Today on the podcast, we’re excited to bring you the second conversation in our Turn & Talk series, hosted by author Ellin Keene. If you missed the first installment, you can find it here.
Turn & Talk is a celebration of Heinemann’s 40th anniversary, hosting conversations between authors who have written for Heinemann since its early years, and those who are newer authors, bringing their unique perspectives to the table. This series tackles issues facing educators today, like: how much autonomy do individual teachers really have; how can we ensure equity for all students, and what it’s like to launch your ideas through books and podcasts into the world of education. Patterned after the New York Times’ Table for Three column, host Ellin Keene poses questions to authors and engages them in a reflective conversation.
In this second Turn and Talk discussion, Ellin is joined by Tom Newkirk (most recently the author of Embarrassment and the Emotional Underlife of Learning) and Kathy Collins (co-author of I Am Reading: Nurturing Young Children’s Meaning Making and Joyful Engagement with Any Book) as they share their teaching journeys, inspiration, and hopes for an equitable future in education.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation.
Ellin: Welcome Tom Newkirk and Kathy Collins. It couldn't be more of a pleasure for me to get to have the opportunity to chat with you this morning on this lovely summer morning in New Hampshire. We're doing the Turn and Talk process throughout this year as you may know, because it's Heinemann's 40th anniversary. We would love to hear about your impressions of Heinemann and Heinemann's impact on you as a writer, or just in your lives. You both live near the Heinemann Headquarters in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. We'd love to hear about Heinemann's impact on your professional, and even personal lives.
Tom: Well, for me it's hard to know where to start, because it's had such a profound affect. I joined the University of New Hampshire in 1977, and I remember coming up and having dinner. At one side of me was Donald Graves, and at the other side of me was Don Murray, two Heinemann authors. This was just the year, in before 1978. How I've been shaped by their work, the work of others, and I think particularly by the work that was between 1975 and 1987, say that 12 years span, just how much was opened up.
I remember one thing, Don Murray was not a boastful person, but one time he said to me, “You know, we're the pioneers, and you're the engineers.” That might be a little boastful, but in a way, I think so much territory was opened up during that time, and so much of the work that other people have done and that I've done has been looking at the territory that was revealed to us during that 12-year span. That has shaped me as a scholar, it shaped the friendships that have come, and I think it's shaped me as a writer in a sense that I didn't fall into a certain academic style. But, I think that there's a kind of more direct style that came from the writing that was done at that time that shaped me, and so it's been a huge benefit to me.
Kathy: I was introduced to Heinemann by being the secretary at the Reading and Writing Project when I was in graduate school. I didn't even know at that point who Lucy Calkins was, I just got a job at what was then the Writing Project. I was imagining being a high school social studies ESL teacher with bangs, to be even more specific.
I needed a job, and I worked at what was then the Writing Project with Lucy. At first, I was the general secretary, and then I became her secretary when she was working on the Art of Teaching Writing. Philippa Stratton at that time was Lucy's editor, and Phillipa would call the project and I would be so tongue-tied because I was talking to an actual editor of books.
I was so intimidated, I never had met anyone in publishing. I was just really intimidated. I came in that way, and then just working at the Reading and Writing project through the years. I knew so many people through that world, and the world of Heinemann, overlap so much. At the project they always have amazing speakers, and a lot of them are Heinemann authors. There was such an expectation that teachers were reading professional literature, and that teachers were thinking about it and talking about it in think tanks. Not just at the project, but the schools with whom we work. Teachers would come in and sit at a table with Lucy or Smokey Daniels, or Ralph Fletcher, or Donald Graves. I wouldn't have ever met him, had I not been at the Project.
Ellin: It's really a happy accident.
Kathy: Yeah, a happy accident that ended up turning out to be such an important part of my life.
Ellin: It's interesting, having read what you've written for Heinemann and other publishers. I'm interested in something that you said, Tom, that has something to do with the happy accident, and that is the style of writing that Heinemann has published. I would call it more accessible writing to educators.
I'm curious, how did you get into that style? It's not an academic style. As writers, how did you switch from doing graduate papers that had to be APA-compliant to that easy, natural, conversational style that you both write with?
