Educators. Students. Community members. Much more unites us than divides us, particularly knowing we all wear multiple hats. Building relationships. Thinking BIG.
Challenging and supporting one another. Developing engaged, empathetic citizens. Please join me in pondering how best to nurture these common ground connections.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

A Heartfelt Letter. To Students. Love Teacher.

October 11th was National Coming Out Day. Niles North's GSA Club organized a panel discussion that was made available every period for faculty, staff and students to attend. A host of very giving, insightful, courageous and caring students, parents and teachers shared their stories with a minimum of 9 audiences that day. A teacher colleague of mine composed and read a letter to our students. It was beautiful. And an authentic "life" lesson plan. I asked her if it she would be okay with using it as a guest post on my blog in order to reach even more individuals. My heartfelt thanks for her permission, authenticity, and generosity.

"While preparing for today, I’ve been reflecting on what it has been like to come to terms with my own sexuality as a child and to learn to live courageously as an adult.  But with all of the stories in the media regarding the injustice associated with issues of sexual assault, Islamophobia and Black lives, I have to admit that I’ve had a difficult time dwelling on my own struggles and journey. As a result of this reflection, I've written the following thoughts that I am honored to share with you today:

I grew up in the 60s and 70s in a small town downstate where people were afraid of gays, blacks, women's lib, Russians and Jews, just to mention a few.  The only thing that I feared was public speaking, gay people and perhaps unknowingly, myself.  I was insecure, immature and in most situations, a follower. I recall playing coed volleyball during my junior year of high school. As I looked across the net, I noticed a very lanky and effeminate boy standing awkwardly. I shouted "fag" as he ducked and ran away from the spiked ball headed in his direction. Unknowingly, our mothers worked together and during the next summer, I finally met the boy whom I had bullied with a single word.

When I started teaching in the late 80s, I was one of three female science teachers at Maine East High School. I didn’t know of any other gay teachers and there were no organizations such as GSA that supported students. There were no state or federal laws that protected my job based on my sexual preference, no domestic partnership benefits, and gay marriage seemed an impossible dream. I pretended that my roommate, Dirk, who was also gay, was my boyfriend.

But by the early 90s, a brilliant PR and social justice movement emerged, driven by the impact of AIDS, which encouraged gay people to no longer live secretly.  “Silence equals death” was the slogan and stars like Elton John, Melissa Etheridge and Ellen "came out" to the world. As many families learned that either their uncle, child or even mother was gay, the gay community slowly but surely gained straight allies over the next two decades.  In 2014, perhaps one of the biggest surprises in my life, gay marriage was legalized in the US.

The LGBTQ community still needs straight allies, just as Blacks and other minorities need White allies. Women need men to stand up against sexist language and behavior. Rape culture cannot be ended if only women care enough to try to stop it. Muslims need Christians, Jews and even atheists to support their religious freedom. Transgender people need the support of all of us who are comfortable with our given gender. Silence equals death is for each of us, for all of our differences and all of our special needs.

Statistics are facts and facts cannot be argued or denied. According to the FBI’s latest report, there were 6,727 victims of hate crimes in 2014. Of the 5,462 single-bias incidents reported, 47 percent were racially motivated. Other motivators included sexual orientation, and gender identity which accounted for 21% and religion, ethnicity, disability, comprised 32% of the crimes. Every two minutes an American is sexually assaulted, according to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Islamophobia, homophobia, misogyny and xenophobia all have the same thing in common.  Fear. I have found that when people make or post sexist, racist or anti-gay comments, they create a false sense of self-empowerment and satisfaction.  Support from like minded friends gives them a bit more perceived power but it's the silence from the masses that empowers them the most.  If we say “No”, or question them, we take away that false sense of righteousness.  Driven by cowardice and fear, confrontation typically silences them, and in my experience results in quickly disappearing Facebook posts.

I am thankful that my religious preference is not the first thing people think about when they meet me and perhaps many of you didn't even know that I am gay.  I have the privilege of never ever having to think about racial discrimination affecting me or my family never having to give my daughter "the talk.” I guess I wouldn't be gay if I were transgender, but I can't even imagine the obstacles I would face and have to overcome to change my gender.  I do have the privilege of being White and I do pledge to spend the rest of my life advocating for under represented minorities. After a couple weeks reflection, I think my journey has been pretty easy for which I'm grateful.

Not much has changed in my hometown of Taylorville. The fear of Russians has transformed into fear of Muslims, gays are still scary but not as much as the transgender people (especially while using the bathroom) and people unhappy with the town’s increasing diversity blame the increase in Black population on the local prison which was built in the 80s.

This past June, one of my best friends whom I loved like a brother took his own life. He was 52 years old, a U of I graduate and an attorney for a federal judge. He was the kindest, funniest and most giving person I have ever met. Still living in Taylorville, he had never married, never dated to my knowledge, and was most likely transgender. His happiest moments were on Halloween when he dressed up as Cher or Stevie Nicks and danced, and spun and sang. He was incidentally, that very same boy whom I called a fag in high school.

