Archives For I Matter

My personal journey as an educator, library teacher, writer, and global being who is still learning to see my unconscious biases and my limited perspectives when it comes to knowing and understanding EVERYONE’s story.

Posted on Thursdays

What’s your name?

It’s a question we are asked and ask many times in our lives. But how often do we consider all the layers of story and identity connected with the answer?

Some strangers may not even bother to learn your name but size you up by the way you look. You may be identified by your first and last name on paperwork and be judged on that basis. Colleagues might know your name but not your nicknames. Friends might know your nickname but not the story behind them. Family might know the history behind the name but maybe not your feelings.

Each and every name carries a world of stories, feelings, histories, associations, cultures and identities. Here are five ways to mine the richness in a name so that individuals can be seen and known for a tiny, yet monumental, part of who they are and how they feel they belong or don’t.

  1. Ask Questions. What does your name mean? Who were you named after? Why? How do you feel about you name? Has your feelings towards your name changed?
  2. Use These Poems or Story Excerpts as Writing Prompts: 
    • House on Mango Street’s “My Name” chapter By Sandra Cisneros
    • Z is for Zuri in Damitra Brown Class Clown by Nickki Grimes 
    • The Name I wanted by Richard Blanco 
    • Ismi by Suheir Hammad in Born Palestinian, Born Black 
    • His Long Tapered Fingers by Fan Chiang
  3. Have the students or group create a visual representation of their names and their feelings about it and make a name quilt
  4. Investigate historical or contemporary situations where groups or individuals have had to change names to “belong”
    • Ellis Island or Angel Island and current immigration to the U.S
    • Native American “assimilation process”
    • job, loan, and other forms of paper work discrimination based on perceived ethnicity of name
  5. Role play and examine the negative impact of name calling and brainstorm creative ways to be an upstander in those moments

And in case you want one more. Here’s a bonus activity! 

Read any of the books from this “what’s in a name” bookshelf and start a discussion with whomever you are with. ( click the image for book summary.)

Screen Shot 2015-09-17 at 12.08.04 AMScreen Shot 2015-09-17 at 12.07.40 AM

And by the way: my name Samantha means listener in Aramaic. I was named after the Bing Crosby Song “I am a one gal guy” from the musical High Society. When I was a reporter I used the byline Sam because I liked the gender ambivalence. And when I hear my full name, it’s usually because I am in trouble with my mother.

Feel free to add your own name stories to the comments below or share other name activities.

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You don’t need to be Snow White to understand the power of a mirror. You just need to be a kid who has an adult who shares a book with you that reflects a part of your identity.

The joy which flooded my first grader’s face today as I told her and her classmates about a number of “old friends and new friends” made my aching back and sore feet worth all the while.

I didn’t need the reward of her glee half as much as she needed the validation that the world and her place in it was okay just because during the book fair I shared a book (with her in mind) called Tales of India.

But I didn’t share this book just for Diviya.  I shared it for all my first graders. For Diviya, this mirror, along with my pathetic year-long attempts to count in Hindi every time she comes to library, might help her know that there are people in the world who both recognize and celebrate her differences. But I also want my students, who may not have the direct life experience of the richness of the world, to know it exists. That is the power of story. It can work both ways. Each way forges a connection.

While it was a calculated gesture – I make sure I can share books that reflect my community and also expand their horizons-  it was also a simple and easy act that paid more than it’s weight in delight.

May we all have such  moments where we can feel the delight of self recognition or the awe of  providing it for others. May we all enjoy the thrill of stepping  out of our comfort zones and listening  to unfamiliar stories and experiences.

Go forth and find at least one mirror and one window today.

While different cultures around the world observe the New Year in a variety of ways and at various times, they almost all share the idea of taking stock. New Year is often marked by reflecting on the passing year and celebrating a new opportunity for better things to come. Many of us in the West, who use the Gregorian calendar to bring in the New Year in January, make resolutions.

