Tag Archives: trauma-informed education

Trauma-informed distance learning, with Alex Shevrin Venet

The need for trauma-informed practice is particularly salient during the current global pandemic, when many if not all of us are experiencing trauma daily. And educators are working hard to translate trauma-informed practice to emergency remote learning.

Luckily, we have experts like Alex Shevrin Venet engaged in the current moment. She’s a local Vermont educator with global reach, writing on trauma-informed education at her blog, on twitter,  and for publications like edutopia.

In concert with Tim O’Leary, co-director of What’s the Story, we organized a “Lunch n’ Learn webinar” for Alex to take a global audience a little farther in unpacking trauma-informed distance learning. We asked attendees to read a couple of Alex’s recent articles, then tune in for an hour and send Alex their questions. The 500 seats at in our Zoom room filled up in a matter of hours. The questions? Were amazing.

Tim produced a video of the conversation with Alex, and a full transcript is available below. Spend some time listening to Alex and her recommendations for how we as educators can be responsive in supporting students with trauma-informed distance learning.




Alex:  Hi, everybody. Hi, everyone. Welcome, welcome everyone. I’m Alex. I’ll introduce myself more in just a moment.  Welcome to all. I want to draw your attention on the slide in front of you that we have a link to a resource page. If you were tweeting, this launch and learn, feel free to use the #vted hashtag.  That’s our Vermont education hashtag and we love to see your thoughts on there.

A couple of quick introductions, I’m Alex Venet, coming at you from Winooski, Vermont.  I’m a professional development facilitator and educator.  I teach community college. And I teach in-service teachers through graduate courses, and I write and I do a bunch of other stuff. My focus is on trauma informed education and social emotional learning and equity.

Life, do you want to introduce yourself? 

Life:  Sure, thanks, my name is Life LeGeros. I’m in the foothills of the Green Mountains here in Vermont, in South Duxbury. I use he/him pronouns and I’m just so excited to be here. Thank you, Alex for inviting me.  I know how much your work is respected across Vermont, with partner educators who I work with as well as across the country and the globe.  I always learn a lot from you, so I appreciate it.

Alex:  So, Life and I are going to be basically just having a conversation about our current state of emergency distance learning, and trauma, and how we navigate all of this.

A couple of logistical things:

  • I’m going to do a couple of really quick getting ready to learn things activities for us to get in this space together. 
  • Then I’ll have just really quick opening thoughts just to situate us.
  • And then we’ll really dig into some questions and answers, including questions that you all have asked ahead of time as well as questions that folks in the webinar, put into our Q&A, which I’ll talk about again in a second;
  • then we’ll wrap up.

With that we’re going to do a couple of really quick getting-ready-to-learn pieces that I like to do whenever we start our learning experience.

First, I like to take a moment and just get grounded. Check in with yourself.

In a moment what I’m going to do is turn off my camera for 30 seconds and just take a second to get settled. And I encourage you to take that moment for yourselves as well.

Some things that you might do:

  • you might drop your shoulders;
  • or see if your jaw has clenched throughout your day;
  • you might want to notice your breathing and just kind of check in with how that’s going;
  • you might want to stretch, or move your body a little bit.

If it doesn’t feel right to check in with your body right now, maybe just look at your surroundings. Ground yourself in where you are, what’s around you or what’s in your environment.

And if you’re in need of a little bit of an energy, you can do just this really simple exercise: rub your palms together to create a little energy and heat, then press one hand over your heart. Just feel that energy that you have. 

Or you can just sit there and stare or check Twitter — or do whatever — for 30 seconds. It’s really up to you. But I’m going to take that moment for myself and I will see you back here in 30 seconds.

**thirty seconds pass**

And I’m back. I hope that was a good grounding moment for you.

The other piece that I like to do as we come into any learning experience is to check in with those around us and see what folks are bringing to the learning space.

So, the activity I like to do is called Rose and Thorn. Really simple, you just say a Rose, which is something going well for you today, and a Thorn, which is something not going so well.  

If you are watching the livestream, feel free to drop your rose and thorn on Twitter, using that VTed hashtag or turn to someone in your space and share a rose and thorn or just think about what that is for you today. Life, what’s your rose and thorn today? 

Life:  My rose? This morning I woke up to a coating of fresh snow.  It was really refreshing and nice.  And it’s kind of interesting because yesterday that same thing happened and was more of a thorn for me.  So to me that shows we’re very quick to adapt, and also things hit you differently in different moments.

For my thorn… I think you know this is an amazing opportunity.  We have people all over the globe who are joining us.  That’s super cool, but now that we’re actually here and chatting, I wish we were together.  You know, I wish we were hanging out.  I could talk to you about this stuff forever, maybe in a big room with all these folks too.  But we’ll make the best of it.

Alex: My thorn is that snow from this morning. Partially because here in my town it didn’t stick, so we didn’t even get the benefit of it looking nice outside or anything. And my rose would be just this opportunity. I guess my rose and thorn are exact opposite of you; my rose is the opportunity to talk to folks this morning.

So actually we ended up with a weirdly great example of how the same exact events can just hit really different for people.  I’m seeing in the chat that a lot of people also have roses and thorns connected to the weather.  Thorns connected to the stress and isolation that we’re all feeling. Roses include some of the connections people are having.

Life:  I see a lot of roses around hiking and getting outdoors more these days. things like that. Which is really important. 

Alex:  I like the rose and thorn activity in part because it allows us to just be mindful of what other folks are bringing to a learning experience, or to a collaboration experience. I highly encourage folks to use the activity when you go out to other meetings and gatherings. 

All right. So: a couple of reminders here before we get started, around taking what you need.

The first is that anytime that we talk about trauma, mental health, or stress, it can be difficult or stressful for people to engage with that topic. So feel free to give yourself permission to take breaks. To step away from this if you need to. Just take care of your needs.

