Category Archives: #vted Reads

#VTED Reads: Care Work with Dr. Winnie Looby

Welcome, listeners, to another episode of vted Reads: talking about books by, for, and with Vermont educators. In this episode… we own an oversight.

On this show, we are dedicated to breaking down systems of inequity in education. We administer flying kicks to the forehead of intersectional oppression! But we haven’t yet talked about disability.

So in this episode, we fix that, as we chat with Dr. Winnie Looby, who coordinates the graduate certificate in disability studies at the University of Vermont. Dr. Looby also identifies as a person with a disability, which is important, listeners, because the rallying cry of disability advocacy has long been “Nothing about us, without us.”

So we’re here, we’re clear, and we’re talking about “Care Work: Dreaming Disability Justice,” by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Let’s limber up those kicking legs, folks, and talk about how disability too, is an equity issue.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads. Let’s chat.

Jeanie: Hi, 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 Dr. Winnie Looby. And we’ll be talking about Care Work, Dreaming Disability Justice by Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha. Thanks for joining me Winnie, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Winnie: Yes, so my primary function, I guess is I work at UVM as a lecturer in disability studies, and also in foundations. And then I’m a coordinator for a program under the Center on Disability and Community Inclusion. And I’ve been working there for about four or five years.

Jeanie: And so excited to have you with us to talk about this subject. One of the things I’ve become aware of recently, is these two schools of thought about how we talk about people with disabilities or disabled people, do we use identity first language, like, disabled person? Or do we use people first language like people with disabilities? And I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?

Winnie: Yeah I think, from what I’ve absorbed, I think it’s kind of context specific. Say, if you’re talking to an individual who chooses to identify as an autistic person, that’s the language you use when you’re talking with them. But say, if you’re talking to a government official, or somebody else like that, the politically correct thing to say now is person with a disability. So that’s the language that you would use. But then say, if you’re within an activist circle, you might say disabled people disabled person. So it really kind of requires us to be deep listeners um to figure out what exactly might be the appropriate thing to say in that moment.

Jeanie: I really appreciate something I’ve heard from other people I’ve had on the podcast as well. This like ask people ask people how they want to be referred to. And I think we had Judy Dow who’s in an Abenaki scholar on and she said, you know, we talked about do people who want to be referred to as indigenous or Native American or Indian or, and she said, ask them, and think about tribal affiliations and things like that, as well. And so it’s really helpful for you to frame that, again, ask people how they want to be referred to. Thank you for that. So this book, and so our author frames, access, disability access, in this way, “access as service begrudgingly offered to disabled people by non disabled people who feel grumpy about it.” And she wants us to shift to a different definition of of access to “access as a collective joy and offering we can give to each other.” And I was just really inspired by the move from one to the other, and what it might take for us as educators as schools, higher ed and K to 12 and pre K as well, to embrace this shift as a challenge to move from begrudgingly giving people access and being grumpy about it to creating opportunities for collective joy.

Winnie: Yeah,I think I like that a lot. Because you have to be creative to do that. Right? If you yourself, don’t identify as a person with a disability or disabled, you might not know what people need. And if you want to include everybody, then you actually have to care about them as a human being before any of the other stuff. So I’ll say for example, with my students in my classes, I had quite a few students who had disabilities and had accommodations, and they were kind of shy to share what they needed with me. But on the first day, I say, Well, you know, consider what we’re talking about, it’s important to me that you feel you have access to, to, you know, the readings, to watch films, all that stuff. So if something’s not working, you have to tell me so that we can, we can make it more inclusive.

Jeanie: Right, so what I’m hearing from you, Dr. Looby, is that we need to be informed by others what they need and embrace that information, moving it from, I guess I have to ask you what you need to make this work from you, to like, I really need you to help me help you learn.

Winnie: Exactly.

Jeanie: And I think about K to 12 schools I can probably even place myself back when I was a school librarian and thinking, Oh, we’re going to go on this field trip, and then realizing it’s not going to be accessible to the kid who has mobility issues, say, and then instead of begrudgingly say, well, I guess I can’t do that field trip; finding ways to create this collective joy, and how do we make sure that everybody is able to have fun?

Winnie: Right, right, exactly. I think an important part of that, too, is the modeling that you’d be doing for that student and the other ones. So say, that student, you know, over the course of their lifetime, they can take in a lot of negative messages, whether that was an educators intention or not, they might feel like they’re too much trouble, or they’re not being included because of their disability. So it’s modeling for that student that yes, you’re important part of the class, and also for their peers, and that this is how you work with people and you include them, you don’t just say, Well, today, you’re just going to watch a movie at class in somebody else’s classroom, but more we care that you’re here.

Jeanie: That’s a beautiful thing to think about the modeling not just for the student with a disability, but also for the rest of the class about what it means to be a community, what it means to take care of each other. So the other thing that our author really gets at that I found really interesting is this idea that, that when the disability rights movement started it really invisible, invisible ized people who were I’m actually going to read her words, because she says it so well.

The Disability Rights Movement simultaneously invisiblized the lives of peoples who live at intersection junctures of oppression, disabled people of color, immigrants with disabilities, queers with disabilities, trans and gender-nonconforming people with disabilities, people with disabilities are who are houseless.

And she asked us to notice that ableism is intertwined with white supremacy and colonialism. And I’m gonna just confess here that I’ve been doing a lot of work over many years to think about my privilege, but ableism is something I’ve been able to ignore for a really long time. It’s something I’ve really recently been thinking, been considering is where ableism shows up in me and in my life. And so I really appreciated the way she sees these as intertwined systems. And I wondered if you had any thoughts on that?

Winnie: Yeah, yeah. I would say it gets me thinking about what do we consider normal, right? In our, in our broad culture, what do we call normal, we turn on the television, what’s a normal family? What’s a normal person look like? Right. And so I talk about race in this way too that if the only message you’re taking in is one kind of person, or people, and that leaves out a lot of other people. And so questioning the things that you’re taking in and the things that you’re assuming, I suppose. And I would say too that, it’s important to kind of take the shame away from that. Because without that input without somebody consciously saying to you in school, this is what ableism is, right? Or unless you’re, you know, before now, if you didn’t really feel the need to actively seek it out, of course, you wouldn’t know. Right? So the idea is that, you know, it comes to your consciousness, and then you’re aware of it. And then you’re also kind of, to me, it kind of opened up the door to lots of other things I hadn’t thought about before. That the analogy I can think of is, you know, the Matrix movie, where there’s a blue pill and a red pill or something like that. And the guy says, you can take this pill and learn what the world is really like. Or you can take this one and just stay with the way it is, right? And so I feel like once I’ve been exposed to oppression of any kind of other people, it’s opening myself up to understanding other people, rather than just staying kind of where I’m comfortable.

Jeanie: It makes me think about, you know, an increasingly problematic thing about our society is how segregated we are for people, unlike ourselves. Can we see that politically? Right, we see that in terms of racial segregation, we see that in terms of communities where there are lots of queer folks and communities where there aren’t. And then we also see that in terms of ability, right, that because of the way our societies are organized, I don’t currently have a friend in a wheelchair. I do have a friend with mobility issues, who considers themselves disabled. But I have to really seek out perspectives of people who are not able bodied who are not like me, and our world makes it harder and harder to do that.

Winnie: Yeah, I would say, well, mass or mass culture does, right. Our movies that are blockbusters, the ones that feature disabled people are always people who were kind of helped by somebody able bodied rather than having their own agency, right. I think it’s, I don’t think in and of itself, it’s a bad thing to seek things out, you know, to listen for, like, I learned so much in reading this book. I actually got it when I went to the Disability Intersectionality Summit in 2018. First time I went, and Leah was a speaker there, she actually her book had just come out. And she was reading a chapter from it. And just being in that talk, and in that environment, I thought, people can actually make the world more accessible if they really want to, I mean, I hadn’t seen such accessibility in my entire life. I mean, there were like these, these great badges where you could choose a color green, yellow, or red, green meant you were open to having random conversations with people. Red meant, please don’t talk to me. Yellow meant, maybe depends, right? So you’re respecting a person’s kind of social anxiety in that moment, there were pins that say, you know, here are my pronouns, you wouldn’t have to necessarily announce it. Here it is on my my chest. There were there were live captions, which I’d never seen before where in that moment, somebody’s typing in a large screen. what’s being said, there was somebody who actually opened up the event, acknowledging that the college that we were at, we’re at MIT, that it had been placed on ancestral lands, right? So owing, you know, giving respect to that piece. I mean, all of these things had been thought through very purposefully, very carefully. And there was even like a room where, you know, if you were completely overwhelmed with everybody, you can go and draw and have quiet time, right? I mean, just, they thought of everything. And I was really, I thought, why can’t everything be like that? It’s not that hard. Really thought about, it’s not that hard.

Jeanie: Well, so two things come up for me is one is I’m probably just thinking about using myself as an example again, right? Like, I have lots of friends of color. I have lots of friends who are different than me in different ways. But maybe I’m assuming I’m making assumptions about who they are. And and our world makes it hard sometimes for people to share their disability or to write like without making it complicated, because if, for example, if I had a disability, I might not want to share it, because I don’t want people to feel sorry for me or to pity me or to feel like they had to do things for me or to assume I don’t have agency. Yeah, that those stereotypes themselves get in the way. And that stereotypes I hold that everybody’s like me also gets in the way.

Winnie: Yeah,yeah, I think well, for myself, my own experience, I mean, I’m disabled. I use a chair sometimes, sometimes not. But I do catch myself in these ableist moments where I’ve internalized a lot of negative messaging, to say, if I want to be seen as competent at my work, I can’t share that, you know, I feel sick today. Or if I want to be seen as a strong and not lazy person, I have to leave my chair in the car and exhaust myself walking around the grocery store. I mean, you, you, you internalize a lot of messaging, whether people mean it or not. You don’t want to be treated differently. You don’t want people to kind of talk down to you because they think somehow that’s helpful. I don’t know. So yeah, it makes it it’s hard to feel like you can share who you are with the broader public. But then I’ve also found that on those days when I’m feeling brave, and I just don’t care what other people think those are the best days when I can just kind of let that go, and just do what I need to do without thinking about it.

Jeanie: Hmm, I really appreciate that. Thank you so much for sharing your personal experience in that way. Do you have advice for someone like me, we’re gonna get back to the book, do you have advice besides reading this book for someone like me, who’s really working their edges around their own ableism and trying to be to learn more.

Winnie: I would say reading personal narratives. So things that people have written or expressed about themselves, performances, whatever it is, and there’s lots of that out there, where they talk about their life’s path. And then you can see the great variety in what people have been through, you know, it could be a lot of intersectionality there with like, you know, socio economics, race, where they lived, language, you can see kind of the huge variety in what the disability experience can look like. And so then, for myself, at least, the more I read, the more curious I am about other people. And the less I assume that I know anything about them, which also is could be scary and intimidating. And maybe you feel like you’re gonna make a mistake. At the same time making those mistakes is, you know, like Leah talks about real Disability Justice is messy. It’s not like everything goes just so.

Jeanie: Yes, I love that section of the book. And what you’re making me think about, is for me, especially, but I think for a lot of people reading is a real act of empathy, and reading, #OwnVoices stories by people with disabilities is really helpful to building empathy and understanding about what the world’s like for someone who’s different than you. It creates what routines into what Bishop calls a window into somebody else’s experience or even a sliding glass door where you can really have under the answers step into their experience.

Winnie: Yeah, I found that the stories, people’s personal stories are what sticks with me when I try to think about, what am I going to talk about around disability injustice and inequality, I think about the individual people that I’ve met or read about.

Jeanie: Yeah, well, the other thing that Leah shares our author, Leah shares is this acknowledgement that the gains made in disability justice have been largely on the shoulders on the through the work of, of multiply-marginalized disabled people. So queer, black and brown, people with disabilities have really led the way. And it made me think about what that might look look like in our educational institutions. And it reminded me of a say that saying nothing about us without us is for us about being not doing for but being in solidarity with I guess my question, if I can formulate one, that is what does that look like in an educational institutions? What does that look like for people when they want to engage? We’re gonna get to the messiness of disability justice, but what does it look like to be shoulder to shoulder with instead of trying to make change for?

Winnie: I think, for me, it starts with respecting the agency of that other person. Seeing them as you know, having a complete other life that has nothing to do with me. And that my work as an ally would be to not stand in the way, you know, not speak for anybody not do anything for them, but offer myself as somebody who is there if they’re needed, right? I can be a gatekeeper in a positive way where, for example, of the last couple years of my job I’ve a lot of, I’ve gotten a lot of cold calls and emails from folks who are looking to work in this field. And those messages have been coming from other bipoc folks who are disabled. And I thought, wow, that means that I have a really important role in playing right here. Like even if I can’t directly do something for them or open a door for them, that they see me as somebody who could possibly be somebody they could talk to, about, you know, their future career. or goals or anything like that is a really powerful, important kind of role that I can play. And so I think, you know, teachers, in my experience with I have four kids, and three of them have disabilities. And so my kids, when they had the most successful time they had in school was when their classroom teacher, really respected who they were as people. And the child, my, my child felt that respect, really, I mean, it wasn’t like, if they really felt that the person cared about what was happening for them.

Jeanie: It wasn’t grudgingly given.

Winnie: Right, right. And kids can tell when you’re faking it. I mean, you’re trying to just be nice, and you’re not genuinely caring about how they’re feeling in that moment. So I think like listening to parents, especially parents, from marginalized groups, about, you know, they’re the experts on their own child, right. And as that child grows up, they’re going to need to learn how to advocate for themselves. And so encouraging that, you know, helping them to pull that out and say, This is what I need. I need help. I think a lot of messages kids get in school is that they shouldn’t need to ask for help.

Jeanie: I have so many follow up questions. But I think just returning to the book, you reminded me of a section of the book, where Leah talks about asset framing, versus deficit deficit framing. And, you know, this is this is a concept that crosses beyond ability and disability, Gloria Ladson, Billings, has told us for a long time that one of the most powerful things we can do for our learners, is to see them with an appreciative lens to see their strengths and skills and not focus just on deficits and struggles. And we know that’s a huge lever for equity, it’s a huge part of being culturally responsive in the classroom. And I really, still hear students with disabilities discussed with a deficit lens a lot. And, and the author writes, “able-bodied people are shameless about really not getting it that disabled people could know things that the abled don’t, that we have our own cultures, histories and skills, that there might be something that they could learn from us. But we do and we are.” And what you just said about your children’s experience in the classroom and your own experience as a scholar, made me think about the shift towards an appreciative lens for people with disabilities. And I wondered if you had any insights to share with us about how that happens, or what that looks like?

Winnie: Well, again, it’s it’s seeing the whole person, right? That I just had a conversation with somebody the other day about how, in one way or another, you could have an impairment, right, like needing glasses means that my eyesight is imperfect. If you look at it that way, everybody has a little bit of something that isn’t perfect, right? There is no perfect. An impairment becomes a disability when the environment is not there to support you. And what you want to do, or what you need to do, right, there’s not something inherently wrong with the person because they have a disability, there’s something wrong in the environment, in the social attitudes that they have to absorb and kind of do something with.

Jeanie: Some friends recently recommended a podcast that I listened to. And I’m not going to remember the person’s name, but I’ll put a link in the transcript. It was an On Being podcast and it was about asset framing. And the idea of asset framing really was what this person’s aspiration is? And what’s the obstacle to that? So instead of seeing them as the obstacle, what are the obstacles or them as the problem? What’s the thing they want to accomplish? And what’s the thing getting in the way of that? And so that removes the problem from the person to the environment, just like you’re saying, but there’s this other side of it, too, which is that there are things we can learn really big things we can learn from people with disabilities because of their experience of the world. So it’s not just that we don’t see them as a deficit, but also that we see their assets and their strengths and the things that they can teach us. Do you have examples? Do you have ways people might think about what they can learn the what the author calls the cultures and histories and skills and the ways that we might tap into that and open ourselves up to learning from people with disabilities?

Winnie: Well, one way I guess, is to I know, a state organization the Vermont Center for Independent Living. They’ve had public forums around different topics. And so one might be, you know, health care access, like something, something like that. And so inviting people with disabilities to come and share. This is what’s happening for me, this is what I’ve had to do to work, work my way around that. And it can be so gosh, it’s just, it’s hard to describe, especially with like, state, institutional things, I think she mentioned, like, social security and disability insurance and all that kind of stuff. Disabled folks have a lot of that in common. And, again, listening to people and their own personal experiences, I mean, just just really paying attention, not just saying, oh, you know, that person’s just complaining, or, Oh, they’re, you know, hypochondriac or, Oh, it can’t be that bad. You know, like, I think people of color have heard hear that a lot. Very similar messaging. I think it has to be, there has to be a willingness to realize that you don’t know everything. I think teachers are hesitant to say when they don’t know, or they’re not sure, or they made a mistake. I think you can start there.

Jeanie: I really appreciate that. I think for me, one of the tension points is–so I’m going to use Outright Vermont as an example. One of the programs that Outright Vermont offers in schools that I think is really powerful as they have queer kids come and sit on a panel and answer questions and talk about their experience in schools. They used to, I imagine they still do, but when I was in school, they, you know, we have in common it was really powerful for people. The tension for me is about like, it’s not really their job to educate me. And so how do we learn from and with without expecting people with disabilities or people of color queer folks to do the work for us? So, there’s a real tension for me about like being open and I think that’s why your suggestion earlier about seeking out personal narratives that people have written, seeking, seeking out books like this one is really helpful, right? Because that’s out there. And I’m not asking people to do additional labor. And so I guess I’m just wondering how do you grapple with that tension, the both and of like, I want to learn from you, and I don’t want you to have to do a ton of work for me to learn like I should be doing the work.

Winnie: Yeah,I think well, one thing I learned through my scholarship a few years ago, I did some research around culturally responsive research, like how you might be a researcher, academic who wants to do research in a community, that community might be disabled, BIPOC, intersectional, lots of different kinds of ways. How do you do that in a way that’s respectful and they don’t feel exploited? Right? Think about what’s in it for them. Right? Those kids that come on to a panel most likely wanted to because they want to practice speaking up for themselves to practice self advocacy to practice leadership. Right? So saying, Okay, if I want to learn something specific from this specific person, I have to think about, well, what is what’s in it for them? Right? What is that, that I really want? Is it that I’m being nosy and just want to know details about their lives? Or is it do I want this kind of mutual exchange of information that benefits us both equally in some kind of way?

Jeanie: That’s helpful. And it reminds me of a section of but we are jumping, by the way listeners all over this book all over different sections of this book. But one of the sections of this book that really, I think was most interesting to me, was about, trying to find this specific quote, was about mutual aid. And so, in one of the chapters, the author talks about this voluntary reciprocal exchange of resources and services for mutual benefit, she goes on to say mutual aid as opposed to charity does not connote moral superiority of the giver over the receiver. White people didn’t invent the concept of mutual aid. Many pre colonial black, indigenous and brown communities have complex complex webs of exchanges of care, and this idea that I think so Often, in our society, we have this like white savior notion, or what you’re talking about is like this, when you were saying earlier that their characters with disabilities in movie say, and so often it’s about this able bodied person who comes to the rescue, right? And it totally means that in that storyline, they’re devoid of agency, right? The person with a disability is devoid of agency. And so this idea of mutual aid, is more than a nod is sort of honoring that we need each other. And that in communities, we take care of each other. And I wondered if you had thought about what mutual aid might look like in an educational institution in a school in a community? Yeah, or if you have any examples?

Winnie: Yeah, I can think of one example. I remember when I first started my doc program, there was an article we read about schools, public schools in say, pre-desegregation, right. So the article was saying that Neighborhoods and Schools kind of lost something with desegregation when kids had to be bused to different schools, because before then the school had been this hub of community, right? The teachers might live right down the street, and parents would know each other. The kids knew that there were adults around them that cared about their well being. I think that there is a deep desire for a lot of people to feel more connection than they do. In general, and I think if we can cultivate that in earlier ages in school, and to say, to kids, it’s okay to need other people to say to parents, that it’s okay to ask for what you need or to be, you know, demand what you need from the teachers and the principal and whoever it is, and that it’s okay for teachers to make mistakes, you know, it’s okay, for, it’s okay for that struggle to happen. Because without that, that means that we’re not even trying.

Jeanie: Ireally appreciate that. And so it makes me think that this book made me think a lot about rugged individualism and self sufficiency, it made me think that that’s something like we value as American society, right, rugged individualism and self sufficiency are sort of baked into how we think we’re supposed to be in order to be successful. And it gets in the way of asking for help from others. And it kind of creates a culture where you’re ashamed to ask for help. And recently, two things happened in my own life, that’s, that helped me that this book spurred new thinking about and one is that, um, some friends had a complicated pregnancy and a baby that needed some NICU support and, you know, they were so it was such a joy for me and some other friends to cook for them and provide some self care items, you know, it’s COVID. So a baby shower wasn’t really an option, but we like sort of threw together this, like, Here, take this and make yourself a baby shower. And my job was to provide them with meals for the freezer. That was my role I like to cook and, and they were so like, totally lovely in their, like, Oh, this is too much, we so appreciate it. And I was like, really, it’s a joy to do it. Like there’s reciprocity in this that I felt real joy in giving. So that’s one example. And then just the other day, I got an email from somebody saying, Hey, I’m gonna have surgery, and I’m gonna need some meals. And I’m gonna need some people to take me to appointments, and I’m calling on you as a group of friends. And here’s my meal train. It’s the first time I’ve ever received a meal train from somebody who set it up for themselves. And I was like, that is the baddest thing I’ve ever experienced. Like that is the coolest, like most empowered thing, that you set up a meal train for yourself, you’re my hero. And just thinking about that. The power in saying, I am not a rugged individual, I’m not self sufficient. I need people who care about me. I’m willing to ask for your help and receive it. And I know that I’m giving you a gift as well. I know that you want also to do something to help me. And that, that that reciprocity is a gift for you. And I just, I don’t know, I can’t stop thinking about how that’s the bravest thing that I’ve seen somebody do in a long time. And it made me wonder what would it look like if we like kicked self sufficiency and rugged individualism to the curb in schools and focused on creating communities of care where we can ask for and give the things we needed or that others needed. I was really wordy. Thank you for bearing with me. Dr. Looby. Any thoughts on that?

Winnie: Yeah, I think, Well, for me, the great place to start was to see that they call it the myth of meritocracy, right that we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps to be successful. And that’s not the case at all. Right? That that was set up by people who wanted you to work for no money, and work yourself into the ground and leave the workforce if you got hurt on the job, people who don’t care about you, right? So if you think about that, thinking, it doesn’t serve anybody except for people who make a lot of money off of what you’re doing.

Jeanie: Right? And it hides, it’s like hides all the privilege that people call on when they so-called lift themselves up by their bootstraps.

Winnie: Exactly, you know, this person that’s a friend of my uncle gave me an internship someplace, right, or, you know, there were these, oh, God I could get into a whole thing about, like, financially for, for folks of color, starting off with how there’s generational wealth that we don’t have, a lot of our communities do not have. And so when you say you can afford to buy a house, you’re buying a house with money that your great grandpa had saved, My great grandpa worked, you know, at a railroad, he didn’t have that kind of money to give me. So thinking, pulling apart all those assumptions that we make about how the world is supposed to work, I think kind of frees us up to be more generous and compassionate.

Jeanie: Well, and so when I read this and started thinking about this, I was thinking, oh, one of the like, paradigm shifts, or Aha I had is that disability justice, I’m almost ashamed to say this out loud, but I’m gonna be really vulnerable and say that that disability justice isn’t an extra an add on, it might be the very way to pull us towards a more liberatory future it might be. And it makes me think of to Dr. Bettina Love, who says, If you really want to work towards liberation, listen to queer black women. Right. And so this like sort of adds, like, people furthest from justice are actually the people who can help us see a clear path to justice.

Winnie: I like that. Yeah, I think I think we made some great points about, you know, the ingenuity that you have to have to be able to kind of survive in the world the way that it is, when you have multiple marginalized identities. The, I don’t want to say grit, that’s not right, the word but the, I guess, being comfortable with feeling out of place. And pushing past that anyway, like being in my doc program. I was the only person that looked like me in my cohort. And it was really uncomfortable that first semester, but then I also thought, if I can get to the finish line, I can open up the door for so many other people, right? Even if they just see me on the website, and my picture that I went through the program that will give somebody kind of a boost to feel like that’s that’s for them as well.

Jeanie: Well, and I know you’re making a difference, because a friend of mine is black, and is taking a class with you or took a class with you. And you are the first black person he had had a class with in our doc program.

Winnie: Oh, wow. Yeah.

Jeanie: And that’s huge for him. Right? That would be huge for me, too. I unfortunately, have not yet taken a class with you, Dr. Looby, but maybe in the future. So I think you’re right about that. But it also makes me think, Okay, I’m gonna take this to Vermont schools. But it makes me think about interlocking systems of oppression of which ableism is a part. And I think that often is really easy in our society to pit oppressed groups against each other. And I’m going to give you an example. In Vermont, for example, when we’re talking about equity, which I talk about schools with all the time, I will often hear the this this comment, we should be focusing on poor kids because those really are the most marginalized kids in Vermont schools. That’s the comment I’ll hear. That’s not my words. Those are a paraphrase of the words I hear. And that really gets my dander up. Because it’s a way of glossing over or ignoring racism, sexism, homophobia, heteronormativity and ableism and the intersections of them that just by focusing on class, we’re ignoring all these things that poor up poor kids might also be experiencing. And and that’s mean that works to maintain power and privilege, right? Like when we pull them apart and say we’re just gonna focus on class. We’re actually not even alleviating the problems of classism, because they’re so interlocked and intersecting.

Winnie: Right. Right. Right. I always, I always wonder why folks put it that way. Right. Is it coming from their own discomfort? I think about we call it the dog whistles you hear on in the media about when you say diversity, you mean black people? When you say urban, you mean, you know, these coded words that everybody in that circle would know what you mean, instead of just saying what you mean? I think that’s where it comes from, you know, this individual kind of, well, if I say that it’s not on the table, that it’s not, and we don’t have to look at it. Right, that I’m the leader here. And I’m saying that this thing is the most important thing, these other things don’t matter. Because I don’t want to look. I mean, nobody would ever say it that way. But that’s actually what’s going on, right that like, in my, I worked as a para long, long time ago. And I noticed the dynamics in school were that the principal wasn’t in charge. It was the teachers who had been there the longest who were in charge, right? They set the tone for the culture of the school. But nobody wants to talk about that openly. But like you kind of have to pull apart. Why is it like that? Who said it‘s like that? Who set the rules in that way and why?

Jeanie: You’ve got me now visualizing this image of a knotted up ball of string. And if we just untangle the knot, that’s about classism, we still have a bunch of knots, right. And often before we get even get to that knot, they’re a bunch of knots we have to go through. And so seeing it as a an interlocking system of knots, as opposed to like, Oh, if we just focus on classism, and people often say, Well, you know, Dr. King, at the end of his life was only focused on classism when I was like, only? like, you know, like, I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Right? And so I think,

Winnie: capitalism,too, I think.

Jeanie: Yes, yes, yes. I’m seeing the intersections of these things. Isn’t extra, it is, it is the thing, right? It’s the it’s the way forward. And I think disability justice movements, as Leah points out, have been really led by people who are multiple marginalized in a ways that see those intersections that experience the intersections of not just ableist systems, but also classist, homophobic, heteronormative, sexist and racist systems. And so I have a clearer sense of how the things all fit together just based on our experience. That’s what I read from Leah.

Winnie: Yeah, yeah, I think so too. I think so too. I had um, I thought also, I’m still thinking about this person that thinks class is the only thing I think, also that folks want the shortcut, right to say, this will get done faster if we just look at one thing. So let’s just talk about that one thing right now. Or I think true, transformative change doesn’t work like that. It has to be this kind of constant chipping away. Constant spreading awareness, constant self inquiry. I mean, it’s not something you just kind of get done with and then everybody’s fine. It has to be purposeful. And connected. It just it just has to.

Jeanie: Yeah. But there’s a scholar I really love named Vanessa Andreotti, she’s from Canada. And she uses this thing called the Heads Up framework. I can’t tell you what each of them stands for, ‘H’ is hegemony. The one that always sticks with me the most is the easy solutions, right? And easy solutions, which I think we all want, because we want to solve the problem, right? Is actually a red herring, right? Like, they’re often a sign that we’re not actually dealing with a real problem. An easy solution is often not the is almost always not the answer. And as you alluded to earlier, and as we talk a lot, working towards justice is a messy, messy system. It’s a messy process because these aren’t simple problems that we’re solving, right. And they’re also not only systemic, but they’re also the way that the systems we live in have shaped who we are and how we show up how we are in the world. And I was listening recently to a Hidden Brain episode, I’ll link to in the transcript about what happens when change decision making from ethics, like our moral decision making to financial, to sort of this, which a lot of our decision making in our current capitalist world is really financial. And it shifts the part of the brain it works. And we make decisions that don’t help us make better decisions. And in fact, so often, the example they use is if an after-school program charges you, if you get paid, charges you a fine if you’re late picking up your kids, and they set for a lot of people, they’re just like more people were late because they felt like they could just pay the fine. So it had the opposite impact.

And I think a lot about the decisions we want kids to make at school, we turn to this sort of financial decision-making, right like through a token economy. And we say, well, you get a reward if you do this thing, or you’ll get a punishment. If you do this thing. Instead of saying this is the right thing to do. This is the way we take care of each other, let’s be our best selves. And so gosh, I just went on a long tangent, but my point was, I did have one doctor, maybe I did. I guess my point was that these easy solutions often shift us into our worst selves, right, and we want this quick way of fixing something wrong. Really what we need to do is grapple with whom do we want to be? How do we want to be in this world? What kind of moral-ethical person how do we want to show up? And I think you keep reminding me that there’s no single easy pass through all this injustice, we just have to wade in and get messy. Thank you for bearing with me and that nonsense I just spoke.

Winnie: oh, that was great. That was great. That was great. I’m really enjoying how you’ve been processing all of this really, I usually process through my own personal experience, it’s how it kind of lives in me. So if I’ve personally experienced it, or somebody close to me has, then that’s the thing that I’m going to anchor myself to. I find that, you know, in higher education, say, I just went through this whole process of getting my contract renewed as a lecturer. And so in that process, you’re supposed to show all the things that you’ve been doing with your time, in the last four years, you know, like the ideal is to have, you know, when you get out of PhD school, the idea is to find that tenure track job, right? tenure track, meaning that you prove yourself over seven years, then you have this job for the rest of your life, right? They’re not really concerned about what kind of work you do after that. Right, you’re just gonna, you’re just gonna, you know, work really hard to get that piece of cheese or whatever it is. And what I’ve found in the last four or five years is that I don’t really want that cheese, I want to actually get stuff done. Right. And actually getting stuff done means that I have to let go of a lot of other extraneous stuff. So for me, it’s like labels, it’s it’s money. It’s all those things, right?

Jeanie: Figuring out what really matters to you.

Winnie: Yeah

Jeanie: And that often goes against I mean, tenure track really is a it’s part of that meritocracy. It’s part of a capitalist system. It’s like credentialing, right? Like, who did you publish enough to get tenure? And so deciding that how you want to be in the world matters more, the things you want to accomplish matter more.

Winnie: Right now, right now, I’m actually working on a book that is from my dissertation. And I decided that like, you know, I spent four years learning all these $20 words. Now I’m going to unlearn it so that this book can actually be read by regular people.

Jeanie: What’s your book about?

Winnie: Oh, I did this great action research project around self perception, self esteem, social emotional learning in the arts, and how creating inclusive learning environments for students kind of helps kid peer relationships. It supports You know, the learning of kids with disabilities where they can show what they know in lots of different kinds of ways, not just by taking tests. And then it also enriches the whole school culture to become more of a caring, open minded, flexible kind of culture. And so I talked about Well, so far, I’ve been writing it for like three years now. I spend a lot of time trying to make the research relevant to real life. To why is it important to understand how meritocracy works? Why is it important to understand why it’s important to engage with families around their own children?

Jeanie: Dr. Looby, your book feels like one I really have to read and want to read and can’t wait to read. I hope that when it’s published, you’ll come back and talk to us about it on the podcast.

Winnie: Absolutely. Absolutely. I’m hoping to be done with it before another couple of years.

