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?
Do you know where she lives? Or how old she is?
What do yo
u think would be a polite way to start a conversation?
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.

Why that WANTED poster was probably definitely a bad idea

My school doesn’t have fall sports, so we have Homecoming in January. We are a small school, so students in preschool through high school dress up for our theme days. Monday was Superhero Day, Tuesday was Spirit Day, Wednesday was Western Day, and Thursday was Nerd Day. We often have Pajama Day, 70s or 80s Day, or Crazy Hair Day thrown in the mix. We never venture outside those few familiar dress up days.

There are a lot of issues with a lot of these dress up days. I’ll give you a rundown:

  • Superhero Day is male heavy, as many of the most famous comic book heroes are men, and the ones that are women have impractical costumes. I invented my own, as did most of the girls in our department. Except Taz. She was a Ninja Turtle.
  • Spirit Day here is red and white. I have always thought it felt…clannish and nationalistic. Here it’s different, since our sports teams are, well, not our brightest feature. At other schools where I’ve attended or worked, the school spirit thing really bothered me. We love Us. We hate Them, why? It seemed so arbitrary, like the training ground for strident nationalism. Ick.
  • Western Day. Oh, man. I live in a Western state, and we embrace our history of Manifest Destiny and state’s rights. Our hallways were filled with cowboys and Indians*, and it made me as uncomfortable as a Thanksgiving feast attended by Pilgrims and Indians*. The notion of the romantic cowboy and the noble savage* and taming the West and conquering the land? Yeah, that’s pretty much Idaho. And we reinforced it on Wednesday.
  • Nerd Day. I had a conversation with the language therapy aide today about Nerd Day reinforcing stereotypes. And I had a lengthy conversation with my students about labels and bullying. I told them about growing up and getting picked on. And how I knew kids who were bullied for having thick glasses or pants that were too short. And that in high school I reclaimed the word Nerd for myself, and that every day is Nerd Day for me. We decided together that reading is good, and learning is important, and there is no ONE kind of smart so Nerd Day is kinda silly.

With that summary summarized, I’d like to go back to Wednesday. And by that, I mean I’d like to tell you how I totally blew it as a teacher and an ally when we made that wanted-poster craft:

Description: Black frame with words WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE on the edges. Fluttershy from My Little Pony is inside the frame. Superimposed over the photo are the words "NOT my best craft."

Description: Black frame with words WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE on the edges. Fluttershy from My Little Pony is inside the frame. Superimposed over the photo are the words “NOT my best craft.”

Mistake 1: Within the context of current events, WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE is privileged and insensitive.

Boy, howdy, did I blow it here. I could try to explain it away by saying I didn’t plan the activity (because I didn’t), but I still used it. DEAD OR ALIVE is not cute within the context of encounters between police and people with disabilities. More specifically, I completely ignored the context of encounters between the police and people who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. I lived near the Twin Cities when police assaulted Douglas Bahl; forgetting this critical context is a major error on my part. It is an error similar to the Run from the Cops event that Special Olympics Washington planned last year.

Mistake 2: Within an historical context, ALL THE THINGS!!

There are two bumper stickers that come to mind right now. I saw one in college that said, The West wasn’t won on salad. And there’s one I see every day in the school parking lot: The West wasn’t won with a registered gun. Both of these make my skin crawl, first as a nonviolent vegetarian. Secondly, and more importantly, as an empathetic human. Only through the lens of Manifest Destiny can one say the West was “won.” Only through the lens of colonialism, imperialism, white supremacy, genocide can it be “won.” Otherwise, it was stolen, usurped, conquered, invaded, pillaged, raped, and plundered. That is the legacy of the West. Western Day reinforced all of that. How can we justify that to our older students who have learned or will be learning about that period in American History? WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE glamorizes vigilante justice, romanticizes the American (white) Cowboy, and erases the brutality of so-called heroes. WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE erases the contributions of women and people of color to our nation’s and our state’s history. It attempts to legitimize my state’s history of “beating the Indian out of the child.” And I just added to that.

