Call them by their name – or whatever

Yesterday a new student joined my class. He showed me his timetable to confirm that he belonged in this room, and I asked him his name. He replied with the name written on the paper, then followed up with, “but call me xxx”. So I did.

I know there’s a lot of fuss right now about teachers using the name students ask to be called. (Brief background: in the US, some people are demanding that teachers inform parents when children ask to change names or pronouns; some people are demanding that teachers not do this, in part to protect vulnerable students;  Canada’s laws are different, but the same issue is cropping up.) Just before school started this year, a colleague in my school board posted a thread on Twitter about why we should use students’ preferred names, and spiteful commenters piled on, calling the teacher a “groomer” and worse. I was astonished by their ignorance. Well, maybe not astonished – I’m too old to pretend that I’m not a little cynical about the outrage; but I found it, at a minimum, fatiguing.

Here’s what they don’t know: teachers have long used students’ preferred names. I’ve been calling students what they want to be called pretty much forever, and I have never – not once – phoned a parent to let them know about it. My first memory of this is from years ago when a student asked to be called Kronos. Kronos! My instinct was to say no, mostly because this 8th grader was decidedly neither the king of the Titans nor a god of Time, but before I could say a word, the teacher standing next to me said, “Ok.” So we called the child Kronos. We didn’t phone home or worry about report cards. We just called him Kronos until he asked us to stop.

In that same school I had a student who went by Sarah while her family called her Sally. I’ve had students ask me to call them by their nicknames, middle names or last names (there are a lot of Emmas and Mohammeds out there; sometimes these name changes are a godsend). Before parent-teacher conferences, I often ask students what their parents call them, so that I can communicate effectively. 

For a lot of young people, names are a good place for a bit of experimentation. When we were little, my sister wanted to be called Christy instead of Kim. I have no idea why. I grew up in the South, so I knew plenty of kids whose first names were someone else’s last name – Madison, Perrin, Riley come to mind. When I was in my early teens, I longed for a name that could be mistaken for a boy’s. I blame Little Women for my dreams of being called “Jo” or “Alex” while behaving in unladylike ways. Later, I was awed when Shannon Faulkner took advantage of her gender-neutral name to become the first woman to enroll in the then all-male Citadel. Meanwhile, my aunt and uncle named my cousin Andrew, insisting that he not be called Andy; this worked fine until someone started calling him Drew. These days, he answers to either.

In the classroom, I’ve had students use a gender-neutral version of their own name, use a name frequently associated with the opposite gender, and use a name that, frankly, no parent in their right mind would choose. (I think most of us would try to talk our kid out of “Kronos.”) Sometimes their parents know; sometimes they don’t. It’s never really been an issue.

Look, I’m not naive: I know that people are using the name issue as a proxy for homophobia and transphobia. They say “name” and mean something else altogether. They’ve worked themselves into hysterics over this and decided that when teachers respect a child’s request to be called by a certain name or pronoun, something terrible will happen. In all my years of teaching, calling a child what they want to be called has never – not once – made a child feel less welcome; it’s never interfered with their learning; it’s never made them unhappy. I have 26 years worth of experience suggesting that using a child’s preferred name or pronouns won’t change who they are – but it might make them feel a little more like themselves.

So, when a child asks me to call them a particular name, I say “yes”. Why wouldn’t I?

What we discussed

My friend’s tweet caught my attention this morning as I stared down another school day: pictures of her students thinking and writing about the juxtaposition of the Queen’s funeral and Powley Day. She and her colleagues had worked together to devise a wonderfully thoughtful series of prompts about this, prompts designed to help them think about equity and Indigeneity and the importance of historical thinking. Their lesson went well; the students did some powerful learning. Even as I admired the elegance of the work, I felt a quick stab of jealousy, then a sense of deflation: I had failed to talk about either topic with my classes. Not only that, teachers had been explicitly told that we had to address both of them. One direction came from the Ministry of Education, requiring a moment of silence; the other from our school board, requiring sharing information about Powley Day.