Tom: I think we had good models. I think of the opening sentence to Don Grave's Teachers and Children at Work, as children learn to write. I've said before that's the kind of sentence that you're taught never to write as an academic. Unqualified, personal, simple. Essentially, the first sentence of the launching of Heinemann, Children Want to Write.
Ellin: And he was an academic.
Tom: He was an academic. I think he was shaped and taught by Don Murray, who came from a more journalist, maybe what we'd call creative nonfiction background. I think that background in accessible journalism creative nonfiction is really important, and certainly a line that I've used when I work with teachers is that one thing you have to remember as a writer and as an editor, is probably you are writing for somebody who is tired. If you think of the time that teachers have to read, early in the day, late in the day, you're going to write for someone who cannot work through certain traditions of academic writing. It needs to be direct, it needs to be personal, if it's funny at times, I think that gives a boost. But, it has to have story.
Kathy: I think that's a new project for you, Tom. New idea.
Ellin: Tom, with your writing, there's this elegance there. It's so scholarly and academic, you feel like you're reading something that's making you, the reader, smarter because it's written so beautiful and elegantly. Yet, it's also so accessible. I'm not just saying it because you're sitting here. You know how people see colors, synesthesia? When I read things, I have a visceral reaction. I hear rhythm, or I can feel it in some way. This is going to sound like it should be cut as it's coming out of my mouth, but when I read your writing, it's just so refreshing, like going through a sprinkler. That's always what I think of, because it's so refreshing, recharging, fun, and funny. I think you go both ways.
Tom: One thing that I've always felt in terms of the people that I read in my life, that I have my own team of people who I think are supporting me. Some of them are living, some of them I've known, some of them died 400 years ago, but they're a team that I call on. It's not that I'm citing them to back myself up, but I'm going to bring my team to this game, and they're going to help me out. I've always felt that.
Ellin: And your team, Kathy, is teachers.
Kathy: Aside from doing papers in graduate school, I didn't arrive from an academic writing point of view or experience. The interesting thing when Tom was talking about that, is I thought, “where did it come from?” Again, working at the Reading and Writing Project, so much of how we communicate with teachers was and is orally through speeches and workshops. The voice I think I have in my writing is my talking voice, because I'm constantly talking to teachers. Maybe it's more conversational for better or for worse. Everyone has a voice. Half of the people it might work for, but half of the people might be like, “Not my favorite.”
I guess that's how anything is. Teachers will say, “Oh, I'm thinking about writing a book,” and I often say to them, present on it a lot, because it will get your language. You'll see an audience, and you'll see what resonates with them. You'll feel their energy when you tell it this way. You can tell the heat of response.
Ellin: That's why it takes me six years to get a book out, because I have to try it in classrooms, I have to speak about it a lot. Then finally you find it, but that's so true. That really resonates with me.
Kathy: You talk through it. I had an experience writing with somebody who did come out of academic writing. All of her writing was academic writing for journals, and so when we were collaborating on a project, we had a bit of code-switching that we both had to do. She would read a portion of mine and say “I don't know if you could say that exactly.” To Tom's point, it wasn't “not verifiable.” There wasn't a research base.
Ellin: It wouldn't make it in a peer-reviewed journal.
Kathy: Yes, exactly. But I thought, that's how I would say it to teachers. We both learned so much. She helped me get my writing to stand up straight. I'm hoping that writing with me helped her think of the audience, not the peer-review, necessarily.
Ellin: You have emphasized this in your writing and in your speaking. You both write from a place of story, from a narrative. Your comment, Tom, on taking the reader by the hand and bringing them along with you. It was very evident for me in the book The Teacher You Want to be, which I was lucky enough to edit with Matt Glover. Both of you wrote essays there that spun off of belief statements that were cooperatively written, rewritten and revised in part by a group that went to Resia, Emilia, Italy to look at what they're doing there. But, the belief statements that anchor that book, you both took an angle on those belief statements and wrote on them. These beautiful essays, both very different essays, but both really telling a story.
