teaching

Home is Where Your Heart Feels…

This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. The following month, I enrolled in a graduate critical pedagogy seminar with Donaldo Macedo. We discussed literacy a lot there, too, particularly related to English language learners, and students who have been historically oppressed.

On Monday, I wrote some frustrations on how APS fell short in engaging students’ full experiences in connecting to literature and art. I asked, How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? Macedo asked, How can we continue to educate students while insisting on the separation of cognition and emotion? 

Regarding APS, I elaborated:

Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.

[…] But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art. 

So what is the alternative?

In the pedagogy seminar, and in my children’s literature course last spring in the bilingual education department (taught by my adviser, who was responsible for bringing Macedo to campus), we used student-generated, open-ended literature responses in the target language. These enable us, as teachers, to simplify a complex text to make it more accessible to our students; through the same process, we can also take a simple text and dig deeper into it through discussion cycles and semantic mapping.

Below are two maps from my seminar this summer, based on the discussion around a short poem by Francisco X. Alarcon. The first is on “Silences,” on the things that keep people silent or silenced; the second is on “Noise,” the things in life that distract us or drown out issues requiring our attention. Although “silence” and “noise” are opposite words by denotation, these concept maps are fairly similar:

Silences

Silences

Noises

Noise

So taking this, I read the book My Friend is Sad, by Mo Willems with my students. I projected it on the interactive white board so the English text was visible and read the story in ASL, making connections to the English text. We talked about opposites: happy and sad. In their journals, each kid drew and wrote about their favorite part of the story. The next day, two students (who do not have nicknames yet because it’s too soon in the year!) read and acted out the story. Then, we got down to mapping.

We started with the HAPPY map. Happy is a safe emotion. You can share stories and phrases and synonyms for happy with new people, and you don’t have to be very vulnerable. We referred to the story, and then we branched out. Some of the things that make us happy:

  • skateboard
  • snow board
  • play tag
  • yellow blanket

The next day, we talked about things that made us sad. The kids started out timidly with single words, and got a little bolder:

  • cry
  • baby
  • feeling scared
  • Mom took my iPod
  • JoJo broke my doll and the head came off

Then the floodgates opened:

  • No dad because he’s in jail far away. Then jail finished, still lives far
  • Go to a funeral and miss your grandpa. Hold your heart and carry his casket (This was in reference to my grandpa dying in April 2014, which a student remembered and shared. I was a pallbearer. I was not expecting this, and yes, I teared up.)
  • Want more money and patient working (The ASL sign for patient can also be translated as bearing, suffering, or enduring)

This. This is what my students produced on the first week of school

The Sad-Happy Maps

The Sad-Happy Maps

…from a book that looks like this:

IMG_20150825_072609

My students don’t always need upbeat. They don’t need hyper-engaging. They need real. They deserve authentic. Sure, My Friend is Sad is a really funny book (the lengths to which Piggie goes attempting to cheer Elephant are extraordinary, indeed). But the basic human desire to take care of one’s friend and to alleviate loneliness is totally accessible. They really just needed me to operate the markers. For now, anyway.

Finding our Way Home

This summer I attended ArtsPowered Schools (APS), a week-long intensive workshop on integrating arts into literacy in the K-12 classroom. Each teacher participant signed up for a studio-intensive workshop from a choice of five artistic media; we met in our studio groups for 90 minutes of direct and guided instruction each day. We could return to the studio for independent work at other times during the day/evening. We signed up for single-session classes in a medium we might not have tried before, or in something that piqued our interest, but that we would not normally spend a full week studying. All sessions were taught by professional, working artists from the state of Idaho who, in addition to their professional practice, work in collaboration with the Idaho Commission on the Arts as artist-educators. We also attend whole-group sessions dedicated to the practical side of integrating the arts, artistic process, and artistic expression into our existing literacy curriculum. All this work is centered on a single theme each year.

This year, the theme focused on Homeand the process of going home. I participated in the theatre studio intensive, and we generated and performed our own content. I’ll come back to this in a moment because it is important, but in this self-generation process (which we can take into our classrooms and use with our students), our instructor explored a full range of images and emotions with us. We used our five senses and talked a lot about kinesthetic response. We tuned into our own bodies and watched the physical responses of our peers. When there was a collective gasp, or a moment of stunned silence, we held that. At one point, one teacher (who had never considered herself a writer or an actor) had the whole room in tears. We honored that.