I am definitely not here to tell you what to do. You are the person who knows you and your students; you know your situation best. I’m here to offer some thoughts and take what you need out of them. And I also just want to clarify that we’ll be talking about trauma, and maybe some things that might be traumatic. But I won’t be sharing any specific stories or details or images of traumatic things.

And finally, I want to remind folks that this is the public space. So if you’re asking questions or using the chat, just encouraging folks not to be sharing any personal information or stories about students that are not yours to share.

So with that, I’m just going to talk for a quick moment about some overall thoughts around trauma in our current situation. 

I hope many of you have had the chance to look at the resources that we provided. And really, you know, my thoughts are going in many places these days, but I keep coming back to this idea that: we can be mindful that trauma looks different for everyone. But as a globe right now, we’re kind of living through a large community trauma. And that’s going to impact everybody differently.

So as educators, we really want to think about how to center care in everything that we’re doing. We want to be responsive to the hardship that a lot of people are going through.

I have these things I call Four Priorities and those are really my guideposts for how I think about my trauma-informed practice. Those are:

  • Predictability
  • Flexibility
  • Connection
  • Empowerment

I really come back to those a lot of times when I’m thinking about how to structure an activity, or how to do outreach or change policies or anything like that. So I may be referring back to those as we chat. 

Now let’s just dive into some of these questions we have.

Life:  Fantastic, thank you Alex.  I so enjoy the readings. And I appreciate the opportunity today to dig a little deeper or to expand a bit. The first question we’re going to start with: Alex, a lot of your writing — not all of it, but much of it — is directed towards supporting students who have experienced trauma.

How can districts and schools support educators who might be experiencing their own trauma during this time?

Alex: This is such an important question and sometimes this is the last consideration that we get to when we talk about student trauma. When in fact, it really should be the first. If we as caregivers are not well, it is really hard and sometimes impossible to really provide care for others.

So one thing I want to say to every person out there, whether you’re a teacher or a parent or really any role of humanity ever, is that, it is okay to not be okay right now.  Ae all need to drop the expectation that there is an okay right now.

We’re living through a global pandemic. And regardless whether on any given day you feel safe, or settled, or not safe or anxious. We’re still in this big context where the planet is not okay right now.  I keep seeing this phrase “The new normal.” And I may have even used that one myself, but there isn’t really a new normal. Because this isn’t normal. So I think the starting point really is validating that all of that is all right and starting there.

Beyond that, you know, I kind of think about two layers, right?

So, one is directly speaking to teachers. Reminding folks that it is important to take care of ourselves so we can take care of the kids. But that doesn’t mean you have to somehow elbow through on your own, you know? Healing and resilience comes through our community and our relationships with others.

I encourage folks to think: who are your support people? How might you be vulnerable and lean on them?

I highly, highly, highly encourage everyone to check in with your therapist, if you have one. And if you don’t have one, therapists are moving things online. There are apps like Talkspace, where you can access somebody, virtually.

If you have a faith leader you connect to. If you have a supportive group of folks you can talk to. Or if you have a partner or a family member or friend. Really reach out. It’s okay to ask for help.

I encourage folks to use those supports and to take it slow, right?  We’re in a marathon, not a sprint. So don’t burn yourself out in these first few weeks.  Because this is going to be a little while that we’re all doing this.

The other thing I want to say in response to this is around school leaders.

For those of you who are watching this who are maybe administrators or principals, or have any type of leadership role in a school, I want you to think about: what is the community care that you can offer to your teachers?

I know that you as an administrator are pulled in many directions right now.  But it really needs to be a priority to care for your teachers. So:

Actually check in with them without an agenda. Don’t tack a check-in onto a business meeting. Actually make time and really listen to what’s going on for your teachers.

See what you can take off teachers’ plates. Let them focus on what matters. See if there’s any way you can pull some of the, you know, administrivia (or whatever) off their plates.

Remind them what resources are available. So many schools have an EAP — employee-assistance program — hotline that teachers can call. Those are those supports available to them.

Also: model your own self-care and your work-life boundaries. Don’t email your teachers at 10:00 at night and expect that they’re going to get back to you right away.  Encourage your teachers to step away from the computer in the evening. It really has to be a community effort really to take care of ourselves.

Life: Thank you, that was so interesting. As for boundaries, I’ve even seen districts go so far as giving guidelines for how much time teachers should be putting into their school work per day.  Like I saw one district said, you know, teachers should only be working five hours a day. And I’m wondering from, you know, educators’ perspectives. Do you have tips for people to be in touch with themselves, to understand when they’re nearing, kind of a burnout point?

Working with educators, I see them work so hard; they’re so dedicated. Just on the regular day-to-day, without this whole pandemic thing hanging over them.

Any signs people should be watching for within themselves that kind of say like, oh, that’s a sign that I should be slowing down a little bit, or I should be taking a break? 

Alex:  I mean, it’s tough to answer that. Because with the general context of what’s going on, I think it’s probably going to be hard for people to separate out like:

  • What is my general anxiety about our world right now?
  • And what is my anxiety connected to work?

I think the simplest way is to just take breaks. Check in with yourself throughout the day.

There’s different apps you can use that are like mood-tracking apps, if that’s something that folks are interested in. Or you can literally just set a timer on your phone so that every two hours, you’re going stop, turn to a piece of paper and just write a sentence about how you’re feeling.

But if you’re with your family or a partner, try to have a consistent check in each night. Maybe reflect on your rose and thorn of the day or your high and low. “On a scale from 1 to 10, how did I feel today?” Kind of create routines so you can witness each other’s states. How you’re doing. I think it’s truly just taking that time.

know for me it’s very easy to just get sucked into the computer. It feels like there’s an endless stream of things I could be doing on my laptop all day. So those lunchtime breaks have been really helpful to check in with my partner. It has been really helpful in just slowing down.

