Tag Archives: social justice

How to Build An Anti-Racist Bookshelf

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

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

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


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



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

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

Lessons learned from a community conversation on race

How do we effectively engage people in our community who aren’t already predisposed to discuss race and the impacts of racism? How do we pull people into a community conversation on race? Especially people who aren’t already striving to be more antiracist? I’m not entirely sure, but I do know that the more community conversations we have, the more likely we will bring a greater portion of our community to the table… eventually.

I live in a predominantly white, rural community where many people do not explicitly experience the harmful impacts of racial bias nor understand the complexities of structural racism.

So I was intrigued by this email I received from a historian about the namesake of our local elementary, Thatcher Brook Primary School:

“I wonder how people in town would feel if they knew that Partridge Thatcher and his wife had held people in slavery.”

Indeed, how would my community react to this new information? That would become the guiding question for a community conversation that brought together students, educators, community members and historians to talk about real world, meaningful change.

How it started:

I received the email in response to an inquiry I had sent to Dr. Elise Guyette. I had written to her after hearing her on the Brave Little State podcast Remembering Vermont’s 19th Century Black Communities, which was largely based on her research. At the end of the episode she invited people to contact her to receive her database of early Black Vermonters.

Just a few weeks before I had been part of the formation of the Waterbury Anti-Racism Coalition (WAARC). I had been invited due to my role in facilitating a monthly series of Race Conversations for the Waterbury Public Library. Over the course of the prior year, a few dozen community members had participated in discussions of Ijeoma Oluo’s excellent book So You Want to Talk About Race? 

Now, I believe in the power of dialogue about racism to help lay the foundation for transformational action.

As Oluo taught me, one of the reasons racism persists is because people, particularly white people, are not able to talk about it. Learning and unlearning how racism operates are the first steps toward dismantling and disrupting it.

Even so, upon learning this new information about the direct connection between the elementary school that my daughters attend and the institution of slavery, my first reaction was that we needed to take immediate action to get the name changed. But when I brought my obsessively assembled historical research to my WAARC friends, cooler heads prevailed. We were looking for inroads to raise awareness about racism and strengthen the collective antiracism commitment in our community.

Rather than rush to action, we decided to use this new information as a catalyst for collective learning and coalition building. It was time for a community conversation.

8 lessons learned from a community conversation on race

Now that I’m on the other side of the event, I’m happy to report that it was a success. Here are eight tips for anybody who wants to organize a community conversation about an issue related to racial justice, based on our experience.

1. Form a committed planning team

It was Ellie Odefey’s idea to focus on learning, rather than pushing right away to change the name of the school. She’s a student.

She’s also a member of WAARC and a student leader in the Rooted Organizing Committee (ROC) chapter of Harwood Union High School. ROC is a student-led socially justice oriented organization based in Vermont with a presence in several secondary schools. ROC focuses on grassroots strategies that will create change “from the roots up.” One of their values is community.

Ellie recruited some ROC student leaders to join WAARC members as a planning team. We had a multi-generational cross-racial group with plenty of experience organizing for change and facilitating conversations. We scheduled a weekly one hour meeting for the five weeks before the conversation. And then we were off to the races.

2. Learn from others

As we began planning, we researched how other processes have played out. We looked at the powerful project-based learning approach (.pdf) to renaming a school taken in Brookline, Massachusetts. We read up on efforts to rename schools and streets across the nation. And we reached out to folks in Vermont such as the Rename Negro Brook Alliance for tips.

Judy Dow generously provided guidance in the early stages of our planning. She is the Abenaki educator and activist who led the effort to change the name of the Dorothy Canfield Fisher Award due to the links of its namesake to the eugenics movement. She drew on her experience to emphasize the importance of having the background research compiled and clearly presented. “There will be pushback. Be ready.”

She also helped us understand the importance of involving students. Judy is an expert at supporting project-based learning that involves students in primary research about Vermont history. She recommended that some of the educators involved in the planning group bring the Partridge Thatcher history directly to their students.

Luckily, Ellie already had a plan for that.

3. Start the conversation in school(s)

When Ellie came up with the idea to make this into a learning experience, she wasn’t just talking about the community conversation. From the beginning, she wanted to bring the idea to Harwood Middle and High School students as well. She volunteered to create a lesson plan and worked with school administrators to distribute it to all 50 advisory teachers.

community conversation on race lesson plan

When Jonah shared Ellie’s work with the planning team, educators from other schools asked permission to adapt the lesson for younger grades. Eventually students across our district in multiple schools learned about Partridge Thatcher’s past and discussed connections to modern day racism.

For me, that is such a powerful example of a student exploring a Flexible Pathway to learning. An example of a school community being able and willing to support that student’s learning. And a way to tie a student’s passion for learning to real-world, authentic change.

Ellie’s lesson plan allowed students to process their own reactions and prepared them to participate in the community conversation. We hoped that they would go home and talk with their families about it as well. Because there was plenty of buzz well before the event.

4. Anchor the conversation

We wanted to make sure that the conversation wasn’t purely theoretical. But we weren’t trying to organize a debate, either. We wanted people to grapple with the implications of our community’s ties to slavery and racism in a way that was respectful and learning-oriented.

Educators on our planning team who had been teaching about racial justice busted out tools to support productive dialogue. We ended up using the agreements and compass from Courageous Conversations (for an example of these in action in a classroom, check out this unit on equity and identity from 6th grade social studies teacher Christie Nold).

We also wanted to make sure that people entered the conversation with the same basic historical facts at hand.

In response, I developed a packet of historical information. The packet presented the information in multiple ways, with a visual timeline, select quotes, and related background reading. Dr. Guyette provided feedback to ensure accuracy.

We wanted to provide people access to the information in whatever way best suited them. For some people, the bare basics might suffice, while for others they were going to click through to the source material. And some folks may not want to read at all. For them, we created an interactive timeline.

Jonah Ibson, a Harwood teacher and planning team member, worked with students to create audio clips to bring choice quotes alive.

Even people who didn’t attend the event were able to learn a lot from the informational materials.

5. Get the word out

About three weeks before the event we started advertising. We used multiple channels:

  • Front Porch Forum – each Friday, volunteers posted to this local message board site
  • Flyers – we created a simple poster (.pdf) and put it up around our community
  • School newsletters – principals announced the event in their messages home to families
  • Public library – the Waterbury Public Library co-hosted the event and included it on their website and in their emails to members
  • Social media – we made announcements on the WAARC FaceBook page and some members tweeted about it
  • Special invites – we sent customized email invites to local community leaders such as the School Board, Select Board, and historical societies
  • Local newspaper – the Waterbury Roundabout did a story about the upcoming event.


