Tag Archives: equity

Students can learn about antiracism.

And they’re willing to tell you how.

Children begin internalizing racial bias by the time they are two years old.

Yet too many Americans never learn the fundamentals of antiracism.

Beverly Daniel Tatum, in her landmark book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, shows that for white children, racial identity development typically falls into three categories: ignorant, colorblind, or racist.

All three of those categories are unacceptable. Each supports systemic racism.  Each supports the status quo.

We need to seriously pursue a fourth option: anti-racist white children. And schools have a huge role to play.

What can this look like in action?

As the education world seems poised to take steps toward anti-racist education systems, it is important to learn from teachers who are already centering antiracism and equity.

And their students.

For example, take Christie Nold, 6th grade social studies teacher at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, VT. A trio of her 6th grade students led a group of educators from around Vermont through activities in bias-awareness and social identity at the 2018 Middle Grades Conference.

Once the students learned a vocabulary for antiracist education, they turned around and taught others. Not just peers, but educators.


Christie Nold has also generously shared a how she built a social identity unit. And again, her students have generously shared their learning, and their insight.

“The kids we have around us today, they’re going to be the leaders of tomorrow. And the adults and teachers, they’re not necessarily responsible, but they kind of are, because what they say and teach really impacts us.”


Watch these students. Listen to their wisdom. And imagine what we could do if all students were engaged in anti-racist education from a young age. Starting from today.


Imagine. Then act.

Student intervention for anti-racist education

Schools are committed to bringing anti-racism into curricula and systems more than ever before. Even in predominantly white schools there appears to be a growing acknowledgment that anti-racist education is crucial for all students.

Big changes seem to be underfoot. And that’s a wonderful thing.

But there will be pushback. White fragility and white rage will ensure a range of resistance to anti-racism. Some of it will be coded and couched in other concerns. But some of it will come in the form of violent, ugly, and harmful backlash.

We need to be ready.

For educators, whose first priority is their students, we need to have a plan for students who struggle to incorporate anti-racism into their current worldview.

For those students caught in the middle of the inevitable backlash, we need to be ready to provide support. What might a system of intervention look like for anti-racist education?

Systematic support for anti-racist teaching and learning

Let’s start with the premise that our goal is for students to be active citizens in our pluralistic democracy. And that in order to do that, they need to understand anti-democratic systems, starting with racism. This is so they can analyze, navigate, and transform our currently imperfect system for a more just and democratic future.

A widespread concern in Vermont, and central to this blog post, are our anti-racism goals for white students. In her book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, Jennifer Harvey draws on the work of racial identity scholars Janet Helms and Beverly Daniel Tatum, both Black women, to define “healthy white kids” as anti-racists.

“A healthy white identity is nurtured through experiencing the growth, freedom, and power that comes from taking anti-racist stances and learning to negotiate different racial spaces.”

With the goals clear, what would it take?

To help students become anti-racist democratic citizens, we need to mobilize such systems and strategies as:

  • Curriculum that includes identity work, people-centered history, systems analysis, and tons of transferable skills. Something based on the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards, for example.
  • Professional learning on the above content. This is especially important for teachers who will center this content in their classrooms (social studies, history, humanities). But really all teachers will need to learn much of this because it impacts how they approach the world.
  • Professional learning on student-centered, asset-based teaching methods. Such as Gloria Ladson Billings’ Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. For white teachers in particular, this would include reflection on their racial autobiographies, a deep dive into their social identities, and constant examination of their biases and impacts.
  • System changes including discipline policies, dress codes, diverse representation in the halls and literature, honoring student voice and agency, etc. Students learn from what they observe and experience.
  • Engagement with the community in new and deeper ways. Many families will have powerful assets to bring to this work. Some of them are the same families that may have felt alienated or been marginalized by school practices in the past. And other families will be resistant, overtly and covertly.

This last point brings us to our present focus.

In a predominantly white state and school system like Vermont, we will have a lot of white families, white students, and white-ness to consider. If we are teaching about anti-racism we are going to need a serious system of intervention.

White children

If students are going to learn about anti-racism, they will have a lot of unlearning to do, too. They will hear contradictory stuff at home and from the world around them via every type of media (social media, news, music, magazines, radio, etc).

White students in particular are unlikely to have encountered sophisticated thinking about race at home. In the article What White Children Need to Know About Race, Ali Michael and Elenora Bartoli noted that

“The research suggests that for fear of perpetuating racial misunderstandings, being seen as a racist, making children feel badly, or simply not knowing what to say, many white parents tend to believe that there is never a right time to initiate a conversation about race.”

If families don’t teach their kids about race, society will.

As Jennifer Harvey put it,

“White children are living in a society that is racially hierarchical, divided, and unjust. It seeks to draw white people into collusion with hierarchy and injustice every step of the way” (p. 100).

Put together the tendency for families to avoid talking about race with the damaging messages of society? We can start to see why we are where we are. When we consider how and what white people learn about race? It’s clear that we have a lot of work to do.

What we are up against

The excellent Talking about Race portal by the National Museum for African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) lays out some useful definitions. In the section of the site on whiteness, they define the following terms:

  • White-dominant culture: “How white people and their practices, beliefs, and culture have been normalized over time and are now considered standard in the United States.”
  • Internalized dominance: “Describes the experience and attitudes of those who are members of the dominant, privileged, or powerful identity groups. Members of the [dominant] group accept their group’s socially superior status as normal and deserved.”
  • White supremacy: “An ideology where white people are believed to be superior to nonwhite people.”

So for white children there is a cycle where they are raised in white-dominant culture which socializes internalized dominance and ultimately upholds white supremacy ideology. And that bestows benefits on white people, thus reinforcing white dominant culture. The cycle keeps chugging along.

In a future where anti-racist education is widespread, all students will deal with the contrasts between anti-racism and white-dominant culture.

And this is why we will need to think carefully about intervention.

White students will be struggling to counteract their internalized dominance. And this is a particular problem we have to account for in the intervention model.

Plus, for a small set of white students, that internalized dominance will be especially extreme. These are the students where white supremacy is *explicitly* part of their home environments. Where a loving caregiver espouses white supremacist ideology, for example.

There is a danger that without strategies and systems in place, these students may be pushed harder toward white supremacy. Which underscores the importance of this work. Schools may be the only chance for intervening in a life course based on white supremacist beliefs and actions, harmful to them and potentially ruinous or deadly to others.

The stakes are that high.

The Multi-Tiered Racial Equity Support System

Schools have systems in place to support students who are struggling with math, literacy, or behavior. Schools often call them multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). This is based on the premise that students receive different intensities of support based on their needs.

What if our goal was a healthy relationship to race?

Based on the work of racial identity development scholars such as Janet Helms and Beverly Daniel Tatum, Jennifer Harvey envisioned the end goal this way: “A healthy white identity is nurtured through experiencing the growth, freedom, and power that comes from taking anti-racist stances and learning to negotiate different racial spaces.”

So what would a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) look like to help develop anti-racist students with healthy white identity?

Christie Nold, 6th grade social studies teacher Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, imagined how anti-racist teaching might map onto a MTSS model:

“Tier 1 is what everybody gets in classroom instruction. I have a long way to go in my practice to make it true. Responsive, relevant, and sustaining pedagogy for all students. That’s the goal for Tier 1.

Tier 2 for me is collecting formative data throughout instruction, what higher level instruction for groups of students who are grappling with certain aspects of identity or with learning in a pluralistic society. I imagine in Vermont this is particularly important because not all students are getting natural exposure because I imagine many of them live fairly segregated lives.

To me the Tier 3 level is who are those students who are showing red flags and pushing back against Tier 1 and 2 instruction.”

Here’s a visual of a pyramid model of multi-tiered systems of support for anti-racist education:

Tier 1: Universal Instruction

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy used to teach all students:

  • Personal and social identity
  • Non-Euro-centric history
  • Anti-racist, anti-bias, social justice education
  • Transferable Skills such as critical thinking, citizenship
Tier 2: Targeted Supports
  • Educators support students in specific ways:
    • Affinity spaces for Students Of Color
    • Extra instruction for struggling students
  • School-wide Restorative Practices
  • Counselors ready to help students who transgress
  • Supports during tragic events
Tier 3: Intensive Intervention
  • Racial Literacy Intervention
  • For students repeatedly pushing back on Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction

A couple of things to notice from the pyramid

First, as in a traditional MTSS system, the main emphasis is Tier 1. As Christie put it,I wonder if students were getting high quality Tier 1 Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy from Pre-K on, we start to lose the need for Tier 2 and Tier 3.”

In contrast to math and literacy intervention, however, with anti-racism we will have schools swimming against the tide of the dominant culture in our society. Denial is the heartbeat of racism, to paraphrase Ibram X. Kendi. So students will be learning about things that many of their home families haven’t come to grips with.

Especially white students.

On this point, Christie referenced the example of recycling. She noted that it became standardized practice through schools. Students learned about it at school, went home, and shamed their parents into it. Perhaps adults could become enlightened about anti-racism and oppression through their kids.

Another difference with applying the Tier 2 concept to anti-racism: identity and social identity really matter here.

Students will “struggle” with Tier 1 very differently depending on their relationship to racism. For Students of Color, especially those in predominantly white institutions, Tier 1 anti-racist instruction is likely to trigger some of the trauma they’ve experienced living in a racist society. They will need “healing centered spaces,” as Christie calls them, such as a racial affinity group facilitated by a skillful mentor where they can process together.

When white students struggle with the ideas and skills of Tier 1 instruction, at times they may do so in a way that could be harmful to Students of Color. Consider a misconception such as the idea that it is post-racial to believe that “I don’t see color, I treat everybody the same.” This can be harmful because it invalidates the impact of race and racism. If a student clung stubbornly to this stance, a teacher could not allow it to enter class after class. The lived experience of Students of Color is not up for debate.

An example of Tier 2

Christie recounted one student who was struggling and whose comments during class were doing harm. “Luckily in this case I already had a strong relationship with the student and family, so when I contacted them we were able to work out a plan.” The plan involved the student writing down responses rather than objecting out loud when certain ideas surfaced. The student then decided whether to give the writing to Christie and whether he wanted feedback from her.

If the student was severely struggling to engage with a certain topic, or couldn’t contain what was likely to be harmful commentary, there was a plan in place to involve the school counselor.

Happily, Christie reported that the student made a lot of progress, and “came out on the other side.” She also noted that this kind of success was rare. Often there weren’t resources or receptive families available.

When Tier 2 doesn’t work

Christie shared that,

“Every year I can identify at least a few students who this is going up against something they have learned, something they have already built up walls about. They are being conditioned into white supremacy culture – in 6th grade there may be walls but often I can break them down in Tiers 1 and 2. But for some they have cemented too much. Two or three years later I hear ‘oh this student was involved in an incident,’ and I’m not surprised.”

These are not students who hold common misconceptions. They aren’t merely blundering as they grapple with complex concepts. Instead, they are students who are “pickling in white supremacy at home,” as Christie put it, drawing on a term used by her friend and mentor Shadiin Garcia. “They are hearing something very different from at least one caring adult in their life. It’s not their fault that they are confused – they are just kids.”

These students, typically white males, are in a tough spot. These are the type of students who Christie may expect to hear about later. She wondered aloud “What would a system look like to prevent the harm that student perpetuated? And also the harm they perpetuated on themselves? Because this system hurts everybody.”

How do we provide Tier 3 intervention for these high priority students?

Before we get to the how, let’s consider the who.

Meet a Racial Literacy Interventionist

Netdahe Stoddard lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he grew up. He describes himself as a “Vermont rednecky dude who makes a living with [his] hands.”

He has fought racism in all aspects of his life for as long as he can remember, and has been working with schools for the past few years. This work takes many forms but the place where Netdahe feels like he has the most impact is intervening with white boys who are doing harm through racist behaviors. “As a member of the in group I can help them disentangle the ugly racist parts from the beautiful things about being a redneck.”

He calls himself a Racial Literacy Interventionist, based on a term used by psychologist Howard Stevenson to describe the skills required to defuse stress caused by racism.

The system will surely be stressed if we are going to seriously take on racism in Vermont. We are going to need a lot more people in this role.

A success story

To illustrate how Netdahe operates and why who he is plays such an important role in the work, let’s dial back to a time before he worked in schools. Netdahe has worked for more than 20 years on job sites where mostly white men labored together to build, chainsaw, and dig whatever the job required. And one of his main rules was that “I won’t tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any of that sh*t on a job site.”

This has caused a certain amount of tension with some of his co-workers.

Which is why this random text last week, from an unknown number surprised Netdahe:

student bias intervention: “Hey I know this must not be good time for you but I’ve been thinking about you with everything going on and I also know you are a loud voice for Black Lives Matter and just wish you the best and stay safe my friend.”


He called the number and sure enough it was a man that he had worked with years ago. They had clashed repeatedly as Netdahe called him out for racist behaviors. At one point things nearly became violent between them.

But now? “I consider you a friend,” the man told him by phone.

Netdahe recalled that he had stood up for this man when it looked like he might lose his job. “I had treated him like a human and showed I cared enough to try to help him grow.”

Netdahe reflected on their relationship: “We had a bunch of hours together as fuller humans, busy being humans together in the world. That allowed us to come to this heightened place after almost becoming violent with each other. And over time we chose to engage in more depth around these issues.”

Believing in humanity is the crux of Netdahe’s approach with students as well.

In fact, Netdahe worked with this man’s son a few years ago. He talked to his former co-worker before meeting with the 8th grader, and the man hadn’t been super happy about it. After a two hour conversation Netdahe had told him to please follow up with his son, and to circle back if there were any questions.

In that case, the student had gotten in trouble a few times for flashing a Confederate Flag. Eventually the school asked Netdahe to help when he asked whether it would be okay to wear a Confederate Flag in rainbow colors.

The school assumed the student was intentionally pushing buttons.

Netdahe, on the other hand, approached the situation with curiosity. “The kid told me ‘this is a flag that I identify with and that I care about. I don’t understand how it is tied to hate. Other kids have Black Lives Matter flags or Pride flags, and this is mine.” Eventually the student came to understand that the other flags did not exclude him or other people, which is what set the Confederate flag apart as a hate symbol.

In another case he worked with a student who wore the flag out of pride for a great-great grandfather who had fought in the Civil War. Netdahe made space for them to admire what it must mean to fight in a war as a young man, and to connect to other soldiers around the world throughout history with the courage to risk their lives. “I tried to get him to realize that rocking the flag might actually get in the way of people respecting his ancestor.”

These stories illuminate the importance of the identity, or “social position” as Netdahe calls it, of the interventionist when we are talking about racism. The socialization process is strong and internalized supremacy can build thick walls. Netdahe’s background, his connections in the community, and his social identity as a white man make a difference in his ability to successfully intervene.

He also has a deep grasp of the literature. He’s developed a range of practical strategies. And he’s built a system of support and accountability so he can carry out his work with integrity.

Building Fearless Futures

As long as he’s been working in schools, Netdahe has partnered with educators of color to do so. He does this to help guard against the ongoing influence of white-dominant culture on the way he carries out his work.

As he put it, “I’m a broke white dude from Lyndonville, VT. I exist as a middle-aged man with white skin. No matter what I know about racism, I’m having the experiences of a white skin man in our society.”

Natdahe and his partners recently created a non-profit organization called Building Fearless Futures. They take a team approach where the process looks something like:

  • A school calls in Netdahe, and they provide him with a description of the situation. Usually a student is in trouble and being forced to meet with him as part of a package of consequences.
  • He drafts a plan and then consults with one of his educator of color partners. They provide feedback on his approach with particular attention to any ways he might be inadvertently reinforcing white-dominant culture or white supremacist ideology.
  • He meets with the student.
  • He consults with one of his educator of color partners to process the session. They help him make a plan for any future sessions.

If the student’s actions harmed students of color, one of Netdahe’s partners may come in to meet with them, and hold a space for healing. The educators of color get compensated for their time, while Netdahe doesn’t get paid for the pre and post-session consults. He considers it professional development.

Key skills for racial literacy interventionists

Netdahe’s approach to working with students boils down to honoring the positive parts of Vermont rural culture while exposing and extracting the racist and oppressive parts.

His main strategies:

  • Build relationships by leading with love. “When I meet a student I want them to know that I’m super excited about these things. I love talking about them. All kids are genius and beautiful souls. I have no history with you but I’m just pumped to be here with you. What are you thinking? What are you interested in?”
  • Seek common cultural ground. “What are you proud of as a Vermonter? Family, making it work, hunting and fishing, having fun with friends? Me too.”
  • Show students how their expressions of rage and violence, although projected as strength, actually display weakness and insecurity. “I let them know I see through it because I am them. Underneath that rage is someone who doesn’t yet know how to love or believe in themselves fully. They fear living in a world with folks of color, unless those folks are limited, controlled and harmed, and they fear living in a world where women have full control of their own bodies. This says something sad about us. Luckily we have the power to shift our thinking. You can actually just live in a world with equal rights and still be a whole person in the world.”
  • Use analogies with zero emotional triggers. “I might explain intent versus impact by showing them my split thumb and explaining that though I intended to hit the nail, I sure feel the pain of hitting my thumb on accident. I don’t need to feel ashamed about it but it doesn’t do any good to deny it either.” Another favorite of his is the Christmas tree: he could have a great Christmas without one. And rednecks can live great Vermont lives without the Confederate flag.
  • Celebrate successes. “I hold them up intellectually every chance I get. And they may not hear much of that in school. Every tiny bit of ability to pop out of that bubble they are in, I tell them ‘you impressed the hell out of me.’”
  • Be ready for the rhetoric. “I keep up with the media put out by white supremacists so I know what these kids might be encountering.” And he’s ready to break it down.
  • Build class consciousness. “I show them examples of how racism is used to justify policies that hurt them.”
  • Show them examples of collaborative efforts between races to reach share goals. “I hold up Black, brown, and white people in every era who fought back against injustice.”

This approach is a powerful alternative to purely punitive measures. A suspension may feed resentment and reinforce the narrative that the world is against a student. It also gives them time to potentially expose themselves to online recruitment by white supremacists. Whereas the Building Fearless Futures roots their approach in humanity, dignity, and learning.

Hillbilly roll call

Netdahe is clearly a special guy. He has developed strategies and has resources and readings at the ready to tailor his work to each student.

Now: imagine many Netdahes deployed as interventionists to support Tier 3 services in anti-racist MTSS systems.

Netdahe thinks he could teach his approach to other people who occupy his social position. “I have three or four righteous broke white dudes I can think of off the top of my head who I could train up to do this work.”

This would tap into a long history of poor rural cross-racial resistance, as detailed in historical accounts like The Real Resistance to Slavery in North America by Russell Maroon Shoatz.

In this same vein, is a recent blog post by self-described hillbilly Adam Jordan (who happens to have a PhD). He spoke directly to people across Vermont: “Folks throughout history, usually rural folks, who have felt economic oppression, and who have pushed back against that oppression through collective action or self-reliant practices.”

Then for the call to action: “If you fall into this description of redneck or hillbilly, and you benefit from whiteness, I’m talking to you. Consider this a hillbilly roll call. We have work to do.”

Yes indeed, there’s a movement afoot.

Wrap around anti-racism

Netdahe and Christie have strikingly similar pictures of what a dream system of anti-racist education in predominantly white schools could look like.

They both described a systemwide commitment to the type of anti-racist and equity-focused curricula that is expected to be recommended by Vermont Coalition for Equity and Ethnic Studies in Schools.

They both talked about schools becoming more connected to communities and providing an array of wraparound services, similar to the Community School model.

Both affirmed the crucial role of healing spaces for students of color such as affinity groups.

And they both described diverse teams of interventionists that could work with students and support teachers.

It may sound far fetched but if we are going to get serious about creating anti-racist education systems, we need to take seriously the investments required. Intervention to support anti-racist education is even more necessary than math and literacy. While math and literacy intervention is meant to close gaps, to do something similar to what Tier 1 is meant to do with more intensive structures, racial literacy intervention provides alternate structures such as affinity groups that serve entirely different functions than Tier 1.

And as we’ve pointed out, the stakes are high.

In her seminal book on racial identity development, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Alone in the Cafeteria, Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about how we need to support the development of an identity she calls “white anti-racist.” Truly committing to anti-racism in education would mean that the typical categories of white identity identified by Tatum – ignorant, colorblind, or racist – would all be viewed as unacceptable outcomes.

We are in this together

To create a less racist society we will need to redistribute resources to people of color and transform systems to decrease white privilege. AND, racism is a problem caused by white people. So we will need to invest in changing white people’s beliefs and behaviors.

Both Netdahe and Christie agreed, as would almost any educator, that children are not at fault for their internalized supremacy. They should be held accountable for their actions but they are fully redeemable.

Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, co-author of the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, asks us to expand this type of compassion to all as we seek collective liberation:

“Simultaneously with our commitment to disrupting and dismantling structures that degrade humanity, a commitment to the practice of engaging the humanity of people wed to perpetuating those structures must co-exist. Whether by arrogance, ignorance, or fear, we must bear witness to their suffering as our own. Challenge what is unjust. Invest in their basic goodness. Always moving toward integration. Without this commitment and practice, we merely mirror the destructive forces of polarization and power.” (p. 203)

In the most extreme cases, for those students being misguided by their caregivers toward a path of white supremacist ideology, we must ensure schools “invest in their basic goodness” by providing the intervention they deserve.

#vted Reads: Hemingway, with Elijah Hawkes

Listeners: our hearts are breaking. Our hearts are breaking for all of Vermont’s Black students, Black educators, and Black families.

But frankly, our broken hearts are not nearly enough.

Right now, we need to talk about what this all means for Vermont. What it means to interrogate in schools, and in classrooms, and in ourselves.

On this episode of the podcast, we grapple with a challenging short story by Hemingway (yes, that Hemingway), called “Indian Camp”. Now, a content note: this story contains language and attitudes that we as a society no longer find acceptable, and in fact, one of the terms that Hemingway’s characters bandy about, a derogatory term for Native and Indigenous women, we just won’t be saying on this show.


Given that this is a story that’s primarily about the experiences of a young white boy, and how the death and injury of Native people reaffirms his view of himself as entitled, why does Vermont principal Elijah Hawkes use it every year in welcoming new educators to his school?

Because that young white boy, and the people he injures with his entitlement? They’re in your classrooms, your communities, and your homes.

This remains #vted Reads. Black Lives Matter. Now let’s chat.

Jeanie:  Thanks for joining me, Elijah.  Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Elijah:  Hi Jeanie! Thanks for having me, for this conversation. I’m currently principal at Randolph Union, a 7-12 school in Central Vermont. It serves three towns and a bunch of others in the surrounding county: Randolph, Brookfield and Braintree. About 400 students at the school. We’re adjacent to the Randolph Technical Career Center and all the benefits that come with that neighborhood.

I live in Middlesex Vermont; I grew in Moretown Vermont, about 20 minutes away. Began my career as an educator though in New York City and was an English teacher and then founding principal of The James Baldwin School, a small alternative public school.

And then moved to Vermont about 9 or 10 years ago and I’ve been here and in this role in this place ever since.

Jeanie:  Thank you for that. You are also a writer.

Elijah: Yes, I’m also a writer. Like conversations like these, writing is a conversation with myself and with other people and with ideas. And it’s one of the ways that I digest the work of being an educator. The work of being an educator in public schools, the work of being a public school educator in a democracy, the work of being an educator with adolescents. The work of being an educator as a father who has children. I pour that into my writing and try to make sense of the world that I’m in. And then when I can try to share that with others and have further dialogue about it.

I just got a book out actually this past month. The book launch parties have been few since social distancing, but I’m excited to share that with people as well. It’s called Schools for The Age of Upheaval and the subtitle is Classrooms That Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work. And perhaps there’ll be some intersections with those ideas in our conversation today.

Jeanie:  I’m ready to get to work! Let’s see, well, one of the things I always like to ask books because I’m a librarian and an avid reader and I’m always interested in what other people are reading, do you have something on your nightstand right now, that you’re working on?

Elijah:  I do yes. I’m just 20 or 30 pages away from the end of The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates. My brother’s reading it at the same time; we’ve been having some correspondence about it. So we’ve been enjoying that novel by Coates, whose essays, of course, I’ve read in other publications. But this is his first long work of fiction.

Jeanie:  I loved that book, so much. Yeah. It’d be interesting to pair that with —  I don’t know if you saw the announcement yesterday but Coates Whitehead won the Pulitzer for fiction for The Nickel Boys which is another just phenomenal sort of historical fiction take.

But I really love The Water Dancer.

Actually it’s come up a lot with people who’ve I’ve had on the podcast! They’re either reading it hoping to read it, suggesting it to me, suggesting it to others. Great. So, I want to start with: why did you choose this text? Why choose “Indian Camp”? (.pdf)

Elijah:  It’s actually a text that I’ve used as a jumping off point for professional development discussions about our purpose of our work, and how we do our work. And it’s a short story. I thought: why don’t we talk about that and see where it takes us in terms of conversations about our work as educators.

It’s not about school but it’s about a child. It’s about children and the families that they live in. And they live in a divided society. They live in the United States at the turn of the last century somewhere in upper northern Michigan. And it’s a Native American family and it’s aAnglo-American family and they cross paths in a fairly traumatic way. And the question that I ask my colleagues and I ask myself is:

Consider the protagonist of the story, the boy Nick, who’s the son of a doctor, and ask yourself: if he was in your classroom, what would he need from you as an educator? What he would need from your school? And then ask yourself the same question of the Native American child that we meet in the story. What if he was in your classroom?  And how’s that similar or different to what the son of the doctor needs?

Then the other question is more about the purpose of schools in our society and the question is:

What does the society need the children to get from their schooling?

Jeanie: Let’s set the stage for our listeners. Nick is on vacation; he’s fishing with his uncle and his father. His father is a doctor. And they’re called in the middle of the night, I think, or the wee hours of the morning to this Indian camp. They have to get there by canoe. And when they arrive; as they’re arriving, as they’re traveling there, Nick’s father is telling him that this woman has been in labor for a couple of hours and…

Elijah:  Or longer.

Jeanie: Sorry a couple of days, you’re right. Not a couple of hours. As they arrive…

It’s Hemingway, so it’s sparse, but there’s a bit of commentary on this on the homestead, if you will that really jumped out at me about the descriptions of place, and of people.

Uncle George is not very kind. He uses a racial slur against the young Indian woman and so it sort of sets this stage of these two separate worlds. Is there anything you would add to that? Or what you took from it?

Elijah:  Well you’re right. It’s Hemingway. So you know: short, staccato sentences — very observational. You have to do some work as a reader to try to intuit what people might be feeling or thinking beyond their surface phrases.

You might even say the first page or two of the story are boring. And part of the why I choose this story is for that reason actually.

And I’ve been using this story mostly in the last 5 or 10 years in my work with predominantly white educators. like myself. So one, choosing Hemingway, and two, choosing a story that starts off the way that it does, you know, kind of from the perspective of a child: very slowly moving across the lake, in a deliberate and sort of banal fashion. No one is going to really have their defenses up.

So we’re about to have a conversation about race and class and violence in the country we live in and I don’t want people to be defensive, as we enter into that conversation. And Hemingway actually allows them to do that, with a diverse audience or with an audience that includes mostly white educators. Mostly white people.

Part of the reason why I like this story is that slow entry into content that is very important and troubling.

Jeanie: You know, that makes me think of the slow way in which we are acculturated around race too. Like that Nick is this five or six-year-old kid, maybe seven, and he’s picking up all these quiet messages about difference, right? Who matters. And what’s important.

Elijah: Absolutely.

Jeanie: And I think about that’s how experience in the United States, living in this highly racialized society that doesn’t really talk about race, right? We slowly accumulate as children all these ideas.

And for me, I’ve been doing a lot of reading around decolonizing methodologies.

It’s not just about the people, and the places, and who matters, and who’s important, but like which ways of being and knowing we value.

And in this case it’s Nick’s father’s very Western medicine way of knowing that’s valued. Right, like he gets to be the savior, he gets to come in and rescue! And his scientific knowledge is what’s important. While all the other quiet ways of knowing that belong to the Indigenous folks in the story, are completely unvalued.

Elijah: Yes, you’re absolutely right. You know: again, it’s not told in the first person, but you more or less are seeing things through the eyes of the child. Nick who I think is probably 5, 6, 7 years-old just based on how he talks and thinks (and I also have two boys, and so I remember them at that age and it does remind me of 5, 6, 7 year-old boys), and he sees his father conduct a Caesarian section in the most impoverished of conditions.

These are bark peelers; this is a bark-peeling camp, is how I understand it. So the logs are drying out of the forest. There’s dense and very rough and dangerous work of peeling the bark off of the log, before I assume there then sent by some floatation across the bay or down a river.

It’s the hardest work of logging that’s done by the Native people here.

Nick and his father enter this what’s called a shanty, and most of the men of the village have moved away because the woman’s distress is so troubling. It’s a breech birth so she’s not able to have the child. And my assumption is that she is going to die unless some kind of intervention happens. Which probably is why somebody went for help from this doctor.

Because you’re right there’s a woman who’s there attending to the young woman who’s pregnant.  She’s exhausted; her head is on its side. She’s been in labor for days. Her husband is also in a state of destitution because he’s wounded himself through his work. His foot is cut, and he’s now disabled lying in the bunk above her, and so he can’t escape her pain. He’s trapped in his world of violence in so many different ways so he’s there and the doctor doesn’t bring any anesthetic…

We’re not really sure if he had any anesthetic and could have brought it, but he doesn’t bring it. And he conducts a Caesarean section with a jack-knife and some rough thread…

There’s more that happens, but Nick witnesses this all.

And on the other side of it, he’s heard his uncle use a racial slur towards the young woman who bites him — which is a very interesting moment in the story, a moment of resistance you might say.  It’s one of the few times that a woman in the story speaks or does something. And she bites this man who’s holding her down.

But Nick hears the uncle use a racial slur. He hears his father say that the woman’s screams are not important — “I just need to focus on my task” — and so the father’s bias and racism and insensitivity to the pains of the people he’s working with, are clear.

And on the other side of this Nick is going back across the lake with his father. At the end of the story they’re going back across the lake.

The man in the bunk above — the father of this child, the husband of this woman — takes his own life over the course of this story.

And Nick’s father by then is completely deflated. When he sees the trauma — to a degree through the eyes of his child — he’s deflated. And he wishes that he hadn’t brought his son.  But the last thought that child has as he’s crossing the lake is, or it’s a thought that he doesn’t have… He has a sense that he would never die.  There’s a sense of you are in power.  You are in a place of power from people with power, of strength and invisibility and you’ve just…

Nick has just experienced extraordinary violence and he’s experienced death, and he’s experienced pain… and on the other side of it he understands death as something that happens to other people.

There’s all of that that comes with this story about a young white boy and his rite of passage into what? Into power. It’s a rite of passage into power and privilege. It’s a solidification of that. Again, I think the question that to ask of ourselves as educators is: what does that kid need? He’s in our school right now he’s in your classrooms.

That person with that power and that privilege is in our classrooms — or is in your own home.  What is it, that person needs from our school?

And then also what does the other child need?

Because the other child lives.

And if it’s a public school in Vermont we also have that child in our school, too. The child is living in a camper.  The child who’s homeless, the child who’s coming from great systemic poverty and the violence that comes with it. Both of those children are in our schools. What do they both need?  Unless the doctor son is actually left to school because that happens. That’s happened several times since I joined Randolph Union, actually.

Jeanie:  Already left your school for private school, is sort of what you’re saying?

Elijah:  That’s what I’m saying is that the doctor’s son and the doctor’s family may have the choice, of not being in your classroom.

Jeanie: So, you’re reminding me: I teach collaborative practices and facilitative leadership and we just focused on equity using protocols and structures to have hard conversations. Because these are hard conversations. About equity, about bias, about the way assumptions color our teaching practice, and how we see kids.

And many times in Vermont I will encounter teachers, educators, principals, administrators who will say,

“Well our school is all white so we don’t need to deal with race.”

And then I encourage them to read What White Children Need To Know About Race (.pdf). Because I think the question you’re asking is related to that. Which is:

  • What kind of white children do we want our kids to be?
  • What kind of white folks do we want our graduates to be in the world?

If we never talk about race, if we don’t equip students with conversations about race they can’t develop a positive white social identity.

Elijah:  Totally agree with you there. And I’ve tried to train myself to not ever say anymore, that we’re not a diverse school community. To say, “We’re not diverse,” erases… five, 10, 15, 20 individual students. Even though Randolph Union is 95% students who identity as white. I can say that we’re mostly a white school, but I can’t say we’re not a diverse school.

Jeanie: Yes. I think we fall into a trap when we minimize or erase those students who may be biracial, or presenting as white or may have more complicated ethnic backgrounds.

But we also fall into a trap by thinking that white kids don’t have a race.


  • What do we need to focus on?
  • What are some of the things that come up?
  • And what does schooling need to provide for this sort of entitled young man who thinks he’s never going to die?

Elijah:  Well I think Nick need to have a personal and historical understanding of himself. And he needs to have a personal and historical understanding of others.

I’m fond of saying, as we approach complex topics in the school community, that we need personal stories and historical facts. Personal stories and historical facts, personal stories and historical facts. And if we have both of those in our classroom, at our assemblies, in our professional development work, we have what it needs to have truthful conversations.

Now I know we can certainly debate what counts as historical fact, but look: we’re educators and so we’re academics to degree, so we’re going to default to what academia legitimizes as historical facts. And we should.

But Nick needs to be in a classroom where he’s enabled to reflect on his own personal story.

  • Where he’s been invited reflected on this trip that he had as a five-year-old.
  • Where’s he’s asked questions.
  • And where he has to reflect on the society that he lives in.
  • And where he’s asked questions where he has to consider the perspective of other people.

Hopefully it’s a classroom that’s diverse by class ,and it may also be diverse by race to a degree. The teacher needs to carefully create a trusting and bonded classroom community — and the teacher may need help to do that. But a bonded classroom community where personal stories can be shared.

So that’s the classroom that gets personal.

Nick needs to be able to hear other people tell their stories. And he needs to also be able to reflect on his own, and to share it.  That’s one thing that he needs.

And then he also needs a politicaland  historical understanding of where he comes from, and the society that he lives in.

Jeanie:  Can I poke at this notion of historical fact a little bit?

Elijah:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  I think you’re right. I think history — or inaccurate history — is a huge part of our problem in this country.  That we tell the stories that we wish were true about what our American society. And not just the like, “chopping down of cherry trees, never tell a lie” kind of stories.

So yesterday, Nicole Hannah Jones won a Pulitzer for work on The 1619 Project. Which is wonderful. Because The 1619 Project really disrupted all of the history I learned as a student, right? By centering the experiences — and not just the experiences but the work — of Black people, and the way that Black and brown people have really built this country. Not just buildings, not through slavery but like: *built* our democracy. And moved it forward.

And so I think this idea of historical facts means we need to trample the historical fictions we’ve been telling ourselves as if there are facts.

Elijah:  I totally agree. And we’re fortunate to have, you know, unending resources at our disposal to access those stories that are going to trouble our fictions.

You know:

These are organizations that offer educators off-the-shelf resources and daily reminders, about this day in history, 200 years ago: What was the experience of working class people, and people of color, and immigrants? They do center those stories and so the resources are there, there’s no excuse for not considering them as we plan our lessons, and using them as we teach.

Jeanie:  What I hear from you is that we to do the work as educators. And that we have to disrupt or challenge our own indoctrination into a certain kind of history. And ask ourselves:

  • Whose story is being told?
  • Whose story isn’t?
  • What does power have to do with that?
  • And where do I go find those that haven’t been told?

The work is for all of us at all levels, right? Like it’s just not for young people. In many ways, we’re Nick, too.

Elijah:  We are Nick, too. Absolutely.

Jeanie: And so there’s a quote. It’s before the Caesarian section, when Nick’s father the doctor is getting ready to perform surgery. He’s just explained that the birth is breech, and he says to his son, “But her screams are not important.  I don’t hear them because they are not important.”

And thinking about the context of this conversation with you, the question I wanted to sort of interrogate my own practice with, is:

What are the things that I as an educator sometimes was not able to hear because I consider them unimportant?

Elijah:  That’s a great question, Jeanie.  I’m wishing I would ask that kind of question when reading the story.  You have here a doctor who feels like his primary task is to get the child out of the belly of this woman. And to do his best to save both of those lives in the process. So if he’s preoccupied by her emotional distress, then he’s not going to get his task done. That’s one interpretation, right.

In the broader context of this story there’s huge insensitivities, and there’s huge settler colonial racism that’s playing out here? But the narrow view is you have a professional who’s trying to get his job done.

What are the corrollaries there to our work as educators?

I’ve got to get these grades done! So I think it’s important for us to ask: what are we not listening to?  What pains and cries of distress do we not listen to, or do we shut out, in our efforts in the institution that is school, in our efforts to stick to the routine to get the task done, to tend to what we feel is urgent?

I think that’s a really important question.

Jeanie:  Well and in this current moment here we are in the middle of COVID-19. And we know that this illness, which some people are falsely calling ‘The Great Equalizer’ in it impacts everyone — is really impacting people of color way more than it is white folks.

And I’ve been you know not trying to read too many of those stories because then I end up not able to function for the day. But. This is also true of childbirth, this true of all medical problems actually, for people of color.  How often doctors are not able to count their pain as real, right. And I don’t think doctors are evil people, just like I don’t think teachers get into the business of teaching to hurt kids.

I think what happens in these moments like with Nick’s dad, is that we have work to be done, and we fall back on implicit bias in way that actually has huge impacts on our students, on patients of color who are dying.

A hugely disproportionate rate of COVID-19 or not being admitted to hospitals because their symptoms aren’t being take seriously. And I can’t help but see these as intertwined.

Elijah: Yes, absolutely. I think we need professionals in every institution who look like, represent and are from the same places that the people that are “being served”. We need a kind of diversity in our positions of power so that we can better listen and better understand the work that we’re doing through different lenses.

Jeanie:  I think it’s not just diversity, because I don’t think we can just rely on people of color to do the work here. But when we hold power and privilege? We need to personally do the work of disrupting our own biases and drawing attention to them and noticing them.

Because I think that our biases do show up in what we think is important and what we think is not important. I can think of countless actually white students, but white students who’d experienced some sort of trauma in their lives, or who were coming from a family of abuse or poverty, who we couldn’t see, we couldn’t hear them, because we didn’t consider what they were going through important.

And by that we I meant me and the teachers I was working with in my last school.

Elijah:  I agree with you there.  But what I mean to say is for instance, right now if it was only white men in leadership positions at my school I would not be doing — *we* would not be doing as good a job as leaders right now, meeting the needs of our teachers who are young mothers or who are about to go and give childbirth.

Because I have an associate principal who’s a woman — so a woman in position of power at my school — the school is doing a better job of working with women who have had children, or are going to have children. And that is part of my learning; as in listening to my colleague.

And because we have a person in power at my school who is born and raised in the towns where we work, and whose family is been there for six, seven, eight, nine, ten generations? She’s at the table when we’re deciding how to allocate resources. Her voice matters because she understands the needs of the community in a different way than I do for all of my good intentions about putting myself in someone else’s shoes.

I agree with you that there is work to be done by me as an individual.  And I think part of the work to be done is in listening to my colleagues who have different perspectives as well and ensuring that my colleagues do represent different perspectives.

I don’t think it’s an either or I think both of those things are important.

Jeanie:  I agree: it’s a “both and” for sure!

Elijah:  So the children born into the most desperate of circumstances seem to be more and more in number. How can I support my colleague?  How can I support myself?  Hence all of the conversations we’re having across the state about trauma informed practice and secondary trauma, vicarious trauma.

How do we ensure that the teacher core is strong in this work, working with a Nick and working with many other children from different and more challenging circumstances?

And I guess what I’ve come to think, Jeanie, is that it’s less about victories and thinking about each child as potential victory. You know each child has a chance. Like: help that kid beat the odds. We need to continue with that kind of energy and activist educator effort, to get every child to have the most fulfilling experience they can have in our school.

But at the same time? The goal may not be the individual victories; the goal is solidarity in the struggle.

Jeanie: That reminds me I love everything you just said and it reminds me of a story. There are these folks on the side on the bank of a river and these babies start coming down the river.

And so they do what you do: they start grabbing babies out of the river, right?

They’re pulling one baby after another out of the river.

And then one of them, like, takes off!

And they’re like, “Wait where are you going? There are all these babies! Come back! Help us? Why are you like giving up on these babies?”

And they’re like: “I’m going up river to see where all these babies are coming from!”

Right? So it’s moving from triage to systems-level change.

And I think in schools I think it could be really easy.  I know it was really easy for me to think of myself as somebody who could help save kids right one at a time, relationship by relationship and I think relationships are so crucial and important.  And work with kid s is really important but I think I had some blinders on.  I’m thinking that I could save anybody that my work was somehow will somehow to save these kids.

My boss, John Downes, often asks me to think with the systems-level lens, and it does not come naturally to me.  I have to work really hard to think about the systems change in that. I’ve been thinking about I went and saw Ibram X Kendi when he came to UVM this past winter, and it was so profound. He’s really asking us to think about racism at the systems level .

A racist idea leads to racist outcomes. And that’s really thinking about policies and procedures. That’s really helped me think about this, too. But like, if we’re dealing with one baby at a time, we’re not upending the system at all that creates that puts all these babies in the river.

Elijah:  It’s very easy to focus year after year on the small number of kids who beat the odds and think that that’s actually what schools can do. Whereas, really we’re best at recreating inequities of the wider society.

Jeanie:  I just feel really the need to say: I so admire the work schools do and that educators play.  Like I think educators are working their tails off and that the society has given them way too much to do and I sometimes wonder if that’s a huge part of the problem. If you’re just trying to keep up, you’re not going to look around and say,

“Hey what’s going on in the greater world that our student are showing up like this?”

Like, it makes it really hard to like sort of see the big picture if you’re just wallowing in the work we have to do day-to-day and we’re expecting schools to feed kids and provide medical attention for, and to like. There are so many things that schools are doing and so I don’t want to lose sight of the fact but I think educators not only are their intentions good but they’re working so hard and they’re hearts are in this work.

Elijah:  Yes. (I’m nodding; I agree.)

Jeanie:  Yeah, you can’t hear a nod on a podcast! *laughs*.  I really appreciate this.

Elijah:  No that’s fine.  I also want to say just in terms of giving credit where credit is due that that when I hear myself say that that solidarity in the struggle and maintaining the struggle is the essence of the work? That I’m hearing James Baldwin, and I’m hearing Ta-Nehisi Coats in Between Me and The World.

You know I’m hearing a man who’s named his child after the word for the struggle and give that message to his child.  And so I want to credit those authors for educating me and helping me see the world in so many different ways and giving me some of the language to describe my world.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. I really appreciate that.

Elijah: In terms of the work at Randolph my mantra when we try to think about how to write curriculum that has relevance and is engaging to students and the wider community is: don’t start with the notion of interest.

A lot of us as educators will think, “I want to engage the kids in what they’re interested in?  Joey what are you interested in, what do you like?”

I think that’s a reasonable question. It’s an important question. We need to engage and know our children in terms of their interests but I think the more important question is:

  • What do you need?
  • What does your family need?
  • And what does our community need?

And if we can ask ourselves that question then and design our curriculum around those questions personal needs and societal needs, community needs we will be doing the work. We will be much more likely to do work that engages people in personal reflection and knowing yourself. A

nd also we’ll be positioned to do the systems change work and enabling kids to take action in their communities in those ways.

The past couple of years we’ve had what we call The Project-Based Learning Lab at Randolph Union which we staff with an administrator who supports teachers in designing courses that are project based in that they’re oriented towards addressing some need in the community.

We’ve had courses that are focused on racial justice and restorative justice, climate change and economic injustice, food insecurity and food systems.

This is something schools can do: like, plan for it for next year. Do this next year: take something that’s in the extracurricular realm, and it gets maybe an hour every couple of weeks, and make it a class.

If you have a service club at your school — we’ve had an Interact Club at Randolph Union for years. And so when the Project-Based Learning Lab opened up, we talked to Scott the teacher who’s helped do that work — whether it’s blood drives, or whether its supporting the education of girls in Asia, whether it’s work with veterans who are homeless, lots of different local and international initiatives connected with the Rotary Club in town —  we’ll make that a class. So instead of an hour every couple of weeks with the kids who can make it after school, give it 220 minutes a week. And see how deep we can go in terms of understanding the work that we’re asking kids to do.

Jeanie:  Yes.

Elijah: We partner with an organization in Montpelier that works with kids and educators in schools in Nicaragua. And just your understanding of the world we live in can go so much deeper.  So instead of just being a tourist you’re actually doing home-stays and you’re learning in much different ways about the culture that you’re visiting.

So. Those are some things that we can do. Take initiatives that people are passionate about in terms of working with their local and international community, make it a course and provide some resources to help teachers to pull that off.

Jeanie:  It sounds to me like what that also does is make space for both the needs of Nick and for the baby in our story. Right, like that it’s making space for Nick to question… the truths, the learning that he’s had, that’s lead to some entitlement in the sense that what he’s bringing. And also for this child who maybe couldn’t afford an international trip. Or maybe couldn’t stay after school because they have to help out at home. They both can engage together in the dialogue and the learning but also in the travel, or the experience of service.

Like oftentimes we limit who gets to be a volunteer and serve? To kids with privilege. And yet everybody feels the need to serve and have an impact.  And so I’m just thinking about that.

It seems like it’s coming back to our original question of how do you create curriculum that meets the need of kids whose experience spans a broad continuum.

Elijah:  It’s key also that Nick is in a classroom with people who have different life experiences.

And again the classroom community is developed intentionally enough so that Nick feels vulnerable enough to say something and then be questioned. And that the people who can question him feel like they have the support to question him, or the teacher can. We need those classroom community with the norms for personal discussion and political discussion and debate to be established.  And that’s hard to do, you know? If you’re talking about personal things in the right way you’re going to be having political discussions.

Once a story that’s personal and maybe shame0laden comes out of the closet and is shared you start to see that you’re not alone in your struggle, right?

James Baldwin writes that literature can also do that. You can start to see that you’re not alone with your pain. In fact the pain you’re struggling with is the only thing that really makes you human in the first place — that we share that experience with other people.

And so what that means is that we have common stories and our common stories are shaped by common circumstance and our common circumstances social, economic, political, historical are shaped by public policy.

So all of a sudden your personal story about your mom, who’s struggling with several generations of poverty, who’s not making a living wage, who can’t pay the rent and who maybe is tending towards struggles with addiction — all of that has a public policy context.

There are regulations about opioids that influence how many opioids are in our community. You know like on and on and on. You all of a sudden can see a personal struggle in a political context.

That’s something that often and I think our teacher core is not supported enough to do, and is not supported in their training to do? And that there is a lot of work to be done by educators and by the educators of educators? To help us be able to approach this work carefully and intentionally.

Jeanie: I was going to ask you and then you sort of went there is like how do we prepare teachers?  How do we prepare ourselves as educators to hold space for brave and hard conversations? That feels really important and I don’t think that we should expect teachers do that without focusing on that in our professional development and giving them space to learn. Even to be in spaces like that in the first place.

And I think that’s a lot of the work I do with collaborate practices. Creating and  building relationships in communities that can allow us to poke at in a very public way our own biases and assumptions that we’re bringing so that we can better serve all our students.

The other thing I’m hearing from you — and I thought a lot about this as I was reading the story is that this story describes the “shanty” I think is the language it uses, and the lives of native people completely out of context of colonization and genocide.

I think that as teacher in my past I have also seen students without the context of the way policy has shaped their lived experience, right? And I see this in the news and I see this in our political setting. And I see this in the way policies are shaped all the time? In the way in which we want to think that slavery is over and doesn’t matter anymore. Or that a people — any people — have done this to themselves, right?

And so whether it’s when we want to donate to Africa for poverty and we’re not able to see how colonization has led to the very poverty we think we can fix with a concert and some dollars.

Or whether it’s in our own communities in the way, that some folks are judged for choices they make. I think about that a lot. I think a lot about and it comes back to what you talked about earlier about historical facts. Ruha Benjamin talks a lot about this and about the importance of getting past history and talking about things like red-lining.

Elijah Hawkes and Ruha Benjamin

Jeanie: So, what professional development, what PD should I be designing or should I be engaging in myself, to begin to hold, to help teachers do these two things that I’ve heard you say. One is to be able to have these brave conversations. And not just to hold them but to facilitate them in their classrooms. And two, to sort of learn about and then teach about, the historical context, and the political context that shape our experience of the world.

Elijah:  We need to understand that if we want people to understand how to create spaces for courageous conversations in their classrooms they’re going to need modeling and experience of that. Because they may not have gotten it.

They probably didn’t get that in some of their own high school experience or in their own teacher training experience, so they going to need to get it in your faculty meeting experience.

So part of it is about allocating resources so that we have time and space in our school year, in our months of school year to have those conversations, to have them modeled and so that people can become strong facilitators themselves.

We learn by modeling.

So it’s important that there be a strong core of facilitators in the school. Not just administrators — especially not just administrators — but teacher leaders and others who can “hold the space”.

And then there need to be conversations about that are personal and political at the level of faculty. And then we’ll learn how to do those in the classroom.  I don’t know.  That’s important!

And I think we could share the models that work.  Every school has teachers who are doing this work already.

You know a pretty firm believer that most communities have the resources they need to solve their own problems. And those resources are usually human resources. And so if we can help you know there’s that classroom over here where there’s a fabulous Socratic seminar that’s happening and the kids are speaking from the heart about complex topics that are both personal and have public policy implications — let’s figure out how to get that teacher’s works read across the school.

Elijah Hawkes Socratic Seminar


Looking internally for the resources that are there is also a really important strategy.

And then modeling it, of course.

We never have *this* much time, you know, that you and I have here today to talk about this story and the implications for our work in the way that we are. But one of the reasons why I choose to read this with administrators, or teachers in training, or teachers who are new to my school no matter where they are in their professional career?  Is I just want to model that we can have conversations about these topics and I want to model my own vulnerabilities and my own mistakes.

And the risks that’s I’m taking. And how I think you know in some ways it’s a bad idea for me to read this story with you, because I don’t know you very well.

Yet here I am, a white man reading this story by another white man about people who are very different from me and I want to be able to talk about that with my colleagues to make a first impression. We do this with our new teachers every year. So there’s modeling as well as creating the space for people to have the conversations.

Jeanie:  Well I appreciate that you read this story or had me read this story and have a conversation about it because I would not have chosen this story! *chuckles*  I would not. And even the name when you sent it I was like, “Huh. Do I want to read this?”

And then reading it and I’m currently rereading one of my very favorite books in the whole wide world.  I’m rereading it because I just turned in all my work for the semester and I have this opportunity to like sink into a book I love and it’s called The Marrow Thieves. Have you heard of it?

Elijah: No I haven’t heard of it, Jeanie.

Jeanie: It’s by Cherie Dimaline. And she’s a First Nations woman; Canadian. Oh gosh. I wish I could just send you a copy right now.

It just like, speaks to my heart. And I’m rereading it with this new eyes from a semester focussing on reading decoloniozing methodologies.

It’s dystopic –which does not sound like a fun thing to read right now but actually is very relevant in this current moment.

It’s post-climate change. California has fallen into the ocean and white people have stopped being able to dream. But what they’ve found is that that Indigenous folks don’t stop dreaming. So [the white people] look back at history. And they start using the modes of residential schooling as a way to round up Native people and extract their bone marrow. So that [the white people] can dream.

That all sounds wretched — and it truly is — but what happens in the story is our main character, Frenchie, gets separated from his family and is on his own. He runs into this rag-tag group of other Native folks — all generations, different backgrounds, different tribes, I guess, if you will.

And they sort of exist on foot: traveling, hunting. Just surviving. But the book is really about community and healing and other ways of knowing, and ancestral wisdom.

And it’s so beautiful, I just can’t say enough about it.  But I thought about it a lot in relation to this.

I think they would have an interesting conversation.

Anyway, one of the conversations we didn’t get into that I’m really interested in, is the ways in which we can find, ways of knowing and being brilliant and smart and extraordinary into such narrow categories.

What would it look like if schools really allowed a diversity of ways of knowing and being and flourishing and being brilliant?  Because every kid I’ve known has been brilliant in some way. It’s just that we only count a few kinds…

Elijah:  Right. Yes.

Jeanie: I know you have to go take care of your puppy, but if there’s anything you want to add.

Elijah:  No, I just think that’s someplace where I think this story can and should take is: if Nick is only knowing the world in the way his father is knowing the world, what is he missing?

He’s missing the universes. And so the story needs to take us in that direction. It needs to take us to The Marrow Thieves and to An Indigenous People’s History of the United States.  It needs to take us in other directions.

We can’t just think, “Oh yes Nick is going to be okay because… yes he’ll be fine.”  Let’s focus on like, how we can save someone else in the story.

Like, if Nick leaves your school only knowing what he knows now and only understanding his father’s perspective on the world? We haven’t done our job as a public school in this country.

Jeanie:  Well because Nick’s likely to become or congress person right or our president, or the CEO of our company and reproduce the same systems that lead to very narrow ways of knowing.

Elijah:  Yes. Or your school principal.

Jeanie:  *chuckles* Or your professional development coordinator.

Elijah:  Yes.

Jeanie:  Or your school librarian. Thank you so much for this conversation.

Elijah: I feel like [this story is] not a *back door* into discussions about whiteness and race and privilege. But it’s a *convenient* door into those discussions. Especially I think with white educators. But we’re really lucky to have had this long conversation with you it’s not like…

Jeanie:  Yes.

Elijah:  It’s not like we’re standing in line for food at a conference, it’s like a real conversation! So I thank you.

Virtual video walkie-talkies? Meet the Marco Polo app

Why the Marco Polo app? With social distancing and remote learning on educators’ minds, there’s never been a more urgent need for communication that’s clear, effective, bandwidth-respecting and multi-platform.

The more ways we can connect our learners with each other, and extend out-of-school access to community partners, the better. Our usual ways of communicating at a distance (email, phone, snail mail, twitter DMs) do continue to work. Yet there are limitations that are heightened as we move to fully remote communications. In text or email, tone and inflection can easily get lost or misinterpreted. And video meetings have a few added steps, require members to both be present (scheduling nightmare), and eat up bandwidth.

What if we could combine the best of both worlds?  The ease of video… with the convenience of texting.

Additionally, the asynchronous nature of asynchronous video messaging can be leveraged to provide students with out-of-school access to professionals and to their communities in a way that’s powerful.

Virtual video walkie talkies

As we look into the possibilities of asynchronous video messaging, we’ve been experimenting with the Marco Polo app, and we are hooked.

1. Connecting with a loved one who is far away

Let’s say you have a loved one who lives far, far away… Like, Mongolia! Jeanie hosted an exchange student from Mongolia who became a good friend and bonus daughter. Now that said bonus daughter has returned to Mongolia, she still has a ton to share with Jeanie. Her neighborhood, her family, a new hairdo! Jeanie, in turn, shares videos from Charlie the dog, along with local spots of interest. And this way of connecting feels so much more personal than email, text messages, or instagram.

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During this time of social isolation and uncertainty, tools that creatively connect loved ones and community members are more important than ever. These video threads could serve as a bridge to others in a way that reduces loneliness and isolation while sustaining relationships and connection.

2. Connecting with an expert

Or perhaps your boiler just flat-out stopped working. Knowing your own limitations and lack of skill, you make a call.

Weighing your options, you quickly come to the conclusion that cold water would only make quarantine unbearable. A plumber appears to save the day by installing a new boiler. Cold weather hits (blah). You turn on the heat. Nothing!

You, a wise, Marco Polo the plumber. And by dint of pointing:

  • a) they know exactly what needs to happen.
  • b) they’re able to work you into their schedule with less fuss.

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Now, even if you’re lucky enough to have functioning hot water, think outside the boil for a moment: this is a powerful way for students to connect with experts.

With middle school students, transportation adds an extra layer of difficulty in providing those out of school experiences. This tool removes the physical distance and connects learners with mentors and experts in the field.

Or, if they’re working on a Joy Project a quick connection could bring the project to a whole new level. The asynchronous nature of Marco Polo also allows for the conversation to evolve around busy schedules and connectivity issues. Oh yeah: and if you need evidence for your PLP, consider it done!

3. Connecting with coworkers

Your team of colleagues is hard to pull together into one big phone call and you are tired of zoom.  You put them all on a single Marco Polo chat and start the conversation.  And they respond, when they are free, sharing their expertise and their faces and voices, making for a powerful and deep conversation.

