On Orlando

 

It was a Tuesdaydownload.

I was in Political Science class at Nazareth College when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.

I don’t remember what I was wearing, or what I had for breakfast, but I clearly remember my professor’s response to those streaming in talking about what was happening.

“Be quiet. I’m sure it’s not true. You’re to stay in your seats and attend to class.”

Those of us with family members working or living in NYC ended up leaving, amid threats of failing from that professor.

I remember not caring if I failed.

I remember being afraid and confused.

It is uniquely difficult to be an educator after an event as horrific as 9/11, or most recently, Orlando. We alone are the recipients of questions that children are afraid to ask in front of their parents. We are the ones who hear the unfiltered thoughts of children trying to process events that they are not quite able to comprehend.

Our students are afraid. They are confused.

They ask questions like “Are all Muslims trying to kill us?” or “Does God really hate gay people?”

They worry about walking to school in their hijab because “Americans think all Muslims are dangerous and may hurt me.”

When confronted with situations such as this it would be easy to respond with “Talk with your parents.” or “We’re focusing on math right now.” It would also be plain wrong.

You see, we don’t have the luxury of being silent because we are uncomfortable.

We are the front lines in the war against terror.

No matter what your religious beliefs, no teacher supports the taking of innocent lives. This is where we must find the common ground to speak with our students about topics like terrorism, gender identity, and religious tolerance.

First and foremost it is our job (and legal responsibility) to make sure that every child who enters our classroom knows that they are safe.

Every child. No matter their race, religion, gender, or sexual orientation.

We must create an environment where children can ask questions openly, without fear or embarrassment, especially when talking about emotionally charged events like Orlando.

We as a country have allowed hate speech to run rampant. Entertainment companies mimic news channels while spewing toxic misinformation designed to inflame the most dangerous ideas held in this country.

Teachers see these ideas taking hold. We watch children trying to find their footing in the adult world by fitting in with social norms. If we allow that norm to be one of hate, we have — in our silence and our complacency — forsaken the future of those sitting in front of us every day.

We owe it to our children to combat the bigotry and hate that create breeding grounds for acts of violence such as this to occur.

We owe it to our students and our children to be uncomfortable.

It was a Sunday.

How will your students remember your response on that day?

Peace,

Kelly

The following resources can help facilitate conversations in your classroom.

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On Being a Teacher Mom

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It’s Mother’s Day and I find myself writing to my daughter.

I’ve been thinking about all of the moments that define what kind of a Mom I am and what kind of a Mom I’m working toward being. I’ve been thinking about the things we do together: we paint, we color, we garden, we read, we sing… we learn letters and numbers and phonemic awareness.

Yea, I know you’re only 2, but you see, I’m a Teacher Mom through and through.

I remember the day I went back to work after you were born.

I got to stay home with you for three months, which is a long time for a working Mom in the United States. Most of that was unpaid, but it didn’t matter. I had it all figured out.

Besides the fact that I love my job, we also needed the health insurance (and income) that my job provided, so it seemed like 3 months would be “a perfect amount of time.”

It wasn’t.

You see, I didn’t realize that I wouldn’t want to go back so soon.

I called up your Grandma who had been a teacher for 36 years.

“I can’t go back Mom. I’m not physically or mentally healthy. It’s not right. Why should I take care of other people’s children and not take care of my own?” I sobbed into the phone for hours.

“You’re right, it’s not ok.” she said.

“But listen to me; You were made for this job. You had a different life, traveled the world, and gave it all up to go back to school for teaching. You are a mother to so many more children than just Liliana. It would be wrong to deny those kids your love.”

And of course, my mother was right. She almost always is. (Almost Mom, don’t hold this over my head next time we disagree.)

I have had the privilege of being called “Mom, or Mami, or Momma” years before I had a biological daughter.

While teaching elementary school, it wasn’t a good day unless one kid accidentally slipped and said “Ok, Mom!” and then giggled hysterically at her mistake.

In Africa my students (and sometimes my friends) called me “Momma Kelly”.

While working in a high school bilingual program, my kids would call out “Buenas Dias Mami.” on a regular basis, complete with kisses on each cheek.

Now, teaching middle school, my 7th grade “Crew” (my family group, homeroom class) will only call me Mom and not Mrs. Anything. So much so that they’ve had students ask if “That pale white lady is really your mom?”

I could never deny those children my love.

But sometimes I feel that taking care of so many hearts means that I slip on taking care of yours.

So, I want to tell you a few things that every Teacher Mom wants her own children to understand:

I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that I wasn’t there every time you got sick. I’m sorry that our society values work over family and there were times I just couldn’t take the day off.