There was a lively discussion on Front Porch Forum about the event. Most of the comments were skeptical, but a few people also expressed support. I wrote directly to many of the commenters to encourage them to join the discussion. In two cases people realized that they were being interpreted differently than they intended and they wrote follow up posts for clarification.

The pre-conversation conversation had begun.

6. Provide facilitators with plenty of support

Kathy Cadwell, philosophy teacher from Harwood Union High School, joined the planning team early on to lend her expertise on organizing community dialogues. She has worked with students to offer several Socrates Cafe events over the years. And she has an amazing website about strategies for scaffolding dialogue and her expertise and enthusiasm were invaluable.

We envisioned facilitator pairs made up of one community member and one student leader. Students from the planning team recruited fellow students who had facilitated other dialogues. Almost all of the adult volunteers ended up being educators from our school system.

The week before the event, we held a 90 minute facilitator training where we:

  • Talked through the flow of the event
  • Introduced tools such as norms we would be relying upon
  • Provided time for the eleven pairs to meet their co-facilitator
  • Role played a conversation and debriefed it

Based on the feedback at this training, we refined the facilitator guide. Most co-facilitator pairs met before the event to discuss roles and make sure they were totally set.

I can now say with certainty that they were well prepared. Because on the big night, they were amazing.

Community conversation on race The event agenda - welcome, land acknowledgment, agreements, intro to history, small group discussions, report out.
Agenda from the facilitator notes.
7. Execute your plan with purpose and flexibility

We asked participants to register via Google Form. In addition to giving us an idea of numbers, we were able to gauge what type of crowd we were going to have. We were able to see, for example, that the vast majority of people who had signed up were coming due to genuine curiosity about the subject.

Alysia Backman, a WAARC member and fantastic educator in her own right, handled the tech for the evening. She created Breakout Rooms on Zoom by asking the facilitator pairs to put their assigned number in front of their name. During the introduction, she randomly assigned all 80 participants and matched co-facilitators.

We shared duties and used a slide deck to keep us on track:

  • I welcomed everyone;
  • Gavin Thomsen, a student provided a powerful land acknowledgment;
  • an educator went over the agreements;
  • and Dr. Guyette did a quick review of and commentary on the historical materials.

Having Dr. Guyette provide historical perspective was incredibly powerful. She had put me in touch with one of the descendants of people who Thatcher had enslaved. I was honored by the fact that this woman, Karen Henry, and her husband, Dean Henry, attended the event. As Dr. Guyette presented they sent me a private chat message and asked to say a few words. The Henrys then shared the story of how they had learned about their ancestors’ connection to Thatcher. And they thanked the community for grappling with its past.

We had planned our agenda to the minute yet this unexpected portion of the evening was one of the most powerful parts. Many participants shared on the exit survey that this was something they would never forget.

How it’s going:

Our stated goals were to learn together and build community. And our exit survey suggested that we accomplished that. More than 90% of respondents answered positively on questions about whether the event it was a good use of their time and whether people were respectful of each other. The Waterbury Roundabout did a favorable follow up story as well.

Next, our planning team will go to the School Board to recommend that they initiate a process for changing the name of the school. We will recommend that they do so through a process that centers student leadership and collective learning.

We had Select Board and School Board members participate in the event and I’m optimistic that the renaming process will continue to be a source of growth for our community.

I’d imagine that some families had conversations about race that broke new ground. Perhaps some students took ideas home or adults picked up on the hubbub or some combination thereof. Although there was a lot of focus on the event itself, I’m hoping that the ripple effects had positive impact as well.

The biggest obstacle to fighting racism in my community is that many people deny that racism exists here. But to me, each community event about racism is part of an ongoing reckoning. For things to change, we’ll need every community, including predominantly white ones, to acknowledge the harmful impacts of racism. Especially on people of color but ultimately on all of us.

This event was a step toward normalizing consequential conversations about race in our community. As we learn together as a community, we build shared understandings and commitments to more effectively work towards racial justice. Together.



An audio version of this post appears below.

Keep saying their names.

This has been a tough few weeks.

Even in relative terms to 2020, it was “a week.”

Our sense of social justice has been tested and pummeled by, yet again, disappointing news. Last week, the notorious fighter for justice, Ruth Bader Ginsberg passed away. Leaving millions of us grieving for her person and for her heroic deeds for justice in our country.

And then last Wednesday, there was no justice for Breonna Taylor.

And our country continued to mourn, grieve and grapple with justice and equity. Our heads are baffled, and our hearts are broken. We are sad, and we are angry.

And here’s the thing:

Teachers, the work that you do in your classrooms is more important than ever.  Because teaching about social justice belongs in our schools and classrooms. You are doing that work. We see you, and we thank you, and we stand with you. It is hard work, and it is needed now.

We know that when when the world is difficult, you lean in. As you always have!  As this work begins in some schools and continues in others we can expect it to be difficult. And so, yet again, we ask you to lean in. We can expect pushback. What gives us the strength and courage to push forward? We ask you to ponder this for yourself.

Students are capable of doing hard things. They want to have these conversation and are able to engage in complex things. We ask that you share resources when you can and invite folks into the conversation. If you would like some help, let us know.

We reaffirm our commitment to Black Lives Matter. We strongly believe that teaching about social justice belongs in the classroom.

Thank you for all you do. Keep empowering our students to change the world.

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.

#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.

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?

#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.

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)?

#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 the actual incident, and reading the newspaper articles. That’s what learning about a topic is, it’s getting into it and looking at it from all points of view.

Jeanie: Right. Her sources are so varied. We love that as librarians.

Caitlin: I do love it.

Jeanie: I know we could keep talking about this book for days. I so appreciate you sitting down with me and sharing the story of Sasha and Richard and digging in with me.

Caitlin: Oh, thank you for having me. I could talk about this for 10 days.

Jeanie: Thanks for listening, everybody. I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this has been an episode of vted Reads, talking about what Vermont’s educators and students are reading. Thank you to Caitlin Classen for appearing on the show and talking with me about The 57 Bus. If you’re looking for a copy of The 57 Bus, check your local library. To find out more about vted Reads, including past episodes, upcoming guests, and reads and a whole lot more, you can visit vtedreads.tarrantinstitute.org. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram @vtedreads. This podcast is a project of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont.