Here are a few other ways you might use it in your teaching practice:

  • Connecting with individual students who need extra support.  Students can ask questions, request formative feedback, or check-in with you.  While they do they can capture video of works in progress, show where they are stuck, or illustrate their question.  You, in turn, can share video of next steps, an example, or supporting details.
  • Connecting with families. Not all forms of communication work for all families.  If you have a family you struggle to communicate with, why not see if Marco Polo might interest them.  It is an easy way to hold meaningful conversations about a student, both sharing your insights and soliciting those of their parents/guardians.
  • Connecting with your advisory.  Keep connected with your advisory students and keep them connected with each other. A prompt can be as simple as sharing a joke.
  • Connecting with an expert. What a great way to pose questions and get answers from an expert in the field!  Students and teachers can share their queries and folks from around the world can answer them in a way that is verbal and visual.

Bandwidth an issue?

We’ve all been there when the Zoom stops: synchronous online video-conferencing eats your bandwidth, and for a lot of us here in rural Vermont, that’s a conversation-stopper. Asynchronous video-conferencing — or video-messaging — lets you make the most of what you’ve got.

Crunch your video down, px-wise, or cut it shorter, and wait until your moms are done chatting with Nana to jump online and upload.

We’ll keep talking about bandwidth availability as an equity issue — but we’ll do it with video-messaging, rather than video-conferencing.

So how does it work?

Enter your phone number, take or add a profile picture and you are ready to go. You can send an invite to someone if they are not already connected with the app. Or, just like texting, you can select an individual or create a group.

Hit start and record your message. Done!

You will get a notification when someone is viewing your polo. Whoever you connect to, you’ll likely have fun with the effects. Change your voice so you sound like a robot.  Add a filter so you look like a movie star. Or doodle on your video and add some text to make your post more interesting.

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Things to consider

With any app you will want know a few things:

  • Is it safe?
  • Does it track data?
  • Who can access what you share?
  • What’s in the cloud?

There is no substitution for supervision when students are connected and online. However! One hundred percent eyes-on is not a possibility, or even reality.

How can we make sure of two things? Students are safe when online and the apps we give them access to are safe. So here are a few of our considerations and recommendations:

  1. Digital citizenship must remain a part of the learning and conversations.
  2. For younger students, I suggest putting the app on an adult’s phone. That way parents/guardians are in control and can monitor the conversation. They might learn something too!
  3. Only share the contacts you want to (not your entire contact list)
  4. Know who your student is Marcoing. Also who they Polo.
  5. Have a conversation about what is appropriate.

But don’t take our word for it

Connecting people with people (and information)

In this time of remote learning, staying connected and building community remains a top priority for schools and families. While there are well-established ways of accomplishing this, the easy and personal connection take this up a notch. Whether connecting across the world or down the road the distance has become equal.

Have you tried video messaging? Marco Polo? Or are there other video walkie-talkie apps out there? Let us know in the comments



#vted Reads: Stamped, by Jason Reynolds

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads: books by, for and with Vermont educators. Today we’re joined by Philadelphia-based educator and “Learning Maximizer” Erika Saunders, to talk about the book Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism, and You, by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.

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

Erika: Hi! Well, first of all thank you so much for asking me to join you. My name’s Erika Sanders. I’m an educator here in Philadelphia. I’ve been working in urban environment, educating for about 17 years. I’m a special education teacher and I call myself The Learning Maximizer. Because what I do is teach children how to maximize their learning. So, I’m thrilled to talk education. And clearly, this book hold very dear place in my heart. *laughs* So, I’m excited to chat with you about it.

Jeanie: I am so excited that you’re joining me. And I also just want to say you are also on the Middle Grades Institute faculty. And we’re delighted to have you as a faculty member.

Erika: Thank you. Yes, I am. That’s a new one for me. Thank you for reminding me.

Jeanie: So, I always ask this question at the beginning because I’m a librarian at heart and I’m curious about it. But: what else are you reading? Or what other books might you recommend?

Erika: Wow, that’s an excellent question. So, sort of in general? I started We Got This: Equity, Access, and The Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, by Cornelius Minor. Which I’m looking at sitting right over there. I highly recommend that book. It’s accessible. And digestible. And yet has some pretty powerful pieces to it. For leisure, I am a huge young adult fiction fan — not to mention I worked with middle school students often — so a lot of what I read is sort of the middle school literature. So, if you want to relax and enjoy and just sit back, I highly recommend grabbing some of that really good juicy middle years literature that’s out there. Because it’s really gotten pretty exciting over the years.

Jeanie: I couldn’t agree more. Some of my favorite books are middle grades and young adult books, absolutely.

Erika: Absolutely.

Jeanie: And I love Cornelius Minor’s We Got This. I think it’s so practical. 

Erika: Yeah. When I picked it up I found that it was something that was also accessible. With my focus being Special Ed, sometimes when I’m looking at a book, I look at it through that lens. And whether or not even the formatting of it and how it’s presented is something that feels accessible to a lot of people? And there was something about this that had that feel. Where, especially around race where it can be very emotional and dense and sometimes academic in a way that’s unaccessible? When I looked at this I thought, wow, this is something that has lots of access points. Visually, how it’s laid out, how you can sort of digest pieces of it, and not feel overwhelmed. So, I’m very, very excited about that one too.

Jeanie: That’s a great lead in to this book: Stamped: Racism, Anti-Racism and You. Because Ibram X. Kendi, the co-author of this book, wrote a really dense — really, really, really dense — book called Stamped From the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. And I read about, I would say a third of it before finally I was like I can’t do this and be in a doctoral program too. That book’s been rewritten, or remixed as Jason Reynolds says, for young people in such a way that it’s really accessible, is what I found. Did you also find this to be very accessible?

Erika: I did. And accessible to young people too. And I love the way you mentioned it remixed. You know you’re really tapping into that young adult audience, and inviting them in, in a way that feels connected a bit to them. And I loved that about this book. Because these are important topics. And these are topics that often hit very deeply, in ways that we might not even realize? And can have the ability to divide people, especially sometimes, when you’re presenting truth that is hard to take if you are, sort of the person who’s *not* oppressed. You’re in sort of more the oppressor role in terms of your race or, how you identify. Not that you *are* that person, but that can be a hard thing.

And so, having that be accessible that way? And then also, on the flip side, because as an African American woman here, in the United States, there’s enough trauma, you know?  Intergenerational and ancestral trauma that, seeing it again can tap into a lot of things. From sadness and defeat… to anger. And you separate yourself.

I read some things where honestly I needed to not — quite frankly — be around white people for a little bit. Because it’s hard not to feel that. And I felt that this particular book kind of walked that tone very nicely. Where there’s almost some humorous points to diffuse some of that. And presented in sort of these small chunks that you can kind of get to and then step back from for a minute. So, I really love the way he crafted, what I considered a work of art.

Jeanie: That’s beautifully said and I think of Ibram X. Kendi I’ve read and, I’ve also read his How to Be An Anti-Racist. And he’s a scholar, right? He’s a professor and he writes with a real scholarly tone. And Jason Reynolds changes that tone quite a bit. He adds a little bit of play and a little bit of reading space.

So, let’s start with their voices.


Jeanie:  I should note that you and I both listened to the audiobook reading by Jason Reynolds which is amazingly read.

Erika: Absolutely.

Jeanie: I also loved that Jason Reynolds starts this book, about a conversation that we, especially white folks, we feel very uncomfortable talking about: he starts it off with some deep breaths. And some: “You got this.” 

Erika: Yeah, I was actually shocked in the most pleasant way when I heard him say, one: put it out there. You know: race, the R word. We know we want to run from that! And then he just says like,

“Okay, let’s take a deep breath. Let’s inhale and exhale. Race.”

And then right after that, it was like: “See? Not so bad.”

Again: giving the permission that these terms, this subject that’s so taboo, and so argumentative and so separating — especially in today’s world — doesn’t have to be. It’s not easy; there’s some difficult parts. And yet we’ve done that before in so many other areas. Yet we get to race, the issues about this country and how it’s, kind of gotten to where it is, and it becomes this, no, no, let’s not. So, again, making it the sort of accessible thing. And even saying, okay, you know what? We’re going to take a deep breath, we’re going to be okay.

Jeanie: Yeah. Yeah. It’s almost like this book is a way of inviting us in to say this is uncomfortable to talk about and yet so necessary. I really appreciate the framing, how Kendi defines racism and anti-racism. And then I also really appreciate this other framing, right on page three, it starts right away, that the authors want us to keep in mind these three words as we read, and they are:

  • segregationists
  • assimilationists, and
  • anti-racists.

I also love that Kendi and Reynolds start us off with some really great definitions to frame this text. And there are three of them, so I’m going to share them. They are from pages three and four.

I love how Jason Reynolds put them in this, like you said, accessible language for kids.

Segregationists are haters. Like real haters. People who hate you for not being like them. Assimilationists are people who like you but only with quotation marks. Like… “like” you. Meaning they “like” you because you’re like them. And then there are anti-racists. They love you because you’re like you.

But it’s important to note, life can rarely be wrapped into single-word descriptions. It isn’t neat and perfectly shaped. So sometimes over the course of a lifetime (and even over the course of a day), people can take on and act out ideas represented by more than one of these three identities. Can be both,and. Just keep that in mind as we explore these folks.

And by folks, I think Jason Reynolds is really talking about, all the historical figures that we’re going to follow through this long chapters of American history.

Erika: Yeah, just again: so brilliantly put, in a simplistic way. Because these are complicated concepts that adults struggle with. And have and continue, etc. So, to kind of boil it down to its essence? And put it again in these sort of everyday terms? And again I’m feeling the unapologetically sort of, Black access points. Because that’s who he is and why not make it that way, you know? “Segregationists”, “haters”. Not that other people can understand that, but I access this book as a Black woman and I’m like: yes.

I was listening to the audiobook one day in my kitchen and honest to goodness, I felt almost like the traditional church group, you know? I put my hands up while he was speaking. And I was like: “Yes! Preach!”

Because it just felt so real and living, as opposed to sterile.

Then also feeling that connection with my life because I remember when assimilation was my goal. I might not have understood it, sort of separate from myself, but it was clear that my job was to make exactly what he says: to make you all like me. Not for who I am, but for how well I present myself. And making sure, that I was doing everything *I* needed to do to assimilate and have you all like me.

And it wasn’t until I got older — and I mean *older* — easily into my thirties, forties, before that concept of anti-racists hit me as well. *I* had to come to a point as well where *I* took an anti-racist approach with my own race. Like: no, no this is me and I want people to like me for me. Not because I’ve fit into your box. Or that I’m not, making you uncomfortable. So, I connected with that where some people might not have thought the Black community could kind of see themselves through these definitions.

Jeanie: Well, I just have so many thoughts right now. One is that I really appreciate how this moves us beyond our racist / non-racist binary. It moves us into like: we can find ourselves sliding around on this continuum a little bit. And one person that Kendi and Reynolds really talk about sliding around on this continuum is W.E.B. Du Bois, right? Who, for much of his life, spends a lot of his time as an assimilationist. Wanting Black folks to sort of… emulate white folks in order to be accepted, right? And so they really explore W.E.B. Du Bois own experience as an activist through that lens, too. Like you said: these terms can apply to all of us, right? We can, regardless of our background, find ourselves somewhere at different points on this continuum, at different times in our lives.

Erika: Absolutely. There are times every day where I *need* to slide between assimilation and anti-racist just to make it. I often try to avoid sliding all the way back to the segregation because, to me that kind of does mean the hate of myself and the natural qualities that come with me. But there are moments where if I’m going to be successful in *this* moment at *this* time, so I can make it to the next step? I have to do a little assimilation. You know? And, then, step into something else. *laughs*

Jeanie: Right, right. And I see that. I see that as a pragmatic thing. My understanding, from people of color I’ve talked to, is that you can feel the need to assimilate, in order to meet professional goals, right? To like, get ahead in the workplace. That it can feel really like, necessary maybe, to get that title behind your name or to dress in a certain way in academia, or to present in a certain way. To code-switch, if you will, in order to get your professional needs met. Because we live in a racist society. And this can often be completely invisible to white folks who don’t even see it because they swim in whiteness. 

Erika: Oh, absolutely! Absolutely. I would have assumed that no white folk even understood this is what’s going on. So, absolutely good point about code-switching. Somehow, I never liked the term. I don’t know what it is about it that sort of rubs me the wrong way and it could just be my experience. I understand it, and I understand the need for it. But I mean, sometimes it’s about your job, in order to get to that anti-racist point, you’ve got to do some assimilation, and then kind of gently move yourself around. Sometimes, you’re sick of it. And you just put it out there. 

And sometimes, as we all know — and forgive me if I choke up here — you have to do it to live. It’s not even about making that job… it’s about making it home.

I have a son, and he’s an adult now, how we have those conversations about: absolutely assimilate. Don’t be threatening, because you are; you are already a threat. And, we’re back in that segregationist moment, you know? You’re already a threat, so you better assimilate, so that you can present yourself as less. So, excellent point of what you were saying. It’s situational, its moment to moment. It’s live, get home, move through your job. And for many of us, it’s something we learned so young that we navigate that world. What it does to us, on a deeper level can be — it’s trauma.

Jeanie: I just keep thinking about that survival strategy, and the survival strategy for children of The Talk, right? The real privilege as a white mother is that I don’t have to have that talk. That’s a huge privilege. That I don’t have those same worries because my son is a white kid in a white supremacist society.

One of my favorite sections of the book I think, is actually about this. And it has new language that I was unfamiliar with, and I don’t know if it was new for you. It’s Chapter Nine, page 65. I’m going to read it because I think it’s speaking to just what we’re talking about right here. It’s called Uplift Suasion. Were you familiar with that term, ‘Uplift Suasion’?

Erika: No, I was not.

Jeanie: Me neither. So, it says:

Stamped Jason Reynolds

I think what’s so powerful to me about this passage is that it’s said at the beginning of the book, in the person of history. It says that around the 1790s is really where the authors start to see this emerge. And yet I would say this is still very much a reality of how we live today.

Erika: Oh, absolutely. As you’re reading it, and I’m nodding my head, and whatnot, again, it’s just, it’s my life. It’s my life of how I was brought up. It’s how I’m trying to bring up my son, you know who’s, again, a *Black* male. So, by definition, a life-threatening presence that is worthy of being put down, the way one might…

I remember talking with my nephew as well about this, like, where else, what other circumstances, would you shoot to kill?

That this threat is so significant that it’s completely understandable that you shoot to kill first… then ask questions later.

And I literally went like: grizzly bear. Like that’s all I could think of, you’re in the woods up, upright right there is such a threat that you don’t wait to see, oh, is it friendly, is it going away from me? Is it?  And then as sad as it would be, everyone would understand why you felt such a threat. And this is my *child*.

*deep breath*

An interesting thing is that I’d never heard the term “uplift suasion” — am I saying that correctly?

Jeanie: Yeah. 

Erika: But the idea of “uppity”, which I believe this is. That’s the term. Oh, absolutely! Because growing up we were the uppity Negroes in my community; we were the uppity ones. We were everything you described.

So we dressed properly. And we went to church. No matter what our position was, we held it with grace. We defused. We would not do anything that was a perceived threat. And these things weren’t said out loud, explicitly, but that’s what you understood. I grew up distinctly remembering that I needed to be better than all of my white counterparts growing up in Ocean City, New Jersey.

If you know anything about that town, it’s very, very white, very upper-middle class, very privileged. Very Christian.  I knew right from very early on, the need to be better than. And that was how I presented myself. That was my grades, that was my activities, that was the people I associated with. And again, as we talked about a little bit getting into that segregationists where I was clearly:

“Oh, no, no, I’m not them. No, no, no, no, I’m not *those* Black people, no, no, I’m with you on that. That’s awful. No, no, I’m here. It’s okay.”

So, again as I’m listening to it, it’s one of the first times I’ve heard this kind of depiction where I’m going: yes. That is exactly it.

Jeanie: It echoed your lived experience. Do you think that students, the students you work with, students of color, still feel that need to assimilate and fit in?

Erika: I think they definitely feel the pressure to. Because I sort of hear it in different ways. And it’s interesting because, being an educator of predominantly children of color, and seeing their experiences, and knowing in a way what they’re going to need to do to succeed, and yet realizing: these children don’t know a world where the *possibility* of a Black president isn’t there. They don’t know that world.

Yet on the flip side, they know that simply being “whatever while Black” — being at Starbucks here in Philadelphia while Black, barbecuing while Black — could end your life.

And that becomes a very difficult thing for them. As I watch them trying navigate doing what we just talked about — what you might need to do in this moment to get where you need to get — so that you can do and powerfully do all these things you’re doing. 

Jeanie: Well, I’m just so aware of all of the times that the double standard continues to exist. In this current moment, I’ve been thinking about two things. One is wearing a mask in public, and the acceptability of that being very dependent on race and racist attitudes, right? And how you’re perceived if you’re wearing a face covering.

The other is that I’ve been really wondering, and I’m sure I’m not the only one, what would be happening right now if the people protesting at Statehouses about opening up the economy, were Black instead of white? And thinking about what those protests look like as opposed to what the Black Lives Matter protests looked like, right? Those were like just two really present current-day examples of sort of the way racism plays out in action.

Erika: And what I was going to say is that these are discussions that definitely happen in Black homes, in Black communities, among Black folk. Again, that word, I know in the African American community, especially here in America, you know that “folk” means something. It means lots of things. It oftentimes means your people, but it can be used in both ways, right? Like: “Folk meeting us”, and “Stay away from those folks, over there”. And I think about different terms in different communities and how it can take on multiple meanings.

But I mean absolutely. We have those conversations literally all the time. Here in Philadelphia when there was the celebration of the Eagles, finally, winning a Super Bowl which we all celebrated, although it was still during Colin Kaepernick protesting. Everything is such a dichotomy sometimes, right? But me sitting there watching people on TV climb up lampposts, destroying cars, etcetera, etcetera. And you know, my son and I looking at each other like, they would have shot us by now. As almost an offhand — and yet knowing we mean that wholeheartedly.

Jeanie: That’s a hard truth to carry.

Erika: Exactly and carried every day. I think that’s the other thing.

Jeanie: So, what that makes me think about is that this book really chronicles this idea that racist ideas were used to justify slavery and genocide *as* we colonized the nation that we now call America, right? Like, as we colonized other peoples land, racism came with us. And helped us be able to do these like, morally dodgy things: enslave people, commit mass murder. And that’s not usually how we teach the founding of this country. At all. And it’s not really what I learned in the social studies classroom, right?

So, this book kind of turns it on its head. I’m trying to think about my own experience, my own lived experience, and I would say that I think the way we often framed racism is to say, “Oh, racism comes because of slavery.”

Instead of thinking that slavery that racism came here and justified slavery. And was encoded into laws in order to do that.

Erika: I would even go a step further to say it didn’t just do it to justify. This country couldn’t work — not then, not now — without it. 

I was in college before I saw a diagram of a slave ship. And how they transported slaves. As horrific as I understood it to be — Roots was just mind-blowing in my life, when I was younger — I assumed they sat up. In chairs, or not really in chairs, but with planks. Chained to each other, which was a horrendous thing in the first place, but sitting up, next to one another, and that’s how they were transported. Isn’t that horrible? They were in the bowels of the ship and all of that. But of course they were sitting up. 

And to see a diagram where the idea of that packing? Literally on top of those, crushing those underneath. It’s the way you would do with any other… commodity.

Jeanie: So, that really interests me in several ways.

One is: I’m really wondering about how we need to prepare teachers, or what teachers need to do to prepare themselves, to teach hard history.

And Teaching Tolerance is a great source for that, right? Like they have resources on teaching, literally called Teaching Hard History

stamped jason reynolds


And then this concern that if we only teach slavery, like if we only teach Black History where it’s only about the trauma and the pain, and where there isn’t a real sense of agency for Black and brown folks, that’s also problematic. So I guess, I think that Teaching Tolerance talks a lot about that as curriculum violence. What do you think teachers need to be aware of if they’re going to have frank conversations about race in history and racism in history in their classrooms? 

Erika: The harsh reality is, until you understand, until you really *understand* how your very life benefits, from this thing called race and oppression, how do you have that conversation? 

One of the things that scares me the most, in terms of the damage that could be done to our young people of color is a “woke” liberal white female teacher. That to me is this.

Jeanie: Are you looking at me, Erika? It’s okay.

*both laugh*

Erika: As a group! As a whole group! You know, you’re asking the right questions. And yet, we’re all going to make mistakes. We’re all going to trip in our way here. Sometimes — again, I come very harsh from the old school — sometimes I see how that can emasculate our young men. And yet, here I am, you know, preaching that for their survival. So it becomes a very difficult, tricky thing think that I sometimes wonder what is the answer. And it’s hard because, again: starting at slavery, means we start from a point of we were always oppressed. Imagine. Imagine if we taught in this country, that we started history coming from the origin of humanity. Kings. Queens. Richest person in the world, technology, agriculture, architecture, all of the things that we admire in this world, originated, came from, was stolen from, people of color.

Jeanie: It’s like our colonialist lens run so deep that we can’t even see — gosh, I hate using the “we”. The American colonialist perspective runs so deep that it’s hard for us to see or acknowledge all of the other ways of knowing and being in the world that are of value. So, you see through this really narrow lens. And that narrow lens which came across the Atlantic with us, prescribes history in this really narrow way. And then, I think that Ibram X. Kendi and Jason Reynolds point out that our first educational institution, Harvard University, is steeped in that. Is steeped in that perspective.

So, it makes me think of all the work.

And I think what you’re calling out, and I agree, about woke white women educators is that there’s a lot of work that has to be done personally to understand our own privilege in order to be even able to have these kinds of conversations. It makes me think when I was a school librarian at a middle and high school, often, this issue would come up with students where they would be talking about race and racism, and students would often say,

“Well, my family didn’t own slaves. This has nothing to do with me.”

And I wish I had had this book at that time to help me better have language. Or help me help them understand the way it’s all connected. The way that their history, their family genealogy is connected.

Erika: And I think that’s a good point about this book and the accessibility of it. Because again, it does sort of give language that’s… more easily understood. More easily consumed, more easily brought in these smaller pieces. Because even as I’m talking to you, it just keeps getting bigger and bigger and, you’re sort of back to: “What do you do?”

And I never want to get to that point, because obviously there are things we can do. How brilliant of these two gentlemen to come up with, you know a book like this. That’s not my forte. And yet, both you and I can use this in different ways.

It’s funny you said, “understanding privilege”.  I was talking to someone about even that term and again we needed something to understand how, just sort of whiteness allows things to happen. And I was sitting there going, well, we use this term “privilege”; even that puts that perspective in a superior position. Even the word “privileged”, we tried to evolve to sort of White Frailty to kind of understand that. Actually, this is a disadvantage because the privilege that we’re talking about is a disadvantage. 

Jeanie: Yeah. That’s such a good point. I wonder what it would look like if we talked about how our systems privileged people instead of calling people privileged, right? Because that’s the point.

One of the things that I think is brought up in this book is redlining, right?

And so, after World War II, veterans were given money. My grandfather, for example, was given enough money to build a house, even though he had like a middle school education. He wasn’t an educated man; I come from a really working class people. But he bought 10 acres in Pennsylvania and built a house and was allowed to sort of settle in a certain part of town. And this is in Washington, Pennsylvania where I grew up.

That wasn’t allowed for everybody, right? Like people of color were pushed into apartments in cities and towns. And like redlining was a part of that. And it’s still something that’s ongoing. in terms We don’t call it redlining anymore, right? But there’s still systems in place that make it easier that privilege white folks for buying houses, especially in specific areas.

And so, instead of thinking of my grandfather as a privileged human, I think about the systems and how the systems disproportionately privilege some folks over others. some racial groups over other racial groups. And I think Ibram Kendi really asks us to look beyond intent to impact and to say: something is racist if it has racist implications on the population, right? 

Like if the outcomes are racist. If you can look at that and see this proportionality than that policy, regardless of its intent, is racist. I’m just playing with that idea because we use that word, “privilege”. We’ve been using that word a lot. I use that word a lot; I think about that word a lot. But I really hear what you’re saying and it’s not that white folks are privileged folks, but that the systems privileges them.

Erika: Yeah. I mean, I think we get to the term sometimes where language matters. A lot of things I see in social media groups I’m a part of as a Black person, is where we say things like “Representation matters. Being able to see yourself matters. ” Words matter too. Imagine, just imagine if we flipped it, again, the way they did in this book to say: “No, no, that’s oppression. That’s what that is. It’s oppression. Oppressive systems, put in place to keep people oppressed.

And the privilege that you have is simply you’re part of the oppressors.

Jeanie: Yes. I benefit from an oppressive system. 

Erika: Exactly. You benefit from the oppression of others, the system that oppresses. Imagine that. Imagine that’s the language that’s used almost the way. Again, they sort of flip the script in terms of how things are done. And not intentionally to make everyone feel bad badly. But this is kind of what’s going on.

So, I think one of the things that I’m thinking about now when you asked me what would it take? I do get very encouraged by the young people. By young people as they come up, being exposed to this book. Because I think it will take sort of this generational push coming from the ground up, of young group understanding more and more. Seeing it in a different way. Being educated about it in a different way. Approaching it a different way, hopefully kind of would move to a point where more people understand that this can’t work this way. 

Jeanie: I appreciate you pushing me on that language because it’s really making me think. I think our country pushes this narrative of the meritocracy. That people who are rich deserve to be rich. This whole idea of bootstraps and pulling yourself up by your boot-straps is a part of the fabric of our nation. And I think that it’s one of the narratives that makes it hard for white folks to see when they’ve benefited from the oppression of others. Because we like to think of ourselves as — and I’m going to use the language, even though it’s sexist — as self-made men, right? We want to think of ourselves as self-made men.

And I think what that does, I think it does two things.

I think it erases a lot of stories, right? Like, the stories of people work really hard and the system doesn’t benefit them, and so they still have less.

And then I think it also whitewashes folks, and I notice this in the narrative. These sort of American heroes that history whitewashes in that way. So I’m thinking not just of Thomas Jefferson; we know Jefferson was problematic, that he owned slaves, that he had children with one of his slaves, right? But also Abraham Lincoln, who we think of as American Hero, who held a lot of really racist ideas. And in many ways was still not even an assimilationist but a segregationist in his policies, even as he ended slavery.

Erika: Absolutely. Again, I grew up the same way in terms of understanding these heroes, including Abraham Lincoln among Black folk. I mean, come on, he freed the slaves, right? Like, that’s the narrative. And it wasn’t until, again, I’m certain I was out of grade school, that I understood what the Emancipation Proclamation did. Who it freed, the political strategy of why that happened. And actually, a surprising person helped me understand this: my sister’s then-husband, from Texas.

And Texas very much celebrates Juneteenth, and had in history. He’s the one who sort of helped me understand that there was something else. I was like, what are you talking about? Again: uppity, educated. And he’s like, “Wow, y’all are so ignorant up here.” I’m thinking, I’m ignorant, really? But again, because as educated folk, you start to understand these things.

I went to Monticello and I got that tour, not so long ago. And I was heartbroken in the way slaves were presented. But I was told this was a big deal. Not by the tour guides but by my cousin who lived there, because before they didn’t even mention slaves.

It wasn’t even mentioned.

And the fact now that it was mentioned was such a big deal, with this smiling glee… And they took you down to the slave quarters and they pumped in the music, and I’m just sitting there —   of course the only Black person there. I was just like looking around like I might be in The Twilight zone and they had just uncovered what they felt was a slave graveyard. But again, sort of starting to understand this and even, and bringing it forward and, telling it from a different standpoint.

Jeanie: I think this book reminded me to a year or two ago, I read The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson, which is a history of the Great Migration. And so I think that there’s this common narrative, at least in school social studies, which is like: we had slaves and then the Civil War came and then we ended slavery and all is good, right? And then Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King in the Civil Rights begin, right? 

Jim Crow happened too, but I think The Warmth of Other Suns really illuminated for me, again, not a history person, the ways in which we ended slavery only for slavery to continue in other forms. In the form of sharecropping, in the form of imprisoning people for no reason and forcing them into labor camps. Right? That Black folks, right after the Civil War, in the years following the Civil War, couldn’t change jobs. Like, in order to migrate to Chicago, they had to leave at dark, and sneak away from their jobs. That’s not freedom. That’s still slavery.

And then thinking about Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi do such a good job of bringing up, bringing Angela Davis into their story, which brings really this modern version of slavery, which is mass incarceration. We’ve still got so much work to do.

Erika: So much!

Jeanie: So much. 

Erika: So much.

Jeanie: So, I wondered how you might use this book with students. 

Erika: It’s one of those books that I feel would be most, almost most effective cross-curricular.

Jeanie: Oh, I completely agree.

Erika: Right? Because everything about race is cross-curricular, you know. As you were just saying: the economics of it, the math, the mathematics of it, the socialization of it, the science, right? Come on, we were 3/5th of a person, you know. And then, even the modern science of it. How effective and how powerful would this be if teens really did understand that this almost became a *theme* book that sort of helps be the essential questions if you will, of other things that you’re teaching, for a time. That this is a unit where this becomes the fabric through which we channel everything.

You know what I mean? And really connect that. So that it can be seen because I think there is a danger I certainly experienced it, right? The danger of the sort of isolated social studies lesson of exactly what you said, right? There was slavery… and then Lincoln, yay! Slavery was over!  Then we had some Civil Rights, good, way to go Rosa and Martin — never mentioning Malcolm X, of course. And then woo-woo, if you are lucky enough to be young and then Obama. It all works. See how it all worked! A direct line!

Jeanie: Right. And so there’s no racism anymore because we had Obama! 

Erika: Yeah. And yet, we know how dangerous that is, you know. So imagine this being a cross-curricular embedded in everything that’s done.

Jeanie: I love that idea, Erika. And then one of the things I’ve been thinking about, having read this, is that reading it in a big chunk, like reading the whole thing, listening to the whole thing: it’s a lot, right? You cover a lot of history. And one of the things I wondered about is using chunks of this text along with other texts and ideas. And so, thinking about incorporating John Lewis’s March series, with section four, right? Which is through 1963, and home is where the hatred is. And then into Section 5 where Martin Luther King is assassinated, right? So really thinking about those pieces together.

And then also, I was thinking about science and what you said, and there’s a lot about the human genome that comes in in this book towards the end. So thinking about what it would look like to do a little study of this along with Henrietta Lacks. And by that, I mean, let’s look about the way her cells were used without her permission or family’s permission. And are still used in most of our cancer research!

So, thinking about how that could be cross-curricular around race and justice in science, and in social studies, and combining with language arts and reading part of that great Henrietta Lacks book. Or even thinking about their sections of this book that reminded me of Katherine Johnson and that fabulous book and movie Hidden Figures, right?  And I thought a lot about that book and movie in certain sections of this text as well, and how those things could sort of give kids a better understanding of the way that race plays out across our disciplines in society. I really love that.

Erika: Yeah, absolutely. And I know this is sort of a, I don’t know, I want to say pipe dream. But: I’ve seen it where I teach, where we serve by far the large percentage of African-American students, particularly students of color, where the proportion is clear that we are the majority at our school — and yet, we still do not present texts, literatures, ideas, even haven’t forbid 50/50, in terms of an African-American perspective or person of color perspective.

And imagine if what we’re doing in schools is flipping that narrative, so that that perspective is the forefront and that other texts are supporting that in either different views or things like that. The way we’ve taught up until this point, right?  A very white perspective that we kind of filter, and attached and maybe sprinkle a little seasoning on top of which has been our understanding.

And imagine again just to try to get things sort of in the equilibrium is flipping that. Swinging that pendulum over to the side. Even trying to spend a year where the main texts, and things that we understand things, *come* from that perspective, as being the perspective, we look through. And then, okay, now understanding that, yes, of course there are others. How do they play in, and what does that do?

Imagine the powerful generations that would come through with that. 

Everyone is a better person when you can have more vast experiences. When you can step into the shoes of someone else, when you can begin to understand someone else’s perspective. And the way this country is designed, it has been that something that we as Black people have always had to do. We *have to* understand your world. We have to understand the nuances and whatnot if we are going to succeed.

Jeanie: It just makes me think as a librarian, and I think especially as a school librarian, I think over the years there’s this narrative. In Vermont there’s a narrative that’s like, well, most of our students are white, so we don’t have to deal with this. And it makes, it makes you ask the question like

“What kind of white people do you want to raise? Like, what kind of white people do you want in the world?”

And then also thinking about the many years that teachers, maybe not just teachers but that folks assume that boys won’t read books that have a girl main character, right? Yet we assume girls won’t read books that feature boys all the time.

Then thinking about like the same thing with race, right?

Like with any kind of difference really. We are so used to seeing ourselves centered as white folks that it can be jarring at first when we start reading books that center folks that are different than us. And that’s exactly what we need, right?

Erika: When I think about what would be ideal, especially from a woman of color’s perspective — which is the only perspective I’ve had — it’s my lived experience. I oftentimes think about what an amazing educational system, from a librarian standpoint, it wasn’t: fiction… and African-American fiction.

Jeanie: Yes! Yes.

Erika: If it wasn’t history… and African-American history. If it was simply history. 

And I mean, that’s the world I hope for, which is a hard one to imagine. But I hope that we make these type of realizations, like these conversations between us. Books like Stamped. You know things that start to help us. And I mean, that’s the Royal we, right? To help us to understand how upside-down things are, because that’s what I feel like it is. We are upside down. It’s sprinkling and isn’t going to work. We have to go through the work and the hard, agonizing, exhausting almost never-ending work of even starting to turn this, right side up.

Jeanie: You’re making me think a lot about Rudine Sims Bishop. And she’s the person who coined this idea of books as Windows, Mirrors and Sliding Doors? This idea about representation. That all kids deserve to see themselves in literature, and that books can also be this window where we can see the lives of others. And then sliding doors where we can find the commonality, right?

Diversity in Children's Books 2018 infographic from School Library Journal.

And I’m thinking about we use that a lot in literature. We think about that a lot in literature. And I love the idea of using that in history as well. We all deserve to see ourselves *with agency* in history. Not just as victims of history. Some of us get to see ourselves in history that way regularly, right? But like, where do we get to portray folks in their brilliance and their agency and their power as empowered in history as changemakers, right?

You’ve got me really thinking about that. And in science and in all disciplines like, what does that look like? It feels like an important part of that conversation.

Erika: Absolutely. I think it, again, as we’ve said before that it makes it accessible and it gives a sort of entry point to have those difficult conversations, you know. And talk about representation where, I had this discussion even at my own school, where, as a person of color, as a Black woman, I see your array of books that’s very diverse on your end and I’m looking and I’m like:

“Yeah. Why is the only book that has a Black male leader about a gang member who ends up killing two people and dies himself and he’s ten. Where is that equivalent in white literature?”

Jeanie: Yes, yes, yes. 

Erika: Where’s your YA book for Jeffrey Dahmer? And it’s a true story by the way up. That book is a true story of a young man. And again: not that it’s not a powerful, wonderful piece of literature to include. But how is that the only representation? What messages are we sending? If I manage to find, a YA whatever. Jeffrey Dahmer, whoever, pick a person, but where the center person was white, troubled, killed people, and then killed himself, and then presenting that? What would that pushback look like? And yet that’s acceptable.

Jeanie: Yes, I completely agree. Not every book about Black folks need to be issue- or social justice-oriented, right? Like sometimes we just want fantasy where the main character is Black, for crying out loud.

Erika: Just a story!

Jeanie: I just want a story, yeah.

Erika: I just want a story.

Jeanie: Totally hear that. So, I feel like we should wrap this up and I wanted to end with just a little bit of the Afterward because I think it’s a nice way to close and put a, sort of the book ends on our conversation because we started with the beginning. I’m going to read a little bit of it, and then maybe we can hear some final thoughts.

I love that it ends this way with this sentence.

How do you feel?  I mean, I hope after reading this not history, history book, you’re left with some answers. I hope it’s clear how the construct of race has always been used to gain and keep power, whether financially or politically, how it is always been used to create dynamics that separate us to keep us quiet, to keep the ball of white and rich privilege rolling. And that it’s not woven into people as much as it’s woven into policy that people adhere to. And believe is truth.

Laws that have kept Black people from freedom, from voting, from education, from insurance, from housing, from government assistance, from healthcare, from shopping, from walking, from driving, from breathing. Laws that treat Black human beings like nothing.

I think that was really important for me as a learner to realize that legislation is racist, and creates racist conditions.

And I wondered if you had any last thoughts on that or on the book in general. 

Erika: I mean, do I have thoughts? Of course. It’s sort of like there’s so much, right to swirl in. I think, and kind of closing and wrapping up our discussion around this book: I want to extend gratitude. Because it takes, the saying is, it takes a village to raise a child. It takes more than a village to push against this enormous beast, if you will, of racism. It takes varied voices, and approaches. And it takes those who have been doing it for a while to be able to step back and take a breath. Because this is hard, exhausting work and have someone else, step in. 

It takes people from all views, approaches, races — to have a turn in this work. And my gratitude for someone like the authors… Jason Reynolds, particularly for his young people approach. To take up that mantle and say: hey, you know what? Here’s something we can look at.

And knowing that myself, for instance — not putting myself on their level — but, who does the work in a different way has that resource.

The gratitude of these type of different perspectives that are coming in, that are taking up the mantle that are bringing a fresh approach or, bringing a different group in? That gives me hope. Because there was a time not that long ago, that I was tired. And I was seeing the enormity of this. I had seen the changes that had happened and yet everything still being the same. And got to a point where I’m like: forget it. We’re never going to do this. How are we going to do this? We’re never going to do this.

And thankfully there are those who not only come before us, but also come after us, to say: It’s okay. It’s all right. You rest. You rest for a bit. I got this. I’m going to bring this book in. And that’s going to allow you to have a second wind.

That’s what it’s going to take. So, I have hope and meeting people like yourself who are asking the questions, at least.

I went through generations of, you wouldn’t even ask the question. People who understand this more that they don’t know then what they know. I think that’s, so important. So, the gratitude for you to be willing to have a conversation with a Black woman on a topic like this. This wouldn’t have happened — it’s never happened to me if I’m being honest.

I live in a very urban, environment and yet, so, seeing people like you where you’re saying:

“No, no,  please help me understand. I know my perspective is limited. I know that I’m going to say this maybe, not in quite the way I mean it, because I have this perspective, please come.”

That gives me gratitude. Such gratitude. 

Jeanie: Well, I’m so grateful for you for sharing your perspective. Your lived experience, your experience as an educator. Because I think this book is important, because once we know all of the ways in which race is used to uphold power and privilege and economic and political gain for some, and not for others? Then we can do something about it. Until we know, we can’t really do anything about it. So, I’m really grateful to you for taking the time to talk to me about this fabulous book. I can’t wait to hear how teachers start using it and young people to start experiencing it.

Erika: Absolutely. 

Jeanie: Thank you so much. Thank you so much for your time, Erika. I’m so grateful. 

Erika: Thank you. It’s been a pleasure. It really has. And I appreciate it all.

#vted Reads: Juliet Takes a Breath

Welcome back to #vted Reads! The podcast for, with and by Vermont educators. I’m Jeanie Phillips and in this episode, we’re joined by Dolan, in talking about Juliet Takes a Breath, by Gabby Rivera. Along the way, we talk white fragility, preferred pronouns (and how your students can let you know what’s safe and appropriate for them in different settings), we learn about Gloria E Anzaldúa’s Borderlands, and answer the question: ‘What can adults do to support students in their activisim?’

Plus, I confess my shortcomings as a meditator.

It’s #vted Reads. Let’s chat!

Jeanie: Thank you for joining me, Dolan. Tell us a little bit about who you are,  and what you do.

Dolan: My name is Dolan and I go by they/them pronouns. I currently live in Vermont, and I’m in a doctoral program with Jeanie, which is really lovely, in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies. Before that, I worked for six years coordinating and directing LGBTQ resources and services on college campuses. On different campuses across the country.

And most I recently moved here from California. Before that was Missouri, before that I was here in Vermont, doing my master’s program in the Higher Ed Student Affairs HESA program, just a really transformative experience for me.

I love reading, especially queer-trans, people of color or QTPOC Fiction. It’s really fun to get lost in a book, especially a book that pushes me, or resonates with me, or one maybe I feel seen in.

I am biracial. I’m white and Latinx. My mom was born in Cuba. And I definitely feel that I have a lot of white privilege and white-passing privilege. I am queer. I’m bisexual and I’m non-binary. Which is why I go by they/them pronouns, although some non-binary people go by different pronouns as well. And I’m excited to be on this podcast today.

Jeanie: Oh, I’m so excited to talk to you about this book. We talk about books all the time. One of the questions I asked my guest is what book are they reading now. And you are always reading a ton of books! As you walked in, you are like, I just now finished The Water Dancer — a book I adored. So, I wondered if you wanted to share any other highlights from your reading list?

Dolan: Yeah, I literally, as you said just finished The Water Dancer moments before this podcast recording. It was a beautiful read. Really beautiful POC fiction that I recommend to everyone. Also right now I’m finishing up Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower. And also finishing Ibram X. Kendi’s, How to be an Antiracist?

And I have a few more that I’m about to read but I can’t remember the names of. I use the Libby app and love downloading audiobooks and listening that way. I’m supporting my local library.

This past winter break since I’m a student, I read a lot of really fun books and one that sticks out to me is Darius the Great Is Not Okay. I loved that young adult novel. So. Definitely recommend that one too.

Jeanie: That’s a great one. And yay, public libraries! Yay libraries. I also just want, for listeners who may not be familiar, could you talk to me a little bit about the shorthand you use? You just used “POC” and that stands for People of Color. Is there other shorthand you might use that we could spell out for listeners as they listen?

Dolan: Yeah! So like I said I sometimes say “QTPOC” for Queer and Trans People of Color. I found living on the East Coast people pronounce it “P.O.C.” for People of Color and living on the West Coast, I found people pronounce it “POC” [pawk] for People of Color. So…I don’t know. I’ve bounced back and forth because I’ve lived in both places. And I’m still readjusting to the East Coast lingo.

But when I say POC or P.O.C., I’m referring to People of Color. So, what I mean by that personally is non-white people. That can be people mixed with white like myself, or others who are not mixed with white, people who are mixed or not mixed in general.

So, usually that looks like Black Indigenous Latinx or Latino / Latina people. And Asian Pacific Islanders, Middle Eastern — other people who might identify. I also use the word “Latinx” instead of Latino or Latina, because while some people feel confused by Latinx because it’s less pronounceable in Spanish, it’s a word that was created by Latino / Latina / Latinx people to acknowledge the fact that our language, Spanish, is gendered. That all nouns and adjectives, almost all of them completely have gender. Which is very strange in my opinion. And a little bit constricting for people like myself and many, many others who identify outside of the gender binary, or just generally feel restricted by that binary.

So, a lot of times when words end in “o” and “a” in Spanish people put an “x” there, which again is a challenging pronunciation. But it’s more so to acknowledge that the binary isn’t really real. It’s a figment of our imagination. And that it can be really even violent towards folks. So, a lot of times I’ll say Latinx in this, especially talking about Juliet.

Jeanie: I so appreciate you breaking down those words for us. Words have so much power! And so, I’m trying in my life in general to be more intentional with the words that I use? And I just really appreciate you making that accessible to us.

So, let’s dig in to Juliet Takes a Breath by Gabby Rivera. I wondered if you could introduce us to the narrator of our story here, Juliet.

Dolan: Yeah. So, Juliet is growing up in the Bronx in the book, she identifies in some ways as gay, as queer or part of the LGBTQ community. She has a girlfriend. You find that out like, on page four. And she’s boricua. She’s Puerto Rican. That’s a word that a lot of Puerto Rican folks use to describe themselves.

She’s kind of coming into herself throughout the entire book. And learning to love all parts of herself, striving for authenticity in all areas of her life. She’s navigating sometimes the harsh terrain of Puerto Rican Catholicism, and Latinx familia. Figuring out what it looks like to be young, to be queer. To be closeted in the beginning of the book, and figuring out how to be authentic in that space. Where she’s really embraced in her culture.

And she’s kind of dodging those questions at home about a boyfriend or a husband in the future. She shines brightly with her girlfriend in the beginning of the book, too. And she’s still learning kind of the hard way that this white supremacist society teaches us that she lives at the intersections of a lot of marginalization. So, she’s still learning that being in her brown, Puerto Rican family, she’s hiding a part of herself for protection: her queerness. And she seems to be desperate for more queer-friendly spaces. To seek protection from homophobia and sexism and the harassment that she’s experiencing a lot. She talks in her first chapter about experiencing some street harassment.

At the same time, she’s expecting — and she has every right to expect — a non-racist queer space, which many of us know is hard to come by. She’s still reckoning with the fact that much of the violence she experiences isn’t just sexist, it’s racialized. And I think she’s learning that throughout the book: that men harass her because of her brown body, her curvy body. Her Latina body is very sexualized by society; not just her woman body.

And so, I think Juliet is still figuring herself out. She’s very open and honest and vulnerable about that, at least with the reader. Very humble in that way: grounded in that humility of “I want to learn about feminism, and queerness; I have this girlfriend, but I still have to pay homage to my, you know, my elders in the queer community.”

And I think she still is learning that she has a lot to give and a lot to teach.

Jeanie: Early on in that chapter, she is struggling with how to come out to her family. And I think especially her mother. And she’s already out to her little brother who is bloody adorable.

Dolan: Amazing.

Jeanie: And also, challenges notions of Latinx masculinity, right? He is a total sweetheart. But, she wants to come out to the rest of her family. And one of the things that I really loved about this book was the tenuous way Gabby Rivera sort of walks this fine line of like, “I need to be who I am and be honest about that” and “I really need to be connected to my family.” Juliet’s not willing just to reject them. And I wondered if that was also her experience as a person of color.

Dolan: I think so. A lot of times queer communities look very white. And part of that, then perpetuates this narrative that communities of color, and families of color are more homophobic or transphobic. Queerphobic. And it’s just not the case, a 100% just not the case.

I just think that it’s a much more complex narrative than reading this book and saying, “Oh yeah, Latinx people are homophobic.” Or, “Juliet’s mom is just, you know, really homophobic in the beginning.” It’s that Juliet’s mom is living in this world; she wants the best for her daughter. And while the best for her daughter is *not* for her to be as heterosexual as possible, that’s the way she’s thinking, right? So we have to hold space for that and hope some forgiveness for that and recognize that this was an act of protection and survival and not *because* brown people are more homophobic.

Jeanie: Yeah, I appreciate that because I think it also leads us along into the story, because Juliet, as a very young college student, is heading out for an internship. She has discovered this author that has been life changing for her: Harlow. Harlow’s written this sort of feminist treatise that really resonates for Juliet. And Juliet’s heading to Portland, Oregon which in the book it cracks me up that her family is always saying, “Right, you’re going to Iowa.” Portland feels so far away from them!

But she’s heading to Portland, Oregon, which is a really white space. So, you’ve set us up nicely to think about Juliet’s experience as a person of color heading to this very white space. She’s *really* excited because she’s also heading to this really queer space.

Dolan: And I think that Juliet doesn’t know to look for both of those things. She sees, “Oh wow, this is some queer haven where people are saying this. This writer is writing all these queer-friendly, queer-affirming things. That must be what I need, right? Because I’m held in my brownness at home, but I’m not necessarily being held in my queerness right now. So, I need to go be held in my queerness, right?”

And that’s where I think we need to be thinking intersectionally because I feel for Juliet, this is so real, so valid, that she would run towards that and not recognize that she, unfortunately won’t be held in her brownness in that space.

Jeanie: Right, and the intersection of the two. One of the people that lives in the house with Harlow, early on in the book, takes her out. I think it’s her second day in Portland, her first full day in Portland. And he takes her out to sort of get to know the town and he, you know, he’s having a rough time himself. He gets really adversarial with her. And he starts asking her about her preferred pronouns. She’s never heard this phrase before. So, for our listeners who maybe haven’t either, could you talk a little bit about what we mean when we say “preferred pronouns”?

Dolan: Yeah. So, pronouns are this very simple yet very complex thing. We use pronouns all the time in the English language to refer to people in the first, second and third person without using their names. And so, when we’re talking about pronouns, we’re talking about third person pronouns. Those look like “he” and “she”, right? In the singular, right? So, when we’re talking about people we’ll say, “Oh, I met up with him / I went to dinner with her / know her” whatever it might be, right? And we have to recognize the gendering that happens in those third person pronouns.

So queer folks, trans folks created this new way of talking about ourselves. Because a lot of folks have said, you know, we can’t be what we can’t see. We have to be able to create language to talk about ourselves because we’re creating new ways of being and living. And if we’re not able to talk about it, other folks won’t see us. We are paving paths for others to be able to see themselves in us.

And so, gender-inclusive pronouns are ways that we asked folks to refer to us that aren’t misgendering to us. Because not everyone identifies as a man with “he” pronouns or a woman with “she” pronouns. And so, gender-inclusive pronouns often look like using they/them pronouns, which, again is kind of a repurposed plural pronoun that we all know, if English is our language of use.

They’re ways of acknowledging people that we wouldn’t be able to acknowledge. And I have to say as a person who use they/them pronouns and is non-binary: when people misgender me, it hurts. Not just because, oh, they made a grammar mistake. It’s never about that, right? I fully recognize that it takes a lot of re-learning in order to use these newer words for folks or using old words like “they” in new ways.

When English is not our first language and we’re really having to think through each word, I’d recognize that’s really tricky, especially folks are translating in their heads as they’re speaking, it’s complicated.

So I think the most important thing and the most amazing thing that folks can do is recognize that we can’t know someone’s pronouns without asking? And to provide some space for folks to name their pronouns. So when you’re in a meeting or a class, in the beginning if people are introducing themselves asked folks to offer their pronouns as well, right? If you’re making name tags for a conference or for a one-day thing or for permanent name tags for people’s offices names and pronouns, right? If we couldn’t guess your name, we couldn’t guess your pronoun.

One more thing I’ll share is that they can change over time and in different contexts, right? Let’s say Juliet wanted to use they/them pronouns for themselves. But at home, maybe that wasn’t safe. So when we’re talking with Juliet’s mom, we’re using she/her, right? When we’re talking with Juliet in class, we’re using they/them. And so checking in with folks and saying, “Hey, I just want to be a support to you, let me know if it shifts for you or if there are ways that I can support you.”

And a lot of times if you have a young student, for example, I see this a lot in youth, where they’re [in the Gay-Straight Alliance] they’ll say,

“Oh, I want to use these pronouns. But when you’re meeting with my parent at the parent-teacher conference, use these [other] pronouns, right?”

And that’s a way of protecting someone and letting them play with their identity and their language a little to see what fits.

Jeanie: Yes, I’ve had that experience actually in schools of using one set of pronouns with the student and a different set of pronouns on the report card or with the family and it’s super important to keep LGBTQ folks safe.

Dolan: Absolutely.

Jeanie: I’m going to insert into the transcript to my yearly public service announcement, which is The LGBTQ Bill of Rights for Students (.pdf) which is an important document that I think should be at schools everywhere.

Now, is there a role for ally ship in this? If I’m with you and somebody misgenders you, what’s my role as your friend, as your ally?

Dolan: I think it’s tricky because you may be with a youth. Or you may be with someone in front of their family. Like I said, it can change based on the context. So a lot of times, I say one of the best first steps can be to check in with the person afterwards.

“Hey, I was in that room and I noticed that someone misgendered you. How can I support you?”

Right? And I think that’s huge because that non-binary person that trans person definitely noticed that they were misgendered. Very rarely I’m I like, “Oh, they did?”

I almost always know that: yes, you’re right. Thank you for noticing. I felt alone in that moment. I felt isolated and unseen and you saw me. And that is a big deal to feel seen even when others are kind of harassing you, right?

Jeanie: That is so helpful. I just so appreciate this conversation. And I think Juliet, in the book, could have really benefited from a friend like you to sort of help them navigate, like. because she sits there for a long time and struggles with like, what even is that?

Dolan: That’s a big undertone of that interaction that she has with this man! And there’s something to be said about her being consistently marginalized around even not being queer enough — which is a big narrative in our communities, unfortunately — for this space. And Juliet is not able to see herself reflected back in this community and feel like she can contribute and teach and be part of, you know, that spac. Because she doesn’t *know* enough. Which is not fair when we webinars our own work against each other, right?

Jeanie: This reminds me of a conversation I had last night with a friend of mine who works with a lot of ELL students, and this student who is Nepali, is taking a Spanish class. And the student said to my friend who’s working with her, “All of the white kids in the Spanish class are *so* good.”

And, my friend Jory says, “Well, do you think it’s because that this is your third language you’re learning? Do you think they would be as smart in Nepal?”

Dolan: Ooh.

Jeanie: I bring this back to Juliet because in a way what Juliet had seen is like, “Oh, is it because I’m brown that I don’t…?” Right? And she is really seeing this white perspective and feeling like she doesn’t know enough. Meanwhile, nobody in the whole place is acknowledging anything about her Puerto Rican background.

Dolan: Absolutely. Absolutely. And they don’t feel like they need to take responsibility for that learning. It’s a very complex pattern throughout the book.

Jeanie: It’s a double-standard, right?

Dolan: Absolutely.

Jeanie: You need to know all of these things to fit into the queer community, but we don’t need to know anything about your cultural background.

Dolan: Right, exactly. And we will punch your card when you’re ready, right? Your queer card. And that’s just nonsense, yes.

Jeanie: But not all the spaces Juliet experiences are like that. She gets taken to a Writer Warriors workshop. And I wonder maybe we could read a few pages of it. To introduce this space.

Dolan: So before I start reading, for those who you are following along at home, it’s on page 106. Juliet is in this space being hosted by Zaira. And Zaira is a Black queer woman.

Jeanie: Thank you for that. First before we go anywhere else, can we just express our mutual appreciation and love for Octavia Butler?

Dolan: Yes, she’s so amazing. I really want to just beg everyone to please read all of her books. Kindred is currently on my nightstand and I’ve only read her Earth series so far, Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. But holy-moly, it’s just amazing dystopian fiction that will feel way realer than 1984.

Jeanie: So, we just needed to get that out of the way because we have talked about Octavia Butler a bunch. But let’s go back, because what ends up happening is and I’m going to read this part because it’s the white woman’s part. Okay.

So, on page 110, you know, they’re finishing up this workshop, where Juliet is like, she’s a writer, but she’s doubting that she’s a science fiction writer. And she’s rediscovering Octavia Butler’s brand of science fiction, which is a little bit different.

But as they’re leaving, Juliet overhears a conversation and here it is.

You’re cracking up over there!

Dolan: I am!

Jeanie: Tell me what you’re thinking.

Dolan: Just the, “I know reverse racism doesn’t exist, but…”

You know it’s never going to go in a good place after that. I just know that. And literally the line right after you stopped reading Juliet kind of says, as the narrator, “I didn’t really know what was wrong from what they said, but it felt weird.”

And I want to acknowledge that. It’s so valid. I love that she shares that with the reader.

And I think it also reminds me of the magic that we have, right? Our intuition, how Juliet maybe hasn’t read a book about privilege and whiteness and white supremacy, but she knew in her bones, in her gut, in her heart, her soul that what just happened wasn’t right, you know. She didn’t need that academic training on the topic to know it, right?

And just a few pages after that, Harlowe gets in the car, with Zaira and some others, and she had just talked to some white women who were fawning over her writing–

Jeanie: –and Harlowe is a white woman, a white writer.

Dolan: Exactly. And she sits in the car. I think she’s the only white woman in the car. Everyone else is a woman of color after this session and she’s just kind of like humphing. And Juliet talks about how she’s all pointy and all edges and very sharp, you know? She’s just making the stink, right? And how a lot of times white women, white feminists, white queer feminists can’t really acknowledge that racism still exists right now, still, in all of us day-to-day in our interactions we’re witnesses to it and we’re perpetrators of it, right?

Jeanie: Yes.

Dolan: And I say that as a person who’s half-white, half-Latinx, super white-passing, right?I’m totally part of the problem *and* experience it sometimes. And so, it’s a real thing. And I love the way that Gabby Rivera walks us through this because it’s so dally. *laughs* And the way that Juliet makes meaning of it? Because she doesn’t have all the words and all the jargon but she totally gets it in her gut. That what happened was wonky, right?

Jeanie: Right. And we’re so used to being centered in our histories, in the literature that we read in school and out of school, in the news, on television and movies. So suddenly when our experience isn’t centered or when we’re asked to, you know, stay a little quieter, make a little space — and I say that we as a white woman, me “we” — when we as white folks are asked to do that, it pinches. I think it takes a lot of self-awareness and practice to get used to being like, “Oh, other people experiences all the time and we don’t even ask it of them, it just happens.”

You’re making me think of something. I am a very novice meditator. I should meditate more, probably. But when, you know, when I’m learning meditation, when I’m focusing on meditation, one of the things is when your mind wanders –which it will — the work, the practice is really about coming back to the present moment, right? And so, what you’re making me think about is the practice here is about like, “Oh, there’s my fragility again.”

Dolan: Yes, it’s the noticing and naming, just like in meditation, right?

Jeanie: And that comes back to pronouns.

Dolan: Yes.