I exhaled, warm breath across my hot tea, and wondered how I had missed this. Then I remembered. We hadn’t discussed any of this because my Monday morning class opened with a discussion of murder. There had been a fight – maybe gangs? – and a knife. Two people were badly injured; one person died. I say “people”, but my students said “kids” or “guys”. No one involved attended our school, but somehow many of the students in the classroom knew or knew of several of the young people involved in the fight. There was a video. They had seen it. The fight had taken place near-ish to the school. Some students had been near the fight. Someone’s family was close to the family of one of the kids involved. 

The details are all still  pretty confusing for me – after all, I learned about this at 9:30 on a Monday morning, and all of my information was coming from 14 year olds. Or, as one student piped up, “I’m still 13, Miss!” The conversation swerved through the classroom, pausing at stops I could have predicted – should we watch videos of someone’s death? – to stops that took my breath away – “If you’re in that sort of situation, don’t call the cops. They could say you were involved. Just get away.” Over and over I reminded students that we had time to talk, that we wouldn’t rush this, that they needed to listen to each other, slow down, take turns. One boy – Mr. 13 – said, “Wait! This is just like that book some of us are reading. ‘No snitching. Always get revenge.’” Heads nodded seriously: they didn’t need to have read the book; they know the rules. I made a mental note to get out more copies of Long Way Down (and sent another blessing in Jason Reynolds’ direction – that book. Just… wow.). Someone wondered how a kid not much older than them might end up killing someone. I brought up Romeo and Juliet – Tybalt, Mercutio, Romeo. Young men, hot tempers, knives… Someone had read that last year – yes, they said, yes, this has been happening for so long.

Slowly, slowly the conversation settled. Someone asked, almost plaintively, “but what are we supposed to do?” Someone else replied, “Make sure this doesn’t happen again.” Someone snorted, “Of course it will happen again.” Someone said softly, “Make sure it doesn’t happen to us.” Quiet descended. They looked at me.

And what could I say? Only the truth: “I don’t know what to do next.” I offered options. I suggested playing the same quiet reading music I play every day and, well, getting lost in another world. That’s what they chose. Books came out. No one fussed. One student, then another, called me over to say, “Miss, I have seen worse: or “Miss, in my country…” I heard stories that I will not share. They were reassuring themselves that things would be ok. Ten minutes passed and we all kept reading. Eventually I noticed people starting to shift their weight, and we went on with class. 

All day, each class wondered and worried about the fight, the boys involved, the police. All day, we created the calm we could. As the last bell rang, I knew I had done enough; we had found our way through. Monday was over. Tuesday would come.

So, no, we didn’t talk about the Queen or Powley Day – heck, my first period barely touched on any lesson I had planned. And I know that’s ok. And yet, I need to remind myself that social media – even that of people we admire wholeheartedly – can be insidious. I know this; we all know it. Next step: remember this lesson first thing on a Tuesday morning when Monday has been so hard.

Amplify their voices – Slice of Life 26/31 #SOL20

Sat, Feb 29 – EdCamp

A group of educators sits in a crowded, uneven circle in a university classroom, talking about equity and inclusion in education. The only teacher wearing hijab speaks up: “I get stuck because I’m NOT the white educator, and I don’t want people thinking I’m trying to push an agenda… I get emotional thinking about it… I don’t know how to navigate that.”

Wed, March 25 – Zoom meeting

A group of educators gathers online to talk about racial equity detours and how to avoid them. Near the end of the hour, the only black male teacher speaks up. He talks about “not being afraid of my blackness” and says, “I would never, ever, EVER think about doing a black history show at my school because if I do it, I know what it’s going to be and I feel uncomfortable making my white colleagues feel uneasy.”

Thu, March 26 – Google Hangout

A group of educators meets online to discuss the memoir From the Ashes.  The author, Jesse Thistle, joins us and says that, although he is terrified to speak in public, “I force myself to do it because people are listening, and I remember a time when no one was listening at all.”

I listen. I realize that I have been unaware of the ways in which we – I – have not listened to these voices. My stomach hurts as I acknowledge how much I have been part of silencing. I did not understand hijab as a choice. I saw full expression of black culture as threatening. I believed racist, colonialist lies about Indigenous people. The people who said these things are not older than I am; they do not live in other places. They are my peers, and I have been complicit in ignoring their voices. This is hard for me to think about; it is hard for me to write. I am writing it because I must own these truths. I must look at my attitudes for what they were; I must understand so that I can change. I have overlooked, ignored and even hurt the very people whose voices I thought I valued.