I’m sorry that sometimes I gave you Tylenol, sent you to daycare, and hoped that you’d feel well enough to make it through the day.

I’m sorry that while I was holding other children, I wasn’t holding you. Know that I agonized over every second, worrying that you’d call for me and I wouldn’t be there.

Know that while I brushed the hair of a student, I thought about how I wasn’t brushing yours. (I know daddy’s pigtails are ok, but mine are better).

I’m sorry for every boo-boo I couldn’t kiss and for every new experience that I didn’t see.

But please, I need you to understand-

That there are so many people who love you that I’d be selfish to keep you all to myself.

That I put my trust in a community of people to raise you because I truly believe that we are all responsible for raising the world’s children.

That having an extended network of helpers has made you more accepting of others than I could ever teach you to be on my own.

That you are bilingual because of some of those helpers, not because Momma’s language skills are that good.

That while other people were holding you, comforting you, and teaching you, you learned to trust in people, in our interconnectedness, and our responsibility to each other.

Because just as I am I mother to many- you too, belong to many.

And I could never deny those people your love.

I love you,

Momma

 

On World Hijab Day

Taboo topics are integrated in to an ESL teacher’s job. You’d be surprised how many different aspects of culture need explicit teaching.

Things like-

  • No, it’s not ok to bring a knife to school to sharpen a pencil.
  • Yes, you wear deodorant every day.
  • No, you don’t stand on the toilet.
  • No, you can’t eat the chicks that we hatched in class.
  • Please don’t try to kill the show-and-tell chameleon with a book, it’s someone’s pet.
  • The phrase “sexy time” isn’t another way to say good morning, someone was being mean to you.

A few months ago one of my students ran into my classroom. I teach middle and high school, so I’m not used to kids moving very quickly in general, let alone to get to class.

She was all out of breath when she started talking. “Please just say yes, Miss.” were the first things out of her mouth. It turns out that she had heard about an event called World Hijab Day, in which women of all faiths are invited to wear and experience the hijab, and wanted to see if our school could participate.

Oh, I forgot to tell you, the girl who ran into my classroom is a Yemeni Muslim and dresses in the hijab every day.

There is a very clear protocol to follow when it comes to organizing an event at school. There is an application process in which the students have to map out an explicit purpose to their event or club, which goes directly to the Principal. The students must run and organize the activity themselves, with the oversight of a teacher in an advisory role. This is especially true when it comes to events that may include reference to religion.

The student, as well as a few of her friends, crafted a beautifully written letter outlining their proposal.

“ We just want people to understand who we are, where we’re from, and why we wear the hijab. We want students to be able to ask us questions in an open way and not be embarrassed.”

After the administration approved the event, we got busy planning. I was prepared for some controversy; after all, Islamophobia is rampant in our country at the moment. When I brought this up to my students they echoed what they had outlined in their proposal and assured me that they are used to people “judging us before they get to know us, simply because of our hijabs.” and that they wanted to do something to change that.

We had about a month to get organized and things went smoothly until the day before. About halfway through the day my phone started to ring incessantly. I had a message from a co-teacher of mine — “Check your email immediately.” Apparently someone in the suburban community had found out about the event and taken issue with it.

I sat at my computer, horrified, as I tuned in to a local radio entertainer who compared my students to ISIS and railed on about the “separation of church and state”.

The lies just kept coming. “ You can’t talk about God in school. We can’t say the pledge because of God, so why can a school preach Islam? The school is FORCING girls to wear the hijab. Muslims are violent people who oppress women.”

All of a sudden an event that consisted of a table in the cafeteria before school became a battleground for Christian religious zealots. News stations started calling, the internet exploded, and I had to shut off my personal cell phone because of the lunatic calls I was getting. Even those things were nothing compared to the ignorant comments that popped up online.

“These people are spreading jihadism into Christian communities.”  “How about WEAR A SLAVE CHAIN DAY.” “How disgusting and irresponsible for any educator to encourage a child to wear a symbol of oppression.” “When is female circumcision day?” (And these are the ones that I can find that are the least offensive and free from expletives.)

Culture is woven with religion. The two go side by side. To divorce one from the other, especially when it comes to immigrants, is almost impossible.

Fortunately, in the United States we have something called the 1st Amendment which grants all people freedom of religion. Freedom of religion. Not freedom of religion for just Christians.

The same rights granted to Christian groups that promote and hold events such as “See You at the Pole” in which they pray around the flagpole in the school yard, are also granted to groups from other religions. In fact, in almost all cases, the establishment clause and the free exercise clause are enforced to protect Christian groups that use school spaces to organize such events.

