are, and we are guessing they have a lot of questions.

Let’s talk about those questions.

Polling tools are standard on the Zoom and Microsoft Teams platforms, and hit us up if you have questions on how to get them up and running. Otherwise, you can bring in an outside polling tool such as Mentimeter, throw together a quick Google Form, or just have students respond to a current events poll in the chat.

Don’t feel constrained by the conventional shape of a poll, either. Here’s a simple visual one from instagram:

Yes, that’s a very narrow and possibly less compelling version of current events, but now you have a lovely template to make your own from.

And it really just comes down to using this attendance time to get to know your students better. The better you know them as learners in your community and theirs, the better you can help remove roadblocks to them being deeply engaged learners.

4. PLP? Yeah You Know Your Students

As we’re all aware, your students’ personal learning plans, their PLPs, are living, breathing documents that they have open throughout the day, the better to pen journal entries, upload quick photos, or take notes for future plans. Or… they could be.

Students at the Fayston School, in Fayston VT, have crafted some amazing personal reflections in their PLPs.


students tell their PLP stories

Now, asking students to craft a full journal entry right as they come through the door might be a little much. But what about:

  • What’s one word you’d use to describe where you are with your project right now?
  • Where would you like to see your project go today?
  • What are you most focused on today?
  • What do you see as the biggest challenge for moving forward with your project?

It sets up a routine of bringing each student’s personal learning plan or project into the day from the beginning. After that, where they go can be entirely up to them.

It’s okay to just be here right now, but it’s better to be present.

In other words: why are you taking attendance? Is it to know how your students are actually doing, or is it just to tick a box?

…now kick it up a level to your building team: how do they know who’s in the room?

How do they count which educators show up, and which are absent? How do they make the most of your one precious life? And how do they create a space where you’re more than simply present?

After all, you’re a learner too.

#vted Reads with Jo Knowles

Yeah. Me too.

Everything is a lot. Everything… keeps getting to be even more of a lot, and somehow we expect to throw a smile on our faces and, whenever someone asks us if we’re fine, to pretend we are, instead of saying:

‘I’m sad. I’m struggling. I’m overwhelmed. Please just let me lie here facedown in a carton of chocolate ice cream until next spring.’

Listeners, in all these things you are not remotely alone. I am frequently not okay. I am exhausted. And I just watched my audio engineer projectile-vomit feelings of overwhelm at our colleagues. And I realized we are all in it together; we are all feeling the over-the-topness of this moment .

And it’s not even swimsuit season. And we’re no longer 13! (Thank goodness.)

Today on the show, I’m joined by one of the kindest people I know: young adult author Jo Knowles, to talk about her book Where The Heart Is. It’s a book about love, loss, one-piece swimsuits, and trying to reconcile those feelings of what we think we’re supposed to be for other people, with who and how we really are.

Thanks for joining me again, listeners. I’m Jeanie Phillips, this is #vted Reads, a podcast about books by, for, and with Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

(Unless you don’t feel like it, in which case that’s okay too…)

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me Jo. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Jo: Hi, thanks so much for having me. It’s really an honor to be here and just talk with you today. So! My name is Jo Knowles, I write young adult and middle-grade fiction — or what we often call Tween fiction, these days. And I also have a picture book and picture book coming out next fall, my first one called Ear Worm and it’s about a little worm who gets a song stuck in his head. And he needs to try to figure out who put it there.

I also teach writing for Southern New Hampshire University and their MFA program. It’s called Mountainview MFA and it’s a Low-Residency program. And so, teaching and writing those were my two things.

Jeanie: So a) I can’t wait to get a copy of Ear Worm. That sounds like a great book, congratulations on that. It sounds like a great book to read aloud to our Tween readers even though we think of picture books for younger folks.

Jo: I am so excited. The whole idea is such a silly story, but I had a dream that I had this great idea for a picture book. And then I, you know I got up in the middle of the night and I wrote it all down because I was so excited because I thought it was such a great concept.

And I woke up in the morning and I went to find my notes and I said to my husband, “What happened to the notes I took about the picture book idea I had in the middle of the night?”

And he said, what are you talking about?

…I said: “Didn’t I get up in the middle of the night and write down the story?”

And he said no.

Then I thought: oh my gosh. Did I dream that I had this idea? I was all upset. Anyway, I took the dog for a walk later that day. I was walking in the woods and it all came back to me. So I came home and I wrote it.

Jeanie: I’ve met you several times because you’ve come to my former school library and done amazing work with students around writing and talking to them about your books. And I wonder what it’s like to be a Teen and Tween author — and now picture book author — in a COVID world, where you don’t have some sort of ready access to readers?

Jo: Yeah, it’s very heartbreaking. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. One of the biggest joys about writing for kids is meeting kids and just being able to share, not just my stories but my own personal story. Because I think when I’m doing school visits, when I talk about my own journey to becoming a published author and getting over my own shyness and things about public speaking. That’s when I really feel that connection to kids.

And, you know, sometimes afterwards there’s always at least one kid who comes up and they’re shy like me, and they got brave somehow. They’ll indicate some special thing about them that made them feel close to me.  For me, those are the moments that I just cling to. Especially when I’m struggling with my own work and thinking I can’t do this anymore, why do I do this.

I think of those kids that I’ve touched and I miss that already.

You know, I can still do Zoom visits with kids and that’s fine. But, there’s just something about being able to recognize a kid in the audience with whom you’re making a special connection. Face-to-face or in-person visits allow you to take it to the next step. Allow that kid to come over to you privately and sort of say something that they didn’t feel comfortable saying in front of their entire school or their class.

But you know, we’ll just make up for it when it’s safe again to travel.

Jeanie: One of the things I just heard from you — I heard so many things, but one of the things I want to follow up on is like: writing is hard, even when you’re a writer.

And I remember you talking to my former students about that: that writing is a labor no matter what. And I think there’s this mistaken notion that for writers it’s really easy for them. But, could you talk a little bit about writing being hard and how you approach such a challenging work?

Jo: Well, it’s hard for different reasons, right?

Sometimes it’s hard because the words just aren’t flowing for whatever reason.

And then, sometimes it’s hard because you’re writing a difficult scene. Or you’re writing something that comes from a really personal place and you might feel nervous about sharing that in a story. Or there just might be something where you’re putting your character in harm’s way. You know that that’s part of the story arc, but that’s really difficult to do for anybody who has read, See You at Harry’s, that was certainly the hardest book I ever.

So and I do tend to write about sort of sad or difficult things that happened.

I write realistic fiction. And so naturally most of my stories are about overcoming some kind of obstacle and it’s usually physical and personal. (Most often, it’s also happens to be something I, myself, have experienced and survived.) And so, those moments are usually the hardest part for me.

But then there’s also other times where it’s just getting through the murky middle of a book where you had this great idea or concept and then you’re just sort of,

“How do I get to the end? I thought this book was going one place and now it seems to want to go another place? How do I reign it in and make this a story that’s going to actually be publishable?”

So that’s a challenge.

And then like with my most recent book that I’m still working on right now, Where the Heart Is. There’s a little sister in that book named Ivy. She’s a secondary character. But, I’ve been working on a novel about Ivy, for the past couple of years now. It’s a younger middle-grade, so Ivy is nine years old and just the voice originally kind of came to me as third person.

I wrote it and then, my editor gave me comments. And I revised it.

Then she gave: “Still not there yet. I’m not connecting with Ivy.”

Finally, I had done big revisions. Like, maybe three really big revisions with my editor. And we had a heart-to-heart phone call. And I knew it was bad.

I knew it was something wasn’t working still.

And she very gently suggested that maybe I should try first person instead of third person.

(For any writers listening, you know that that doesn’t mean doing a find and replace. It means starting over. All over again, with a blank page.)

And so I rewrote the entire book again.

But that was it! As soon as I started it, her voice just flowed out of me and it was fun and enjoyable.

And I had come to really dread working on the book! Butthen once I had her voice, it was such a joy to sit down and write again.

That’s another example of when it’s really hard to write. But then I think advice for any writers listening is just allowing yourself to acknowledge that sometimes a book takes more than one try. Nothing is ever a waste of time.

I couldn’t have written that book in first person without having done all the work that led up to it. Because I needed to understand Ivy’s story so fully before I could step into her shoes. I had to write those drafts to really understand what the book was that I was trying to write. Once I did that? Then it was easy. It just flew out of me and it was fun and I loved it.

So there’s a lot of work to writing.

I know some writers can, you know, write a book in a month and I’m so jealous of them. But for me, it’s a much longer process. Someday maybe I’ll get a little bit faster, I don’t know. I’ve written 10 books now and it’s not getting any easier.

Jeanie: Well and so first off, Ivy is just such a likable character in Where the Heart Is that I can’t wait to read her story. She’s a hoot in this book. So I’m looking forward to that one.

The other thing is the reason I loved having you come to Green Mountain Union High School all those years ago — and why I kept inviting you — is because having you and writers like you come and share their story of writing? I think it helps kids see not just in terms of writing, but in terms of other things. Like the way to utilize feedback, to make something better. We think that people like writers for example, are just really good at things, but really it’s all labor, it’s all effort.

And you always told such interesting stories about that effort to my students. And you brought revisions to show them!

Anyway, one more question before we get to Where the Heart Is. Where you as a reader Jo Knowles, what are you reading right now?

Jo: Oh, I am almost finished, I’m actually reading an adult nonfiction book, which I normally I’m just constantly reading middle-grade and young adult books. But I decided to sort of just take a little break and I’m reading this fascinating book called The Man Who Quit Money by Mark Sundeen. He’s a colleague of mine, we both teach in the MFA program at SNHU and oh my gosh, it’s just this fascinating story of a man who decided to give up money and how it’s really about his life, how he came to that decision, but then also how he pulls it off.

Jeanie: I can’t wait. So, let’s get to Where the Heart Is. Could you introduce us to our main character Rachel, either through her voice reading maybe a little bit or just tell us about her and who she is to you?

Jo: Yeah, I mean 13: it’s so hard. And there are so many expectations from your friends, from your parents, from teachers, everybody.

You know like, “Oh, who’s her first crush going to be?” And then they tease, you know, tease each other and all these things. But, we just kind of make assumptions about that, right?

And there’s some kids who are just not ready to have those feelings yet. And I think sometimes they just feel like so confused or like outsiders almost. Because they’re not part of that conversation. Or they don’t want to be part of that conversation yet; they’re not ready to be. Yet for society, it’s just: “You’re this age, so that’s when these things are supposed to be happening.”

That’s really hard.

And then I think it’s especially hard with somebody who has mixed feelings and they don’t even know, you know:

“Do I like girls? Or do I like boys? Do I like anyone?”

It’s such a difficult time for so many kids. We don’t always acknowledge that. We don’t take it seriously. I think we can joke around and be like, “When are the engagement plans?” Not realizing that can actually, you know, be hurtful to a kid who is feeling under pressure for all kinds of reasons.

Jeanie: Right. And friendships are changing. Kids’ brains are changing. Their bodies are changing, right? And in this book, it’s summer time. Rachel’s dealing with like this new pressure around bodies because of bathing suits and swimming, and swimming in the swimming hole. I think it’s easy to forget that kids arrive at all of those changes at different times and in different ways. But they carry a lot of meaning and a lot of stress and strain for kids.

Jo: That’s the other pressure, right? Who’s developing now? Who looks good in a bikini? Or:

“Why are you wearing a one-piece? That’s for babies!”

All these things that people say to each other. They’re not meant to be hurtful, but they can be.

And so poor Rachel, she’s really struggling with so many things because her parents don’t have a lot of money. She can’t really go out and buy a new bathing suit. So she’s got these hand-me-downs and she feels so self-conscious.

I mean that was me, when I was 13, I was so uncomfortable with my identity, my body, like everything. And so I just really wanted to write a character like that because, I think one of the reasons I was so shy as a kid especially at Rachel’s age was, I was so insecure and unsure of myself. And I know I wasn’t the only one. And I wanted to provide a character in a book like that for kids like me, who really wanted to be able to identify with someone who was struggling with all that stuff.

Jeanie: I really see this in the book. Especially at the end of the book this idea of insides and outsides. That’s a phrase I use often, when I need it: don’t compare your insides to somebody else’s outside.

But with Rachel, she presents in one way. Like, all of the adults around her think of her so capable. All of the young people around her think if you have a best friend, everything’s going right for you. And all she can see is the inadequacy of her clothes and how insecure she feels. How uncertain she is about who she is. But the people outside don’t see that about her.

This is from page 254. Her father says,

“You’ve been a wonderful big sister this summer. And you’ve taken on a big responsibility with all those animals. You don’t complain when your mom and I can’t buy you things. And you’re just a good kid, Rachel. And you’re teaching Ivy to be a good kid, too.”

I think about all my internal griping about my bathing suit and hand-me-downs. Maybe on the outside I seem good, but I’m not always so great on the inside.

I guess I love that.

I often feel that about myself like people are like, oh you’re doing fine. And I’m like, oh if you only you could peer inside of my head a little bit or inside my heart a little bit, and so I feel like that’s just part of the human condition. And you really give kids I think somebody to identify with, who seems fine! But who’s really struggling.

Jo: Thank you so much. I may be a little teary just listening to you say that! Yeah… I think social media is another example of that where, I can present myself any way I want on social media. I can show pictures of myself having the best of times. But, you know, I might be really struggling. No one would know that.

And I think that’s the way with so many kids. It harkens back to what I was saying earlier about connecting with a kid in an audience, because when I go and speak at schools, I try really hard to be as honest as possible about my own insecurities. And with what I struggled with as a kid.

Then I always see a little nod, you know, by one of the kids.

I just try to nod back, but not be obvious.

But I want to be like I see you, I see you; I know. We’re connecting. Like, I want them to know that they’re not alone. And that’s why books are so great for kids, right? Because when they see themselves in a book, it’s this moment of recognition where they know… they’re not alone anymore.

So I think the more that authors can write as honestly as possible about what kids worry about — and not trying to create these wholesome perfect characters — but really characters who are trying their best, but aren’t perfect.

Those are the examples I think that our readers need.

And especially with Rachel’s family, just… the financial hardships that they have. The number of kids who have written to me to tell me that they know what that’s like. I was telling a group of middle schoolers where the idea of Where the Heart Is came from which is.. it’s probably the most autobiographical of all of my books.

When I was in — I was older than Rachel and this happened. But. My family’s house was foreclosed on. We had to move out of our childhood, my childhood home, my beloved home.

And I told the whole story of that.

Afterwards, a little boy came up to me and he said, “I am so sorry for the hard time you went through. May I give you a hug?”

Those are the hugs I’m talking about, right? Like that’s — that’s the connection. Because then, I looked to his teacher and asked is it okay if I give him a hug. And she said yes.

But while I was hugging him, he said: “I’ve been through those hard times too”.

It was this moment where I felt like he needed to be closer to me to tell me that secret, and a hug was the way.

Yeah. That’s when I know writing about the tough things in an honest way is the connection that you make with kids. When you’ve done it honestly, they appreciate it,and they can learn from it.

They can — they can see hope.

One of the things that, even though I write about sad things or hard things, I always try to offer hope — realistic hope — in my books. And I think that that too is a responsibility of an author when you’re writing for younger kids. They appreciate it and it gives them hope for their own situation. They’re connecting with you. I felt like even though he was giving me hope by giving me that hug, I was giving it back to him as well.

Jeanie: Oh, I just love that story. Everything about it.

One of the real opportunities of this book is to be shared with kids as a read-aloud. It’s about a family who is struggling economically, financially and dealing with economic pressures. The reality of what that looks like that the parents aren’t getting along all the time. The kids are eating makeshift meals, right? That struggle is real for this family.

And that was already a reality for many Vermont families — and many families nationwide — but it’s a growing reality with the economic pressures we’re under right now because of COVID. Families out of work.

This book feels like a really important thing; a thing where we can talk about these pressures without talking about our own personal experiences …necessarily. That’s really important.

But, I heard from a librarian last year, that their faculty did *not* want to do a class read on The Benefits of Being An Octopus, Ann Brayden’s book because what if it was too close to home for some kids.

Now, having grown up poor myself, all I could think was that I felt seen when I read that book. I would have *loved* to have felt seen in that way as a young person without ever having to confess that my family was struggling. Does that make sense?

Jo: Yes. Yes it does.

Oh that.

Okay. So… when I was a teenager, I didn’t really like to read very much. And one of the reasons I think now, looking back on that, is because books did not reflect my reality. They made me feel bad about myself.

I never had the perfect lives that these kids so often had. You know I love Judy Blume, for example. But I always felt like even though the characters were flawed and they had challenges, they were so safe. Not even just Judy Blume but, many of Beverly Cleary’s books, too.

I never felt like the character was in danger. I knew it was going to be fine, and nothing felt really, really serious, right?

And then when I got older I read The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.

Now, that is a very difficult read. Horrible things happened in the book; the characters are not nice people. But for me, it was the first book that felt honest about what life was really like. It was the first book that reflected my reality. I grew up watching my brother, who’s older than me, get beat up all the time. I saw teachers bullying my brother because he was gay.

That was my reality. That good people “could do bad things”, and that wasn’t present in my, in the books that I had read yet. And that was the first book that moved me to tears. That made me feel real, and that I wasn’t alone. It wasn’t just me who was having these experiences. It was A Thing. Bullying was really a thing, and it wasn’t something that was just, oh someone’s teasing you. But the real depths of what it’s like to be severely bullied.

And so that book just confirmed everything for me. It helped me feel like a real person.

And I, I remember thinking whoever this Robert Cormier is, he tells the truth. I want to do that.

I want to be like that. I want to disturb the universe, you know like famous line in that book.

And so, when I hear that someone might be concerned about sharing a book with a kid, with a story that that might reflect their difficult reality because it would be too hard to read another story about somebody like them? I can’t… I can’t quite fathom how you would come to that conclusion.

Because kids need to know that they’re not alone.

And in books — like Ann’s book — there is hope and they need to know that too.

So, it seems very sad to me that somebody might keep a book from a child for that reason because those are the kinds of books that can really — and I don’t mean to be overdramatic —  but they can save kids’ lives.

I mean, I honestly feel like The Chocolate War got me in a moment of real vulnerability. If I hadn’t had that book and then all of his other books that I read after that one, to remind me that I wasn’t alone? I’m not sure like, what I would have done. Or how I would have felt.

Or even how I would have survived that really, really rough time in my life.

So, no!

If anyone is listening and hesitating to share a book, you could ask a kid for one thing.

For example, See You At Harry’s has a death in it, right?

Now, I was doing a school visit and it was for a middle school. And I was going to talk about all of my middle-grade books.

So, I was going to talk about See You at Harry’s and how I got the idea for that, and Still a Work in Progress, and Where the Heart is.

And one of the teachers, when they saw the slide before the big assembly, they saw the slide of See You at Harry’s and she came rushing over and said, “Are you planning to talk about that book?”

I said yes.

And she said “Well, what are you going to say?”

I told her I was going to talk about my brother, and why I wrote the book. It was inspired by my own experience with grief.

So she said before you do that let me go, talk with someone.

Meanwhile, I am about to speak to 450 kids. I’ve got my speech ready, and I’m not sure what’s happening.

She comes back with one of the assistant principals and they say:

“Well, we have a student and she’s in the audience and she lost her brother last year. We haven’t shared the book with her, even though many of the other kids have read it because we think it will be too disturbing for her to read this book. So, please don’t talk about that book for the first presentation because she will be in the audience.”

Okay! I’m trying my best to sort of figure out how do I respond to this.

Meanwhile, other teachers could see that there was an issue coming up, and so more teachers came over to find out what’s going on.

And then, someone luckily said let’s talk to the guidance person, who’s like a therapist or something. So they went and got the therapist.

Meanwhile, time is running out; I have no idea what I’m going to do for my presentation.

I’m trying to be sensitive and think oh my gosh, you know? But now we’ve gone from teacher, vice principal, principal, therapist.

And the therapist says, “Why don’t we ask her?”

So! Somebody ran down the hall, found the student, told her about my book and what I was going to talk about and she said–

“Oh! I would love to hear what happened to her!”

Because it was a connection.

Somebody finally had also experienced that same kind of pain was in the building. And was going to talk about it.

It was great. It turned out to be exactly what this kid needed.

And well I, I share this story because I understand that the first reaction of these teachers, it wasn’t censorship. It was that they were trying to protect this student mwho had clearly gone through something that was very traumatic and they didn’t want her to be in any pain.

But in doing that they almost lost this opportunity for this kid to meet somebody who had a shared experience with her, who could really help her feel seen.

Thank goodness the therapist went and asked her directly what did she want, what do you think is best for you. You know, she knew the answer to that!

I think we need to trust kids more.

So, yes, if you know that you’re about to share a book with somebody who might have a shared experience and say this might be sad for you to read, or it might be helpful, what do you think?

Let them decide.

We have got to give more power to our kids. Especially when it comes to what they’re ready to read. Because those stories, they help kids grow. They help kids have more empathy for others.

I think that so many of the students in that school then, knowing that their friend had been through something similar, then read the book. Then they really had a better understanding, what it might have been like for their friend. So, we’ve got to keep sharing these stories and not be afraid of them.

These things happen, you know? And for anyone who hadn’t experienced any kind of tragedy yet in their lives, now they know what it could be like. They’re prepared. What better way to experience something difficult than in a book first before in real life? Books help prepare us for all of these things.

And so, yes, it’s hard.

You don’t want your child to read a book and cry, but I don’t know, maybe we do. Maybe we do want them to have those feelings and really under, have feelings of intense caring for others.

Goodness knows, we really need that right now, so.

Jeanie: I just love that whole story and your analysis of it. It just really rings true for me. And I think about if we don’t share stories about a family like Rachel’s family in this book, it’s also an active eraser, right?

We pretend like this doesn’t happen but we know that a large percentage of our students in schools, all over the country and in Vermont are facing economic hardship.

Jo: Yes. And I and, and to kids who are *not* having that experience understand what it’s like. So that the next time they might be tempted to make fun of somebody for whatever they wear to school, maybe they’ll think twice about it and understand that this kid might be going through a hard time. And maybe what they really need is a friend, you know?

Jeanie: Yeah. Well and you brought up See You at Harry’s, and I have to admit that I am a person who reads books to cry. I find that cathartic experience to be an important part.

I think about reading a lot to my son when he was younger — or any children — as less an educational experience and more a shared relational, emotional experience. Because for me, and the books that I read? I put down books that don’t tug at my heart in some way. Or don’t wake me up emotionally, right?

That’s what’s really important to me is that I, is that I’m feeling while I’m reading.

When I read See You at Harry’s, I sobbed *so* gutturally, that my family thought I was hurt or injured, right?

It’s really like one of those books that wrenched me more than any other.

So, thank you for that experience.

You know that sounds crazy, but I was so attached to those characters.

And one of the things I find about your books, Jo, is you write family so well. And as an educator right, it just seems to be we can learn a lot just from how in you write families. So, thank you for the families you share with us.

Jo: …Thank you.

Jeanie: But one of the challenges then, as a reader and I imagine even more as a writer is that I found myself in Where the Heart Is. I could probably say the same about See You at Harry’s in wanting a happy ending, but knowing also that I would be disappointed with a happy ending. I was *yearning* for things to work out for Rachel and her family.

But I also knew that if the rich neighbors across the street bail them out or they suddenly got an inheritance, I would feel cheated.

So, I’m wondering: how do you balance that? How do you love these people and give them a realistic ending?

Jo: Yeah. That’s a really hard question to answer.

Actually, I think my stories are all about — if I’m going to just sort of simplify it — they’re about survival. Surviving hard things together.

When you talk about family, I think things that happen when you’re 10 are going to affect every member of your family. It’s a group experience and you all have to survive it together.

When I think about family and your comment about that, that’s probably why because it’s not just Rachel’s journey. It’s this thing that happens and affects her sister and her parents and her best friend too.

So you have to sort of explore that as the author. You have to explore how would this affect each of these family members differently. How do they come together to get over this hurdle?

And in See You at Harry’s for a large part of the book, they don’t. The mother really retreats into herself; this is a family adrift in their grief. And I think a lot of this part of that book was how they find one another again and realize that the only way they are going to move forward is by figuring out how to come back together again, and live as a family without this one piece that was there and now has gone.

That’s really difficult.

And in Rachel’s case, the father is telling her she’s such a good big sister in helping Ivy through all of this. But! I think part of Rachel’s success in getting through all of this, was having a little sister to rely on and love, and know that she has to be a good role model for her in a way.

The family is all really connected in all of my books because surviving together requires that.

In Still a Work in Progress, the main character, Noah, his older sister has an eating disorder. And the story is so much about how the family is disconnected *because* none of them really know how to be in this situation: walking on eggshells all the time, wondering if the sister will relapse.

And then when she does, whose fault is it? They just want to blame each other and they’re just so confused and lost and helpless-feeling. A lot of that book is about how the family comes back together; that’s where the hope is. The hope isn’t that Noah’s sister has this miraculous recovery and she’s never going to get sick again and she’s fine. The hope is in the coming together of the family members.

I’m thinking about that now. I’m like, oh wow I just write the same book over and over again. But that’s really how it, how it happens, right? Feeling adrift and then finding one another. That to me is the hope in those books.

That’s something that you can give readers who are going through a difficult time: to understand that it’s each other. If you have each other hold on to, you know you can get through this.

That sounds cliché but so often that’s what we have to remember is that you have each other.

And you may have to live in a different house, it might not be as nice as the one you were used to you, but you’re together and you love each other. And you have other days ahead where maybe things will change again.

But really trying to just find love again, when you’re feeling very alone? I think those are some of the themes that I really try to work on. Those are things that I think we can all attain. Some may be more difficult than others but that’s something I can provide.

Jeanie: Thank you for that answer. One of the things I really notice in your writing is the way in which you write your characters — including families as a character —  through this strengths-based perspective, right? Like you’re always looking for the places they’re capable and strong. It makes me think if there weren’t challenges, those wouldn’t show up this much.

Part of respecting your characters is giving them the challenges that you know that they can handle, because they can do hard things.

Rachel and Ivy are prime examples of that, right? They show up. All of the characters in this book, all of the young people in this book? Are given the opportunity to demonstrate all the ways in which young people are superstars. All the ways in which they’re so capable and more than just at helping you when you can’t figure out your phone. They have lots of other things too.

Jo: We have to give kids so much more credit than we do. Sometimes we forget. Especially right now, when I see kids doing super-creative things. They’re stuck at home and they’re finding ways to make the most of it in such beautiful, admirable ways. And that can travel beyond COVID and throughout life. But we need to remember to acknowledge and celebrate those moments because sometimes, they just seem so small but they’re huge. Any moment that you have when your kid does something cool, just acknowledge that.

Jeanie: Or somebody else’s kid. The girl across the street from me does the most beautiful sidewalk, chalk art. And it brings me so much joy on my dog walks because I don’t have a kid in my home and in my daily life right now. But her art is always uplifting and positive, and it just brings me so much joy.

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I finally told her that the other day because I realized I was carrying all this joy from her art inside, but I hadn’t expressed her how much it meant to me the things she chalks on the sidewalk across the street.

Jo: Oh, I’m so glad you had an opportunity to tell her! I bet that meant so much to her. I bet internally that went a really long way and will probably stay there for a long time doing good things. I’m so glad you got to do that.

Jeanie: So, do you have any suggestions about how teachers might use this book in the classroom? Questions they might pose? Problems they might use with students?

Jo: There’s a free teacher’s guide on my website that my publisher put together! (.pdf)

But one of the things that I really had fun doing with kids when I was visiting around, was asking them to write some favorite childhood memories of their own or sharing some special thing about their family. Or a family tradition of some sort that’s unexpected. That only their family does; something like that. Something positive, something that brings them joy.

Jeanie: Like the birthday banner in this book. That seemed like a specific family tradition, they put up a birthday banner for each family member’s birthday in the morning. Is that the kind of thing you’re thinking about?

Jo: Yeah! It doesn’t have to be something huge but some little thing that maybe only their family does, that they think is special. Even describing their relationship with a sibling. The best day you ever had with your sibling. Focusing on something that’s positive.

I try to give lots of examples so students don’t feel pressure to come up with some big thing. It’s the little things that I can pull out ideas from Where the Heart Is that Rachel and Ivy share.

Jeanie: One of the things I love about reading fiction is I think you get to, to real deep truth through fiction, more than with nonfiction. We think of nonfiction as factual but to me like the deep truths are in fiction, but there’s also often in fiction little snippets that I could imagine pulling out and using with the class.

One of them, from your book is on Page 246. It says,

When you learn vocabulary words in school, you memorize the definition. And you have a good idea of what the words mean. But it’s not until you feel them that you really grasped the definition. I’ve known what the word helpless means for a long time. And desperate. But I’ve never felt them. Feeling them is different. They fill your chest with the horrible sense of dread and guilt and despair. Those are more vocabulary words that you can’t fully understand until you feel them.

And so, I’m thinking about using this around vocabulary or spelling or word use or just like what really makes you feel something and feeling about how powerful that little snippet could be in the classroom.

Jo: I like that.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about Where the Heart Is for sharing your story as a, as a person, as a human and also as a writer, and for being so vulnerable Jo. I, I, there’s so much strength and vulnerability and I really appreciate that about you as a writer and, and just the way you show up here and with kids to talk about your books and, and your work. Thank you so much.

Jo: Thank you so much. That’s really kind and means a lot to me coming from you. Thank you very much.

I just know that right now, while kids are transitioning from Zoom to classrooms and then back to Zoom as things have been flowing with the virus that, I hope that we can give kids the space to feel like they can just get lost in a story and that that’s enough.

I know we always talk about how do we use the book in the classroom, but sometimes, I think we just need to share these stories and let them, and let that be sometimes enough that we are connecting through feeling, going through a journey all together.

So, sharing books out loud, reading to each, reading to kids no matter what age, I think that that’s one way to feel connected at a time when we feel so disconnected. Stories have always brought us together. And I hope that we try to hold on to that and allow space for that as we are pressured to have all of this education time. Stories are always teaching us so many things, and I think that’s probably enough just to experience them together.

Jeanie: I love it. I’m all for the marketing campaign, stories as self-care and community care.

Jo: Perfect. I will make that T-shirt.

Best practices for videoconferencing with students

In some way, shape or form, we are all going to be using videoconferencing with students in the near future, to some extent. And while many of us have experience with this situation, as the situation around us continues to evolve, we feel like it’s helpful to think about basic understandings. Namely:

  • What do you want your students to take away from video-based interactions?
  • And what are your goals for these conversations?

Inviting vs. compelling

We’re seeing a lot of discussion of how to get students to keep their cameras on. So much discussion.

And yes, absolutely: being able to see your students’ faces is vital to gauge how engaged they are with the session. Whether they could use clarification, what could use a change-up, and even just taking basic attendance.

But look at the framing of this goal: “How can I get my students to keep their cameras on”. The goal contains an element of compulsion. Students *must* turn their cameras on, or the sun will boil into the sea and plunge us all into a hundred years of darkness.

What if, instead, we held the goal of

“How can I create an online session where students want to be fully present?”

You’re all already doing that in your classrooms. You’re creating vibrant, welcoming spaces to hear student voice, a space where student choice matters and has real consequences. And you’re dedicated to knowing your students as people in order to connect with them as learners.

So let’s just take that to our Zoom rooms.

Empathy rocks!

When was the last time you, as an educator or as a homeschooling parent, took an online class? (Yes, webinars count.) How did the instructor or presenter treat you? What did you take away from your role as the student?

Slipping back into the student role on a regular basis not only powers up your professional skills (and your non-professional ones; shout-out to everyone making time for hobby classes!) it also grounds you in remembering what it’s like to be a student.

That grounding, that bone-deep empathy borne of being a student in front of a monitor, can provide eye-opening lessons.

Or jaw-dropping ones.

A Case Study

Dawn Kasal Finley, a bomber high school educator, recently recounted her experience taking an online course. Spoiler: she was not treated awesomely.

Among the many issues she identifies in this twitter thread:

  1. The instructor mandated student cameras stay on — even while students were eating;
  2. The instructor commented on the background visible on Finley’s Zoom;
  3. Students were randomly forgetting to mute — which happens — and the instructor didn’t manage Zoom’s amazing “Mute All” feature;
  4. Non-participatory lectures dragged on past 20 minutes;
  5. As a student, Finley wasn’t sure what the goal of each class session was.

Now, we well know that you, educator, would do none of these things to your students.

But these lessons learned all return us to the fundamental guiding practice of respecting students as people as well as learners. Holy cats.

What does it look like to create a safe space inside a videoconferencing session?

Again, we start with empathy.

Every time we enter a videoconferencing space, we’re bringing a host of identities with us. We’re a whirlwind of race, ethnicity, economic status, language fluency, disabilities, and obligations. We are complicated.

Some of us worked a second job last night so we didn’t have time to tidy up the cupboard visible behind us, even though that’s the only chair in the house that doesn’t throw our back out.

Some of us have audio-processing disorders that make us frown or squint at the screen to make out face details. That’s so we can understand the conversation fully.

And frankly, some of us woke up on the wrong side of the bed this morning and can’t find our slippers, coffee, or the dog. We may not have arrived at class in the best of moods.

So what are the conditions that we can create as educators, so that all the students named in those situations feel welcome? Feel wanted. And feel compelled to participate.

Clear guidelines for the win


These reframed rules are the best practices for videoconferencing with students. And with colleagues, and families.

If you’re cold, or hungry, or you have to pee, or you need to stretch / bounce / growl / shimmy for a moment, go for it.

If you need to blur your background, go for it.

And if you need to take a moment, that’s one thing 2020 has by the bucketload. Go for it.

Back to those goals we mentioned

With all this in mind, perhaps answering the question about our goals for videoconferencing with students becomes easier.

What do you want your students to take away from video-based interactions?

We want students to feel welcome in the online space. To feel like their contributions are valuable and necessary, and infinitely more important than what they’re wearing or where they’re looking.

What are your goals for these conversations?

That every student wants to take part in the conversation. That every student appreciates every other student, and appreciates that this world is currently very difficult, but that these remote learning spaces can offer a place to be centered as a learner, and valued as a person.

Students are people. Educators are people, and we’re all doing our best.

This morning, we’re seeing conversations specifically around the idea that Muslim girls could be wrestling with turning on their cameras during Zoom because they’re adjusting to having to wear a hijab inside their homes. This is a valuable thing to think about, as long as it’s followed by the caveat: whatever each individual girl decides on this topic is absolutely the best thing for her.

If a student gets overwhelmed by the amount of time spent in a videoconference and turns their camera off to reset their attention, or get a drink of water, or use the restroom, that is them deciding on the best thing for themselves.

When you see students as people, you are doing your best.

When you give yourself grace, and when you try different ways of creating community and extending care to students and colleagues and families? You are doing your best.

And we’re so glad you’re here.

What can we learn from summer unschooling?

It’s becoming increasingly difficult to think and talk about innovative school change.

It’s difficult to see the start of this school year with a heart that’s anything but desperately worried for students, for teachers and for families. We want this school year to be fruitful in terms of learning, but we’re also shocked and dismayed by the physical danger school communities face in re-opening.

It’s difficult to think and talk about innovative school change, but at the same time, right now it’s pretty hard not to think about school.

When schools let out for the summer, it was a relief.

We saw continued creativity from schools around Vermont in celebrating their graduates. We saw educators around the state have a chance to breathe and cry and relax.

Summer’s a weird time for students. In theory, school’s over, so you can do your own thing. But in reality, school’s over, and that can have a huge impact on the structure and support school brings. Freedom only goes so far when you’re under 18.

But sometimes it goes just far enough.

This summer we saw students making their own way through, and were impressed by their tenacity, flexibility and creativity. We saw students pursue learning in ways that made us wonder: what could we learn from students who pursued their own learning outside of school this summer?

Turns out: quite a bit.

Summer interrupts schooling.

For students, schedules and locations become completely different. There could be freedom to launch a yard work business, such as the one by the Warren VT-based Fretz brothers. Some students work at a family or local business, running cash registers, preparing food, balancing books, raising livestock or changing the world.

Other students see a need in the world and craft a project to address it.

After losing her summer internships, student Lia Rubel, of Barre VT, leaned in on a Yale University project that turns unwanted, aged-out tech devices into lifelines to healthcare for elderly Vermonters. Rubel sourced devices and raised funds and coordinated with others in the national network. Vermont is a better place because of her work.

Students in Winooski VT, formed a group called the Winooski Students for Anti-Racism. En masse, they showed up their school board’s July meeting. Over Zoom, one by one, they spoke of their experiences with racism, and the need for urgent change. They looked at the world and stepped forward to make it a better place.

In the summer, community organizations, too, step up their game, opening additional service pathways for students. The Vermont Youth Conservation Corps (VYCC), for instance, this past summer increased food deliveries around Washington County to alleviate food insecurity this summer. Young adults perform various tasks around the VYCC’s food stand and farms.

Students stay busy in summer, is what.

They stay involved and curious and relaxed and hard-working and loud and energetic. They keep going.

And when pandemic things happen, students stay flexible. They double down.

In Essex, VT, brothers Nathan and Henry Wu had been touring Vermont, performing classical music on cello and violin at libraries around the state. When the pandemic hit, they didn’t want to lose the opportunity to share their passion and proficiency. They’d worked on the library tour for two full years: learning how to communicate and organize events (transferable skill), figuring out a manageable schedule (reflection), determining what to say about the pieces they learned (transferable skill).

And of course, practicing. (Proficiency.)

So, working with the VT Department of Libraries, the Wu brothers put together a Facebook Livestream event for their senior showcase. They taught themselves live-streaming technology. They wrote and published a program to accompany the music. And they had to figure out a comments policy, and learn what Facebook stats mean.

Now, imagine what the Wu brothers’ PLPs look like.

And that’s what we’re asking of ourselves right now, and you too. (Caveat: only if you have the capacity. If you just need to go lie down in the dandelions for a few months and come back? We’ll still be here asking.)

How can a fundamental interruption to the way we have practiced schooling be tied to the way we see students pursuing learning outside the classroom and the school day?

Unlock & encourage Flexible Pathways

When students need to attend school remotely, we naturally ask: what are they doing with the rest of their time? What are they reading, watching, making and learning about? Act 77’s Flexible Pathways mandate creates a way for students who spend their time away from school and screen to “legitimize” self-directed inquiries.

Valid learning experiences can look like:

  • volunteering at the library and developing a new summer reading program
  • teaching Sunday School
  • teaching garlic braiding classes at your family’s farm and producing a video tutorial on it for the farm website
  • building a YouTube channel of PSA remixes you send to local radio stations
  • becoming a published author
  • using a photography drone to map out the species of trees at a planned town development site

Valid learning experiences can look like putting surplus tech devices in the hands of seniors. They can look like developing a series of classical music concerts at local libraries.

And flexible pathways create ways for us to formally recognize those.

They make space for students with big ideas they want to try.

Support PLPs

One of the best parts of working on our blog, our videos, and our podcasts, are hearing stories from students. It’s hard to find an adult who doesn’t enjoy hearing from students — especially when learning is working.

And PLPs are those stories made real.

PLPs with this kind of evidence also can signal to the viewer the expansive skill sets students have mastered. The breadth of skills they can bring to the table. How could we expand the audience for student PLPs? If we think of the PLP as a living, breathing story in motion, what chapters would you want to read? What kinds of stories will captivate students and their families, and make them turn the pages outside of a student-led conference?

Implement robust Proficiency-Based Assessments

A wise old owl (named Susan Hennessey) once told us:

“Systems don’t change until credit systems change.”

We have the power right now to change the way we look at giving credit for learning. Whether it’s via micro-credentials or enhanced transcripts, proficiency-based assessments make it possible for us to design ways of both providing guidance on and pushing students toward skills-based self-directed learning.

And now: a word about equity.

None of this works unless it works for everyone. That’s it. That’s the tweet.

We know that even with Vermont’s progressive Act 77 legislation, we need to keep working on equalizing access to these opportunities for every student. It’s difficult to pursue self-directed learning when you’re struggling with trauma. When you’re crushed by racism. When you’re helping your family put food on the table. Fighting for equity must be part of every conversation on innovative school change.

And right now the best answer we can come up with is to keep fighting.

Put them all together and you get–

You get busy, capable, engaged students pursuing learning outside the classroom and the school day. Students who can show you an array of skills, detailed and accredited. Students who have documented stories to share to back up experience and skills both.

Basically: if we eliminated all the constraints, how could we imagine summer learning opportunities as a blueprint for student engagement?

What are some other keys you’re seeing to unlocking the potential of a disrupted school system during this time?

#vted Reads with Aimee Arandia Østensen

This show is a little different. Listeners, I want you to think of this show… as a pre-show.

Let me explain.

Today I’m joined on the podcast by Aimee Arandia Østensen and we start discussing the book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I say ‘we start’ because once we were underway it quickly became clear that everything Aimee and I wanted to say and feel and share about this amazing book could never fit in one single episode. So I’m going to say this is a beginning of a conversation about outdoor and place-based education, the concept of becoming indigenous to a place, the magic of Superfund sites, and how we are going to encourage ourselves to hold each other *capable*, rather than accountable.

And that means you, listener. I am holding you capable.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, this is Vermont Reads: books for, with and by Vermont educators.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me, Aimee, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Aimee:  Hello, I’m so glad to be here with you, Jeanie. Thanks for inviting me. So I am a first generation Filipina-American educator. I grew up in upstate New York, taught for about 20 years in New York City, as well as in the Catskill regions of New York State. And now I work for Shelburne Farms as a facilitator in professional learning and education for sustainability.

Jeanie: Oh, that’s a great introduction. You are so much more than that! To me, you are like one of those wise humans that I look to as a beacon. Thank you so much Aimee, for joining me.

And I have to admit, I’m really nervous about this episode.

Because Braiding Sweetgrass is one of my very favorite books ever, says the person who really loves books. So I’m worried that I won’t be able to do it justice. And the only thing that is setting my mind at ease is that I’m having this conversation with one of my favorite educators ever: you. And so I feel like, since you’re here, we can do this justice.

Aimee: I feel the same way, Jeanie. And the only way that I can approach this work and honoring Robin Wall Kimmerer’s work is to, as a learner to sit in the seat of a learner, but know that I’m always eternally in the process, and digging more into what it means to be in this world.

Jeanie: Yes. For our listeners who may not have encountered the wonder that is Robin Wall Kimmerer and Braiding Sweetgrass, let’s give a little summary or a snapshot of this book. The tagline is: “Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teaching of plants.”  How would you describe this book for folks who are new to it?

Aimee:  I love how Robin Wall Kimmerer does those three things that she put out there and she gives voice to simply being? As well as the value of Indigenous knowledge. And weaving a contemporary perspective into all of that. So that it has meaning for everyone.

The thing that I love about this book is so much of what she writes in this book is simply about how to be human. And how to learn from the world about what it means to be human in its most exemplary form. And so, it’s relevant to everyone, despite your background and your perspective.

Jeanie: You said that beautifully. I think what I would add is that Robin Wall Kimmerer grew up in New York State.  She is an Indigenous person herself. So, she grows up with this wealth of tradition and knowledge from her family. From her tribe, from her people. And she always knew she wanted to be a botanist.

And so she goes to college, and she has to really fight to get the degree that she wants. She’s not immediately like, welcomed into the scientific community, but she becomes a botanist and a lecturer. And so she has these two really deep fonts of wisdom: this scientific knowledge that she gets as a college student, and this embodied wisdom and knowledge that comes from her people. And the way she weaves them together is so beautiful. And so “both and“. She walks the “both and” way of being in the world.

Aimee: I also feel that in her walking the “both and,” it’s a model for all of us who are not self-described as people who are native to this country, or Indigenous here, to see the past, the present and the future of Indigenous peoples in this country. As well as weaving our own stories into the stories that she tells and shares.

Jeanie: That’s delicious. So, I guess approaching this episode has been really challenging for me, because there’s so much in this book. How do we use it as a tool to inform teaching and learning? Specifically: place-based teaching and learning?

I guess I have this overarching question that I don’t think we’re going to be able to answer in a few minutes but maybe can be the frame for our whole discussion. And that is: How might a teacher use this book to understand the world differently, or to expand their understanding of the world? Very specifically going outside the door to the world in order to inform your teaching practice?

Aimee: I think what Robin Wall Kimmerer does throughout her entire book is speak to this relationship between self and land. Really there’s this underlying sentiment that: what is the quality of that relationship we have with the land? And how does that inform our actions, our decisions for the present and for the future, and the world that we want to create?

And so for educators — especially folks that are embracing, perhaps a place-based education approach — the beginning of exploring how place can be the context for our academic content and the action of learning and teaching? That is the seed of how we design for curriculum. I want to pause there because I’m not sure what I said actually made sense. *laughs*

Jeanie:  So Aimee, I have two questions. And the one I want to start with is: how do we define “land”?

Because there is this idealist inside of me that when you say that? Sees some rolling meadow but maybe not my own backyard, or the space between the sidewalk and the street, out front of my school. Will you just give us a definition of what you mean when you say a relationship with land?

Aimee:  Yes. As an educator who worked in urban settings for a really, really long time, I think of one end of the continuum of what I mean by “land” at this point, could be the neighborhood. Could be stepping outside the door of the school to explore the sidewalk. And what we can discover there on the block that the school is on, looking at the buildings across the street, looking at the buildings we inhabit, from the outside of the school building view.

It can start with just stepping outside and exploring our neighborhood. Maybe walking around the block seeing:

  • what business is there
  • who’s living there
  • who’s walking by

Getting to know the people in the neighborhood and in the area, not just as figures whom we pass by but individuals with stories to tell, and gifts to share.

A relationship with the land starts with opening the door and stepping outside.

I’ve entered into numerous discussions with a shared friend of ours, Judy Dow, who’s an Indigenous educator and scientist — and for me, mentor. And she’s also been a guest on #vted Reads.

We’ve had many conversations, she and I, around the use of the term, “land” or “landscape.” And often in our shared teaching, I would encourage people to get outside and look at the landscape and do a survey of what’s available to you in the landscape that you see. What questions are there? What are the things that we could find out more about?

Jeanie:  I could ask you about the rooster in your landscape whose making a little bit of a racket. He wants his voice heard on the podcast.

Aimee: Yes! *laughs* He is part of my landscape and part of my relationship with this plot of land right here. And he is persistent in his intention to be known, and part of my daily rhythm. I’m welcoming my friend —  I think his name is Fuzzball — to this podcast as well as to this conversation.

So, Judy and I had entered in these conversations about “landscape” as a term versus “land.”

And the difference that I’ve come to understand is: “landscape” is the environment and the way that we experience a natural or built place that has been intentionally shaped by humans.

At Shelburne Farms, where I work, their landscape architect was brought in to create an experience that we have with that specific place. The natural geographic forms and the topography still exist, but they have been intentionally altered so that our experience is with a built landscape that appears natural.

The term “land” as Robin Wall Kimmerer and Judy Dow refer to it, is more all-encompassing. And goes beyond the human formation of our environment to include all of what has been given to us by the natural world. And… all of the relationships that are possible within that site.

I’m hesitating here because I think that there’s a bigger definition that I’m not quite grasping. So Jeanie, I’d love to hear your thoughts on how we might be determining what we’re talking about with land in this discussion.

Jeanie: What I love about this book is that Robin brings us essays from all different sorts of land sites and learnings and teachings. She talks about her relationships with all sorts of land features, right? Or specific places on the land.

For example, a pecan grove becomes a place of story, for learning. The field where she grew up, where wild strawberries grow, becomes this really significant place for learning. The maple trees around her house in upstate New York, and the sugaring that happens there, which we can very much see as a place that many Vermont educators think about when they think about land, right?  And a garden.

But there are also these sorts of unconventional places, I guess I would say. And one of them that really struck me — and I was trying to find which chapter it’s in. But she visits a place where the land is reclaiming what was that like a Superfund site alongside a lake. Do you know what I’m talking about?

Aimee:  I absolutely know what you’re talking about. And that chapter, “The Sacred and the Superfund,” describes the site of my childhood.

I grew up alongside Onondaga Lake and experienced it as a Superfund site. And did not understand that it’s also a sacred site until I had left the area and came into the moment where I needed to start teaching about the native people of New York State, and started learning about the Haudenosaunee Confederacy and that that sacred lake was the site in which the Confederacy was formed, and indeed the seed of democracy in this country.

So it’s particularly interesting to me to explore this concept of relationship to land and place-based education through that lens of *my* relationship to that particular site, and how it is, in some ways, quite symbolic of all of our relationships to specific sites and to land in this contemporary era.

Jeanie: It just makes me think that there’s this part of me that sort of interprets, if we’re going to do place-based learning, the place has to be perfect, or the place has to be beautiful. Right? But recently, there was a story about a landfill on Staten Island that they just let go for 20 years. And the Earth has taken it back.  Right? And so, that’s a place we can learn a lot from. Landfills are a place we can investigate, right? And so just because they’re not pretty, or we’re not proud of those places, doesn’t mean they’re not places that help us learn about our relationship to the Earth and to each other. And that we can’t learn from the Earth and its place and what’s happening there.

Aimee: I think you’re absolutely right, Jeanie, and that with anything that we endeavor to be in relationship with, we can only begin when the conditions are perfect.

We just have to begin now, in whatever situation we’re in, in whatever conditions around us because that’s the only way that we can begin creating a future that’s more sustainable and more equitable and creates thriving conditions for all. And that brings me full circle back to why place-based education is so important.

If we begin to build relationship with the places that we inhabit, from the earliest ages, and as a kind of centering action and education, and that’s how we can start developing the future that we need as a global community and in our local communities, because without being in relationship to the places we inhabit, then we’re creating a parallel, uprooted, disconnected future and pathway for ourselves, which is not a pathway that will be successful in the long-term for all of us.

Jeanie: I think what I’m hearing you say, Aimee, and correct me if I’m not hearing you accurately is that just like, in schools, we work with kids to build community and relationship with each other, and with us as educators because that’s a life skill they’re going to need. That, building a relationship with place is something that’s transferable no matter where they go.

But learning those skills of how you develop a relationship with place is an essential skill for good living.

Aimee:  Yes, absolutely. And I think that is one of the outcomes of place-based education. That the ways that we build relationship and the places that we’re in and with the people whom we share spaces with? And our understandings of the systems that play within that smaller scope? Should be and can be transferable, wherever we find ourselves in the world, as we move through our lives.

Jeanie: I think what really relates to the first essay in this collection. This is a collection of essays and I suspect that you and I can spend days talking about each one. But I want us to highlight a few of those essays. And the first essay in the book right after the introduction is called, “Skywoman Falling” and it’s an origin story from Robin Wall Kimmerer’s people. She’s Potawatomi, is that right?

Aimee:  Yes, I believe that’s correct.

Jeanie: And so in this story, Skywoman falls. And all of the animals are sort of helping create a place for her because she needs the land. It’s really how the land is formed itself, speaking of land, which we were just talking about.

I’m not going to tell the whole story, but when Kimmerer shares it, she says, “Children hearing the Skywoman story from birth know in their bones the responsibility that flows between humans and the Earth.”