Jeanie: When we mess up, it’s the noticing and the naming. Oh, I so appreciate the way you’re reading this together for me.

So Juliet, besides going to Writers Workshops with cool people and other social events around. Portland also has a job to do and one of her tasks is to investigate this, like, weird collection of paper slips with the names of powerful women on them that Harlowe has collected. And one of the women she seeks out is Lolita Lebrón. She’s at the local library where there’s a bit of a love interest, that was really fun to read about! And she gets really angry because she didn’t know about Lolita Lebrón who is a Puerto Rican revolutionary. She gets like, ticked. She’s like, “How do my family never talk to me about this? My Puerto Rican family, where is this story? How did I never learn it?”

It reminded me, at the Middle Grades Conference, a teacher in the room asked some Edmunds Middle School students who were presenting on equity, “What could adults do to support them in their activism?”

And one of the students responded, “How come nobody ever teaches us about inequity? I wish adults would teach us about what is going on in the world.” And so, I’m just curious about how you reacted to the Lolita Lebrón’s section.

Dolan: Yes, it’s so real. We don’t realize how much we’re centering white people in our history and in our pedagogy until we read something else. And it’s like, “Oh, my God, how did I not know?”

For me, this makes me think immediately about learning about Gloria E. Anzaldúa for the first time, way too late in my life, when I was like 24 or 25 in grad school the first time. She talks about living in the Borderlands in her book Borderlands/La Frontera. And this book cracked me open and made me feel whole at the same time.

So, as a biracial, bisexual, non-binary person — also a Gemini — I feel Juliet’s words on a visceral level, this living between sometimes in different lands never truly belonging, perhaps only belonging in the liminal space of the border itself and not knowing who our people are.

It was powerful for me because… I had embodied so many experiences but didn’t know how to name it? And also felt so isolated. And so, it comes back to this: you can’t be what you can’t see, right? Or this way of when someone names and experience you feel seen and you feel less alone, right? Because I was like, “Wow, I’m not the only person who lives on some Borderlands, right? And so I read her book. I think I was assigned one chapter for something. But I read the whole thing. I just couldn’t put it down.

And it had so much Spanish and Spanglish in it that she just unapologetically wrote in both languages and a mixture of language and some words she made up and I just loved.

And I just cried.

I cried hearing the words of my people and reflecting on the colonization of language itself. This idea that Spanish had came from the conquistadores and is really not the indigenous language at all. And [Anzaldúa] identifies as Indigenous and queer–

It was *so much* for me, for her to analyze some and all of that in different passages and talk about queerness in those spaces. And even gender. It really helped me kind of split open and begin to heal?

And I realized how much I had been *thinking* I was self-protecting. By building this, you know, deep shell of protection: The Shield. But really, when I read someone else who had a similar experience? Again, I have a lot of privilege and I don’t want to pretend like my experience is the same as Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s, but she spoke to my soul.

Jeanie: What you’re making me think about is the importance of being seen? Being seen in literature, in history, in story. And what you talked about earlier about being seen for who you are and how your gendered. How your pronouns are used.

And as a librarian like for me, my mission was really to make sure that all of my students could be seen affirmatively, appreciatively, in my collection. So, that just like really touches me. And I think that Lolita Lebrón helps Juliet feel seen, in a way, for her heritage in this place where you’re talking about she wanted to be seen for her queerness. Now, she’s in this white queer space and now she gets to be seen for her Puerto Ricanness.

Dolan: And how even when Juliet probably learned about Puerto Rican people, it was probably on like a half-page in a multicultural section of our social studies book. And on top of that, it was probably this very whitewashed or normative narrative of someone assimilating to white culture and not Lebrón’s narrative, which is like attempting murder and, you know, assaulting the House of Representatives. And really, I mean, being incredible, right? In some ways. Like, fighting and not taking no for an answer for liberation, right? And how that is kind of taught to us as like not really worthy of true history. Or maybe it’s not as notable or, you know, as loving as a Rosa Parks story. Or the way that we sanitize people like Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., right?

There’s no real sanitization of Lolita Lebrón, right? And so, when she reads about this person, she’s just like,

“I’m allowed to be unapologetic?”

And there’s so much power and empowerment in that.

Jeanie: Yes. She stays in the library for, like, full days reading these books and she’s even distracted from the crush she has. She’s so interested in Lolita. So I’m going to move us along a little bit further. There’s a really interesting point in the book on page 182, that I want to ask you about because I need help thinking about it. And you sort of mentioned it before, about the ways we expect queer folks and people of color to sort of educate us all the time.

And so. At this point in the book, Harlowe is asking Juliet for her opinion about a racial issue. And here’s what Maxine, Harlowe’s partner says,

“Now, hold on just a minute,” Maxine said, ‘Are you going to write me and Juliet checks for an analysis on race? Because our labor isn’t free.'”

Dolan: *laughs* And it’s important to note that Maxine is also a woman of color, right?

Jeanie: Right.

Dolan: So, I think there’s this really interesting juxtaposition, for me, of Juliet learning about pronouns from this very, like, white normative lens of like, “How did you not read them the right books about pronouns? How are you not hip enough with this elitist academic knowledge?” And this white woman asking about a race issue, right? A racialized feminist issue. And expecting the folks of color, the women of color in her life to constantly just fill in those gaps.

Jeanie: To do all the work.

Dolan: And use it for myself. That’s the other piece. It’s a lot of times white folks learn things from folks of color. Not even from like taking the time to read a book and really situate themselves in some context, they’ll ask their friend a question, their friend will give an individual answer — as a person, right? As me — not as all brown people, right —  I will tell you the answer to this question. And then that white person will then use it in all the spaces and be like, “Well, this one brown person told me that it’s totally okay to say this.”

Jeanie: “I have black friends.”

Dolan: Exactly. And they said I could do this and that or say this and that or show up this way or that way or that whatever. Wait a second!

Jeanie: “My black friend says I can use the N-word.”

Dolan: No!

Jeanie: You saw my sarcasm there, I hope.

Dolan: Oh yeah! And so: no, no, no. First of all, that’s co-opting some space and some power. That’s just violent, right? But also, it creates this weird monolith asking this brown or Black person to speak for all brown or Black people and that’s just garbage, right?

But I think there’s this, yes, this interesting thing around the unpaid labor. It’s just like: people of color as marginalized people are expected to know the norms of white culture and society, right? But white people are not expected to know their norms, right? Of communities of color.

So, folks of color are living in their own brown norms, their own cultural norms at home, with their communities, whatever that looks like. And then they’re also having to code-switch into white norms and white society, right? And then white people are like, “Oh, how do I act around brown people? Hey, brown person explain this to me.” Or: “Is it okay to do this as a white person? Why not?” Right? Not recognizing sometimes it’s really harmful to hear that stuff come out of a white person’s mouth. To sit there and go,

“I still need to tell you that? I need you to go write that in your journal instead.”

That’s what I like to tell people sometimes because it can be really harmful to hear that and feel objectified and tokenized.

Jeanie: “Go Google it.”

Dolan: Exactly! Yes. So it’s this tricky piece.

Jeanie: You’re making me think about, you’re making me think about how the extra emotional labor people of color do as educators, right? Because not only are they code-switching with norms and community, not only are they making sure the needs of their students of color are being met, but they’re also dealing with racism all day every day.

Dolan: Absolutely. And making the white people around them comfortable about it, right?

Jeanie: Yes. Well, speaking of tokenization, this stuff really goes down in this book. In fact when I got to Page 206, when I got to the end of page 206, I remember texting you like: “Oh my god Harlowe just did whaaaaaat?”

Dolan: Yup, uh-huh.

Jeanie: Because here we are, Harlowe is giving this big book event for Raging Flower, her feminist tome, and Juliet has helped set up this book event. And I’m just going to read a portion of it. Harlowe gets challenged by a person of color about the color-blindness within her feminism, is what I’ll say.

So, part of her answer is:

“‘Do I think that queer and trans women of color will read my work and feel like they see themselves in my words? Not necessarily, but some will and do. I mean, I know someone right now sitting in this room who is a testament to this, someone who isn’t white who grew up in a ghetto, someone who is a lesbian and Latina and fought for her whole life to make it out of the Bronx alive to get an education. She grew up in poverty and without any privilege–‘”

And– It goes *on*.

But oh, my goodness.

I felt this on so many layers and I’m not going to begin to compare my experience to Juliet. But I will say: the first time I brought some college friends home to my house in Pennsylvania, one of my friends said, “I didn’t know you live near the projects.” And I had no idea.

So I felt this word, “ghetto”, to my very core. Because Juliet doesn’t think of her home as a ghetto. None of these things are how Juliet would describe herself.

Dolan: Absolutely. And so it’s so many layers. It throws Juliet into this: is that all you see me as? It shows the reader this pattern of behavior from Harlowe of not just her white fragility, but the ways that she uses brown and Black bodies as tokens of her “wokeness” and the ways in which she’s able to say, “See, I’m not just for white people because I surround myself with brown and Black people. And I use them as pawns.”

Gabby Rivera is pointing to a group of people who have been acting this way for a long period of time. White queer feminists in general. Right?

Jeanie: My take on this which is totally different than yours because we, our identities are different, right? And so our experience of reading this book is different? Is that I think that there was this moment when I realized that I hadn’t picked up on the pattern at all.

Dolan: Yeah.

Jeanie: That the things that the slides and the transactional nature of Harlowe’s friendship with Juliet?  …Wasn’t obvious to me until it was suddenly *so* obvious. And then I had to go back and really think about it. Like, you’ve really helped me think about all of the ways of the like, death by a thousand cuts. That all of these little itty bitty pieces throughout the book, lead to this. Because it wasn’t obvious to me. I’ll be honest.

Dolan: I don’t know if it was obvious to Juliet. Because Juliet is so gracious and humble, really came into this internship with: I have everything to learn from this hero / heroine (whatever) of mine. Like, “This feminist icon, she knows everything, I have everything to learn, nothing to teach.” And I think this moment helped her go:

“Holy moly, none of this is what I signed up for. I’m realizing now that not only do I hold others on a pedestal and not believe in myself enough because I have so much potential and capacity. But I gave this person too much benefit of the doubt. And every time that she disappointed me or rubbed me the wrong way and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I couldn’t quite figure out why my gut was telling me this was wonky.”

It’s connecting.

Jeanie: That helps me. I still think that I could fine tune my own capacity to see this.

Dolan: I hear you, but yeah, it’s a lot.

Jeanie: One of my favorite characters in this book is Juliet’s cousin, *sings* Avaaaaaaaa.

Dolan: Yes! She’s so rad.

Jeanie: My goodness. So, Juliet needs a break obviously, from Harlowe, after… *sighs* that epic fail at the bookstore. And so, she goes to visit her cousin, Ava, in Miami. And I got to say, when I was reading page 225, I wanted portions of it written in the sky in big, bold letters.

Dolan: Yes!

Jeanie: And so, Ava very graciously, is sort of educating Juliet about trans folks .And so here’s Juliet’s question. Could you read from page 225, there’s just this one part that I just want written in the sky in big bold letters?

Dolan: Cool. So,

I clasped my hands over my belly, mulling over what Ava had said. Before this summer, I’d never considered there was anything beyond he or she. Or that folks could experience a multitude of genders, within their person. Like: what? That sounded amazing. Beautiful. Wild, like the universe. ‘Why not just ask someone straight-up if they’re trans?’ I asked. “‘Girl, how rude do you plan to be in this life?’ She questioned, stretching out on her big-ass bed. ‘Your one job is to just accept what a person feels comfortable sharing about themselves. No one owes you info on their gender, body parts or sexuality.’ Mind blown.”

So, yeah, I love that part as well. I thought that was really beautiful.

Jeanie: I love, no one owes you. No one owes you.

Dolan: Yeah. I loved the way that Ava explained pronouns in such a real way, right? And juxtapose that with the way that Juliet was exposed to it in Oregon — which was very confusing and abrupt and condescending. The way Ava explains it in this like, come on, you know this already, kind of way. A very inviting way. But also a challenging way like, come on you got this, you’re better than this.

And then the way that she says like, what are you just going to ask somebody if they’re trans, are you rude? Come on, you know better than that, right? And doesn’t shame her. Just blows her mind. And I loved that.

But, we have to remember where we come from and I think that Ava teaches her this in such a beautiful way. It really helps Juliet see: you already know this in your bones. You just needed to be introduced to this. And not in a condescending, paternalistic, white supremacist way of “How did you not know what a pronoun is? How do you not know who Sylvia Rivera is?” But: “Hey, you don’t know your history because you don’t have access to this. I had to seek this out, let me teach you this.”

Jeanie: We are out of time. We have, listeners, Dolan and I have curated a ton of books because that’s who we are: readers and curators of books.

Dolan: Love books.

Jeanie: And we’re going to put a list up on the transcript of some queer and trans, people of color fiction, some non-fiction, some books that you might read on your own, some books that you might provide in your school or in your library, in your classroom. So many books, we’re going to put up some great lists for you on the transcript.But we’re out of time to talk about them even though we feel like we could talk for days about his book.

Dolan: We could.

Jeanie: It’s a great list. Dolan, I want to thank you so, so much for coming for talking about this book, for talking about your personal experience, your lived experience for sharing that with us and for answering all my questions.

Dolan: Thank you for having me. I adore this book and it’s not the most well-known book, which makes me sad because when it came out I remember feeling really excited. I was like, bought it immediately and thought that it would be a big book. And I’m surprised by how few libraries or other places have this book.

I really appreciate you going on your way to read it and loving it and talking about it with me because this book brings me a lot of joy and also peace.

Jeanie: I adore this book and I adore you. Thank you so much.

Dolan: I adore you. Thank you Jeanie.




A critical lens on project-based learning

When we talk about a student in an intervention meeting, we often start with what is amazing about that student. Teachers and caregivers who know the students deeply rattle off talents, skills, and strengths. These are personal and often show up outside of school. There are so many ways to be smart, creative, and self-directed. We start with the positives, with the assets, then move on to what a student might need that they are not getting. This is called an assets or strengths-based approach, where we are seeing students through an appreciative lens. It is a beautiful and affirming way to start a meeting about a student’s needs.

Imagine you are giving feedback on a friend or student’s writing piece. Would you start with everything that is wrong with it? Or would you start with what was strong about the piece?

Most of us respond better to critical feedback once we’ve heard some warm feedback on our work.

Now, imagine how we start project-based or service-learning projects.

Do we start with establishing who knows what about a community, concept or issue, or do we go straight to the “problem”?

One problem I have with problem based learning is how it focuses on, well, deficits or problems.

Perhaps we might begin by learning what is good, right, and positive.

Assets based pedagogies are certainly not new. They have their roots in several curricular and scholarly movements.

  • Critical race methodology “provides a tool to “counter” deficit storytelling” (Solórzano and Yosso 2002, 131). These researchers focus on telling stories that challenge the dominant narratives and seek to fight racism, sexism, and classism. Kim Morrision, in her article, Informed Asset-Based Pedagogy: Coming Correct, Counter-stories from an Information Literacy Classroom, shares that the foundation of assets-based pedagogy are rooted in the work of W. E. B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Zora Neale Hurston, Geneva Gay, and Gloria Ladson-Billings. These authors and researchers used critical race theory to explore people’s lived experiences, especially those that had been pushed to the margins and silenced. 
  • Hip hop pedagogy, summarized in this Edutopia post by Joquetta Johnson, is another approach that has foregrounded and validated the experiences of youth in historically marginalized and underserved communities. This approach is rooted in what Gloria Ladson-Billings introduced as Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, which helps students accept, validate and affirm their cultural identities.

An assets-based approach is not new, but it can be easy to forget in the work of designing service and project-based learning experiences.

As educators, we want to engage students in genuine problems and help them solve them.

In our excitement, we may fail to consider background knowledge, the local context, and an exploration of what is going RIGHT.

Coupled with the negativity bias that can plague humans of any age, but sometimes more specifically early adolescent students, the results can be… dare I say it.. problematic.

Students can confirm negative stereotypes, develop biases, and “other” those they are seeking to help.

I’m reminded of the quote by Hazel Edwards: “nothing about us without us is for us.” These concerns drove me to take another look at our project-based learning and service learning templates. I wondered, what might be missing? And while in my earlier writings about service learning, I encouraged teachers to look for local knowledge, and to connect with the deep well of community when planning service learning, there was no equivalent of that in the project-based learning templates and work.

Updated project-based learning template

So the template needed a spot for students and teachers to explore the assets and knowledge of the issues, community, and context before seeking solutions or improvements before diving into looking to improve conditions or solve problems. You can now see that here in the PBL 3.0 (Strength-based PBL) template.

In addition, there is an asset mapping activity linked here, in the service-learning toolkit.

Planning for justice-oriented action

Two students sit behind a desk in a well-lit classroom, speaking to an adult in front of them. A WCAX news camera is also trained on them. From a critical lens on project-based learning.
Photo credit: Burlington School District

But asset-mapping and approaches aren’t enough.

We need to fully work toward equitable learning environments. Environments where our students’ voices are valued, amplified, and listened to. Environments that include them in decision-making, and project-based learning plans. And these should include a step where students work to find a way to disrupt inequities, challenge dominant narratives, and amplify often unheard voices.

Sharing work with authentic audiences is important, and can increase purpose, motivation, and engagement in students. But if we stop there, are we really working to create more inclusive, equitable policies, procedures, and practices in our schools, communities, country, and world?

Helping students move from authentic sharing to justice-oriented action can help them see their own civic power and agency.

It can support the disruption of inequitable systems, practices and policies. Teaching Tolerance standards include identity, diversity, justice and action and urge meeting these standards across grade levels, including saying, “Students will plan and carry out collective action against bias and injustice in the world and will evaluate what strategies are most effective.”

You’ll see a step in the updated project-based learning template for this here. This provides another opportunity for students to deeply reflect on their actions and plans as well.

"Justice/Democracy Oriented Action: What actions might students take to increase democratic and civic engagement? What actions might be planned that can disrupt or expose misinformation, systems of oppression or damaging narratives, practices, or policies/procedures?" from a critical lens on project-based learning

It’s easy to rush through projects, lessons, and curriculum, without interrogating potential blind spots and falling into harmful equity traps.

I am thankful to scholars of color who have shown me the importance of grounding any meaningful project work in an assets-based approach, and to work toward creating more equitable communities through our work with students. While this often happens in practice, being intentional in the design phase of powerful pedagogies ensures that students will have a more meaningful opportunities to make significant changes for good in their schools, communities and world.

What does this look like in practice?

Thankfully, Vermont teachers and students are showing us how to make this work.

How to make sure their projects take direct action, for instance. How to make projects work toward justice, equity, and/or shared goals. Like the United Nations Global Goals.

Jeremy DeMink’s middle school students at Edmunds Middle School in Burlington have participated in a Hands-Joined Learning project about social inequities and worked to take direct action to change them. These projects were in partnership with Jessica DeMink-Carthew, an assistant professor at the University of Vermont. Students demonstrated humanities learning targets through their social action projects, written about here  by WCAX here. You can read more about the Hands-Joined Learning process in this recently published academic article, or in AMLE magazine for more information.

Check out what teacher Christie Nold and her sixth grade students did to work to disrupt bias and stereotypes and build opportunities for students and teachers to explore their identities. These students designed experiences to make their voices heard. Heard by both teachers at a professional conference *and* by their local school board. This demonstrates not only growth in transferable skills and english language arts standards, but in amplifying student voice in decision-making and educational conferences.

Lastly, the Global Goals inspired service and project-based learning at Burke Town School.

The school launched this project with an asset-based, integrated project called Humans of Burke. In this project, students thought of a local community member they admired. They read up on the person’s work. Then they interviewed them, and created an art block print portraits. A local coffee shop hosted a gallery of the portraits for the community. Affirming, positive, community-based. Quite a place to launch service and project-based learning from!

What do you think?

How can we move our service and project-based learning into a more intentional strength-based and justice oriented experiences?


What CVU students want you to know about education

Today on the 21st Century Classroom:

Beckett: When the school systems were created was to produce factory workers, to have good workers for their assembly lines and could make cars and they all knew basic information and could all say the same facts. It was a standardized person pretty much, being produced into the workforce. For those assembly line jobs, that’s what they needed. Nowadays, that’s not what people need. We need creative thinkers that can look at problem and figure how to solve it, not be able to recite Shakespeare, unless that’s what they’re learning about and then they should recite it all.

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I’m Life LeGeros, and on this episode of the 21st Century Classroom, we hear from three students from Champlain Valley Union High School, in Hinesburg Vermont — a sophomore, a junior, and a high school senior. They tell us about what makes school meaningful, along with the way they see the roles of students and teachers changing as schools evolve.

We also talk about equity in schools, as well as spending some serious time discussing what proficiency-based learning has looked like. Does it work? Is it an improvement over the traditional grading system, and how does it affect how these students apply to college?

Meet Heidi, Beckett and Ulee.

CVU students
(l to r) Ulee, Heidi and Beckett, Champlain Valley Union (CVU) students.

Heidi: I’m Heidi. I’m a sophomore at CVU.

Beckett: My name is Beckett. I’m a junior at CVU.

Ulee: I’m Ulee. I’m a senior at CVU.

“CVU” is Champlain Valley Union High School.

Located at the edge of the Green Mountains, it’s the largest high school in Vermont, and has a reputation for being not just progressive, but unabashedly committed to student-centered learning. Now, student-centered learning is kind of a buzzword; it can mean a lot of different things, so we wanted these CVU students to tell us what exactly “student-centered learning” really looks like in action.

The three students we spoke with are all enrolled in CVU’s Think Tank, an in-school course that encourages students to speak up about education issues. Think Tank students are encouraged to develop new ideas for school and try them out in a supported, structured manner.

Think Tank student projects have included ways to reduce stress in applying to (and being rejected from) colleges, educating teachers about mental health issues in students, and introducing flexible furniture in classrooms. And there’s a book club!

But does this flexibility equal meaningful learning?

Life: My first most basic question is what do you find most meaningful about school?

Beckett: I would say just the opportunity to be able to learn more and get more information and just like all the resources that we have, I mean here at CVU, to be able to pursue information and knowledge.

Heidi: Yes, I think going off of what Beckett just said, I think definitely when you have some opportunity in whatever class where you’re suddenly like, “Whoa! This is so cool. I really want to learn about it.” Those moments like that for me are just amazing. I wish I could get more of them out of school, but when they happen, they really stick with you.

Ulee: For me, it’s a little different. I really like the structure and just having a place to go every day. It’s the one thing I really like. I struggle with not having a structure. I don’t always take advantage of certain things when I don’t have someone telling me I have to do it a little bit and so it’s really nice. wWithout school, I don’t really know what I’d be doing. I just be sitting for a bit until something came to me, but it’s nice because it gives me a framework to go about doing what I want to do.

Heidi: I think when I have choice in a class and usually project-based. When I talk about things that have really stuck with me, a lot of them I have from one class that I had in middle school for social studies and it was completely choice-driven, lots of projects. I could figure out what an overarching topic I was really into and then I had the freedom to figure out how I wanted to represent that and share my learning.

Beckett: Really any classes that give the opportunity to think differently, like you give me the opportunity to not think about things how you’re supposed to normally think about them, just like, more freedom to be able to question ideas and not just do the same thing over and over again, but figure out why. It’s like in my middle school for fourth, fifth, and sixth grade, I went to the Waldorf School. It was experiential and really immersive, but it was definitely like the whole philosophy is until you had a certain age, you’re not ready to learn things. They won’t teach reading and writing until third grade. It’s definitely not talent-based or how the kid understand, but it’s like once you get to this age, then you can move forward. It’s the opposite of the question, but there oftentimes I felt like I wanted to move forward but they weren’t letting me.

What I look for in classes is when I can move forward and I can ask those questions. I can be like, “Well, that doesn’t make sense. I need to figure that out.”

Life: What do teachers do to create that environment, or you feel like you can question that?

Beckett: Honestly, I think like a lot of conversational-based classes. When it’s not the teacher just lecturing, but when the teacher either proposes a question and be like, “Cool. I’m going to just sit here and you guys talk about it,” and lets the kids really think without any excess thoughts and controlling factors to what they’re thinking may be tainted in any certain way and just let them come to discovery about the topic that they’re learning. It’s hard to do and it’s hard to explain, but when teachers can create that atmosphere but the kids are making their connections by themselves without saying, “There’s a connection here, find it.” I think that’s really what gets kids to stick with it and be enjoying what they’re learning.

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What we’re hearing from these students? Isn’t new.

Research in cognition, motivation, and pedagogy show that students learn best when they are engaged more with learning that includes them as partners in the classroom, and as active and valued participants in the conversation about their learning. Motivation and higher order thinking come to the fore in middle school.

Life: Where did you learn in middle school?

Heidi: I went to school at Shelburne Community School.

Life: Who was the teacher?

Heidi: Sam Nelson.

Life: What kind of project did you work on that you still remember?

Heidi: We did one of these every single year and he still has office classes doing every year was a historical avatar journal where whatever unit we were in, we basically created some kind of person that was living in that event, a time period, and then we wrote from their perspective. I wrote one during the Revolutionary War. I was a teenage boy who’s a loyalist living with a family that were all patriots and stuff. It was just really interesting to get to think about what life might have been like and what maybe thoughts go through their head.

Ulee, CVU student
Ulee, a senior CVU student.

Ulee: Even in stuff like book groups, you kind of like, “All right, this is the thing that happened.” Actually, I’ve had a lot more book groups deal in middle school than in high school. It’s just like, “All right, we’ll read this chapter,” and like, “All right, what do you think about these things?” and then you have the conversation from there.

I think oftentimes with students, it’s a lot easier to have… all right. With a teacher, it seems a lot more black and white, like this is yes or no. With a student, it’s kind of I feel like we’re both coming from a similar part of not having the experience beforehand, so we’re both like, “This is my opinion and perspective on this deal and this is your perspective on this deal.” That relationship is a little different from someone who has the experience and has the knowledge beforehand.

Beckett: Yes, whenever you’re a kid, you’re always taught the adults have the answers. They know what to do. In class room experience, kids aren’t going to question what the adult say. When the adult say something, it’s just the truth. When they can talk with their peers and you can discuss things, you’re like, “Wait, I don’t agree with that.” It fosters that curiosity into what you’re learning.

Ulee: I think there is a certain level of truth in that, like teachers have more experience sometimes about stuff.

Beckett: Of course.

Ulee: I think an important part is a lot of times when the students are asking students, a lot of the things that they’re coming in to contact conflict with and thinking about are things that wouldn’t be like the teacher initially expects and so either would be written off or just like…

Heidi: I think I agree. I think just really it goes back to questioning thing that it’s okay to question your peers, but it feels like you’re not supposed to question your teacher because you’re teacher’s teaching you about it. I think that difference makes such a huge impact on how these conversations are carried out. I don’t know if teachers realize that when they’re looking at all the conversations that students are having. From the student perspective, I think that a lot of us feel that way.

Life: It’s interesting because you’ve mentioned choice before, right? Some people think of choice or student voice is being something that can be really engaging for students, but it’s a really hard thing for teachers because there’s this age old hierarchy in schools that we’re just touching on, right?

Beckett: I think that they should be in a lot of cases because when the school systems were created was to produce factory workers, to have good workers for their assembly lines and could make cars and they all knew basic information and could all say the same facts. It was a standardized person pretty much, being produced into the workforce. For those assembly line jobs, that’s what they needed. Nowadays, that’s not what people need. We need creative thinkers that can look at problem and figure how to solve it, not be able to recite Shakespeare, unless that’s what they’re learning about and then they should recite it all. I think that schools are starting to make that change, but people are too stuck to that old traditional not wanting change that in a lot of places, it’s not working out. That transition, but I think it should and it’s good that that movement is pushing towards change.

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In a lot of places, having students take such an active part in their learning is still pretty revolutionary.

But a fundamental piece of the change is straightforward: allowing students and teachers to adopt roles in the classroom that let them be partners in learning dramatically changes the landscape. That move, towards a more democratic classroom? Opens up all kinds of possibilities.

Beckett’s right.

The overarching narrative of education in this country involves schools that were set up more than a hundred years ago to meet our then-economic needs: workers with basic skills who could be molded into factory jobs just as surely as the widgets they were creating could be applied to different products.

In Vermont, one of the ways schools are evolving is under Act 77, legislation that calls for the implementation of personalized learning, including a move away from traditional grading systems and towards proficiency-based assessments. CVU instructional coaches Stan Williams and Emily Rinkema co-authored a new book on proficiencies, titled The Standards-Based Classroom: Make Learning the Goal. They’re also the facilitators of the Think Tank course at CVU that Heidi, Beckett and Ulee all take part in.

While Act 77 requires schools to implement proficiencies by 2020, CVU has been ahead of the curve on trying it out.

But how do students feel about it?

Life: Around that, you’re talking about proficiency based learning.

All: Yes.

Life: How is that going here? What’s the mess to success ratio on that one?

Heidi, CVU student
Heidi, a sophomore at CVU

Heidi: I think it depends on the teachers because some teachers are pretty good with explaining what all your targets mean, like you get it before and that stuff. Other teachers I think are still stuck more in the A, B, C, D, E, F grading. I think that gets really complicated really fast for everybody involved when you have that connection. I mean I think I’ve been lucky that a lot of the teachers I’ve had so far have been more on the understanding side of it. I have an older sister who was here right when they started changing it. I know there were some very tough classes just with the grade aspect because the teacher was just more quite how to teach that way.

I think since we are fortunate enough to be at a school, that’s one of the schools that are actually starting to push forward compared to other ones. That also means we get more the messiness involved with figuring out how to implement it in a good way for the students and the teachers because it hasn’t been done before. Obviously, there’s going to be trial and error, but I think that’s hard to see from anyone’s perspective in the school because students are like, “Well, I want to know what the expectations are in a class. I want to know my grades look like.” It just gets confusing. It can be hard to see in the long run how this is going to benefit people beyond just you.

Ulee: That’s really thoughtful.

Beckett: It makes it really challenging when also since… exactly like you’re saying, we’re the first ones to be doing it. The rest of the system hasn’t changed to how we’re looking at it. Sure we might be trying to push forward and move towards a place where there’s no grades and you’re not focused around this carrot and stick type of motivation with getting the students to actually be excited about learning. You can’t really do that because you still need grades for colleges. When it comes down to it, a lot of students are like, “Well, that’s the only reason I’m here. It’s the only reason I’m caring about this.” It’s really hard to be the first ones to change that because everyone else around you isn’t. You’re left like, “Am I going to be penalized for trying to push forward with this?” It’s hard. It’s really hard.

Life: Why is it complicated when they’re still have one foot on both worlds?

Heidi: I think the point is that you’re grading something different with the new type of grading than the old type because it’s supposed to be less like memorization, spit out the information you learned. It’s more like applying and so they’re not ones that were like you can just lump together and be like, “Okay. We’ll grade how I used to using this new form of grading.” You have to really rethink how it is. I mean I totally understand if you’ve been teaching and suddenly it changes. It’s hard to do that.

Ulee: I want to add to this because when I think about the successes and challenges between different teachers, one thing that really sticks out to me is how standards-based grading is very easy and you can tell in math classes. When things are a lot like you did this right or more humanities-based stuff, you have a lot more. Very successful it’s been. I think that goes right in with what you were saying about …how do I put this? What you’re trying to grade for.

Like with the math class, you’re doing it or not. Like multiplication facts are an easy example. But as to whether you’re not truly analyzing a story correctly? It’s a very difficult thing to grade or score whether or not you’ve met the standard for it.

Life: Because they’re more complex skills.

Ulee: The way you’d go about is different. There’s a lot more work that feels into being able to say whether or not you’ve met the standard in something where it’s not as black and white kind of yes or no.

Beckett: It’s hard to really understand it and get it and have this way of grading to be successful. Both the teacher has to jump into it fully as well as the students, which makes it one side is in a particular class or a different setting. It really just sends the whole thing off balance. People are stuck in their traditions and they don’t want them to change because it’s how they’ve been always doing it just like you guys are saying. It’s really just trying to convince people that it is a good idea and that will work.

Life: What do you look for?

Beckett: I don’t know. This is where the most variance is or at least in my opinion, it’s like whether or not… we have a thing called habit of learning. It’s about your engagement levels and that kind of stuff. It’s in parallel with your actual… whether or not you’re meeting the standards. Some teachers link whether or not you’re able to reassess on that, or they just have some weird arbitrary, like if you did well on this, if you handed in all your home works, you can do this. I had one class where it’s like if you corrected this one sheet, you’ll get a good grade on this and yet that has no correlation to re-assessment policy.

That’s one of the first things that you see that you can tell where the teachers come from and their ideas how everything should fit together because there’s a lot of different moving parts with the standards-based learning. That’s an easy way to see their overall plan of how they all fit together.

Beckett: Yes. In standards-based grading, any test you take, if you don’t like your grade and you think that you can show better learning or more understanding–

Ulee: Improvement, yes.

Beckett, CVU junior
Beckett, a junior at CVU

Beckett: — yes, improvement — you can re-task and re-assess on that information. Exactly like Ulee was saying. It’s just that tangible assessment of does that teacher understand what this is for? Because it’s looking at learning is not like you either can do it on this date or you can’t do it on this date and that decides if you’re good at it or not.

It’s like do you have an understanding of the content? If you don’t have that understanding right now but if you want to put in more work, and then be able to show that understanding, that’s totally fine because you’re still putting in that work to get that understanding. You can look at a teacher, and on both sides, they either don’t let you re-assess and say, “No, you can’t do that.”

Then that shows that they’re not understanding certainly the value of standard-based grading, everything we do, as well as the other side if they just… without doing any other work and just like, “Yes, sure, just take it again.” You’re not testing anything else, or not relying you have to do another worksheet or prove that you’ve done more learning to then take it again, that also shows that because it’s just letting the kids have a redo as many times as they want to and eventually they’re going to hit all the right answers.

I mean that’s just statistically if you take it ten times, you’re going to figure out what types of questions are on there, which one could argue that’s also could be learning how to do it. Right sort of the middle of that where the teacher encourages the kids to do more learning and have more understanding and then once they do, let them re-asses. I think that shows the pivotal understanding of standards-based grading and how it can be applied.

Life: Are there other cues that you look for to see how things are going to work from a proficiency lens when you’re working with a new teacher and a new course?

Heidi: I think having a teacher really makes sure that we understand what exactly we’re looking for in the targets, which skills we’re supposed to be applying stuffy. I think when they really put focus on that, that shows that they… whether they’re totally there or not, they’re at least trying to do their best for teaching using standards. Then I think that in the class where I don’t get that, it definitely feels less standards-driven and more memorization-driven.

Beckett: It’s like the way you’re saying, it shows if the teachers can advocate to the students what these standards are and what they mean and how to meet them and what expectations for the class is looking like, it shows the teacher understands that. Because you really and be able to understand something to be able to show someone else or teach someone else. It shows that the teacher has an understanding of how the targets are going to be used and therefore they’ll have an understanding how those realistic targets… what are they called?

Life: Right. I think that that sometimes can be a hard thing for students as well. You talked about student teachers and students have to be on the same page is like you’re saying that the students, there’s also just this very practical, “Well, that’s great. I want to have things I can learn for my life. They’re transferable, but I also need to get into college. I need to make sure I’m playing the game right.”

Beckett: Exactly.

Life: Any advice to other students out there, middle school, high school, how to approach this stuff and get the most out of it if your school is going this direction?

Beckett: I think that having a really strong understanding of how the system works and how it’s used and how it applies to your classes really helps you because then you can go back and then not be confused about something because if you’re confused about something, you just add tool in the system. You’re not going to be able to use it to help you with that.

If you’re thinking college-focused, a lot of colleges also… they’re looking at what the school gives you. If let’s say, for example, if your school doesn’t offer any APs, they’re not going to discredit you or take points off from your application because you haven’t taken APs. It’s just not what your school offered.

Ulee: For me, I think there’s an important aspect of balance in school where, all right, there’s certain things that need to be done if you want to go into college. No matter how much of a change it’s going to be, there’s always going to be a little bit where you have to, “I have to take these classes in order to graduate,” kind of deal. I feel like at some point as of now, that’s unescapable, but at the same time you want to balance that with taking things that either you haven’t taken before and using it as a place to explore. You should focus more on doing something that either is new or is interesting to you that is something else and trying to… balancing, exploring with doing like, “I want to do this for my future,” kind of deal because there’s a whole lot of that, setting myself up for the future that you don’t actually know at this point what truly interests you.

If you take an art class that you’ve never taken before and are really into art, you would never have known that if you haven’t had taken that class. It’s trying balance is my advice. Taking things that aren’t going to better you in the future just because you’re interested and you’re going to have fun with it and it’s going to be something new with actual like the diving into setting yourself up.

Heidi: I think this jumps off of what you’re saying for like, keep an open mind, because I know I can sometimes snap judgements especially about something in school. I’m like, “This doesn’t seem like fun. I don’t like it,” but if you allow yourself to explore lots of opportunities and really just take advantage of a time where you have all these options especially in a school like CVU where we have so many different types of classes.

You just try them and you’ll be surprised and find something maybe that you like, and maybe you hate it but at least you know that. You didn’t just say, “You know what? I don’t think I like it. I’m just not even going to touch it.” You took a risk and tried something new.

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Right now, we need education to fundamentally change.

  • Economically, because we need flexible innovative workers who can thrive in a knowledge based economy.
  • Politically, because we need citizens who can think critically and problem-solve the huge problems of the modern world.
  • And practically, because we’re just now beginning to grapple at an effective level with issues of equity in our schools.

CVU is one of a handful of schools around Vermont where the students successfully lobbied the administration and school board to fly the Black Lives Matter flag on campus.

It was an action the school’s student-led Racial Action Committee had been working towards for two full years, and was not without controversy. The students wrote newspaper op-eds, collected signatures of support from the community, and presented their proposal to the school board on three separate occasions.

This came after a spate of racist and anti-Semitic graffiti was found on the school campus.

Life: Are there students at this school that you feel are fighting for equity?

All: Yes.

Heidi: I think equity in education is very broad and a very tough topic to tackle because there’s so many angles to come at it from. There’s also so many different levels of inequity in education. It could be the school itself, it’s not at the same levels like some other schools. It’s more just the students aren’t as listened to as like in other schools, or it could be something completely different. I just feel like there’s so many ways that there can be an inequity in school, just like with anything in life. There’s so much that people are working on right now that people still need work on, but it’s not an easy problem to fix.

Ulee: We recently had our RAC, Racial Alliance Committee, which I think started only this year in front of the school board, had multiple meetings with them and we got the Black Lives Matter flag raises. There’s different justice groups around the school. We have a club that’s all about being… I don’t remember the name. It’s a club where it’s just go and it’s all about supporting people with disabilities in our school. We have a lot of clubs that actually–

Beckett: Like Unified Sports and stuff.

Ulee: Unified Sports, too, but this is an actual club.

Life: I mean this is a big conversation in Vermont right now with the flag raisings. I think a lot of educators are trying to figure out how to handle this because when you think about old paradigms of schooling, there was a certain widespread belief that schooling should be neutral. That teachers should never show their hands in terms of what political party they support, or even how they feel on different policies, or things like that. We’re not here to indoctrinate kids, we’re just here to give them knowledge. There’s a counterargument that says it’s never neutral. By not saying something, you’re teaching that something as well.

I think people in Vermont are trying to figure out what is the role of Vermont schools for addressing these issues. Most of our schools are mostly white, so should this conversations be happening, how early should they be happening? Should they be happening in the middle school? I don’t know if you guys address these topics when you’re in middle school, or what your thoughts are on when kids can handle these things, and how they should be going while thinking about them?

Beckett: I think that kids are… you’re talking about when they’re ready to handle things like that and I think when they start asking questions and when they start wanting to handle it. I think that’s when the conversation should we have and really based on the students. When they start to be like, “Hey, wait a minute, that doesn’t seem fair,” then giving them… I mean it’s hard because there is that… you don’t want it like to have political beliefs be in the school, but if you present things like the Black Lives Matter flag, it was presented not as a political movement, but as a way to empower students who aren’t as privileged in the school. Sorry. Just letting the students talk about it and letting their voices be heard is really important.

Ulee: Also, a really important part with the raising of Black Lives Matter flag is it wasn’t like this is the administrations like, “We’re doing this.” It was the students came together and they presented it to the administration. They got signatures from around the school and brought that to the school board. I think that’s very different than trying to show your hand. If it’s something that the actual community and the students are like, “This is the thing we want to do.” This is the problem in our school that we’re not having conversations about race and stuff. I think that’s a certain part about when it should be in school. It’s when students actually themselves feel like, “All right. This has got to the point where we need to talk about this and we need to bring this up to the administration,” and stuff like that. I feel like that’s very different.

Life: When the students are pushing it.

All: Yes.

Heidi: No, I just think… yes, just what you guys were saying that when the students bring it forward, that’s when… I think our school’s done a good job about when students bring something forward like this listening to them and trying to support them the best they can. I mean I think it’s so much more effective when you see students for some change like this.

I think in the classroom, you do have to learn how to navigate these situations and stuff, but that doesn’t mean that teachers have to take sides. I think it would be nice if you’ve learned how to navigate political situations and had an understanding of political issues that are going on because I mean especially in high school, a lot of kids are getting close to being able to vote and stuff.

It’s really important that we’re educated on topics that we’re going to be voting on. You don’t have to pick a side when you teach that. You can just be like hear the facts, make up your own decisions. I think it is important that we talk about tough topics and we can leave it completely neutral. I do think that it needs to be talked about in some capacity.

Beckett: I think that’s what these conversational-based classes exactly where that comes back in because the teachers can be like, “Here are the facts and then let the students talk about it.” If it’s in that conversation, the students can actually address it and really get into it without having that other… that as you said the teachers showing their hand and putting their beliefs on to try to shape how the students see it.

Heidi: I think I know a huge issue with politics is people being like, “Well, they don’t agree with me, so I just can’t–”

Beckett: The us versus them mentality.

Heidi: When you open it up to have those discussions and you really get to hear from people who have different opinions than you, you start to see like, “Okay. I can see where you’re coming from,” and like, “Well, I disagree. I respect you for that.”

Ulee: It’s learning how to disagree and being civil in that conversation because in a classroom setting, I can’t see a bunch of kids just sitting there yelling at each other just for 20 minutes. There’s intentional structures in the school that already worked that way around that. I think this is a great place to have the structures in place to learn what it’s like to be in disagreement and yet still go to class with some of them next day.

Beckett: Disagreement with the understanding.

end mark

Fighting for equity in Vermont education is, and should be a big deal. And it requires making sure students are not just equipped to take part in those conversations but honestly believe their voices are welcome, and that their voices can make change happen. It’s the same set of circumstances that make it possible and worthwhile to implement proficiency-based education; students will report on how it’s going and how it can go better.

It’s just up to our schools… to listen.

If you’re interested in hearing more from students in CVU’s Think Tank, the students all maintain active blogs where they talk about these issues and many more.





The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the The Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. This episode was produced by Life LeGeros and  Audrey Homan. Thank you to Stan Williams at Champlain Valley Union High School, and of course huge thanks to Heidi, Ulee, and Beckett for being so willing to share their insights.

Our theme music is by Meizong and Yeeflex, as well as this time, Evan Schaeffer. And you can find out more about the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education by visiting tarrant institute dot org.

Thank you, as always, for listening.

#vted Reads: On The Come Up

Hoo boy, we have a CORKER of an episode for you today, with On The Come Up, by Angie Thomas. We’re going to be talking about some of the continual and heartbreaking trauma students of color face in our schools, as well as the incredible resilience of mothers.

I’m joined today by Marley Evans, a Vermont educator originally from the same Mississippi town as author Angie Thomas, and someone who originally appeared on our 21st Century Classroom podcast as a brand new educator. She’ll be talking a little about her experience of school in Mississippi and Vermont, and how some experiences are universal.

A quick content note: we’re going to be mentioning a couple of episodes of physical, emotional and familial trauma that occur in On The Come Up, so we want you to be forewarned if that would be helpful.

Now, pull up a seat. This is VTed Reads! Books for, with and by Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

Jeanie:  Thanks for joining me. Marley, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Marley:  I’m a seventh and eighth-grade humanities teacher at Charlotte Central School. But I am originally from Jackson, Mississippi, which is where Angie Thomas is from! I like to imagine in my head that we’re best friends, even though we have never met, and I only stalk her on Instagram. I love to read! And I’ve always been a reader. I used to get my books confiscated before I went to lunch, because I would just read the whole time. I would read under my desk at school. Plus I’m also a member of Green Mountain Book Award Committee. So I read a ton of YA every year. I usually read over 100 books. And I think this year is going to be about 120. I love to read.

Jeanie: What are you reading right now?

Marley:  I read the new Louise Penny, which was amazing. I always get her books. I’m reading Echo North. I finished Patron Saints of Nothing a couple of weeks ago, that was amazing. I’m rereading Emily Starr: Emily of New Moon, the Ellen Montgomery series.

Jeanie: Wow. You read a lot!

Marley: I read a lot.

Jeanie: You read more than me.

Marley:  I do read a lot.

Jeanie: What’s your favorite YA of the year so far?

Marley: That is such a tough question! I really loved On the Come Up. I really loved With the Fire on High.

Jeanie: Me too! Elizabeth Acevedo’s The Poet X, is one of my favorite books of all time, and With the Fire on High is a great follow up.

Marley: I’m going to say I liked it more than Poet X! And I *loved* Poet X. That’s not a judgment on Poet X, but I loved With the Fire on High.

Jeanie:  I’m going to read everything Acevedo ever writes! Just like Angie Thomas.  But let’s move on to On the Come Up. Angie Thomas was the author of The Hate U Give , which everyone is reading and talking about, but On the Come Up is an amazing novel on its own right. Could you introduce us to the main character Bri?

Marley: Yeah. So: Bri. I have trouble sometimes in my mind, separating Bri from Starr; Starr’s the main character in The Hate U Give, and in my mind it’s almost like they’re sisters and I’m constantly comparing them.

Bri’s in high school, and she’s from the same neighborhood as Starr, Garden Heights. Which is a made-up neighborhood, a fictionalized neighborhood. She’s feisty. She doesn’t fit in this perfect box. It seems like she’s always getting in like little bits of trouble, little scrapes. She’s still trying to figure out who she is. I think what’s very apparent throughout the whole book, is she has all these different ways she could go, these sort of paths she could go and she’s trying to figure out which path to take and who to be, throughout the whole book.

Jeanie: That sounds like your average high school kid.

Marley: Yeah.

Jeanie: Her childhood, unlike Starr’s, it’s been really challenging. I wondered if you could read a section from page 43 of the book just to give our listeners an idea of the challenges of Bri’s young years?

Marley: Yes, definitely. In this section, Bri is dreaming this nightmare from her childhood. Bri is describing a nightmare she’s had throughout her life. When she was four, her father was an up and coming rapper named Law. And he was shot and killed. And in this nightmare, she’s five years old. A year after that.

I'm five years old climbing into my mom's old Lexus. Daddy went to heaven almost a year ago. Aunt Poo’s been gone a couple of months. She went to live with her and mommy's auntie and the projects. I locked my seatbelt in place and mommy holds my overstuffed backpack toward me. Her arm has all these dark marks on it. She ones told me she got them because she wasn't feeling well. “You're still sick mommy?” I asked. She follows my eyes and rolls sleeves down. “Yeah, baby.” She whispers. My brother gets in the car beside me and mommy says we're going on a trip to somewhere special. We end up in our grandparents' driveway. Suddenly, Trey's eyes widen. He begs her not to do this. Seeing him cry makes me cry. Mommy tells him to take me inside but he won’t. She gets out goes around to his side unlocks his seat belt and tries to pull him out of the car but he digs his feet into the seat. She grabs his shoulders, “Trey, I need you to be my little man.” She says her voice shaky, “For your sister's sake. Okay?” He looks over at me and quickly wipes his face. “I'm okay a little bit he claims.” But the cry hiccups break up his words. “It's okay.” He unlocks my seatbelt takes my hand and helps me out of the car. Mommy hands us our backpacks. “Be good, okay,” she says, “do what your grandparents tell you to do.” “When are you coming back?” I asked. She kneels in front of me. Her shaky fingers brush through my hair then cut my cheek. “I'll be back later. I promise.” “Later when?” “Later. I love you, okay?” She presses her lips to my forehead and keeps them there for the longest. She does the same to Trey and then straightens up. “Mommy, when are you coming back?” I asked again. She gets in the car without answering me and cranks it up. Tears stream down her cheeks, even at five, I know she won't be back for a long time. I drop my backpack and chase the car down the driveway. “Mommy, don't leave me.” But she goes into the street, and I'm not supposed to go into the street. “Mommy.” I cry. Her car goes, goes and soon is gone, “Mommy.”

At this point, in the real world Bri goes to live with her grandparents, her dad’s parents, and she lives there for several years. Her mom ends up going to treatment and breaking that addiction, even though it’s something that she definitely still struggles with the temptation of. Bri eventually gets to go back and live with her mom, but she still is dealing with the consequences of feeling abandoned as a child. And of losing her dad. She’s stuck in between her grandparents and her mom.

Jeanie: There’s a lot of trauma in Bri’s really early childhood, that continues to show up when she’s in high school.

And this book really helped me think through how trauma plays out for kids later in life when they’ve experienced it in their early years.

Because like you said, her mother, in dealing with the death of her husband, becomes an addict. And while she gets clean Bri is abandoned by her for a while, and there’s a lot of pain in that. Plus the pain of losing her father, which happened right outside her home. She heard the shots that killed him. I don’t know that– it felt heavy. It was a heavy start. I have to admit this book slowed me down. In fact I read it slowly because it felt heavy and hard at times. I don’t know if you had that experience?

Marley: Yeah, it’s interesting because The Hate U Give starts out with a shooting. You would think that that would be a tougher start. But you’re right. There’s a way we can really empathize rather than judge when we see what Bri has gone through and what her family has gone through. In fact reading about her mom, I never felt judgy. I never felt like her mom wasn’t a good mom because of her addiction. I realized that that addiction came from so much pain, and that her mom didn’t come from a good family.

Jeanie: Yeah. I love Bri’s mom, Jayda. Bri calls her “Jay” most of the time but her name is Jayda. I have so much love for her and her struggle to be the mom she wants to be for her children. Yeah, I want to come back to that a little bit later because the struggle is real for Jayda, not with just addiction but with economics, with making ends meet for her little family. I want to come back to that a little bit later on in the story because Angie Thomas writes Jayda was such empathy and understanding. As a mother myself, I just felt such kinship with Jayda, even though my life has been nothing like hers.

Another challenge for Bri is school. She lives in Garden Heights, but she’s bused to a much wealthier neighborhood.

This is an imaginary Chicago, but she’s bused to an arts magnet school outside of her neighborhood, which should be an opportunity for Bri in many ways. She doesn’t have to worry about the violence at her local school, for instance. But… it’s also not an opportunity. Let’s find out a little more about that school on page 49.

I’m going to go ahead and read.

A short yellow bus waits out front. Midtown the school is in Midtown the neighborhood where people live in nice condos and expensive historic houses. I live in Garden High Zone, but Jay says there’s too much BS and not enough people who care there. Private school is not in our budget. Midtown School of Arts is the next best thing. A few years ago they started bussing students in from all over the city. They called it their diversity initiative. You’ve got rich kids from the north side, middle-class kids from downtown in Midtown and hood kids like me.

There’s only 15 of us from the Garden at Midtown, so they said the short bus for us. Mr. Watson wears his Santa hat and hums along with the temptations version of Silent Night that plays on his phone. Christmas is less than two weeks away, but Mr. Watson has been in the holiday spirit for months. “Hey, Mr. Watson.” I say, “Hey, Briana cold enough for you?” “Too cold.” “No such thing. This is the perfect weather.” “For what? Freezing your –”

I think I’ll stop there. Do you want to talk a little bit about Bri’s experience of the magnet school that she goes to?

Marley: Yes, it’s funny that you think of Chicago because in my mind, this is Atlanta and it’s always been. I have no idea why! We talked about the school as an opportunity and it is… on paper. It is an opportunity for her to be at that school. But we can already see that there’s such a challenge because Bri feels like she’s just filling a quota the school needs: to have a certain amount of students of color. And that she’s just the student that was placed there. She talks about that on page 63, she talks about how the security guards at the school, when they don’t think she’s listening? Are complaining about “those kids” in this school.

Jeanie: Would you read a little bit of that? I think that’s a really powerful passage.

Marley: Sure. Let me flip to it.

In this part of the book, Bri is in the principal’s office, and the principal’s there talking to her. She didn’t say there would be a security guard ranting in her office about those kids bringing that stuff into this school. The door was closed, but I heard him, those kids this school, like one doesn’t belong with the other, and Bri is just as much a student at that school as every other white kid.

The sense she gets — and it’s pretty apparent through the book that she’s not making it up — is that she doesn’t fit in. That she’s almost like, an outreach project that’s been brought into the school. Nothing about her is celebrated or believed or trusted in the way that the white kids are celebrated, believed and trusted. And while it’s amazing that she gets to go there, in the sense that she’s out of her school that doesn’t have as good of academics and maybe isn’t as safe? This school has different situations going on. She just feels like a charity case almost.

Jeanie: Absolutely. I think that there’s this feeling she gets of like, “We’re doing you this big favor, you don’t really belong here, you should be grateful because we’re doing you this great favor”. There’s also this sense that the school gets to pat themselves on the back because they’ve successfully completed their diversity initiative, right? And that’s one of the hazards of diversity initiatives. Frankly, it helps white people at the expense of black and brown people who have to feel like I don’t really belong here.

Marley: That makes me think about what Rebecca Haslam said. This summer she told a story about being on a walk with a friend and how she called herself an ally and her friend said, ”Being an ally isn’t a badge you get to wear, you have to do that every single day.”

The same is true when we talk about fighting racism and fighting against white privilege. And all of that is not like a quota we fill, and then we’re done. Like: “We have some people of color in our school, and we did a training on it, so we’re diverse”. It’s something that we daily, and weekly and yearly, are putting into our curriculum and the things we do with our students and the way we treat our students.

Jeanie: Right. It doesn’t just mean, “You’re here so act like us.” Right? Inclusivity has to embrace all the ways there are of being and knowing in the world. It can’t just be “Look, we’ve got some black and brown students here now and look, they’re poor too. Aren’t we doing such great work?”

I think too, about what you just said about Rebecca Haslam. I was talking to somebody recently about anti-racism. We were talking about this book, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, and this idea that being anti-racist and fighting racism isn’t a destination. It’s about the journey. And it’s that daily actions you take to be an ally or to fight racism.

Oluo said it’s like dental hygiene: you don’t just brush your teeth once. Twice a day minimum is what we’re supposed to be doing. And anti-racism, fighting racism is just like that. You don’t just get to say, “Oh, look, we have a certain percentage.” Or “there’s no acts of racism here” because nobody’s saying the n-word in your school. There’s more to it than that.

Yeah, this book makes that crystal clear in Bri’s experience, and I just need to turn to page 7. The very start of the book. Bri has this experience that just says so much about her whole experience in the entire school.

Marley: YES. Yes to all of that. I feel like that’s the assumption we make often. And I speak as someone who has to fight those assumptions in myself. I don’t speak as someone who’s an expert or wonderful at this, but just making assumptions, because of the neighborhood someone comes from, or because of who their parents are, that their life is a certain way, or that they’re only capable of a certain level in school because of that. That happens to Bri all throughout this book. Instead of all of her positives being praised and focused on? It’s always about her home life. Or what’s going on, is she smuggling in drugs, is she experiencing violence at home. Etc etc etc.

Jeanie: Corey Smith and I just recently had an episode where we talked about The Benefits of Being an Octopus. One of the things I found in researching for that episode was some mentor texts, from young adult and middle grades literature, and school is written about in those books. This is a great mentor text. For those of us with privilege — and if we’re working in schools, we have privilege — to check our privilege and think about where are we using deficit-based thinking with our students because of their social class. Because of how they dress, because of their race, because of gender. Where do we need to be aware of that? Where can we use a more appreciative lens and connect with them as humans as opposed to as statistics? As opposed to archetypes or stereotypes.

Marley: I grew up in Mississippi and the high school I went to was about 50% black, and 50% white. I just always think it’s interesting because I remember when I read The Hate U Give, was some people, they mentioned being surprised that this family that in Starr’s family, her mom got pregnant in high school, and they stayed together. They were so surprised by that. I just was shocked. Like, why is that so surprising? I mean, is that abnormal?

I think that there is when the danger of living in Vermont, when you have so little diversity, is it’s really easy to make those assumptions because all you see is one thing.

Whether it be intentionally what you’re saying or what the media is putting out there to you, you’re not seeing the whole span of the African American Community and culture. And what their lives are really like. Just like you’re also in Vermont seeing only one span of white culture too. It’s really important for books like this, that can break some of those stereotypes in your head.

