Welcome to The Year Ahead, a mini-series from the Heinemann Podcast, hosted by Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive: 5 Ways to (Re) Invigorate Your Teaching. Meenoo has always believed that teaching is harder if you do it alone, and teaching during a once in a lifetime pandemic is as hard as it gets, but by meeting educators around the world who are going through this too, maybe together, we can share ideas, commiserate, and be a witness to each other’s experiences. In this podcast series, we’ll meet educators who are getting ready to return to school under the most challenging and unusual circumstances.
In today’s episode we are meeting Katharine Hsu from the DC metro area. Katherine will be teaching 2nd grade in a title I school this year and will need to adapt many of her current practices to meet this moment. More information about our guest and resources mentioned during this episode are in the show notes. Now, let’s meet Katharine.
Below is a transcript of this episode.
Meenoo: Katharine, welcome.
Meenoo: Hi. I'm so excited to get a chance to talk with you this morning. I got to know you a little bit when my good friend, and your good friend, Kristin Ziemke and I did teacher hour, and you just jumped right in and had so many good ideas, and lifted the work up, and helped organize in numerous ways. I was just really moved by your giving spirit, but also how deeply you think about teachers, and wellness, and how do we kind of shape our own experiences, not just in the classroom, but in life. I definitely want to talk more about that. But I want to say thank you for joining me, and I'm really excited to get to know more about your work, and those who will listen, help them learn a little bit about you as well.
Katharine: Yeah, I can't believe you thought all those things in the few meetings that we were in together. But no, it is such an honor to be here, and I'm really excited to share my ideas, and also maybe grow my ideas out loud talking to you today.
Meenoo: Yeah. I think those are the best friendships and collaborations where people push each other's ideas. I know Kristin Ziemke has been one of those people in my life, so it's cool that we have that connection in common. I'm just going to start with maybe the basics, also for people who are listening in, they can get to know you a little bit. I'd love to know a little bit more about you, your teaching journey, where you work, the context in which you teach, about your school, about your students.
Katharine: Yeah. I'm going to try to make this as short as possible. I am born and raised in Atlanta, I'm first generation Chinese-American, and that has shaped a lot of who I am today. I started in a Title I charter school in South Carolina, and then moved up to Arlington, and taught in a Title I elementary school. I had the opportunity to pilot a one-to-one iPad program, which changed a lot of my trajectory. Because originally I wanted to just be innovative with iPads, and it helped me realize that my passion is actually helping students rewrite their stories or take ownership of their own stories. iPads sort of became a bottomless toolbox of ways that students could really shine and see that they could be a reader or they could be a writer, they are a creative person.
That became a powerful experience for me, which led me to share at conferences and online, and that's how I met Kristin is through our parallel experience in the classrooms, and I just kind of stalked her at a conference, was like, "Hey, I don't have a book, but I do a lot of the things that you're sharing and I promise I never copied you." And then I went to the middle school that my students feed into, and became the instructional technology coordinator and instructional need teacher there. Just taking my vision from one classroom to an entire school, and really wanted to create a personalized learning environment for all students where tech is just one part of the giant experience for students.
So, I wanted to continue challenging myself, and I ended up working with Newsela for a year, which is an online digital non-fiction article platform, and I helped redesign their professional learning for all the different subject areas, both for in-person PD and online PD. After this whole, I feel like, ladder climbing, I realized that sometimes the bigger you go, the less you really feel like you're making one-on-one differences with students. I actually decided to get back into the classroom, so this past year has been sort of experimenting with different teaching positions.
My most recent one was being an EL teacher, or English learner teacher, at an elementary school back in my original school district in Arlington. This coming school year, I will be teaching second grade at Carlin Springs Elementary. I've taught fourth through eighth grade. I was not planning on teaching second grade, I have never taught second grade. My anxiety has nothing to do with virtual learning, it has to do with being a good enough teacher for second graders, who many of them are reading below grade level.
A little history about Arlington, or a little information about Arlington County, is that it is the closest school district to DC, it's a very wealthy, affluent school district. We have really, really awesome progressive educators there. I'm sure many people may have heard of Arlington, but the little known maybe not as common secret is that we call it North Arlington and South Arlington.