I usually use September and the start of a new school year as my time to set goals. However, this year, I’ve decided I need another occasion to be mindful. So I am joining the millions who have made recent resolutions. In 2014 I want to leave my unkind baggage behind back in 2013.

So I have resolved to try and let go of attitudes that weigh on me and put others down. I will strive to:

  1. Let go of all thoughts that judge people as “other.” Especially if there is fear in that judgment.
  2. Let go of all thoughts that categorize something as normal. If there is a normal there has to be an abnormal. How do you think it feels for someone to be categorized as abnormal? And why would I do that to someone?
  3. Let go of the fear of those who are different from me, especially if my fear is because I am unfamiliar with that difference and so I am making appalling assumptions because of my own anxiety.
  4. Let go of thinking that my perspective is the only one. I will try and remember that the globe has 360 degrees of perspectives.
  5. Let go of thinking there’s a right and wrong way to do things or to see the world. Enjoy the contrast and celebrate the diversity and richness of life.
  6. Let go of listening to only a limited range of stories. I will seek out the biggest window, or stories that are outside my comfort zone that I can find.
  7. Let go of anger towards those who hold perspectives I have struggled to understand yet find hard to embrace.

Seven resolutions seems like it should be doable. But unconscious messages can sneak up on you. So I know it will be a fight. One worth having, but a battle nonetheless. Wish me luck and feel free to hold me accountable.

I just stumbled across President Obama’s 2006 Senatorial Commencement address at Northwestern University.  Wow! At a time when the United States takes pause to give thanks, I give thanks for leaders who recognize that empathy might be the best commodity that the world can trade.

Northwestern University Commencement Address

Friday, June 16, 2006

Click here to the NorthWestern University site for the full speech.

The world doesn’t just revolve around you. There’s a lot of talk in this country about the federal deficit. But I think we should talk more about our empathy deficit – the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s shoes; to see the world through those who are different from us – the child who’s hungry, the laid-off steelworker, the immigrant woman cleaning your dorm room.

As you go on in life, cultivating this quality of empathy will become harder, not easier. There’s no community service requirement in the real world; no one forcing you to care. You’ll be free to live in neighborhoods with people who are exactly like yourself, and send your kids to the same schools, and narrow your concerns to what’s going in your own little circle.

Not only that – we live in a culture that discourages empathy. A culture that too often tells us our principle goal in life is to be rich, thin, young, famous, safe, and entertained. A culture where those in power too often encourage these selfish impulses.

They will tell you that the Americans who sleep in the streets and beg for food got there because they’re all lazy or weak of spirit. That the inner-city children who are trapped in dilapidated schools can’t learn and won’t learn and so we should just give up on them entirely. That the innocent people being slaughtered and expelled from their homes half a world away are somebody else’s problem to take care of.

I hope you don’t listen to this. I hope you choose to broaden, and not contract, your ambit of concern. Not because you have an obligation to those who are less fortunate, although you do have that obligation. Not because you have a debt to all of those who helped you get to where you are, although you do have that debt.

It’s because you have an obligation to yourself. Because our individual salvation depends on collective salvation. And because it’s only when you hitch your wagon to something larger than yourself that you will realize your true potential – and become full-grown.

 

It’s embarrassing how little I know about Hispanic contributions. You can see below in my own answers to the question I posed earlier this week. (Click for the original post)

I attribute my ignorance to several things.

1)     I didn’t have a lot of Hispanic history or Latino literature taught to me in school.  Let me correct myself. I don’t remember any!

2)     I live in a part of the country where the Hispanic culture and heritage is not prevalent.

3)     I get news from sources that inherently can’t cover every story. So what one organization choses to include or not, shapes my understanding of current events.

4)     I view the world through a certain lens. My lens has been formed by my upbringing, my heritage, my education, my location, my circumstances, etc. So I filter information through that perspective.

All of these contributing factors often remain unconscious. Unless, I make an effort to find out what viewpoints I am missing, or who’s story I haven’t heard, I will continue to have a narrow and less rich connection with all those with whom I share this planet. And why would I want of that?