Life:  Awesome, thank you. So, this is another question that came up before today. A lot of people were interested in this. It references the fact that you focus on relationships with students as an important part of educator practice, and a key to resilience during this time.

How can teachers foster relationships among students during remote learning? 

Alex: Yes, so this focus on relationships if you look at, you know, all of the literature and what we know about trauma-informed practice, relationships help.

Bruce Perry, who is a leading child trauma expert researcher, says that the best intervention for trauma is anything that increases the strength and number of relationships in a child’s life.

So I recommended to people to really center that relationship. I think many of us can think of ways to do that as teachers, right? We can be working with students and connecting with them and things. So, this question about how do we encourage other relationships for kids *in between* students is a great one.

One asterisk I put on all of this right is that we don’t want to force anything, right? And something I think a little bit about is students who were stressed about social interactions before. They may actually be enjoying their reprieve from that right now. Or they may continue to be stressed because social media is daunting. So they’re still experiencing the stress of those social relationships.

We don’t want to get into like a forced group work situation where kids are now having more conflict because they have to collaborate on something, they didn’t really want to collaborate on.  So, couching it in that choice.

But beyond that, I think about, you know, what are the things that your students connected with when they were face-to-face? Did you have class in-jokes?  Did you have fun, silly things that you would do? Or did you have routines around, you know, stuff that you would do as a class together?  Did you have circle time where there were specific things that you talked about?

I would really think about any of those things that will feel familiar, how can we continue to incorporate that. And just making space for that silliness and fun, right?

So, I think sometimes I know when I sit down to type up instructions for my online learning stuff, I sometimes will go into this really formal register where I’m like first one must enter their password into the Google classroom.  Like it just get really formal for some reason.

But try to write like you speak, use gifs, use emojis, make a video of yourself, put a sound recording.  Try to create that like human centered space and synchronize ways too that kids can check in.

I know in my Community College class that I had to move online, we used to start with rose and thorn every week.  Now I just put up a rose and thorn discussion every week. And they check in with each other.

We’ve also started doing a little extra each week where like last week we shared Spotify playlists that we liked.  And then we shared TV recommendations.  This week we’re talking about what video games and apps we’re all playing at home.  So, really just anything that helps kids connect.

And then the last thing I’ll say about this is remembering that the students at your school are not the only peers that your students have.

So, many kids are involved in extracurricular sports youth groups, all those kinds of things. And so, you might prompt your kids to be, you know, writing postcards or sending the emails or selfies or whatever it is.  But it doesn’t have to live just within your class.

Life:  That’s such a great point.  I love the asynchronous ideas around check-ins. And I’ve seen teachers doing that with tools like Flipgrid or Padlet where students can leave pictures or links or in some cases little videos to each other.  And it’s actually a very strong way to connect when you just start talking like, you know, like this and you can see each other do that.

Alex:  Yes, I would shout out our friend Christine Nold, middle school teacher extraordinare! She’s been sharing on Twitter each day the prompt that she’s using in her advisory class. I think there’s like 21 days that we’ve been doing so far? So there’s lots of ideas in there, different prompts and reminders.  Just a great example of someone expressing care through those posts.

Life:  Yes! I love one of the lines from one of your pieces of writing where you say: “You know, the way that you are delivering distance learning is an expression of care right now.” And that includes both through these kinds of things as well as curriculum. Awesome.

So, the next question that we flagged is kind of somebody sharing a personal example; I’m asking for your take on it. 

A teacher was noting that they had a student who was upset with them, specifically that the teacher had shared information with the student’s guidance counselor. 

Now, this is a case where the teacher and the student didn’t have the best relationship in person before remote learning.  And now this information-sharing has hurt the relationship.  So, the teacher is asking for advice on how they can improve their relationship with the student now.

Alex:  I just appreciated this question because it highlights just how complicated things are, always! But especially right now, around boundaries and information-sharing. What is the role of a teacher?

So, I get really excited about boundaries. 

This is a topic I’m really interested in. Especially when we talk about trauma-informed practice.

I think a lot of teachers wonder: does trauma-informed practice mean I should be engaging in therapeutic interactions with my students? Does this expect me to become a social worker?

And my answer to that is no.

It’s important for teachers to have strong boundaries. And to be able to recognize when should I pass along information to someone who has the skills, training and expertise to better respond to it. If you want to prevent a situation like the on described, I really, really strongly encourage people to be checking in with your administrators and school counselors about what are the information-sharing processes and expectations right now.

I think about that especially because teachers are mandated reporters.

So if there are things that cause you to suspect neglect or abuse for a child, you’re mandated to report that. And every state has guidelines about how that happens.

But, then there’s a whole category of other kind of concerning stuff that comes up in school.

Oftentimes, we address those things more informally at the end of the day. Maybe I wander into my colleague’s room and I say: “My students have this thing today and it’s kind of bugging me. What do you think about it?” And we have that kind of check-in and then can make those decisions about passing things forward.

While we’re all in our separate houses, I think that’s harder to do.  

So I really encourage people to be proactively communicating about that stuff and figuring out when and how should I be passing along information and what types.

We should also be really transparent with students about that information-sharing. In what situations do we pass forward information, and what should students be aware of when sharing info?

And it’s a great time to have that conversation, because we’re also online!  So, there is a difference between sharing a thought in a classroom circle and sharing a thought on Google Classroom where one of your peers could screenshot your post and share it to Instagram, right? We should just be openly having those conversations.

All that doesn’t answer this teacher’s question because this has already happened for them. If you have a rupture in a relationship with the student the thing to do is try to repair that. The principles of restorative practicesoffer some really nice guidelines of how to do that.  But really looking at who is impacted and how we can make it as right as possible.

I would just add that, if you didn’t have strong relationships with students before, it is going to be hard to build those relationships, but you shouldn’t stop trying.