And she continues by saying that the story provides a compass. And that the work of living is creating a map for yourself. This seems to me like the rationale we were just discussing about why place-based learning.  And I’m wondering what you think about that Skywoman story and about this idea that we need, stories about place and relationships with Earth in order to create a map of living for ourselves.

Aimee:  I find the tool of map-making and map-reading to be so essential in bridging the gap between self and place.

*Fuzzball crows in the background*

Aimee: I believe my rooster agrees with me.

It’s a tool that can be used from the earliest ages in school all the way through post-graduate level. With the youngest students that I’ve worked with, we often use map-making as a way of just exploring our immediate space. It might be 3D map-building with blocks and different items and arranging them and understanding that we, as individuals move through a space and are in relationship to other things. It’s not just me in this world.

Then as students get older, they start to see the relationships between things that are beyond themselves, and how they’re interconnected.

And then older students begin looking at the multiple layers of systems that are happening within a certain place and understanding how those systems operate independently, but also in connection with one another. With other systems.

If we can orient ourselves and who we are and how we are within all of those systems and the relationships that exist? Then I think that would be an amazing outcome of our education system. Because that would then give us a compass for decision-making in the future, in thinking about what the vision is a collective vision of the places that we want to create.

Jeanie:  That was really beautiful.  And it makes me think that in this case, she’s talking about a story from her people? But that there are all kinds of stories we can tell about place, right?

I’m thinking of our mutual friend, Walter Poleman, and the story he tells about the geology of Burlington, or the thrust fault on Lake Champlain. Right? And that helps us better understand the relationships between — in that case I’m thinking about the rock, the soil and the cedar trees, that grow there along Rock Point in Burlington.

Similarly, we have all these stories, the stories of the people in the place, the story of the animals in the place, all these origin stories that come from different cultures, geological sources. There’s like, so many layers of story that can help us find this compass for how to live in a place.

Aimee:  There are! And I think one of the things that Robin Wall Kimmerer keeps coming back to is the multiple roles that land takes on.

She’s talking about land as teacher.

Land as mother.

Land as healer, land as gift-giver — there’s so many different ways in which the land behaves in relationship to us.

She also talks about this reciprocity piece in that relationship. I would extend the understanding of land in this context, to go beyond what we’re typically used to talking about as land as an it? But welcome the thinking to expand to land being a she; what if land was a family member? I think that’s something that Robin Wall Kimmerer has put out to us to consider.  If we think of being in relationship to the land as if it were a family member, how would that change how we behave in that relationship?

Jeanie:  That takes me right to another essay, which is “The Gift of Strawberries.” Because of your reference to reciprocity and gifts and that deeper change that happens.

Robin Wall Kimmerer grew up near wild strawberries and harvested wild strawberries every year for her father’s birthday to make strawberry shortcake. This essay is one of my very favorites.

She talks about how a gift economy is different than our traditional economy, than a money economy. Than a capitalist economy. I love this from page 25:

“Gifts from the earth or from each other establish a particular relationship, an obligation of sorts to give, to receive, and to reciprocate. The field gave to us, we gave to my dad, and we tried to get back to the strawberries. When the berry season was done, the plants would send out slender red runners to make new plants. Because I was fascinated by the way they would travel over the ground looking for good places to take root, I would weed out little patches of bare ground where the runners touched down. Sure enough, tiny little roots would emerge from the runner and by the end of the season, there were even more plants, ready to bloom under the next Strawberry Moon.”

She talks to you about how much more we value something that is a gift than if we just purchased it.

Aimee:  Absolutely.  And this notion of the land as a gift, or the gifts of the land, as opposed to… “ecosystem services,” I think is the term? It shifts the way in which we receive.

So, strawberries being the example. If we receive strawberries as a gift, we value it in a certain way. We consume it with a certain reverence.

If we think of it as something that we buy in the store — and she goes into this in her essay — then it’s an exchange of goods. It’s an economic exchange, where we assume that the relationship is concluded. Once we’ve exchanged strawberries for cash. And that is an incredibly narrow understanding of the reciprocity that is potentially there if we bring this sense of gratitude and gift-giving to what the world has to offer.

Jeanie:  It’s so important right now when we’re thinking a lot about sustainability and the sustainability of the planet. I think one of the things she says is that if it’s strawberries I’m purchasing, I want more for my dollar. Right? Like, I want as much as I can get.  But if something is a gift, I might be able to say, “Oh, this is just enough.”  Right? “Look, I don’t want to be greedy. I don’t want to take it all.” You know? “I want to be able to share.”

As opposed to that exchange economy that she’s talking about. Like, I want as much as I can get for my, you know, my money.

I think that this idea of reciprocity and enough? Are important lessons from this book.

Aimee: They are absolutely important lessons and also have applications to all of us in this extremely capitalist culture that we live in. That is centered on consumerism. “The more you have the better!” Which is extremely problematic.

The fact is that the nation that we live in, the United States, has an abundance. And it’s incredibly upsetting that there are so many that live within this country that don’t have enough when we’re living in a time of such great abundance.

It really puts into question the value system that needs to be paired with our capitalist system in order to recalibrate and rebalance how we live in terms of our economy so that more people can thrive and not just people, but also our more-than-human community members.

Jeanie:  That brings to me this other quote again from the Sky Woman story:

“Our relationship with land cannot heal until we hear it’s stories.”

And it makes me think our relationship with each other and with the more than human can’t heal until we know each other’s story.

Aimee:  This notion of storytelling is so engaging in that it’s a gift. That we each bring to each relationship that we enter into. We may come empty-handed, depending on the privileges that we enjoy, or do not enjoy.  But we all come with a body full of stories that we’ve gathered from our own experience as we walk through life? But also through our ancestor’s stories and the people that came before us whether they’re in direct lineage in our family or from the places that we have lived and the people we’ve met along the way.

Jeanie:  That feels like to me – and Kimmerer’s book really sings to me in this way of, what would it be like for us to ask students and students families about their stories on their lands, in this place. And thinking about rural Vermont, but also Winooski, and Burlington, right? Bennington. What is it for those families who sugar each year? Or what is it for families who hunt, or fish, or forage? What is it for families who have a little plot in the community garden because they live in urban places? What are their stories of places? Even concrete spaces, which are places?  And what would it be like to center those in our curriculum?

Aimee: I think that’s a lovely way of inviting in that element of youth voice into what we do in the classroom.  Because even if a child is five years old, they have their own stories and their own ways of seeing a place.

And let’s say that that’s the same place that I as the teacher experience? That child’s view, and their whole collection of stories are going to be entirely different than my collection of stories. And I think that’s endlessly fascinating, to make that personal connection to what we’re learning and sharing in the classroom.

Jeanie:  So I wonder if, given all of that, if you might define for us, for the listeners, what education for sustainability is? And specifically, if you might — I don’t know, I’m going to ask a lot of you, Aimee, but — I wonder if you might imagine out loud for us. An EFS unit, an Education for Sustainability, lesson or period of time in the classroom, that centers students’ stories.

Aimee:  So, Education for Sustainability is an approach to teaching and learning, which holds the improvement of our community and our relationships central, right?  The goal of education for sustainability is creating a more just and sustainable future for all.

*Fuzzball crows loudly in the background*

Aimee: *laughs* If we think of sustainability as being a goal that we’re continually moving towards, that we’re never fully sustainable, but we’re moving towards this idea of being in balance, such that the way that we live today enables many generations into the future to have a sustainable lifestyle as well. To live in a way that’s just. And allows people to continue their cultures in the future so that all beings human and more-than-human can thrive? Then education for sustainability is teaching in such a way that enables kids to have the knowledge and the skills to understand the multiple systems that they live in to make decisions so that we can have that just and sustainable future as well as a more just and sustainable now.

So, your second question!

Thinking about a time that centered student stories in my teaching.

As a second grade teacher, we conducted a family study every year. And there are many elements of that.  But one of my favorite things, was asking students to bring in an artifact from their family, and then share the story of that artifact.

Often the artifact would be something from a person’s father or mother.  Or maybe it would be a kind of an object that the family used in ritual, or in their weekly or monthly or annual celebrations.

One of my favorite artifacts that a student brought in was a wooden spoon. And he shared the story that cooking is a very important tradition in their family, and that cooking certain foods was a passed down tradition.

This wooden spoon was passed down from his grandmother to his mother and now down to him.

And with the use of this wooden spoon, they would cook traditional foods together and share them. And so, this child brought this specific artifact to the class, told the stories that he had learned from his mother and grandmother as a way of weaving the past into the future, but also amplifying his own voice at the same time.

In reciprocity, the other students would then share back, after hearing his story. They’d talk about the connections that their family and they experience in relationship to his story and his sharing of this artifact.

Other stories and artifacts that children shared might have been a story in which a father battled a snake and was threatened, but then managed to overcome that situation. Then the artifact that the child shared was a snakeskin.

Another were letters from people that were important to his grandmother. And then he had the time to sit and read the letters with us and talk about his relationship with his grandmother.

This is a way that was intentionally designed to bring those stories in from individual students about their families so that we could collectively build a broader, deeper understanding of what family meant. What we then could do to encourage others other ways within our small class community that people experience their life.

This is absolutely something that I could not design on my own. I could not create a collection of stories to share with students that I would presume would reflect their experience of what it’s like to be in family.

And in addition to building our understanding of concept of family, we’re also building on literacy skills.  They’re engaging with their family and other relatives in interesting conversations that go well beyond the classroom and indeed take them to places well beyond the address of the school.

Jeanie: That leads me to that chapter on, “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho.” Seems like you know that well, it’s the story of plantain, a plant we could find just about anywhere in Vermont. Any grassy space in Vermont.  And the reason I’ve been thinking about this story is because I just bought a house in Burlington on Abenaki land.

I’ve been doing a lot of reading and thinking about colonization and grappling with my own identity as a settler colonist, right, in this land. So buying this home was fraught for me, right? And so, this chapter, I think, “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place,” I think offers some gentle advice for me and I wondered if you would talk a little bit about that.

Aimee:  I also love this chapter and the title of “Becoming Indigenous to Place.”

As a person that is a first-generation American, I am someone who feels uprooted from her place and throughout my childhood did not feel as though I belonged in the places that I was living. I’ve now come to understand that: we are all indigenous to someplace. It may just not be the place that we’re living in currently. And that this idea of indigeneity is not just an idea for brown-skinned people. It’s for everyone.

And I love that Robin Wall Kimmerer offers up this model of the plantain and a story of how we can each become indigenous to the places in which we live or the places that we choose. I think that limitation on our understanding of becoming indigenous is often a reflection of our limitation on time, and how we can see the time.

So she talks about the plantain as becoming indigenous over a 500-year timespan. And that’s just something that’s beyond our comprehension as people who might live 75 years. But that’s the timeline that we’re talking about in terms of “becoming indigenous”.

No, it does not mean that I won’t be able to become a Vermonter. It doesn’t mean that I have to wait the seven generations that I’ve been told that I need to wait.

I think the lesson of the plantain is that through conscientious awareness-building, I can learn how to become into meaningful relationship with the community in which I live, the natural and the human community. That there are ways of becoming indigenous within my lifetime. And it’s not an issue of nationality, or necessarily the culture that I embody. But it’s about how I’m being in relationship with the place and the people that I’m living with.

Jeanie: Oh, I love that. I hear so much of that and I’m reading about maintaining this idea of being of service. Plantain can be food, it can be medicine, it’s good for insect bites and cuts and burns.

And Robin Wall Kimmerer says, every part of the plant is useful even the seeds are good for digestion. And I’m just going to read a little bit. Because for me, this is really good advice. This is from page 214.

Writing about plaintain Robin Wall Kimmerer says,

“Our immigrant plant teachers offer a lot of different models for how not to make themselves welcome on a new continent. Garlic mustard poisons the soil so the native species will die. Tamarisk uses up all the water. Foreign invaders like loosestrife, kudzu, and cheat grass have the colonizing habit of taking over others’ homes and growing without regards to limits. But Plantain is not like that. Its strategy was to be useful, to fit into small places, to coexist with others around the dooryard, to heal wounds. Plantain is so prevalent, so well integrated, that we think of it as native. It has earned the name bestowed by botanists for plants that have become our own. Plantain is not indigenous but “naturalized.” This is the same term we use for the foreign-born when they become citizens in our country.”

Who knew that I was going to seek to be like a plant that I’ve known since my earliest memories like plantain, I grew up with plantain everywhere in Pennsylvania. It’s a plant I’ve known forever, and that it could be such a humble teacher.

Aimee:  I love that passage as well Jeanie, it’s one of the ones that I highlighted because I think it offers insight to all of us whether we are descendants of the European settlers, or we’re new to this country, or if we are Indigenous roots here in this country. There’s so much to be learned from this single plant.

Jeanie: It makes me think too in my conversation that you referenced earlier with Judy Dow.

I’ve been thinking a lot since I’ve become friends with Judy, about stories and place.

And thinking about, if we’re going to be educating students in Vermont’s Abenaki land.  How might we learn by centering their stories of this place? And I know Judy has a beautiful collection of stories that she has on CD.

I know she uses them in classrooms to tell the geologic story of place, right? They reference specific places in Vermont? But also how to be in relationship with this place.  Since we can learn a lot from the Abenaki, how to be in good, in right relationship with this Vermont place, these Vermont places. This land here.  And so, I’m curious about that and how that might play a role in place-based learning here. Do you have any models that you might share or how to do that one?

Aimee:  Well, I think the main lesson in all of that is to question:

  • What stories are we hearing?
  • Whose voices are they amplifying?
  • And whose voices are missing?

So much of my education as a child — and what I see still happening in many places in schools — is that the stories of the European settlers are the ones that were told and that are repeated. And that are passed down.

And that is a valid story. It is a valid perspective. And it’s important.

But it’s not the full story.

And it’s not inclusive enough to really build a deep understanding of our places.

There are so many voices that we’ve abandoned and dropped and extinguished and ignored for so long.  And it’s an incredible time right now that there’s so much interest and energy around amplifying other voices that we haven’t heard from in a long time, or perhaps not ever.

So I think the Abenaki voices in Vermont are something that should definitely be leaned on as we develop more of a place-based learning focus. As well as amplifying all the other voices in Vermont that we don’t always hear about.

Jeanie: Yes. Thank you for that.  It makes me think of a class I just took on other ways of knowing, where we looked at indigenous science.  And I’ll put a link, and I’m not even going to remember the name of the person who delivered this talk.

But this beautiful talk about the way in which science was conducted in Indigenous communities in this country and what is now the Americas, right? And the way their understanding of the world and around them showed up in architecture, and in story, and in tapestry …and in art.

It makes me think about, you’ve been using the R word of “reciprocity” and I know our friend Judy Dow uses the R’s in her article on the Narrows, right, she talks about responsibility and the relationship and reciprocity and a couple other R’s in there.

But the one that really emerged in this look at native science was resonance.

How does, what’s happening in place, in land resonate for us?

And so, we see that sometimes in the way, I think, in stories about Indigenous medicines, right? In the resonance. I think we see a lot about resonance in this book where Robin Wall Kimmerer is talking about how the land resonates for her and her family.

Aimee:  I love the R of resonance being brought up in this conversation because I think it really speaks to a sense of being present in the moment that is so often rushed away. Because we have these time pressures. If we have these 45-minute classes that we have to move through content. In that there’s just so much for us to do on our to do list and shopping and laundry and whatever it is that we have to do, that we don’t take the time? To tune in to the resonance that may exist for us in any given situation.

And the resonance I’m thinking of is in terms of our relationship to the natural spaces we’re in, but also in the social fields that we inhabit. The resonance that we feel between the people that we’re sharing spaces with. And if we just took that moment to take a deep breath, and notice and be present, it might help us to understand all those dynamics better?

But also to see the situation we’re in a little more clearly.

Jeanie:  The way my heart is hearing it is relationship takes time, relationships between people, but also between humans and more than humans in the land, right, if that takes time, too.  And we often don’t give it the time it takes.

Aimee:  Yes time, and time is such an interesting notion. That it can be just a moment; just a breath. Or it could be about the long-term view and going back and looking at how my relationship for example, in this place that I’m in right now has changed over the past seven years. How I’ve impacted the land and how the land has changed me, and how I perceive of myself, and how I experienced the world.

And then there’s this idea of time in relationships. Time in the development of a community, and the movement of a community, and the changing and understanding of a culture.

Jeanie:  I just said goodbye to a home of 20 years, and there was a lot of… I had to find ways to express gratitude to that place to specific places, especially that changed and shaped me. I was a new mom when I moved to there and raised my son, who’s now twenty. And the mountain that I lived sort of in the shadow of, this lake that I spent so much time running around it, swimming in it, boating on it.

And I had to take offerings to these places. Around the West River Trail that I spent so much time on. These places are still so significant to me even though it’s been several weeks since I’ve been in them.

And now forging new relationships, I can really feel that sense of changing character of how we are in relation with place. This book, really re-reading this book, in preparation for this conversation brought up a lot of those feelings I’ve been having as I let go of my habitual, my day to day these places that nurtured me so regularly.

The time piece also brings up for me my very favorite chapter, the chapter that when I listened to the audiobook I just sobbed through, and that reading now just still brings tears to my eyes. Not in the sob way but just like… It was like a complicated mix of joy and sorrow,  grief and joy and love and admiration. All of the things. And that’s “Allegiance to Gratitude.”

So this chapter is where Robin Wall Kimmerer shares the entire, I think the entire Haudenosaunee Thanksgiving address, but she commentates on it as well.

She explains that she digs into what’s the meaning of this story that’s told through the Thanksgiving address. And the way that this timely — long, it takes time — address that they use in this community school, the way it helps to forge that deeper relationship with the land and all of the inhabitants of land. How does that chapter strike you in?

Aimee:  I also am incredibly moved by this chapter and the beautiful way in which she weaves the original text or the original address with this view of how kids today are experienced.

And it’s not all beautiful.

It’s kids fidgeting and kids being impatient, but at the same time, learning how to listen. And especially she says, in the time when we’re accustomed to sound bites and immediate gratification.

So there’s this relevance of the now, and the past, all sharing the same space.

And there’s also this other component of it, in which she compares it to the Pledge of Allegiance, which is what I grew up saying.  Which I could repeat right now, because I did it so many times, but is actually quite meaningless to me. Like that I never attributed any meaning to it. It was never a process for me and with me in terms of how it might relate to my daily existence.

So, I deeply appreciate this chapter as she goes through the Thanksgiving address.  And it describes how young people are creating meaning, through this process of experiencing the Thanksgiving address.

This is part of the relationship of myself to the world because Onondaga Lake was such a big piece of my childhood and my upbringing. And at the time, as a Superfund site, I was given the messaging about how the water from this lake could kill me.  It’s laden with mercury, don’t eat the fish.  Don’t swim in it, don’t go boating on it, you can collect stones and shells off the shore, but don’t touch the water.

So it became this kind of antithesis to relationship, to environmental features to water, which can be so purifying.

And now that I have a more full understanding of the significance of that sacred lake, beyond it being a Superfund site, I am understanding that that is part of my story of who I am and how I’ve come to do what I do today.  But also about my relationship with that lake is not finished. And that I have a responsibility to engage with the healing of that lake and the restoration of it as a part of my pathway as well.

Because it is in me, it’s under my nails and it’s in my cells and I need to accept that and honor my relationship with that lake.

Jeanie:  That’s really beautiful.  I’ve been putting forth all my favorite essays, there are more that I adore. Is there one you want to pull forward?

Aimee:  I’ll give you my short list of the ones that I have been rereading.  So clearly, “The Sacred and the Superfund” is definitely one that I’ve been rereading. The idea of, “In the Footsteps of Nanabozho: Becoming Indigenous to Place” has been important to me lately.  And also the idea of “Putting Down Roots,” which is another essay in that section.  And lastly, this section on a “Maple Nation: A Citizenship Guide” has been kind of pulling at me, especially as we head into the November elections this fall.

Jeanie:  I need to reread that one. I did reread the maple moon one, “Maple Sugar Moon”, which really touched me deeply. This whole process of sap-making with her daughters, and their way of going about it in the wild.

And it’s one of the chapters like “The Three Sisters” chapter that I feel will have direct relevance already to what teachers are doing in the classroom and how they might approach it from a place-based lens.  Or an EFS standpoint.

This whole book is delicious.

Thank you for sharing your highlights because the ones I haven’t read recently, I’m going to go back and reread.

I’m going to go back to that first guiding question we had. That overarching question about how might a teacher-educator use this book to expand their understanding of place in order to inform their teaching practice or inform place-based learning with their students.

I think for me, one of the answers that has emerged from this conversation with you is about learning with, learning alongside. And that doing our own short of workaround place and how our relationship with place with students is really powerful instead of knowing the answer? About going out and exploring together.

Aimee: Yes, I do think that this book amplifies the idea that there’s so much to learn from and with outside the school walls. And that place, land, community: they are all teachers. We as teachers sometimes feel so isolated and feel like we have too much on our shoulders, too much to carry forward.

The times when I felt most supported as a teacher are the times when I thought, well, I’m not in this by myself, I don’t need to have all the answers. Robin Wall Kimmerer offers that this answer in terms of place-based learning that the answers are out there in the world, but we need to learn how to listen. And we need to learn how to see.

So, if those are the skills that we teach students through place-based learning, all we need to do is give them the opportunities to build that relationship.

Jeanie:  That was not your rooster, what was that?

Aimee: That was my hen! Her name is Brownie, she’s one of our third generations.  And she is announcing that she just laid an egg. She’s very happy about it.  And now, she’s trying to find where the rest of the flock is so she can reunite with them.

Jeanie:  Okay.  So, I think what you just said about, I was really inspired by what you said before Brownie led me astray, which is that the teachers are out there.

And I think for me right now, in this moment, the chapter that’s like, I feel the need — I’ve read a couple times — that feels really informative to me as an educator.  And what I do is “Asters and Goldenrod,” where Robin Wall Kimmerer talks about what she wants to do, how she has this really beautiful question.

That question is: why do asters and goldenrod look so beautiful together?

And she’s told that’s a question for artists and not for scientists.

And then she goes and becomes the botanist that she most wants to be.

This book really warns me about how do I keep my heart and my mind open to the potentials in our students, and the questions that give them life and that call them to be their true selves to their purpose in the world?

Aimee:  I think the answer to that beautiful question is partly gratitude, right?  Keeping our hearts and minds open to the gifts that are right in front of us, the gifts that we’ve already received and the gifts that those future students, or the students of today can offer us as learners and humans sharing this space. One of our friends from Hawaii Kamu, I recently had an opportunity to co-facilitate with him.  And he offered up this phrase from one of his teachers, which is: “to hold one another capable.”

And that has been sitting with me these past couple of weeks of thinking about when I engage with students or colleagues, how can I hold them capable?

Part of that is thinking about what the gifts that they bring.  And part of that is about, okay, what space am I creating so that they can develop their gifts and use them in ways that can generate positivity and growth and restoration and space for the emergent. The wonderful emergent that we don’t know can happen.

Jeanie:  That’s beautiful. To hold one another capable. I’m going to sit with that a long time.


#vted Reads with Kate Messner

I’m Jeanie Phillips and we’re back for a third season of vted Reads! Books by, for and with Vermont educators. Kicking off this season we’re joined on the show by author and former teacher Kate Messner. Kate’s here to talk about how we can use books about some dark topics as conduits to reach students who may not even know they can or should talk about those topics.

I did just make it sound a lot bleaker of an episode than it is.

Trust me, it’s a good one. And Kate’s a delightful guest! We’ll talk about her books Chirp, Breakout, and The Seventh Wish, along with sending you away with a whole mess of new titles for your To Read pile.

Plus, Kate will reveal what her favorite flavor of cricket is.

Yes, you will be amazed to learn how many different ways there are to snack on crickets.

Now, one content note for today’s show: Kate’s book, Chirp, deals with issues of grooming, which is when adults behave in inappropriate ways with children, usually as a prelude to much worse behavior. We’ll talk today a little bit about that, but if you’re not in a space to join us right now, that’s okay. Be kind, safe, and gentle with yourselves.

Welcome back to vted Reads, season three! Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Today, I’m with Kate Messner and we’ll be talking about her book, Chirp. Thanks so much for joining me, Kate.Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Kate Messner: Thank you so much! Well, I am a children’s author. I’ve written  — as of 2020 — it will be 50 books for kids. They range from picture books like Over and Under the Snow and How to Read a Story, How to Write a Story, The Next President, to Easy Readers like the Fergus and Zeke series with Candlewick Press, to chapter books like The Ranger in Time Series with Scholastic. And novels, and nonfiction. Books like Breakout and The Seventh Wish and Chirp. And then some nonfiction as well! Like Tracking Pythons, which is about invasive Burmese pythons in Florida, and a new series called History Smashers, which is aimed at undoing the lies and myths we teach young kids about history. Starting with: the first Thanksgiving. The first book is History Smashers: The Mayflower.

Jeanie: And that book just came out, is that correct?

Kate: Yeah! New this summer History Smashers: The Mayflower and History Smashers: Women’s Right to Vote. Then in the fall, book three comes out: Pearl Harbor. And we’ll have book four in the spring of 2021, that is History Smashers: Titanic.

Jeanie: Those sound so relevant to our current moment in time. Perfect timing.

Kate: I really hope so. I know so many teachers right now are looking at the work that that we can all do to dismantle white supremacy and to promote equality. And part of that work is taking a hard look at the way we’ve taught history. Our textbooks have long looked at things from a very white, very colonialist perspective. And these books aim to to start a broader conversation about that. The biggest thing is I think kids are gonna read them and have an amazing time at the dinner table saying, “Mom! Dad! Did you know this about Elizabeth Cady Stanton?” So I think it’s gonna prompt some really great conversations. Not just in the classroom but at home around the dinner table, too. That’s my hope anyway.

Jeanie: This is super exciting! Before we get started on Chirp though, I always like to ask my guests what’s on their bedside table what they’re reading right now. Do you have any summer reading going on, Kate?

Kate: I do, I actually just finished an amazing young adult novel called A Song Below Water by Bethany Morrow. It’s about mermaids and Black voices, and it’s just a spectacular story. I think sometimes fantasy and speculative fiction is the very best way to get at the issues that we’re facing in our modern world. And this is a book that just does that brilliantly.

Jeanie: Excellent! I have that on my Libro FM right now, actually. So I’m gonna have to listen to it on my next long drive. Thanks for that recommendation!

So one of my bits of summer reading was: Chirp.

I picked it up right as the school year was ending and got sucked immediately into this book. And I wondered if you could introduce us to Mia, who is moving back to someplace many of our listeners will know, which is Burlington, Vermont. Could you tell us a little bit about Mia?

Kate: Sure! Mia has just finished seventh grade. And she is moving from Boston, where her family had moved from Vermont a couple years earlier, back to Vermont. It’s a good move for her, for a few reasons. First of all her grandmother lives in Vermont, and she loves Gram. So that’s a great thing.

Then second, Mia’s time in Boston wasn’t the greatest. She’s a gymnast and she had an experience at her gym with an assistant coach that she’s hoping to leave behind. Hoping to forget about. Something that she didn’t even talk about. So she’s moving back to Vermont with a secret, and also healing from a broken arm she got when she was doing something on the balance team.

Jeanie: When we meet Mia, she’s actually in the car in the beginning of the book. And her very concerned mother is trying to get her to pick some summer activities. And Mia just wants to watch TV. So she sort of reluctantly picks some summer activities. And you get the impression early on that that has less to do with the broken arm than with some failure of confidence, really related to what’s been happening in her life recently.

Kate: Yeah. I mean to be honest, she’s moving at a time when she’s not sure who she is anymore. And we’ll do a minor spoiler here: the assistant gymnastics coach at her old gym was showing her some really inappropriate attention. There were unwanted back rubs and hugs that lasted too long, and texts that were just strange and uncomfortable for her. It’s behavior that most adults would look at and say that looks like grooming a child for sexual abuse. And in fact the things that happened with that coach that make Mia so uncomfortable are based on the very same things that Larry Nassar did when he was trying to gain the trust of the gymnasts that he abused.

So many of us have read those just horrifying headlines of the team doctor who sexually assaulted so many gymnasts. This character, the assistant coach in this book, is sort of like Larry Nassar before it got so far. So it’s behavior that an adult would recognize as grooming. A kid doesn’t know that; a kid just recognizes that she feels icky and weird and doesn’t understand what’s going on and maybe wonders if she’s done something wrong.

So Mia doesn’t talk to anybody about what happened with this assistant coach.

She’s happy to be moving. It’s not an issue for her anymore, but of course she’s carrying scars from what happened. Not just from this accident she had on the balance team that required multiple surgeries on her arm, but scars inside too. The kind of scars so many women carry around and don’t always talk about until there’s that opportunity.

So Chirp is very much a story about finding yourself again. And especially finding your voice. That’s something that Mia goes through in this summer.

The book takes place over the course of a summer. It begins right after school ends as the family is moving back to Vermont. And as you mentioned Mia’s mom is hounding her to sign up for some day camps. The rule in our house was you got to do two activities: something for your body, and something for your brain.

Mia’s mom has that same rule. She’s giving Mia gymnastics flyers and Mia is adamant that she’s not going back to gymnastics. Eventually she settles on this thing called Warrior Camp, which is a camp where kids learn to do all those obstacles that you see on the TV show American Ninja Warrior. Mia likes that show. She figures how bad could the camp be?

And then she also signs up for something called Launch Camp, for young entrepreneurs. Which is a camp where kids go to design their own businesses and write business plans and create products. Sort of like you see on Shark Tank (and Mia loves that show too).

So! Thus she’s chosen her two summer camps. And thankfully she makes some friends that summer. And through the physical healing she goes through at Warrior Camp — you know she’s conditioning, she’s getting quite literally stronger going through this Warrior Camp — at the same time she’s gaining confidence at Launch Camp. Meeting some new female friends who really boost her up. So that’s like a huge theme too: the power of women to hold one another up.

Jeanie: So many great themes in this book! It’s hard to figure out which question, which thread I want to pull on, so I’m going to try to get up to all of them. You mentioned Launch Camp. I love Launch Camp! As an educator who’s trying to work with educators to make school more meaningful and relevant to young people. It’s this entrepreneurial camp where they’re making and they’re designing business plans and there they have an audience. And they go on a field trip up to UVM to see a woman entrepreneur and hear about her trajectory, her professional trajectory. I wondered, you know, is Launch Camp just in your imagination? Is there somewhere we could find Launch Camp?

Kate: Well the exact version in the book is from my imagination but I can tell you that it was inspired by so many makerspaces that I have seen in schools and in libraries. Where kids are doing this exact kind of work. They’re being encouraged to come up with their own ideas, and build things. Whether that’s with Legos or writing apps, or anything like that. I’ve just seen, you know, in my visits to different schools? I’ve seen so many amazing projects that kids are working on with support from their teachers and librarians, and in various makerspaces. So that was really the inspiration for Launch Camp. I did have a great time making up all the projects that the different teams were working on. Now that was really, really fun.

Jeanie: Well there’s the dim sum, the bao buns (is that what they’re called?) And an app to find soccer games?

Kate: Yeah. Kicks Finder! It’s some kids who wrote an app to find pickup soccer games in town.

Jeanie: And there some cookies–

Kate: Yeah! Cookies for a Cause. Aiden, one of the boys is a really great baker, and so he’s launching this business to sell cookies that people can use for fundraisers. There are some kids who are building jewelry, creating jewelry out of recycled materials.

And then there’s Mia, who has decided she’s going to use her time at Launch Camp to write a new business plan for her grandmother’s cricket farm. And yes, you heard that right: cricket farm. It’s a real thing.

Mia decides that she’s gonna use her time at Launch Camp, and what she learns about starting businesses and marketing and supporting them.

Jeanie: Let’s just talk about those crickets. Because those crickets are for eating. For humans to eat.

Kate: They are! They are. Let me tell you where this element of the story came from.

Several years ago, actually in 2013, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization came out with a report called Edible Insects that basically said, “Hey everybody in the Western World, you ought to consider eating insects as a form of protein. Because a) insects are good for you, and b) they are way more sustainable to raise than other creatures we like to eat for protein. Like cows and pigs and chickens. They use way less water and feed and they produce many, many, many times fewer greenhouse gases.”

I found this report fascinating.

For a while, I was talking about it all around the house with anybody who would listen. I had done some research on entomophagy. I had a dinner party where we had grasshopper tacos one night. And so time passes, a few years after that report, my husband comes home one day and he is part of an organization that helps startup businesses launch in Vermont. He came home from one of his meetings and dropped a folder on my desk and said, “I’ve got one for you!”

The folder was about a cricket farm that was launching in Vermont. A startup cricket farm.

So, we were invited to it. To visit this fledgling cricket farm in Williston. It was in a big old warehouse. So if you’re picturing a cricket farm with like meadows and barns? They’re not that kind of farm. Most of them — and there are several cricket farms around the country — most of them are in industrial parks. And they’re in big warehouses.

The crickets are raised in big bins with these cardboard “cricket condos” they call them, inside. They eat ground-up chicken feed, things like that, and they are indeed being raised for human consumption.

When I was researching this book I sampled crickets in every iteration you can imagine.

I had sea salt and garlic crickets. Barbecue crickets. Maple crickets (it was a Vermont cricket farm after all). We had chocolate-covered cricket ice cream, and cricket pizza. And of course the big thing with crickets is protein powder! Cricket powder is protein powder just like the vegetable-based protein powders that athletes use. That’s a real product too. We had bread and cookies made with cricket flour — it was fascinating to actually see this farm in action. I got to spend a lot of time with the cricket farmers learning how to take care of crickets, and you know, how to how to try to convince people that crickets are food. (Which is as you might imagine a bit of an uphill battle.)

And I started thinking: what if somebody were trying to sabotage a cricket farm? (For whatever reason). So that became one of the premises for Chirp. Mia’s grandmother owns the cricket farm in the story and as soon as Mia and her family arrive, they learned that Gram is convinced somebody is trying to sabotage her cricket farm. So Mia and her new friends that she makes do a whole lot of sleuthing that summer. A little bit of breaking and entering, and trying to figure out who’s behind this alleged sabotage on the cricket farm.

Jeanie: That pulls us back to this thing you said earlier — I love the cricket farm is a setting by the way. I was really intrigued and ready to try crickets. But before I even get to that question: what was your favorite cricket product?

Kate: I think that the flour is very, very good. You can replace about a fifth of the flour in any baking recipe — your chocolate chip cookies or oatmeal cookies — and you really don’t notice very much. It gives it a nice little protein boost! So the chocolate chirp cookies were pretty great, and I thought that the roasted barbecue crickets were pretty terrific, too.

When I was on a book tour in February for this book — I was actually out for two weeks all around the country right before the pandemic hit, traveling and talking with kids in schools around the country about this book. At the end of every assembly I asked them: “Do you think one of your teachers should try roasted cricket right now?” And of course they went wild. So I had teachers sampling sriracha crickets and maple crickets, and all kinds of crickets imaginable. That was a lot of fun.

Jeanie: Excellent! So, you sort of mentioned this other thread I want to pull or untangle, is this thread about Mia, and how she sort of knows that this way her coach is behaving towards her — whether it’s gifts he’s giving, the way he’s talking to her, the way he touches her  — is not quite right, but she can’t put a name on it.

And this book feels really important to me for that reason.

Like, it’s a story that girls and boys need to read so they can recognize that that feeling isn’t made up. It’s not about them. It feels like being able to see that in a book, especially a book that’s really geared towards fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh graders, is a really important thing for kids. To maybe see an experience that we hope they’re not having (but that they could be having). So I’m just so grateful for that.

Kate: Yeah, thank you. I mean that feeling of looking back and saying, “That felt icky and I can’t quite explain it” that is what many kids experience, you know, when they’re being groomed for abuse or when abuse is first starting. It’s like “this feels wrong, this feels icky” but they don’t have a name for it, you know? And part of that is that we haven’t necessarily taught them how predators groom children. But that’s really important.

So this book really does kind of lay that out. It’s talked about. And my hope is that, you know, first of all: we would love to think this isn’t happening to the kids that we teach and the kids who come to our libraries. But it is. Statistics tell us that it is. My hope is that kids who read this and recognize that feeling are going to recognize,

“This is something I get to speak up about. I can make this stop. I have the power to tell somebody about this. I can talk to a trusted adult and end this. Because my voice matters.”

That’s really my hope for the book. And also my hope for adults who share this book with kids. That it’s going to start those conversations.

Sometimes as adults, we do minimize kids’ feelings. And you know, I was right up there when my kids were little. They would fall down and skin their knees, and I’d be all, “You’re fine! You’re fine, you’re fine, you’re fine!”

We want our kids to be fine and so sometimes we tell them they’re fine and sometimes they’re not fine.

And that’s when we need to do better listening.

So I hope this this book is one that really starts those conversations. And also will help kids have empathy for one another when friends are going through this. And you know, encourage them that they can talk to one another about this and especially talk to a trusted adult when something just doesn’t feel right, you know? Kids have pretty darn good intuition and they don’t always know how to articulate when an adult is being inappropriate. But we can teach them that. And that’s huge.

Jeanie: That just brings me to a quote from your blog’s that just it’s from a different time but I think it’s really relevant to this and I’m just going to read it. It says:

I understand that school administrators are afraid to talk about tough issues sometimes. Authors are, too. But we’re not protecting kids when we keep them from stories that shine a light in the darker corners of their lives. We’re just leaving them alone in the dark.

Kate: You know, Chirp is about a kid who was being uncomfortably groomed for abuse, by all appearances. But I think it goes beyond that, you know? I have another book called The Seventh Wish which deals with the main character whose older sister is struggling with heroin addiction. And that book has faced some challenges. I’ve had librarians email me and say,” I’m not putting this in my library, because kids here don’t have those issues!”

Well, guess what? You wouldn’t know. You wouldn’t necessarily know. We know that they do all over the country, all over the world in fact. We have this epidemic of opioid addiction.

I think there’s a certain amount of resistance, sometimes, to books that are more honest about the real issues that kids face. As an adult — I mean as a parent and as a former teacher — I understand that impulse of wanting to protect kids. But this notion that if we don’t talk about it that means it’s not happening and it can never happen? It’s just not realistic. It’s not the way it works, it’s not the real world. So I think the very best thing we can do in our service to children is be honest with them about things that happen in the world. And when we do that those kids know that they can trust us to speak up when they need our help.

Jeanie: Your other quote — and these words still resonate with me as they did when The Seventh Wish first came out, and I remember that you were disinvited to a school at that time and so many librarians were appalled by that — these words you wrote at that time, I think are still true today. Whatever so-called controversial issue we’re talking about that is really  a part of the fabric of young people’s lives. You said:

We don’t serve only our own children. We don’t serve the children of some imaginary land where they are protected from the headlines. We serve real children in the real world. A world where nine-year-olds are learning how to administer Naloxone in the hopes that they’ll be able to save a family member from dying of an overdose. And whether you teach in a poor inner city school or a wealthy suburb, that world includes families that are shattered by opioid addiction right now. Not talking about it doesn’t make it go away. It just makes those kids feel more alone.

I think that you really get at, for me, the power of literature to help kids feel seen. To help kids feel less alone. And to help kids feel like their lives matter. Like their experiences aren’t unique, necessarily. *They’re* unique but their experiences, especially those rough patches? Other folks have gone there. Have gone through that. And they need that aired out so it’s not a source of shame.

Kate: It’s interesting what you just read. I was writing at the time about The Seventh Wish and the issue of opiate addiction, but you could just as easily put sexual assault in there. This is something that doesn’t recognize city boundaries or towns or villages or socioeconomic boundaries. It’s something that affects everybody. Kids of from all different backgrounds have to deal with this. And when a child is sexually assaulted, there’s not some magical line that it doesn’t happen until they turn 14. You know?

I was talking with a friend of mine because I had a similar cancellation before I went on tour for Chirp, which was just mind-blowing to me. This is a book that is specifically designed to say

  • your voice matters
  • and if something happens to you, you get to speak up

And we’re not going to share that with kids? What on earth could be the motive for that? What on earth could be behind that?

I was telling a friend about this and how this library said “Oh it’s too young to talk about this” …and my friend said, “I was five, when that happened to me.”

And my other friend who was there said, “Yeah, I was eight.” Another one said, “I was 11.”

So we need to be having those conversations before the kids are teenagers. It’s just it’s too late if we wait that long. We want our kids to know early on they can always talk to us.

Jeanie: Yeah. I couldn’t agree more. Another thing I love about this book is it ties together layers all of these ways that gender discrimination shows up for girls and women. One of the threads I wanted to follow is Gram’s business. And she’s facing discrimination as a woman business owner. There’s a young woman from UVM who sort of faced some discrimination as a female business owner that sort of plays into the story. And then I think that Mia’s mom actually share some experiences. Then one of Mia’s friends is harassed by some man on the beach? So it’s all these layers of gender discrimination that sort of show up that start to make a pattern for these girls that helps empower them.

One storyline that that is really small in the book but I found really impactful? Was about the relationship between Anna and Eli. So, Anna and Eli were on a team at Launch Camp, but Anna left the team because Eli was giving her some inappropriate attention.

Kate: And Eli, in the story, is a boy who’s super cute, and super used to everybody falling all over him. He’d asked Anna hey do you want to go out for ice cream and she said no thank you. And you know that would have been fine, and they I’m sure could have continued working together at that point, but he kept asking and asking and asking. To the point where she was super uncomfortable and chose to leave the team. Chose to just step back rather than put up with it.

This was the team that was building the app, by the way. It was very much a technology-based team. And when we look at the number of women in technology, and the number of women in Silicon Valley versus the number of men? You have to wonder how many women have that interest and decided yeah this isn’t worth it because of that culture that was allowed to continue.

Even if it’s something as simple as just not recognizing that “no thank you” means “no and don’t ask again and again and again” because that creates discomfort. So yeah, that is a thread in the story. And it has a silver lining in Chirp, because Anna ends up working with Mia and Clover and the girls become just such close trusted friends that summer. There’s a silver lining. But you know the other thing that happens is that the team that was building the app lost a really brilliant worker. That’s part of the story too. It’s part of the cost of having a culture that doesn’t talk about consent issues and boundaries.

Jeanie: I believe the girls also talked to Eli about his behavior. And he sort of has this moment of realization that if he wants to be friends with Anna he needs to stop glaring at her, asking her out, giving her that kind of attention. Is that true? Or did I just want that to happen?

Kate: Yeah. They talked back to him — and his mom has a chat with him too — and he recognizes that. And that’s possible. Especially with kids, it’s possible to learn and say “Oh gosh I see why that’s a problem, I see the way that would make you uncomfortable.”

That’s one reason I think this book is really important. I have a lot of people who say oh this is a great book I’m gonna share it with all my girls. This isn’t just a book for girls. It’s a book for kids of all genders. Because that’s an important message: consent and people’s right to be in a space and do what they choose to do without being harassed. It’s really important for everybody.

Jeanie: It’s universal. We all have a right to consent regarding our own bodies. I think that’s so important. Both that boys can be groomed as well and need to learn to have agency over their own bodies, and also that boys could behave like Eli. And there’s something to learn from them for this book.

I don’t know if you’ve read Chanel Miller’s Know My Name. It’s an adult memoir written by Chanel Miller, the young woman who was raped at Stanford by Brock Turner. It’s really powerful. And I kept thinking of that book. It’s written for a much older audience; I would say older teenagers and high school kids and adults. but thinking about the agency that Chanel has in being able to say, “I’m not gonna be defined as a rape victim I want Brock Turner to be defined for who he is as a rapist”.

And turning the tables on that conversation in really powerful ways which I feel like you do with the young women in this book a little. The young women and the older women — the mother and the grandmother as well — they are empowered to redefine themselves and their relationship with discrimination and unwanted touch, unwanted comments and beachgoers, etcetera.

Kate: There’s a lot going on in Chirp, as there is in most of the books that I write. Because when I write middle grade novels, I think about the middle grade kids that I know. And they don’t have one issue happening in their life at a time. They don’t have one thing that they’re focused on. They have a million things going on, right?

And maybe they have a crisis at any given time — whether that’s a dog that has to be euthanized or a sick grandparent or a parent’s divorce or somebody struggling with addiction or some crisis in their family — at the same time they’re managing that crisis they still have to do all the other things they were doing.

They have to go to soccer practice and continue having relationships with their friends. They have to have sleepovers and do their homework and there’s this science project.  So the kids that I write in my novels tend to have all that same involvement. With the actual life made up of many different elements in many different relationships. It’s interesting: I’ve had a conversation with a few people who said there’s so much going on in this book and I thought it might be too much, but it wasn’t.

And when I was working on the book it was really important to me that Mia be more than the girl that this thing happened to.

Her experiences with this coach were based very much on an experience that I had with a friend of our family when I was a child. And I had all those same feelings of being confused and felt icky and didn’t know what to say and what I would even say if I did say something, and figured people would just tell me “Oh, just be respectful and don’t worry about it”.

But at the same time, you know: it mattered and it was harmful.

I had a life going on around that. Women are carrying this stuff around, girls are carrying this stuff around. And when you look at them they seem fine. They seem fine. They’re living lives, they’re laughing with their friends.

One of the really important messages from me of Chirp, one of the really important things when I was dealing with Mia’s character was that she not just be defined by this thing.

Because when real women, real girls are grieving something that happened to them and processing that and trying to work through it?

They’re also baking cookies. And they’re laughing, and they’re jumping off rocks and swimming and playing sports and all these other things. We’re complex humans and there’s room for struggles and joy on the same page. That was really important to me.

I get a lot of mail about this book. It’s interesting that when I wrote it I knew that kids would talk to me sometimes at school visits.

It’s the kid who comes up quietly after everybody else is gone and they say that happened to me too. I tell them I’m so glad you’re here and you’re talking about it. I make sure they’re safe first of all: is this a person that you still see? And usually no it’s some somebody who’s gone or isn’t around anymore. But I say, “Yeah, me too.”

I had anticipated that happening when I wrote the book. What I didn’t anticipate was the number of emails and notes I would get from adult women who had stories that they had never shared. And you know it’s crazy to think that this middle grade novel is the thing that’s going to make somebody say you know I get to talk about that thing that happened to me. Yet those are the notes I get. It’s pretty humbling to think about.

Jeanie: What a gift you’ve given us.

Kate: But it’s a gift for me to have the opportunity to share stories with so many people through Mia. She’s a made up character and yet she’s all of us.

Jeanie: How would you like to see teachers using this book in schools?

Kate: I know a number of teachers and librarians who have shared it as a classroom read or even like a grade-level read. And in intermediate school, it would be a great whole-school read. I always encourage when you’re doing sort of a community read, to get extra copies for family members. Because this is one of those books that is so powerful when talked about at home.

You’re reading the story and you know children’s parents have stories that they’ve never heard. That they’re hearing for the first time, when they talk about this book together. Hearing those stories just opens up the door for any future conversation that might need to happen, that could save a kid.

There is no sexual assault on the page in Chirp.

It is strictly a story about inappropriate attention you know a back rub that’s uncomfortable. And a hug that that is too tight and too long. Texts that come at 10 o’clock at night and maybe have a picture of him in swim trunks, something like that. There’s no sexual assault on the page and yet I’m getting pushback because just the thought of it makes us so uncomfortable.

And I get that. I really do. We hate to think of anything like this happening to our children. But refusing to talk about it doesn’t prevent it from happening. In fact just the opposite. It makes it more likely that a kid might be targeted when they don’t have the opportunity to have those conversations.

Because the subject matter is sensitive I think when you offer families a copy, that invites caregivers into the process. It makes them collaborators! We’re going to talk about this together! And isn’t this great that we’re all gonna have these conversations about consent and speaking up together! That can be really, really empowering.

Not to mention the fact that there could be some great great conversations at home too.

Jeanie: Yeah if we’re gonna end rape culture it has to be in conversations about consent. And I think this is a really powerful tool in our toolbox. I also wondered about collaborating with school counselors. As folks that could come in and help lead conversations about ways kids can be proactive, or how they confined trusted adults. How they might identify trusted with those things like that.

Kate: When I toured for this book I visited something like 20 schools in a week and a half. Many of the schools had my author visit in coordination with presentations from guidance counselors. Some of them had whole programs in place already that deal with sexual assault and consent and they timed it so they could coordinate those conversations. Which is just super, super powerful. It makes the book even more powerful, I think.

Jeanie: I feel like you’ve addressed this a little bit but I guess I wondered: this is not your first time writing about what you called sensitive topics or difficult topics. Topics that challenge adults to think beyond their conceptions of what kids were capable of. And I guess I wonder: it feels like those books emerge out of current events. It feels like you’re really tacked into what’s going on, and those books emerge in your imagination as a way to deal with issues that are happening in our nation.

Kate: I think that’s fair to say. My kids are grown now but when they were growing up we always made it a point to be very honest with them and to discuss things with them. So if they were hearing for example something happening on the news ,whether that was drug addiction or a war or race issues we would have a conversation about it. We’d say: “How did you understand that?” We used books a lot for that but we always had very honest conversations with our kids from the time they were very little.

And that was also very much my experience as a teacher.

I taught middle school English for 15 years. I taught in an 84-minute block with a lot of literature discussion and a lot of discussions about kids writing. Which: kids spill their souls when they write. So we talked a lot.

I would have kids come in at lunch and after school and we would workshop writing pieces and get into these long conversations about… everything. Things that were happening in their lives but also current events.

When you have those kinds of relationships with young people you develop so much respect for them. And for their intellect. And for their capacity to understand things, and care too. Kids have such a strong sense of justice and such a commitment to the world they live in and making it better, in a wholehearted belief that it’s their job to do that. When we recognize that and really respect our kids, how can we do anything else besides be honest with them in the stories that we tell?

I was a news reporter before I was a teacher and very tuned into that. But mostly out of respect for children.

Jeanie: I love that. And I really felt that in this book Breakout, which I just finished and I adored.

I don’t know what took me so long, why I hadn’t read it sooner. It’s brilliant.

And I really felt your respect for kids and your respect for how they share themselves through writing in this book because it’s told from the perspective of different young people and through their written pieces: poems and parody and letters and bits of journalism and comics. It feels really relevant to this current moment because it takes on whiteness and race.

Kate: It’s very much a look at privilege and perspective.

I didn’t know it at the time but I started working on this book the day that two inmates broke out of Clinton Correctional Facility in northern New York in June of 2015. Because that that prison break, which lasted for 23 days, just *consumed* the community where I live in northern New York.

The prison where this happened is 14 miles from my house. So for the better part of a month at the beginning of the summer, we had helicopters flying over the house and we were being stopped at roadblocks and it was fascinating to see how this crisis and this scary event brought out the absolute best in some people and really the absolute worst in other people.

I started thinking right away: how were kids viewing this? What was this like to be a kid in this community? And in a community that is largely a white community. There are few minorities in Clinton County, New York, compared to larger urban areas. What would it feel like to be one of those Black kids at this school, with all this happening around them?

