Hi All, again:
Given the events involving Jamel Myles and the Shoemaker Elementary School community last week, I want to take the time to tell you, unequivocally, that I take these events and their implications very, very seriously. As I am sure you all do, I still need some time to process what happened. That said, though, we don't always have the time we need, and I am first and foremost committed to a number of measures intentionally designed to tend to the social-emotional needs of our diverse and yet distinct group of students at Southmoor. As such, it is clear to me that this discussion needs its own space here, apart from the day-to-day-type updates of my last post.
First, I am committed -- above all -- to the social-emotional and mental health of each and every one of my students, many of whom I've known for the better half of a decade. I care more about their mental health, in fact, than about anything they'll ever accomplish academically.
Second, I am committed to my students' abilities to know and love themselves, and each other, for the rest of their lives. That they must have these abilities is more important to me, as their teacher, than anything else.
I started the first day of the school year with a short lesson about trees. I shared with the class one of my favorite songs by Ben Howard, Depth Over Distance. The opening verse begins:
Depth over distance every time, my dear
And this tree of ours may grow tall in the woods
But it's the roots that will bind us here
To the ground
Of course, I threw in a few questions about metaphors and language, but the crux of the lesson was focused on deciphering the roots of life as a means of understanding how we, as people, can grow stronger trunks and branches, and healthier leaves, full of life. If a tree's roots are not strong and deep, it cannot grow above ground to be strong and tall. And if a tree's roots are not strong and deep, it is much more susceptible to dangers that exist outside of its control.
As people, like trees, our roots are our foundations for building. And also like trees, our roots themselves can be susceptible to external conditions. If there are rocks, or drought, or digging, a tree's roots may struggle to spread and grow, much like ours. Roots need space, and they need time, and they need nourishment.
I asked the class to brainstorm a list of words that could label the compositions of human root systems. The list they came up with included:
If these roots can be made strong, it goes, then so can the trunks, branches, stems, and leaves that flow from them. The "above-ground" stuff -- goal achievement, academic performance, athletic performance, work quality, competency, test scores, etc. -- can only be made strong by the health of a person's roots.
On the second day of school, to build on that foundation, I started with a different question, which I posed to my students: What do you need to be happy? At first, when each person composed his or her own list, students came up with a list of 166 things they need to be happy. None of the original 166 entries were wrong, per se, but some of them weren't quite right, perhaps ignoring the element of necessity that my question included. One of my favorite entries, which was entered by only one student, was "a doctor who can help me with a bunch of stuff." Another entry, which also was entered by only one student, was, "Answers to my questions: What is death like? Why do humans exist?"
I had all students pick their ten top entries from the list of 166, and I assigned point values to their ordered lists. The first entry on each list earned ten points, the second earned nine, and so on. That got us down to 64 things. Then, I did that again, with the top 15 entries from the list of 64. After another round of ordering and assigning points, the class' top-ten list included the following, in order from first to tenth:
We are fortunate in the Southmoor community, most of the time, to not have to worry about our continued access to food, water, and shelter, and pets we often personify as representations of both our roots and our needs.
As for all the others, the roots and the needs, those are what we are going to work on this year in my classroom, above all. The rest of the stuff will come; we can be all but assured of that. It is the roots we need to tend to and protect.
Thousands of people from the LGBTQIA community, for which I am a staunch advocate, have come forward in the last week to offer for Jamel, and others like him, what he did not have in life: a network of deep roots proven to stand up against the threats that seek to take LGBTQIA lives. Jamel's roots, as with most children his age, were not fully developed yet, and they needed love and protection to grow and survive and thrive, and for that, clearly, he cannot be blamed.
Adults' roots need protection and nourishment, too, but kids' need it most of all. At Southmoor, our kids are lucky to be surrounded by a large community of adult trees with thick, deep roots and flowing leaves. Kids can find good protection in them. But more importantly, in my opinion, kids must be helped to develop their roots themselves, too, so they can become the strong, thick trees that they seek to become.
For kids' roots to grow, they must learn to nourish themselves; they must learn to find nourishment in others; and they must learn to provide nourishment to others. They must share water when it is needed, and sunlight, and air.
My hope is not only that my kids' roots will be strong, but that they'll be so strong that one day, when they're adults, their roots will span so far and wide that young trees like Jamel's will be supported before they fall.
I am going to be working closely with Jackie Person this year to design and implement curricula to nourish our kids' roots, and outside of those curricula it will be a focus of mine each and every day. In the next few weeks, in particular, Jackie and I are going to be focusing on the power of words, and how to use them kindly, and also on options for seeking individual social-emotional help if and when it is needed.
Though we will not be discussing Jamel's story in class without further thought and, at the very least, parental permission, it is important for all of you to note that we are only three miles away from Shoemaker and that there is some crossover between our two schools. If you or your child need any help processing Jamel's story or dealing with any problem at home or at school, big or small, please reach out to me immediately. If I cannot offer the help you need, I have resources that can.
Thank you for all you do, and for the loving support with which you provide me and your kids. It does not go unnoticed.
All the very best,