Jeanie: Right. Old listeners, you may have heard this before, but I made a commitment six or seven years ago to read half of my books written by people of color to expand my horizons. What was a challenge at first has now become so easy, and it’s changed my worldview. Because for me? Books are a way to walk around in somebody else’s shoes to have empathy for somebody else’s experience of the world that’s different than me. It’s really changed my perspective on the world.

Marley: Yes, I’m going to give my credit for that to Jessica DeMink-Carthew. When I took her class in grad school, on teaching English literature, she had us just start listing some of our favorite books that we would want to use with middle schoolers, just like an online digital library. Halfway through, we had to go through and say, “What are we not representing?” That was so helpful for me to think, what am I not representing in my own reading life? What would that mean for me as a teacher, if this was all I was putting out there? So kind of a similar mindset. Shift and say, “I cannot just teach white female authors or white female heroines.”

Jeanie:  Right. Could you say more about how that shows up in your classroom now, Marley? Then we’ll get back to Bri.

Marley: Yes. I really intentional seek out books and I have an amazing co-teacher Matt Lutz, who does the same. We just really try to seek out books that have a range of narrators, so that we’re showing heroines and heroes that are similar to our students, but also really different. We will make a list of our books. We’ll have a lot of mini book groups going at the same time so that we can offer differentiation within levels of reading, but all centered around central themes. Right now, we’re about to do historical fiction.

We’ll look at that list and say, “Okay, what do we not have represented? Where can we pull that in?”

In fact, we’re going to use On the Come Up in the spring for a social justice book group. Every book will center around– maybe it’ll be civil rights, maybe it will be the Holocaust, maybe it’ll be the Japanese internment during World War II, and it might be even more current like On the Come Up. We’ll use Dear Martin, we’ll use All American Boys. Books around police brutality and current things.

Our hope would be that there are students reading all those different books with diverse authors and diverse main characters, and that they’ll see the central theme. Injustice and what that looks like, and how we can actively fight against it. It’s really just like an intentional, make the list, step back from it and say, “What am I missing? What am I not representing?”

Jeanie:  Yeah. What resources do you use when you do that? Are there any recommendations you might have for listeners?

Marley: Yes. One thing I would say is use people like me, who have to read a lot for Green Mountain Book Award or anything else because I’m doing all that reading. There are other people in my committee doing all the reading of the current books. Ask us. We would love to talk about books.

I love We Need Diverse Books. It’s both a website and a hashtag. You can look it up on Instagram. Just the whole bookstagram world out there. I know most educators love Twitter. I’m really scared of Twitter! I don’t know why. I live on Instagram.

You can always follow great teachers and educators who are posting diverse books. That’s always helpful. In fact, I use that with my own children to make sure that I’m bringing books into their lives that aren’t just all white main characters. I’ll get a lot of picture books for them, for my five-year-old.

Jeanie: Those are all excellent strategies. I’m going to add one: talk to your librarians, folks. Your school librarians know so much and can access so many great titles and help you fill those holes in the viewpoints that are represented in your books.

Marley: Yes, I have the world’s best librarian, Heidi Eustace. We usually have a read-off, and we’re within one or two books of each other each year. She knows all the amazing books. That’s her job, right? Like, let’s use that resource.

Jeanie: Absolutely! Well said, you do have a fabulous librarian here in Heidi Eustace. Let’s get back to Bri. (Even though I could talk about this with you for ages.)

Bri is often in trouble. Something happens at school that really– that changes the course for her. I wondered if you could tell us. Listeners, I don’t think we’re spoiling it because it happens on page 59. It’s really central to the story. Something happens with the security guards Tate and Long, and I’m wondering if you could just talk about that?

Marley: Yes, so there are security guards at the front of our school, which is not that uncommon. That happens sadly, more and more in schools. As Bri’s going through with her friends, her friends go through first, and the guards stop her. She doesn’t beep the alarm off. There’s no reason she should be stopped. They ask her for her bag and, Bri is running a little side business in which she buys bulk candy and then sells it at school. She doesn’t want them to see her bag. Again: they have no right to see her bag, and nothing has gone off.

Bri says no, and the security guards put their hands on her; they push her to the ground. Her friend Malik actually records it. It ends up being a big situation where she’s actually suspended, even though she did nothing wrong except for bringing the candy. And it doesn’t seem like the guards face any consequences.

Jeanie:  We should say that one of the guards is Black. There’s a white guard and a Black guard. And not just Bri, but the other kids from the projects, from Garden Heights, feel like they get treated differently than the kids from the wealthier neighborhoods. There’s a real sense of implicit bias in this book.

Marley: Let me read a little section from page 64. At this point Bri’s mom has come in and is speaking to the principal.

Dr. Rhodes points to the two chairs in front of her, “Please have a seat.” We do. “Are you going to tell me why my daughter was handcuffed?” Jay asked. “There was an incident, obviously. I will be the first to admit that the guards use excessive force. They put Brianna on the floor.” “Threw” I mumble, “They threw me on the floor.” Jays’ eyes widen, “Excuse me. We’ve had issues with students bringing Illegal Drugs.” “That doesn’t explain why they manhandled my child.” Says Jay, “Brianna was not cooperative at first.” “It still does not explain it,” Jay says. Dr. Rhodes takes a deep breath. “It will not happen again, Mrs. Jackson, I assure you they’ll be an investigation and disciplinary action will take place if the administration sees fit. However, Bri may have to face disciplinary action at first.”

And one of the words that really sticks out to me there is that Idea of Brianna not being cooperative.

It seems like when you read the book, that Bri just was protecting her rights. Bri didn’t set off the alarm. She said, “You can’t touch my bag.” She wasn’t overly, a word we’ll use later, aggressive. Bri  just was doing what she knew she was allowed to do. The bias against her is that by refusing to give up her rights, she wasn’t being cooperative. And therefore it was okay that the security guards threw her to the ground. That seems to be what the principal is saying. He’s defending their use of violence against her.

Jeanie: There’s great research out there that says that Black and brown children are more likely to be treated as if they’re older, in any disciplinary situation. We’ve seen recently news stories about children being taken to jail for school offenses.

These are *children*.

The word for me is when Jay says, “That does not explain why they manhandled my child.” This is a kid. Was there any reason to throw her to the ground? No. No matter how uncooperative she was being, there’s something about that: the unquestioning of the implicit bias that’s happening based on where Bri’s from, and the color of her skin. That really ticks me off. That made me really angry when I read this book.

Marley: Yeah. One thing that also stuck out to me is during this whole process, Bri reflects on how her mom has taught her to respond to police and security guards. I’m always really struck by that. I have two little boys, and I haven’t had to sit them down and say, “At night, you can’t wear a hood. We’re not playing with toy guns because what could happen, or when the police stops you, this is what you do.” I don’t have to have those conversations.

African American moms have to have those conversations with their kids, if they want their kids to be safe. If they want their kids to not get killed, honestly. That really stood out to me. And Bri is little. She’s not a tall girl. And she’s not large; she’s a tiny little teenage girl, and there’s no reason they should have thrown her to the ground.

Jeanie: I am a grown woman. I gotta say if I had to learn in an environment where I might possibly be thrown on the ground, where my very presence was suspect, I couldn’t. That would get in the way of my learning. I wonder about Bri, who kind of struggles as a student, who’s not always the most disciplined of students, but still deserves an education. How is she supposed to get one in a place where she doesn’t always feel safe in her body? It’s heavy.

Marley: It is. This is a really heavy book.

Jeanie: I found myself crying when reading this book. What Bri has to face as a human in this world? I have never experienced before the kind of microaggression she faces on a daily.

Marley: One thing is that they talk about her as being aggressive. She’s called aggressive. Let me flip to the page real quick, page 66.

His pale cheeks reddened, “Because we’re following a lesson plan, Brianna.” He said, “Yeah, but don’t you come up with the lesson plans?” I asked. “I will not tolerate outbursts in my class.” “I’m just saying don’t act like black people didn’t exist before.” He told me to go to the office, wrote me up as being aggressive.

Bri goes on and talks about several other incidents with teachers who say similar things. I know that’s a big topic. Out there is this reality that Black women are seen often as aggressive if they’re outspoken, if they’re speaking the truth about things. They’re being called aggressive a lot, which is, to me, again that implicit bias. Because I feel like as a white mom, if I were to be a big advocate for my child, if I were to go to a school and talk to teachers and say, “No, we need to make this happen.” I would not be called aggressive. It might be like, “Well, she’s a strong mom.” If a person of color, if a woman of color, were to do the same thing and go to school, they would be seen differently by white people.

Jeanie: Yeah, absolutely. I can’t help but think about the way in which Bri can’t win. Bri is really doing critical thinking. She’s asking these really hard questions, something we should be celebrating in school.

But because she’s Black, because of her neighborhood, because the way she’s taken, she ends up in the office.

Don’t we want kids in a history class to be thinking about these things, about why history is told the way it’s told? Don’t we want them challenging and thinking about, hey, how come it’s just this story and not that story? That’s part of what being a historian is about. The fact that the one time she’s really engaging, she gets thrown out of class. It’s no wonder she doesn’t engage.

Marley: Definitely. What if one of her white classmates had asked a similar question? Bri’s trying to probe in differently, probing into what they’re talking about and find out more. But it just makes her teachers angry.

Jeanie:  It further disenfranchises her from school. She feels like her voice isn’t valuable. She’s constantly feeling like she doesn’t belong, in the sense that her thinking is unwelcome. Her perspective is unwelcome in the building and in the school. And she checks out a little bit, as you would if you felt unwelcome and lacked a sense of belonging.

Marley: One thing that you were saying earlier before we started, is that she’s in art school and it’s really ironic that she’s a rapper, which isn’t art as far as the school is concerned. Yet that part of her, who she is and that she’s really talented? We’ll see throughout the book. It’s what a lot of the book actually focuses on. That part of her is not praised at school. It is not seen as an asset because it doesn’t fit in with the schools’ idea of what is art.

Jeanie: We did talk a little bit earlier before we started recording, about how Angie Thomas is also a rapper. She writes these amazing raps, these amazing poetic forms in the book. Marley and I were like, how do we put that in this podcast, and we decided we can’t. Two white women trying to rap, two white women who don’t rap, trying to rap Bri’s amazing lines, it’s just not going work. I do want to set up what it’s like for Bri to rap.

I want to find when Bri first enters this rap competition, and just what’s happening. You can get a sense of how miraculous her skill is ,how talented she is as a young woman.

Marley: Alright, so Bri is now in the ring and doing a rap battle. This is her thinking to herself.

Rule numero uno battling, know your opponent’s weaknesses. Nothing he spit this round is directed at me. That may not seem like a red flag but right now it’s a huge one. I blinked. A real MC would go for the kill because of that, heck I go for it, he’s not even mentioning it. That means there’s a 98% chance this is pre-written. Pre-written as a no-no in the ring. A bigger no-no, pre-written by someone else.

But since my dad isn’t off-limits, not a thing is off-limits. Rule number two of battling, use the circumstances to your advantage. Supreme doesn’t look too worried, but trust he should be. That goes in my arsenal. Rule number three, if there’s a beat, make sure your flow fits it like a glove. Flow is the rhythm of the rhymes and every word, every syllable affects it. Even the way a word is pronounced can change the flow. Well, most people know Snoop and Dre for Deep Cover. One time I found a remake of it by this rapper named Big Pine on YouTube. His flow on the song was one of the best I’ve ever heard in my life.

Jeanie: There is so much that goes into the rapping that Bri does so well and in fact, the title On the Come Up is based on a rap that she’s written. That becomes a really big deal, not just in her neighborhood in Garden Heights, but also in Midtown where she’s going to school, right?

Marley: Yeah. She ends up recording the song and it’s kind of what a lot of the book later on focuses on. We have this first event with the security guards. But a lot of the book is on her rap song that’s becoming big, and if it portrays what she wants to portray about herself. And just the idea of putting it out there, what that song says about who she is. Like I said earlier, the whole book is about Bri figuring out who she is. She wants to be a rapper, and she’s an amazing rapper. She wants to make sure that the image she’s putting off is who she really is.

Jeanie: It’s a real tension, right? Because Jayda wants her to do well at school for a good reason. Jayda wants her to be a success in the world. Jayda wants her to have a happy, healthy life, and she wants her to focus on school more. For the reasons we’ve already recounted, Bri is pretty alienated from school. Also, this arts magnet school doesn’t realize that she’s making this profoundly complex poetry. She’s creating these rhythms and rhymes with music that have great meaning. That she’s using metaphor. That she’s telling stories in these really interesting ways. It’s all art. It’s *so* creative, and she has no path forward for it at school. All of her talent is outside of school in a way that completely alienates her.

Marley: There was this guy in my acting class in high school, and he was an amazing freestyler. When we would have to do these free writes, he would get up and just *go*. He would just go out there with his raps; they were amazing. It’s such a talent to figure out, because rap is not just the end rhyme. You know it’s not just the syllables; it’s the internal rhyme. In fact, if you’ve ever studied Greek and Latin epics, if you look at the internal rhyme in The Iliad and The Odyssey, there’s so much internal rhyming going on. That’s what you see happening.

And so much rap is not only the end rhyme, it’s that internal rhythm and beat that’s happening at the same time. It’s so powerful and amazing. The fact that so much of what Bri does is like instantaneous. She’s out there and she’s freestyling and her brain is working in a way that mine is not even capable of, to make these end rhymes and internal rhymes and allusions and metaphors and similes.

I mean, she’s killing it. She’s doing an amazing job with all the poetry, but then she goes to school and she’s not getting A’s in her English class, right? She’s being assessed on other things. That’s not what they’re looking at, that talent she has.

Jeanie: It’s not even remotely what they’re looking at. It’s completely ignored, right? It’s  divorced from school altogether. Jamila Lyiscott has amazing this TED Talk about the art of the cipher.

She talks about how, when she’s working with pre-service teachers, she puts on some music and ask them to create a cipher, to write some verse. Just listening to this, I had such empathy for them because I knew even before she said it, that it challenges them, that they don’t know what to do. That it’s overwhelmingly hard for most of them, and they’re panicked, and they know that the art they’re creating is not up to snuff, that it’s not good, and it’s just super hard. And I could feel that in my body.

Her point is that meanwhile, the folks who can do this stuff, we label them like, they’re illiterate or incapable, when they can create this complicated art form that we cannot.

Marley: It really is amazing. In my hometown we just think, well, if your grammar doesn’t match what the Oxford English Dictionary says is the right grammar, what our grammar textbook say is the right grammar, then it’s wrong. And that’s not the case. It’s just different. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means it’s different. We need to re-look at it and say, “Okay, how is what you’re saying also grammatically correct?” Right?

Jeanie: Right. There’s not just one way, right way, right? And Bri does this all the time, she knows exactly how to code-switch, and how to talk in the standard American English. It’s not that that’s not valuable. It’s that that’s not the only thing that’s valuable, that there are other ways of talking and being in the world that are sophisticated, and that convey profound meaning and that are intelligent.

But there’s no place for that in in Bri’s school.

Marley: You see that even when Bri talks to her teachers. It’s like code-switching, but she hasn’t quite mastered it in the same way that Starr from The Hate U Give has. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I enjoy that about Bri, that she doesn’t code-switch quite so well, because why should she have to?

Jeanie: Right. Angie Thomas is really challenging us in this book to say: how do we need to change schools so that we don’t require kids like Bri to assimilate into our notion of what it means to be in school? Or what it means to talk in a scholarly way? Bri doesn’t need to act white to earn her place in school. There’s equally valued and valid ways to be in the world.

Jeanie: For me, one of the things especially towards the end that I just loved — and I don’t want to give away too much — is that Jayda is struggling as a working-class parent to make ends meet. Trey, Bri’s older brother, has graduated college and is not able to find a job in his field. And he’s taking some time off; he wants to go to graduate school but he’s helping out the family by working at a local pizza place.

They struggle, like many working families do, probably like many of our students in Vermont who are working poor do, to meet the electricity bill, to pay for food. Often their fridge is nearly empty, and part of why Bri wants to succeed as a rapper is to lessen the financial struggles they’re going through. The thing I loved about Jayda so much is that she keeps saying to Bri, “I got this, I’m the parent here. You don’t need to be the parent here. This is not your concern. Your concern right now is being a kid.

While I understand that Bri is concerned, I also just love that Jayda was like, “That’s my job.” I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?

Marley: Yeah, I felt the same way. I love Bri. I probably connected more with Jayda actually. Because of that because she just was just loving her family so well and really struggling at the same time. She’s just amazing. She fought so hard to overcome her addiction. Now she’s fighting to get an education for herself. She’s taking night classes. She’s fighting to make sure that Bri gets a good education. And she’s fighting to make sure that Trey can go to grad school or get a job working in his field. While doing all that fighting, she’s having to continue to fight off the temptation of her past addiction.

So she surrounds herself with friends that can take care of her and protect her in that way. She’s always trying to protect Bri; she’s just a really amazing woman. Jayda has a gentleness to her that I really loved. And a kindness. And I loved seeing her relationship with Bri, because Bri really pushes against her a lot. Some of it is past issues. Bri, as we saw, is still having nightmares about being abandoned, she’s still struggling with that so much. Throughout the book she has to see over and over her mom’s love for her and really trust that.

Jeanie: Yeah, thank you for speaking to that, you spoke to that so beautifully. I can’t help but return to this other theme of: Bri has to make some really hard choices. And she makes some bad decisions in this book because she wants to be a rapper. She wants to follow her art. She wants to make a little money at it so her family doesn’t struggle so hard. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had a flexible pathway through high school that allowed her to develop this talent within the context of her education, would her choices have looked different? Would her pathway have been — I don’t know if the word is smoother — but would she have gotten in less trouble?

Marley: I talk about the way we do school here a lot when I’m down visiting my family in Mississippi. And I’ve talked about this before with my mother in law. She’s said she was someone who struggled in school, not because she isn’t bright, but because she maybe doesn’t fit in what we like categorize as how a student should be. And she said, “If I was at your school, I would have loved that.”

My goal is to have a classroom and be on a team in which someone like Bri would come in, and we would celebrate her talents. That we would find those talents and help figure out ways for her to explore that. That we would give her books that were interesting to her, projects where she could really shine, rather than saying: you need to fit in this box. Goodness gracious, she’s in art school, right? I hope that all the teachers in Vermont are doing this with fidelity. We have all of these students in our classroom and hope we’re recognizing it and noticing that.

Jeanie: How do you feel like you do that here at Charlotte Central School?

Marley: I really strive to source, through different means, the books that keep them interested. I won a Scholastic grant this year. I’ve done PTO grants. The reason I did GMBA in the beginning was to get books from my classroom and to make sure I had new books to recommend.

We also have Genius Hour, which is where kids do personal interest projects. There was a student last year, and he maybe didn’t always fit the mold for what we were looking for in class, and Genius Hour became a way in which he got to shine. It was amazing. And then a lot of it is just the relationship building. If Bri’s teachers knew her, if they really knew her and really liked her, what would that look like? How would that be different? The teacher who sent her out of class, maybe instead would have realized, “Hey, look she’s asking a question, she’s engaged. Let’s talk about this.” And I think relationships is the biggest thing to start that.

Jeanie: Well said! I love it. Do you have any other books to recommend? As a huge reader and lover of YA. Do you have any other books to recommend for our listeners?

Marley: Yes. If you’re looking for diverse books, which hopefully we all are, I thought of We Set the Dark on Fire. We Set the Dark on Fire is amazing. Patron Saints of Nothing is also amazing it’s by Randy Ribay.

He also wrote After the Shot Drops, which is on GMBA this year. It’s an amazing book. A boy goes to the Philippines. He was from there and then spends most of his life in America; his cousin dies very unexpectedly and very seriously, so he goes there. It has characters that are LGBTQ, it has themes around race and themes around addiction, themes around low socio-economic class — just really amazing.

It’s based, in real-world information. You close this kind of book and you say, I want to know more about what’s happening in the Philippines, and it draws you in and gets you engaged. I would also just put a plug in there, that if you want to read good books, you should read the Green Mountain Book Award list for this past year. I’m a little biased, but I think it’s amazing.

Jeanie:  It’s a fabulous list. I have to say I love to list this year. Thank you so much. I have read none of those books. I’m so excited to check them out.

Marley:  Now you have to be read list.

Jeanie:   I sure do. I’m so grateful. So grateful to you for choosing this book to talk about. It required me to give it another read through and think about it differently than the first time when I read it just for pleasure and for your insights into the book and then and how you use literature in your classroom. Thank you so much.

Marley:  Thank you for letting me be on it.


#vted Reads is a podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Thank you to Marley Evans for appearing on this episode, and to Angie Thomas for writing such powerful and transformative books. If you’d like to come on an upcoming episode of #vted Reads, get in touch. We’d love to chat.

#vted Reads: The End of Average

Today on the show, we’re going to talk about The End of Average: How to Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, by Todd Rose. We’ll be joined by Emily Gilmore, who teaches world history at South Burlington High School, in South Burlington Vermont.

But first, a few words of background for today’s show.

In case you haven’t spent quality time with the spectacular wrongness of Industrial Revolution philosophers, it will help to know the following:

Frederick Winslow Taylor was a 19th century industrial engineer who spent a lot of time during thinking about how to improve the efficiency of factories. He wanted to get more product out of workers, faster. And when psychologist Edward Thorndike came along and read Taylor’s ideas? His own thoughts naturally turned to — where else? — school. When not avidly playing tennis, Thorndike spent his time trying to figure out how to make schools work more like factories.

Frankly, both of them needed flinging in a pond.

But that brings us to Todd Rose, a high school dropout who now runs one of Harvard’s most prestigious thinking departments. Rose has some ideas that would have made Taylor and Thorndike’s hair curl, but that just might explain why proficiency-based learning is so important to keep pursuing in Vermont schools. 

This is Vermont Ed Reads, books with educators, for educators and by educators.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to Vermont Ed Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators by educators and with educators. Today, I’m with Emily Gilmore, and we’ll be talking about The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness, by Todd Rose. Thanks for joining me, Emily. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Emily: I’m so excited to be here! My name is Emily Gilmore and I am a social studies teacher at South Burlington High School, and a Rowland Fellow. I spent two specific years really diving into proficiency and personalized learning. So I’m really excited to talk more about the End of Average because it’s just the most validating book I think I’ve ever read in my whole life.

Jeanie: Excellent. I’m so looking forward to this conversation! I have so many post-it notes in this book. Tell me, what are you reading now?

Emily: Yes. So I am reading There There by Tommy Orange. And I picked it up when I was in Michigan, and sitting on the beach reading about the peoples who inhabited the land originally? Their stories now in modern day are just heartbreaking and so powerful. I just can’t stop reading it and I’m like slowing down, so I can really sit in it. And really feel all of the feelings that come from it.

Jeanie: Yeah, that’s a really powerful book. I love that book. Tommy Orange is indigenous himself, Native American himself. And then he’s writing about urban Indians. Urban Native Americans in Oakland, California. That book was *really* powerful.

Emily: Even the prologue is so incredible. Every educator should read at the very least those first 10-15 pages, going into the history and why the book is so important for everyone to read.

Jeanie: Yeah. I found those pages hard.

Emily: Yes, very…. Like, that was so engaging for me to then really get into the characters too.

Jeanie: Yeah, it’s a great book, great recommendation. So this one, I saw that you tweeted about one day on Twitter and reached out to you right away and said, “Let’s talk about it on the podcast!” And you gave an enthusiastic yay. I found this book to be so enlightening!

My number one takeaway I think was right away at the beginning of the book. The book is divided into three sections. And it illuminated one that we all hold without really thinking about it, or why we hold it. That is what Rose calls “averagarianism”. Is that what he calls it?

I found it so fascinating. And it’s that everything in our contemporary lives is ruled by averages.

How we look at testing in schools, how we place kids in schools, the way we give grades in schools, right? How we think about healthcare and our medical lives, are all about averages. The average blood pressure, the average cholesterol level, the average…

Emily: The size of your foot when you’re born! How long you are. How wide you are.

Jeanie: Right, and the way doctors look at the milestones you hit as a young child, and whether you’re in what percentile. And then in our workplaces, the way we’re evaluated for our jobs, the way we do our jobs, is all impacted by this concept of average. I just want to talk a little bit about the way that Rose lays out how that came to be.

So let’s introduce Quetelet.

Emily: Oh, *Quetelet*. This whole part was really, I think, the most enlightening for me because I spent so much time in college really learning about ideology and sociology. I took a course that was The Sociology of Ideology and Religion, that ended up being focused on really the evolution of communism, but also cults. And also really had an emphasis on eugenics. So this was for me like, oh my gosh, I can’t believe Quetelet was really at the center to spark what became such a key part in really modern history.

Jeanie: He was an astronomer who — for a bunch of reasons — didn’t have the access to his telescope. In astronomy I’ve learned this concept where because people measure the distance between stars or planets with time, and the times that they had weren’t always accurate, they average them. So at the same time that his telescope became inaccessible to him, all of this social data was suddenly available.

Emily: Yep, and he became *obsessed*.

Jeanie: And Quetelet started looking at this social data, which was like, some of it was like measurements of soldiers or like the ages when people died, and he started applying these concepts that he used in astronomy on social data. He determines that being average is ideal and any disparity from average is a flaw. Which is fascinating. Because that’s not how we think about it!

And what was really interesting, what Todd Rose I think is really interesting points out, is that even when you set up an average, like they do it with the average soldier or the average pilot, the average woman — nobody even comes close to the average when you do all those measurements or all those things, right? Nobody, actually. Most people have more disparity from the average than they do likeness. Like more than half.

Emily: Right! And there are actual competitions to see if there was the most average person. Which sounds like the most boring competition of all.

Jeanie: Right.

Emily: Are you going to file your nails before you go? How do you know what exactly you need? Are you going to stand up straight? Anyways, it’s mind blowing that those were those things that people focused on and valued was being the most 50% possible.

Jeanie: All because of Quetelet.

Emily: Right.

Jeanie: But then some time goes by and we meet — *dun dun dun-dun!* — the villain of our story, Galton.

Emily: Yeah, Sir Francis Galton. What an interesting fellow. So he saw Quetelet was I think learning from him at the time and saw that Quetelet was comparing people to the average. So Galton says, “I think you’re better or worse than the average. If you’re above average, you’re better. And if you’re below average, you’re worse.”

Jeanie: He’s related to Darwin, right? He’s a cousin of Darwin.

Emily: Right.

Jeanie: And the founder of Social Darwinism I believe. And he’s an upper-class Brit and he has this notion that if you’re good at one thing, you must be good at all things and that these below-average folks bring society down.

Emily: The “imbeciles”.

Jeanie: Yes, these terms! Like he makes this whole scale of humanity: “imbeciles” all the way up to “the eminent”, “the uncertain”. And as this is the case all the time, Galton defines himself as eminent, of course. Above average.

Emily: Of course, but Queen Victoria is also an eminent. And I thought: she might be the only female [eminant]. Which I would like to look more into.

Jeanie: Right! So, Galton starts looking at standard deviation. Average is only average. And he’s the first person that gets us as a society looking at social data and thinking about being above average or below average. Which really gains a foothold, first in work through Taylor — who focuses on standardization of work to meet the average. But then through standardized testing, IQs, Thorndyke and his standardized tests and his notions, and so I wondered if you wanted to talk a little bit about that.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely. I think Taylor really stands out to me as somebody who, during the Industrial Revolution or post-Industrial Revolution, the whole Western society is trying to figure out how to do things bigger and better and faster and more efficient. For cheap. And that’s where Taylor really makes a huge shift in the whole dynamics of Western society. A shift of “we should have people who are not physically doing the work, but telling people how to do the work”.

Which I think everybody listening and not listening has probably felt: “I’m doing something and the person above me may or may not know what I’m actually doing”. You can thank Taylor for that.

Jeanie: Right. Also humans as cogs. You do the job and that’s it. Someone has decided what the most efficient, best way to do it is.

Emily: Yeah.

Jeanie: There’s no room for innovation. This is like, factory model, where you do the same thing over and over again.

Emily: Yeah, there’s a great quote that I found, hold on one second. So in 1918, so at the end of World War I, Taylor says, “the most important idea should be that of serving the man who is over you his way, not yours.” It’s on page 47 from my book.

Jeanie: Talk about disenfranchisement! And what’s really interesting is that education followed suit.

So Edward Thorndyke who apparently was a very efficient man, who did a lot quickly, was also one of the creators of standardized tests. And he believed, and this is a quote from page 53,

Thorndyke believed that schools should clear a path for talented students to proceed to college and then onward into jobs where their superior abilities could be put to use leading the country. The bulk of students, whose talents Thorndyke assumed would hover around the average, could go straight from high school graduation or even earlier into their jobs as Taylorist workers in the industrial economy. As to the slow learning students? Well Thorndyke thought we should probably stop spending resources on them as soon as possible.

I wonder in what ways schools still produce these results even if they don’t intend to.

Emily: Absolutely. This is also putting it into context, which Rose does, is in 1900, two percent of Americans were graduating from college.

So that is a massive– it’s a massive growth that we’ve seen in the United States, which Rose also talks about not taking that for granted. Like, yes, Thorndyke and Taylor had huge impacts on America, and without that, many people would be in totally different places. And yet those really, really negative consequences are still things that we’re trying to unpack today. Especially the worth of serving those who deserve it, those who are skilled. What does that mean? Who is actually being served then?

When he’s writing this, women didn’t have the right to vote. The Civil Rights Act had not been passed. So we’re looking at such a small section of America, and it’s post World War I. We haven’t seen the Great Depression yet. We haven’t seen World War II. The world is so vastly different that it’s fascinating to think about what this landscape looked like, that he was really talking to.

Jeanie: Right. It’s also a really narrow definition of talent? Who gets to define what talent is and what it isn’t. I worry that it’s really a double whammy for some students. Not only are they not given the resources they need to thrive in our world, they’re also stripped of their own talents because they’re not recognized.

Emily: Yeah, absolutely.

Jeanie: I remember being– I’m a bit older than you. I remember taking standardized tests in the 2nd or 3rd grade. On paper. With bubble sheets! And crying when they got too hard for me because it was progressive, you kept going. I believe they had the name Thorndyke on them. I have this pretty solid memory of the name Thorndyke from my elementary school years. So his tests stuck around, right? Like that model stays with us today through NWEA and SATs and ACTs and all of the standard aspects, all the standardized tests that are norm-referenced. That they’re referenced against an average.

Emily: Right, and even in conversations today with students about when you should sign up for the SAT? Recommendations are being made that you should be taking the SAT when more students are taking the SAT because your chance of being above average is greater because more students are taking the test. That is *absurd*. Especially for students that are saving money, their own money to take the tests when they should be, first of all, not having to spend their own money and not having to pay for a test that is not giving valid results.

Jeanie: Right, because that still only measures certain kinds of talent, right, reading, writing, math. The ACT is a little bit broader, but that’s still a very narrow notion of what talent means.

Emily: Right.

Jeanie: I was also listening to Radiolab. They did a series called G, which was all about IQ tests.

The End of Average Radiolab G

So, as I was reading this book and learning about the ties of standard deviation and average and standardization and norm-reference tests to the eugenics movement? I was also learning about the IQ test and its link to the eugenics movement. And Galton’s language, which sounds very like the eugenics movement, and just feeling like: *ugh*. This grief or this, I guess, rage. That we still use these tools that were used to strip people of their humanity. These tools that were linked to genocide, and to all sorts of horrors are still in our toolbox.

Emily: Right, the forced sterilization that’s still happening today because of ideas that are centuries old and have been proven to be fairly irrelevant.

Jeanie: That gets us to this fascinating part of the book called the Ergodic Bait and Switch. Do you know what I’m talking about? This was thrilling to me on page 62 of the book. Because it’s not just that they were old, they were wrong!

Emily: Right?

Jeanie: “Molenaar recognized that the fatal flaw of averagerianism was its paradoxical assumption that you could understand individuals by ignoring their individuality. He gave a name to this error, the ergodic switch. The term is drawn from a branch of mathematics that grew out of the very first scientific debate about the relationship between groups and individuals, a field known as ergodic theory. If we wish to understand exactly why our schools, businesses and human sciences have all fallen prey to a misguided way of thinking, then we must learn a little about how the ergodic switch works.”

And he proceeds to tell us in this chapter about how the math is wrong. The math we’ve used for centuries? Is wrong.

Emily: It makes sense! *laughs*

When any person talks about their experiences. Even my mother talking about how her three daughters were born on their due dates and how that’s bizarre. Then why have a due date? When you’re measuring and you’re seeing the development of children over time — and he gets into this later in the book — about learning to crawl versus learning to walk and how babies will do that at different times and at different rates? We see it every day. But we’re told something different and somehow we still believe what we’re not seeing.

Jeanie: Yet parents worry over those developmental milestones, and we’ll talk more about that later, and the science that’s debunked them as useful. So the thing I really love that Todd Rose, the point he makes again and again in this book is that: averages just don’t work. Not just don’t they work for everyone, that they’re outliers? But for anyone. There are a ton of anecdotes in the book about how nobody’s really average. I don’t know if there’s one you want to share or if there’s something from your classroom that you’ve noticed.

Emily: First of all, what stands out to me is right after reading the book, I listened to Todd Rose, his interview with Dax Shepard on Dax Shepard’s Armchair Experts, which I love. They both talk about individuality versus individualism and that the focus is really on individuality, the individual person. And they spend a lot of time talking about Todd Rose’s experience and his own educational career, and how, when he was in high school, he failed out. And yet now he’s a professor at Harvard. Very well renowned and is running the Mind, Brain & Education program. Is just phenomenal, and you would never know that he was somebody who failed out of high school.

Jeanie: All of his teachers are in shock that he’s in Harvard. They’re all going, “How the heck did that happen?”

Emily: Right? Exactly! The individual has different needs. And his dad saw that and so his dad was really able to help him. That was when he really became that teacher figure, that one to really intervene and say this, this is why you haven’t been successful yet.

Jeanie: I love that this book comes out of Rose’s own lived experience.

Emily: Yes.

Jeanie: Right. Like his passion for this comes out of his own lived experience as somebody who went back to college and with kids who struggled. Who had to find a different path.

Emily: Yeah and I think, from the other articles that I’ve read in the interviews, he really is so drawn on trying to prove himself wrong and he keeps finding more and more evidence as to why the End of Average is constantly a necessary piece of life.

We need to get rid of the average because we’re all individuals. We love ourselves. And we want to love our potential. As teachers, that’s what I want to see every day.

That’s my goal at the end of the day is for each student to feel like they know themselves a little bit better.

Jeanie: A lot of his stories wrap again and again around this idea of pilots. And building a standard, average-sized cockpit for pilots. And it fitting no one. So there were a lot of errors and unnecessary crashes, because it fit no one.

Then he tells this great story. I almost don’t want to tell it because if you read the book, you should totally read this book. I’m not even going to tell it. Because it’s so great when you realize more about the specific pilot who does this amazing thing.

But when they design for average, no one wins. Like I said, it’s failure for everyone. I think about that in our schools. Because I think unfortunately because of our workloads and our class sizes and the amount of courses we teach and our little prep time? I think it can be really easy to plan for the average.

Emily: Yeah and that’s the visual that immediately comes to my head is in every professional development that has anything to do with personalization, there’s always the image of: don’t teach to the middle! And there’s the row of desks, and one student in the desks and then you have the students on the outside who are below and above. Really it’s just those different pieces of the individual that we see highlighted in that particular classroom.

Jeanie: Yeah. I love this quote that he has on page 66 about that. “Averages provide a stable, transparent and streamlined process for making decisions quickly. And in a way, we stuck with averages because of efficiency, but I just think of all we lose. And what do individual students lose in a system that’s still using norm-referenced tests and focused on how if you’re on grade level or off grade level. That’s part of averagarianism is this idea of grade level.”

Emily: Right. I think that was a really interesting concrete takeaway for me when he talks about Khan Academy and the beauty of Khan Academy, and how it can really meet students where they are. He keeps coming back to this idea that speed does not equal success. And that is something that keeps coming back, and it’s so powerful to really sit and seep in. It doesn’t matter how fast it takes. He gives a great anecdote about driving and he says: “A driver’s license does not record how many times you failed the written driving an exam or the age when you finally obtained it. As long as you pass the driving exam, you are allowed to drive.”

Jeanie: Right. I think we in schools privilege fast processors.

Emily: Oh, absolutely.

Jeanie: All the time.

Emily: It’s easier.

Jeanie: I am a fast processor. And school really worked for me because I’m a fast processor, and I don’t just mean like wait time. I think a lot of teachers try with wait time, but the fast processors, the kids who get it quickly, maybe not deeply but get it quickly, are really rewarded in our school systems.

Emily: I think that looks different too. I have a lot of students in my classes that look visually like they’re understanding what’s happening. Right, if you’re quiet, she’ll move on. She won’t ask any questions.

Jeanie: Yeah.

Emily: That doesn’t mean learning’s happening.

Jeanie: Right. We have a lot of kids who slip through the cracks that way, right?

Emily: Right.

Jeanie: Yeah. Now this book is just *full* of research, and he delves into this idea of pace later on in the book. He mentions an experiment where students are learning probability theory, this math. And they do a control group that learns at a fixed pace. They learn the same material at a very fixed pace. And then they have a self-paced group and they can learn it however long it takes them. At the end when they do the test, 20% of the fixed-paced group achieved mastery and they have defined mastery in a particular way, but 90% of the self-paced group did.

And that data really blew me away. How can we go with fixed pace when that’s the difference, right? So providing varied pacing is challenging in public schools. I get it. It’s really hard.

Emily: Yeah.

Jeanie: I think we have to shift our paradigm of what school looks like in order to make really widely varied pacing work? But it seems really worth it!

Emily: You’re right, the evidence is right in front of us. *laughs* Over and over again.

Jeanie: Ninety percent achieve mastery, and this is statistics! This is not three digit addition. This is statistics. So I’m wondering, have you experimented with pacing in your classroom?

Emily: I’ve definitely used more and more as the years have gone on with really self-driven summative assessments. That really has been a game changer.

Today was the first day going back into the school building for actual work. Going back and thinking about: what are my goals for my students this year with the new crop of 9th graders? And looking at their pictures from 8th grade knowing that they had yet to experience that school year — because we get those little pictures from the incoming students — and going back and then thinking about: what was the experience, the reaction of my students from last year, my 9th graders leaving their 9th grade experience?

Seeing some of the still 8th grade pictures because they didn’t get their school pictures updated and thinking about the growth that happened when you don’t assign them a topic. That, for me? Is a small jump into the self-paced.

A lot of the work that we’re doing in the world history classroom is removing those immediate definitions and terms that went along with the old, very Eurocentric curriculum that I learned when I was in high school. And really opening it up to look beyond things that you know.

So when we’re learning about forms of government, we’re going to look at pivotal shifts in forms of government, so you need to be able to show me:

  • What was one form of government?
  • Who was trying to change it, and why?
  • And now what’s the new form of government if there was a successful change?
  • Or what was the form of government that they wanted in the attempt to overthrow the status quo?

And through that, students were looking at everything from what was happening in Venezuela to what was happening in Mexico. I’m sure there’ll be a lot looking at what’s happening in Hong Kong right now. And students were looking at 500 years ago to what was happening in modern day and they’re having these conversations together. Comparing what’s happening with democracy and how democracy looks in so many different ways.

But they had weeks to work on it in class. And so some students were working on the first step of the project up until the final day because that was what was most interesting to them. It didn’t mean that they weren’t interested in analyzing the pivotal shifts and the different forms of government. They were like, “But what is this government? It’s so complex.”

And that to me was more valuable than having them jump through the five steps that I had put together to eventually look in deep analysis — which I’m realizing is more of like a college project.

But by having those really varied opportunities for students, they’re able to choose how they’re using their time each day.

Jeanie: So it sounds to me like you are using pacing and voice and choice in really powerful ways. One of the things I hear from teachers a lot is, “But how do you manage all of that? How do you manage so many kids on so many different topics?” I hear that you have this overarching topic and on different paces, so I’m asking you: how does Emily Gilmore manage this?

Emily: *laughs* It takes a lot of control actually, to let go of the old curriculum.

When I first started working at the school I’m at right now, I had had a totally different teaching experience and a totally different upbringing through the education system than what I was experiencing in my first year teaching. I was looking at this really, *really* Eurocentric, very confusing curriculum that went from the Renaissance to the Berlin conference in Africa.

So you went from “Germany doesn’t exist” to “Germany’s imperializing a country and committing genocide”. So what happens there?

That was very confusing and felt like a lot and very stressful. Every day I was walking into school, how am I going to teach the enlightenment? World War I’s really important. How do I teach the Industrial Revolution? Those things aren’t there. How do you make those connections?

The next two years I started to really think about: that’s okay. I can introduce it and I can give anecdotes, but the bigger idea is that students care about what they’re learning in world history. They’re in 9th grade.

I can’t tell you how many — particularly, it just so happens to always be this group of 49 to 70 white men — who are reading Civil War books and World War II and are all: “You’re a history teacher? Now what are you teaching about the Civil War? What are you teaching about World War II? Have you learned about these different battles in World War I?”

I’m like: “Hm. Mm-hmm.”

I have no reason to teach my kids the specific battles of World War I as 14 year olds! They need to learn about the world around them. And that there are different people. And that different people are good and that they are interesting. Your experience is different than the person sitting next to you. We’re going to build empathy and understanding of that first. And that, to me, is world history.

Jeanie: So do you find that your kids are more invested because they have this choice of pace, product, and topic?

Emily: I think it takes a lot at the beginning of the year? And that’s really the biggest source of anxiety? Is a lot of students unlearning the passive form of education that they are mostly accustomed to.

And that’s not saying that all of their learning experiences by any means, but a lot of insecurities really bubble up.

Especially 14 year olds who are right at the cusp of figuring out who they are and what they’re interested in and worrying about,

“If I say I’m really interested in the French Revolution, is the person next to me going to make fun of me?”

That is a really tough spot. And so that is really the focus of the beginning of our 9th grade experience. It’s like who are you? Everyone’s going to be vulnerable together. And we’re going to build trust. We’re going to build an environment that’s inclusive.

And from there the students really begin to think about, oh so when she gives us choice, it’s not overwhelming.

Jeanie: This is perfect. I was going to have to say, let’s get back to the book, even though Emily’s classroom is way more interesting. But actually what you’re talking about? Directly applies to the book. Which is: Rose introduces this idea — and I’m sure he’s not the only one to use it — called the jaggedness principle. This idea that two people who have the same IQ? Can have vastly different sorts of talents and skills, or strengths and weaknesses within an IQ test. That they’re not the same, even though they both have the same number. So I’m wondering about how you use this idea of the jaggedness principle to really help students get to know themselves? And for you to get to know students and know them well, as learners and as humans?

Jagged profiles for intelligence from page 89 of The End of Average
Jagged profiles for intelligence from page 89 of The End of Average
Jagged profiles for size from page 81 of The End of Average
Jagged profiles for size from page 81 of The End of Average

Emily: What really stood out to me is thinking about personality tests and the jaggedness principle. It’s just something that I really continued to come back to as I kept reading about. And eventually he does make that connection. That people are complex and that, in its own right, is important. And that is what teachers see in their students. I think that for me is the part that I have embraced the most. And I now I’m getting back into, okay, so how do I take the complex identity and teach them the world history curriculum that I’m required to by law? That’s like trying to make that work.

But the personality tests keep coming in from me. When I was in high school and taking psychology, we took the Myers Briggs personality test. And I was INFJ. It was INFJ is the least common personality type. I was like, “Oh, that’s so cool.” Jerry Seinfeld, you’re an INFJ!” and as I’ve grown up–

Jeanie: I’m so unique! *laughs*

Emily: I’m so unique! I’m in a percentage of people who are also INFJ! *laughs*

The really important part is the first part of INFJ, it’s I, it’s introverted. In high school I felt very, very introverted. I knew I wanted to be a teacher and I would sit back in class totally silent and just absorb. And then as soon as I entered college and was studying teaching, I was like, “Oh, I’ve got to have a self-talk. I can’t actually be an introvert.”

And it gets to that idea that your personality actually it changes in different situations. Which jaggedness principle then connects to all these different ideas that he pulls in with Bloom and lots of fabulous people.

Jeanie: I just think if we could really help our students begin to understand their own jaggedness, their strengths, their places of challenge or places for growth? We could really transform their lives.

Emily: Absolutely. Absolutely. And I think that also builds that compassion that when you see students who are maybe struggling with a creative project, because it’s called a “creative project” and a student previously hasn’t seen themselves as creative. I remember that feeling when I was in high school where you had options for your summative assessment. It was your final project. and it was a test. You could take the multiple choice test. You could do a book report. I remember one teacher always wanted us to make a rap. Or you could do something creative and you’d have to talk to the teacher. And I was like, “Oh, essays sounds great to me.”

Jeanie: Rapping is hard. I am older than you because nobody ever gave me the option in high school of making a rap. I remember we could write a play, maybe.

When you’re good at school, it can be easy to say, “Oh, I’m not doing the creative thing. I’ll take multiple choice test please, thank you very much.” I think it can get really frustrating for students when we ask them to step out of those comfort zones, especially those kids who are good at doing school.

This is where proficiency-based education really frees us up, right? Because the criteria is the same but you can demonstrate it in so many ways.

And that leads us to the next principle that Todd Rose outlines, which is the pathways principle.

I think this is so relatable to Act 77 and to our work in schools right now. The kind of things we’re still figuring out. He’s suggesting that, like it or not, whether we want this to be the case or not, we all take different paths as we learn and grow. He gives countless of examples of different ways people learn to read. Different ways science shows us, research shows us, different ways that people learn to crawl or walk. That we all develop differently. That there’s no such thing as a single ladder of development. There are many different pathways or webs. So I’m just curious. I think that we’re still on the cusp of figuring out flexible pathways for students. One way I hear you doing it is saying, here’s the learning, here’s the big thing. Find what interests you and apply it to that.

Emily: Yeah, and the more that you learn about your students too. That’s been the greatest takeaway for me, is that I feel this deeper sense of love. And the environment is so much more positive, when you see students sitting at their desks or walking around the room looking at other people working and you don’t see anybody judging one another and they’re asking questions like, “Hey, where did you find that?” or, “I read this really good article, but it actually, it connects more to your project. Do you want me to send it to you?”

Jeanie: I was in your classroom once last spring, and it was such a calm and focused place when I was in there! So I’m going to share a quote, another quote from Rose that I really loved from page 129 because I think it’s really relevant to what we’re talking about, and we’d almost forgotten about him.

Emily: Oh no.

Jeanie: And The End of Average! We got so interested in what we were talking about.

“The fact that there is not a single normal pathway for any type of human development, biological, mental, moral or professional, forms the basis of the third principle of individuality, the pathway principle. In all aspects of our lives and for any given goal, there are many equally valid ways to reach the same outcome. And second, the particular pathway that is obstacle for you depends on your own individuality.”

I feel like this needs to become the heart of schooling.

Emily: Absolutely.

Jeanie: There’s no one way. There’s no one valid way. And I think he goes on to say that talent lies in all the different paths. I was really inspired by that. It makes me so happy about the flexible pathways portion of Act 77.  And thinking about how we can help more students be successful by broadening the scope of pathways available to them.

Emily: I think it even comes down to what “successful” looks like and feels like. Because that’s so tied to this idea of success according to Thorndyke might look different than success according to Galton. And success according to you and I! That is so important to really unpack. Success for whom and where and how do you achieve that, again, comes back to those pathways. But success is so I think tied to a certain set of values that we see in society.

I see the hinge of the status quo of what we’re working towards, really in Vermont of: we want all of our students to be successful.

And I think also the caveat there is whatever success looks like for them and feels like for them. Not what I think is successful for a certain student or their family or whatnot. But how that student is defining for themselves. I think that’s such the central piece of what we are really talking about is how do we get students to really have that metacognition of: what does it look like and feel like when *I’m* feeling successful? How can I bottle that up and take that with me for the rest of my life?

Jeanie: What you’re saying reminds me that– and I think Rose would agree — we’ve got a really narrow notion of what success looks like in schooling. So if you’re good at math, reading and writing, you’re a success.

Emily: And athletics.

Jeanie: Yes, but academically, we have this notion that math, reading and writing are the pinnacle, right? So if you take calculus, you are one of the smartest kids in the school, and we fall back on Galton and we assume that if you’re good at calculus, you’re good at everything else, right? You’re just smart.

And I just really think, not just because it’s the right thing to do for individuals but also because our economy is demanding it of us, that we need to broaden our notion of the many ways there are to be successful and talented in this world, of the many ways in which there are to thrive. Back to that podcast, the Radiolab G podcast. One of the hosts on there points out that in Darwin’s world, in true Darwinism, variability is a strength. In the standardized world, variability, doing things differently, being an outlier is not a strength. You have to succeed in these ways, in these categories instead of really appreciating the full broad spectrum, the broad ecosystem that is humanity.

Jeanie: Just reading this book made me realize, made me think about how a lot of teachers I know are really struggling with implementing proficiency based education because they’re like, “Kids don’t want it. They want to go back to the way things were.” Part of that’s comfort, right? Like just give me the quiz, right? Don’t make me *really* demonstrate anything, just give me the quiz.

But part of it is I think that our whole world is set up in this way that demands conformity and sort of asks us to compare ourselves with each other.

And when we start shifting schooling to be more about:

  • Who are you?
  • What’s the right path for you?
  • How do you access learning in the way that’s best for you?

We’re not just fighting against years of schooling that didn’t ask that, we’re fighting against a whole world that doesn’t ask that of kids. It’s countercultural in a way.

Emily: So what happens when we’re seeing how proficiencies work naturally in the classroom? And fit so many of the good practices that  teachers have? Just like you were saying, students may say that they don’t know what it is and they don’t understand it and whatever, but if you take that out of the conversation and you just let the students learn and you’re using that language? They get it eventually. And they move on. They’re adapting to everything. Everything is new for them, and that’s life for all of us is the next step is always new.

Throughout the whole book, Rose keeps bringing up that; with all of these examples, there’s groups of people who are being hurt in the process. And that’s the greatest risk of all: by not doing anything, we’re hurting more people than we are helping.

Jeanie: We’re under-serving some and over-serving others.

Emily: Right, but we’re over-serving so few. And we’re under-serving *so* many.

Jeanie: Right, and disenfranchising them from their own sort of learning. Their own ability to learn.

Emily: Right.

Jeanie: And the way they think of themselves as learners. We have a lot of power.

Emily: We do. It’s overwhelming!

Jeanie: It is. But we have a lot of power to do good, to help students find themselves and feel good about themselves and cultivate their own awareness of their jaggedness so that they can navigate their learning well into the future.

Emily: Yeah.

Jeanie: I am just starting the doctoral program here at UVM, and I feel like, “Oh, I know myself as a learner so well, now.” I’m sure there are challenges ahead, but I wish I knew myself as well as I do now when I was an undergrad.

Emily: Yeah, or even in high school. I just think like, “Oh, the stories I could tell myself. And my friends, whisper in their ears: you won’t believe what you’re doing in 10 years. Stop doing that.”

Jeanie: Are there resources that you use to help students get to know themselves or that you use to get to know students better?

Emily: We keep trying new things each year and I think especially with the more and more resources that Teaching Tolerance is putting out around identity and social justice and really making sure that the work that we’re doing is productive and not harmful? Has really helped me be reflective in getting to know you activities. Because so many of them are alienating to so many of our students.

That’s really been an important learning process for me of how to best learn about our students.

I would say that’s definitely been the most useful of how can we really set up the learning processes for our students. So I start the year off with my identity iceberg. What do you know? What can you make assumptions about? Then what’s below the surface? What are the things that you need to learn about me in order to really understand who I am? So that’s some of the work that we do at the beginning of the year, and it’s amazing. It’s *amazing*.

Jeanie: I’m also just thinking about how equity work is such a natural fit here because it’s about celebrating difference and honoring difference. And noticing difference. And isn’t that what we want for our students? For them to understand their own difference. In order to make the most of it.

Emily: Right.

Jeanie: In order to develop their talents, to know where their gifts are.

Emily: And to love themselves.

Jeanie: They all come with gifts! And we need their gifts in this world. We need *all* of the gifts we can get in this world. We need all of the genius we can get in this world. There’s so much to do.

Rose ends with these recommendations really for higher-ed, and I just thought, “Oh, we at Vermont are so ahead of the game!” Because he starts with the idea that there are three concepts to transform education. One is to grant credentials, and not diplomas. This idea that you get credentialed because you demonstrate a competency or proficiency at skills which I think we’re sort of using that competency based approach even if we’re not giving kids specific credentials.

Emily: Although some schools around the state are using credentialing and they’re really powerful.

Jeanie: And micro-badging, right?

Emily: Right, absolutely.

Jeanie: Micro-credentialing and badging, and so… I just combined those two, micro-credentialing and badging. You’re right, they are. Do you have any examples you’d like to share?

Emily: I think about the work that Jen Kravitz and Erica Walstrom and Marsha Castle did at Rowland with their STEM and their global studies badging credentials. I’ll come up with the right term eventually, but their programming is fantastic. Where students are really choosing a path that’s interesting to them while maintaining the curriculum that is in place at the school, but they’re navigating it through a particular lens and field of interest.

Jeanie: Then the second concept is to replace grades with competency. So we’re beginning that work. I think a lot of people are really navigating the hard road of getting rid of letter grades and moving towards a competency-based system. Not easy.

Emily: Not easy and lots of learning and self-reflection I think is the really big takeaway in this process.

Jeanie: It requires a lot of educating parents.

Emily: Yes.

Jeanie: Yes, your kid will still get into college.

Emily: Right.

Jeanie: Yes, they’re still a good student even if they don’t have straight As.

Emily: Right.

Jeanie: They’re still a good learner. And the grading system we have is not ideal anyway. It doesn’t really tell us anything. So scrapping it for one that actually defines what they’re proficient at seems worthwhile to me even though the road is hard.

Emily: Yeah, and I think there’s more meat behind it too. Now students have products to prove their proficiencies rather than maybe some conversations with teachers to bump up grades.

Jeanie: Yeah, evidence.

Emily: You’re right, evidence.

Jeanie: Evidence of learning.

Emily: Yeah.

Jeanie: Right. Then the final principle is to let students determine their educational pathway. I think we’re still on the road with this one. We’re still figuring this one out.

Emily: Yeah. I think there’s definitely more and more options available pre-K through 12. Then it’s that jump from, well, what does undergrad need for the application process and what will they accept and how will they compare the applicants to one another?

Jeanie: Yeah. Well, I think these things going hand in hand. You need to be able to define proficiency to have a competency- or proficiency-based system in order to create flexible pathways that lead to the same credentialing, if you will. The skills are really important. It’s not that we’re saying throw those out and let kids wander around wherever. They’re still aiming towards that learning goal. We’ve defined it such that kids can get there in a lot of different ways at different paces. They can demonstrate that in different ways. The core skill, the core learning is the same, but the pathway is different. And those things are interdependent. And! Dependent on knowing students well and helping them know themselves well. And helping them communicate their identities as well to the adults who are there to coach them and provide them the opportunities they need.

Emily: Absolutely. In the long term that makes our world more successful as we have individuals who are aware of their behaviors and the impact of their behaviors and have real confidence in their abilities to move the work forward. Whatever that work may be.

Jeanie: Yeah because we don’t need any cogs in machines right now. We really need creative people who are able to use their talents, whatever they are.

Emily: And to continue to adapt to do that as well.

Jeanie: Yeah. I am *so* grateful to you for introducing me to this book. I think I just saw you tweet about it and was like, if Emily’s reading it, it must be good! Because I enjoyed every second of it. I must have 600 post-it notes in it, and we’ve just scratched the surface. Are there any other quotes you’d like to share?

Emily: Oh boy. Let me see. I will leave us with a little bit of a scare maybe. This is what we want to avoid at all costs that I think is important to leave us thinking to grapple with a little bit. This was on page 33, Sir Francis Galton, and he said, “What nature does blindly, slowly and ruthlessly, man may do providently, quickly and kindly.” How we apply that? I think is really what sets the tone from the rest.

Jeanie: Yeah. In a healthy ecosystem, lots of things flourish, right? In a healthy ecosystem, there’s diversity. We can also create diversity in our schools.

Emily: We’ll let our kids flourish.

Jeanie: Let all our kids flourish. Thank you, Emily, for all you do to help students at South Burlington flourish and thanks so much for taking the time to talk about this book with me right before school begins. I really appreciate your time and your thoughts and your many examples from your classroom.

Emily: Thank you, Jeanie, for the reset.



#vted Reads: Place-Based Curriculum Design

This episode is all. About. QUESTIONS.

Why are we here? Who was here before us? What kinds of stories do we tell about the world around us? And: how can we change from seeing the world as something to be studied, to something that can be acted upon …and changed.

First-year educator Thierry Uwilingiyamana  — now in his second year at Winooski Middle-High School — joins me on the show to talk about Place-Based Curriculum Design: Exceeding Standards Through Local Investigations. The author, Amy Demarest, is herself a longtime Vermont educator who has touched both my guest and I deeply.