(re)Building community

Breaking bread & stereotypes with formerly incarcerated Vermonters

community-based learning the humans of burkeFood and community are inextricably linked.

Birthdays, funerals, weddings, holidays: a meal with family and friends is a powerful component of our life celebrations and milestones. We create connections and build relationships around the dinner table, the buffet line, and the sheet cake.

What happens when we eat with members of our community that we don’t ordinarily encounter?

Sixth graders in the cooking seminar at the Dorset School, in Dorset VT, have been growing their kitchen skills, eating and sharing the food they cook.  But their teacher, Nate Merrill, wanted them to explore how their newfound cooking skills could create connection outside the school walls. With that in mind, he reached out to Rutland Dismas House.

What’s Dismas House?

Dismas of Vermont provides a supportive home for formerly incarcerated Vermonters as they transition back into society.  

The mission of Dismas of Vermont, Inc. is to reconcile former prisoners with society and society with former prisoners. Community is fundamentally about relationship and it is precisely the relationship between the person who has committed a crime and their community that is broken, first by the real harm done by the crime committed and subsequently by the alienation that results from incarceration. In reconciliation, wholeness is restored to the former prisoner and to society.

Dismas visited Dorset

A few of the Rutland Dismas House residents visited Dorset’s sixth graders along with Rutland Dismas director Terese Black. Terese began by asking students,

“If someone were to go to prison, where do they go when they get out?”

Students then listed a variety of options: the homes they lived in before, their family, a homeless shelter, the streets. Terese explained that for many people, options are limited. With this in mind, Dismas House provides support so that the formerly incarcerated can get a job, reconcile with their family, and get their lives back together.

“These are good people who made bad choices,” said Terese.  “We offer them a safe place to come home to so they can be in the lives of those they love and do the work they are skilled to do.”

Jason and Travis’s stories

Rutland Dismas House director Terese Black and residents Jason and Travis talk to 6th grade students from the Dorset School.

Travis and Jason each shared accounts of their lives, outlining the choices they made that landed them in prison, and the choices they are making now to rebuild their lives. Jason claims, “Dismas saved my life.”  He is currently working in construction and has re-connected with his son. Travis shared the conditions of his childhood that were beyond his control and caused some trauma in his life.  He urged students to reach out for help when they are struggling, something he wished he had been able to do. Dismas House is a place where he gets the support he needs to reintegrate into society.

Students asked questions about life in prison and life at Dismas House. They learned about the hard work prisoners do for little pay, the living conditions in prison, and the limited access to appealing food. They listened as Jason and Travis explained how Dismas supports them as they pursue their hopes and dreams.  And students shared their own interests and passions, which Jason and Travis urged them to stay focused on.

…and Dorset visited Dismas

Meals are an integral part of building community at Dismas Houses

Five nights a week community members cook for and eat with the residents of Dismas House.  These meals have a purpose beyond feeding hungry people.  Dismas believes in bringing society into the house to share a meal is a process of reconciliation.  Former prisoners reconcile with society, and society reconciles with former prisoners.  Each has harmed the other, these meals are a way of restoring positive relationships between the two.

Dorset students visited Rutland Dismas House on two consecutive evenings. They brought food — chili, chicken soup, bread, and cookies — as well as genuine curiosity about these residents of their community.

The meals begin with grace, and an opportunity to share gratitudes. Then everyone digs in. The conversation flows. People share stories, tell jokes, and enjoy each other’s company.  It’s hard to tell who benefited more: the residents of Dismas House or the students from the Dorset School.  Both parties had the opportunity to expand their sense of community — and share some delicious homemade food!

Building empathy, breaking down stereotypes

Dorset 6th graders set out to learn an important life skill: cooking.  But their teacher elevated the experience by giving it a larger purpose: community-building. They brought food, lovingly prepared.  The table was set.  And then the magic happened.  A group of people sat down together to share food and stories, and as happens over many a dinner table, they also cultivated connections and strengthened community.

We live in a country with the largest incarceration rate in the world. Once prisoners have served their time, they face societal bias and stereotypes, which impact their ability to re-assimilate into society. The Dismas mission faces this problem head-on:

If we hold people accountable for their actions as a matter of justice, then reconciliation is a completion of that justice. For a former prisoner to be reconciled to their community that person needs to overcome the sense of alienation – that sense of being an outsider and unwanted, they must become participating members of their community, and they must be returned to full citizenship with all its responsibilities and rights.

Society must do its part to tackle this problem as well. Visiting Dismas House provided Dorset students with the experiences necessary for expanding their own understanding of community by practicing empathy. Tying this type of encounter to such a central, primal ritual as the meal makes the connection heartfelt.

One parent reported, “I’ve never heard him talk so much about anything before. He was sort of afraid, but after going to Dismas he realized that they were just really nice people.”

Spending time with real people had a powerful impact on this student. It dismantled the assumptions he had about the formerly incarcerated, and allowed him to see that we are more alike than we are different. And by connecting students with the Dismas House, Nate taught them that who they eat with is just as important as what they cook. That inviting people to the table is just as invaluable a skill as cooking a perfect egg.

As Margaret Wheatly says, “You can’t hate someone whose story you know.” A meal not only nourishes bodies, it also nourishes community.  As we share food and stories, we get to know one another and nurture empathy for our common humanity.


How are your students making meaningful connections with their communities?

This Is Really Scary (And I’ve Never Been More Excited)

When asked “what is your working definition of personalized learning?” Charlie Herzog, an educator at Flood Brook replied:

Relevancy is the essence of personalized learning. It’s about giving students voice & choice regarding content, and offering multiple pathways to explore/learn the chosen content. It’s about students reflecting on their learning journeys; considering where they’ve come from, and where they desire to take their learning next.”

We think this definition works equally well for the adult learners doing the hard work of designing and orchestrating personalized learning. Once Herzog launched this year’s crew at Flood Brook School with the intention of putting his working definition into practice, he too found time to reflect on his learning journey and consider where to take his learning next. Here’s Herzog’s candid and courageous reflection, which reminds us how vulnerable and thrilling this journey can be.

–Susan Hennessey & Bill Rich


But There Will Be Graphic Organizers

I never-endingly wrestle with our integrated studies endeavor at Flood Brook. We integrate science and social studies around compelling questions while employing a “project-based” approach, in multiage fashion, grades 6-8.