Jeanie: Well, we don’t wait patiently until then. But the world needs your book, I think. Yeah. What are the things that when you when you said the things we need to understand, like you said meritocracy, and why we need to understand these things in order to do a better job in schools. It made me think about some of the things that were really hard to read about in Leah’s book. And one of those was this history of ugly laws in the United States. It’s really painful. And so I’m just going to quote her, she says, “the ugly laws on the books in the United States, from the mid 1700s, to the 1970s 1970s, stated that many disabled people were too ugly to be in public, and legally prevented disabled people from being able to take up space in public. These laws were part of a system that locked up or criminalized all kinds of undesirable people, indigenous folks, poor folks, people of color, queer folks, and disabled folks.” And so it made me think about all these other laws that we don’t often talk about, but that have lasting implications in our world. So it made me think about eugenics, for example, which in Vermont, as well as elsewhere, sterilized, and institutionalized people considered delinquent or defective, many of them poor, indigenous, or disabled. And it made me think about other kinds of laws like redlining, that, you know, profited or benefited privileged white folks, while denying those benefits or privileges to people of color who maybe also fought in wars or right, or who were looking to buy homes, right, the same American dream. And I think about and I’m sure we can name countless other laws and statutes that play out in this way, that means some people have privileges, or are not allowed to have privileges. In this case, the privilege was being allowed to be in public taking up space in public, and that folks where it made people who able bodied people uncomfortable. And so we created laws for that. And it was just horrifying to me. And I think those things still play out in schools, right, like those the ramifications of that still plays out in systems of education in the way students with disabilities are treated. And I wondered if you had thoughts on that?

Winnie: Yeah, yeah, the connection I’m making with school is, I remember not ever seeing a child with disability in my school, in the 70s. I know that where they are now I know that they were there. But then I had no idea. And I wonder, I get down to the real feeling behind why that’s necessary. I think, even though disability has been, you know, one in four people in the world, has a disability. Right. There’s plenty of people that we know that won’t ever talk about their disability, because of the stigma involved. And I think I think the reasoning behind that, that shutting away or that pushing away is this kind of fear that life is unpredictable. That, you know, you can’t control everything, you can’t have rules for everything. You can’t. You can’t control your mortality. You know, I don’t think people like that. Right. They want to know that the world is exactly the way that it was when they woke, you know, went to bed last night. They don’t want change, I think, I mean, might be controversial to say it but I think that’s partly why folks are so, so eager to get back to normal with COVID. Right? Even though statistics are showing us that we’re not done with it yet. People really really, really don’t want to wear a mask like like that’s that’s a really small, really small thing that you have to give up to benefit other people. It just to me it kind of gets at this fear about what you can’t control what you can’t fix. You know, what’s unpredictable about just the way the world works. I think that’s kind of I can’t say it’s good or bad. I just think it’s a human tendency to, to say, I’m more comfortable with things that are are knowable that I understand that look like me that sound like me. And anything other than that really throws me off.

Jeanie: As you spoke, our listeners can’t see this because they’re listening, but you put air quotes around normal. Oh, yeah. I really appreciate that. Because I think what you’re reminding us is that with those air quotes, what I read from that, and I’ll ask you if I got it right, is that normal is a myth that normal doesn’t exist that normal. In many ways, I took the next leap and thought, well, normal is what we used to keep the status quo as it is, and the status quo doesn’t serve all people.

Winnie: Exactly. Exactly.

Jeanie: And I did a podcast with my friend Emily Gilmore about the End of Average which really describes why this norm reference to this norm normal really is, is related to averages, right? Doesn’t serve any of us, none of us are really normal, right? And so that this notion of normal, and this privileging of this notion of normal, is problematic just because it doesn’t exist, it’s reusing, right? It’s using statistics to describe people, and that just doesn’t work. There’s a fallacy. It’s very hard, it’s that.

Winnie: Well, it’s also it’s also defining this kind of mythical ideal, right? That if you have a normal body, whatever that is, that means that you look a certain way. You feel a certain way about yourself, like our I think our like beauty industry is all around “I want to be that ideal. But it doesn’t exist, right? It’s keeping people’s kind of aspirations to have the thing up. So like, say, what do you call it? My grandparents used to call it keeping up with the Joneses. Where are you know, you have a neighbor that gets a new pool, though, you have to have a pool they get a new car, you have to have a car? What is that all based on? And who is that serving other than the people who you’re buying from? Right?

Jeanie: Yeah, our our feelings of inadequacy really do serve people who want to sell us something, right? We joke about that at my house. I’m like, why there are certain times in my life or certain days, certain periods of exhaustion or frustration where some email advertisement really can get me and I have to step back and say, oh, I need that thing. I just feel bad about myself at the moment. And that thing, that shiny thing is, is a way to that I think will make me feel better. But it doesn’t really, right.

Oh, yes. And one of the things that Leah pointed out in the book is that it’s really short sighted of us not to be looking for disability justice, because so many of us as we age will experience some kind of disability. That by the way, self interest isn’t the only reason that we should engage in disability justice. But she does point out that like, and you sort of allude to that too that. It’s our our lack of desire for change that keeps us where we are, and our lack of understanding that we could face as our people we love people in our own families in our own lives can face disability, it’s really short sighted of us not to not to clear the way so that all people can take up space and be valued and and be acknowledged and identified with their strengths. There’s one more concept I want to talk about in this book before we move to close. And that’s this idea of care webs. Would you do you think you could define care webs?

Winnie: TThe way I understood it was that you I love how Leah talks about it, where it’s it’s people with disabilities who are all supporting each other, right and pulling in allies where they’re necessary. And not so much doing things for each other, but really just caring about what’s happening with somebody else that like she talks about how isolating it could be, to have a disability, right? That if you feel like you can’t talk about it at work, or you know, you’re feeling, you know, vulnerable around how you’re treated within your family or anything like that, that it’s important to have these other people who understand at least somewhat of what your life is like, to kind of alleviate that isolation. So I think like a great benefit is the actual, like, somebody’s going to help me cook and do my laundry. But I think for me, the important part would be that that social connection piece.

Jeanie: I really appreciate that. And there’s a page in this book, and I’ll put an image of this in the transcript that says questions to ask yourself as you start a care web or collective and keep asking messy again, code word messy. And so it starts with these really practical things like what is the goal of your care web? Who needs care? And what kind, but it moves towards these other things? Like, how you how will you celebrate and make it fun? Or what’s your plan when conflict happens? Or, and this is one of my favorites. And I’ve talked about this in other places, not around disability, but are you building in ways for disabled folks to offer care instead of assuming that only able bodied people are carers? And I’ve talked about this with the book Piecing Me Together of who do we think gets to give and who gets to receive? And how do we create opportunities for everyone to give and receive, because we all have something to offer, and we all need each other? And so if we’re just one, otherwise, we fall into the charity model again, right? We fall into the white savior model, again of like, oh, look, I get to be the hero, as opposed to mutual aid model of we’re in this together. And we’re creating communities where there’s reciprocity, and where we take care of each other.

Questions to ask yourself as you start a care web or collective, and keep asking.

Winnie: Yeah, I would say the leadership piece is important. Where say, you’re an able bodied person who wants to do something with Disability Justice, well, it wouldn’t really start with what you think or what you feel. You know, you need to follow the lead of the folks who are most affected by this thing, right? It’s, I guess, for me, it feels like kind of obvious that that’s what you would do. I think, because it cares. I care about understanding people as individuals in their own path. And I spend a lot of time in self reflection, just because I feel very responsible to my students.

Jeanie: What I hear you saying is that we need to center relationships. And that those and the inference I’m making is that when we center relationships with individuals, we can use the knowing them and their voice and their experience to understand the problem with systems. Yeah, I hear you correctly, when that’s what?

Winnie: Yep, exactly, exactly. Yeah. There’s a section in her book, which talks about, was it emotional intelligence, where how folks with disabilities understand the idea of like, pushing past what your limits are, because there’s something that you want to do or need to do they understand that they understand that the difficult conversations you have to have with whatever bureaucratic office there is that has some kind of control over your life. They, they, they get it. So having those folks in your life is important to kind of keep keep your sanity to keep you kind of motivated to move forward.

Jeanie: So that touches on I guess there’s one thing I wanted to really point out from the book, and it’s this notion that of freedom dreaming, I’ve been thinking about freedom dreaming a lot. And I’ve been thinking about you know, Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds point out that racism was created via imagination, and it’s gonna take imagination and creativity to uncreate it or to fix it. And, and so Leah says “sick and disabled and neurodivergent folks aren’t supposed to dream, especially if we are queer and black or brown. We’re just supposed to be grateful that the normals let us live.” And it makes me think about what’s it look like to to, to center aspirations and dreams for All people. I guess that’s also the opposite of charity. Oh, look, we’re being nice to you, you get to survive, as opposed to like, what are your dreams for the world? And how can those dreams help inform my dreams for the world?

Winnie: Yeah, um, well, I have, I think I have kind of an analogy that relates. In my I teach a class on race and racism in the United States. And the first couple of weeks, we spend time thinking about our own identities before we talk about any history, any anything else. Who, what makes us who we are? Where do we grow up? What languages do we have? How important or not is religion? What’s our gender identity? All those things about ourselves, right? And then connecting that with do I or do I not understand how race and racism works? Why might that be? Oh, if I went to, you know, this affluent boarding school where there weren’t people of color, of course, I wouldn’t have learned very much, right? And so in that moment, you’re saying, Okay, I’m going to give up control that I know everything that I know anything about this thing, whatever it is, and then I’m going to take pleasure in having those conversations with people who have been through those things, right, taking away the shame and the the feeling of like, you know, I have to make up for what my grandpa did, right? Take away that and say, how do I learn about other people for who they are? How do I grow as myself? In what I’m learning? How do I keep learning, it’s not like, cultural competence is going to be this end goal. Because there isn’t really one, there’s always more to learn. I mean, I said, I learned so much from his book, things that I didn’t know before, you kind of have to be open to that. So creativity requires being able to say you don’t know, being vulnerable, thinking, you know, following the lead of other people who wouldn’t necessarily get the lead, usually, right? Being willing to kind of just up end the way you think things work. To make it something else, you can’t you can’t follow the same playbook, you have to completely throw it out the window and create a different one.

Jeanie: Oh, my gosh, that was so helpful. What you just said that such a like helpful way to wade into the mess. And although I have a gazillion other quotes and ideas from this book, my last question for you was going to be what advice do you have for teachers who want to, you know, join the Disability Justice fight, if you will, and celebration? The all the things that disability justice is, what steps do you have for them to wade into that mess a little bit to start to get messy around their thinking, and you just sort of nailed it with that, but I’ll leave it for you to add any other advice you have for teachers, for educators?

Winnie: Yeah, I would say beyond, you know, self reflection, right, and talking to people with disabilities talking to kids about what they want, right? What they need, talking to their families about their experiences. Beyond that. There’s tons of resources around, you know, Universal Design for Learning, where you’re going to learn about colors, there’s lots of different ways to do that, right? Through music through sound through tactilely, you know, not just reading, you can do lots of different things. So, for a teacher to kind of see that as a creative challenge, a positive creative challenge, where if I want every single person in my classroom, that I don’t know everything about them, right? If I want to have them feel included and want to come to school, what does my classroom have to look like?

Jeanie: I love that it reminds me of a phrase we sometimes use at the Tarrant Institute called planning for the margins like start, don’t start with the middle what most kids need, start with the margins and playing with them in mind. I’d love to embed some of your resources and ideas about universal design and other things into the transcript. Dr. Looby, thank you so much for taking time to talk to us. Thank you for bringing this book to my attention. I learned so much I have so much learning left to do. I just so appreciate this conversation with you. All all of the expertise you bring and I cannot wait to talk about your book with you.

Resources from Dr. Winnie Looby:

Winnie: Thank you, thank you. I really enjoyed this too.

Jeanie: Thank you.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y2PD4n7qyxw[/embedyt]

#vted Reads: The Other Talk

Jeanie:  In this episode, I sit down with educational phenoms Christie Nold and Jess Lifshitz.  And we’re joined by Brendan Kiely, Author of The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege.

Now, you might be wondering what The Other Talk actually is.  As many of you know, black people and other people of the global majority frequently have to have “The Talk” with their children about how to survive when they’re stopped by police in America.  That’s right, when they’re stopped by police.  It’s the talk about how to survive that experience.  Parents often draw the meat of it from their own experiences of brutality and loss.  But what talk do white people have with their children?  Lovely listeners, this episode goes out to everyone who believes in young people, as Jess Lifshitz puts it, more than they believe in adults.  Don’t get us wrong, adults, you are salvageable.  But boy, there is work to be done.  I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is #vted Reads; a podcast about books by, for and with Vermont educators.  Let’s talk.

Thank you so much for joining me, Brendan, Christie, and Jess.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Brendan:  Well, I’m honored to have been chosen to go first.  So well, it’s great to be here.  Thank you.  I’m Brendan Kiely, the Author of The Other Talk: Reckoning with Our White Privilege and other novels, including Co-Authoring, All American Boys with Jason Reynolds.  It’s really great to have an opportunity to talk about issues and ideas and heartfelt feelings that I care deeply about. I hope to ground this conversation as often as possible in the notion of lived experience as opposed to an intellectual exercise about the damage that racism causes in our country. And I say that, because I’ve been thinking a lot about how often I didn’t think about my own lived experience when I was thinking about conversations about race and racism in America.  So that’s why I’m sharing that.

I also just have to share, since we’re also talking about books that I’m currently reading is The 1619 Project and I’m just taking it in chunks at a time and I’m not trying to read it all at once.  I’m going in between other reading, as well.  But it feels like maybe the single most important book to read right now as a grounding point and as a as an effort to say, we all should be reading this.  This should be canon in our educational experience.  And when I’m taking a break from that, I’m reading Love and Other Poems by Alex Dimitrov which is just beautiful.

Jeanie:  Well, thank you so much for that.  How about you, Christie?

Christie:  Everyone, it is so great to be here and be here with all of you.  My name is Christie Nold.  I use she/her pronouns and I am zooming in today from Abenaki Land here in Vermont.  I am a white educator in a predominantly white school that is less than five miles from my childhood home, which is by intention and design.  And so, I’m excited to be part of this conversation and talk about one of the things that I read in the wonderful book, The Other Talk about what it means to have my whiteness show up with me every day at school.

And what I’m reading right now is from the wonderful Mr. Tom Rad from Twitter, Raising Ollie: How My Nonbinary Art-Nerd Kid Changed Nearly Everything I Know.  And one of the things that I love so much about this book is that on the face of it, it is the story of this one incredible kid, but in the depth of it really is truly a story about education and who it serves and who it doesn’t and why.  I’m really challenged to think differently and deeply by Tom in this text.  And it’s pulling at some of my heartstrings around public education, which I so deeply believe in, but what happens when that public education isn’t serving every kid.  So, it’s a great book to challenge my thinking and I certainly recommend it.

Jeanie:  Thank you so much, Christie.  Jess?

Jess:  Hi.  I’m Jess Lifshitz.  I am coming in tonight from near Chicago sitting on Kickapoo, Peoria, and Potawatomi Land.  I use she/her pronouns.  I teach fifth-grade literacy.  And then you said, we’re supposed to say who we are and what we do, and my first thought was mostly I’m just trying to survive each day, which I feel like captures a lot of what we’re doing right now.  In terms of what I’m reading, just minutes ago, (and this is true, I’m not just trying to suck up), finished Stuntboy, in the Meantime, written by Jason Reynolds, and illustrated by Raul the Third and it is a beautiful book in all the ways.  I just finished it tonight, but I book talked it to my students earlier today.  And they could not get to it fast enough.  And if you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.  It is beautiful to look at and it is a beautiful story.  So that is what I just finished.

And then as I’ve been walking to try and deal with the world, I’ve been listening to an audiobook to Clint Smith’s How the Word is Passed.  And I feel similarly to how Brendan was speaking about The 1619 Project, that is how I’m feeling about Clint Smith’s book as well.  He actually reads the audiobook, and he has such a melodic voice that he’s saying these hugely transformational, powerful things.  He sang them in this beautiful voice as well.  And he speaks so much about how education has been used and abused in the past in order to try and – or attempt to cover up our racist history.  And it leaves you feeling angry about that, but it also leaves you feeling like then we can use education to do better.  And so those themes really connected to The Other Talk as well.  So that is what I’m reading.

Jeanie:  I just couldn’t agree more with Jess, with your sentiment about that book and it made me think about how I love that book so much and it’s so reflective as Clint Smith is visiting places.  And Brendan’s book similarly is so reflective as he revisits his memories.  And so, the memory I’m going to start with is what you start with at the beginning of the book.  What’s it like to be friends with Jason Reynolds?  I mean, I would die to be friends with Jason Reynolds.

Brendan:  Well, you have to remember too that we became friends before really either one of us had much of a career.  And it’s a different kind of story to be a part of a process of a career evolving and growing and a person too who evolves into the role that he plays.  And so, I think it’s so funny.  I mean, I giggled as you asked the question because I obviously get asked that question all the time.  And I love it because I love him.

And I’m so grateful that his mother and I swap letters when we are in the same town, we take time so that we’re just ourselves and away from all the public.  And it feels like exactly what we set out to do when we sat down to write All American Boys.  We had rules that we came up with.  And Jason offered the first rule, and I almost want to cry repeating it right now, because he said, “The first rule has to be the friendship always comes first no matter what happens in the business.”  And that is true to this day.  And it’s recently been his birthday, so happy belated birthday man.

Jeanie:  I love that.  Thank you for fielding that.  I needed to start with something a little softer, because the question I had as my first question is not.  So, I’m going to throw that out there next.  You write about what it means to be white in America and I know that Jess and Christie and I think about that a lot.  But you have some quotes in here from page 23 said,

Living as a white person is white privilege.

And then a little further on page 27, you say,

We, white people are getting away with something that we know is wrong.

And I was strongly reminded of a podcast conversation with Dr. Helms on the Teaching While White podcast about white racial identity development.  So, I went back and listened to that.  And I’m wondering if – maybe all three of you but starting with Brendan- could talk a little bit about your own racial identity development and how you came to understand yourself as white.

Brendan:  I really appreciate grounding the conversation in this way, because I think people and white people in particular are often afraid to begin to have a conversation about their own, and our own racial identity because it’s so strange.  It’s not part of the talk that we often have when we talk about racial identity at all.  And I think that’s part of the problem.  It’s been masked in some ways even though the construction of race as we all know is a construction that’s for our benefit as white people.  And so it seems so insidious that the motivation for it is so well hidden and the result there is then a kind of invisibility or a disconnect from my own racial identity.

So, all that’s to say, thinking about my own racial identity, then it comes in moments of shock and shame and guilt and messing up and recognizing, my gosh, this is tied to my racial identity.  So, for example, shortly after Barack Obama was elected president, I was in a conversation with a group of friends that a house, the room was a multiracial mix of people.  And in particular, the folks in the room who were black were listening to me speak about how I kept using a phrase like, the poor guy, the poor guy, and not realizing how it landed in the ears of some of the folks who were celebrating Barack Obama, not just for the election and for his policies, but for who he was as a member of a community that they felt a part of.  And I went on to claim something to the effect of, well, Barack Obama is more my President, I’m more Barack Obama or something like that than I am George W. Bush or some phrase like that.  And not speaking intellectually and not recognizing the difference of lived experience in the room.  I share that anecdote because that wasn’t all that long ago.  I mean, now it’s a little bit long ago, but it wasn’t all that long ago.  And I was a shameful adult to be not being aware of myself in the room in that way.

And I feel like that’s the process from when I was younger that there are moments that I was shocked into some awareness of my white racial identity and that I will be tomorrow and the next day as well.  And that it’s a road of growth.  And I’m curious to hear what Christie and Jess have to say, because I’m not in these kinds of conversations often with other white folks, I’m not often into engaging and sharing in this way and I think that’s honestly part of the problem.

Christie: One of the things that I love so much about Dr. Helms model is the way she talks about it as statuses which I feel like I just heard in your anecdote, this idea that it’s not a linear process, but rather these statuses that a person might drop back into.  And that leaving one status doesn’t mean you won’t revisit it again later.  And there’s that first encounter status that status as you described of this idea of shock.  And this is Christie, by the way.

And one of the things I – that’s – it’s being in that status that I think I remember most often.  Some of the other statuses aren’t always as clear to me.  But a moment from that status that I remember fairly clearly is also a more recent moment, after the murder of Trayvon Martin, in which I was reflecting with a white friend about how that could have been one of our students.  And I was really stuck on this idea of Trayvon and his murder and how just the horrific nature of it all.

And my friend very quickly responded, “It’s far more likely that we are teaching future Zimmerman’s than teaching a future Trayvon,” given the fact that so many of our students in the district that we were working in together at the time identified as white, identified as students of privilege and although Zimmerman himself doesn’t identify in that way, when thinking about racial violence, so many of the folks who go on to perpetrate that violence are white body people.  And so it was that moment of transition for me from thinking about these outward facing conversations which I’d been involved in from a very savior narrative place and hadn’t quite realized until that moment switched toward a more inward facing conversation of what does it look like, what would it look like if my work were with and among white folks to disrupt that cycle of violence rather than tending to this idea of savior of potential victory to violence.  And so, as you were talking, that was the story that was coming to my mind and thinking about my white racial identity and this idea of ideally movement out of or at least certainly recognition of times when I’m sitting within some white savior complex.

Jess:  It’s so interesting, because I was taking notes to get ready tonight.  And I also identified the moment of Trayvon’s murder as one that was transformational for me.  And of course, it is hard to admit that it took such a tragic, horrific event to get me to that point.  But for me, there was what I remember so vividly was actually hearing black mothers speak about the talk that they gave to their specifically sons is what I remember.  And I remember realizing that I didn’t know that.  I didn’t know that that talk existed.  And when I started to unpack that, I realized how very much by design my world was kept very white.  And not because I have racist parents, I have lovely, wonderful parents who made choices in these racist systems that kept my world so white.

And so, for me, it was a moment that made me realize how many voices my life was lacking.  And it started me on this sort of journey.  And where it took me was online to Twitter and allowed me to find the voices that had not been a part of my life.  And just the – it’s why I say no one has an excuse to not seek out stories from a wide variety of people any longer, because for as much as – as problematic as social media is, it also allows us access to all sorts of voices and all sorts of lives.  And for me, that’s where the journey started is really finding voices like Val Brown’s and Dr. Sonja Cherry-Paul and Dr. Debbie Reese.  And hearing perspectives that were never given to me in school and that it was by hearing how my whiteness and the whiteness of others impacted people’s lives.  That’s what started my own racial identity and understanding, because you’re right, we don’t have these conversations.

And the last thing I’ll say is I often share this story that when I do identity webs with my students, and my students, I teach in a district that is mostly white, high socioeconomic status.  And so, when we start unpacking identity, it’s often the first time my fifth graders have had these types of conversations.  And I begin by sharing my identity with them.  And I put on there that I’m a lesbian and at this point, no reaction.  It’s sort of like, yeah, okay, no big deal.  I then say that I’m white.  And there is this audible gasp and you’re like, really, that’s what you’re surprised by that you didn’t know.  But they had – they are so not used to hearing people name, race as a facet of identity.  It’s like if we can’t even name it without gasping, how can we start to really understand how our whiteness is impacting others?  And so, we use that, right?  We unpack that.  Why are you gasping?  What did I just say?  How are you feeling?  And why are you feeling that way?  And it’s really a powerful moment.  So, to watch young people start to wrestle with that is a powerful thing.

Jeanie:  Brendan, did you want to say something?

Brendan:  I was just responding to Jess’s comments, because there are so many moments where, whether it’s Jason and I presenting together or I’m presenting on my own and I’m telling a story and I launch into the phrase, “White Boy”, that is the moment of gasp in a predominantly white auditorium.  Sometimes if it’s not a predominantly white, and it’s predominantly non-white, it’s more of sometimes chuckle, sometimes something else.  But its recognition, because of course, like that naming and knowing and witnessing my whiteness is so common for people who are not white.  And I appreciate your use of the word impact a number of times, because I think for me also part of the thinking about my white racial identity is a question of accountability, because my racial identity by default affects other people’s lives.  And so, I just appreciate what you both were saying and forgive me sweeping back in there, but it was just so visceral, it’s so real.  I feel that too.

Jeanie:  Well, and it’s a perfect segue to my next question which is that I probably like many people listening grew up – many white people listening grew up as a white person with a sense that being not racist meant that you didn’t talk about race and you wouldn’t say that race didn’t matter, right?  And I no longer believe that.  But it’s still really common when I was in a school library to hear kids say things that I still found in your book over and over again.  And so, I appreciated that your book, one of the many things I appreciate it is that it forces us to focus on reality that the way that race matters in our world.  And you invite us as white folks to be reflective about our own experiences through a lens of race in a way that I think we’re not accustomed to.  And I wondered if you might read a little bit starting on page 34.  Do you have a copy of the book with you, Brendan?  Do you have a copy of your own book?

Brendan:  Yes, I do.

Jeanie:  I’m looking down…

Brendan:  I have too many copies.

Jeanie:  I’m looking down at the second paragraph to the bottom.  And it starts, “But one thing I do know for sure is that.”  And I wondered if you could read up to the end of that little section on the top of page 35.

Brendan:

But one thing I do know for sure is that I have to tell all my stories now more truthfully– by always including my whiteness and asking how it plays a role.

And I get it, it can feel weird– really weird. Hard, maybe. It can even hurt.  But even if it hurts a little… yup, we still have to give it a try.  We still have to go there.

And just to be clear: talking about being white, talking about white privilege, isn’t anti-white.  It’s just being honest.  If I’m honest with myself– about being white– I can learn; I can grow. I can do better.

Because that’s what I want to do: do better.

Jeanie:  I really appreciate that framing.  And I wonder if we could talk a little bit about what your hopes are for when kids are reading this book.

Brendan:  I’d be curious actually to throw that to Jess and Christie if you don’t mind, because you’re in a position to be with those young folks more immediately than I am.  And I’m envious of your situation, I used to teach, and I no longer do, and I missed the classroom.

Christie: One of the things that I have actually been wondering about gets back to this question of audience.  I was curious as you were writing who you might have had in mind.  And I went back and forth around this.  One of the things that was on my mind was this line that I got from Dr. Leilani Sabzalian who in talking about indigenous communities, she names this idea of outward facing work, that is the amount of time and energy that indigenous folks and researchers have to spend convincing people outside of community that there is a problem and that their lives and experiences matter.  And she describes the way in which so much effort and energy goes into proving or providing evidence that there’s little energy left for the inward facing toward community love and celebration.

And I found in your text lots of moments where it was and here’s the evidence, let me show you the evidence, here’s the overwhelming evidence.  And so, I went back and forth in my own mind between are you writing for for young people, for young white people potentially who already see and might understand their whiteness and might understand race as a social construct?  Or were you writing for a white student who might be rejecting that and are providing evidence?  Or are you hoping that this book becomes an umbrella that could hold both of those students within it?  And so, I’m going to toss your question right back potentially, because when I sat with your text, I kept thinking in my head, this is the perfect book for X student.  And then I’d read a little further and think no, no, no, this is the perfect book for YA students.  And so, in my mind, this whole time has been this question around who you imagined picking up this text and engaging with it.

Brendan:  Jess, do you have anything you want to add before I respond?

Jess: No, go ahead.

Brendan:  Okay.  I appreciate that.  I’m often a fan of switching from either or to both and I am going to do that again here and I’m going to go even further, because the idea – I hope the book works as a kind of not unlike how with our – we were talking about the statuses and how you can move in and out in – when you’re grappling with your white racial identity as a white person.  I think that there are times in which no matter how much you already have an instinct for or an understanding of the impact of white privilege and the world around you, evidence is helpful sometimes even just to arm yourself in conversation with others.  And so, I personally found that I wanted to accrue that kind of evidence in a way that wasn’t just assumed but was concrete in a way that if I were talking to family members as I do every Thanksgiving.  I would have some concretes as opposed to just emotional outbursts, which is usually where it starts and ends.

In addition, I think there’s also a kind of moments where people who are just being introduced to it can access it through emotion.  And so it isn’t about evidence, as much as it’s about anecdotal stories and here’s me messing up, maybe you have had a similar situation.  And it doesn’t make us horrible people, it makes us worse people if we know it and then don’t reflect on it and don’t try to do anything about it and not make the mistake again.  But it doesn’t make us horrible people to not know and make mistakes and not knowing it’s the then knowing that’s important, I think.  And how we – Jess, as you mentioned before too, begin to seek out the wisdom of others in a way that we may not have had before. And so for me, I’m hoping that the book works in that kind of push and pull and back and forth.  And there are some moments of the book that would work for this particular white student and other moments that would work for another white student.

Now, I clarify that by saying these different white students, because, yes, primarily, it’s a book for an assumed white audience in the same way that the talk that we referenced earlier, the talk that Jason’s mother gave Jason was not even assumed, it was directly a conversation about black identity and interactions with law enforcement.  But also, that talk expanded, right, it’s not just about law enforcement, it’s about his existence in a day-to-day world.

And so, while I primarily am trying to do something similar for white students and white families, I also hope that on some level it can also be a book that for readers who are not white like me and my family, there it can be an opportunity to say, this is someone who has listened to that thing that I said, this is a moment of somebody who has heard.  As some of my friends and I have discussed, when you hear the call to action, do you just keep it inside or do you do something about it?  And so, for example, in conversation with Renee Watson, she and I have talked about this quite a bit that that call to action demand some public action and acknowledgement of having heard it.  And so, my hope is that the book also offers that opportunity for non-white readers as well.  That’s a leap.  That’s a leap I understand.  And again, primarily, the book is to open up those conversations with white readers.  So, I hope that answers your question, because I think the initial question and the compounding more complicated follow up to it, I love, so thanks.

Jeanie:  Thank you for that, Christie, thank you for deepening the question.  And now, I’m going to lob it to Jess and ask, what are your hopes for kids who read this book?

Jess: I will be honest that it is hard to find hope these days in the educational space, I think just in the universe space.  This book made me hopeful.  And I don’t say that because the author is sitting right here, I mean, many miles away, but via Zoom.  And I had a very emotional response to the section that you just read.  And I think the part that I responded to is this trust you have in young people and the whole book read that way that you trust that young people can handle discomfort.  And so much of the pushback that we’re hearing from white folks right now is this need to protect comfort and it’s connected to so many things, right, mask wearing, the teaching of accurate history, all of those things.  And it’s – this needs to protect comfort.  And what you start to wrestle with in the part you just read is this idea that it’s okay to feel discomfort, especially when that discomfort comes from a reckoning, an awakening, a recognition of the fact that you were born into a system that you have benefited from.

And I often think about how all those folks who are screaming about protecting kids from discomfort maybe have never had the privilege of witnessing children when they start to finally understand what’s been hidden from them, right.  When – as a fifth-grade teacher, I have watched as children for the first time recognize the privilege.  When they recognize they’re not lucky, they’re benefiting from a system that was designed to operate.  So, it benefited them while taking away from others.  And it is empowering.  Kids are empowered, because once they recognize they’re part of a system, they realize they can change it, they can work to change it, that they’re not these helpless bystanders.

The discomfort comes when they realize all the adults around them have been keeping the truth from them, because they wouldn’t say it’s because they don’t trust them to deal with it, right.  I like to think it comes from a place of love and desiring to protect your own child.  But when there is a righteous anger that comes when kids start to see the truth and then that anger is often followed by this empowered feeling of, okay, so you’re telling me that this is the way things are, let’s figure out how we can change it.  And I think so much of this book speaks to that that constant refrain of you have to understand it so that you can understand how to make it better.  And that makes me hopeful, because I believe in young people way more than I believe in adults these days.  And this idea that if we can help them understand things, they want to change them and I believe they will, because certainly no one taught me these things as I was growing up.

So, what do I hope for kids?  I don’t know that my fifth graders are ready to tackle the book themselves.  But I hope that the adults around them read it.  And I hope it inspires them to trust children.  And I think there are certainly pieces of it we can dig into together.  But my hope for kids is that they have adults around them who trust them the way Brendan has trusted his audience in the book.  So, it left me very hopeful.  That’s my long answer.

Brendan:  No, I really appreciate that, because there are so many more anecdotes that I can share about young people that I’ve met all across the country, whether it’s in Anchorage, Alaska, or parts of Florida, or other students – the students that I met in Baton Rouge, or whatever the case may be who have that instinct for, what do we need to know so that we can do better.  And that they’re kind of hungry for that which has been hidden from them or any access to more information.