(We’re big fans!)

Plus: why you absolutely need to spin Google Earth with your students. Just once. Their reactions may surprise and delight you.

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

Let’s chat.

Continue reading #vted Reads: Place-Based Curriculum Design

#vted Reads: The Benefits of Being an Octopus

This one goes deep, folks. On this episode educator Corey Smith joins me to talk about The Benefits of Being an Octopus, by Ann Braden. We talk glitter and posterboard, coffee and peanut-butter smoothies, and using the Equity Literacy Framework to dismantle inequality in our systems of learning with both students AND adults. What might we — and you — miss about students’ complicated home lives? And what can we learn from gun control debates about community conversations?

Told ya. Strap in. It’s #vted Reads.

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 Corey Smith and we’ll be talking about The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. Thank you for joining me, Corey. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Corey: Sure. Thanks for having me. So, my name is Corey Smith and I work at the Greater Rutland County Supervisory Union. Up until last year, I was a classroom teacher. I had taught first grade, second grade, third grade and fourth grade with third grade being my most recent and at the end of the year I was given the opportunity to become a PBL coach. So now I get to have the opportunity to go into the schools within our district and work with the teachers to implement project-based learning, proficiency-based education, place-based learning, technology and student-centered learning. So that’s what I do now.

Jeanie: Excellent. We are recording in the school in which Corey was a first, second, third and fourth grade teacher, Proctor Elementary School, in Proctor VT. And I’ve got to tell you, there’s more flexible seating in this school than I’ve seen anywhere. It’s really a lovely, lovely building. Thanks for inviting me in.


Corey: Thanks for coming here.

Jeanie: So I’m going to start us off with my favorite question.

What are you reading now?

Corey: So, I am reading Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson right now. I have an 11 year old, sixth grader at home who has been an incredibly reluctant reader his entire life and this year’s DCF lists came out and it excited him and he has been reading nonstop, so we decided to pick out a book from the DCF list to read together. So that’s what we’re reading. We’re not too far into it yet, but I’m really excited about it so far.

Jeanie: I really love all of Jacqueline Woodson’s books, but Harbor Me was a really special one. I think it’s a great empathy builder. So good choice for both of you. So let’s get to this book which we both adored and which Vermont educators are really loving and educators all over the country, The Benefits of Being an Octopus by Ann Braden. I wondered if you could introduce us to Zoey by reading the first few paragraphs of the book.

"I settled onto the couch with the chocolate pudding I saved from Friday school lunch. The silence is amazing. Well, it's not complete silence -- Hector is spinning the whirring dragon on his baby seat while he eats Cheerios -- but it's pretty close. I savor a spoonful of pudding. How long do I have before Bryce and Aurora burst out of our bedroom arguing about something? When I left them in there, Aurora was pretending to be Bryce's cat and he was pretending to feed her milk, but that can't last. I mean, they're three and four. That's not how it works. I take another bite with my eye on the bedroom door, but it stays closed. This never happens. I glance down at my backpack, my debate prep packet is inside and I'm actually tempted to work on it. I'm not a kid who does homework. And I definitely don't do big projects, which usually require glitter and markers and poster board and all sorts of things. None of which I have. Plus, last year in sixth grade when I actually turned in a poster project, Kaylee Vine announced to the whole class, “Everyone! Alert the authorities! Zoey Albro turned in a project. The world must be ending.” Then she made that aghn aghn aghn sound like a fire drill and did it every time she passed me in the hall for the whole next week."

Jeanie: Perfect. So here we’ve got Zoey, she’s a seventh grader. She’s got a lot of responsibilities.

Corey: Zoey has two younger brothers and a younger sister. We just met Bryce and Aurora, three and four, and then she has an even younger sibling, Hector, who is around toddler age.

And Zoey is responsible for caring for these kids because her mom works.

In the afternoon, Zoey will get off the bus and she’ll meet the kids at their bus stop to pick them up to take them home. She’ll go to the pizza shop where her mom works to pick up the baby and she cares for these kids. As you get to know her, you find that a lot of what caring for the kids means is keeping them quiet. Making sure that they’re not interrupting others adults in the house.

Jeanie: Yeah. She gets them ready for school every morning. I mean, it’s hard enough to get myself ready for work! But she’s a seventh grader who gets herself ready for school *and* she gets two of these three kids ready to get onto the Head Start bus every single school day.

Corey: It’s amazing.

Jeanie: It’s a tremendous amount of responsibility and yet we could also hear the way Zoey’s teachers must see her: she owns up that she doesn’t really do projects or homework. So, I’m sure that given the lens of school, they really see her as a not-responsible person.

Corey: As I read the book, what struck me was my own teaching practice. And I really used the book to reflect upon myself as a teacher. How many times have I made quick judgements about students without really knowing who they are, what their background is, what they come to school with every day. With Zoey as the reader, she comes off as incredibly responsible, a caretaker. And yet the people at school don’t see that from her.

Jeanie: Yeah. I love that Ann Braden as an author, gives us this real appreciative lens to look at Zoey and her many strengths — and she has so many!

Corey: She does.

Jeanie: She’s a creative as a caretaker of these children. She makes up stories every single evening.

Corey: Yeah. I love the stories! The stories that she tells them are incredible.

Jeanie: Right? And yet at school she’s completely silent. But at home, she’s this incredible story-weaver. What other strengths did you notice in Zoey?

Corey: Zoey’s incredibly creative — though it comes out in ways that we might not expect, or ways that most people wouldn’t see from her. She is adaptable. I don’t know that she views herself as adaptable? But she has so many different situations within her life, so many responsibilities. And she adapts to what she needs to be for each of those people in her life. Her friend Silas, her friend Fuchsia, her siblings, her mom — we see her take on different… I don’t want to say personalities, but different *characteristics* to help her be the strong person in each of those scenarios.

I also thought she was incredibly brave for everything that she goes through.

She is a seventh grader. So that puts her at 12 or 13. And… look at everything that she’s going through! I felt like she’s the glue that holds her family together, that she’s the one who brings the family together and make sure that it functions.

Jeanie: Yes! Her mother could not do it without her, for sure. And that brings up that Zoey has a lot of obstacles in her life. There are a lot of struggles and obstacles to her success, not just in school but in general.

I wondered if we wanted to name some of those obstacles that Zoey faces.

Corey: Yeah. I feel like a lot of her strengths are also obstacles. Being the caregiver is a strength for her, but at the same time, it’s an obstacle. Because she is a seventh grader who does not get to do seventh grade things. If you look through what she had to go through to get paperwork signed to be on the debate club, it wasn’t what your typical seventh grade student would have to do.

I think another one of her struggles is her family dynamic.

Mom works quite a bit and when she comes home she has to be a caregiver, not necessarily to the children, but to her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s father. Zoey is responsible for making sure the kids are quiet so that Lenny, the stepfather, or boyfriend, doesn’t get agitated or annoyed at the kids. So, I think her family life can be a struggle.

Jeanie: Right. And her family is complicated, right? She has a father: her father is one man. The two older siblings have a different father and then Hector’s father is Lenny. And Lenny doesn’t have a lot of affection for Zoey or her two older siblings. He only has eyes for Hector and Zoey, her housing situation has been rocky… And she’s really invested in staying in this house, in this trailer because it’s clean. Because it’s tidy. Because it’s a home. But Lenny doesn’t make that easy for them. He’s got pretty strict high standards — especially given that there are toddlers. And he’s… well, he seems like a stable guy: he’s got a job, the place is tidy, the bills are mostly paid.

But he’s got other issues.

Corey: …Yeah. You hear the way that he talks to people throughout the story especially to Zoey’s mom and you hear a lot of blaming. So he does come off as being this responsible guy who provides, but at the same time he provides the home, but not the stability or the caring environment that these kids need.

Jeanie: Yeah. He undercuts Zoey’s mom a lot and she spends a lot of time wondering why her mom isn’t as strong as she remembers her. And that’s another obstacle, I think. Zoey’s concern for her mother and her mother’s wellbeing and the whole family’s wellbeing. She carries a lot.

Corey: I think at some point too, she starts to hear what Lenny is saying to her mom and she starts questioning herself and wondering if she fits those character traits that Lenny *says* her mom has, not necessarily that her mom does have.

Jeanie: Right. Yeah. There’s a lot of emotional tension in this house that Zoey has to navigate constantly.

Then there are just these like practical things, these obstacles to just belonging that Zoey carries.

Her clothes are usually not clean. She rarely has time to brush her hair or her sibling’s hair. So her appearance — at a time when appearance is everything, seventh grade — her appearance doesn’t really fit in and so she gets made fun of for the way she looks or smells. And so she’s really… doesn’t have a sense of belonging at school.

Corey: No, and because of her family struggles, she comes with assignments not done. She doesn’t participate in extracurricular activities like other kids do. So when she does, kids tend to poke fun at her.

Jeanie: Yeah. It just flies just under the radar in ways that we’re a little familiar with I think when we spend time in schools.

So, the octopus comes out having a really special meaning for Zoey.

I wondered, given the title, The Benefits Of Being An Octopus and the octopus theme runs throughout the book, if you want to talk a little bit about what the octopus represents for Zoey.

Corey: Yeah. So, Zoey brings up the octopus pretty quickly at the beginning of the book because she has this assignment that she’s thinking that she might actually complete this time. They have to debate which animal they think is the best. And so she goes on to explain the octopus and she views the octopus as this really strong creature. That it has multiple tentacles or arms, which would allow her to handle multiple tasks at a time: do her homework, pack her backpack, take care of the kids.

She talks about how the octopus can camouflage itself. So if it’s in a really nervous situation? If that were her, she could blend in, people wouldn’t necessarily notice her during those really uncomfortable times.

She at one point talks about the octopus starting out as this really small vulnerable creature and it grows into this really powerful creature. And that it sort of defies the odds in that sense. And that she wishes that that could be her, that I think she feels pretty small, maybe invisible or potentially even useless. That if she were this octopus, she could grow into this creature that is powerful and doesn’t let things bother her.

She oftentimes is listening near her mother’s bedroom to how Lenny is talking to her mother. And when she talks about going up to these spaces to do things, she’s talking about slinking along. How quiet and stealthy an octopus is, which would allow her to do what she’s doing in taking care of her family and keeping them safe? Without the challenges in her life affecting her.

Jeanie:  You know, at Middle Grades Institute, Ann Braden, the author came to meet with teachers and talk about this book and I had lunch with her, with a couple other MGI folks. She, and a couple of us have this great fondness for animal names of groups of animals.

Like the one I recently came across was a group of hummingbirds is called a charm. A charm of hummingbirds.

Another one is a flamboyance of flamingos. They’re so much fun!

So I looked up what a group of octopus is called — and turns out, by the way, you guys, Zoey tells me that the plural could be octopi or octopus. So I’m choosing octopus, a group of octopus doesn’t have a name because octopus are solitary creatures. It occurs to me that Zooey is also a very solitary creature. She doesn’t really feel like she fits in anywhere.

Corey: I think she views the octopus as this big, strong creature but at the same time, a creature that’s by itself. One of the things I was thinking of as I was reading the book is she talks so much about how if she were an octopus and I think she’s more like the octopus than she ever gives herself credit for, in the ways of being solitary but also in the ways of strength.

Jeanie: Yes! Yes. She has *so* many strengths. And also in the way of camouflage! She often flies under the radar at school, from her peers, and from her teachers. Except one teacher who takes a special interest in her: Ms. Rochambeau, her social studies teacher. I’m just going to pull up page 38 to do a little introducing of this teacher.

Octopuses can squish their bodies down to no bigger than a crumpled-up bag of chips. By the time Ms. Rochambeau gets to my desk, I might as well be that balled-up bag with all the chip bits eaten, ready to be tossed into the trash. Ms. Rochambeau raises her eyebrows when she gets to me, not in a "how clever to ball up like a bag of chips" way, but in a "you have disappointed me with your very being" way that teachers are so good at. She shakes her head as she writes my zero in her grade book. “Sometime, Zoey, I hope you surprise me.” "I forgot it at home", I say to my desk. "I promise I finished it." "Mm-hmmm", she murmurs. "It doesn't do you any good at home, unfortunately." She pretends she believes me. I pretend I don't want to squirt octopus ink all over this classroom. "Maybe I could be in the debate anyway", I say even though she's already moved on to the next kid. "I know all my facts." She doesn't look up from the other kid's packet. "Then you should've brought in your filled-out packet so I could see that. I was very clear with my expectations."
page 38, The Benefits of Being an Octopus

Phew! What are you thinking about that Corey?

Corey: Yeah, I had mixed feelings about Ms. Rochambeau! You read passages like that and oh, the emotions. You feel very frustrated. And then there are moments throughout the book where I think maybe she gets Zoey? But she goes back and forth so often that I really wonder if she really understands who Zoey is. And then I think about me and being a teacher and I wonder how many times have I done that exact thing to a student. Not intentionally, but out of frustration. So I try to see Mrs. Rochambeau’s or Miss Rochambeau’s point of view, but at the same time it’s…

You come away feeling hurt for Zoey.

Jeanie: Yeah. Yes. I think one of the things that really interests me is that while I was doing research for this episode and thinking about what we were going to talk about, I stumbled across this really interesting website. It’s called Writing Mindsets. ‘Using mentor texts to analyze how kids see schools and teachers.’

And the author of this blog has pulled a bunch of pieces from young adult and middle grades literature — including Harbor Me, by the way — to look at teachers in schools through the lens of young students and imagine what *they* see.

It really made me think about my own experience as a school librarian and the ways I might have come across in ways I didn’t intend to. It lets me reflect on that. And reflect on how much power our words and our tone and our way of being in a classroom has and in ways that we don’t intend, or realize.

And Ms. Rochambeau I think would be mortified to know what’s going on in Zoey’s mind.

Corey: Yeah. I think it goes, I think throughout the book as she’s trying to reach out to Zoey, you see those moments where she thinks she’s doing the right thing. So I think it’s very unintentional, but at the same time, sometimes she comes off as this villain.

Jeanie: I have to say what I appreciated about how Ann Braden wrote Ms. Rochambeau is that Ms. Rochambeau gets these glimpses of Zoey. She sees her in this particularly tense moment in the bus stop when things go awry and she’s picking up her siblings. So she gets to see these little windows into Zoey’s real life and the responsibility that Zoey is caring and so she becomes more empathetic.

But I also really appreciated that she didn’t rescue Zoey.

That this does not use that teacher as savior trope, that we are complicated people as educators. And that it’s not our job to save kids.

Corey: No. I don’t think it’s realistic for us. I think what she did do is she gave Zoey the stepping-off points that Zoey needed to save herself. That Zoey may not have been happy with how the whole debate club came about, but if she was never given that push. Everything that came of that — standing up for her friends, standing up for her family — never would have happened.

So, I think that she was not Zoey’s savior your by any means. But she certainly gave Zoey the tools that she needed to be her own savior.

Jeanie: Ms. Rochambeau eventually does see some real potential in Zoey, and she invites her into this after school debate club and offers her a ride to make it possible. So by no means a villain, at all, in many ways a great help in the way that teachers ALL OVER #VTED ARE, she gives Zoey these opportunities to shine in different ways.

I had a little love hate relationship with ‘Ms R.’

Corey: I did too. I didn’t know if I liked her or if I didn’t like her. I think ultimately she did the best that she could. Teachers can do so much, and we are human and have limitations as well. So, I think that she did what she needed to do with Zoey? Maybe not in a way that Zoey always was happy with? But I think in maybe a way that Zoey needed.

Jeanie: Yes, absolutely. Thank you for that analysis of Ms. R.

Let’s move on to another character. I wondered if you’d introduce us to Zoey’s neighbors, Silas on pages 28 and 29.

Let’s get a little picture of Silas.

“Maybe Silas is stealthy enough to figure out how to reconnect our electricity without the company knowing.
But it might have to be a bobcat-shaped electrical box for him to pay any attention to it. He’s going on now about what its scratch marks look like on trees. About how you have to keep your face to the wind when you’re tracking. “Whatever bobcat is out there, It’s one that knows how to hide, knows how to disappear.”

“Too bad, man.” I say.

Silas stops walking, looks at me and gives that same weird, “we’re part of an awesome conspiracy” smile. “No. Not bad at all.”

I stare at him. I picture his dad and him sitting in the front seat of their truck talking about bobcat tracks. They always seem so happy together. Like they’re on the same team.

“Hey”, I say. “Do you know where you filed that form to get help with electricity and stuff like that?”

He stops and looks at me. “I think my dad used to bring it to Family Services up on Route 14.”

“Oh yeah, thanks.”

He nods and goes back to talking about the bobcat stuff. About how snow conditions are perfect because they prefer to be able to walk on hard crusted snow, but this most recent dusting over that icy stuff, will let him pick up its tracks. On and on.

Until we reached the bus stop — it’s packed with kids older than us and who look a whole lot less grimy than I do — and he clams up like he’s never once heard of a bobcat. Because that’s Silas’s superpower: going for entire school days without talking. He’s been doing it since the fifth grade when Brendan Farley got people to place bets on how quickly Silas would start crying, so he’s really good at it by now.”

Jeanie: Silas breaks my heart a little bit! I love him.

Corey: Yeah. He goes through just as many struggles as Zoey does. Which is perhaps why they have this connection throughout the book.

Jeanie: I’ve known Silases in schools. Kids who slide under the radar, who are quiet, who don’t engage… And I don’t know. I worried about him all the time, throughout the book. He’s got such a good heart and no one can see it because he’s completely closed off. And made himself invisible. He erases himself at school. I wonder what we could do for kids like Silas in schools.

Corey: I liked his character so much? And I would worry what would happen if he didn’t have Zoey in his life someone that he could connect with because he and Zoey would always meet at the bus stop and they would always chat and — most times about hunting and bobcats. But he goes through a period in the book where he even shuts Zoey out. And you worry about him quite a bit.

Jeanie: He has a strong connection, though with his father as well. So, he’s got this home connection, but so many of the things he’s good at is tracking. And don’t show up at school. I think he is alienated from much of the content in school because it doesn’t have relevance to the rest of his life.

Corey: Yes. I think that’s something that Vermont educators are starting to understand about their students? And with the implementation of passion projects or PLPs that we’re starting to see more kids taking on content that they really like.

Jeanie: I was talking to a friend who was saying that her middle school son is really passionate about his Hunter Ed program. And that it has nothing to do with her or her husband, but that he gets there, he’s studying, he’s really engaged and it’s all this learning he’s doing outside of school in the way that Silas is doing all this learning about bobcats.

How do we get teachers to understand that so that finds a place on his learning portfolio or his PLP?

Corey: I think so often we’re so stuck in these standards. And that there’s one right way to teach standards — and certain content that goes with certain standards.

As we start exploring giving students more voice in their education, I think we’re going to start seeing more kids meeting proficiencies because it’s content that excites them. It’s stuff that they’re already doing.

I mean, how many kids are out there doing exactly what Silas is doing?

If you look at the transferable skills, how many kids could meet those transferable skills through their passion?

Jeanie: Yes. I love that.

So, Silas and Zoey have a lot in common. But Zoey has one other friend at school, Fuchsia, who’s got a life that’s as complicated as hers, but there’s another classmate that she really admires, maybe in a crushy kind of way, named Matt. I think she likes him because he’s a nice kid. He works really hard at school. He gets good grades. Everybody likes Matt. I think there’s this really interesting contrast between his life and hers.

I’m going to read from page 83 to give a little sense of who Matt is, and the role he plays in Zoey’s life.

On the bus, I ignore the eighth grade boy who pretend-coughs some comment I can't understand and lean my face against the window. I can see Matt's house as soon as we turn the corner onto his street. His front door is open, and when the bus pulls up in front of his house I can make out his mom in the doorway with him, pushing a travel mug into his hand. She gives him a kiss on the cheek just as he heads toward the bus. “Is that coffee?” someone calls as Matt makes his way down the aisle of the bus. “Yeah, right,” Matt says, "Banana peanut butter smoothie. I was up late working on the essay for social studies, and I didn't have time for breakfast." I try to picture my mom pulling herself out of bed to make me a smoothie because I'm tired in the morning. As if she wasn't exhausted. As if she didn't have to take care of Hector. As if Frank wouldn’t throw a fit for getting woken up by a blender. As if we had a working blender. As if we had bananas. As if.

There’s just this really great tension between Zoey’s life as she becomes aware of how different other people’s lives are.

Corey: Yeah, Matt comes off as almost having the perfect life. Mom that kisses him goodbye at the door and gives him breakfast. He runs for class president. He’s part of the debate club. He comes off as seemingly perfect. I think at one point Zoey even acknowledges him and says something along the lines of, it’s not so much in a crush way, but it’s more of an admiration way. She *admires* the traits that he has.

Jeanie: Yes, and he’s kind to her, especially when she joins the debate club and shows herself to be a worthy opponent. He acknowledges her, her knowledge and her knowledge of baseball, I believe it is.

Corey: Yes.

Jeanie: So baseball or football.

Corey: Football! Because Zoey likes football. She watches that with Lenny. It’s the one time she and Lenny connect.

Jeanie: Yes, and Lenny actually shares food with her.

Corey: Yes.

Jeanie: There’s something about that that’s really interesting to me and one of the most wonderful things about Ann Braden is, she’s a former educator, a middle school educator, social studies, I believe. She has the best teacher’s guide (.pdf) on her website for this book.

link to The Benefits of Being an Octopus educator's guide

One of the things she does is there’s an activity in there about comparing Zoey’s family’s budget with Matt’s family’s budget.

It’s a great opportunity to work with students around some math, around difference, how people’s lives are different, around equity really. Thinking about the resources that are available to us, the obstacles that are in our way. I really love that and so it builds this into the novel and then also into the educator’s guide.

So, that brings me to this next question, which is:

How might you use this book in the classroom?

Corey: I’ve been thinking a lot about this. I have never been a middle grades educator, because I’ve always taught fourth-grade and under, but I think what I love so much about this book is there’s such a movement in education right now with equity. Acknowledging inequities and educating people on inequities and equities and how to approach that.

I think it’s so easy for us in little rural Vermont to say we don’t have a problem. We don’t have racial difference, or cultural differences. We all outwardly appear to be the same, but the inequity that is so common in our little schools is our socioeconomic status. And poverty. I think that this book brings that to light.

Just the differences in home lives with all of our students. And I think students need to recognize that within one another. When my son and I chose the DCF book we wanted to read together, one of the books that we had talked about was The Benefits Of Being An Octopus. I was hoping he would pick it only because I felt like it was something that he could really relate to within our own town. Students need to see what all students go through. I think that this book just paints a nice picture, whether it’s Silas or Fuchsia or Zoey or even Matt. It brings in all of those students and all of their home lives.

Jeanie: Yes. I think when we ignore the way in which difference shows up and is privileged or not in our schools, it’s an act of erasure. Because I travel around schools all the time and we have more students of color in our schools, even our small schools than we acknowledge. There’s an act of erasure when we say, “Oh, we don’t really have racism as an issue we need to deal with”, because we do actually. We have students of color in great numbers in some of our schools, and then in some of our schools that even, race impacts all of us.

Corey: It does, whether it’s viewed as big or not, the idea of “we don’t have racial problems” or “we don’t have race” *is* a problem in and of itself.

Jeanie: Exactly. And then you’re right too about how economics plays a huge role in the way that kids have access to the resources and privileges that help them exceed in school or excel in school, I should say. Or not.

I love this question from Paul Gorski that I think plays well with this book, which is:

“How has your school set up to bestow unearned privilege on some and unearned obstacles on others?”

For Zoey, a place that we can recognize right away that there’s some variation in access is the homework policy.

Whether it’s that she doesn’t have access to poster board and glitter, so she just gets newsprint, or just the *time* she has available and the help she has available to her after school hours to do that homework that is required of her.

When Ann Braden came to MGI, we looked at Zoey’s life through the Equity Literacy Framework, and thought about:

  • How do we first recognize those things such as homework?
  • And then: what might we do as a school to respond to those in some way
  • And then readdress. How does our policy need to change to meet the needs of students like Zoey?
  • How do we create and sustain equitable school environments over time?

We really use that lens to examine Zoey’s circumstances.

Corey: And I think what’s great is that we can bring students into that conversation. With a book like this, we can use that framework to have *students* have that conversation and talk about how can we make our schools better for all. Because it’s ultimately, it’s their education.

Jeanie: Yeah! How do we look at school policies or school procedures or just everyday events in school through all sorts of lenses to see who benefits and who doesn’t?

I love helping students use the equity literacy framework from a young age. Imagine the society we will be if kids can do that! In sixth and seventh and eighth grade.

So, another way to use this book is with teachers.

Corey: Yes. I think for the same reason. For me it was eye-opening because I questioned my own practice. I questioned who I am as a teacher and I questioned how I can make myself better. How can I talk to students? How can I build relationships? I’m not afraid to admit that at one point in my career I was one of those teachers who said, we don’t have a problem. I don’t have a problem, but I do, and that’s okay.

But I think it takes reading something like this for me to be like, “Huh, you know, is that me?” Then having conversations as a faculty, it’s the same thing. You use the same framework, the literacy equity framework of looking at our policies. And how do we make them more equitable for all students.

Jeanie: Yes, I’m a huge fan of adults reading middle grades and young adult novels, and picture books frankly, as a librarian. With an eye towards empathy.

How do we step into the shoes of students in general again? Because it’s hard to remember what you were like at 12. It’s hard to remember what it was like to go through the day as an eight year old or as a 15 year old.

I’m a big fan of using young adult in middle grades literature to step into the shoes of young people in general. And then whether we were raised middle-class or not, we are now as educators, middle-class. And so, being able to step into the shoes of a working class or working poor kid is huge. …I think about how much we don’t see because we’ve never experienced it.

I was raised working poor, and so this book for me was like being seen in a different way. When I was a kid all the books I read about kids were middle-class kids, and I thought that was a normal life. I thought that if only we were normal. I think Zoey has that a little bit too, like, “If only I… like everybody else.” And so this book was like an act of like, “Oh, this is normal too.” And to feel really seen.

Corey: I think it lets kids see themselves in literature.

Jeanie: Yes, and for their strengths! Like Zoey’s not somebody we pity.

Corey: No. No! She’s strong. I even was thinking throughout the whole thing that to me she would be a hero for me, because of everything that she works really hard for and accomplishes.

Jeanie: Yeah. I love the dual play that you can use this with kids and with teachers in really profound ways. When I was a school librarian, I used to have debates sometimes. Did you ever have debates in your classroom?

Corey: No. *laughs*

Jeanie: No. Maybe it’s an older thing. I think with fifth and sixth graders we used to have debates and Ann offers this other structure that comes out of her work with guns. Conversations around guns and gun control in Vermont. Which is: although we might differ in our opinions about an issue, whether it’s about guns and gun control or about something else, how do we come to common ground?

So, this idea that instead of debating each other, pitting ourselves and our opinions against each other, how do we have conversations and listen well? So that we can find that space where we agree, even though we’re not going to agree on everything. And I think that would be a profound thing to do with teachers as well as with students. Right?

Corey: I think so, too.

Jeanie: So, I highly recommend folks, I can’t recommend the educator’s guide enough.

What other books would you recommend for our listeners who are interested in this one?

Have maybe already read The Benefits of Being an Octopus and are looking for other ways to be empathetic for the student experience or the experience of poor working families.

Corey: There are a few books that have been recommended to me, but I have not yet read myself? But I’ve heard wonderful things. I know No Fixed Address, was a book that was recommended to me.

Jeanie: I just want to say I loved that book. We did a podcast on it last spring. It is a tremendously good book about a kid. He lives in Canada, but it could be a Vermont experience of a kid in housing insecurity, which is what we call it in schools, right? We don’t call it homelessness. Usually, we call it being housing-insecure. I just adored Felix, the main character in that book. It’s a great read. It’s a great companion to this book actually.

Corey: It’s on my list. And then another book that was recommended to me was Front Desk. I have not yet read that one, but I have an aunt who’s a librarian who highly recommended that one, because I was looking for books to start conversations with my 11 year old.

Jeanie: Front Desk, I haven’t read that one yet either. It’s on my list, but it’s got a highly capable young woman who helps her family–

Corey: –run the front desk of their motel, hotel, whatever it is.

Jeanie: I’m going to put some other titles on. One of my very favorite, YA books, is a little bit older is Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. Eleanor lives in poverty and really brings to light what it’s like to be a high school kid struggling with and under financial tension. I have a couple of other titles.

And I’m also going to make sure to link that, 33 passages from middle grade and young adult books to spark discussions about schools and teachers for your use. Because I’d love to hear folks, if you decide to have a conversation as a faculty or as a team about some of these quotes and how they help you think about your presence in the classroom.

Any other thoughts on The Benefits of Being an Octopus? Anything we didn’t get to that you want to make sure we get to?

Corey: No, the only thing that I would say is that if there is one book that you choose to read, it should be this book. I think that it will open your eyes. I think you’ll find it to be an incredibly great read and a really reflective read.

Jeanie: Yeah. I recommend it as a read-aloud too. It’d be a great read aloud in the classroom. I know a teacher at Flood Brook is planning to read it aloud to seventh grade students this year. We had a long chat about that. And connect with Ann! She’s a busy woman because her book is on fire, but, she does do Skype visits. Check out her website for all the resources that she provides. She’s so lovely! She’s a really lovely human. It was such a pleasure to have her at the Middle Grades Institute this summer, and it’s such a pleasure to have you Corey on the podcast. Thank you so much for your enthusiasm for this book and for joining me to talk about it.

Corey: Yes. Thanks for inviting me to talk about it.

Books mentioned in this episode:


3 ways to ensure equity is at the heart of your work

VTDigger reports that Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said “From our standpoint, we portray districts being on a journey. Just like everyone in the world is on a journey. And we don’t see 2020 as some sort of hard and fast date.”  However, regardless of a deadline, we should remain focused on centering equity as we implement personalized learning. Equity is at the heart of this state policy.

Whether you are well on you way or just starting work on the three pillars keeping equity at the forefront of education work is a moral imperative. And here are three resources to help in your journey.

What do *you* mean by equity?

The National Equity Project  defines it as “each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential.” Furthermore, they offer that moving toward it involves:

  •  Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system. Removing the predictability of success. Or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor.
  • Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases. And creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children.
  • Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

Sounds simple in theory; challenging in practice.

3 structures for centering equity
1. Equity audits

Equity audits help examine us examine gaps in opportunity. Even more, they identify solutions to addressing those gaps.

First and foremost, Teaching Tolerance recommends using the equity audits from the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium. You can choose the right grain-size for your work. Everything from systems level to classroom/teacher level audits. And they’re robust!

Another resource: the The School-Wide Cultural Competence Observation Checklist (.pdf) They arrange questions into the following categories:

  • Community & Parents
  • School Policy & Practice
  • Classroom & Teacher
  • Student
  • Curriculum & Instruction

Along those same lines? The VT Agency of Education’s tools and checklists to support implementation of the Vermont Guiding Principles. The AOE lists resources in the following categories:

  • Frameworks
  • Classroom/Program Tools
  • Individual Tools
  • Family Engagement Tools
  • Professional Development Tools
2. The Equity Literacy Framework

Paul Gorski and EdChange developed the Equity Literacy Framework. 

The framework encourages you to consider applying the following frames:

  • “The ability to Recognize even the subtlest biases and inequities.”
    • How are you engaging a variety of perspectives to help you recognize bias and inequity in your system?
    • What perspectives are missing?
  • “The ability to Respond skillfully and equitably to biases and inequities in the immediate term.”
    • What steps are you taking to respond to bias and inequity?
    • Who holds you accountable?
  • “The ability to Redress biases and inequities by understanding and addressing them at their institutional roots.”
    • Have you examined your policies and procedures for bias?
    • Who needs to be at the table to construct or revise policies so they are more likely to be bias free?
  • “The ability to Sustain equity efforts even in the face of discomfort or resistance.”
    • How do you communicate your equity efforts?
    • What values help you stand firm when the going gets rough?
3. Examine your own practice

The most important resource by far, on this list, is you. Don’t underestimate your own power as a change agent. Push your thinking. Stay informed. Find ways to reflect. Collect feedback, think deeply, and reach out to other educators doing the same work.

Reach out to your students. They can provide invaluable feedback on your journey.

Here are a few more resources to consider:
How will your practice change?

Equity connects many of Vermont’s educational initiatives. Still, we always have more work to do. So as you, your team, your school, and your district continue to make transformational change, find your leverage for greater equity. You’re the single most valuable change agent in bringing — and keeping — equity at the heart of teaching.

Getting personal about systemic equity

Sometimes pursuing systemic equity in education can feel a little like the carrot vs. the stick. Since No Child Left Behind, federal education policy has talked about equity while applying punitive measures to schools based on students’ aggregate performance. We have been largely mired in deficit-based policy that is ineffective for spurring transformation and generally demoralizing. That’s the stick.

At the same time, for many educators the fight for equity is real and heartfelt. Every student, every day. And when a young person feels truly seen and supported, when a spark is lit, it’s pure gold. We strive for it and we know it when we see it. That’s the carrot.

But realistically: how do we get that carrot to grow in a garden that too often suffers from the infertility of systemic inequity? How can we help educators support the students who need them most when we art part of a larger system with demonstrably inequitable impacts?

One way is to make it personal. We can ask educators to make sure that we each examine our own biases and work on a personal level so we’re better equipped to fix the system. We need to test our soil for pests and pesticides, folks.

Let’s dig in.


Self work

Educators in Vermont are increasingly doing what Susie Merrick, the Healthy Schools Coordinator for South Burlington School District (SBSD), calls “self work.”

Susie pointed to the Beyond Diversity (BD) training from Courageous Conversation as an exemplar of self work. “BD training is, in my mind, absolutely essential training for anybody who works in schools or with young people. It involves the self work: how do I look at my own race, my own implicit bias, and then use this learning to address and dismantle systems of oppression and inequity wherever I work.

Self work might include:

  • considering the existence of and ongoing implications of our implicit biases.
  • thoroughly examining our personal and professional complicity in racial oppression.
  • raising our awareness of micro-aggressions and other ways that we are harming colleagues, students, and families.
  • thinking about the ways that our own identity impacts or limits our ability to effectively support all students.

Learning and unlearning

The starting point is to acknowledge that we are all products of and participants in our inequitable society. Formal institutions such as schooling, as well as more diffuse social influences such as media, have shaped our perceptions and understandings. Our beliefs, both implicit and explicit, impact everything. From classroom decisions to how we analyze school policies. 

This is especially true for white people who have been shaped by the system and privileged by it. To become forces for equity, good intentions and kindness are not enough. White educators need to interrogate our beliefs and actions. We have to unlearn things we’ve taken for granted as true or natural. We have to start with ourselves.

Dean Melen, a school counselor at the Chamberlin Elementary School in South Burlington, sees self work as personal yet essential. “Every thread of who we are will be impacted by what we do with our new learned understanding. White privilege is not new to most communities. We know this and continue to dream about equity. We know too, that dreams are not enough. The voice from our students, families, staff, administration and community must out shine our lack of understanding from the past.”

Let’s look at how SBSD, along with other Vermont districts, is putting personal identity work at the center of their systemic change efforts.

Diversity / Equity / Inclusion in South Burlington

Five years ago, in the 2013-14 school year, a group of SBSD administrators and staff attended the We All Belong training by CQ Strategies. The training focused on cultural competence. Based on this learning, SBSD created a Healthy Schools Coordinator position. Then they merged four mutually reinforcing programs: diversity/equity/inclusion, wellness, mentoring, and mindfulness.

Venn diagram showing circles with wellness, mentoring, mindfulness, and diversity/equity/inclusion intersecting at healthy schools.
Four distinct programs merged in South Burlington School District to create Healthy Schools.


SBSD hired Susie Merrick as the first Healthy Schools Coordinator. She was very clear that Healthy Schools built on important legacies already in place.

“The creation of the Healthy Schools positions was certainly not the start of the equity work we are doing in South Burlington. When I was hired, I had the gift of hearing how dedicated many past and current staff were to social and racial equity, including our Superintendent David Young. I also witnessed first-hand colleagues doing courageous work alongside students that reflected their deep and genuine commitment to equity. But we still had a lot of work to do, like any place.”

A community conversation about equity

During the Healthy School’s first year of existence, conversations about race and identity took center stage due to broader forces in the community. The Student Diversity Union (now the Student Justice Union) at South Burlington High School, co-chaired by students Isaiah Hines and Madison Premsagar, led a movement to change the “Rebel” identifier.

Susie noted that every community has its own story. She recalled “Here in SB what really jump started conversations about race on a deeper level was our story connected to the Rebel identifier.

As staff, we became more aware of how racial inequity was harming our students — and they were the ones leading those discussions because they were courageous enough to speak up. I believe student voice pushed us as staff to more authentically address issues in our schools such as implicit bias and microaggressions.

Courageous Conversation for transformation

The fight over the Rebel moniker raged for over a year. In February, 2017, the School Board changed the name to “Wolves.” Principal Patrick Burke supported the name change unequivocally. He was quoted in an article by the student newspaper: “When I have kids of color saying, ‘I’m not comfortable with this,’ then I have to listen.”

During that school year, SBSD administrators and staff participated in training related to implicit bias facilitated by external providers. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (which had grown out of the team who attended the original We All Belong training) recognized the need to build internal capacity in order to create sustainability. SBSD secured grant funding to send a team of 10 staff members to the Courageous Conversation National Summit in Detroit in the fall.

The national summit was a transformative experience for the educators who attended. Susie identified the summit as a pivotal moment in her journey.

“As a white woman, I had never experienced training of this kind. Robin DiAngelo talks of ‘white women’s tears’ in her amazing book ‘White Fragility’: the idea that white people are so uncomfortable discussing race that we get defensive and/or experience guilt. My own white fragility showed up as tears throughout the conference.

The training helped me understand my reaction, try to address it with integrity and then work to build my skills and use my privilege to address issues of inequity in my professional and personal life. This has been an ongoing journey for me.

Other educators who went to Detroit had similarly transformative experiences. The question was how to bring that back home to the entire staff.

Bringing it home

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee recognized that equity work, especially self work, first and foremost required a safe learning community. So during the 2017-18 school year the district allocated 90 minutes of each district-wide gathering (Convocation and two in-services) to relationship building. They called it “Coming Together”. The 400+ staff gathered in small groups and shared stories about things like family, life goals, and their hopes for the world.

In the following year, the district increased investment in this work and put in place several important structures:

  • The Detroit group, who had continued meeting regularly, formally took on the design of professional learning related to equity and became the “Equity Planning Team”.
  • The district brought in a Courageous Conversations trainer to offer the foundational Beyond Diversity course so that more educators could do deep self work. Nearly 60 educators volunteered to participate.
  • The time allotted for equity work during the district inservices was doubled to three hours per session.

So now the district had substantial internal capacity to support the work. The inservices included time where educators presented in the auditorium. They talked about changes they were making in their practice to further equity, using the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards to help guide their presentations. And then educators gathered in cross-district small groups, facilitated by Beyond Diversity trained staff, to process, deepen, and personalize the learning.


To support authentic engagement in this intense work, SBSD adopted district-wide group norms. Rhiannon Kim, Speech Pathologist for SBSD and Adjunct Professor with UVM and Saint Michaels College teaching Mindfulness Based Practices, developed a set of agreements. She used an extensive process that included multiple rounds of trial and feedback from various stakeholders.

The agreements are relevant far beyond the inservice sessions. Staff across SBSD have used the agreements in a wide variety of settings. For instance, the agreements have supported collaborative team meetings, book discussion groups, the District Level Committee Meeting, and even classrooms.

In the future, funding will continue to be invested in building internal capacity. The district plans to continue offering the Beyond Diversity training to develop more facilitators for district-wide work.

The conversations will continue. And the impacts have already been far reaching.

Beyond conversations

The district level work in South Burlington has made a difference in practice..

For example, the two educators from Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School who were part of the original Detroit group have continued to deepen the work in their own classrooms and beyond.

Curriculum and student leadership

Christie Nold has developed powerful curriculum that addresses social identity and equity in her 6th grade social studies class. She has also worked with several colleagues to launch and facilitate a student leadership group called S.O.A.R. (Students Organized Against Racism).

Christie reflected: “In many ways, I find the district level work we engage with sets conditions in the soil. It is not until the fruits of that labor begin to grow that we are able to identify the impact we’ve had on creating conditions. For me, the most beautiful fruit has been our Students Organizing Against Racism. This does not mean we have finished our work, but instead is an indication that we are feeding our soil well.”

Collaborative learning about Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy

Jeff Novak has worked to diversity his classroom, from the books assigned and available for students to the posters on his walls. Also, he presented at one of the in-services this year. He shared a story from the Beyond Diversity training in Detroit as an example of a transformative experience.
Jeff found a way to continue to deepen his own learning in collaboration with colleagues. He co-facilitated a professional learning strand about Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy for a dozen of his middle school colleagues. He and his partner Lauren Bartlett presented about their experience as facilitators at two different conferences.
Titled "Framing the Conversation" - shows images of "Home of the Rebels" and a "Black Lives Matter" logo.
A slide from Jeff Novak and Lauren Bartlett’s presentation at the Dynamic Landscapes Conference.
Jeff noted that he wouldn’t have and couldn’t have made this much progress on his own. “The district had taken a firm stand on the issue of racial inequity in our system: that it’s a real problem baked into everything and most of us are just waking up to the extent of it. I’ve felt supported and buoyed by the district and faculty who are steeped in this work and feel heartened by our efforts to address the racism in our systems. It’s humbling work without any sense of completion or achievement, but the community that’s formed around this work has been the strongest and most supportive I’ve experienced in teaching.”
The intentional building of relationships and community has been a key aspect of SBSD’s equity work. And we see more and more communities being built across Vermont for this same purpose.

The movement in VT

Consider the work of Lamoille South Supervisory Union (LSSU). During this last school year, Drs. Kathleen Brinegar & Hannah Miller, from Northern Vermont University, worked with all educators Pk-12 from LSSU. LSSU dedicated half of each of three in-services to this work.

Tracy Wrend, Superintendent of LSSU, saw the need for self work alongside the systemic.

We quickly discovered that the continuum of readiness to incorporate culturally sustaining practices and the range of emotional and experience with racial and social justice–particularly inequity–was hugely individual, personal and emotional.  In order to support our students, we needed to take a step back and reflect on the ways our own experiences shape our views as educators, practice listening deeply to the voices of others, and ensure a safe, respectful adult culture where we can have uncomfortable conversations about our personal and systemic educational practices.”

Personal equity projects and district goals

Kathleen described the content: “The in-services focused on defining equity and understanding systemic and structural inequities based largely on the work of Gorski, Ladson-Billings, Django & Paris, the National Equity Project, and our own research. Educators throughout the district engaged in community circles focused on identifying inequities within the district and exploring their own bias.”

Educators engaged in self work and critical analysis of practices within the district. Based on their analysis, each educator developed a personal equity project. They worked with small accountability groups to help develop their projects and process together.

The year’s work ended with the development and unpacking of the following four goals for LSSU:

  1. Educators take proactive steps towards recognizing the ways they perpetuate and reproduce inequities.
  2. All learners have access to the supports, tools, and opportunities they need to grow.
  3. Youth and adults can safely construct their identities.
  4. Educational experiences are transformed by listening to the words, actions, and silences of youth.

The work with educators across the district will continue next school year. The district plans to add specific sessions for district administrators as well.

Self work and systemic change efforts are mutually reinforcing

The self work increasingly happening in districts and schools can complement professional learning focused on systemic equity.

For example, the theme of the Middle Grades Institute this year, is “Advancing Equity”. Rebecca Haslam from Seed the Way will facilitate an opening workshop. The workshop will lead each of the 150 participants through social identity exercises. Kathleen Brinegar will close the week long institute with a keynote about equity. Faculty will continuously ask participants to connect their efforts to fight systemic inequity with their self work.

Vermont educators will have ample opportunities for external professional learning about equity. For example:

  • Based on requests from member districts, Champlain Valley Educator Development Center is offering the Courageous Conversation “Beyond Diversity” workshop twice this fall, plus an in-depth series for administrators.
  • Rhiannon Kim is offering a week long strand at the BEST/MTSS conference called “Mitigating Bias in Our Schools and Uncovering Unconscious Bias.”
  • Paul Gorski will likely be back next year to continue spreading the word about his Equity Literacy Framework, after offering multiple events organized by various prominent organizations last year.
  • The Agency of Education developed an Equity Literacy Grant program and published a set of supportive Equity Literacy Resources.

District sponsored self work is a critical component of this broader equity movement. When time and funding is put into the self work, it sends a strong message about priorities. It also makes sure that all educators are involved instead of just those who seek it out on their own.


And those educators who do seek out additional learning about equity are better prepared on a personal level to understand and apply their learning.

Embrace the challenge

As the equity work becomes more personal, the challenge intensifies. Susie Merrick is quick to point out that the work in South Burlington School District is by no means perfect. It has been emotional and raw and nearly overwhelming for staff at times. She shared that “I am heavily steeped in both conviction and humility. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder whether I’m the right person for the job.”

Yet, she has persevered and she has learned a lot along the way.

Tips for taking a personal approach to systemic equity

Susie offered three tips for school systems that want to do this work.

  1. “Make sure to give staff an opportunity to do the self work first. Talk to white staff about the fact that this is not the job of our staff of color to lead this work or to turn to in order to get answers to our questions. I would have named something different two years ago but to me that’s the most important. It’s been a game changer for us to have increased numbers of white staff do their own hard work.”
  2. “In South Burlington it’s been helpful to work toward allowing a critical mass of staff in all five schools to get the same equity training. I am so inspired by our staff developing a common language, becoming familiar with the Courageous Conversation protocol and sharing a set of guidelines for courageous dialogues. A growing number of our staff have even been using this learning in classrooms with their students.”
  3. “If you are an aspiring racial and social equity leader in your school community, really honor self care as you do this work and remember that change is hard and takes time. The work can be lonely, so be sure to find a group of colleagues with whom you can connect. Hold close the awareness that you are working toward allowing every single student in our schools to show up as their full selves. I want to make sure that I’m holding space for those reminders because not honoring them can impact well-being. There is an urgency to the work that doesn’t lend itself to pausing, but the pause is so important.”

Challenging ourselves so we can transform systems

“Embrace discomfort” is one of the Courageous Conversation agreements. This norm acknowledges the inherent challenge of self work. Confronting our implicit biases, our problematic beliefs, and our complicity with inequitable systems is hard. But it can be liberating. And it is oh so necessary so that we can transform ourselves, and then our systems, to give all students the opportunities they deserve.

How will your school system give time and support for educators to do the self work needed to advance equity?

Equity, identity & art

Tracing a middle level social identity unit

Identity. Oppression. Social justice. Structural racism. Liberation. These are some intense ideas to grapple with at any age.

Yet 6th grade student Deng isn’t willing to wait: “We need to learn about this stuff early on before it gets pushed off and becomes a problem. We are the next generation of adults.”

Christie Nold and her 6th grade students have tackled these topics together as a courageous learning community that was built intentionally over the course of the year. They showed that not only can young adolescents handle it, but they thrive when given the chance to go deep into identity and equity. Let’s take a peek into Christie’s classroom at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vermont, to see how she did it, what kids got out of it, and the art they created as a result.

Social identity learning for young adolescents

Young adolescents work hard at figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world. They may not know it, but they are constantly learning about social identity — the way that their concept of self is based on the groups they belong to.

By teaching about social identity in school, Christie sought to provide a safe and supportive environment for students to explore these complex yet deeply personal ideas. She also connected identity to larger ideas about society and history – social inequality, structural racism, Civil Rights.

And finally, she gave students the opportunity to process and to act. At the end of the unit, students worked with teaching artists to express their learning. And what they created was amazing.

Starting with self

Christie wanted students to learn about identity in the context of equity and diversity.

“The impetus for the project was really to allow space for students to engage with who they are as people in the world and what that means and also to engage with folks closer in identity to them or farther in identity from them but either way don’t often represent the trajectory of educators that they have in their lives.”

Circle of students and teacher.
A poetry workshop with teaching artist Rajnii Eddings.


In addition to the teaching artists, students met guest speakers such as Kiran Waqar, a member of the slam poetry group Muslim Girls Making Change. This inspired two students, Brianna and Zina, to start writing poetry together. Zina noted that Kiran “taught me what it means to stand behind what you really want to say to the world.” Later, the girls were thrilled to work with Rajnii Eddins, who had mentored Muslim Girls Making Change through the Young Writers Project.

Christie also saw the social identity unit as an important first step in her curricular sequence. She wanted students to think about their own identities as a basis for exploring other cultures.

“I find it’s really important to start by knowing ourselves. I think often without a solid understanding of who we are and also an understanding of at least bias if not our own biases it can be really easy to do a unit on cultures and just continue to engage in stereotypical thinking.

And so it was important to me that students have this opportunity to dive pretty hard into who they are and how that informs the way they see the world before they then started looking at other aspects of parts of our world.

Standards-based social identity learning

Christie used the social studies standards as her starting point. The unit addressed standard D2.His.1.6-8 from the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: “Analyze connections among events and developments in broader historical contexts.” The C3 Framework also includes a Sociology Companion Document with competencies such as “Explain the social construction of self and groups.”

Christie knew that the social studies standards had her back. And she knew that she could design a unit that would provide ample opportunities for students to develop Clear and Effective Communication, which was the Transferable Skill she was working on within her proficiency-based classroom.

The Social Justice Standards

For detailed learning targets directly related to social identity, she turned to the Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance. Identity is one of the four major domains of the Social Justice Standards and includes five anchor standards. Christie used the 6-8 outcomes, derived from the anchor standards, to craft her unit.

The Social Justice Standards gave specificity to the framing Christie had already done based on the C3 standards and Transferable Skill proficiencies. And it connected her with resources. She could access resources from Teaching Tolerance such as this PD module on the website or a PD cafe from the magazine. And she could network with educators all over the world who are helping their students dive deep into identity.

Screenshot of five standards that put the grade level outcomes into grade level language. Equity and art.
The 6-8 Identity outcomes from p. 8 of the Social Justice Standards by Teaching Tolerance.


Christie received a grant from Teaching Tolerance to fund the teaching artists. But before creating an artistic representation, students delved deeply into the social identity learning.

The arc of the unit

Christie wanted to make sure that her 6th graders were able to engage with complex and intense ideas in a thoroughly supportive environment.

Laying the groundwork

Very early in the unit she introduced resources from the Courageous Conversations protocol which is designed “for effectively engaging, sustaining, and deepening interracial dialogue.” Students explored and upheld the agreements (norms) during discussions and collaboration. And they frequently relied on the Courageous Conversation compass to process intense material by considering whether they were in the feeling, believing, acting, or thinking quadrant.

The classroom community added a norm that basically gave permission to “lie” when exploring identity. When writing, students were told to “put on the page only what you are comfortable putting on the page.” Most of the verbal sharing was also optional. Students controlled what they wanted to disclose. This maintained the personal and intellectual safety of the classroom.

Christie also used two read aloud texts to ground the learning throughout the unit. During the first part of the unit that was focused largely on identity, the class read Refugee, by Alan Gratz, which is a story about three young refugees from different nations and eras. During the second part of the unit, the class read Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys, about a young black boy killed by a police officer. Ghost Boys served as a reference point for learning about implicit bias, systemic oppression, and civil rights.

Activities and ideas

With these structures as a backbone, students explored complex concepts by:

  • watching this video on the iceberg model of culture and filled out an accompanying worksheet to learn about the explicit and implicit manifestations of culture.
  • learning that identity is socially constructed (i.e., it is created in interaction with others).
  • looking at various aspects of identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and citizenship.
  • creating identity pie charts including various social identity and cultural markers, for Refugee characters and then themselves, which they shared with each other if they felt comfortable doing so.
  • considering dominant and minoritized identities by watching videos about people featured in Ghost Boys such as Emmet Till and Tamir Rice; then looking at the positionality of aspects of their own identities.
  • exploring implicit bias by watching a Trevor Noah clip and then (optionally) taking an Implicit Association Test on race.
  • watching and reflecting upon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story Ted Talk about stereotypes.
  • examining their social and author influencers and asking “who are we listening to?
  • critiquing bias in advertising by looking at ads that are problematic and ads that are trying to change the paradigm, such as the Gillette ad about the #metoo movement.
  • encountering the concept of microaggressions and watching a video about Black parents giving “the talk” to their children.

Take a moment to marvel at the bullets and bolded words above. Consider what a shift it would be for most adults if they took time to learn about these things. Then watch the videos and see how students truly internalized and learned these complex concepts.

Screen shot of a blank table where students record the gender, age, race of the authors and main characters of books they have read. Equity and art.
Students considered the social identity of their influencers.


Christie assessed understanding in several ways. Formatively, in addition to the ongoing reflections and discussions, she has administered a survey three times over the course of the year. The questions were based on the Social Justice Standards. Christie saw significant growth base on student responses.

For summative assessment, students wrote about social identity and made connections to the Ghost Boys book. The performance assessment included a vocabulary bank that students were expected to use in their responses.

Application through art making

After the written performance assessment, students were ready to process and express their learning in a completely different way.

As Christie put it, “I think that because it was so deeply personal and it was about who we are, I wanted to allow students the opportunity to think really expansively. … I had had the opportunity to collect the data and understand how my students were performing. Which then opened up the space for this project to be truly expressive without the confines of an evaluation from me.”

Leading up to the teaching artist experience, students chose the medium that they wanted to explore. Then they connected with a teaching artist for a 45 minute workshop: Rajnii Eddins for spoken word poetry; Max Jennings, a teacher and Moth Grand Slam winner, for oral story telling; or Allison Treston, an art teacher at the school, for visual arts. Students started their projects during the workshops and then used one work day to finish before the exhibition.

One student, Myra, seemed to agree with the non-evaluative approach:

it’s nice to do art because whatever you were doing it’s right because it is about your identity.

Myra created a collage about her identity and shared things that she had never shared at school before. “Identity is not just one thing, it is many things layered on top of each other. … I wanted other kids to learn about who I am and realize that there are parts of me that are different than what they expected.”

Bonding by performing

Though his hands were shaking beforehand, Jesse was proud to hear his story greeted by gales of laughter. He thought that the art project helped show what he had learned in a different way: “writing an essay would show what you know but telling the story we shared what we have learned about identity. The story was about our identity and an essay would just be about the unit’s identity.”

The exhibition was a powerful example of true student engagement that included emotional, intellectual, and behavioral dimensions. The event perfectly blended deeply personal expression with a public display of deep learning.

And the sense of community was palpable. Yorda noted, “I learned so much from my classmates and it was inspiring to see their passion.”

Deng shared:

My classmates gave me courage because they put out tough stuff about their lives so I thought if they can do it I can do it.

And Will captured the selflessness of a volunteer performer. “I shared my piece not for a response but just to spread awareness and positivity.”

Ready for the tough stuff

Christie’s students impressed Rajnii. He commented that “they seemed particularly primed to explore to a deeper degree issues of our identity and to connect to issues of our humanity in vibrant ways.”

In interviews, students validated Rajnii’s reflection on their readiness and eagerness to learn.

From Abby: “Kids around the world and even younger kids should learn about this because we are the future leaders. Christie and Rajnii are so important because they help us learn about ourselves and let us form our own ideas but that can help us see what we want to do more clearly.”

Yorda agreed that combatting bias should start early:

Young people should learn it so they can teach others. It’s easier to learn when you’re young so you don’t have as many bad biases in your brain yet.

And it’s not just preparation for a far-away future. Many students emphasized how they feel empowered to make change now, through art or otherwise. Brianna observed, “children are not just people who learn something and put it in their mind and put it away, they are ready to think about what’s happening and do something about it.” Zina added, “we might be young but we can make a difference.”

Young adolescents can certainly have an impact, if they are given the knowledge and the opportunity.

Where to start

Christie’s main suggestion for educators who want to help students learn about identity and equity is to look inward first. “Start with self and return to self early and often. And so as much as I am reading about Critical Race Theory, as a white woman I’m reading about whiteness. Understanding what it means to deconstruct the system of whiteness. Not just my White racial identity but the system of whiteness from within myself and within the greater system and world that I move between and around.”

For White educators in particular who want to start by looking inward:

Here are some resources for anybody interested in moving this direction:

Be gentle with yourself

Christie recommends working in community with others to learn together and care for each other.

One of the things I think I’ve learned in this work is if I think I’ve got it right I don’t. So the closer I am to being convinced that I am doing it in the right way probably the farther I am from doing it right. … a lot of this involves being able to sit in your discomfort and the mess that is trying to undo hundreds of years of systemic racism. Find communities of practice and and folks who are willing to hold one another lovingly accountable. It gets really hard and if you don’t know who those people are.