Do you want to return to Skokie in 50 years to find that the same fears, racism, sexism, etc. still plaguing your community? If I can face and finally conquer my fear of public speaking, apologize for calling someone gay after coming to terms with my own sexuality, and learn why Black Lives need to Matter, then you can face your fear of others who are different than you.  You can learn to face and conquer your fears. Each one of you can become an ally for one person, one cause. It’s not who you are to today, but who you will become that is most important. The question is, what can you do with your privilege?

Male, female, Lesbian Gay, bisexual, transgender, straight, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Black, White, Brown.  They are all labels.  Human constructs satisfy our innate desire to categorize and divide in order to understand, but they CAN NOT be used to segregate and isolate us from one another. To learn, we must listen.  

In closing, I'd like to share a quote from Shannon Alder:

'There comes a time in your life when you can no longer put off choosing. You have to choose one path or the other. You can live safe and be protected by people just like you, or you can stand up and be a leader for what is right. Always, remember this: People never remember the crowd; they remember the one person that had the courage to say and do what no one [else] would do.' ~Shannon L. Alder

I thank you so much for listening today with an open heart and mind."

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Testing, Testing...

...anybody out there?

It's been too long! I've taken an extended break from blogging. Why? I've been working on another writing project, which I'll reveal shortly. But for now, I'm back. :) My first re-entry story has to do with a trajectory change in my department.

Last Tuesday, I had a wonderful department meeting. I was so nervous, even announcing to my teachers, "If I don't introduce this conversation well, I'm certain it's the end of my career. That's how nervous I am." They laughed. But I noticed them bracing themselves. Physically. Prepping for the hammer to drop, or something.

Boy did I get lucky. I just let a piece of myself free. Without filter, my teacher self took over. More than anything, I wanted them to see a bit of who I am and what I believe and what I know to be true. I did my best to pull back the curtain (gently) and loosen the grip that I know they've felt. The grip that they should only focus on one dimension of student growth—content. That nothing else mattered. And what did I see?


Yes! We are on our way. And I am so looking forward to this journey. It will be hard work. Meaningful work. Work that could only be accomplished by teachers with the talents, dedication and intellect that this group holds.

What journey? I intend to share over time. But for now, the following poem describes what we plan to bury. We will find the right balance, our equilibrium. But with equity as our foundation and scientific literacy as our focus, we will bring the joy of learning back to the heart of what we do. And students will fly.

(And by the way; I was the girl on her knees in this poem. And was allowed the time to explore.)

Hurry, Hurry!
A poem by Clydia Forehand

Hurry up children; don't lag behind.
Please face the front; please stay in line.
We've all got to hurry. We must take a test.
And hope we are better than even the best.

Way at the back, a young girl on her knees
Was not facing front; she was looking at leaves.
There on the ground, she held one to see
She looked at it closely; looked up at the trees.

"Miss Giffrey, Miss Giffrey, could you tell me how
This leaf is so different from that one. Right now?
Miss Giffrey, Miss Giffrey, I just want to know
Why do leaves fall? And how do trees grow?"

Miss Giffrey was saddened; she wanted to teach.
She wanted to show them the veins in the leaf.
The wonders of chlorophyll; osmosis, too.
Instead she said, "Please do as I asked you to."

The child put the leaf down and stood in the line.
They all had to hurry; it was almost time.
The schedules were set; the test was at nine.
"Hurry up, children; don't lag behind."

They all took the test; they did pretty well.
Their scores became data; not stories to tell.
Somebody, someplace, entered those scores
And somebody, someplace, compiled a report.

Miss Giffrey's and all other classes that year
Were ranked in an order that made it quite clear
Who were the winners and who was in trouble
And who'd better make better scores in the future.

Miss Giffrey did well; the report in the paper
Made her and her class and her school look quite able
To teach things that mattered; to make sure kids learned
And like every story, this one's pages turned.

The child in the back who had looked at the leaf;
Been told not to dawdle; been taught not to see.
Grew to adulthood, a product of schools
That taught how to test and to follow the rules.

Miss Giffrey kept teaching; but teaching had changed
There were scripts now to follow. "Please don't deviate,"
Said the words in bold print at the top of each page
"Take the lessons in order, teach the lessons the same."

Test scores were rising, and, each year, believe me
Everyone said how much kids were achieving
"They're learning so much" people said to each other.
"It's so good to know now that schools aren't in trouble."

And Sarah, that young girl who'd once found the leaf,
Soon learned not to look; soon learned not to see.
Like everyone else, she walked in a line.
'Cause she had been taught she could not lag behind.

There are so many children, from so many places
To test for conformity really erases,
All that they are; all that they dream
All that they look for and all that they see.

Taught not to question; taught not to ask.
Stay in your seat; stick to the task.
Each one so different; each boy and each girl.
They are lag behind children in a hurry up world.