I mean, this might sound odd, but I feel like the same instinct for one’s want to belief in a kind of – in magic as a young person, right, is a search for a kind of truth, is a search for something out there that can provide solutions to the problems that I feel all the time around me.  And what feels really negligent on the part of adults in our country right now is to deny kids access to the very tools that – and information that can help lead to that fairer society.  So, I’m with you 100%.  Let’s trust them.  I don’t see another way out.  I mean, there was that – I don’t know if you saw that article in the Washington Post last summer that was about all the hubbub in Traverse City, Michigan.  And The New York Times interviewer interviewed a second grader and the second-grader who was white was grappling with what she had learned about racism.  And she said, “Although it hurt to hear about it and learn about it, it made me want to learn more so that I could do more.”  If a second grader can do this, then God, can’t we as old broken people, I guess?

Jess: I actually, really appreciate that you say there were so many more anecdotes of children taking action or young people taking action that you wanted to put in.  I actually so appreciated that the action chapter didn’t come until the very end.  I think it was maybe chapter 20, because I think the mistake so many white adults make is that rush into the action.  I think we saw that.  I think this extreme pendulum from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021 with evidence of the danger of white folks rushing to action to check it off a checklist.  Well, what do we do?  How do we fix it?  Without doing all the understanding first and that the action comes from understanding.  And I felt like your book, the way it was structured, I actually really appreciated that the action didn’t come until much later on.  And yes, I think you could fill many volumes of the beautiful actions young people did.  But the power of the book was really – well, let’s get to the understanding that leads to that action.

Brendan:  I really appreciate that, because that was the point.  And to undergird all action with four chapters of listening first, because the listening is, I think, an action.  And it’s the action that at least folks like me need to do a lot more before I engage in any other of that public action after I’ve heard that call to action.  But speaking of listening, Jeanie, I see you hovering by the microphone.

Jeanie:  Right, totally hovering.  Before you get to listening, though, you do this really important paradigm shift.  And I actually took pictures of these pages and the cover and sent it to my friend Erika Saunders, because she’s the person who said to me, “You know, white privilege is a rather sanitizing phrase.  It covers up all sorts of evils.”  And then you really articulate it really well.  And I’m going to read from page 60.  I’m going to read this time, because I’m a librarian and I love that.

When I was growing up, I was taught that racism denies.  It denies people their voting rights, their access to more valuable housing, their ability to compete for higher-paying jobs.  The list of things racism denied was long– it is long.

But I never looked at it the other way around– I was never taught to look at it like this: if racism disadvantages some people, then it also advantages others. Think about it:

If one person is denied more valuable housing, another person gets it.

If one person is denied a higher paying job, someone else gets it.

And if you deny one person something, you’re giving the advantage to another person. Or privileges, right.  And with racism, the denials give those advantages to– you guessed it– white people.  So, the privileges go to white people… and we are right back to white privilege.

And I think that’s really important given what Jess said, is that we talk about racism in this generic way.  But we never talk about how it impacts us as white folks, how we are complicit with it.  And I really appreciated that you shift that paradigm.  And I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that comes really early in the book, before the listening, way before the action and I wondered if we could talk about that as a group a little bit.

Brendan:  Yeah, I really appreciate that, because I grappled with the term white privilege in and of itself, because I often think that it sanitizes the extreme horrors of white supremacy and a culture that is so good at making its white supremacy, because that is imbedded, encoded into our legal system from the inception of our Constitution.  And so, I grappled with using that term, because I think it’s important to name white supremacy.  And because I want the book to be an invitation for folks who may be wrestling with it, I was consciously making a choice to use a term that I felt like was more widely understood and even if it’s challenged or whatever it might be, it might not feel as threatening as naming it as white supremacy.  And I have heard criticism about that.  And I really hear it and take it to heart, but I made the choice that I wanted to share that with you all to see what you think too.

But I also wanted to think about it in a way where you could talk about advantages as privileges, because I also want to use the term privilege that white folks who are not economically advantaged often, they’d rub-up against that word privilege and they say, well, I’m not privileged.  But I wanted to talk about what social privilege looks like that has nothing to do with economics.  And so, I felt like it was a term that I could go in both directions with it in a way that – and talk about it.

And as I mentioned in the book, I wanted to use the phrase from Claudia Rankine, like, it’s just white living, it’s living as a white person.  And in earlier drafts that actually littered the text a lot more, but it became pretty redundant, and you have to cut some things.  But I’m curious.  I’m curious what everybody else thinks about that.  I really appreciate this question.  So, I’m curious to hear your thoughts.

Christie:  One of the things that I’m thinking about goes back to that idea or question of audience and what it means to provide an onramp for folks who are entering into conversation. And a good friend and mentor of mine, Paul Yoon, talks about this metaphor of a flower opening or closing.  And in his work, he talks about the need to allow for that opening in order for anything to penetrate and get through.  And that, even in moments where he wants to be brutally honest and use language in its most precise form, he’s recognized that if that same language closes a person off from being able to hear that important message, then he’s lost his potential for that audience.  And so, it’s tricky, because in your book, you do such a beautiful job talking about how language impacts our ideas, impacts our behaviors, impacts how we move through the world as white folks and so there is this desire or need for precision of language and there is the desire or need for onramps.

And I think that in some ways, the older the person the more gradual the onramp has been, in my experience, the more gradual that onramp is needed.  So, when I think about, for example, my previous work mainly with sixth-graders, their walls of white supremacist construction were still really porous.  They hadn’t solidified yet.  And so, it was easier to penetrate through, because they didn’t have this sense of unlearning that my graduate students who are teachers needed to do when confronted with the exact same material.  And so, when confronted with this idea of race as a social construct, my sixth graders were like, “Cool, it’s like gender. Moving on.”  My graduate students were like, “Wait, biology, phenotype, what?” And so, it just makes me think about for your text that the onramp that I want to offer and provide for folks, I – in some ways, I wanted this text to be in the hands of adults more than young people, because I almost think that young people in that I’ve encountered could handle a more brutal onramp.  I think you offer a really kind, compassionate and thoughtful onramp for folks.  So, it makes me think about Liz Kleinrock’s Start Here, Start Now and how clear in her author’s note she was about that text offering onramps for educators who are coming into the work.

And I do feel that that has been missing a bit from what’s available to folks.  I see a lot of 201, 301, 401 type of texts, I don’t see as many 101 texts that are honest and authentic, and that I feel comfortable putting in people’s hands.  And I think this to me was that beautiful onramp that folks can take into the conversation to then continue through.

Jess:  That I agree with Christie.

Brendan:  It connects us everything you said earlier though to Jess when you were talking about teachers and we were talking about the audience for the book, as you were saying Christie.  And honestly, one of my hopes is that it’s really read by a lot of teachers.  That’s exactly what I mean it’s a book that’s published, it’s a YA book. But the hope is that it’s read by the people who work supposedly for and serve young folks the most.  And it’s interesting, because I like the term onramps and I like the idea of that flower opening, I think that’s a beautiful image and I hadn’t heard that before and I really appreciate that.

And I’m thinking about a white boy that I met in Orlando, Florida who after reading All American Boys was grappling with the stories that his family had told about his white grandfather who was a cop in the Bronx, in the 1970s.  And if – even for him, I think, if I had been too precise or the novel had been too precise or in the presentation at the school had been too precise, it may have closed down an opportunity for him to arrive at the – at what he shared with me after the presentation, which was, why can’t two things be true?  Meaning, my family says we have to talk only about him being a hero, only he’s a hero, he’s a hero, he’s a hero.  What if he was a hero for some and not for others, and possibly was the villain in other people’s stories?  Can’t he be both?  And that’s a 17-year-old boy who was grappling with just the real complexities of life.  And I feel like if you create onramps and not to say, and you should be ashamed, and you should be – you should feel guilty and you should feel horrible and you should stop talking to your family, like that doesn’t get us anywhere when he can now be a more active member and maybe over dinner conversation can help complicate that story in a loving way with more family.  And I think that’s the hope is that that’s to me what the other talk is about.  It’s about creating the expansive sense of what that white racial identity is and how it’s impacted the lives of people in our communities, but also ourselves in our families.  So, I really appreciate that so much.

Christie:  One of the things you have me thinking about is a recent interview with Clint Smith to get back to Jess’s comment about his text earlier.  He talks about this idea of white folks using history as a kind of family heirloom and that when history becomes an heirloom, this thing that’s passed down and is untouchable, the harm that can come from that.  And what I’m also reflecting on as your speaking gets back to the initial question around white folks speaking with other white folks, I don’t expect my friends of the global majority to have the patience that offering an onramp might require.

I am at no time and I see like lots of nods in the Zoom conversation that the listeners can’t see of like that particular role that I believe white folks can play in the intra-racial, right, those conversations among white people to offer the grace, the patience to sit together in that shame, in that guilt, in those different statuses and not ask that that sitting with happen, the part of our friends who are black, brown, indigenous folks of color, both in the U.S. and abroad, because I understand that that in that on ramping a lot of harm and messiness can take place and happen.  And it’s my hope that young people in particular, young white people who are grappling with this and developing their own racial identity are met by a compassionate elder in the work or compassionate young peer who can sit together with them through that messiness and keep them going up that onramp and keep them in the work.  And again I don’t hold that expectation of any friends of the global majority.  But I do hope for other white folks listening who might have read the book and be in that place of like, what do I do, I want to do something.  That can I think be a really concrete place to put some time and energy is sitting together with white peers, white colleagues, with young white people in that kind of learning, unlearning messiness of the onramp.

Jeanie:  And I think that that is especially true of white educators in this moment, in this political climate, in this moment we are living in, because I will tell you, it – there have been moments this school year where it has seemed like the work has become impossible.  And when I say the work, I mean the antiracist work.  That is how do we move forward?  How do we move forward when we are under attack with very little support from so many places that have power and privilege and could be supportive?  And what I come back to is the words of I know one of Christie’s heroes and many people’s Carla Shalaby, who talks about the power of collective resistance.  It used to feel like enough to go in my classroom and close my door and do my antiracist teaching and feel good about it.  And it’s no longer working, because one, it’s no longer safe in multiple ways even with all the privilege I as a white educator am wrapped in, it’s no longer safe. And two, it’s not changing the system.  So, then it starts to feel impossible when we get to that handwringing stage which I don’t like.

And I come back to that’s why we keep talking to other white educators, because the way to move forward is to do it collectively, right, to join forces and to stand alongside BIPOC educators who have been doing the work and shouldering such a different heavy burden.  And then as a white educator, what can I do, like Christie said, I can keep talking about it.  And I somewhere wrote down what Brendan said too, that idea of start having these conversations about white privilege and racism all the time, right, be that annoying hand raiser in a staff meeting, keep bringing it up, keep pointing out the problems, keep suggesting a better way, keep sharing the work that students are capable of, because we have to get other white folks to join us.  It no longer feels like enough to me to just go in my classroom and close the door.  I have to bring folks, and when I say folks, I mean white folks into the work with me.  And then collectively we push on admin, we push on school boards to vocally and visibly support us, because that’s how we move forward, right, that’s how we do the work. So, I don’t remember what question I was answering, but…

I just got to – sorry. I know I said you all should do all the talking.  But there are a couple things that are like really bubbling for me.  And one is Brendan brought up this holding of this kid holding like the hero and the can-do bad things.  And I was thinking in your book, especially in chapter six, you really explored the paradox of race that it scientifically doesn’t exist, but that socially it does and has huge impact, right?  And so, in a way that kid – that 17-year-old kid is able to like hold paradox.  And this book really asked kids to hold paradox.  So that’s one thing.

And then I’m thinking just about what you just said and feeling, like, and I am so guilty of this- about the problem with politeness.  How often as white folks we defer to politeness instead of standing up and saying, hold on, wait a minute?  And Brendan, you give a really great example in your book of that inaction.  And how much it takes for us as white folks to stand up and say, what you’re doing right now is racist, like, because we’re so worried about politeness that we forget that they’re harming people in our midst.  And who are we protecting with that politeness?

And then the third thing, and then I’m going to shut up and let you all say your brilliant words, because they bubble up in such interesting ways.  And thinking about this book is such that your onramp really to borrow Christie’s words, your onramp is your humility in sharing your own stories from your youth, again, and from your adulthood, frankly, again and again and being willing to say, my God.  Like, to put yourself out there in this vulnerable way and notice how race and racism shows up in your own life.  And I just have such big appreciation for that, and whether it’s about politeness or about the dawning of paradox, or about just your own experience, I just so appreciated that.  I don’t have a question.  I’m just going to open the floor and mute myself again.

Christie:  I’m trying to remember who I first heard the phrase ‘creative noncompliance’ from, but that is also really coming to mind for me, this idea of the many subversive ways that educators can continue in this moment and within the system.  And so, it calls to mind.  I think one of the sections of the book that stood out to me most was that moment, because I think I recognize myself in it the most, was that moment at the white privilege conference.  When asked to “Stand in solidarity by leaving,” this decision made by a white participant about what this indigenous woman might need or want in that moment.  And then to have that woman say, like, “No stay, I want you to stay.  This is what you meaning white people always do, you get up and leave.”  And it makes me think about something that – and again, I’m trying to call to mind, this comes from another person, this idea that if you – if a person were to walk away from whiteness in one situation, you’re likely to just run into it in the next that there isn’t a walking away from whiteness and yet that is in so many ways what white folks keep doing.

And so, one of the things that I hear from educators who are now (white educators in particular) being confronted with this idea of bans on critical race theory is like, well, I’ll just leave.  And I want to invite white educators who are sitting with that, I’ll just leave sentiment to consider what it looks like to stay in the same way that the woman asked you to stay in that moment.  What does it look like to be in this moment to be subversive to take a risk by teaching what necessarily needs to be taught to our young people?  And I want to be really clear here.  I’m not asking educators to stay in toxic environments that are actually dangerous to them, and to their health and wellbeing.  But what I am asking is in particular for white educators who have privileges within this system, as much as possible to stay and make it better if you’re able.

And again, for folks who are stepping away for reasons of personal health, for reasons of family health, for reasons of wellbeing, for reasons that their school or their environment is too toxic, yes, do those things.  And also, if the reason a person is stepping away is to say the system is too white, and the person stepping away is also white, again, I just want to invite a pause before fully pulling away and a request to really look around and consider that perhaps it is in that place that you can do the most work.  And perhaps that place really needs you.

Jeanie:  It’s okay to call each other in or call each other towards our better selves.  And in fact, a lot of the smart people in our lives who can do that, and we shouldn’t expect people of the global majority our friends who are not white to do that for us.  But we can lean on each other as white folks to pull us into that place we want to be when we slide and slip and slide in our own indoctrination in white supremacy, because we both got that, right?  So, I just wanted to pull out that phrase, loving accountability.

And then I am one of those people who early on in the – what I’m going to call the critical race theory whiplash would say, my goodness, come on, schools aren’t teaching critical race theory.  I’m learning about critical race theory in my doc program.  That’s not what schools are teaching.  Now, I’ve been rethinking that a little bit, because one, I think it’s not very helpful and, two, because it isn’t really accurate.  And so it may be that schools are not teaching critical race theory.  But while reading your book, I was really seeing what schools are teaching is what critical race theory helps us see, which is the ways in which racism is systemic or you used on page 66, the word systematized.

And so, I really appreciated the way you pulled out historical outlines, legal outcomes, your grandfather, I felt a real kinship to that, that’s my own working class grandfather’s story and his benefits from being in World War II.  And you sort of lay out the way in which just like critical race theory would that the nature of racism in this country isn’t about a few bad apples, a few individuals who feel icky things.  It’s really about legal precedent and systems at work to produce the outcomes that are racist.  And I guess that’s what antiracist teachers are doing, right?  They’re teaching accurate history that demonstrates the systemic nature of racism.

And so, I wanted to talk a little bit more than Christie just did about how teachers might continue to do this really important work while preparing themselves for challenges from – in Vermont, what’s happening is anti-CRT folks are calling in to school board meetings on Zoom from like states in the West, right, like – so how can we prepare ourselves for what’s going to happen?  What we know is going to happen, because when you disrupt inequitable systems, people are going to push back.  What might we do so that we’re ready for that?  And Jess, I’m going to invite you to speak first.

Jess:  Me?  So, I think I said most of what I have to say about this earlier on that I don’t have a good, easy answer.  And I think the truth is, I think sometimes educators do need permission to know that sometimes it is too much and there is a threat.  And it is unsafe.  And listen to that too, because I think part of why we need to rethink saying, well, schools aren’t teaching CRT is that it’s really dismissive, because it’s so beside the point.  Nobody cares really if we’re teaching CRT or not.  That was never the point, right?

So, I think we were also unprepared for that argument that we were like that was our first response, like, what you’re talking about?  That’s – I don’t even know what that is.  I’m not doing that.  But again, that doesn’t matter, because it’s again that desire to protect, protect your children, protect their comfort, but also protect the systems you’ve benefited from.  And so, I do want to say that I think sometimes it isn’t safe and to know that and trust that too.  And then we build that collective resistance.

And I will also say this: before I dig in with my students to any conversations about racism or racist systems, we first celebrate the heck out of identity, and we celebrate who we all are as individuals and facets of identity, and we talk about the many parts of us.  And we celebrate so much, because that means more than hanging a rainbow flag on my wall, right?  That doesn’t create a safe space.  What creates a safe space is naming identities. Being able to give space to conversations about all pieces of identity, modeling my own identity and talking about it.

And then once we celebrate identity, then we built on that foundation, because we have these sturdy legs to stand on them, right?  And then we move into how does our identity impact how we move through the world?  And I make it so clear that there are some parts of our identity that in some situations make it harder for us to move through the world.  But that’s not because something is wrong with who you are, it’s because something is wrong with this world, right?  So, I’m not saying that protects us.  But I think it’s sort of contextualizes teaching about systems, because we look at it through a lens of who we are impacts how we move through the world, right?

And so, again, that’s not some magic solution, but it can help when we start there, it becomes a little bit more just what we do here, right?  We just celebrate who we are and we are honest about who we are. It sometimes makes things easier and sometimes makes things harder and we’re going to look at all of that together and there’s space for all of that together here.  So, it can be kind of a good place to go to when it’s starting to feel like, there is nothing I can say that’s going to not be attacked.  And certainly, there will be people who attack but it can kind of cushion some of that.

Christie:  I think, to what both of you are saying, I think one of the great lies that has been perpetuated is this idea that it’s deeply rooted in shame and guilt.  And although there are places in the statuses that one can point to in which a person might be feeling shame and guilt.  And also, I want a name that I can’t control how the curriculum I teach in my classroom lands on my students.  And so, I aim for joy, I aim for opportunities, for lightness, for those breathing moments.  And also, I know that the same lesson can strike five students in five entirely different ways.  And I don’t want to pretend to control for that.  But I do want to offer that I am willing to sit with any student and the authentic reactions that they’re having to what I’m teaching.

And I want to name that in their really beautiful text Radical Dharma which has been foundational to my own understanding.  I just love the way in which Lama Rod Owens and Angel Kyodo Williams talks about the harms of white supremacy to all people across racial identity and society.  And they name really beautifully that white supremacy harms all of us.  It harms people at different rates and in different ways.  So, I don’t want to pretend that the harms of white supremacy that I’ve experienced in my white body are the same harms of white supremacy that friends of the global majority experience.  But I do want to name that I think there are opportunities and ways in which when white supremacy is named, and the harm of it is named that white students, young white people, white professionals, academics, educators, all of us can name the way that this has harmed us too, has harmed our relationship, has fractured relationship, both with people of the global majority and with one another, has harmed our familial lineages in the way in which our families have broken from their ancestry in order to meld itself into this project of whiteness that exists here in the United States.

And I think that there is a real beauty and and joy that can come in naming this universal harm that folks have experienced through this project of white supremacy.  That is to say that critical race theory and this teaching is about restoring and repairing from that harm and moving toward a place of healing.  And as they name in their text, a place of true collective liberation in which it’s about all of us in solidarity moving away from the harms of white supremacy that hurt all of us toward a more bright and beautiful future in which every person can be more whole in their bodies, and in their lives and in their relationships with others.  And so I think my hope is that in teaching the truth, it’s actually a practice of healing as Shawn Ginwright might name.  And that my hope is that it’s a practice of practicing liberation as Dr. Carla Shalaby might talk about.  And so how is it that together as educators and young people, we can practice liberation in our classrooms toward that more whole and beautiful vision, which is not about loading people with guilt and shame, but instead is about actually moving away from those things that harm us most towards something that’s really going to be better for everybody.

Jeanie:  My goodness. Thank you for this joyful and hopeful conversation about this amazing book that I think white folks should read, lots and lots and lots of white folks should read and my dog agrees.  And we only just touched on a little bit of the text.  There are so many more.  I’ve got all these like bookmarks in here where I wanted to quote other sections.  Christie’s got a gazillion post it notes.  We’re only just getting started.  And yet this feels like the perfect place to end.  Christie, Jess, Brendan, thank you so much for joining me to talk about this.  I so appreciate it.  And Charlie does, too.

Jess:  Thank you for having us.  This was a soul-filling conversation.

Brendan:  This is fantastic.  Thanks so much to all of you.  This is great.

Christie:  Thank you, Jeanie.  Thank you, Charlie.

Jeanie:  I’m Jeanie.  And this has been an episode of #vtedReads talking about what Vermont’s educators and students are reading.  Thank you to Brendan Kieley. Did I do that right?

Brendan:  Yes, thank you.  Thank you so much.

Jeanie:  Jess Lifshitz and Christie Nold for appearing on the show and talking with me about The Other Talk.  If you’re looking for a copy of The Other Talk, check your local library.  Thanks to our Audio Engineer Audrey Homan and to Life LeGeros and Rachel Mark for their podcast support.  To find out more about Vermont Ed Reads including past episodes, upcoming guests and a whole lot more, you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org.  Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @vtedreads.  This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.

[embedyt] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jX20wUq1Fhw[/embedyt]

#vted Reads: Community Schools Blueprint with Kathleen Kesson

Listeners, it won’t come as a shock to any of you that with the state of the world as it is many of our systems are at a breaking point, our schools in particular.  But when we are all broken, that’s where the light gets in.  So, as we sit here together in our brokenness, let’s make sure the break is wide enough that we can rebuild with intention, with equity, and with heart.  And for that, we’re going to need a blueprint.

In this episode, we welcome author, educator, and Vermont transplant Kathleen Kesson who talks about Community Schools Blueprint: Transforming Our School Community Partnership.  Kathleen and I talk about the possibilities we see for widening the cracks in traditional schooling by building opportunities for students and communities to support one another in authentic, real-world ways.

Community Schools Blueprint Title Page

There’s lots to celebrate about the foundations of our education system, but let’s face it.  Even before the pandemic, it was already deeply, deeply flawed.  What can we learn from the concrete examples of innovation, a deep human connection we’ve seen emerge during this pandemic?  Who are the people and your can be most wished can pass on their skills and knowledge?  And what opportunities do students in your community currently have to learn those skills and knowledge?  Plus, it’s very likely beyond the time we turned our elections over to middle school students.  Don’t believe me? Kathleen shares how she has seen it in action.

I’m Jeanie and this is #vted Reads, a podcast about books by, for, and with Vermont educators.  Let’s chat.  Thank you for joining me, Kathleen.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Kathleen:  Hi, Jeanie.  Thanks for inviting me to your podcast.  Well, I guess we can start with what I’m doing in Vermont.  I came to Vermont in 1992 as a Director of Teacher Education at Goddard College.  I spent 10 years there teaching at Goddard.  And for about five or six of those years, I had a funded research institute at the University of Vermont.  It was called the John Dewey Project on Progressive Education.  So, kind of a scholar of Dewey’s work, I was fascinated with Vermont, because this is where Dewey was born, and this is where he went to college.

And when I got the job offer up here, I was also intrigued because I knew that Vermont was one of the few places that had no standardized testing mandates at the time and no standardized textbook adoption procedures.  So, I knew that teachers had a lot of autonomy, or at least I assumed that. I was really interested to see how Vermont was putting Dewey’s ideas into practice.  So, I spent 10 years at Goddard.  I did then get recruited by an urban university in New York City to help develop a program for teachers there and spent 17 years doing that.  And I’m now happily retired, back to Vermont where I live in South Barre.  And I do a lot of gardening and a lot of action and advocacy work with various organizations in the state who are continuing to work on implementing a more progressive education, policy, and practice.  So that’s the professional stuff.

I’m a mother of four sons.  Three of whom graduated from Montpelier High School.  I’m a grandmother of three granddaughters.  And just really care a lot about the future of our world and what children are learning and how schools can become more humane and more just.  So, I spend most of my time writing, talking, and working toward those ends.

Jeanie:  Kathleen, thank you for that introduction and also for inviting me into your home.  I just want to say, this is the first in-person conversation I’ve had for the podcast since we went on lockdown at the beginning of COVID.  And listeners, we are both vaxxed and boosted and we’re also at a good safe distance across the table from each other.  But it’s just really lovely to be able to look at your face while we’re having this conversation.

Kathleen:  Okay.

Jeanie:  I love books and reading. So, I always ask my guests what they’re reading right now or if they have any reading suggestions for us.

Kathleen:  Well, aside from my guilty pleasures, which often involve British detective novels that put me to sleep at night, I just received my copy of David Graeber’s, The Dawn of Everything, which is a voluminous work on the history of the world that has been reviewed recently in the Atlantic and the New York Times and The New Yorker.  I’m interested in David’s work because he’s a real advocate of social ecology.  I’m on the board of the Institute for Social Ecology here.  And he’s really taking a new look at the history of the world, basically, and dismantling a lot of our assumptions about human progress and human development and human hierarchies and all that.  So, I’m looking to that.  I’m reading The Hidden Life of Trees because I’m fascinated with all the new learning and scholarship around plants and what we don’t know about plants and animals and sort of the new relationships that are developing among human intelligence and the rest of the world.

JeanieMycelium?

Kathleen: Mycelium.

Jeanie:  Yes, I’m interested in that too.

Kathleen:  And my friend Wendy Williams, who does some work here with the VPN, she lives out in Oakland just gave me a copy of The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein.  So, I’m interested in that.  It sort of follows Michelle Alexander’s wonderful book on The New Jim Crow.  So quite a variety.  I read a lot of partial books for my writing, I find that I pick up things and reread them. I’ve got stacks laying everywhere.

Jeanie:  I know you’ve got your library books there in the kitchen, too.  I noticed those.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  Thank you for those suggestions.  Some were on my radar.  But the first one you mentioned wasn’t, so I’m going to be looking for that.  Let’s dig into this Community Blueprint, which, listeners, we’ll make available.  It’s an online publication that we’ll make available on the Tarrant Institute blog, which you can find at vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org, and we’ll put it in the transcript.

So, in your introduction, you write that Vermont educators don’t want to return to a pre-COVID normal.  And I feel that.  I hear that from educators and from students and families all over Vermont.  You say that now is the time to acknowledge that that normal wasn’t working for all students.  I wonder if you could just briefly in a nutshell describe a vision for the future that would move beyond that normal.

Kathleen:  You said briefly, that’s a challenge.

Jeanie:  Or not so briefly.

Kathleen:  And I’m afraid, I probably wouldn’t phrase it that way, because I hate to make giant generalizations.  And it really is true that there are a lot of people who would love to return to normal right now.  I’m sure because COVID has been so grim.  And people are just so overwhelmed with trying to cope with that.  Normal might look pretty good right now.  But there’s also a number of educators, parents, young people for whom school was not working well, either for – well, for a number of reasons.  For reasons of equity or access, but also, I think there’s a sense among many people that the sort of industrial model of schooling that we really still have right now is no longer well suited to preparing young people for the future that we’re facing.

I mean, COVID may be the tip of the iceberg.  We’ve got major, major challenges facing humanity right now in terms of climate change, in terms of extinctions, in terms of the failure of democracy in many places.  And I think that we could all do a better job of educating young people in ways that will help them survive and thrive in the future.

So, in terms of a vision for the future, well, I would advocate for schools to become much more humane places.  We have to examine all the things we do, like tracking and ranking and grading, the things that cause so much stress among even high achieving kids.  I think that schools could be joyful places.  They could be places that every child wanted to go to every day, because there was so much happening and so many relationships and friendships and positive experiences that we would not have a school dropout rate, we would not have kids with stomach aches who don’t want to go to school.  So that’s my vision is to really make schools places where kids want to be and where parents want to send them.

And I don’t mean to say that schools are terrible.  There are some wonderful, wonderful schools and I’ve visited many of them in Vermont.  But I’ve also worked in Brooklyn, and I’ve seen schools there that are not joyful places, that are not humane places, where the curriculum is absolutely irrelevant to children’s lives, and they don’t necessarily want to be there.  So, I’ve kind of seen the whole range of schooling practices.

Jeanie:  One of the things I’m hearing from you is that even if a school might be joyful, have pockets of joy in it, pockets of humaneness, it still might have pockets of the opposite.

Kathleen:  Exactly.

Jeanie:  And then there’s this other piece that it might be joyful for many, or even most students and still alienate some students.

Kathleen:  That’s certainly true.  I mean, we’ve all been to school.  So, we all remember things like the cliques and the social classes, and the hierarchies and the power relations.  I think we’ve all experienced that.  And schools have not changed that much.  There are still young people who feel marginalized, whether it’s around issues of race or income or sexual orientation or gender.  There are kids who don’t feel welcome in school so that idea of belonging, how can we create environments where everybody feels a sense of belonging?

Jeanie:  Yes, you’re just echoing so much of what some listeners and myself heard at the recent Rowland Conference where Carla Shalaby gave a beautiful keynote.  And the thing that’s echoing for me and what you’re saying is that even if you’re a student who feels a sense of belonging, you’re learning lessons about community and about life when others are excluded.  What you’re learning is that inclusion is conditional and that you might in the future be excluded.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And you might also be learning how to exclude others from the way that school deals with what Carla Shalaby calls the “troublemakers.”

Kathleen:  Yes, that’s certainly true.  And I see this in my own family.  I have a granddaughter who’s a really high-achieving student.  I mean, A+, honor roll, AP classes. She’s a junior in high school.  And she is suffering from so much anxiety and stress and depression around trying to maintain her high achievement that it – she just says, “I was so happy during summer. And then the day school started, I started feeling like this again.”  So, it’s not just kids who are academically underachieving or behind in some way, it’s also the kids who are doing really well academically.

Jeanie:  The kids for whom it looks like school is working.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  Yeah, I appreciate that.  So, as you moved through this document, you really spend some time, I feel providing some touchstones for us along the way around some terms like localization and community.  I wonder if you could spend a few minutes talking about what localization is and how you define community, and then also how you draw on that as you move towards this model of a community school.

Kathleen:  I shall do that.  I’ve studied school reform throughout my career looking at 50 years of school reform, even 100 years of school reform.  And there’s been 1,000s of things tried, some progressive, some conservative.  It’s an endless tinkering with the school system.

But the one thing that has emerged for me and partly, this is the work of my good friend, Jean Anyon, who’s no longer with us, her wonderful research on school and social class.  The understanding that school doesn’t exist in a vacuum, it exists within a social, political and economic context and issues of wealth inequality and poverty and increasingly environmental degradation, things like that are sort of central issues in which schooling dwells.

And unless we were to solve the problems of poverty, and these include everything from homelessness to food insecurity, to domestic violence, I mean, the whole host of social problems that are related to poverty.  School reforms are going to continue to be pretty ineffective and we’re going to have business as usual, or we will have normal until we can address the larger social issues.

This is a daunting idea.  How do you change the system that we live in?  Well, I think we’re getting some pretty strong indicators now that the larger system, which I’ll define as sort of a few hundred years of a fossil fuel-based economy with continuous growth at its core and consumerism as one of the higher values is kind of coming to a screeching halt perhaps. We’re realizing that material resources are finite, especially fossil fuel.  We’ve got new technologies on the horizon, but we’re not quite there yet.  And we need to really rethink some of the fundamentals about how we live.  I think we need to rethink what we eat, what we consume, how we spend, how we organize our democracies.  A lot of those things need to be I think carefully thought through to determine if they are actually serving our needs for this future that we’re facing and that we’re really in right now.

I promote the idea of localization.  And I rely a lot on Helena Norberg-Hodge’s work on local futures, partly because this is what I see happening in Vermont.  This is the direction Vermont is moving.  I think many people here have realized the importance of food sovereignty, of supporting local agriculture, of cooperative businesses that attempt to sort of level the hierarchies of who has power, who has control. We have 160 consumer and producer cooperatives in Vermont, all those sorts of localization processes that help us toward rebuilding and revitalizing local communities.