Maybe add some extra time to your week to reach out and connect with the students.

Life:  I’ve also heard teachers talking about cases where all of a sudden, they’ve seen their relationships with students  blossom. They’re connecting with students in a way that they didn’t before, with particular students.

But thinking about what you said about drawing boundaries, being really clear about guidelines, and transparent with students around that, have you seen any really good models out there from a school or district that you would want to shout out for people to see? Do you have a couple in mind?

Alex:  Yes. So, you know, I think this isn’t an area where a lot of folks are proactive.  And I haven’t — I can’t call to mind a specific school example where I’ve seen something they’ve put together.  One article is have is Role-Clarity and Boundaries for Trauma Informed Teachers. That’s about boundaries and information-sharing. And I think it might help people conceptualize how to talk about this stuff.

I’m also a big fan of encouraging people to use the local resources available to you. Child abuse prevention organizations which many of you have in your communities. Local chapters of Prevent Child Abuse, a national organization that has all kinds of stuff about internet safety for kids. They have stuff about not keeping secrets with kids, that kind of stuff. Schools could be reaching out to those groups and collaborating on things that could then be passed on the kids and families. 

Life: Looking at the Q&A we have a few questions that have popped up during the chat. There’s one here that I think might be interesting to talk about. You mentioned the importance of pass-fail grading, and they have a question about it.

If school boards or administrators are requiring something other than pass-fail grading, do you have recommendations to ensure the least amount of stress on students and teachers in terms of assessment?

Alex:  Great.  So, the most recent post on my blog is about pushing back against unjust policy that’s happening. And in that I use as an example pass-fail grading.

When we look at issues of equity right now, it feels very odd to be using a letter grade because there’s so many factors going into whether a student can engage in their learning right now, and what resources are available to them.

For instance, I know that schools have been really scrambling to try to provide special education services with varying degrees of success. So it just feels like: how could we really capture all that in better grades? 

I have seen some great examples that different districts and schools are moving to pass, fail, or to complete/incomplete kinds of grading. I can’t say for sure what is going to be right for your school, or your classroom, or your environment.  But overall, I think that these are conversations we need to be having.

That post goes into a little bit more about if you’re worried about how you’re supposed making decisions about this stuff.  I have a couple of conversation starters. How to maybe send a message to your school board or your principal to say,

“I have some questions about this because the way that we’re operating doesn’t feel like it lines up with our values.” 

Life:  I love that post! You have this phrase: “creatively non-compliant”.  I don’t know if you came up with that but that’s such a cool turn of phrase.

Alex:  I saw that phrase originally in a book by Debbie Meier who is a great education thinker and progressive educator.  She gave examples of: “I’m technically complying with this thing. But actually, I’m doing what I know is right for my students and what is in line with my values.”

And that phrase just has always stuck with me. 

Life: Just on that, I’m wondering, with the pass-fail or the complete-incomplete: how do you define the criteria for incomplete? I was trying to think like, what would be fair? What would be fair for assigning a student an incomplete? And I was trying to think like, you would have to in some way determine that that student had, you know, every opportunity and all the resources needed to be able to complete the work. Otherwise, like you mentioned, you’re just grading their environment there. And then I was thinking: how could you do that? Do you confer with the guidance counselors? Or their families?  I was kind of a little bit stuck on that. I don’t know if you have thoughts.

Alex:  Yes! I mean all this stuff about grading — I really feel for all of you who are in positions to make decisions about this policy stuff, because it feels like every choice is the wrong choice.

I linked to Chris Lehmann who is a principal in Philly. He wrote this really wonderful post about leadership at this time, and he talks about making the least bad decision that you can right now.  And I think that’s a great framework.

But when I think about like, how do you assess, like what resources the kid has? One understanding from trauma that I come back to is that you can’t ever really know if someone else is having a traumatic response to events.

You might *think* that you can know because some of the symptoms may look more obvious, like depression or anxiety or aggression. These may be things you could observe. But one of the other symptoms of trauma response is perfectionism. Kind of doing the best that you can so that you can float under the radar and just get through.

I don’t know that there’s a way to look at a kid — I should rephrase that. I *know* there’s not a way to look at a kid and know what’s really going on.

So it just becomes really complicated to then try to make judgments about these kids. Did they do the best given what was available to them at the time?

Again, I don’t know what the right answer is around grading, but I do know that we can’t just keep doing what we’ve been doing. Because it’s not going to work.

To me it’s like we just have to lean into the nuances and lean into the mess and just get comfortable with that mess. Because there is really not going to be any one size fits all approach is going to help us through this thing. 

Life:  You know, the mess we’re in impacts people differently. Here’s a question from our Q&A:

How can we best support students of color?  Black, Indigenous, Asian, students of color who are experiencing equities and racism through an online platform.

When you’re thinking about trauma informed education, you have to consider not just trauma outside of school, but the trauma that students experience *within* schools, and even sometimes *because* of our school systems.

So! Thoughts on supporting students of color within the context of remote learning?

Alex:  Yes. Great question. And I think that there’s been a lot of really interesting conversations about how this is all impacting students of color differently.  Like there’s the impact of, you know, systems of oppression and racism, meaning that students of color and their families might not be getting access to the same medical support,and other types of supports. And they are being put more at risk through those systems of oppression.

There’s also some interesting perspectives about how some students of color may be experiencing a *more* affirming educational environment being educated by parents or family than they were at school.

I would point people towards Kelly Hurst who has a really wonderful post on Medium that explores this.

I would go back to that and think about, you know, again, leaning into that complexity. Just think about all the different experiences. Just listening and talking to our kids and their families about what’s going on for them.

It sounds like the specific question was around harassment or racism on an online platform.  And I don’t know the specifics around that question. But I would say that if that’s happening in your online platform, right, in your Google Classroom, that’s your responsibility as a teacher to be shutting it down.