The only reason the critics of the event brought up the separation of church and state is obvious — the event was led by Muslim students.

As a case in point, for the past three years I was the teacher advisor to a Three Kings’ Day event for a bilingual program that actually contained a play about Jesus. No one ever said a word about it.

The hate seething beneath the surface of our country is palpable. Our fear of “the other“ is so strong that people can take something as simple as three girls wanting to share their cultures and bastardize it into a persecution of “Christians”.

News flash- Christians aren’t persecuted in this country or in our public schools. School holidays are organized around the Christian holidays. The pledge is still read in public school, and yes, it still mentions “god”. Students don’t feel the need to hold an event explaining why they wear a cross to school because it is such a common thing. Furthermore, if they did feel the need to hold such an event, they could — because the law applies to everyone — that’s the beauty of the United States.

World Hijab Day was more of a success than I could have ever imagined. Partially because students became aware of the ignorant, bigoted comments online and took a stand by donning the hijab in solidarity for their fellow classmates.

As I walked through the halls, awash with colored headscarves,  I heard some of the most open and profound conversations about culture, religion, racism, and acceptance that I have ever heard —in school or otherwise.

I was given hope. These young people chose peace, understanding, and compassion rather than blind fear. Instead of shunning their classmates who wear the hijab, they not only embraced them, but defended them.

The students sent a message to our critics loud and clear that day- We aren’t afraid of each other and we won’t be afraid of you and your hateful message.

I speak to those same critics when I say if ever there is a time that your child wants to express their own beliefs, be glad that teachers like me and my colleagues exist. Teachers who stand for the rights of all of our children, and not just some of them. Because if we judged your children based on your hateful ideologies, would understand what it really means to be persecuted.

On Holidays

lightI love Christmas.

Well, I guess I love the feeling of Christmas, since I’m not all that religious.

I love how the world comes alive with generosity and love. How people act a little softer toward one another. How we all find ways to celebrate what we are thankful for. The month between Thanksgiving and Christmas ( which includes Chanukah, Diwali, and Eid as well) really reminds me that there is hope in this world.

But, the holiday season is rough on all teachers, and I am not an exception. It is in this season that it’s most difficult to talk about my job.

No-one wants to talk about the pervasiveness of white privilege, or be reminded that for many, the holiday season is a is more bleak than anything. Most people don’t want to discuss the commonalities between the Jewish, Islamic and Christian holy days. They don’t want to hear about my students, because they’re all “foreign” and they put a human story to the “immigration debate” people are so found of bringing up.

They want to be happy, to experience the magic of the holidays, and so do I.

I’ve never been afraid to state my opinion, but I am finding it more and more difficult not lash out (in person or via social media) at the biased comments and broad generalizations about groups of people that come with the recent hurt in this world.

I find myself having a hard time being able to compartmentalize.

We’ve just passed the three year anniversary of the Sandyhook “Shooting” (I have no idea why the news media doesn’t call this a terrorist attack, but I digress). Three years since I walked into school knowing that my students would be scared and that I would have to be strong for them. Three years ago that I told the truth to my city, non-white students… that they were safe in school because statistically white, middle class men shoot up schools.

A week later I drove to my hometown and was asked five times if I was worried about my safety in the “ghetto” school I taught in.

I work at a different school than I did 3 years ago, but the hurt of my job doesn’t change just because my location has.

A few weeks ago I watched as the world stood by France after the terrorist attacks on Paris. Peoples’ Facebook photos mirrored the French flag, the news outlets reminded us that France was one of our most favored military allies and monuments all over the world lit up with the French colors.

I watched my Facebook feed fill up with hateful, anti-Muslim nonsense. I listened to my students tell me that their families were afraid to leave the house because they’ve been harassed. And I wasn’t surprised when Egypt, Lebanon and Bangladesh — three countries which also had major terrorist attacks that week — didn’t get anywhere near the kind of response the French did. 

How can I possibly pretend that I don’t see that the holiday spirit extends only so far as skin color or class or religion for so many people in my life?

And so, Christmas is at the same time wonderful and wonderfully difficult for this teacher.

However, it seems that the holiday spirit has found a way to me regardless of all of the hurt that I see.

For the past five years “Santa” has sent me a gift card with an inspirational quote about teaching affirming that teachers jobs are not as thankless as we believe.

The first year I was ecstatic and tried like crazy to figure out who had sent it, but as the years have gone by, I’ve learned to appreciate the gift for what it really is; a reminder that Santa really does exist, just like the editor of the Baltimore Sun told Virginia over 100 years ago.

