And School Begins

You’ve been getting ready for this soon-to-begin school year. You have been reading books, attending workshops, thinking about lessons, collaborating with colleagues. You have arranged your classroom; put out books; hung artwork; organized supplies. You have thought about this next group of students, students you will come to call “my kids.” You have wondered if you know enough to teach them; hoped that you have stored up enough energy to love them.

And then Charlottesville happened. With their anger showing, white supremacists marched, proud in their racism, torches in hand, guns slung over shoulders, words shouted in unison “Heil Trump,” “You will not replace us,” and “White lives matter” and suddenly all the preparations for Monday —whenever your Monday is—didn’t seem quite enough.

Some children and teens will enter your classrooms over the next few weeks more knowledgeable than many adults about what created that weekend. These students will understand that, all too often and for too many, white identity has long been tied to making sure non-white groups don’t succeed, or at least don’t succeed as much as they do. A country born of leadership that felt compelled to explain that all men are created equal though some men are only three-fifths human was bound to face problems.

And some—because of youth or because of protective parents or because of just not knowing—won’t comprehend what just happened. They won’t know that white supremacists marched bearing clubs and guns, that counter-protester Heather Heyer was killed by one of the protesters, that the former Ku Klux Klan leader attended the march and explained that this protest “represents a turning point for the people of this country. We are determined to take our country back . . . .” Some students will arrive Monday in your classrooms and not know.

Yet all of your new students—those who know and those who don’t—will sit together in one classroom and look to you. They always look to you. The whole nation—even when they don’t realize it—looks to you. You are our nation’s teachers. In all likelihood, you didn’t sign up for this. You wanted to share your love of science, your excitement over math, your joy of reading. You wanted to share Charlotte’s Web, not Charlottesville’s pain. You expected to remind little ones—and bigger ones—to be kind; be fair; be nice. Share. Listen. Respect one another. But perhaps you didn’t expect those lessons to be so critically important; so immediately necessary. Perhaps you hadn’t expected the anger, the confusion, the frustration, the racial violence to be part of their young lives. To follow them to school.

I can’t help but think of the two questions that guided what my colleague Bob Probst and I kept thinking as we wrote Disrupting Thinking (Beers and Probst, Scholastic, 2017):

  • What needs to change?
  • What assumptions make those changes hard?

As I think about those questions, I realize that I need to amend the first one: What needs to change about me? It would be far easier to ask that broader question, “What needs to change?” Then the answer can be out there, about someone else, about another town, another race, about other people. Those racists, those people. Them. Not me.

But if I always blame someone else, I never give myself the chance to grow, the chance to become better; I never give myself the chance to be a better person in this world and in my community, a better person as I stand next to those who don’t look like me, a stronger person who learns how to better speak up and speak out against racist words and actions. What needs to change about me? That’s a harder question for any of us about any topic. But when the topic is racism, I believe it’s a critical question for white people—this white person—to ask. People of color did not ask for racist acts to be committed and they do not benefit from sustaining them. We must ask – I must ask – who benefits when any person of color is kept oppressed in any manner, by any other person. The answer is so very obvious. (Some will say that this is true of any group that is oppressed. I agree. But this post is about racism.)

Some changes will require deep reflection, heart-felt conversations, raw honesty, and bravery. Perhaps you might start small and build from there. Perhaps this list could be a guide:

  1. Hearing our names matters. Can you pronounce your students’ names? Don’t say, “I’ll just call you . . .” or ask ,“Why’d your mom give you such a hard name?” or laugh aloud as you mispronounce a child’s name. Ask for help. Ask the student to tell you how to say his/her name.
  2. Seeing ourselves matters. Take a close and critical look at the reading (and viewing) materials in your classroom. Who is represented? How is that group represented? Who isn’t there? What does this say to each student? Don’t forget to look at those inspirational posters on your walls and the walls of your school. Who is represented in those posters? Who is not? And look at the staff in your school. Do students see teachers and administrators who look like them? If not (or if rarely) do you talk with students about this inequity? How can you and colleagues change who students see in your school?
  3. Having a chance to speak matters. Who speaks up in your classroom? Who needs help finding his or her own voice? How do you encourage all students to speak, to be heard, to listen, to participate?
  4. Being brave matters. What’s your response to colleagues who say, “Those kids just can’t do this” or “I teach white students, too, so shouldn’t they be represented in the curriculum and on the posters in my classroom?” or “We can’t worry about racism issues; that’s for families to discuss” or “That’s not my job. I’ve got standards to cover” or “If those parents would just speak English” or “I didn’t oppress anyone. This isn’t my problem.” When you hear those comments—and you probably will— silence is not an answer; silence is an agreement. Use your voice and speak up. Start a conversation. Remember that disruptions require that we ask ourselves what assumptions make change hard.
  5. Listening matters. Listen to your students’ stories. Ask them if they’ve experienced unfairness. Are they afraid? What could the school community do to change things. What could you do? What could they do? What conversations would they like to have in school?