Side trip: Two weeks after APS, I drove home to visit my family for two weeks. It was an important trip. For one, since I moved out in 2003, I always go home over the 4th of July because my grandparents’ anniversary was the 5th. Grandpa died last April, and since I’d been home for the funeral and was in a play at the end of the summer, I missed my July trip home. For two, this would be my first time doing the road trip alone, without any driving companions.

My second day of driving shuttled me home. My second day of driving was 13 hours between Missoula, MT, to my parents’ farm in rural North Dakota. Confession: I have not always got along well with my mom. And she did not always get along well with her mom. And we make each other a little frazzled, frustrated, and other emotions that sometimes invoke a “throwing things” response. But “home” is still overwhelmingly positive, in the grand scheme of things. The closer I got to home, the stronger the pull felt. As I got close to the driveway, I cued up “Home” by Ingrid Michaelson and let all the driving tension from the previous 13 hours out. I pulled up in front of the house at midnight, the porch light on, and I wept. I was so glad to be home. (And for the record, mom and I got along swimmingly while I was there!)

Back to APS: in every one-off session I attended–creative writing, storytelling–and in the whole-group, arts-in-literacy sessions, the tone was overwhelmingly positive. No where, except in my theatre studio, were we given the opportunity or the space to dig into the negative aspects of home. In one workshop, we were explicitly instructed to stick with positive images or memories of our childhood homes. One teacher sitting across from me sighed: I don’t want to go back there. They keep sending me back there. Not only were we not permitted to choose our preferred incarnation of home, but we were limited to a narrow range of emotional language. No where were we equipped with tools or strategies for working with a student whose artistic process dredged up unhappy, unsafe, or unpretty images.

How is an arts practice accessible if it only speaks to the positive experiences of our students? 

Case in point: one of our activities, as a whole group learning to integrate performance (and later visual art) into the literacy curriculum, used the text Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. This is a rich text, full of rich illustrations, deep subtext, and an opportunity for students to read both the word and the world. We got only the text, removed from the book entirely. All of the activities were upbeat and engaging, and while they brought the text alive, got the text on its feet, breathed life into the words… I felt that the activities were devoid of any deep meaning. And we completely neglected the fact that Maurice Sendak had a long legacy of children’s books that were not shiny-happy.

If reading is about making meaning, we spend far too much time teaching children that the text is king. All this focus on “close reading” in the Common Core concerns me. The text is important, yes. The author’s intent is also a text. What isn’t written is a text! The illustrations in Where the Wild Things Are contribute to the text as much as the words themselves. But children also bring their own texts: themselves. Their environments are texts. Max being sent to bed without supper? His anger at his mother? That raw, childhood anger that students feel toward parental injustice is a text, and should not be ignored in the discussion or art-making process. Doing so is insulting to children as full humans capable of complex emotions and complex art.

Not everyone at APS cries when they pull into the driveway of their childhood home. Not all my students are excited to go home on Thursdays to spend the weekend with their families. If I censor those emotions, I sever an important piece of my students’ life experiences. I lose an important opportunity for human connection and critical instruction.

For a theme so central to our identities, we barely scratched the surface. We need to go deeper.

All of us need to go deeper. Language. Reading. Art. Our students deserve more.

Cute, Part 3: Poetry

Content note: poetry in the elementary classroom

I’ve written before about my dislike of the adjective “cute” in regards to my students. Sometimes, it’s used as a disability consolation prize. Most of the time, “cute” is more about how the adults feel than about how my students feel. They’re getting older now, some of them are 10 and 11; “cute” is becoming more condescending. Context matters, of course. Several friends pointed out on my previous blogs posts on this topic that context matters, and that “cute” can be a compliment. It can be, but I maintain that for people who see my students every day, who know them, who have seen them from many angles, “cute” is a non-compliment that ignores the many dimensions of their personalities. It’s the “Hihowareya” fly-by of the school environment.