I'm wondering about the experience you had, and the thoughts you have about belief statements, about believing a set of your lines in the sand, as it were. This far, and no further. What's the role, if any, of belief statements for educators? Did you encourage your students at the university when you were teaching, Tom? Your teachers, Kathy, to create belief statements? Are those something that we just sort of know internally? In these days when we have less and less choice, certainly in public schooling, is it even worth it? I'll just be provocative and say, is it even worth it to come up with belief statements? What's the point? You're going to get told what to do anyway. That just reckons back to your experience in writing those essays, and I'm curious what you think about this.
Tom: I think you have to have that code. I think it's absolutely essential. It seems to be that belief statements come out of autobiography. I think that our philosophies are disguised autobiographies. They really come out of life experience. For example, in the essay that I wrote in the Teacher You Want to be, I have real resistance to people in authority telling me what is true, and what I must do. I have a problem, as I think you do, Ellin, with compliance.
Ellin: A terrible problem. It's gotten me lots of speeding tickets.
Tom: I almost have a visceral reaction to anybody telling me what to do, even if in retrospect the thing they're telling me to be doing is a good thing. My reaction is not to comply, and to rely on what I see and what I feel at the moment as the right thing to do, and not to accommodate programs and plans. I think writing that chapter, to some degree, comes out of a belief statement. But, that belief statement comes out of something else, and that something else is a life experience where I am consistently challenging things. One thing that I don't like to challenge, but I feel like I need to challenge, is people who claim that research is going to solve the problems of teaching. You see things like, "What works?" Whenever I see somebody who says "What works?" My hackles go up. They say, "What works? When, everywhere? For every situation? For whom?"
Ellin: Without interpretation?
Tom: Yeah. And there's this biblical term called Kairos. It's a Greek word, and it means “timing.” How much of teaching is about timing? Feedback is good, research says that. But, what kind of feedback, and when, and how? Can research tell you about timing? I don't think it can. Can research tell you when you have to reprimand your kid, and when you have to let your kid go? Can research tell you that? No, because that's about timing. That's about Kairos. So, I have this resistance to systems, programs, research, authority, that tells me there's a system that could solve the problem. That could relieve me of those excruciating decisions that we often make badly.
Ellin: That's an interesting perspective coming from someone who spent his life in academia.
Tom: I think if you spend enough time, you learn to distrust it. Research is based on a certain population. Are you a part of that population? Let's say that you're in medicine. You have something come out about blood pressure. Does that include you? Does it not? That's a real conceptual problem. There's a kind of resistance to that, that's a part of what I do. When I was on the playground, somebody would say, “Says who?"
Ellin: “You're not the boss of me!”
Kathy: I think connected to that, Tom, is the tyranny of data. “Well, the data shows.”
I often use this story. Our younger son has type 1 diabetes, so we have 12 data points a day, checking his blood sugar. His endocrinologist could look at a weekend and create a treatment plan, but maybe he also needs a story around the data. How old is he? He's an adolescent? Growth hormones. Or, he was at a sleepover. Or, his pump was malfunctioning. That also drives me crazy, the fetish of data, what that data says. Belief systems, I think it's this exercise. It can seem like a new teacher. You're often called upon to do that in graduate school. What is your philosophy of teaching when you apply for a teaching job?
When I was writing that essay and that prelude to the belief systems, my husband's school was having a job search, and he was on the selection committee. There was an essay, what are your beliefs about teaching? He said, so many of them were almost boiler plate, and they said the thing that every teacher should say. That's where it really struck me. It has to be more than this exercise. If you had a bag of teacher fortune cookies, you want the beliefs to say different things. Belief systems morph and modify. I think there's core things, but we also add new things to them that maybe we didn't think of before with our limited experience. The more experience we have, the more things we understand and might come to believe about teaching and learning. I think having teachers with extraordinary belief systems is so important to a community because they hold down history.
I was working with a kindergarten teacher, and she said how concerned she is. She was getting set to retire, and she said, “You know, these new teachers are the most efficient human beings I've ever met. You say we need something, they can whip it up in a second. They know all the great places to find the font and their anchor charts are stunning.”
