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ON THE PODCAST: Writing as Healing with Shamari Reid

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Welcome to Writing as Healing, a Heinemann-podcast series focused on writing as a tool, to increase healing in students and teachers. We know that academic learning doesn't happen without social and emotional support, and writing as a key literacy, is uniquely positioned in every classroom to do both.

How can writing lead to vulnerability, bravery, and freedom for students? How does teaching occur at that nexus of storytelling, performance and art? This week Liz is joined by Shamari Reid, a Heinemann author and professor at NYU, to talk about elevating the personal-writing voice and closing your classroom door as an act of self-love.


Below is a full transcript of the episode:

 Liz Prather:

Hi, this is Liz. Welcome to Writing as Healing, a Heinemann-podcast series focused on writing as a tool, to increase healing in students and teachers. We know that academic learning doesn't happen without social and emotional support, and writing as a key literacy, is uniquely positioned in every classroom to do both.

How can writing lead to vulnerability, bravery, and freedom for students? How does teaching occur at that nexus of storytelling, performance and art? This week I'm joined by Shamari, a Heinemann author and professor at NYU, to talk about elevating the personal-writing voice and closing your classroom door as an act of self-love.

Toward the end of the book, I was struck by this paragraph. It says, "In these pages, I have encouraged you to move closer to yourself. I have asked you to look at yourself and be critical of your socialization. Consider the source of your self-regard and embrace your human ability to love."

Shamari Reid:

I thought a long time around where our power lies as teachers. When people say, "Oh, you're really effective." Or, "You're really good at your job." Or, "You're a wonderful teacher." I thought a lot about, where does that live within me? The more I thought about it I realize, Liz, it's in my humanity. I am so good and so effective as a teacher, as long as I'm close to my humanity because that's where my love is.

I think love is really this powerful force that moves beyond, I say in the book, "Rom-com movies." I grew up loving rom-com movies, and I love that kind of love, but I think there's something else, something more powerful that I know lives within our humanity. And so, that invitation to move closer to your humanity is really to move closer to your power, closer to love. I really do believe that.

I know it's messy. I know humanity can be really messy and really complicated and really challenging, but also quite beautiful. I think that if we are serious about wanting to show up in ways that center justice and love and liberation, we first have to come to terms with our own complicated yet beautiful humanity.


Yes, absolutely. You taught in Oklahoma and Oklahoma's been in the news a lot lately and none of it's good. I have dear friends who teach in Claremore near Tulsa. How can those kinds of large issues be dealt with? You're talking about the self-to-self connection. How does that blossom into addressing these systemic failures that we're seeing in State Department of Educations like in Oklahoma?


I remember teaching in Oklahoma, and I became very overwhelmed, Liz, by year two. Because I felt like there was so much I wanted to do, but we had these state policies and we had these things that came from the district that would restrict me. I spent a lot of energy trying to think about how my one self could reverse them and could get over them.

The truth was, it's an unfortunate truth, I alone wasn't able to shift policy. And so, I began thinking, "Well, what can I shift? What can I do?" And so, one way that I would respond to your question about how can we, in many ways, show up in love in a place that it feels like we're not supposed to, is I think individual.

I was able to close my door every day after the principal would do her checks and walk through. I would close my door and do my own thing. And so, that's the advice that I gave myself, and that I would give to any teacher working in places like Oklahoma, which has been in the news. Alabama has been in the news a lot, and they are restrictive. The policies are very real, and I think we can exhaust ourselves trying to attack the really big, systemic thing.

I think we'd be much more effective thinking about the interpersonal thing, thinking about actually what happens with young people in your classroom in relationship with you. I feel like that's a place to start and it may not feel big enough. Many people are like, "Yeah, but the policies, yes, I get it. They exist. They are there."

I grew up in a state, I grew up within them as a black, openly-queer person, as a young person and as a teacher. I was always able to close my door, which is really a metaphor. Not literally, but close my door and do things that felt good and right to my heart, and do things that felt good and right by students.

And so, even in places where there are restrictive policies and legislation, I think, most of us can still close our door. But we have to first confront the very real fears that come along with that around, well, I could get in trouble. Someone could find out. Students could talk, et cetera. Very real, valid, justified fears.

But for me, the way that I love and the way that I show up required me to do it anyway. Knowing that I could get called into the principal's office, so to speak, even as a teacher, I was willing to deal with that if it ever came, by the way. On behalf of the students and on behalf of myself because I was again close to my humanity and close to my heart and close to love. I just wasn't able to let the policies restrict what I did on an individual and a personal level, even though they restricted what we did as a district and as a school.