Breakout started as a very traditional narrative. My first draft was a very traditional first-person narrative, from the point of view of Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter. I showed it to a couple of writer friends and one of them, Linda Urban, who’s an amazing Vermont writer said to me: “Kate, I love this. I love Nora’s voice, but I’m finding myself wondering what these other characters are thinking. And I wonder: did you ever consider telling this story from more than one point of view?”

And I was thinking, “Well, *no*, and it’s 400 pages of *done* so…”

But that really nagged at me. I got similar feedback from an editor, and so it wasn’t long before I took my whole 400-page book and I set it aside. I started over.

Now, when I tell that story to kids at school visits they’re like: “Whaaaaaaaat?” Because they don’t even want to write the six-paragraph essay over.

But I started over. I decided that a more appropriate or engaging way to tell this story — and a more honest way to tell the story — would be to include this collection of documents from this summer where this wild thing happened, so that you could see all these different points of view and how different they were and how diverse they were. How two people could view the exact same thing completely different. So it’s very much a book about perspective, and also about privilege. What it means to be white in a place like northern New York or a place like Vermont.

Jeanie: There are so many places where I dog-eared this book because I felt like the kinds of conversations I was having with teachers if the end of June at our Middle Grades Institute was all about: how do we talk about race and whiteness with our students? How do we talk to them about privilege and bias? And this book has countless examples of just what that looks like.

I also felt like it’s a very gentle way of complicating maybe the different relationships people might have with police, right?

For example one moment that happens in this book that Nora our white character really has to deal with is when she goes into a market with Elidee, her friend who is Black. They’re asked to put their backpacks behind the counter. And I just love the way Nora has to churn through that and come up with her own response to that over time. It’s not immediate. She doesn’t get it right the first time, but it starts to make her think differently. So I think this book just does a really great job of modeling what happens when we start to notice privilege and bias.

Kate: Nora is dealing with this for a few reasons.

First of all, there’s this prison break happening in town. And one of the men who has broken out of prison is a person of color.

Secondly, she has this this new friend who’s moved to town from the Bronx: she’s African American in a town where there are very few Black people.

And third, her older brother has a girlfriend who’s gone away to college. She’s been coming home with ideas about social justice. So Nora’s older brother Sean is starting to have some of those conversations around the dinner table which are not always welcome, because her father is the prison superintendent. It’s the sort of tension that we see when we try to talk about race with our parents and our older family members.

It’s all right there on the page. All of these tense conversations that are happening, and how to navigate those.

I’ve heard from teachers and librarians and families who are reading Breakout together, and I think that’s amazing. Because it really is important to look at whiteness and what that means to be a white person. We don’t think about race as white people but we should. Because it affects how we walk through the world and how different that is from the way a person of color walks through the world.

But it’s also not a book to read *instead of* books by Black authors. Black authors are the experts on racism.

I see that you have Stamped by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X Kendi on the shelf behind you. That is a great title to pair with Breakout. Another one would be Ghost Boys by Jewell Parker Rhodes, because it addresses so many of the same issues in a totally different way.

I don’t ever want Breakout to be a book that teachers and librarians and white communities share instead of books by Black authors. That’s not how it should work. But it can be a compliment to them.

That’s a really helpful way of looking at it because it does look at the issue of whiteness and what does it mean and what is your job when you are a white person — especially in a place like many of us live where there are very few people of color. What is our rule? What is our job? And what is our responsibility?

Jeanie: I love that. Own voices stories are super important to me as a librarian and as a reader. I like commit to reading at least half my books by people of color written by people of color.  I wondered as I was reading Breakout was if it was complicated for you to find Elidee’s voice? And what it felt like to write in Elidee’s voice. This is a mentor text, too, because Elidee’s writing poems inspired by Jacqueline Woodson — one of my favorite writers. So I’m curious about what that was like for you to find Elidee’s voice as a white woman.

Kate: So, I would not write a book in the voice of character from a marginalized group. But in that perspective because Breakout is a collection of documents it includes all of the voices in town. It’s probably not surprising to you that this book was easier for me to write the first time.

When I did my first draft I was writing in first person point of view from the point of view of Nora Tucker, the prison superintendent’s daughter. Nora Tucker is a white girl growing up in a small town. And guess what? Kate Messner is a white girl who grew up in a small town. And my dad happened to be the school superintendent, but still our backgrounds are pretty close. Nora’s voice came very naturally and very easily to me.

When I went back to redo the story as this whole collection of documents, some of which were letters from Elidee and poetry that she writes, I had to start over.

I had to do so much more work and so much more research. I think half a dozen expert readers read the whole book but with a particular focus on Elidee. People who’ve grown up in similar situations, who were people of color and spent time in places where that were mostly white. And I was still feeling like I was missing something and I realized, thanks to one of those expert readers, that there wasn’t enough in the story about who Elidee was before she moved to this small town that was almost all white.

And so I needed to go back and do more work on her background. What was her old community like? Who did she see every day?

I went to New York and spent a day there and I walked around and noticed things. That’s something that I always tell kids I try to do as a writer: I bring my notebook and I try to take in place and pay attention. What would Elidee and her brother have seen on their walk to school? I went to the neighborhood park and I paid attention to the way the four train rumbles over the skate park. Things like that. I went to the bodega and looked at what they were serving and had a chopped cheese sandwich.

I could never write a character like Elidee the way somebody who has that background could. But with Breakout we were talking about smaller chunks of the story. Letters from that character. Poetry. And that was the research that I did to try and do a better job with that.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. That really helps me. I had a lot of curiosity about that when I was reading the book. Now, you recommended Ghost Boys and Stamped. Are there any other books you would recommend for this moment in time?

Kate: So in addition to those books and The Hate U Give for older readers that deal head on with these issues of racism and police brutality,  I think it’s really important to also share books that portray the whole Black experience, including Black joy.

One of the gifts of being an author is I get to visit a lot of schools and see a lot of school libraries. And sometimes when I visit a library in a community that is mostly white and I look at what’s face-out on the shelves it’s books about mostly white kids. Sometimes the few books that are displayed that have people of color on the cover are books about the underground railroad and the civil rights movement. Or books like The Hate U Give or Ghost Boys, which are amazing stories, but there’s something missing there.

There are so many amazing stories that aren’t crisis stories. That aren’t about racism.

We have mysteries and heist stories like Varian Johnson’s The Great Greene Heist and To Catch a Cheat. Or The Parker Inheritance which is a great mystery of Varian’s.

We have amazing fantasy books like Tracey Baptiste’s The Jumbies series. And in those books yes there are mermaids and yes there are Jumbes, these Caribbean monsters of the forest, but there are also allegories. The second book in the Jumbe series has these mermaids that are connected to the transatlantic slave trade. There is some amazing deep stuff to talk about in fantasy and in speculative fiction.

We have books that are really just about joy and real families. Renée Watson has a new series out called the Ryan Hart series. The first book is Ways to Make Sunshine and it is just a gem of a middle grade novel. It very much reminds me of Ramona, who was my favorite when I was growing up. Ryan Hart is a Black girl growing up in Portland Oregon, just like Ramona was. A gem of a story. It’s sweet and funny and fun and we really need to be sharing the whole range of stories with our kids. Not just those books that feel like they are of this moment.

Jeanie: Yeah that makes so much sense to me and I love Renee Watson’s Piecing Me Together so I’m totally gonna check that one out.


Kate: Have you read Some Places More Than Others?

Jeanie: No! But I just saw that one somewhere on a list. It’s a little bit newer, right? I haven’t read that one yet.

Kate: It came out last year. So good! It made me cry and cry though.

Jeanie: She is a beautiful writer, one of my favorites. I also really liked Brandy Colbert’s The Only Black Girls in Town.

Kate: I have not read that yet. I’m dying to.

Jeanie: It’s really sweet! There’s mystery in there too, but it’s a great middle grades one. So yeah…

So the last thing I’m gonna ask you is about March of this year, when schools went remote, you really stepped up in this big way. Now, I know you’re a former teacher I understand why. I used the resource you created, “read, wonder, and learn” to support so many educators that I work with. I pointed so many teachers to that resource, because you shared so many amazing learning resources from authors all over. It was incredible. And I guess I just want to say thank you for curating these amazing resources, for stepping up in such an important way during a challenging time.  I wondered if you had any reflections from that.

Kate: Thank you. You know, as far as the way this whole pandemic began, it kind of seemed like one day we were going about our lives thinking, “Wow this seems like it’s getting weird” and then the very next day, Teachers who were in school with their kids on Friday were told on Sunday: you’re not going back on Monday.

They didn’t even get to say goodbye and their kids didn’t even get to bring materials home. The librarians didn’t get to give kids books. We’re lucky enough in our house to have many, many books all the time. So many houses aren’t like that. So that felt like an immediate crisis to me. In addition to this global crisis with the pandemic we now have this secondary crisis, which is to say we have kids at home without the things they need to learn. They don’t have books.

I was talking with my daughter who I just grabbed from college and we did a couple things.

First of all, we cleaned out all of my author copies. I had several hundred author copies of my novels and picture books hanging around. We just boxed them all up anddelivered them to local schools that were able to get them into kids’ hands right at the beginning of things.

Then I was trying to figure out what can we do to support these families at home? Because when this first happened it wasn’t like anybody had time to plan. It wasn’t like teachers had time to record the stories they wanted to use or anything.

It was pretty easy using social media. Social media drives me nuts sometimes but sometimes it’s a pretty great tool for bringing people together to help. It was pretty easy to say hey who can read a story? So while teachers are getting things together, while librarians are figuring this out, families will have some resources that they can use at home to kind of bridge that gap. That was the real purpose of it. And we saw in the early days these video readalouds were getting you know thousands of hits a day. And then of course you know teachers figured out: okay, this is what we’re gonna do. This is our schools program. But hopefully we were able to bridge that gap.

Jeanie: I loved it. It was really super helpful. I know so many teachers and librarians were grateful, and families too. Thank you so much.

Kate: I’m glad to hear that.

Jeanie: And I thank you so much for taking all this time to talk about not just one book, not just Chirp, but also Breakout, and The Seventh Wish — all your mysteries, all these what they call history busters, history smashers. Thank you so much for taking the time to share the wealth that is you with us. I’m so grateful.

Kate: Well, thank you for the invitation. It was a joy to talk books with you. I’ll do that any day.

Jeanie: Great! A couple of books from now we’ll have to do it again I hope. Thank you so much Kate.

Graduations in the time of COVID-19

A couple of weeks ago, we had the chance to take part in a collaboration between the Vermont Agency of Education and Vermont Public Radio (VPR), celebrating the strange and wonderful ways this year’s graduation differs from those in years past. What do graduations look like in the time of COVID-19? The hourlong program featured students and educators from around the state, performing music, giving speeches and simply musing on the ways in which the class of 2020 made. It. Work.

So as an excerpt, and leading us towards the end of the podcast’s fourth season, here’s the piece we produced for the show. We spoke with students, educators and families from two schools who approached graduation very differently: The Warren School, in Warren VT, and Poultney Elementary School, down in Poultney VT.

This is a tale of two sixth grades.

The Warren School, in Warren VT, opted to host their sixth-grade graduation at a drive-in in Waitsfield, called The Big Picture, known locally as “The Big Pic”. Warren School librarian Heidi Ringer says she got the idea from an NPR story, then called up principal Tom Drake with the suggestion. 

COVID-19 graduations
Heidi Ringer, librarian at The Warren School.


Heidi Ringer: So about a month or so ago, on NPR, they had said something about a school in New York that was doing a drive-in graduation. And then I was scrolling through Instagram that same night. There was a headline from The Valley Reporter that said The Big Pic was doing drive-in. And so I emailed Tom Drake, our principal, and asked Tom: “Drive-in at The Big Pic for graduation?”

He wrote back that he thought I was kidding.

And then he said he realized that was a great idea.

So then one day some of the graduation team met at The Big Picture parking lot and kind of, you know, mapped it all out. We visualized: “Okay. If they’re going to drive this way, then they’re going to enter this way. And then they’ll exit this way. And where are we getting the cakes? Nobody in town makes cupcakes, they only make mini-cakes. And how big are mini cakes? And are they too big? How many people are going to be in a car? Can we fit more than four mini cakes in a box?”

You know, it was crazy details, but it all worked. 

So it took probably three, four weeks of planning and thinking about it. Walking through and visualizing it and just being willing to be flexible and just say:

“Okay, so what are we going to do for the kids here?” 

The planning team remixed a Warren graduation tradition — the graduation essay — by having students record their favorite memory of The Warren School in Voice Memo and send it to the teachers, then the teachers put it all together into one long (48-minute) movie. 

Heidi: Ringer: So in the past, Warren school’s graduation has been the same thing forever and ever. The kids write an essay. So the first paragraph is how long you’ve been at The Warren School. Second paragraph is what are two memories of the school that you have? And what’s the big global idea that you learned from those. And then the thank you. So we’ve always done that. They usually sing a song or something like that. And because we’re in a rural place, some of these kids haven’t seen each other, you know, we see each other on the screens, but that’s it.

The town of Warren is about five miles from Waitsfield, so all the families met in their cars at the school and drove in convoy over to The Big Pic with a fire truck escort (one of the Warren teachers is a volunteer firefighter). At the drive-in, the teachers showed the students’ movie up on the big screens, piping the audio into everyone’s car speakers. 

Susan Hennessey’s ex-husband had a megaphone at Barre we borrowed. We got the megaphone and Tom Drake brought a ladder and stood on the ladder and did the welcome through the megaphone. Then the kids all got their certificates, and the teachers ran to their cars to give them to them, and cheered and did all that. By the, it was dark. So we watched the movie. And then at the end of the movie, I had gone to North Star Fireworks and got huge sparklers. And so the teachers made like, the honor guard kind of thing. We lined the road and then the cars exited that way, with all kinds of beeping and cheering.

They went through the sparklers… and that was it.

That was graduation. 

For Heidi Ringer and the rest of the Warren School teachers, all the planning, the Zoom meetings, sourcing mini-cakes and sparklers (and reminding everyone to bring a lighter), was worth it for one simple reason.

Heidi Ringer: It’s all about the kids. I think that’s the biggie to remember. That it’s about them. So sometimes you just have to let go of things. This is a different time. It’s not going to be the same. It’s not going to be what it might’ve been if you were standing right next to them. So it’s, it’s kind of… let go. It’s all about the kids. 

Eliza Krotinger is one of those graduating Warren School students. What did she and her mom, Nicole, think of the unusual celebration?

COVID-19 graduations
Eliza Krotinger, left, and her mom, Nicole Krotinger.

Eliza Krotinger: Yeah, it was… think it was much better than the regular one. We should do this one more often because the formal one… it just seemed very different. And I liked this one much more. The most memorable part was hearing all the speeches. Even though we didn’t get to see everyone, we could all like, hear each other in some way. And the speeches were all so different and like… I remembered memories I forgot about. Yeah.

Nicole Krotinger: It was just special to see all the teachers and do you know, we hadn’t seen each other in so long, so that was really special. And yeah, the, the speeches were wonderful. The kids put a lot of time and energy into the speeches and you can really, you could really tell because their personalities came through through the pictures and what they had to say about themselves. I think this year, that for some reason the students, their speeches were more unique. Like a lot of years you’ll go and it’ll be, they’ll, they’ll all talk about the same memories. I don’t know if that’s because they’re all in the same classroom talking to each other and this time they were separated out more. Um, so they each had more unique memories this time, which was nice. 

Amelia Brooks also graduated from The Warren School, and attended the graduation with her mom, Marie. 

COVID-19 graduations
Marie Schmukal, left, and her daughter, Amelia Brooks.

Amelia Brooks: I really liked the sparkler sendoff at the end. Because you got to see all of the teachers and it was really fun to see all of them. 

Marie Schmukal: I was amazed at how many of the traditions they were able to keep, even though we were all in our cars, in a parking lot. I really appreciated the effort and thought that the teachers put into maintaining those traditions.

For educators like Heidi Ringer, blending old traditions and new, while a little more effort, is entirely worth it for the students and families they’ve known, in some cases for nine full years.

Heidi Ringer: These kids have been together, for good or for the bad,since most of them were three, four, five years old. They’ve been at The Warren school for *nine years* and suddenly they’re going to a new place. 

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Meanwhile, down in Poultney VT, Poultney Elementary School opted for sticking closer to home for their graduation, by organizing a car parade through town, and then having each family drive through the school bus circle, one by one. As each family drove, the graduating student got out and walked along next to the car. And Poultney’s teachers and administrators cheered their final journey, waving and hollering — in a socially distanced way.  They were joined in cheering by students from Poultney’s local high school — who all themselves happened to be alumni of the elementary school.

The three-member Poultney 5th and 6th grade teaching team — Maureen Kahill Brown, Tia Hewes and Keith Harrington — all brought different strengths to pulling off this event under challenging circumstances. 

Maureen Kahill Brown: My name is Maureen Kahill Brown. I live in Poultney. And I’ve been in Poultney teaching, for 27 years.

We all started about eight weeks ago planning. And, uh, one of my roommates from college is a science teacher out on Long Island, and they had done something similar. And Kristin Caligiuri, our principal, requested that we do a drive-through. So we kind of searched the country for what other schools were doing. And we tried to pull the best of what we could learn from them, in order to make it a reality for our students. 

Every day we met virtually at 11 o’clock and we started tossing around ideas and kind of hammering it out. And the three of us all have different strengths. 

We did create a class Facebook page, a parent helped us out with that, but not all our parents check that. Not all of our parents check their email and not all of our parents check their phones. So it became a challenge to remember which parents did what to try and get them the information, um, that they needed. 

Tia was the first teacher you met as you entered the town. She came to help kind of guide them through the path. (It reminded me of a driver’s ed course, to be honest with you.) And she collected Chromebooks from them and any other things that they had, maybe some musical instruments, and welcomed them and celebrated them. It kind of got that moment because we really haven’t seen students in quite some time. 

Then the next person they would drive up to is Keith, who was at the podium with the microphone. So he got that moment with them, and then I was directing the traffic and taking pictures and making sure they got their diploma. 

And one of the students said,

‘You know, Ms. Kahill, this is so strange.’

And I was like, ‘What’s so strange?’

‘Well, you’re not buffering or jerking out. You’re alive, you’re in person.’

And I said, ‘Yes, because my wifi is typically quite weak when you put 33 kids on it.’

So that was kind of  one of those shocker moments for me. I was like: That’s right. They haven’t seen me live since March.

And my hair is a whole lot longer and for whatever reason, a lot grayer than it ever was before. 

The teachers also put together a photo booth for the occasion, staffed by a local professional photographer who also is an alumna of Poultney Elementary School. But because of social distancing, teachers weren’t able to stand with their students for the photos. So, secretly, the teachers all ordered lifesize cardboard cutouts of themselves, which they placed in the photo booths.

The cardboard cutouts were so convincing that, well, they led to a few confusing moments. 

Maureen Kahill Brown: Traditionally parents and children like to get photos with us. And we didn’t know what we could do because we had to wear masks, and we just didn’t want their pictures to have masks in it. So another parent who’s very talented with photography, Tracy Simons, we made her promise to keep a secret. She took our pictures and we had lifesize cut outs made. And we put them in the photo booth.

It was hysterical. The day we were setting up, we put the three of us in the photo booth and we ran inside to get something. And I guess the head of maintenance, Rich, drove by just, you know, to check in with us. And he waved at the three cutouts. He didn’t realize that it wasn’t us. 

Poultney Elementary School pulled together a graduation ceremony that was just as much about the parents and the alumni as it was the graduating sixth graders. They kind of wanted a ceremony that celebrated how small and close-knit Poultney is, and how many parents stick around and send their own kids through the same schools they themselves attended. This year, 21% of the parents of Poultney Elementary School graduates once attended the school themselves.

Maureen Kahill Brown: Many of the former students that were parents came through. One was teary-eyed and said that she was so grateful that we had taken the time to do the in-person moment because, she just wanted her child to experience what she had. And so gosh, for an old teacher that made me quite happy that she appreciated it. 

My other most favorite part was to see how parents took the time to decorate the cars with such amazing signs, and decorations, and balloons, and streamers. And at one point a parent said, “Go ahead, hit the button on the trunk.”

And out came balloons! They popped out and there was a big sign that said, you know,
“Thank you teachers, we appreciate you.” So that was just amazing. We were really quite fortunate with the amazing parents we had helping and supporting us as we went through, uh, this journey with them. 

We felt they deserved it.

Everyone, um, has certainly been affected by COVID in many different ways. And everyone can tell you where they lost out. My own son graduated college this year — or, well, he has his diploma, you know. The ceremony didn’t occur. And so I guess I understand how those parents may have been feeling. In our world we held a graduation ceremony here at the house for my son. He said it was probably better than the real one, a lot shorter way more comfortable. Um, so he was, he was thrilled that we did that. We kind of surprised him with that. So I guess that’s kind of where we all were coming from. We were just thinking, you know, if it was our children, what would we want? 

What do the students and their parents think of all this? Here’s Ashley Converse, mom to graduating sixth grader Collea Mullholland, and herself an alum of Poultney Elementary.

COVID-19 graduations
Graduating 6th grader Collea Mullholland, and her mom, Ashley Converse.

Ashley Converse: I remember her telling me when her friends in sixth grade graduated last year, everybody cried basically for a few days. Right. Everybody was together, everybody to the end of the last day of school. For some reason, everybody was crying and we don’t know why. And all the sixth graders were like, Oh no, is that going to happen with this this year? But apparently not because they wasn’t quite same.

It’s a small, um, it’s a small close knit community and we all kind of raise each other’s kids.

Pam Chellis is mom to graduating 6th grader Will Hathaway.

Pam Chellis: It would have been nice to have the whole class together, but man, those teachers did a heck of a job. They couldn’t ask for better teachers and staff that they are probably the most amazing people. And with all this COVID stuff, they have been right there for the kids, even though they haven’t been in the classrooms, they can call on those teachers at any given time.

And Marissa Boudreau’s daughter Gabby also graduated from Poultney Elementary this year. Gabby is the second of Marissa’s six kids to do so. And while the family only moved here from Massachusetts four years ago, Marissa appreciates Poultney’s strong, close-knit community.

The heart of which is their schools. And teachers like Maureen Kahill Brown.

Marissa Boudreau: I thought the ceremony was awesome. The teachers were good. And um, today we actually did a parade. The teachers went around town and so we were able to like wave from, you know, wave to them and stuff. And so that was fun.

I just really like, have to praise all of her teachers because we live in such a smaller town and the teacher’s just, just so good about communication, you know, if your kid needs extra help or if your kid is doing great or, or whatever, they’re right there, you know, whether it’s a phone call or an email. I mean, it’s just the, the closeness of the community here is just fantastic. And I couldn’t have asked for a better outcome for her and for everyone else.

It’s kind of like that’s saying, you know, it takes a village. And so our school is that village and they will help us.

COVID-19 graduations
Graduating 6th grader Marissa Boudreau, left, and her mom, Gabby.


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The 21st Century Classroom is a podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Special thanks for this episode go to all the students and families who spoke with us for the piece, as well as educators Heidi Ringer, Maureen Kahill Brown, Tia Hewes, and Keith Harrington. Extra special thanks to Kari Anderson at VPR, as well as Sigrid Olson and Greg Young at the Vermont Agency of Education. This episode was produced by series producer Audrey Homan.

#vted Reads: Hemingway, with Elijah Hawkes

Listeners: our hearts are breaking. Our hearts are breaking for all of Vermont’s Black students, Black educators, and Black families.

But frankly, our broken hearts are not nearly enough.

Right now, we need to talk about what this all means for Vermont. What it means to interrogate in schools, and in classrooms, and in ourselves.

On this episode of the podcast, we grapple with a challenging short story by Hemingway (yes, that Hemingway), called “Indian Camp”. Now, a content note: this story contains language and attitudes that we as a society no longer find acceptable, and in fact, one of the terms that Hemingway’s characters bandy about, a derogatory term for Native and Indigenous women, we just won’t be saying on this show.


Given that this is a story that’s primarily about the experiences of a young white boy, and how the death and injury of Native people reaffirms his view of himself as entitled, why does Vermont principal Elijah Hawkes use it every year in welcoming new educators to his school?

Because that young white boy, and the people he injures with his entitlement? They’re in your classrooms, your communities, and your homes.

This remains #vted Reads. Black Lives Matter. Now let’s chat.

Jeanie:  Thanks for joining me, Elijah.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Elijah:  Hi Jeanie! Thanks for having me, for this conversation. I’m currently principal at Randolph Union, a 7-12 school in Central Vermont. It serves three towns and a bunch of others in the surrounding county: Randolph, Brookfield and Braintree. About 400 students at the school. We’re adjacent to the Randolph Technical Career Center and all the benefits that come with that neighborhood.

I live in Middlesex Vermont; I grew in Moretown Vermont, about 20 minutes away. Began my career as an educator though in New York City and was an English teacher and then founding principal of The James Baldwin School, a small alternative public school.

And then moved to Vermont about 9 or 10 years ago and I’ve been here and in this role in this place ever since.

Jeanie:  Thank you for that. You are also a writer.

Elijah: Yes, I’m also a writer. Like conversations like these, writing is a conversation with myself and with other people and with ideas. And it’s one of the ways that I digest the work of being an educator. The work of being an educator in public schools, the work of being a public school educator in a democracy, the work of being an educator with adolescents. The work of being an educator as a father who has children. I pour that into my writing and try to make sense of the world that I’m in. And then when I can try to share that with others and have further dialogue about it.

I just got a book out actually this past month. The book launch parties have been few since social distancing, but I’m excited to share that with people as well. It’s called Schools for The Age of Upheaval and the subtitle is Classrooms That Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work. And perhaps there’ll be some intersections with those ideas in our conversation today.

Jeanie:  I’m ready to get to work! Let’s see, well, one of the things I always like to ask books because I’m a librarian and an avid reader and I’m always interested in what other people are reading, do you have something on your nightstand right now, that you’re working on?

Elijah:  I do yes. I’m just 20 or 30 pages away from the end of The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. My brother’s reading it at the same time; we’ve been having some correspondence about it. So we’ve been enjoying that novel by Coates, whose essays, of course, I’ve read in other publications. But this is his first long work of fiction.

Jeanie:  I loved that book, so much. Yeah. It’d be interesting to pair that with —  I don’t know if you saw the announcement yesterday but Coates Whitehead won the Pulitzer for fiction for The Nickel Boys which is another just phenomenal sort of historical fiction take.

But I really love The Water Dancer.

Actually it’s come up a lot with people who’ve I’ve had on the podcast! They’re either reading it hoping to read it, suggesting it to me, suggesting it to others. Great. So, I want to start with: why did you choose this text? Why choose “Indian Camp”? (.pdf)

Elijah:  It’s actually a text that I’ve used as a jumping off point for professional development discussions about our purpose of our work, and how we do our work. And it’s a short story. I thought: why don’t we talk about that and see where it takes us in terms of conversations about our work as educators.

It’s not about school but it’s about a child. It’s about children and the families that they live in. And they live in a divided society. They live in the United States at the turn of the last century somewhere in upper northern Michigan. And it’s a Native American family and it’s aAnglo-American family and they cross paths in a fairly traumatic way. And the question that I ask my colleagues and I ask myself is:

Consider the protagonist of the story, the boy Nick, who’s the son of a doctor, and ask yourself: if he was in your classroom, what would he need from you as an educator? What he would need from your school? And then ask yourself the same question of the Native American child that we meet in the story. What if he was in your classroom?  And how’s that similar or different to what the son of the doctor needs?

Then the other question is more about the purpose of schools in our society and the question is:

What does the society need the children to get from their schooling?

Jeanie: Let’s set the stage for our listeners. Nick is on vacation; he’s fishing with his uncle and his father. His father is a doctor. And they’re called in the middle of the night, I think, or the wee hours of the morning to this Indian camp. They have to get there by canoe. And when they arrive; as they’re arriving, as they’re traveling there, Nick’s father is telling him that this woman has been in labor for a couple of hours and…

Elijah:  Or longer.

Jeanie: Sorry a couple of days, you’re right. Not a couple of hours. As they arrive…

It’s Hemingway, so it’s sparse, but there’s a bit of commentary on this on the homestead, if you will that really jumped out at me about the descriptions of place, and of people.

Uncle George is not very kind. He uses a racial slur against the young Indian woman and so it sort of sets this stage of these two separate worlds. Is there anything you would add to that? Or what you took from it?

Elijah:  Well you’re right. It’s Hemingway. So you know: short, staccato sentences — very observational. You have to do some work as a reader to try to intuit what people might be feeling or thinking beyond their surface phrases.

You might even say the first page or two of the story are boring. And part of the why I choose this story is for that reason actually.

And I’ve been using this story mostly in the last 5 or 10 years in my work with predominantly white educators. like myself. So one, choosing Hemingway, and two, choosing a story that starts off the way that it does, you know, kind of from the perspective of a child: very slowly moving across the lake, in a deliberate and sort of banal fashion. No one is going to really have their defenses up.

So we’re about to have a conversation about race and class and violence in the country we live in and I don’t want people to be defensive, as we enter into that conversation. And Hemingway actually allows them to do that, with a diverse audience or with an audience that includes mostly white educators. Mostly white people.

Part of the reason why I like this story is that slow entry into content that is very important and troubling.

Jeanie: You know, that makes me think of the slow way in which we are acculturated around race too. Like that Nick is this five or six-year-old kid, maybe seven, and he’s picking up all these quiet messages about difference, right? Who matters. And what’s important.

Elijah: Absolutely.

Jeanie: And I think about that’s how experience in the United States, living in this highly racialized society that doesn’t really talk about race, right? We slowly accumulate as children all these ideas.

And for me, I’ve been doing a lot of reading around decolonizing methodologies.

It’s not just about the people, and the places, and who matters, and who’s important, but like which ways of being and knowing we value.

And in this case it’s Nick’s father’s very Western medicine way of knowing that’s valued. Right, like he gets to be the savior, he gets to come in and rescue! And his scientific knowledge is what’s important. While all the other quiet ways of knowing that belong to the Indigenous folks in the story, are completely unvalued.

Elijah: Yes, you’re absolutely right. You know: again, it’s not told in the first person, but you more or less are seeing things through the eyes of the child. Nick who I think is probably 5, 6, 7 years-old just based on how he talks and thinks (and I also have two boys, and so I remember them at that age and it does remind me of 5, 6, 7 year-old boys), and he sees his father conduct a Caesarian section in the most impoverished of conditions.

These are bark peelers; this is a bark-peeling camp, is how I understand it. So the logs are drying out of the forest. There’s dense and very rough and dangerous work of peeling the bark off of the log, before I assume there then sent by some floatation across the bay or down a river.

It’s the hardest work of logging that’s done by the Native people here.

Nick and his father enter this what’s called a shanty, and most of the men of the village have moved away because the woman’s distress is so troubling. It’s a breech birth so she’s not able to have the child. And my assumption is that she is going to die unless some kind of intervention happens. Which probably is why somebody went for help from this doctor.

Because you’re right there’s a woman who’s there attending to the young woman who’s pregnant.  She’s exhausted; her head is on its side. She’s been in labor for days. Her husband is also in a state of destitution because he’s wounded himself through his work. His foot is cut, and he’s now disabled lying in the bunk above her, and so he can’t escape her pain. He’s trapped in his world of violence in so many different ways so he’s there and the doctor doesn’t bring any anesthetic…

We’re not really sure if he had any anesthetic and could have brought it, but he doesn’t bring it. And he conducts a Caesarean section with a jack-knife and some rough thread…

There’s more that happens, but Nick witnesses this all.

And on the other side of it, he’s heard his uncle use a racial slur towards the young woman who bites him — which is a very interesting moment in the story, a moment of resistance you might say.  It’s one of the few times that a woman in the story speaks or does something. And she bites this man who’s holding her down.

But Nick hears the uncle use a racial slur. He hears his father say that the woman’s screams are not important — “I just need to focus on my task” — and so the father’s bias and racism and insensitivity to the pains of the people he’s working with, are clear.

And on the other side of this Nick is going back across the lake with his father. At the end of the story they’re going back across the lake.

The man in the bunk above — the father of this child, the husband of this woman — takes his own life over the course of this story.

And Nick’s father by then is completely deflated. When he sees the trauma — to a degree through the eyes of his child — he’s deflated. And he wishes that he hadn’t brought his son.  But the last thought that child has as he’s crossing the lake is, or it’s a thought that he doesn’t have… He has a sense that he would never die.  There’s a sense of you are in power.  You are in a place of power from people with power, of strength and invisibility and you’ve just…

Nick has just experienced extraordinary violence and he’s experienced death, and he’s experienced pain… and on the other side of it he understands death as something that happens to other people.

There’s all of that that comes with this story about a young white boy and his rite of passage into what? Into power. It’s a rite of passage into power and privilege. It’s a solidification of that. Again, I think the question that to ask of ourselves as educators is: what does that kid need? He’s in our school right now he’s in your classrooms.

That person with that power and that privilege is in our classrooms — or is in your own home.  What is it, that person needs from our school?

And then also what does the other child need?

Because the other child lives.

And if it’s a public school in Vermont we also have that child in our school, too. The child is living in a camper.  The child who’s homeless, the child who’s coming from great systemic poverty and the violence that comes with it. Both of those children are in our schools. What do they both need?  Unless the doctor son is actually left to school because that happens. That’s happened several times since I joined Randolph Union, actually.

Jeanie:  Already left your school for private school, is sort of what you’re saying?

Elijah:  That’s what I’m saying is that the doctor’s son and the doctor’s family may have the choice, of not being in your classroom.

Jeanie: So, you’re reminding me: I teach collaborative practices and facilitative leadership and we just focused on equity using protocols and structures to have hard conversations. Because these are hard conversations. About equity, about bias, about the way assumptions color our teaching practice, and how we see kids.

And many times in Vermont I will encounter teachers, educators, principals, administrators who will say,

“Well our school is all white so we don’t need to deal with race.”

And then I encourage them to read What White Children Need To Know About Race (.pdf). Because I think the question you’re asking is related to that. Which is:

  • What kind of white children do we want our kids to be?
  • What kind of white folks do we want our graduates to be in the world?

If we never talk about race, if we don’t equip students with conversations about race they can’t develop a positive white social identity.

Elijah:  Totally agree with you there. And I’ve tried to train myself to not ever say anymore, that we’re not a diverse school community. To say, “We’re not diverse,” erases… five, 10, 15, 20 individual students. Even though Randolph Union is 95% students who identity as white. I can say that we’re mostly a white school, but I can’t say we’re not a diverse school.

Jeanie: Yes. I think we fall into a trap when we minimize or erase those students who may be biracial, or presenting as white or may have more complicated ethnic backgrounds.

But we also fall into a trap by thinking that white kids don’t have a race.


  • What do we need to focus on?
  • What are some of the things that come up?
  • And what does schooling need to provide for this sort of entitled young man who thinks he’s never going to die?

Elijah:  Well I think Nick need to have a personal and historical understanding of himself. And he needs to have a personal and historical understanding of others.

I’m fond of saying, as we approach complex topics in the school community, that we need personal stories and historical facts. Personal stories and historical facts, personal stories and historical facts. And if we have both of those in our classroom, at our assemblies, in our professional development work, we have what it needs to have truthful conversations.

Now I know we can certainly debate what counts as historical fact, but look: we’re educators and so we’re academics to degree, so we’re going to default to what academia legitimizes as historical facts. And we should.

But Nick needs to be in a classroom where he’s enabled to reflect on his own personal story.

  • Where he’s been invited reflected on this trip that he had as a five-year-old.
  • Where’s he’s asked questions.
  • And where he has to reflect on the society that he lives in.
  • And where he’s asked questions where he has to consider the perspective of other people.

Hopefully it’s a classroom that’s diverse by class ,and it may also be diverse by race to a degree. The teacher needs to carefully create a trusting and bonded classroom community — and the teacher may need help to do that. But a bonded classroom community where personal stories can be shared.

So that’s the classroom that gets personal.

Nick needs to be able to hear other people tell their stories. And he needs to also be able to reflect on his own, and to share it.  That’s one thing that he needs.

And then he also needs a politicaland  historical understanding of where he comes from, and the society that he lives in.

Jeanie:  Can I poke at this notion of historical fact a little bit?

Elijah:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  I think you’re right. I think history — or inaccurate history — is a huge part of our problem in this country.  That we tell the stories that we wish were true about what our American society. And not just the like, “chopping down of cherry trees, never tell a lie” kind of stories.

So yesterday, Nicole Hannah Jones won a Pulitzer for work on The 1619 Project. Which is wonderful. Because The 1619 Project really disrupted all of the history I learned as a student, right? By centering the experiences — and not just the experiences but the work — of Black people, and the way that Black and brown people have really built this country. Not just buildings, not through slavery but like: *built* our democracy. And moved it forward.

And so I think this idea of historical facts means we need to trample the historical fictions we’ve been telling ourselves as if there are facts.

Elijah:  I totally agree. And we’re fortunate to have, you know, unending resources at our disposal to access those stories that are going to trouble our fictions.

You know:

These are organizations that offer educators off-the-shelf resources and daily reminders, about this day in history, 200 years ago: What was the experience of working class people, and people of color, and immigrants? They do center those stories and so the resources are there, there’s no excuse for not considering them as we plan our lessons, and using them as we teach.

Jeanie:  What I hear from you is that we to do the work as educators. And that we have to disrupt or challenge our own indoctrination into a certain kind of history. And ask ourselves:

  • Whose story is being told?
  • Whose story isn’t?
  • What does power have to do with that?
  • And where do I go find those that haven’t been told?

The work is for all of us at all levels, right? Like it’s just not for young people. In many ways, we’re Nick, too.

Elijah:  We are Nick, too. Absolutely.

Jeanie: And so there’s a quote. It’s before the Caesarian section, when Nick’s father the doctor is getting ready to perform surgery. He’s just explained that the birth is breech, and he says to his son, “But her screams are not important.  I don’t hear them because they are not important.”

And thinking about the context of this conversation with you, the question I wanted to sort of interrogate my own practice with, is:

What are the things that I as an educator sometimes was not able to hear because I consider them unimportant?

Elijah:  That’s a great question, Jeanie.  I’m wishing I would ask that kind of question when reading the story.  You have here a doctor who feels like his primary task is to get the child out of the belly of this woman. And to do his best to save both of those lives in the process. So if he’s preoccupied by her emotional distress, then he’s not going to get his task done. That’s one interpretation, right.

In the broader context of this story there’s huge insensitivities, and there’s huge settler colonial racism that’s playing out here? But the narrow view is you have a professional who’s trying to get his job done.

What are the corrollaries there to our work as educators?

I’ve got to get these grades done! So I think it’s important for us to ask: what are we not listening to?  What pains and cries of distress do we not listen to, or do we shut out, in our efforts in the institution that is school, in our efforts to stick to the routine to get the task done, to tend to what we feel is urgent?

I think that’s a really important question.

Jeanie:  Well and in this current moment here we are in the middle of COVID-19. And we know that this illness, which some people are falsely calling ‘The Great Equalizer’ in it impacts everyone — is really impacting people of color way more than it is white folks.

And I’ve been you know not trying to read too many of those stories because then I end up not able to function for the day. But. This is also true of childbirth, this true of all medical problems actually, for people of color.  How often doctors are not able to count their pain as real, right. And I don’t think doctors are evil people, just like I don’t think teachers get into the business of teaching to hurt kids.

I think what happens in these moments like with Nick’s dad, is that we have work to be done, and we fall back on implicit bias in way that actually has huge impacts on our students, on patients of color who are dying.

A hugely disproportionate rate of COVID-19 or not being admitted to hospitals because their symptoms aren’t being take seriously. And I can’t help but see these as intertwined.

Elijah: Yes, absolutely. I think we need professionals in every institution who look like, represent and are from the same places that the people that are “being served”. We need a kind of diversity in our positions of power so that we can better listen and better understand the work that we’re doing through different lenses.

Jeanie:  I think it’s not just diversity, because I don’t think we can just rely on people of color to do the work here. But when we hold power and privilege? We need to personally do the work of disrupting our own biases and drawing attention to them and noticing them.

Because I think that our biases do show up in what we think is important and what we think is not important. I can think of countless actually white students, but white students who’d experienced some sort of trauma in their lives, or who were coming from a family of abuse or poverty, who we couldn’t see, we couldn’t hear them, because we didn’t consider what they were going through important.

And by that we I meant me and the teachers I was working with in my last school.

Elijah:  I agree with you there.  But what I mean to say is for instance, right now if it was only white men in leadership positions at my school I would not be doing — *we* would not be doing as good a job as leaders right now, meeting the needs of our teachers who are young mothers or who are about to go and give childbirth.

Because I have an associate principal who’s a woman — so a woman in position of power at my school — the school is doing a better job of working with women who have had children, or are going to have children. And that is part of my learning; as in listening to my colleague.

And because we have a person in power at my school who is born and raised in the towns where we work, and whose family is been there for six, seven, eight, nine, ten generations? She’s at the table when we’re deciding how to allocate resources. Her voice matters because she understands the needs of the community in a different way than I do for all of my good intentions about putting myself in someone else’s shoes.

I agree with you that there is work to be done by me as an individual.  And I think part of the work to be done is in listening to my colleagues who have different perspectives as well and ensuring that my colleagues do represent different perspectives.

I don’t think it’s an either or I think both of those things are important.

Jeanie:  I agree: it’s a “both and” for sure!

Elijah:  So the children born into the most desperate of circumstances seem to be more and more in number. How can I support my colleague?  How can I support myself?  Hence all of the conversations we’re having across the state about trauma informed practice and secondary trauma, vicarious trauma.

How do we ensure that the teacher core is strong in this work, working with a Nick and working with many other children from different and more challenging circumstances?

And I guess what I’ve come to think, Jeanie, is that it’s less about victories and thinking about each child as potential victory. You know each child has a chance. Like: help that kid beat the odds. We need to continue with that kind of energy and activist educator effort, to get every child to have the most fulfilling experience they can have in our school.

But at the same time? The goal may not be the individual victories; the goal is solidarity in the struggle.

Jeanie: That reminds me I love everything you just said and it reminds me of a story. There are these folks on the side on the bank of a river and these babies start coming down the river.

And so they do what you do: they start grabbing babies out of the river, right?

They’re pulling one baby after another out of the river.

And then one of them, like, takes off!

And they’re like, “Wait where are you going? There are all these babies! Come back! Help us? Why are you like giving up on these babies?”

And they’re like: “I’m going up river to see where all these babies are coming from!”

Right? So it’s moving from triage to systems-level change.

And I think in schools I think it could be really easy.  I know it was really easy for me to think of myself as somebody who could help save kids right one at a time, relationship by relationship and I think relationships are so crucial and important.  And work with kid s is really important but I think I had some blinders on.  I’m thinking that I could save anybody that my work was somehow will somehow to save these kids.

My boss, John Downes, often asks me to think with the systems-level lens, and it does not come naturally to me.  I have to work really hard to think about the systems change in that. I’ve been thinking about I went and saw Ibram X Kendi when he came to UVM this past winter, and it was so profound. He’s really asking us to think about racism at the systems level .

A racist idea leads to racist outcomes. And that’s really thinking about policies and procedures. That’s really helped me think about this, too. But like, if we’re dealing with one baby at a time, we’re not upending the system at all that creates that puts all these babies in the river.

Elijah:  It’s very easy to focus year after year on the small number of kids who beat the odds and think that that’s actually what schools can do. Whereas, really we’re best at recreating inequities of the wider society.

Jeanie:  I just feel really the need to say: I so admire the work schools do and that educators play.  Like I think educators are working their tails off and that the society has given them way too much to do and I sometimes wonder if that’s a huge part of the problem. If you’re just trying to keep up, you’re not going to look around and say,

“Hey what’s going on in the greater world that our student are showing up like this?”

Like, it makes it really hard to like sort of see the big picture if you’re just wallowing in the work we have to do day-to-day and we’re expecting schools to feed kids and provide medical attention for, and to like. There are so many things that schools are doing and so I don’t want to lose sight of the fact but I think educators not only are their intentions good but they’re working so hard and they’re hearts are in this work.

Elijah:  Yes. (I’m nodding; I agree.)

Jeanie:  Yeah, you can’t hear a nod on a podcast! *laughs*.  I really appreciate this.

Elijah:  No that’s fine.  I also want to say just in terms of giving credit where credit is due that that when I hear myself say that that solidarity in the struggle and maintaining the struggle is the essence of the work? That I’m hearing James Baldwin, and I’m hearing Ta-Nehisi Coats in Between Me and The World.

You know I’m hearing a man who’s named his child after the word for the struggle and give that message to his child.  And so I want to credit those authors for educating me and helping me see the world in so many different ways and giving me some of the language to describe my world.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. I really appreciate that.

Elijah: In terms of the work at Randolph my mantra when we try to think about how to write curriculum that has relevance and is engaging to students and the wider community is: don’t start with the notion of interest.

A lot of us as educators will think, “I want to engage the kids in what they’re interested in?  Joey what are you interested in, what do you like?”

I think that’s a reasonable question. It’s an important question. We need to engage and know our children in terms of their interests but I think the more important question is:

  • What do you need?
  • What does your family need?
  • And what does our community need?

And if we can ask ourselves that question then and design our curriculum around those questions personal needs and societal needs, community needs we will be doing the work. We will be much more likely to do work that engages people in personal reflection and knowing yourself. A

nd also we’ll be positioned to do the systems change work and enabling kids to take action in their communities in those ways.

The past couple of years we’ve had what we call The Project-Based Learning Lab at Randolph Union which we staff with an administrator who supports teachers in designing courses that are project based in that they’re oriented towards addressing some need in the community.

We’ve had courses that are focused on racial justice and restorative justice, climate change and economic injustice, food insecurity and food systems.

This is something schools can do: like, plan for it for next year. Do this next year: take something that’s in the extracurricular realm, and it gets maybe an hour every couple of weeks, and make it a class.

If you have a service club at your school — we’ve had an Interact Club at Randolph Union for years. And so when the Project-Based Learning Lab opened up, we talked to Scott the teacher who’s helped do that work — whether it’s blood drives, or whether its supporting the education of girls in Asia, whether it’s work with veterans who are homeless, lots of different local and international initiatives connected with the Rotary Club in town —  we’ll make that a class. So instead of an hour every couple of weeks with the kids who can make it after school, give it 220 minutes a week. And see how deep we can go in terms of understanding the work that we’re asking kids to do.

Jeanie:  Yes.

Elijah: We partner with an organization in Montpelier that works with kids and educators in schools in Nicaragua. And just your understanding of the world we live in can go so much deeper.  So instead of just being a tourist you’re actually doing home-stays and you’re learning in much different ways about the culture that you’re visiting.

So. Those are some things that we can do. Take initiatives that people are passionate about in terms of working with their local and international community, make it a course and provide some resources to help teachers to pull that off.

Jeanie:  It sounds to me like what that also does is make space for both the needs of Nick and for the baby in our story. Right, like that it’s making space for Nick to question… the truths, the learning that he’s had, that’s lead to some entitlement in the sense that what he’s bringing. And also for this child who maybe couldn’t afford an international trip. Or maybe couldn’t stay after school because they have to help out at home. They both can engage together in the dialogue and the learning but also in the travel, or the experience of service.

Like oftentimes we limit who gets to be a volunteer and serve? To kids with privilege. And yet everybody feels the need to serve and have an impact.  And so I’m just thinking about that.

It seems like it’s coming back to our original question of how do you create curriculum that meets the need of kids whose experience spans a broad continuum.

Elijah:  It’s key also that Nick is in a classroom with people who have different life experiences.

And again the classroom community is developed intentionally enough so that Nick feels vulnerable enough to say something and then be questioned. And that the people who can question him feel like they have the support to question him, or the teacher can. We need those classroom community with the norms for personal discussion and political discussion and debate to be established.  And that’s hard to do, you know? If you’re talking about personal things in the right way you’re going to be having political discussions.

Once a story that’s personal and maybe shame0laden comes out of the closet and is shared you start to see that you’re not alone in your struggle, right?

James Baldwin writes that literature can also do that. You can start to see that you’re not alone with your pain. In fact the pain you’re struggling with is the only thing that really makes you human in the first place — that we share that experience with other people.

And so what that means is that we have common stories and our common stories are shaped by common circumstance and our common circumstances social, economic, political, historical are shaped by public policy.

So all of a sudden your personal story about your mom, who’s struggling with several generations of poverty, who’s not making a living wage, who can’t pay the rent and who maybe is tending towards struggles with addiction — all of that has a public policy context.

There are regulations about opioids that influence how many opioids are in our community. You know like on and on and on. You all of a sudden can see a personal struggle in a political context.

That’s something that often and I think our teacher core is not supported enough to do, and is not supported in their training to do? And that there is a lot of work to be done by educators and by the educators of educators? To help us be able to approach this work carefully and intentionally.

Jeanie: I was going to ask you and then you sort of went there is like how do we prepare teachers?  How do we prepare ourselves as educators to hold space for brave and hard conversations? That feels really important and I don’t think that we should expect teachers do that without focusing on that in our professional development and giving them space to learn. Even to be in spaces like that in the first place.

And I think that’s a lot of the work I do with collaborate practices. Creating and  building relationships in communities that can allow us to poke at in a very public way our own biases and assumptions that we’re bringing so that we can better serve all our students.

The other thing I’m hearing from you — and I thought a lot about this as I was reading the story is that this story describes the “shanty” I think is the language it uses, and the lives of native people completely out of context of colonization and genocide.

I think that as teacher in my past I have also seen students without the context of the way policy has shaped their lived experience, right? And I see this in the news and I see this in our political setting. And I see this in the way policies are shaped all the time? In the way in which we want to think that slavery is over and doesn’t matter anymore. Or that a people — any people — have done this to themselves, right?

And so whether it’s when we want to donate to Africa for poverty and we’re not able to see how colonization has led to the very poverty we think we can fix with a concert and some dollars.

Or whether it’s in our own communities in the way, that some folks are judged for choices they make. I think about that a lot. I think a lot about and it comes back to what you talked about earlier about historical facts. Ruha Benjamin talks a lot about this and about the importance of getting past history and talking about things like red-lining.

Elijah Hawkes and Ruha Benjamin

Jeanie: So, what professional development, what PD should I be designing or should I be engaging in myself, to begin to hold, to help teachers do these two things that I’ve heard you say. One is to be able to have these brave conversations. And not just to hold them but to facilitate them in their classrooms. And two, to sort of learn about and then teach about, the historical context, and the political context that shape our experience of the world.

Elijah:  We need to understand that if we want people to understand how to create spaces for courageous conversations in their classrooms they’re going to need modeling and experience of that. Because they may not have gotten it.

They probably didn’t get that in some of their own high school experience or in their own teacher training experience, so they going to need to get it in your faculty meeting experience.

So part of it is about allocating resources so that we have time and space in our school year, in our months of school year to have those conversations, to have them modeled and so that people can become strong facilitators themselves.

We learn by modeling.

So it’s important that there be a strong core of facilitators in the school. Not just administrators — especially not just administrators — but teacher leaders and others who can “hold the space”.