Katharine: In South Arlington, there are a lot of Title I schools, or more diverse populations, and that's sort of been my hub, and I am going to an elementary school that I've known for many years, but I never have been able to get a chance to work there. They are about 94% students of color. Yeah, so I'm really excited to get to know a new group of students and staff, and try to teach second grade the best that I can.
Meenoo: There's so much in your introduction, I think as an immigrant myself, as someone who, for them, English is a second language, you just called out just some really fundamental things like your identity, and then how does your identity shape the type of work and difference you want to make in the world? The tension of obviously being a very driven, talented person looking to make that dent in the universe that we all talk about, but wanting to do it while remaining close to students, and making one-on-one impact, but also having these opportunities to broaden your horizon, not have to, quote, unquote, leave the classroom.
There are so many things that you're saying that resonate with me, and hopefully I think will resonate with a lot of our listeners because it's so true for so many teachers that there is that yearning or a hunger to want to do more, and have different types of experiences, but not leave the impact or the connection to students. I definitely sense that, and I think it's funny that you said, "I don't have a book," I think it's what I'm moved about your work is you're already building so many ways to help teachers, whether, quote, unquote, you have a book or not. I think a little secret, I guess, or maybe not so secret, is you could have a book, and maybe not make a difference, or you can just be doing your amazing work and have a huge impact on teachers. I love these tensions, and I love that they're part of how you think about yourself. I don't know if you want to comment on that or, yeah.
Katharine: I do. Yeah. That tension is my tangled identity that I have been working... I almost took a hiatus from social media with education just to figure out me because I don't know if it has to do with Asian culture pressures, but there's this need to always do more, do more, make a bigger difference, be known, be recognized, and nothing is ever good enough. That drive, at one point, I was really proud of myself for it, but it ends up kind of losing your own identity to sort of chase after it. It made me really burnout, so I've had to really figure out why do I love education, do I love education, and come back down.
But it was hard to tell family like, "Okay, I'm not going to be making a ton of money. I'm not going to be this big name author person like I was originally, but I just want to be happy in life, and that just means I'm going to a teacher."
Meenoo: Yeah. I think-
Katharine: Yeah, and then... Oh, sorry. One more thing related to my being a first generation immigrant is being Chinese in America as an American, since back in the day, there's this stereotype that all Chinese people are really smart in school. For a good reason, there's a lot of Asian people who are really academically strong. I'm not one of them. Everything about education, I did not do well. I was the person who misbehaved, and I've kind of crossed the line on a lot of things, and I was just making friends and stuff because I wasn't feeling accepted or successful in school. That's kind of shaped the way that I teach because school didn't work for me, and there were these single stories, right? Going back to Chimamanda, Ngozi Adichie.
Katharine: ... talk of what Asian people are supposed to be like or what you're supposed to do in school to be categorized as successful. I'm just on a mission to change that, because I think that that is the issue that causes students to not be successful in school. Not that they're not working hard or whatever, it's just that we have set a box and...
Meenoo: Absolutely, yeah. When most recently Kamala Harris was chosen as a VP, on Twitter many first generation Indian-Americans were like, "Well, now when we go back to our parents' home, there's one more thing. You're not a doctor. You're not an engineer. You're not even selected to be on the ticket as VP." So, it was kind of funny, but, obviously, with all good humor there's some truth to it. So, this model minority or this single story, and I love that you use that phrase single story. I used to show my juniors that TED Talk at the beginning of the year, it was a tradition in my classroom.
And that idea that you have to perform or achieve, both in recognition, but even monetary accomplishments and make a certain level of living. I think that's a really real tension that you're calling out in the Asian community, whether you're Chinese-American or you're Indian-American. And the fact that school didn't work for you, and you can just now, hopefully, just own that story of yours. I'm wondering how that helps you connect with students who might be experiencing the same thing. How does that shape your work with students who might also think that school doesn't work for them, or at least the way the school's construct is presented to them doesn't work for them?