Maybe that’s what you need to do to ensure safety.  But it’s your responsibility to be addressing that the same way it would be if folks were saying stuff in school.

And if your school has not talked about this, like if your group of faculties or your principal’s, whoever has not had a conversation about this yet, that would be a great one to put to the group and say, how are we addressing this as a school?

Given that whatever we were doing for discipline before is not a thing now in remote learning, how are we addressing this? How are we making sure that students of color are not experiencing this? Or if they are, they’re having some kind of repair happen.

But yes, it’s all complicated. I would say that, you know, we do have to pay attention to this. We do have to talk about this.  Go back to your faculty and say: let’s talk about this proactively. So, should something happen, we’re not caught off guard.

Life:  Yes, and, you know, that makes me think about how so many schools in Vermont and across the country are doing lots of anti-racism teaching. And anti-bias teaching. Really thinking about diversity, inclusion in new ways. And it’s just as this thing has hit, you know, so much of that really complex important work in some ways kind of got back-burnered for a moment while people were just trying to deal with the transition.

So how ambitious should people be with what they’re trying to teach students in this moment?

Whether it’s anti-racist teaching, whether it’s project-based learning, you know, the things that we know are so engaging and authentic for students. Do you have thoughts on how people can strike that balance?

Alex:  Well, I want to pick up for one second on your comment that for some folks, some of that diversity, equity and inclusion stuff has been back-burnered.

Because for a lot of folks it’s not on the back burner, right? They’ve put it really at the center of how they’re designing things for this moment. Equity, inclusion and access are  really at the heart and center of what I’m doing.

And I think there’s a lot of tension for folks where schools that have been talking about this but maybe not doing it, *did* put it on the back burner. Which then kind of indicates that it didn’t really stick yet, right?  If we truly care about this, it’s not on the back burner. And so, I think that’s an interesting tension that’s happening right now.

As you said, I’m really interested and passionate about this idea that to be a trauma-informed school you can’t just look at trauma that’s happening outside of school that would be impacting kids when they come in. You also have to ensure that what you’re doing as a school is not traumatic. That it’s not causing trauma or perpetuating it within the school walls. So, that’s one thing I’m thinking about.

In regards to the curriculum piece?

Again, you know, it’s going to be something so different for everybody, but I think that as much as possible, folks should be thinking about how do I engage in having kids *do* stuff and *make* stuff and *explore* things as opposed to just *completing* things.

And I think that especially if we’re not feeling that comfortable with technology, it can feel like, well, maybe what’s easy for me is to put up, you know: Video! Response! Article! Response! I totally get that. Sometimes I’ll default to that if I’m just like: “I’m so stressed!  I don’t know how to do this right now!”

But I saw a model of picturing your online space as a journal, and looking at helping kids think about what they’re actually doing and engaging with in whatever space they’re living in right now. Then they can come back to just journal and report out on what they did.

  • Can students go build something in the living room, snap a photo and report it back? 
  • Can they have an interesting conversation with somebody and then come back and talk about it?
  • Or can they make a TikTok and then, you know, show us what they made or talk about, how it felt to do it?

I think that moving to that kind of model is cool. This morning I saw a really cool resource on project-based learning and problem-based learning connected to COVID-19

And my caveat to this is that some kids are going to feel really anxious and overwhelmed by being asked to engage with learning directly *about* the pandemic. Some other kids are going to feel really excited and empowered to be engaging in that learning and thinking about the stuff that’s really happening.

Life:  So, to handle that, would you say that you give students an option? 

Or if it’s just like overwhelming, that there’s another thread or something that they can pick up?

Alex: Yes, and in general I would say, you know, going back to those Four Priorities, right? Two of them are Flexibility and Empowerment. And so, I think about the students really having options for basically everything.

If you do need kids to be creating a certain product, then giving them choice about what’s in the content, right? We learned about differentiation; you might differentiate the process, the product or the content.

But really just going back and differentiating, providing choices and also recognizing that one of those choices is to *not* choose a thing. So you may have kids or families that say, “You know what? We’re actually going to do this other thing.” Or: “We need to rest” or “we need to take a break”. Really honoring that, and giving that space.

Life:  I love what you said about the different tasks around documenting things. It really reminds me about something I strived for as a math teacher, to give tasks that have a low floor and a high ceiling. Everybody can enter. You can take a picture of something, or you can just go with it and create a cool little movie or something if you want.

One question that caught my eye and got quite a few upvotes from webinar participants was one that described where teachers are holding an online meeting and there’s something happening in the background that’s concerning.  It could be abuse, could be family disfunction, and teachers feel that they might need to follow up in other ways.  But I think the question here is:

What can a teacher do when they see something inappropriate to prioritize that student’s dignity and well-being in that actual moment? 

Alex:  Yes.  One quick answer is that if you are running a Zoom meeting, you can mute other people’s videos. And you can do that from the participants panel.  Ideally you have the ability to just help kind of give students that privacy screen by muting their video.

But then in the follow-up? I encourage people to think: what did I see, that was concerning? And why did it feel concerning?  This is where having accountability partners, co-teachers, checking in with the school counselor, administrator can be really helpful.

Because we also really have to be checking our own biases and assumptions right now.  Something that maybe feels unusual or different to you, that could be totally normal and fine. We have to check those implicit biases, you know differences just in how people are in their homes and families.

I would also add that we shouldn’t be requiring students to have their video on if we’re doing synchronous calls. Really give students the ability to have some privacy.  If they don’t want their classmates or their teacher looking into their home, we shouldn’t require that, right? That’s really a basic privacy thing.

Knd of going all the way back to one of our first questions: follow through on the information-sharing. Talk to the school counselor. Talk to the administrator, whoever it is you’re supposed to be sharing information with, and make a game plan together about what you can do.  