Think about how absurd what you just said, "I could be called into the principal's office for loving students and loving myself." Right? I mean, we're living in that bizarro world where this act of love becomes his radical, political act. Did you always know you were going to be a writer? Did you always know you're going to be a teacher?


I always knew I was going to be a writer, I always knew it. I used to write song lyrics, that's how I first started and I thought I was writing. Here's what I was actually doing. I was hearing songs on the radio and I was just writing down what I heard. That was my first exploration into writing. I would tell myself, "You wrote a song." No, not really, but I was making sense of the language that I was hearing and putting it on paper.

And so, I tell this story often, but Mariah Carey was first, because I felt that her lyrics were just so beautiful and so poetic. And so, I'm like, "Wow, she's talking about rainy days and starry nights, all about love." But that language inspired me, and I was like, "I think now I can write without my training wheels. I don't have to listen to a song to write. I think I can just do it."

I got some paper and I began writing a story about two siblings, and I share with my younger sister, and she is always my cheerleader. I talk about her in the book and about the tragedy, but I want to talk about her life. She was my cheerleader. I would say, okay, I wrote this story about this sibling. I'd read it aloud and she'd be like, "That was the best thing I ever heard."

She really built me up and poured it into me. I was like, "I'm a writer." I mean, I have my audience of one. I write for my sister. She loves it. I can do this thing. And so, I wrote probably four stories about siblings navigating tragedy, navigating trauma in very different parts of the United States. By the way, it was never in Oklahoma. I don't know why I never chose my own setting or context, but these siblings navigating life.

I would read them to her, and it was when she passed away where I felt like to honor her love for me and to honor our childhood and my gift, I want to share these things that I've been writing about with more than just her. That felt very good to me. I felt like I've always had her guiding me, and so then I expanded my audience and began writing to all kinds of communities.


Your favorite writer is, tell me, Toni Morrison?


Toni Morrison, yes.


Yes, that's what I thought. Tony Morrison says that, "Failure to a writer is only information, it's just data." Tell me one failure that you had as a writer, that actually taught you more than any of these successes because you've had a lot of success. What is one failure that you've learned more from than maybe your success?


I think at a year, maybe a year-and-a-half of failure as a writer... Failure to me, by the way. I don't know that anyone else outside of me would say this was unsuccessful or didn't do what you wanted it to do. It was a failure to me because I looked back over my writing the year of 2016, 2017, I want to say, and I couldn't hear myself and I couldn't see myself.

These were things that I had written and I thought were so powerful and evocative that I would read it back and say, "I don't recognize myself." Then I would say, I don't think my sister would say she sees me in this either. This is a failure because I am trying to approximate someone else's understanding, someone else's ideas, and I'm not honoring my unique voice.

And so, after a year-and-a-half, in my mind, failing at that, I decided to write the way I thought. I decided to write to explore my thoughts, not because I knew everything, but I wrote when I had questions. I wrote when I was curious. When I used my writing as a space to explore these things, to answer these questions, then it began to feel more authentic. I was like, "I like it. It is a success. I don't care anymore. Other folks like it, I hope they do. I really do hope that it touches and moves people."

But at the end of the day, I like it. I enjoy it. I read my writing probably more than anybody else. I often go back to the things that I wrote if I needed them, and they still work for me, they still move and touch me. And so, that all began after I decided to abandon, it took a while by the way, trying to write in the voice of and the style of other people.

Even Mariah Carey, who I love, Mariah is Mariah and Tony is Tony. I am me and I have a very unique voice that has been inspired by Tony and James and Mariah, but I have my own stories and I have my own language.


That is a great story. I love that you found the need to speak with your own voice and tell your own stories as a way to actually build on that. That's a great lead into the next question, which is about healing. How has writing been in some way, healing for you? Is it something that has happened over the course of your career, or is there a particular thing that you wrote that was particularly healing for you?


Besides my sister growing up writing, and my writing place was my best friend. It was a place and maybe the only place outside of my sister where I could be honest. I don't feel like I was invited to take up space. I was invited to be honest with other people.

My sister, yes, always. She always knew everything about me before I knew it, even though she was five years younger. But then writing became the place where I could say all the stuff, and I could explore all the thoughts that I had been disinvited to do outside of writing.