Christie adds that she is available to connect. “I’m always excited to meet people who are willing to do this work. I think that that is what keeps me going and give me faith and hope. I love meeting other educators who despite how challenging this could be understand that it’s the most important thing that we can do.”

There is a movement afoot in Vermont and beyond to bring these critical conversations into schools. Classrooms like Christie’s show that learning about social identity is not just possible but essential for young adolescents.

How will you and your students learn about social identity and equity?

Using protocols for equity

So, maybe you’ve been using protocols at faculty meetings or professional learning community sessions.  Perhaps you’ve found that they make space for all voices in conversations about proficiency-based education.  Or you like how they foster collaboration as you work together to structure personalized learning plans.  Know what else they can do?  Support us as we have the toughest conversations of all: those focused on equity.

In fact, the mission of the School Reform Initiative, whose protocols and structures I use regularly, is all about equity.

First, let’s make sure we have a common meaning of equity.

The National Equity Project defines it this way:

Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.

They go on to say that working towards equity means:

Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor

Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children

Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

Protocols, facilitated well, provide structure to do this crucial work. They are workhorses that help schools identify their shortcomings in creating structures that produce “high outcomes for all” students. A well thought out protocol session makes space for unearthing assumptions, uncovering biases, and exposing inequitable practices and policies. And protocols can help us fine-tune our work so that we are increasingly able to help every learner reach their full potential.

Let’s begin to explore some of the ways we can use protocols to create more equitable schools for all Vermont students. We’ll start by using structures to examine texts about equity.

Time for a disclaimer:

At the bottom of every School Reform Initiative protocol is written the following statement:

Facilitating a protocol is more than executing a series of steps.  Sure, protocols look like recipes, but not everyone is a good cook!  I encourage you to get trained in facilitation or work with a trained facilitator to select and use protocols well.  Poorly facilitated protocol sessions can sour a faculty on protocols for good!  And it is almost never the protocol’s fault, rather it is the result of sloppy or ill-conceived facilitation.

Interested in getting trained as a facilitator? Learn more here.

… and a word about fidelity.

When I train facilitators we often talk about facilitating with fidelity. New facilitators often take that to mean that they have to time each step to the second, be rigid about moving on, and control the entire process with precision.  It often takes a lot of practice before their understanding deepens.

That word, “fidelity”, always takes me back to my days as an undergraduate when I took an art history course. Specifically, I think of the van Eyck painting “Arnolfini Wedding”, with its small dog in the foreground. That little pooch, according to my professor, symbolizes fidelity. When I facilitate I think of my own pup, Charlie!

Charlie ponders protocols for equity

He is loyal beyond a doubt, but he is not awfully obedient. He barks at strangers, would rather run to greet a friend then listen to my command to stay, and finds every opportunity to roll in stinky substances.  And yet, he is my best hiking partner, my most devoted friend. He seems to know that his true purpose isn’t compliance or aesthetics, but love.

I am reminded, each time I facilitate with fidelity, to be like Charlie: to be faithful to the intentions of the protocol session first and foremost. While I follow each step (these structures are designed deliberately!), I sometimes add a little extra time if not everyone has had the opportunity to speak or I build in a little space for thinking.  I remember why we are doing what we are doing and use the protocol to serve that purpose.

One more thing before we get started: NORMS!

Conversations about equity are challenging, and while the structure of a protocol helps, they only work when a group also has agreed on a way of behaving together.  Shared norms or agreements help create a culture that can sustain difficult conversations.  As Elena Aguilar says,

Norms cultivate trust and safety.  They exist to prevent unhealthy conflict from mushrooming, to guide our behavior, and, most important, to help us do whatever it is we’ve decided to do as a team.

I’ve found the Four Agreements for Courageous Conversations to be especially effective at helping teams engage in equity work:

  • Stay engaged
  • Experience discomfort
  • Speak your truth
  • Expect and accept non-closure

This video is a great way to introduce these agreements and explore their deeper meaning. I generally add an additional agreement:

  • Honor confidentiality

Vermont educator Rhiannon Kim has adapted these to create some amazing meeting norms for creating spaces for doing equity work.  Whatever norms you use, take time to review them at the beginning of the meeting and debrief them at the end.

Using protocols to explore texts about equity

Using protocols to explore texts is a good place to start. They provide the structure many groups need to stay focused on a reading and to push us to deeper meaning-making. When paired with an equity-focused text, they can lead to a shared understanding and transform school practices.

The Text Rendering Protocol is a great entry point.  Use it to examine a short piece to prime the pump on what equity even means in schools.  Equity in Education: Where To Begin?, for example, can help a faculty build some common ground on the subject.  At the end of the session you’ll have a list of phrases and words that seem especially important when considering this topic.

Protocols often ask us to slow down in order to learn from a text

The Four A’s Text Protocol is one of my very favorites because it encourages us to be aspirational. You might use it to discuss Equity Literacy for All with a group of colleagues.  The protocol will ask you to identify the assumptions the author holds, find places of agreement, look for places you might argue with the author (or ask a question), and finally find something to aspire to or act upon. It’s a fabulous way to learn more about equity literacy and commit to some action.

Consider using the Making Meaning Protocol as a way to examine Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students.  This structure will help you take time to understand the text and its significance before considering its implications for your school.


Perhaps you are ready to discuss racial or class equity

Some Vermont educators have been reading Ali Michael’s What White Children Need to Know About Race.  The Save the Last Word for Me protocol can allow educators to deepen their understanding of this challenging text while listening to other’s perspectives and sharing their own. I guarantee this article will spark new thinking! You can follow it up with a discussion of What is White Privilege, Really?, using the same protocol or trying out another one.


One of our most challenging jobs as educators is to interrogate our own biases. Paul Gorski’s piece Five Stereotypes About Poor Families and Education provides an opportunity to jumpstart that work. Using the Three Levels of Text Protocol can allow participants to explore the implications of his research to their own teaching practice.

Take your PLC to the next level

These same protocols could be used to discuss content focused articles like The Courage to Teach Hard History, Just Science, Seeing Themselves in Books, or Solving Problems Beyond Math Class in a professional learning community.  The possibilities are endless! All you need is some time, attention, and a community to stretch your thinking.

Collaboration is a practice

As we strive to make Vermont schools more equitable places that provide rich opportunities for every learner, we need all of the help we can get.  Protocols are a powerful tool for fostering the conversations that will help us get there.  But, just like anything worth doing, they require practice!  When we engage in facilitated dialogues with purpose and intention, we build our collective capacity to recognize and address inequities in action, one conversation at a time.

#vted Reads: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty

In this episode of #vted Reads, I return to my old stomping grounds at Green Mountain Union High School. I’m talking with school counselor Ally Oswald, about the realities of reaching and teaching students in poverty. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty is also the title of a 2013 book by educator and reformer Paul Gorski. And we’re going to use Gorski’s text to identify some concrete strategies to help us, as educators, move from wishful thinking to direct action. Our students need us, and we all know they’re worth it.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and figure it out.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: I am Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads. We are here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today, I’m with Ally Oswald. We’ll be talking about Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap by Paul Gorski. Thanks for joining me, Ally. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Ally: Thanks, Jeanie. It’s great to be here. I’m a school counselor here at Green Mountain in Southern Vermont. I’ve been here for about 10 or 12 years now. My husband is an educator in the building. My two sons come to school here so, this is really a family affair.

We’ve been reading this book as part of a group of teachers from our district, as a study group. We meet once a month and discuss a chapter. It’s really helped me learn about the wealth gap. To learn about how we think about students in poverty. The stereotypes that get associated with families and really question my own practices. It’s been really great to be a part of that group.

How poverty shows up in Vermont schools

Jeanie: You are the perfect guest then for us to dig into this book and think about what action it calls to us in our Vermont schools. Thank you so much for joining me.

So, Paul Gorski begins this book by dispelling the myth that public education is a great equalizer. He says, that’s what we want it to be, but that’s not how it works out. And sighting just countless research, he begins with this,

Students from poor families continue to be subject, on average, to what Jonathan Kozol has called the savage inequalities of schooling. The examples of these inequalities are numerous. Poor students are assigned disproportionately to the most inadequately funded schools with the largest class sizes and lowest paid teachers. They are more likely than their wealthiest peers to be bullied and to attend school in poorly maintained buildings. They are denied access to the sorts of school resources and opportunities other children take for granted, such as dedicated school nurses, well-stocked school libraries, and engaging pedagogies. In fact, by these and almost every other possible measure, students from poor families, the ones most desperate to find truth in the “great equalizer” promise, appear to pay a great price for their poverty, even at school. Of course, these conditions are not the fault of teachers, who are often are blamed unjustly for their effects. In fact, teachers who teach at high-poverty schools, as well as an increasing number of their colleagues at all public schools, too often are themselves denied access to adequate resources.

I wondered Ally, as a school counselor in Vermont School, do you see this playing out in your experience? That schools are being blamed for the effects of poverty over which they have no control.

Ally: Yes. I mean, I think it’s really interesting here in rural Vermont, because there’s not a whole lot of coordination of services between towns and so, schools become the community centers. They become the hub where people come to expect services. Expect food and clothing. The schools are the one place where we can provide those services, because we have access to families. We have access to students and we do have the funding to do that.

I worry about our students in poverty here in Vermont. Especially because housing is so hard to find. Long term housing is so hard to find. I think that students often have to leave schools and transition to different schools. That really gets in the way of their learning.

It just seems to be present all the time. As I’m sitting with students in my office and I’m reading this book, I keep seeing evidence where poverty is getting in the way of students being successful in school. Things like when kids are being evicted from their home, that’s definitely a stressor. When kids don’t have access to food, that’s definitely a stressor.

Health care, I had a student tell me that their parents had to decide whether they’re going to get their wisdom teeth pulled. If they were going to do that, they were going to have to sell their car, or dad was going to have to lose his second job because their family was making too much money to on Dr. Dinosaur. These things are present all the time in our Vermont schools.

Jeanie: Right. While teachers can be there for students in so many ways, we can’t make sure kids get adequate health care.

Ally:  Yes.

I think that’s what great about this book is that it allows us to understand sort of the full spectrum of how these injustices sort of reoccur both in and out of school for families.

Our job as taking care of kids like, we just have to be aware that these things are at play. At least we can’t perpetuate these stereotypes and these biases that we have. We work to serve kids and remove these obstacles and remove these barriers.

Jeanie: Yes. So, let’s get into that.

Ally: Yes.

The transformative power of educators

Jeanie: The mission of Gorski’s book is really to expand our capacity to teach for class equity, as he says. He starts with a really awesome quote. I thought I’d ask if you could read it. In my book, it’s on page five.

Ally: He writes,

I also wrote it because I believe in the transformative power of educators, perhaps not always as the frontline people in the struggle to end global poverty (at least not on their own), but as people committed enough to walk into classrooms and schools full of students, dedicated to do the right thing by each of them despite all the challenges.

Jeanie: We see you, teachers. We know that you want to do right by kids. We just want to honor you at the very start of this. Even as we’re digging into things we might do differently or ask you to look at differently, we see you and your vision to be there for kids. To help every kid learn.

Ally:  Schools are full of educators who care and want nothing but the best for these kids despite what kids actually think what their teachers think about them.

I have yet to meet educators who don’t want the best for these kids. So, I really believe in the power of educators coming together and understanding these issues deeply and working towards solutions.

Jeanie: Yes. I have yet to meet an educator who doesn’t work their butt off for kids, who doesn’t work so super hard. We just want to honor you from the beginning. I think Gorski does that too. He sees you and knows that you work hard and that you love kids. So, here we go. Let’s see what he’s asking us to think about.

Starting with definitions

Gorski really begins this book with definitions. He defines poverty and working class, middle class. He goes through all these different terms. I was really struck by this. I think we throw around terms like poverty and middle class, right, without really thinking about what they mean.

There are always these studies out for years now in the paper that say, “Most people see themselves as middle class even if they aren’t.” It’s like we all sort of put ourselves in that middle class bucket. I found it really interesting that Gorski starts with definitions and what he means in this book in order to be more precise.

Ally:  Yes. To really clarify who the injustices are happening to. How it’s been designed and framed in the last 30 years in terms of politics. I think that really plays into how we fund things and how we make decisions about policies. All of those things.

Language is important.

He talks about how important language is in his text and framing the language.

Jeanie: Yes. We’re going to get to that more because he talks about a strength-based approach to language too. I just found this so interesting because it’s really easy to be unclear. That causes like obfuscation, right? If we’re unclear, then what are we really talking about.

It’s really nice that he starts this book with some real clarity about what he means when he says working class,  and middle class. He talks about the owning class. He talks about wealth in ways that are different than I’ve seen in other places. I just appreciated his frankness about that.

… and numbers

Ally:  Can I point out some statistics?

Jeanie: Yes, please.

Ally: Is that okay?

Jeanie: Yes.

Ally: I’m going to turn to page 41 in my copy.*

A record 47 million people in the United States live in poverty, about 15% of the population. Actually, that figure is based on that government standard for poverty line income we explored earlier, which is, for example, $24,600 for a family of four. Another 30 million are living just above the poverty line, in constant danger of dipping below it. That’s 77 million people at or near the poverty line in the United States alone.

I just think it’s really important to know that the poverty line in the United States is $24,600 for a family of four. I don’t know about you, but my family of four is struggling to get by on quite a bit more than that. So, I’m wondering why these numbers are these numbers. Who benefits from the numbers being this low?

The fact that we have another 30 million people living just above that line and are constantly in danger. He talks about us being an emergency visit away from poverty.

Jeanie: Yes. I don’t know many educators living a lush life either, right?

Ally: Right.

Jeanie: On their salaries and yet, we are as educators formally in the middle class. Even if we weren’t middle class growing up, we’re middle class now by virtue of being educators. Yet, most educators I know have to take second jobs or think about how to make ends meet.

Unequal access

Ally: He talks about how poverty… so, in public schools, we say that everybody has equal access to things, right? But, when we talk about wealth. Kids actually don’t have equal access, right? Every summer program that my kids are signing up for, costs money, right? I’m fortunately in a place and I have family who can help pay for those things.

But, my kids are learning math this summer at camps. So, of course, they’re going to come in better prepared next year. Other kids don’t have access to those kinds of camps. I think VSAC in our State does a great job of trying to reach out and provide services for kids who are first generation and who fall in this poverty line. But, like what I just said, that $24,600 annual income, if that’s our basis, then we’re missing out on a whole lot of kids who need some extra supports.

Jeanie: Yes, absolutely. In that way, just like some families are just missing out on Dr. Dinosaur. You know, Ally? This isn’t in the book, but it makes me think about lately the news has been full of talk about how the economy is so strong.

I’ve got to tell you, every time Marketplace comes on NPR, I turn it off because I’m a little ticked off that our measure of economic success is all wrapped up in the owning class, as Gorski would refer to them, and how much they’ve traded stocks. Like if our measure is only in the Dow.

I want us to measure economic progress by how many children are living in poverty.

I want to know the number of kids who went without a meal on an average day as a measure of economic success. And I want to know how many families had to make really tough choices between medicine and food. Like, I want our measures of economic success to not be wrapped up in the owning class, but to be wrapped up in the working poor.

Ally: And the number of jobs that are available. I keep hearing that that number is so low right now. It’s because people are working two or three jobs to get by. That’s not the measure of how successful we’re doing.

Quite frankly, we’re not taking good care of our children right now. We need to invest money in feeding our kids, in providing preschool, education for our kids.

We’re here to talk about the book. I’m not going to go on a political rant, but this book helps me see these small injustices that happen every day, right?

Kids can’t… our food service people do a great job getting people access to food here on campus, but the fact that a family has to fill out a form to get access to free food. Why aren’t we just feeding every kid? Why do they have to… he talks about showing their poverty or… I forgot the word he uses now, but I’ll see if I can find it.

But, we’re asking kids to like present their poverty for food. Let’s just feed everybody. What’s the harm in that? How much would that really cost us? I’m sure that we can find money to feed kids in schools, right?

Jeanie: Yes. It’s like demonstrating your poverty.

Ally: Yes.

The Equity Literacy Framework

Jeanie: Yes. I’m sure we can talk about this for a long time. I actually think that Gorski’s point is that we have to act up in society if we want equitable conditions in schools. We’ll talk about that as we begin to delve in to the equity literacy framework that Gorski outlines.

I really want to spend some time on this. Let’s do a pair reading Ally. I’ll read one and you read two, et cetera. Because there are four abilities of equity literacy. The first ability is:

the ability to Recognize both subtle and not-so-subtle biases and inequities in classroom dynamics, school cultures and policies, and the broader society, and how these biases and inequities affect students and their families

Ally:  It’s recognizing these small injustices that are happening.

Jeanie: Yes. What’s number two?

Ally:  It’s about responding.

the ability to Respond to biases and inequities in the immediate term

He says, it’s having the skill and will to call it out when you see it happening in schools.

Jeanie: Yes. Number three is:

the ability to Redress biases and inequities in a longer term, so that they do not continue to crop up in classrooms in schools

Not only do we have to recognize them and respond right in our classroom in the moment, we’ve got to figure out what’s causing them.

Ally:  Right. Understand where it’s coming from and change the system. Like, consciously find solutions that solve the problem and not further perpetuate the inequities.

Jeanie: Yes. Number four?

Ally:  Number four is:

the ability to Create and Sustain a bias-free and equitable learning environment

Doesn’t that sound amazing?

Jeanie: It sounds amazing. It sounds aspirational.

Ally: It does.

Jeanie: I think that you and I both saw Paul Gorski speak at a School Reform Initiative Fall Meeting. I’m not sure if it was the same one, but this is reminding me of a story that you and I both love from one of those fall meetings.


Pulling babies out of a river

The story was this, there’s a person standing by a river. They start seeing these babies coming down the river. First one baby, so they pulled the baby out of the water. Then, another baby floats down the river and they pull that baby out of the water. Then, another baby, and they pull that baby out of the water. The person with them goes running off, “Wait, wait, where are you going?” There are all of these babies, right?

The person that runs off said, “I’m going to find out how come these babies are getting into the river in the first place.” In a way, number three redress biases and inequities in a long term, is about figuring out why the babies are in the river in the first place. I know that story resonated for you because I know you as a school counselor feel like you’re yanking babies out of the river.

Ally: I do.

I feel so helpless in this current system to be able to provide what children need.

Nothing is more frustrating in my job than… I get to know kids and be with kids through really tough times. I feel like that’s something that I do really well. I’m proud of the fact that I can sit with kids in their grief and in their struggles.

But it would be so satisfying to find ways to help them not feel like their suffering so much. To find solutions so that they aren’t ashamed of their lives. So that they feel empowered to become these amazing people that they are. I want them to see that.

Jeanie: I wanted to be able to unpack the equity literacy framework. I wondered if you would play along with me. I chose an example that’s a little easier than poverty, that I think is a little clearer. I’m going to lay out a situation, a scenario if you will. Let’s see if we can figure out what it would look like to use these four abilities to get underneath of it.

Ally: Okay.

Applying the Equity Literacy Framework to school dress codes

Jeanie: Here’s my scenario. It comes from real life. This is not made up. When I was a librarian here at Green Mountain, I heard… this is actually not unique to Green Mountain actually. I would suggest almost every school in Vermont probably has this same issue and across that country.

I would often hear kids, female kids, girls talk about the dress code. They were really annoyed by the dress code. I would hear some girls say, “Oh well, if you’re skinny, you can get away with dress code violations, but if you’ve got a little flesh on you, you can’t.” Or I would hear, “None of the boys ever get called down for dress code violations. If they do, they just have to turn their shirt inside out because it has something on it.”

So, I would guess, that if we looked at dress code violation data in almost any school in Vermont it is disproportionately affecting girls.

If we go through this framework, the ability to recognize both subtle and not so subtle bias, what do we see?

Ally: Yes, I think we see girls in half-tops who are getting called down because they are a distraction to other people, right? They are a distraction to boys or other adults in the room. We’re not really… the first recognition is that, that’s sort of unjust. She’s not responsible for the distractions that are happening in the classroom.

Jeanie: Yes. When my son was in middle school many years ago now. A lot of the boys in his class tried to get called out for dress code violations and couldn’t. Meanwhile, girls were shopping at the stores available to them, buying the clothes available to them and they couldn’t wear them to school.

In order to meet the dress code regulations at his middle school, those girls had to go buy clothes at like, old lady shops. Shops that I shop at, right? Not fashionable teenager wear.

It was almost impossible sometimes, especially the short requirement. That the shorts had to be longer than your fingertips. Pity that poor tall girl with the long arms and the long legs, right? She always ended up in the office for a dress code violation. These were often families who had money to go buy clothes. Imagine how challenging it is if your wardrobe is limited because of the income of your family.

Ally: I would say that this is… there’s also an unjust piece to this about kids in poverty because I often see the kids who are well off or who are popular, well put together wearing real skimpy stuff and nobody calls them out. Where it’s a red flag if one of the kids who often gets in trouble, who might be a little bit on the larger size, who is more noticeable as a student on… at somebody’s radar gets called out more often for it than the kids who are well behaved in our school. I think that that’s unjust as well.

Jeanie: Yes.

I call that the red sports car, having been the mother of a red sports car. The red sports car gets more speeding tickets because it’s more visible.

We do have those kids who stand out and get in trouble because then they have a reputation for getting in trouble. We unjustly call them out for wearing the same thing that somebody else is wearing.

There’s all sorts of ways we can recognize both subtle and not so subtle bias about who’s getting called out. I would say just the disproportionate number of girls that get called out for dress code violation should be a flashing red light that says something’s wrong with our policy if only girls are getting in trouble.

Then, if we move on to set two, the ability to respond to biases and inequities in the immediate term as they crop up in classrooms and schools.

Ally: This is a hard part, Jeanie. This is where I am struggling to find the courage to do this. It’s in those everyday moments when we’re talking as teachers about… well, those parents just don’t care. They won’t take time to come meet and talk about their kid. I think we all know these moments when they happen where they are cringe worthy and I let them slide.

This is about not letting them slide. It’s about having the skill to say… actually, parents of students in poverty care just as much about their kid’s futures as kids from their wealthier peers. Having the skill and will to call it out.

Jeanie: Yes. I also didn’t take a very courageous tack. Now that I’m no longer employed by a school, I can honestly say that my response to what I deemed as sexist dress codes was just to ignore kids’ clothing. Like, I didn’t call. I never once reported a kid for a dress code violation. Because I felt like the policy was not worthy of being implemented. Not a very courageous move. Not really a response that changed anything, but that was my response.

Now, if I could go back and have a do-over, I might respond differently. I might actually seek out and get a group of girls to go with me to the principal’s office and say, “Hey, let’s have a look at this dress code. Let’s talk about it.”

Ally:  And really get to the root of what the problem is.

Who is affected? How are they affect… what is the problem? I feel like in education so often we go and thinking, making all kinds of assumptions about what’s at play and putting a band-aid on things. Instead of really deeply looking at and figuring out what the problem is.

Then, practical solutions to that problem.

Jeanie: This is an example I think where band-aids are prevalent because I remember a staff meeting here at Green Mountain about the dress code. One of the things that I think we can all agree on is that not one of us wants our young women to be preyed upon by predators outside of this building.

Like, we’re genuinely concerned for their safety. So we want them to dress appropriately so, they don’t draw that kind of attention to themselves and that they don’t get in trouble. That’s a legitimate concern for kids that we don’t want them to get hurt.

But unfortunately, what we’re demonizing is girl’s bodies instead of a culture that preys on young women and that’s really problematic when we make girls feel like their bodies are shameful or should be hidden when the real problem is elsewhere.

I remember having that conversation. I remember feeling like… obviously, I don’t want these girls to be assaulted. I also want them to feel free in their bodies.

Ally:  Mm-hmm. And feel good about themselves.

Jeanie: Yes.

Ally:  And powerful, right?

Jeanie: And powerful. That gets us to that next ability.

The ability to redress bias and inequities in the longer term. This is where I feel like activism about rape culture and calling out that women are not responsible if men and boys are distracted by their bodies. That women have a right to their own bodies. That their bodies are their own. Men too, by the way, your bodies are your own too.

Ally:     Yes.

Jeanie: So, that gets to that. This is where I think Gorski is asking us really to step up beyond what’s in our control in our classrooms and schools and address larger societal problems. Because they show up so often in our schools, right? So rape culture shows up in schools. Even if it doesn’t originate in schools.

Ally:  Right.

Advocating for young people

Jeanie: Yes. It’s complicated. He asks us in a way to be political. To be engaged. To be advocates for young people beyond our schools.

Ally: Yes. He does this. I wanted to talk about this at the end, but now might be a good time to talk about it. I’m going to turn to page 87. One of the things that was really helpful for me in understanding, I think I had a really narrow window of what it meant to live in poverty. But, in this chapter, I think… I forget what chapter it is.

He talks about how… it’s chapter six. Class inequities beyond school walls and why they matter at school. So, he helps us… even though we may not be able to change things about food, and housing, and access to medical care, we need to understand that those things are intertwined, right?


As we strengthen our equity literacy, we begin to see how these disparities are the result of structural disadvantages.

He talks about livable wage jobs with benefits, health care, adequate and healthy food, stable affordable quality housing, healthy living and working environments, recreation and fitness options, community and social services, quality child care, cognitive enrichment resources and a validating and bias-free society.

Jeanie: That’s a tall order.

Ally:   We can do it, Jeanie. I know we can. But when we’re talking about creating and sustaining equitable ways of living and creating educational opportunities for kids that are free of bias. He’s really talking about these things. These things that are outside of our realm of control. It is bigger than us and we have a responsibility.

Building our Equity Literacy muscles

Jeanie:  I love how he started with, “As we strengthen our equity literacy skills.” This idea that this is a muscle. That these four steps recognize response, redress, create and sustain feel like a lot.

But, we can start just with recognizing. Then, we can recognize and respond, right? We can slowly build up this muscle like, we would a muscle at the gym, right? We can slowly practice this until we become stronger and stronger.

It starts with just being able to see the inequities that are present for our students.

Ally:     I’m going to tell you a story about fall meeting this year. I was at the School Reform Initiative’s Fall Meeting. I was facilitating a small group. It was educators from across the country at all levels who are really interested in this particular conversation, talking about race and inequities around race.

We met and we were all on the same page. Paul Gorski has a second book that’s called Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education, by Paul Gorski and Seema Pothini. In this book, they outline actual case scenarios from school around bias and inequities.

With that group, we started reading three of these. We sat in different groups. We read three and processed what would you do in this scenario?

One was about a student with a physical disability and a field trip. Getting access to the learning that other kids were doing on that field trip when a state park is not allowing a student to go on a particular trail.

We were practicing that muscle. When we were debriefing that, people in the room were like, “Oh my god! I thought I knew. Like, just because I believe in justice doesn’t mean I can call it out and change it.”

It’s so confusing, it’s so murky. What’s the right thing to do in the moment? And then how do I respond. I have to take care of this kid who doesn’t have access. I have to deal with the parents.

Like, there’s so many layers to this that I think it is really good to find a group of people and practice these things with and keep talking about it and thinking about it because there’s no simple solution.

Teachers as life-long learners

Jeanie: Yes. This just makes me think about how as educators, we have to constantly be learners. So many of our schools right now are sort of engaged in some sort of learning around trauma-informed practice. We’re doing work on proficiency. We have to constantly be learners. Our students are changing, but this is just another way in which we have to keep learning. Keep getting better. But we can, we can get better.

Ally:  It’s for the benefit for our kids. We want to do better.

We don’t want to hold the stereotypes in our brains and in our hearts.

Educators want kids to be successful. It’s worth it if we can start to explore sort of all these things that we hold to be true in ourselves.

Jeanie: There’s another way in which we can have our students help us with this work too. Christie Nold is doing amazing work where she has kids recognizing bias into her classroom, in the books they read.

There’s a school library in Ottaquechee which is engaging students in finding, doing an audit of the library collection to find bias and redress bias.

Our students can be our partners in this work, but also we need to be doing this work.

10 principles of equity literacy

As if these four abilities weren’t enough, Gorski also outlines ten principles of equity literacy that all seem really important. We don’t have time to talk about all ten, but I wondered if you wanted to talk about one that is especially meaningful to you in your work.

Ally:  Yes, I think I’d like to talk about number five.

What we believe about people experiencing poverty informs how we teach, interact with, and advocate (or fail to advocate) for them.

One of the truths that he explores over and over in this book is that the most powerful change a teacher can make or the most powerful learning that we can have is this recognition that we hold stereotypes about people of poverty. We have those and we need to challenge those. We need to look at those and understand them so that we can challenge them.

Because the biggest shift that can happen for educators is if we do this. If we believe in students experiencing poverty and have high expectations for them. Believe in their power, then we can help them be successful.

He talks about no amount of professional development, no books, or number of pencils you provide is a substitute for shifting your beliefs about students in poverty.

Jeanie: Yes. It’s like starting with your heart before you move to your head. I’ve been thinking a lot about how in education we try to shift practice without shifting beliefs. This is really important. What we believe in our hearts shows up in our bodies, in our heads, in our brains, right? Comes out of our mouth.

Ally:  Right.

Jeanie: So, we have to believe that all students can learn. We have to believe that all students are doing their best. That makes a huge difference. That really resonates for me.

Number eight. These all stand out for me. But number eight, I think ties in really… these all tie in together too. In my book it says,

Equitable educators adopt a resiliency rather than a deficit view of low-income students and families.

Equity illiterate educators recognize and draw upon the resiliencies and other funds of knowledge accumulated by poor and working class individuals and communities and reject deficit views that focus on fixing disenfranchised students rather than fixing the things that disenfranchise students.

For me, this is all about shifting my language from a deficit-based vocabulary to a strengths-based vocabulary. That is constant work. I think I used to use words like, I think I used to refer to students in ways that I thought was really sensitive to them, but actually was further marginalizing them, right?

So, I tried to change my language to be more strength-based. That ties in with what I believe. It helps me more adequately express what I believe and also shifts what I believe when I use a different language.

So, the title of this book is a perfect example. For years, we’ve heard about the achievement gap. Kids of color are not achieving at the same level as white kids. Kids in poverty are not achieving at the same level.

When we call it achievement gap, then we’re blaming the kids or their families. When we call it an opportunity gap, the implications of having different opportunities, a gap in opportunities if you’re poor turns that on its head.

Ally: Right. It completely shifts your thinking when you change the language and you frame it a different way.

Jeanie: Yes.

Ally:  He does that with the term generational poverty. We have this term generational poverty that we often use. He changes it to “generational injustice.” So generations of people having their lands taken away. Having their rights stripped. Not allowing access to purchasing things, purchasing land, owning land.

How you talk about things matters.

Do you mind if I find that place in the book?

Jeanie: Go ahead. I would love for you to share that. I think words do matter. Generational poverty makes it sound like we’re passing poverty down, right? Like, this is your inheritance. I was poor, so now, you’re poor. Generational injustice points to what’s really happened, that systems have made it impossible for certain groups of people to accumulate wealth.


Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty. Photo from the book with the quote: "...generational poverty always seemed to me to be a deficit suggestion: the idea that poverty is a result of a set of cultures, behaviors, and attitudes reproduced in families experiencing poverty and passed down from generation to generation."

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty. Photo of the book with this quote: "What if, instead of talking about generational poverty, we talk about generational injustice? How would it change the way we defined, understood, responded to, and redressed the problem? Suddenly, we’re not looking at poverty as a personal or cultural failure focusing on how deficit mindsets are passed from generation to generation. But instead, examining how policies, practices, and institutions marginalize generation after generation of some families and communities."


Jeanie: Thank you for sharing that. That really speaks to me about a question that I… you know I ‘m very fond of questions. A question that I often… that sits in my tool kit for equity is this question of… especially around policy is, is this policy trying to fix people?

Because if the answer is yes, it’s likely an inequitable or inadequate policy, right? Is this program trying to fix people?

If we’re trying to fix people, we’re part of the problem, right? What we need to do is fix systems.

As long as we’re focused on fixing people, we’re avoiding or ignoring the real problem which is systemic inequities, systemic biases that create the disenfranchisement, that create the inequities that show up. That really shines up my question for me and make me think about it more. About how that question can be used as we’re designing policy or procedures in schools.

Ally: He also says, and I agree with him when he says, that students know. Students know if you’re pitying them. They know if it’s a band-aid. They know if it’s really getting to the root of the problem or if it’s unjust. If you wonder about that, if you just ask kids like what’s going on? They’ll tell you.

Jeanie: Yes. Nobody wants to be fixed. Don’t tell me I’m broken, don’t pity me, don’t try to change me. Change the systems that create the inequities that make it hard for me. Yes, thank you for that.

Dismantling the myths of the culture of poverty

Gorski spends a whole chapter dismantling the myths of the culture of poverty.

Ally: And really addressing those stereotypes that are common stereotypes of families in poverty.

Jeanie: That section, in particular, you and I, that’s also posted as an article online. That section that dispels common stereotypes about poor families. That’s a really powerful section. You and I have used that in a Collaborative Practices course we co-facilitate to help people look at bias that they have unconsciously held.

We found that to be really painful in a lot of cases for our teachers who are like, “Oh, shoot! I had no idea.” Painful but fruitful that teachers are really having to scrutinize their own beliefs in ways that can be really uncomfortable.

I wondered if you wanted to talk about a particular stereotype that stands out for you from that section.

Ally:  I actually am reluctant to read any of these stereotypes because I think they perpetuate, they further perpetuate the story.

What I got out of this chapter is sort of understanding where stereotypes come from. That there’s an inside group and an outside group. Often stereotypes come from an outside group. They don’t come from the people who are experiencing those things.

All you need is a hint of truth for people to buy into it.

I’m going to read this part at the top of page 72.

we tend to require less evidence, and less accurate evidence, to convince us of the legitimacy of a stereotype about a group to which we do not belong then we require to convince us of a stereotype about a group to which we do belong. Social psychologists have referred to this phenomenon as in-group bias…

Jeanie: Yes. So, it’s who gets to call the shots. Who gets to decide?

Ally: Right.

Jeanie: It’s about power.

Ally: It’s about power. It’s less about what’s true and what’s not true.

When you hear Paul Gorski speak, he has this quiz that he makes you take. So, those questions are sort of jaw-dropping about… I even think he lists them in here. About the things that we believed to be true.

Photo from the book: Poverty Awareness Quiz
Click or tap to enlarge.


Jeanie: Yes. He calls on us again and again to evaluate those things we believe to be true. He throws a ton of research at us. This book has so many parenthetical citations that it exhausts me a little bit.

The one that stopped me in my tracks when I first read it and that I still struggle with is this idea about linguistic deficiency.

For me, the reason is that I grew up working poor. My family to this day does not speak with Standard American English grammar and syntax. They say words that embarrass me. “Ain’t” probably being the least embarrassing of them, but the way they talk is not the way that I talk.

What I love about Gorski is that he cites so much research that just made me have to rethink my thinking about that. He says,

Linguists roundly reject this superior/inferior dichotomy. Some call it “standard language ideology” in reference to the presumptuous and familiar term “standard English.” According to Kathryn Woolard and Bambi Schieffelin,  “Moral indignation over nonstandard forms [of language] derives from ideological associations of the standard with the qualities valued within the culture, such as clarity or truthfulness.” In fact, since at least the early 1970s linguists have bemoaned the ways of which students are taught to misunderstand the nature of language, including the false dichotomy of “correct/proper” and “incorrect/improper” language varieties.

In linguistic reality, all variations of a language and all dialects, from what some people call “Black English Vernacular” to the Appalachian English spoken by my grandma are highly structured, with their own sets of grammatical rules.

This notion that we have, that when kids speak in their home vernacular, they are less intelligent. That shows up for me. Like, I hold that bias and I have to work hard against it.

Ally:   I think as educators were in a unique position too because it’s not to say, “This is the only way to do it.”

We can say, “When you are writing a resume, when you’re applying for a job, when you’re writing an email to your boss, this is the way communication happens. In other circles, in other places, this is also powerful language and it’s still valued.

Jeanie: Yes. You said that so well. Folks, I’m going to pull us back to a more hopeful place. Because Gorski asked us to do all this hard work to look at ourselves really closely and the biases we hold. To work on recognizing bias in action and redressing it. He’s really asking us to do a lot and it’s hard work.

But he also has this section where he points out strategies that research has shown to be effective for children living in poverty. Let’s turn to that.

Instructional strategies for equity

Jeanie: There’s some great stuff in there. There’s a great little instructional strategies that work list. Then, he digs into them a little further.

These are good for all kids. Just like good trauma-informed practices is good for all kids.

These eight strategies are great for all kids, including kids living in poverty. Would you read the list of strategies that work for all students, not just those in poverty. Then, we can talk about a couple.


Photo of book with this quote: "The equity educator has the knowledge, skills, and will to: 1. consider data humbly, responsibly and collaboratively; 2. prioritize literacy instruction across the curriculum; 3. promote literacy enjoyment; 4.  have and communicate high expectations; 5. adopt higher-order, student-centered, rigorous pedagogies 6. teach critical literacy; 7. teach about poverty, economic injustice, and class bias; 8. analyze learning materials for class (and other) bias; 9. make curricula relevant to students experiencing poverty; 10. incorporate music, art, and theater across the curriculum; 11. incorporate movement and exercise into learning."
Click or tap to enlarge.


“These strategies just sound like good teaching,” he says.

Jeanie: They are.

For me, I, of course, adore “promote literacy enjoyment.” I hate when reading is turned into a chore. I want it to be fun. As a librarian, it was really important to me that I had books that kids could enjoy. That they felt drawn to. I wanted kids to love the books that they took home, right?

Like, the come to me and say, “Oh my gosh! I love this so much.” That was like my best reward. That combines with the making curricular relevant to the lives of our students. So, it’s really important to me that whether in classrooms or in libraries, that kids be able to see themselves in books.

That means having LGBTQ+ characters in books. That means having kids of color in books. Kids who are refugees in our stories. That we have stories about kids living in poverty where it’s not just demoralizing, right? We don’t have a single story of that, exactly. That we have opportunities for kids to see all different kinds of people like themselves and not in literature and in the curriculum.

It’s super important to me. I’ll give a little shout out to a book I’m in love with right now. Ann Braden’s The Benefits of Being an Octopus. It’s a great opportunity for kids to see their strength and resilience in a character, Zoey, who is experiencing poverty and some abuse in her life.

What rings true for you out of this list?

Ally: I love the last two about incorporating music, art, and theater across curriculum and incorporate movement and exercise into learning.

I think when kids are able to be physical on their bodies that the learning sticks with them.

But, I also want to draw attention to number one. Because we can do this easily. I want to stress how important this is to educational leaders that we take time to do this. Consider data humbly, responsively, and collaboratively.

 Data doesn’t have meaning until we look at it together and make meaning together. Then, create a vision for how we want things to be. I can’t do that by myself as a school counselor. You can’t do that on your own as a librarian. We have to do this collectively.

Jeanie: I think that you’re absolutely right about that Ally. That we need to work together in community to look at data and figure out what the biases are and how to redress them. I would recommend to administrators, and teachers and leaders who are interested in doing this work the book, Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity.: A Leader’s Guide to Using Data to Change Hearts and Minds by Edward Fergus.

This book was recommended to me by Jillian at the School Reform Initiative. I haven’t had a chance to put it into action yet, I have a copy and it’s just like this amazing opportunity to dig deep in data. You’re right, it doesn’t have meaning until we start to make sense of it and use it for the good of our students.

Focus on relationships

I also love that you called forth the same thing that Gorski calls forth at the end of his book which is a focus on relationships, right? That we need each other to do this important work. Gorski says,

Every practical strategy in the world will not work if we treat poor and working-class youth, or their families, even in the most implicit ways as though they are broken or some lesser other.

Remember, as we learned earlier, that research has shown that who are what we choose to blame for poverty guides the policies and practices we are willing to implement. In other words, what we believe about low income students, how we relate to them is just as important as how we teach them. In fact, it plays a considerable role in determining how we teach them.

This quote really reminded me of you because having known you and worked with you for such a long time, I know that you have this gift for seeing students, really seeing them. I wondered if you wanted to talk about what that means to you.

Ally: That’s really nice, Jeanie. I think what that means to me, in my own personal work that I do. I’m part of a Courage and Renewal cohort. During that work what I’ve realized is that my… I’m only good at my job when I can show up as my full self.

When I begin to be honest about who I am, with everything that I’m awesome at and also everything that I’m not so awesome at. If I can just be fully available for kids, it’s better for them.

I think fully seeing kids is creating spaces where they too can be their honest self. They don’t have to deal with judgment. They don’t have to deal with shame. That they can be a mess, because we’re all kind of a mess.

I think the more spaces we can create, not just for kids, but for people to be their full selves, the better aligned we’ll be as a society about like what matters to us. We can sort of follow our hearts and trust. Trust the choices that we’re making. To feel powerful about changes that we need to make.

Just even in my own personal stuff, I think we all got caught up in our insecurities and feel like, “Oh, I’ll never be able to do this things.”

When we create spaces for people to explore their full selves, they start to recognize that they have a lot of power. They have a lot of skills and they’re really beautiful. They can make changes and make things happen for themselves.

Jeanie: Yes. I think that the special thing that you do, Ally, is you… by helping kids feel fully seen, they also really trust you. So, they can…so many of the ways in which kids, especially kids experiencing poverty show up in schools is to hide.

You helped them realize they don’t have to hide themselves. That they can come clean about what they need or what’s going wrong in their lives.

Ally:  But, can I tell you? It’s sort of terrifying too, right? To hold this trust in a system that doesn’t necessarily work for them. In a system that sort of feels unjust. Like I have to talk to girls about their dress code issues. I have to tell kids that college is really important, right? Like, there are all these scripts that I have as part of being in the education system. I worry about having that. It feels like a huge responsibility to hold that trust.

So, this work around equity literacy is really good for me to make that the stories that I’m… these scripts that I’m using are not holding kids back, are not further perpetuating these stereotypes.

Jeanie: Yes. You reminding me that as educators in buildings, we really have to have a two-pronged approach. Like, we do need to play by the rules of the school even as we may be behind the scenes for kids, we may be talking to administrators, to other teacher and to school boards about why those rules need to change. That we do need to uphold policies even as we’re advocating for changes in them.

Ally: I think that’s where people in the world of equity in schools sometimes get sort of chewed up a little bit is in that, in the place of those two things. Sort of ground up in the wheels of holding and creating space and upholding the principles that are in the foundations of education.

Jeanie: It’s exhausting work.

Ally:  It is, but it’s so worthwhile when you get to see students being successful in opportunities that they have.

Access and opportunities, those are what we need to focus on for kids.

That’s what Paul Gorski argues about, access and opportunities.

Jeanie: Yes. Teachers, take care of yourself. We know you’re doing so much. We hope you’re doing a little self-care as well because it’s a lot, as Ally said, it’s easy to get ground up in the wheels of this work.

There is so much more to this book. It’s a thin little book, but there is so much more that we haven’t discussed because it’s such a rich resource. Just chock-full of profound thinking and references to research. I wonder if there’s anything else you’d like to call attention to.

Ally:  I don’t think so. I had a lovely conversation with you, Jeanie. I think we covered a lot of ground.

Jeanie: Yes.

Ally:  I can’t imagine people want to listen to this. Sorry.

Jeanie: How am I supposed to respond to that? Well, I enjoyed listening to you Ally. You have so many great insights. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast to talk about this really important book.

Ally: Yes. Thanks, Jeanie for having me.



*Ally quoted from the 2nd edition of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, while I quoted from the 1st edition.

#vted Reads: No Fixed Address with Annie Brabazon

#vted Reads logoReader, today we’re going to talk toilets. Now, not in a weird way or a gross way, but because they’re a central theme in Susin Neilson’s No Fixed Address. They’re big white porcelain symbols of the main character’s resourcefulness as he navigates housing insecurity, and they’re really important to think about in terms of access for your own students.


Have a seat, and let’s chat.

Jeanie:  I’m Jeanie Phillips. Welcome to #vted Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today I’m with Annie Brabazon, and we’ll be talking about No Fixed Address by Susin Neilsen. Thanks for joining me, Annie. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Annie: Hi Jeanie, thanks for having me. I am a school librarian at Grand Isle School. We’re currently a K-8 school. At the end of this year, we will be becoming a K through six school.  I’ll be starting my ninth year in the fall. Prior to that, I was a public librarian for a while and then prior to that I worked in Higher Ed and student affairs. I’m on the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Book Award Committee. This is my third year. I’ll be stepping off at the end of this spring. It’s been a really great pleasure to be able to dive into a bunch of books and work with a committee of readers to figure out the best books that we want to present to kids in our community.

Meet Felix

Jeanie:  You guys do an amazing job at that. I always love the list and we’re going to talk more about that list at the end. But let’s start by introducing this fabulous book, No Fixed Address. I loved it so much. I read it in a day and I wondered if you might start by introducing us to our charming narrator, Felix.

Annie: Yes, I’d agree he’s really charming! Felix Knuttson, he’s 12 and I think he turns 13 in the course of the story. He lives with his mom who prefers that he call her Astrid, because she thinks “Mom” and “Dad” might create a little bit of a hierarchy, and she’s not really into that. And he’s a smart kid. He’s a really funny kid and he’s a really, really sweet kid that has to do a lot of adult things and kind of be the adult in his relationship with his mom. More than a kid should have to be.

…and his quirky family

Jeanie: Yeah. He has kind of an out of the box, non-heteronormative family. Do we want to talk a little bit about his family circumstances?

Annie: Sure. So, his mom, Astrid is not in a relationship with anybody. She goes in and out of different relationships. But that’s not really the main focus of the book. His dad is someone who he hears from once in a while, but is a gay man who donated his sperm to Astrid so that she could have Felix. Again, I think with both his parents, Felix kind of has to be the adult in those situations. His dad is a struggling artist who is, I think caught up a little bit in finding romance in his life a little more than he is in consistently being a part of Felix’s life. Felix is forgiving and understanding about that. More than I think, if that were me in that situation,  I think I might be.

Astrid is a mom who has a hard time holding down a job. She can’t always hold back what she’s thinking and feeling. And it doesn’t always work well in jobs that in particular involve customer service component to them. So she might lose jobs pretty frequently throughout the story. She struggles with depression. Felix calls it her slumps. And when those happen, he again has to step up and really be the parent and the adult in that situation.

Dealing with mental illness

Jeanie:  Yeah. He really describes the slumps really interestingly. Let’s think about that for a minute. I love where he talks about what it’s like when his mom is in a slump. I’m on page 87. I’ll just read a portion of it.

She likes to say that the day I was born was the happiest day of her life. And she named me after her brother, to keep his memory alive. I think that’s why she likes me to call her Astrid instead of “Mom,” because that’s what Original Felix called her.

I know some people find it weird. I remember other parents in the schoolyard thought I was precocious, calling her Astrid. But when they found out she wanted it that way, they looked at her like she was precocious.

I’m just trying to give some context before I mention Astrid’s Slumps. That’s her word for them. Slumps. She’s had them off and on for years, but they usually don’t last very long — a few days at most. During a Slump she stays in bed and I take charge. Mormor took charge when she was alive, but after that it was left to me.

So, Mormor is the grandmother who really, sort of anchored Felix before she passed away when he was a young man. I think you really hit on something interesting, Annie, which is that, because Felix’s parents are so immature, he has to be mature beyond his years.

Annie: Right. It’s amazing how he does that. And! What I love about him is that he also can be a kid and he has some terrific friends that help him be a kid and be silly and goofy and have that part of his life feel rich and full as well. So, I feel really happy for him that he can still have the opportunity through his friendships to have moments of being a kid.

The spiral path to housing insecurity

Jeanie:  So when the book starts, Felix is sitting in a police office talking to a police officer. He’s explaining their circumstances, particularly how he and his mother came to be living in this Westfalia van. I wondered if you could just give us a brief summary, as Felix does, of their struggles with housing.

Annie: So they haven’t always lived in a van. When the story starts, it’s about four months that prior to that, that things started to fall apart.

It’s so interesting for people that are not secure about their home situation or their living situation, how in the forefront it is of they’re thinking.

Felix can specifically talk about how at one point they lived in a 400-square-foot basement and then another point they lived in a 600-square-foot apartment and then they owned an 800-square-foot condo before they had to live with their grandmother Mormor. And then, once Mormor died and all of those other situations fell apart. They couldn’t continue to be in any living situation where they needed to pay rent. Astrid wasn’t holding up her end of the deal.

Jeanie:  Thanks for that summary. The part that really sticks out for me, because it’s true that Astrid doesn’t hold jobs very well, nor friendships, and that *that* makes their housing more unstable. But there’s a point at which Astrid and Felix, when Mormor dies, they inherit her house. They come into some money and they purchase a condo, right? And they’re living in this condo quite happily in a neighborhood he loves, with the school he loves. But the condo starts sinking. It’s structurally unsound and each person in those condos has to pay, I think it’s like $40,000. So, what was a stable housing situation that they could afford despite Astrid’s employment irregularities, they suddenly have to sell it at a loss. And that starts this downward spiral.

So, Astrid is not perfect, but this situation was out of her control.

Annie: So right. You’re right, absolutely right about that. And she has a sense that things start to spiral. Astrid also actually had a job as an art teacher. But again, a thing out of her control was that the enrollment and the art classes decreased. So they didn’t need to keep her. That was not anything that Astrid could control. So, some of those situations out of her control —  in combination with some of her challenges with holding down a job — made maintaining a stable home environment really hard.

Jeanie:  I think that’s really important.

I think it’s really easy to pigeonhole or stereotype poor people, and think that they are poor because of the bad choices they made. We all make bad choices. Some of us just have stronger safety nets.

Annie: Right. That’s a really good point because I think with Mormor gone, that was a big safety net for both of them. The man that Astrid had been sharing a living space with, left. That was another person that had been kind of a support and a safety net for them as well.

And I think some of the shame around insecurity around your home situation and not being able to talk to people, I think contributes to that spiral continuing because it’s uncomfortable to ask for help. It’s uncomfortable to seek out resources that might identify you as a person who doesn’t have a secure, stable home situation. Astrid was very proud and didn’t want to ask for a lot of support or help. Because I think she wanted to be able to provide that for Felix and maintain this hopefulness that things would work out.

The importance of a safety net

Jeanie:  I had a lot of empathy for the before and after Mormor. Like the way in which Felix’s grandmother was such an amazing support for him and for Astrid. My grandparents were a safety net for my family? And that I can’t imagine what my childhood would have been like without their support. NS I see this a lot for our Vermont students. I think this shows up a lot for students in our schools. They’re really reliant on the support of aunts and uncles and grandparents and other family members. And some of our students really lack those support networks.

So for me, this story is really important to have in Vermont school libraries. It’s important that many of our students could see themselves in Felix’s story.

Annie:  In my school community where I teach, I also live in the town next-door. A lot of our families or our kids are being raised by their grandparents; more and more that number is increasing. If they’re not being raised by them, they’re definitely being supported, and the parenting and the caring for them is being shared. So I do think that a lot of kids would see themselves in Felix. I also think in terms of security around a consistent home and space to live? That’s something more and more kids in the community where I live would identify with as well. And I do think that grandparents — it’s kind of a wonderful relationship to see with kids.

Parental love

Jeanie: I can’t say enough that Astrid really loves Felix. This kid is really well loved.

Annie: Oh, totally well loved. Yes. One of the moving parts for me was when Horatio, the hamster, died. Astrid had gone out to get a space heater for the van and ended up having to try to shoplift it and got caught. And so was held up at the police station because of that and wasn’t home for Felix when he woke up and discovered that Horatio was dead. But when she did come back her love and her comforting of him was just, that was just that such a great part of the book for me. It just really reminded me how much she does love Felix and how much he loves her. He even called her mom in that moment because his emotions were so strong. His grief was so great. He knew that even though he doesn’t call her mom, she is still that to him. She is still that one who cares and nurtures and takes care of him.

Jeanie:  I just don’t want to villainize her and I’m never fond of books that create a villain out of somebody who maybe struggles with mental illness, but who is doing the best she can. Astrid is *really* doing the best she can.

Annie: She totally is. The humor in this book that helps us kind of appreciate that about her too is what one of the other things that I really loved about this when he talks about Astrid’s lies and the different kinds of lies she’s telling.

A “Glossary of Lies”

Jeanie: I would love it if you would turn to page 31 and read the opening paragraph under Astrid’s Guidebook to Lies.


I suppose I need to pause here to explain that yes, on occasion, my mother lies. But it’s important to note that she has levels of lies, and rules surrounding each. Sort of like the Church of Scientology and their levels of Operating Thetans, her rationales don’t always make a lot of sense. But this is how I break them down in my head.

Jeanie:  Let’s just go through the list.

The first one is The Invisible Lie


This is your run of the mill white lie, that type we all tell  multiple times a day without even thinking about it. For example, say you’ve just been diagnosed with a terminal illness and your waiter/bus driver says, “How are you?” And you say, “Fine.”  Because it’s understood that they don’t really want to know the truth.

Jeanie:  Yeah. And then I love this one,

The “Give Peace a Chance” Lie

Annie: He refers to that a lot, and sees that in other people as well throughout the story. It’s a kind of lie that we say to spare someone’s feelings. Someone asked Astrid’s waiter friend if the pants she had on made her butt look big, and Astrid, of course, said, “No”. Because she didn’t want to hurt her feelings.

Jeanie:  Yeah. Then there is:

The “Embellishment” Lie


Astrid  would argue that embellishing really isn’t lying, it’s just adding some flavor, like putting more spices into a dish. For example, she will pad her résumé with some things that aren’t, shall we say, accurate, depending on the type of job she’s applying for.

That’s a great one.

Jeanie Philips:  I love this one. It’s such a short description,

The “No One Gets Hurt” Lie

These are bald-faced lies aimed at helping out the liar in some way.  But — and this is crucial — they harm no one.

Annie: Yeah. Then

The “Someone Might Lose an Eye” Lie

These are the worst type of lies, the kind that have the potential to hurt the teller, the tellee, or both.

Jeanie: This is early on in the book, and what I love is that we come back to this again as both Astrid and Felix himself tell lies.

He’s really exploring morality in this really interesting way, in a life where he has to, because of shame and circumstance, tell different sorts of lies just to survive.

Annie: Right. He doesn’t want his friends to know that he doesn’t have a home. He uses some of these lies to just again like you said, not feel so horrible about himself and the shame that goes along with maybe not having a home. And the fear that, what would his friends think about him?

Homelessness?  “Houselessness”? Housing Insecurity?

Jeanie:  I think that brings up something really interesting because Felix doesn’t think of himself as homeless. And that just reminded me of a couple of things I’d like to process with you. One was a This American Life episode about a girl who found refuge in a library, and didn’t realize that the reason her mom took her to the library every day is because they were homeless. She didn’t realize until much later.

And then recently on a learning journey, I took to Hawaii to study, place-based learning, there’s a huge problem with people who don’t have adequate housing. So they set up encampments. And the advocates there are calling it “houselessness’. Because these folks are making homes.

And, in fact, Felix and his mother do make a home out of the Westfalia van. They just don’t have a house.

Then I think about how in schools we use this term housing insecure because many of our students without houses are living with family members or in houses that are too small. They’re sharing homes with other people. I’m thinking about, how the terminology impacts self-identity because Felix has this moment where he suddenly realizes, “oh.” He realizes that in contrast to the homeless man on the street, and it occurs to him suddenly, like, “I’m like that guy.”

Annie:  Right. I was thinking about that, especially when they finally get that apartment above the grocery store and…

Jeanie:  Shhhh, no spoilers!

What makes a home

Annie: Sorry! (I know, I was wondering if I should go there.) But I do think he sees that housing and having a home are different and they look different. His situation looks different from Bob, the man who was living in a cardboard box beside a building. Even when he brought his friends, Winnie and Dylan to the van, and he finally opened up to them about where his home was.

When he was talking to them and showing them around, he realized that he had a lot of what makes a home. It made it feel different for him, I think, to be open about it, and bring his friends there.

Jeanie:  Absolutely. It’s this huge moment in the book too that I think is really interesting to explore with kids about Winnie and Dylan have to decide whether or not to disclose this secret. Because Felix swears them to secrecy. He can’t tell anyone because his family is afraid of the Department of Children and Families. He’s afraid of that. He doesn’t want to be separated from his mom and he worries about that. So, he swears them to secrecy, and WE WON’T GIVE IT AWAY.

Winnie and Dylan really have to wrestle with whether or not to keep a secret.

Annie: The other part I think about is, so one of Felix’s strategies to try and change his situation and get he and Astrid out of the van is to enter this Who, What, Where, When game show. It’s kind of like a Jeopardy type of show and he’s a master at answering the questions. There’s history, geography, science, all, the whole gamut. He enters this contest hoping that the prize money will be what is needed to get he and his mom back on track again and having more housing security in their life. And at one point he realizes that they might be in a motel where the signs on the motel have lit up letters that are not lighting up. So the words aren’t clear. There are some shady characters that live there and there’s a whole list of what you can do and what you can’t do.