Among the students the reviews are mixed. If we offered them a thumbs up or down poll I fear the results. What then? In the name of personalization do we end it? If they don’t want it, and what they want is science and social studies completely separate, why not do it? Hell, it would be easier for me to end it.

No, I’m not ready to end it. The reason is I haven’t done project-based learning right. I haven’t personalized it enough.

I trapped myself. Under the burden of urgency I fell into the comfortable: deliver content, provide graphic organizers, require Cornell note-taking, check all the boxes…and now start the project and be excited about it. Sure, be excited by it after I sucked all the air out of it. I understand why students might feel integrated studies is a slog.

I was about to do it again. Oh, the content is always delivered with a certain flair. It wouldn’t have been boring, but there would be graphic organizers to fill out.

My partner, Joey Blane, snapped me out of it. Turns out, her spirit for integrated studies needed a jump start too. Weren’t the kids supposed to like this? Weren’t we?

We changed the entire plan we wrote at MGI. Now we’re going to build a monument that’s going to address, “Why should we care about human rights?” We have zero idea what it’s going to look like because the kids are going to design and build the whole thing.

This is really scary. What if it’s a disaster? It’s beyond my comfort zone. But doesn’t project-based learning push all teachers beyond their comfort zone?

The root of our problem with integrated studies is we haven’t personalized it enough. Yes, we offer a slew of project options. Yes, we give students choice of compelling questions to pursue. Yes, we give students a voice in the planning of the units. But we haven’t put the project at the front of the experience.

This New Tech Network image graphically represents what I’m getting at here.


Despite our hard work, our excitement, and our best intentions for our students, we haven’t given kids reason to care. In my mind I hear, Even if I did care, even a little about it at the start, you’ve tortured the content to such an extent that any motivation I had to start the project is dead.

So, I’m going to spend quite some time learning about engineering monuments, human rights issues, activism, symbolism, physical sciences, etc. I don’t know what the monument is going to look like. I don’t know how to build it. Beyond the Holocaust, I have no idea what human rights issues we’ll be investigating, nor do I have any idea what form of activism the students will take.

I’m scared. I’m really nervous, but I’m excited, and I haven’t been this excited in a while.


Herzog’s updated inquiry question now reads “How might putting the project at the front of a project-based learning experience increase personalization for students?”

Watch the video below and consider visiting his class to learn more about his journey. Schedule a visit here!

Piecing Me Together, with Jory Hearst

Also featuring: The Green Mountain Book Awards!

Legendary Librarian Jeanie Phillips is back on the podcast talking about what else but books! Not just any books, but how books can help educators unpack some of their privileges and connect with students. Joining her this time around is Jory Hearst, Vermont educator and six-time Green Mountain Book Awards committee member. They’re discussing Renée Watson’s Piecing Me Together, and what they learned from it about identity, racial microaggressions and teaching around deficit theory.

A full transcript follows.


Jeanie Phillips: Today I’m here with Jory Hearst and we’ll be talking about Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson. Thanks for joining me, Jory. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do?

Librarian Jeanie Phillips, left, hosts Jory Harris (r) as they discuss Rene Watson's book "Piecing Me Together".
Librarian Jeanie Phillips, left, hosts Jory Hearst (r) as they discuss Rene Watson’s book “Piecing Me Together”.


Jory Hearst: Well, thanks so much for having me, Jeanie. I’m thrilled to be here. I love talking about books, especially young-adult books. I am an educator and an avid reader. I’m not sure which should come first in order. I have taught middle and high school, both in Southern Vermont and up here in Burlington. In English and History. I’ve also been a bookseller for many years of my life. I also currently serve on the Vermont Green Mountain Book Award (GMBA) Committee, which is our teen pleasure reading award list that the state comes out with every year. This is my sixth year serving on that committee. So I spend a lot of my time reading young-adult fiction.

Jeanie: Let’s start with Piecing Me Together. Could you give me just a brief summary?

No spoilers, a little bit about our main character, our setting and the big themes of this book?

Jory: Yeah, I would love to. Piecing Me Together was on our GMBA list last year, and it’s a book I loved and I’m so glad to see on this list. This is about from 2017, and the main character is a high school girl name Jade Butler. She lives in North Portland. She has a full scholarship to a private, sort of hoity-toity private school called Saint Francis, that she has a very long bus ride from North Portland to her school. Every day. It’s a school where not having much money is less likely than being a person of color.

And for Jade, she is both of those things.

Her mom is desperate for her to make close friends at the school but for her, she is just want to kind of keep her head down and plough through. And she talks a lot about sort of knowing she has to take advantage of the “opportunities” that this school has to offer.

Jade is a lovely, lovely character for many reasons. She is an artist and she makes these beautiful collages from scraps of other people’s trash, and we’ll talk about that hopefully little more today. As this book begins, a main point in the story is that Jade’s guidance counselor, Mrs. Parker, sets her up with a mentor. In this woman-to-woman — sort of Black woman to Black woman mentoring program. Jade, when she gets called in to the guidance office, thinks she’s about to get the scholarship for the study abroad program and she’s thrilled. But she finds out instead that she’s been chosen to be a mentee. She just feels like another thing where somebody is coming to help me. Like, “Do I really need all this help?”

That’s sort of where the book begins, and it’s sort of follows her trying to figure out who she is and how to feel more whole in her life as she is sort of collaging her own life together.

 Jeanie: That’s a great summary. Thank you for consolidating that so nicely. I think one of the reasons I loved this book so much is that, as a white woman in the world, a book like this gives me the opportunity to step into the shoes of somebody having a very different experience from my own. From the beginning of the second chapter — if you turn to page two — Jade is learning Spanish. Really loves language. I love that she uses these Spanish words at the start.

Tener éxito

Piecing Me Together, by Renée Watson

Jory: The top of chapter two says in Spanish: tener éxito. Which means to succeed. The chapter begins with,

When I learn the Spanish word for succeed, I thought it was kind of ironic that the word exit is embedded in it. Like the universe was telling me that in order for me to make something of this life, I’d have to leave home, my neighborhood and my friends.

Jeanie: Yeah, that exactly sums up Jade’s world’s view. That she has to leave the things that are familiar in order to make a success of herself. And her mom’s dream for her really is to do just that.

Jory: And makes me think about something we both loved about this book. Not only is Jade a really thoughtful, insightful character that gives, I think, both of us windows into other worlds, but the writer Renée Watson is a beautiful writer. And it makes me think of another passage where Jade talks about feeling stuck in the middle.