I mean, we talk a lot about people moving away from Vermont and not having enough of a tax base, and needing more business.  But I think we need to really define what kind of business do we want?  What kind of economy do we want?  How can we build on the tradition of town meetings and have a more participatory democracy where citizens actually have some control over their lives and over what happens in their communities?  So that’s the focus on localization.

And the reason that I emphasize it in the Community Schools Blueprint is that I think we also need to rethink the relationship between schools and the community, a lot of which has already happened in Vermont.  There are some wonderful community partnerships happening here.  I think we need to build on this impetus toward both getting young people more involved in their communities and getting community people more involved in the schools.  So that was the sort of emphasis on localization was to really do some thinking about what we value, how do we want to live and how can our schools become better expressions of those values.

Jeanie:  There’s a lot there.  I really appreciate the way that you laid all that out.  When I read Jean Anyon, I don’t remember which article last year, I remember a big takeaway being that schools are expected to fix everything that’s wrong with our society without society having to fix anything on the outside of schools.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And so, this notion that we sometimes have as school being a great equalizer that can enable poor working-class kids to get the education to become middle class, and yet, this is our American dream of school, and yet we know that the reality, the way it plays out statistically is that school reproduces social class.

Kathleen:  Absolutely.  I think that’s kind of a consensus perspective of most educational scholars.

Jeanie:  Yes.  And so, what I hear you saying is, instead of expecting school to fix all that ails us, that community and school need to work together in order to co-create community and school in ways that are more just sustainable, equitable.

Kathleen:  Yeah.  That’s very well put.  And I think there’s a caveat here.  Localization has, in our history, sometimes been provincialism.  We’re not thinking that we’ve got to pull back and reject the sort of larger connections.  What’s happening right now is sort of a – some people call it translocalism.  We are getting both globally interconnected, really connecting with many people in other countries who are sharing these kinds of values, and at the same time developing more of a local focus.

I mean, let’s face it.  Localization was one reason why many people, mostly in the south, but other places too, rejected the school integration in the 1950s.  They said, well, we don’t want to do this and so we’re going to start private schools, whites only academies.  And that’s when the private school, often Christian schools, which often were independent schools, proliferated because local people rejected the federal imposition.  So, we’re in a very new place right now, because I think that we’re having really vital conversations about equity, about racism, about decolonization, about what we need to do to sort of right the wrongs, address the wrongs, repair the wrongs of the past. Part of localization is having those conversations.

Jeanie:  How do community schools address issues of equity? Specifically, how might they disrupt inequities?

Kathleen:  Good question.  When I started researching community schools, I realized, first of all, it’s not a new thing.  It’s been going on for a couple of decades.  And I know that in many cases, community schools were initiatives by sometimes tribal indigenous communities and sometimes city communities where parents really wanted more influence over the schools and the curriculum.  So, it’s been around for a while.  It’s picked up a lot of steam since about 2000.  And my sense is that the community school movement emerged because of kind of a neoliberal consensus that poverty was at the root of the so-called achievement gap.

So, I think community schools are sort of at their core, an effort to remediate some of the core issues that relate to the income gap.  And my understanding is that if you look at the pillars of community schools, the idea of integrated student supports, what kind of supports do students need to sort of help them achieve at higher levels? They talk about expanded and enriched learning time; so, after school programs, summer programs, things like that.  They focus on active family and community engagement.  Although, they do talk about partnerships, and they talk about collaborative leadership and practices.

So many community schools try to do things like develop partnerships with social service agencies so that they can get a dentist for kids who don’t have dental care, more social workers, more counselors, things like that.  They generally are not talking about really looking at the social system as a whole and thinking about ways to really disrupt inequity in terms of discussions like decolonizing education or anti-racist education.  It’s kind of a benevolent liberal approach, I would think to remediating the achievement gap.

I do know that Vermonters who’ve been interested in community schools worked a lot when our legislation was being passed.  We have some recent legislation that is providing funding to at least five districts to initiate pilots in community schools.  And I know that some of the people involved in testimony really were pushing for an increased attention to equity in the community schools.  So, I think Vermont is the only state who has really developed a sense of a real focus on equity as part of the community schools movement.  So, we can see what kind of effect that has.  But the Blueprint really, again, is pointing out the limitations of community schools.  I think they’re a good example of some temporary fixes, some band aids that will be very helpful and may even help with the achievement gap.  But I don’t think it addresses the long-term larger systemic issues that we need to be talking about.

Jeanie:  Yeah.  You early on in that said, so called achievement gap and there are other terms people use for that.  One is opportunity gap, meaning that the way that schools are funded, it means some people have more opportunities than others.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  There’s another one called – is it called – there’s something – somebody else uses a term like education deficit, the places where we haven’t really fully invested in education for some kids, like, we have for other kids.

Kathleen:  Yeah.  And I think these discussions about people weighting factors and equalizing funding, they’re all extremely important.  A lot of the discussions around achievement, opportunity and access don’t question the way the curriculum and the learning are structured, or even the content.  It’s really more about how can more people do better with what we have.  I’m suggesting otherwise that we need a radical in the sense of getting to the root of the problem, rethinking of the curriculum itself.

Jeanie:  I really appreciate that.  I just got a chance to see Gholdy Muhammad give a keynote.  She’s written a book called Cultivating Genius that I’ve talked about on the podcast in the past.  And one of the things she said that just really stuck with me is that is a caution about how we talk about students.  And the example she gave was that we sometimes talk about students who struggle.  And she says, I will not start there, I will not start with a deficit approach.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And I’m not going to assume that kids are struggling.  I’m going to ask myself, where is my pedagogy struggling?  Where’s my curriculum struggling?  Where’s the culture of my classroom struggling?

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And looking at those things, as opposed to struggling kids, because if we think about it as kids then we think our curriculum and our pedagogy is just fine.  It’s a kid’s problem.  But if we say, hey, this curriculum, this pedagogy isn’t working for all students then that has to change, not the kids.

Kathleen:  Right.  And it could be pedagogy, it could be methods of instruction, it could be the content of the curriculum itself or it could be the structure of schooling.  A child, for example, who’s absolutely uninterested in the topic that the teacher is very interested in may have an attention deficit.  But this may not be a deficit, it just may be that the child is not interested.  So why are we teaching subjects instead of working with children to find out what they’re interested in, what they’re curious about, and designing entire curriculums around the questions that kids have about the world they live in.  I have met remarkable teachers who do this very successfully.  So, it’s not a pie in the sky idea.

Jeanie:  I will say my – I was a Rowland Fellow in 2014.  And that’s what my Rowland fellowship was built around, students interest building, especially in school library and research opportunities for kids to really dig in research and move into actually doing something, about something they were interested in.  One of the surprising findings for me is that interest is itself a skill and that you know people who are really interested in lots of things, they can be interested in just about anything.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And then I also know people in my own life who are interested in nothing.  And that’s also – like, it’s like we almost wear it out of kids.  And so, if you just say to kids, what are you interested in, you might get a lot of blank stares.  It’s something you have to cultivate over time.

Kathleen:  Absolutely.

Jeanie:  And we can help create kids who are more interested in their communities, in the worlds around them in the way that we teach.

Kathleen:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  By teaching them to ask questions, by helping them think about how some thing is relevant to their lives and the lives of people they love by taking them out.  I know in your Community Schools Blueprint, you talk about place-based learning and service learning, getting them out in their communities to see their real-world implications.

Kathleen:  Right.  Well, I think, thinking about the structure of schooling, I have never met a two-year-old who wasn’t interested in the world.

Jeanie:  Yes.

Kathleen:  Perhaps if a child had severe neurological damage or something like that, they might not exhibit a lot of interest.  But those two-year olds want to take it in and learn everything they can learn about how far can I throw this food, how fast will the milk spill.  Toddlers are interested in everything. 100 years ago, I taught three and four-year olds, I loved it, because they were mostly just fascinated with almost everything.

Jeanie:  Listeners, it was not 100 years ago.

Kathleen:  But if you look at the research on interest in school, it peaks in the second grade and then starts to drop off precipitously in the third grade.  Now, I think we need to be asking ourselves why.

Jeanie:  Why, yes.  Well, and that’s what I mean.  I was working with high school kids and upper middle school kids and they’re like, wait, you’re asking me what I’m interested in?

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And some of them were really good at listing a lot of things.  And for some of them, that was really hard.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And I think schools dampen their enthusiasm and interest.

Kathleen:  They actually do.  And in fact, I don’t know how many of your listeners might remember John Taylor Gatto.  Gatto was the Teacher of the Year for a couple of years in New York City back in the 80s, I think it was.  He was Teacher of the Year because his kids were so interested.  He was teaching in a very income deprived community in New York City.  And the kids were like getting out with cameras and taking pictures of toxic sites and exploring their community and interviewing people.  And they were absolutely the most interested engaged kids in the world.  So, he won this Teacher of the Year award.  And then he gave a speech at Carnegie Hall and just lambasted the entire educational system for what they were not doing.  And he wrote a lovely little book called Dumbing Us Down, where he sort of laid out in very simple, accessible language his critique of schooling.  And he talked about, well, what we education scholars call the hidden curriculum.  It’s like we think we have one curriculum.  But what is it the kids are really learning?

Jeanie:  Compliance.

Kathleen:  And what he talks about- they’re learning that what they care about doesn’t matter.

Jeanie:  Yeah.

Kathleen:  They’re learning about they have to structure whatever they’re engaged in, in 45-minute intervals.  They have to learn that what the teacher expects and what the authorities expect them to do is much more important than what they want to do.  So, he goes on like that through the whole book.  And that’s really the hidden curriculum of many schools is we’re teaching kids not to care about things.

Jeanie:  Yes, exactly.  Thank you for that.  So, if we envision a community school, just give us like a little snapshot of what a positive community school might look like?  You walk in the door, what do you see Kathleen?

Kathleen:  Uh-huh.  Well, I was fortunate to do quite a bit of research in 2014 when Act 77 first came out.  I was looking at personalized learning programs in various schools.  And one thing to know about Vermont communities are they are a wealth of resources about things that are very important to a vision of a sustainable, localized future.  Vermont communities are full of solar engineers and carpenters and artists and musicians, people doing really, really interesting stuff that kids are very interested in.

So, one place I spent a lot of time was with the Renaissance Program at Twinfield School that had a very early personalized learning program.  Debra Stoleroff, the person who’s run that program for the last 20 years or more would help kids think about what it is I really want to learn, what do I really want to do.  She’d set them up, whether it was at the planetarium, or with a retired engineer, or with a retired anthropologist in the community, or with a blacksmith to learn to do medieval knife making.  And these kids would go off.  There was freedom of movement in and out of school.  It wasn’t a free for all.  Teachers were very connected with what the kids were doing.  There was kind of accountability.  The kids were reporting on what they were doing and creating portfolios.

And I know John Clark well, who was really responsible for early personalized learning out there at Mount Abe.  I didn’t visit the school that much, but I understand it was also similar.  So, it’s kind of labor intensive to really work with kids around what they would like to do it, but it is possible.

Jeanie:  It seems to me that early on in Act 77, this conversation about personalization was a lot about individualization, what individual kids need.  And what I love about this model is that it’s less about individuals and more about communities and how do we do learning together in community that is relevant to our community.

Kathleen:  Right.  And I know you and I have talked about this before, that’s one of my big critiques.  And what I think might have been John Dewey’s critique of personalized learning would be the focus exclusively on the individual and their needs and wants.  And there’s ways in which that fits right in with the current consumer capitalist society.  It’s like, my playlist or whatever I want.  So, I know that we’ve talked about the idea of how do you build democratic schools and democracy while encompassing individual interests.  And there’s many ways to do that.  I know that Andy Barker and some of his colleagues at the City and Lake Semester in Burlington, it’s a public-school option.  The kids are signing up for the City and Lake Semester in a group.  But it’s a democratically run group.  They come up with their own questions.  They are out investigating Lake Champlain, they’re investigating the City Council, they’re following their interests and they’re gathering data and they’re learning all about their local community.  I think that’s kind of an exemplary program.

And that’s my vision of a program is I think most kids want to be spending time with other kids.  So pure learning is just so essential.  And I think there’s room for individual interests in really robust, well planned group learning situations.

Jeanie:  Right.  And for individual strengths, right…

Kathleen:  Absolutely.

Jeanie: I’m thinking about – you’re bringing up Act 77 and legislation.  It seems to me that Act 1 is also a great leverage point for this, where the work around ethnic studies allows us this opportunity to investigate our communities and who lives here and how is the community working and not working for the people who live there.  And I think about some work that my friend Judy Dow does in Brattleboro where she asks kids, why are the poor houses in the floodplain, right?  Like kids look into whose house is where and why.  And that’s a great ethnic study’s approach to learning about your community.

Kathleen:  Yeah.  And conventional place-based education used to be a lot around nature study.  Then learning about the wildlife and the trees and habitation, all of which is very important.  But the more recent advances in scholarship around place-based education really asked us to investigate a place, who lived here?  Why don’t they live here anymore?  What happened to the people who lived here?  What were the conflicts that took place on this land?  And I think that pushes us into a deep investigation of culture in place that is very consistent with Act 1.

Jeanie:  Yes.

Kathleen:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  So, you’ve given us a little like notion of what community schooling looks like.  And you’ve talked about your own study of education reform.  And I know when I was in library school, I had a professor who said, the problem with school reform is we don’t stick with anything long enough to make lasting change.  We give up on it too soon, which I have to say I’ve seen that in action.  My question for you Kathleen is how do we make this community school movement, especially the kind of community schools that you’re talking about, how do we get started?  What are some early steps?  And then how do we ensure that we keep going?

Kathleen:  Well, I was reading, I think it was in the Digger about a week ago that a group of educators had made a plea to the legislature not to pass any new legislation this year.  And I just think that sort of encapsulates the problem.  Now, teachers can get really frustrated with new changes coming their way every single year.  And some just give up and say, well, I’m not even going to get engaged, because it’s just going to change next year.

Jeanie:  Yes.

Kathleen:  So, I think you’re really hitting on a really important topic.  Obviously, we’re not going to be stagnant.  I mean, when there’s new research or new learning, you have to make some changes.  But I actually think that if the people in the school, the community, the school itself, the leaders of the school, the educators and especially the youth, if they were the ones deciding what do we need to do next, it might look very different from the kind of top down initiatives that really bombard people every year.  Some of them are interesting, some of them are effective, a lot of them are just sort of fly by night ideas.

I think about the new math that they introduced back in the 1950s that nobody understood.  The teachers didn’t understand it.  The parents didn’t understand it.  It was developed by mathematicians in the best universities.  And it was an absolute flop, because it just wasn’t what was suitable for the people engaged in mathematics instruction.  So, I think we have to be very wary of these top-down ideas.

On the other hand, without top-down federal intervention, we might never have had school desegregation or federal lunch programs.  So, I don’t know, I think maybe I’m misplacing my trust.  But I think communities could actually make most of those decisions quite nicely by themselves.

Jeanie:  One of the things that you and I have talked about as an entry event into growing this kind of work in schools is doing a community asset map…

Kathleen:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  Really creating a really thoughtful spreadsheet or database of all of the community partners and invested community members that can be a part of this process.

Kathleen:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  And I think in schools, it’s really easy to sort of reach out to parents and that’s it.  And that assumes that other people in your community aren’t interested in the wellbeing of young people, which is, I think, a false assumption.  It also assumes that other people in your community who are not parents aren’t interested in donating their time and resources or partnering and learning together with young people and educators to make a difference to the local stream or the local policies about whatever is happening in your community.

Kathleen:  Right.  Yeah.  I’ve been promoting this since 2014, when I first learned about the legislation here was that every community needed to map their assets and every community is absolutely different.  Obviously, Burlington, our urban community has lots of experiences that kids can do with businesses and various organizations.  But rural communities have a wealth of assets, people who have lived there for a long time.  Did you ever hear of the Foxfire movement in schools?

Jeanie:  Yes.

Kathleen:  I mean it was just amazing.  Kids in rural Georgia were out interviewing the elders in their community about things like apple cider making and quilt making and just…

Jeanie:  They’ve put out those Foxfire publications, right?

Kathleen:  They put out a magazine which is still going.  They earned enough money from the magazine to build a TV station.  And that was in a pretty remote community.  So, every community has assets.  It just depends on the lens you’re looking through, whether you consider them assets or not.  One time I had some boys helping me in the garden who were in an alternative program for kids who were not doing well in school, okay.  These kids were a wealth of information about tracking, about wildlife, about hunting, about things that I knew nothing about, and they were able to help.  They were able to help me make some decisions about my gardening that were really useful.  So, it kind of depends on the lens we’re using.

But the asset mapping, we did have a project with Peoples Academy where they did some asset mapping, and the students took control of it.  And it was absolutely wonderful.  There’s a little article, I have a link to it in the blueprint written by a student who was very involved in the asset mapping.  So, it’s a wonderful way to figure out who can do what in your community.  And like you said, you’ve got to look past the familiars.  There’s always the familiar business or the familiar people who did this and that and the doctor who comes into school to give a talk.  But you’ve got to really cast the net wide.  And especially, back to this idea of belonging, how do we make sure that everyone in the community feels welcomed, invited and that their expertise is valued in the school?

Jeanie:  Well, and that’s so important that strengths-based lens to community and that we see marginalized community strengths as well.  And we ask folks that don’t normally get asked, whether because of poverty or because of their racial identity what are the strengths in your community and that we really see those with a strengths-based lens.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  Because so often marginalized people are further marginalized by school, because we only talk to them about deficits.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  I really appreciate that.  And I really appreciate this idea of an asset map.  Do you know of any models that we could put on our transcript for folks to see?

Kathleen:  I’m trying to think if there’s.  I don’t know if there’s a model per se.  But I mean you might interview for example, this young woman from Peoples Academy who wrote the article.

Jeanie:  Yeah.

Kathleen:  I think it’s just a kind of an investigative activity, getting kids out in the community, interviewing business owners, interviewing people who are part of different organizations.  And again, I think this is a different thing about the Community Schools Blueprint.  We have a conventional idea that schools need to partner with social service agencies and with government and with business.  But we neglect the grassroots democratic movements that are really, actively engaged in climate justice work, in anti-racist work.  And they’re more sort of on the edge of what I call the just transition.  How are we going to really make a transition to a better world that’s sustaining and that’s just?  So, I think that partnering with organizations like that and bringing in folks to the school to work on those issues that are really close to children’s interests is important.

Jeanie:  I really appreciate that.  What I found that first year of COVID, when school is disrupted in March, we were planning at the Two Rivers Supervisory Union this big Sustainable Development Goals project.  And we were planning field trips that got totally disrupted.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And so, we reached out and we did Zoom field trips which are way less exciting than being in-person.  But the doors that were opened because of Zoom meant that we had all sorts of people who wanted to talk to our kids.  I think we offered 20 different Zoom field trips that kids could attend based on whatever they were studying.  And they could attend all of them if they wanted…

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  With people, like one was the Black River Action Project which cleaned up streams, right, in the community where we were.  Some were VINs, like more – the things that come up, like, the things that are going to rise to the top no matter what…

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  The obvious ones like VINs and…

Kathleen:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  The Champlain Maritime Museum.  But some were more obscure, and it was really interesting getting kids this opportunity to meet with local community members who had interests in different areas.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And it was really memorable for kids.  So that’s coming up for me is that Zoom makes that really possible in ways that it opens access in some ways.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And then the other thing that’s coming up for me as we think about that community engagement piece, it has to do with fear that sometimes we can in schools be afraid of doing things that may rock the boat, or that sort of seem to have a political agenda.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  But that itself is a political agenda.

Kathleen:  It is.

Jeanie:  It’s just a political agenda that’s in favor of the status quo.

Kathleen:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  So, what do you say to folks who are like, well, we can’t do that, because what if somebody complains?

Kathleen:  Well, somebody is always going to complain.  I mean, we have such a polarized society right now that I think you can just expect complaints about anything.  I have a piece I wrote for the English Journal that I’ll share with you.  It was based on some research I did in Oklahoma, where I have a lot of ties in a Native American community, a place where there’s about 26 different tribal groups.  And this community is situated on one of the worst Superfund sites in the world, worse than Love Canal, it’s called Tar Creek.  And there was a guidance counselor there who was working with kids.

I’ll try to make a long story very short, who started – most of the kids had lead poisoning, so they were considered with learning disabilities.  But they all started investigating their Superfund site.  This was like 25, 30 years ago.  They got so good at what they were doing that they published a number of books through the Cherokee Nation on what they learned about the Superfund site.  They got the EPA more involved.  They got Harvard University involved in epidemiological studies around lead poisoning.  You would not believe the things that these kids did.  And they were given a Governor’s Award at one point for their investigative expertise.  I write a lot about that, because it’s an example to me of it’s not a politically neutral event to examine a Superfund site or a toxic waste dump.  There are going to be people who do not want those things revealed.

Jeanie:  Right.

Kathleen:  But it is a moral and ethical decision.  And I think we can’t underestimate the capacities of young people.  That’s I think one of the biggest mistakes we make.  I remember when all that stuff came out about lead, lead pipes in schools, and there was a worry about lead.  But the state was throwing up their hands and going, well, we don’t have the capacity to do the testing, we can’t do this, we can’t do that.  I pointed them toward the kids at Tar Creek who had been trained to investigate lead in pipes by government agencies, and who were able to go in schools, who were supplied with the testing kits, who were testing the water themselves.  And I wrote to the science educators here, I put an OP Ed in the newspaper, I said, why don’t we get the kids involved in water testing in the schools.  Well, guess what kind of response I got?

Jeanie:  Yeah, probably not a positive way although…

Kathleen:  Absolutely nothing, no.

Jeanie:  What a way to raise scientists?

Kathleen:  What a way to do it, right?

Jeanie:  Yes.

Kathleen:  You got 100 kids in Vermont investigating the lead in their water.  And who knows what kind of science geniuses we might produce that way?  But no, there was not the slightest bit of interest.  So, I think we do really underestimate kids.  I did take a trip to Cuba in the 1990s.  And I did a lot of interviews with various community organizations and at the University of Havana.  And I was interviewing one middle school teacher.  Now, Cuba is not a haven of democracy, so don’t mistake my words here.  But I said, “Well, how do you get middle school kids involved in the community??”  And the person said, “Oh, that’s easy.  They handle the elections.”

Jeanie:  Right.

Kathleen:  There are municipal elections in Nevada.  And the kids run them.  Here, mostly retired people run them.

Jeanie:  Yeah.

Kathleen:  But the kids were running the election.  So, it’s like, think of all the things that young people could be doing.

Jeanie:  Yeah.  You just said the word that I just opened something I wanted to share.  And this does not sound like it has anything to do with community schools, so bear with me.  I’m on an octo kick because somebody forwarded me a podcast with Sy Montgomery talking about the book, The Soul of the Octopus.  And then that podcast led me to this movie on Netflix called My Octopus Teacher.  Have you heard of it?

Kathleen:  My Octopus Teacher, it’s a wonderful movie.

Jeanie:  It’s wonderful.

Kathleen:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  And so Sy Montgomery, and both of these things really spoke to me. I’m not a scientist, I’m not doing any work with animals.  But it spoke to me about humans and about students and who we think of as learners and who we appreciate as learners and who we don’t.  And so, I’m going to read this quote from Sy Montgomery.  She said,

“We have been blinded to the genius of not only fellow animals, but fellow people for the longest time, just because we think everything has to be just like us. We didn’t even recognize the symptoms of heart attack in women, because we were too busy focusing on men, because the doctors were all men for so long, for example.  So absolutely, I think that is the biggest mistake we are making in the world.  And we’re not just making it in underestimating animals, but we underestimate fellow human beings as well.”

Kathleen:  Absolutely.  And it’s partly because of the way we have constructed the idea of intelligence.  I’ve been doing quite a bit of research into the cultural dimensions of literacy.  So, the dominant culture clearly is a text base culture of literacy.  We rely on books, encyclopedias and the written word.  I love the written word.  I’m a writer.  However, I was reading about aboriginal people and about a Navajo people who had mnemonic ways of categorizing animals and plants in their place, their place of living.  And some Navajo elders had categorized in memory 400 different insects, for example.  And many Aboriginal people because of the song lines, the way that particular sets of information are encoded in different rocks, in different trees and different hills.  And they have ceremonies and rituals that bring this information to light and reinforce it.  So, it’s transmitted through the generations.  So, we would call people illiterate that maybe had incredible forms of information gathering and intelligence building.

Jeanie:  Right.

Kathleen:  So that’s a construct.  It’s our construct in dominant western culture.  We have decided that only people who can read books and write intelligently are literate.  And yet, how many forms of literacy are there that we’re not even aware of?

Jeanie:  Or a Standard American English, right, that you have to speak in a certain way in order to be considered intelligent.

Kathleen:  Right.  Well, I was disabused of that notion spending 17 years in Brooklyn, so…

Jeanie:  I bet you were.  And good for you, you’re a better person for it.

Kathleen:  Yeah.  I definitely am a wiser person for it to really understand the differences in speech patterns and the kind of intelligence that’s encoded in different speech patterns.  And really aware of how – we just need to open our heads up to all these differences; I think and really start to appreciate them rather than sort of place value on certain ones over others.

Jeanie:  Right.  We know that in the greater world, we know that in our biomes that diversity is an asset.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  And couldn’t it also be so in our communities.

Kathleen:  Right.

Jeanie:  Yes.

Kathleen:  And I talk about schooling like that.  I think maybe in one of the closing paragraphs of the Blueprint is there’s this idea that we need to standardize, that we need to mechanize, that we need to have a common core of standards, that we need to have a shared curriculum.  And to some extent, I understand the intentions behind that.  But I also suggest that maybe education is more like a robust ecosystem.  And the more diversified and decentralized our schooling becomes, the stronger we might be as a society.  It’s just a thought.  And I imagine, we’re getting to the end of the podcast.  So maybe I can leave you with that thought of diversification and difference may be our greatest strength.

Jeanie:  Well, I really appreciate that.  Would you like to read that paragraph to us to end the podcast?

Kathleen

“We now have the opportunity to reconsider the fundamental purposes of education.  Rather than educate so that a tiny sliver of people rises to the top of the global income chain, we need to educate all people for the art of living well together on a fragile and sacred planet.  We need to emphasize not just academic achievement and high-test scores, but shift our focus to fostering compassion, community, empathy, imagination, insight, friendship, creativity, communication, justice, practicality, pleasure, courage, humor, wisdom, introspection, transcendence, ethics, service, solidarity and the ability to live well within the carrying capacity of our ecosystems.”

Jeanie:  Kathleen, thanks so much for joining me to talk about that Community Schools Blueprint and all of the things we talked about today.  It’s really inspiring.

Kathleen:  It’s been a pleasure, Jeanie.  Thanks.

Jeanie:  I’m Jeanie Phillips and this has been an episode of #vted Reads talking about what Vermont’s educators and students are reading.  Thank you to Kathleen Kesson for appearing on the show and talking with me about the Community Schools Blueprint: Transforming the School Community Partnership.  To find out more about #vted Reads including past episodes, upcoming guests and reads and a whole lot more, you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org.  Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @vtedReads.  This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.

#vted Reads: Dig

Listeners, I’m going to ask you to bear with me on this one. This is one of my favorite episodes we’ve ever recorded because, in it, you’ll hear students at U-32 school in Montpelier, Vermont, get to bring their questions about the book “Dig”, by A.S. King, directly to the author. 

If you haven’t read it, “Dig” is a powerful young adult novel talking about white experiences of white supremacy in the United States. And from the questions these students brought author A.S. King, it resonates deeply with students as they work to dismantle racism in this country. 

So why am I asking you to bear with me? 

We recorded this conversation over Zoom, and all the students in this episode, along with fabulous librarian Meg Allison, were in their school, so all were masked. Let me draw you a picture, listeners: A.S. King in her attic bower, me in my lovely home recording space, and Meg and her students gathered around a library table in the school library in Montpelier. As the students all come up to the laptop to talk with King, you may hear chairs scraping or shoes scuffing, the laptop being jostled — the whole deal. 

That’s why we’ve also made this episode available as a full captioned video on our YouTube channel, so if that’s more your speed, you have that option available. 

Thanks for bearing with us and remembering how much educators and students have to bear right now. 

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads, talking about what educators and students in Vermont are reading. 

Let’s chat.

https://soundcloud.com/innovativeed/dig?si=672b0036b26547f2b99837fbffbd90e8&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

Meg: To be able to talk to the author of Dig! We have spent the last month talking and reading about it, and it has sparked so many conversations. Students are invited to come up and ask a question. Really, thank you so much, Amy, I want the kids to take this away.

Amy (AS King): I have a question, though, for you.  What made you decide to do this? What made you like it, what started this whole thing?

Meg: After I had read this book, I found it like it’s an essential book. It’s an essential book for young people to read. And so, we are hosting book groups here as well. It’s just, I think it actually should be like a part of our curriculum. And I know some of our students are going to talk to you about that. But especially in Vermont, we are a school that flies a Black Lives Matter flag out on our flagpole.

Amy: That’s why I want to move there Meg, that’s why I want to move there.

Meg: We’re a school that successfully raised a student-led campaign to ban the Confederate flag on our campus, not just the parking lot, but on campus. And it sparked conversations in our school. And as we evolve in these conversations towards equity and racial justice, really thinking about like, what is our role as white students, white people, white humans? And in your book, just like Jeanie, and I were speaking before you get on the call, we can’t think of another book that unpacks the roots of white supremacy and the way that you do. So, this is a conversation sparker that we hope continues throughout our building.

Amy: Awesome. All right, let’s give it to the students. And thank you for that explanation, because I didn’t know where exactly this started. So good morning, guys. How’s it going? How’s Vermont today?

Students: Cold.

Amy: Awesome. Throw questions at me. Ask me whatever you want. I’m an open book, no pun intended.

Elijah: Yeah. So I’m Elijah. And so my question basically comes down to this. So I’m currently talking with English teachers here about putting this book as part of our curriculum because it’s far better than some of the other books we’re reading. But I want to know about your decision to write it as a young adult book?

Amy: Ah, brilliant question. Excellent. Thank you. Nice to meet you, Elijah. Great question.

Well, here’s, here’s the deal. It’s funny. I found myself writing young adult literature. I’ve been writing books for 15 years, and it took me, well, took me 15 years to get published. And so I’d written about eight or nine novels. And at that point, I was getting rejected a lot, because my books were weird. And I am female. And it sounds like a very strange combo. But it’s very realistic for me to explain to you that this book, like this book, will not make me much money come into the future. You know, I’m saying. It’s not, it’s not a business in that way for me, because I am a woman and I write books like this. If I was not a woman, and I wrote surrealist or strange fiction, it would be a little different now. Anyway, shoot, what was my point?

Anyway, so when it came to how I ended up in young adult literature, is that one of my books when I finally got an agent, was very weird. And somebody called him up and said, you got anything weird? And he said, yeah, I got this book. And he sent this one weird book called The Dust of 100 Dogs to this, this editor, but the editor published ya work, young adult work. And so we got on the phone. I had been writing for 15 years thinking I was writing adult work, which I think I am, I think it’s a mix. And I think my main characters are teenagers. And there’s a reason for that. And he, his name is Andrew Carr, the person who bought that first book, and also the person who published this book.

Okay, so we had a bunch in between where I was with different publishers, but I came back home to Andrew, he is, he is my favorite, and he understands me. But we define and he defined at the time young adult work as being about young adults versus for young adults. And for me, my original plan,

when I first wanted to be an author, I was in eighth grade, and I wrote down on a legal tablet that I wanted to help adults understand teenagers better and help teenagers understand adults better.

And I believe that that is exactly what my work does, because if fully formed adults, whether they be grandparents or parents. And if adults would read these books, then they would get a glimpse into young adult literature, not like most things are young adults’ life should say. And like most things teen in our culture, we roll our eyes, right.

And also young adult work can also be, you know, a little bit like snack food in spots. But so can adult work. Like go in any bookstore, there’s snack food everywhere. But then you’ve got your shelves where there’s more, more thoughtful, I don’t know, not more thoughtful everybody, it’s hard to write a book no matter what kind of book you write. But when it comes to why this ended up in young adult, it’s a. because I was there and b. it’s the one place a weird woman can publish, Elijah. Okay, I’m really being serious, I would not be able to publish my surreal books. And like Switch, which came after it, are those sorts of more surreal ideas. If I wasn’t in young adult literature, because women don’t, aren’t usually allowed on that playing field.

But the biggest one is because I care very much about teenagers, the mental health of teenagers. And I believe that your generation, a generation15, if you start thinking you’ve already been thinking about social justice issues you’ve already been thinking about, about equity and inclusion, you’re already thinking about that. My generation doesn’t care.