Katharine: Yeah. It's shaped everything for me. For example, so when I had the iPads in my classroom and every student had an iPad, I refused to use it as a program for all the students. Instead, it was like, "Okay, let me have students try different ways of using the iPad, and then let me have students reflect on what works for them and what doesn't work for them." And slowly, some students would say, "Actually, can I use sticky notes instead of the iPad?" I'm like, "Yes, absolutely." And then other students were like, "Oh, I actually like using this tool for jotting my reading instead of this app for jotting my reading."
So, it was really, really important, and is still always really important for me that I don't blanket anything. I have everybody try something always, because sometimes you just don't know what you can... Or you don't know what you like unless you try it. But after people try it, then I want students to figure out, does this work for me? Does this help me? Do I enjoy it? And let's continue going on for that. So then that way, students are learning the way that works best for them. And eventually, they'll be able to find more clarity of who they really are. And it gives other students a better perspective of who their classmates are rather than these, again, the single stories that are put on them based on student data or their behavior in the classroom.
Meenoo: Yeah. Or a score, a test given at an arbitrary time that defines.
Katharine: Yeah. Or even the grouping names that we have for students like, "Oh, these are the ELL students. These are our challenging students. These are the rambunctious students." Can we not just say, "Oh, these students are writers, these students are creative and..." Yeah. So, I really care a lot about supporting students and finding their identities, and changing their story that they didn't get to choose in the first place and taking more ownership about it.
Meenoo: One of the things that you said earlier is that not only will you be potentially dealing with remote learning, or I like to call it teaching during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic, but you're also dealing with a new age of students, new grade of students, and their specific needs at that point in their learning journey. I'm curious about what you know about your school's plan for this year, and what do you think your students will need as you return back and meet them for the first time as second graders?
Katharine: Yeah. So, the school plan is related to the district plan, which is going to be all virtual at first. And Monday is asynchronous, so we don't meet with students, there's no set schedule. It's a little bit more informal with some intervention opportunities. Then Tuesday through Friday is a blend of synchronous and non-synchronous learning. And it does have a schedule of each subject, and each teacher will be teaching all the subjects rather than departmentalizing to help streamline relationships and just the tech logistics for students. So that's what Carlin Springs will be doing as well. And we have a large team with two ELLs teachers, special ed teacher, elective teacher, and couple of coaches, all ready to help with small groups virtually.
As far as what our students need. So, we definitely will be starting off with a lot of tech support and making sure all students have WiFi, the routines of knowing how to use the iPad and the couple of tools that we will be using for communication. So these are second graders who did not have iPads all year last year, and they were starting to give out iPads to them while they are at home, so we never had an in-person experience with them.
So, in the past, when I had students who all had iPads at home, we did a lot of practice in the classroom, right? So then, they had that modeling routine and practice in the classrooms before going home. We won't have that, so I am interested in seeing how long this is going to take. And the fifth graders that I worked with this past spring when COVID first started, I was working with English learners, and they had some challenges with WiFi or with their iPads and their apps working properly. So, if that's happening in fifth grade, you can only imagine how much support we're going to need to get all the second graders up and running. So, there's that.
The other needs I think will be important is just social interaction and joy and fun. When I would be in the morning meetings with a classroom teacher this spring to meet fifth graders whose family maybe do not speak English, you can tell how sad they started getting, because a lot of... And this could be generalizing, but this is also based on my experience, is a lot of times if your family doesn't speak English, they are hesitant to let their children leave the home, because it feels really scary to have your child be sick or something bad happen to them. Especially if you may not have health insurance or just all these things. And so, we had some students who would say that they haven't left their home in two weeks at all, which is not good for their social, emotional, their mental health.
So, how can we have more social interaction? How can we bring in some joy? And some of them, their TVs are always on. And during this time, of course, we also had a lot of really challenging issues that came up that students probably had to see or ask about. Especially for my students, almost all of them are students of color. And seeing conversations about Black Lives Matter, seeing traumatic things on TV, I want to talk about it and help and make them feel seen and understood. But I also want to bring in a little bit of joy, because they're second graders, and they missed half of first grade, so I'm coming in thinking I'm working with first graders.
Meenoo: This access, whether it's tech or language or resources keeps coming back, even the connection that you made, that it's often the parents of English language learners who may not have the same access to stable WiFi or variety of additional resources that they need to make learning a seamless experience at home for their children. So this idea of identity and access and equity is tied into everything. And the way that you just are very intentional about it, and the way that you think about it is, is really important. And I think something that we can all learn from you and learn with you on that.