So I continue to find as many windows and mirrors as I can. I continue to seek out multiple stories and multiple perspectives. That helps me understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes while deepening my understanding of the world.

Maybe, one day I can also fill in such a list for all the wonderful different human experiences that exist.

Until then, here are my answers and my gaps. Follow the links to learn more about the individuals I named, or wait until next time when I’ll share who they are and what resources you can use with children.

Congress Women

Writer: Julia Alvarez

Picture Book Illustrator: David Díaz

Astronaut:

Nobel Prize Winner

Basketball Player

Union Leader: Cesar Chavez

Senator

Mayor

Governor

Actor

Singer/Musician: Jennifer Lopez

Community Organizer

United States Surgeon

Golfer

Artist: Frieda Kahlo

Baseball Player: Roberto Clemente

 

Today I asked my third graders if they could name anyone of Hispanic descent. They could list a someone they knew personally, a person from history, or a figure from pop culture.

Their lists weren’t long. In fact. Most were blank.

I wasn’t surprised given the community in which I teach. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for first hand encounters. And so my work begins. Unless I or other adults explicitly have conversations about the rich Hispanic heritage, history, and accomplishment, their lists will remain short.

It was time to lead the children to find stories. My third graders are fairly good at knowing how to solve information problems. So they eagerly rose to the challenge of using the library catalog to find biographies.

I recommend keywords – in this case, search terms like Latino/Latina, Hispanic, Puerto Rican, Costa Rican, Dominican, Mexican-American, Chilean, etc. I remind students of the definitions of Hispanic and Latino/Latina. I also provide them with a few examples. This helps the class brainstorm more names to use in their searches.

One of the biographies that provided my readers with a window

The children know how to identify the call number of a book in their computer search. Then they use that to locate the book on the shelf. So they fly to the next step. Reading the book which offers them a window into new experiences, and a peek into an unfamiliar culture. I remind them that this is just one person’s particular story of being Hispanic and that like any group of people there are similarities and differences within that group as well as in comparison to another group.

Next week they will craft jeopardy type questions to post around the school to educate others within our community one story at a time.

In a few days my students will tumble through my library doors after a summer of reading stories elsewhere. Like many others I am eagerly preparing for a fresh new year.

I dust the library shelves, create book displays about sustainability, and finalize lesson plans for creating a second grade research project on bento boxes.

Then there is one more important step before I feel ready.  I pull out and study a checklist that I created for myself based on and inspired by the work I so admire at EdChange: Building Equitable and Just Schools, Communities and Organizations through Transformative Action.

So far, I haven’t been able to check anything off the list.  And I don’t expect to. This work is ongoing, though some of it is getting easier.

  1. Do I learn to pronounce each student’s full name correctly? No one should feel like they have to change his or her name to make it easier for me.
  2. Do I continually assess my bias, prejudice and cultural upbringing and how they influence my teaching practices and relations with my colleagues, students and their families?
  3. Do I consciously pay attention to my language and not use expressions which originated from inequities of power?
  4. Am I using materials that are unbiased? If not, do I use it as a teaching tool to help students analyze and recognize it?
  5. Do I help my students unpack the myth of color-blindness? Do I discuss why it is important to acknowledge differences, and not deny another person’s experience that has been shaped by their skin color?
  6. When an issue such as racism or classism comes up in the classroom, do I address it or shy away from it out of fear or ignorance? Neither is a good reason.
  7. Is my curriculum inclusive of a wide range of multiple perspectives all the time or just a token gesture especially during special months?
  8. Do I work toward equity for ALL underrepresented groups? Or for example do I strive for gender equity but not racial equity?
  9. Do I work towards equality or equity?  Do I try and give everybody the same thing which may not be what everyone needs or do I try and change the disparity in access for an underrepresented or disenfranchised person?
  10. Am I constantly working towards understanding my whiteness and the privileges it gives me?

Wish me a good fall and support in accomplishing these goals. May they be useful to you too.