This list is just a first step. Websites such as the following offer important resources and support:

A podcast by leading educators Sara Ahmed, Sonja Cherry-Paul, and Cornelius Minor is worth every minute you’ll spend listening: http://www.heinemann.com/blog/the-heinemann-podcast-dismantling-racism-in-education/

It’s critically important to look closely at the books in your classroom. When students of color look through the books on your shelves, how often will they see a book by an author who looks like them, a book with characters who look like them? Can your LGBTQ students see books about them? Your Muslim students? Your Jewish students? Do you expect one or two (or three) authors of color to represent the entire range of experiences of everyone of that race? (Likewise, do you expect that of the students of color you teach? That one colleague in your department?) We all need to do better with diverse books. If you have yet spent time at the following website, I encourage you to do so:

As you are looking at the books in your classroom, note where the “diverse” (as one teacher called them) books are. Are they on a shelf or in a basket labeled “Diversity” or “Multicultural” or “Culturally Responsive” or some other such designation? Why? If this is to make easily visible a large number of books that you know your students want to read and should read, be sure your students know that is the reason. If it’s to highlight the few books you have, invest in more. If it’s to say to students or visitors, “See, I’ve got these books covered” then there’s an assumption that needs to be checked.

I’ll close this post with an excerpt from Disrupting Thinking, words written long before Charlottesville, but that now resonate even louder with me.

“The last few years—and particularly the 2016 Presidential election year—have shown us brutality, racism, sexism, misogyny; hateful language and acts toward members of the LGBTQ community; increased bullying in schools; vitriolic language and unsubstantiated assertions via Twitter, personal blogs, YouTube videos, and online news sources. Because the Internet allows a level of anonymity, some people may feel “safe” being vulgar, dismissive, and hurtful. But the words are still there and the impact—whether inflicted by an unknown person or a prominent political figure—is still painful.

We [Bob and I] think that developing more compassionate citizens is a desirable goal in and of itself. But not only is compassion a desirable characteristic of people, we also think that it is a necessary characteristic of readers. The more capable readers are of compassion, the more likely it is that they will be able to read well. Compassion should sharpen the readers’ ability to see other points of view, other perspectives, and to imagine the feelings of those who hold them. It should enable readers to take, if only momentarily, the perspective of someone else and thus better understand motivations and thinking.

Ultimately, we are teaching children to read the text of their own lives. We want them open to possibility; open to ideas; open to new evidence that encourages a change of opinion. We want them using reading and writing as tools that help them in the re-vision of their own lives. We want them to have a better tomorrow. You are, for so many of these children, their best hope as schools stand as gatekeepers of a better tomorrow. As always, we are proud to stand beside you, though truly, as we have said before, we stand in awe of you.”

Those students—all students—will sit and watch and wait to see what you do and say. I have always placed my faith and trust in teachers. I do so again, today.

An Open Letter to Secretary DeVos

Dear Secretary DeVos,

First, you should know that I did not support your nomination to be Secretary of Education. I suspect you come to this position excited to be tapped to hold such a noteworthy position and adamant in your support of education for children. I had hoped for a Secretary of Education who stands firm in her support for public schools, has worked in public schools, been a parent of children who attended public schools, has experience as a teacher, understands laws around public schools, and has published articles and/or books for teachers and/or administrators about teaching. I want the Surgeon General to be a doctor; I want the Attorney General to be a lawyer; I want the Secretary of Education to be a teacher. Nonetheless, you had credentials that the Republican party found made you the nation’s single most-qualified person to lead our public schools.

And so here you are. Please know I’m here to support you. I need you to support our public schools because that is your position. You might wonder what in the world the two of us have in common. I admit, I do not have your financial pedigree, but I do have decades of service to public schools and public school teachers, and I am a public school teacher. We disagree on the role of charter schools, but I suspect we would agree that without the best schools possible, our nation falters. I suspect we agree that our children of today are our best hope for a better tomorrow. I believe we would find common ground in the belief that our nation’s public school teachers are one our nation’s most precious resources. I bet both of us wanted an education for our own children that helped them be prepared for whatever this world throws at them; I would hope we both would agree that we want that for all children and that given the right resources our public schools can provide such opportunities. I would hope that you want to educate yourself about all that the Secretary of Education must understand and support regarding public schools.