Katharine: Yeah. You said language and I just realized, I forgot about mentioning that how important it is for a lot of talk to happen for these students. Because I know when I grew up, yes, there was some English spoken at home, but mostly it was Mandarin. So if I'm thinking I didn't get any social interaction in the school for several months, I need as much talking in English with my classmates as much as possible this coming fall.
Meenoo: Yeah. The aspect of supporting parents along with students also comes in mind because for them, whether they can have a job where they have the flexibility of working from home, but many of them are going to be juggling both the potential financial strain, but also, imagine having a second grader at home the entire time and they have to keep up with their schedule and make sure that they're logging in, make sure that they're able to follow along. And at the same time potentially do a full-time job either outside of the home or inside of the home. So there is obviously a humongous strain on students and teachers, but this strain then continues on to parents as well.
Katharine: Yeah. And I have thought about that too. I think that part about teaching second grade for the first time as a virtual classroom is really interesting to me because I am thinking about how I had to be really independent as a little kid. So how independent can we get second graders virtually so that it doesn't put that much strain on the parents? And then I can communicate to the parents like, "Look at all these things that your kiddo can do. And we have a routine and I don't want you to have to worry about A, B and C." It'll be interesting to see what can we have second graders do independently without their parents.
Meenoo: And I don't want to put you on the spot, but are there some things that you're already thinking that will need to change in your practice because you're facing this public health crisis and teaching during it?
Katharine: Yeah. So one thing I've been thinking a lot about, and this is actually the first time I'm talking out loud about it instead of in my head. So in the past I've used technology forever and ever, right? And it's always been very, very digital heavy. And I am curious about having a virtual learning environment where we are not tech heavy. It sounds like an oxymoron, but how can we use as little technology as possible in a virtual learning environment? Yes, I'm thinking about second graders, but I think this could be really helpful for all students, even in the past with my eighth graders is how can we make learning as tangible and social and have as much movement as possible even though we're virtual?
So for example, I was thinking instead of having like a digital word wall, how can we have students create fun word walls in their homes, or instead of a digital worksheet where we are practicing letter sounds, "Can you go in your home and find two things that start with BR? Like grab cans, grab something in your home. Let's all share it." And then the movement break is, "Okay, go put that back in your house because we don't want your parents to have a hot mess after class." So how can we minimize as much technology as possible during this tech heavy type of learning experience? I just feel like that's really important to not rely on all the digital tools that seem cool because our kids need to touch things and feel things and move and not just be on a screen.
Meenoo: Yeah. This screen time issue's a really interesting one. Before the pandemic, there was a lot of public dialogue amongst thought leaders and parents about what is the appropriate amount of screen time and how to manage that and navigate that. And since the pandemic, because we have such a terrible, coordinated federal level response to it and because people have to work to make a living, parents are like, "Why isn't there more content for my child? Why can't I just put them in front of a screen?" So this complete reversal almost is happening. And I think two tips that I learned from again, Twitter, because I spend so much time there, John Spencer, if you follow him on Twitter, he uses show and tell, even with his college age students to often create that community, that sense of community in the classroom. Like share a couple of things or objects that are helping you cope with these times, or share a couple of things that tell us how you're feeling at this moment.
And I think show and tell, whether it's college students or second graders are going to be one of those tools in a teacher's toolbox during this teaching time that people can use. And then it was actually, again, Chris's [inaudible 00:28:37] friend who also shared the idea of always having books nearby when you're teaching online, so that if things are not going well, or the lesson kind of falls apart, or it's just not working, you immediately have something to do or read aloud with. Potentially have a discussion with students, make meaning of that text that you just read together. And so I totally agree with you that this idea that maybe more is less and simplify, simplify, simplify, especially regarding tech in this time might be something important for educators to consider.
Katharine: Yeah. I like that idea about the picture books as not part of the lesson, but as your emergency option, which is awesome. That's the best emergency plan. It takes no time to plan that. You just grab a book.