Right now, my class is diving into the thick of our spring open house preparations. The open house is a month from yesterday. It may seem like we have a lot of time, but with only four days of school a week, and field trips, parties, therapies, and other interruptions thrown into the mix, we really do not have a lot of time to get ready. I decided to focus our energies into literature and poetry study. We just finished our first-ever novel, so we are doing open-ended wrap-up projects: the students each chose their favorite character and completed a character web, descriptive paragraph(s), and illustration. The kids finished their writing today, and the mini-essays are so different. Ponyo focused on one specific event that only took up two pages of the entire novel, an interaction between the main character and her little brother, whose relationship during the rest of the novel reminded me of Ponyo and her younger brother. TLK chose the father, and talked about actions; every action he picked (killing a one-horned buck, surviving smallpox) was centered around the love for his family. Sir New Dude also chose the father, but focused on character traits like bravery and strength.

We are reading and writing poetry. They picked a favorite poem from a wide selection of books I offered, and they will be presenting it in a few different ways. The students will each work with me to translate it to ASL and record it. The students who wish to read it in spoken English may do so (three students asked if they could, so I added this). They will illustrate the poems they picked. We are also translating a song and recording a music video. Working with them, hearing and seeing them give voice to each poem, looking at their illustrations, digging through the meaning they attach to the ideas has been simultaneously surprising and totally expected. It fits with how I understand their minds and hearts to work, but the nuance and depth they bring reminds me how often we (and I include myself here) do not give enough credit to young people for their ability to make connections to the world and each other through text.

Sir New Dude and TLK selected “Grasshoppers” from Joyful Noise: Poems for Two Voices. TLK follows SND’s lead for reading aloud; the roles are reversed for signing. They each wear one hearing aid, so they sit side-by-side, their aided ears together when they read it. SND is a fast reader, so he is practicing listening and waiting for a partner; he has a tendency to steamroll people in regular conversation, too. As a hard-of-hearing kid, it might be a compensatory tool for controlling his environment so he doesn’t miss anything–if he’s the one talking, he knows what’s going on. When they were drawing, they searched YouTube for nature videos of grasshoppers jumping, some in slow motion. Using science to understand art–beautiful. 

Freckles chose a poem from Locomotion by Jacqueline Woodson titled “failing.” Right away he told me, This kid needs to learn math but it’s really about life too. I asked him why he liked the poem. He said it felt good. The kid in the poem laments the adult answer of, Just ’cause; Frecks was nervous, but when I told him he wouldn’t get in trouble for saying adults make him feel frustrated, too…well, you can probably guess what he told me. I added a few pencil marks on the poem and asked him to read it again. After he did, adding the pauses and a breath, he looked at me and said, Yeah. That was good. That last line was even sadder when I breathe. Frecks gets poetry. Of course he does; there’s a reason he was drawn to that book–his whole life is poetry. I am not trying to be profound or emotive. I mean that the first two stanzas of the first poem in that book could have been written about Freckles and his noisy brain that no one ever calls cute but everyone is always telling to be quiet and sit down and stop singing.

Elsa picked a poem from the book Food Hates You, Too, called “Toast.” It’s about bread getting eaten and being dead. She drew a really morbidly hilarious picture of dismembered bread being eaten by worms, and two angel breads going to heaven. All those people who tell me how cute she is are missing out on a wicked sense of humor. That toast was gross, man. And so, so funny.

Ponyo’s poem is from Heartsongs, by Mattie J. T. Stepanek. She stares at the picture of Mattie during poetry time. While other kids were drawn to a book, or a specific poem, she was drawn to the poet. She spent 20 minutes today watching subtitled clips from Oprah on YouTube. Mattie was a boy with muscular dystrophy who started writing poetry when he was 3; he died when he was 13 before my students were even born. He was a peace activist and poet who became quite famous in the late 90s when he wrote his Heartsongs books. Ponyo drew a picture of Mattie instead of a picture of her poem. She originally picked the book because she was going through a goofy sweetheart phase, and the book is called Heartsongs. But when she learned about Mattie, and read the poems, the sweetheart stuff stopped. Completely. But if I ask her why she loves it, she doesn’t know. That’s a bit more complex than “cute” can give her credit for.


Note: The above titles are linked through Amazon Smile. If you purchase the books through those links, I don’t get any money, but the CADASIL: Together We Have Hope Foundation does get a small contribution. CADASIL is a hereditary stroke disorder that leads to dementia, but as a relatively new-ish discovery, is often undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. As such, it does not get the attention or research dollars of better-known conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease. All Amazon links I provide will support this foundation. Or, if you have a favorite charity, take five minutes to change your Amazon account settings to Amazon Smile!