And so, in terms of healing, for me, it is like my way of thinking. When I have something happening that's really complicated or messy or sad or disappointing, then when I think about healing for me, for me, that is what it is. It is making sense of where you are and making sense of where you've been and making sense of where you might want to go next. As you continue to journey toward happiness, toward peace, toward love and toward joy.

But it's the making sense. Writing is how I make sense. When I cannot write I talk out loud. I record audio notes to myself. It's the way in which I make sense of things. A lot of people are like, "Yeah, but don't you make sense of it first and then say it?" I'm like, "Oh, no. I'm okay sounding silly. I'm okay sounding foolish. Will talk in circles. I will end with, "Yeah, I disagree with everything I just said. Here is where is where I am now." My writing, in many ways, has also been that, it's very cyclical.


Yeah. But that's the nature of writing. Right? It's like you go down these blind alleys and these wrong paths, and then you figure it out. Right? That's what you do and it's messy. Right? You've already mentioned that it's messy.

Tell me about your teaching life, because I know myself as a teacher, it's very hard for me to show up as an authentic writer sometimes in my teaching life because writing is so messy. Teaching is also messy. Tell me about your teaching life. You're one of these rare individuals. You've taught everything. Right? Elementary, everything, so tell me a little bit about that.


Sure. I think, I don't always know what I'm doing when I'm in it. I feel like what a random life. But when I look back over what I thought was a random life and the different things I've taught, it's always been language. I have always been fascinated by what we can do with language. And so, teaching Spanish and then teaching English as a new language.

Then ELA has always been about, for me, my fascination with helping young people understand the power of articulating themselves, and the multiple ways they can do that and the multiple languages they can use to do that. And so, my teaching journey started with me realizing I wanted to be a teacher. Randomly while at Disney World, I was working in flipping burgers in Hollywood Studios.

I was supposed to be, at that time, a PR professional. I had switched from science to business, specifically public relations, and I was doing this internship at Disney and making burgers on the side. I was making burgers. I remember hearing the young folks at Disney and just saying, "Yeah, I want to do that. I want to do that. I want to be able to create world with young people. I want to be able to create stories with young people. I don't know how. I am three years into my program. Scholarship will run out very soon. I've changed my major once, but I'm going to do it."

Then the question became, "Okay, Shamari, and teach what?" I was like, "Not math. Not science. Not history. I like language and I like culture. Spanish." Randomly, just like that. People were like, "Do you speak Spanish?" "No, but I want to teach Spanish." And so, then I left and moved to South America. I Learned Spanish, came back and began teaching. I could not wait to share language, and to share the ways in which we can express ourselves and dive into critical literacy, and so that has always been the connection.

To answer your question, it's not so random for me now. When you ask about how do the writing and my teaching have a relationship, it's always been about language. The first thing I took pride in, was how I would create lesson plans. I didn't know I had so much pride until I share with someone, and they would do verbatim. I would feel some way about it because I had spent all day picking the right action word.

Because for me, it wasn't just content objectives, language objectives. Even the directions I give myself, that was writing for me. I was storytelling, and I just didn't want other people to replicate that. I was like, why do you care so much about unit plans and lesson plans?

Even assessments, I've helped really tightly to those things because that was my storytelling. I looked at my job as a storyteller, and I would show up every day in my Disney mindset and I was on stage. With these young folks, we were going to use languages to tell the stories of our lives, lives we wanted to understand better, and then lives of people who may not yet exist.

We were going to create and we were going to imagine, and I took that very, very personally and as personally as I took my writing, which made me see, oh, teaching is my art. It is not just a thing that I do, it is how I create. That's what makes it really hard sometimes to get feedback on it, for folks to critique it because it's like, "I'm an artist and I'm really sensitive about this."


But I wonder how, if we challenge colleges of education to approach education as storytelling, performance and art, how different our classrooms would be. I mean, I just think that would be just a sea change, so that's your job, that's what you need.


For a job. That's just that. Just that, that little thing.


Just the entire thing. Tell me one assignment that you do or that you have used in the past, that you've noticed has produced that healing. Or given your students that agency that they need to see where they came from, and who they are and allow them to use their voice for healing.


The first thing that I did when I first started as a high-school teacher, and I can talk about what it evolved into, and then in the book, I talk about this a lot, but journaling. I have been in therapy since I was 11, and so I'm grateful for that. It did not feel like something I should be grateful for when I was a young person.

My mother put me in therapy to explore my sexuality, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, why am I doing this? I resent this." Then I'm just like, "You know what though? I learned a lot about reflection and a lot about emotions." And so, I've been in therapy since I was 11 without stopping.