I watched a teacher when a kid came into school crying this morning, and the teacher said “get your jacket off and start your morning work.” She said that efficiency, because there's so much to cover. She wasn't judging this teacher, she was more bemoaning the context of teaching right now. We have to jump right to it, because we're supposed to be doing small group work at 10:10, so no time for tears. And she said if that child would have walked into her classroom, she would have brought that child over and rubbed his back while he told her what was going on. I think that exudes belief system.
I think about working in PS 321 in Brooklyn, where a belief system are bounded. Renee Dinnerstein, I did research in her classroom when I was a research assistant at the Reading and Writing Project. She's one of those people, any time I think of something that I want to do with young children, I always think, “What would Renee say?” As we're forming our belief systems, we want to have belief systems of those we admire as mentors.
Ellin: Thought leaders.
Kathy: Thought leaders. I think it's healthy for a school community, every once in a while, to just gather and generate for the community. Then, also individuals have some agency around their own belief systems.
Ellin: When you run into these obstacles, what do you say to educators when they encounter that? I certainly encounter it a lot in my work with teachers, and I'm just curious to hear how you react to that.
Kathy: I hear a lot of teachers say it in meetings, or they'll say it on a grade level, somebody will say, “They said we have to do it this way.” And then the teacher's response to that is, “Who said? Who's they?” So, we always want to check in with ourselves. Who's they, and is it really what they said, that it has to go this way?
Ellin: You said that in your essay.
Kathy: Oh, did I?
Ellin: Yeah, you said something like that.
Kathy: Oh, yay. I hear that a lot. You hope that your hierarchy in a district or in a state, that the educator will be responsive if you really came to them, reasoned and with research and evidence of children's work that can support what you're saying. You hope that they would turn down the volume on the validity.
Ellin: I say to teachers, I think a little civil disobedience is a very healthy thing. It really goes back, Tom, to what you were saying, and it reminds me of what Graves said. “The enemy is orthodoxy,” What I think I'm hearing in this conversation is, we need to have our lines in the sand. We need to know what our core is. It's always changing, it's very dynamic, never static. But, it also has to push against the belief statement by a template for a belief statement. It has to come from our lived experience, our autobiography. “The enemy is orthodoxy,” I think is going to be one of my lead-in lines.
Tom: I would say the enemy is also clutter. The enemy is that you have so many things that could go on in this school, and you're going to have to learn how to say no. What happens is you have things that are possibly valuable, but there's crowding from other things. So, you have schools that say you have to do writing. That's like in your life saying “I don't have time for my kids.” Well, if that's the case, you have to reorient things.
Ellin: Yeah, exactly. Just making a segue from that, when we write belief statements. I was doing some writing of my own this summer in a notebook. I was doing some beliefs work. Out of my head came this idea that school has to be joyful, school has to be funny. Where has our sense of humor gone in American education? I want to laugh all day. I want to laugh with my colleagues, I want to laugh with the kids, I want to laugh at the kids. I used to teach seventh grade. I was laughing at the kids a lot, because they're funny and they take themselves very seriously. I just started writing more about how missing humor is in this very serious environment of public schooling these days.
You two of course are both known for your uproarious humor. If there isn't a beginning of the school year video, Kathy, I don't know how I could go on in my life. I'm just wondering what you see, and what your thoughts are about that.
Kathy: A really quick thing that I think about this. There are certain occupations, like high-stress occupations. My mom is 75, she's still working full-time as a nurse. Police officers, emergency room doctors, firefighters. There's a gallows humor about your work. My mom would talk about things nurses made fun of together, and it was like, “Oh, that's weird.” Teaching has a different kind of high-stress, high-pressure, fast-moving, lives are at stake. I think a gallows humor is healthy, an in-group humor. I think of a colleague down the hall. We had so many inside jokes about kids. They were loving, they were from a place of appreciation for this child's quirks. You need those outlets in school, that pressure relief valve.