Meenoo: Yeah. I just saw that tweet yesterday. I think Kristen did a webinar and that was one of the tips that she gave. And it was very astute.
Katharine: I saw a couple of posts about teachers who are using puppets and stuff to tell stories. And I was thinking about, could we all have stuffed animals as role-plays for reading aloud books and stories, and that the class ends up learning each other's stuffed animal of some kind so there's some sort of community thing? So again, I'm spitting out ideas that may not be what I do exactly. And it may crash and burn, but just the concept of how can we use less technology during virtual learning, even though that sounds like the craziest oxymoron ever?
Meenoo: No, I think it makes a lot of sense. The face time or the literal synchronous time together should be about that community building, making meaning together, tackling new concepts together. And then the application of those things can be on students' time with support from the educator. But it totally makes sense that that learning needs to be social and that meaning needs to be made together.
Meenoo: I'm also totally talking out of my league because I know nothing about second graders. Having taught only high school students and college students, this is a totally a new territory for me. But I'm hoping that with a lot of these, we're going to be able to do a followup episode and maybe come back and be able to check in on you and see what things you learn and what things worked. And if puppets are a good idea or not, it will be...
Katharine: Yeah. It will be fun to do it. It would be fun to do like a side-by-side podcast to hear what I used to say and what I am saying now.
Meenoo: Yeah. I think that'd be awesome. One of the things that, with every guest I've been stalking them online and I've learned that you were actually starting this business, or this brand, or this idea that you're putting out in the world called LemmeTryThat. And it's all about experimentation. It's a good name because it's literally about trying new techniques to improve your life's experience. So I want to ask you more about that. What's the genius of that idea? Where did it emerge from? Where is it at? What could people gain from learning more about that?
Katharine: Yeah, so it emerged from just really wanted to have ownership on something and it was kind of a practice on understanding my identity better, because I feel like a business is your brand and then you have to understand what is the brand of who you are. So I realized that I love trying new things, except I didn't try a lot of things for a majority of my life. So I was married for seven years. And so that's why on Twitter, I used to be Katharine Hale, and I woke up one, it really wasn't as Hollywood-ish, but I, one day, just realized that I'm not happy in the kind of life that I am living and I need to take a risk and just try to live the life that I want to live. And that included, needing to get a divorce and starting over.
But when I started over, I realized I didn't know how to do basic things. Like, how do you eat at a restaurant by yourself? Didn't know how to do that. I had to ask my sister in law. I didn't know what I like to do in silence. I didn't know what I like to do in the city. So I had to try things like, go to an art museum, go ride a bike, using Bikeshare, didn't know how to do that.
So it felt like I was 30 going on 13 and learning little things. But the more I learned to try something, the more I learned something either about myself, or about people around me, or about the world. And it just built my confidence up and it built my ability to have more compassion. And now I have all these hobbies that I care about, and things I like to do. And so I really want to encourage people to try new things, whether that's students in the classroom trying something to help them realize, "Oh, this tool helps me be a writer," or in your real life, "Oh, I like trying these vegan foods to eat and that's going to be part of my identity, that I love being vegan or I love puzzles."
So that's what, LemmeTryThat, is, just figuring out how to take who I am, and my creativity and turn it into something for good for adults. It's like my happy way of helping with mental health.
Meenoo: Yeah. I think so many people can relate to this, whether it's a personal transformation, like the one that you described, or literally just being a human in the present moment. I've been reading this book and we'll share a link to it as a resource, it's called, When Things Fall Apart, and it's been an incredibly helpful way for me to process some of the things that I'm going through. And like I said, just being a human, in this present moment.
I think what you said about, ultimately we are responsible for the experience we have in the world and in our life, and I think this, taking this creative approach, that, "If I try things that I haven't done before I might experience, or I might be able to create the experiences that I didn't know I could have." I think that's such a simple, but I think all great ideas are, at their very core, very simple. And I love your idea of, LemmeTryThat. It's about experimentation. It's about exploration and it's about discovery. And if people want to learn more about it, we will link to it as part of this episode.
Because you pay so much attention to your own wellbeing, and also how other people can care for themselves, what does self care look like for you right now? And are there resources or things that you'd want to share with others?