And so, I learned the power of reflection and the power of journaling. In my class, no matter what I teach, I even do it today, the first 5 to 10 minutes, I have some thoughtful, deep prompts about the world, and I'll bring it back to content sometimes. I just say, "Hey, I'm going to play the song of the day and I'm going to put the lights down and set the mood a little bit and I just want you to write. That's it. I want you to reflect, and I will use this journal and you and I will begin to have these offline conversations because read them and I'll write to you back."

And so, that assignment often surprises my adult students now.. High-school students loved it, by the way. They were like, "Wow, it gives me a chance to switch over from lunchtime or PE or whatever they had before." Adult students that I teach now, these future teachers are shocked by it. Because they are not used to being invited to do something so personal in a college setting at the start of class with someone, me, who they really don't know.

But what I've found is over time, they become more and more honest and closer and closer to their humanity, which is all I've ever wanted for them. Because when we go back to your task of my job of art and performance and stage and all of that, for me, art and even performance comes from a creative place, which comes from a place very, very close to our humanity.

Art is very, very personal and variant, and I feel that it flows easier when we are in touch with who we are. And so, that's an assignment that I have been doing over 10 years with a range of people. Their reactions are always Like," he's asking a lot of me. I thought this was Spanish class, or this is ELA, and he's over asking me about the lesson that took me the longest to learn." [inaudible 00:19:37].

"I want you to use the languages you have available to you, but I want you to begin to articulate your story. Because if you're not articulating your story, I don't know what the purpose of deepening our language knowledge is. I don't care only about you passing a test or doing a thing. I care that you now feel better positioned to take up space in this world, and share your perspectives and your insights and your stories. And so, yes, for the first 10 minutes of every class, I want you to do just that."


The pre-service teachers, do they give you pushback? You said that they give you pushback. I'm interested also in knowing if you've done any work with teachers who are in the classroom, and you're asking them to take this actual, what we would call, a bell-ringer activity.


That's exactly right.


Yeah, and allow their students. They say, "You know, I really don't want to get into the lives of my students. I really don't want to get in that messy place." What is your answer to that because that's where the healing is going to occur. That's where we're going to help kids. They're like, "Well, I'm not a professional therapist and I don't really want to." What's your answer to that?


To that point, yes. In-service teachers are the ones who give me the most pushback for two reasons that I think we have to ask them. But I think one is, "Hey, I'm busy. I taught all day. I came to your class, which is an hour-and-a-half. I don't have 10 minutes here to play therapist with you. I need lesson plan ideas. I need strategies. I need techniques. I need tools. I don't want to do the touchy-feely." And so, many of them feel the pressure of the job that is on all of us where they're just like, "Get me to a lesson plan, please." They don't understand how I'm going to get there through the reflection.

The second thing that I think, and I could be wrong here, is they may feel uncomfortable inviting students to do that kind of emotional work, because they're uncomfortable doing it for themselves. And so, I think for me, it became easier to ask students to share and be vulnerable when I could do it with myself in private.

If I had things that I didn't want to share, I had my walls up. If I wasn't in touch with my humanity, it was really, really hard to one, understand why students would need to be in touch with their humanity. It was even harder to figure out ways to invite them to do it.

And so, what I would say to the teacher who was just like, "Yeah, I'm not a therapist and don't want to do it." Is I wonder if we can make sense of what this means and feels like for you. We can pause in just a moment for just students. What is it about this that you immediately think, one it's therapy? And that two, it feels so disconnected from the work that we do of teaching, which is human work. It is hard work.

There are therapeutic touches to it. No, we are not therapists, but sometimes we must be. We are there to guide students through more than just content and curricula. It's through emotions, through relationships, through lives and through, as I say in the book, through their humanity. Whether we want to call ourselves therapists or not, we do work that often, will find itself in the emotional realm. And so, it's best we get comfortable with ourselves and our own emotional spaces, if you will, in our affect, if you will, so that we can help students navigate theirs.

I think, early-childhood folks seem to get this easier. I think about morning meetings. I think about circle time, and they circle up and talk about their emotions. We do this somewhat in middle school, I felt like, when we ask questions like, "What did you do this weekend and how was your summer and how was your life?"

Then the older and older, the kids get into high school, we stop asking the personal questions, and then it becomes, "College is coming. College is coming. The tests start coming." It's like, "Yes, but their humanity is still there." I think that we can learn a lot from the kindergarten teachers, from the first-grade teachers, from the second-grade teachers who understand the importance of, and the thread between, the academics and the emotion.