And then there need to be conversations about that are personal and political at the level of faculty. And then we’ll learn how to do those in the classroom.  I don’t know.  That’s important!

And I think we could share the models that work.  Every school has teachers who are doing this work already.

You know a pretty firm believer that most communities have the resources they need to solve their own problems. And those resources are usually human resources. And so if we can help you know there’s that classroom over here where there’s a fabulous Socratic seminar that’s happening and the kids are speaking from the heart about complex topics that are both personal and have public policy implications — let’s figure out how to get that teacher’s works read across the school.

Elijah Hawkes Socratic Seminar


Looking internally for the resources that are there is also a really important strategy.

And then modeling it, of course.

We never have *this* much time, you know, that you and I have here today to talk about this story and the implications for our work in the way that we are. But one of the reasons why I choose to read this with administrators, or teachers in training, or teachers who are new to my school no matter where they are in their professional career?  Is I just want to model that we can have conversations about these topics and I want to model my own vulnerabilities and my own mistakes.

And the risks that’s I’m taking. And how I think you know in some ways it’s a bad idea for me to read this story with you, because I don’t know you very well.

Yet here I am, a white man reading this story by another white man about people who are very different from me and I want to be able to talk about that with my colleagues to make a first impression. We do this with our new teachers every year. So there’s modeling as well as creating the space for people to have the conversations.

Jeanie:  Well I appreciate that you read this story or had me read this story and have a conversation about it because I would not have chosen this story! *chuckles*  I would not. And even the name when you sent it I was like, “Huh. Do I want to read this?”

And then reading it and I’m currently rereading one of my very favorite books in the whole wide world.  I’m rereading it because I just turned in all my work for the semester and I have this opportunity to like sink into a book I love and it’s called The Marrow Thieves. Have you heard of it?

Elijah: No I haven’t heard of it, Jeanie.

Jeanie: It’s by Cherie Dimaline. And she’s a First Nations woman; Canadian. Oh gosh. I wish I could just send you a copy right now.

It just like, speaks to my heart. And I’m rereading it with this new eyes from a semester focussing on reading decoloniozing methodologies.

It’s dystopic –which does not sound like a fun thing to read right now but actually is very relevant in this current moment.

It’s post-climate change. California has fallen into the ocean and white people have stopped being able to dream. But what they’ve found is that that Indigenous folks don’t stop dreaming. So [the white people] look back at history. And they start using the modes of residential schooling as a way to round up Native people and extract their bone marrow. So that [the white people] can dream.

That all sounds wretched — and it truly is — but what happens in the story is our main character, Frenchie, gets separated from his family and is on his own. He runs into this rag-tag group of other Native folks — all generations, different backgrounds, different tribes, I guess, if you will.

And they sort of exist on foot: traveling, hunting. Just surviving. But the book is really about community and healing and other ways of knowing, and ancestral wisdom.

And it’s so beautiful, I just can’t say enough about it.  But I thought about it a lot in relation to this.

I think they would have an interesting conversation.

Anyway, one of the conversations we didn’t get into that I’m really interested in, is the ways in which we can find, ways of knowing and being brilliant and smart and extraordinary into such narrow categories.

What would it look like if schools really allowed a diversity of ways of knowing and being and flourishing and being brilliant?  Because every kid I’ve known has been brilliant in some way. It’s just that we only count a few kinds…

Elijah:  Right. Yes.

Jeanie: I know you have to go take care of your puppy, but if there’s anything you want to add.

Elijah:  No, I just think that’s someplace where I think this story can and should take is: if Nick is only knowing the world in the way his father is knowing the world, what is he missing?

He’s missing the universes. And so the story needs to take us in that direction. It needs to take us to The Marrow Thieves and to An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.  It needs to take us in other directions.

We can’t just think, “Oh yes Nick is going to be okay because… yes he’ll be fine.”  Let’s focus on like, how we can save someone else in the story.

Like, if Nick leaves your school only knowing what he knows now and only understanding his father’s perspective on the world? We haven’t done our job as a public school in this country.

Jeanie:  Well because Nick’s likely to become or congress person right or our president, or the CEO of our company and reproduce the same systems that lead to very narrow ways of knowing.

Elijah:  Yes. Or your school principal.

Jeanie:  *chuckles* Or your professional development coordinator.

Elijah:  Yes.

Jeanie:  Or your school librarian. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Elijah: I feel like [this story is] not a *back door* into discussions about whiteness and race and privilege. But it’s a *convenient* door into those discussions. Especially I think with white educators. But we’re really lucky to have had this long conversation with you it’s not like…

Jeanie:  Yes.

Elijah:  It’s not like we’re standing in line for food at a conference, it’s like a real conversation! So I thank you.

#vted Reads with Mike McRaith

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and welcome to Vermont Ed Reads: books by, for and with Vermont educators. Today on the show, we welcome Mike McRaith, who’s here to talk about Nora Samaran’s Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture.

How *do* you hold harm, and harmony together in the same space in a way that protects and honors the needs of all students to feel safe, and loved?

How do you talk about the needs of those students who feel marginalized, even if we’d identify them as coming from wide intersections of privilege?

And how do you talk about the needs of straight, white, male, cis-gendered students without centering their needs, in a culture that marginalizes the needs of, well, absolutely everybody else?

Nora Samaran has some answers. As does Mike McRaith! We here on the show love talking with smart, compassionate people, and if you do too (and we hope you do), this is the episode for you.

Now, let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thank you for joining me, Mike. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Mike: It’s my pleasure to be here. My name is Mike McRaith. I’m the assistant executive director at the Vermont Principals Association. And my job includes all different kinds of things, mostly supporting principals in many different ways: the professional learning side of things, the mentorship and a host of other things at the VPA. And I’m a former high school principal at Montpelier High School. I did the previous four years there. And then I spent six years in Franklin Northeast, in that supervisory union, as a school counselor and a middle school principal.

Jeanie: You bring a ton of expertise and really relevant expertise to this book, Turn This World Inside Out. Which you suggested to me and I was really excited to read. But before we jump into that, I wonder if you might share what you’re reading right now. What’s on your bedside table? I suspect there might be some books for little ones, on that stack.

Mike:  Yeah, thanks. This book was recommended to me by my dear friend, confidant and soul leader, Sylvia Fagin, who is a teacher in the Montpelier School District, among many other things. And when she recommends something to me, I pay close attention. So, I want to thank Sylvia for this recommendation and her continued support through some really hard things, working together and just being a great person for me to turn to and to bounce things off of. And to learn with. So, thank you, Sylvia.

The books that I’ve been reading aside from this are connected to four-year-olds and six-year-olds. I have a four-year-old and a six-year-old, and being at home so much we started reading chapter books.

And so the books that I’ve read most recently are Gary Paulsen books.

My boys were super, super interested in reading Hatchet and then Brian’s Winter. And we also read Dogsong which is a very interesting and sort of, poetic book. And they hung in there. Gary Paulsen does a great job of engaging kids — even four-year-olds (soon to be five) — and they have tons of questions, and it comes up all the time in their language. Just last night they were talking about the size of a moose and whether or not the moose would charge them and all different kinds of things. Those books have been great for shaping their connection to nature.

Jeanie:  This brings me so much joy! You have no idea what I would give to have a four-year-old sit on my lap and let me read to them, like I’d give a lot. Yeah.

Mike:  It’s real good. And we try not to take it for granted. We do a lot of it: every single day and every single night. We read and we soak that up. And you know, my wife has been great about bringing books, and our South Burlington Public Library does a fantastic job.

Jeanie:  Okay, you know, I’m not going to be able to resist and I’m going to send you some titles to be read to four- and six-year-olds later.

Mike:  Please do. *laughs*

Jeanie:  So, let’s get to this book.

This book opens in a really interesting way with a description of a school. A Canadian school. And I wonder if we could set the stage for our listeners by reading pages one, two, and into the top of three just to give them a sense of the idea this book is shooting towards.

Mike:  Sure, glad to. (And I’ll try not to make any extra noise turning the pages.)

So, the title of this first chapter is “Introduction: Nurturance Culture Means Holding the Circle”.

“At Windsor House, a free school in Coastal Salish territories (also known as Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada), every child has an internal map of how harm is handled in their school community. In this school, the only public democratic school in North America and one of the longest running brick-and-mortar free schools in the world, any student who experiences harm can “write up” the other person who they feel harmed them. When someone is written up, they’re required to go to what the school calls justice council, which is a circle of their peers who then help repair the harm.

Going to that circle is not an option. It is a requirement for anyone who wants to be a member of the school community. This is especially notable because it is one of the only concrete requirements at a public, accessible, democratic school that has almost no coercion or compelling of anything other kind. In the free school system, deeply invested in beliefs about autonomy and keeping kids whole, if a student wants to skateboard or paint all day that is what they do.

In a community so steeped in an ethic of consent and self-determination, with so few kids of ordinary, everyday compelling in place compared to regular schools, I was curious about how this requirement worked. What is the relationship, I wondered, between the commitment to the individual autonomy that is such a dearly held value of the school, and this justice council that can compel students to repair harm?

At the beach one day, while watching kids pull up seaweed and pile it into stacks, I asked my close friend’s twelve-year-old son, who goes to this school, “What happens if a kid who gets written up doesn’t come to council?” He barely skipped a beat before he answered, as though it was the most natural thing in the world, “If someone doesn’t go to council, council goes to them.”

A day later, I asked my friend’s nine-year-old daughter, who had not heard my earlier conversation the same question. She too is a student in the school.

I got the same answer. She barely paused in her playing, glanced up, and said, “council goes to them,” as though this was the obvious answer to a silly adult question, and then immediately resumed her game.

What their answers say to me is that these kids experience justice council as self-evident and ordinary: when you hurt someone, you get called to counsel and you have to go. You are expected to make it right. This concrete, practical structure, and the kids’ regular use of it for handling harms large and small has, it seems to me, hard-wired an ethical framing for a functioning, everyday model of interdependence into their assumptions about how the world “just is,” how reality works, and how human beings “obviously” get along.”

Jeanie:  Thanks for that. That was beautiful. Something that struck me in your reading was this notion, this quote, “a map of how harm is handled.” And I wonder: do you think the schools that you’ve worked in have had a clear map of how harm is handled?

Mike:  Yeah, it’s really deep question. It’s hard to know where to begin.

I think the short answer is no.

It fell to me as a school counselor more than you might expect. And certainly as middle school principal — and definitely as high school principal as well — to sort of be the judge and jury of harm.

And anyone who’s ever worked with middle schoolers or high schoolers or people knows that harm happens all the time. It’s part of growth. It’s part of relational challenges. And it’s part of friendship. It’s part of everything that we do.

And I think that there is a real legal framework around it for schools. Which is well-intentioned, and certainly better than when I was in high school or middle school. Where, you know, the only kind of solution to harm that happened was

  • “Suck it up!” or
  • “Deal with it yourself” or
  • “Ignore that kid,” or

duck and cover, right? Kind of like: school of hard knocks.

I mean, nobody would have ever even dreamed of saying to anyone, “Hey, that kid slammed me up against the locker!” We had a kid that kept throwing kids down the stairs. And no one would have ever dreamed of bringing that up to an adult.

So I think it’s better than that? And we have the HHB, as the school folks know it: Hazing and Harassment and Bullying Law, which is really dense. It’s really cumbersome for administrators to navigate. And quite restrictive in its nature. It comes with very specific procedures, which can be helpful to:

  • not rush to judgment;
  • get a full picture as best you can;
  • interview everybody involved.

Then it goes along with very kind of stodgy form letters that end up going out to parents of the potential victims and the potential perpetrators.

And the whole thing, you know, oftentimes takes like a whole week for somebody who called somebody a name at lunch.

So, that feels pretty unnatural a lot of times.

And it can be very high stakes. Because depending on the students and families involved, they could really sort of want justice: the hammer to fall.

Or they might really think that this is a total waste of time and like kids need to just get over it, schools treat kids with kid gloves now…

Or most often my experience was: “You know, my sweet angel didn’t do it. The school is wrong. You’ve got this wrong. You don’t understand.”

Jeanie:  Yeah. What I’m hearing from you and what I’m wondering about, is that not only is the map maybe unclear, but in this account of this school in Canada, the author sort of infers that it’s a part of a larger community that also has these beliefs. And so I’m thinking about how, since Trump has become president (and maybe even slightly before) the numbers of racial harassments happening in schools have increased, right? Southern Poverty Law Center has done some studies on that, and found that racial slurs are up, and racial bullying is up at schools.

And so it makes me think about how even if you have a really clear map of how harm is handled in your school, if the broader culture has a very different map or a conflicting map, that’s problematic, right? Like, that undermines the goals of the school.

Mike: Yeah, for sure. I’ve been part of systems that worked really hard to be very explicit about what was acceptable and what was unacceptable. And then not only do kids know where those boundaries were, they knew what we were going to do when those boundaries were crossed. So I think that that clarity *can* be established in a school and I think that most of our schools work really hard to establish those things.

The question is whether or not the school’s boundaries and way of handling it, matches on the victim’s side and on the perpetrator side of the harms, family ethic and the broader culture.

And if it doesn’t, which oftentimes I think it doesn’t, then that internal map that the author is talking about here in this book is different for people or really unexplored. Sometimes it feels like polar opposites. And so I think, your question is, you know, do we have that internal map of how harm is handled? People might have them, but they don’t have the same one.

Most often I think that we really don’t even have an articulated one in most of our home systems or schools that are inclusive.

Jeanie: Yeah. This text seems to be driving us toward an idea of what a map of how harm is handled, how to — in your language  — face the challenge of holding victim and perpetrator in the same community. This is what this whole book is about.

The other piece that I really noticed in listening to you read the opening, was this idea of interconnectedness.

And I’m going to read from page seven, because this really struck me.

“The reason that this structure works is because it recognizes that each person is already inherently part of a larger unbreakable web of connectedness, and gives every member of the community the knowledge of how to mend that web on which human independence so fundamentally depends, and the obligation to engage in that mending when call to do so.”

Mike: Right. And you know, for me, hearing that, it’s like a worldview, right?

It’s a worldview that *your* health and wellbeing is connected to *mine*, and vice versa. That is a physiological reality as well as a lens in which to see the world and make decisions. It runs against what I think much of what our dominant culture — the patriarchy, white supremacy culture — says to us, in so, so many ways, right?

This is a worldview that is sending a message that we don’t often get in all those subtle ways as we move through what it would be a typical experience for a young American.

Jeanie:  I think we’re right now at this moment where we’re really facing this with COVID-19. We have been anyway, when I think about some work I’m doing with schools around the sustainable development goals and climate change and there are so many ways in which we’re facing this moment of realizing like, being out for number one? Isn’t going to make the world better for any of us, let alone number one. The way we need to face big issues is as a collective.

And so this really spoke to me. I wondered, I don’t know. I guess one of the things I think about all the time is how do we, is either about transitioning towards a culture that’s more about interconnectedness and interdependence or: how do we hold the tension of connection and community *and* focus on personalization and the individual?

Mike: Yeah, I think you can see that in those first couple of pages. Their example is somebody that skateboards or paints all day. So, there’s a celebration of the individual’s passions, contributions, uniqueness — while also knowing that that is part of a bigger system. Not just human, I would propose, but Earth. That all of those things need to be in a symbiotic relationship.

To me, and this is just my opinion, America might be sort of like the apex of like some people win, some people lose. Like everybody’s just out for themselves and that’s how it is.

I think our culture sends that, I don’t have to show that our people always act that way. I think that America also sort of has a reputation of having really generous people and really caring communities.

So, there’s some interesting complexity there.

But my question would be, and I think we’re sort of at this moment in history where it’s like: where does the collective stop?

  • Does it stop in your town?
  • Does it stop in your school?
  • Or does it stop at your state?
  • Does it stop in your country?

And then like ultimately maybe we can sort of zoom all the way out and be like, “Oh, it’s one thing. We’re just all one thing.”

Jeanie:  It’s the mycelium. We’re all like linked by fungus [chuckling]. Sorry.

Mike:  Yeah, that’s right.

Jeanie:  Yeah.

Mike:  Yeah, exactly! I think you can really do a lot with the collective. We’ve seen a lot like with nationalism: you can really sort of get people together and united. It feels good to have an identity, and this is who we are — we’re the tigers! we’re the lions! Or whatever. And that’s great for community, but a shortcut way of doing that is by having a common enemy. How healthy is that?

Jeanie:  Yeah. Creating belonging at the expense of somebody else’s belonging.

Mike: Exactly.

Jeanie: So, one of the things I really want to dive into with you, is this idea of relationships. And relationality. And how do we work in schools to help kids build better relationships? To learn the skills they need to build better relationships?

And I think that a lot of folks would call this “soft skills” and doesn’t belong in schools. And yet I think this book and many things in our world right now are telling us that more than ever, kids need to know how to build strong relationships. So that they are more resilient, so that they can collaborate with each other, so that they can have better self-esteem which leads to better academic scores.

And so I’m wondering about this tension between academics and soft skills or social emotional learning.

Mike: Yeah, I mean folks that have been around me in the last decade, I guess, know that one of the things that I feel like is true about education right now, in this time and space in the world, is that we’re not — meaning schools — are not the holders of information. We’re just not.

The internet has given everyone as much information as possible. We never even could have dreamed at how much information would be at our fingertips, literally.

And so if we’re not the holders of content, then what are we?

And I would say that we need to help people make meaning of content.

We need to help them be critical consumers of content.

We need to help them be producers, right? Not just consumers. And we need to help them develop interpersonal skills and soft skills. Because if we don’t they won’t develop otherwise.

And it’s more important than ever because you’re able to get so much content in so many other ways, and because we are more isolated than ever.

The echo chamber of the internet, and the school refusal rates going way, way up. Anxiety rates, way, way up for our youth. And I think part of that is because they don’t have as much practice navigating social dynamics, and it is easier than ever to just ignore them when something doesn’t go well. It’s like,

“Oh well, I’m just going to go into my phone and listen to people who agree with me or I’m going to just stay in my room and live a pretty isolated life.”

And we know tha,t while that might ping all kinds of dopamine in the brain, it actually leads to depression and anxiety and unhappiness. It isn’t fair to let young people grow up that way, and not experience serotonin, a much healthier release of endorphins into the brain, with:

  • long-term relationships;
  • the satisfaction of a job well done;
  • with pushing through hard things and hard moments and difficult conversations to come out the other side stronger and healthier.

Jeanie:  That was really powerful. I really appreciate that.

I’m thinking many people who know your name will know you worked at Montpelier High School to push through hard things. That seems really related to a lot of the content on this book, which is that you were the first high school in the country, I believe, to fly the Black Lives Matter flag.

I wonder if you could talk about that and in relation to: what did your kids push through? And how did you and your faculty help support them? Maybe how did the kids help support the faculty, I’m not sure, and the community in order to push through, do really hard things in that way.

Mike:  I mean, first and foremost, like that was students. It continues to be students.

Their strength and bravery is something that has changed my life forever, and is one of the most important things that I have ever gone through and likely ever will.

I am so grateful to those young people — as individuals and collectively– for being a teachers to me, and to having a real connection that I think will probably last a lifetime. And for the adults in that community, being willing to take that risk — and I mean an emotional risk, a vulnerability risk. They did so, almost without hesitation.

And 100% of the faculty — I’m sure some people had some misgivings, we all probably did — but in faculty meetings, nobody stood up and said, “Don’t do this. We’re not doing this.”

Every single person, which to me is just incredible.

It felt like maybe a moment in time, you know? Like, sometimes you can sort of feel like [you’re] living through a moment in history.

The whole time I was thinking like,

“Don’t mess this up. Don’t mess it up.”

You know, like for whatever reason, I was part of that. And had voice in that moment. And it felt like it just needed to happen for this country, and for our local community.

The students were absolutely just thinking about our high school and our town. I had the sense that, “Okay, this might be a big deal.”

It turned into a pretty big deal.

So for me, it brings up all kinds of layers and complexity and feelings.

…I’ve already lost the thread on your question. *laughs* Can you give it to me again? I’d love to try again.

Jeanie:  No, it’s great. I love your answer. But I was thinking about how that work that students did, resulted in serotonin, not a dopamine rush.

But that’s the authentic work that leads you to feel good and efficacious in the long run. As opposed to sort of… I’m not even going to do this well: winning a round of Fortnite, right?

So that big rush of serotonin that your whole *community* got to feel, and that sense of collective efficacy feels really powerful, and feels like what you were saying about the importance of the social emotional learning and the soft skills. The relational piece that you were highlighting — that kids need in addition to being able to navigate content.

Mike: Right. Yeah, thank you for the redirect. Yeah, it was super difficult. And messy. And uncomfortable.

A lot of times when those feelings come up, people feel like,

“This must be the wrong way because I don’t feel good, I don’t feel happy, I don’t feel safe even.”

And when those feelings come up, a lot of times it can be like: wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong! Just like:

“Maintain the status quo, because this feels this is yucky or disruptive!

I think that there were moments where, particularly for those students that had taken such a massive risk, and had worked so hard, and gone so deep into their psyches and their cultures to help guide us, they were walking on air in some moments, right?

That day when the flag was up and the state police were there supporting us, and our city police were there, and the legislators were there, and the news was there, and our community was there and every, almost every single kid came out around that flagpole that February morning?

The kids who had made that happen were absolutely experiencing the serotonin that comes with doing something that is meaningful.

That is connected to their values and their ethics. That they worked really hard for. That they pushed through difficult moments and frustrations and fear for, and sort of came out the other side.

It’s not to say it was like: flag up, no problems!

It was really just the beginning.

And we said that as it was happening. It wasn’t as if that was our first step. It also certainly was not our last step.

I would say like if you had to say there were 10 steps somehow to building an equitable school system that’s anti-racist? That was probably like step three.

And it was a symbol of a commitment to continue to work on that.

Jeanie:  I love everything you just said about that. I think about both the ongoing nature of anti-racist work of community-building work. of equity work. Right?

Like we’re not going to see the end of it. It’s an ongoing journey. I love that you said that.

And then you also just made me think about like, some of my most joyful experiences were not necessarily joyful in the moment, right?

Like camping trips where the tent gets soaking wet, and the story is great later.

Really long backpacking trips where you’re having to ford a river because the bridge washed out.

Or I think about people who run marathons, right?

Around this house we use the phrase, “We can do hard things”.

But sometimes what I forget is not only can we do hard things? But like, hard things are the things that end up being our joys. Our biggest joys, and our biggest, most satisfying life moments.

So, this is a really good reminder because this book is asking us to do really hard things by confronting our own bias and privilege, and sort of owning when we’ve caused harm, right?

And so… thanks for that.

Another part of this book that I think is really relevant to schools — although it doesn’t talk about schools at all — is this whole section on attachment theory. It’s pages 22- 27.

And really, our author Nora Samaran is talking about attachment theory to talk a little bit about sexual violence.

But I found myself really reading and re-reading this section on attachment, because she said it’s basically that only 50% of the population has a secure attachment style. Then she goes into some other attachment styles.

And she talks about the brain science of it. How did those years, birth to three create our limbic system, that that’s where our limbic system is developed and she talks on and on about this. I just really want to look more into attachment theory.

You probably know a lot more than I do about attachment theory, but she says whatever your attachment style, she says, limbic responses happen very, very fast. Below the conscious level and often outside of language.

So, these instantaneous responses we have when we feel threatened or when we feel like closeness is offered or going to be withheld that we can’t even put words to.

And I’m thinking about how often those limbic responses happen in schools. And how we as adults respond to them.

I don’t know, it really struck me that: some of my worst moments as an educator were misinterpreting limbic responses from students.

Mike:  Yeah, absolutely. I mean, the experience that maybe all educators have on a regular basis is a student that’s displaying a lot of anger. Calling Mr. McRaith the f-word — definitely at least something that I’ve experienced.

And how that can be seen as disrespectful. It can be seen as somebody that doesn’t belong in the community and needs to go away. Somebody who is the problem.

Or, you can see that as someone that is really scared.

Somebody that is just doing what they know to do to protect themselves. Or to find agency. Or to find some semblance of power, in an experience that might be stripping them of all power.

So yeah, I mean: I think that we are learning that as systems?

And it’s a lot of work.

It’s sort of faster and cheaper probably, to just be like, “Yeah, you don’t have executive functioning built” or “You’re not sort of fitting in with the cultural norms here, so goodbye.”

And to just push them out of the community in whatever way, shape or form that that happens.That happens in lots of different ways depending on what developmental level you’re at. And where you are.

It’s more work to earn a student’s respect. To build a relationship. To push through years of poor attachment.

I always think about it as like a scale, right? Like an old-timey scale. You’ve got weights on one side and weights on the other. And somebody that has a really poor attachment? Their scale of negative attachment is so far down on one side. It’s so much weight on that side, that how many instances of positive attachment, positive relationships is it going to take before that scale comes to even, or tips the other way?

And so it can feel hopeless or like a waste of time for educators sometimes to be dropping things on the positive side of that relationship because they don’t see a change. Or they don’t see the difference sort of happen instantly. I had to use that a lot for myself, and encouraged my colleagues to think about it that way too: you just don’t know when that scale is going to tip. And we want to put as much on that side of the positive attachment and positive relationship as possible, in really difficult situations.

Jeanie:  I love that scale analogy.

Often, when I teach collaborative practices, we spend a lot of time thinking about belonging. And how we need to build belonging. Build a culture of belonging amongst teachers as a community of learners, in order to create the kind of spaces we need in order to be brave. Right? And in order to confront our own biases, our own assumptions about learners, about each other, about who can learn and who can’t.

And I think about how the same is true in classrooms, right?

We have to build strong cultures of belonging.

And the kids who least feel like they belong? Need belonging the most. And they’re often the hardest ones to reach. We as adults,  we want shortcuts; we want it to be easy.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the classrooms I know that are working really well remotely. It’s hard, right? But the classrooms where I see teachers and students holding on, and doing pretty well, are classes that have really strong relationships. Have really well developed sense of classroom belonging, and community.

And so I’ve been thinking a lot about how this book is really about belonging. And how do we create belonging, so we can do those hard things. So we can have those hard conversations. And so we can disrupt systems of power and prejudice and privilege.

Mike: Yeah. And I think there is a tension there that is named towards the end of the book: how difficult it is to hold harm and harmony in tension with one another in community.

One of the things I think is different with public school than would be in cases of private school or a community where you get to pick and choose who stays and who goes, is that the public school is for everyone, not just students that are easy to get along with, or might agree with your worldview.

I experienced several times as an administrator and as a school counselor, where deep harm had been done. And maybe the person who had done the harm was a repeat offender. And was not all that remorseful.

The victim or the person who had experienced the harm, wants to be protected and they have the right to be protected. They have the right to come to school and not feel scared or not feel like they’re going to be attacked, verbally or otherwise.

So what do you do with that perpetrator, with the person who’s carrying around toxic energy and it splashes up on all kinds of people?

Do you ostracize them?

Do you come down really hard on them?Scare them into following the rules?

Or do you try to work with that person to help them understand the damage that they’re doing to their community, to their peers, and ultimately to themselves, right?

I mean that’s what the book’s title is about it. It’s Turn This World Inside Out. And I think what the author, Nora Samaran, is saying is it’s turning yourself inside out, right?

We swim around in a culture of toxic masculinity that expects people to be individualistic, to not have a full range of emotions. To have young men be unemotional. To be loud, to be tough, to take what’s theirs, to compete.

And when we ask them not to, it makes them feel like either the school is out of touch with reality like, “That’s not my reality. I am going to have to fight. I am going to have to compete.”

Or causes this sort of deep questioning about everything they know.

And brings up all of that those feelings of shame and embarrassment — which are such big feelings that there’s no surprise that they would move away from them.

So, to try to put a point on it is: I am not interested in centering sort of cis-gendered, white, male narratives at school. I mean that’s one of our biggest challenges and problems, right? We have done that forever and we need to have more voices centered.

At the same time, those students need some of the most attention.

They have the most unpacking to do.

They have the most layers to work through.

And they need the most connections, they need the most relationships.

I had many students who come from marginalized communities say to me, “How can you be friends with them?” Like, “Why are you friendly to them in the hallway?”

And I felt like I had to be, I spent twice as much as time with them.

But also, there’s this tension of like, “Okay, then am I centering their story?”

So, that’s something that came up for a lot, a lot for me in this book.

Jeanie:  I saw that paradox everywhere in this book. And I think you’re right.

For me, it really showed up in the masculinity chapter, about how this woman, Nora Samaran, is like, “I can’t do this work with men because of the power and the relationships I’ve had with them in the past.”

It reminded me that often in the past few years — and it’s starting to shift — when we would in collaborative practices classes, when we would talk about race, people would say, “Oh, but our school is mostly white so we don’t really need to deal with race.” And then I would have them read Ali Michael’s What White Children Need to Know About Race.

But this book really gives me new language of it’s actually white people; a) being white is a race, and b) like, it’s actually white people that need to do the work with white people to better understand our role as oppressors, and to be able to digest that.

I think that’s a hard sense for people. They’re like, “I’m not an oppressor.” But we are. I am, as a white person.

So to be able to digest that and see what that means?

And the same for around toxic masculinity and rape culture in this book is that it’s men that need to work with each other to talk about a new, or a re-birthed notion, of masculinity that can sort of be tender and that can be attuned to the needs of others, so that they’re not doing harm.

And I feel like we could say the same thing with cis-gendered folks, right? Like that *we* need to be doing the work.

There is this tension about is that then centering those who already have power?

So I think that’s definitely something I found myself noodling a lot in this book. How do you do that… and not center privilege? Dominance?

The question I’m going to follow up with is: so often what I’ll hear from folks is, but what about class? Class is the real determinant.

I can see this playing out in my own background, in my own childhood and also in schools, that class that there is this intersection of power being white or male and class that is nuanced. So, I’m wondering about your thoughts on that.

Mike:  You know, one of the things that I have seen since the pandemic in Vermont, is I’ve seen people that champion equity, continue to champion it and point to it. But I’ve also seen the concern about our students of lower economic status of limited means championed at the center of people with the most power.

It’s interesting to me because I think it’s more accessible for our dominant culture in Vermont — which is predominantly white, and if you look at our governors history predominantly cis-gendered white males.

So, if you just look at it from that lens, why are we able to talk about financial inequities, so comfortably right now? It’s on everyone’s mind and everybody is taking action on it as best they can. And certainly raising it as something that has been in focus and sharpened. That focus has sharpened through this pandemic experience.

Why? Why can we do that?

And I think it’s because it’s accessible.

I think that it’s closer to people’s life. Either they have themselves experienced poverty at some point in their lives, or know a lot of people around that.

And I think that it asks people to do less internal work when you start to realize how racist our society is, you *really* start to see it. The rose-colored glasses come off and you realize everything, everything we’re doing is filled with bias and oppression. That’s really overwhelming. And then you start to realize like, “I’m a part of that, right?” Like, “I’m part of that oppression. I am that oppression.” That’s asking people to do some really challenging work.

I think the same thing happens when we talk about misogyny. And when we talk about sexuality, right? There’s a lot of internal work.

And there’s something that it seems to me is more accessible about classism. I’m sure that I’m oversimplifying it and I apologize if I am, but I see that.

So how does that play out? I think it can’t be overlooked. Take a cis-gendered white male who’s grown up in poverty and tell them,

“Look, you don’t realize the privilege you’re living with.”

There’s a natural reaction that they’re going to say,

“Are you kidding, privilege? You know how hard my life is? I don’t have any privilege here. You know, the people around me will cut me down instantly. I’m fighting out, I’m scrapping and nobody’s given me a thing. How can you say that I have privilege?”

And that is true.

I mean their lived experience is true and they are oppressed financially. They don’t have the healthcare that should be a human right. All kinds of other things.

Those things don’t have to be opposed to one another. They both can be true.

And I think there’s something about our climate and culture that wants things to be one way or another and we’re not able to hold polarities in tension with one another, without some practice and with some intentionality of like, oh, maybe it’s “both and”.

Jeanie:  Thank you for that. You’re making me think about Rebecca Holcombe a few years back, at a Rowland Conference was talking about curb cuts. Do you remember that? And she’s talking about how before there were curb cuts that allowed wheelchairs to have access to sidewalks, and make it easy for folks to get around, that a group of disabled activists went out and poured the first curb cut. And what they found over time is that curb cuts aren’t just good for disabled people, but they’re also good for people with strollers and people who maybe have vision problems and can’t see where it goes. For all of us. All of us benefit from curb cuts.

There’s a section on page 53 that really made sense to me and make sense for that young man you were just talking about.

It says, at the top of page 53 says, “Cis people perform their gender as much as trans folks do. Putting transness at the center of our understanding of gender makes apparent that cisness has also always been complicated.”

And I’ve known for a long time and thought a lot for a long time about how fighting homophobia and transphobia actually makes all of us safer. Because we can all more safely be ourselves in our bodies and in our skin, right? Like we don’t feel the need to conform to gender binaries as much. We can be more of who we essentially are.

And yet why do we find that so threatening? And that’s sort of one of the paradoxes: something that would be good for all of us sometimes we can’t act on, because of fear of the other.

Mike:  Yeah, I had that same line underlined. And just to circle back to my personal experience with sort of extreme hate with the raising of the Black Lives Matter flag where the white nationalists had my name circled there for a minute. I was getting a lot of very serious hate email and mail. And phone calls and trolls online, that kind of thing.

It’s so naive of me because people without as much privilege as me, people who are putting themselves out there in their daily lives just in their natural existence and folks that are fighting for justice, experience this every single day. Their whole lives.

But for me, I was struck by how often the hate overlapped really quickly? That I wasn’t just somebody that was supporting my young students of color and was anti-racist (hopefully).

But immediately I was weak, right? I was lots of other slurs that implied that I was gay, right? And then there’s even like leaps to like, “Oh, he’s Jewish, right?” It just started to sort of morph into all of these things that were not cis-gendered white male. That were used as a way to scare me, I guess? Or to insult me.

And the gender piece of it and the sexuality piece of it was very strong. Very strong.

In almost all of the comments, they were explicitly sexual in nature and would be sort of expressing that that was weakness.

And you’re right:  as a cis-gender white male experiencing the apex of privilege in America, with citizenship and everything, it’s also true that performing my expressed gender is *absolutely* part of the deal.

And I couldn’t tell you how many times as a somewhat more emotional young man than some of my peers, that I would have to  like, pull back from that because it seemed too soft. Did my voice just break a little bit or did that sound gay?

Immediately, immediately being policed by my peers in a very toxic way.

And I think most young white men that I know have grown up that way. Why is it that that is just so unacceptable?

I think that there’s been some evolution in that amongst our young people? I think it’s better than when I was a kid? And I’m sure it depends on the community and I’m sure we still have a long, long ways to go. But if we could center, as she writes on page 52, center transness, that’s going to be a freeing for everybody.

Jeanie:  It was really a paradigm shift for me is to put that at the center and not just to sort of give it a nod. Right?

And so there’s so much more to talk about in this book, Mike! But I sort of want to go to this hopeful place, if that’s okay.

There are a couple of things in our time left that I really want to get to. So many things.

On page 76, our author, Nora, is in conversation with Ruby Smith Díaz who was born to Chilean and Jamaican parents in Edmonton, and she’s an art-based anti-oppression facilitator, etc.

And Díaz talks about this project she does with kids that just rang my bell. It’s called the Afrofuturism Trading Cards. She has kids create them, and they’re based in joy.

She says, “We do character sketches, and the youth imagine that they are living in a time that is free of racism, homophobia, classism, and all of the other oppressions that exist today. We ask what it would look like if we were truly free, and unafraid to be who we are.”

She goes on a little bit more about that. Like, how wonderful to do that? And I want to connect it. I want to talk about that.

But I also want to talk about what I think is sort of a futurism, idealistic card for schools.

At the top of page 37, I circled this paragraph, exclamation point, exclamation point, exclamation point. And it says,

A picture of page 37 highlighting this quote:“The reward of creating safe bonds is that in these places of trust, a warm glow of meaning and purpose emerges. An inner circle of trust and vulnerability allows movement and rest. It lets the bees come and go from the hive. It creates shelters of chosen family and beloved community from action challenges to racism, sexism, institutional violence can arise, a safety net to catch each other's bodies and souls, a foundation that allows risks.”
Page 37

That to me is this: what could schools look like if we were all free?

That to me is like the future card *I* would create for what I want schooling to look like in this country.

Mike:  Yeah, I agree. And I would underscore that that is not where we are.

And so my optimism is paired with concern. That some of the most toxic stuff, is what we need to go towards.

This book does a great job of exploring how that’s possible. To hold the victims, and the people who are experiencing harm, safe. And to center their experience and their story. And to not turn our back on those who are doing the harm. That is difficult. I think it is quite difficult.

I learned from a student this phrase, and I’m not sure where she got it, but she said, “I’m not just interested in calling out, I’m interested in calling in.”

And in public schools, I think that that is an obligation, legally, but also in community.

We don’t get to just say, “You know what? That person is so different than me that I’m just going to go over here. I don’t like the things that they like, so I don’t get them and I’m just going to ignore them. And if they break the rules of our community, then they need to be ostracized, they need to be publicly humiliated and they need to be gone.”

That doesn’t work for me. That would be easier. I sort of I think maybe sometimes we wish that was the case? But to me it’s the opposite.

And the hope for me lies there. That we run towards that pain. We run towards that complexity,, and those feelings of shame and embarrassment and disregard and the tossing away of the attempts of the community to bring to circle. To bring together.

And that is not something it’s easy to get people excited about.

But I think that that’s the truth for me. That that is the work that’s to be done. To do that hard thing. And to know that it’s not always going to go well.

I think that this book sort of concludes that way, right? That we, you sort of put, you put that energy on that side of the scale as she wrote.

“Maybe we laid the foundation for bigger work later on. I started thinking about these as messy successes -in a context where so many of us are still learning to build and be in community, this stuff can be transformative too.”

Meaning things that don’t go well are part of the transformation. Things that are not without harm, that don’t come to resolution are all part of the work. And that is not going to be sort of tied up neatly. We will sort of somehow arrive in a school in beautiful British Columbia where the kids all know that that might be really far off, but it’s still worth striving for.

Jeanie: I just want to go to that school. *laughs*

Mike:  It’d be nice.

Jeanie:  I’m thinking about two things as you said that.

One of my favorite quotes from this book that I think is kind of a call to action is on page 94.

She says, “To reach a life-sustaining culture and world, we need to live it into being.”

To me that’s really empowering because I can live that into being.

She also uses, on page 88, this phrase that I first heard from Alex Shevrin Venet, which is unconditional positive regard. It seems to me like the least we can do for our students, all of our students, every single student, is to hold them with unconditional positive regard.

And that that could go a long way towards the creating of belonging and relationships that students need and deserve. Regardless of what they’re bringing with them.

Mike:  Exactly. And I think that takes conscious community-building because when you do that, and there are students that will feel like those other students don’t deserve that, if you don’t build that in, to the whole climate and culture, that this is how we do this and we’re not going to push anyone out, then you have to do it that way and you have to make sure everyone understands why. And I think that that takes a lot of work.

To sort of peel back these onions and help your teachers, your staff, your students, understand why you would not push that person out of the community.

That we are interdependent and we are, and there is the opportunity to celebrate one another. And support one another. So, yeah. Thanks for letting me talk about this.

Jeanie:  Oh, it was such a pleasure. Thank you so much for coming on and digging deep and sharing examples from your life and from your school and for introducing me to this book. I have loved it. I’m going to have to re-read it actually.

Mike, thank you for being an example of somebody who’s living this into being. I really appreciate that.

Mike:  Well, not all the time. But I’m doing my best with a lot of help from really great friends and students,  and folks like you. So, thank you.

Hunter education in Vermont

In this episode of The 21st Century Classroom:

I don’t think a lot of people think that I’m a hunter. I feel like when I have like a good connection with my teachers, they will get to know me and realize that I hunt and fish and do a lot of outdoor stuff, but like the teachers that I’m not really like always with and I don’t think they know like I hunt and stuff.


Whether for sport or subsistence, hunting is a big deal in Vermont.

And doing it safely is an even bigger deal.

In Vermont, fishing and hunting license sales have taken off since the beginning of the COVID pandemic. Turkey hunting license sales increased by 26% for the recent start of the spring turkey season. Combination hunting & fishing  licenses are up 24%. It seems like since the Stay At Home order, where our work, school and social spheres got smaller, Vermonters have been heading outdoors to hunt. Not just adults but whole families.

Which bring us to two questions:

  • What does it take for a young adult in Vermont to get a hunting license?
  • And what do young Vermonters find so engaging about hunting? Especially as it’s an activity they do with their families?


end mark

Meet Henry.

Henry: My name is Henry Parent.  I’m 13 years old and I go to Dorset School.

Henry’s a seventh grader in rural Dorset VT, and he has a new interest in hunting.

Henry: I kind of like it, because you’re just like you’re out in the woods usually, not always though.  We were outside walking around sometimes, but usually walk to a spot or something.  And – yeah, and then once you get some – then once you like get something or shoot something then its like – I don’t know, I don’t know how to describe it. One time I shot – well, first time I shot a pheasant and it was… Well, it was kind of cool, because like you shoot and then when you see it go down, it’s kind of like you feel relieved like you didn’t miss it and then you got it. It’s a good feeling.

Henry’s also the son of returning podcast contributor and Vermont educator, Rachel Mark.

Rachel: Hello!

And Rachel’s here to tell you about Henry’s emerging interest in hunting, and her own experiences in a hunting family.

Rachel: I’ve been an educator in Vermont for 20 years, and it’s taken me this long to realize how much learning takes place when young people earn their hunter safety certification. Students do a ton of work, both online and in-person, to get certified to hunt. Now let me tell you about my son.
Henry loves to be outside. He is creative and adventurous, often building things outside or whittling objects from wood. He came to me about a year ago and asked if he could learn how to hunt. Among the people in our two extended families, only my father has any experience with hunting. But when we asked him, Henry’s grandfather happily agreed to mentor him in small bird hunting.

The next step was to find a hunter safety course in Vermont.

Rachel:  Okay.  So what was it like to get a license to hunt?  What – tell me about that process?

Henry:  It was hard.  I did the online course where you have to do a lot of reading and there is this test and it takes a lot of time.

Rachel:  What do you wish your teachers knew about you and your hunter training?

Henry:  That it takes a lot of reading and it should count for like, if you have to do a reading at home.

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In 2019, the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department issued almost 71,000 hunting licenses.

And of those licenses, 13% were obtained by Vermonters 18 years of age or younger.

That works out to just under nine *thousand* young Vermont hunters. 9,000 young Vermonters who choose to complete the State’s hunter education course.

So how does that course work?

In order for a young Vermonter to obtain a hunting license, they must first complete the Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department’s *free* First-Time Hunter Education course. The course is recommended for every first-time hunter, regardless of age.

The first half of the course is an interactive online class.

Units include:
  • Know Your Firearms Equipment
  • Basic Shooting Skills
  • Basic Hunting Skills
  • Preparation and Survival Skills
  • Be a Responsible and Ethical Hunter

Materials include videos, quizzes and interactive animations. And all are geared towards a sixth-grade reading level.

The online course as a whole is pass/fail: you must get 80% or better on the final exam. But the quizzes all feature unlimited retakes. Or what we from the pre-digital era would refer to as “open book”.

The second half of the course takes place in person, at locations around the state.

They feature an outdoor shooting component along with a demonstration of tree stand safety, blood trailing and a module on survival skills. And these in-person courses are all taught by volunteer educators.

Volunteers like John Walker.

John Walker:  Yeah. Hello, my name’s John Walker.  I’m the enrichment teacher at the middle school. I’ve worked at Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington now for about seven years and we’re looking at hunter safety education. On my free time, which I don’t have much of, I am a hunter safety instructor for the state of Vermont.

In order to become a volunteer, Walker had to go through the course himself. Then the other instructors checked off his skills against a master list. He’s been teaching hunter safety now for four years.

John Walker: Now anyone hunting in the state of Vermont has to pass a hunter safety course. They have to. That’s mandatory.  Hunting is a portion of it, but a large course unit portion of it is first aid, CPR, how to survive in the woods, what to carry with you in case you get lost, if you get hurt, you know, the basic first aid techniques so that you can save yourself or someone you’re with.

And of course, there’s another test to pass.

John Walker: Once they have done that, they’ve gone through the obstacle course, passed all the questions, then I usually administer a 50-question test. It is a standardized test. We can’t modify it. It’s a multiple choice test and they have to get a passing score on that to go forward. Now there are times where we might read some of the questions to someone who is maybe 10 years old because they obviously aren’t at a sixth grade level yet, but as long as they understand what to do and can show us under certain situations they know what they’re doing, then we’re fine.

In 2020 across the state of Vermont, educators and school communities have been wrestling with how, exactly, to implement proficiency-based education.

And one of the major questions around proficiency-based education concerns assessment. It’s one thing to get an A or a B, or 90%, 80% on a test, but what does that look like in the real world?

Hunter education and certification specifically address proficiencies along with a valuable real world component.

John Walker: Compass work is a big thing. We show them and a lot of this ties into school. I know in the sixth grade one of the classes here the sixth grade class does a lot of work with orienting and compass work. And we do all of that. We go through a complete compass course with the kids. And I say the kids, the adults too. The adults also have to do it. And so we go through it. We show them how it works. You know what true North is. We show them the whole thing.

end mark

What can we take away from hunter education about making learning engaging?

Let’s ask Rachel.

Rachel: Great question! Now, I’m an educator, not a hunter. I’ve never been through hunter safety before. But my hunch is that the real world authenticity of the task — get certified to hunt —  is what makes this so compelling to young Vermonters. Because there’s a very clear goal to taking a hunter safety course: get your license and be able to hunt. Everything that you are learning is going to be literally tested in the field.

As a student, you’re not sitting in a classroom wondering when you’re going to use the skills. You’re sitting in a classroom knowing you want to use the skills this coming weekend, when you head out to the turkey blind, hoping to bag a big tom.

You pass the course when you get 80% on the test, and get your certification.

And you’re proficient in hunting when you successfully bring home the (turkey) bacon. So to speak.

It’s the job of schools and educators to support students as they gather information about their interests and think about how it might impact themselves, their world and their future.

My next door neighbor, Liam, is also a certified Vermont hunter.

Liam:  My name is Liam Walsh.  I’m 14

He’s also a freshman at Burr and Burton Academy.

Liam:  I don’t think a lot of people think that I’m a hunter.  I feel like when I have like a good connection with my teachers, they will get to know me and realize that I hunt and fish and do a lot of outdoor stuff, but like the teachers that I’m not really like always with and I don’t think they know like I hunt and stuff.

I’ve always been in the outdoors and then one of my friends really wanted me to get into it.  So I just kind of followed him along on one of his hunts and that got me hooked.

Rachel: How old were you when that happened?

Liam: I want to say 12 I think.

Rachel: Okay, so like in 6th or 7th grade?

Liam:  Yeah.

Rachel:  And what was the class like?  How would you describe it to other people?

Liam:  You learn a lot not only from the information, but from the experiences that they tell you about, because most of the people are hunters and have been around guns and stuff.  So they have experiences that they taught us about and like I think that really helped.

I took like a little thing online before like going into the classes so that I like knew some stuff which I think helped and that was, I don’t know, it was probably took me like an hour or two.  I spread it out, but yeah, an hour or two.  And then I also read – like read a book on it about it.

Rachel: Was that required or did you choose to do that?

Liam:  It wasn’t required, but it was definitely nice to go into the class knowing stuff.  So yeah, it was definitely nice to know like going into the class like some of the stuff about it.  So I wouldn’t say it was required, but it was – I’m happy I did it.

Rachel:  Has it influenced any of your thinking about careers or jobs?

Liam: Definitely. I want to be a game warden when I get older now, because I have so much fun outside in hunting and fishing and I know the local game warden, he’s talked to me a few days.  Nothing bad, like he knows me by name now, just to like talk to me when I’m fishing, so that’s something I definitely want to do.

What is it about Vermont’s hunter safety courses that make them work for students? Are middle schoolers really up to the challenge?

We asked our expert, John Walker.

John Walker:  What I observed from the middle school kids is that they are very aware and very up on all the material. When you tell them it’s important and if they have a test at the end, they understand that because they are from middle school and they’re used to having exams and multiple choice and so on. So, they’re very up on it. They are honestly better than the adults in most cases. They will know what’s going on and they’re taking it very seriously.

John Walker:  I go through things and just highlight and I go around and randomly pick on people in a nice way to answer the question. And it’s usually the youngest people who answer the questions. The older people think they know sometimes more than they do. And I’m guilty of that. We’re all guilty of that. But usually it’s the younger people, “No, no, I know what that is. I read that.” I mean they’re really careful to read their questions.

John Walker: The middle school kids, what we find, the middle school aged kids we find are usually one and done. They can go right through it absolutely fine. You have a little trouble with the younger kids. Sometimes you just can’t let them through because they just don’t learn. But the middle school kids are very sharp. They’re probably the sharpest group that we have.

But hunting is about more than online courses, certifications and readings.

It’s also about family, and community connection.

Rachel: Since Governor Scott closed schools and issued Vermont’s stay-at-home order, I’ve noticed that Liam and his dad have been spending more time going out into the woods together. Whether it’s for scouting potential hunting spots or actually getting into the woods for turkey hunting at the crack of dawn, they log some serious hours of time together.  And they aren’t alone.

Rachel: I myself am the child of an outdoorsman, and I recall heading outside with my father on many occasions. I’m quite sure he is part of the reason that I love being outdoors. As a young person, I didn’t love to fish, but I liked being outside with my dad. I would sometimes tag along with him to a local brook where I would sit on a large rock and read my book. I didn’t even get a pole out myself, but I liked listening to the babbling brook and watching his line dip in and out of the water. It was like this wordless meditation, and we got to experience that together.

And other Vermont families have similar experiences:

Pete Kelley: My full name is Pete Kelley.  I was born and raised in Poultney, Vermont.  And I call Bellows Falls home now.  I grew up in a farming family.

Pete Kelley: Growing up where I did by default, I just hunted the way my father and my grandfathers did on the same piece of property, the same farm, the same mountain with the same types of weapons and methods.  It just was what they taught me because that’s what they had always done.  So, for the first half of my life, probably more than that, the first 25 years or so, I just used the same methods that have been passed down through my generations.

Pete Kelley: And actually, even though I had got turkey before, I never really got into the strategy aspect of it until my oldest son decided that that was something that he wanted to do.

Pete Kelley: So, I actually have three kids.  They all have in different methods, found things that they enjoy about it.  Some like to do certain aspects, some don’t.  But it’s a kind of fun to watch them learn and find their own passions. There’s something fulfilling about teaching something to someone that you know and passing it along and seeing them take enjoyment in it.

Kelley remembers the process of getting his son certified to hunt, because he was right there with him.

Pete Kelley:  He was in a really great class.  And part of what I loved is right in the beginning, they made it clear to the kids: it’s not a reading test.  It’s not a writing test. They’re not grading their handwriting. And if they have trouble with words or phrases or terms, they’ll coach them through it. Their job is to make sure they would be safe in the woods. I looked around the room at that point, saw a lot of kids. To me seem like they breathe a sigh relief at that point.  It wasn’t one more academic test to them.  They just need to prove that they could be safe.  It was a really, really good experience.