A mentor, who’s taught me much about multiple perspectives, has often told me, “unmentionable becomes unmanageable.” So when faced with an awkward conversation about race, I try to forge ahead despite my fear. I do worry that I may say the wrong thing but I’d rather start a dialogue than miss an opportunity.

According to Pro Bronson (see this post) ,many white parents and educators don’t find these race conversations easy. I am no different. But if I’m not willing to engage, then I’m responsible for making the unmentionable unmanageable.

12danceprincessA library class with lots of five year olds clamoring for books was one such occasion when I felt out of my depth but obligated to speak. A girl requested a “princess book”. I handed her Rachel Isadora’s stunning version of the Twelve Dancing Princesses. When she replied, “no, I want a pretty one,” I had two choices.

I could find another book.  Or I could find out why a classic fairytale set in Africa was not acceptable. Obviously, she couldn’t  articulate that she had been indoctrinated by Disney’s values of beauty, princesses and fairytales.

I had five minutes left of class and was at a loss for words.

As my mentor said, “just start the conversation. You don’t have to finish it.” So I told my student, that Isadora’s version was beautiful. However, it sounded like she was looking for a specific type of book that was of a different style. I showed her a Disney style fairytale she left happy.

I may not have said the right thing.

She may not remember the conversation.

I may not have shifted her thinking.

But.

I feel better for trying, in my awkward, off-guarded attempt, to interrupt her unconscious, internalized racism. I, at least, acknowledged the unmentionable to myself.

I hope she heard, so  that one day it won’t be unmanageable for her.

color_of_us

Talking about skin color is both never easy and entirely simple. Especially if you keep three things in mind.

  1. Any conversation is better than no conversation, so don’t worry about getting it perfect.
  2. One conversation is just that. One conversation, a beginning. It doesn’t have to do everything.
  3. Practice makes better. The more conversations you have the more natural it feels.

The Color of Us by Karen Katz ,the wonderful author/illustrator of books like Can you Say Peace and My First Ramadan is a great entryway into the conversation.

Over the years, I had read this book a number of times to my library classes before I felt comfortable enough to actually do more than a read-aloud. And I use the word comfortable loosely. I was nervous that I wouldn’t do it right, that I’d get questions I couldn’t answer, that I wasn’t an art teacher, and who was I to have these conversations.

But as soon as I read this story, asked everyone to put a hand in a circle, and started talking about the shades of color we saw, my kindergartPeople's mandala - 12 handsners were eager for more. Everyone was clamoring at once. Lena,  the seven year old in the story was cinnamon brown. What color were they?

Be forewarned, you should have lots of food and spice colors to use for all the various shades of your community. The first time I did this I didn’t have enough variations of white – peach, apricot, milk white, eggshell white only covered some of the ranges in our class. But everyone left proud of their new-found vocabulary as they headed off to art class where they mixed paint to match their skin.

For further activities and discussions for this book check out Karen Katz’s suggestions.and this link too.

Happy skin coloring with your child or class!

When I was thinking about what I would put in my museum of tolerance I thought about the concept of being color blind and how its meaning has changed.

It was how I was raised. To view the person not the color of their skin. We are all human beings and that’s what counts. While the sentiment and or the intent of this teaching seems to come from a good place, I have since learned that the impact, has the opposite effect for many people of color.

It is true we are all human. But if I don’t acknowledge someone’s skin color I am denying that the color of their skin has literally colored their life experience. I am choosing to ignore how they may have been treated because of it. I am avoiding coming to terms with how I exist in the world because of my white skin.

As a white woman in affluent suburb on the East Coast, I can walk into a boutique, whether or not I can afford anything, and be treated with respect or at least left to my own devices. I know for a fact (because a friend of color shared that story with me ) that if you are dark skinned and walk into that same store, you are followed.

If I ignore this truth by saying I don’t see color I am also saying I don’t believe or care that you have been followed in that same store because of skin color. I am denying someone else’s reality. And who wants to do that?