We’re Generation X. And we’re like, we were losers from way back. We want this to happen, but we seem to have no power or control. That’s how it feels. We’re all in our 40’s and 50’s. So it’s like, for me, the reason I want to love up teenagers so much is because I think the more support that they get from adults, the more likely they are to change the world and continue to move forward. And I just refuse to roll my eyes. I actually write this for teenagers, because I know you’ll understand it. And many adults instead will write a review that said this makes white people feel bad and do not understand how ironic that review is. Now I will shut up. And thank you for that question.

Elijah: Thank you.

Amy: Thanks for that question.

Jeanie: That entire answer was quotable.

Amy: Oh, good. Let’s go to it.

Esther: So. Hi. Hi, my name is Esther.

Amy: Hi Esther.

Esther: And I just wanted to ask about like, kind of like, books we read in school and curriculum and what your take on reading the classics is? I know that in U-32 right now, there’s a lot of debate over which of the classics are acceptable to read in class. A specific example is Heart of Darkness, which was recently removed from the curriculum. And we also wanted to know, just like, where you think a book like Dig could fit into a curriculum, and if there’s a genre of the classics that it could replace?

Amy: Okay, great question. Okay, so I might have an antiquated or controversial view of the classics. And because the classics can cover so many things, like I mean, we are not talking about Shakespeare, we’re talking about largely, I think, dead white men, you know, I think that’s what we’re talking about 20th century and a lot of times, white dudes. I think, I think they fit in, in a weird way.

You know, here’s the deal. I love teaching grammar, so I can break the rules. I love teaching what good writing what acceptable or good writing rules are so that we can break them. And so in a way, I think that we wouldn’t understand a book like Dig if we didn’t have a read-along, if we didn’t have something else, right. So To Kill a Mockingbird is a fantastic example. It’s a beautiful book. I’m sorry, it is. It is now steeped in white saviorism. It’s steeped in so many things that we have words for now that other people had words for then, but we didn’t use them, white people didn’t use them then, you know. But To Kill a Mockingbird is a beautiful story but it’s got problems. We’ll use that that Bo Burnham problematic word. It’s problematic for a bunch of different reasons. However, I think it’s still worth reading as long as we read it with an eye with the lens right with the be able to look at it and then discuss what is problematic about it. So for me, when we read classics, it’s good to be able to look at what’s problematic.

For example, if we read John Updike, which most people don’t. I come from John Updike country, but, you know, we should talk about his problematic representation of women and in fairness most of those books, we should talk about the problematic representation of women and people of color. So it’s good to have a little bit of knowledge of the classics. as for where Dig would fit in, I think it’s nice to read it alongside something. It has been read alongside To Kill a Mockingbird in at least two schools from what I understand. It’s certainly more modern, it’s edgy, it’s going to be tough to get past certain, you know, certain people where we are at the moment, all of our schools but I know here in Pennsylvania, we’re really dealing with this large uptick in book challenges and things like this. So even if there’s a swear word in it, there’s a problem, let alone if there’s any sexuality discussed, or any sort of things like this. But more importantly, if white supremacy is discussed, it’s also getting banned, which is really quite disheartening, but also telling. Let’s be fair, I mean, we know what fight we’re fighting, right? We can say states’ rights all we want when we talk, you know, people like the Civil War wasn’t about slavery, it was about states’ rights. And this is kind of the same thing. It’s like this is about appropriateness because of the books. I don’t think it is if you’re banning books based on the fact that the author is, you know, is black in the case of, say, York, which is just over the river.

But anyway, I think it has a place in schools, and probably upper grades, because of the content. I would definitely say, you know, not to say that ninth-graders can’t read it. But some ninth-graders might not be mature enough to have the discussions that we’re having now. And it’s not no offense to ninth graders, either. I have one, a son, he’s very mature. But I think that it’s upper grades. And I think that it’s, I don’t know, it’s right now being used as a freshman summer read for a good few college programs. And I think that’s a really great way to walk into college to understand what college you’re walking into, to think about your own privilege before you get on a campus is a really great thing to have. So I think that though, that would also transfer to where we could use it in schools. So but as for classics, it’s funny, and there’s some that we really need to let go of. And I think that classics heavy curriculum canon for like, if you’re looking at like 9 to 12. And if it’s if there’s more than 50% classics, I think that we need to rethink that because it’s not, they’re not going to connect as much with today’s teens, more so than even us. Like for me, I could read a book from the 40s and connect more because I still had a phone connected to the wall. I still, I was walking down the street in New York this week. And the amount of times my son and I were like, oh, I wonder what that was. And I just said, Hey, Siri, blah, blah, blah, and ask the question, and she answered it. It’s a different world now truly a different world. It’s not just that we move forward, it’s that it really is a different world. And I think that our literature and our canon needs to reflect that.

Esther: Well, thank you very much.

Amy: Hey, thanks, Esther. Great questions and I’m going on and on. But that’s me.

Maya: Hi, I’m Maya. And a few years ago, we spoke with another author. And she talked about using sensitivity readers before publishing her book. And I was wondering if you have any sensitivity as readers before publishing, because you take a lot of characters and a lot of different perspectives. And yeah, I’m just wondering how you dealt with that?

Amy: I’m very lucky to have the editor I have. Andrew Carr is incredibly conscientious when it comes to all of those things. And we talked about sensitivity readers more than once. The character in the book, Ian, who’s really the only character of color in the book, that was intentional, because I wasn’t talking about race in the way that I you know. I’ve been wrestling with this, I just want to say this, like, I’ve been wrestling with the idea of race and whiteness, and what to do about racism since I was a very young kid growing up where I grew up, because it was very, I luckily had a very anti-racist parents and because I had anti-racist parents, I certainly noticed this stuff more. And, before I graduated high school, I’ve seen people in full Klan robes, you know, you need to understand, in fact, before I graduated high school used to deliver pizza to the grand dragon of the Pennsylvania Ku Klux Klan, so, and to meetings in his house where he had, you know, Nazi flags, and he was also a member of the American Nazi Party and, and had portraits of Hitler and things like this. And so I have been grappling with race a long time, so give me a second. Sometimes my grief brain gives me what was your question again, Maya.

Maya: If you use any sensitivity readers?

Amy: Thank you. Okay. Thank you. Alright so, when it came to Ian’s role, I was terrified when I published this book. Cause I didn’t know if anybody was going to, you know, take the opportunity to run me through the painful machine of Twitter, and other places like that. But we didn’t use a sensitivity reader. I suggested it more than once. Andrew read it. We combed it pretty well. I think he probably had a few people maybe to bounce some ideas, but maybe not. I honestly don’t know. Between the two of us we realized what needed to be done to make sure that it was exactly what we wanted it to be. I tend to not write out of my lane very much. The experiences in the book beyond just Ian are things that either I’ve experienced or are close to me via the volunteer work that I do. I’ve written or I’ve worked with, I’ve worked with a great many survivors and I am a survivor of a great many things. And so because of that, I feel that I can write points of view like Loretta’s family, or Malcolm’s family or Malcolm’s you know, and even just the completely fractured family that the whole family is. I have lived through that. And what’s interesting is that I wrote the book, it came out in March 2019, right.

And in December of 2018, so only three months prior, my entire family was exploded, my birth family. And my own family was had exploded that the year prior, through meddling with, like, it’s funny, I tweeted today something about how we were all taught, we’re taught that a good life is uncomplicated and free of villains.

https://twitter.com/AS_King/status/1466755486754164737

It is not. You will have villains in your life, you will have people in your life that really screw with you, that really stir the pot and can in fact decimate your family. And that is what happened to me. I had one agent decimate both my family and my larger family. So when it comes to sensitivity readers anyway, about those sorts of traumas, I don’t need them, because I’ve experienced them. And I work with people like that. And then I’ve worked with people like that for decades, decades and decades.

Maya: Thank you.

Amy: You’re welcome. Thanks, Maya.

Kristen:  Hello, I’m Kristen.

Amy: Hi Kristen.

Kristen: So, Dig has so many layers and small intertwined details. So I was wondering, like, was your writing process to write the book and how many drafts did it take?

Amy: Oh, boy. Well, Kristen, a trillion drafts, a trillion drafts. So it started okay. The writing process was pretty simple. It was the usual Amy stuff. First of all, I use, I didn’t realize it was surrealist writing that I wrote, like, 27 books before I have a student interview me and told me about the surrealist writing process. But basically, I sit down, I have a feeling, I make a character out of my feeling. I often say basically, that my characters are thesis statements. If you wrote an essay about something you cared passionately about, my characters are those thesis statements personified. Sounds weird, right?

Anyway, so I started writing exactly the order it’s in. Marla and Gottfried and then the Marks brothers, who, you know, are loosely based on people I knew and went to school with. And then I started writing The Shoveler. And then about 60 to 80 pages in The Shoveler,

The Freak showed up and everything and bummed the cigarette off of them and all that stuff from the early scene. The Shoveler stopped telling me stuff. I was like, super bored. I was like dude, you are not even telling me stuff. So I threw the book out. I was like, forget it. I have to start, I have to write another book.

So I started reading another book another week. And it’s it was about this girl named Can I help You. And she worked at the drive-thru at Arby’s, and everything was great. And she goes off with her friend and into the park. And then this kid shows up with a shovel, and he’s shoveling, and there’s no snow and I’m like, that is an A.S. King novel, pull The Shoveler back out of the trash can, and then try and figure out how they all fit together.

So honestly, the early parts I can’t even tell you, like, I don’t even remember when Malcolm showed up. And I don’t know if he showed up in order. I think he did. I think he showed up in order. Suddenly, the book started to come out in order, but I didn’t know where it was going. To give you a good idea of how clueless I am when I write my books, this book took about three and a half years to write. And still at the, like, late two-year mark, I keep notes and track changes for myself. And there was a note next to; I don’t want to give too many spoilers, but there was a note that said, “who is this girl?” And that’s it that was to do with The Freak. Who is she? And then only a few pages later, it said, who’s the fifth cousin? Why do you keep saying five cousins? Who is the fifth one? So that’s how clueless I am in a way as I’m working through a book, right? A lot of that has to do with the fact that I had to pull myself out to teach every month which I’m not sure serves a book and or me very well.

But either way, you know, the layers. I also do really, if you want to see a visual let me just do I have a visual. I have, yeah, let me show you.

A.S. King holding up highlighted text from Dig.
Photo credit: the Horn Book: https://www.hbook.com/story/5qs-for-as-king-feb-2020

I do things like this, Kristen, that and this wasn’t for Dig. This was for the book that followed it: Switch. Dig’s was ginormous. It’s actually, if you go to the there’s a place called The Horn Book, it’s a review site. They have this online, with me holding the one for Dig. But, and Dig had a lot more colors. In fact, I ran out of colors because they only make so many highlighters, right. But each part would be color coded. These are the names of chapters. Okay, so this is just a table of contents. And that’s how I do it, right. So I log the timeline like, because we have to stick into a calendar, right, we still have to do time inside of stories, right? I do all that. But then these are each threads, each one of these are threads.

With Dig it was different points of view. So Marla and Gottfried got a certain color, but again, a different color. So revision is everything. And I’ve always said this all my writers. Revision is the sport. And so for me, that’s where things come together. And that’s what I really learned about the book. So when it comes to how many drafts every day is a draft, like every five minutes is the draft, you know. But with this book, I trusted my gut. That’s the biggest thing, having the confidence to trust your gut. And from there, it was just three years of a mix of everything, writing new stuff, and revising and getting whole new ideas, cutting huge chunks, all of it.

Maya: Thank you.

Amy: Yeah, you’re welcome.

Addy: Hi, I’m Addy. I was curious about the tunnels in Dig, and just like, how they operate like, are they a metaphor for like an actual place? And like, they seem to kind of mean different things to each character. So like, yeah, how does that work in the story?

Amy:  Excellent. So I didn’t catch your name because things glitch out. What’s your name again?

Addy: Oh, Addy.

Amy: Nice. Hi, Addy, all right Addy, tunnels. Funny you say that. Alright, so let’s go straightaway just to the really obvious one. So when The Shoveler, Marla also has it too, when the, The Shoveler talks about things that really stressed him out the blocks of text get smaller and smaller. Okay. So when I was first writing this book, and I wish I had the little notebook near me, but I don’t. When I first started writing this book, I thought that it would be in shapes. Not concrete poetry, really. But I just thought that maybe there’d be shapes and tunnels running along the bottom of it, which is funny because I think that might happen. The book I’m writing right now, a lot of my books have tunnels in them. Because I think we live a lot of our lives underground. And I do believe that’s a quote from another one of my books. But that we live our lives underground, again, because often we’re pretending something isn’t happening when it is happening. And that is a story of my life, which is I don’t want other people to have a lifelike, that’s part of the reason I write. But um, so the tunnels meant different things to different people with The Shoveler and Marla in those parts that were very visual. They were meant to represent anxiety and, and panic. I had suffered from panic disorder for just a small period of time.

And I certainly had situational anxiety for quite a bit of time. And it always felt a little bit like I was in a tunnel that was getting smaller, a little bit like when I first tried and first and last one time tried spelunking, that was the end of that as the as if somebody has shoulders my width? Or with shoulders this wide that is not made to be a spelunker.

But other than that, they really the tunnels represent a great, that’s a great question. Because I mean, there are many in my books that you don’t know that Addy, but like they are in many of my books. Tunnels represent where we live our lives, I think, where we really live our lives, I guess it’s a metaphor for everything, everything from the way we think about ourselves, what we really think of ourselves, what we think we deserve, what we do, what we do behind the scenes to ourselves and to others in our own minds. I think the tunnels might, I think the tunnels might actually be a metaphor for the mind. I don’t even know now that you’ve asked this. I’ve usually asked more, more kind of concrete questions about them, but on a wider level.

Like, I wrote a book called Gloria O’Brien’s History of the Future, and people can people keep mentioning that this week due to the Supreme Court situation at the moment and women’s rights. And in the end, the women, the women who were eventually forced out due to many different laws, forced to live on their own in the forests and eventually fight a war in the tunnels. That’s where they fight the war.

So I think we fight wars in our own minds all the time. You know, I think that’s what the tunnels represent. So one of the funny part about this, about Dig was that sinkhole at the end. And it’s funny because my entire town is built on sinkholes. In fact, our high school is built on a sinkhole. I think that’s hilarious, and that will come into a book one day, but my car really got swallowed by a sinkhole in front of my house a few years ago. And that’s why I got interested in sinkholes. So when that happened and this, you know, I don’t know. And he could look down there and The Freak could find that egg. You know what I mean? And all that stuff. It’s a connection between the terrestrial world where we have to be good people and, and not good people good. We have to look good. We have to look good, right? So in the terrestrial, it’s all about curb appeal. It’s all about what you’re wearing, right. But in real life, I think the real-life is lived in the tunnels. There you go. You just so you just heard me work out an answer to a question and work out my own metaphor right in front of you, because you asked a great question, Addy. But yeah, that’s what it represents. But it also represents anxiety, depression, anything that puts you in a place that’s you that we’re not allowed to talk about. Right? And we’re not allowed to talk about this. And we do now we talk about them, but we people still look at us kind of funny, right? Like, I’m normal. What about you? It’s like, we’re all normal. What’s normal? So, yeah.

Addy: Thank you so much.

Amy: Yeah. Thanks for that question. Eye-opening as always. It’s always eye-opening questions from people that make me understand my own work better. Thank you.

Jeanie: Thank you for mentioning Glory O’Brien.

Amy: Oh, hey, I’ll show it to if you want. It’s right here. Just saying I got more letters about this book in the last week. Well, first when Donald Trump got elected, I got a lot of letters about this book. Anyway, alright, Elijah is back. What you got.

Elijah: Because what you just said in the last two questions was too interesting. So okay, let’s see if I’ve got my notes correctly here. So you were talking first off about how characters are your theses and that you really write as you go along. So and also that you like this, this this theme of tunnels that you talked about, you share across a lot of your books, and a lot of your books have the same idea of tunnels running throughout them. So how do you work out the, it’s easy to say that Dig has a lot of symbolism and thematic elements to it. So how do you tend to work those into writing processes? And how do your books share these ideas and these symbols and thematic elements across each other?

Amy: Great question, Elijah. All right, so here’s the deal. I never try when it comes to theme. When it comes to theme, if I’m trying, it feels shoehorned. It feels fake, right. And I refuse to feel fake. It’s one of the things that freaks people out about me. It’s one of the reasons I’m divorced, that’s for sure. Like, hate to say it, but it was like, I but it also is one of the reasons I have lasting friendships that are 45 years old. It’s because if there’s a problem with something, I’ll go, hey, there’s a problem with something and my friend go oh, oh, okay. Whereas, you know, some people aren’t as willing to, to work out just real stuff. Honestly, that takes place in real-time and can be sorted out in five minutes. But some people will make a big deal out of that. Some people like hiding that anyway.

But when it comes to sitting down, so I don’t fake it. And when the tunnel shows up, or when a metaphor shows up, I roll with it. Like at the moment, Elijah, I’m writing a book. Speaking of tunnels, that was based on this drawing right here, it says system, it’s a hamster tube. And then inside the hamster tube, there is a chair. Okay, that’s all you need to know. I’ve been staring at this for a year, it’s been here for a year. And I’m like, I know what this means. What this means is that I’m going to write about a woman who’s sitting in a dinner chair that’s in a system of pneumatic tubes that are human-sized. And that’s how she is carried around her home. It’s a metaphor for when you’re living with a controlling or abusive person, they take control over you – they emotionally separate you from your children.

It’s a very, very common thing that happens in an abusive household. And so mom then is like, in this case, it’s a metaphor for mom being in the tunnel and everybody going, “Why isn’t mom available? Like this is ridiculous” But in actual fact, mom’s there the whole time. It’s just, you know, in this case, dad has has made the children iffy on her. So that metaphor is just bam, right? It’s obvious. It’s like, it’s like a punch in the face that one, like if you look at it, and this now as it’s coming out, it’s coming out even more brutally on the page than I expected it too. But honestly you trust it? So here? Here’s an interesting one. All right so that book that I started writing, see those? Okay, that looks like a plotting sort of thing, and it kind of is but it’s not. It’s just a lot of different ideas that are kind of in order like I’ll know something has to happen. I haven’t written the end part and I haven’t been any post-it notes up there yet. Right. But for me, every single thing that’s written on those post-it notes was there from that day that I sat down and went blah,  that I sat down and just sort of vomited out my feelings, my words in character, though, like so we go back to that thesis statement, I’m very upset over this idea that abusive men separate their children from their mothers. What effect does that have on the mother? What effect does it have on the children? Go.

And so immediately it comes out in a character. And there’s this character named Jane and she is pissed. She is so angry. And she has just discovered at age of 16, that this happened to her and that her mother was there the whole time. But she just thought the wrong crap about her, she is so angry. And yet she knows she’s going to take her dad down. And she knows she’s going to rescue her mother somehow. She knows all this, but she doesn’t know how yet. And we’re about to find out. And so am I, because I haven’t written the I’m only 17,000 words into the book, right?

But every single idea that’s up there is already in the book from that moment when I flushed it all out of my system, they’re all hints, and they’re all there. Right now I’m 70 pages in. Everything I need to know about that book is already in it. I have to go in with my archaeologist tools and find it. So I know, “I do not lie to God” is her first line, right? But then it says, “my father is a liar, a thief, a traitor, a brute, and a killer.” And I’m like, a killer that could be a mystery. That’s a fun book. And if you know my books, Dig included, they are kind of strange mysteries in there, like who did this? And you know, how did that happen? And so all of those are hints that are already in the book. It is a cosmic process for me, Elijah, I have to trust what comes in through my crown chakra, and my brain sends to my hands, and I write it down. And then I go from there. So it’s truly cosmic. I trust in an untrustworthy world. It’s gotten me into a great deal of trouble in my life, but it’s also brought me the most joy.

Elijah: Okay, I’m going to ask one more question. I’m going to take more time for myself. So people often thought about reading books, or like a lot the entire works of an author, right? So they can like look at the author’s, like, changes and thoughts over time, look at how these books connect. What would you think about your books being used like that, or taught like that? Or what, what do you think with that with this, these connections of themes? And also, how, what, do you do with all of that?

Amy: Wow, well, I mean, I would welcome that. I’d probably say, hey, bring me in, zoom in, like I did now. Um, but also, I mean, I do have people who do that, not in classes, I have academics who do this. And I do have academic, I have academics who teach me in their young adult literature classes, and they might teach three or four, two or three, three, usually three titles of mine. And probably absolutely talking about those things. But yeah, that’d be fantastic. I mean, what would I think of that? That’d be awesome. And I think that they would discover a great many things. I mean, now I’m only 51. So I’m like, look, I got at least another 30 years of writing and me so this is going to be interesting. Especially now because I’ve become very empowered over the last few years and I feel a prolific bout coming on. And if I’m to believe my astrologist I believe that’s what’s about to happen and so I don’t, I don’t know where it’s going to take me hope maybe I’ll finally find my way out of the tunnels. Elijah, what do you think?

Elijah: Thank you. I’ll go back to letting other people talk to you as well.

Amy: Don’t apologize for your space brother never apologize for taking space.

Avery: Oh, hi, I’m Avery.

Amy: Hi Avery.

Avery: And I was sort of connected to like relationships and Loretta. Actually, The Ring Mistress, and like I’m very curious about what’s the deal with the flea circus, like is that magical realism or is that actually happening in the book?

Amy: In the book, it’s actually happening. Flea circuses are a real thing and they do still travel around America. And there’s actually there was one recently here and I didn’t go and see it which I kicked myself. Oh, it was COVID, that’s why. I don’t even know if it oh, I don’t know if it came but I think it did but it was mid-COVID.

You know I don’t know where the flea circus came from. I wish I knew. I wish I knew where half of these ideas, they just came, they come up but I’m part of it is because I mean I know a circus family, and I spent a lot of time at the circus in Ireland when I lived there. So, I, having been behind the scenes, having been nearly stepped on by an elephant once, having been and also seen you know different elephants being very sad and you know standing in one place rocking. and just tiger escapes and all that but also sequins and you know all the different talent, the different acts over the decades. So I think circus life is amazing, but I think it was for me I think it was a metaphor for obviously, you know, trying to escape and what she was in. But the flea circus itself I mean. Well, do you want to hear the deep metaphor behind that that just came to me? Here you go. You got Loretta right. Loretta is in this horrible household, let’s call it horrible, there’s really no other way to put it because that’s really quite full-on abuse that’s going on in that household. Not to say other abuses and full on like the one I just described and the pneumatic tubes also full on but not as brutal right. This is out and out brutal. And what does Loretta have? She has fleas. What do they do? They eat her blood.

And when you come from a household like Loretta’s, you are primed to land with people who will absolutely feed off you. Those people I mentioned earlier, the villains, there are villains in our lives. And there are people who attract the villains. I didn’t know this until I attracted so many villains myself. It made me stop and go, what is wrong with me that I keep attracting these people? It could be a little bit of codependence, it could be because I’m just massively nice and I mean that in the nicest way. I’m that nice to everyone. But now, I’m sort of like I have my boundaries. I know how to draw them. But I also refuse to be a dick. If I’m allowed to say that on podcasts. Okay, I can? Okay, good. I don’t want to be one of those. So but with Loretta, that I think that was an unintentional or at least fell into place metaphor for the fact that she’s preparing herself for what she’s about to endure. You know, I mean, a lot of people are like, oh, Lord, I can’t wait to save her. I’m like, well if you save her, you better buy her, like, a decade’s worth of therapy. She’s going to need it, you know, some deprogramming and other things. But I think that that’s really the deal with the flea circus.

Yes, it was real. Yes, it kept her. It gave her friends, it gave her companions, it helped her. Having that audience that was in her mind really helped her. I think it helped her understand that what was happening in her house wasn’t normal. But what’s about to happen to her and what she really is, is she’s going to be fodder for other people if she doesn’t watch out. She’s going to walk straight into it, probably like the rest of us. Most survivors of early childhood trauma walk straight into it.

So yeah, deep, but deep, but there’s my answer.

Avery: Thank you.

Amy: Hey, you’re welcome. Thanks for a great question. I love talking to people who read books, because like I said, I end up learning more about my own books. It’s fantastic. This is the best part of being a writer. That’s why, that’s why, I’m like, hey, zoom me in and I can learn more about what the heck I put in that book.

Kate: I’m Kate. And I was wondering about, you’ve been talking a lot about how you write with like surrealism, and I was wondering how that helps. That writing technique helps you unpack the themes of white supremacy, and patriarchy, and all the other themes in Dig. How do you use that to your advantage?

Amy: Well, you know, great question. The surrealist writing method is about two things. Now that I understand it a bit better and again, I don’t want to call it that. It’s almost like giving Andre Breton and the surrealists credit for what I did for like 26 years, without even knowing about them, right.

At the same time, one of the images I want to give you about the surrealist writing method is this. Okay. Andre Breton and Louis Aragon were in a field hospital in Paris during World War I. Now try and smell that for me. Try and see that for me, right. It was bonkers. It was horrific. World War I was a bloody war. All wars are bloody wars. But World War I was particularly gross. And so there they are. And there’s a great, like, drawing of this somewhere, there are a few of them. You can actually look it up somewhere online. But there are all these dudes, all these soldiers on the floor and on, you know, litters probably on little, you know, we call them litters is the best I got anyway. And they are in different states of disarray. They are wounded soldiers that could be missing a leg, that could have a belly wound, there could be whatever, and they’re all bandaged up. And in the front of the room is a stage and on it is an upright piano, and someone playing it. And somebody else has like a top hat and a cane and they’re entertaining. Stop and tell me how messed up that is. That’s the most surreal thing ever.

And yet, these men on the floor, the trauma they’re going to carry with them is bonkers, right? It’s huge. They’re going to come away with PTSD, complex PTSD, so many different things that I mean, they could split. The mental health issues the soldiers have are A. very serious, B. very ignored in our world, which is why we keep having wars but then not having to deal with this. It’s amazing. The guys, who start the wars, never have to really deal with the PTSD, or anything else.

But anyway, so for me, go back to why do I write? I write because I live with trauma. I’m still living through trauma. I also write because I care very much about other people with trauma.

And I like to talk about trauma because in our culture, we don’t talk about trauma, and then it trips us up and we go through our lives thinking that a good life is an uncomplicated drama-free life.

How many people talk about oh, no drama, really? What kind of interesting life are you living? Really? What kind of lie are you living? Every one of us has drama and weirdos and villains come in and out of our lives. So when I want to talk about trauma, especially with young people, one of the best codes, right, is in surrealism because young people are willing to go what the heck is this about and dig deeper versus go, this is stupid, I feel bad for being right on putting it down and clutching their pearls and walking away.

But when I want to talk, I want to talk to young people about their trauma because most adults don’t. And they don’t take it seriously. And because they didn’t take their own trauma seriously. And this, again, has to do with our generations, right, we go back to generations 11 and 12, and then mine 13. And now yours 15. And we get to this place where it’s like when are we finally going to take the intergenerational trauma that we’re all carrying with us seriously. And if we want to take that away, I want to be able to shift that here we are, we’re white people, okay, for the most part, I’m no offense, I don’t want to make any assumptions. But we’re all you know, I’m a white person. Now imagine the intergenerational trauma that comes with being a person of color in America. Imagine the generation to generational trauma that comes from being a native person, an indigenous person in America. And I believe that the pain in the blood and is in the soil, and here’s the deal, it seeps up through our feet. So if you’re a person of color, that’s a different type of feeling. If you’re indigenous, that’s a different type of feeling. But if you’re white, there’s a lot of shame and guilt, and trauma in the fact that our ancestors did what they did. So that we can say we’re the greatest nation on Earth, which is a bunch of bunk if you ask me, we’re a good nation, we could be better, we could be so much better.

And so the reason I use surrealism is to touch the trauma. It’s one of the best ways to get into trauma. It’s one of the best ways to talk to young people about it and to get to all readers. I mean, this is one of them. And this family, when I think about this family, this family is trauma from the very top, what happened to Marla was so minor, but that Uncle laughing at her and how it all went down and how that affected her shame because we’ve walked around with it. So we’ve got this big shame organ and one person goes ping when we’re eight, like, pings it, right, flicks it. And next thing you know, for the rest of our lives, we’re an asshole. Imagine if we could at least go oh, we have this shame. Oh, the shames because of this. Oh, okay. And then be better off instead of being a jerk about it, you know?

And that’s why, that’s the long answer and short answer of why I use surrealism in order to talk about trauma, because trauma needs to be talked about and I will go to my grave screaming that because it’s how we get better. And it’s how we do live good lives. We can live good lives by facing the complications and facing the villains in our lives. And then moving forward despite them.

Kate: Thank you.

Amy: Awesome, thank you. I want to stay here all day talking to you guys.

Jeanie: I am in love with this conversation.

Amy: Great. I am too.

Jonah: Hi, I’m Jonah. I want to ask if you experience any backlash for Dig or like white rage fighting back.

Amy: All right. Hey, Jonah, how’s it going? Here’s the thing I did on April 10, 2010. I stopped reading online reviews by amateurs. The only reviews I read are those from trade magazines. And in those, I saw nothing.

I did happen to go to Amazon one day, this is way back, like soon after it was published. And I went to grab something else from that page. And for some reason, I saw there was one one-star review. And I did this thing I hadn’t done since 2010. I was like well if it’s really long and really bad, you know, I guess I’ll just check it out anyway, and it was very short. And all it says is don’t read this book because it makes you feel bad about being white or something. And I thought, “oh good, I did my job.” Other than that, I have not received any hate mail as of yet.

On the banned book list from the guy, the representative in Texas that’s been circulating through, I would call them hate groups actually, I don’t know what the name of their group is. But it’s basically to destroy things versus build beautiful things. But one of my books landed on that but Dig did not which shows you that they’re not reading, they’re just, they’re just pulling books off of other lists. So I have not gotten any backlash yet. But let me tell you Jonah the minute somebody reads this from that crew, I will be I’ll let you know, but it’ll come at some point, and or maybe I finessed it enough. I mean, this is the thing. Like I’m not really here to say these people are bad. I’m more just to say here are these people, what do you think? In a way right and you guys read it went oh, okay. These people — these people, you know, these people have problems. They do have problems. But you know, I don’t know, I get a lot of love for this book from 70 years old to 14 years old saying, “well, how did you know my family and I’m so glad you wrote this.” So I get more of that. But so far no backlash, yet. But I tend to be soft censored. This is the other thing I should say. Like, when I’m censored in a school, or banned, I’m banned softly, which means they’ll go on to Amazon or another place like that. And if they’ll read the one-star review, specifically, to see if there is any like, is there F words? Are there this or that? Is there any sort of sexuality? Oh, no, none of that for the teens-  because that never happened. Like, I roll my eyes or other things, you know, but because it’s about white supremacy, I think somebody is going to get their hands on it one day, but let them clutch that their pearls. So far, it’s been okay, but I don’t know other than that, except I stay in a very safe little bubble so I can continue writing books about trauma for young people to free them. I prefer to stay in my bubble. Yeah, great question. Thank you.

Jeanie, my stomach is growling and you’re probably going to pick it up. Good. I’m glad your mic isn’t picking it up. Hello.

Elly: I am Elly. So, my question is if politeness is wielded as a tool of white supremacy culture in two very different ways. In Marla’s case, it is kind of used for control. And in Can I Help You’s case it kind of gives her a sense of worth. So was that intentional and could you talk about it?

Amy: You said politeness, right? I’m just making sure.

Elly: Yeah.

Amy: You guys have great questions. Um, politeness? Well, I mean, Can I Help You is a fantastic rep. Like that’s a metaphor right there for politeness. Right. And her mother has the bell, which I actually have downstairs. I did not smash it with a hammer yet. I’ve yet to do it. COVID came and for some reason, the bell lived. But not to say,I had written anti-racist parents. That came from a grandmother who wasn’t so anti-racist. But politeness is used constantly. Actually, it’s one of the reasons well, polite, polite conversation, let’s go into that. Let’s go into that term. Right. What is polite?

Yes, Jeanie asked me, the bell is real. It’s downstairs. It’s very small and very touristy. It’s ridiculous.

Anyway, polite conversation. Let’s think of that. Polite conversation. Well, we just talked about trauma. Can’t talk about that in polite conversation. Racism, can’t talk about sexism can’t talk about that. I actually mentioned the other day that I was, had had a man published, and Switch or any of my surrealist titles that they would be lauded for. And I’m not saying I’m not lauded. I’m not here to like, I don’t care. I don’t mind. I like writing the books I write, I’m very happy with my life. I’m just saying that the business and the culture would elevate a male writer for writing what I write and they wouldn’t kind of bench him. As far as they concerned

they think YA is a bench I think it’s actually a hot air balloon that takes me higher and higher.