For him, that doesn’t feel like a home. For him, that feels like a place that’s not safe. I think it again makes him appreciate the van.

Even though there were a lot of struggles living there, there was the ability to be who he was and feel safe and secure with Astrid there.

Resiliency, resourcefulness, and morality

Jeanie: And he has to be incredibly resilient. Both he and Astrid do. He has all of these strategies for dealing with this housing situation, like keeping clean. He keeps a toiletry kit in his locker. Hiding the truth takes a lot of work, right? Like he has to sort of lie about where he lives, but he also has to sort of pretend like he has everything he needs and it requires a real resourcefulness. And then just the life skills he has for dealing with that reality. So, I’m on page 67 and it says,

As September drew to a close it got colder, especially at night. This is something you become acutely aware of when you live in a van.

But we adapted. As Astrid likes to say, living in a Westfalia definitely makes a person more resourceful. “Resourceful, Felix, is a good life skill to have.”

And we are nothing if not resourceful. Take Wi-Fi, for example. When we need it, we go to a coffee shop, or find an unsecured network. When something needs recharging, like a phone or batteries for our headlamp, we plug in somewhere like the Laundromat. Sometimes we plug in at a power source outside an empty house. On the west side of Vancouver, there are a lot of big, brand-new houses with no one living in them– Astrid says they are “investment properties.” It’s one of her pet peeves. “Our city is becoming a playground for the rich. Enormous, empty homes,  when so many people who live here can’t find affordable housing. Our politicians should be ashamed of themselves,” she says. Over and over and over and over.

He goes on to talk about food and how they survive on food. And this is a point where I got really — my heart broke for Felix even more. He says,

But to be clear, I am not malnourished; not too badly anyway. I don’t think I’m suffering from scurvy or a vitamin deficiency or anything like that. We shop at the No Frills, where you can get really good deals on produce they’re about to throw out. And once in a while my mom will–

and we come to a place of morality again. What are your thoughts about Felix’s resiliency and all of the life skills he has?

Annie: Yeah, I think it’s amazing. I know in addition to what you’ve talked about, just when Astrid is in one of her Slumps and she might not get out of bed, there’s in the van things he needs to get to that he can’t get to until she’s out of her bed. So, he learns to plan around that and access those things when he can, when it’s not a rush for him to get to school. Or sometimes he can’t, and he has to go to school in the clothes he slept in or wore the day before. So, he has a plan for cleaning himself up at school when those situations arise.

He just amazes me in his ability to get to school every day and be the amazing kid and friend to his friends that he is every day with everything he has to go through.

As far as the morality goes… So, sometimes Astrid needs to shoplift so that they can have food or things that they need to survive in the van. Felix struggles with that and I think he struggles from knowing that it’s not right to steal. Also that he worries about his mom getting caught and what that might mean for them in terms of them staying as a family.

He keeps track of the things that have been shoplifted with a plan to, when they get back on their feet again, reimburse all the places where things have been taken. Food or other items. Again, I think that just speaks a lot to his character and his understanding of right and wrong, but his ability also to understand that situations sometimes demand us to be resourceful in ways that are the right thing to do. And sometimes they’re things that aren’t the right thing to do, but they’re not hurting anybody.

Jeanie:  Yeah. Just like his lies.

Annie: Just like his lies. Right?

The Importance of Friends (and toilets)

Jeanie: Yeah. He so wants to be a good person. You’ve mentioned several times that he’s a good friend and he has good friends. Dylan was a friend who went to school with when they lived in their condo. They used to visit each other’s houses and when they moved out of the neighborhood, he didn’t have access to Dylan anymore. He loves to go to Dylan’s house because there’s lots of food.

Annie: Right, and a warm bed and a warm shower. You don’t have to work to have them be available. They’re just there.

Jeanie: And Dylan’s family is so welcoming. Then he makes this other friend.

He and Dylan end up being friends with this other person, Winnie who I think of as the Hermione Granger of this book.

Annie:  Yes. I agree. That’s great.

Jeanie:  Hermione, as you may or may not recall, listeners, (was I bet you do), was kind of an annoying know-it-all at the beginning of the book. She sort of wheedled her way into Harry and Ron’s friendship and eventually into their hearts and Winnie Wu sort of does something similar. She’s sort of an annoying know-it-all, and becomes their friend.

I really love this scene on page 72 and 73 when Dylan and Felix first visit Winnie’s house. Her mom is a doctor; I think she’s an obstetrician. So, her mom is sleeping after a late shift and, Mr. Wu, her father, is there. Winnie is fixing them snacks, but she makes this terrible gluten-free bread.

Winnie held out a plate to her Dad. “You sure you won’t have one?”

Mr. Wu padded his stomach, “Wish I could. Still stuffed from a late breakfast. Honey, do you mind getting my water glass? I left it in the other room.”

The moment she was gone, he motioned to us. “Quick. Take out the cheese and hand me the bread.” We did as we were told. We wolfed down the cheese while he slipped the bread into the garbage, making sure to put other items on top of it. When Winnie returned he told a Give Peace a Chance. “Your friends are bottomless pits! I’m making them lunch number two.” He started pulling stuff out of his grocery bags. “Steamed pork buns, anyone?”

“Ba, what have I said about pork?” Winnie chastised.

“Once in a while I need my fix,” he said. I ate four of them. They were legit delicious.

Mr. Wu seemed like a very good dad.

Before Dylan and I left, I used the bathroom. It was white and clean and smelled like lavender potpourri. They even had a heated toilet seat.

I sat there for a long time, feeling the warmth radiate through my bum. And suddenly, out of nowhere, tears pricked my eyes.

I longed for a toilet.

And I longed for my dad.

So, I really love this because actually, toilets are a big theme in this.

Annie: Yes. It’s so funny if you think about really his priority was having a home would mean having my own toilet. For him, there were some struggles in the book for just being able to have that privacy and that space to use the bathroom, and go to the bathroom. For any of us, that’s a really embarrassing thing to not have that. And for a 12-year-old boy, even more so.

Jeanie:  Yeah. Not having a house, living in a van is hard at the best of times. Like if you’re out camping on family vacation, there’s already a little hardship that goes with that. Anytime that times get tough, it gets even harder. So, when Felix gets really sick, it’s just awful. When it gets really cold. When his mom’s in a Slump, there are just so many times in which it goes beyond just slightly challenging to downright almost impossible.

Annie: Yeah, and something that most people would not have to endure over a long period of time. If your house gets stinky, you can clean it or air it out. Sometimes in a small space like a van that’s not so easy.

A teacher’s responsibility

Jeanie:  But he hides it. He manages really to mostly hide it from the teachers at his school. Like Mr. Thibault is his classroom teacher, I think.

Annie:  He picks up on it a little bit. He asks, I think one of the days when Felix wasn’t able to change his clothing, he checks in, if everything is okay. But the teachers don’t, for the most part, know, or push really hard to find out more.

Jeanie:  As an educator, I can understand that. Like it’s really hard to navigate. How do you help somebody?

I guess what’s really hard to navigate, is how do you make sure that you’re allowing somebody to claim their full dignity, but also to make sure they have everything they need.

I would really struggle with a Felix in my class, because even if I suspected things weren’t quite all right at home, I would also want him to have agency over his life.

Annie:  Right. Yeah, and to know how to let him know that resources are there without having to feel like you’re prying or talking about things that aren’t just comfortable for him to talk about or that he’s not ready to talk about. Yeah, I agree. You do want to be sensitive and respect people’s situations and dignity like you said. I think that would be really hard as an educator for me, too. To know how to navigate that with him.


Jeanie:  Right. This book to me felt like such an important empathy read for adults who work with young people. Also for young people to really grapple with how easy it can be to lose your house or to be put in a predicament that it’s impossible to get yourself back fully on your feet.

Annie: Winnie, I think does a good job of modeling how to be a good friend around that. At one point in the story, I think she’s coming to understand that Felix might be poor. And she’s not, in her situation. Her mom is a doctor and her dad’s a nurse and she just, as kids can so well do with one another asks, “Are you poor, Felix?” And they try to talk about it a little bit and then she shares her food with him because so often he comes to school with no breakfast. Then having had no breakfast and then having no lunch to bring with him.

So, she just doesn’t make a big deal about it and just graciously and kindly shares her food with him. And it doesn’t try to save him or fix him, she just wants to know and just because she cares about them.

Jeanie:  There’s a real sweetness, a real tenderness in his friendships, and how they support each other.

Annie:  Yeah, absolutely.

Jeanie: There’s also great middle school dance kind of scene that happens, which is just so much fun. Readers you will enjoy that section of the book too.

Vermont’s Middle School Student Choice Award

This book is on, as you mentioned earlier, the Dorothy Canfield Fisher award list, which is our Vermont State Middle Grades Student Choice Award list. Recently in the news, we hear that a name change is planned for 2020. Do you want to talk a little bit about that process and what’s happening there?

Annie: Yeah, so I think people were ready to hear a decision about this. It’s been talked about for quite a while. I’m happy that we’re moving in that direction because I think, there’s a lot of different opinions out there. I think, once we learned that that name was serving to exclude some kids and some families from participating in that book award because of Dorothy’s Canfield involvement in the eugenics movement, that it was for me a no-brainer to look for some other name.

I think book awards, and especially student choice awards, should do all they can to include, and pull people into that experience versus serve to exclude.

So, the decision was made to change the name and Jason Broughton, the state librarian announced it at the Dorothy Canfield Fisher conference last week, and the plan is moving forward to when we announce the next list. When kids vote on this list in the spring, next April they’ll be voting on the current list that which includes No Fixed Address. They will also have an opportunity to vote on a new name for the award. So, they’ll be given some options.

And they’ll cast their vote for what they’d like the book award to be called from this point forward.

We thought that would be a great way to again, gives kids some ownership in the name and also, will make them more familiar with it, and maybe more excited about this book award as well. So, yeah.

Jeanie: That’s a great plan. So, my guess is that you just announced this year’s winner, which students in grades four through eight vote for. What’s the winner, from this past list?

Annie: So, Alan Gratz’s book Refugee won for this year. What’s exciting about that is this is the second year in a row for him to be a winning author. Last year’s Project 1065 won. Kids are really excited about his books and, so he’s a winner again. Second year in a row.


Jeanie:  That’s wonderful. When I was both a kindergarten to sixth-grade school librarian and then again in seven to 12, these books flew off my shelf.  You all put together such a lovely list. Some of my favorite middle grades reads have been on that list, including now Felix and No Fixed Address.

I wondered if there are some other gems on the list that you’d like to share with us.

Annie:  Yeah, so there’s a lot of great books, and I’m really excited about our new list.

We have some great Vermont author books on this year’s list.

We always like to try to put a creepy, scary book on the list every year. Small Spaces by Katherine Arden is a great creepy book, and also a great place book in terms of the setting in Vermont. This one’s going to fly off the shelves. I know for sure.

So, kids are kind of going on this field trip from Hell where they’re like stuck in this field and there are scary scarecrows and there is all kinds of mystery. It all revolves around this book that a woman was going to toss into a river and this kid grabbed it. Then strange things start happening. So, I can’t tell you more than that, but it’s going to be a really fun, scary book that I’m sure will fly off the shelves.

Jeanie:  It sounds like a winner. I know one of the Vermont authors is also Ann Braden.

Annie: Oh, yes. In her book, The Benefits of Being an Octopus, again, one of my favorites on the list.  And one that the minute I read it in a day, and I said, I could think of so many kids that I’ve worked with that this would be their experience. Again, it’s a book about a kid living in poverty, and living in a situation where her mom is not physically abused, but emotionally and mentally abused and stepping in, much like Felix to have to be the adult in that situation. and just take on a lot of responsibility as a middle school kid that shouldn’t have to be her life.

So, another resilient strong character that is struggling through some hard times in some, again, security around where home is and where there’ll be living and all those things that come with financial struggles and home stability struggles.

Jeanie:  I loved that book so much, and I’m really excited because Anne Braden has agreed to come to our Middle Grades Institute conference in June and she’s going to be doing some workshops and meeting with educators and meeting with the students who come there for camps.

Annie:  Oh, great. Yeah. I think kids will identify with that book so much. There are other issues too that I talked about and they’re like, gun rights and things like that. So, I think a lot of really interesting topics that kids will connect with and also be able to talk about and discuss with each other.

Another great Vermont author book is Just Like Jackie, which again, a girl who is biracial and lives with a grandparent, and is kind of trying to learn from him about her parents. But her grandfather is struggling with dementia or Alzheimer’s. And so she’s trying to cover up for him because again, that fear of what will happen to her family if people find out that her grandfather is not doing well.

Just so many of these books have such amazing, strong, resilient kids, and characters that I can’t wait for our students and our readers to connect with and learn about and hopefully identify with or learn from in some way.

Jeanie:  I was delighted to see that Amal Unbound by Aisha Saeed was on the list. That was a favorite of mine, and it’s set in Pakistan.

Annie: Yes. It’s one of those windows to the world about things that we might take for granted as, school and our day to day life isn’t always a given in other parts of the world. And so she’s a real hero for girls and the importance of education and risking her security and her family because of that.

She has to ultimately become an indentured servant for a wealthier man in her community. But while she’s there, she’s so strong in her beliefs about the power of education that she teaches another servant girl there to read who never had the opportunity to learn to read.

Jeanie:  I love those books with fierce characters.  She’s really fierce. I loved that one.

Annie: Front Desk is another great one by Kelly Yang, and again, this is about a Chinese American girl whose parents immigrated to the United States and live in California. They manage a hotel and she really steps up and manages the front desk. She’s good at math and her parents are trying to just make a living and make it in America. She again assumes a really important role in the success of the hotel and you also through her understand some of the prejudices and discrimination that Asian Americans experience. And then also some of the characters in the hotel. There is an African American man there who is experiencing some discrimination.

She starts to help readers understand the connection between prejudice and discrimination and how it cuts across a lot of different things in terms of our race, or socio-economic status and things like that.

So she’s a great character for shedding some light on that for all of us and for her own kind of understanding of that and wanting to do something about that. Her family tends to take in people that are either immigrating into the country and trying to get themselves established or experiencing some oppression in some way and they seek a little refuge in that hotel. And they help them out in the midst of their own, trying to get their feet on the ground and get established. So just the ability of people to care about each other even in spite of their own struggles and their own misfortunes in life.

Jeanie:  That feels like a great companion to another book on the list: Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson. That’s also about security and stability. In this case, there are some stories around immigration. Another book about communities that support you when you’re struggling. She always writes just the right book at the right time.

This is another perfect example of that. Six kids are allowed to come together in a classroom every Friday afternoon just to talk without any adults there. So, as they become more comfortable and more able to share and be vulnerable with each other, we learn that one has a parent that might be deported, and he’s not sure if he’ll ever see his dad again. Another boy is experiencing racial profiling out on the streets of New York and is scared because of that to be out there, walking around. Another has a father who is incarcerated and is soon to be released, and she’s been living with her uncle in the meantime. So, her anticipation and worry about how that reunification will be.

So, kids with a range of issues that are real and everyday.

For some kids here in Vermont, some of those might be things they connect to, but some of them might be windows to experiences that they might not have here.

Because of our demographics and because of living in a more rural setting versus an urban setting. So, I love those books that can kind of transport kids to places with other kids where they just might not have those experiences but can again build that empathy and that understanding and that broader lens to think about things.

Jeanie: Just like the kids in Harbor Me having a dialogue and finding common ground. Our Vermont students can have a dialogue with a book and find that common ground.

Annie: Absolutely. That’s a great way to say that. I love that.

Jeanie:  Well, I’m a huge fan of this book award program. As a librarian, I often had kids in small reading groups reading this book, teachers using them as readalouds, because they’re so good. It really refreshed their readaloud list and offered them something new.

I used to borrow books from the Department of Libraries book sets so that my kids could be reading these in small groups that could send you six or eight copies. So many of my students have loved this program over the years. So, just deep appreciation to the committee for continuing to provide a book list that is diverse and robust and has so many really beautiful stories on it.

Annie:  Yeah, it’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of great work and it’s… I think we’re working every year to be sure that it reflects a lot of different perspectives. There’s a lot of diverse points of view, representation of different kinds of families, of different kinds of kids, of different places in the world, things like that. And that we also have… try to have something for everyone.

I think every year, non-fiction can be a little bit of a struggle on this list. Just finding interesting non-fiction that’s not too much that wouldn’t be something kids would want to dive into a for pleasure reading. Because these are more pleasure reading kinds of books. But also the importance, that some kids are really drawn to non-fiction. So finding those non-fiction sometimes is our challenge.

We always usually like to have some graphic novels on the list because we know that those are super popular and we have some great ones on that list. The Prince and the Dressmaker in particular is just a wonderful book about acceptance and being true to who you are. It’s just great. It’s a great book and it’s flying off the shelves before it even got on the list. It was flying off the shelves in my library.

Jeanie:  It’s a beautiful book. I love that one too.

Annie: Yes. Again, I think kids choose books for all different reasons and I think the artwork in that book has appeal for a lot of kids. The characters are amazing and the story is really a beautiful, important story.

Jeanie:  Thank you to the whole committee, but to you also for creating a list where so many kids can see themselves. I really appreciate that. And they can get to know people unlike themselves as well.

Annie:  Right. I think it’s great.

Jeanie:  It’s been such a pleasure talking to you about No Fixed Address and about the awards list. Thank you so much for coming in Annie.

Annie:  Well, thanks for having me and thanks for choosing this book. It is a great one on the list.

Jeanie:  Yes. I hope everyone will check it out. You’re going to want to read it aloud to somebody, I know I did.

How to do a library diversity audit

7 tips for educators

Create a place where all students lives are seen and valued.

Ottauquechee students with new books purchased based on their research. High interest!

Expand the idea of what is possible in your classroom or school library.  Every student should be able to see aspects of their lives reflected in the books, media and resources they interact with. But they should also be exposed to stories from different perspectives.  Rudine Sims Bishop describes the role of diverse literature this way:

Books are sometimes windows, offering views of worlds that may be real or imagined, familiar or strange. These windows are also sliding glass doors, and readers have only to walk through in imagination to become part of whatever world has been created or recreated by the author. When lighting conditions are just right, however, a window can also be a mirror. Literature transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.

One way to do that is to have learners lead the inquiry charge by analyzing what books are in the collection, and whose stories might be missing. And then? They can do something about it.

One way to learn about library audits is by seeing one in action. Change-agent and book hero Becky Whitney shared how she launched a full-fledged library exploration with her students, the Diversity Detectives. Now read on to learn how YOU can do a library diversity audit. This is meaningful and critical work with students.

1. Remember the WHY

One look at this data and it is easy to remember WHY this work is so critical.

Becky reflects on the deep purpose of why it is important to expose students to a variety of texts from historically underrepresented and marginalized authors and topics.

There’s so many people in Vermont, in Hartford, who grew up in Hartford, and go to Hartford schools, and they still live in Hartford, and now they teach in Hartford, and that isn’t — it’s not enough exposure to the wider world.  If they don’t have those life experiences, then where else can they get that information? So students and teachers have to get it through books.

In fact, as author, educator, and producer Tananarive Due says,

‘Diversity’ should just be called ‘reality.’ Your books, your tv shows, your movies, your articles, your curricula need to reflect reality.

Diverse collections provide us with the opportunity to see ourselves in the books, and also to see others.  Study after study shows that reading (especially fiction) builds empathy and emotional intelligence.  Libraries then are key to developing these skills in the learners they serve, and developing robust collections that are representative of our larger culture are imperative!

But diverse collections have other positive impacts as well.  Studies have linked them to increased academic performance, social-emotional learning, career and college readiness, and engagement in reading. Diversifying your collection is a win on all counts, and this is real work that your students can do!

2. Find the leaders of this movement

Many activists, scholars, and educators have been leading the way in promoting a diverse books and the auditing of school libraries. Educators beginning this process can find allies and experts who are doing the work, daily, and sharing their knowledge. On Twitter, search out the hashtags #disrupttext and #weneeddiversebooks. Find authors, literacy advocates and scholars to connect with and gain inspiration from (find Dr. Debbie Reese, Dr. Lara M. Jimenez, Mike Jung and Lyn Miller-Lachman to start with!). Remember you’re not the first person to tackle this issue. Listen to the people who’ve already been putting in time.

3. Give students choice – then share with each other

Becky noticed that students were not uncomfortable with this project, and she thinks it has to do with the level of choice she was giving them. Students were able to pick the area they wanted to explore, and then learned from others. The focus could be based on their interest, but expand to include what they are learning from the data and each other.  Students could explore a topic such as gender representation in different ways: Do we have any female protagonists in the action/adventure section? Do we have any mysteries that have female protagonists? Or you could even look at the authors. How many women are writing sports books? 

This questionnaire focused on cultural responsiveness is one way to consider choices for your learners:

Here are some additional lenses through which students could choose to focus their work:

  • Holidays: which holidays are represented in our collection? Which ones are missing?
  • History: what historical events are represented?  Where are there gaps?
  • Science: what scientific innovations and scientists are represented?  Who and what might be missing?
  • Biography: whose life stories are on the shelves (gender, race, nationality, ability, sexual orientation, etc.)?  Whose stories would make our collection more representative of the larger world?
  • Sports and hobbies: what sports, hobbies, and special interest areas show up on the shelves?  What’s missing?

There are so many ways to examine the collection. Allowing students to choose their area of interest increases engagement and focuses their work.

4. Treat learning about diversity just like any other learning


Critical text analysis, creating and analyzing data, and deep dialogue are part of a robust education, and this project is an example of that. Becky used her normal way of communicating with families about this unit: the Facebook page, the blog, and the newsletter. This way, she wasn’t framing this work as “controversial” but just part of the library curriculum and learning. And in fact, examining a library collection for bias isn’t controversial.  Fewer than 2% of librarians surveyed find building diverse collections “unimportant,” while 94% find this work important or very important.  If you are concerned about negative parental feedback, host a parent night to provide information and answer questions or concerns. 

5. Find school and community partners in this work

library diversity audit
John Hall (kneeling, right), chair of the committee for Racial Inclusion and Equality in Hartford VT, joined Ottauquechee students for their discussions around inclusion and equality in their school library catalog.

A student-led library audit is an excellent opportunity for engaging local community partners! Becky shares:

I would recommend incorporating as many people as you can. It would have been really nice if I could have worked out a way to incorporate more people in the school, so that more people are aware of what I’m doing, and maybe — those conversations could trickle out into other areas. It’s like a conversation-starter if they’re studying something else. And then bringing in the gentleman from the Hartford committee, that was really powerful, and it helped open, potentially open a door for this further conversation about this entire idea in schools.

Students can work with experts to develop recommendations for weeding and adding to the collection.  Local historians, scientists, and professionals can share their expertise.  Discipline-specific experts in the school district might help students as they examine discipline specific books.  And Vermont organizations can weigh in on increasing diversity about specific issues.  Consider this list of possible partners:

6. Your students CAN do this

Book purchases based on students’ research and a desire to make the library a place where all students can see themselves and others. Click or tap to enlarge.

Many people think that younger students are not ready for this kind of inquiry and these issues. But Becky finds them eager and open participants and researchers in the work, and finds this age to be the perfect time to engage in inquiry and discourse:

It’s kind of like the whole goalkeeper thing, too, when you say to them “who’s going to solve this problem?” They’re like “us, we are, we’re going to solve this problem. We are the goalkeepers, we’re the game-changers. We’re going to solve this problem.” I just think that they are — they’re really, they’re very aware of what is right and wrong. They are very passionate about justice.

Studies show that kids are aware of differences from a very early age.  Work like this helps them make better sense of the world and build their capacity for understanding difference and taking action when they notice bias and inequity.

7. Remember to ask: what do the students think?

library diversity audit

Students are key partners in this work. They are learning to navigate information, representation, and are often grappling with their own identities and societal norms, pressures, and current events. Be sure to check in with them frequently, and provide many opportunities for reflection. Becky shared about her students:

I think that they are just so much more accepting. They see the world as this diverse place, and I just don’t think they have the hang-ups yet. I would like them — to go at the world with curiosity, and fairness, and — drive for justice. And if they leave the library with that, and the understanding that libraries are not just mirrors, and not just windows, and not just doors — but I love the idea I read about them being maps. All of those things.

But I’m hoping that this is going to spark them to be inquisitive and find — if I have questions, if I don’t know, then we’ll figure it out in the library. Let’s go figure it out.

Here are a variety of tools to have students reflect on their learning through an audit experience.

The role of the librarian as change agent

Libraries are often the places where societal shifts happen, are cultivated, and explored. As the hub of a school (and some would say, the heart), libraries foster critical thinking, empathy, connection, and imagination How about we add creating the world we would like to see?

Becky considers the role of the librarian in helping students understand what it might be like to not see yourself reflected in the library:

Especially in Vermont, since it’s predominantly white, you have to make students feel what it’s like to not have your story be told. If you don’t say that, if you don’t make them feel it, they won’t care.

These boys are looking around the room, and they see Hatchet and they see Holes, and they see My Side of the Mountain, and they’re just like “Oh yeah, look, white boys and dogs, they’re everywhere.” But people who aren’t white boys, or white girls — where are their stories?

So, they have to realize that that’s a problem. If they don’t get that that’s a problem, then — you missed it. Great that they can do research, great they can use Canva to create an infographic. You improved their skills. You missed the opportunity to create good humans.

Deep exploration and expansion of library collection is possible and can be lead by students. By becoming researchers of the library collection, students learn to look for biases, dominant narratives, and who’s story is missing at their own level, with support. This work opens their eyes to systems of power in our society in clear ways and allow them to learn and then follow that up with action.

How might you engage in an exploration of your school’s library and who’s story might not be included (yet)?

Ottauquechee’s Diversity Detectives in:

The Case of The Library Diversity Audit

Whose stories are being told in your library? Whose stories are being left out?

Look around your library. It is such a beautiful space. It’s filled with vibrant colors and flexible furniture, student art and encouraging signs and posters. Maybe it has a makerspace. And it’s stocked full of books of all shapes, sizes and colors. Every book imaginable is available somewhere, from a YA-version Hamlet, to Winnie the Pooh and The Big Friendly Giant. Plus of course, Catcher in the Rye. You’ve got some new classics as well: Twilight, Hunger Games, City of Bones. Your collection is amazing. Why on earth would you need a library audit?


What’s a library audit?

Librarians audit their collections for any number of reasons. Books like to live, they like to find readers. Part of library management is curating which books to add and which to discard.

But recently, quite a few librarians have noticed that their collections represent only a minority of voices in the communities they serve. Publishing has favored a limited number of narratives. Those narratives feature a large number of protagonists who are white, who are male, who are able-bodied, who are straight. Those characteristics taken together reference a small set of the population. Therefore, many librarians are finding it useful to use lenses of diversity in conducting their audits. As you buy new books, and as you discard older ones, having lenses of race, ethnicity, gender, disability, sexual orientation and economic class — even a subset of those lenses — can make a collection more useful to its community.

And why did Ottauquechee need one?

“I thought about my students. Do they see themselves in the library?”

The Ottauquechee School, in Quechee VT, is home to an amazing library space. Work tables cluster under a wall of windows. Beanbags and soft, plush reading chairs beckon invitingly. Laptops sit ready atop a tech bar, and a whiteboard asks students to write questions for an upcoming discussion. And Ottauquechee School librarian Becky Whitney wanted to make sure the collection was just as welcoming as the space itself.

I was inspired from the Deeper Learning Conference we attended in 2018, and in one session we attended, called Little People have Big Ideas: Implementing a Social Justice Lens in Elementary, with Jeffrey Feitelberg, elementary students did a classroom library audit. And I always felt, because I didn’t have my own classroom, that I couldn’t make systemic change. I only see the students for 45 minutes a week  — and then sometimes there’s holidays or vacations and field trips and then it’s two weeks until I see them. And I thought, “There’s really no way to make these great PBL projects in library.” It’s just not enough time to make it meaningful.

But when I went to that session, and the presenter talked about the kid’s classroom library, I just thought “I could do that with a very small segment of the library,” and then use it as a research project.  The diversity audit, it kind of takes my responsibility and my passion and melds them.

Then I thought, there are a few students of color at our school. Where are they reflected in the library? 

Becky knew that conducting a diversity audit of the library would not just improve the range of the collection, but teach students to be more critical readers. It would teach them to think powerfully about empathy and inclusion. So she got to work.

The Diversity Detectives are on the case


Becky began by showing this inspiring video of 11 year old Marley Dias, a Black 6th grader who wanted to see herself in more books. Marley noticed the books she was reading in school were mostly about “white boys and dogs”. She wanted more books with characters who look like her.  Her mother asked her, “Well, what are you going to do about it?” What Marley did was begin a movement demanding more racial diversity YA books. She went looking for #1000Blackgirlbooks, crowd-sourcing a collection of books with a Black female protagonist. She distributes the books to school libraries. The movement went viral, and kicked off a lot of powerful conversations for librarians around race in YA publishing.

But for Ottauquechee students, Marley’s activism provided a relatable example. Whose stories would they find in their own library? Whose stories did they want to find? Could everyone see themselves in the collection?

Dream of a Common Language

Becky introduced and unpacked the 4 Agreements of Courageous Conversations (Singleton & Linton)  to her students:

  • Stay engaged
  • Speak your truth
  • Expect discomfort
  • Expect non-closure

They would use these four guidelines as a way to move through tough topics together.

Becky also worked with a community partner in this project, John Hall, the chair of the committee for Racial Inclusion and Equality in Hartford.

And what he said was, “Just the discussion was the important and powerful piece. The research is great, buying new and diverse books for the library is great,” but I would have done that anyway. So, including the kids in the discussion, including the kids and giving them agency, and giving them a voice in what kind of library, whose story are we telling — making them realize, the lack of diversity not okay. 

Becky also defined specific lenses students could use in the audit. They could look for stories that featured diversity around race, religion, disability, and culture. Becky and her students chewed over the vocabulary together. They examined current data on the state of children’s book publishing and representation, then they moved into interest-based groups. They in effect became Diversity Detectives, studying Ottauquechee’s library collection for clues to inclusion.

Tackling the stacks…

library audit rubric

…and making the case

The Diversity Detectives studied different sets of books in Ottauquechee’s library, using their Courageous Conversations agreements and the diversity lenses. They worked on analyzing the data they collected, then they created infographics in Canva. Here is a single point rubric Becky created for assessing the infographics. Lastly, students will share the infographics with their whole school community in the hopes of continuing discussions of inclusion.

Now be the change you want to see in the world.

For librarian Becky Whitney, this wasn’t just a theoretical exercise. The Diversity Detectives’ research will directly inform the direction Ottauquechee’s library collection takes as it grows. Taking the infographics and associated research into account, she will be partnering with the Diversity Detectives on recommended new purchases and culls. She also reached out to a local bookstore, in Norwich VT. The Norwich Bookstore’s proprietor, Liza Bernard, has agreed to share with students how she purchases books and what influences those decisions. All part of making sure this exercise remains more than academic. Becky hopes to come home from Norwich Bookstore with about 20 new titles based on the students’ research. Conversations around inclusion and diversity will have real-world relevance in Ottauquechee. They will shape the library collection, and hopefully extend to other areas of students’ lives.

Teaching the library audit

Becky ponders how she has challenged herself to move beyond her own initial discomfort with addressing these issues in school:

I’ve forced myself to be uncomfortable. I’m forcing myself to be aware of the language I use. And I had never understood that as fully as I have now because of the amount of research that I did, to make sure that I knew what I was talking about. It’s kind of like the whole — white fragility thing, and the whole thing about “I’m uncomfortable talking about race, and so I’m just going to not really talk about it.”

Students are leading these conversations and growing their agency, voice and understanding of critical issues in the process. And teachers are giving them the opportunity to share power and critically analyze their library spaces.

What does your library collection look like? How do you choose whose stories are included?

Further reading:

#vted Reads: We Got This, with Kathleen Brinegar

Cornelius Minor likes to ask himself three key questions.

#vted Reads logoOne: what are his students trying to tell him? Two: What are they *really* trying to tell him, through their actions, and their silences? And three, what do these students — who he worries he might not be reaching — all have in common?

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and welcome to another episode of #vted Reads, talking about books by, for, and with educators. Today I’m with middle school equity scholar Kathleen Brinegar, and we’ll be talking about We Got This: Equity, Access, and The Quest To Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, by Cornelius Minor. We’ll unpack some of our own biases and ask you to think about yours, as well as look at the shiny shiny power of disruption.

And remember: watch your language!

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads, we are here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today, I’m with Kathleen Brinegar and we’ll be talking about We Got This: Equity, Access, And The Quest To Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, by Cornelius Minor. Thanks for joining me, Kathleen. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Kathleen: Sure! Thanks for having me, Jeanie. I am currently a professor in the education department at Northern Vermont University, Johnson.  I’ve been a member of the department for about nine years now, and I coordinate the middle and secondary teacher education programs. I’ve also recently stepped into the role of Associate Academic Dean, where I do a lot of work around helping students persist, through to graduation at the University. I’m also the co-editor of AMLE’S Middle School Journal, and I am a vice chair of the Middle Grades Special Interest Group. It’s a group of international researchers focused on middle grades education.

Jeanie: Excellent. Let’s turn to Cornelius Minor’s book, We Got This. The subtitle is, “Equity, Access, And The Quest To Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be.” And Minor begins the book with this powerful notion — and I’m going to quote him —

“If we are not doing equity then we are not doing education.”

Can you start by just telling us what this means to *you*?

Kathleen: Absolutely. To me, that is the mantra that I live by with my work, and it wasn’t always the mantra that guided my work, but over the past decade, my work has really become about equity. I truly feel that if the systems that we have in place to educate, particularly young adolescents since that’s my focus, if they’re not doing their job of supporting every single adolescent, then I don’t think we’re doing our job to support *any* adolescent. So, I think, the equity lens is — to me — the most important lens through which we can look at and measure success in education.

Jeanie: That’s really our mandate as public educators. Right?

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Jeanie: It’s not just to teach the kids who are easy to teach.

Kathleen: That’s right.

Jeanie: It’s to teach all the kids.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Jeanie: I love that Minor gives us some really strategic tools to do that. He says this other thing that really touched me. He says, “Labels can’t cover our full humanity.” And on page 10, he says,

“We need tools to build a bridge between the discourse of our profession and the children that populate the communities that we serve.”

And it seems to me that he gives us some of those tools to build that bridge between our profession and the specific kids that show up in our schools.

1. The graphic organizer concept

Kathleen: What I love about Minor’s book, in general, is his focus is on listening to students, and really what that means. How it’s more of a true authentic listening? And a listening to not just what students are saying, but what their actions are telling us, what their silences are telling us. It’s really paying attention to who they are as whole human beings. And not just as, even, learners or students in our classrooms.

His tool on page 22, in particular, he shares the Listening To Kids organizer. I find it to be such a powerful tool in terms of thinking about not just kids in general, because I feel like sometimes… I know when I was taught to plan my instruction, it was really a focus on, “What are the developmental needs of this age group?” Which is certainly significant and important, but it leaves students out who may not fit into the categories of development that we typically use in classrooms.

Listening to Kids Organizer, for Kathleen Brinegar interview

Jeanie: In fact, Minor gives us a caution, doesn’t he? He says, it’s sort of a “Don’t judge a book by the cover” kind of caution. But he says, be careful of the archetypes and stereotypes we apply to take kids. That those shortcuts —  while they feel like we need them in order to do our jobs — actually get in the way of us really knowing students well.

Kathleen: Absolutely. I say that to my pre-service teachers here. I say,

If there’s one thing that’s going to really give me pause about recommending you for a teaching license, it’s if you are teaching to blank rooms. Or rooms of who you think should be in the room, not who you want to be in the room. As opposed to teaching the actual individual human beings in the space you’re in.

To me, that’s the key to instruction.

Jeanie: That seems to be the key to meaningful implementation of Vermont’s Act 77, too? That we really know our students. It also seems to me like if we’re not listening deeply to students, we’re not knowing students well, that’s where our implicit bias can *really* show up.

Kathleen: Absolutely. And, and to me it’s the difference between asking students, and listening to students. Because I think we have mechanisms in schools where we attempt to solicit student feedback and student thoughts? But I don’t know how much of their thoughts and their feedback actually manifest themselves into the transformation of our schools. So, the way that he really operationalizes that concept of listening?

To me that’s really about, again, that authentic piece of thinking about individual students with every decision that you make in the classroom.

The way he frames his organizer is this: he uses four different students each time he’s planning a piece. And he thinks about what those four students need in relation to:

  • What are they trying to tell him?
  • What are they trying to tell him, again, through their actions, their silences?

And he takes some notes about each of the students. Then he takes it a step further and starts thinking about:

  • What do these students — who I may not be reaching — what do they have in common?

To me, that’s when it really helps get at looking at those biases, those stereotypes. Are there components of those students’ identities that I may be completely missing, yet, that might be a pattern in my behavior as a teacher?

I’m thinking about: what are the ways to engage these students, both as this group of students that I’m missing, as well as individuals. He asks you to think about practices that you’re going to implement and try.

2. Listening deeply in action research

I love the way that he approaches his teaching as a constant action research project. That everything that he does, he acknowledges he doesn’t know whether it’s going to work. It might work, it might not. It might work for this student, but it might not work for another one. So his graphic organizers are a way for him to keep track of what’s working and what’s not working, in the way that any social scientist would study any environment in which they’re working.

To me, it really positions the educator as one of the most significant educational researchers.

Jeanie: That makes me think of Jamilla Lyscott, she said this thing that really resonated with me. She said, “Perhaps it’s not your students who are disengaged, but your pedagogy that’s disengaging.”


In a lot of ways what Cornelius Minor is doing is putting the ball in our court as educators and saying,

Okay, you’ve got disengaged kids. What are *you* going to do about it? How can you think differently? How can your instruction be more responsive to their needs so they engage?

Minor is specific about asking us to disrupt the systems in classrooms. He says on page 31,

Systems don’t change just because we identify them, they change because we disrupt them.

He particularly points out the way in which education can be a little colonialist.

3. The effects of colonization

Kathleen: Sure, absolutely. No, he references in the book that when he talks about the colonizing aspect of education, that it’s an act of violence to students if we do not think about their humanity. So, when we think about colonization, and we think about this notion of coming in, assuming that we have the answers. That we can do things better. That way that we view the world is the way to view the world.

If we approach education in that way, and our students are left out of that conversation and left out of that equation, that in essence we’re erasing them, as he references. Not only, he talks very specifically about the students, but I’d argue, we’re also erasing the communities in which these students live and exist, if we’re not centering our education in what those communities — and therefore what those students  —  value.

Jeanie: Yeah. He has this quote that I think is really powerful. He says,

Colonialism has everything to teach and nothing to learn.

It strongly reminded me of the native Hawaiian word for teach, it also means learn. It’s a reciprocal term, in that the same word means both, to teach and to learn. Because the culture believes that teaching and learning go hand-in-hand.

If we, in our classrooms, pretend we’re the only one with something to teach, and students’ job is only to learn? That’s a kind of colonialism. We’re missing out on the richness that comes from students lived experience.

Kathleen: Absolutely. To me, it’s sort of the center of everything about equity work. I feel like I’m on this “permanent equity journey” because I feel like I could never define myself as an expert in equity. I don’t believe you *can* be an expert in equity. To me, equity is all about that reciprocal learning that takes place.

Every time I engage in a conversation with someone around equity, regardless of how they feel about it or what their perspective is or their background or their level of comfortability with it, *my* notion changes and grows and shifts. And I see that as central to being an educator. To view your work with students that way.

Every conversation that you have with a student or a parent or a community member, should be shifting and changing the way that you think. About supporting that community and that student, and creating a space for their values and perspectives to be at the center of the work.

Jeanie: It’s so interesting because teaching is one of the few professions where we experience what it’s like to be in a classroom deeply as students. And it’s really hard not to carry forward that notion of what we experienced. Yet, good teaching is a constant inquiry. We’re constantly inquiring into how to get better, what our students’ needs are, who our students are. Minor reminds us that just because we work with young people, it doesn’t mean that their understandings of the world aren’t valid. Or that they don’t have things to teach us about how the world works and what life is like in it.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Every human experiences the world completely differently. And therefore I feel like every opportunity you have to get to know a human in this world us another opportunity to sort of open your own perspectives on what the world has to offer and the way that we can, you know — as cheesy as it sounds — that we can continue to hopefully make it a better place. The only way you can do that is to, again, going back to Minor, is to listen, listen to the people around you.

Jeanie: Yeah. He even says that we need to look beneath the surface of the behavior of… My, do I wish I had this book when I was a brand new educator.

Kathleen : *makes strangled noise* I say that all the time.

4. Teaching the kids you have (not the ones you wished you had)

Jeanie: I love on page 80, he says,

Kids are simply trying to cope with all the input at school, home, hormones, and the world are handing them.

And he’s got this spectacular tool on page 38 and 39 called The Thinking About The Kids In My Classroom graphic organizer.  I wonder if you could unpack how you might use this with pre-service teachers or with teachers that are in the classroom.

Thinking About the Kids in My Classroom organizer for Kathleen Brinegar interview

Kathleen: Sure, absolutely. I’m actually going to be using it with college professors. Next week, I’m working on a workshop on our campus for our faculty. The title of the workshop is “Teaching the students you have and not the students you want.” The theme of the workshop really came out of this notion of, all of us as educators had our own educational experiences and, largely, those educational experiences drive the way that we then teach. What worked for us tends to be for the most part, what the strategies we employ in our classroom. Yet, the reality of it is, is we’re not teaching a classroom of us.

We don’t have 20 versions of ourselves sitting in front of us, but instead, we have 20 completely unique individuals in front of us.

So, the “Thinking about the kids in my classroom” protocol allows us to really think about the kids. For me, I often think about it from the perspective of– he poses it as who are the children that I worry about. In many cases, the children that I worry about, or even if I think about my pre-service teachers, the pre-service teachers that I worry about are often the ones whose experiences I understand the least. And because of that, I don’t always know the best way to support them or reach them. Or help them achieve, in my case, their goal of being a teacher.

But in the middle grades classroom, it’s whatever the goals are that our students have.

He proposes this notion of listing those students and then classifying them into groups of:

  • What kind of worrying are we doing about them?
  • Why are we worrying about them?

Again, I often have my pre-service teachers use graphic organizers such as this one when they’re learning how to plan lessons for the first time. What that does is when they’re in practicum experiences, it allows them to say, who are the students that you know and feel like you have a sense of understanding, and who are the ones that you don’t? Again, he uses worry. Sometimes I use it differently in terms of who we feel like we know and don’t know yet, and why is it that we don’t know them? In terms of thinking about: what is it?

In his graphic organizer, he talks about, for example, you may have students that are chronically late or absent or the kids that never seem to get it or the kids that talk all the time. Then he uses his action research model to then think about, well, what are strategies that I can use to help these students?

And what’s really powerful about this process is oftentimes it forces you to take a strength-based instead of a deficit-based perspective with your students.

Jeanie: That is so powerful, and you are very kind to say the students should worry about, or he uses the term worry, and you used another term. I think about this in terms of who are the students that drive me crazy!  We know as teachers that sometimes we have learners that for whatever reason we find particularly frustrating, and what frustrates us about them. Then he asks us to think about what would help them be successful, and then turn the page over — and here comes the really powerful part:

  • What are the barriers or obstacles?
  • And how might I remove those obstacles so that they can be successful?

I love that again, this puts the ball in our court. What can we do to eliminate the barriers? It forces us to have empathy for kids that maybe had just been driving us a little bonkers.

Kathleen: Absolutely, and sometimes I think it forces us to make the realization that *we* are the barrier, which is really hard to come to as a teacher when you know that you’re putting your heart and soul into your work.

But sometimes you’re an unintentional barrier to your students’ success. I think that can be a really powerful uncovering, that a graphic organizer such as this one can help you get to.

Jeanie: It took me a long time as a new teacher to realize that when I raised my voice, it got high and squeaky and sounded stressed.

Kathleen: I think we have the same voice.

Jeanie: And kids picked up on that and they picked up on that energy. The most impactful thing I could do was whisper. It took me too long to figure that out, and so something like this I think could have helped me go to even deeper truths? About things that I was doing that got in the way of student learning. And how I might eliminate those barriers and become a better educator.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Absolutely. I had a pre-service teacher recently plan a lesson, and I had him use a graphic organizer similar to this in terms of thinking about his students before he planned it. Well, first I had him plan a lesson before it. And then I had him re-look at that lesson using a graphic organizer such as this one. What he realized after diving into his students and really focusing on some specific students and planning the lesson, was that his lesson took out the mode of learning that the majority of his students identified as needing, to be successful.

So, he was able to revamp the entire lesson. When I asked him afterwards, he said, the most successful part of my lesson, and the part that we carried on twice as long, is the part that came out of what I had written in my graphic organizers my students need. It’s just such a powerful example of how it really does make a difference.

Jeanie: Yeah. It could be really concrete.

I need to try building movement and talk breaks into the class

is one example he gives on page 42. Or,

I can find ways to utilize their voices in the classroom.

That’s really powerful, instead of just expecting them to be quiet and movement free.

I can work to eliminate the expectations that kids need to master a thing on the first try by creating a lots of low-stake opportunities to try things.

These are powerful strategies for any educator and the fact that he’s identifying these because of student needs is really… I don’t know, it gives me chills a little bit. And I love that you’re going to be using this same strategy with your teacher educators.

Kathleen: Yes. Well, I think as teacher educators it’s extremely important for us to model the teaching that we want to see in our classrooms. As soon as “teaching” came out of my mouth, I was like, it’s not quite teaching. It’s about the type of people, the type of educators we want our students to be, are the type of teacher-educators that we need to be. I still lesson plan as a teacher-educator. And I still revise lesson plans. I still take notes on my lesson plans. I’m actually going to use some of Minor’s graphic organizers to help me because then it allows me to show my students and say,

“Here’s what I was thinking I was going to do with you all first. Here’s what I learned when I completed this graphic organizer around my own teaching and you all as learners, and here’s what it looks like now. How would you have responded to each of these lessons?”

I think the more we can be intentional about that, I think the better our future teachers will be.

Jeanie: That’s just such a powerful way to make your practice public.

Kathleen : Yeah, I think we have to. I think we have to.  I’m using the example of teacher-educators, but actually, I think educators need to make their practice visible to their students. I think, particularly in our Act 77 context, if we want our students to become quote-unquote “expert learners,” we have to be transparent about the decisions we are making as educators that influence their learning.

5. We Got This: Power

Jeanie: That leads me to this next concept that I think Minor really gets at to in the book which is power. There’s this wonderful quote from page 81 that I just adore. I keep quoting because his writing is so powerful.

Listening to me is not the extent of the learning that kids can do in the classroom. Learning is something that kids have to elect to do and I as teacher can make it easier or harder.

That’s so powerful. The idea that when we are just asking kids to listen to us, that’s a singular modality that doesn’t meet their needs. But also, it makes us think about the reciprocal notion of listening to them — like the back and forth of listening.

I wondered if you wanted to talk at all about his idea of creating a space where kids feel safe, means creating a space where they share power with us? But it doesn’t mean a space that’s out of control.

Kathleen: Right. Absolutely. I think in some ways it’s a space that is co-developed and co-constructed in terms of, again, it goes back to that transparency as educators. Letting students know about the types of decisions that they need to make as educators in order for everybody in the classroom to feel safe and respected. But then use the voices of the students to decide what that actually looks like. So, posing those sorts of questions to students around:

  • How do we want to go about exploring this guiding question?
  • What are the different ways that you can demonstrate your understanding of whatever the concept is that you’re teaching?
  • What are the modalities?
  • And even opening it up to: do we all need to be doing it the same way at the same time, all the time?

Finding those different ways for students to have that ownership and be able to advocate for what’s going to work for them.

Jeanie: So, building in opportunities for voice and choice, whether that’s negotiated curriculum or having kids decide what product they’re going to produce to demonstrate their learning on a proficiency target. I was thinking, I’m reading Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams’ book, The Standards-Based Classroom. One of the things they say is that they went to a conference where somebody pointed out that not all group sizes needed to be the same, and what a revelation that was.

But I think that’s a revelation for many of us, that you can have kids working solo, in pairs, and in small groups within the same classroom. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model. But if you’d asked me as a teacher, I would have been like, “Well, I want six groups. So, I’m going to just divide the class.”

Kathleen: Either we’re going to count off or I’m going to make groups specifically so that I separate people who need to be separated! We had a really powerful experience in student teaching where I was working with a small group of students and they needed to work within groups within that small group. A group said, “We’re friends, but we work well together. Can we try it?” And I remember being terrified.

Friends can’t work well together. They’re never going to get anything done! And then they did. What they produced was one of the most beautiful products that I’ve ever seen. It came with a thank you note after saying, thank you for trusting us. Thank you for allowing us to work together because we knew we had the potential to do it, but nobody had ever given us the chance before.

Jeanie: Yes, absolutely. The other way that Minor does this, is through class meetings. And he has a whole section on how to show kids you hear them, through class meetings. And co-construct those class meetings so it’s a gradual release of power and control. So the students have more and more of a role in that.

I know many of our Vermont educators have town meetings or class meetings that allow for that as well, and I applaud them.


Kathleen: What’s interesting about Minor’s model that I had never thought about before, is he talks about those meetings being like 15 minutes in length, right?

He’s like: look, approach one issue, one thing that’s happening in your classroom and take that, 10, 15 minutes of time to really work with your learners about approaching it. About how you can rethink it. Get their feedback, get their perspective, and then you can go right back into the curricular learning that’s happening in the classroom.

I point that out only because I wonder if sometimes teachers in schools hesitate to use a town meeting model or something of that sort, because of the pressure sometimes that’s felt around time and the value of time and not wanting to take away from the curriculum. But Minor has found a way to do it in a way that accomplishes the goal of including student voice and student decision-making in a way that’s doable in any curriculum.

Jeanie: He also really talks about scaffolding. So, starting with something really low stakes at the very beginning of the year. In his case it’s eating salads in the lunchroom. And then he moves on to the kids kept encouraging him to see The Rock in a movie. So, he watched a movie and he engages in a conversation about that, but then he moves onto like, negotiating conflict. And it’s actually based on a book that they’re reading. You start low stakes at the beginning of the year and then you can talk about things that are curricular or harder or more intense, as you build the capacity to share that space together.

Kathleen: Absolutely. I love his salad example because he talks about the fact that he’s wanting students to eat, and to think more nutritiously about what they’re selecting and choosing to eat in the cafeteria. That it doesn’t need to be time happening during the day. But his salad conversations happen while he’s walking to lunch with students.

What I love again about his work is that he views every single minute he has with students as a way of building, of listening to them, building their confidence, building their strategies and their strategies of being able to advocate for themselves and think deeply about the little things in their lives, which is what they eat in the cafeteria, and the big things in their lives, such as how they manage peer conflict, which we know is a critical part of middle school.

Jeanie: It’s not him preaching at them about this. It reminds me of my friend Mike Martin. He often says:

the one doing the talking is doing the learning.

So, by listening to students, he’s also providing an opportunity for them to do the learning.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jeanie: On page 94, he has another graphic organizer. We’re going to link them in because they’re freely available. They’re available on the publisher’s website. The one on 94 is a blueprint for shifting your mindset from punitive to proactive. I think it’s particularly a powerful tool to use with students. It asks us to think about what we need to be successful, how the teacher can help with that and how students can help with that.


Kathleen : Absolutely. I’m teaching a methods class right now for middle and high school pre-service teachers. It’s their first methods class that they’ve had. Right now we’re looking at a reading on classroom management from Teaching Tolerance. It’s actually titled Reframing Classroom Management. Its whole premise is on this notion that the goals of teachers should not be to manage. It goes back to our conversation about Minor and power. If we’re managing, it assumes that we are in positions of power and our students don’t have voice or choice.

I’ve actually been thinking about using this graphic organizer in conjunction with that reading with my students because to me, that’s what it’s all about. Moving from punitive to proactive.

I think a lot of the ways that we traditionally define classroom management leads to punitive consequences for students.

So I thought about using this with my students to model it for them. It starts with, “We will be successful this week if we:” and I feel like you could do that with *any* community. I felt like I could do it with some of the adult groups that I work with. “Our work will be productive this week if we…” And to get us to think about collaboratively, we can help each other do that by et cetera. So yeah, this is one that I flagged as well as something I want to use.

Jeanie: Well, and it seems so important because it’s about not compliance, but community.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Jeanie Philips: It gets us to think beyond our outdated notions of what a successful classroom looks like.

And that feels really important to me because actually some of the best, most rich and rewarding learning environments I’ve been in? Aren’t pretty. It’s a little messy. It’s a little loud. It feels a little chaotic.

I have to do that internal judgment of like, okay, pay attention. What’s really going on here? Look beneath the surface, what’s really going on here? Minor says something that is just like, I want to put it on big banners, and parade it around schools. He says,

I am not interested in raising a nation of well-behaved children.

Kathleen: I loved that one too.

Jeanie: Just this idea that our job is to help kids learn. It’s not to keep them neat rows, raising their hands all the time. I think that sometimes we get in our own way around thinking about what learning looks like. This graphic organizer asks us to really deeply think about what does success look like, and let go of the rest. If we really focus in on what successful learning looks like in the context of *this* classroom with *these* kids and *this* learning target, and we’re specific about that? It might be noisy.

Kathleen: Absolutely. When we were talking about this article, one of my students said,

If I focus on the noise level in my classroom, I am going to be ignoring my students who grew up in an environment where noisy is normal. Where noisy is accepted, where noisy is just the way that they present themselves.

That’s huge for me around this question of equity, right?

When we think about anything to do with compliance, it assumes that someone else’s way of being is better than somebody else’s… than another individual’s.

6. Disruption & “unconditional positive regard”

Jeanie: Yes. He also really asks teachers to be thoughtful about how they deal with disruptive behaviors. He has on page 99 this beautifully thoughtful way of thinking about what I say with my voice, and what I say with my body.

A page from We Got This, by Cornelius Minor
Click or tap to enlarge

Another great moment of learning that I wish I had had sooner in my own teaching career was realizing that I could have a script that allowed me to interrupt behaviors that were getting in the way of learning without having to rationalize it to my students. It could be quick and simple. I could use my whole body — my body language, my vocabulary, my short sentences — to get the point across without laying a guilt trip on kids, making them feel bad without negotiating with them. That I could just be really plain about it.

He asked us really to think about that. What do you say? What does your voice say, and what does your body say? It reminds me, and thinking about that in advance, allows you to stay strengths-based and positive. Recently, I was talking to Christie Nold, and she brought up something that Alex Shevrin-Venet uses, which is, “Unconditional positive regard.”


That I can develop a script that allows me to have unconditional positive regard for my students so that our relationship is intact, but still allows me to disrupt behaviors that are out of place in the classroom.

Kathleen: I love that notion.

Jeanie: Right?

Kathleen: Yeah. Absolutely.

As educators, we make so many in-the-moment decisions, and every single one of those decisions has an impact on at least one other human being.

So to think ahead of time about what our responses might be, could be, should be in any given situation, certainly would make me feel better about going back and managing a middle school classroom again. It just gives you that reflection time to think in advance of the power that your actions have on students. So, really thinking about those consequences in advance.

Jeanie: Yes. Libraries are a free and *nowadays* noisy place. When I was a school librarian, in my 7- 12 library, occasionally, as one might imagine, a kid might use a naughty word. And I really have zero tolerance for naughty words for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into here. But I found that the quickest, easiest way to deal with it was just to say “language” or “Watch your language.”

If I said more words than that, I just sounded like a teacher from Charlie Brown anyway, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That was just the quickest, easiest way to deal with it. I think that often quick and easy, firm and kind is the way to go.

Kathleen: Absolutely. It sort of opens the door I found, and for me in my classroom, I think we all have those things that we focus on is teachers. For me it was those comments: “He’s so gay,” or use of the word “retard.” Those sorts of things. For me in my classroom, those were the things that just shook my whole body. What I found was the same exact thing that you did, that one word of, “Language…” And what I found is that my students started saying *that* to each other outside of our classroom space. And I don’t think that would be the case if, as you said, it became this big back and forth conversation. Then I think it would become a power struggle as opposed to just a norm.

Jeanie: Yes.

Kathleen: Right?

Jeanie: Absolutely. If I said something like that, I would want to be called out on it.

Kathleen: Yes, absolutely.

Jeanie: I would want to be reminded to be my best self.

Kathleen: Right, right. Without being embarrassed. And without becoming this big production! Without forgetting that you’re a human being who makes mistakes. Or in some of my students’ cases, they had never even heard why those terms were problematic. But just using one word allows them to bring the conversation to “why,” versus me going at them.

7. We Got This: Curriculum

Jeanie: This book is not very long. It’s less than 150 pages. The last thing that Cornelius Minor really addresses, I think, so beautifully is curriculum. I want to talk a little bit about that before I ask my next question. He says,

My job as a teacher is not to teach the curriculum or even to just teach the students. It is to seek to understand my kids as completely as possible so that I can purposefully bend curriculum to meet them.