My son loved it. And my daughter doesn’t even really hunt all that much.  She really only likes to hunt turkeys.  So, she doesn’t spend a lot of time after deer or anything else.  She doesn’t fish a ton.  But if you ask her about it, you can still see that she’s somewhat proud that she passed the course and got her card.

But some of the best lessons Kelley’s learned about hunting have come directly from his children.

Pete Kelley: But I love seeing them relate some of the things that they’re learning in science.  Some of the things they see out in nature in the field that aspects really fun to me.  Seeing them make discoveries out there, things that they’re interested in on their own, fascinating, I love that.

Pete Kelley: My daughter to this day she’s about to turn 13. And I asked her if she wanted to go out for youth weekend, which is this coming weekend. And she said, “Yeah, absolutely I want to go.”  She said, “I don’t want to shoot one this year, but I definitely want to go,” which I thought it was awesome. My kids love to go at night in roost one.

They love to walk out on the edge of the pasture stand quietly as that sun is setting, is getting dark and hear me owl hoot.  And then listen for the directions to hear that the times gobble. They get really excited and cheer when they hear one almost as if they’ve really accomplished something.

end mark

As we live through this pandemic, we’re realizing how much we value our relationships and bonds with other people.

And it’s important for young people to feel those roots and sense of belonging, now more than ever.

The question for Vermont education has become: how do schools find a way to give students credit for the work they do out-of-school, in becoming proficient?

Not just the 9,000 young Vermonters who currently hold a hunting or fishing license, but the ones who learn to sew for a scouting badge, or the ones who can tell you exactly what your soil needs to make tomatoes grow and squash bugs vanish.

Educators in Vermont and around the nation strive to make in-school time engaging and compelling, and talk about igniting students’ passion for learning. But shifting the lens of education in Vermont also requires knowing what our students are passionate about when they’re not in the classroom. And why.

Here’s Liam again.

Liam:  I would say it’s definitely like a big thing to get your family onboard with it.  Like I could not have like got my hunter safety or anything, my license without my dad or mom.  They’re like… I don’t know. They bring me to everything, sign stuff.  So it’s definitely good to get your family onboard.

Rachel:  What do you like about hunting?

Liam:  The thrill of it.  It’s also like super fun when I go out with my dad.  It’s good bonding time

Rachel:  Tell me more about that bonding time.

Liam:  Well, I mean, we talk a lot, because we’re out there for quite some time each day early in the morning. And it’s really nice spending time with him outdoors and something that we both like doing now.

Rachel:  So in a way, it’s kind of a special connection that you have with your dad?

Liam: Yeah, definitely.

Rachel: Because he goes with you?

Liam: Yeah, he goes with me.





This has been an episode of The 21st Century Classroom, podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Rachel Mark and Audrey Homan, with additional material from Life LeGeros. A huge thank you to Henry and Liam for sharing their stories with us, to hunting dad Pete Kelley for his reflections, and to Hunter Safety educator John Walker, for his time and expertise. And thank you to Christ Saunders at the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department for providing us with accurate statistics around young Vermonters and Vermont hunter education.


#vted Reads: Stamped, by Jason Reynolds

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads: books by, for and with Vermont educators. Today we’re joined by Philadelphia-based educator and “Learning Maximizer” Erika Saunders, to talk about the book Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me, Erika. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Erika: Hi! Well, first of all thank you so much for asking me to join you. My name’s Erika Sanders. I’m an educator here in Philadelphia. I’ve been working in urban environment, educating for about 17 years. I’m a special education teacher and I call myself The Learning Maximizer. Because what I do is teach children how to maximize their learning. So, I’m thrilled to talk education. And clearly, this book hold very dear place in my heart. *laughs* So, I’m excited to chat with you about it.

Jeanie: I am so excited that you’re joining me. And I also just want to say you are also on the Middle Grades Institute faculty. And we’re delighted to have you as a faculty member.

Erika: Thank you. Yes, I am. That’s a new one for me. Thank you for reminding me.

Jeanie: So, I always ask this question at the beginning because I’m a librarian at heart and I’m curious about it. But: what else are you reading? Or what other books might you recommend?

Erika: Wow, that’s an excellent question. So, sort of in general? I started We Got This: Equity, Access, and The Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, by Cornelius Minor. Which I’m looking at sitting right over there. I highly recommend that book. It’s accessible. And digestible. And yet has some pretty powerful pieces to it. For leisure, I am a huge young adult fiction fan — not to mention I worked with middle school students often — so a lot of what I read is sort of the middle school literature. So, if you want to relax and enjoy and just sit back, I highly recommend grabbing some of that really good juicy middle years literature that’s out there. Because it’s really gotten pretty exciting over the years.

Jeanie: I couldn’t agree more. Some of my favorite books are middle grades and young adult books, absolutely.

Erika: Absolutely.

Jeanie: And I love Cornelius Minor’s We Got This. I think it’s so practical. 

Erika: Yeah. When I picked it up I found that it was something that was also accessible. With my focus being Special Ed, sometimes when I’m looking at a book, I look at it through that lens. And whether or not even the formatting of it and how it’s presented is something that feels accessible to a lot of people? And there was something about this that had that feel. Where, especially around race where it can be very emotional and dense and sometimes academic in a way that’s unaccessible? When I looked at this I thought, wow, this is something that has lots of access points. Visually, how it’s laid out, how you can sort of digest pieces of it, and not feel overwhelmed. So, I’m very, very excited about that one too.

Jeanie: That’s a great lead in to this book: Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You. Because Ibram X. Kendi, the co-author of this book, wrote a really dense — really, really, really dense — book called Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. And I read about, I would say a third of it before finally I was like I can’t do this and be in a doctoral program too. That book’s been rewritten, or remixed as Jason Reynolds says, for young people in such a way that it’s really accessible, is what I found. Did you also find this to be very accessible?

Erika: I did. And accessible to young people too. And I love the way you mentioned it remixed. You know you’re really tapping into that young adult audience, and inviting them in, in a way that feels connected a bit to them. And I loved that about this book. Because these are important topics. And these are topics that often hit very deeply, in ways that we might not even realize? And can have the ability to divide people, especially sometimes, when you’re presenting truth that is hard to take if you are, sort of the person who’s *not* oppressed. You’re in sort of more the oppressor role in terms of your race or, how you identify. Not that you *are* that person, but that can be a hard thing.

And so, having that be accessible that way? And then also, on the flip side, because as an African American woman here, in the United States, there’s enough trauma, you know?  Intergenerational and ancestral trauma that, seeing it again can tap into a lot of things. From sadness and defeat… to anger. And you separate yourself.

I read some things where honestly I needed to not — quite frankly — be around white people for a little bit. Because it’s hard not to feel that. And I felt that this particular book kind of walked that tone very nicely. Where there’s almost some humorous points to diffuse some of that. And presented in sort of these small chunks that you can kind of get to and then step back from for a minute. So, I really love the way he crafted, what I considered a work of art.

Jeanie: That’s beautifully said and I think of Ibram X. Kendi I’ve read and, I’ve also read his How to Be An Anti-Racist. And he’s a scholar, right? He’s a professor and he writes with a real scholarly tone. And Jason Reynolds changes that tone quite a bit. He adds a little bit of play and a little bit of reading space.

So, let’s start with their voices.


Jeanie:  I should note that you and I both listened to the audiobook reading by Jason Reynolds which is amazingly read.

Erika: Absolutely.

Jeanie: I also loved that Jason Reynolds starts this book, about a conversation that we, especially white folks, we feel very uncomfortable talking about: he starts it off with some deep breaths. And some: “You got this.” 

Erika: Yeah, I was actually shocked in the most pleasant way when I heard him say, one: put it out there. You know: race, the R word. We know we want to run from that! And then he just says like,

“Okay, let’s take a deep breath. Let’s inhale and exhale. Race.”

And then right after that, it was like: “See? Not so bad.”

Again: giving the permission that these terms, this subject that’s so taboo, and so argumentative and so separating — especially in today’s world — doesn’t have to be. It’s not easy; there’s some difficult parts. And yet we’ve done that before in so many other areas. Yet we get to race, the issues about this country and how it’s, kind of gotten to where it is, and it becomes this, no, no, let’s not. So, again, making it the sort of accessible thing. And even saying, okay, you know what? We’re going to take a deep breath, we’re going to be okay.

Jeanie: Yeah. Yeah. It’s almost like this book is a way of inviting us in to say this is uncomfortable to talk about and yet so necessary. I really appreciate the framing, how Kendi defines racism and anti-racism. And then I also really appreciate this other framing, right on page three, it starts right away, that the authors want us to keep in mind these three words as we read, and they are:

  • segregationists
  • assimilationists, and
  • anti-racists.

I also love that Kendi and Reynolds start us off with some really great definitions to frame this text. And there are three of them, so I’m going to share them. They are from pages three and four.

I love how Jason Reynolds put them in this, like you said, accessible language for kids.

Segregationists are haters. Like real haters. People who hate you for not being like them. Assimilationists are people who like you but only with quotation marks. Like… “like” you. Meaning they “like” you because you’re like them. And then there are anti-racists. They love you because you’re like you.

But it’s important to note, life can rarely be wrapped into single-word descriptions. It isn’t neat and perfectly shaped. So sometimes over the course of a lifetime (and even over the course of a day), people can take on and act out ideas represented by more than one of these three identities. Can be both,and. Just keep that in mind as we explore these folks.

And by folks, I think Jason Reynolds is really talking about, all the historical figures that we’re going to follow through this long chapters of American history.

Erika: Yeah, just again: so brilliantly put, in a simplistic way. Because these are complicated concepts that adults struggle with. And have and continue, etc. So, to kind of boil it down to its essence? And put it again in these sort of everyday terms? And again I’m feeling the unapologetically sort of, Black access points. Because that’s who he is and why not make it that way, you know? “Segregationists”, “haters”. Not that other people can understand that, but I access this book as a Black woman and I’m like: yes.

I was listening to the audiobook one day in my kitchen and honest to goodness, I felt almost like the traditional church group, you know? I put my hands up while he was speaking. And I was like: “Yes! Preach!”

Because it just felt so real and living, as opposed to sterile.

Then also feeling that connection with my life because I remember when assimilation was my goal. I might not have understood it, sort of separate from myself, but it was clear that my job was to make exactly what he says: to make you all like me. Not for who I am, but for how well I present myself. And making sure, that I was doing everything *I* needed to do to assimilate and have you all like me.

And it wasn’t until I got older — and I mean *older* — easily into my thirties, forties, before that concept of anti-racists hit me as well. *I* had to come to a point as well where *I* took an anti-racist approach with my own race. Like: no, no this is me and I want people to like me for me. Not because I’ve fit into your box. Or that I’m not, making you uncomfortable. So, I connected with that where some people might not have thought the Black community could kind of see themselves through these definitions.

Jeanie: Well, I just have so many thoughts right now. One is that I really appreciate how this moves us beyond our racist / non-racist binary. It moves us into like: we can find ourselves sliding around on this continuum a little bit. And one person that Kendi and Reynolds really talk about sliding around on this continuum is W.E.B. Du Bois, right? Who, for much of his life, spends a lot of his time as an assimilationist. Wanting Black folks to sort of… emulate white folks in order to be accepted, right? And so they really explore W.E.B. Du Bois own experience as an activist through that lens, too. Like you said: these terms can apply to all of us, right? We can, regardless of our background, find ourselves somewhere at different points on this continuum, at different times in our lives.

Erika: Absolutely. There are times every day where I *need* to slide between assimilation and anti-racist just to make it. I often try to avoid sliding all the way back to the segregation because, to me that kind of does mean the hate of myself and the natural qualities that come with me. But there are moments where if I’m going to be successful in *this* moment at *this* time, so I can make it to the next step? I have to do a little assimilation. You know? And, then, step into something else. *laughs*

Jeanie: Right, right. And I see that. I see that as a pragmatic thing. My understanding, from people of color I’ve talked to, is that you can feel the need to assimilate, in order to meet professional goals, right? To like, get ahead in the workplace. That it can feel really like, necessary maybe, to get that title behind your name or to dress in a certain way in academia, or to present in a certain way. To code-switch, if you will, in order to get your professional needs met. Because we live in a racist society. And this can often be completely invisible to white folks who don’t even see it because they swim in whiteness. 

Erika: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. I would have assumed that no white folk even understood this is what’s going on. So, absolutely good point about code-switching. Somehow, I never liked the term. I don’t know what it is about it that sort of rubs me the wrong way and it could just be my experience. I understand it, and I understand the need for it. But I mean, sometimes it’s about your job, in order to get to that anti-racist point, you’ve got to do some assimilation, and then kind of gently move yourself around. Sometimes, you’re sick of it. And you just put it out there. 

And sometimes, as we all know — and forgive me if I choke up here — you have to do it to live. It’s not even about making that job… it’s about making it home.

I have a son, and he’s an adult now, how we have those conversations about: absolutely assimilate. Don’t be threatening, because you are; you are already a threat. And, we’re back in that segregationist moment, you know? You’re already a threat, so you better assimilate, so that you can present yourself as less. So, excellent point of what you were saying. It’s situational, its moment to moment. It’s live, get home, move through your job. And for many of us, it’s something we learned so young that we navigate that world. What it does to us, on a deeper level can be — it’s trauma.

Jeanie: I just keep thinking about that survival strategy, and the survival strategy for children of The Talk, right? The real privilege as a white mother is that I don’t have to have that talk. That’s a huge privilege. That I don’t have those same worries because my son is a white kid in a white supremacist society.

One of my favorite sections of the book I think, is actually about this. And it has new language that I was unfamiliar with, and I don’t know if it was new for you. It’s Chapter Nine, page 65. I’m going to read it because I think it’s speaking to just what we’re talking about right here. It’s called Uplift Suasion. Were you familiar with that term, ‘Uplift Suasion’?

Erika: No, I was not.

Jeanie: Me neither. So, it says:

Stamped Jason Reynolds

I think what’s so powerful to me about this passage is that it’s said at the beginning of the book, in the person of history. It says that around the 1790s is really where the authors start to see this emerge. And yet I would say this is still very much a reality of how we live today.

Erika: Oh, absolutely. As you’re reading it, and I’m nodding my head, and whatnot, again, it’s just, it’s my life. It’s my life of how I was brought up. It’s how I’m trying to bring up my son, you know who’s, again, a *Black* male. So, by definition, a life-threatening presence that is worthy of being put down, the way one might…

I remember talking with my nephew as well about this, like, where else, what other circumstances, would you shoot to kill?

That this threat is so significant that it’s completely understandable that you shoot to kill first… then ask questions later.

And I literally went like: grizzly bear. Like that’s all I could think of, you’re in the woods up, upright right there is such a threat that you don’t wait to see, oh, is it friendly, is it going away from me? Is it?  And then as sad as it would be, everyone would understand why you felt such a threat. And this is my *child*.

*deep breath*

An interesting thing is that I’d never heard the term “uplift suasion” — am I saying that correctly?

Jeanie: Yeah. 

Erika: But the idea of “uppity”, which I believe this is. That’s the term. Oh, absolutely! Because growing up we were the uppity Negroes in my community; we were the uppity ones. We were everything you described.

So we dressed properly. And we went to church. No matter what our position was, we held it with grace. We defused. We would not do anything that was a perceived threat. And these things weren’t said out loud, explicitly, but that’s what you understood. I grew up distinctly remembering that I needed to be better than all of my white counterparts growing up in Ocean City, New Jersey.

If you know anything about that town, it’s very, very white, very upper-middle class, very privileged. Very Christian.  I knew right from very early on, the need to be better than. And that was how I presented myself. That was my grades, that was my activities, that was the people I associated with. And again, as we talked about a little bit getting into that segregationists where I was clearly:

“Oh, no, no, I’m not them. No, no, no, no, I’m not *those* Black people, no, no, I’m with you on that. That’s awful. No, no, I’m here. It’s okay.”

So, again as I’m listening to it, it’s one of the first times I’ve heard this kind of depiction where I’m going: yes. That is exactly it.

Jeanie: It echoed your lived experience. Do you think that students, the students you work with, students of color, still feel that need to assimilate and fit in?

Erika: I think they definitely feel the pressure to. Because I sort of hear it in different ways. And it’s interesting because, being an educator of predominantly children of color, and seeing their experiences, and knowing in a way what they’re going to need to do to succeed, and yet realizing: these children don’t know a world where the *possibility* of a Black president isn’t there. They don’t know that world.

Yet on the flip side, they know that simply being “whatever while Black” — being at Starbucks here in Philadelphia while Black, barbecuing while Black — could end your life.

And that becomes a very difficult thing for them. As I watch them trying navigate doing what we just talked about — what you might need to do in this moment to get where you need to get — so that you can do and powerfully do all these things you’re doing. 

Jeanie: Well, I’m just so aware of all of the times that the double standard continues to exist. In this current moment, I’ve been thinking about two things. One is wearing a mask in public, and the acceptability of that being very dependent on race and racist attitudes, right? And how you’re perceived if you’re wearing a face covering.

The other is that I’ve been really wondering, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, what would be happening right now if the people protesting at Statehouses about opening up the economy, were Black instead of white? And thinking about what those protests look like as opposed to what the Black Lives Matter protests looked like, right? Those were like just two really present current-day examples of sort of the way racism plays out in action.

Erika: And what I was going to say is that these are discussions that definitely happen in Black homes, in Black communities, among Black folk. Again, that word, I know in the African American community, especially here in America, you know that “folk” means something. It means lots of things. It oftentimes means your people, but it can be used in both ways, right? Like: “Folk meeting us”, and “Stay away from those folks, over there”. And I think about different terms in different communities and how it can take on multiple meanings.

But I mean absolutely. We have those conversations literally all the time. Here in Philadelphia when there was the celebration of the Eagles, finally, winning a Super Bowl which we all celebrated, although it was still during Colin Kaepernick protesting. Everything is such a dichotomy sometimes, right? But me sitting there watching people on TV climb up lampposts, destroying cars, etcetera, etcetera. And you know, my son and I looking at each other like, they would have shot us by now. As almost an offhand — and yet knowing we mean that wholeheartedly.

Jeanie: That’s a hard truth to carry.

Erika: Exactly and carried every day. I think that’s the other thing.

Jeanie: So, what that makes me think about is that this book really chronicles this idea that racist ideas were used to justify slavery and genocide *as* we colonized the nation that we now call America, right? Like, as we colonized other peoples land, racism came with us. And helped us be able to do these like, morally dodgy things: enslave people, commit mass murder. And that’s not usually how we teach the founding of this country. At all. And it’s not really what I learned in the social studies classroom, right?

So, this book kind of turns it on its head. I’m trying to think about my own experience, my own lived experience, and I would say that I think the way we often framed racism is to say, “Oh, racism comes because of slavery.”

Instead of thinking that slavery that racism came here and justified slavery. And was encoded into laws in order to do that.

Erika: I would even go a step further to say it didn’t just do it to justify. This country couldn’t work — not then, not now — without it. 

I was in college before I saw a diagram of a slave ship. And how they transported slaves. As horrific as I understood it to be — Roots was just mind-blowing in my life, when I was younger — I assumed they sat up. In chairs, or not really in chairs, but with planks. Chained to each other, which was a horrendous thing in the first place, but sitting up, next to one another, and that’s how they were transported. Isn’t that horrible? They were in the bowels of the ship and all of that. But of course they were sitting up. 

And to see a diagram where the idea of that packing? Literally on top of those, crushing those underneath. It’s the way you would do with any other… commodity.

Jeanie: So, that really interests me in several ways.

One is: I’m really wondering about how we need to prepare teachers, or what teachers need to do to prepare themselves, to teach hard history.

And Teaching Tolerance is a great source for that, right? Like they have resources on teaching, literally called Teaching Hard History

stamped jason reynolds


And then this concern that if we only teach slavery, like if we only teach Black History where it’s only about the trauma and the pain, and where there isn’t a real sense of agency for Black and brown folks, that’s also problematic. So I guess, I think that Teaching Tolerance talks a lot about that as curriculum violence. What do you think teachers need to be aware of if they’re going to have frank conversations about race in history and racism in history in their classrooms? 

Erika: The harsh reality is, until you understand, until you really *understand* how your very life benefits, from this thing called race and oppression, how do you have that conversation? 

One of the things that scares me the most, in terms of the damage that could be done to our young people of color is a “woke” liberal white female teacher. That to me is this.

Jeanie: Are you looking at me, Erika? It’s okay.

*both laugh*

Erika: As a group! As a whole group! You know, you’re asking the right questions. And yet, we’re all going to make mistakes. We’re all going to trip in our way here. Sometimes — again, I come very harsh from the old school — sometimes I see how that can emasculate our young men. And yet, here I am, you know, preaching that for their survival. So it becomes a very difficult, tricky thing think that I sometimes wonder what is the answer. And it’s hard because, again: starting at slavery, means we start from a point of we were always oppressed. Imagine. Imagine if we taught in this country, that we started history coming from the origin of humanity. Kings. Queens. Richest person in the world, technology, agriculture, architecture, all of the things that we admire in this world, originated, came from, was stolen from, people of color.

Jeanie: It’s like our colonialist lens run so deep that we can’t even see — gosh, I hate using the “we”. The American colonialist perspective runs so deep that it’s hard for us to see or acknowledge all of the other ways of knowing and being in the world that are of value. So, you see through this really narrow lens. And that narrow lens which came across the Atlantic with us, prescribes history in this really narrow way. And then, I think that Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds point out that our first educational institution, Harvard University, is steeped in that. Is steeped in that perspective.

So, it makes me think of all the work.

And I think what you’re calling out, and I agree, about woke white women educators is that there’s a lot of work that has to be done personally to understand our own privilege in order to be even able to have these kinds of conversations. It makes me think when I was a school librarian at a middle and high school, often, this issue would come up with students where they would be talking about race and racism, and students would often say,

“Well, my family didn’t own slaves. This has nothing to do with me.”

And I wish I had had this book at that time to help me better have language. Or help me help them understand the way it’s all connected. The way that their history, their family genealogy is connected.

Erika: And I think that’s a good point about this book and the accessibility of it. Because again, it does sort of give language that’s… more easily understood. More easily consumed, more easily brought in these smaller pieces. Because even as I’m talking to you, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and, you’re sort of back to: “What do you do?”

And I never want to get to that point, because obviously there are things we can do. How brilliant of these two gentlemen to come up with, you know a book like this. That’s not my forte. And yet, both you and I can use this in different ways.

It’s funny you said, “understanding privilege”.  I was talking to someone about even that term and again we needed something to understand how, just sort of whiteness allows things to happen. And I was sitting there going, well, we use this term “privilege”; even that puts that perspective in a superior position. Even the word “privileged”, we tried to evolve to sort of White Frailty to kind of understand that. Actually, this is a disadvantage because the privilege that we’re talking about is a disadvantage. 

Jeanie: Yeah. That’s such a good point. I wonder what it would look like if we talked about how our systems privileged people instead of calling people privileged, right? Because that’s the point.

One of the things that I think is brought up in this book is redlining, right?

And so, after World War II, veterans were given money. My grandfather, for example, was given enough money to build a house, even though he had like a middle school education. He wasn’t an educated man; I come from a really working class people. But he bought 10 acres in Pennsylvania and built a house and was allowed to sort of settle in a certain part of town. And this is in Washington, Pennsylvania where I grew up.

That wasn’t allowed for everybody, right? Like people of color were pushed into apartments in cities and towns. And like redlining was a part of that. And it’s still something that’s ongoing. in terms We don’t call it redlining anymore, right? But there’s still systems in place that make it easier that privilege white folks for buying houses, especially in specific areas.

And so, instead of thinking of my grandfather as a privileged human, I think about the systems and how the systems disproportionately privilege some folks over others. some racial groups over other racial groups. And I think Ibram Kendi really asks us to look beyond intent to impact and to say: something is racist if it has racist implications on the population, right? 

Like if the outcomes are racist. If you can look at that and see this proportionality than that policy, regardless of its intent, is racist. I’m just playing with that idea because we use that word, “privilege”. We’ve been using that word a lot. I use that word a lot; I think about that word a lot. But I really hear what you’re saying and it’s not that white folks are privileged folks, but that the systems privileges them.

Erika: Yeah. I mean, I think we get to the term sometimes where language matters. A lot of things I see in social media groups I’m a part of as a Black person, is where we say things like “Representation matters. Being able to see yourself matters. ” Words matter too. Imagine, just imagine if we flipped it, again, the way they did in this book to say: “No, no, that’s oppression. That’s what that is. It’s oppression. Oppressive systems, put in place to keep people oppressed.

And the privilege that you have is simply you’re part of the oppressors.

Jeanie: Yes. I benefit from an oppressive system. 

Erika: Exactly. You benefit from the oppression of others, the system that oppresses. Imagine that. Imagine that’s the language that’s used almost the way. Again, they sort of flip the script in terms of how things are done. And not intentionally to make everyone feel bad badly. But this is kind of what’s going on.

So, I think one of the things that I’m thinking about now when you asked me what would it take? I do get very encouraged by the young people. By young people as they come up, being exposed to this book. Because I think it will take sort of this generational push coming from the ground up, of young group understanding more and more. Seeing it in a different way. Being educated about it in a different way. Approaching it a different way, hopefully kind of would move to a point where more people understand that this can’t work this way. 

Jeanie: I appreciate you pushing me on that language because it’s really making me think. I think our country pushes this narrative of the meritocracy. That people who are rich deserve to be rich. This whole idea of bootstraps and pulling yourself up by your boot-straps is a part of the fabric of our nation. And I think that it’s one of the narratives that makes it hard for white folks to see when they’ve benefited from the oppression of others. Because we like to think of ourselves as — and I’m going to use the language, even though it’s sexist — as self-made men, right? We want to think of ourselves as self-made men.

And I think what that does, I think it does two things.

I think it erases a lot of stories, right? Like, the stories of people work really hard and the system doesn’t benefit them, and so they still have less.

And then I think it also whitewashes folks, and I notice this in the narrative. These sort of American heroes that history whitewashes in that way. So I’m thinking not just of Thomas Jefferson; we know Jefferson was problematic, that he owned slaves, that he had children with one of his slaves, right? But also Abraham Lincoln, who we think of as American Hero, who held a lot of really racist ideas. And in many ways was still not even an assimilationist but a segregationist in his policies, even as he ended slavery.

Erika: Absolutely. Again, I grew up the same way in terms of understanding these heroes, including Abraham Lincoln among Black folk. I mean, come on, he freed the slaves, right? Like, that’s the narrative. And it wasn’t until, again, I’m certain I was out of grade school, that I understood what the Emancipation Proclamation did. Who it freed, the political strategy of why that happened. And actually, a surprising person helped me understand this: my sister’s then-husband, from Texas.

And Texas very much celebrates Juneteenth, and had in history. He’s the one who sort of helped me understand that there was something else. I was like, what are you talking about? Again: uppity, educated. And he’s like, “Wow, y’all are so ignorant up here.” I’m thinking, I’m ignorant, really? But again, because as educated folk, you start to understand these things.

I went to Monticello and I got that tour, not so long ago. And I was heartbroken in the way slaves were presented. But I was told this was a big deal. Not by the tour guides but by my cousin who lived there, because before they didn’t even mention slaves.

It wasn’t even mentioned.

And the fact now that it was mentioned was such a big deal, with this smiling glee… And they took you down to the slave quarters and they pumped in the music, and I’m just sitting there —   of course the only Black person there. I was just like looking around like I might be in The Twilight zone and they had just uncovered what they felt was a slave graveyard. But again, sort of starting to understand this and even, and bringing it forward and, telling it from a different standpoint.

Jeanie: I think this book reminded me to a year or two ago, I read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which is a history of the Great Migration. And so I think that there’s this common narrative, at least in school social studies, which is like: we had slaves and then the Civil War came and then we ended slavery and all is good, right? And then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights begin, right? 

Jim Crow happened too, but I think The Warmth of Other Suns really illuminated for me, again, not a history person, the ways in which we ended slavery only for slavery to continue in other forms. In the form of sharecropping, in the form of imprisoning people for no reason and forcing them into labor camps. Right? That Black folks, right after the Civil War, in the years following the Civil War, couldn’t change jobs. Like, in order to migrate to Chicago, they had to leave at dark, and sneak away from their jobs. That’s not freedom. That’s still slavery.

And then thinking about Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi do such a good job of bringing up, bringing Angela Davis into their story, which brings really this modern version of slavery, which is mass incarceration. We’ve still got so much work to do.

Erika: So much!

Jeanie: So much. 

Erika: So much.

Jeanie: So, I wondered how you might use this book with students. 

Erika: It’s one of those books that I feel would be most, almost most effective cross-curricular.

Jeanie: Oh, I completely agree.

Erika: Right? Because everything about race is cross-curricular, you know. As you were just saying: the economics of it, the math, the mathematics of it, the socialization of it, the science, right? Come on, we were 3/5th of a person, you know. And then, even the modern science of it. How effective and how powerful would this be if teens really did understand that this almost became a *theme* book that sort of helps be the essential questions if you will, of other things that you’re teaching, for a time. That this is a unit where this becomes the fabric through which we channel everything.

You know what I mean? And really connect that. So that it can be seen because I think there is a danger I certainly experienced it, right? The danger of the sort of isolated social studies lesson of exactly what you said, right? There was slavery… and then Lincoln, yay! Slavery was over!  Then we had some Civil Rights, good, way to go Rosa and Martin — never mentioning Malcolm X, of course. And then woo-woo, if you are lucky enough to be young and then Obama. It all works. See how it all worked! A direct line!

Jeanie: Right. And so there’s no racism anymore because we had Obama! 

Erika: Yeah. And yet, we know how dangerous that is, you know. So imagine this being a cross-curricular embedded in everything that’s done.

Jeanie: I love that idea, Erika. And then one of the things I’ve been thinking about, having read this, is that reading it in a big chunk, like reading the whole thing, listening to the whole thing: it’s a lot, right? You cover a lot of history. And one of the things I wondered about is using chunks of this text along with other texts and ideas. And so, thinking about incorporating John Lewis’s March series, with section four, right? Which is through 1963, and home is where the hatred is. And then into Section 5 where Martin Luther King is assassinated, right? So really thinking about those pieces together.

And then also, I was thinking about science and what you said, and there’s a lot about the human genome that comes in in this book towards the end. So thinking about what it would look like to do a little study of this along with Henrietta Lacks. And by that, I mean, let’s look about the way her cells were used without her permission or family’s permission. And are still used in most of our cancer research!

So, thinking about how that could be cross-curricular around race and justice in science, and in social studies, and combining with language arts and reading part of that great Henrietta Lacks book. Or even thinking about their sections of this book that reminded me of Katherine Johnson and that fabulous book and movie Hidden Figures, right?  And I thought a lot about that book and movie in certain sections of this text as well, and how those things could sort of give kids a better understanding of the way that race plays out across our disciplines in society. I really love that.

Erika: Yeah, absolutely. And I know this is sort of a, I don’t know, I want to say pipe dream. But: I’ve seen it where I teach, where we serve by far the large percentage of African-American students, particularly students of color, where the proportion is clear that we are the majority at our school — and yet, we still do not present texts, literatures, ideas, even haven’t forbid 50/50, in terms of an African-American perspective or person of color perspective.

And imagine if what we’re doing in schools is flipping that narrative, so that that perspective is the forefront and that other texts are supporting that in either different views or things like that. The way we’ve taught up until this point, right?  A very white perspective that we kind of filter, and attached and maybe sprinkle a little seasoning on top of which has been our understanding.

And imagine again just to try to get things sort of in the equilibrium is flipping that. Swinging that pendulum over to the side. Even trying to spend a year where the main texts, and things that we understand things, *come* from that perspective, as being the perspective, we look through. And then, okay, now understanding that, yes, of course there are others. How do they play in, and what does that do?

Imagine the powerful generations that would come through with that. 

Everyone is a better person when you can have more vast experiences. When you can step into the shoes of someone else, when you can begin to understand someone else’s perspective. And the way this country is designed, it has been that something that we as Black people have always had to do. We *have to* understand your world. We have to understand the nuances and whatnot if we are going to succeed.

Jeanie: It just makes me think as a librarian, and I think especially as a school librarian, I think over the years there’s this narrative. In Vermont there’s a narrative that’s like, well, most of our students are white, so we don’t have to deal with this. And it makes, it makes you ask the question like

“What kind of white people do you want to raise? Like, what kind of white people do you want in the world?”

And then also thinking about the many years that teachers, maybe not just teachers but that folks assume that boys won’t read books that have a girl main character, right? Yet we assume girls won’t read books that feature boys all the time.

Then thinking about like the same thing with race, right?

Like with any kind of difference really. We are so used to seeing ourselves centered as white folks that it can be jarring at first when we start reading books that center folks that are different than us. And that’s exactly what we need, right?

Erika: When I think about what would be ideal, especially from a woman of color’s perspective — which is the only perspective I’ve had — it’s my lived experience. I oftentimes think about what an amazing educational system, from a librarian standpoint, it wasn’t: fiction… and African-American fiction.

Jeanie: Yes! Yes.

Erika: If it wasn’t history… and African-American history. If it was simply history. 

And I mean, that’s the world I hope for, which is a hard one to imagine. But I hope that we make these type of realizations, like these conversations between us. Books like Stamped. You know things that start to help us. And I mean, that’s the Royal we, right? To help us to understand how upside-down things are, because that’s what I feel like it is. We are upside down. It’s sprinkling and isn’t going to work. We have to go through the work and the hard, agonizing, exhausting almost never-ending work of even starting to turn this, right side up.

Jeanie: You’re making me think a lot about Rudine Sims Bishop. And she’s the person who coined this idea of books as Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Doors? This idea about representation. That all kids deserve to see themselves in literature, and that books can also be this window where we can see the lives of others. And then sliding doors where we can find the commonality, right?

Diversity in Children's Books 2018 infographic from School Library Journal.

And I’m thinking about we use that a lot in literature. We think about that a lot in literature. And I love the idea of using that in history as well. We all deserve to see ourselves *with agency* in history. Not just as victims of history. Some of us get to see ourselves in history that way regularly, right? But like, where do we get to portray folks in their brilliance and their agency and their power as empowered in history as changemakers, right?

You’ve got me really thinking about that. And in science and in all disciplines like, what does that look like? It feels like an important part of that conversation.

Erika: Absolutely. I think it, again, as we’ve said before that it makes it accessible and it gives a sort of entry point to have those difficult conversations, you know. And talk about representation where, I had this discussion even at my own school, where, as a person of color, as a Black woman, I see your array of books that’s very diverse on your end and I’m looking and I’m like:

“Yeah. Why is the only book that has a Black male leader about a gang member who ends up killing two people and dies himself and he’s ten. Where is that equivalent in white literature?”

Jeanie: Yes, yes, yes. 

Erika: Where’s your YA book for Jeffrey Dahmer? And it’s a true story by the way up. That book is a true story of a young man. And again: not that it’s not a powerful, wonderful piece of literature to include. But how is that the only representation? What messages are we sending? If I manage to find, a YA whatever. Jeffrey Dahmer, whoever, pick a person, but where the center person was white, troubled, killed people, and then killed himself, and then presenting that? What would that pushback look like? And yet that’s acceptable.

Jeanie: Yes, I completely agree. Not every book about Black folks need to be issue- or social justice-oriented, right? Like sometimes we just want fantasy where the main character is Black, for crying out loud.

Erika: Just a story!

Jeanie: I just want a story, yeah.

Erika: I just want a story.

Jeanie: Totally hear that. So, I feel like we should wrap this up and I wanted to end with just a little bit of the Afterward because I think it’s a nice way to close and put a, sort of the book ends on our conversation because we started with the beginning. I’m going to read a little bit of it, and then maybe we can hear some final thoughts.

I love that it ends this way with this sentence.

How do you feel?  I mean, I hope after reading this not history, history book, you’re left with some answers. I hope it’s clear how the construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically, how it is always been used to create dynamics that separate us to keep us quiet, to keep the ball of white and rich privilege rolling. And that it’s not woven into people as much as it’s woven into policy that people adhere to. And believe is truth.

Laws that have kept Black people from freedom, from voting, from education, from insurance, from housing, from government assistance, from healthcare, from shopping, from walking, from driving, from breathing. Laws that treat Black human beings like nothing.

I think that was really important for me as a learner to realize that legislation is racist, and creates racist conditions.

And I wondered if you had any last thoughts on that or on the book in general. 

Erika: I mean, do I have thoughts? Of course. It’s sort of like there’s so much, right to swirl in. I think, and kind of closing and wrapping up our discussion around this book: I want to extend gratitude. Because it takes, the saying is, it takes a village to raise a child. It takes more than a village to push against this enormous beast, if you will, of racism. It takes varied voices, and approaches. And it takes those who have been doing it for a while to be able to step back and take a breath. Because this is hard, exhausting work and have someone else, step in. 

It takes people from all views, approaches, races — to have a turn in this work. And my gratitude for someone like the authors… Jason Reynolds, particularly for his young people approach. To take up that mantle and say: hey, you know what? Here’s something we can look at.

And knowing that myself, for instance — not putting myself on their level — but, who does the work in a different way has that resource.

The gratitude of these type of different perspectives that are coming in, that are taking up the mantle that are bringing a fresh approach or, bringing a different group in? That gives me hope. Because there was a time not that long ago, that I was tired. And I was seeing the enormity of this. I had seen the changes that had happened and yet everything still being the same. And got to a point where I’m like: forget it. We’re never going to do this. How are we going to do this? We’re never going to do this.

And thankfully there are those who not only come before us, but also come after us, to say: It’s okay. It’s all right. You rest. You rest for a bit. I got this. I’m going to bring this book in. And that’s going to allow you to have a second wind.

That’s what it’s going to take. So, I have hope and meeting people like yourself who are asking the questions, at least.

I went through generations of, you wouldn’t even ask the question. People who understand this more that they don’t know then what they know. I think that’s, so important. So, the gratitude for you to be willing to have a conversation with a Black woman on a topic like this. This wouldn’t have happened — it’s never happened to me if I’m being honest.

I live in a very urban, environment and yet, so, seeing people like you where you’re saying:

“No, no,  please help me understand. I know my perspective is limited. I know that I’m going to say this maybe, not in quite the way I mean it, because I have this perspective, please come.”

That gives me gratitude. Such gratitude. 

Jeanie: Well, I’m so grateful for you for sharing your perspective. Your lived experience, your experience as an educator. Because I think this book is important, because once we know all of the ways in which race is used to uphold power and privilege and economic and political gain for some, and not for others? Then we can do something about it. Until we know, we can’t really do anything about it. So, I’m really grateful to you for taking the time to talk to me about this fabulous book. I can’t wait to hear how teachers start using it and young people to start experiencing it.

Erika: Absolutely. 

Jeanie: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your time, Erika. I’m so grateful. 

Erika: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. It really has. And I appreciate it all.

How to get physical copies of books to students

Getting books in the hands of students is crucial to supporting their sense of well-being and reducing anxiety during the Stay-at-Home order. And while we here are massive fans of ebooks, we also don’t want to overlook the importance of the good old-fashioned paperback.

To recap: paperbacks are good.

Ebooks are good.

Audiobooks, graphic novels, Choose-Your-Own Adventures, romance novels, online articles — all these things are good. They all count as reading.

Now, we’ve exhaustively covered the ways to get hold of digital reading materials, so right now we’re going to talk hard copies. Hard copies of books don’t require bandwidth. They don’t fall off the wifi and they’re remarkably nonchalant about whether you have a device available or no. At the same time, they can provide students with ways to stay in touch with friend networks or connect with their larger community about reading.

Let’s read!

Did we mention the libraries? We should mention libraries. Just a little.

Libraries are kind of amazing, y’all. For the princely sum of zero dollars, libraries will let you waltz into their living rooms and make off with their primo reading material. Or, at least, they used to. In order to comply with Governor Scott’s stay-at-home order, libraries have gotten creative.

Let’s get takeout!

Yes, libraries are now doing takeout. A number of them here in Vermont — and at a minimum we’re shouting out Carpenter-Carse, Brandon, Lincoln, Starksboro, Quechee, Swanton, and Shelburne — are taking phone and email orders for books.

Let’s pause here for a second and admire the fact that you can pick up a landline, phone your librarian and place an order for books. And these libraries package up the books for you in a neat, individual parcel and let you do curbside pick-up.

Quechee leaves your books outside the back door. Brandon has you drive up during normally “open” hours and a librarian will place your paper bag full of books outside the door. Carpenter-Carse does hands-free transactions in their parking lot. So many solutions.

Also: Brandon’s takeout line sizzled so hot they ran out of paper bags and had to crowd-source more from the community to meet demand. True story. Ten points: Brandon (town and library both).

(The Brandon Free Public Library has also begun hosting an online trivia night, online community meditation, and Zoom-based Dungeons & Dragons games, but that’s another story. Analog. Focus.)

Actually, I’m more in the mood for delivery.

Curbside pick-up is amazing, but a lot of your students may not have their licenses, or not have access to a vehicle, or might, realistically, be in households that are isolating or in quarantine. That’s fine, because pandemics rarely stop librarians. Have you met them?

At least one school librarian has sent books home with their school’s food deliveries and at the printed packet pick up. #unstoppable

But recognizing the ongoing need in their communities, many of the public libraries around Vermont are finding a way to deliver books directly to homes. Shout out to Carpenter-Carse, Swanton and Starksboro AT A MINIMUM.

Meg Allison, librarian at U-32 Middle & High School, in Montpelier VT, (and previous #vted Reads guest) created a unique solution by partnering with Montpelier’s local bookstore, Bear Pond Books:

I used encumbered money from my budget at Bear Pond Books to purchase a substantial gift card. I order books for kids & BP mails to their houses. I’ve only done this for a few students, but plan on having a book group  one more time this year w/books sent from the store.

Kids will need to return them in the fall to be catalogued.

That is a whole lot of good work in one place, y’all.

Cross the streams: online & off.

Taking a different tack, the Fletcher Free Library in Burlington VT, is offering patrons a chance to asynchronously earn digital badges to track their reading. That’s right, it’s like reading logs, only sexier. If you’re working with limited wifi or bandwidth, this is a great way to minimize your usage for maximum payoff.

Hop on: read the badge requirement, sign up. Hop off: go read a book for hours and hours. Then hop back on and grab your badge.

Fletcher badges

Tiny free libraries: they’re free & tiny

One community solution to running out of reading material: the tiny free library. Small, decorative, unmanned weather-proof boxes exist in communities around the world for you to leave a book, and take another book.

And right now tiny free libraries are hopping.

How popular are they? This rural writer can think of three within biking distance of her home. And since the stay-at-home order the turnover at tiny free libraries has been brisk.

They’ve also been responsive: at one tiny free library, a patron wrote in the log that she was disappointed there weren’t more books available for the 3rd and 4th grade reading levels. Within the week, books aimed at younger readers began appearing. Speak up, and ask for what you need.

Not seeing your tiny free library get much action? Hop on Front Porch Forum and ask your neighbors how they’re feeling about the selection and if they’d like to refresh their stock.

Not seeing a tiny free library in your neighborhood? Here are some detailed instructions about what you need to build a tiny free library in your neighborhood, including dealing with zoning laws and construction. We also recommend you hop on Front Porch Forum and ask if any of your neighbors are having the same idea about building one. That way you could pool resources (“I’m great at design and angles, but a bit dodgy with a saw. How are your wood-cutting skills?”) and meet other people who are looking to swap books.

Now, before we get too far down this road, a note about safety.

Please use the utmost caution in sharing physical items such as books and comics, whether from your local community library, the little free library down the road or your friends next door. Wash your hands. Set the books outside for 48 hours and wash your hands again. Wipe down the plastic covers of hardbacks or jacketed library books with a bleach wipe, and then wash your hands again, just for us. One more time.

Wash wash wash. Soap soap soap.

Thank you. And don’t think libraries themselves aren’t thinking along similar lines. At the Starksboro Public Library, in Starksboro VT, they instituted book deliveries only after the librarian and trustees drafted this whole entire protocol for book-handling:

As the virus is believed to live on paper for up to 24 hours and on plastic for up to 72 hours, items will be bagged on Monday by the library director, wearing a mask, and delivered on Thursday by a volunteer. The materials will be in a plastic bag marked with the patron’s address. Reading selections will still be confidential as they have always been. Deliveries will be made on Thursdays between noon and 3pm by a volunteer wearing a mask and gloves. Patrons may wish to further quarantine items at home before touching materials. Packages will be placed on the front porch of your home or another specified outdoor location and social distancing will be maintained. A text will be sent upon delivery. Patrons are encouraged to borrow more material, less often, to lessen exposure to other people.

Wash your hands after reading this post, too. Just to be on the safe side.


That’s: Build Your Own Book Circle.

One of the best ways to express your love of books is to share it with other people. The book club thing gets tricky once you take it offline, and accounting for safety protocols.(Go wash your hands again. It’s not getting old, treat yourself to some delightful smelling soap.)

So we suggest: Book Circle!

You and a few friends sharing and reviewing your books together in sequence. Decide what you’d like to read and set norms for talking about each other’s books. Set clear boundaries with each other by asking things like:

  • What level of peril are you okay with in your reading? (G, PG, PG-13, R?)
  • Are there any genres you aren’t familiar with that you’d like to become more familiar with?
  • Is it okay with you if we read spiritual or religious books, or is that something you reserve for your family?
  • Are there any subjects you absolutely positively don’t want to read about?

You and your friends can do this over email, or kick the process off over email and leave notes in each other’s mailboxes. Or, to be totally off-line, one person sets a notebook out — in the little free library, for instance — and you all take a page to write in. (Teachers, I’m sure you have a thousand great ways to coordinate this.)

Then everyone in the Book Circle contributes a book.

Pick a central location, like one person’s house, where you stash a special milk crate (or box or satchel — something distinctive but weatherproof) where everyone drops off their book. The idea with book circle is not that you’re all reading the same book at once, but that you all wind up with a different book one of the other’s has read, and the books keep flowing. Put a list in the milk crate so you know who has which book at any given time.

After you each read your new book, write up a quick review on a sheet of notepaper, sign it, and paper clip it into the back of the book. As the book circles, the reviews will accumulate, and the original owner will wind up with some reflections from friend on their favorite reads when the book comes home.

It can be tricky to just whip up a book review out of thin air, so maybe as part of setting up your circle, you can pull together a set of pre-determined questions for everyone to answer about their reads. We have some ideas!

Sample Book Circle Questions

  1. What did you like best about this book?
  2. What, if anything, would you have changed about the book’s plot?
  3. Did anything in the book remind you of your own life?
  4. Did anything in the book remind you of any of your own favorite books?
  5. If you could write a sequel to this book, how would it go?
  6. Did the ending surprise you?
  7. Would you read something else by this author?

Also remember that not everyone gets super jazzed about writing, so be prepared to make accommodations, such as recording answers to the questions on Voice Memo, or accepting typed responses over email. Teachers, again, will likely have all the best ideas for coordinating this part.

You could also reach out to your local library and see if they have any ideas for helping run or manage your book circle. After all, they’re pretty much doing everything else under the sun these days…

Happy #NationalLibraryWeek, everybody.

#vted Reads: Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson

I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads, we are here to talk books for educators, by educators and with educators. Today I’m with Meg Falby and we’ll be talking about two books by Laurie Halse Anderson: Speak, and Speak: The Graphic Novel. We’ll also be mentioning Shout, Laurie Halse Anderson’s memoir in verse.

Lovely listeners of #vted Reads, welcome to another episode.

It is currently the first half of April, 2020, a challenging and re-defining moment for all of us. One that’s unsettling us in ways good and bad — okay mostly bad — but. But.

As we all wrestle with the pandemic and how it’s moving around and through our lives, I’m struck by how much we are all turning to art. We are turning to books and painting and crafting and making and books and music and cooking (did I mention books?),and it’s really reaffirming for a lot of us the vital role art plays in our lives. The ways in which it carries us through dark times and helps pull us toward the light.

Which brings me to this episode.

On today’s episode, I’m joined by Vermont health educator Meg Falby, and we talk about Laurie Halse Anderson’s incomparable books, Speak and Shout. For those of you who are wondering, we talk in the episode about sexual assault and its aftermath. We’re not graphic, but we will talk about emotional impact as it’s portrayed in the books.

While we’re using these books as a platform to examine how educators can talk about consent — living breathing free and thriving consent — this topic might be challenging for some folks, especially the survivors.

We want you, as always, to put your own health first and make an informed decision about listening to the episode. Whatever you decide, we’re proud of you for making it this far, and we hold a space for you to listen, or read, or paint or craft, or sing or …speak.

I’m Jeanie Phillips. I’m awfully glad you’re back for another episode of Vermont Ed Reads, the podcast by with and for Vermont educators.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for joining me Meg, tell me a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Meg: Thank you for having me, this is really exciting! I have been a teacher, this is my 18th year of teaching, a bit of a combination of what we call “family and consumer sciences”. It’s kind of a new age home ec, and my real focus has been on health education.

I started right out of UVM. I got my undergrad in family and consumer sciences education — believe it or not it exists — and I taught in both Barre Town School and Barre City School. Twelve years in and then a  job at U-32 High School opened up, which was really exciting for me because I hold this school in really high regard. And I’ve been here now for six years.

I teach 7th and 8th grade health. I also teach high school health, and that typically is grades 10 to 12. And I teach 8th grade living arts class: sewing, cooking, all that good stuff.

Jeanie: Oh that sounds like so much fun.

Meg: It’s such a fun class! Such a fun class.

Jeanie: I’m really excited to have you on the podcast! I follow you on twitter and I am a fan, but also I just think you’re going to bring a lot to this conversation about these books, so welcome. One of the things I like to ask us right away is: what are you reading? What’s on your bedside table? Because I’m always looking for the next best book to read?

Meg: Well, the number that I came up with was 17? But I think I’m now over 17. I’m one of those people —  at least in the last year — I’ve become “The Collector”. You know how there’s different types of readers? I’m The Collector and I am also a reader that has multiple books going on at one time.

Right now I’m reading this wonderful book called Beyond Birds and Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids About Sex, Love, and Equality. It’s by Bonnie Rough and she is an incredible writer. You know, to me it’s an adventure story. She and her husband head over to the Netherlands and they bring their children with them. And she talks about just the *vast* difference between the American health/sex ed class and layout versus the Dutch. And it’s riveting.

She’s an incredible writer and there’s so much to it that I go back. I keep going back and back, so the book has literally been on my bedside table for probably six months now. And she just has dropped this little seed of inspiration to do that someday: to take my family and just go to live in Amsterdam and go teach. Or do this amazing research of what it’s like. What we are doing in America, how I am doing as a health educator and what she did.

The other one that I’m reading was actually gifted to me; it was dropped in my mail box here by one of my colleagues at U-32. It’s called How to Break Up With Your Phone. And it hits home so hard that my own self-shame around my screen time usage? Makes me put it down. And then I have to process it and think about it, and come back to it like two weeks later.