But most of the things I talk about period are not polite conversation. And so I think that’s one of the things that keeps everybody down, but keeps white people in a place of privilege, keeps men in a place of privilege. Absolutely. But politeness, on a whole, is the reason we don’t talk about things. And I honestly, to me, that is the most bizarre idea that I can’t even argue against it. It’s just sort of like looking at somebody going, what are you talking about? Like, I kind of just have this horrible look on my face. Like what like, ooh, like, who would? How are you interesting? What do you talk about, then? Just the nice, you know country music or something. And, you know, I don’t know what people talk about if they don’t talk about problems. If we’re not talking about our problems. I don’t know. But you’re right. And that’s not considered polite. And so that’s how we wield it, I guess.

I mean, we wield it by saying, well, it’s not polite to talk about race. It’s not polite. I mean, that’s been said many times, oh, you can’t talk about race because we’re all white people. So we can talk about race, actually, we can very much talk about race. All white people are concerned about whiteness, which is our race. If we have to check a box there’s a box it says it, you know. I like a lot of times it says Caucasian. I’m like, that’s not actually what that word means. By the way, there’s a place in Asia that those people come from and that those are Caucasian people. We are white. Let’s just call it what it is, but we don’t like that. We politely call it something else. How weird.

So, we already know there’s a problem with it. That’s why we put Caucasians on the thing. But we don’t want to talk about the problem with the word white. Because we’re white. It’s so weird. It’s just to me like that. That is like I love your question. But at the same time, the idea of it right the concept of it is just so bizarre and not bizarre, there’s a better word for it. Farcical, the idea is so farcical that I want to leave it over there where it belongs? Yeah, kind of, in a way, I don’t know what to say about it. Because I just don’t live that life. I never have it’s one of the reasons why I have the friends I have and the people surrounding me or the people surrounding me, you know, I’m saying by this age, the people know what they’re dealing with. I’m a real in Jamaica, they call it real, real, real, not just real. I’m real, real. And it’s true. And but I don’t like hopefully I don’t bring like downer conversations to Thanksgiving either. I also can have fun. But it’s real fun. Because I’ve already dealt with the trauma. See, it’s not fake fun. That’s the reason we do this right. I help you. I got another I got an idea. I’m running do it to it.

Jeanie: Well, there’s this contrast, I don’t know if Elijah is going to mention this, between not politeness is not talking about something and gimme.

Elijah: That was exactly what I was going to ask about.

Amy: Ask.

Elijah: So, I mean, yeah. So, there is this contrast between the politeness of Marla which is exactly what you talked about, but there’s also this whole thing with Can I Help You like wanting people to say please. And then talking about this whole thing with gimme, gimme in, and also that whole code word with please, to buy weed? Yeah. And so, just how does that factor in? Because I mean, I call that, like, I think I’d use the same word, but I think they are two different two entirely different things. So it may not make sense to use the same word for them. But how does that factor in with this?

Amy: Okay, I think I think you’ve nailed it. I mean, Can I Help You? I mean, don’t forget she is not? She doesn’t like those gimme people. Well, I mean, look, that’s a privilege, right? And it’s so funny because we’re all taught to say please, and thank you. But then we get to the drive-thru. And I know this because I listen, and I used to run a drive-thru at Arby’s, but I didn’t sell weed through the window. Because that’s, that’s the fun part of writing fiction. I wasn’t, I didn’t think about that then. But anyway, just kidding. We are gimme gimme people. We are. I had a person, you know, I had a guy step right in front of me recently. And I had a guy who decided he was going to get in the carwash line in front of me just like just to do it. And then he sat there, and he didn’t move forward and go into the – he didn’t even know I was there. He didn’t know I was there. And so I think that I mean, gimme is I mean, that’s a privilege – that’s privilege right there. You know, and yet politeness, it’s funny because we live a double standard, all of us, for the most part, okay. And that’s one of the things that drives me a little bit bonkers about a lot of things.

I mean, I can go off on it when it comes to my relationships with men we’ll say. Why am I making it sound like there was more than one? There wasn’t, I was married a very long time. But yeah, I was married a very long time. But in that relationship, you know, you’d look at that sort of privilege and what people expect – the expectations. And the expectation in my life was that I wasn’t going to talk about the truth, which makes no sense. Because if you know me, you know, I’m going to talk about the truth. And that would, but it was it’s always framed as that’s politeness. You know, it’s polite, and you’ve hurt me if, if you’re talking about the truth, and I’m like, that’s weird, because you’re hurting me if you’re not talking about the truth.

I feel like almost there’s two different types. It’s a little bit Star Wars, right? It’s a little bit black and white of me to say this, but that there is like they’re the people who are willing to talk about this stuff that’s happening because people who aren’t and what we do, though, to shame the people who are willing to talk about what’s really happening as we said, it’s impolite. As for the gimme people, they’re the first people to complain when somebody doesn’t say please or thank you. They didn’t send me a thank you note for the gift I gave them. Really are you literally saying gimme to a child because you sent them a gift? In my world, a gift is something given. You don’t give gifts to get thank you notes. If you give gifts to get thank you notes you’re bonkers and you’re overdoing it. You know, there’s no reason like I’m sorry. There are times to send thank you notes. Absolutely, I will send you a thank you note at the bottom of my heart when I want to thank you. If you don’t give a gift because you’re giving it what are you doing? You’re manipulating? Right and that’s exactly how politeness is used. Right? It’s manipulating all the time.

Its constant manipulation. We are manipulated so much by every corporation, every politician, sometimes every family member, every person we meet. Manipulation is kind of the backbone of our language, right? When we speak, how we speak, how we do things, because why? Because we want to get things because technically it’s gimme, underneath all of that is gimme. And it’s interesting because the same person that uses that manipulation will turn around to you and say, you know, you really should be more polite? Or are you going to mow your grass? Or, or, you know, use a few leaves in your flower bed. I live in a town now. It’s so weird. People are so worried about leaves. I used to live on a farm. No one cared about my leaves before. People care about my leaves. Now, I’m like, and I do that once a week, like when the truck comes in, sucks them up, which right there also hilarious to a farm girl like – a truck come sucks up leaves. Mind blown, but I get it, and they have to manage their town. It’s wonderful.

But this is the thing – people think that me sucking up my leaves is polite. But talking crap behind my back about, say, my life, my situation. People talk badly about my household because my daughter died. How about that one? We don’t talk about death enough in this country. So that and people want sympathy when their mom goes or when anybody goes. But when I lose my daughter, suddenly it’s like, oh, well, that’s a sin, first of all, and it must have been a very nice home. Like that is the first thing we do. I don’t mean to like drop that information on you. But it’s just a very interesting way to look at the double standard of politeness. Because these people want politeness and then they’ll treat my family like this. It’s so weird.

But they don’t understand that that can happen to them any day, either. I know this because I work with people who’ve lost, same as I did. And they don’t understand that. Oh, that can’t happen to my family. Oh, oh, that’s not true. And that’s the problem. Eventually, it catches up with us. But I don’t know if I just went off on that. But yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s it. That’s, that’s how they that’s how they work. It is a double standard. It’s just a massive double standard.

Elijah: I think I’m actually done

Amy: One more question. Alright, cool, because I got to go to a training session.

Avery: So when I was reading it, obviously reading it with the book group, but my mom was really at the same time as me. And there’s so much to dig into. And even though like she’s older, and some people will say wiser, we still had like, the equal amount of talk about. So what would you say to people who mistakenly believe that YA literature is too easy and doesn’t have rigor?

Amy: Oh, boy, well, I will say that people who say that YA literature says is anything haven’t read enough YA literature. I teach YA literature. And I teach literature for young people. And what you’ll find if you actually study it is that there is as many different types of literature for children as there are for adults. So, if you want to walk into a bookstore and say all books suck, then that’s your that’s you’ve been oversimplified. That’s what I would say to that person. You’re you know, if you’re saying all YA literature is blah, that would be like saying, All literature for adults is whatever, I guess to put down romance the most right? Or fantasy or paranormal romance or God knows, I don’t know, whatever, whatever they want to put down, they’ll put it down.

Adults will put down things for teenagers before they’ll put down anything else, though. They will roll their eyes at you faster than anything else they will they will make you small. I don’t understand it. You are only coming into your adulthood and your lives. The whole point of our existence as adults is to lift you up, not to bring you down. So the first thing I’d say to anybody who’s saying that is wow, you don’t respect teenagers. What a shame for you. Why are you working with them?

That’s the first thing I would ask them. Why are you working with teenagers? Why are you on a school board? You clearly do not understand teenagers, nor do you care about them. You see, you see them as so small.

It’s the exact same as if they want to make fun of, I don’t know, I’ll say Justin Bieber, but that’s not what kids listen to anymore. But you know, what, whoever it is, they’ll roll their eyes and in my days it was Culture Club or Prince. Oh, God, you know, like, like none of us understood what Prince was talking about. Every single one of us knew what Prince was talking about. You can put a big sticker on the front of it and saying parental warnings, Prince says stuff that you already do. Whatever.

Anyway, as for people thinking that books written about young adults shouldn’t be in schools being read by young adults especially. I’ll say literary novels, I would consider this a more literary novel. If we wanted to put subcategories the way that we do in adult work which we should I don’t know what to say to them? With a, you know, you’re going to get your Shakespeare, you’re going to get to read The Merchant of Venice, you’re going to get to read perhaps Mockingbird, perhaps oh, I don’t know, whatever classics are in your canon. The idea is, is that teenagers feel seen.

The idea of reading a book is to feel seen. The idea of reading a book is to open your mind to a new world because you see yourself in it, if that makes sense. And also, to learn about other people, right?

I would hope that people who read something like Dig might read something that’s certainly more commercial, more popular. But something like The Hate U Give, which was published only, I think, maybe two years before it. And allows you to see and feel what it feels like to be a person of color and a community where you know, where the world is different, that’s for sure. For human beings that live in the same place as we do. And we’re so privileged, we don’t see that. So it’d be a great conversation, both for adults and teenagers. But I don’t know. The idea that people would think that something like Dig wouldn’t be for teenagers makes me understand that I already know this. I hear this lot. They don’t understand teenagers, and they don’t want to. They don’t want to stop and understand that teenagers, you know, the idea that people don’t, here’s one for you. But if someone says the word sex in front of a teenager, everybody freaks out. First of all, without it, those teenagers wouldn’t exist. Let’s start there. None of us would. It’s like periods, people freak out over periods. Why? Without them, none of us would exist. Makes no sense. But we freak out over it. And not only have that, like 51% of, let’s not go there. But they have them you know, but like, this idea that we can’t talk about drugs, oh, don’t talk about drugs.

Really, we used to have, we used to have commercials with a frying pan and an egg and this was your brain on drugs. Like, and then I have my kid we were walking around the other day. And he was like, so like, how come you can, people can like have a drink, but then they don’t become alcoholics? But then people say don’t touch heroin, because you’re going to get addicted, like what’s the deal? And like, he didn’t know the basics about drugs, because we’re no longer teaching it in health classes anymore, because oh, we’re too polite to do that. Which to me goes back to what young adult books are really doing? They’re delving into the ideas, and the things that teenagers need to discuss, to have healthy lives. So whether it’s something and a lot of times its heavy material, yes, there’s death. Yes, there’s even like, oh my gosh, suicidal ideation, self-harm, mental illness, but also race, but also love, also maybe some, some relationship abuse, or maybe a really great relationship. That’s what books are for – to model really good things for us and to warn us of the bad things and to help us see what’s really going on.

Why you would want to keep that from teenagers, I do not know. That would be someone who as far as I’m concerned is anti-intellectual, anti your intellectual freedom as young people, which is why public libraries and libraries and schools and librarians are heroes because they care about your intellectual freedom. Teachers as well. For the most part, depends on where you are, I guess, because not all teachers, I guess, would but I would think young adult books are for our for young adults because you’re going to see themselves and I think young adults are for adults because they’ll see their teenagers in them and better wake up and understand that the world has changed, and they might better be able to have better conversations. And better relationships with their teenagers, which is incredibly important, and as someone who lost a teenager who had a really great relationship with my teenager, I knew the situation with my daughter, she struggled for a very, very long time. And we talked a lot. And I do this work, you know, I’ve done this work for a long time, long before I lost my daughter. And I would not have been able to have the conversations I had with her had I not had an open mind to the teen experience. The idea that we were all perfect as teens is ridiculous. But the fact that we’re still trying to snow them into believing it, it’s not new at all. They’ve been doing that for generations. So what would I say? I would say, oh, grow up. That’s what I would say. To anybody saying that young adult books shouldn’t be read in schools, I’d say grow up.

Avery:  Thank you.

Amy:  Yeah, thank you. I got to go get trained. I’m going to go down to Mental Health America and be trained to run a support group. Otherwise, I would sit here Jeanie, and talk to you all day, you guys, students that just ask me questions. I know people are going and coming. But thank you very much for your questions. Meg, wow!

Meg:  I’ve got tears in my eyes, I’m shaking. I mean, what a champion you are for our young people, Amy. You are a gift to us, your gift to librarians where I can give a book to students with my whole being and my whole heart and open a door to the world that you create and honor them through, by being real, by being fun, by being honest and telling them the truth that they’re not hearing in other places. So thank you so much.

Amy:  Thank you so much for supporting me, it’s a huge deal. I got a lot of, a lot of teachers and librarians who back off of me and I’m cool with it, I get it. But…

Meg:  We’ve got all your books spread out on the table. We’ve got your whole collection here. Maybe Elijah and I will design the A.S. King curriculum.

Amy:  Well, listen, whatever happens when you do anything A.S. King again, let’s just do this, let’s zoom me in. That’s, that’s what I do. I like to connect and I’m about to be on the road again and do stuff. I think I’m just going to like staple an N95 mask to my face and just start traveling again. I miss being with young people and going into schools and talking. And just being able to talk openly about stuff and blow their minds in what I call the trauma comedy show. But they don’t know it and I don’t want to ever bum anybody out. You know, I always just want to help. I always just help.

Jeanie:  I really appreciate what you just said because when rereading Dig I laughed so hard. And I also am aware that you’re writing about trauma and, like, the capacity to hold both the humor and the trauma in one place is really powerful.

Meg:  Thank you, Amy.

Amy:  See you guys. Thanks for your great questions. Thanks for reading the books. Thanks for being champions. You’re amazing.

https://youtu.be/gCImXfeAWPk

#vted Reads: Start Here Start Now

Lovely listeners: today is a work day.
Now, we all know that talking about anti-bias work is a vital component of the kind of school change that makes our classrooms safer and more engaging for students of color. Doubly so when we are white educators, and when we teach in predominantly white spaces, in predominantly white communities. 
But sometimes, it feels like all we do is talk, and then assure ourselves that the work is done. 
It’s not. It’s really, really not.
Real change in dismantling bias in our classrooms can only come about when talk turns to walk. When we are serious about change, we share our own journeys, with all their missteps, rocks in the shoes, and joy-filled leaps and bounds. We share, and we listen, and only when we see what the work takes can we make the change we want to see in the world. 
On this episode, we welcome Emma Vastola and Emily Gilmore to the show, as they share their own journeys and all the work they take on, that they do each day to dismantle bias — and before we go any further I ask that you take a moment and hold these two Vermont educators in gratitude with me. 
<breathhhhhhe>
Now, we’re going to be using Liz Kleinrock’s “Start Here, Start Now: A Guide to Antiracist and AntiBias Work in Your Community” to guide our conversation, and as you listen, I want you to consider — reeeeeeeally consider — these two questions: one, how can YOU share your own work in this way? and two, what’s stopping you?
I’m Jeanie Phillips. Welcome to another episode of vted Reads: a podcast about books by, for, and with Vermont educators. 
Let’s chat.  

Jeanie: 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 two fabulous educators, Emma Vastola and Emily Gilmore, and we’ll be talking about Liz Kleinrock’s Start Here Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community. Thank you so much for joining me, Emily and Emma. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Emily Gilmore with Start Here Start Now

Emily: I’ll start off. This is Emily Gilmore. I use she/her pronouns. I am a cis, white, former social studies teacher, now working for Great Schools Partnership, as of this year. I was in the classroom for nine years. I live in Winooski, Vermont, land of Abenaki and I’m really excited to be continuing conversations with Jeanie and Emma.

Emma Vastola with Start Here Start Now

Emma: Thank you, Emily. So my name is Emma Vastola. I am a cis white female. I am currently teaching a multi-age fifth and sixth-grade classroom at a preK – six school in Mount Holly, Vermont. I am really excited to be here to talk with Jeanie and Emily today.

Jeanie: Thank you both so much for joining me. As you know I love to read and I love to expand my to-be-read pile even though it’s practically toppling over now. What’s on your bedside table? What are you both reading right now? Emma, why don’t you go first?

Emma: Okay, so let’s see. I, like you Jeanie, have a topple-like bedside table with lots of books on it. And so I’d have to say the one at the top is Dr. Wayne Dyer’s Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life. That is one I go back to repeatedly that’s always there. Another one that I have been reading is Adam Grant’s Think Again. And I usually have a book of poetry at my bedside table, and I am not going to remember the name of it.

Jeanie: What are you reading Emily?

Emily: Well, I have been driving a lot more for work. So I have been shifting to audiobooks, I normally mostly listen to podcasts. So I’m super excited and started listening to Firekeeper’s Daughter by Angeline Boulley and it is unbelievable as an audiobook. Oh, my goodness, highly recommend. Especially since I spent time in Sault Ste. Marie two or three years ago, and so to be able to situate myself on the same land that the story takes place on is really powerful. And Michigan is just my happy place. So it just, it’s a beautiful story. And I can picture it all which is even, even better for me. And then…

Jeanie: Emily, I loved it so much. I read it twice. As soon as I finished it I turned back to page one. It’s so good. It’s so good. It’s so good.

Emma: I also read it Emily definitely. And on audiobook it was exceptional.

Jeanie: Everyone needs to listen.

Emily: And then the author Taylor Jenkins Reid, I just love. I love Daisy Jones & The Six. I love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. And I just started Malibu Rising and it knocks it out of the park again, it’s just one of those books. She’s one of those authors that just like can kick start me into reading 1000 books all at once. I think I’ve read all of her books like within 24 hours. And so I’m really excited to just dive in again.

Jeanie: Oh, that just adds a whole author to my list. I’m really excited about that because I haven’t read any of those. Thank you.

Emily: You’ll love The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo. Like Love, love.

Jeanie: Got it. I trust you. Thank you both for those recommendations.

So this book, Start Here Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community by Liz Kleinrock starts with acknowledgments. And I wanted to start there too. What I love about this is that Liz writes a lot of acknowledgments. And she takes time to thank her parents and her colleagues and a host of writers and activists and educators. And I’m going to read a little bit that really touched me when I was reading this,

To my ancestors: it has taken me a long time to connect to you and hear your voices. While my life has taken many different turns, and some have felt determined by chance, I have no doubt that I am where I meant to be, doing what I’m meant to be doing. I recognise the strength I draw coming from a line of ancestors who have been colonized, enslaved, and persecuted across continents for centuries. I would not be here today if not for your strength, resilience, power, and sacrifice.

To every student who has come through my classroom door (both in person and virtually) in Oakland, Los Angeles, and DC, I love y’all so much. I hope you never forget that once you’re my student, you’re always my student. You are the real change makers, and I cannot wait to see what impact you have on the world.

I read that because it’s beautiful and because it’s true. But I also just had a conversation with you Emma in your classroom about creating a culture of acknowledgment and giving credit. And I just love how Liz Kleinrock models that here and how it centers her identity, which seems especially important to this book, and I wondered if either of you had any responses to the acknowledgment section of the book, to the beginning of this book.

Emma: For me, I think it really brings up the importance of like that thoughtful space to connect your past to your present, and acknowledging that those stories that are in those individuals and land have impacted you. And, and to give those credit, those credit and to acknowledge those who, who have really helped you grow into the person that you are. So that is a section that really is meaningful to me and really has impacted I think the way that I’ve structured and thought about structuring my classroom.

Emily: I really see the connection to what she models through starting her class with identity work, and that starting the book with identity work just feels really appropriate. And just already, like, creates an ease as the reader of knowing who the person is how they’ve been influenced. I think it’s just really powerful and accessible like, especially as teachers thinking about the impact that we have. The things that have impacted us, but also like the lasting impact that we then have as teachers just really feels full circle to me.

Jeanie: Thank you both for that. I think I’m a librarian by training. And so often, when we think about giving credit, we think of work cited and bibliography. But I wonder, especially for K – six if we didn’t start with citing sources in that in that sort of APA or MLA format kind of way. But we started just by acknowledging the folks that have influenced us, whether we created a piece of art, or did a project or wrote a story, like did we have a mentor text? Is there an author we love that we’re inspired by? Is there a classmate who gave us feedback that we want to give kudos to? Do we want to thank our parents or our teachers for inspiring us? And so to me, that’s all a part of this culture of giving credit. And I know that for you all, like me, I think a lot about who I’m citing. I try to cite people of color and especially black women.

And I just think that Liz does something really lovely at the beginning of her book, by citing Audrey Lorde, right, and her parents and her students. And so thank you for indulging me in my little librarian riff there.

The book really gets started with a focus on how do you even begin if you’re new to antibias, antiracist work. And I know that the two of you have been sort of doing this work for a while. So how did you get started? Or what might we learn, what resonated for you from Liz Kleinrock’s perspective that we might share with our listeners? Emily, you want to go first?

Emily: Sure. So I this will take me back to where I come from. So I grew up just outside of Chicago. My mom grew up in a Jewish household, her father’s very religiously Jewish, her mother is culturally Jewish. And so she leans more culturally Jewish. My dad was raised very Presbyterian, very English, Scottish mindset. And so that left a lot of obscurity for me in terms of what it meant to grow up with a Jewish identity what that means. And growing up in a community that was predominantly Catholic, it was a very stark difference to what celebrating holidays looked like for me, especially lots of friends and CCD on Wednesdays and going to Mass and how that changed our soccer schedules. And so that also left me really vulnerable to being the target of a lot of microaggressions. And just explicit anti-Semitism throughout my childhood, that it took a long time for me to really understand the impact that that had on how I viewed myself and my place in the world. But it did make me really empathetic to people who also identified as other that just ever since I was in preschool, I just always sought out stories of people who didn’t fit the norm.

And so as a social studies teacher that just was already ingrained in me is thinking about fair and not fair. S I know what fair not fair felt like. And so that really just exploded when I became, I really found myself in my voice as a teacher.

Jeanie: Thanks for that. How about you, Emma, where did this work begin for you?

Emma: Oh, that’s such a good question. I think for me, I was born and raised in Southern Vermont. Actually, I work in the school that I went to as an elementary school. And I feel like I was always kind of different in the sense even though it’s been, you know, pretty much white, small, rural town.

But my father started an organization, a non-profit called volunteers for peace. And they did international exchanges with different groups of people throughout the world. So they would bring people together for two to three weeks to work on short-term voluntary service projects that were focused on anything from helping, you know, build houses for people, or working in different kitchens. And each year starting from the time I was two, I think it was 1982. Actually, they started they brought a group of international volunteers to our small town. And so at that time, it was usually 7 to 12 people who would come together from different countries all over the world, predominantly from Europe, but I just got a sense of difference and embracing that.

And I love to listen and learn and be kind of this observer to learn about people and I think that I embraced difference moving into high school. Anyway, in college, I think that bringing groups of people together to talk about kind of challenging conversations always kind of drove me. I felt comfortable in that, and respected. And I think that that work has kind of driven me in finding who I am as an educator now. I think that’s where it started.

Jeanie: What I hear from both of you is this idea of difference as an asset, as strength. And what I really appreciate from Liz, is this idea of looking at our students through an asset lens – through an appreciative lens. And really seeing their strengths and seeing kids for what they are, instead of what they aren’t.

I know when I started doing identity work, it’s so much easier to be to talk about and be in touch with the sides of you that are disadvantaged, right or that don’t have power, right? Because then we can live into that myth of like pulling yourself up by your bootstraps that this country loves. And for me, the work was really being in touch with the parts of myself that hold privilege and power and, and who are wrestling with that a little bit. And so I think that’s what I see when I work with teachers. And adults too, is that that’s really hard for them, that it’s really challenging to notice where you hold power, and then to hold yourself accountable to that power. And so what I really appreciate about Liz Kleinrock’s approach is that she walks us through how to do that.

And that leads to a lot of great identity work, which I know we at the Tarrant Institute often talk to teachers about how to do that work with our students, because it helps us know students well, it helps them understand themselves better, it helps build community in the classroom. It helps us cultivate a critical lens on the world and understand difference and how it plays out. And I know that you have both done identity work with your students. And I wondered if you would share some examples of what that looks like. Emma do you want to start by talking about your Where I’m From poems and the other work you’ve been doing this year?

Emma: Sure. And I actually used Start Here Start Now because I actually read this book right at the beginning of the school year, and it was such a great kind of refresher on focusing on identity. And she actually uses some really good examples of I am from poems or bio poems. And so we used bio poems, or I from poems to really kind of think critically about where they were, who am I and where do I come from. And that process in itself, I think helps students kind of get thinking critically about their own identity. But also at the same time through sharing out within the community helps them learn from each other, and helps them build community and respect within the context of the community that you’re creating, especially at the beginning of the year.

What Shapes Your Identity? [Link to slideshow]

Jeanie: Emily, do you want to talk a little bit about the work you’ve done at in social studies with identity?

Emily: Yeah, so ever since my first year of teaching, I had students write me letters at the beginning of the year. So before we really did any community-building, before I really introduced myself, I would ask the students to introduce themselves to me before there were any judgments or spaces for students to get into the habit of, or to continue the habit of like negative self-talk.

Especially with high school students that just feels like that’s the default in a social studies classroom. It’s either I love social studies, I’m so glad to be here. And then I don’t know anything else about them. Or they hate Social Studies, and they don’t share anything because they feel like there’s already this negative association. And so that was something that I started really before my real journey with antibias, antiracism work.

And as I started to read the responses that students would give, I would give it back to them at the end of the year and they would really start to especially like, ninth-grader, I started with 10th graders. So they were, by the time that they’re juniors, they’re essentially seniors.

And so the ways that they saw themselves through the lens of their older selves, I started to really see that identity work happening. And then that became an explicit unit of study. At South Burlington, with the ninth graders, was having them look at their identity, looking at culture, and the different ways that it shows up and pivotal events and how they’ve shaped their lives, those three things together to start every year with those pieces, the students were so and part of that, too, was building a community of, of protection for each other. Acknowledging when we cause harm, and really focusing on how do we have meaningful conversations. Those have to go together, especially when we’re asking students to share pivotal events and where, where they came from things that have had an impact on themselves, and then sharing it with others that they felt comfortable, took a lot of really explicit work.

A lot of that having to do with SRI protocols and modifying them for the classroom like those, those pieces, really, there’s a lot of pieces together. But by doing that internal work, first, we were able to really dive deep into the historical topics that we covered. And having that sense of empathy was much easier to do, rather than the years prior, where I was trying to teach empathy, without those pieces in place.

Jeanie: Oh, I love that so much. And what I’m hearing from both of you is the sense that like, we can’t get to who are we and how do we behave together without doing the work around Who am I? And how am I showing up? And the reciprocity between those two feels really important. I think sometimes we try to jump like you said, right to the like, who are we? And how are we going to behave here without doing any of that introspection necessary to know what we’re bringing to the space? That feels really important.

I also really appreciate that because I think so often, when we talk about personalised learning, we put the emphasis on the individual, but I actually think the emphasis needs to go on community. And so this is a way of building community by also doing that individual work.

I look forward to putting some special links in the transcript for folks to go find that lead to Emma and Emily’s work in the classroom. Thank you both for that. So the other thing that comes up, Emma, did you want to add something?

Emma: Yeah, I would actually love to add, I love what Emily was saying. Just about the time, like evolving into, you know, spending the time on who am I and then evolving into who are we is so important.

I know I went into this this school year, I’m thinking about like, so much of being a teacher is, is oftentimes kind of fighting time. Okay, I, you know, we have to get this done. And this done, and this done. And this done, And I was really mindful going into the school year that no, we’re just going to take our time,

they’re going to take the time that they need to really know each other

And I think it was, at least this year, I feel like it was probably around 10 weeks and after doing lots of different identity things: a brand identity, learning about who am I and who we are, that it felt like we could have courageous conversations where we’re really having these I think that was Kleinrock, she talks about pulling in instead of pushing out in terms of having those conversations that are hard. So taking that time to spend on identity I think is really crucial. And it’s okay too.

Emily: I really agree with you. And I think that there’s, there’s this pushback with ABAR [antibias, antiracist] work in particular that it’s, it’s taking away from content. And I think it’s this duality of I got to know my students way faster and at a much deeper level, so that I was able to personalize their learning, understand what they needed to feel successful. I knew how to reach out to parents or families, caregivers, special educators. The students felt comfortable disclosing things that were going on in their personal lives, especially last year when everything was mayhem of like, we, the number of conversations we had about like mental health was so much more significant in a time where it felt like people were talking about mental health. And this really surface level like self-care will help you not feel burnout. It’s like, no, no, we’re actually talking about mental health crises right now.

And we’re working together as a classroom, to anchor really complex conversations.

While monitoring our friends, the ways that they’re showing up, despite wearing masks where, you know, there’s this sense that you see less of a person, but, you know, being able to see each other’s eyes and being able to really feel the energy in the room. It just would have been a totally different experience, had we not gotten to know each other. Through identity Yeah, I just, there’s just, I can’t say enough about how important it is to, to actually know and not make assumptions. Because that’s something that is so easy to do as teachers because we’ve seen so many young people in front of us that it’s easy to fall into that trap.

Jeanie: Oh, gosh, I so appreciate the depth that you two are going with this. And this idea that this difference between thinking we know our students, and really knowing our students and allowing them to voice who they are, as opposed to us assuming or falling into tropes that we carry in our brain because we’re seasoned teachers.

It also brings up the next issue that Liz addresses in the book, which is this issue of time. Specifically, how do I do this kind of work ABAR work and by ABAR just for listeners, we’re talking about antibias, antiracist work? How do I make time for that? While also teaching all the things (I am doing some air quotes here) need to teach, right? Like whether you think of that as covering content or staying on course, with proficiencies and curriculum? How do you also prioritize this kind of work? You’ve already let us know that sometimes you have to slow down and really get to know kids in order to do the important work that comes ahead. And have those relationships that mean you’re really being an impactful teacher. Or help them have those relationships with each other that helped the classroom sing. And having just been in Emma’s classroom last week, I can say the results of that deep work she did with her students is really paying off in how they show up and have been able to have conversations and relationships with each other.

But how else do you deal with that issue of time? With that issue of teaching the proficiencies you need to teach and embedding antiracist antibias work into the curriculum? Emily, do you want to go first this time?

Emily: Sure, I was just turning to page 24. In Start Here Start Now where Liz Kleinrock provides a really beautiful graphic organizer for ways to think really critically about what you have to do and what you get to do.

And that’s something that this is actually something I use in my work with Great Schools Partnership, working with other schools, as they think about their journey, whether it’s with equity work, or proficiencies, personalized learning. This is a disclosure: I love proficiency-based learning. That is also how Jeanie and I know each other is through our role in work. That was my focus, with my role in research was using student voice with proficiency in personalized learning. And so to see this chart that Liz has that, and I’ll read the header, so she talks about your identifying your state standards, and how your students will meet that standard, the subject that you teach, what do I have to do in order to do what I want to do? How can I tackle this through an ABAR lens? And what and where can I supplement/substitute.

And I think this is such a great, easy model to follow of like, these are things I have to do.

But when you really look at the language of standards, the opportunities are endless for the ways you can reach that standard. And that’s something that just made teaching, really fun to think about giving those same standards to students. And really think critically about why we’re doing what we’re doing. And how we can get to do the things that we want to do by thinking critically about the systems that are created.

In full transparency, we talked about the four I’s of oppression pretty early on in my curriculum with students. And so we are always thinking about where is that institutionalized oppression? And who’s deciding what we are learning with that ideological oppression? Where are those ideas coming from? How does that show up in our internalized selves? And that how does that interaction with each other really show up and the ways that oppression and liberation can be in place? And so I just, if there’s one thing in this book, it’s this, and then for the STEM teachers who are like, well, she’s a social studies teacher, so I’m ignoring her. Go to the back of the book, on page 129, because there’s a whole section for you stem folks.