Life:  The last question is about how to work with colleagues in this moment, to help them provide empathy for students. 

This person is saying:

“I’m at this webinar learning a ton.  How can I open dialogue with colleagues? What’s the best way to try to help bring other people into this conversation?”

Alex: I think about using kind of those sentence starters of: “I notice…” and “I wonder…” with their colleagues.

If someone is sort of, you know, going off on, “Well, this kid? I know that things are fine for them. You know they’re just not trying hard enough!” Or whatever it is.

Can you reflect back to them like:

“Hey, I notice that you seem to be really frustrated with this student. What’s going on for you?  Can you tell me more about this? Hey, I wonder, even though we may assume that things are cool with this family.  I wonder if there’s hardships that could be happening?”

I recommend posing some of those questions and trying to dig in a little with people.

Also, if you’re comfortable with it, using your own vulnerability can be powerful. The more we can model that piece of it’s okay to not be okay.

I’m also really passionate about the idea of de-stigmatizing topics around mental health, and getting mental health support.  Could you say to your colleague like,

“Yeah, you know, it might look like things are fine, but just to be transparent, *I* look like I’m fine but I’m only that way because I had a call with my therapist and I have access to self-care resources. It must be *really* hard to be a kid and not necessarily have that. You know?”

Can you use your own vulnerability to help just increase people’s awareness that what things maybe look like on the surface isn’t there beneath?

Life:  I love that. And again, I just appreciate so much the conversation. 

Alex:  So, here are my last couple of thoughts.

First of all, I just really appreciate everyone who took the time to be here today.  And I really appreciate the organizations that made this happen. Huge, huge, huge shout out to Tim O’Leary, who was behind the scenes in all of this and really made all of the technical logistical stuff happened.  I really appreciate you. And thanks to Life, for being here.

For those of you who are really interested in learning more about trauma-informed practices, I have a resource round up on my website that has a bunch of different kind of getting started resources. I’m also on Twitter literally all the time and so you can always ping me on there if you’re looking for something in particular.

And I just encourage people to really look at all of this as a learning journey. There is no final version of being a trauma-informed educator perfectly. 

It’s more about embracing the complexity; embracing the challenges and leaning into some of the nuances.

I’m just encouraging people to ask questions, have conversations and keep your students at the center.

The last thing that I will say is just that this is hard for a lot of people. This current situation we’re in is just really difficult. So  encourage folks to reach out to people around you to get help — or to offer help.

Keep up your connections. And please forgive yourself for anything that you do these days, even if it doesn’t feel like the best version of your teaching self. Because it’s hard to be the best version of your teaching self in a pandemic and that is fine.

I just really encourage people give yourself some grace, give one another some empathy and grace, and keep going.  We all got this.  So, thanks again for being here.  I really appreciate all of you and I hope to stay connected.  


#vted Reads: On The Come Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeanie: What are you reading right now?

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

Jeanie: Wow. You read a lot!

Marley: I read a lot.

Jeanie: You read more than me.

Marley:  I do read a lot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jeanie: That sounds like your average high school kid.

Marley: Yeah.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m going to go ahead and read.

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

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

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

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

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

Marley: Sure. Let me flip to it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

These are *children*.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Don’t we want kids in a history class to be thinking about these things, about why history is told the way it’s told? Don’t we want them challenging and thinking about, hey, how come it’s just this story and not that story? That’s part of what being a historian is about. The fact that the one time she’s really engaging, she gets thrown out of class. It’s no wonder she doesn’t engage.

Marley: Definitely. What if one of her white classmates had asked a similar question? Bri’s trying to probe in differently, probing into what they’re talking about and find out more. But it just makes her teachers angry.

Jeanie:  It further disenfranchises her from school. She feels like her voice isn’t valuable. She’s constantly feeling like she doesn’t belong, in the sense that her thinking is unwelcome. Her perspective is unwelcome in the building and in the school. And she checks out a little bit, as you would if you felt unwelcome and lacked a sense of belonging.

Marley: One thing that you were saying earlier before we started, is that she’s in art school and it’s really ironic that she’s a rapper, which isn’t art as far as the school is concerned. Yet that part of her, who she is and that she’s really talented? We’ll see throughout the book. It’s what a lot of the book actually focuses on. That part of her is not praised at school. It is not seen as an asset because it doesn’t fit in with the schools’ idea of what is art.

Jeanie: We did talk a little bit earlier before we started recording, about how Angie Thomas is also a rapper. She writes these amazing raps, these amazing poetic forms in the book. Marley and I were like, how do we put that in this podcast, and we decided we can’t. Two white women trying to rap, two white women who don’t rap, trying to rap Bri’s amazing lines, it’s just not going work. I do want to set up what it’s like for Bri to rap.

I want to find when Bri first enters this rap competition, and just what’s happening. You can get a sense of how miraculous her skill is ,how talented she is as a young woman.

Marley: Alright, so Bri is now in the ring and doing a rap battle. This is her thinking to herself.

Rule numero uno battling, know your opponent’s weaknesses. Nothing he spit this round is directed at me. That may not seem like a red flag but right now it’s a huge one. I blinked. A real MC would go for the kill because of that, heck I go for it, he’s not even mentioning it. That means there’s a 98% chance this is pre-written. Pre-written as a no-no in the ring. A bigger no-no, pre-written by someone else.

But since my dad isn’t off-limits, not a thing is off-limits. Rule number two of battling, use the circumstances to your advantage. Supreme doesn’t look too worried, but trust he should be. That goes in my arsenal. Rule number three, if there’s a beat, make sure your flow fits it like a glove. Flow is the rhythm of the rhymes and every word, every syllable affects it. Even the way a word is pronounced can change the flow. Well, most people know Snoop and Dre for Deep Cover. One time I found a remake of it by this rapper named Big Pine on YouTube. His flow on the song was one of the best I’ve ever heard in my life.