Katharine: Yeah. So self care for me is so many things. So, I like to journal a lot, and reading self-help books is really helpful. I go to trauma therapy and I started a little bit less than a year ago. So it's almost one year. And that has been life changing for me. I know that there's a stigma with therapy that now, I often talk a lot about with my closest friends is, just how powerful trauma therapy is, that you can actually recover from trauma. It's not something you just have to learn how to put band aids on, you truly can overcome it. But sometimes that also means self-care means drawing some boundaries with some people that you've always thought were the closest to you, but you realize that they're not healthy for your wellbeing right now, and what's most important is taking care of you first.
So that is really important to me. As far as, well, LemmeTryThat, with trying new things is a way of, for me to self-care. It's just always been unafraid to try something new and maybe find some joy about it or realize, "Wow, I can do something that I never thought I could do." But when it comes to teaching and education, I think some of the things I'm thinking about for this fall is being okay to own less.
So, as a teacher, you want to have ownership of everything. But it's impossible, I feel like, to make every video lesson, every document, everything for your students every single day, and still have a happy mood every single day. You're just going to stress yourself out. And so I'm so prioritizing myself that I just have to be willing to say, "Okay, I'm going to have my colleague make this video, and I'm going to use this document of somebody else. And yes, it's not owning it, but I'm going to be okay with it, and pick my battles." I think that's going to be so important for us coming this fall. So I say that now, and again, if we do this podcast again, I might be like, "Yeah, but I couldn't handle it, I ended up doing everything," but that's my goal right now.
Meenoo: No, I think it's such a good call out. This collecting resources and leaning on each other is going to be so important in this coming year, because that old cliche that, it's not a sprint, it's a marathon. It's going to literally be 180 days of marathon. And we want to particularly call out that collaborating with your colleagues so that you're not doing everything is such an important tip that you just shared. I'm just really grateful for your time and the really personal stories and the open-heartedness with which you approach your work, means a lot to me. And that vulnerability is incredibly brave. And I am lucky to get to know you in this way, and I'm really grateful for your time.
Katharine: Oh my gosh. Thank you so much. I've always admired you. And I remember the first time I got an email from you, I thought about printing it out and framing it. So it's like, "Wait a minute. Meenoo is talking to me," but I really have so much enjoyed getting to know you. And I think that something, I don't know if you even know this about you, but you are so grounded, and humble, and real, in a space that it's so, I feel like, difficult to do that, and to be able to do that, you have to hold so tightly to who you are. And I wasn't really great at that. So I just want you to know how much I respect that part about you, in addition to everything else you've done professionally.
Meenoo: Thank you. Thank you so much. That's incredibly kind of you, and you actually have my phone number, so you can text me. You don't need to print anything again. We can just chat when we want to next time, podcast or not.
Katharine: Okay. Will do.
Meenoo: Awesome. Thank you so much.
Meenoo Rami, author of Thrive, is a national board certified teacher who taught students English in Philadelphia for ten years, at the Science Leadership Academy and in other public schools in the city. The founder of #engchat, an international Twitter chat for English teachers, Meenoo is a teacher-consultant for the National Writing Project and an instructor in Arcadia University’s Connected Learning Certificate Program. Meenoo has also worked as a teaching fellow with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, where she led the portfolio to help teachers refine their practice through collaboration. Currently, Meenoo works as a Senior Program Manager helping education, nonprofit, and government organizations to accelerate their digital transformation at Microsoft. Follow Meenoo on Twitter @meenoorami
Katharine Hsu is from Atlanta and resides in D.C. She is back in the classroom but spent a few years as a middle school Instructional Technology Coordinator and Lead Teacher in Arlington Public Schools, as well as a Senior Professional Learning Manager at Newsela, Inc. She has taught grades 4th-8th and will be teaching 2nd grade this 20-21 school year. Her expertise is teaching students of marginalized groups and focusing on student identity through literacy and technology. She has been honored as Apple Distinguished Educator, LCE 40 under 40, and FLGI’s Top 100. When she’s not teaching, she focuses on self-love and has a side business called LemmeTryThat encouraging people to try something new each week. Follow Katharine on Twitter at @KatharineHsu1