Tom, I don't know about you, but I've heard you present, I'm laughing. I'll look around, and then the laugh to not-laugh ratio. For you, for me, for Ellin, you say things and you're irreverent in talks. You look and it might be one out of three people are laughing out loud. Maybe its not funny to them, but people are also like, “Wait a minute. Is this even supposed to be funny? Should we even be laughing at this serious enterprise? I don't know."
Ellin: That's when I thought about the question, because there is so much that's serious in this current political climate, no matter what your political persuasions are, there's an enormous amount of stress, tension, and rough edges that we're experiencing every day in a bombardment. I want teachers to still feel able to have those jokes about a kid's quirk and not to feel that is wrong in someway. It feeds us, this humor.
Tom: Physically, when we laugh, we just feel better.
Ellin: It's been studied scientifically, too.
Tom: I think humor is a recognition that people often don't go right. We're fathomable as teachers. We start with a lesson and it goes spectacularly wrong.
Ellin: You talk about in embarrassment.
Tom: One way we recoup is we tell the story, and then it becomes something positive for us. If you're totally immersed in the system, and you can't make fun of it, and you can't make fun of yourself, it's a kind of insanity.
Ellin: It's a prison.
Tom: It's a kind of prison, yeah.
Kathy: One time my husband was teaching middle school, and one of my kids said early in the year, “Dad, what was funny today?” I think that made me think a teacher should every day do your laugh-check. How many times today did I laugh out loud with kids? How many times did I laugh in my head at shenanigans? I couldn't loud out loud, but I could laugh in my head at shenanigans. How many times did I laugh with colleagues? At a healthy school, you should hear some laughter. I can't think otherwise.
Ellin: I couldn't agree more. I worry about our colleagues that are newest in the profession, just hoping that they can take a deep breath and let go a bit, and let that humor be a part. Kids are funny, that's why we're here. Kids are hilarious. I don't go through a day in a classroom with second graders, or seventh graders. It's funny, they should let that be.
So, I think seguing to a little bit more serious topic, I've been fascinated and did some rereading in both of your books recently, by the old notion of kid-watching. Yetta Goodman talked a long time ago about the importance of kid-watching. I've been committing in my own classroom demonstrations and my own visits to classrooms around the country to absolutely, positively, line in the sand, set some time aside to just stand back and observe. And, to ask teachers to do the same, and to really experience the power of observation, which I think is potent. It feels like our classrooms are somewhat high-stress, and I think that stress rolls over to kids. I've been wondering about the power of silence. I read about that a little bit, and about the power of observation of just standing back and truly just taking time to watch kids. I'm guessing that most teachers would say that they don't have the time to do that.
I was pouring through both of your books, Tom, Holding on to Good Ideas in a Time of Bad Ones, a title that perhaps is more relevant today than ever.
Tom: It's always going to be relevant.
Ellin: It's always going to be relevant. You talk about several habits of mine, including the habit of observation. I pulled a quote, “This is the capacity to slow down, pay attention, notice the unusual detail, fact, or statistic. One that is not evident at first glance.” Why is it important to be an observer, in your views?
Tom: I think if you're in a hurry, you're going to see what you expected to see. Then, nothing's changed. Basically, you're jut reinforcing your expectations. You're not learning anything.
Ellin: You're not going to be surprised.
Tom: You're not going to be surprised. There's something invigorating about being surprised. There's a physiological aspect. You feel it in your body. I think that's what learning is, feeling that in your body. If you're in a hurry, and in a system and on a pace, basically you're not going to experience that at all.
Kathy, with your work and Matt's work, when I've read it and heard you and Matt present, I've thought, this is kind of where we came in back at Heinemann. Looking at what kids do, asking them questions, looking at early reading behavior that we might think are not reading, but really the kids are beginning to put together all the components of reading. If you're in a hurry, you think the kids aren't writing. This is pre-reading. This is something else. I think you've captured that. Look at some originating ideas for Heinemann, I think that is one of them.