Jeanie: These both sound like books I need to add to my to be read pile so thanks for that.

Meg: Of course!

Jeanie: They both sound fascinating and useful.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: Let’s dive in! We have books to talk about.

Meg: We sure do.

Jeanie: Books, plural. I just want our listeners to know that Speak, the original novel — which was published I think 20 years ago in 1999, so 21 years ago (I remember I read it when it came out) and then Speak: The Graphic Novel — which came out just a couple years ago — follow the same storyline. And really the same story told in different formats. They are both beautiful. They’re both really incredible reads.

The original Speak was groundbreaking in that it was one of the early books to talk about sexual assault by an acquaintance for young adults. So many kids have read it. Probably so many of our listeners or adult listeners have also read it. And I just wondered if you might introduce us to the main character in both: Melinda Sordino.

Meg: Sure, so Melinda is 14 and she is on the precipice of high school and a kind of classic 8th grade girl, the excitement of what high school is going to be like… And then she experiences the most traumatic event of her life thus far, in August. And I found myself just rooting so hard for her as a young woman navigating the world of high school.

It’s funny the word, I think, how I would describe her, right? I just thought she’s a *powerhouse* of a human, at age 14. And the journey that Laurie brings us on with her, I find myself rooting for her. But you felt it. You felt the rawness of everything that she was going through, through this insanely traumatizing event that so many people, so many of my students, so many of my friends, and family members have experienced themselves.

…I think of her too, as the classic high school kid: she’s got parents that are fighting, she’s got the annoying teachers that she’s like, “What are you doing with my time, folks? This is my sacred life, I don’t want to be here, you don’t want to be here,” etc etc.

One of her relationships that really hits home is her art teacher, and this relationship that she creates with Mr. Freeman. Where it’s a struggle because art can be a struggle — and should be a struggle —  but she finds that frustration, she kind of meets that frustration, with inspiration from him, and he grounds her in a really deep way. I see Melinda in so many of my students. It’s incredible and that is in one way such a sad, sad thing but it’s also so simultaneously invigorating to know that we as humans, we can get through trauma together. We can do this.

Jeanie: At the beginning of both of the books we know something has happened to Melinda.


Meg: Right.

Jeanie: Slowly the story emerges, through the course of each of the books. And I’ve been thinking about it in a new light, thinking about Melinda; at the very beginning of the book, she has no friends.

She has sort of one friend who’s new, and an ex-friend, right? But she’s really isolated because of the series of events, and sort of the negative publicity she’s gotten because of her actions and — we’re trying not to give spoilers, folks. But she’s feeling really alienated and recently there was an article in The Atlantic that really hit home for me about the importance of friendships in early adolescence.

Meg: Platonic love.

Jeanie: And just *why* they’re so critical to the well-being of young people, and I think as adults we can look and say, “Oh you’re going to be fine! Who needs friends? You’re fine!” but actually kids really need friends. So she’s had this traumatic experience, this traumatic physical experience, traumatic emotional experience and then its compounded by the trauma of feeling completely alienated and unseen in her school.

And so her reaction? Melinda says:

“It’s getting harder to talk. My throat is always sore, my lips raw like I have some kind of spastic laryngitis. I know I’m messed up. I want to confess everything, hand over the guilt and mistake and anger to SOMEONE ELSE. There is a beast in my gut, scraping away at the inside of my ribs.”

And then on page 141 in the graphic novel it says:


That connects us very much to the title, Speak, because one thing that Melinda is not doing is talking, talking about it or talking much at all.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: You said you see Melinda in some of your students, and I just wondered if you have any thoughts about her silence.

Meg: It’s so powerful. I think the silence itself represents fear and shame and self-doubt and judgment. I think as a survivor, she maybe uses in her mind “victimization” — she’s been victimized. But really what we see is, she survived this and I think she uses her silence as power. Because without speaking, people don’t know her story; therefore people can’t turn and blame her. There’s so much shame and internal dialogue when one is physically, emotionally, mentally taken advantage of; especially by someone who she “thought” she certainly looked up to and just *adored* as an older person.

I find it so interesting throughout the book who she elected to speak to? And what she elected to say. And how she was very selective in those words. Yeah.

Jeanie: There is a lot going on.

Meg: There is.

Jeanie: She’s reliving her trauma daily in school: because of the way she reacted during the sexual assault, kids got in trouble.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie: People are heaping blame and shame and guilt on her. They ridicule her in school — and then she also has to encounter her rapist at school, on the regular. So in the graphic novel on pages 148 through 151, is one of the times she encounters him and none of the adults even recognize it! Do you want to share anything from those pages?

Meg: I’m going to read.

Heather has another modeling job so I told her I’d hang the posters I made for her. Heather said that people need to see me doing ‘normal’ things around the school so I don’t make them nervous.

And in the graphic novel the artist just shows Andy’s face and his breath on her neck and he says the words, fresh meat.

Speak Laurie Halse

On page 149, in large white lettering it just says, IT FOUND ME.

Like: he’s back. How did he find me? I thought this was just a figment of my imagination. It was a one-time event that I am burying so deep inside my soul, and now he’s here? He’s in the hallways of my school, a place where I’m supposed to be safe and supported and taken care of?

So powerful. Knowing too, that in a building of over 1,000 students — in any high school it could be Vermont, it could be in California — that there are students who have been victimized. There are students who are in fact, survivors. that this very thing happens every day: they’re sitting next to them in math class, they’re in their art class, they’re in their PE class, their locker is four doors down.

Jeanie: I think one of the reasons this book, the original, was so earth-shattering in the young adult literature world was because we still have this notion that a rapist is a dirty old man hiding in a dark alley.

And here in this book, the person who has committed this sexual assault, Andy, is a really popular senior in high school. Girls want to date him. He’s like the life of the party; teachers admire him. So Melinda feels really invisible in her experience, in her lived experience. And also in her whole self. Because she’s not popular; as her friend says, you’ve got to look normal. Nobody knows her story and she’s not popular, she’s an outcast, she dresses in baggy clothes, she’s trying to hide herself.

Meg: Bites her lips, her poor lips. Those raw lips. Grabbing on to anything so that she doesn’t have to speak.

Jeanie: Yes, and so I wondered about, in the work that you do, do you have any thoughts for educators about how they might spot trauma in their students? How do they even recognize, especially, a Melinda who’s trying so hard to fade into the background?

Meg: I’m going to back up a little bit.

Jeanie: Please do.

Meg: Just to say: I’ve been in this gig for 18 years, education. The rise and the fall of what’s trendy, what’s hot, has come and gone, and I think that I want to give a major shoutout to Vermont as a whole state.

But certainly my experience at U-32 — I’ve only been here for six years — but in the last five, I would say we’ve really honored the fact that a child is a whole child, that a student is whole and that doesn’t just mean math scores, and SPARS 360 scores, but that when these humans enter this building they’re coming from a home, they’re coming from a family, they’re coming from an online life, right? An online facade… and I really honor the work that we’ve been doing around social and emotional learning. For me it’s so validating and it’s so solidifying in the work that I do in the health education class because that’s what health education is.

Health education *is* social emotional learning, with some content thrown in, certainly. The fact that I live in a community and teach in a community where we’re honoring that and saying, “Algebra II scores are not going to increase until we talk to these kids about their mental health.” We are not going to have kids reaching for AP classes or we’re not going to have kids passing college prep classes if 17 hours a day out of 24 —  heck 21 hours out of 24 they are wrapped around a fully engaged in how many likes they just got on their Instagram post. Why that person left them on Read on snap chat.

They come into my space; and they come in and maybe I’m playing music and we’ll have like an RP circle prompt that’s kind of funny or I’ll rip a joke or something. That learning objective at the bottom of my board? Where it’s the “I Can” statement? They’re not buying into that. Even in my class. I’m not trying to make myself sound special but when that student is fully engulfed in relieving trauma or processing trauma or dealing with trauma from parents, whether its trauma that their parents have gone through… learning doesn’t happen.

So you have to say, listen learning objectives: I see you, I respect you, I know that this is my occupation and that’s why I’m getting paid, but until you say, we’re going to focus on who we are as humans first.

To get back to the question of how you connect with these students that are our Melindas and our Michaels and our everyone in between? You get to know your kids and that is for some of us easier just based on our personalities, but I think that even watching and working in a high school with physics teachers and art teachers. We’re really supported in the work we do at U-32 to create restorative circles where we start every class, I start every teacher advisory, I start every class. It doesn’t need to be formal.

Like yesterday, with my middle schoolers it was: what’s your favorite flavor ice-cream?

And then I try to write them down. To keep track of *them*, not their answers.

I did ice-cream on Wednesday, so on Thursday I’m going to ask them one of their insecurities — and they *always* have the right to pass. But it’s amazing.

You start off with ice-cream ones, right. You start off with the nice and easy, mild-flavored salsa and then you can get yourself up to questions that really can uncover some of the things that these kids are going through.

Jeanie: So what I’m hearing from you, Meg, and I really want to check, is that: it’s not about spotting individual trauma, it’s about creating spaces that are trauma-informed. That take into account the lived experiences, the emotions, the whole child and all of our students. And that welcomes their whole selves in. It creates levels of support, sort of safety nets, structures through relationships.

Meg: That’s it, it’s all about relationships.

Jeanie: What’s interesting to me is that you sort of mentioned, without all of those relationships and emotional support kids aren’t going to learn. And throughout the graphic novel, Melinda’s report card shows up in various iterations. I’m on page 251,  and it says, “My report card. Student name: Melinda Sordino, Grade 9.

  • Social life: F
  • Lunch: D
  • Clothes: F
  • Spanish: D
  • Algebra: F
  • Social Studies: F
  • Biology: D+
  • English: D+
  • Gym: D+
  • Art: A.”

And there’s so much of what you’ve just said there; like, at the top of her list is really social life, lunch and clothes.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: I suspect that’s a lot for our adolescents. And then at the bottom, the one course she has an A in, the one thing is Art. And she has this relationship with her art teacher. She feels seen by him. She doesn’t tell him her story, he has no idea that she’s been sexually assaulted, but he engages her on who she is on the inside a little bit.

Meg: I think one of the connections with Mr. Freeman, her art teacher, is the fact that she sees him as a human. I think that they have created this safe relationship because she sees him as not just a teacher who comes in at eight in the morning and checks out at three. He’s creating his own art in front of the kids. He’s also ruining his own art in front of the kids, going through the whole process. And I think that’s huge.

I think when we as educators  — with boundaries, clear lines and boundaries, that we are still the teachers —  but when we as teachers can talk about being human, and what that looks like and feels like, before we get to our learning objectives? You’ve got them. You’ve got your audience. Because when they respect you and they know that you’re human, they see it in themselves and then the learning happens.

Its authentic learning. Because when you are authentic with your kids? They are like dogs. They know when we BS, they know when we’re trying to crank through a lesson really quick because we want to check off the box because we need to get the proficiency.

When you step back you say, “I want to do another circle, let’s do another circle, I want to actually get to that.” Or: “We’re not going to get to this today. We’re going to hold off until next class.”

Jeanie: Inviting the full humanity of ourselves and our students.

Meg: That’s it.

Jeanie: It occurs to me, too, that there are two things happening for Melinda in both the graphics novel and the original novel, two barriers that are getting in the way for her to talk about her assault with a friend, with her parents, or with a trusted adult. And I’m curious about you and your expertise around this. One, I’m wondering if a lack of quality sexual education, sex ed, is getting in the way of her even being able to have the language to talk about what happened to her.

And then I’m also really interested in when, if and how we talk about consent.

Meg: *Yes*.

Jeanie: In schools, with our own personal children or with the children we are entrusted with in our settings as educators. So I wondered if you want to speak to either or both of those.

Meg: Sure, I’ll speak to both of them. I’ll start with the first one: did you notice what class was missing on her report card?

Jeanie: Yes. There’s no health.

Meg: And I won’t get on my soapbox and I won’t be the squeaky wheel that I have been for 17+ years, but I think that having a space and a trained, certified professional — just like our English and our math teachers — is very important. To have health educators, from pre-K through graduation.

I am biased and I understand this. But I believe there’s no other space in a student’s day, where you’re just talking about life the whole time. You’re talking about real life scenarios. You’re using case studies, you’re talking about experiences that they’ve maybe previously already had or they will have. Because life in a body encompasses all of health education — it just does.

I say the word “pre-K”, but I’ll tell you as a parent, as a mom to a three-and-a-half-year-old and a six-year-old, the conversation around consent can never happen too early. Ever.

And I think and I try to reframe it as, I call it “everyday consent”: if I want a swig off of your water bottle, I’m not just gonna grab your water bottle. I’m going to say hey Jeanie, can I have a sip of your water? And Jeanie is going to say, Meg no, it’s cold season!

And I’m gonna respect your answer.

Just as if I wanted to copy your math homework and you say: no This concept — and I know someone before me has said these words but the term that I try to live by that I have taught my children and that I teach my students is:

Ask first, and respect the answer.

And you take that into everyday life, around this idea of consent that there’s two people or more people figuring out what works for you, and what doesn’t work for you. I think most of us — and I don’t want to bring gender that much into it — but I think a lot of young women (and women as a whole) are “yessing”. They’re saying yes when they truly don’t mean it. I don’t want to take on writing the front page of the newspaper. I have too much going on with my other classes but you know what, I’m going to say yes, because I don’t want to make too much work for other people. I’m going to say yes so that I don’t let anyone down.

Jeanie: Regular listeners of this podcast and people who know me will not be surprised that I’m going to bring up compliance culture. I’ve been thinking a lot about — and I am not guilt-free in this — I’ve been reflecting a lot on my years as an educator and as a parent, and thinking about the times where for convenience or efficiency, I just needed my son or my students or my to comply. I’ve been thinking about how the persuasion, the pushing for “please just do this it will be easier for all us” is actually teaching the opposite of consent.

And I’m wondering how often in schools we are un-teaching consent in the way that we force for lack of a better word, certain behaviors or decisions on our students. Because usually it’s about time.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie:We feel rushed. Like we have to do a bunch of things and we just don’t have time to get there on your own time. Or it’s about convenience and this notion that — I think I thought this as a new educator — that my classroom should look compliant.

Meg: Right.

Jeanie: And so I’ve really just been thinking about the way compliance gets in the way of things. It gets in the way of self-direction but it also gets in the way of understanding that my body is my body and I get to consent or not.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: And that other peoples bodies are their bodies and they get toconsent or not.

Meg: Even as early as two days on the planet.

Jeanie: Yes.

Meg: Talking to our students and modeling us as well, it’s really important that body sovereignty is taught as soon as they are out of the womb. There’s been a lot of press on this, this idea of respecting the fact that little Mera doesn’t need to go give grandma, grandpa, uncle, aunty a hug, if she doesn’t want to. And as the parent of this toddler, preschooler, I need to ensure that they know that she has body sovereignty.

I’ll tell you: just last night, my six-and-a-half-year-old son when I asked him?  I snuggled, and we read. I sang some songs, I tucked him in, and then I asked him, can I give you a kiss? And he said no thanks

And then my heart broke and I cried on the inside, and I gave him a hug, instead. He said, “Hugs and handholds, that’s it. That’s all I want now.” And I’ve gotta talk the talk and walk the walk. It’s got to happen.

Jeanie: I wondered, Meg, if you would share with us any resources or ideas you have about teaching consent? Especially to middle schoolers. And I’m really thinking grade say 4 to 12.

Meg: Absolutely. I was lucky enough, I can’t tell you how many years ago, I was asked to be part of what they’re calling the Vermont Consent campaign.

I wasn’t one of the creators but I was an educator and I was asked to look over this curriculum that could be used. It’s literally called the Vermont Consent Campaign. And one of the pieces that I’ve used, I think, with my 5th and 6th graders,  but piggy-backing on a puberty lesson, once you’ve gone through the basics of hygiene and body growth development, and  kind of checked that box — I would always move into just healthy relationships. Friendships, parent relationships, ‘‘dating relationships’’. One of the definitions on the handout that I’ve given to my students for years now, is that their definition of consent means, quote:

“At the time of the act there are words and physical actions indicating that everyone freely agrees and really wants to do the same thing.”

Checking for consent is a process, that each person needs to keep doing. I’ll bring it back to the water bottle example. If you say no on Monday, I might on Tuesday say, Jeanie how about that water now, I’m still really thirsty! In which I’m going to assume Jeanie is going to say, Meg, it’s time for you to get a water bottle, do you want me to show you where I got mine?

And teaching the fact that, yes people can change their minds at any time. Let’s say you did say yes on Wednesday; it doesn’t mean on Thursday I get to take a swig of your water bottle without asking.

Jeanie: If I handed you my water bottle right now, Meg, (I don’t know where it is but) if I handed it to you and then as you were putting it to your lips I say, “Wait a minute! Didn’t you tell me you have a cold?” and I took it back…

Meg: Yes! Is that consensual? Of course it’s not. Because, as humans, whether you’re a one-year-old or a 112-year-old, you have the human right to change your mind at any time. And one of the things that the Vermont Consent Campaign does so beautifully is they basically lay out these five components, and they say that before you engage in any type of sexual activity, you have to have your partner’s consent.

The five pieces are:

Number one: Sexual consent can only be freely given — keyword *freely* given if there’s a sufficient balance of power in the relationship.

And that brings in the age of consent. We talk about that, we dissect the age of consent is 16, however, in the state of Vermont there is, I call it the high school clause (I could be making that up) but if both partners are between the ages of 15 and 18, they can legally consent any type of sexual activity.

The second piece is that both people–

and wherever I teach this I ask my students to envision a middle school relationship or even like a freshman relationship, okay?

Sexual consent can only be freely given if both people are aware of the consequences of sexual activity, both positive and negative, and they know what will happen next.

Meaning there’s been decisions around protection, there’s been decisions around birth control if someone has a uterus. There’s been a conversation about what type of touch is okay. Both people understand what it means for them to be in a relationship together. And gosh isn’t that really hard to think about a 14-year-old having these conversations!

And what is the difference between a 14-year-old and a 16-year-old mentally, emotionally–

Jeanie: Developmentally.

Meg: Developmentally, yes.

The third piece is: it’s safe to say no.

Consent can only be freely given if it’s safe to say no. If, in the back of anyone’s head there’s that little voice that creeps in and says: gah, but they’re going to post this, they’re going to post something on a group chat about my body or they’re going to tease me or they are going to put pressure on me, everyone is doing it, I told you I loved you — with ANY of those, it still has to be safe to say no.

Number 4: If you say yes, you can change your mind at any time.

You could be intimate. You could sexually be very, very intimate with a person and if your internal working, your gut feeling is that, this isn’t right it has to stop. And your partner has to honor that. Nobody wants to be with another human that doesn’t want them to be there! I’d like to think that. I want to have great faith in humanity.

Jeanie: I’m the mother of a son. And I’m a feminist. And I have spent a lot of time in my now 20 years of motherhood, thinking about the kind of son I want to raise and my values. We’ve talked also in the past, (he’s all grown now, he probably would be modified to hear me talk about this) but enthusiastic consent.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: The importance of enthusiastic consent. And one of the things that I’ve been thinking about — a friend drew this to my attention — is the Ted Talk about the gendered way in which we talk about sex with our children.

Meg: Sure.


Jeanie: There’s a tendency to talk to boys about sex in a way that it’s “Pf course, you’re going to want to do this, it’s going to be fun”. But then we talk to girls about it as if it’s not going to be fun.

And so I think that ignores both various kinds of masculinity and femininity, and also so the fact that girls already are given a message that its probably not going to be fun, or that you shouldn’t have fun. Or that you’re a slut if you have fun.

Meg: It’s going to hurt, you’re going to get pregnant, and you’re going to get chlamydia.

Jeanie: Right. That its dangerous for you and that it might not be fun — I think also muddies is the water for experiences of like, “Was I raped? I had never expected it to be fun…” That internal gut feeling that you’re talking about of like, this doesn’t feel right — I think we often give the girls a message that it’s not supposed to feel right.

Meg: Yes.

Jeanie: I think it’s a really important concept to think about, the nuanced ways in which we gender sexual experiences and talk about it differently. Not even “we”, but the media. The stories that are told, widespread about who gets to have fun, who doesn’t, I think muddy the waters for consent just like our lack of understanding, the bits and parts.

Meg: That’s it.

Jeanie: And the whole picture of sex ed.

Meg: To come to full circle of this role of alcohol.

Jeanie:Yes please.

Meg: Talk about muddying the water! And in fact that fifth piece? The 5th component that the Vermont Consent Campaign identifies is:

The only way sexual consent can be freely given is if both parties — all parties — are not under the influence of anything.

If someone is drunk, if someone is high, if someone has popped some pills? That prefrontal cortext of decision-making, it’s not kicked in, right? In particular with alcohol. And so with Melinda chugging down those three beers of which she admitted to hating the taste, but she knew I’m sure, right after that first one went down, she felt the effect of “Wow, this is a little freeing, I feel kind of good!”

Jeanie: Less awkward.

Meg: “I’m not awkward in my skin!” There’s a question for the high school component of the Youth Risk Behavior survey that asks students what percentage of them had been under the influence of alcohol or drugs during their last sexual experience and I’m going to have to go on and get the exact number, but it’s there.

Jeanie: It’s staggering!

Meg: I wouldn’t say staggering,  but it’s a really good place to jumpstart a conversation with students. One of my students said to me years ago, the words “liquid courage”.

And I said tell me more about that without using personal stories.

And he said, “Well, I think we are all just really awkward, Meg, and I think that anything that we can do to just kind of loosen up, and also” —  this is pretty poignant — “anything that we can do to help support the bad decisions that we make later in the night, we’ll take it.”

So this crazy concept of hookup culture and of this one night thing of: “I’m going to get wasted and I’m going to hook up with that rando who is in my Chem Lab, but I’m going to go to that crutch of alcohol and say I was so wasted, when the gossip mill starts. ‘Did you hook up with…?’ I don’t even remember, I was so wasted!”

It’s what some of these students are turning to as an excuse. For Melinda, I think she was using that liquid as a way to just feel “normal” or like, okay for a minute.

Jeanie: Like she fit in.

Meg: Like she fit in. I think the bigger conversation we have to have with our youths is alcohol! And the American culture and what is has done and how it’s just like bread and butter. You go to a party, you eat food and you drink, any adult party, take the ad lessons out of the picture, look at our adult culture and think about how hard it is. I don’t know if you have ever experienced this but how incredibly challenging it is, even as a level-headed adult to say the words “no thank you” even after someone has offered you a glass of wine at a dinner party.

“Oh you’re not drinking? Oh what’s wrong, are you pregnant?”

Like, I’m well adjusted, I’m a health teacher. No thanks, I’m not interested and I’m practicing inter-personal communication, I’m practicing setting boundaries. But what if I was 14-year-old Melinda? Would it be as easy? Of course it wouldn’t! But we don’t accept no; as a culture we hate being turned down.

Jeanie: I think this leads to our next question related to the book. There’s expectations of who we are — I was a nerdy high school kid who didn’t drink in high school and so I had to live with labels like “prude” (and I imagine that probablyisn’tthe word kids use nowadays.)

Meg: Oh they use that word.

Jeanie: You get labeled when you say no thank you.

Meg: Exactly.

Jeanie: And probably as an adult too: “killjoy”.

Meg: Killjoy, buzz kill.

Jeanie: Now, we talked about Andy Evans, our rapist in the book, he projects one kind of masculinity sort of a dominant kind, the kind we think a lot about.

Meg: Certainly.

Jeanie: But David Patracas offers this much different version of masculinity, and it’s quite this contrast. I know that you run a group for boys to talk about masculinity, and I just wanted to invite you to talk more about that. Because I want us to really think about both masculinity and femininity as a continuum and not even as mutually exclusive but as many ways you can be in the world. So I want to invite your expertise.

Meg: Yes! It’s in its first year, this group is called Nuts and Bolts ( I’m going to give a shoutout to my loving partner and husband for coming up with that creative name!) It originally came from Teen Health Week. And on Sexual Health Day — Teen Health Week is five days long, each day dedicated to different realm of health — one of my colleagues said Hi Meg,  why don’t we offer spaces like just-for-gals, just-for-guys and I think we had “non-binary-pals”. Just to ensure that we are  honor space with an adult where you can just talk about freely what’s going on in the world of being a girl, or in the case of Nuts and Bolts, being a boy and what masculinity means.

It was an incredible response. We had about 25 or 30 boys sign up for the offering.

So, total Peggy Orenstein fangirl. And through reading a lot of Peggy’s work through this Health Week I started to think: we are losing the boys. I’m losing the boys, we need to get the boys. And we need to make a space that we can talk about it all. This group meets twice a month, it’s the first and third Friday of the month, it’s a 45 minutes band of time, I went into it with great detail and I reached out to some of my amazing twitter folks that are out in Chicago and California that are doing the same very work just to not to reinvent the wheel her, but when the rubber actually met the road and I started advertising it to say, hey it’s a callback with Meg. Meg, our female-identified health teacher is going to run a masculinity group!

I reached out to my male teaching partner and reached out to some of my male colleagues. I and said, hi! Wouldn’t it be wonderful if I can facilitate a group — and I will ultimately be the fly on the wall — but  a group of young men can create a Q&A session with males in the building to talk about what it’s like to be a man. And to talk about women and what masculinity means to them.

Jeanie: I love this so much. How is it going?

Meg: It’s fluid, like one week I could have eight kids and the next week I could have 20. It’s always this open invitation to say, it works in your schedule, with your call back schedule come in, if you’re not feeling the vibe within the first five minutes then you’re always free to leave.I t’s just that kind of: you’re in control of whether or not you want to be here or not.

And one of the first times we got two really amazing colleagues here at U-32: JB Hilferty and Nick Holquist  JB teaches middle school and social studies and Nick is an English teacher at the high school level, and they created these questions.

I’ll give you a couple of examples.

I prepped them to say:

“If you had free reign and were able to ask a group of U-32 teachers, coaches, and staff members anything about masculinity and about being a man, what would you ask them?”

I created this Google Doc, and I sent it to the boys. I wouldn’t say that they *all* wrote back, (they certainly didn’t) but it was really interesting to see what types of boys took the lead. And we had questions like:

  • What were some of the stereotypes that you grew up with about being a man?
  • How has life changed, from being an elementary school boy to a high school young man?

And in this case both of our first interviewees, JB and Nick, talked about being a dad. They talked about getting married and how things changed and shifted for them as they started to put on different hats.

It was so powerful to just watch the boys. They were so engaged, you could hear a pin drop. But the fact thatit’s such a wide range of boys, you’ve got boys that are acting, you have boys that are doing hip-hop classes, you have boys that are playing football, you have boys that identify as gay.

Jeanie: This is bringing me such joy.

Meg: It’s really awesome! It’s really awesome. Let’s take a space to talk about what healthy masculinity can look like.

Jeanie: Yes, you are a wealth of expertise and resources and I know you’ve got a ton of listeners that Meg has provide this huge list of things were going to put in the transcript, so you can follow up and think about how this impacts your work with students, whether you are a health educator or not or whether it’s about your relationship with your own children.

Meg: Absolutely.

Jeanie: One last questionI want to ask you before we touch on Shout, which we haven’t discussed at all yet.

Meg: Sure.

Jeanie: How would you use Speak, either the graphic novel or the regular novel, in the classroom?  How might you use it?

Meg: The beauty of it is that it is used in our 9th grade English classes. Students have a choice. And the way that I was involved in this is that the English teachers invited me in. It was one of the first times I had worked collaboratively, kind outside of my health silo, if you will. We didn’t really dig into the book a lot. They asked me to come in and really unpack consent. Because at least in this school, most high school students are in their sophomore year when they take health, sophomore or junior year, and so having the opportunity to go in and talk to a group of freshman about Melinda’s story and Melinda’s rape and the lack there, of consent. And like I had said the life components that we must have and the age of consent — it was just really powerful.

Jeanie: Yes.

Meg: And I think it’s really great for our students to see that there’s so much overlap with so many of our subjects, like I’m in my English class and I’m reading this book , that’s Meg, she’s the health teacher. And I brought it up separately in myown high school class, when we go through the basics of healthy relationships and covering consent: how many of you in 9th grade in your humanity class read Speak? It’s the majority of our students, even if they’ve taken their own time to read it now with the graphic novel, which is so incredible.

Jeanie: I love the graphic novel and I was reluctant because I love the original. Back when I read it it was new. And when I read the graphic novel I was shocked at how it hit me with the same force and power, even though I knew the story.

I think one of the reasons I want to pull in Shout, which we haven’t talked about yet, which is Laurie Halse Anderson’s memoir, written in verse (a book I just adored with all my heart) is that it just came out. What’s important is that Laurie Halse Anderson wrote Speak without ever talking about herself. It took her 20 years to come out and say, actually that book was about my personal lived experience.

It’s a testament to the shame we carry when we are survivors of sexual assault. The way that it’s not always but for many people hard to talk about. We grapple with it for years and years and years.

When the time was right, Laurie was ready to share this and to share her own personal experience through verse. And I think that’s really powerful for kids to see somebody come out the other side and be willing to talk about it, to speak up, to shout about it from this platform.

But also there’s a lot in here about healing. What it looks like to heal from sexual assault. Because Speak is really about the pain of sexual assault.

And in Shout, we really get to see Laurie Halse Anderson share how she got through it in the long run. And I thought I just share one poem from this just gorgeous book, this one is on page 24 and its called “chum”.  I think it’s related to many of the conversations we’ve had.

Speak Laurie Halse Anderson

This really resonated for me.

I think Laurie Halse Anderson and I are not the same age, but I am closer to her age than probably you are. And sort of the culture that I grew up with was: boys will be boys. When I was in middle school I lived really rurally, and I felt very afraid of the young men in my community, in my rural community.

And I went from a free, whirlwind girl who went out on her bike or hiking in the woods with such great freedom in my body to being a little bit afraid and avoiding things that I used to do, because I might run into the neighborhood boys who might ridicule me, who might make me feel threatened. I don’t know if there are pockets of that culture that still exist, but that poem brought back all of those feelings, all of those emotions — those remembrances of staying in the shallow end — back for me and in such a real way. And if I were to use this in the classroom I would be tempted if not to read all of Shout with students, then to at least isolate some poems to compliment speak.

Meg: You’re inspiring me and I will.

Jeanie: You’re inspiring me! We’re having a little mutual appreciation party going on here, and we’re running out of time. I could talk to you for days.

Meg: I agree.

Jeanie: I wish I could! You all should see Meg’s classroom, with the most tremendous ,wonderful picture of Lizzo.


Is there anything else you’d like to share with us, Meg, before we wrap up?

Meg: I just want to thank you. This has been one experience! Thanks for doing this work, thank for finding me on twitter, thanks for the twitterverse.

Jeanie: You’re hard to miss on twitter! Thank you for all you’re doing with students, for all the ways you’re making me think, and for all the resources you’ve shared. It’s been such a delight, I’m so excited about this episode! Thank you Meg!

Meg: It’s been my pleasure, thank you.

#vted Reads: Guts, with Lindsey Halman

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and welcome back to #vted Reads, the podcast for, by and with Vermont educators.

And I? Am still here.  As are you.

Now, we recorded this episode with our lovely friend Lindsey Halman back in February 2020, a time that at this point feels almost like a long-ago Camelot, or perhaps as the late great Hunter S. Thompson put it, “that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.” It’s the end of March — same year! — and so much about what we do, and how, and where, has changed.

But not the why.

In this episode, we talk about a book called Guts by Raina Telgemeier, and a lot of what we discuss centers around what the main character learns about herself and her body’s reactions to anxiety.

So first and foremost: if you’re not in a space for that right now, I *completely* understand. Put it down. Go meditate. Bake cookies. Take a walk with a child in nature. Listen to 99% Invisible instead.

But for everyone who’s sticking around (and those of you who eventually make it back from the nature walk), thank you. Thank you for being around, and thank you for staying around. It’s okay to feel whatever you’re feeling right now.  It’s okay to be overwhelmed, it’s okay to be anxious. But if nothing else, this period in our history has shown us that when the going gets tough, #vted gets tougher. (Y’all commandeered *the buses* for delivering food! The buses!)

Anyway, the work has always been hard, and now it’s just hard in new ways. Ways we’ll find our way around together.

Now: let’s chat.

Jeanie Phillips:  I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators.  Today, I’m with Lindsey Halman and we’ll be talking about Guts by Raina Telgemeier.  Thanks for joining me, Lindsey. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Lindsey Halman:  Sure. Thanks, Jeanie, for having me.  I was a middle level educator for 15 years and my heart is always with young adolescents  Those were my people. And I currently am the executive director of Unleashing the Power of Partnership for Learning –also known as Up for Learning.  So I have the privilege of working with schools across Vermont.

Jeanie:  Excellent.  Well, I’m so excited to have you on the podcast.  And you brought this book to my attention: Guts. Although, as school librarian who’s worked K-6 and 7-12, I have to say Raina Telgemeier has been a big hit with my previous students for many years.  And her books were always hard to keep on the shelves. Always books I had to have multiple copies of.  But I’m really excited to talk about this one. Like Smile and some of her other books it’s a memoir, told in comic or graphic form.  And I wondered if you introduce us to the Raina in this specific book.

Lindsey:  Sure.  So, I should also I mention that I’m a parent. That’s probably the most important piece! Parent of a nine year old.  o, this book really resonated with me and my daughter as we read it together. So, I just wanted put that piece in there. And so Raina, the author and Raina, the character, we see her between 4th and 5th grade in the story. So, she is nine. And she describes herself as nervous, self-conscious, shy and quiet. Except when she’s with her close friends, Jane and Nicole. And I would say that that’s maybe what people when she’s in school are those qualities of just maybe being shy and quiet. But she has so much more to her.  She’s a Girl Scout.  She’s an artist.  She loves to draw, create comics.

She’s an older sibling; she has two younger siblings. She lives in an apartment with a family of five. And her family feels very well connected and supportive of one another, both in the sense of they live in a tight space and so they’re sharing and in close quarters. But also they are sharing and in close quarters as in their relationships. So, they have very supportive relationships with one another.

Jeanie:  Yeah. I love that you bring out that she may appear one way in school. But then in her family and in her friendships outside of school she shows up in a different way.

Lindsey:  Yeah. She even says like, in the book on page 11, she says like: “I was a nervous kid, self-conscious, shy, quiet. Most of the time.”  And I think a lot of young adolescents, including myself when I was that age, could really connect with that, because you have your people. And her people are Jane and Nicole. And at lunch time, at recess, when they’re laughing and sharing food and reading comics together, that’s where she kind of can take off that armor and be her true self. That’s when knows that her people love her for who she is.

Jeanie: Yeah. Yesterday morning I read this piece from The Atlantic about the importance of middle school friendships. Why they matter. And that really makes me think of that article and the way middle school friendships impact our resilience and our capacity to learn. And the way our brain functions, especially for young adolescents.

Lindsey: Absolutely. I mean, I think it’s, both you get the feedback from your friends: you can try out who you are and who you want to be, and get that feedback. Just both forming your identity and getting the feedback. But also then, you know, having those close connections where you feel like there is an outlet for those thoughts and feelings. Thoughts and feelings you can’t share with any other outlet. And I remember that as a young adolescent, and I now can see it as a parent. Just the different ways that we show up both in our different parts of our lives and where our true authentic self comes out.

Jeanie: Well, speaking of authenticity, this is just such a middle school book. It’s set in middle school — early middle school really, but there’s all these changes and transitions and gross-out jokes and friend drama. And I wondered if to you, as a middle school teacher, somebody who’s been a long time in middle school, if it feels authentic to you?

Lindsey:  Yeah.  It definitely did.  So, number one it felt super authentic to me. In the book on page eight, she says: “Fourth grade was pretty much one long gross-out contest.” And I just remember that experience. And I can reflect on what my daughter is experiencing now.  But I also can reflect on what they’re looking at.  Like, there’s a group of kids  in the cafeteria looking at, it looks like Garbage Pail Kids. And so I feel like maybe Raina and I might be around the same age! And so I can kind of relate to some of the things that she incorporated here too.

So absolutely. Like, I’ve fourth through eight grade in my career as an educator and I think she really captured it in many ways. They’re on the cusp of puberty and they’re just kind of figuring out, like, “Is it still cool to do this?”

And there’s also that sense of like wanting to be friends with somebody but not knowing how to do that.

I think we see that sometimes with Michelle, who sometimes says things that can rub Raina the wrong way and make her feel like maybe Michelle doesn’t care for her.  But in all reality it seems like at the end it’s really trying to figure out who are your people and how do you connect with each other and how do get people’s attention and–

Jeanie:  Michelle is a classmate.

Lindsey:  Michelle is a classmate. Yes We find out at the end that Michelle is also dealing with her own physical ailment as well. And that’s been hard for her and no one knows that. We learn that we all have our stories. We find out that Michelle’s in the hospital because she had surgery on her intestines.

You learn that everyone has their thing. Their story.  People are all dealing with stuff. And we don’t always see it on the outside.

So, for Raina, this idea that she’s dealing with anxiety. It’s a real issue. And right at the time where she’s at, that’s where we start to see anxiety in our youth as well, coming to the surface.  It’s right on the, you know, cusp of puberty where anxiety often really starts to show itself.

It starts to feel like: “What’s happening me? Because I was fine before when did all these things.  And now, I have a hard time going to school because I’m worried I’m going to get sick” Or because I’m worried about standing in front of my peers and sharing information or a number of things. So the worries can start to consume young people. Just like for Michelle, it was physical ailment.  And it was consuming her in a different way.

Jeanie: So, one of the things that came up really for me in reading this book is not only is anxiety emerging for some young people, right?  And they’re dealing with that? They’re also just trying to identify it in the first place. It shows up in all of these different ways. And I think it’s so much harder to struggle with something that you don’t know what it is or you think it’s just figment of your imagination. Part of the process of maybe becoming less anxious is just naming it in the first place.

And so I wondered… I guess what that makes me think about is: how do we show up for young people when we are not sure what they are dealing with, they’re not sure what they are dealing with, anxiety looks like all these different things, it’s not really our job to diagnose them–  And so, I guess I am just asking what’s the best way for us as adults to show up in classrooms with the potential of having anxious students?

Lindsey:  Yes, I think that’s a great question. Statistically I think it’s one out of five young people have an anxiety disorder. We *all* have anxiety, it’s part of the primitive part of our brain. Worries are important to have because it helps us remove ourselves from dangerous situations, in our primitive brain. But it’s when the worries start to take over and impact our daily life, that it becomes a greater concern.

And just like you said Jeanie, it can manifest in so many different ways. I think what ends up happening is that, as adults, sometimes we are quick to jump to labels like, oh that’s a tension issues or that’s you know, resistance to work or that’s this or that’s that …and that’s not really okay.

Because as we see with Raina, it can look like so many things. It can look like avoidance. It can look like feeling sick.  But it sure can manifest in a physical way.

It can also get in the way of relationships which I think we see that with Raina in her friendships, because it’s starting to consume her. So I think we need to be really careful as adults in recognizing that:

  1. there is a lot of young people in our classroom that are experiencing this and,
  2. that it’s going to look different for every individual.

Someone in my life once told me when someone has for instance diabetes, we know that they need to take care of themselves in a certain way.

The same thing for anxiety. If you have anxiety, a major part of your life is impacted by this particular, I don’t know if we call it illness or…

Jeanie:  Condition.

Lindsey:  Condition, right. And just like diabetes, you treat yourself in a certain way. You take care of yourself. We need to recognize there are ways we can get a handle on our anxiety, and support all of our students in that.

There is one thing when she begins therapy with her therapist Lauren and I really loved that relationship, because Lauren teaches her just basically her key mantra to her is: try.  Because Raina says, there are all these thoughts in my heads and that manifest in all these feelings in my body. But sometimes articulating what it is that’s causing those thoughts and feelings is really hard. And Lauren coaches her in just this idea of try.

The other thing that I loved and this really connected me to a colleague and friend Anya Schaunessy, who does a lot of work with schools throughout Vermont. And thinking about a whole-school restorative approach. And mindfulness.  She has her own poster, her own mantra — two feet one breath. If we can just, when we start to feel those feelings or think those thoughts, put our two feet on the ground and take a deep breath. You can feel a complete change in your body.

And that’s reflected in what Lauren shares with Raina as well. She just says put your two feet on the ground and take a deep breath. And Raina ends up sharing that with her classmate as a strategy at the end of the book as well.

Jeanie: This makes me think so much about how trauma-informed practice is good practice for every student…

Lindsey:  Absolutely.

Jeanie: It feels like a mindfulness practice in the classroom. It’s good for every student even if we are doing it in a way to help our anxious students, our anxious learners.

I also was really interested in the relationship Raina has with her therapist, which is one of the ways that she is taking care of herself.

#vted Reads Guts

Jeanie: I am going to turn to pages 112 and 113 because there is a lot going on here. Jane says to Raina, how come you are late for school so much?  And Raina to her close friends says, she thinks in her head because I go to therapist. And then she also imagines that Jane might say, why?  Is something wrong with you?  Are you crazy?

So, instead of having that because of that fear she says, I can’t tell you. Which puts a barrier in their friendship. But also that word, “crazy” gets thrown around a lot usually in ways that are insensitive or offensive to people with mental illnesses.

And so there is a lot going in here, her fear of telling somebody that she is seeing a therapist.  This word that sort of is unkind and it’s used maybe and then also just like the stigma attached to being in therapy.  And I wondered if we could just talk about that?

Lindsey:  Yeah, I would love to. Well the first piece that comes to mind is that, here is her closest friend, her BFF, you know. The person that knows her better than anyone you know, of all of her peers and she can’t tell her this thing. It makes me think of like, okay if you broke your leg and you had to go to physical therapy? Or if you had, I don’t know physical illness, you needed to go to your pediatrician or your doctor, and someone asked you where you were? You would not hesitate to tell them.

So, it’s frustrating to me as both just a human and as an educator that there is such a stigma with therapy. And that this is most important organ in our body — our brains, right? And then there is so much going on and it impacts everything we do, and that we can’t just be opened about the idea that therapy is really important. Just like if I broke my leg and needed to learn how to use my leg in the proper way again so I could be as mobile as possible?

Therapy is essential for those that experience anxiety disorder.

And so, the idea of this word crazy also really doesn’t settle with me either Jeanie.  Because what does that even mean? You know? And when we say people are crazy we have these pictures that come to mind that aren’t even accurate.

Jeanie:  Okay.  One of the things that I wonder about as a lover of books, as an avid reader is Raina is telling her memoir? And kind of imagine that that was the thought that she had, in that time, in that place, at that age. I’m not really criticizing her use of the word on the page necessarily; that might be her authentic experience.

But I’m also wondering about how we might talk to kids about why we might not want to use that word or how we might even talk towards those about why we may not want to use that word.  And I think about, oh, the fabulous Rebecca Haslin talking about how a friend called her out — called her in — for using that word.  She said, do you realize how often you use that word?  And I have been noticing my own vocabulary.

Lindsey:  Me too.

Jeanie:  I use “guys” a lot and I am trying to stop that.   And I have just tried to be more aware of the language I use and the impacted it might have regardless of my intent.

Lindsey:  Yeah, absolutely. I agree with everything you just said. And I agree that also Raina probably, that’s the way she felt at the time. Like, I don’t think there is anything wrong with her putting this in her story at all.  I don’t think it’s really important, to like have that there because that is the stigma that’s attached. And then you worry that that’s how people are labeled. Like, why are we giving folks labels that are not even accurate?  And so, I think that it helps at the end: the girls at the sleepover party are sharing some really personal information.  And it’s time for Raina to share and she puts it out there.

That feeling of like, okay, I can let, take off the mask and truly be authentic and real and show up. And she tells them that she goes to a therapist. And they are like, oh my parents go to a therapist. Oh, my brother goes to a therapist. And what happens in that scenario is it normalizes therapy, you know, the idea of going to a therapist. Which for those that experience anxiety really supports them in understanding that that is a normal feeling, that it’s okay.

And then, that’s one last thing that you have to worry about is being, once you start talking about it and being real with people, you start to realize that it allows other folks to be real, too. Like you. And I think with students we need to be having these conversations. We talk about all different other, you know, impacts on us as far as our health and well-being, but we keep for some reason, anxiety and depression as very taboo topics still in our society.  And I just wonder how we can make them more accessible and just part of our natural vocabulary. Because if one in five student in our classrooms are showing up with an anxiety disorder? That’s a lot of folks in our classroom that might be having similar experiences to Raina did.

Jeanie:  It makes me think about how shame thrives in the dark.  Right?  And talking about it brings it out to the light. And so, Raina has been carrying this shame that really – it’s a burden she need not have carried.

Lindsey:  Right, there’s other burdens that she’s carrying.  We all carry burden but shame is definitely not one of them. And once, I think that it feels like from the pages what I can feel for Raina is that once she was able to really share her story with her peers?  It probably offers some light to her.  You know, that lightness both in her body and in her way that she can walk through the world.

Jeanie:  I think it’s really obvious to me now that it’s important for this book to exist in the world.  And so, I think it was important for Raina Telgemeier to share her experience.  But I also think it’s just important for those kids – those one in five that you keep mentioning to see themselves in this book. And I wondered if you wanted to talk about that?

Lindsey:  Yeah, I really think we need more stories like this. And that is the beauty I think in many ways of Raina Telgemeier’s work is that, I just remember like you said, the books in the library because they were always on the table in my classrooms.  I just remember all the copies of Smile and Sisters and now Guts.  They’re always being carried around like these are essential text for young people because (a), they are accessible and (b), they really resonate in the sense that, hey I have had those feelings too.

And there’s like some takeaways as well! Like, okay so Raina worked through it in this way. Here’s some strategies, maybe these will work for me. And that, seeing yourself reflected on the pages, which I think is just the beauty of all books is like, it just gives you that connection that there’s other’s that are experiencing similar things. That you are not alone. That there is others that have these thoughts, feelings, experiences and it’s a way to share that.

So I feel really grateful to Raina Telgemeier for sharing her story.  It’s not an easy story to share, as we know, when you are sharing your personal experiences. I think that this book could potentially become a really important one for young adolescents in the sense that it allows them to have open conversations about anxiety.  And other mental disorders or illnesses that impact themselves and their peers.

Jeanie:  Yeah.  I think we both are unanimous in our agreement about that. Now, there is another book that Raina Telgemeier has written more recently that maybe *isn’t* the story she should have told.  And that’s this book, Ghost. It has encountered some really critical feedback.  And it concerns me because I suspect it’s on the shelves in our Vermont schools because once you have an author like Raina Telgemeier, you buy every book.

So, I want to talk a little bit about Ghost. And why we might want to think about its place in our collections, and how we might to students about it. You’ve read Ghost recently?

Lindsey:  I have, yes.  And when we had talked about this conversation around Guts, we had both agreed that there is, you know, that that was something that would be really important to center in this conversation as well.  When I went back to do some further research preparing for today, I stumbled upon a PSA that group of students, I think they were fifth and sixth grader, created at their school on Ghost and the idea of cultural appropriation.

Jeanie:  Before we talk about their PSA, could we just give a little over view of Ghost.  I think it’s about two sisters who move to the coast of California. And their neighbor. Do you want to pick this up?

Lindsey:  Yeah.  One of the sisters has cystic fibrosis.  And so, the climate where they move is much more – is a much healthier climate for her to be in as far as her ability to move throughout her life.

Jeanie: So, the two sisters’ move to the coast of California and their neighbor Carlos become a friend and they start exploring with him. Then he takes them to a nearby Spanish mission. And that’s where the story really starts to go array *despite* Telgemeier’s best intentions.

Lindsey: Yes. So, I think what ends up happening young people like to explore kind of the spooky side of things and the mysterious part of life. But what ends up happening is that there’s a lot of exploration around Dia de los Muertos and the interpretation of what that is becomes very much like the American Halloween — which it really is *not*. And there was a lot of feedback to Raina and her book around the fact that it was really not representing both the holiday itself and how it’s celebrated and/or experience.

Jeanie:  One of the things that interested me — and Debbie Reese, in particular, has a really wonderful post about it — is that mission are colonial institutions that were designed to do a very specific things. They were designed to “convert” Native people, right? And there’s a lot of pain and there was a lot of violence done in missions.

But Telgemeier presents the mission as this happy place and this Ghost as happy place. And Debbie Reese really asks the question: “…Really?” To sort of… sanitize, the mission on the page? Is also problematic.

Lindsey:  Yes. The idea of forcing assimilation to the dominant culture is really problematic too. So, we lose an entire narrative of an entire group of people —  many different groups of people — who are impacted. And I think from what I did afterward was go to Raina Telgemeier’s site just to see like what did she have as an author’s a response? Because when you’re an author, you’re putting your thoughts and feeling out in to the world. And there’s going to be critique in many different ways.

Telgemeier recognized that this was all huge learning opportunity for her. That she had her story: she grew up in San Francisco and experienced things in her dominant culture that lens.  Yet she recognized that this was a big mistake. And that she learn a lot a from the experience. So, I appreciated reading Raina’s letter.

Jeanie:  So, I think that’s really interesting! Right now as we’re talking, there’s all this saga about the novel American Dirt, which is a Mexican immigration story, migrant story written by a white woman.  And I’ve been following that because I’m really interested in #ownvoices stories, story written by the people who share identities with the people they’re writing about, right?

And so, one of the things that’s made me really think about is well — several things. One is that how easy it is as a white person, as a person that’s a part of the dominant culture to not notice that dominance of your own culture. It’s like the water we swim in: fish don’t recognize the water they are in, right?

Lindsey:  Right.

Jeanie: And so it’s hard for us to name it.  And I think that’s a trap that is really easy to fall in to when you’re part of the dominant culture.

Lindsey:  Yes.

Jeanie: So thinking about American Dirt has made me think about being an educator. Myself as an educator. And it has made me a little bit uncomfortable because I think about how often I was in front of group of students and I was interpreting their behavior and their words through *my* lens without ever actually questioning my own accuracy. I do tell stories in my brain about what’s going on for my learners.

And it has made me really like think about: how do I challenge myself on those stories? Who do I need to talk to see those students more clearly?  So… I don’t know. Those are very much thoughts in progress that I’m still grabbling with and wrestling with.  But these books where authors tell stories that maybe aren’t their own or include elements of stories that maybe aren’t their own or that they can’t fully understand as white people have me thinking about my own whiteness and how it shows up in spaces.

Lindsey:  Yeah. Absolutely.  And so, a number of things like just the going back to Guts, how you know, the story that we might tell ourselves as educators about how the student showing up when they’re experiencing anxiety and we’re calling it that they don’t care about learning or — we put this labels on them.

Jeanie:  They are hypochondriac or…

Lindsey:  ADHD or ADD.  We throw around a lot of labels a lot and we don’t know.  So, how do we get to know? That’s, I think, a really important piece to also being a white woman: what are the ways in which I can truly understand the learners in front of me? The folks which I spend my day with, if I’m in classroom. That’s the thing: we need to be taking time to share stories. To truly understand, to sit down and have time to connect. It comes back to that relationship.