Charlie Chaplin Made the Best Movies Ever

Content note: accessibility, d/Deaf history, educational theatre, film history

The Idaho Shakespeare Festival Theatre for Youth’s production of Maggie Lumiere and the Ghost Train came to campus last Friday. The four person cast features a Deaf actress, and three hearing actors who signed. Everything the Deaf actor signed was accessible to non-signers either by the voices of other characters, or by silent-movie style title cards. It was visual. It was funny. It was fully accessible. 

(Note: since we also have students who are blind or low-vision, our orientation & mobility instructor provided verbal description of all the action via a multi-headset FM system we use for such events)

During the Q&A, one Deaf teacher mentioned that he had attended many interpreted theatre performances before (which, we might all agree, meets one definition of accessibility, and ISF has done a great job of this), but he always misses large pieces of plot or dialogue because he always has to look between the actors and the interpreters; he, along with several Deaf students of all ages, and Deaf staff, shared that it the first, or one of the first, fully accessible theatre production they had ever attended. Several students said that they had always wanted to do theatre, but had never believed it would be possible for them until now. The actors teared up hearing that. They said that this was their 71st performance–performances 1 through 70 were for hearing audiences, but this was the most nervous they had ever been doing this show, because they knew this was the one that mattered. My kids were engaged the entire time. They understood the premise. They laughed in all the right places. They felt suspense during the suspenseful parts. They were able to converse with the actors after the performance. It was incredible. I cried. Three times, even. I already sent a note to the playwright (who lives in Boise) thanking him for writing it. Sure, there were a few bits of the script that I found a little problematic, but I can have a conversation with my students about it because the whole script was accessible to them! 

Theatre for Youth is educational theatre, and as such, there is a downloadable teacher’s guide with information about theatre itself, and about the content of the show. For my class, I focused on the history of early film. The plot of Maggie Lumiere involves a Deaf girl and her three friends making a silent movie, an homage-of-sorts to Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid. We didn’t have time to watch The Kid, so I showed them the following clip, the opening chase scene from the 1917 film The Adventurer:

I usually project videos on my interactive whiteboard, but this year my desktop computer took a dump, so imagine four kids huddled around my tiny tablet/laptop hybrid (a ThinkPad Yoga, if you’re familiar with them). If you didn’t watch the above clip, please do. It’s about 4 1/2 minutes.

They. loved. it. They laughed in all the right places. They felt suspense during the suspenseful parts.  All four kids begged to watch it again. The only time they’ve ever done that is when they watch a video of themselves. The second time through, they added their own sound effects and dialogue. I hadn’t even thought to suggest that yet; they spontaneously took the film to the next level.

We spent the next half-hour watching clips, each one twice. Boxing. The Circus. TLK looked at me, wide-eyed, and whispered in most serious voice, He made the best movies ever. After the show, Freckles, who attends public school most of the day and had missed all our Charlie Chaplin excitement the day before, said, I wanted to be a cop or a firefighter since kindergarten but now maybe I think acting might be a better choice for me because I’m funny and I don’t sit still enough to be a cop. 

Before the play on Friday, we reviewed appropriate audience behavior, but I really think this was the only time I didn’t have to do so. Even Ponyo, who gets a bad case of Bleacher Butt™ right about the same time I do, was attentive the entire time and only solicited the help-me-refocus back scratches once (she even put her head on my shoulder during the most tender-hearted bit–that was the first time I cried). Before the show, she was so excited, and she asked to take a selfie. So we did. Then she said, Selfie text mom!! So I pulled up my messaging app and her mom’s phone number. She typed, We are seeing a play. I am very excited. An obligatory smiley followed. When mom asked what the play was about, Ponyo tagged me to type the synopsis. Then she said, Tell mom C-H-A-P-L-I-N Y-O-U-T-U-B-E.

I have a hunch they watched a lot of silent movie clips this weekend.


I know I promised yesterday  that I would update the sComm situation today, but I needed to share this first. This is absolutely critical to understanding why Jason Curry’s insistence on English as superior to ASL, his stubborn refusal to recognize interpreters as empowering accommodations, and his disgusting “Communicaphobia” video that uses the word “crippled” in regards to ASL and depicts the use of an interpreter as an owner with a dog on a leash, is so damaging and insulting to my students, and to d/Deaf people everywhere:

I had a conversation over the weekend with my principal about getting my kids to record short “reviews” of the play for the Idaho Shakespeare Festival website. I mentioned our lesson on Charlie Chaplin, and she said something that stuck with me, hard: Silent movies were the golden season for deaf people. Total inclusion.