In short, I would hope we might find more in common than we might have initially thought. So, I want to apologize for the way you were treated when you tried to visit a Washington, D.C., school. I want you in every school. I want you to sit in classrooms, talk with teachers, watch students, visit with administrators. Though you lack the credentials to stand before students and teach, I want you to sit through classes, go to lunch, head to P.E., stand in bus duty, take on lunch duty, visit the school libraries, sit with the school nurses. I want you to see the excellent teaching and joyful learning evident in our schools. I want you to watch teachers share their own money so kids can buy lunch. I want you to see teachers wipe away tears as children sob because Dad didn’t come home or Mom lost her job or a grandparent has been diagnosed with cancer, or a sibling is missing, or no one could take her to the store to buy the poster board the science teacher wanted. I want you to see teachers stand before thirty-five students who read at different levels and have only one textbook written at one level to hand to them. I want you in that school and every school. I want you to meet band directors who beg for any dollars to provide instruments for students, watch choir directors work after school with one more student who wants to try-out for district choir, see one more coach help one more kid. I want you to watch teachers deal with administrators who tell them to “get up test scores” when they know that teaching to the test means not teaching to the child. I am ashamed of the way you were treated and apologize. You are our Secretary of Education and we need you in many schools, immediately.

So, I’m here. Let’s talk. Let’s find our common ground – and I suspect that ground will be a larger parcel than either of us would have imagined. Let’s figure out how you can best support the people who each day walk into our nation’s schools and work hard to do their best, to ready our nation’s children for today and for tomorrow. And let’s figure out how I and many others can best support you. Let’s start today making our nation’s public schools what we all want: the best place for our children to reach their potential.

My best to you,

Kylene Beers, Ed.D.
Secondary Certified English Teacher
Past President, National Council of Teachers of English
CEL Outstanding Leadership Award
Comer School Development Program Senior Reading Researcher, Yale University
Author, When Kids Can’t Read/What Teachers Can Do
Co-Author, Notice and Note: Strategies for Close Reading
Co-Author, Reading Nonfiction: Stances, Signposts, and Strategies
Co-Author, Disrupting Thinking: Why How We Read Matters

What We Do Next

Dear Teachers,

So many of us are deeply disappointed in the committee approval of Betsy DeVos. We’re disappointed because we believe that the Secretary of Education ought to have deep understanding of educational issues and laws. We’re disappointed because during the hearings, DeVos did not demonstrate that she has that understanding. We must depend on that hearing because she does not have a history of work in public schools, at being published in peer-reviewed journals or by educational publishers. She hasn’t presented at state or national conferences, written educational blog posts, worked on textbooks, served on national councils, or been a part of the national conversation on educational issues. She doesn’t come to the job with the history of being a teacher, a supervisor, an administrator, a professor of education. So, it was the hearing that showed us, showed the nation, the depth of her knowledge of educational issues.

And that depth was shallow.

And so we wonder what it means that she might be our Secretary of Education. We wonder what it means that our Congress thinks she has the expertise to lead our nation’s public schools.

Here’s my answer: I don’t give a damn what Congress thinks. Congress seems to not care enough about what happens in schools to make sure the Secretary of Education actually understands what happens in schools. So here’s where I’m putting my effort: I’m putting my effort into helping you. I care what you think. I care what you do. I care what happens each day in your classroom.

And that means that tomorrow and the day after that and the day after that I need you to walk back into your classroom and teach students. Do the best job you have ever done. Look at each child and see that child as your own. Look at each child and know that one of them will cure cancer; figure out how to make polluted water clean; find a way to make sure no one is ever hungry; become a teacher or a fireman or a chef or a lawyer or a preacher or an actor or a mom or dad. That squirrelly child who can’t find a pencil might someday serve in our armed forces or become a policeman/woman or a plumber; a farmer or a pharmacist; a grocer or a salesperson. And one might decide to take on leading this nation and go into public service. Those children you teach are our tomorrow and for our tomorrow to be the best it can be, we need you to be your best today. Spend more time talking with colleagues about what is working and what isn’t. Read more. Read more. Read more. Push harder. Don’t ever give up.

Make sure you know who your local school board members are. Can you name them? Do you write them? Do you let them know what is working and what isn’t working in your district? Do you know who your state school board members are? Do you reach out to them? Do you create the time to write to them? Do you reach out to your local newspaper and describe all that is wonderful that your students are doing? Do you write for your state journals? Are you a member of your national content association such as the National Council of Teachers of English?

In other words, worry most about your kids. They deserve the best you can give. And worry a lot about what you know and don’t know. Work with your colleagues to learn more. Always learn more. And work hard to make sure you are active at your local and state level.

And call your Congressmen and Congresswomen. Respectfully share why you think our educational system deserves a Secretary of Education who actually understands and believes in public education.

And go tomorrow into your classrooms and teach. Shut your door and teach. And I’ll keep doing all I can do to support you.

You are, for so many of our nation’s children, their best hope at a better tomorrow. Go teach.