If you’re not – if you don’t really have those deep conversations with your learners and the youth that you’re working with, to truly get to know who they are and you know what is their experience, what does that mean for them and really having opportunities for everyone to hear from each other? Then we end up creating these stories in our head and interpreting them in our own way. And so, whereas Raina had this experience growing up in San Francisco, and maybe you know, this was her experience. Well, she just erased an entire experience for many, many people. And I think we need to be cautious as educators, as white educators to not erase those experiences in our classroom every day.

Jeanie:  And I need people to help me do that.  Like, I need folks to challenge my assumptions. And in many ways I think, probably the author of American Dirt and maybe even Raina Telgemeier had editors, had people, to look at their work and help them think about it but maybe they weren’t the right people.

Lindsey:  Yeah, I agree. I feel like when I first started teaching this idea of cultural appropriation? I didn’t know what that really meant. I feel so lucky that we now have folks like Debbie Reese and many other scholars and thinkers that in a movement this idea of the movement of our own voices? I just wish when I was growing up that that was present.

You know, so, I think about that when I read books with my daughter.  And we can talk about that.  So, in many ways, even reading Ghost, like do i think Ghost should be removed from my library?  I don’t think so.

That PSA that I saw from these fifth and six graders? They made a whole PSA on cultural preparation and how it shows up in Ghost.

In their library, they put up signage around the books so that people understand that this book: you might really enjoy it, it might resonate with you in some ways, *and* it’s really important that you now investigate it through this angle, too.  I think that is a deeper learning opportunity. That when we can say I read this book *and* I know that it shows sign of cultural preparation.  I want to learn now more about *this* story too.

So what’s the story that’s being told? What’s the story that’s not being told? I really think that’s reading in a really different way, a really critical way of reading books. It elevates just the deeper levels of thinking that we can do with our youth when we’re reading texts. And I don’t think it is necessarily to say we need to remove all these books.  But we need to now look at these books critically.  Who’s showing up, who’s not?  And then what is this idea of cultural appropriation?

Jeanie:  So, I think that’s a tremendous opportunity to really think deeply about literature and about storytelling.  And I know that there are some folks doing some really interesting work around that.  Christy Nold is doing great work in her classroom and around whose stories are we telling, and whose are we not. Marley Evans is doing amazing work around that.  I’m sure there’s so many of you out there in Vermont schools doing that work and we appreciate that.

Lindsey:  Absolutely.

Jeanie:  I’m going to tell a story from my own experience. About another Raina Telgemeier book: Drama. Drama has been around…  Let me just look at the publication date on this book. Copyright 2012. About the time that I move from a K-6 school l to a 7-12 school this book was out.  And it came out after Smile. Smile was a big hit, actually.  And in the district where I work this book was on the shelf at the local K-6, as it should be.

Drama is a delightful story.

And in it, listeners, two boys smooch.

Kids love this book and I think it’s an important part. An important growing part of collections that represent gay and queer folks across age ranges. From picture books up through young adult novels.  But what happened, and I was no longer at the school, but what happened was a parent complained about Drama.  And the book got removed from the shelf, from the library.

Lindsey: Oh.

Jeanie: And the librarian there and I went wrote a letter saying waaaaaait a minute, this book belongs on the shelf. It belongs on the shelf because we have gay students or students with gay family members, gay friends. They deserve to see their realities on the shelf just like every kid does.  Every kid needs this book in the library.  And the decision was to pull the book.

This is the part I really want to share.

One of my gratitudes of Raina Telgemeier is that, the superintendent made that call without following our library policy.  Librarians, you know you have these policies about the selection of books, right? And those policies should — and I hope do — include what happens when a book is challenged. Because one family complained? Is not enough to pull a book off the shelf.

And so we took that policy to the superintendent in a meeting and said look the policy says this. The policy says that a parent or member of the community has to make a written complaint about the book and explain why.

Then you have to form a committee. The committee has to read the book, right.  Like you don’t get to make to not read the book and decide it doesn’t belong on the library shelf. The committee has to read the book and they have to decide.

And so the superintendent did agree, thank you very much.

The book went back on the shelf and the family got to agree make a written complaint. Well they didn’t.  And so I think they didn’t make a written complaint and so the book just stayed on the shelf.

And I think it’s up to us, librarians, educators to stand up when something gets pulled because two boys smooch.

Lindsey:   Oh my goodness. The idea of censorship you know in a library and just the fact that one person had a complain. I’m sure if we all went into a library there be one book that maybe it doesn’t resonate with us or doesn’t align with our values? Or more!  And at the same time it’s a really important book.

There’s so many important books. How can we censor what’s in a library? And we know that Raina Telgemeier resonate with so many young adolescents and young people.  For me as an educator, I had young people that struggled with reading, yet they found themselves in Raina Telgemeier’s books Smile, Drama, Sisters.  And those were their books, their go-to books.  And just to see the fact that a book would be removed because one it doesn’t align maybe to one person’s values?

I’m really happy to hear there is good policy.

And I wonder also if when that group of people come together to read the book to decide whether yes it should be indeed in our library or not?  If that group involves youth.  And whose making those decisions about what shows up in libraries and what doesn’t show up in libraries?  And I think that’s where we then find educator having classroom libraries that are reflective of their students and beyond, in offering diverse stories.

Jeanie:  So that rings true to me.  I agree that young people belong on those committees.  I don’t think they need very often because I think once people feel like they have to put something in writing, they reconsider.

Lindsey:  Totally.

Jeanie:  But it does also make me think about gatekeepers, right. Like, the gatekeepers is the people that keep books off the shelf and the people who condone books to be put on the shelf. Most school librarians, most librarians, read reviews to determine which books to add to their collection. And I wonder what reviewer said about Ghost and the importance of Debbie Reese’s voice in providing a counter review, right? And then I also think about there have been some studies done that some reviewers will label certain books as controversial.

In a way that keeps those books of the shelf of keeps librarians who may be don’t want to put themselves out there in that way from purchasing those books or keeps teachers from reading them as class reads. A lot of times those are books that are about the experiences of LGBTQ characters. And I just I guess again asking us to bring that critical lens to what we think is controversial and how our own assumptions and biases are embedded in that.

Lindsey:  Absolutely.  Yes I think I am so, I feel really grateful when I was in the classroom to have had a [school] library that really offered so many different stories and perspectives for young people. And when it didn’t, I made sure that those books were in my classroom library.  And I feel really grateful to have a town library — I live in Jericho [VT].  And Jericho Town Library? Just a shout out to Lisa at Jericho Town Library.

Jeanie:  Lisa Buckton, you rock.

Lindsey:  Amazing and she has just, she gets it.  Like she is one that you know we can go in there at any point.  And my daughter can just find a book that just and so many new books that resonate. And also shares so many stories that might not actually represent the culture of Jericho. Big surprise! And offer a lot of those windows into the stories of others as well as those mirrors, you know. Where we can find ourselves in the pages as well.

Jeanie:  Shout out to Rudine Sims Bishop for giving us the language of Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Doors. We appreciate the way you help us think about literature in that way. And a shout out to librarians, for all that you do to provide diverse books and stories and experiences for our young people.  And to help them become critical readers of those stories and develop that capacity to really look at stories both fiction and non-fiction with a lens towards whose story is being told and whose story is missing.  And what does that tell us about power.

Lindsey:  Yes and I would just also added for educators just to when exploring literature in our classroom.  Just to always ask that question whose story is being told and whose story is *not* being told.  And I think there in itself offers so many different opportunities for folks to show up and be authentic and share their own experiences. And be critical thinkers  I mean, I think we really are pushing our learners to think differently about literature.  And I felt just really grateful for that.

Jeanie:  And ourselves.

Lindsey:  Yes.

Jeanie:  Lindsey, that’s an excellent way to end, thank you so much for being my guest and waiting into this very messy conversation about Raina Telgemeier’s books.

Lindsey:  Yes, thank you Jeanie.

Guts Lindsey Halman

Setting online norms for faculty meetings

We find ourselves in a new frontier, suddenly in each other’s homes with online faculty meetings. Now that we are here, how can we make sure to continue to build community, plan, coordinate remote learning, create resources, while upholding some boundaries and norms?

Here are some ideas for online norms for faculty meeting that might be helpful, and recommendations for teachers meeting with students virtually, all in the spirit of setting and protecting healthy boundaries and trying to keep everyone safe and comfortable.

Be flexible: with guests

So, with all of the best laid plans (your designated meeting place), your child, or your pet, will likely find you. Everyone understands this and will say a quick hello. Honestly, we all could use that distraction and quick bit of humanity. It will take some practice to figure out what works best for you and how to manage this.

Know you are not alone in this struggle! I spend the first part of every Zoom call just incredibly grateful to see the faces of my colleagues, and then moving my cat, who really wants to be a part of the conversation.

Be flexible: with differing technology skills

Before all of this, some jumped into technology, used it daily, and felt quite comfortable with this format. Other folks have been picking up skill by skill and find this whole shift completely overwhelming… with all levels in between. 

Did your first first meeting go like this, or some version of it?


So support each other with clear steps for how to do things!

Talk folks through it, step one, step two.

When we first called my mother-in-law on FaceTime, she held the phone to her ear. This makes total sense! It is how we have answered phones since Alexander Graham Bell. A new practice gets adopted forever once practiced a few times.

Be gentle on your colleagues that are making these new practices work in a short amount of time. 

The mute button is your friend

Not talking during the meeting? Mute your mic! We love your dog, but it is already hard to concentrate around here. This helps everyone focus. And if you are ready to say something, you can hover over that mic with your mouse, ready to click it and jump into the conversation at the right time. 

Let your family and/or housemates know you are meeting.

While your dog might not get the memo, your family and housemates should probably know there’s a professional gathering happening somewhere in their home. If nothing else, it will make them think twice about just what they yell when they stub their toes.

Stick with your regular schedule and agenda as much as possible.

Folks — adults and kids — find routines comforting. We of course need to make adjustments but we are teachers, we know what to do. Teaching is our jam. So try to shift your mindset to being about helping maximize learning and human connection and the faculty meetings are there to support you with this. 

Consider the regular school day, and regular meeting times. Teachers will need time away from their computers to be with their families and handling their own personal needs. They are not available 24/7, so while we are in this new frontier, consider, how to help teachers set professional boundaries for their work. Otherwise, this could consume their every waking hour, which is not healthy. 

Bring in the joy

Everything is hard right now. How can online norms for faculty meetings encourage wellness, reflection, and joy? It has always been a challenge to do this in faculty meetings, but this even more important now. How can you promote joy, wellness, and connection?

Maybe a simple prompt at the beginning or end of each meeting:

  • How are you finding joy today?
  • How have you moved your body today?
  • What was the best part of remote learning today?
  • How will you care for yourself today?

And finally, accept two things.

One, we’re all still learning. Every day, something new, something challenging, a button toggled by accident, an intensely weird virtual background deployed through honest mistake. Still learning!

And two, this is a time of unprecedented change, challenge and anxiety, and the people who show up to your meetings — yourself included — may be in flux. They may be struggling, or experiencing loss. But they showed up. They’re still here. And they’re doing their best.

Just like you.


Creating a new schedule for remote learning

So you’re moving to remote learning. There’s a lot to prepare for, and before anything else, relationships to maintain, strengthen and nurture.

One important aspect to consider is how you can adapt the schedule of the learning day to provide structure and reduce anxiety during this period.

Consistent schedules help.

With so much in the air, it’s incredibly helpful to lay out the times you’ll be definitely doing certain things. While building remote learning, create a class schedule, including “live” online times, independent work time, and breaks.

Here’s how.

Focus on connections and relationships by holding online advisory/morning meetings

Here is a structure developed with some teachers from the Two Rivers Supervisory Union for maintaining normalcy and community.

Morning meetings (30 minutes each morning at a set time)

1. Share and review norms, then check-in as a group.  Some possible prompts:

  • What’s your weather?
  • If you were an animal, what would you be?
  • Tell a six-word story about yourself
  • Rose, thorn, bud
  • What emoji represents how you are feeling today?

2. Outline a schedule for the day. Share the learning and assignments for the day.

  • Consider an outdoor learning task.
  • REMEMBER to have realistic expectations: academics are a way to create a sense of normalcy and continuity, be reasonable about what you and your students can achieve. Focus on building skills or reviewing key content, not on introducing new learning.
  • Don’t forget about non-core classes: assign PE, Art, or Music activities that kids can do on their own.

Here are some reasonable expectations that you might modify for your students:

  • Elementary students: 60 minutes of academic time a day, 20 minutes a day of:
    • literacy
    •  math
    • integrated arts (PE, Art, Music, World Language)
  • Middle school students: 120 minutes of academic time a day, 30 minutes a day of
    • literacy or humanities
    •  math
    • science/social studies
    • integrated arts (PE, Art, Music, World Language)
  • High school students: 180 minutes of academic time a day
    • 45 minutes per core subject area

3. Highlight an aspect of a transferable skill to focus on for the day or the week. TRSU teachers will be focusing on self-direction.

4. Encourage students to sign up for “office hours” or 1:1 connections with a teacher. A GoogleDoc or online form can help facilitate this process.

5. Finally, don’t forget to have some fun together.

Celebrating the small things will help you and your students with mental health, and distract from anxiety.

Here are some ideas for fostering the relational glue that is laughing and feeling good together:

  • Readalouds!  Read a chapter aloud to your students.
  • Mindful moments (try the breathing exercise above together)
  • Jokes and riddles
  • Morning announcements
  • Meme of the day
  • Assign a Flipgrid dance-off inspired by the teachers at Edmund’s Middle School

Above all, be gentle and let students who don’t want to engage this way also be okay. This. Is. A. Lot.

End the day well with a closing check-in

TRSU teachers are planning a 30 minute (or less) check-in at the end of the afternoon.

  1. Share outs: how did today go?
  2. Reflections on transferable skill focus
  3. Follow up on challenges from earlier in the day (meme of the day/dance-off/etc.)
  4. Sign off in a positive way

It is a bonafide challenge staying connected while practicing social distancing!  Let us know how you are fostering community from afar. And don’t be afraid to ask us for help, we are here for you.

#vted Reads: The Standards-Based Classroom

I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome back to #vted Reads: books by, for and with Vermont educators. Today is a little of all three, as we welcome instructional coaches Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams to the show. They’re the authors of The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal, and have been working on implementing and assessing proficiencies at Champlain Valley Union High School, in Hinesburg Vermont.

Proficiency-based education is something of a hot topic in Vermont.

In 2013, the Vermont legislature passed Act 77, which required schools around Vermont to implement personal learning plans, flexible pathways and proficiency-based learning for students in grades 7 through 12 by 2020. That. Is. Now. (Or at least it was at the time of recording.)

Anyway, Stan and Emily are old hats at the proficiency game, and their book is a valuable resource for working with educators who are new to proficiencies, especially as they relate to assessment.

This is #vted Reads: let’s chat.


Jeanie: Thanks for joining me, Emily and Stan. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Emily Rinkema: We are proficiency-based learning coordinators. That’s our current title, in the Champlain Valley School District. We have been in this role but with many different names for approximately 10 years, I think, now. We also teach.

So, we’ve been teaming together as humanities teachers for 22 years, a long time and we still teach a course together now at the high school. We each spend half of our jobs at the high school supporting the continued implementation of standards-based learning, and the other half of our jobs are now at the middle school, supporting the implementation there.

Stan Williams: Yeah, we’ve taught from the ninth grade core program to this job and are now teaching a course called Think Tank. So, that’s been our fun new challenge.

Emily: We also about two years ago, wrote the book for Corwin, and since then we’ve had the opportunity to work with a lot of schools and districts not only in our state but around the country. And then most recently even internationally working with a few schools. So, that’s been really amazing to see how different school districts interpret the same principles of learning.

Jeanie: Yeah, I went to a workshop with some of the teachers I work with that you two had, on proficiency-based learning or standards-based learning. And one of the questions I know you must hear and that I hear all the time is:

How long will it take before we get there?

And what I’m hearing from you in your role as coaches in this work is that it’s not a one and done but it’s an ongoing process to getting there.

Stan: Yeah, I think that any time if you actually ever think you’re there, there’s probably a misunderstanding, because I’m not sure there’s ever going to be a “there”. But yeah, that’s one of the big things that we’ve had to grapple with and that especially adults, as educators, have to grapple with. The fact that it is *not* “here’s the box, open it up, take it out, and now you are a standards-based teacher!” And I think that’s often what the thought is” give me the program, give me the answer, and I’ll do it. Or: give me the sheets and I’ll do it. Which is not the case.

I think that also is one of the things that leads to some difficulties. People will look to change the grading and the reporting, but then not get to the fact that it’s the instruction, it’s the assessment — it’s all the work in the classroom that needs to change as well.

So yeah, I think that’s the biggest part of our job, probably, dealing with that other part.

Emily: Yeah, it’s really changing the fundamental beliefs about teaching and learning. I think we often hear teachers will say, “Oh, it’s another initiative coming along,” and thinking that we can have some professional development around it and we’ll just add it to our bucket of other initiatives.

But it’s really changing the foundation of learning.

It’s not adding strategies or practices on to what we currently do. It’s actually *shifting* what we currently do, which takes a long time and a lot of mistakes, a lot of iterations — before we start to feel like it’s effective.

Jeanie: It feels to me like it’s a mindset shift. And that if you shift your mindset in this way, then what you realize is that there’s always room for growth.

Emily: You know, it was funny we were just talking about mindset versus skill set yesterday. And there’s a lot of research that says that in any large second order change, you need to shift mindsets first — before you can actually start to see any positives or start to change your skills?

When we change mindsets… prior to actually being able to support the new mindset? Then we can run into some real problems. So, we’ll see teachers who will shift their mindsets about teaching, so that the idea is: learning becomes more important than teaching, right? So, what students learn becomes much more important than what we’re actually teaching, because it’s irrelevant if they don’t learn what we’re teaching. But if we don’t change the systems and structures of our classrooms and schools to support that new mindset, then very quickly that mindset runs up against a wall.

Jeanie: So, what I’m hearing from you is a chicken-and-egg kind of scenario where we need a mindset shift, but we need the skills that support that, but we need the skills in order to have the mindset shift.

Emily: *laughs* Yes.

Jeanie: It seems like they go hand in hand.

Emily: Easy.

Jeanie: I can tell that you’re both systems thinkers by the way the book is organized and particularly the thing I admire about the book is that you are proponents of backwards design and you organized the book that way, that as you begin with articulating desired results and developing KUDs (“Know, Understand and Do”) and learning scales and learning targets, you also create learning scales and KUDs and targets for your readers.

And I found that to be so powerful. You’re not just talking about what you can do in the classroom, but you’re modeling what it looks like as you developed your book. And I wondered how that emerged. What inspired you to organize the book in that way?

Stan: Yeah, as far as I can remember, it started as the planning structure and an organizational structure we had developed kind of categories and learning targets and skills for our work with the faculty and for the faculty at CVU.

Again in thinking if we were going to try to help lead adults to use learning targets and skills, then it made the most sense not only to have them experience that, but for us to work on that and refine what we’re really looking for. And so I think at first we really used it to [ask]:

  • What would we say about these things?
  • What would we say about this?
  • What do we have to talk about this?

And then again, it quickly became apparent that, wait a minute, this makes the most sense as far as the organization. So, I’m not sure it stayed in organizational strategy for long. I think it pretty quickly became the book itself? But I think that is how it began.

Jeanie: I just have such deep appreciation for that. I detest professional development that doesn’t walk the talk. Like, I really dislike sitting in professional development sessions that are disingenuous, I guess. It feels like to me like: do as I say, not as I do. And the one that sticks out for me the sort of counterexample that always is in my brain is many years ago, sitting in a very large school cafeteria with 150 other teachers learning about differentiated instruction… in a way that was completely undifferentiated. Pot meet kettle, right?

Like that was the height of hypocrisy for me. And so I just had this deep appreciation as I started engaging with the book in how you treat the reader as learner, right? And how you respect the reader as learner and use the structures that you know work for good learning, with the reader. So, kudos for that.

Stan: Thank you.

Jeanie: One of the questions that I have as a reader and I really have been using this work with districts I’m working with, and with a district in particular that I’m working with — they’re reading it and it’s been a great tool for us in helping them to develop the skills they need to make the shifts — but one of the things that I still question, or I still have questions about, is the congruence of this with personalization. Like how do we leverage KUDs and learning scales to… sort of, meet the other pillars of Act 77, flexible pathways and personalized learning?

Emily: I’ll start with I think there’s a big misunderstanding, misconception, that standard-based learning is standardization. And that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Unfortunately I think in some places, those are a little closer together than others, so it can sometimes get that bad name. We’ve taken an approach in our district of using skill-based learning targets. And our content is communicated through KUDs (as we have in the book), but what that allows is a lot more freedom and flexibility. So, we know what our end goal is, but how we choose to get to that end goal is where we can have a lot more flexibility.

I think it provides us a lot more autonomy, but also for students so we have a lot more flexibility about what content we use, what content we go into depth with different students?

There’s a greater opportunity for students to design their own learning, because we can head towards the same outcome, but they can propose how they want to get there.

Stan: Yeah, I think in reality when we look at a couple of the seeing that in the classroom, a couple of examples again. For instance, I think in our Think Tank class.

Students have common learning targets — four to five — that we really use throughout from the iterative process to summary of multiple resources to use of media and some others. But the idea is though, in our class we have a common theme about improving education and learning and engagement within our school district? But they allow us to let students personalize based on their, based on kind of their wants, their desires, where they get kind of drawn into the class and into the reasoning.

And so what’s great is you can have students working on something around standardized testing or something around the architecture of school or the arrangement of classrooms or around mental health or around wellness or around starting a student congress. And all are focusing on the same learning targets and scales? But with really ideas and issues that they care about and that they’re able to go with.

I think the other thing we found is that with, as Emily spoke to, with the transferable ones, that great help for differentiation.

When we first started this years ago, when we did 10 years ago or so we took a sabbatical that was focused on differentiation. And one of the first things we came to was what people were trying to differentiate tended to be content and second to be: are you getting the answer right or wrong? And that was pretty difficult because that’s where you get a lot of people. Yes, people were slowing down because we were waiting for other people to get it right. And so that’s when we realized we needed these transferable targets and scales.

And then, you know, again, now we’re coming back to I think the need for more and more training with differentiation. But yeah, I think they go hand in hand with the personalization.

Emily: I think there’s also a misunderstanding about personalization a lot of times? That personalization is just allowing students to do what they want, when they want, where they want, how they want. And I think that standards bring integrity to personalization. So educators can ground the personalized work in particular skills or skills that a student chooses, but I think it reduces the risk of the sort of fluffy personalization that gives personalization such a bad name?

So, just as I think the standards-based practices can get a bad name when they become too rigid. I think they offer a really nice balance to each other. Without personalization, standards-based learning could be pretty… regimented. Could be pretty… well, standardized. Which is not what it should be. So I think they need each other.

Jeanie: You’re making me think a lot about how we talk about personalization, flexible pathways and proficiency here at the Tarrant Institute.

Which is we think of them as not separate but as like DNA strands wound together.

And so I think in order to provide flexible pathways, you have to know your students well. In order for those flexible pathways to be meaningful, you have to know what the targets are.

And the proficiency-based system helps you develop flexible pathways that matter, and that’s what I’m hearing from you as well.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. I like the visual of the DNA strands.

Jeanie: Yeah. And that leads me to your section on summative assessments. And so I really one of the things that I’ve noticed as I — both when I was in a school library and I was designing proficiency-based units of study, and collaborating with teachers in the design of proficiency-based units of study, but then also as I coach teachers now — is using this kind of a framework, the backwards design framework with the learning targets first, allows you to find where misalignment happens, right? Like where your instruction is actually not instructing on the things you’re assessing on and is not related necessarily to your targets.

And I think there’s this big a-ha moment that happens for teachers the first time they do this where they realize, “Oh! I’m not… Wait a minute, this doesn’t always hang together well.” And so I really love that about your framework and I wanted to know, specifically as we work with middle school students about: how do we do what we were just talking about, which is use these learning targets and these learning scales, to open possibilities to young people for how they show what they know what they can now do. It’s a convoluted question.

Stan: Yes. Funny, the word that comes to mind obviously when you talk about that is “intentionality”, right? And I still remember years ago I think when we first started this, we were at a Carol Tomlinson workshop. And at the time I believe she was introducing or focusing on the KUD.

And I still remember, like you said, the a-ha moment as she was talking about and kind of had a calendar under it and was showing how this was the time they were going to address this and then they were going to have time to get into this understanding, this understanding is where they were going to use this content to drive this understanding and that oh my gosh, like, this is so much more intentional than, “this is going to be a unit on X” or “this is going to be a unit on Y”.

And so I do think that that intentionality is such a huge part of this. And I think that’s the thing that’s probably hit us the most, is that intentionality that does get driven from that summative and from that endpoint.

I also think that there are times where that summative is something that’s predetermined? But then there’s also that time where that summative is around a concept. It’s around an idea, it’s around a theme. We know the targets that we’re going to be getting at to get to that, or how they’re going to be demonstrating some of the skills at the end, but that there can still be plenty of choice around what that summative looks like.

So, I think that is one of the keys is: do we know what are the skills we’re going to try to get better at within this unit? But then, how do we have flexibility at the end and along the way, but if we’re talking summatives, how do we have flexibility at the end to allow students to demonstrate those in different ways?

And again, I think going back to what Emily was saying earlier, that standardization is where I think sometimes that it’s a misunderstanding.

Again, it gets back to what we said in the very beginning; it is not just a grading mechanism.

It is not that now I’m going to take the old test that I have always had and I’m just going to change how I grade it and I’m putting a one through four on top of it rather than an 87 on top of it.

We still see that happen and I think that’s where programs, schools get in trouble is they try to is just a conversion. And so but that’s where a lot of our work is, how do we make sure that our summatives are driving our work forward and that the summatives are opening up the learning rather than kind of narrowing the learning?

Emily: That was very well said.


Jeanie: It made me think about my own growth as an educator and when I shifted over time from, — I’m getting vulnerable here — when I shifted over time from sort of a checklist approach of “your slideshow will have this many slides and it will have this” right? Like this checklist approach or rubric approach to scoring work to thinking about what the learning is, right?

And what I love about learning targets, whether you use them in a learning skill or a single point rubric, is that there are so many different ways to express that you’ve learned that? And that’s that opening I think I heard from you, Stan? Instead of that confining — you must have three sources, you must list five descriptive words about your topic or whatever it is, right? The date of birth and the date of it, like silliness. As opposed to like, what’s the real skill we want kids to be able, what’s the real thing we want them to be able to do?

Emily: One interesting change with summative assessments and our own teaching is I think in the first 10 years of our teaching, our summatives looked almost exactly the same. And that was the intent, right? So, we had a clear idea of what this would look like whether it was a kind of conventional test where we actually literally wanted them to be the same because we wanted the same answers, which were the correct answers. Whether they were essays that would come in and we would, you know, have a stack of 100 essays and those looked almost identical to each other and they might have selected different evidence, but our requirements were so strict that they pretty much looked the same.

Now, since we shifted to a standards-based classroom, I can’t think of a time when we’ve had any summative assessments that did look the same or that we wanted them to look the same.

Stan: No, and what’s funny about that is, I can think back to when you’re teaching in the ninth grade and you’d have 110 students and you were getting 100 and then — going back to the vulnerable pieces you’re talking about — you’re getting 110 of the same thing. Try grading 110 of the same thing as we all know, right, what that does!

And I remember a few years back Emily saying to a group of people how she looked forward to getting summatives in now because it was exciting to see. And I remember a laughter from some of the people.

But that’s absolutely true there is now there’s something so exciting because you’re getting all these different, you know, whatever it happens to be products that you’ve been working with and helping along the way, but there’s personality to them, there’s a voice to them, there’s an individuality to them and a uniqueness to them, which makes them exciting to see and to learn from rather than kind of feeling obligated to go through. So, that has been a really fun shift from our end.

Jeanie: It’s interesting to me because I’m a doc student now here at UVM. I’m in the education policy leadership studies program and I have this professor, Kelly Clark Keith, who’s really interested in other ways of knowing and other ways of being, right? And so she’s really pushing us to think about that you don’t have to just choose the standard research model, or the standard way. We could do our dissertation in the form of a poem if we wanted to, right, like she’s really encouraged. (I’m not going to do that. Nobody wants to read my poems.)

But and so I’m taking a class with her this coming semester called Modes of Inquiry. It’s really about thinking outside of that box and honoring other ways of knowing. And being and it seems to me when we open up summatives and give kids possibility and choice, we’re honoring the many ways of knowing and being there are. As opposed to forcing everybody to conform to one way of knowing and being. And I there’s just something really… caring about that. Sorry to take you down my mental path.


Emily: We’ll, read your poem.


Jeanie: An “Ode To Formative Assessment” is next. I really love the chapter on formative assessment and it’s all underlined and highlighted. It was my favorite section. You really helped me —

Emily: That’s the chapter with the murder, right?


Stan: Like the car crash.


Jeanie: I just found that to be a really rich chapter both in thinking about ways of orchestrating timely feedback for students and also just some of the strategies you share about how to do that. And I specifically carry around in my head as a tool this idea of short, specific and sortable data that you can get from students, to determine what needs to be taught or where students are.

So, I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you go about that in your class. Maybe give us an example.

Stan: Yeah, I’ll start with a little bit and maybe I’ll throw it to you for an example. But I do I think formative is probably — I probably shouldn’t say the most important because I would probably end up questioning myself. But the formative assessment is in many ways the most important, but also then the most misunderstood, or underutilized. I think one of the things, you know, we see is old the assignments are used and then they say, well, it’s formative. Well, actually formative towards what? One of the biggest things going back to that intentionality that you were speaking of earlier is that ability to shrink the field to a point where I can get that quick, usable information about where you are on that scale, on that kind of learning journey.

And so for us, you know, unfortunately, we haven’t been able to create more time in the universe? But where I think we have shifted our time; the time we used to spend grading and going through and writing and all these things, on endless amounts of homework — and some of the homework which may have been sitting in a pile for two weeks before I could get to it to kind of maybe not even get it back to you, but get it recorded in some books so I could write that you did nine out of 10 on this — that time has gone away. And instead, we’ve really worked hard to craft, like you said, small, really intentional formative assessments that are done in class. All the time done in class. We never let those go out. And with an intent to give us some quick, actionable feedback.

I think one of the biggest changes for us was that idea of it’s not about if I’ve taught it, it’s about if you’ve learned it. And that also that assessment is really for the teacher.

I think we used to think that assessment was for the student; here’s how you’re doing for maybe for the parents back home, here’s how they’re doing, when in reality assessment is for the teacher. And if the teachers aren’t using assessment to then drive their instruction and their practice, then they’re, I would say, misusing or underutilizing the assessment.

So, for us formative assessments are really made to be one specific — in our class and in our terminology — one specific learning target scale.

Again, we can get something that’s quick and by sortable meaning we can sit together and we can very quickly look and place them kind of in the same piles that would match up with the scale ensure a time there might be outliers on either side, and that’s something we could talk about later, but that we can now spend the time really focusing on how are we going to address the people that are at these levels of this. Because what this group needs is different than what this group needs and maybe different with this group needs. And then what this person needs is different, which obviously gets us back into the differentiation. But it allows us the time to focus on our planning and the structure of our class, versus the recording of information that wasn’t really driving us anyway. So, I think that’s kind of been the impact on us. I’m going to hope that gave you time to think of a good example.

Jeanie: Before you give an example, I just want to say: what I’m hearing from you, because as you’re sorting through that data, those quick exit tickets you’ve gotten and saying, “Oh, these people are at this place in the learning scale, or these folks don’t get it at all, these folks get it a little bit, these folks really have got it and they’re ready to move on”, right? A lot of times when I’m working with teachers, they’re like, “What, do I have to have like 22 lesson plans?”

And what I’m hearing from you is that these, that formative assessment allows you to group kids, so that everybody is getting what they need based on where they are, but that it’s still not one size fits all. It’s also not 22 different sizes.

Stan: That’s a great distinction and thank you for making that. Yeah, and again, not that it always works out perfectly like this, but that idea that again, where we’ve all in the past written more or less the same comments on 12 different papers or on 12 different assignments and then gone and record that. Whereas as we had that pile, we know that some direct instruction perhaps the next day maybe five minutes that gets that group on whatever that next task is or that work with it. And so yeah, there is often that thought that it has to be 22 different ones.

There’s also often that thought that I have to make it all up the night before. And what we’ve tried to get at is, you know that there will be kids in these groups. Now you may not know ahead of time what kids are going to fall in these groups, but you can still have plans about:

  • How will I differentiate for the evidence target?
  • How will I differentiate for my claim target
  • And how am I going to differentiate for my relationships target?

Again, I might not know the numbers and who’s there, but it doesn’t mean that it has to be I can’t plan some of it prior to having those piles and I think that’s an important distinction as well.

Emily: Yeah, and the scales are really essential to that. So, having really well written, kind of tested scales that have, you know, fully articulated levels? That really helps us with the sorting because it’s not about comparing work to other work.

So, when we go to when we get that pile of 50 formative assessments in, it’s not saying, well, this student’s work is better than this student’s work and then putting them in a line of 50 of them compared to each other. We have four very distinct articulated skills or levels of a skill. We’re sorting the work into those four levels.

And again, as Stan said, there may be outliers as well that don’t fall on the scale for some reason? But the better our scales, the faster that process is. We often use that process to revise our scales as well. Because we’ll make our piles and then look at what does all the work in this pile have in common? So, what can these students do? Which then helps us write the language of the scale at that level?

But I think with without the clearly articulated scales at those levels, not only is the sorting harder, but the planning for the differentiation is harder. Because then we think well now what do we do? I know these students aren’t at the target, but I’m not quite sure what to do for them. Whereas when we have the language of the increasing levels of complexity of the scale, then we know that we need to design practice or instruction in order to get students to be able to do what’s in each of those boxes.

Jeanie: So, I’m hearing a couple of themes emerged in my brain and one is iteration again, that you create scales, and then you look at student work and you revise your scales.

Emily: Absolutely.

Jeanie: As well as re-teaching the students if they need it, right? And so this is an ongoing process of always fine tuning your scales.

Emily: Our courses have a limited number of learning targets which allows us to be able to dive in and revise and spend time with each target and each scale. Some schools are working with hundreds of learning targets and immediately think, “You mean, I have to have a scale for every one of these learning targets, and then I have to revise it and then I’m sorting work based on it and then differentiating based on it?” So, it becomes quickly overwhelming.

Stan: Yeah, I think if I had to give people advice who are at a school if you’re getting into this and starting some work with the faculty around this, again, it’s this it can’t be seen that these scales are for assessment and assessment only and for putting something at the end and getting teachers to actually live and feel the scales and getting them to try to do the work at these levels/ We just shared an article we’d seen on Twitter about, was it called dogfooding? A tech term right, about what do you actually do:

  • Do you do what you’re saying?
  • Are you doing your assignments?
  • Are you doing your homework?
  • And are you actually so you can figure out what are some of the stuck points?
  • Well, how can my directions be better?
  • What parts are going to be confusing for people?

And so I think that for us, yeah, that was where it takes a lot. I can think of a graphic representation learning target and scale that we had and we struggled and struggled with the class. We would get things back and like this isn’t what we’re looking for and we ended up taking it off of an assessment because we just we realized we hadn’t gotten kids even close to where they needed to be. And that was on us. That certainly wasn’t on them. And so we took it off that assessment.

And we worked with them and by the start as the next year, we had really figured it out and with because we knew the scale, because we understood kind of what it meant and what we meant by it and how to instruct it? Within two days, they had gotten far beyond what our group had gotten over the course of about two months, the year before.

And that had nothing to do with the students. That was purely that we didn’t really understand what we were asking for.

Which again, sounds silly or strange, but going back to it, I think when, again to that vulnerable piece, when you look back and try to talk to people, we don’t really always know what we’re asking for or what we’re looking for. We may have an idea or a topic or an assignment, but what are you really, what are you trying to get better at? What’s this skill I’m trying to get? What do you want people to understand from this?

I think that’s often a little bit either misunderstood or people haven’t thought about it as much as they could. Or should.

Jeanie: So, I’m hearing from you — what’s ringing for me is clarity and intentionality again, right? And I love that idea of dogfooding.

I’m a School Reform Initiative facilitator, and there’s a great protocol where you ask a group of people to complete at least part of an assessment before then having a conversation about what are students actually working on here? What is it that we’re…?

It’s I think it’s a great tool for standards-based or proficiency-based or competency-based education systems to really get at that.

Because I can’t tell you the number of times my kid who’s really good at thinking about current events or social studies, would work really hard on a paper, an essay, always an essay. And come back with a B or a C because of his grammar usage and mechanics, right? Like he’s being scored on one thing when he’s supposed to be thinking about themes or causative factor or some other thing, right?

And then his grade is always about whether or not he used commas appropriately.

Stan: Yeah, I think that goes back to that shrinking the field. That idea with a lot of those formatives. And so, you know, cause and effect is important. Being able to see relationships is important. There’s grammatical stuff that’s certainly important, but how do you parse those out so that you’re sure you’re focusing. Not only you’re focusing on the right one, but the student knows what we’re focusing on and what we’re trying to work with?

Emily: Yeah, I was working with a teacher yesterday, a middle school teacher and science teacher and she was working on evidence and reasoning. So a learning target. And she was showing me examples of student work and was getting frustrated the students were getting stuck before the reasoning. So, they were nailing the evidence, but were really getting stuck on sophisticated reasoning. And so she was explaining what she was doing and she said, “Well, I asked them to come up with a claim. So, we watch it, we view a phenomenon, they come up with a claim, and then they do their evidence and reasoning around that claim.”

We started looking at some of the claims and some of the claims they were coming up with were not sophisticated enough to allow for or require reasoning to require a sophisticated level of reasoning, right? So, they were these simple claims that really led to a student being able to prove it with one or two pieces of evidence. And they were so obvious these claims that there was no reason for the student to have to reason. So, she quickly came to the like, wait a minute, what if I were to provide them with the claim that was more complex, then what would happen to their ability to reason? So, she was able to seems, as Stan said, shrink the field and think about what is it that’s getting in the way of their ability to do the skill I’m actually trying to instruct and assess? So, the coming up of the claim isn’t one of the skills that she was trying to instruct and assess and yet it was the thing that was getting in the way of their ability to think more critically.

Jeanie: So, I want to poke at this a little bit because I have some curiosity about something. So, what I’m hearing from you actually is that that the teacher’s job, the educator’s job is really to engage in: what’s the pattern of learning that happens? And to experiment with that a little bit, right?

Like what I heard you just say is about a teacher experimenting with “What would happen if…? And they’re not doing this, so what if I…?” And I love that. For me as an educator, that’s way more interesting being like, that level of engaged — than doing the same thing, teaching the same thing in the same way all the time.

But. I’m also thinking about this book you may have read, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness.

Emily: I’m familiar with it, but I haven’t read it.

Jeanie: So, we did an episode on it this fall. This book has stayed with me a lot, because one of the things he points out is that there isn’t one path  — and he’s talking a lot about how average has impacted our lives in this country and in the world and how that came to be. And that like we have this notion of having had an infant I remember this that that kids would gain a certain amount of weight, that they crawl before they walk, right?

But that when we look worldwide, actually there are tons of different ways to get to walking. That there’s not one universal path through development.

And so this is where I have a little bit of a struggle, there’s a push-pull for me with learning scales, because I see the benefit of really thinking through what are the steps somebody has to take — or not even steps, but like what do you have to be able to do before you can do the next thing?

But what if there are multiple paths? How do learning scales account for the multiple paths that there might be through the learning?

And so that’s like just a really genuine struggle that I have when I’m thinking about this in my work with teachers and students.

Emily: I think that’s a great question. One of the first things that comes to mind is… that… the way we define scales and again, they’re defined in many different ways and you’ll see examples all over the place that they’re written in many different ways, but that the scale is not a procedure, right? So, it’s not steps to learning that you have to follow in order to get there?

I think the way we look at it is it’s the most kind of, common experience of the increasing complexity of the skill we’re looking for.

We often have students who will kind of blow us away with the approach that they take to meeting or to reaching or often going beyond these skills. It’s another reason that we believe strongly in the transferable skill scales and the transferable scale skill learning targets. Because they allow students a lot more freedom about how to express, how to get there, where to go beyond the target. So, that’s the first thing that made me think of is the difference between procedural, and kind of increasing complexity?

Jeanie: That’s helpful. Thank you.

Stan: Yeah, and I can think of, for instance, our claim target and scale that we’ve used where it’s about the increasing complexity of a claim which the more complex claims show relationships and other factors involved.

But again, to your point, I can think of a class a few years ago when three distinct students right now and as you said, to get to know those students as part of that learning journey, I can think of the one student who needed a table full of just blank white paper so that she could write all over the place and that she could come up with ideas and mind-map and web in order to come up with that idea that claim.

I can think of the student who was two tables over, and who needed boxes and short pieces and maybe some guiding questions to get to that. If you gave that student open, big blank white paper, they would push it back at you or throw it at you or who knows what.

And then I can get the student who writing it was not, but if they would sit and you would say talk to them, but if you would just sit there as your period piece and let them talk to you? They would eventually talk their way to it. So, I do think you’re right. There’s I think for us there’s we have an idea and again, it’s probably still an imperfect one of what is that complexity look like? But then figuring out what is it that’s going to help each person get to that? Is, again, like you said, unique and different, and there is absolutely no average way, so to speak. Yeah.

Jeanie: Thank you so much for thinking about that language of complexity. You’ve shifted my thinking on that. I really appreciate that. I also really love in this section The Big Blue Head which I know is a graphic that comes from CVU, was that right?

The Big Blue Head, of The Standards-Based Classroom

I wondered if you could just give us an overview of The Big Blue Head.

Stan: There’s no grand story behind it other than the first time it got printed off, it was on blue paper and someone said, “It’s a big blue head!” And so it’s stuck. But that was years ago we brought in some people from our core program, I believe it was maybe two different teachers from each core from various subjects and really just trying to get at: what does learning look like?

At the end of my class, what are the things that I hope kids have gotten better at? What do I hope that they’ve learned?

And after some activities, with kind of, they almost created tiles, as they’re writing all down, we started some of those and started to look at it and eventually after some work, it really started to break out into three kind of broader areas.

There’s input: how do we get the information into somebody? Maybe it’s reading, maybe it’s listening, whatever happens to be, how are we getting information into somebody?

Then there’s obviously the output: how did they eventually get their information out to others, but then all that stuff that happens in between the thinking. And as Emily again said earlier, we don’t want it to be one size on this equals this size, and now that you’re just parroting back one to the other. How your output should be in some ways larger than your input or maybe smaller because you’ve synthesized and made meaning.

But it needs to be different, it needs to be yours. But how do we get at that thinking? How do you get at that middle part?

And so we would have The Big Blue Head on the wall and really tried to be aware of when we were planning a lesson:

  • Is this part right now about input?
  • Is this about output?
  • Or is this about the thinking?

And tried to be really intentional with the students and talking about that as well, just to get them to think kind of metacognitively like what am I doing now and which part of it is this? And also maybe going back to your reflection piece to help start to figure out like are there parts of this that I struggle with? Are there parts of this where we can really start to narrow down some of this?

And so that’s where it came from. Again, it’s kind of morphed over time and I mean eventually it was really used at CVU to create some of our graduation standards what are those things we’re looking to make everybody kind of be able to do and get better at.

But it really, I think, had a big impact on our instruction and again, on our differentiation. Because differentiating to help somebody get the input — am I differentiating the reading so that everybody can get access to this content information?

Am I differentiating something on the output side? And maybe that’s by choice or who knows what it’s by.

But then also, how am I helping scaffold any of that stuff in the thinking piece?

And so I think that’s been…  it’s funny as the as the episode goes on, I’m finding more and more of these terms keep coming back, right? That intentionality piece of what part of this is that and how do I best help a student with that?

Jeanie: I love this conversation. My husband is also an educator. He’s a curriculum director in Southern Vermont and he’s been working really hard on proficiency based learning with his teachers and he’s been thinking a lot about alignment and intentionality, and he talks a little bit about what he calls “black box teaching” or “black box learning” which is like,

“Oh, I put this in and then this comes out and there’s or it’s like what do you wave a magic wand like what is the step in between?”

And then thinking about a conversation we recently had in the two rivers supervisory union about self direction and that we have been having about what is self direction specifically?

And part of what self direction is, is being able as a student, as a learner to say, this is the learning strategy I need, right?

And it’s what happens in the Big Blue Head or the black box, right?

This language comes out of a document called the essential skills and dispositions which the Two Rivers Supervisory Union uses instead of transferable skills. And one of their definitions of self directed is tinkering with learning strategies. And so I’ve been thinking, when do we give kids opportunities to tinker with learning strategies? And for me, that’s what’s happening in the Big Blue Head and that’s what’s happening with tiles when you say it makes the thinking visible.

And I’m just thinking about the magic of that and how complicated it is to make all of that that’s happening in the head… apparent to us. Visible.

Stan: Yeah. And I think right back to again to a student. It’s fun doing this because all of a sudden, all these old stories and students come back popping up, but Emily will know where I’m going with this. But that so often thinking was purely judged by your output. And as she said, often it was an essay, right? Or maybe even going back to what you were saying earlier about your own child.

But this I can think of this one student where especially the writing output was a struggle. No question she had struggles with writing and is working to improve those, but that was a struggle. But so often I think her thinking, her level of thinking was undersold or not appreciated.

And it wasn’t until we were able to start to try to figure out: how do you see the thinking and how do you honor that and how do you get into that part? It was some work we were doing around morality and ethics and categorical thinking and consequential and utilitarian thought and all these different and she had some of the most complex ideas and understandings and connections.

There’s no way she could have written those, but I think at the time because we were trying to figure out how do we get in there, all of a sudden, this light bulb I think went on for us with oh my gosh, you know, this one student in particular has so many brilliant thoughts that are being, I guess not being honored because traditionally we haven’t had a vehicle for those to come out.

And so I think that one student has driven so much of our work around that and even our own current course is called Think Tank. And it’s really just trying to spend most of the time dealing with how do I think and what does it mean to think and how do I develop ideas and spend as much time as we can in that center part? But I think a lot of it came back to that one student and realizing this, oh, my gosh, what have we been missing? Again, going back to the vulnerable part, what have we been missing all these years with students because we’ve kind of been jumping over that middle section.

Emily: I think also that we’ve used The Big Blue Head with students a lot, and when they have the language to understand what’s happening in each of those three categories — so the input, the thinking and the output, I think that really opens up their thinking as well.

Thinking can be this sort of magical thing that students think they’re either good at or bad at, but when we were able to break it down with students and show when we’re talking about thinking, here’s a whole bunch of thinking skills, and students started to be able to identify what they were doing. I’m evaluating or I’m synthesizing right now. I’m recognizing relationships or showing the relationships between things. I think it opened up a lot more confidence for them with their thinking and allowed us to push things further because we had the language to push it further. So, it wasn’t just we need you to think more, but we were able to actually say, let’s take a look at your ability to synthesize right now or something more specific.

Jeanie: I think that’s really powerful. And so when I think about when I’m working on learning targets or learning scales, I use the thesaurus a lot, because I’m trying to really get it what do I mean? When I ask somebody to synthesize, what am I actually asking them to do? And the other thing I’m thinking about is an article I read for a class last semester about embodied learning.

I want to challenge you: I think your next graphic should be the big green body. I think we don’t just think with our brains, right? Like the we know now that there’s this brain-belly connection and brain-heart connection and so just spit-balling.

Emily: I think that’s a great idea. We have a colleague who said it’s missing its heart that it’s not just the head the heart needs to be there.

Jeanie: And I think about young children, and well, and I think as adults too that we maybe have lost the ability to do this, but we really do think with our whole bodies. I do my best writing when I’m walking. Unfortunately, I have not yet mastered the art of the voice memo, which is my next my new year’s resolution is to start like recording myself when I’m walking because I write amazing letters while I’m hiking in the woods, but I never get them down.

So, I usually ask this question in the very beginning, but I’m going to ask it right now since we jumped right in. We had so much to talk about. What are you reading for fun?

Emily: Oh! So many things. Right now ,I am reading my fiction book for fun right now is a young adult novel. And that is, let me see if I can get it, Erica Sanchez I think is the author, I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter. Which I’m loving. So, I think that I’m a huge Lee Child Jack Reacher fan as well. So, I just finished the new Jack Reacher novel, which I always like.

Jeanie: Have you read The Poet X?

Emily: No.

Jeanie: Ooh, you have to. You will love it.

Stan: I wish I could say I had a triple f read, was that fiction for fun? But I think the current book, it was just given to me over the holidays and so I’ve just kind of got into it. See if I can get this right I think it’s called The Rise: Creativity, The Gift of Failure, and the Search for Mastery, Sara Lewis, I believe.

Jeanie: Nonfiction can be fun too, Stan.

Stan: Right! Thank you. Thank you.

Jeanie: I just want to thank you both so much for this conversation. I feel like I could talk to you four days more about this book, about your work, about teaching and learning. Thank you both so much for coming to UVM and spending time talking about your work with me.

Stan: Yeah, thanks. It was great.

Emily: Thank you. It was a lot of fun.

How to make a pop-up video

Ahem. Or a pop-up edu-video. Here’s one we made earlier!

And yes, we were inspired by the late great VH-1 Classic series.

*sigh* Let’s take a moment…

And move on:

The pop-up video mechanism is great for videos that are longer than four minutes, such as presentations or student-led conferences, because it gives you the chance to provide additional context that’s not readily discernible from the video alone.

Here’s the basic recipe:

  • You make your pop-up resources in Keynote;
  • Add them to your video using the green screen utility;
  • Then add your opener, closer and chapter pop-ups.

Let’s unpack that process, step by step.

To make your life a little easier, we’ve prepared a package of resources files that you can download directly, referenced by filename in this tutorial.

Download the files here (.zip format).

The download should begin automatically. When it’s finished, expand the .zip file package on your machine. It’s a directory containing five files:

  1. in-video pop-up creator.key (Keynote file)
  2. Pop Up chapter creator.key (Keynote file)
  3. Jaunty POP noise.wav (uncompressed audio file)
  4. Pop Up eduvideo Intro.mp4 (compressed video file)
  5. spare water footage.mp4 (compressed video file)

We created and are distributing these files as fair use for creating educational materials. The audio and the water footage are pieces in the public domain. But still: don’t be a weasel.

Let’s make your eduvideo pop up resources:

Chapter pop-ups

Chapter pop-ups are questions that take up the entire screen and are meant for the viewer to view *while the video itself is not playing*. Think of them as pre-test and post-test questions. In our example at the top of the post (video), chapter pop-ups appear at 4:36, 11:34, 14:01, 16:15, and 19:39. That’s a lot, but to be fair, this is a 20-minute video, and we really wanted viewers to stay focused (and not check their twitter).

Pop Up chapter creator.key is the file you’ll use to create all your chapter pop-ups. Open it up in Keynote, and here’s your default screen:

Pop Up Video default screen for Chapter Segment creator

Doubleclick on the black text and you can edit it to customize your question. Boom: done.