In this passage she’s talking with a friend and feeling stuck between these two worlds. Kind of like she does not really quite fit anywhere. And her friend is saying,

“It’s weird, huh? …Being stuck in the middle. Like, sometimes I hold back at school, you know? Like I don’t ever join in on those what-are-you-doing-this-weekend? conversations, because I know nothing I will say can compare to the weekend excursions those girls of Saint Francis go on,” Sam says. “But I also don’t talk much about what I do at school with my family or with my friends who don’t go to St. Francis. …God, Jade, I don’t know how you’ve done this for two years.”

Jade responds, ”I don’t either, but now that I have you, maybe these next two years won’t be so bad.”

This is the beginning of her friendship with another girl in her school who is also busing in from far away and on scholarship. She happens to be a white student, but they have a really interesting friendship about, sort of, they’re like the two kids who get that, like, this is this world of incredible privilege and no one else there seems to see that except for them. They’re in-between places.

Jeanie: I know a lot of students and adults in Vermont are reading The Hate U Give right now, and that really reminds me of Starr’s predicament.

She code switches between her private school and speaks one way about certain things there, and then goes home to her neighborhood and speaks a completely different way and about different things there. Jade is in — it’s not exactly the same but there’s a lot of commonality with Starr.

Jory: And while we’re on the topic of other books, this connects to another one that, I think, is really apt is Dear Martin, by Nic Stone, which is another book of the 90s. It’s a male protagonist, who writes letters to Martin Luther King, but he is also a Black student at a pretentious — pretentious and prestigious university — and he is constantly trying to navigate where he fits. And what it feels like most of the time is that he doesn’t really fit anywhere.

 I think a lot about for us in Vermont, there are increasingly more and more students for whom that experience is so true in our schools.

And I think this book can just be really helpful to remind, especially for you and I as educators, as white educators in the state, how many of our students — for race reasons or may be just because of [economic] class — are straddling multiple worlds. How difficult that is for them.

Jeanie: That makes me think of another place in which, I think, students can find some affinity with Jade. Which is that her parents are not together. Her mother had her at 16, and her parents did not stay together. There is a quote on page 11, that I really love, that captures that so beautifully:

“I think about this as I ride to school. How I am someone’s answered prayer but also someone’s deferred dream.”

Jade’s really talking about there is that her mother has put all of her hopes into Jade and Jade’s success. Because she cancelled her own plans to go to school because she got pregnant at 16. Her father on the other hand, feels like he is living his best self because of his daughter. Because of her, he feels like he’s become a better person than he would be. There’s this contradiction for her with her parents. I feel like she carries a lot. And I have seen a lot of my students, that I teach, carry a lot from the expectations or the lived realities — the lived experiences of their parents.

Jory: One of the other really beautiful things I think about this book is the way Jade is able to talk about herself not always feeling whole.

That is for due to lots of reasons. Partially as a female and especially as a Black female in the world she lives in. She has this explanation of it that I love, when she talks about the space as she feels whole and then the places that shatter her.

She says,

Listening to these mentors, I feel like I can prove the negative stereotypes about girls like me wrong. That I can and will do more, be more. But when I leave? It happens again. The shattering. And this makes me wonder if a black girl’s life is only about being stitched together and coming undone, being stitched together and coming undone. I wonder if there’s ever a way for a girl like me to feel whole. Wonder if any of these women can answer that.

Jeanie: That is such a beautiful passage. It really, Renée Watson’s beautiful prose really shines through there. And the beautiful image as it pulls us back to the title: Piecing Me Together. It pulls us to collage art that Jade has such expertise in, and then just that central conflict of how to hold yourself whole in a world that doesn’t see you as a whole. That sees you as broken, or as something that needs to be fixed.

Jory: Yeah. When I think about how many students I’ve had that feel broken in different ways, right? That there’s this sense of: there are many ways in which the world we live in shatter us. I think in this book specifically, but also that being a student of color in Vermont, I think, can be a really shattering experience. Especially if you are in more rural area here, you may be one of very few students of color in your school and so it feels really hard to have all those pieces of yourself honored.

Jeanie: Right. This makes me think a little of the story this summer, about the camp for children of color in Stowe. Did you hear that story? They brought a camp of students to Stowe, and they experienced a lot of racism and racial slurs. I think a lot of us were heartbroken by this experience. And it makes me wonder about what our job is, as educators, to expose Vermont students who are white, to stories of other people so they can see the humanity in others.

Jory: I think one thing, you and I have talked about, is that this book does a really good job illustrating how microaggressions work for people of color. I think this book is full of places where Jade experiences these little pricks. Like, a microaggression is this little comment that may be is meant with good intention but it just digs at her and it others her, right? She is constantly aware that she is “Other” than the other kids at Saint Francis, so that she needs more help than other kids or more “Opportunity,” right. All of those things in little ways dehumanize her, right? She has to work hard to hold on to her humanity.

Jeanie: There’s an excellent example on page 18, if you could read that for us, Jory?

Jory: Yeah, on page 18, she’s talking with her guidance counselor, an older white woman: Mrs. Parker. Of course, Mrs. Parker has a photo on her wall of her daughter and her son-in-law. And her son-in-law happens to be a man of color. And all of her grandchildren are mixed race, and so in some ways, I think, Mrs. Parker has the sense of like, Oh, I get you honey, right? That Jade always feels like there was like little bit of condescension there. Anyway, Mrs. Parker is setting her up with the mentor and Jade responds, “Mrs. Parker, I don’t need a mentor.”

Mrs. Parker responds, “Every young person could use a caring adult in her life.” Jade says:

“I have my mother.” And my uncle, and my dad. “You think I don’t have anyone who cares about me?”

“No, no, that’s not what I said.” Mrs. Parker clears her throat. “We want to be as proactive as possible, and you know, well, statistics tell us that young people with your set of circumstances are, well, at risk for certain things, and we’d like to help you navigate through those circumstances.” Mrs. Parker takes a candy out of her jar and pops it into her mouth. “I’d like you to thoroughly look over the information and consider it. This is a good opportunity for you.”

Again, we have this moment where this caring adult with really good intentions — l like Mrs. Parker, she’s trying her hardest. But in the process of trying to help Jade, the reader is very aware that she’s actually putting Jade down, right. Jade is saying, “My mom, I have my mom. I have all these caring adults.” [Mrs. Parker’s] like, “No, no, but you need real role models.” As if to say: your parents aren’t going to help you get out. Right.

Jeanie: Which adds insult to injury because what Jade really wants is to give.