On Friday, I had been sick for two weeks, and throat was raw.  After the post-show Q&A, my students wanted to meet the actors. The gymnasium was loud, and my voice was ka-put; I could not have interpreted for them. Because all the actors signed, Ponyo could go right up to one of them and say, I’m deaf! I have an implant and I sign and I talk! You are great and funny and I love you! all by herself.

On Friday, I literally had no voice. But because of accessibility, my students owned a piece of theirs.

Hair (More or Less)

I have a great many follicles. Those follicles produce a prodigious amount of hair. I was born mostly bald, but by the age of three I had thick hair down to my butt.

I have a student whose hair rivals mine in thickness but far surpasses mine in personality and texture. She reminds me of Miyazaki’s Ponyo: she is loud and expressive and loving and mischievous and her hair matches her mood. Also she loves swimming. And ham. Her hair has been long and curly-wavy as long as she’s been in my class, which has now been three years. When she was in first grade, we spent a lot of time using the quiet room and learning how to deescalate; most of our one-on-one rapport-rebuilding time involved me extracting her cochlear implant from her hair, combing her hair, and either braiding it or putting into a ponytail. Like me, she associates tress-TLC with affection, and I applied it liberally. Bus trips returning home from field trips are challenging for her (really, any transition is hard for her), and I still play with her hair to help her stay relaxed and fall asleep. When a child communicates in unique ways, you learn their language as you help them learn the language of the world.

Third-grade Ponyo hasn’t needed the quiet room in two years. Third-grade Ponyo got her hair cut this winter; it was the shortest haircut she’s had since she enrolled here in preschool. It bounced and swooshed and sproinged with every move she made. She looked lighter and brighter with each step. She practically levitated with each step and couldn’t wait to tell me all about her exciting weekend when Auntie cut her hair. Her fingers were flying with the details. KISS-FIST!! she exclaimed. My hair beautiful! My hair fun! I LOVE IT!

This morning, I arrived at the cafeteria to retrieve my class from breakfast and found Ponyo with red eyes and tears streaming down her face. Her jaw was clenched as firmly as the fist holding her hot pink hairbrush. My alarm bells went into overdrive: this was one frustrated and hurting child.

Ponyo is one of our residential students. She lives at school in the cottage during the week and goes home during the weekends. Except last weekend the ISDB Adaptive Ski and Snowboard Club went on the final weekend trip, so she hasn’t seen her family since March 8. And she’s been with her school friends since March 9. School friends become like siblings, and they bicker. And starting tomorrow is Spring Break. And transitions are hard. So bottled up inside Ponyo are a lot of feelings: she misses her mom, but she knows she’ll spend ten days home with only rudimentary communication; she’s tired of her friends, but she knows these are the most communicative people in her life right now; she’s learning not to be a bully, but her friends don’t always trust her yet; she’s exhausted and excited.

And this morning, after who knows what precipitating events, Ponyo refused to brush her hair.

When I got to the cafeteria, I got the abbreviated version of events and a to-go container of her breakfast. Ponyo refused to brush her hair and left the cottage–that is in violation of the morning rules. She was not permitted to eat until she brushed her hair. As she had not brushed her hair, she had stood in the cafeteria gripping her brush for 30 minutes while her friends ate. She refused to say the Pledge of Allegiance, refused to look at any teachers or paraprofessionals in the eye, and now it was time for her 8 a.m. speech therapy session.**

Today the only power Ponyo had was the power to not brush her hair. None of this was about the hair. None of this is about the cottage aide that issued the false choice of do-hair-or-no-breakfast, either.

It’s about the system that told me that fixing her hair after a “blowout” in first grade was denying her the “natural consequences” of her behaviors. The system that labels a child “defiant” instead of “hurting.” The system that invades her personal boundaries to tell her to be respectful to adults. The system that uses or withholds food as part of the behavior management system.

That system is wrong.

It is ableist and dehumanizing to assert that my students can only respond to a reward-and-punishment style of discipline.  They can handle real conversations about expectations and behavior. To insist otherwise is insulting to their intelligence and their humanity.