Kathy: When I was a research assistant, that was such a great job because all I was doing was going into classrooms, watching kids, and watching teachers. I wasn't watching curriculum, I wasn't watching clocks, I wasn't watching for the most exquisite teaching point. I was just watching what teachers did, how children responded. It was so funny. Back then, you didn't have your smartphone, you weren't videotaping anything, so I was transcribing. I would go to these think tanks. It was just so funny. Every Thursday, the project would have uppercase think tanks. You'd have the big one, then you'd have the little one that was studying the teaching and reading.
Lucy would ask me to do my bits. “Hey Kathy, do that six-year-old!” And she'd have me read the transcript, almost like all the voices of it. They valued that so much, the kids' responses, that it taught me to value the kids' responses. I think sometimes when teaching, we're so about us. You've got to get the mini lesson done in this time, and you've got to get to so many conferences, and how am I going to get around to all of my kids? You've both said the rush makes the kids almost opaque in a way. We get more worried about the clock. That is just really fun, watching them bumble around a little bit.
Ellin: Informative, that's the thing. How do you know where you're going tomorrow unless we're really taking time to stand back? You have to teach the kids to let you do that. That's a process in and of itself. Especially in a transition from a whole class interaction to individual work, or small group work. The first thing, you're going to have six kids clinging, in some way or another. That's the time when I love to say, I'll be so interested to hear how you'll solve that problem, sweetheart. This is my time to watch the readers and writers. It's just a wealth of information. It's a goldmine, really.
Tom: It's a habit of curiosity, too. When you're curious about things you feel you don't fully understand, and it's easy to think you understand something, but almost anything you think you understand, if you take some time and look at it more, you're going to see that you didn't understand it.
Ellin: Exactly, that's true in life.
Tom: Reading. You could take a book that you have read a million times. The Great Gatsby. If you look at a passage carefully in the Great Gatsby, you're going to see something you never saw in any of those earlier readings.
Ellin: So, finally, this morning I want to explore this question that we will be exploring in each of the Turn and Talk conversations. It's a question that I'm hoping will be more a part of every school's conversation. Every pair of the Turn and Talk participants are going to be asked this question.
I just need to cite a study to begin. According to a September 2017 report from the Center for American Progress, “Efforts to increase teacher diversity have led to marginal increases in the percentage of teachers of color from 12% to 17% from the period of 1987 through 2012. But this positive statistic obscures other troubling facts, such as the decline in the percentage of African American teachers in many large urban districts, and the lower retention rates for teachers of color across the country.”
I'm curious what you two make of this, and what conversations you've been a part of that have been productive or useful in terms of solving or addressing these seemingly intransigent problems. Whether we're currently in the classroom or not, what we ought to be doing to address that dilemma?
Kathy: I was talking to a principal at a school where there's one teacher of color. I was talking to the principal about hiring, and he was saying how we would love to have more diversity. We post jobs, but we're not getting a diverse applicant pool coming in. It made think of that Kevin Costner movie, Field of Dreams. If you post it, they will come. I think that's too passive. There's the National Alliance of Black School Educators reaching out to them, looking on their website. They have career opportunities, they have job postings. Being a little more proactive to find people and to find candidates. It's urgent that schools reflect the world for students.
To add to your statistics, John Hopkins had a study that came out April 2017. The study showed that for African American students, experiencing one black teacher between grades three and five, they're almost 40% more likely to graduate, almost 40% more likely to be interested in college at that time. We can look at it and say, “Oh, it's so great for our children of color to have teachers.” The idea of that race-match effect, which is like a role model effect. Gloria Ladson-Billings also said it's good for everybody. White children need to have children of color.
One question to your quote is about attracting teachers and hiring them. The other issue is then the retaining. You look at a community. How does the community support teachers of color? Every teacher I ever meet, I don't have a racist bone in my body, which might be true, but what's structurally and systemically around might be contradicting that. I don't know, but I'm thinking about it a lot. We can do little things, like when we present at conferences, we can be on panels that are diverse. We can amplify voices of teachers and educators from different communities from ours, different ethnicities and races. Individually, we have a lot to do.