She doesn’t want to always be the recipient, and so what she’s hearing from Mrs. Parker is, Oh, you honey, you just get to receive. You don’t have anything to give. These microaggressions, well-intentioned as Mrs. Parker may be, add up. And some of these have real impact.

Jory: Right. Because what Jade thought was going to happen when she went to Mrs. Parker’s office — what she was going to find out, and I’m going to quote from it — she says, “Of everything Mrs. Parker has signed me up for, this one means the most.” She’s hoping to sign up for a service learning project. Jade thinks, “This time it’s not a program offering something I need, but it’s about what I can give.”  So she wants to be able to say, I’m doing okay. Like, I want to give back, right.

It’s like we don’t even let her. Or, the world is not even letting her give back. They’re only seeing her need, right.

And the reality is Mrs. Parker as a white woman wants to be the giver, because giving feels good. It’s like we’re depriving Jade of this basic human need we have to help other people, right, and that she can only be helped, she can’t help others.

Jeanie: My educator self can’t help but think about the way we talk about moving from a deficit lens — what’s wrong with students — to a strengths lens about what do they have that they’re good at, what can they do well, what do they have to offer, and think about the power for Jade of Mrs. Parker shifting from this deficit lens to a strengths lens, and what impact that would have.

Jory: Can I just talk about her mom?

Jeanie: Yeah.

Jory: The other place, I think, in the book where it’s really obvious how these microaggressions, these little digs, are really effecting the characters is when Maxine, who is a seemingly more upper-class Black woman from Portland but who has been assigned as Jade’s mentor, shows up at her house. And she hasn’t contacted Jade’s mom. She’s just made plans through Jade. She comes to the house. Jade’s mom says, “I’ll answer the door.” Jade’s mom says,

“Good morning,” she says. “You must be Maxine.” Mom has her hand on her hip and she won’t let Maxine through the door. “I’m sorry, you wasted your time and gas coming over here, but Jade is not going with you today.”

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that. I was hoping to do an early b-day celebration with her and spend some quality time together,” Maxine says. “Is she okay?”

“Oh, she’s fine,” Mom says. “I would just appreciate it if you would contact me first before you and Jade make plans. Jade is not grown. Believe it or not, she does have a mother. That’s me. …Please let this be the first and last time you try to take my daughter out of my house without my knowing and giving permission.”

I guess I love this scene because it’s the mom saying, like, you might be her mentor but you’re not saving my daughter. Mom says:

“At the end of the day, when this program is over, she is not going to be anyone’s mentee but she’s still going to be my daughter.”

For her mom, she’s feeling all this hurt. Like, [she] can’t take care of [her] own kid.

And there this sort of undoing of her own humanity and people making assumptions about what she is capable or not capable of.

Jeanie: That’s so intriguing because it falls to that strength-base versus deficit-based approach.

When people have all these stereotypes about students of color, families of color and families in poverty, and one of the stereotypes is that they don’t care about education. And yet the data shows that actually they care about education really a great deal. And I think, for Jade, the biggest advocate for her for getting a good education is not Mrs. Parker, is not her teachers, it’s her mother.

Jory: Right. Her mother is working her butt off for her.

Jeanie: Her mother is working multiple jobs, and, yeah, holding things together. In this society, mothers like Jade’s don’t always get the respect and dignity that they deserve.

Jory: I think just another way Renée Watson creates a lot of whole-feeling characters in this book.

Jeanie: Jory, how would you use this book in a Language Arts classroom or Humanities classroom? In middle school or high school?

Jory: Well, first of all I love that this book is on the shorter side and yet so rich and full-feeling. Like, there’s so much here and yet it’s not a super, super-long book. I find when I am teaching books even to super-loving reading classes, I actually prefer less text because it means that you can spend more time on other things. For me this book is perfect because who doesn’t want to make collages?

One way that I think would be really fun to use this book in the classroom is to kind of do it in collaboration with some art. And to talk about collaging and figuring out how students may want to piece themselves together.

I want to just read one little quick part on Jade’s philosophy on finding beauty in the world, and as sort of a jumping-off point for how you might use this in art with your students. So Jade says,

Lots of people can’t find beauty in my neighborhood but I can. Ever since elementary school, I’ve been making beauty out of everyday things–candy wrappers, pages of a newspaper, receipts, rip-outs from magazines. I cut and tear, arrange and rearrange, and I glue them down, morphing them into something no one else thought they could be. Like me. I’m ordinary too. The only fancy thing about me is my name: Jade. There is nothing exquisite about my life. It’s mine, though, so I’m going to make something out of it.

This idea of taking all these ordinary things in our life and creating something that pieces together a representation of us? I think with an eighth or ninth -grade student — which I think that this book is perfect for sort of late middle school, early high school — there’s so much stuff around collaging and identity.

But even from there you could do so much around piecing yourself together in poetry or interviewing a bunch of your friends about who you are, and then collaging their ideas of who you are and creating a written piece about who you are. I think this book is really useful in getting at who each of us are, which is an added layer of beauty in this book.

I also think, on a very concrete level, this is a really powerful book for Vermont students to hear in terms of thinking about “What do microaggressions look like?” 

And for students of color, for them, maybe, to feel like there is an allied  voice or — they may not resonate with Jade but maybe there is another character on the book they do. Or just sort of giving out other voices in our students’ lives that they hear other people? Is a powerful tool for this book.

Then as we talk about microaggressions, I think you could use this book really concretely to help kids define what it means when those little pokes at your humanity are constantly happening. That othering, and what that looks like and feels like for a character. I think this would be a really safe space to do that in. So lots of ideas. Yeah, do you have other ideas? What are you thinking?

Jeanie: Well, I love all of that. I think it really strongly connects with any identity work that’s happening in the classroom, really powerfully connects with that. I also love it as an opportunity to look at the way we build our identity from the inside? But our identity is also how we experience the world, and how the world experiences us. And this book is a really great example of that.

Jade has this rich inner life and knows who she is, but she also has to go out and face the world in ways, and she writes in lots of different ways about how her body takes up space in the world and what that means. But I’m wondering if there’s also a connection to youth voice. I don’t want to give any spoilers, but there are powerful ways in which Jade finds her voice in this book and uses them within that mentoring program. And I wonder about using that as a spring board for how did the voices of our students show up at school? How do we make space for the things they think are important, or the good ideas they have? So I’m curious about that as another avenue for this text, for this book.