Emma: So one way that thinking about this kind of work through a lens in terms of thinking of building a classroom, of trust and reflection. I just actually presented with Jeanie and another amazing colleague of mine, Margaret around personalized learning plans. And part of my reflection around that was on reflection, how it also ties into having students reflect really gets into then them knowing themselves, but also you knowing them really well.

The other piece of that, for me, too, is the beginning of the year, we spend quite a bit of time, actually using SRI protocols that are kind of rewritten at the level of our students so the students within our community can access kind of thinking about how do we want to feel in our community. And I’m going through like a negotiation of brainstorming ideas individually, and then collectively coming up with some ideas about how we want to feel as a community and then continuing to reflect on those feeling words throughout the time that we’re spending together. I think it helps to also bring in at least in you know, the elementary setting, to the ability to think about actions and choices and if they are meeting the feelings that we want to feel in my classroom. And I think it’s helping that that social and emotional piece that I think is also really critical, it’s not just another thing, it’s all the same.

Jeanie: I really, I really appreciate that from both of you this idea that it’s not another layer. It’s how you do the things you’re already doing. And whether that’s how you select books and articles and topics to focus in on and or the perspectives you bring to those things is really important to the conversation that kids are having in your classroom and the critical lens that they’re building up over time so that they can begin to identify racism and bias and then do something about it. So thank you both for that.

Emma, you’ve already alluded to the fact that if you’re going to do this kind of work, you’re also going to have to have difficult conversations in the classroom. And there’s a nice chapter in here about how to do that, how to hold space for hard conversations. And I wonder what has worked for the two of you when things get prickly? When you’re asking kids to think in ways that maybe are uncomfortable or when you have differences of opinion in the classroom?

Emma: Well, I think that I’m going to circle us back to making sure that there is that safe, caring community by doing like, starting with who am I, who are we and then identity work, I think creates that safe space to be able to call in. When having conversations about I think, even like in the elementary school setting, we’re really talking and I would say in any setting any educational setting, where we’re having tough conversations, the ability to do that is because there is this feeling of safety, to be able to take risks, and to be vulnerable, to ask questions and to share kind of vulnerabilities around certain topics. Because it’s a safe space for people to do that and for students to do that.

Jeanie: How would you build on that, Emily?

Emily: Yeah, I think there’s, so part of that part of what I’m thinking about is how power shows up in the classroom. And that was something that I was always pretty explicit about. I called myself a benevolent monarch, that I have been selected to be here. It was your destiny to be in this classroom, I have all of the power, but I can choose to be kind. And so I never wanted students to feel like I am giving them this false sense of reality of having a say in the classroom. Because ultimately, that’s, that’s just not true. I’m legally responsible for them. And so that was always something that I leveraged to really think intentionally about the conversations that we’re having in class, like, what are the things that were explicitly saying out loud? And what are the things that we’re saying to one another? And what are the things that we’re writing down and processing?

I think about the nuances between a safe space and a brave space.

And ultimately, it’s down to those in a classroom because we just you, I don’t have, I cannot control the brains of others. And so acknowledging that was really important for me in the students, first and foremost.

We had a unit on the history of race, racism, and oppression. That was a lot of journaling. Because I didn’t want my particularly white students verbally processing what it must be like to have a marginalized identity, when there are students who have marginalized identities, sitting next to them being like, cool, this is a space for you. But really, to make it complex to think about what are the actions that we’re taking? Like? Yes, we’re reflecting. But what is we all have power? Because I’m giving you, I’m actually giving you power right now. What are you going to do with the topic that you’re researching, or how you’re choosing to demonstrate your knowledge understanding that is going to be making the lives of others and yourself better? And so really frame and that’s, I mean, kind of the benefit of the classroom is like, this is a place that’s not out in the real world where there are more limitations to what you can say or do but this is the place where if you want to write your legislator, let’s do it. If you want to, you know, go talk to the principal about something you want to see changed. Let’s do it.

If you want to just read and process that’s really important, and so that being able to think about the avenues to take so especially when something hard and problematic comes up. It’s not a surprise, but there are also next steps to take. And I think what Liz talks about that I wish I leveraged was bringing her families, her community in with her. And that’s not something that I had even come close to doing as a classroom teacher, but it’s something I’m thinking about now, in my role.

Jeanie: I just feel like I’m in the presence of such genius between Liz and her words on the page. And the two of you, like, I’m just learning so much. And also just really appreciate Emily how you frame that as you are the benevolent monarch. Like you have power, and you have the power to do what Emma’s talking about, which is set agreements with your students. So that the culture can hold such things. And then also to make space for people to process this new learning in ways that are appropriate for themselves and for the other people in the classroom. I just really appreciate that so much. Thank you both so much for that.

And this leads to my next question, right? Because we are in the midst of a whitelash right now. I’m just going to call it what it is. We’re in the midst of a whitelash against critical race theory and all things equity and inclusion. We hear about it on the news. It’s all over social media. People are showing up at school boards, people not in the area, not from the community are showing up at school boards. And, and so that’s all of the work that Liz is talking about the antibias, antiracist work, is getting a lot of pushback in our racist society.

And so I guess, my question for you, and it’s not brand new, this has been ongoing. Emily, you taught at South Burlington as they were changing the name of their mascot, and they’re flying the Black Lives Matter flag. And so there’s been a lot of pushback in the past. So how do you approach this kind of work in that climate? How do you keep parents and caregivers informed and deal with criticism and still continue to do the work and not just give up?

Emily: I’ll just start by saying that it’s really hard. It is. It would be a bold-faced lie to say I had any kind of answer. I profusely sweat through my clothes when I teach the history of race, racism, and oppression to my students for fear of pitchforks. I’ve gotten Heil Hitler’s in class when I’ve said that I’m Jewish. You know, like, there are clear responses that have happened and will happen, unfortunately. And it’s, it’s really complicated.

But I think what is really important is making sure that we’re constantly learning, I think, especially as a white woman, there’s so much to learn and unlearn. Something that I always, I always feel like prevented me from pushing my curriculum forward more was that fear of backlash, and not being able to say the right thing about why what I’m teaching is important. And that is harming students. I know I caused harm to a student that is something that I continue to process and work through. Because I hold a lot of implicit bias, I hold a lot of unconscious bias, like there are a lot of problematic things with me. I am a white woman. I hold racist ideas. I have to work through those and make sure that I’m not continuously causing harm. And I think that’s one of the hardest parts is acknowledging that first, to then just hold that as a line of like, why  I can’t continue that same pattern, I need to make changes, which can be hard, but it’s important to your students. And that’s what always kept me centered.

Jeanie: Before we move on and hear from Emma, could you just talk a little bit about the bar we work that you do as a part of that process of processing your own bias and assumptions?

Emily: Yeah, so Christie Nold, who’s a fellow educator at South Burlington and just wonderful human and Jennifer Belisle, who was also a wonderful human, also in South Burlington, we, and Raechel Barone, she was also a part of it too. Christie really spearheaded the initiative. June of 2020, I think she reached out to us and introduced the idea of creating a BARWE group, which is Building Antiracist White Educators, creating our own branch of the organization that’s based in Philadelphia, the website is https://www.barwe215.org/. And creating a space for white educators to come together monthly to discuss topics that are coming up for us.

It became a really powerful space for responding to racialized incidents in South Burlington, thinking about how we can be co-conspirators together, looking at student achievement data and the impacts of racism and how that’s showing up in the students who are leaving our schools. It was has been and is continuing at South Burlington, and there’s been a lot of schools that have started their own, across Vermont. And it’s just a really powerful organization that is just for white identifying educators to be messy, and learn together without causing harm to our colleagues of color.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. Now, I’d really like to invite Emma in because I know she has things to add to.

Emma: Yeah, I would love to and I was really connecting to what you were saying, Emily.

The work of acknowledging yourself and your own biases within the context of your classroom and as an educator is really critical. And it’s hard. It’s hard work. It takes a lot of space to reflect and to generously listen, not just to yourself, but also to others in order to do this work.

And Jeanie, you were saying, you know, when there’s conflict and disagreement. For me, I feel like it really I, I tried to seek to listen and engage in a conversation around how to advance this work. I think it really starts with you. And I think that’s one of the big things for me and the big takeaways. And this is really hard work. And it really starts with individuals. And making space and time to, as Emily said, learn from others and reflect on who you are helps the practice grow.

Jeanie: You know, I work with schools and school districts around change, school change. And one of the recommendations I have for people is to get to know your district policies. And so for example, Kingdom East, a school district has a really excellent equity policy. And I think that can be really leveraged. If you get pushback about this work, right? Like you can look at your school and district’s equity policy and use that to defend yourself against critique, knowing that you’re doing the right thing. And so I think it’s really important for teachers to know who has their back, and to make sure that policy has your back. And it’s really easy. Having been a librarian, it’s really easy for districts to ignore their own policy sometimes. So like if somebody pushes back on a book in the collection, it can be a knee-jerk reaction for administrators just to want to remove the book to get rid of the conflict. But we have to remember that conflict is a really good thing too, right. When conflict is happening

it means we’re doing something, it means we’re shifting ideas, it means we’re doing the work if people are pushing back a little bit, and that that pushback can be a really good thing.

But also be familiar enough with your policies to know that you can go to the school board or you can go to your administrator, your superintendent and say the policy says this, that the policy supports what I’m doing in my classroom. So I just say that because I think it’s really important to know when you’re supported, and, and that policy has implications, and we should be pushing for equity and inclusion policies. Thank you both for your thoughtful responses.

One of the sections of this book I really appreciate living in Vermont, I hear over and over again from educators: “well, my school is mostly white, so we don’t need to deal with that.” And I’m like, if your school is mostly white, you especially need to have conversations about race and racism because that’s where it’s mostly invisible. And so I really appreciate chapter six, What Does ABAR Look Like If All or Most of My Students Are White? And I wondered if you could share your own understandings of why it’s important to do antibias antiracist work with white students, and what that might look like.

Emma: I think, for me, with at least with a predominantly white school, where I’ve taught most of my career, is I think it starts with the diversity. Acknowledging diversity and different perspectives and where we see diversity, even though you may be white. It’s like that idea of the mask identity mask, like what you see on the outside, versus what you see on the inside, and having conversations about that those aspects of identity. But also engaging in conversations and learning around how this has come up in the past for marginalized communities and people who have been marginalized to help the white students understand the context of what’s happening today and their place in the world, in a safe space?

Emily: Yeah, I think what I ended up finding most helpful was thinking about it through like a deficit mindset of like, if we’re only in the mindset that we’re only teaching white students, then that’s definitely not true. And that also means that the lens that we’re looking at our curriculum is going to be through this whiteness lens. And so whose voices are not represented, whose bodies are not represented, whose contributions to the world are not represented, when we’re not thinking beyond how we show up every day, and not critically evaluating what we’ve been taught. Because that’s what I feel like it’s most accessible to, to teachers in particular of like, well, why do you teach what you teach? And generally, there’s a response. And it’s either well, I’ve always done it this way, or I had a really bad experience in school. And so I want to make things better. Like, generally, I find teachers fall into one of two categories. They love school, and so they’re back in it, or they hated school, and they want to make it better. And both of those conversations lead to a critique of well, how did you learn what you learned? And when we think about, well, what’s especially histories, I always feel like it’s a really good access point of like, what’s the last history that you actually learned in school? And usually, it’s like the 1970s.

And when I taught chronological history, I never taught past the 1970s it was impossible to go from Mesopotamia to modern-day, what happened yesterday. And so to offer that as an entry point of like, well have significant things happened since 1972? Today, and just thinking about like, well, you know, how are we really thinking about who is in our curriculum, and that’s what I found was interesting, in conversations with science teachers, in particular of like, well, okay, so what type of science are you? Do you talk about the scientists and where those ideas came from? And, you know, that’s a part of sciences, who’s creating it, and where did those ideas come from? And if you’re not talking about, you know, the Ming Empire and what was happening in China, or you’re not talking about out the Muslim creations of math inside, like, we’re, there’s just so many pieces that are missing. And I think it goes back to that acknowledgment piece of if we’re not authentically teaching like we’re just wrong for not including those perspectives. It’s just wrong. It’s, it’s an inaccurate depiction of science. They’re hard entry points, but it’s that self-reflection piece that can be so helpful when thinking about how whiteness is showing up.

Jeanie: One thing that I was thinking about Emily through what you were saying was the power, the danger of the single story, and I think that’s something that Liz Kleinrock brings up on page 101. She actually uses some really great charts that she, she uses with her young students.

Danger of a Single Story chart

Just thinking about certain topics, and using a single story and the meaning that they can make. Something that I did recently with my students is they looked at an image of the first Thanksgiving, and just reading that image through a critical lens and then questioning well, is that accurate? Is that an assumption? Or is that something that you see? And so being able to differentiate between those two things was really powerful. And I think it’s hitting on kind of what she suggests in the book to really get at, like, what that looks like teaching in schools with predominantly white students.

Emily: Absolutely, that reminds me of something I used to do in class. Around this time was, we would watch what would the Mayflower episode of Charlie Brown. And I would first ask like, okay, so who’s seen Charlie Brown? Who knows who Charlie Brown is? And then we’ll watch the episode like, so what is the message that we just learned about Thanksgiving? And, and students will have all these ideas? Like, what are some things that you thought were weird? Like you are teenagers, you definitely thought that this cartoon was weird. What were some things that you thought were weird? And then we’ll start to unpack those. And then by using primary sources, Learning For Justice has some pretty incredible primary sources to help facilitate conversations around Thanksgiving for all age levels. And so we would use those to talk about so here are some indigenous First Nation perspectives on what Thanksgiving means to them. And now, what might they observe when watching Charlie Brown? What might this actually mean to them? They’re like, oh, no, did you just ruin the Christmas episode too? And I was like, as a Jew? I sure did. I sure did.

So we would have those like, really meaningful conversations. Like perspective matters. And if we’re not thinking about those different perspectives, and who’s being represented in how, what does that mean, the next time that you’re just cruising through Netflix, like what are you going to be looking for, in the characters that are represented and the movies that you’re watching? And that just continues to grow?

Jeanie: You’re both bringing me back to one of the scholars I cite most often. And that’s Rudine Sims Bishop and her ideas of windows, mirrors, and sliding glass doors, which she wrote about literature, right. And she said we all need mirrors: ways to see ourselves in literature. But the same could be said about science, math, social studies, right? Like we need to see ourselves represented in the field. We also need windows: we need views of other people represented in those ways in our literature, in our social studies, in our science, in our math. And for white folks, especially, we get a lot of mirrors, white students get a lot of mirrors into the world. They need windows and sliding glass doors to understand how other people experience the world in order to be balanced humans.

And I’m hearing that from both of you. Thank you for that. So, Emma I have a question that’s really specifically for you, because you have taught first and second grade and now you’re teaching fifth and sixth, and this book really is meant for sort of early middle and elementary schools where it’s, it’s Liz Kleinrock’s really writing for teachers of those grades.

And so she specifically has a chapter on what does ABAR work look like with younger students? And I wondered if you had any perspectives on this as somebody who’s taught down to first grade. Yeah, I don’t like the way I just said that. I just want to say I think kindergarten and first-grade teachers are amazing. And say I just want to rephrase that and say, as someone who has taught amazing first and second-grade students?

Emma: They are amazing. They teach you so much. I feel like those younger students, and they don’t like it when I call it younger either. So I might switch that into first and second graders. But I think that it really goes back to looping back to some of the conversations that we’ve had around getting to know your students. Well, I think oftentimes, as educators of primary students, we have this like, idea that they can’t engage in difficult conversations because they’re young. And I would argue that I don’t think that’s necessarily the case. And when we’re protecting them in that way. What does that story tell them? And how does that impact the choices as they get older?

So what I’ve found is it’s really about the process in which you have the conversation with them around certain topics. So choosing essential questions that really engage them in the topic, they do have a lot to say, around it. And I think you can do it in a way that’s engaging and sensitive at the same time. Because they do want to talk about it, and not to offer them spaces to do that, I think challenges our educational system.

Jeanie: I’ve taught K to six before I moved up to a 7 to 12 school, and I love first and second graders, they’re so earnest, and they’re so full of kindness and love. And I think actually we miss a prime opportunity to engage them in the work of being fully human if we don’t have them have these conversations about difference. And especially with an appreciative lens, so I’m grateful for your answer.

One of the things about equity work and antibias antiracist work for me is it keeps me on my growth edge. It keeps me always learning because I never fully arrive. Which I think can feel exhausting, but I actually love it right? It keeps me on this journey to learning more and more about myself, about the world, about how to do a better job of it. And I wonder what you’re learning edges are right now. The two of you who’ve been doing this work in different ways. Where is your growth point right now?

Emily: I’m there. So I mean, especially just with Kyle Rittenhouse. And I don’t even have words to process that right now. But there’s just so much that feels the way that I respond. I know that there’s that’s a lens of privilege, and that’s a lens of whiteness.

Jeanie: Just to be clear, you’re talking about the verdict, the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict that just came out. And so you’re saying your response to that is one of privilege because I imagine like me, you responded with like, what the heck, how is the verdict? And yeah, okay.

Emily: A few more expletives. But yes, I’m just really thinking about also the privilege of not having to acknowledge that as a classroom teacher. I am in this space that I’m in right now my office and my house feeling very protected. And working through that, that feeling of I don’t have to go into a classroom tomorrow and explain to students what just happened and that’s also a way that kept me growing was knowing that I was being held accountable by teenagers who look to me for an explanation and a lens to look at the world.

I think about how little I really understand about the land I live on. And just the ways that the Abenaki have been treated and just there’s so much just so much that every day I am breathing through like a stretch. Liz has been working on her split. And I feel like that’s where I am is like how can I breathe through? Just stretch.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. I really appreciate that. I’ve also been trying to do some learning about the Abenaki and the land that I’m on. So I’m really grateful for that. But how about you, Emma? Where are your growth edges right now?

Emma: I think it’s hard to really zone in on one edge. But I guess what’s really coming up for me as not only a classroom teacher, but a leader in our district too is thinking about, I think this is less so maybe in middle and high school, but in elementary schools, we use programs quite a bit. And I’m really trying to think about programs critically through an ABAR lens of how, who are they serving, what students are they serving? And who are they written for? And using them critically. And are they going to serve students? And are they always going to serve all students is the question. And I think that my learning edge also – so this is actually the first year I’ve taught middle school in quite some time – for fifth and sixth graders is when I’m all like, making sure that I’m designing experiences that bring in the voices of marginalized communities whether or not it’s choosing books that are written by women, or American Indians or other perspectives. And I know that I’m making mistakes all the time, but at least I’m trying to, you know, push myself to learn about how I can make, you know, more spaces that are like healing spaces where people’s voices are acknowledged, and people can lean into vulnerability in order to learn more about themselves and about each other.

Jeanie: I really appreciate that. That notion of healing spaces, and I really appreciate the way that brings us around to this idea that antiracist antibias work is healing work, the work of healing ourselves and healing our communities and, and helping our students learn to heal themselves in their community. So thank you both so much for this really nurturing conversation about doing this work together. Thank you so much for talking with me about Start Here Start Now.

I’m Jeanie Phillips and this has been an episode of #vted Reads talking about what Vermont educators and students are reading. Thank you so much to Emma Vastola and Emily Gilmore for appearing on the show and talking with me about Start Here Start Now: A Guide to Antibias and Antiracist Work in Your School Community. If you’re looking for a copy of Start Here Start Now check your local library. Thanks to Audrey Holman, audio engineer and so much more. To find out more about #vted Reads, including past episodes, upcoming guests and reads and a whole lot more you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram at @vtedreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.

#vted Reads: We Contain Multitudes

Lovely listeners: we’re baaaaaaack! And we missed each and every one of you. 

To celebrate our return, in this episode we brought back guests from *Vermont* Reads, a statewide program that encourages everyone across Vermont to read one book each year, and then turn and, you know, talk to one another. We are HUGE fans. 

And yes, the names are confusing. They’re Vermont Reads — reading across Vermont — and we’re Vermont *Ed* Reads, reading across Vermont, but make it education. (Please imagine my jazz hands as I say that).

Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup returns to the show this time with Lizzie Lyons, the Children’s Advocacy Coordinator at the Vermont Network, an organization focused on addressing domestic and sexual violence across the state. Together, we’ll be talking about We Contain Multitudes, by Sarah Henstra, a book about boys, poetry, queerness, and how the artist formerly known as Prince refuses to stop changing lives, wherever he appears. (Hint: stay tuned for dance party details.)

Now, as you might’ve guessed from Lizzie’s presence, We Contain Multitudes contains some mention of domestic violence, which we touch on briefly in this episode. It’s an important topic, and part of the work this year with Vermont Reads is providing educators and other adults with tools and resources for supporting students (and more specifically LGBTQIA students) who are dealing with this issue. There are minor spoilers for the book at the 39-minute mark, but we feel like we did a great job yelling SPOILER ALERT! at the top of our loving lungs. Jog ahead two minutes and you’re fine.

But don’t jog too far ahead, because we really did miss you, and we missed this, and we are so happy to be back having these important conversations.

So! Without further ado: I’m Jeanie Phillips and this is #vted Reads: talking about books by, for, and with Vermont educators. 

Jeanie: 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 Christopher Kaufman Ilstrup and Lizzy Lyons and we’ll be talking about We Contain Multitudes by Sarah Henstra. Thank you so much for joining me, Christopher and Lizzy. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Christopher: Hi, Jeanie and hi, Lizzy. It’s great to see you both. I’m really excited to be here to talk about We Contain Multitudes. I’m the director at Vermont Humanities. I’ve been around now for about 4 years. So, this is the fourth Vermont Reads book that I’ve worked on, and might be my favorite. One of the things that really speaks to me about it, that I feel like I should tell people about right up front, is that this is the first LGBTQ youth choice in Vermont Reads 19 year history. And maybe coincidentally, I am a queer-identified person. And so, this book speaks to me pretty specifically and reminds me a lot of some of the experiences that I had as a young person.

Lizzy: And my name is Lizzy Lyons. I’m really excited to be here. I was approached by Christopher at Vermont Humanities when they chose this book. As part of the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence because of some of the themes in this book. And we have been invited to be a partner in some of the programming that’s happening for this book, and we’re really excited about that. The Vermont Network is working alongside 15 different statewide organizations in Vermont and we work around themes of domestic and sexual violence and working toward a violence free Vermont.

There’s a lot of different programs of support that are happening statewide that I am excited to talk about in relation to this book. Also to let all of your listeners know that there’s supports out there, whether that’s just for you or her family members and shelter and other sorts of programming available stuff exciting.

Christopher: Yes. Lizzy, you might know this, but I don’t think Jeanie does. I was one of the founders of Safe Space in the early 2000’s which is the member of the network that serves LGBTQ Vermonters who are experiencing same sex, domestic, and sexual violence.

Lizzy: That’s right. The Vermont Network has Pride Center as one of its members and it’s also doing a lot of work with Outright Vermont, which is also another partner in this book.

Jeanie: Excellent. I’m so grateful to be talking with community partners that also work with our schools in a variety of ways. And you two both serve community partners that reach into Vermont communities in really meaningful ways. So, I’m delighted to have you here. One of the questions I always ask at the beginning is, what’s something you’re reading right now, if you could each share something that’s captivated you at the moment, that would be awesome. I like to expand my to-be-read pile!

Lizzy: Well, I’ll go first because I was really excited about telling you this Jeanie, but I found Octavia Butler this summer. And so, now I’m, like now I’m just like insatiable but I’ve bridged off and I am reading Adrienne Maree Brown, her starting from the beginning the network library that we have, has all of her books. So, I’m starting with Emergent Strategy and I’m about halfway through that. So, that’s exciting.

Jeanie: I am a huge Octavia Butler fan, which means I’m also a huge Adrienne Maree Brown fan. Thanks for sharing that. Have you read Kindred yet?

Lizzy: No.

Jeanie: Add that to your list. What about you Christopher?

Christopher: Oh gosh. Well, I am in the middle of a huge pile of choices for Vermont Reads 2022, but I’m not sure I should say anything about them yet. There might be some spoilers in there if I do, but me and the team are each over the next three weeks reading, three different choices. So, we have 12 on our shortlist. That will then go to the community advisory committee. But in my personal life right now, I’m rereading The Lord of the Rings, which to me is always go to as the sky gets darker in the year and I just love rereading it and finding more and more about this ecological story, that is at the heart of that novel from the 1950s.

Jeanie: Well, I love a good reread especially in the fall, it’s a good season for rereading and that brings us to this book because I reread it. I read it twice. I liked it so much, which happens every now and again, that I read something twice, right really quickly. And so, I loved it and have no doubts. It’s the perfect Vermont Humanities Council 2021 Vermont Reads book but why did you all choose it?

Christopher: Well, you know, we start our process really early. And so, you know, we had a long list of 20 or 30 books that we were reading a year and a half ago, and it slowly got whittled down to about five different choices. And part of what we do is we really look for opportunities to work with the community. And this book really stood out to us as an opportunity to work with Outright and with the Vermont Network and the Howard Center and Recovery Vermont on issues that are really important in Vermont right now. We’d also never done an LGBTQ book before. We rarely if ever made LGBTQ Grants and we felt like this was a population that was really missing from our work and deserves some love and attention.

Jeanie: Excellent. Well, I’m so excited to talk later on about some of the things that are happening in the community. But let’s introduce our listeners who may have not read the book yet, because once you hear more, you’re going to want to read it. So, let’s set the stage a little bit, Ms. Kang is a high school English teacher in Minneapolis, and she introduces her students to this mailbox that she’s really excited about in front of her classroom. She has them pair up with a younger or older student. The 12th graders are paired up with a 10 grade students to become pen pals of sorts, and their assignment is to write to each other once a week. They have to fill in at least the front side of a piece of paper but she’s not going to read them.

She just checks to see that they’ve written and she puts them in the box. So, they’re very private which feels really rare, actually in school to write something that somebody is not going to read, a teacher is not going to read. And so, the pair in this book are Adam Kurlansky, who’s a senior and Jonathan Hopkirk, who’s a sophomore. I wondered if each of you would choose a character and read a portion of one of the letters, that they write to each other. It might be the whole letter. So, that we could get to know these two characters a little bit.

Lizzy: Yes. I chose a letter from Adam Kurlansky to Jonathan, and as you will find out pretty early in the book when you read it. Adam nicknames Jonathan, and Jonathan nicknames Adam. And so, Adam for most of this book is called Kurl, and Jonathan’s called Jo. So, Kurl writes to Jo.

These letters I’m writing are starting to feel like one long ongoing letter in my head. I should tell Joe about the time I saw the Red Eft, I’ll think, or, I forgot to tell Joe about these birds actually look magnificent in the sky. And then I’ll read one of your letters and think, People have no idea what I’m like. I mean the gap between what people see and what’s actually in my head,sort of shocks me when I read your letters. I guess everyone has this gap. It’s just that they don’t come face-to-face with it very often. It’s a shock to hear that people are still talking about stuff that happened last year.

We Contain Multitudces, page 45

and he goes on to talk about some of those gossipy things that are happening in high school, which is pretty fun.

Jeanie: Lizzy, would you tell me the page number you just read from, I love that letter.

Lizzy: Absolutely, this is from Adam’s letter on Monday, October 5th and it shows up on page 45.

Christopher: I’m going to read a letter from Jo to Kurl, that’s the letter that he wrote on Saturday, October 24th and I’m going to read a passage, that begins on page 92, and it’s actually a really good follow up to Lizzy’s passage because Joe is talking about when Kurl came over to his house for dinner, and it’s one of the first times that they really met in person, they spent a long time just writing to each other but eventually they do meet in person, and Jo is describing, what happens as Kurl is cooking for Jo’s family. Starts on page 93.

And your face Kurl, as we discussed the food! You can’t possibly be unaware of how hard we were all working, the whole evening, to see this change come over your face. Not just Shayna and Bron and me- even Lyle makes more jokes when you’re around, trots out his most reliably crowd pleasing stories for you. We’re all bending over backwards to get you to crack a smile, because when you smile it feels like the sun is coming out. You will point out, of course, that everyone does this. Everyone wears a different face at school. And you’ll point out that the extent to which I have trouble switching faces explains much about how I get treated at school. You’ll be right on both counts. But somehow with you the changes more extreme, like two different people. I wonder, Kurl, when you look in the mirror, do you ever get to see the unguarded face? Because I wish you could. It’s a wonder to behold.

We Contain Multitudes, page 93

Jeanie: What you captured just there, with those two letters is why this book is so good. These letters are so good. There is such reciprocity, and give and take, and knowing and learning, and unlearning in these letters and I am not a person who really likes an epistolary novel. I’m not really a person that gravitates to novels in letters. But I found these, like they swept me away. Why are they so compelling?

Christopher: I think, for me, one of the reasons why they feel compelling us is because these kids are being so honest. They’re being so truthful with each other in a way that I think rarely happens with any relationship. And just to see Jo and Adam really sharing is unique. I also think that you know there’s this expectation that Adam’s just a dumb jock, that’s set up right from the beginning of the book, right? He’s the star of the football team and it appears like he’s always getting into fights, and nobody believes in him but as soon as he starts writing to Jo. Joe believes in him because he can see the unguarded Kurl.

Lizzy: And it’s still not unguarded though, I mean I think these letters are interesting because there’s, there are secrets throughout this book and there are also secrets in between these two people, who are sharing so much back and forth in these letters. But there’s so much that is left for, like your own conclusions. So, like sometimes letters aren’t there and one of them will start imagining what the other one is thinking. And it also feels so authentic in that way of, like you know not knowing. We had lots of conversations about this with youth advocates who are working with young people around the state, who have experiences of violence.

And but also like from my own experiences of when you’re in high school or you’re a young person and you’re figuring out, like do I? Do I not? What do I do here? How about here? Like what am I thinking now? And it goes from these very big extremes of emotions, all the way through the book. When I was rereading this book, just remembering some of the special passages. About how happy or how bad or how upset they were at different points.

Jeanie: You make me think about two things, and one is, Christopher what you said made me think about, how this is the perfect book to update The Outsiders unit. So many schools still read SE Hinton’s The Outsiders. But this book feels like a modern, a more modern version of the outsiders. Kurl and Jo are both kind of outsiders in their way, in their Minneapolis school community, for different reasons. And there’s something like really vulnerable about this book.

And then, Lizzy, what you made me think about is, like they don’t make great decisions in this book all the time. Like they’re like your average young person, sort of winging it along, you know making decisions. Both of them at various times make really troubled decisions. And as a reader, I think it gives you real empathy for how hard it is to make those decisions when you’re 16, 17, 18.

Christopher: And I, you know I think an interesting thing at least in the first half of the book is how angry Adam gets at Jo for being so open about who he is in school, and not trying to hide. And that results in a lot of violence that happens against Jo in school, that Adam saves him from, on more than one occasion. Even though, there’s no reason why you should have to do that, right? Like they’re completely unconnected kids in the beginning of the book.

Jeanie: Christopher, did you happen to mark the passage about the “gable?”

Christopher: I didn’t, but I can find it.

Jeanie: I wonder if that would be the perfect passage to read aloud, that really gets at that sort of tension between Adam’s, like could you just hide a little bit to keep yourself safe. And Jo’s feeling of, like I have to be authentically who I am because the end game is bigger than high school, because my focus isn’t on high school. My focus is on being myself in the larger world.

Christopher: Yes. I remember the gable very well, right? From my own high school experience and probably we all do. So, what they’re talking about is where the gay kids get segregated in the high school cafeteria, that they have to sort of huddle and protect themselves, and you know in my case this was a long time ago. This was the 80s, there were no out gay kids but the gable still existed. Very much, so. And it was the kids who went to the music room and ate by themselves, right?

There’s a small group of kids, who just would not go to the cafeteria because it was an unsafe space, and Jo, I think is really standing up for himself in that passage when he says, I don’t want to sit at the gable. I think that’s discrimination, that is saying that we should be segregated, but that there should be apartheid, and that’s not who I want to be in my life. So, I don’t I don’t want to sit there.

Jeanie: Thank you for giving that so much context in your own experience. Could you turn to page 28, and maybe read the last two paragraphs?