One last thing I'll say. Yara Shahidi was being interviewed on my favorite podcast, Keep It. Little shout out for Keep It. She was being interviewed, she's 18 years old, and she's a human activist. She talks about how every time she meets a teenager, she'll say “how old are you?” They'll say, “I'm 13.” “Oh, only five more years until you can vote.” She said those little things plant seeds. “You're seventeen? You're going to be voting next year.” She leaves it at that.
The new thing I'm doing is when I work at a school or a district and it's my first time, I'll talk to administrator or principal or literacy coach. “What are your demographics?” And usually they'll talk about kids. “Oh, we have x-percent African American students.” But I'll also say, “How many teachers do you have?” Just to raise consideration. There's these little things we can do, as well as the systemic things we can do.
Ellin: These are the important questions. I feel like those of us who are white are flailing a little bit. I think it's a good flailing. Kathy, I really appreciated your question when we first started talking about this gathering. Kathy said, and I'm not sure if you are aware, Tom, “Wow, that's three white people talking. What is the balance going to be across the series of four?” And, of course the balance is going to be different than it is today. It is going to be a balance, and that's been a high priority. Yet, sure enough, those are the little questions that you're talking about that we just have to remember to ask. In faculty conversations, I think those little questions can go a long way towards raising awareness.
Kathy: One thing about retention. I've just been reading a lot about the stress on teachers of color. One teacher in this article was talking about how he's always the one when the African American kid has trouble in class, they send him to this teacher. Or, at a faculty meeting, when there's a school shooting or something in society is going on, which is every single day, people turn to that teacher. Tell us what to do. I think that death by a thousand cuts must be exhausting.
Ellin: It is exhausting, I've been told. And you can understand.
Kathy: Exactly. Microaggressions all the time. It probably gets too much professionally, but also watching how children are treated.
Tom: Related to what you said in terms of the difficulty of these conversations, I think that among white people, there's a sense of avoidance because it's awkward. They don't know what to say. I compared it to a question. For a long time, unless it was a family member at a service that had passed away, I avoided going to memorial services. I avoided going to them because I'd know I would be going through some line, and I would have to say something to people who were bereaved, and I didn't know what to say. I was thinking that there was the right thing to say or the comforting thing to say, and I wasn't sure what that thing to say was. At some point, I just turned and said I'm going to go, and I'm going to say I'm sorry. It might not be the right thing, but I'm going to go and be there for them.
I think for race, there's avoidance like that. Am I going to say the wrong thing? Am I going to say the offensive thing? If I ask you to be on this panel, are you going to think that I asked you to be on this panel because you're African American? All of those are awkwardness that we just have to dive into, and try to be the best person we can be.
With retention, if we get an African American teacher at Oyster River, which we don't have right now, is it going to be awkward for that person? Yeah, it's going to be awkward for that person, to bring that person into the community. But, let's do it, and let's embrace that awkwardness. If we're going to get hung up on those things, we're not going to take the effort.
Mina Shaughnessy talked about basic writers and said sometimes you just have to dive in and trust that even if you don't say the right word, you're going to be able to work your way through it, as opposed to avoiding it. It's easy as a white person to say, “I'm not going to engage because I'm going to offend you.” That doesn't solve anything, obviously. People going into the profession have to make enough money to pay off their college loans, and if you're going to pay $40,000.00 dollars, it's all systemic.
In terms of the personal, if an African American teacher comes into the school, connect with them. Use your best human instincts to reach out and trust that even if you don't say the right thing or it feels awkward-
Ellin: And, we will make mistakes.
Tom: We can become paralyzed by our sense of white privilege, so we don't do anything. I think that's worse than doing something and making a mistake.
Kathy: A mistake you can work on and grow from. There's white privilege. There's white student privilege, to always see a white face. Somebody else in our community that Tom and I both share a great love and affection for, Shawna Coppola, she wrote a book called Renew. Shawna and I, in response to something going on in our school community, created a workshop talking about race in predominantly white classrooms that we offered to our teachers in our children's district. We had three sessions. The teachers came with desperation wanting to “do right.”
Teachers would say things like “We don't know what to say,” or “It's too early, especially for young children.” Well, it's not too early. Babies start developing racial prejudice or ideas about race. It's never too early. We want to presume good intentions, and we can fix things when they go awry. It's good, hard work.