How dreary is the world when we forget about Santa? He represents the faith, the poetry, and the romance that make tolerable our existence.

He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist in this world.

This year I have decided not to look for Santa, but instead help him (or her) spread their message this year.

Although I won’t call myself by the same name, the gift given to me may now give others a bit of hope this year. It is, after all, my job to make sure that eternal light with which childhood fills the world is never extinguished.

I will make sure that I teach tolerance and understanding to my daughter and my children at school.

I will make sure that the holiday spirit extends to all of my students, regardless of their religion.

I will continue to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, for the power of my voice may be the greatest gift I have to give.

No Santa Claus!? Thank god he lives! He lives in the amazing hearts of those brave enough to believe the future can be changed.

Peace,

Kelly

On Leaving

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I’m saying goodbye to my kids and it’s harder than I thought.

The decorations are down, the beanbags from the reading corner are smushed into my car… it’s time.

I thought I’d feel relieved or vindicated, but instead I just feel incredibly sad.

Four years ago the Director of ELL’s in my district asked me to move from my cute little elementary school to an infamously difficult high school. Really, she was telling me, but she made it seem like a request. “I promise you, this is where you need to be,” she said. “Trust me,” she said, and because of the profound respect that I have for her, I did.

I also went home and cried.

When I called my mom, a veteran teacher with 36 years under her belt, I was still crying. In an effort to calm me down, she told me this — “Even the biggest and baddest teenager is still a kid, and those kids need you too, maybe even more than the little ones .”

And so they did.

My mom and my mentor were right. I love going to work every day and I love every one of the biggest and baddest teenagers.

Leaving them hurts.

My school is on the NYS “failing list” and next year we are being taken over by a local university educational partner as per one of the options NYS demands districts to choose from when they have a habitually low performing school. I probably should use the word “partner” or “work with” when describing the relationship with the university, but in fact “take over” is much closer to the feeling behind what is happening.

Per this process, all staff members had to reapply for their jobs. I was one of the people that were chosen to return, but there were significant unfair practices in the hiring process that left me wary.

The day before acceptance letters I was ready to sign on. I’m a naturally skeptical person, but I also have a healthy dose of optimism, so I decided to see the project out for a year. At the end of the day I was called down to the new administrator’s office. At the time, I thought nothing of it, as I had been an integral part of the curriculum development team for the following year and thought it had something to do with that.

What followed left me speechless…

“By all accounts you are an exceptional teacher.”  “The hiring team has concern over your like for social media.“Your habits wouldn’t be tolerated in other districts I don’t want to take anyone’s 1st Amendment right away but I would think long and hard before pressing send in the future”.

I get angry just thinking about it. I slam the car trunk closed.

“I belong here!” I want to tell at anyone who will listen.

But the reality is that I don’t belong here anymore.

I belong somewhere that wants strong teachers who defend our profession.

I belong somewhere that isn’t worried about politics, but is worried about our students and our communities.

I belong somewhere that values the exceptional teacher for her outstanding track record.

I belong somewhere where the fight for what’s right for my students doesn’t warrant a veiled threat for my job.

I’ll move on to a new school and those kids will need me just as much as these ones did, maybe even more.

I’m leaving and it’s harder than I thought.

-Kelly

To see my official refusal letter (containing some background information) please click here…Refusal Letter

On Refusing

Please accept this letter as evidence of my refusal to accept the employment offer at East High School for the 2015-2016 school year.  I am declining for a number of personal and professional reasons and would like to be very clear about my decision to do so.

On April 27th I was invited to a meeting with XXXXX concerning my application and future position at East. XXXXX began the meeting by indicating that  I, “By all accounts,  am an exceptional teacher.”  XXXXX then very clearly expressed his or “the hiring team’s” concern over my “…like for social media”. XXXXX also stated that I “…have been publicly critical of the UR/East partnership”. When I asked for an example or if XXXXX had read any of this to further explain his concerns XXXXX told me “I haven’t read any of it, I don’t have time for that stuff.” XXXXX also explained to me that my habits wouldn’t be tolerated in other districts as well as that I should “… think long and hard before pressing send in the future”.

I have never been anything but extremely transparent about what I post on the internet. I write a blog about teaching ESL in an urban environment, manage a teacher Facebook page (where my students and parents  can look at current and past assignments as well as turn in work) and manage a personal Facebook page. I regularly contribute to multiple newspapers and educational journals.  My students manage a Facebook page called Grown in the Concrete that is a place where people can share their positive experience of urban education. I also regularly critique multiple local news reporters for weak and biased journalism as it pertains to the city and our students.