Christopher: Sure. This is a letter from Jonathan and he’s just been bullied in the cafeteria. He’s had a number of bullies dump their milk out all over him, and all over his tray, and Kurl has just rescued him, essentially. So, Jo says,

You picked up my milk-flooded tray and stood looking at me. For about one millisecond there was the tiniest flicker of something troubled across your face– I don’t know, I’ve thought it over quite a bit and I can’t puzzle out what it might have been. Maybe you were considering whether to ram the trade down my throat. You said, why aren’t you sitting at the gay table?” And then, you turned and stalked off. My answer? I’m squarely with Bron on this one, Kurl. The Gable is Discrimination 101. Designating a specific area of a supposedly common space for a minority group, even unofficially, implies that the rest of the space is off limits for that group. But in the interest of being forthright, I do know what you meant. You meant, “Why are you putting yourself in the path of these monsters, and if you found yourself in that path accidentally, why are you staying here?” Answer? Choose one of the following. A. Stupidity. B. Stubbornness. C. Fatalism. D. Masochism. E. All of the Above. Yours truly, Jonathan Hopkirk.

We Contain Multitudes, page 28

Jeanie: Thank you for that. And that really leads into the next question I was going to ask, which may or may not actually be a question. One of the reasons I read YA and middle grades books is to understand young people better, right? To step into their shoes for a while. And that example, what you just read is one of those things, like we as adults in the lives of young people may not understand, what they’re facing in their day to day lives. Like I suspect most teachers in this school are completely unaware, that Jo is getting bullied on the regular or they might have that same sense that Kurl has about him like that he’s doing it to himself, that he’s setting himself up.

And this allows us to really step into the shoes of Jo, and of Jonathan and see what’s really happening for him, and what’s really happening in his brain. And another example that really shines from this book is that, these kids have so many interests that are really like strong interests, that nobody in the school knows about or connects with the learning they have. And so for example, Kurl is really interested in the Taliban and the war in Afghanistan because his brother served and was injured in Afghanistan. And while occasionally, he gets to use that in some aspect of his studies.

I suspect, he’d be a much better student, if that got worked into his history classes, his social studies classes, his science classes. And similarly, Jonathan is really interested in poetry and music. And again, that’s something he does in his outside time and writing poetry and studying poetry. And he talks about poetry in ways that made me wish schools taught it better. On page 19 he says,

Poetry’s like that, Kurl: slippery and coy. It means different things to different readers. You shouldn’t feel embarrassed if it makes you nervous. You’re not alone in that reaction.

We Contain Multitueds, pages 19-20

And I thought, what if a teacher taught poetry that way. I think I would have loved it so much more than I did. And so, I guess my question for you is did this book help you see kids in ways that you might not otherwise have seen them?

Lizzy: Yeah. I mean, I think this conversation came up in two different ways. I mean, I think it is interesting that, what you’re talking of Jeanie, like there are, there are songs that happen in different settings in this book, whether that’s like concerts or whether it’s the character singing in their living room or, you know strumming inside of a tent. And there’s poetry that’s turned in for class assignments. And there’s also poetry that these two boys write to each other and say to each other. And so, I think it is interesting, how we show up in different species. I think, what is interesting throughout this book, is the fact, that this is entirely a world of young people, like there are very few adults that show up in any real big way.

And Jo’s dad is one of them and part of that family dynamic, and then Kurl’s family has some drama that is happening alongside as well, but adults that are interacting and showing up for these kids in this book, they’re not there. And so, we had some conversations about that at the Network. There’s really great curricula around being an Askable Adult and what does it mean to put yourself out there as somebody who has young people, who you can show up for. There’s also a coach in this book and there’s some really great material out there called Coaching Boys into Men and about how coaches play a really influential role in young men, and can use that as part of the work to create less violence. So, I put those two out there for you all listeners to consider looking into two.

Christopher: Yes. I think, Kurl’s coach is a really interesting example of somebody who is really trying to show up for Adam, and Adam doesn’t let him in and that’s pretty devastating, actually. You know, I think, one of the things you pointed out Lizzy is really interesting, as we were having conversations with Sarah Henstra, who wrote the book, she said that part of her inspiration for writing the book was about listening to young people, particularly her own kids, talking when they didn’t think adults were listening, and what they, what kinds of things that they were saying to each other in the absence of a grown-up world, and I think that really does come through in this book that the grownups are functionally not there. Those kids are making all of those choices, largely on their own.

Jeanie: Yes. The grownups are pretty faulty, even those with the best of intentions are pretty faulty in this book. I know Dr. Laura Jiminez, who you had on for a Vermont Humanities event, talked a little bit about that. I’m a huge fan of Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe. It is one of my favorite books from a long time ago. I read it to my son when he was younger and we both loved it, and one of the problems with that book is the adults are so good in it, the parents are so almost perfect and this book, and I think that’s not really realistic for a lot of kids. And so, I appreciate you pointing that out. I’m also really curious about becoming an askable adult.

So, the other thing that this brings up is Sarah, when you mentioned Sarah Henstra, this isn’t an own voices story. I mean, this is a book written from the perspective of two adolescent boys. They are queer and Sarah Henstra is neither of those things. So, it’s not a story that we would call own voices, and I guess I’m wondering about what might we watch for in a book like this, that’s written by somebody who’s outside of that marginalized identity. How do we make sure it’s a book worth reading?

Christopher: Yes. I think, Lizzy, you might also have some things to say about this but I’ll start as a queer person reading this book, who had a queer youth experience. So, much of it rings true to me. That I am very deeply trusting of Sarah’s work to understand who these boys are, and how they are making the choices that they’re making. She talked to us a lot before we chose the book about the research that she did, particularly around the issues of domestic violence and sexual violence in the book and consent. Which are all problematic pieces of the work of the story, and that it was very interesting to hear her talk about that.

And it was also very interesting again to hear her talk about her own experience as a mom of teenage boys, and what it was like to hear them talking to their friends when they didn’t know she was around or when they didn’t think she was listening, you know when you’re a parent driving kids around in a car you’re essentially a robot, right? They don’t listen to you. We also brought this question of own voices to outright specifically and a bunch of folks that outright read the book and they said, this book feels truthful. Sure, it’s great when they’re our own voices selections and we have some to talk about, that are on the list of ancillary reading. But this book is something special.

Jeanie: I really appreciate that if you’re not writing an own voices book, you have to do due diligence, right? You have to be diligent about how you’re representing the community of which you’re not a part. And I feel that Sarah clearly did that in the way that the characters show up. And then, also as a reader, there’s some kind of diligence that’s required of us to make sure that, the author isn’t using tropes or stereotypes or, right? And so, and to notice that. And so, I sometimes I have avoided books like American Dirt in the past. I still haven’t read that because it has been labeled as problematic by the people whom this author is attempting to write about, and who she doesn’t share an identity with.

So, I appreciate that answer, Christopher, thank you so much. So, that gets to another question, when I was in library school, one of the things we would often hear and this was a while back. I hope things are changing is that, boys are not going to read books with girls as main characters, is one of the things they used to trot out in the early odds if you will. And so, I hope we’ve gotten past that. I hope that we’re beginning to have kids read books about identities that they don’t share, and certainly, girls were always reading books with boys as main characters, right? And so, similarly, this book for some of our students is going to be a mirror, right?

For queer students who are reading this book, this book is going to be some sort of reflection of a world they might be a part of, for kids who are not, who don’t identify as queer, this book is going to be a window into a different kind of reality. And then for some kids, what we hope is that, it becomes a sliding glass door, where they have empathy and really step into the shoes of the character. What do you say? If somebody says, oh, well if this book features LGBTQ characters. It’s not for every kid.

Lizzy: I mean, I have some strong feelings here. So, I’ll start. I agree 100% with what you just said Jeanie, like the windows the sliding glass doors and the mirrors are incredibly important for all readers. And I did once hear that they did a study about having more empathy if you are a greater reader and I think a lot of that has to do with the many opportunities that we have to step into other people’s shoes. But I also think that these characters were more than just one dimensional, it wasn’t just an LGBTQ book, it wasn’t just a young person book either and it dealt with real complex life issues and it took you along for an emotional roller coaster. Like I said earlier, I was just looking at some of the quotes I had written down, like earlier like they write to each other like we laughed anyhow, both of us helpless with it. “The swift secret, the joy and then like going all the way to like my whole body was trembling for a moment or for a minute or two, I couldn’t get a deep enough breath. Are you panicking, you asked. And I tried to say, no it wasn’t panic but I don’t know what happened, suddenly I was falling like it just takes you up and down” I feel like that those types of emotional roller coasters can speak to so many people, even if the specific family situations that were happening in this book are not ones that you have experience with.

It takes you along for the complexity and the thinking that goes through when you have family secrets and what do you do, who do you share that with, the kind of wrestling you go through as you have this experience in your life and you’re not sure who to trust. I think all of that was real. Just really grabbing for a reader and I read this book in just a couple of days. I couldn’t put it down. So, I definitely enjoyed it.

Christopher: Lizzy, this might be a good time actually to bring in Walt Whitman, a little bit when we’re talking about windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors, right. So, Jo is the poet and he is obsessed with Walt Whitman right from the very first pages.

Jeanie: He even dresses like Walt Whitman.

Christopher: And he dresses like Walt Whitman which is part of what gets him in so much trouble in school because he always looks like I think Kurl calls him a 19th century chimney sweep at one point. And you can imagine how that goes over in any particular school. But he’s obsessed with Walt Whitman and Walt Whitman is really known as the greatest American poet, right. That he is the poet through whom the American experience is filtered for all time. And three leaves of grass that he continued to write and revise for decades throughout his life. You know he was alive during the 19th century. He experienced the American Civil War.

He lived in New York at the time of great growth. And I think we often look to Walt Whitman as sort of the ultimate window, mirror and sliding glass door in literature that you can really find anything you want in leaves of grass and inside of myself. And that experience that he had of writing and revising that work over and over again over decades really became the story of America. Could I read another little passage?

Jeanie: Please do.

Christopher: So this is from Wednesday, November 25th and it’s on page 132 and Kurl has been asked to write an essay for his English teacher. And he chose to write about Walt Whitman and he didn’t really know anything about Walt Whitman before he met Jo and started writing letters back and forth to Jo. But what resonated with Kurl about Walt Whitman’s story was that he worked in an army field hospital during the civil war. And that really resonated with Kurl’s interests around the war in Afghanistan and what happened to his brother who was injured in the war. So, I’ll try not to, well, we’ll see how far we go.

Wednesday, November 25th. Dear Little Jo, I wrote about grass actually. Probably the most straightforward part in Walt’s whole Leaves of Grass book is where he talks about the actual grass. Except the more I read it the less straightforward it seemed to me. I mean he starts it off simply enough, describing how a child grabs a handful of grass and asks him, What is the grass? And Walt gives a bunch of possible answers. Just sort of trying them out. And at one point he goes, I guess it must be the flag of my disposition, out of hopeful green stuff woven. What he means is it’s the symbol of his personality. I didn’t put this in my essay but if grass is the flag of anyone’s disposition it would be yours, Jo. Not a tidy mowed lawn either. I think Walt is picturing that kind of long grass on the riverbanks. When the wind comes along it churns and sways sothat it looks like another river running alongside the real one. What I wrote in the essay was about grass growing from the mouths of corpses. The beautiful uncut hair of graves, Walt calls it. This is the part of the poem that got me thinking about Mark in Afghanistan. When you take the train up to the mall, you pass the VA hospital and on the other side is the military cemetery. Watch the cemetery when the train goes past and you notice two things: One, it goes on forever. All those matching white crosses. All those dead. I mean Mark must ride that train and think, How did I ever not die over there? Why all of them and not me?

We Contain Multitudes, pages 132-133

We’ll stop there. But it goes on. And it really is such an opportunity through Walt Whitman to walk through that door to see yourself reflected in the story of America.

Jeanie: I love that passage and I love that explanation so much. Every time they talked about Walt Whitman in the book, I think we should be reading this book as we’re teaching poetry because the poetry really comes alive in the letters between these two young men. I also want to cite black women. I want to cite Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop who came up with this concept of books that could be mirrors, windows, and sliding doors. And we use that a lot, that metaphor a lot. I used that metaphor a lot and I want to make sure that I give credit.

And then I want to share a story from my own experience as a school librarian and a handful of years ago, when I was at Green Mountain Union High School, down in Chester Vermont as a school librarian. The book is called Beautiful Music for Ugly Children. I don’t know if you’re familiar with this book by Kirstin Cronn-Mills; it was on the Green Mountain Book Award list and I had a student check it out and I thought I don’t know how she’s going to respond to this book. She, at least for my perception came across as a little bit conservative maybe.

And the book was about a young person who’s trans, Gabe. And I just wasn’t sure how this student who I’m not going to name would respond. And a couple days later she came back and her whole world had been blown open. She had such empathy for Gabe and his experience in the world. And she really started to get involved with the gay straight alliance at our school which we called Circle. And I think it really like was this transformational book for her. And so I would just offer that we don’t know who books are going to be a window and mirror for.

Not all kids are out in high school. They’re also maybe not out in their own families like they might have queer parents who are aunts and uncles or friends, and they need to see those people in these books too. And that we have no idea who’s heart is going to change, somebody who may have been homophobic or not understood what it meant to be a little bit different for whom this book could open new doors. And so I would just add that this story is about much more than the sexual orientation of these two boys, but it also is an opportunity for kids to sort of see people like or unlike themselves in ways that can transform their futures in their worlds and that feels really important.

Christopher: Yes. Just briefly, I would say, you know the mirror of Kurl’s story with his family and his uncle is hugely important in this book and we haven’t really talked about it much. It’s kind of a big spoiler. You don’t really know what happens until about two thirds of the way through.

Lizzy: Can we just say a big spoiler alert here, folks, if you want to jump ahead a minute to avoid the spoiler because you haven’t read the book. Go ahead and do that.

Christopher: Lizzy, can you talk about it? What’s happening?

Lizzy: Yes. I mean I agree if there’s a build up there and there’s little breadcrumbs that are dropped along the books path but both I would say, this is again like, this part where both these boys are talking about their sexuality and that is a big theme through this book. But meanwhile, their families are continuing to experience like their own dramas and so that definitely comes up. So, there is a reveal that happens to Kurl to Jonathan and then Kurl to Jonathan’s sister and Jonathan sister’s friend. And it happens in such a way where basically, it just is put out for everyone to see and Kurl goes into a little bit of a crisis about it, he’s like do they see, do they actually see what is in front of them.

And they do. And what he is letting them in on is that his uncle has been hurting him and in a lot of ways. He has been taking that abuse away from his mother and later on in the book, there is another very common experience. Kurl is thrown out of his family home for his sexual orientation and is homeless. He is fortunate enough to have a lot of really good friends around him and his brother becomes a great support to him, both in escaping the abuse that he was facing at home as well as giving him a safe place to be out and to be open about his sexuality.

So, both of those are really good resolution to a very difficult situation and also one of those places, where we spoke earlier about how adults aren’t really a big part of this book. There is a conversation that Kurl has about how he didn’t tell his coach about what was going on even though his coach tried many different ways at many different points to support Kurl. He did tell his friends and his peers and we were able to do a conversation for Vermont Humanities with Outright Vermont. And I would say that the experience of youth advocates as well as I would say.

What we heard from Outright Vermont was that peers talk to peers and so a lot of that support can come from spaces like GSA’s, which I heard you say gay straight alliances, which I’m familiar with as well, but are now often called gender and sexuality alliances in school and Outright is doing awesome work across the state supporting them in school. So, that young people have safe spaces with peers to access. And youth advocates are doing great work in similar fashions because young people aren’t always so easy to tell what is happening at home and behind closed doors. And so that is a big part of this book.

And there’s another, we haven’t even spoken of another big reveal. Family life is complicated, and I think this book captures that well.

Christopher: Yes. I think it’s really interesting how through much of the beginning part of the book, you’re really led to believe that Jo is the person who’s experiencing all of this physical violence and he is, right. He’s getting beaten up at school, his bike gets stolen and all kinds of things but it’s really the big jock who is struggling the most with violence and he just doesn’t show. He just doesn’t tell anybody. He actively hides it.

Jeanie: I really appreciate you bringing up the way this book kind of subverts stereotypes and tropes. I really appreciate how you bring up that how these two characters subvert sort of tropes and stereotypes. I guess I’m really wondering and maybe Lizzy can answer. I guess that one of the questions I have for you is how my teachers prepare themselves to support young people who maybe have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault in their homes or in their communities as they’re reading this book. Are there resources or folks you might connect them with?

Lizzy: Yes. That’s a great question. This is, you know, I could imagine that some people who are thinking about using this book to start a conversation might feel a little thrown in the deep water with some of these themes but Vermont Humanities has requested and Vermont Network has provided a bunch of resources to go along to support conversations about some of these things in the book. Already up on the website is a book guide that was created by Vermont Humanities that does cover some of these themes that come up through the book around violence and provide some resources there.

And then I think just knowing that those conversations can be big and making sure that you know who your local resources are in your community. And there always is the opportunity through Vermont Humanities to have these conversations supported by those local resources. Vermont Network is a partner in this book and many of our youth advocates across the state have had the opportunity to read these books and are excited to support some of those more difficult conversations.

Christopher: Yes. We’re sending, this is a little bit new for us in Vermont Reads to have this kind of direct partnership with other organizations. Typically, we just sort of let communities kind of do what they want . We started to feel like a different model is necessary when we were working on The Hate U Give last year and we further refine that this year with We Contain Multitudes and so when we shipped books now, they’re not just getting a box of books, they’re getting a full box of resources about domestic and sexual violence about LGBTQ youth and gender identity issues, about recovery and addiction.

Especially recovery and addiction and how it affects families and how it affects young people. So, all of that is there. And any community that wants to invite somebody from the Vermont Network or Outright or Recovery Vermont to come to their community can do so. And we’ll support that, we’ll pay for that right.

Jeanie: Christopher, how does one get signed up if they don’t have it already. How does one get signed up to receive this box of books and resources? That sounds so fabulous.

Christopher: You would go to vermonthumanities.org and click on Vermont Reads 2021We Contain Multitudes – and there’s a short application form on there that you fill out and send back into us. We’ll ask you a few questions. We’ll call you back and ask you more if we have more questions and encourage you to think about what kind of projects you want to do in the community. A lot of folks are already promoting work with their GSA, with their gender and sexuality alliance. A number of them started asking Outright if they would come to their community even before we announced that that was a possibility.

So, there’s plenty of options out there. We should also say that Vermont Reads, it’s not just for kids, it’s not just for schools, it’s for adult communities as well. And we hope that public libraries around the state and adult community centers and senior centers will take advantage of this opportunity as well.

Jeanie: As an adult who reads YA, I will highly recommend. I think a lot of adults really enjoy young adult literature and they can really help them understand the kids in their community. And so I highly recommend. This is a book for adults through the public library or some other forum to talk about issues that impact young people and families. I also really appreciate that you all have updated my language about GSA and gender sexuality alliance since I appreciate that. Is there any programming you have planned that may involve music or other things that you’d like to share?

Christopher: Since you’re leading us. And yes, we’re excited to have Sarah coming to Vermont next spring. She’s coming for four days. Sarah Henstra is the author of the book and she’ll be doing events with the partners around the state. She’ll be doing some work as part of our first Wednesday’s program presenting to more adult audiences. But we hope to close it out with the party and one of the other wonderful poets that’s very present in this book, which takes place in Minneapolis, his Prince. And so our hope is that we’ll close out our year with We Contain Multitudes with a Prince inspired dance party somewhere.

And if there’s anybody out there listening that wants to work on such a party with us, please give us a shout and tell us there’s an awesome Prince tribute band right here in Vermont that have said they really would love to work with us. So, if you want to plan a party, talk with us about that. We’d be happy to get you set up on that committee.

Jeanie: I’m getting my purple ready.

Christopher: Awesome. Lots of purple. And of course, it fits right into the themes of the book as well. You know, Walt Whitman and Prince are two of the great American poets and also two of the folks who really slid through lots of different identities and their lives and their experiences and so, they’re both meaningful. Walt Whitman is a little bit more foregrounded but Prince is very present in this book as well. It happens to take place the year that he passes away.

Lizzy: I have a quote that I just wanted to slip in here too. Kurl writes about Jo while they’re at a Prince concert and Kurl writes on page 97, “Now that I’m thinking about it, Prince sort of reminds me of you, Jo. I don’t know. Obviously it’s not the stilettos and spandex or his little wild wired glasses but there’s something, how he created himself maybe. How he invented a world to live inside.”

Christopher: I had that passage marked too.

Jeanie: I love that, Lizzy. Thank you for sharing that.

Christopher : Yes.

Jeanie: It reminds me why I love both of these characters so much. Their appreciative lens on each other, how they see each other and how they find a world to live in to inhabit. So for readers who may have read this book and loved it or who are going to now read it and love it because you’re going to love it, people. I kind of guarantee it. Are there other books that you all recommend that are about dealing with trauma or domestic violence or sexual violence, family addiction, issues around consent? Do you have titles you would suggest?

Lizzy: I do. I actually put this list, I put this question out to our youth advocates to see if I would get any good responses. And I got one from Carey who is one of our youth advocates over at Circle in Washington County. And she recommended Grown by Tiffany D Jackson. They’ve done it as part of one of their book clubs there and she let me know that it’s about a teen girl, who’s dating a much older famous musician and covers all sorts of topics that would be interesting. And she said she feels like it’s kind of inspired by the R. Kelly situation.

So, there’s that. I also wanted to put out a recommendation myself. It’s a little different because it’s more of a dystopian fantasy type situation, which I really enjoyed. And it’s called The Fever King by Victoria Lee and she has a follow up book The Electric Heir. And I thought this was a really compelling book, the main characters do fall in love and they’re both boys. So it does have themes similar to We Contain Multitudes but there’s witchcraft and powers involved. There’s also a refugee crisis going on. So, it’s very political, it’s very dark.

And it has some other troubling themes similar to We Contain Multitudes. So, I definitely put that out there as a fun but troubling book to read.

Christopher: Yes. I’m going to continue the dystopian theme actually with my recommendations. And the first one I want to throw out there is a book. Spoiler alert, it’s called They Both Die at the End and it’s by Adam Silvera, and he is a Latinx queer writer. And it’s a dystopian novel about a near future world in which you are told at midnight the night before you’re going to die. And it’s about two boys who don’t know each other before they get the call but find each other through an app called Your Last Best Friend and what happens to them over the next 24 hours. It is crazy compelling.

It’s definitely super sad and in fact they both die at the end. And then the other one that I had is one that I found recently, actually when I was in Minneapolis. I’m starting this book called Jay’s Gay Agenda and it’s by a non-binary writer named Jason June. And it’s about a young boy who moves from a very rural community, like many other communities here in Vermont, where he was the only gay boy from a bigger city where he suddenly finds himself kind of in Candy Land. And what happens to him there. So those are my two recommendations for folks that are interested in these themes.

Adam Silvera, of course, has a lot of books out there in the world. And they’re all pretty dystopian but they’re all pretty good.

Jeanie: Excellent. I feel like I can. I’m really excited about the list you just gave me because I haven’t read any of them and I’m just going to add them all to my list. When I interviewed a bunch of kids a couple years ago at – what’s that amazing event called for young people, it’s Teen Lit Mob. Anyway, I interviewed a bunch of kids and from around Vermont and one of the things they said over and over again is they want books with better with more representation, even if they aren’t about social issues.

They just want a wide variety of characters represented. And one of the books they loved was The Sword in the Stars which is by Amy Rose Capetta and Cori McCarthy. And it is a futuristic science fiction and legend story where the King Arthur in the story is female. And there’s lots of representation racially but also by folks that are non-gender non binary or trans and or queer and I loved it. Kids loved it. So, that’s one of them that I’m going to suggest and the other one is, I feel like Andrew Smith’s Winger and the sequel Stand Off do such an amazing job of talking about consent amongst other things.

And I feel like consent to something we need more books about. And so those are my suggestions, listeners. Any last words from you all about We Contain Multitudes or any last passages you’d like to share?

Lizzy: I really enjoyed this book and I think everybody should read it. That’s my share.

Christopher: Can I close with one last little passage?

Jeanie: Please. Tell us what page it’s on.

Christopher: Obviously, I think everybody should read this book because we bought 4000 copies and you all need to read them. But this is a letter from Kurl to Jo on page 98 and it’s shortly after they have gone to Paisley Park to see Prince perform. He says,

Watching him it suddenly hit me how rare and amazing it was to be able to see something being made out of nothing. Up close like that. It reminded me how it felt watching you sing when you didn’t know I was in the room. Halfway between dirty and holy. I don’t know. But I suddenly found myself smiling like an idiot and looking all around the room and thinking, Anything, anything is possible in this life. This moment is everything. Right now. I mean you must have felt it too, because when I looked over at you there were tears on your face.

We Contain Multitudes, page 98

Jeanie: That’s the perfect way to end. Thank you both so much for joining me to talk about this book.

Christopher: Thank you, Jeanie.

#vted Reads: with Bill Rich

Back on the show: it’s Bill Rich! But first:

Lovely listeners, a few episodes ago, we turned fifty. Fifty! Can you imagine? 

It took us a hot minute (and um, more math than we’d care to discuss) to figure that out but this is the season that took us to FIFTY EPISODES. And we are so grateful to all of you for making that journey with us. It has been so powerful to hear from all of you that you are listening, you are pondering, and you’re enjoying this podcast as much as we’re enjoying making it. Heart. Felt. Thanks. 

And to that end, in this episode, we welcome back the very FIRST guest we ever had on the show: Bill Rich. 

Along with the redoubtable Susan Hennessey, Bill runs the Tarrant Institute Learning Lab, now accepting applications for its fifth year, and a whole riot in its own right. Bill and I talked about The Culture Code in the very first episode of vted Reads, back when it was still part of the late great 21st Century Classroom. 

Bill is back. 

And this time, we’re talking about Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage, by Myron Dueck. We firmly believe this book can help educators unlock a more powerful arena for respecting student voice, even if the title itself… just might be a misnomer. 

I’m Jeanie Phillips and this is the end of the third season(!) of vted Reads: a show by, for, and with Vermont educators. 

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: 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 Bill Rich, and we’ll be talking about Giving Students a Say: Smarter Assessment Practices to Empower and Engage by Myron Dueck. Thanks so much for joining me, Bill. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Bill: Well, my claim to fame is I was your first guest for episode number one. So I appreciate being invited back, congratulations. And I taught in Vermont schools for 16 years as Language Arts and Social Studies teacher in middle and high school. And then decided I was going to take a different path and work from outside schools to try to make them better inside. So I founded Red House Learning committed to using what we know about the brain to improve what we do in our schools.

In addition to working with schools long-term and conducting workshops and writing about that topic, I am the Co-Director of the Learning Lab with Susan Hennessey, your colleague. And I’ll probably say a little bit more about that program. But it really embodies a lot what this book is about, but for adults. I also co-direct with Tim O’Leary, What’s the Story, which tries to put all these brain-based design principles into action in a way that can be great for students and helpful to teachers looking for a better way.

Jeanie: You wear many hats, and yes, you were my first ever guest. My first pilot of Vermont Ed Reads where we talked about The Culture Code.

What a fabulous book. I’ve actually given that book to many people as a gift. I liked it so much. And now we’re at the — this is the last episode of season three, you’re our 52nd guest!

Bill: Season three. Wow, I can’t wait for that door prize.

Jeanie: So this is our 52nd episode. And we almost — we hadn’t counted and suddenly I was like, oh my gosh, we’ve reached 50, who knew, I had done this 50 times. And so thanks for coming back and for choosing this book.

Before we launch into it, I want to ask what you’re reading right now.

Bill: Oh, I’m on the tail end of a tear of reading nonfiction books about breathing and breath. That started with a book by Wim Hof, called The Wim Hof Method. And then James Nestor’s book Breath. And then a guy named Patrick McKeown in the Oxygen Advantage. I was a mediocre athlete throughout my schooling years. And I have learned, I was a horrible breather. I was never taught accurately, neither was anybody really how to breathe correctly at rest and well in performance, and they are fascinating books, I’d highly recommend them.

Jeanie: My son has been talking to me about this. So thank you for adding to the books. I’m going to get them for his birthday.

Bill: Yeah, I’ve got a few more we can talk offline later.

Jeanie: Yeah. Love those suggestions. So just before we started the podcast, you read a little excerpt from Myron Dueck, Giving Students a Say, and it was from page eight. It was all about student voice and incorporating student voice. And as you were reading, it was just a really powerful section. But I kept thinking, we’re always talking about student voice. This book talks about student voice all the time.

And I want to turn that on its head, and I want to stop talking about student voice and start talking about teacher listening, or teacher hearing, or like, teacher not voice. And I’m wondering your thoughts on that.

Like, why do we frame it as what students are doing, when really students are doing that all the time, and how do we reframe it, so it’s like what we’re doing with their voice. Jamila Lyiscott, who I’m a big fan of says, if you think you’re giving students a voice, you’ve got it wrong. They’ve already got a voice. And so I wondered about that. That’s what was going through my brain and my heart: wait a minute, this isn’t about student’s voice, this is about teachers’ ears?

Bill: I think that’s a great comment. And you know, in this book, John Hattie is referred to quite a bit. And he has quoted as saying, really, we just need to shut up a lot more. But there are good reasons why that doesn’t happen, and why we have to adopt some language of marginalized groups, right, let’s give voice to the voiceless. Well, maybe, there’s a problem even with that sentiment in itself, right.

But in terms of that concept, I think a nice way to invert it. Because if you think about what teachers go through, what the way they experience school, the way school incentivizes them to talk a lot, the way school incentivizes them to show they are being rigorous. And in this country, that means go fast, and go far, regardless of whether people are keeping up with you.

In that system, you could get in trouble pretty quickly, if you stop talking, and just start listening all the time, that could be a monkey wrench in the system. And it’s one of the reasons why, despite the fact that we know formative assessment is one of the best strategies to improve learning, it throws a monkey wrench into the pacing guide, because everybody’s a little different. And if we’re really going to do formative assessment that means it’s going to get messier than we’re ready to explain our content with. May I drift on this a little more or are you ready to go on to?

Jeanie: No, please, because I think you really nailed it. Especially when I was a new teacher, I thought my job was to talk a lot, right? Like, there’s this archetype or this like concept we inherit from schooling itself of like, we are doing our job if we’re talking, so please riff on.

Bill: I want to do it in a way that helps teachers experience it as learners, rather than them being the one that’s kind of violating what we know about learning, which is that humans construct their own learning. It’s not a transaction. You can listen to somebody else’s expertise, and get glimpses of it. And that’s wonderful when you listen to somebody’s voice. But it should come with a flashing warning, temporary access only. Right?

Like, okay, I can hear this. And it’s making sense to me now. And nobody has this guy’s question. He’s on a roll, like I’m really loving it, but you’re not learning, you’re listening. And those are related skills. But let me put it a different way and rooted in my own failure.

Susan Hennessy and I, who we both we direct and design this Learning Lab that came out of us working in a couple of schools. The learning curve has gotten steeper and steeper for teachers in Vermont with Act 77. And we were both being honest with each other and saying, you know, showing up at a faculty meeting once a month, or maybe even in service for a half a day, it’s insufficient, and it’s way far away from where the real decisions in the classroom are getting made.

And so both of us were getting uncomfortable with the idea that we’re kind of taking up a lot of their precious time, and we’re giving them good ideas, and they’re liking everything. Oh, you guys are great. That was really nice. But it’s disconnected from the classroom. And so we just got a blank piece of paper and said, what would PD look like if it were really listening to teachers and being driven by their most pressing timely questions?

Like, what would it look like to invert that where we would show up working with teachers and feel like, actually, this is really working great? This is right the content.

And that’s why we ended up creating Learning Lab, because Learning Lab is returning to student teaching for a year, you get a year to luxuriate in you and your students being the curriculum.

And you and your students together identify an inquiry question. There’s transparency about pedagogy. And there’s partnership with students. And boy to be working with 20 or so adults who are all partnering with their students. And they’re all sharing with each other, not what they thought of chapter four that we assigned on teaching theory, no, on in the fourth week of school, how did it go with you to plan, and what’s the mess now or what’s the success?

And that’s the vibrancy that gets learning on fire, right? It’s real, like this is about what’s going on now. And that’s the vital ingredient missing in most schools due to our very good intentions to clean learning up and make it efficient. So we can all just explain these things to the students and move them through rather than no, no, we need to make the space for their voices and their learning. And it’s messy, and it’s hard to measure with a pacing guide. But boy, you get that EKG out and the hearts are thumping, like people are leaning in and excited because it’s what their brains were designed to do. How do we help each other with our most pressing questions to lead more satisfying lives? Not in eight years after I’m ou