Now, once you’ve edited your text, export your Keynote file to a movie. Go up to the top menus: File > Export to > Movie…

Pop Up video: export to Movie

Change the resolution to 1080p and you’re good to go. This generates a .m4a movie file. Save your new  chapter pop-up movie in a central directory for when we get to Add your resources. Make as many chapter segments as you feel makes sense.

In-video pop-ups

Open up your in-video Pop Up Creator.key file in Keynote. Here’s your default screen:

Pop Up video: in-video pop ups

Edit the black text in the box by clicking on it.

Don’t add more than 12 words to any one pop-up. If you’ve got that much to say, it can be two screens. You want to keep your pop-ups informative but sparse. Remember: you’re asking the viewer to take their attention away from the content of the video to pay attention to the pop-up, so make it worth their while and respect their time.

After you’ve edited the text, choose an image to represent the main idea of the text.

Keynote has a great on-board library of art. Say our text is: “Kayleigh was part of the robotics team that won State championships.” Click on the Shape button at the top of your Keynote screen. This opens up the Keynote images library. Start searching on “robot”, for example.

Pop Up video: search for icons

Click once on the icon you’d like to add, and Keynote will automatically add it to your screen. Move the icon to the center of your circle. Resize it as appropriate.

Next, select all the items in your pop-up. Then go up to your file menus at the top of your screen, to Arrange > Group. This will make Keynote treat your pop-up box as one discrete item and make your life simpler by a factor of ten, because now you add animation.

With your pop-up box highlighted, choose Animate from the righthand menu.

You need a Build In and a Build Out animation, and a duration.

  • Under “Build In”, choose Appear.
  • Under “Build Out”, choose Dissolve.

Then you’re going to determine your duration.

Click the Build Order button at the bottom of the righthand Animate mention. In your Build Order, you’re going to line them up, one on top of the other, then add a delay to the Build Out of at least 1.0 seconds.
Your Build In is linked up with your Build Out when they are touching (Appear is in light, Dissolve is in dark).

Click once on the Dissolve bar in your Build Order window. It brings up a dialogue for Start and Delay. Your Dissolve bar should have a Start of “After Build 1” and your Delay is at least 1.0 seconds.

Here’s a quick screencast of that process:


Save your file. Now you export it as a movie. File > Export to > Movie…

Change your resolution to 1080p and click Next…

Save your file. It will have a .m4a file ending. Now let’s put all this together in a video.

Add your resources

We’ll work in iMovie for this example but this works in whatever video editing program you’re using. Let’s add your pop-ups to the video itself.

Here’s the layout of a pop-up eduvideo:

Opener | Chapter Pop-up | Video — with in-video pop-ups | Closer


We included a file in the downloads package for you: Pop Up eduvideo intro.mp4

Add it in the first slot on your timeline.

Chapter Pop-up:

You’re going to add the .m4a file you created to a background of bubbles, add a pop noise, and boom, there’s your chapter segment. So! Take the file spare_water_footage.mp4 from your download package. Add it to your iMovie timeline, after the opener. Now add two things: the .m4a and a jaunty popping noise.

With the spare water footage highlighted in your timeline, add your chapter file *on top of it*.

Highlight this new giant green block, and change “Cutaway” to “Green/Blue Screen” from the menu on top of your viewer.

Then add the Jaunty Popping Noise *underneath* your timeline.

Pop Up eduvideo: make a chapter segment in iMovie

You’ll need to move it around to get the timing right, so that as your question appears, the pop happens, but have fun with it.

Adding in-video pop-ups

Next, choose the points at which you’d like to add a pop-up message during your video. You’ll use the same method you used for adding the chapter pop-up, but add your in-video pop-up directly to the footage.

Say we have some lovely drone footage of the Chicago skyline. And we’d like to add a notation about the make and model of the drone used.

  • Make your drone info pop-up in Keynote, and export the animation as a movie.
  • Import that movie into iMovie
  • Add it to your timeline above the skyline footage
  • Change the Cutaway effect to Green/Blue Screen
  • Add your Jaunty Pop sound to your timeline below the skyline footage
  • Adjust the timing of your pop-up notation and your pop noise.

Pop Up video: adding in-video pop ups


Closer: …is totally up to you. We didn’t include a closer in our downloads package. Our example video ends with a chapter segment post-question that covers the whole video, but what you end your video with is entirely up to you. Have fun with it, reinforce your message — just go hog wild.

And let us know how this worked for you! We would love to see your pop-up eduvideos! Leave us a comment and share!

#vted Reads at Teen Lit Mob 2019!

I’m Jeanie Phillips: welcome to #vted Reads, the podcast by for and with Vermont educators. And today, with Vermont students as well! We recorded this episode at last year’s Teen Lit Mob. What’s Teen Lit Mob, you ask?

Teen Lit Mob is Vermont’s only book-related conference specifically for young adult readers. Students from all around the state converge in a big joyful mass and squee about what they’re reading. They meet authors and get free books and did we mention the squeeing? So. Much. Squeeing.

And Teen Lit Mob is super important. Here’s why.

Close your eyes. Close them! (Unless you’re listening to this while driving; safety first.) Now think back: what was your favorite book when you were in, say, 8th grade?

Did you have folks you could tell about it? Folks who’d grasp your hands and just bounce wildly up and down sharing the absolute JOY of finding and loving, that one perfect book?

So that’s Teen Lit Mob: squee! bouncing! friendship! books! a bedazzled megaphone! books and squee.


This slideshow requires JavaScript.

*deep breath*

So *we* showed up at Teen Lit Mob last year, and asked some of the attendees one simple, VITAL question: What book do you wish was being taught in your school?

Warning: #vted Reads assumes no responsibility for how badly this episode messes up your To Be Read list.

*whisper* Let’s chat!

My name is Sloan and I go to CVU.

Book cover: American Street, by Ibi Zoboi

Jeanie: Sloan, thank you for talking to me. What book do you wish your teachers were teaching?

Sloan: Probably American Street by Ibi Zoboi.

Jeanie: Yeah.

Sloan: I think it’s such a beautiful like, story, about somebody who goes to, like America. Somebody who’s really open-minded and really kind and really sweet. Everything is set up for her not to succeed and it shows how many people in this country, like, even if you come in with the best intentions, how the system is kind of setup against you. Like there’s more than one perspective of how you experience.

I’m Celia and I go to CVU.

Black is the Body, by Emily Bernard

I wish that my teachers would teach the book Black is the Body by Emily Bernard. She’s a professor at UVM of English. And her book has a lot to do about Black identity, especially in Vermont. I can imagine those essays fitting in in a class that has anything to do with diversity and race — like a social studies class — but also, in English class. Because not only does Emily talk about her experiences in her books, she talks about teaching English classes and the relation to race. How her students learn about it and become uncomfortable intentionally. And I think that’s a really unique perspective we don’t hear a lot in Vermont. So, I think any student in Vermont would benefit from reading the book but I think especially in English or social studies class.

My name is Christine. I go to school at Peoples Academy.

Stalking Jack the Riper, by Kerri Mansicalco

I wish that my teachers would teach Stalking Jack the Ripper, which is a new book that came out. It’s kind of like a fantasy while also historical. So I think it’s really interesting. At our school, we have a sci-fi and dystopia class? So, it would probably fit in there. But also, my English teacher does a lot of creative things. So, it’s not just the classics, like Great Gatsby, which we’re starting right now but it’s also some of the more interesting things.

Hi. My name is Isabel and I go to school at Peoples Academy High School.

What If It's Us, by Becky Albertalli and Adam Silvera

I think it would be What If It’s Us. I just really like the book, and because it’s by two different authors who write two different like, styles? And then it goes back and forth and it’s really good.

My name is Steven and I go to Peoples Academy in Morristown, Vermont.

The Count of Mt Cristo, by Alexander Dumas

I really wish we were teaching The Count of Monte Cristo, one of my favorite books by Alexander Dumas.

I just love how the whole entire aspect of the book is created and like all the different characters, the main character gets to play as. It’s super exciting and I really think that a lot of people could learn from the book. It’s so good. It was one of the books I actually got into, like historical fiction. Which got me real excited about this Teen Lit Mob, which we’re actually doing today, so.

 I am Noel. I go to CVU High School.

Six of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo

Well, a friend of mine recently introduced me to a wonderful book called Six of Crows. It’s extremely representational. It has several queer characters but it doesn’t shove it in your face the way some books do, which is, in my opinion, a very poor method of representation. Whereas Six of Crows, it’s just there. Just how it is in real life. And it is extremely well told and from multiple different perspectives. It shows multi-faceted characters; so many different very complex characters. It really lets you understand all of their motivations. And it’s just a tremendously related example of how one person can understand what’s going on in so many people’s heads.

I’m Ashka and I go to Mount Abe.

Black Butler Vol 1, by Yana Toboso

I’ve always been interested in graphic novels and they’re easier for me to read. Black Butler is a manga set. It’s like you read it back to front and left to right. Ask people like what their favorite book is and see if we like that, graphic novel.

Jeanie: Great ideas. Thank you so much, Ashka. Did I say that right?

Ashka: Yeah. Yeah.

Jeanie: Okay. Great. Thank you.

My name is Katrina. Most people know me as Artie, though. And I go to Burr & Burton Academy.

City of Bones, by Cassandra Clare

I wish my teachers taught more fantasy because I don’t see a lot of fantasy. And, so, I think I’d have to say a good place to start would be City of Bones by Cassandra Clare. She’s the newer version of the fantasy queen (versus J.K. Rowling).

City of Bones takes place in this mystical world that takes place just underneath human’s noses. Kind of like the Harry Potter world but there’s more diversity. It’s not just wizards. There’s warlocks, fairies, werewolves, vampires and demons. And the four factions that I named are all part demon. They have to be controlled by shaman hunters  — which are demon hunters — in order to make sure they don’t hurt people. Generally, they can keep check on themselves because they’re half human ,so they do have some reason. But demons love hurting people because it’s what gives them life. And, so, the shaman hunters have to take care of these people.

Then there’s this girl Clary, who finds out she’s one of these people after thinking she’s been human for so long. And she’s just thrown into this chaotic world that her dad wants to screw up.

Jeanie: Ooh. You’ve convinced me! I want to read the book.

My name’s Maria. I go to Woodstock Union High School.

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

So, I wish my teachers were teaching Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi. (I can’t pronounce her name; I’m very sorry!) But there’s just so much diversity. And like diversity in a fictional fantasy world,? It’s like, really hard to find. I like them so well. The gods and religion is shown there and these are really magical. And the writing is fantastic.

My name is Jade and I go to Peoples Academy.

The Bad Beginning, by Lemony Snicket

I would have to go with probably The Bad Beginning from A Series of Unfortunate Events. Because when I was younger, I really liked reading the series. So, if like they were to teach it, I’d be really happy.

Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. That’s a very good book. It’s about a girl who is taken captive in like, a castle, and is trained to be a champion but was already trained as an assassin when she was little.

Jeanie: Wow. It’s fantasy?

Jade: Yeah.

Jeanie: It sounds thrilling!

Jade: It is.

Jeanie: Excellent.

I’m Carly. I go to school at CVU.

And I’m Emily and I also go to school at CVU.

Jeanie: What books do you wish your teachers were teaching?

Carly: I just think a lot more inclusive books. Books with people of color, books with queer community. It’s starting to be integrated into the academic thing. But it’s just not as…

Emily: Yeah. I mean that’s really important and I definitely agree with that. And I also think that maybe — like I don’t want to say more interesting books, but less like — more relevant kind of. I don’t know how to explain it, but like we do a lot of Shakespeare and Lord of the Flies. I feel like there are other books that can get those same messages across that are like more modern day, I guess.

My name is Ruby and I go to Champlain Valley Union High School.

Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen

I really wish we did Jane Austen. Or just kind of any book… that doesn’t have… a really gross misogynistic male main character. Or if it does, that that’s a bad thing and not just a generally accepted character trait. Like, her work like doesn’t pass the reverse Bechdel Test. Like it’s just really fun to read. It’d be nice to have narratives in the classroom that are about women. I think it’s cool because Mr. Darcy is a flawed male character and kind of like… a bit toxically masculine. But he changes? And it’s just a thing that happens, and it’s good and it’s not a weakness or anything. It’s just him becoming a better person.

Jeanie: And, so, tell me — sorry, Ruby. I’m just so interested in this. Do you read many books written by or about women in class now?

Ruby: Well, I think part of it is just the curriculum and then what fits that. But you can find as many female authors for anything as you can male. But we read The Odyssey earlier this year. Which was interesting because I really like Greek mythology, but also, Odysseus is a pain. *laughs* Like, he is just really grossly misogynistic and stuff and it’s never addressed at all. Especially because we were reading the journey chapters. So, the whole thing is he’s telling it to this king, trying to impress him. So, it just shows how acceptable it was to be so grossly misogynistic and how it was even seen as a good thing. Because this is what he’s telling the king about on his journey to try and impress him.

Jeanie: And were you able to talk about that in class?

Ruby: Yeah, we were. I really like my humanities teachers. But it’s just the reading itself can be sometimes a bit much like we criticize it quite a bit for these reasons.

My name is Maeve and I go to U-32 High School.

To Kill A Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

So, the books we read in our class for ninth graders is comp and lit — or composition and literature. We read a few different books throughout the year. But none of them are really written currently in today’s culture, even if it’s not a current book. Just written by an author who’s part of today’s society, I think would be a really helpful and valuable. Something that could really help us benefit from the books more than reading. Something that’s still important and relevant but it’s not as necessarily as interesting.

For example, we read To Kill a Mockingbird. And it’s like it’s a very good book. It speaks to some very important issues. But it’s also just, in my opinion, not a super interesting book. And it doesn’t necessarily teach, I think, some of the things that a current author would be able to do, especially with like today’s — all of today’s technology information.

Jeanie: Hi. Tell me your names and where you go to school?

Teen Lit Mob: Scythe, by Neal Shusterman

Riley: My name is Riley.

Amelia: I’m Amelia.

Reuben: And I’m Reuben. And we all go to CVU.

Jeanie: Thanks for joining me. Tell me what books do you wish your teachers were teaching in the classroom?

Riley: We had a bit of a discussion about this book called Scythe, which was written by–

Jeanie: Neal Shusterman?

Riley: Neal Shusterman, yep. And actually the third one of the trilogy was just announced. We all agreed that, that was one of the books that should be really taught in schools. Because a lot of times we now analyze different books, and talk about the metaphors and different meanings. And Scythe is really just thoughtful with them. There’s all sorts of inner meanings that you can read into it and it’s really interesting to see, kind of as a philosophical thought experiment.

If death is no longer possible really, how would people act? It’s fascinating. Like, in the book there’s a profession: your job is just to go and die, like for the entertainment of another [specific] person. In that universe, people can’t die except through very specific means. So it’sa legal profession. It’s just, it’s a really interesting philosophy that book takes.

Jeanie: I love that book. And I think you’re right, there’s so many interesting questions. There’s so much going on. That “The Thunderhead” has been compared to the internet and how much power it has. That is a really intriguing book. I think you’re right it would help us have really rich conversations about current social issues.

Other texts you might suggest to your teachers? Other books?

Reuben: I would suggest the book Children of Blood and Bone

Jeanie: Oh yeah!

Reuben: The reason I found intriguing is because it gives us a lot of the topics you already have now, such as not segregation, but more discrimination towards specific groups? And the targeting of very specific attributes that make that group what they are? So with the Children of Blood and Bone series, it was mostly just targeting those who are able to form magic.

And what I find interesting about that is that although it is chemistry-based, it does tackle all the issues we have regarding the inner violence within some communities. How we don’t necessarily understand another community or ethnicity group, ethnicities, much more than that. And how we don’t understand other groups’ particular traditions, and what they value and so I feel like it be an excellent book to have students talk about. Mostly because it would encourage a lot of conversation regarding heavy topics such as that and it would give someone who’s going through some of these issues — maybe they might be able to relate — a way to be easier for them to talk about it.

Jeanie: Yeah, yeah. That is a really awesome book. I love the way it illuminates power: who has power, and who gets discriminated against just because they don’t have power, right? It’s a great book to talk about racism and Black Lives Matter and other powers, like (instead of going on for an hour today). It’s also really violent.

Riley: It’s so violent.

Jeanie: And gripping.

Amelia: Yeah.

Jeanie: Amelia, do you have a suggestion for us?

Amelia: I don’t really have a specific book suggestion, just more kind of a suggestion, for the kinds of themes that would be much appreciated, to kind of put a spot light on literacy. Particularly books having to do with relationships that are not male and female. Where you have people who are gay, lesbian or transgender. Just books that deal with that, and any kind of topic or situation, just because it will help normalize this idea that not everybody loves the opposite gender and that they can love freely. And that’ll really help encourage younger generations to kind of grow up with this idea that different is normal and not to be afraid.

Jeanie: Yes. Amelia, what you’re reminding me of is that many books in the canon, many other books that get taught? Don’t have diverse representation of any kind?

Amelia: Exactly.

Jeanie: It feels really important that we all be able to see ourselves in books.

Amelia: Right?

Jeanie: And then we all get to see people that are not like us in books, too. Some of us *only* get to see books about people that are not like us. And that kind of stinks. Yeah. Those are great answers! Any other suggestions for teachers, educators, out in the world around literature?

Riley: I just I think which is books that take that are written in modern times. Because a lot of, a lot of classes try to make parallels between like this book and modern issues, and I think a lot of our books do that very well. But, but I think that because it’s written in the past time, there’s a lot of just ideas that, that can be made parallel but don’t translate as easily? And I think it more important to talk about topics that are more relevant. Which is going to be founded books that are written more recently.

Jeanie: Yeah.

Teen Lit Mob: The Rook

Reuben: I would say books that revolve more on focusing on the political climate of some locations?

There was a book I read recently called The Rook which although it is, again, fantasy, and focuses on supernatural whereabouts in London. It touches heavily on how an action that we don’t necessarily think can have many multiple consequences. That each go in o a diplomatic scale, which can drastically effect how the climate of the work environment or healthy climate of the population is affected. I feel like there aren’t a lot of books that we do talk that are political and do relate to politics but most of the books and again as Riley mentioned, kind of aren’t set in the modern world. And so we don’t have any way of actually understanding how that politics relate to the ear it was written in.

Jeanie: That’s really thought provoking, thank you.

Last words, Amelia?

Amelia: I just really think that it’s important that teachers and school administrators really stress that importance in diversity but also how are all the same and we may look differently, we may act different but really we are all just human.

Jeanie: I think your librarian, Peter Langella, does a program about  reading for empathy. Right? It talks about empathy books. And I think that too: reading characters that are different than me, allowing us to step in somebody else’s shoes, that feels really important. Is that what you’re saying to Amelia?

Amelia: Yeah. Being able to empathize with people you normally would not on the surface see as yourself? Allows you to broaden your worldscape. And kind of make it easier to just step into other people’s shoes in the real world.

Jeanie: Yes, I love that phrase, broaden your world scape. That’s my new goal in life: to broaden my worldscape through literature. Thank you all three so much for talking to me about books. You guys are amazing.

Riley: No problem.

Amelia: Thank you.

Reuben: Thank you.


This year’s Teen Lit Mob is coming up March 27th 2020 at U-32 in Montpelier. If you’re a young adult in Vermont, Teen Lit Mob registration is free and currently open, and we hope to see you there. Go to libraries dot vermont dot gov for more details. We will be at Teen Lit Mob again this year, with our mobile podcasting kit, and we will absolutely grasp your hands and bounce up and down sharing the sheer, umitigated JOY of a good book.

Until then…

#vted Reads is a podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.

#vted Reads: Juliet Takes a Breath

Welcome back to #vted Reads! The podcast for, with and by Vermont educators. I’m Jeanie Phillips and in this episode, we’re joined by Dolan, in talking about Juliet Takes a Breath, by Gabby Rivera. Along the way, we talk white fragility, preferred pronouns (and how your students can let you know what’s safe and appropriate for them in different settings), we learn about Gloria E Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, and answer the question: ‘What can adults do to support students in their activisim?’

Plus, I confess my shortcomings as a meditator.

It’s #vted Reads. Let’s chat!

Jeanie: Thank you for joining me, Dolan. Tell us a little bit about who you are,  and what you do.

Dolan: My name is Dolan and I go by they/them pronouns. I currently live in Vermont, and I’m in a doctoral program with Jeanie, which is really lovely, in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Before that, I worked for six years coordinating and directing LGBTQ resources and services on college campuses. On different campuses across the country.

And most I recently moved here from California. Before that was Missouri, before that I was here in Vermont, doing my master’s program in the Higher Ed Student Affairs HESA program, just a really transformative experience for me.

I love reading, especially queer-trans, people of color or QTPOC Fiction. It’s really fun to get lost in a book, especially a book that pushes me, or resonates with me, or one maybe I feel seen in.

I am biracial. I’m white and Latinx. My mom was born in Cuba. And I definitely feel that I have a lot of white privilege and white-passing privilege. I am queer. I’m bisexual and I’m non-binary. Which is why I go by they/them pronouns, although some non-binary people go by different pronouns as well. And I’m excited to be on this podcast today.

Jeanie: Oh, I’m so excited to talk to you about this book. We talk about books all the time. One of the questions I asked my guest is what book are they reading now. And you are always reading a ton of books! As you walked in, you are like, I just now finished The Water Dancer — a book I adored. So, I wondered if you wanted to share any other highlights from your reading list?

Dolan: Yeah, I literally, as you said just finished The Water Dancer moments before this podcast recording. It was a beautiful read. Really beautiful POC fiction that I recommend to everyone. Also right now I’m finishing up Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. And also finishing Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Antiracist?

And I have a few more that I’m about to read but I can’t remember the names of. I use the Libby app and love downloading audiobooks and listening that way. I’m supporting my local library.

This past winter break since I’m a student, I read a lot of really fun books and one that sticks out to me is Darius the Great Is Not Okay. I loved that young adult novel. So. Definitely recommend that one too.

Jeanie: That’s a great one. And yay, public libraries! Yay libraries. I also just want, for listeners who may not be familiar, could you talk to me a little bit about the shorthand you use? You just used “POC” and that stands for People of Color. Is there other shorthand you might use that we could spell out for listeners as they listen?

Dolan: Yeah! So like I said I sometimes say “QTPOC” for Queer and Trans People of Color. I found living on the East Coast people pronounce it “P.O.C.” for People of Color and living on the West Coast, I found people pronounce it “POC” [pawk] for People of Color. So…I don’t know. I’ve bounced back and forth because I’ve lived in both places. And I’m still readjusting to the East Coast lingo.

But when I say POC or P.O.C., I’m referring to People of Color. So, what I mean by that personally is non-white people. That can be people mixed with white like myself, or others who are not mixed with white, people who are mixed or not mixed in general.

So, usually that looks like Black Indigenous Latinx or Latino / Latina people. And Asian Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern — other people who might identify. I also use the word “Latinx” instead of Latino or Latina, because while some people feel confused by Latinx because it’s less pronounceable in Spanish, it’s a word that was created by Latino / Latina / Latinx people to acknowledge the fact that our language, Spanish, is gendered. That all nouns and adjectives, almost all of them completely have gender. Which is very strange in my opinion. And a little bit constricting for people like myself and many, many others who identify outside of the gender binary, or just generally feel restricted by that binary.

So, a lot of times when words end in “o” and “a” in Spanish people put an “x” there, which again is a challenging pronunciation. But it’s more so to acknowledge that the binary isn’t really real. It’s a figment of our imagination. And that it can be really even violent towards folks. So, a lot of times I’ll say Latinx in this, especially talking about Juliet.

Jeanie: I so appreciate you breaking down those words for us. Words have so much power! And so, I’m trying in my life in general to be more intentional with the words that I use? And I just really appreciate you making that accessible to us.

So, let’s dig in to Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. I wondered if you could introduce us to the narrator of our story here, Juliet.

Dolan: Yeah. So, Juliet is growing up in the Bronx in the book, she identifies in some ways as gay, as queer or part of the LGBTQ community. She has a girlfriend. You find that out like, on page four. And she’s boricua. She’s Puerto Rican. That’s a word that a lot of Puerto Rican folks use to describe themselves.

She’s kind of coming into herself throughout the entire book. And learning to love all parts of herself, striving for authenticity in all areas of her life. She’s navigating sometimes the harsh terrain of Puerto Rican Catholicism, and Latinx familia. Figuring out what it looks like to be young, to be queer. To be closeted in the beginning of the book, and figuring out how to be authentic in that space. Where she’s really embraced in her culture.

And she’s kind of dodging those questions at home about a boyfriend or a husband in the future. She shines brightly with her girlfriend in the beginning of the book, too. And she’s still learning kind of the hard way that this white supremacist society teaches us that she lives at the intersections of a lot of marginalization. So, she’s still learning that being in her brown, Puerto Rican family, she’s hiding a part of herself for protection: her queerness. And she seems to be desperate for more queer-friendly spaces. To seek protection from homophobia and sexism and the harassment that she’s experiencing a lot. She talks in her first chapter about experiencing some street harassment.

At the same time, she’s expecting — and she has every right to expect — a non-racist queer space, which many of us know is hard to come by. She’s still reckoning with the fact that much of the violence she experiences isn’t just sexist, it’s racialized. And I think she’s learning that throughout the book: that men harass her because of her brown body, her curvy body. Her Latina body is very sexualized by society; not just her woman body.

And so, I think Juliet is still figuring herself out. She’s very open and honest and vulnerable about that, at least with the reader. Very humble in that way: grounded in that humility of “I want to learn about feminism, and queerness; I have this girlfriend, but I still have to pay homage to my, you know, my elders in the queer community.”

And I think she still is learning that she has a lot to give and a lot to teach.

Jeanie: Early on in that chapter, she is struggling with how to come out to her family. And I think especially her mother. And she’s already out to her little brother who is bloody adorable.

Dolan: Amazing.

Jeanie: And also, challenges notions of Latinx masculinity, right? He is a total sweetheart. But, she wants to come out to the rest of her family. And one of the things that I really loved about this book was the tenuous way Gabby Rivera sort of walks this fine line of like, “I need to be who I am and be honest about that” and “I really need to be connected to my family.” Juliet’s not willing just to reject them. And I wondered if that was also her experience as a person of color.

Dolan: I think so. A lot of times queer communities look very white. And part of that, then perpetuates this narrative that communities of color, and families of color are more homophobic or transphobic. Queerphobic. And it’s just not the case, a 100% just not the case.

I just think that it’s a much more complex narrative than reading this book and saying, “Oh yeah, Latinx people are homophobic.” Or, “Juliet’s mom is just, you know, really homophobic in the beginning.” It’s that Juliet’s mom is living in this world; she wants the best for her daughter. And while the best for her daughter is *not* for her to be as heterosexual as possible, that’s the way she’s thinking, right? So we have to hold space for that and hope some forgiveness for that and recognize that this was an act of protection and survival and not *because* brown people are more homophobic.

Jeanie: Yeah, I appreciate that because I think it also leads us along into the story, because Juliet, as a very young college student, is heading out for an internship. She has discovered this author that has been life changing for her: Harlow. Harlow’s written this sort of feminist treatise that really resonates for Juliet. And Juliet’s heading to Portland, Oregon which in the book it cracks me up that her family is always saying, “Right, you’re going to Iowa.” Portland feels so far away from them!

But she’s heading to Portland, Oregon, which is a really white space. So, you’ve set us up nicely to think about Juliet’s experience as a person of color heading to this very white space. She’s *really* excited because she’s also heading to this really queer space.

Dolan: And I think that Juliet doesn’t know to look for both of those things. She sees, “Oh wow, this is some queer haven where people are saying this. This writer is writing all these queer-friendly, queer-affirming things. That must be what I need, right? Because I’m held in my brownness at home, but I’m not necessarily being held in my queerness right now. So, I need to go be held in my queerness, right?”

And that’s where I think we need to be thinking intersectionally because I feel for Juliet, this is so real, so valid, that she would run towards that and not recognize that she, unfortunately won’t be held in her brownness in that space.

Jeanie: Right, and the intersection of the two. One of the people that lives in the house with Harlow, early on in the book, takes her out. I think it’s her second day in Portland, her first full day in Portland. And he takes her out to sort of get to know the town and he, you know, he’s having a rough time himself. He gets really adversarial with her. And he starts asking her about her preferred pronouns. She’s never heard this phrase before. So, for our listeners who maybe haven’t either, could you talk a little bit about what we mean when we say “preferred pronouns”?

Dolan: Yeah. So, pronouns are this very simple yet very complex thing. We use pronouns all the time in the English language to refer to people in the first, second and third person without using their names. And so, when we’re talking about pronouns, we’re talking about third person pronouns. Those look like “he” and “she”, right? In the singular, right? So, when we’re talking about people we’ll say, “Oh, I met up with him / I went to dinner with her / know her” whatever it might be, right? And we have to recognize the gendering that happens in those third person pronouns.

So queer folks, trans folks created this new way of talking about ourselves. Because a lot of folks have said, you know, we can’t be what we can’t see. We have to be able to create language to talk about ourselves because we’re creating new ways of being and living. And if we’re not able to talk about it, other folks won’t see us. We are paving paths for others to be able to see themselves in us.

And so, gender-inclusive pronouns are ways that we asked folks to refer to us that aren’t misgendering to us. Because not everyone identifies as a man with “he” pronouns or a woman with “she” pronouns. And so, gender-inclusive pronouns often look like using they/them pronouns, which, again is kind of a repurposed plural pronoun that we all know, if English is our language of use.

They’re ways of acknowledging people that we wouldn’t be able to acknowledge. And I have to say as a person who use they/them pronouns and is non-binary: when people misgender me, it hurts. Not just because, oh, they made a grammar mistake. It’s never about that, right? I fully recognize that it takes a lot of re-learning in order to use these newer words for folks or using old words like “they” in new ways.

When English is not our first language and we’re really having to think through each word, I’d recognize that’s really tricky, especially folks are translating in their heads as they’re speaking, it’s complicated.

So I think the most important thing and the most amazing thing that folks can do is recognize that we can’t know someone’s pronouns without asking? And to provide some space for folks to name their pronouns. So when you’re in a meeting or a class, in the beginning if people are introducing themselves asked folks to offer their pronouns as well, right? If you’re making name tags for a conference or for a one-day thing or for permanent name tags for people’s offices names and pronouns, right? If we couldn’t guess your name, we couldn’t guess your pronoun.

One more thing I’ll share is that they can change over time and in different contexts, right? Let’s say Juliet wanted to use they/them pronouns for themselves. But at home, maybe that wasn’t safe. So when we’re talking with Juliet’s mom, we’re using she/her, right? When we’re talking with Juliet in class, we’re using they/them. And so checking in with folks and saying, “Hey, I just want to be a support to you, let me know if it shifts for you or if there are ways that I can support you.”

And a lot of times if you have a young student, for example, I see this a lot in youth, where they’re [in the Gay-Straight Alliance] they’ll say,

“Oh, I want to use these pronouns. But when you’re meeting with my parent at the parent-teacher conference, use these [other] pronouns, right?”

And that’s a way of protecting someone and letting them play with their identity and their language a little to see what fits.

Jeanie: Yes, I’ve had that experience actually in schools of using one set of pronouns with the student and a different set of pronouns on the report card or with the family and it’s super important to keep LGBTQ folks safe.

Dolan: Absolutely.

Jeanie: I’m going to insert into the transcript to my yearly public service announcement, which is The LGBTQ Bill of Rights for Students (.pdf) which is an important document that I think should be at schools everywhere.

Now, is there a role for ally ship in this? If I’m with you and somebody misgenders you, what’s my role as your friend, as your ally?

Dolan: I think it’s tricky because you may be with a youth. Or you may be with someone in front of their family. Like I said, it can change based on the context. So a lot of times, I say one of the best first steps can be to check in with the person afterwards.

“Hey, I was in that room and I noticed that someone misgendered you. How can I support you?”

Right? And I think that’s huge because that non-binary person that trans person definitely noticed that they were misgendered. Very rarely I’m I like, “Oh, they did?”

I almost always know that: yes, you’re right. Thank you for noticing. I felt alone in that moment. I felt isolated and unseen and you saw me. And that is a big deal to feel seen even when others are kind of harassing you, right?

Jeanie: That is so helpful. I just so appreciate this conversation. And I think Juliet, in the book, could have really benefited from a friend like you to sort of help them navigate, like. because she sits there for a long time and struggles with like, what even is that?

Dolan: That’s a big undertone of that interaction that she has with this man! And there’s something to be said about her being consistently marginalized around even not being queer enough — which is a big narrative in our communities, unfortunately — for this space. And Juliet is not able to see herself reflected back in this community and feel like she can contribute and teach and be part of, you know, that spac. Because she doesn’t *know* enough. Which is not fair when we webinars our own work against each other, right?

Jeanie: This reminds me of a conversation I had last night with a friend of mine who works with a lot of ELL students, and this student who is Nepali, is taking a Spanish class. And the student said to my friend who’s working with her, “All of the white kids in the Spanish class are *so* good.”

And, my friend Jory says, “Well, do you think it’s because that this is your third language you’re learning? Do you think they would be as smart in Nepal?”

Dolan: Ooh.

Jeanie: I bring this back to Juliet because in a way what Juliet had seen is like, “Oh, is it because I’m brown that I don’t…?” Right? And she is really seeing this white perspective and feeling like she doesn’t know enough. Meanwhile, nobody in the whole place is acknowledging anything about her Puerto Rican background.

Dolan: Absolutely. Absolutely. And they don’t feel like they need to take responsibility for that learning. It’s a very complex pattern throughout the book.

Jeanie: It’s a double-standard, right?

Dolan: Absolutely.

Jeanie: You need to know all of these things to fit into the queer community, but we don’t need to know anything about your cultural background.

Dolan: Right, exactly. And we will punch your card when you’re ready, right? Your queer card. And that’s just nonsense, yes.

Jeanie: But not all the spaces Juliet experiences are like that. She gets taken to a Writer Warriors workshop. And I wonder maybe we could read a few pages of it. To introduce this space.

Dolan: So before I start reading, for those who you are following along at home, it’s on page 106. Juliet is in this space being hosted by Zaira. And Zaira is a Black queer woman.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. First before we go anywhere else, can we just express our mutual appreciation and love for Octavia Butler?

Dolan: Yes, she’s so amazing. I really want to just beg everyone to please read all of her books. Kindred is currently on my nightstand and I’ve only read her Earth series so far, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. But holy-moly, it’s just amazing dystopian fiction that will feel way realer than 1984.

Jeanie: So, we just needed to get that out of the way because we have talked about Octavia Butler a bunch. But let’s go back, because what ends up happening is and I’m going to read this part because it’s the white woman’s part. Okay.

So, on page 110, you know, they’re finishing up this workshop, where Juliet is like, she’s a writer, but she’s doubting that she’s a science fiction writer. And she’s rediscovering Octavia Butler’s brand of science fiction, which is a little bit different.

But as they’re leaving, Juliet overhears a conversation and here it is.

You’re cracking up over there!

Dolan: I am!

Jeanie: Tell me what you’re thinking.

Dolan: Just the, “I know reverse racism doesn’t exist, but…”

You know it’s never going to go in a good place after that. I just know that. And literally the line right after you stopped reading Juliet kind of says, as the narrator, “I didn’t really know what was wrong from what they said, but it felt weird.”

And I want to acknowledge that. It’s so valid. I love that she shares that with the reader.

And I think it also reminds me of the magic that we have, right? Our intuition, how Juliet maybe hasn’t read a book about privilege and whiteness and white supremacy, but she knew in her bones, in her gut, in her heart, her soul that what just happened wasn’t right, you know. She didn’t need that academic training on the topic to know it, right?

And just a few pages after that, Harlowe gets in the car, with Zaira and some others, and she had just talked to some white women who were fawning over her writing–

Jeanie: –and Harlowe is a white woman, a white writer.

Dolan: Exactly. And she sits in the car. I think she’s the only white woman in the car. Everyone else is a woman of color after this session and she’s just kind of like humphing. And Juliet talks about how she’s all pointy and all edges and very sharp, you know? She’s just making the stink, right? And how a lot of times white women, white feminists, white queer feminists can’t really acknowledge that racism still exists right now, still, in all of us day-to-day in our interactions we’re witnesses to it and we’re perpetrators of it, right?

Jeanie: Yes.

Dolan: And I say that as a person who’s half-white, half-Latinx, super white-passing, right?I’m totally part of the problem *and* experience it sometimes. And so, it’s a real thing. And I love the way that Gabby Rivera walks us through this because it’s so dally. *laughs* And the way that Juliet makes meaning of it? Because she doesn’t have all the words and all the jargon but she totally gets it in her gut. That what happened was wonky, right?

Jeanie: Right. And we’re so used to being centered in our histories, in the literature that we read in school and out of school, in the news, on television and movies. So suddenly when our experience isn’t centered or when we’re asked to, you know, stay a little quieter, make a little space — and I say that we as a white woman, me “we” — when we as white folks are asked to do that, it pinches. I think it takes a lot of self-awareness and practice to get used to being like, “Oh, other people experiences all the time and we don’t even ask it of them, it just happens.”

You’re making me think of something. I am a very novice meditator. I should meditate more, probably. But when, you know, when I’m learning meditation, when I’m focusing on meditation, one of the things is when your mind wanders –which it will — the work, the practice is really about coming back to the present moment, right? And so, what you’re making me think about is the practice here is about like, “Oh, there’s my fragility again.”

Dolan: Yes, it’s the noticing and naming, just like in meditation, right?

Jeanie: And that comes back to pronouns.

Dolan: Yes.

Jeanie: When we mess up, it’s the noticing and the naming. Oh, I so appreciate the way you’re reading this together for me.

So Juliet, besides going to Writers Workshops with cool people and other social events around. Portland also has a job to do and one of her tasks is to investigate this, like, weird collection of paper slips with the names of powerful women on them that Harlowe has collected. And one of the women she seeks out is Lolita Lebrón. She’s at the local library where there’s a bit of a love interest, that was really fun to read about! And she gets really angry because she didn’t know about Lolita Lebrón who is a Puerto Rican revolutionary. She gets like, ticked. She’s like, “How do my family never talk to me about this? My Puerto Rican family, where is this story? How did I never learn it?”

It reminded me, at the Middle Grades Conference, a teacher in the room asked some Edmunds Middle School students who were presenting on equity, “What could adults do to support them in their activism?”

And one of the students responded, “How come nobody ever teaches us about inequity? I wish adults would teach us about what is going on in the world.” And so, I’m just curious about how you reacted to the Lolita Lebrón’s section.

Dolan: Yes, it’s so real. We don’t realize how much we’re centering white people in our history and in our pedagogy until we read something else. And it’s like, “Oh, my God, how did I not know?”

For me, this makes me think immediately about learning about Gloria E. Anzaldúa for the first time, way too late in my life, when I was like 24 or 25 in grad school the first time. She talks about living in the Borderlands in her book Borderlands/La Frontera. And this book cracked me open and made me feel whole at the same time.

So, as a biracial, bisexual, non-binary person — also a Gemini — I feel Juliet’s words on a visceral level, this living between sometimes in different lands never truly belonging, perhaps only belonging in the liminal space of the border itself and not knowing who our people are.

It was powerful for me because… I had embodied so many experiences but didn’t know how to name it? And also felt so isolated. And so, it comes back to this: you can’t be what you can’t see, right? Or this way of when someone names and experience you feel seen and you feel less alone, right? Because I was like, “Wow, I’m not the only person who lives on some Borderlands, right? And so I read her book. I think I was assigned one chapter for something. But I read the whole thing. I just couldn’t put it down.

And it had so much Spanish and Spanglish in it that she just unapologetically wrote in both languages and a mixture of language and some words she made up and I just loved.

And I just cried.

I cried hearing the words of my people and reflecting on the colonization of language itself. This idea that Spanish had came from the conquistadores and is really not the indigenous language at all. And [Anzaldúa] identifies as Indigenous and queer–

It was *so much* for me, for her to analyze some and all of that in different passages and talk about queerness in those spaces. And even gender. It really helped me kind of split open and begin to heal?

And I realized how much I had been *thinking* I was self-protecting. By building this, you know, deep shell of protection: The Shield. But really, when I read someone else who had a similar experience? Again, I have a lot of privilege and I don’t want to pretend like my experience is the same as Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s, but she spoke to my soul.

Jeanie: What you’re making me think about is the importance of being seen? Being seen in literature, in history, in story. And what you talked about earlier about being seen for who you are and how your gendered. How your pronouns are used.

And as a librarian like for me, my mission was really to make sure that all of my students could be seen affirmatively, appreciatively, in my collection. So, that just like really touches me. And I think that Lolita Lebrón helps Juliet feel seen, in a way, for her heritage in this place where you’re talking about she wanted to be seen for her queerness. Now, she’s in this white queer space and now she gets to be seen for her Puerto Ricanness.

Dolan: And how even when Juliet probably learned about Puerto Rican people, it was probably on like a half-page in a multicultural section of our social studies book. And on top of that, it was probably this very whitewashed or normative narrative of someone assimilating to white culture and not Lebrón’s narrative, which is like attempting murder and, you know, assaulting the House of Representatives. And really, I mean, being incredible, right? In some ways. Like, fighting and not taking no for an answer for liberation, right? And how that is kind of taught to us as like not really worthy of true history. Or maybe it’s not as notable or, you know, as loving as a Rosa Parks story. Or the way that we sanitize people like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right?

There’s no real sanitization of Lolita Lebrón, right? And so, when she reads about this person, she’s just like,

“I’m allowed to be unapologetic?”

And there’s so much power and empowerment in that.

Jeanie: Yes. She stays in the library for, like, full days reading these books and she’s even distracted from the crush she has. She’s so interested in Lolita. So I’m going to move us along a little bit further. There’s a really interesting point in the book on page 182, that I want to ask you about because I need help thinking about it. And you sort of mentioned it before, about the ways we expect queer folks and people of color to sort of educate us all the time.

And so. At this point in the book, Harlowe is asking Juliet for her opinion about a racial issue. And here’s what Maxine, Harlowe’s partner says,

“Now, hold on just a minute,” Maxine said, ‘Are you going to write me and Juliet checks for an analysis on race? Because our labor isn’t free.'”

Dolan: *laughs* And it’s important to note that Maxine is also a woman of color, right?

Jeanie: Right.

Dolan: So, I think there’s this really interesting juxtaposition, for me, of Juliet learning about pronouns from this very, like, white normative lens of like, “How did you not read them the right books about pronouns? How are you not hip enough with this elitist academic knowledge?” And this white woman asking about a race issue, right? A racialized feminist issue. And expecting the folks of color, the women of color in her life to constantly just fill in those gaps.

Jeanie: To do all the work.

Dolan: And use it for myself. That’s the other piece. It’s a lot of times white folks learn things from folks of color. Not even from like taking the time to read a book and really situate themselves in some context, they’ll ask their friend a question, their friend will give an individual answer — as a person, right? As me — not as all brown people, right —  I will tell you the answer to this question. And then that white person will then use it in all the spaces and be like, “Well, this one brown person told me that it’s totally okay to say this.”

Jeanie: “I have black friends.”

Dolan: Exactly. And they said I could do this and that or say this and that or show up this way or that way or that whatever. Wait a second!

Jeanie: “My black friend says I can use the N-word.”

Dolan: No!

Jeanie: You saw my sarcasm there, I hope.

Dolan: Oh yeah! And so: no, no, no. First of all, that’s co-opting some space and some power. That’s just violent, right? But also, it creates this weird monolith asking this brown or Black person to speak for all brown or Black people and that’s just garbage, right?

But I think there’s this, yes, this interesting thing around the unpaid labor. It’s just like: people of color as marginalized people are expected to know the norms of white culture and society, right? But white people are not expected to know their norms, right? Of communities of color.

So, folks of color are living in their own brown norms, their own cultural norms at home, with their communities, whatever that looks like. And then they’re also having to code-switch into white norms and white society, right? And then white people are like, “Oh, how do I act around brown people? Hey, brown person explain this to me.” Or: “Is it okay to do this as a white person? Why not?” Right? Not recognizing sometimes it’s really harmful to hear that stuff come out of a white person’s mouth. To sit there and go,

“I still need to tell you that? I need you to go write that in your journal instead.”

That’s what I like to tell people sometimes because it can be really harmful to hear that and feel objectified and tokenized.

Jeanie: “Go Google it.”

Dolan: Exactly! Yes. So it’s this tricky piece.

Jeanie: You’re making me think about, you’re making me think about how the extra emotional labor people of color do as educators, right? Because not only are they code-switching with norms and community, not only are they making sure the needs of their students of color are being met, but they’re also dealing with racism all day every day.

Dolan: Absolutely. And making the white people around them comfortable about it, right?

Jeanie: Yes. Well, speaking of tokenization, this stuff really goes down in this book. In fact when I got to Page 206, when I got to the end of page 206, I remember texting you like: “Oh my god Harlowe just did whaaaaaat?”

Dolan: Yup, uh-huh.

Jeanie: Because here we are, Harlowe is giving this big book event for Raging Flower, her feminist tome, and Juliet has helped set up this book event. And I’m just going to read a portion of it. Harlowe gets challenged by a person of color about the color-blindness within her feminism, is what I’ll say.

So, part of her answer is:

“‘Do I think that queer and trans women of color will read my work and feel like they see themselves in my words? Not necessarily, but some will and do. I mean, I know someone right now sitting in this room who is a testament to this, someone who isn’t white who grew up in a ghetto, someone who is a lesbian and Latina and fought for her whole life to make it out of the Bronx alive to get an education. She grew up in poverty and without any privilege–‘”

And– It goes *on*.

But oh, my goodness.

I felt this on so many layers and I’m not going to begin to compare my experience to Juliet. But I will say: the first time I brought some college friends home to my house in Pennsylvania, one of my friends said, “I didn’t know you live near the projects.” And I had no idea.

So I felt this word, “ghetto”, to my very core. Because Juliet doesn’t think of her home as a ghetto. None of these things are how Juliet would describe herself.

Dolan: Absolutely. And so it’s so many layers. It throws Juliet into this: is that all you see me as? It shows the reader this pattern of behavior from Harlowe of not just her white fragility, but the ways that she uses brown and Black bodies as tokens of her “wokeness” and the ways in which she’s able to say, “See, I’m not just for white people because I surround myself with brown and Black people. And I use them as pawns.”

Gabby Rivera is pointing to a group of people who have been acting this way for a long period of time. White queer feminists in general. Right?

Jeanie: My take on this which is totally different than yours because we, our identities are different, right? And so our experience of reading this book is different? Is that I think that there was this moment when I realized that I hadn’t picked up on the pattern at all.

Dolan: Yeah.

Jeanie: That the things that the slides and the transactional nature of Harlowe’s friendship with Juliet?  …Wasn’t obvious to me until it was suddenly *so* obvious. And then I had to go back and really think about it. Like, you’ve really helped me think about all of the ways of the like, death by a thousand cuts. That all of these little itty bitty pieces throughout the book, lead to this. Because it wasn’t obvious to me. I’ll be honest.

Dolan: I don’t know if it was obvious to Juliet. Because Juliet is so gracious and humble, really came into this internship with: I have everything to learn from this hero / heroine (whatever) of mine. Like, “This feminist icon, she knows everything, I have everything to learn, nothing to teach.” And I think this moment helped her go:

“Holy moly, none of this is what I signed up for. I’m realizing now that not only do I hold others on a pedestal and not believe in myself enough because I have so much potential and capacity. But I gave this person too much benefit of the doubt. And every time that she disappointed me or rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I couldn’t quite figure out why my gut was telling me this was wonky.”

It’s connecting.

Jeanie: That helps me. I still think that I could fine tune my own capacity to see this.

Dolan: I hear you, but yeah, it’s a lot.

Jeanie: One of my favorite characters in this book is Juliet’s cousin, *sings* Avaaaaaaaa.

Dolan: Yes! She’s so rad.

Jeanie: My goodness. So, Juliet needs a break obviously, from Harlowe, after… *sighs* that epic fail at the bookstore. And so, she goes to visit her cousin, Ava, in Miami. And I got to say, when I was reading page 225, I wanted portions of it written in the sky in big, bold letters.

Dolan: Yes!

Jeanie: And so, Ava very graciously, is sort of educating Juliet about trans folks .And so here’s Juliet’s question. Could you read from page 225, there’s just this one part that I just want written in the sky in big bold letters?

Dolan: Cool. So,

I clasped my hands over my belly, mulling over what Ava had said. Before this summer, I’d never considered there was anything beyond he or she. Or that folks could experience a multitude of genders, within their person. Like: what? That sounded amazing. Beautiful. Wild, like the universe. ‘Why not just ask someone straight-up if they’re trans?’ I asked. “‘Girl, how rude do you plan to be in this life?’ She questioned, stretching out on her big-ass bed. ‘Your one job is to just accept what a person feels comfortable sharing about themselves. No one owes you info on their gender, body parts or sexuality.’ Mind blown.”

So, yeah, I love that part as well. I thought that was really beautiful.

Jeanie: I love, no one owes you. No one owes you.

Dolan: Yeah. I loved the way that Ava explained pronouns in such a real way, right? And juxtapose that with the way that Juliet was exposed to it in Oregon — which was very confusing and abrupt and condescending. The way Ava explains it in this like, come on, you know this already, kind of way. A very inviting way. But also a challenging way like, come on you got this, you’re better than this.

And then the way that she says like, what are you just going to ask somebody if they’re trans, are you rude? Come on, you know better than that, right? And doesn’t shame her. Just blows her mind. And I loved that.

But, we have to remember where we come from and I think that Ava teaches her this in such a beautiful way. It really helps Juliet see: you already know this in your bones. You just needed to be introduced to this. And not in a condescending, paternalistic, white supremacist way of “How did you not know what a pronoun is? How do you not know who Sylvia Rivera is?” But: “Hey, you don’t know your history because you don’t have access to this. I had to seek this out, let me teach you this.”

Jeanie: We are out of time. We have, listeners, Dolan and I have curated a ton of books because that’s who we are: readers and curators of books.

Dolan: Love books.

Jeanie: And we’re going to put a list up on the transcript of some queer and trans, people of color fiction, some non-fiction, some books that you might read on your own, some books that you might provide in your school or in your library, in your classroom. So many books, we’re going to put up some great lists for you on the transcript.But we’re out of time to talk about them even though we feel like we could talk for days about his book.

Dolan: We could.

Jeanie: It’s a great list. Dolan, I want to thank you so, so much for coming for talking about this book, for talking about your personal experience, your lived experience for sharing that with us and for answering all my questions.

Dolan: Thank you for having me. I adore this book and it’s not the most well-known book, which makes me sad because when it came out I remember feeling really excited. I was like, bought it immediately and thought that it would be a big book. And I’m surprised by how few libraries or other places have this book.

I really appreciate you going on your way to read it and loving it and talking about it with me because this book brings me a lot of joy and also peace.

Jeanie: I adore this book and I adore you. Thank you so much.

Dolan: I adore you. Thank you Jeanie.