Jeanie: There is so much that goes into the rapping that Bri does so well and in fact, the title On the Come Up is based on a rap that she’s written. That becomes a really big deal, not just in her neighborhood in Garden Heights, but also in Midtown where she’s going to school, right?

Marley: Yeah. She ends up recording the song and it’s kind of what a lot of the book later on focuses on. We have this first event with the security guards. But a lot of the book is on her rap song that’s becoming big, and if it portrays what she wants to portray about herself. And just the idea of putting it out there, what that song says about who she is. Like I said earlier, the whole book is about Bri figuring out who she is. She wants to be a rapper, and she’s an amazing rapper. She wants to make sure that the image she’s putting off is who she really is.

Jeanie: It’s a real tension, right? Because Jayda wants her to do well at school for a good reason. Jayda wants her to be a success in the world. Jayda wants her to have a happy, healthy life, and she wants her to focus on school more. For the reasons we’ve already recounted, Bri is pretty alienated from school. Also, this arts magnet school doesn’t realize that she’s making this profoundly complex poetry. She’s creating these rhythms and rhymes with music that have great meaning. That she’s using metaphor. That she’s telling stories in these really interesting ways. It’s all art. It’s *so* creative, and she has no path forward for it at school. All of her talent is outside of school in a way that completely alienates her.

Marley: There was this guy in my acting class in high school, and he was an amazing freestyler. When we would have to do these free writes, he would get up and just *go*. He would just go out there with his raps; they were amazing. It’s such a talent to figure out, because rap is not just the end rhyme. You know it’s not just the syllables; it’s the internal rhyme. In fact, if you’ve ever studied Greek and Latin epics, if you look at the internal rhyme in The Iliad and The Odyssey, there’s so much internal rhyming going on. That’s what you see happening.

And so much rap is not only the end rhyme, it’s that internal rhythm and beat that’s happening at the same time. It’s so powerful and amazing. The fact that so much of what Bri does is like instantaneous. She’s out there and she’s freestyling and her brain is working in a way that mine is not even capable of, to make these end rhymes and internal rhymes and allusions and metaphors and similes.

I mean, she’s killing it. She’s doing an amazing job with all the poetry, but then she goes to school and she’s not getting A’s in her English class, right? She’s being assessed on other things. That’s not what they’re looking at, that talent she has.

Jeanie: It’s not even remotely what they’re looking at. It’s completely ignored, right? It’s  divorced from school altogether. Jamila Lyiscott has amazing this TED Talk about the art of the cipher.

She talks about how, when she’s working with pre-service teachers, she puts on some music and ask them to create a cipher, to write some verse. Just listening to this, I had such empathy for them because I knew even before she said it, that it challenges them, that they don’t know what to do. That it’s overwhelmingly hard for most of them, and they’re panicked, and they know that the art they’re creating is not up to snuff, that it’s not good, and it’s just super hard. And I could feel that in my body.

Her point is that meanwhile, the folks who can do this stuff, we label them like, they’re illiterate or incapable, when they can create this complicated art form that we cannot.

Marley: It really is amazing. In my hometown we just think, well, if your grammar doesn’t match what the Oxford English Dictionary says is the right grammar, what our grammar textbook say is the right grammar, then it’s wrong. And that’s not the case. It’s just different. It doesn’t mean it’s wrong. It just means it’s different. We need to re-look at it and say, “Okay, how is what you’re saying also grammatically correct?” Right?

Jeanie: Right. There’s not just one way, right way, right? And Bri does this all the time, she knows exactly how to code-switch, and how to talk in the standard American English. It’s not that that’s not valuable. It’s that that’s not the only thing that’s valuable, that there are other ways of talking and being in the world that are sophisticated, and that convey profound meaning and that are intelligent.

But there’s no place for that in in Bri’s school.

Marley: You see that even when Bri talks to her teachers. It’s like code-switching, but she hasn’t quite mastered it in the same way that Starr from The Hate U Give has. And that’s not a bad thing. In fact, I enjoy that about Bri, that she doesn’t code-switch quite so well, because why should she have to?

Jeanie: Right. Angie Thomas is really challenging us in this book to say: how do we need to change schools so that we don’t require kids like Bri to assimilate into our notion of what it means to be in school? Or what it means to talk in a scholarly way? Bri doesn’t need to act white to earn her place in school. There’s equally valued and valid ways to be in the world.

Jeanie: For me, one of the things especially towards the end that I just loved — and I don’t want to give away too much — is that Jayda is struggling as a working-class parent to make ends meet. Trey, Bri’s older brother, has graduated college and is not able to find a job in his field. And he’s taking some time off; he wants to go to graduate school but he’s helping out the family by working at a local pizza place.

They struggle, like many working families do, probably like many of our students in Vermont who are working poor do, to meet the electricity bill, to pay for food. Often their fridge is nearly empty, and part of why Bri wants to succeed as a rapper is to lessen the financial struggles they’re going through. The thing I loved about Jayda so much is that she keeps saying to Bri, “I got this, I’m the parent here. You don’t need to be the parent here. This is not your concern. Your concern right now is being a kid.

While I understand that Bri is concerned, I also just love that Jayda was like, “That’s my job.” I wondered if you had any thoughts about that?

Marley: Yeah, I felt the same way. I love Bri. I probably connected more with Jayda actually. Because of that because she just was just loving her family so well and really struggling at the same time. She’s just amazing. She fought so hard to overcome her addiction. Now she’s fighting to get an education for herself. She’s taking night classes. She’s fighting to make sure that Bri gets a good education. And she’s fighting to make sure that Trey can go to grad school or get a job working in his field. While doing all that fighting, she’s having to continue to fight off the temptation of her past addiction.

