#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.

But.

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.

So:

  • 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.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of southern Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

What do you think?