Jory: Yeah, I love that idea. Again, no spoilers, but she does find some empowering ways to use her voice, totally.

One other thought I just have: I would hate to read this book with the class where that, maybe, makes a student feel really obviously targeted to. I think there needs to be just some thought about who’s in your class and reading a book like this, because it is a story about a girl who feels like she’s the only person with her perspective in the room.

I think even if done with good intentions, the book itself could be taught in a way that feels unsafe for a student in your room? Where it’s like, if there’s one kid in the room who’s aware that they’re the sort of the “othered” one that this book may actually be like, Oh, well, now my teacher is picking a book to make me feel normal but everybody knows who this book is for! Or something.

I think it doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught, because I think it can be really powerful for everyone? I am just thinking about my sixth-grade class last year. And they were a little young for this book, but if I had done it with them, I might have only focused on identity and collage. Like, I may have only used parts that felt really inclusive of everyone.

Jeanie: I think that’s really a good point. Like, we want to be prepared for our students to encounter any book, right? It could also be the case if you only have one student of color in your class that you’d want to do the work ahead of time to make sure everybody is comfortable and ready to experience this book and the discussions you’re going to have.

I really loved The Hate U Give. I really loved Dear Martin by Nic Stone as well, but in both of those the people of color in those books experience police brutality. And I like this book because they don’t. Like, both the racism is more subtle in this book. It comes in the form of microaggressions and deficit thinking, but also that doesn’t become the only experience of people of color, that someone they know gets shot. I like this as an alternative story to that.

Jory: Yeah, and I totally agree. We are seeing a real trend in young-adult fiction right now about police violence, and that’s powerful. I am thinking about All American Boys, which came out last year. Or, this year, Tyler Johnson Was Here, is a brand new one that I am just reading. They’re really powerful important stories, but there are a lot of other stories about being a person of color. So I think you’re right that I appreciate that this book does not feel like it has to have it all. Like, it doesn’t have every issue. There is a calmness and a quietness to this book too, which I appreciate.

Jeanie: Let’s talk about some other books it puts us in mind of.

For me, it brought up Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. A beautiful memoir that was a Vermont Reads book a couple years ago. Were there books that it brought to mind for you?

Jory: Well, we’ve already talked about Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give, which is really being read a ton, and libraries are buying tons of copies of, which is great; although it’s also banned in some places. It’s been getting a lot of attention. This book also that reminded me of an older book called The Skin I’m In by Sharon Flake, which is another book about being “othered” and what it feels like to be Other, and to have an adult in your life who might feel the same otherness you do. That I read actually as a middle schooner, and I’ve taught in middle school and have found it to be a really powerful book to this day. It’s an oldie but goody to keep around.

Jeanie: Excellent. I also just read Jacqueline Woodson’s Harbor Me which is for a younger audience but I think it speaks to some of these other themes about feeling other, because of your family circumstances, and creating a safe harbor, a safe space, for students to be themselves. I think that’s another great connection for the fifth and sixth grade classroom.

Jory: It’s a little bit of jump from here, but one of the things that’s been really exciting about serving on Green Mountain Book Award over the last six years has been seeing the huge increase in authors of color writing about … writing characters of color. There’s been a big movement: the #WeNeedDiverseBooks movement has really, I think, had real impact on publishers, and in a way that maybe Hollywood has been slow to respond. I think in especially young-adult fiction, we’re seeing this just huge increase.

I’m thinking about two books I’m just reading.

One, American Panda by Gloria Chao, which I read few weeks ago. I’m just finishing up a book called Emergency Contact by Mary H. K. Choi, which I’m loving. Both are young-adult novels with Asian-American characters written by Asian-American female authors.

Just seeing the volume of authors of color and seeing feels exciting. All of us this year have been like, “Wow.” Like, “This feels exciting.” We’re in this moment where we finally hearing just a broader range of voices to represent our country. It feels, I think, especially in these political moments it’s feeling exciting to feel like there is some hope out in the world. Some good is happening in the world of stories.

Piecing Me Together: Books Discussed in this Episode


Jeanie: Stories are powerful. Tell me about the Green Mountain Book Award or what we often call the GMBA award?

Jory: GMBA is Vermont’s reader’s choice award for high school students in the state. We select a list of about 15 books every year, and they are meant to be books that are for high school students of Vermont to enjoy. Really the goal of it is really about pleasure reading. While it’s meant to be books that we enjoy, but it’s not always about literary acutance. It’s often about what do we think teens are going to pick up and what do Vermont teens specifically need to be reading, which is really fun.

The 2018-2019 list includes some of my favorite books, such as Robin Benway’s Far From the Tree, which is a story of three children who have all been either adopted or in the foster care system. They didn’t know they had siblings and they sort find each other. It’s a really beautiful, beautiful book. It was also a National Book Award winner from last year. Another book that was fun and sort of different for me was David Elliot’s Bull, which is a novel in verse retold about bunch of different Greek myths, and they are — it’s witty, and hysterically funny and also just sort of pithy. Couple other ones that were highlights from last year were, S. F. Henson’s The Devils Within, which I think for Vermont high school students is a really important book. It’s a fictional account of a teenager trapped in a white supremacy group, and they get out, and what that looks like. It’s a terrifying, page turning, harrowing book.

Jeanie: I read it. It’s so gripping and so informative. Yeah, it’s a powerful book.

Jory: Yeah. Another great one to do with a class or just hand to teen to read on their own. Then another one that I really love from last year was a non-fiction title: The 57 Bus: The True Story of Two Teenagers and The Crime That Changed Their Lives. which is the story of a transgender student who is lit on fire on the number 57 bus, a public bus in California, and all that transpires. They survive but all that transpires afterward with the accused and the victim, is a really powerful, powerful true story. Yeah, lots of lots of things and a whole mix of stuff from last year’s list.

Jeanie: The 57 Bus would have been perfect, Jory. When we used to teach together we could have taught that as a part of your juvenile justice unit.

Jory: Yeah, and it also would have fit really well with my narrative non-fiction. I am a huge fan of non-fiction that feels like a story. Where it’s like it to really like be a page turning gripping reader in the midst of non-fiction. Yeah, you’re right. We could have taught that in lots of good ways. If you go to the Vermont Department of Libraries, the 2018/19 list is there as well as all the previous 10 years of list. There are just awesome books on there. We work really hard to pick a mix of things that we love, but also things that, maybe, haven’t been given much voice and then need a little trumpeting.