It compounds the dehumanization to extend consequences beyond the immediate time frame of the behavior; my student will not walk around with unkempt hair all afternoon because she misbehaved in the morning. Teachers are not bullies.

It is harmful to ignore the whole child and focus only on behaviors. All behavior is communication; we need to listen to what our kids are trying to tell us.

It is invasive and hypocritical to disrespect a child in order to teach respect. It’s like striking a child to teach him that hitting is wrong. Or shouting, Gentlemen, you can’t fight in here! This is the War Room!

It is unhealthy to use food as a bribe or reward; it is unhealthy to withhold or delay food as part of a punishment.

Ponyo felt awful all day. She cried at least half a dozen times. Was brushing her hair worth disrupting her learning today? Was it worth a recess where she refused to go outside because, Heart sad cry?

It’s a complicated issue, all wrapped up in her bouncy, swooshy KISS-FIST hair. Food as punishment. Cult of Compliance. The gendered implications of If you don’t brush your hair, it will look messy all day, as though messy hair supersedes her need to transition home smoothly, feel success in math, and read her favorite graphic novel.

gif animation: Ponyo (as a fish) gnaws on a piece of ham.

gif animation: Ponyo (as a fish) gnaws on a piece of ham.

**The speech therapist was amazing this morning. She always uses a calm voice and clear signing with my kids, provides clear choices and follows through. When Ponyo came back at 8:30, she was doing much better. Another aide saw us in the hallway later having some special teacher-and-Ponyo time and stopped to ask about her My Little Pony shirt, which brightened her spirits right away. There are a lot of positive supports built into our school. There’s a lot that needs work, though, too.

Chicken Butt

A new student arrived in my class yesterday. At the end of the day, I was chatting with him and TLK about all the new kids he met. During said chat, it may have been mentioned that one of his new friends (a second grader) is currently quite enthralled with the word poop. The new student was baffled by this: Why would someone think that word is funny, since poop is gross? Au, contraire, my good man. I felt compelled to tell him the following story to illustrate why I find it perfectly acceptable to find words like poop and butt funny:

Several years ago, I had a brand new first grade student in my class who was very shy and very scared. He was overwhelmed all the time. He cried a lot, which made me sad because I wanted him to feel safe and happy in my classroom. I am a fairly relaxed teacher, so I hoped that during my conversation-style lessons we could get to know each other and he would become more comfortable. One day during writing, I wrote a sentence about my house and drew a picture of my five hens. The student asked me, “What happens if they poop in your bed?” At that moment, I realized that I had been talking about my pet chickens for two whole weeks and my new student had assumed they lived inside my house like a pet dog or a pet cat, and he imagined my house was full of feathers. I smiled at him and told him my chickens lived outside. I explained that as baby chicks, when they were very small, they lived inside a box in my living room, but when they got big they moved to a coop in my back yard.

The conversation continued, with the student asking if they had big wings. I said, “Yes, and big feet.” We listed body parts back and forth (vocabulary building activity!) until I said, “And big butts.”

That was the first time I heard my brand new first grader laugh. He laughed and laughed. He laughed so hard I honestly thought he would fall out of his chair. Hearing his teacher, a grown up, use the word butt was just too much to handle. He laughed for five minutes, I think. When he finally calmed down, I looked him straight in the eye, with my most serious teacher face, and I asked him, “I am so sorry. Should I have said bottom instead?”

He lost it again.

By this point in the story, both students were smiling and giggling at this story. I looked at TLK and asked if he knew who that shy first-grader was. He said he didn’t know.

Before he knew sign language, before he could use his voice above a whisper if there were two adults in the room, before he could verbally express the giant heart filled with empathy he has inside him, before he could read books and help his friends and read a book aloud to his friends…two-and-a-half years ago, that shy first-grader was TLK.

I almost had to pick his jaw up off the floor. After blinking at me a few times, he said, quietly but with a huge grin, I remember being scared. I cried so much. I’m not scared any more.

I looked him straight in the eye, with my most serious teacher face, and I told him, You are so strong and brave and smart. And the first time I heard you laugh is my most favorite story about you. 

Conversations, plural

Most of my best teaching happens through conversation. Conversations. Plural. My students and I had conversations about race and melanin and segregation for a couple weeks around Martin Luther King, Jr., Day, which fit into our yearlong conversation about identity and community. That yearlong conversation involves a lot of shorter conversations about what it means to be Deaf or deaf, how to advocate for accommodations, and their right to choose a preferred modality for communication.