What a loss for those high-school students. I mean, I've been a high-school teacher for 27 years and that is the loss. That's the thing, it's that social-emotional piece. It's that self-love piece. You write a lot in your book about fear. About the fear of doing basically self-regard and fear of figuring out who you are. Why are we so resistant to this? Do you have any answers on that?


Sure. I think we are socialized to be so. As I talk about in the book, the unfortunate truth is that many teachers live within cultures of fear and that isn't by our own creation. And so, I say that to say your fears, whatever the fears, are valid, they really are. They are justified because many of us have seen what happens to other teachers when they stand up for themselves, when they advocate for students. When they do something that the school or district leaders don't like, we have seen teachers be punished.

And so, I think that fear is generated then by bearing witness to what has happened to our colleagues, whether it's in your own school or stories that we can all access on social media or the news. Every day, it's like another teacher is being punished for showing up in love. Another teacher is being punished for speaking out against hate or discrimination. And so, that then teaches all of us, here is what will happen to you if you speak out.

What I will say is that mechanism, if you will, of generating fear is not unique to schools. That is how power operates. It teaches us to go along with it, and it teaches us that there are punishments when we do not. The same thing in schools. Teachers who are like, "I'm not following." Well, think about it in your own school. Are there not policies and practices that are in place to keep students doing what you want them to do? The minute they don't, they get in trouble.

The same is true for the adults in the building as well, and so the fear is it's valid and justified. I wanted to write about it because I felt like it's a part of being human and it's a part of teaching. I didn't want to present this as, "Here, go and do this." People in Oklahoma saying, "Yeah, great book Shamari. Sounds wonderful. I cannot do anything you're talking about because I'm afraid that X, Y, and Z will happen." And so, I just wanted to deal with those to say, "Yeah, those things might happen, and we also know what will happen if no adults stand up for young people."


Thank you so much for those thoughts. I think that's a really great place to end on that topic. Before I let you go, I have a little lightning round of sentence stems. This is such a teacher thing, right, little sentence stems.


Oh, I love it. I love a sentence stem or starter. I do this still today with my pre-service teachers. We have four every time.


Oh, well I'm going to give you four, so here we go. Writing is...




Teaching is...


Human work.


I wish every teacher in America had...


The opportunity and space to heal.


I wish every child in America had...


A space where they could learn that they matter.


Thank you so much for tuning in today. For more information and to read a full transcript, visit blog.heinemann.com.





Liz is the author of several Heinemann books, including her newest title The Confidence to Write.




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Liz Prather is a writing teacher at the School for Creative and Performing Arts, a gifted arts program at Lafayette High School in Lexington, Kentucky. A classroom teacher with 21years of experience teaching writing at both the secondary and post-secondary level, Liz is also a professional freelance writer and holds a MFA from the University of Texas-Austin.

Liz is the author of The Confidence to Write, Project-Based Writing: Teaching Writers to Manage Time and Clarify Purpose, and Story Matters: Teaching Teens to Use the Tools of Narrative to Argue and Inform.



Shamari Reid (he/him/his) is an assistant professor of justice and belonging in education at New York University. He has taught Spanish, English as a new language, and ELA at the elementary, secondary, and post-secondary levels in Oklahoma, New York, Uruguay, and Spain. He is the creator and host of the podcast Water for Teachers. Shamari is also the author of the upcoming book Humans Who Teach: A Guide for Centering Love, Justice, and Liberation in Schools. As a scholar–educator, Shamari’s work centers love as a moral imperative in social justice education, and as a path toward culturally sustaining school communities. Shamari is an active member of the National Council of Teachers of English where he was awarded the Cultivating New Voices research fellowship. He is also active in the American Education Research Association (AERA) as the chair of AERA’s Queer special interest group. Shamari completed his doctoral work in Curriculum and Teaching at Teachers College, Columbia University. In addition, he holds an M.A. in Teaching Spanish as a Foreign Language and TESOL from New York University, and a B.A. in Spanish and Education from Oklahoma City University. His scholarly publications on race, gender, and sexuality in schools have appeared in various peer-reviewed journals such as Teachers College RecordUrban Education, and Curriculum Inquiry.

Topics: Podcast, Writing, Heinemann Podcast, Liz Prather, Poetry, Shamari Reid, Healing, podcasts

Date Published: 05/02/24

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