In all of this work, I have never openly criticized my school, my school’s administration or the UR/East partnership. I believe in my leadership team and also in the teachers who work here.  I believe that all of our staff work extremely hard in an education system that is in shambles. I believe in public education and that we can be instruments for social and educational change.

I also believe that the media, traditional or otherwise, is instrumental to this process. There is a reason why the false rhetoric of “bad and failing” teachers exists. In many cases, the media serves only to perpetuate this myth. Many news outlets have forgotten that their purpose isn’t solely to sell newspapers, but to hold systems accountable to the public. I believe that until we stop hiding and start inviting the public to see what happens in our classrooms, then this false rhetoric will continue.

I know that I am an exceptional teacher. My graduation and exit rate of ELL’s is exceptionally high. I have never received a negative evaluation from one of the six administrators I have worked for.  I know I’m an exceptional teacher because my students love to come to my class and I love to be there. I am saddened that this was overlooked because of my “like for social media”.  Although many of the administrators I have worked with haven’t loved everything I have to say, they have always respected me as a professional. They have respected my work, my passion, and my commitment to not only the kids in front of me, but public education as a whole.  I am disappointed that my professional work doesn’t speak as loudly to the U of R hiring team.

I wish you all of the luck in the world and hope that this venture succeeds.

Respectfully,

Kelly LaLonde

On Witch Hunts

The Rochester City School District has made national headlines again. This time because Chief of Schools Beverly Burrell-Moore sent an email to the principals she supervises asking them to share names of teachers who have encouraged parents to refuse to allow their children to take state exams.

Per your building, please identify teachers who have sent letters or made phone calls to parents encouraging them to opt out their children from the NYS Assessments.  Also, identify teachers who you have evidence as utilizing their classrooms as “political soap boxes.  I need this updated  information no later than Tuesday morning for follow-up.”

In a follow up email to staff our Superintendent wrote the following:

“I know that many of you may have seen an email from a member of my team about this topic. If that email was interpreted as intimidating or offensive in any way, I apologize. Rest assured that no actions will be taken against any teacher or administrator engaged in the difficult work of educating our children simply because they expressed their views.”

I am not offended or intimidated. I am angry.

I am angry that these scare tactics are being used to justify a senseless, money-making scheme that is neither research-based nor a valid measure of student learning.

I’m angry that there are teachers out there who are scared and being bullied into teaching to an arbitrary test instead of instilling curiosity, wonder, and inspiration in young minds.

I am angry that the direct correlation between poverty and student performance has been confirmed for years, and yet the false rhetoric that teachers in poor districts are somehow lazy and incompetent persists.

I am angry that our Governor is holding “$413 million in aid that the law requires and New York state residents have paid in income taxes,” hostage from Monroe County schools and that we are collectively receiving less aid than we have since 2008.

I am angry that out of the 19 Monroe County Superintendents that called for an end to high stakes testing being used to evaluate teachers, the RCSD (the District most affected by high stakes testing because of the high concentration of poverty) Superintendent’s signature was the only one lacking.

I am angry because I suffer the repercussions of standardized testing every year.

I am an ESL teacher. My students are learning to speak, read, and write in English, all while striving to graduate in the four year, state-allotted time frame.

The ESL state exam (NYSESLAT) is a four part exam that theoretically tests a student’s reading, writing, speaking, and listening skills, then mandates a level of support services depending on where they score.

Theoretically is the key word here.

If a student misses a part of the test, he or she is given a zero for that section. That means that students who missed a part of the exam are labeled beginner ESL students, even if their teachers, their parents and themselves can prove otherwise. Because of the federal mandate around ESL services, many of these students languish in classes with students who are truly new to the country and language.

In previous years when I brought this up I was told that my “opinion on a student’s English level was not welcome.  Not only do I have a Masters Degree in Teaching English as a Second Language, but it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to talk to a student and figure out if he or she knows zero English or just missed part of an exam and “failed.”

What do you think this leads to? Attendance problems, students skipping the yearly test, and oh yes, my rating as a teacher plummeting.

I am angry because my students are stuck in a system so broken no one knows how to fix it.

I am angry because I LOVE MY STUDENTS and they DESERVE equal access to education, yet don’t get it.

I am angry that my opinion only counts if I’m pro students opting out, but doesn’t count when it comes to actually assessing how my students are performing in school.

So Rochester City School District, put me on whatever list you want.

Please excuse me, I’ll get off my political soapbox now.

Copyright: ©Kelly LaLonde, and urbanesl, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given with appropriate and specific direction to the original content