Ellin: The school district takes that on. That to me seems like an opportunity for people in a safe environment to be able to talk to each other. I'm turning and talking to you about my feelings.
Kathy: The teachers have said the district really was making sincere efforts all year long that came out of an incident. I give my children's school district, the district school board administration credit for trying to think. They had a person come in, and they had district-wide diversity workshops. The teachers that came to Shawna's and my session, it was smaller, maybe 12 teachers at a session.
Shawna and I realized very quickly, they just need to talk. We had our slides, we had our activities, but they just needed to talk. Then somebody could say, “this happened to me,” and then another teacher chimes in, “Here's what I did.” The teachers said it would be nice to have time to talk and slow it down a little bit, so you could really dig into things.
Ellin: It's been showing up on social media a lot, the idea that white people may leave their homes each morning and have something unpleasant or unhappy happen to them. But, it won't be because of our skin color. That really struck home with me. I may have a horrible day in a lot of ways, but it won't be because of my skin color. People of color, every day. That awareness, and the kinds of conversations that you put your plans on the back burner and let them have this conversation, made that conversation possible. It's a beautiful beginning. This will be the beautiful end.
Kathy: Tom am I, for those of you who don't know, live within a quarter of a mile from each other. We're in the same neighborhood, so we see each other in passing, walking our dogs. We have a better relationship, Tom and I, than our dogs have with each other. Let's just put that out there. It's such an honor. When I would walk by your house, it was like people that take buses to Liberace's house. Why did I think of Liberace? I don't know why that popped into my head.
Something I just was thinking about, you, as Ellin listed the title of your book, Holding Good Ideas in Times of Bad Ones, Misreading Masculinity, your latest one on embarrassment. I feel like you write these books that are before their times. Your books are always very pressing about what's going to be hot topics, or issues. I was thinking about how Pantone, that paint company comes out with for the following year. You do that for teachers, and you get us thinking about things that we may not have thought we needed to think about. It's such an honor to have a chance to sit here and talk.
Ellin: You're talking about thought leadership, right? Here he sits right next you.
Tom: I think your work in terms of helping us re-see what can happen in the early grades is fantastic. I think it takes us back to the originating ideas of Jerry Harsty and Yetta Goodman. I thought you are the heirs to that tradition.
Ellin: And now you can see why we wanted to bring you two people into the same room at the same time, and let you bounce ideas off each other.
Tom: Thank you for inviting us.
Kathy: Thank you for the invitation.
Ellin: My pleasure.
Ellin Oliver Keene has been a classroom teacher, staff developer, non-profit director, and adjunct professor of reading and writing. For sixteen years she directed staff development initiatives at the Denver-based Public Education & Business Coalition. She served as Deputy Director and Director of Literacy and Staff Development for the Cornerstone Project at the University of Pennsylvania for four years. Ellin works with schools and districts throughout the country and abroad with an emphasis on long-term, school-based professional development and strategic planning for literacy learning. She serves as senior advisor at Heinemann, overseeing the Heinemann Fellows initiative and is the editor of the Heinemann Professional Development Catalog-Journal.
Follow her on Twitter @EllinKeene
Thomas Newkirk is the author of numerous Heinemann titles, including Minds Made for Stories, The Art of Slow Reading, The Performance of Self in Student Writing (winner of the NCTE's David H. Russell Award), and Misreading Masculinity. For almost three decades, Tom taught writing at the University of New Hampshire where he founded the New Hampshire Literacy Institutes, a summer program for teachers. In addition to working as a teacher, writer, and editor, he has served as the chair of his local school board.
Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Newkirk
Kathy Collins is coauthor with Matt Glover of the Heinemann title I Am Reading. Kathy is the beloved author of Growing Readers as well as Reading for Real. She presents at conferences and works in schools all over the world to support teachers in developing high-quality, effective literacy instruction in the elementary school grades. Kathy has worked closely with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University, and she was a first grade teacher in Brooklyn, New York.
Follow her on Twitter @KathyCollins15