I am listening. People I respect and admire are saying that their voices are not being heard, that the skin they are in dilutes their ability to speak their truth to others.

I am using my privilege, my platform here, such as it is, to amplify their voices. People of colour in my community are not speaking their full truths because it makes us – it makes ME – uneasy.

Listen to them – please, listen. Let us all work to dismantle a system that forces people of colour to muffle their voices.

If you are a person of colour and you feel misrepresented by this post, please let me know. I am doing my best to listen.

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All they want is to change the world: Slice of Life 10/31 #SOL20

My Grade 12 class is writing personal narrative essays for the first time in their lives. Because the form is new to them, I’ve been flooding them with mentor texts from real life sources, mostly The New York Times “Lives” column and The Globe and Mail “First Person” column. We study structure, imitate style, consider topics and then work on our own essays. Yesterday, we were looking at an essay called “In this age of #MeToo, my daughter needs to know there are good men out there” so that we could study the way the author used multiple short anecdotes to make her point.

My students, ever willing, examined the structure and noticed the chronology, the transitions, the implied thesis, but eventually the discussion turned to the content of the essay itself.

“I really noticed the silencing of women’s voices in this essay.”
“Even her daughter doesn’t have a voice.”
“I appreciate that she trying to point out that there are many good people in the world, but she’s not addressing the bigger picture.”
“Do you see where she credits her partner with being the primary caregiver but then she’s the one with the playpen in her office? I wonder about their definition of primary caregiver.”
“In the end, all of her examples imply that, as a woman, she is a problem and the men are kind for helping her with this problem. They don’t change the way things work, they just make space for the problems she encounters.”

Snapping – our form of quiet clapping – broke out spontaneously around the room at that last comment.

I wish I had recorded the discussion. These young people were understanding of the author’s perspective; they knew what she was trying to do and they sympathized with her. They didn’t disagree that many men are helpful and supportive – and let’s be clear that this discussion included male, female, and a rainbow of LGBTQ+ students – but they were absolutely unwilling to concede that “good” is good enough. They don’t want men to help them lift things, and they don’t want men to change their work schedules to walk them home so they feel safe. They want a world where it actually is safe for them to walk home and where equipment they use to do their jobs is designed so that they can move it without asking a man to help.

I stood in awe of them. My generation owes them more than reminders that many people are kind and that sexism is inevitable. We owe it to them to change the world – and if we don’t, they intend to do it themselves.

 

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Just conversations

Yoga had ended and Melanie and I were waiting in the narrow hallway for our friend Pam to catch up to us. As other students came and went, their awkwardly shaped yoga mats slung over their shoulders, we tried to make space by flattening ourselves against the wall and then, when that didn’t work, moving away from the studio door and towards the exit. This maneuver was complicated by the custodian’s unfortunately placed cleaning cart. I sighed, waited for a break in the flow of people, and scooted around to the other side.

I leaned against the wall and realized that Melanie had not followed me. She was on the other side of the cart, chatting with the custodian. Snippets of their conversation floated down the hallway: “So far!” she exclaimed. He gestured and smiled, leaning towards her and saying something quietly. “Well, I hope it goes well for you.” Melanie nodded. Then Pam appeared, Melanie said goodbye, the custodian flashed a smile at all three of us, and off we went.

The whole exchange was fleeting – maybe 30 seconds – and, in many ways, it was no big deal. Except for this: I literally had not seen the custodian until Melanie talked to him. And not because he wasn’t there. He was. I had registered his cart more fully than his person. I had been more aware of the obstacle his work presented to my progress than I was to his physical presence as a human being.

I was humbled. Oh, I know that I am not a bad person. Sometimes – often! – I am a person who notices people, who acknowledges them and talks to them but, on this day, if Melanie hadn’t paused to chat, this man would have been entirely invisible to me. To make matters worse, he was a person of colour engaged in cleaning an area that was largely used by white people. And I had not seen him at all. I wonder how many others I have missed entirely?