The topics we covered this week during calendar time, transition times, and during some of those happy teachable moments were funny, surprising, important, and mundane. It was a very ordinary week, really. Our conversations are often this way. My students know that if they ask me a question I will always answer it, and I will do my best to answer it honestly. They know I will try to tell a story to help them remember the answer and the information. They know I do not know everything, and that they will be included in the search for the answer.

Here is a rundown of the things we learned during informal teaching time this week (not counting the actual structured reading, writing, math, and social studies time):

  • The stuff in our noses is snot. If you plug your nose when you sneeze, it can pop your ears. They won’t explode out your head (thanks for asking, Taz), but it will hurt. Possibly a lot. (“I have very snot my nose! Sneeze ears BOOOOOM!!” –Taz)
  • Even though Immodium makes you feel better and stop pooping, it doesn’t mean you are instantly healthy. Your body still needs to rest.
  • Faces have left and right sides, not east and west, but if they did, the west side of my face was twitching.
  • Sometimes teachers get sick, too.
  • I will never leave school early without first saying good-bye and telling the kids where I am going and when I will be back.
  • The preschool teacher makes a lot of exciting noise when one of her students uses the bathroom because it was the first time that student showed communicative intent. Yes, he is three years old. Yes, most three-year-olds are talking and using the bathroom pretty well. But just like TLK was nervous to talk in front of people in first grade and is now a confident tri-lingual third-grader (after a lot of practice in a safe environment), the preschool kids need a lot of practice to catch up. That’s why we get excited; we love watching our kids learn something new.

I had two conversations about gender expression with one of my students this week. We have a small school–84 students in PreK through the Super-Seniors. My students know almost everyone, so when we get a new student, they notice. Usually they follow standard conversational norms: What is your name? Are you deaf? Where do you live? On Tuesday in the library, a new high school student was working on the computer when one of my students walked up and tapped her on the shoulder.

Are you a boy or a girl? 
I’m a girl.
Why do you have boy hair?
I like it short.
Why do you have boy clothes?

I intervened. We’ve spent a lot of time breaking the pinkgirls/blueboys habit (because colors are for everyone). But I also know that kids using all the colors is a far cry from kids breaking free from gender stereotypes and gender roles. My students have a friend in the department who is a non-conformist, as far as gender is concerned. They are used to that. They accept her and love her for who she is. But a new person coming into their world who doesn’t fit their idea of “boy” and “girl” proved to be a little jarring. The high school student was pleasant and friendly, and she didn’t seem to mind the questions, but it’s not her job to educate my students about gender expression. She should not have to defend her choice of clothing, hairstyle, or footwear to anyone. She should just get to be.

So I intervened.

Hey, Elsa. Did you ask her name?
Um…No.
Do you know where she lives? Or how old she is?
Nooo…?
What do yo
u think would be a polite way to start a conversation?
Oooopssss.
It’s alright. Why don’t you introduce yourself?
(she does)
And hair is hair, kiddo. My hair is really short, but it’s not boy hair or girl hair. It’s my hair. New Student’s hair is her hair. Hair isn’t boy or girl. It’s just hair.
Oh, ok! I like it!
And clothes are just clothes. This is my favorite sweater, and I got it from the men’s department at Kohl’s. That doesn’t make it boy sweater. I just like how it fits better.
(Elsa looked at me, looked at the new student, nodded, and said) Nice to meet you!

The next morning, the first thing Elsa asked me was Why do girls like boy clothes?? It was clear she’d been thinking about it. I asked her to explain; I wanted to know if her thinking had progressed, or evolved, or otherwise changed. She referred to the high school student, and then asked about her friend in the elementary department. She made the connection between the two. So we sat down and had a little chat, no pressure, no lecture, just a chat: Stores divide clothes into boy and girl sections, but clothes are clothes. I bought this cardigan from the men’s department because it’s not too tight and it has real pockets and real buttons. Women’s cardigans usually don’t have pockets, and I like to carry sticky notes and paperclips. But these pants are from the women’s department because I have hips. Clothes are clothes and people like what they like.

She seemed content. We’ll keep having conversations. I have some revisions to what I might say next time, but it’ll ultimately depend on what my kids ask. Because it’s not always about what I know, but it’s always about what they ask.