So she surrounds herself with friends that can take care of her and protect her in that way. She’s always trying to protect Bri; she’s just a really amazing woman. Jayda has a gentleness to her that I really loved. And a kindness. And I loved seeing her relationship with Bri, because Bri really pushes against her a lot. Some of it is past issues. Bri, as we saw, is still having nightmares about being abandoned, she’s still struggling with that so much. Throughout the book she has to see over and over her mom’s love for her and really trust that.

Jeanie: Yeah, thank you for speaking to that, you spoke to that so beautifully. I can’t help but return to this other theme of: Bri has to make some really hard choices. And she makes some bad decisions in this book because she wants to be a rapper. She wants to follow her art. She wants to make a little money at it so her family doesn’t struggle so hard. I couldn’t help but wonder if she had a flexible pathway through high school that allowed her to develop this talent within the context of her education, would her choices have looked different? Would her pathway have been — I don’t know if the word is smoother — but would she have gotten in less trouble?

Marley: I talk about the way we do school here a lot when I’m down visiting my family in Mississippi. And I’ve talked about this before with my mother in law. She’s said she was someone who struggled in school, not because she isn’t bright, but because she maybe doesn’t fit in what we like categorize as how a student should be. And she said, “If I was at your school, I would have loved that.”

My goal is to have a classroom and be on a team in which someone like Bri would come in, and we would celebrate her talents. That we would find those talents and help figure out ways for her to explore that. That we would give her books that were interesting to her, projects where she could really shine, rather than saying: you need to fit in this box. Goodness gracious, she’s in art school, right? I hope that all the teachers in Vermont are doing this with fidelity. We have all of these students in our classroom and hope we’re recognizing it and noticing that.

Jeanie: How do you feel like you do that here at Charlotte Central School?

Marley: I really strive to source, through different means, the books that keep them interested. I won a Scholastic grant this year. I’ve done PTO grants. The reason I did GMBA in the beginning was to get books from my classroom and to make sure I had new books to recommend.

We also have Genius Hour, which is where kids do personal interest projects. There was a student last year, and he maybe didn’t always fit the mold for what we were looking for in class, and Genius Hour became a way in which he got to shine. It was amazing. And then a lot of it is just the relationship building. If Bri’s teachers knew her, if they really knew her and really liked her, what would that look like? How would that be different? The teacher who sent her out of class, maybe instead would have realized, “Hey, look she’s asking a question, she’s engaged. Let’s talk about this.” And I think relationships is the biggest thing to start that.

Jeanie: Well said! I love it. Do you have any other books to recommend? As a huge reader and lover of YA. Do you have any other books to recommend for our listeners?

Marley: Yes. If you’re looking for diverse books, which hopefully we all are, I thought of We Set the Dark on Fire. We Set the Dark on Fire is amazing. Patron Saints of Nothing is also amazing it’s by Randy Ribay.

He also wrote After the Shot Drops, which is on GMBA this year. It’s an amazing book. A boy goes to the Philippines. He was from there and then spends most of his life in America; his cousin dies very unexpectedly and very seriously, so he goes there. It has characters that are LGBTQ, it has themes around race and themes around addiction, themes around low socio-economic class — just really amazing.

It’s based, in real-world information. You close this kind of book and you say, I want to know more about what’s happening in the Philippines, and it draws you in and gets you engaged. I would also just put a plug in there, that if you want to read good books, you should read the Green Mountain Book Award list for this past year. I’m a little biased, but I think it’s amazing.

Jeanie:  It’s a fabulous list. I have to say I love to list this year. Thank you so much. I have read none of those books. I’m so excited to check them out.

Marley:  Now you have to be read list.

Jeanie:   I sure do. I’m so grateful. So grateful to you for choosing this book to talk about. It required me to give it another read through and think about it differently than the first time when I read it just for pleasure and for your insights into the book and then and how you use literature in your classroom. Thank you so much.

Marley:  Thank you for letting me be on it.


#vted Reads is a podcast of the Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education at the University of Vermont. Thank you to Marley Evans for appearing on this episode, and to Angie Thomas for writing such powerful and transformative books. If you’d like to come on an upcoming episode of #vted Reads, get in touch. We’d love to chat.

Therapy dogs in Vermont schools

Who let the dogs in?

For some students, being ready to learn when they arrive at school is a big ask, and more than a few carry trauma or mental health burdens through their day. And that’s why more and more, schools in Vermont are adding therapy dogs to their staffing rosters.

And they’re seeing some pretty pawsitive benefits to the arrangement.

Continue reading Therapy dogs in Vermont schools

#everydaycourage and trauma-informed education

#everydaycourage is always around us if we can slow down to notice it.

#everydaycourageI spent many years working in a therapeutic school with teens who were struggling with anxiety, depression, mental health, and the impacts of trauma. If you let the pace of the year carry you forward, it was easy to lose sight of the progress we were making.

I remember going to see a production of a musical with students from a mainstream school. I remember watching it and being incredibly impressed with their talents, skills, and bravery in performance.  And I felt sad. My students in our alternative school had faced so much in their lives, and it was unlikely that many of them would be able to do something like get up in front of an audience of hundreds and sing.

Those were the thoughts I had when I was swept up in the school year. But I wasn’t noticing the #everydaycourage and growth right in front of me.

Continue reading #everydaycourage and trauma-informed education

How to use Google Docs so students talk to you

Using technology to help build relationships

[Editorial Note: We originally ran this post back in 2014, but have updated it for today’s unique and challenging remote learning situation. Let us know how things are going! We’re incredibly proud of all of #vted for putting students first during this momentous shift.]

Laura Botte, 6th grade math educator at Edmunds Middle School, in Burlington VT, shared with us how she’s been using Google Docs to encourage her students to open up about what’s going on in their lives, and how that affects their ability to be present in the classroom. This is how you can use Google Docs so students talk to you.

Continue reading How to use Google Docs so students talk to you