He goes on to think about harmful curriculum is a curriculum that doesn’t see students, that isn’t flexible, and it doesn’t grow him as a teacher. But that powerful curriculum is relational. It allows you to relate to kids and their lives, and allows them to grow into what the future holds for them. I wonder if you wanted to think about his conception of curriculum, and its purpose. And how they use it for good and not harm.

Kathleen: Absolutely. One of my favorite things that you sort of allude to is his notion of: curriculum should benefit our students now. In the moment. Our answer to why am I doing this should never be “because you’re going to need to use this at the future.”

To me, we are educating our students at a point where they are who they are, in that moment. If our curriculum, as he says, doesn’t bend to meet them, who they are in that moment, then I question its effectiveness.

I know in my own learning as an adult, I don’t choose learning opportunities that don’t feel relevant to what I am thinking about in the moment or what I’m focusing on or what I need. So, I very rarely choose a professional development opportunity by, “I’m going to need that one day in my life or in my career.” I think as, as educators, we owe it to our students to approach it in that same way. I appreciate that Minor, again, he creates, provides some graphic organizers for teachers to say, if you are given a mandated curriculum, here are some questions to ask yourself about how you can bend that curriculum to be appropriate for your students.

I feel like in many ways we’re lucky in Vermont because we have fewer schools providing us with scripted curriculum and that sort of thing. But there are constraints in our work as teachers, and Minor not only gives us permission to subvert those, but he gives really some concrete strategies for how to do that.

Jeanie: He says pretty plainly, people want to learn more about the things they care about. So, it behooves us to help our students connect to what we’re trying to teach them and care about it. Through relevance or by making it relevant to their lives as they are. Which reminds me of John Dewey, and “education isn’t preparation for life but life itself,” but it also just reminds me of how we can situate content and skills in ways that feel real to students.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

It goes back to the choice and voice and allowing them to advocate for approaching the proficiencies or learning outcomes, learning targets, however, you’re framing your curriculum.

But it allows students to say, I have a way that I can demonstrate this.

I have a topic or a theme that I want to spend some time with that allows me to get at that. Sometimes we try that, and it doesn’t work, right? What I have to keep reminding myself and reminding the educators that I work with, is it doesn’t work not because it’s not an effective strategy. It doesn’t work because our students haven’t been brought up in an educational system that gives them that power and that voice. So the first few times we throw that out to them, it’s no wonder that it’s not going to be effective.

Again, it goes back to this notion that he talks about a lot that we all know is going to come from Piaget of scaffolding. We have to scaffold choice as well sometimes for students. And acknowledge that in one classroom of individuals, we may have some students who are ready for that sort of full-on, self-directed choice. And we have other students who need us to scaffold it for them.

Jeanie: So you’re making me realize that these strategies are meant to be used in concert with each other.

Part of knowing how to make the curriculum bend to the needs of our students is to know our students well.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Yeah.

Jeanie: Back to the beginning. This was such a powerful book, I think for the individual practitioner in the classroom. This book can help you really change the systems in your own classroom to better meet the needs of your students so that your teaching is more equitable. I guess my question for you is how did these ideas apply to Vermont’s specific educational landscape in where we have this move towards personalization and flexible pathways, and proficiency-based education and personalized learning plans?

Kathleen: To me, the most significant point of connection is none of those elements of personalized learning — proficiency-based assessment, personalized learning plans, flexible pathways — none of that works without first listening to students.

We can create as many flexible pathways as we want, but if they are not the flexible pathways that our students want, then we’re not changing the system at all.

We are changing the structures in terms of providing various opportunities for students. But in no way are we making an educational system, in general, that listens to our students any more than the old system did. So to me, that’s the bottom line around all of this, is listening to our students.

Jeanie: Yes. I think this book is really powerful for classroom use. I just would love to see a whole school using these strategies, because I think the students in that school would be so empowered in their own learning. It would just seem to be such an amazing thing. I think this could be a great all-school read. Because if everyone was applying these principles, it would make such a difference for students.

Kathleen: Absolutely. As a pre-service or as a teacher-educator, that is my biggest fear when I send my students out into the field.

We ground our teacher education program in equity, and then oftentimes students go into the field and we don’t necessarily have the systems in our schools that support teachers work towards being equitable.

Absolutely. I think if we did more as whole-school communities around reading texts, around equity, around engaging in conversations, around sharing what we know about our students — I don’t just mean sharing what we know about who our students are in our classrooms, but what we learn, and know about our students as human beings, and grounding our work in the values that they and their parents bring into the community? Without that I don’t know that we can make the changes that we need for our systems to, I guess to transform. We can change, but we can’t transform.

Jeanie: I think one of the things we need to do is shift those conversations. So, then when we’re having those conversations about our students we’re really shining a bright spotlight on their talents and their strengths, and the shiny brilliance that every kid has.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Jeanie: Sometimes we have to dig for that shiny brilliance. Sometimes they’ve locked it off a little bit, or made it hard to see because of their experiences in the world, but every kid has that as their birthright gift.

8. Unpacking our own biases in Vermont

Kathleen: Absolutely. One of the questions that I like to pose to educators is, to think about the various identities that we hold as human beings, right? Whether that is around gender, around race, around sexuality, around socioeconomic class. Whatever those pieces are, and to really think in your school environment, which of these identities, which components of each of these identities are privileged? And which components of these identities are not? And how does that make you rethink the way that you approach, not just your individual students, but the larger policies that exist in your school, the way that you talk about kids, what you value as a community, what your culture values.

Jeanie: Yeah. It can be so hard to interrupt those implicit bias, the biases that we hold. In fact, the first step is just being able to see them.

I became aware of a couple of years ago of the bias I have around language. That I really held this belief, hold it still in some ways, that people who speak standard American English are smarter. That’s simply not the case. There’s no difference in size or ability of the brain if you speak standard American English versus vernacular. I have to constantly remind myself of that internally in my brain.

I have to interrupt those judgments that I make, and it’s really challenging. The first step was just noticing, just seeing, having that pointed out to me, by me really.

Then the second step is to start to interrupt that so I can see the content of what somebody’s saying and not judge it by my own notions of grammar and syntax and sentence structure.

Kathleen: Absolutely. I can give you an example from my own practice as well. For me, I had to reframe what it looks like to be engaged in education.

I’m coming at that from the perspective of thinking about my own students. And thinking about the fact that being late to class doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want to be there. Or you haven’t tried really hard to get there. Or placing significance on family events over being present in a classroom setting or an educational setting.

And really having to check my own biases about growing up in a family where school came first, and if something was going on at home, we deal with that later. That’s not a norm that exists in every household. For some households, the necessity is what happens in our home has to be figured out first. It doesn’t mean my students who are coming from homes that come from that orientation don’t value their education just as much as I do or my parents did. It just means that they need to step back for a moment and then step into it when they have the capacity to do it because it’s so important to them that they need to be wholly present.

Jeanie: Yeah. I so appreciate you being vulnerable enough to spell that out.

I think that education, being an educator is vulnerable work and one of the most vulnerable things we can do is check our own biases and assumptions.

Really look, dig in there and it can be uncomfortable, but it’s also can be the most rewarding work you do. It can transform your practice in powerful ways.

Kathleen: For sure, and I think it goes back to, again, that listening to students, because my students, I think all of our students are sending us messages about what our biases at our stereotypes and things are. We just need to watch them and listen to them and they’ll help guide us in terms of figuring out what those are.

Jeanie: Listen to your students. You heard it here. Kathleen. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this fabulous book, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be.

Kathleen: Thank you. It’s been fun.

Vermont schools have a transportation equity problem.

When I travel to schools around Vermont, I hear many versions of the same concerns:

  • Going anywhere from our school costs hundreds of dollars.
  • We want to take students into the community, but we burn through our budget by October.
  • Transportation funds are running low (or are gone).
  • We know it is so important to give our students community and field experiences.
  • Technology can support this work but nothing takes the place of getting students out into the field for hands-on experiences and opportunities.

How is this supporting the promise of Act 77?

Specifically, the promise “to extend and validate learning experiences in our communities, campuses and beyond”?

It’s a complicated issue in Vermont schools, but it comes down to two things: what we know works best for students, and equity. So let’s take a look at some of the transportation equity issues Vermont schools are facing — and what a few rural educators have to say about them.

What we know works best for students,

First of all, why do middle level students need to have access to community and field experiences?

(Hint: it has to do with engagement, motivation and transferable, lifelong skills). Let educator Morgan Moore sum it up for you:

These allow authentic audiences for our students. Seventh and eighth grade students are much more motivated to research, write, present, etc. when they know they will be presenting outside of the school. In a K-8 school we provide many leadership opportunities for them in the building, but after nine years they need new, challenging, audiences. They also learn more while out in the community, by interacting with other students and places. It is imperative that they are on college campuses, at fish hatcheries, local libraries, ordering food on Church Street, etc. In all of these experiences they learn about the resources in their community and state, and apply school skills to real life experiences. After thirteen hours in Burlington for Vermont History Day last Saturday, students went home and immediately started researching for next year’s project — that is not the norm in a typical social studies classroom.

-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher, Burke Town School

And what we know inequity looks like.

Reducing isolation and increasing access — across the board

Vermont is a rural state. Many students live in rural locations, with limited access to transportation and activities beyond schooling. Teachers often marvel how many students have never been to Vermont largest city, Burlington, or even to a park in their own towns.

This impacts our students living in poverty most of all.

Families who can provide transportation to extracurricular activities do so. They bring their kids to lessons, activities, and sports regularly. This is not available to all of our students, creating an opportunity gap for learning key transferable social skills, growing social capital, developing interests and purpose in the community. Providing increased transportation equity to field experiences for students can reduce some of this isolation and the associated opportunity gaps.

The majority of our student population have limited resources to plan experiences beyond the local area. Most families have two parents who work. As a result, children (esp. in rural areas) do not have access to a variety of experiences; they are limited to what is available in their particular community.

Students of all ages need a wide variety of experiences to build background knowledge, language development, an understanding of the wider community, and an understanding of people and places outside their limited communities.

-June Murphy, literacy coach

Reducing dependence on parents — and teachers — hauling students

Many times we hear that students getting out into the community in support of their project-based and service learning experiences hinges on teachers driving students to these locations. This is, of course, incredibly generous of these teachers, but can put them in a difficult spot, driving students in their personal cars. Do we want to place this extra burden on our teachers? Often, teachers doing this is the only way they can make these experiences happen.

At The Cabot School, in Cabot VT, a trio of middle school students have the opportunity to spend school time working on one of Vermont’s oldest organic farms, Molly Brook Farm, over in West Danville, as part of the Cabot Leads program. West Danville is about 10 minutes from Cabot, by car. The students describe the experience as invaluable and engaging. Farmers Myles and Rhonda Goodrich teach students math, biology and economics on the farm — and the only way for students to get to Molly Brook is through the good graces of Cabot’s school librarian and her electric blue hatchback.

We also frequently call on parents to provide transport. This comes with its own set of concerns. Insurance, safety, and yes, equity. Does every parent in your class have the ability to take time off work? Do they all have their own vehicles in good repair?

Also, many districts require parents to undergo a background check, complete with fingerprints. It’s a long process, and a complicated one and extra expenses for the district to pick up.

So, classes with more parents available and willing to do this can go more places.

How is this equitable? Who might it leave out?

Buses are expensive

Buses in rural locations can be prohibitively expensive. In school budgets, teachers can blow through the allotted amount for field trips by October, and often with one trip. Sometimes schools only budget for one field trip a year for each class. Do we really want just one performance, presentation, community visit, field experience and opportunity per year? How does that limit the experiences of our students, especially those who have a one somewhat traditional field experience (such as a museum visit or theatre performance) in the spring?

What about collaborating with other students regionally? Or presenting at state-wide conferences such as Dynamic Landscapes and Vermont Fest?

This spring, three schools took part in the first ever Battle Physics tournament. The tourney was located at Green Mountain Union HS in Chester VT. Now, Leland & Gray students wrote a grant application to support their tournament entry, and it included bus rental. At the same time, The Dorset School, in Dorset VT, provided funding for student bus transport. Two schools, two school budgets, one big disparity.

Incredible learning opportunities cost money for transport.

Buses are very expensive and we are not able to take frequent enough trips to allow students to pursue personal interests and flexible pathways, within their school day. Therefore, it means that only students who have transportation can truly pursue flexible pathways. I wrote a grant to address this challenge, but then found out that buses are only available within school hours – so we are not able to use the buses for trips that end later. Being in a rural area, it often takes us 1-2 hours to get to a destination, which leaves us only two hours at most to be in a location (often this is not long enough and we need to leave conferences or experiences early, or miss them due to timing).

-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher

Often, schools have a limited budget for transporting students on longer trips by bus. Many classes rely on parent chaperones/drivers in order to plan field trips. This is an obstacle for some classes. This also poses inequities from class to class. If there is a grade level where there is a “pocket” of parents who are available to chaperone AND have larger vehicles to fit more students, those classes tend to have more field trip experiences than others.

-June Murphy, literacy coach

Arranging transport shouldn’t be a teacher’s responsibility.

We know authentic audiences want to hear from students. We know students benefit from sharing their learning widely. But all the time and effort it takes teachers to plan opportunities for their students to share their work makes my head spin. Fundraising and grant applications take hours of extra work. Work that takes teachers away from teaching and their personal lives. All of this impacts the sustainability of teaching as a career.

Coordinating and leading these experiences is no small task. Adding “find funding” to this list makes these experiences only available to students where the teachers take this on.

The promise of act 77

The two tenets of act 77 are flexible pathways and personalized learning plans. According to Vermont’s Agency of Education, flexible pathways (bolds mine):

Flexible Pathways Flexible Pathways are any combination of high-quality expanded learning opportunities, including academic and experiential components, which build and assess attainment of identified proficiencies and lead to secondary school completion, civic engagement and postsecondary readiness. Flexible pathways allow students to apply their knowledge and skills to tasks of personal interest as part of the personalized learning planning process. This does not refer to a finite menu of pre-selected pathways from which a student must choose, but also includes school-based course offerings, virtual or blended learning opportunities, community or work-based learning opportunities, and post-secondary learning options among others.

If we are designing ways students can have equitable access to expanded learning opportunities, we must address all facets of the system.

And transportation’s one of them.

If we had access to affordable transportation students could regularly meet with community partners, engage in field activities, present at conferences, visit other schools, see performances, art, etc. A teacher could truly create captivating experiences at the start, and during lessons, that would engage middle school students. Students would be interested in learning because they would see the real life applications and be able to present to real audiences, win awards, prizes, recognition, etc.

-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher

Leaving students out of learning experiences based on access to transportation is a serious problem. Plans for Act 77 implementation have to include district-wide plans for transportation.

No really: #fleetofvans

The hashtag #fleetofvans first emerged in a #vted Twitter chat about equity and flexible pathways. Lindsey Halman of UP for Learning, tweeted #fleetofvans as she highlighted this problem and ignited a hashtag, but really, a way of thinking about this issue.

Is a fleet of vans the answer to the transportation issues faced by Vermont students?

Imagine if all Vermont schools had a fleet of vans — or affordable buses — at their disposal.

Imagine if those vans and buses could be booked by students as part of taking the reins of their opportunities.

I’ll leave you with a quote from teacher Kim Dumont, from the Ottauquechee School, in Quechee VT.

In order to provide authentic, meaningful learning experiences to all children, regardless of location, transportation is crucial. Children in rural areas would particularly benefit from having readily accessible vehicles at their school. Without vehicles at their disposal, valuable opportunities may be out of reach. In this case, investing in a fleet of vans is truly an investment in our future.

Districts, schools boards, communities, and school leaders: how could *you* address the transportation equity problem in Vermont?

Equity and the in-school business

Mettawee Community School, in West Pawlet VT, loves tradition. They’re a small, tight-knit school in a rural area, and home to two very important traditions: the annual Christmas holiday fair, and the sixth grade trip to Boston. And in order to address inequity in one tradition, they developed a unique solution that tied the two together. Mettawee’s sixth graders staff pop-up stores at the holiday fair, selling handmade items. To make the items, students can draw a loan from the in-school “bank”, of up to fifty dollars. They learn about contracts, and legal signatures, and take it very, very seriously. They know the bank must be paid back by 11am on the day of the fair, and that at the end, all profits from the day are pooled together and divided equally between all students as Boston spending money. 

Economics, equity, pop-up stores and group tie-dye. Here’s how it all fits together.

Leveling the field trip experience

Students in the rural Vermont towns that make up Mettawee’s school district eagerly anticipate the annual sixth grade trip to Boston. For some of them, it’s their first time in a big city. But as anyone who’s chaperoned a field trip can tell you: students have access to wildly different amounts of spending money. And that can cast a pall over the experience. It’s an equity issue. So Mettawee’s sixth grade teachers put their heads together and figured out how to level the field trip playing field in an authentic, learning-appropriate manner. Teachers tell the sixth graders:

“You will all have the same amount of spending money. What’s more — you will earn it.”


As students advance through each grade, the annual Christmas holiday fair is the event of the season. It’s a genuinely joyous occasion. It features an intriguing rummage sale of goodies ranging in price from twenty-five cents to a full dollar, and a hallway of sixth grade pop-up shops. The shops all feature handmade items: tie-dye shirts, candles, birdhouses, dreamcatchers, baked goods, wind chimes, jewelry and tea lights. Holiday carols pipe gently from a side room, and each classroom of Mettawee students takes turns perusing the available goodies. Many students do their full holiday shopping that morning, finding trinkets and baubles at incredibly reasonable prices for family members. Teachers and community volunteers even provide on-site gift wrapping.

But as every small business owner knows, in order to sell product, you have to make product.
And that’s where the bank comes in.

Educators Patty Lea and Alison Zylstra serve as the in-school savings and loan department. Each group of sixth graders can borrow up to fifty genuine American dollars from the bank, with which to produce their products. However, the process is very formal, and ties to learning goals. Students first arrange an interview with the two bankers: a specific time and date to sit down together and talk business. The students must arrive with a business plan, specifying what they’re going to produce, what materials they’re going to need, how much materials cost, what their sale prices will be, the name of their business, and their proposed advertising. Lea and Zylstra review the business plan with students at the appointment, asking questions and prompting deeper consideration.

Once the business plan meets with the bank’s approval, everyone signs a formal contract, specifying how much is being loaned, and that the students understand they have until 11am on the day of the holiday fair to repay the funds. Not all groups take out the full amount on offer, and watching the students realize they should take out only as much as they really need, is part of the process. So too, is the idea of the contract itself. For most sixth graders, this is the first exposure they’ve had to contracts, and a lengthy discussion on the nature of legally binding contracts and who and why you enter into them is provided free of charge. Students sign their names — and for many of them, they have to practice their signature in advance, to meet with approval.

After that, they get to work.

The students have time during the school day to work on their holiday sale products. Part of the bank’s requirement for a loan is that each group must maintain a calendar, indicating when they’ll be working on which parts of the process, and a journal, documenting what they accomplish at each workshop. Additionally, the bank arranges for consultations from the library media specialist on the language of a good advertisement, and from former sixth graders, who offer advice to the new crop of business owners.

The sixth graders have all shopped and participated in the holiday fair as younger students, and that makes them aware just how much is riding on a successful table.

December rolls around, and excitement builds for the holiday fair. The sixth graders begin setting up their tables early that morning, laying out their wares, setting up their signs, putting up decorations and eagerly awaiting the crush of first customers. Shoppers begin to arrive, and the fair gets underway. It’s a mad whirl of students digging for treasures, punctuated by the sharp tear of wrapping paper and the squeak of scotch tape.



Eleven a.m., the golden hour, approaches. Every so often a student darts away from their table, cash in hand, hot-footing it over to find Lea. Lea is the day’s banker-in-charge. She counts out their cash and checks it against the loan paperwork. Then double-checks it.

As younger students who have shopped the student marketplace, these sixth graders are ready. They’ve eagerly anticipated their turn behind the tables, and they’re ready to take it on with the utmost seriousness. And inevitably, every student that we talked to said, “It’s so much more difficult than it looks.”

But it works.

At the conclusion of this year’s holiday fair, all student groups repaid their loans. Then  the bank gathered all the remaining profit into one pool and divides it equally between all 25 sixth graders. This June, when Mettawee Community School descends on the Boston metropolis, each student will be carrying thirty-three dollars in spending money. And they’ll all know they earned every single penny of it.

“Trickledown empathy”

Students learn a ton about economics over the course of the unit, and pick up a number of transferable skills. But they also learn something else: empathy. Says Patty Lea,

“Many kids will say that they have more respect, at the end, for their self-employed parents. Because they have small businesses. And they understand that it takes a lot of organization, time, patience and money, to run a business.”

How do you address field trip equity?

Very few units can school can accomplish so much. Sixth graders learn necessary economics and math concepts. They engage in authentic and purposeful learning that levels the socio-economic playing field on a class trip. And their efforts culminate in a community-level tradition that sparks pride, ownership and efficacy for the whole school.

Educator Patty Lea offers some advice to other teachers looking to try out the in-school bank experience.


Tell us about your school wide traditions that fuel student motivation across the years.

#vted Reads: The 57 Bus with Caitlin Classen

#vted Reads logoIn this episode of #vted Reads, we talk about the 57 Bus by Dashka Slater. Based on a real-life incident, this book chronicles the experiences of two young people before and after an act of violence.  We explore both perspectives of a specific crime: the victims and the perpetrators.  Along the way, we learn more about gender non-conformity, the challenging reality of living with neighborhood violence, the problems with the juvenile justice system, and how to construct an amazing non-fiction story.

So glad you are joining us for this episode of #vted Reads. Let’s get to the conversation.

Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to Vermont Ed Reads. We’re here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators.

Today, I’m with Caitlin Classen, and we’ll be talking about The 57 Bus by Dashka Slater.

Thanks for joining me, Caitlin.

Caitlin: I’m thrilled to be joining you.

Host, Jeanie Phillips, left with Caitlin Classen, right and two copies of the book The 57 Bus.

Jeanie: Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Caitlin: My name is Caitlin Classen. I am the librarian here at Albert D. Lawton Intermediate School in Essex Junction, meaning I work with about 365 sixth, seventh, and eighth-graders on a daily basis.

Jeanie: I just want to say we’re in a back room in Caitlin’s library, and it is one of the most charming middle-school libraries, or libraries in general, that I’ve ever been in. It’s really lovely here.

Caitlin: Thank you so much. It’s all kid artwork and kid-driven.

Jeanie: Yeah, it feels fantastic.

Caitlin: Thank you.

Jeanie: So The 57 Bus; we were just talking before we got started about how much we both adored this book. Usually, when I am doing a book, especially one written for young adolescents, I start with a summary. But this book is a little bit different, and so I’m going to ask you to just introduce us to the characters.

Would you start by introducing us to Sasha?

Caitlin: Yes. Both characters are super interesting and super compelling just as individual people. Sasha is very interesting to me as an educator because I learned a lot from this character.

Sasha is agender.

Basically, what that means is that Sasha does not identify as either male or female. They had originally started by identifying as genderqueer because they weren’t sure how they wanted to live their life. Sasha prefers the pronouns they or them.

It was a really interesting read because this kid is super smart and clever, and goes to these interesting schools for kids who are independent thinkers, and has these really supportive parents. I believe the dad’s a kindergarten teacher and the mom also works in education. It said as a bookkeeper at a private school. An only child.

What’s so cool about Sasha is that they dress in an interesting manner even for a big city like Oakland.

While Sasha wears a lot of bow ties and top hats and newsboy caps, they said at first it was a lot of steampunk influence. Sasha then adds the layer of putting on a skirt. The parents mentioned that they saw their child go from pretty reserved. They could blend in, pretty good at being invisible, and then made this decision, I want to say at like 15 or 16, to start dressing differently. The parents start worrying like, “What’s going to happen to our kid?” It’s a pretty progressive city, but there’s still that worry about how are people going to receive my child. I think that’s a big catalyst obviously of how we learn about the 57 Bus and the incident that occurred that afternoon.

Jeanie: You bring up so many interesting things for me, and I want to make sure our readers or our listeners know that this book is nonfiction which means even though I said the word “character,” Sasha is a real person.

Caitlin: Correct.

Jeanie: And Sasha’s parents are real people.

The introduction to Sasha in this book is such an empathy-building experience because you get to see Sasha’s journey as they figure out that they’re agender.

As they explore like, “Who am I really and what do labels mean?” Page 33 in this book, in particular, is just such a primer on the language of gender.

Caitlin: Correct it’s a whole different world. I think if you’re someone who is… I don’t want to say lucky enough to be born knowing how you identify, but in a way, it is a sense of luck that you don’t have to go through that battle of like, “Who am I, and what does this mean? How come there’s not a label for me? It’s not easy for me to fill out a census that says male, female, other.” I think that page 33 is just helpful for educators and adults everywhere, but especially if you’re working in a school because you never know what kind of kid is coming through your door.

Jeanie: I’m going to read a little bit of page 33. The title of the chapter is called, “Gender, Sex, Sexuality, Romance: Some Terms.”

Because language is evolving rapidly, and because different people have different preferences, always adopt the language individuals use about themselves even if it differs from what’s here.

That’s powerful.

Caitlin: I agree.

Jeanie: To me, that speaks of self-determination.

That as humans, we have the right to decide how we want to be referred, what we want to be called.


Caitlin: I agree. I think as educators, even though we work with children, people know who they are and how they want to be identified. It’s a very powerful page to read.

Jeanie: It continues on with terms for gender and sex, which is almost a full page. Agender is defined as:

doesn’t identify as any gender

and that’s how Sasha identifies. It continues on with terms for sexuality and terms for romantic inclination.

I really appreciate how it breaks these down to terms for gender, terms for sexuality which is different, and then terms around romantic inclination, which is also different.

It breaks them apart in ways that we don’t often do as a culture.

When we had… a couple years back, we had some transgendered students at my former school, Green Mountain Middle and High School, and it was a confusing time for faculty.

I feel like reading Sasha’s experience would have been really helpful.

The resource that was super helpful to us was Outright Vermont.

Caitlin: Yes, we love, we had Outright come last year and do a training with us. We love Outright Vermont.

Jeanie: Would you talk a little bit about what that looks like?

Caitlin: Sure. I’m sorry I can’t remember who it was, but it was a wonderful woman who came and did this presentation for our faculty last year. We also have students who are transgender and who are questioning and we want to be as supportive as possible for our kids. They basically broke this down, right.

How you identify your gender is not necessarily how you’re going to identify with your sexuality, and that doesn’t necessarily correlate with who your romantic interest will be in, and just gave us the language and the safe space to have those conversations because this is a new language for a lot of educators. 

I work with some people who have been in this building for almost 40 years. Things have changed a lot in the last 40 years.

Teaching yourself how to respect your students is how communities thrive.

I think we expect that respect back from them, but our kids are super open-minded. I think it’s where educators need to do a little more work to make sure that they feel like they are in a safe and inclusive space that understands who they are.

Jeanie: This is one area in particular where I feel like we can really learn from our students.

When I was at Green Mountain, it was Circle, the gay-straight alliance, that was really those kids knew so much more than I did. Having conversations with them was an education for me.

I’m thinking about What’s The Story? a couple of years ago. A group of students there created an incredible video, I think it’s called Breaking Binary, which I’ll put a link to in our transcript because that’s a really powerful student-created piece on gender and gender identity.

The other thing you touched upon that I think is really interesting is Sasha’s parents. This feels to me like a great book for parents of transgender youth or agender youth or genderqueer youth to read because Sasha’s parents really want to do the best thing.

They’re really supportive of Sasha; and yet they worry and they mess up. Later on in the book, when something happens, which we’ll get to, Sasha’s mom reverts to the old pronouns, forgets to use “they.” I just had such empathy for her.

Caitlin: I agree. She’s really trying, and I love that the mom says, “I’m trying and I still make mistakes, but I’m trying to be supportive.” I think that’s just so human. I think we want to say, “This is how you identify. Cool, you have my full support,” and you can and you are gonna make mistakes. I think it’s just owning that and being, like, catch yourself, fix it, acknowledge it, and then move on because that’s how you’re going to learn.

Jeanie: So we have Sasha. Super smart. I think Sasha is also not neurotypical.

Caitlin: Agreed.

Jeanie: I believe they’re on the spectrum.

Caitlin: I agree.

Jeanie: Sasha goes to a charter school across the city of Oakland and has this rich friend group. I mean, reading about those friends and the creative games they play and their like almost cosplay, they’re dressing up, is so fascinating. They’re such a quirky and interesting group of kids. Sasha’s got this really lovely home life and the kind of the kind of thing we want for all of our students.

Let’s now introduce Richard. Tell me a little bit about who Richard is.

Caitlin: Richard is pretty much the opposite of Sasha in most ways. Sasha came from a supportive, financially well-off area of Oakland, and Richard literally lives on the other side of the city. He comes from intense poverty and a lot of violence. This poor kid has had so much trauma in his young life; lost friends, had family members murdered, killed by gun violence in their neighborhood. Your heart breaks for this child.

Richard was born to a very young mom. I want to say she was like 15. The dad left the picture soon after, in and out of jail. This kid grew up in kind of an unstable environment.

When one of his aunts is murdered with the gunfire, the mom ends up taking in the two cousins. While his mom works, she’s working 12 or 14-hour days, they still don’t have a ton of money. This kid just kind of starts to get lost, not even in the system; just starts to get lost in general because Richard starts to skip school a lot.

I think it said Richard, when this event happened, was a junior in high school and had been to three different high schools. That’s already unsettling… and does not seem to be a bad child. I think that’s what we need to keep in mind is that they were both children.

Teenagers may seem big and scary, but they are still children.

Richard was a good kid. He took care of his little siblings and showed up when his mom needed him to show up. He even went to one of the guidance counselors at school and asked to be put in a program that helps with kids who have a lot of absences, like unexcused absences from school. Then– I can’t remember what her name was. I can look it up. It starts with a W. Basically said kids don’t really ask to be put in that program because it’s easier to put freshmen and sophomores back on the path towards being successful in high school, and Richard was already a junior when these events unfolded.

Jeanie: Is it Kaprice?

Caitlin: Yes. Kaprice Wilson? Yes. Kaprice Wilson.

Jeanie: Caprice loves him.

Caitlin: Yes.

Jeanie: Kaprice runs a special program for kids as you mentioned. She really gets these kids and what they’re what they’re up against.

To be fair, Richard’s mom is really trying hard and she adores Richard. He comes from a place of love. He’s well-loved, but resources are thin.

Caitlin: Time is one of those resources that she just doesn’t have that. If you’re working 12 and 14-hour days, you just don’t have that ability to be there with your kid as much as you would like to be.

Jeanie: He has a complicated relationship with his stepdad when she remarries. There’s a lot of children in the house, and the violence that he experienced isn’t just about those around him. He experiences violence from an early age when his aunt is killed, and then a friend is killed, another friend is killed, and he is in the juvenile justice system and has no one to confide in, no one to comfort him when his good friend is killed on the streets from gun violence.

Then there’s this scene where Richard is in a store and he’s robbed.

It says, I’m on page 98,

It was the end of October, two months into Richard’s junior year. He and his cousin Gerald were on their way to Cherie’s house to kick it with her brother and they stopped in at a liquor store to get something to drink. That’s when Richard ran into a boy he knew from around the way.

A few minutes later, two guns to his head.

Gerald was walking in front, so he didn’t see what happened. But suddenly Richard wasn’t wearing his pink Nike Foamposites anymore. Richard’s face was crimson, the way it always got when he was furious.

In Oakland, it’s called getting stripped. The kid took his wallet, money, phone, shoes, coat. Gerald wanted to go back, find the kids who did it, but Richard told him to keep walking.

He’d been caught without his people, that’s all there was to say. But at least he hadn’t been killed. Rumor was that the boy who robbed him had killed people.

Caitlin: Again, still just a kid.

Richard is just a kid. I can’t imagine having gone through something like that. That’s traumatizing enough, let alone having that heaped upon all of the loss and violence he’s already experienced.

I was, in this article that I was reading, The Fire on the 57 Bus in Oakland, which is from the New York Times Magazine; it’s written by Dashka Slater, the author of the book. There was also a line about that. He kept thinking about one of those robbers and Richard knew one and had thought that was a friend of his. So he also had this layer of deep betrayal because you think you’re safe but you’re not safe.

Jeanie: I think that that lack of trust permeates Richard’s life in school as well. He’s not sure who to trust. He gets in trouble at school. He ends up getting arrested at school later on for what happens next.

School doesn’t feel like a safe place, his neighborhood doesn’t feel like a safe place. It’s almost like Richard’s always living on edge.

Caitlin: Yes, because nothing is ever safe, and I can’t imagine how that stress must impact you as you’re growing. To just always be wary and to never feel like you have a place to land that you can trust.

From that same article, Richard is a kid who also was trying to advocate for himself, like he wanted to be in Kaprice’s program. He had said to her he was falling behind in school, which is when he started skipping school because he wasn’t understanding the content that was being taught. He himself wanted to be tested for learning disabilities. It wasn’t an educator saying, “I think we need to help this kid.” It was him saying, “There’s something wrong and I’m struggling, and I need help with that,” and that’s heartbreaking.

You feel for this kid, and he does commit a terrible crime. He hurt someone, but it’s still a child and a child’s way of thinking.

That’s what this book keeps bringing back, and I think this is really beautifully told story about how these were two people in the world and that right and wrong is not black and white. It’s that human condition that we forget when we look at these punishments in our justice system too.

Jeanie: One of the things that’s been coming out in the news a lot that I thought of as I was rereading this book was about the toll that racism takes on bodies, right? Thinking about African-American women are more likely to die or experience trauma when they give birth.

Caitlin: I just read that too.

Jeanie: Similarly, Richard lives in this environment, and you had some statistics earlier about incarceration rates for African-Americans in Oakland.

Caitlin: I do. For children in Oakland.

Jeanie: For children, yes.

Richard lives in this environment where the expectation is you might be shot or put in jail. You’re more likely to be shot or put in jail than probably finish high school.

Caitlin: Which is terrifying. That statistic said,

African-American boys make up less than 30% of Oakland’s underage population but account for nearly 75% of all juvenile arrests, and each year dozens of black men and boys are murdered within the city limits.

Jeanie: Even if he doesn’t know those numbers, that’s the daily fabric of his life, and the toll that must take.

Caitlin: I can’t even begin to imagine.

Being a librarian, I feel like I’m in a unique position also with my students to build empathy and understanding through literature because this is a life that I cannot imagine. But The 57 Bus put me in that position and makes you look at the situation from both Sasha’s point of view and Richard’s point of view and their families because what happens affects so many more people than just the two people on the bus.

Jeanie: Let’s get to what happens because from the beginning of this book, you know what happens. Sasha and Richard live in two very different sections of Oakland. What happens to make their worlds collide?

Caitlin: Sasha and Richard, like you said, come from two different parts of the city, but their paths cross on the 57 Bus. Sasha takes The 57 Bus everyday -it’s part of their commute to and from school – I believe for more than an hour, commutes for more than an hour, and is really comfortable taking the bus and has done it for a long time.

What Sasha is wearing on the bus is a key component of what happens. Sasha’s wearing like a shirt with a bow tie and happens to have a white tulle skirt on.

It’s a look, but Sasha’s never had any problems before and so had been reading a copy of Anna Karenina, which I love, and had fallen asleep on the 57 Bus and was sleeping in their seat.

Then Richard gets on the bus with, I want to say it’s two or three friends, two friends, and one is his cousin, Lloyd. Lloyd had been waiting for him after school also, so when Richard was dismissed, had been kind of egging him on and they were kind of in this heightened state. These three teenage boys get on the bus, and Lloyd’s trying to flirt with this girl in the front, and they’re just being really loud and rowdy, and then they notice Sasha.

They have a lighter, and goading each other on, they’re flicking the lighter, right? Like it’s a joke.

They light the lighter once and the skirt doesn’t catch on fire, so they’re laughing and then they flick it again. Then Richard’s getting egged on to light the lighter again, and I think it’s the fourth or fifth time that it catches.

What Richard expected was that it would be like a little flare up and Sasha would pat the flames out and it would be this funny incident, but what they weren’t expecting was that tulle is a fabric that lights like a candle.

In an instant Sasha, is surrounded by like white-hot flames and wakes up screaming, “I’m on fire I’m on fire,” and the bus stops. Sasha is on fire.

I can’t even imagine the terror you must feel. You were sleeping on the bus and you wake up in pain and… gets off the bus, and two passengers help Sasha put the fire out, knocked them to the ground and put the fire out, which is traumatizing for them as well. In this time, the boys get off the bus and they take off. Sasha is left on the ground in the cold November air with burns from thighs to calves, second and third-degree burns, and is walking on the sidewalk in shock and is calling their dad, Carl, talking to their dad on the phone.

People were just horrified and devastated.

I honestly don’t think that Richard knew what was really going to happen, and that’s that connection to the teenage brain and how teenagers think and how their minds work.

It’s a really horrible incident because the part of me that’s a teacher is like, “You know you’re not supposed to play with a lighter. That’s so ridiculous and so stupid. Why would you even risk it?”  But then when you hear Richard talk about the reasoning behind it, I believe him.

Jeanie: You described Sasha’s point of view really well.

One of the things I think that comes out is that Sasha’s friends are shocked because Oakland is such a queer-friendly place. This kind of thing doesn’t really happen.

Caitlin: In broad daylight. All right, so this is page 117 and it’s a chapter called Watching.

After he jumped off the bus, Richard strode away with his hands in his pockets, trying to look casual. Then he heard Sasha’s screams. He stopped, turned around, went back.

He stared at the bus, mouth open.

The bus had begun to move again. The driver, still unaware of the fire, was continuing along his route.

Richard ran after the bus. Suddenly, it lurched to the curb. Passengers spilled out, yelling and coughing. Another bus, the NL, had pulled up behind it, and after a moment, Richard turned around and climbed on. A few seconds later he got off again and walked back to where Sasha now paced the sidewalk on bare, charred legs.

He ambled past, snaking his head to stare at Sasha, then turned around and walked past Sasha again, still staring. Then Jamal and Lloyd got off the 57 and the three of them half walked, half ran to the other bus. That night, Jasmine noticed that Richard seemed sad.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

He wouldn’t tell her.

Jeanie: Oh, that’s so powerful.

Richard has made this terrible mistake.

Caitlin: Terrible mistake.

Jeanie: He’s horrified. All the emotion of what happened, like his own guilt and his– he just doesn’t even know what to do.

Caitlin: And because I honestly don’t think he thought what happened was even a remote possibility.

Jeanie: I am a mother and I remember, when my son was young, talking to a mother whose kids were older, and she said, “Oh, you think it– it’s hard now,” like, “Mothering a toddler’s really hands on, but when they get older, it’s even harder because all this stuff is happening in their brain and you can’t access it.”

Right now, you know, “Okay, what you need is food, what you need is sleep,” but later you’re like… and so Richard, I feel for Jasmine, his mother. She can’t get in there to see what’s going on.

Caitlin: She clearly knew that something was bugging her child and he wouldn’t talk about it or didn’t have the language to talk about it.

Jeanie: Yes.

The emotional life of adolescence. We don’t give them enough credit for what they’re dealing with.

Caitlin: The world is big when you’re little.

I think people forget that teenagers are still just children, and the world is a big and scary place and it’s hard to talk about difficult subjects especially when you’re still trying to wrap your head around them.

Jeanie: I think this is a good place to talk about Dashka Slater’s way of writing this book. She’s a journalist and she’s read about this in the newspaper, this event that happened. this fire on the 57 bus, and she dug deeper. The section you were just talking about explaining what happens on the bus with the lighter, the reason that she knows all of that and is able to portray all of that is because she watches the surveillance videos that are on the bus.

Caitlin: Those videos have not only images but also sound, so she could hear what happened and how terrifying it was for not only for Sasha but for the other passengers as well.

Jeanie: Well, because she goes back and interviews passengers.

Her sources are so rich and varied. As librarians, we can totally appreciate this. She uses news reports, she goes to social media, she’s looking on Sasha’s Tumblr page, letters, all these different interviews, and then there are points at which she writes poems. She includes some really interesting perspectives as she’s writing this nonfiction book.

Caitlin: She’s an amazing writer and a beautiful researcher because this book feels complete in that sense. I feel like everyone was well-represented, and she really dives into how difficult a situation like this is because, again, things are not black and white and life is just shades of gray. But this is when, as we get further into the story and learn about the charges that Richard faces/

I think Dashka Slater did an amazing job weaving all of these different components together to give you this full story.

The chapters are so short that I think I got so carried away when I was reading it. All of a sudden, I look up and I’m like, “What time is it?” because the chapter is like, “Oh, I forgot about this person,” or, “Wait, how did this work out for this one?” and then all of a sudden you get these little two or three-page snippets of the story and it’s just fascinating.

Jeanie: Yes, I think this is a good place. We’re only halfway through the book at this point when the 57 bus fire happens because then she spent half her time before the fire really investigating who the two people are, Sasha and Richard. Then the second half of the book is what happens after, and there’s this… I didn’t think of it when I first read it, but when I was rereading, I felt like there was this foreshadowing. It’s on page 121. It feels to me now like such a foreshadowing of what’s to come. It says,

The ambulance took a long time to arrive. The police, on the other hand, came right away.

It feels like, as the story progresses, Sasha’s healing takes a long time, but boy does the justice system act fast.

Caitlin: We’re very quick to blame and assign punishments like that will fix the problem, and that’s not necessarily the case.

Jeanie: I’m not sure, we don’t want to give away the whole story to the reader, but there are some really important themes that happen through the rest of this book that I think are just rich, juicy questions to sort of dig into with teenagers or just ourselves, but especially with young people. Just thinking about a few: what makes something a hate crime? Because this is treated as a hate crime.

Caitlin: Correct, and that hate crime clause on the charges means that Richard doesn’t get to be anonymous, and the case is not kept confidential, and he could end up in an adult prison.

I think it’s so complicated and it’s so vicious in a sense, like the pursuit of justice is so bloodthirsty.

I’m of two minds on that because on the one hand, you hurt someone very severely. You caused someone, an innocent someone who was asleep on the bus, you caused severe harm to that person, but on the other hand, this is still a 16-year-old.

I think because we’re in education, we understand how the teenage mind works, and in a lot of cases, it doesn’t work the way you would hope it would.

Jeanie: It’s still developing.

Caitlin: It’s still developing and how do you–? Yes. Does Richard need to be punished? I agree. Yes, you do, but there are different ways to deal with finding justice for people. I think a key component… I don’t want to give away too much of the book because it’s so good and people should read it because it’s so good, but there’s so many levels to how Richard is treated, and how Sasha treats Richard, and how the families interact. It’s just a complicated situation, but it is a rich discussion book.

Jeanie: Well, it’s so easy.

I think Dashka Slater talks about how in the news reports the way justice is viewed is very binary. Sasha is a victim; Richard’s the perpetrator of the crime. He’s all bad; Sasha’s to be pitied. But Sasha doesn’t want pity, and Richard’s not all bad.

It’s so much more complicated, and Dashka Slater takes the time to, instead of glossing over and making it simple; bad, good, must be punished–

Caitlin: Must be pitied.

Jeanie: –must be pitied, because nobody does anything else for Sasha. Dashka Slater takes the time to really get in the tangle, get in the mess of it, and look at it from all these different lenses.

Caitlin: That’s what makes a good researcher and writer because she chooses to get in the thick of it and is objective, and this book doesn’t take sides, which I think is really so important because she’s looking at it from, “Here is what happened. Here are all the perspectives of what happened.”

Jeanie: I love that you use that word “objective.”

While she is objective, she’s also compassionate.

Caitlin: Absolutely.

Jeanie: She looks at it with this lens of compassion for everyone. Instead of objective like cold, there’s this real warmth of understanding that I think we can learn from.

Caitlin: I agree.

Jeanie: Some other questions that came up are about the juvenile justice system.

Richard has been in the juvenile justice system before, and now because he has that record and because this is called a ‘hate crime’, he’s suddenly charged as an adult even though I think he’s 15.

Caitlin: Yes, 15. I believe he’s 15 when the crime happens, the incident happens. It’s just… it’s horrifying. And the charges are huge. Like you said, the police are the first to arrive and it’s very… the justice system moves fast. He is charged with aggravated mayhem and assault with intent to cause great bodily injury. Both of those are felonies, and each come with a hate crime clause that would add an additional one to three years in state prison to his sentence. If he was convicted, Richard faced a maximum sentence of life in prison at 15 or 16 years old.

Jeanie: The juvenile justice system has already failed him. It’s part of why he’s behind in school, his time there. It’s pulled him out of his family unit and isolated him. Because he ended up in that system with friends, they were separated, so he had no one.

Caitlin: There’s a scene where he finds out where his good friend got shot and killed. He’s in a juvenile hall when that happens. Jasmine, Richard’s mom, had said she called to tell him and that he just started crying and he didn’t even hang up the phone. He just put it down, and she heard him walk away. You can’t hold your child, you can’t be there as they go through this loss. It’s brutal.

Jeanie: The other thing that happens in this story is… and we think about this in the justice system that are often asked,

“Does the perpetrator have remorse?”

Richard has so much remorse for what he’s done.

Caitlin: Oh, heaps of remorse.

Jeanie: Dashka Slater really looks at what would be different, what would happen if it was a restorative justice system. There’s this powerful investigation of how this could be different, and not just for Richard but also for Sasha and Sasha’s family. Do you want to talk about that at all?

Caitlin: I do. I think– personally, I believe in restorative justice and I think that it’s a process that can really work.

When I look at these two kids in this book, this would have been a perfect case for restorative justice process.

Restorative justice is basically acknowledging that harm was done to the community and how do you repair the harm that was done. That can look different case by case because no two situations are the same. So how do how do you repair the harm that you caused?

I think, had these two children been able to communicate, and not necessarily right away because Sasha was in the hospital for a long time, healing. Then months and months of healing after because burns are no joke and they affected everything from how you shower to how hard it is to walk.

I mean there is some anger that comes with that. I think there is a little bit of, “Why me?” But Sasha does a really beautiful job of backing out of that mindset and looking at this as truly a mature individual.

I think restorative justice would have made a big difference.

I mean you can cut this if you need to, but I think the part about the letters that Richard wrote are hugely indicative of who Richard is as a person. Richard, on his own, four days after being arrested, wrote a letter to Sasha and basically was like,

“Dear victim, please know this wasn’t my intention and I cannot believe I harmed you the way I did. It was a mistake and I didn’t intend it,”

in this beautiful letter. Then writes a second letter, and the lawyer chooses to not share those letters. The family, Sasha and Sasha’s family, do not read those letters for 14 months, and I think that is a miscarriage of justice also.

Jeanie: Richard’s already faced so much injustice in his short life.

Caitlin: Correct, and it seems like such a genuine offer, these letters, this heartfelt apology, and that’s what they are. It says, “I did this horrible thing and I accept the punishment that comes along with this. I just need you to know that I’m sorry and that this was never the intention,” and those letters weren’t shared for 14 months. As the families mentioned later in the book too, what would have been different if they had been shared earlier? And the lawyer’s rationale was they have admissions of guilt and we can’t share them. I understand that as well.

I just look at these two people in the world whose paths crossed in this unfortunate way, and what would have been different if we had taken a restorative justice angle on this? Because Richard, at sentencing, is 16. That’s just a child.

Jeanie: Recently, I went with students from The Dorset School, sixth-graders who were doing a cooking class, and they had this series of meetings with the Dismas House. Now, Dismas House has this beautiful mission. Dismas House first came to Dorset School and talked to the sixth-graders about their work, and then the sixth-graders went and cooked and shared a meal with the residents at Dismas House.


This is lodged in my heart, the mission of Dismas House. The meals are about food …but they’re also about reconciliation. Terese, the executive director, said they’re meant to reconcile these former prisoners with society because they’ve done harm, right? And so they need to reconcile. But it’s also meant to reconcile society with former prisoners because society has done harm. A society that allows some people to live in poverty is a harmful society.

I just think about Richard. It’s all focused on the harm he’s done to someone else, and there’s never any point in which society has to reconcile with Richard for the harm it’s done to him.

Caitlin: Which is heartbreaking. It’s such a painful book. It’s such a painful book because I feel helpless? Reading this book. You know, I work with middle schoolers that are 11 to 14 years old.

My 14 -year-olds, they make so many mistakes and they make a lot of bad decisions, but that doesn’t mean that they’re bad people.

I think, “Where will they be in two years and what if one of my kids ends up facing life imprisonment in a federal prison?” I just cannot even comprehend what that would do to someone and the fear you must feel. This is a case where I do not think the punishment fit the crime.

Jeanie: Yes. I feel like there’s a long road we can go down, too, about once you have an offense, once you’ve been charged with something, it’s so much easier for you to get sucked into this system endlessly and end up incarcerated for life. Most, especially young men, when they’re most likely to trip up is until they’re in their early 20s, right? If we’re just slapping on punishments, what learning gets to happen, right?

Caitlin: There you go. That’s during the development of your brain, right?

Jeanie: Yes. Through your early 20s. Yes. Okay. Too bad we’re not in charge of the justice system, Caitlin.

Caitlin: Right, we’d make some changes.

Jeanie: We totally would.

By the way, listeners, readers, just because this book hurts a little doesn’t mean you shouldn’t read it. You really should. It’s so powerful.

Caitlin: I think because of the hurt you should read it. Like we were talking before, it’s that empathy. Being a reader means you get to live so many lives and go through so many situations, and I’m so grateful for The 57 Bus because it put me in a situation that I’m still having trouble coming to terms with, and that’s a good book.

It makes you look at the world differently, and I feel like I learned lessons.

The first time I read The 57 Bus, I talked at people about it for a long time because of just how I had to process it. It’s a rich discussion book.

Jeanie: Great. Let’s talk about that some more. How might you use it with students?

Caitlin: Right now, my kids, I do a lot of word-of-mouth recommendations with them with the readers advisory. We’re always looking for ways to get them engaged in narrative nonfiction because that’s something they tend to kind of push against.

Their assumption is that nonfiction is just information, and it’s boring, and I don’t want to read it. I’ve been promoting this book because of: one, the writing style is so gripping.

You are sucked in from the first page and those short chapters. It just means the story is coming together in these little bits and pieces as you’re reading it, and you cannot stop piecing together the puzzle and what happens. It’s compulsively readable.

For my kids, they’ve been sharing it with word of mouth. So one will finish and come with a friend at the library and say, “I just finished this, but so-and-so would like to check it out.” So we just do that.

It’s not been on the shelf because we’re just passing it from hand to hand, and I think that’s a sign of a great book, fiction or not.

For them to be this invested in nonfiction and to come to me with questions and say things like, “Do you have any other books like this book?” That’s a magical book.

Jeanie: Yeah, and what book’s like this book? Oh, there are so many different questions I could ask right now. What book is like this book? The book that I thought of, and I haven’t read it yet although I read the adult version of it, is Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson, which is a look at prisoners on death row and really about the injustices that they face. That’s one that I would recommend for a reader of this book is Just Mercy. Do you have any others?

Caitlin: Well, my first question is always,

“What about this book? What aspect of this book?” because this book has so many interesting topics and questions, and themes come up in it.  I have to kind of drill down with them and say, “What in particular? Was it the justice system? Was it the LGBTQ rights aspect of things? Or was it this kind of brutal treatment of this kid?”

Both kids, really. Sasha gets attacked and Richard is basically condemned to this prison sentence.

Based on whatever really piques their interest, you can go all sorts of ways, which is the joy of being a reader because there’s so many good choices out there.

For me, when it comes to nonfiction, it made me think of… we have two books that our kids are really into right now. One is The Borden Murders, just because they’re interested in that system and what happened with Lizzie Borden. Then the other one we’re very invested in right now is Getting Away With Murder, which is the Emmett Till story. And they’ll read them and they’ll come back to me like, “Do you have any other books like this one?”

That’s when you know that you’ve got them on this interesting path, and it’s really good to stoke the fires of their own inquiry and what they’re like drawn to read about.

What makes my job so great is I have to be like, “But what’s going to keep you reading? What about this book?” When it comes to fiction… we did a bunch of book clubs in December. We had like 19 different book clubs with one of our 90-kid teams, and they were obsessed with All American Boys by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely.

Jeanie: It’s a fabulous book.

Caitlin: Amazing book, an amazing book. I think it really correlates nicely with The 57 Bus, so that’s one that I’m like, “If you’re looking more for a story,” because this is nonfiction that reads like a story.

Jeanie: That really gets into the nuances too, Jason Reynolds. I think A Long Way Down.

Caitlin: A Long Way Down. The thing about All American Boys is, again, it’s told from two perspectives, so you have Quinn and you have Rashad, and you’re learning. I feel like that was very much like The 57 Bus.

Jeanie: It’s also two perspectives across difference like this book, where you have a white perspective and an African-American perspective. Yes, I would totally suggest The Hate You Give, Dear Martin, all of those books that are really about violence in a community are great.  

Caitlin: Have you read Ghost Boys?

Jeanie: No, I haven’t yet.

Caitlin: *gasps* It’s Jewel Parker Rhodes, Ghost Boys, and I would say it’s very much like a middle grade The Hate You Give.

Jeanie: Great, that’s a great recommendation.

Caitlin: We have The Hate You Give and All American Boys, but Ghost Boys has really exploded with the kids, and that’s a big… it’s the same, these big ideas, these big topics.

The world can be a scary place, and the more you read about it, the more you’re able to understand your position in the world.

Jeanie: I think there’s also a lot of books about non-gender-conforming students out there that could be another avenue to point kids who are interested in that element. One of my favorites is from the Green Mountain Book Awards from a couple of years ago, Beautiful Music For Ugly Children, which is a fictional account of a transgendered young person. Or If I Was Your Girl, also a fictional account of transgender, and then George.

Caitlin: We love George.

Jeanie: Which is a little bit younger. I think George is fourth grade.

Caitlin: Yes. George, I believe, was 10, 10 years old.

Jeanie: Every Day is a great exploration.

Caitlin: That is a great book.

Jeanie: David Levithan, a great exploration of like… it’s not that the character is gender fluid. I don’t want to go into it too much because you’ll give it away!

Caitlin: But it’s such an interesting book!

Jeanie: It’s such an interesting look at gender through fiction.

Caitlin: It is because you’re a person before you’re a gender. I think that’s something that we have to teach, that comes up a lot when you’re working with kids, is like how someone identifies is not necessarily important. Who you are as a person is what’s important.

Every Day is an interesting look at that situation because if you wake up in a different body every day, which is what A, the main character does…

Jeanie: Ooh! Don’t give it away!

Caitlin: I won’t, but I just think that’s an interesting topic to discuss with kids.

Jeanie: Yes, I really loved that book and my students loved that book. The only book I’ve been able to find written for young people about being agender or sort of gender non-conforming or gender-fluid has been Symptoms of Being Human, and I didn’t love it. I had it on my shelves in my library and I think it was an important book to have. I think one of the reasons I didn’t like it is because it was written by a cisgendered person.

George is powerful in part because it’s written by somebody who’s had that experience.

For that reason, I think there are a lot of great memoirs that might be interesting; Some Assembly Required by Arin Andrews, Rethinking Normal: A Memoir in Transition, or Girl Mans Up. Those are all great books told from the perspective of somebody who’s had that experience.

Caitlin: Yes, you need to be… I think it’s important to come from a place of authority when you are trying to teach a topic like this that is still relatively new in terms of YA and middle-grade books.

Jeanie: It’s sort of reminds me of that #OwnVoices movement.

Caitlin: Yes.

Jeanie: Yes. There’s also a book that I had in my library that I found really useful to have called This Book is Gay. It’s great because it just sort of walks you through like page 33 does about what are the different terms. It’s great primer on semantics and also gay culture, and I think that’s another great book to have on your shelf in a library. Any other books that came up for you?

Caitlin: I mean, not off the top of my head. I think your list is great, and the couple that we talked about like All American Boys, that looks amazing. And The 57 Bus. I just keep coming back to The 57 Bus was just so well done.

Dashka Slater gave us a gift when she published this book. As a middle grade educator, I’m so thankful that a book like this exists. I hope she writes more.

Jeanie: If I were still in a school, I would want to… I used to teach a unit with a colleague about the juvenile justice system, and we would read Monster. I feel like this book would be a great book to dig into with kids to help them better understand the justice system.

Caitlin: I agree. We’ve been talking about this book for like an hour, and I’m like, but I still have things I need to say. I still have themes and topics that I want to dive into, but I also think that people need to read this book.

Jeanie: And then I’m also– I think it could be used with a journalism class, anywhere where you’re doing that nonfiction writing to really explore the different ways you can tell the same story.


Caitlin: I think what we brought up before is this compassionate, objective viewpoint.

Dashka Slater did a beautiful job writing this book and bringing in all of those components like social media, and watching the footage of