Melanie and I have started a podcast called “Just Conversations” about our journey to become antiracist educators; we just put out our first episode. If I felt vulnerable starting this blog a year and a half ago, I feel vulnerable all over again talking about my teaching practice and all the things I need to learn about equity and inclusion and racism and more. This moment in the hallway screamed at me: “What right do you have to talk about this? You didn’t even see him.” But I can’t do better if I don’t try. I can’t do better if I don’t turn and see what others are doing. I can’t do better if I don’t even know what I don’t know.

I haven’t told Melanie about the moment I witnessed – she’ll read about it here first – but I’ve been thinking about it. She and I have been thinking and talking about racism and equity for a while now; she won’t begrudge me either what I saw or what I didn’t see. We’re good partners for this journey. I’m lucky to be talking, reflecting and learning with someone who can see things I cannot and do so without judgment. May I offer her the same.

And, if you’re up for adding another podcast to your queue, here’s our first one. In it, we ask the question How do we handle challenging conversations with students who come from a position of privilege? We talk about a classroom lesson on cultural appropriation and Halloween costumes; some of the white students seemed to miss the point. Then we have to wrestle with what to do. Kind of like I need to do on a regular basis.

 

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He talks about me at home

Last week we had parent-teacher interviews. I don’t get much uptake on interviews, maybe because I have small classes, or maybe because many of my students – who are responsible for bringing home the information about how to sign up – are somewhat less than enthusiastic about their parents coming to school. This semester was no different: a handful of parents signed up; fewer showed up. It’s too bad, really, because I love parent-teacher interviews. I love meeting parents, talking about the class and their child. I love how as we talk we can become a team, cheering for a child to do well, looking for strategies to make that a reality. Mostly, parent teacher interviews are a good thing.

My favourite interview of the evening came when a mother showed up with all three of her students. Two of them are in my class, and I let them lead the first part of the discussion. One was quite forthcoming, the other, rightly, more sheepish about his work. Their mother looked on, amused. As the second boy stopped talking, she flashed me a full grin.

“He talks about you a lot at home,” she smiled.
“Mom,” he closed his eyes, fingertips on his eyelids, and shook his head.
“He can’t quite figure you out,” she continued, as he slid lower in his seat. “He’s always wondering what you’re up to.”

I gave him a sidelong glance. I thought he might actually turn himself invisible. Across the table, his brothers smirked.

“Oh yeah,” continued his mother, “he even wondered if maybe your partner is black. Apparently you teach a lot of black authors.”

I paused to take this all in. No one in my class has so much as mentioned my overt choices about which books I introduce. No one commented when we read picture books filled with stories of people with all different backgrounds as we started our memoirs. No one breathed a word when Jacqueline Woodson’s This is the Rope became a touchstone mentor text for that same assignment. No one has remarked that the authors whose videos we watch are almost all people of colour. No one has pointed out that I intentionally present diverse voices during book talks, that I often read own voices texts for first-chapter Fridays, that I presented Autumn Peltier alongside Greta Thunberg. If anything, when I mention that I am doing this, everyone looks away.

I had almost stopped. I have been wondering if maybe I am reacting to a problem that isn’t theirs. I’m a white female teacher. Many of my students are BIPOC boys. What do I know of their experience? Trayvon Martin was shot in another country seven years ago when they were only seven or eight years old. They don’t know the names Tamir Rice or Michael Brown. Heck, they can’t remember who ran for Prime Minister and that election just ended last week AND we talked about it in class. Their world is immediate in both time and place. They are 14. I had started to wonder if maybe my intentional move towards equity was more for me than for them.

And then I found myself sitting with three mixed-race students and their white mother. I heard the question in the statement, “He even wondered if your partner is black.”

“No,” I smiled, “he’s not. I really believe that our curriculum should be diverse. There are a lot of people with a lot to say, and we don’t always hear their voices.

We kept talking for a few minutes. I shared some of my story; she shared some of hers. The kids perked up a little and even joined the talk again.

The interview ended. My work with equity and diversity continues.

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