Green Mountain Book Awards


Jeanie: I have always been a fan. When I was librarian and I collaborated with the high school language arts teacher. We would give kids choice from the GMBA list and for there one book a year, so they weren’t reading Shakespeare and weren’t reading what was in the cannon, but they had some choice. It was always their favorite book of the year. It was always huge. We did it for years because they loved it so much and the teacher saw the value of it as well so. I want to ask, a lot of middle school kids read these books, so how does GMBA work … it supposed to be a high school? Can middle school kids vote? What do you say about middle school participation in this program?

Jory: That’s a great question. A lot of people are very familiar in Vermont with the DCF list — the Dorothy Canfield Fisher list — which is also a reader’s choice award. DCF is meant to go from grades three or four through eighth-grade. GMBA was created as the high school equivalent, but what we’ve really seen and learned is that most students, by the time they’re in eighth for sure but even seventh, are really ready for older books. We’re pretty aware of that on GMBA. We do consciously chose books that will appeal the high school students, but we know younger readers would read them.

Part of how we have accommodated for that is that come usually around end of March, we open up voting, and it’s online through the Department of Libraries. There is a link to how kids can vote, and every kid can fill up their own individual voting form. There is a way to check that you are not in either ninth or 12th-grade. You can say you’re a middle school student, or you can say you’re a college or older student, because we know actually lot of college kids also read these. Yeah, we welcome middle school kids reading them; although we will say some of the content in these books is hard.

Piecing Me Together actually is one I would pretty happily hand to a middle school, but like The Devils Within is a really hard book about white supremacy, I would … there is a reason we say ninth through 12, but we also know middle schoolers are always looking to edge up.

Jeanie: Well played. Well played. Any other thoughts on GMBA or on Piecing Me Together, this beautiful book by Renée Watson?

Jory: I guess my final thought on this book and GMBA is just that I feel really grateful to get to read young-adult books as an adult, because every time I do I’m reminded a little bit more of what it’s like to be a teenager, and we have this funny world where people who write for young-adults and people who recommend — like you and I recommend books for young-adults — are adults. There is this powerful thing that happens in YA words often, and Piecing Me Together is a great example of. It’s really they’re stories often about someone really trying to figure who they are.

I think as an adult, as someone in my early thirties, who is constantly trying to figure out who I really am, that these stories really resonate, because the reality is it may happen for us for our first time in a powerful way when we’re 16 or 17. That’s my first memory of really piecing myself together, but that about every five years, I’m doing it again. I sort of appreciate that these books remind me of just how difficult it is to feel whole in a world that’s complicated.

Jeanie: Yeah. I strongly believe that reading young-adult and middle-grades literature makes me a more empathetic educator. Helps me understand my students … the young people in my life better.

Jory: I feel that same way.

Jeanie: Yeah.

Jory: And myself. And I understand myself better.

Jeanie: Yeah. Absolutely. Thank you, Jory, so much for taking the time to come and talk to us about “Piecing Me Together.”

Folks if you want a copy, I’m quite certain your high school librarian or middle librarian can get you one if they don’t have one on the shelf. Check out your local library, your school library, find a copy of Renee Watson’s “Piecing Me Together.” You won’t regret it. Jory, thanks for your time.

Jory: Thanks for having me, Jeanie. Talking about young-adult literature is my best life.





The 21st Century Classroom is the podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. A huge thank you to Jory Hearst for appearing on this episode. If you’re interested in finding out more about the Green Mountain Book Awards visit libraries.vermont.gov. They are continually looking for new committee members and would love to hear from the reading public. Also a quick shout-out to the Carpenter-Carse Library in Hinesburg, for loaning our editor a reference copy on extremely short notice. Ahem.

You can subscribe to our podcast on iTunes, Soundcloud and the Google Play store, or right here on our blog. Music for this episode is by Argofox: Meizong & Yeeflex – Sunrise, used with permission.

And if you’re interested in reading Piecing Me Together with your students, check out this discussion guide about race, gender, class and intersectionality (.pdf).

Piecing Me Together Discussion Guide

How can students teach educators about social identity?

A trio of Tuttle 6th graders led educators from around Vermont through activities in bias-awareness and social identity at the 2018 Middle Grades Conference. And what they learned from those educators is every bit as powerful as what the educators learned from them.

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Race Against Racism VT

It all starts with an idea. Races Against Racism have taken place around the country, and last spring, a community member and organizer Henry Harris suggested that 15-year-old Hope Petraro organize an event in her community. He said she might be interested in having this event in Montpelier. That was just the spark she needed.

Since then, Hope, with the support of her teachers and community mentor, has created an important event to fight back against racism during a time when our country is seeing a resurgence of racial conflict.

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The #everydaycourage of talking about race in Vermont schools

How will your students prepare for active engagement in democracy?

#everydaycourageLast spring Christie Nold, a 6th grade teacher at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, was at Burlington’s Jazz Fest listening to student musicians when she got some disturbing news: someone had spray-painted racist hate speech on her school’s campus.

Overwhelmed by her own emotions, Nold also knew that she had to find a way to help her students deal with their own understandings and emotions about the  graffiti. Like Christie, many teachers are wondering how to address a recent rise in racism and white supremacy.

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How to fight fake news in the field

A case study from one classroom

how to fight fake newsIn part one, we explored how middle grade students are struggling to recognize fake news or sponsored posts and shared many tools for teachers looking to tackle this thorny issue.

But what does it really look like We sat down for a Q & A with Christie Nold, sixth grade educator and fighter of fake news.

Here’s her mini-unit on telling real from fake news.

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Student voice as a social justice issue

Eminent education researcher speaks at UVM

student voice as a social justice issue
Emily Nelson, Eastern Institute of Technology Hawkes Bay, New Zealand

Visiting New Zealand researcher Emily Nelson PhD spoke this past week to Vermont educators about how student voice — the concept that students need an active role in determining the course of their education — is a social justice issue and a fundamental right of students everywhere.

“When we talk about ‘students’,” Dr Nelson told the crowd, “what we really mean is ‘humans in a student role in a compulsory setting.'”

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“See America”: Cabot students share their PBL research

Project-based learning is alive and well in rural Vermont

real world project-based learningAs part of The Cabot School‘s Exhibition of Learning earlier this spring, middle school students had a chance to share out some PBL research. Themed around the cultural landscape of the United States, the “See America” exhibit boasted a number of amazing students who showed off outstanding examples of how project-based learning can be applied to history and social sciences. Check out some of the highlights from the exhibition, below.

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