Mistake 3: It flies in the face of everything I’ve been trying to do in my classroom for years.

See points 1 and 2. Also every post filed under, like, every category except the ones about my mom.

Part of being an ally, of being a teacher, of being human is admitting when we’ve messed up. I messed up. I’ll do better. I’ll make mistakes, but I won’t make this same mistake.

*These are not terms I use in common discourse, teaching, or writing. I use them here as they are used either in conversations around me or to represent the tropes/cliches of the region.

On Being Real

My students have seen me cry.

When I was in college, I had to teach a number of mini-lessons during various education courses and courses for educators (there’s a difference). The worst was for Physical Education for Elementary Teachers or some such. I don’t remember the name of course. I remember the instructor. He was not a nice person. He was the college golf coach.

And he gave me a C on my lesson.

My teaching partners got better grades, but because I didn’t maintain a “professional decorum,” I got a C.

The night before my lesson, I got a call from home telling me a very dear family member would be going to rehab. That things were worse than I’d thought or had ever imagined. That when I saw him that weekend, he would probably look gaunt and sad and sick and awful. I did not sleep much that night.

The next morning, with purple bags under my eyes, coffee in my thermos, and a weight in my heart, I started teaching a lesson on group dance. Halfway through the choreography for the Salty Dog Rag, one of my “students” (a college classmate) pointed out that I had made a mistake. My mind went blank. I felt the tears rising from the pit of my stomach up through my ribs and into my throat. I took a deep breath. I’m very sorry, class. I got a phone call last night, and my family got some bad news this week. I am having a rough day. If you can give me a few seconds to collect myself, we’ll continue with the dance. They gave me a few seconds. We continued with the dance.

And for that momentary break, I got a C.

I will always be that real and open and honest with my students. They need to know that adults have the same kinds of problems as kids. They need to hear us processing our feelings, and talking about our pain and our triumphs, and being vulnerable. They need to see that our classrooms are safe places to feel all the feelings.

In the past almost-seven years of teaching, my students have known about my dad’s week-long hospitalization, the death of two of my pet chickens, my migraines, my surgery, my sister visiting, my sister moving here, my sister moving away, my MRI, my migraine-related food restrictions, and the time I dislocated my tailbone playing roller derby. When my grandfather died in April, I spent a week’s worth of calendar time answering questions about him, sharing pictures, and accepting hugs from tenderhearted second-graders. We also talk about our grumpy days and our excited days and our tired days.

I also apologize. I admit when I mess up. That same teacher who gave me a C said on my grade feedback that I should never apologize to students because it shows weakness. I wholeheartedly disagree. Last week, I totally blew it with TLK. He ended up in tears, staring at his math worksheet looking the saddest I’ve seen him in a long time. He reminded me of 2012-TLK, the little boy who was so shy he couldn’t muster any communication if there were two adults in the room instead of just one. I was ready to cry with him. And I was ready to apologize, but he wasn’t ready to look at me yet. So I did the only thing I could think to do. I wrote him a note:


I am sorry.

Ok, that was the first note. The second one was more in my style:

Description: Yellow sticky note with an illustration of a little boy stick figure with three thought bubbles. The first says "I'm a good kid!" The second is a giant picture of the teacher's mean head, and the third says "Ms. Danielle is a big meanie head."

Description: Yellow sticky note with an illustration of a little boy stick figure with three thought bubbles. The first says “I’m a good kid!” The second is a giant picture of the teacher’s mean head, and the third says “Ms. Danielle is a meanie head.”

I am never afraid to show my students the real me. It’s the only full access some of them have to an adult who can model appropriate, well-adjusted (well, mostly well adjusted) reactions to life and strife. They can’t learn to overcome an anxious feeling if no one shows them how to handle their nerves. They don’t know how to ask for a break to go cry if no one tells them it’s okay to cry sometimes.

I’m a real person. And I think I’d rather err on the side of too real than to have too much “decorum.”