Laurita Dianita

Reflections and art on the topics of public health, social justice, and love

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A Social Justice Booklist for Babies and Toddlers

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Introduction:

Our daughter, Ida Luna, is now two and a half, and our son, Rio Esteban, should be joining us on the outside any day now. Ever since I was pregnant with my daughter in 2013 (or really, ever since I was a third grade teacher in 2004), I have been searching out and attempting to curate a collection of children’s books that are visually beautiful, cognitively appropriate and engaging; that help children to become compassionate, respectful, confident, global in their worldview; and that start them on their journey to make the world a more just and peaceful place.

In the case of our personal home book collection for our daughter, now for our children, I have looked for books to empower them both as allies to those who experience forms of oppression that they do not, and that empower them as proud, bilingual, multi-racial Latinxs — as Alasqueño-Colombianos — to be confident about who they are in all of their complexity of culture and race and gender. Some of these books we will read to them later, when they are more cognitively ready, such as the biography of Ida B. Wells, the African American crusading journalist who is the namesake for our daughter, or “Rad American Women A-Z” or empowering stories like “Drum, Chavi, Drum!” These books and many others I have found from fantastic lists other people have compiled for teaching socio-emotional skills or empowering children of color or combatting gender stereotypes or eliminating prejudice against LGBTQ people, etc. These lists are wonderful resources, but they usually tend to be aimed at older children. In some cases, this is because the messages are more overt in how they deal with injustices, which I have found to be a more high-level cognitive skill than infants and toddlers can grasp.

In the last few years, I have had the chance to buy and borrow books, and go through with my daughter to see which ones resonate with and engage her and which ones don’t.  To some degree, I have been able to observe the effects that the books have had on her language, thinking, and behavior. With a few of these books, I have gotten to read them with the babies and toddlers of my friends and observe the effects on them as well. I am sure that I have many blind spots based on my various positions of privilege as a white, able-bodied, middle class, cis-gendered woman married to a man, but as someone committed to social justice, these are some of the books that I have fallen in love with.

Social justice with babies and toddlers? Aren’t they a little young for that?

As I mentioned above, I have found that explicitly addressing concepts of fairness and unfairness is a bit higher-level (probably something to approach by three or three and a half?). Therefore, most of these books for babies and toddlers aim at building the opposite of implicit bias. That is, these books build implicit, deeply-felt respect and, for children who are from marginalized groups represented positively in these books, they build a sense of positive identity (whichhas been found to be protective against a number of health and social problems throughout life).  These books move a child towards being a socially-just person by building, in conscious minds but primarily in their unconscious minds, a sense that people of color, people from non-dominant cultures in the US or Europe, people with disabilities, children who don’t fit gender stereotypes, and people who are LGBTQ, are just normal people because they simply are the characters in the stories.

This may seem like something that just about any children’s book would do, but sadly, the children’s book publishing industry is still overwhelmingly white, and this is reflected in the types of books most often available in classrooms, libraries, and bookstores. In fact, flipping through most children’s books, I can’t help but notice that the children of color, if they appear at all, are vastly outnumbered by the white children, which is quite unlike most public schools in the US and quite unlike the globe. Likewise, many children’s books reflect gender stereotypes that box children in, and only reflect heterosexual, two-parent families and suburban, middle-class lifestyles. As a result, a literary diet of only those kinds of books can help to create implicit bias in children – particularly when paired with the bias to which children are exposed elsewhere in society. Therefore, in order to do the opposite – in order to prevent or intervene in the implicit bias that shows up in children as early as the toddler years— we must expose children to books and other experiences (photos, oral stories, friendships, cultural events, etc.) that create a foundation of implicit love, respect, and understanding.

Here are some of the books I have found that help do that. It is by no means an exhaustive list, and could most certainly benefit from more bilingual books in other languages. Also, the age categories are just approximations for when to introduce these books based on my (imperfect) memory of my experiences. See what your baby or toddler responds to and go with that. Sometimes their interest in a book will be be sustained, sometimes it will come and go. Sometimes, as with a new food, a new book has to be offered a few times before they become interested.

 

For young infants:

Young infants like contrast, movement, and faces, so these book choices reflect those neurological and developmental preferences. Their brains are wired to connect to people’s faces, and so the faces you show are going to shape who babies consider normal, connection-worthy people. With this in mind, some recommendations:

 

The Global Baby series of books, produced by the non-profit Global Fund for Children:

These are beautiful and engaging board books with photos of babies, pictured both with and without adult caregivers, from around the world. These were among the first books that Ida paid attention to as an infant, smiling and cooing at the other babies on each page. The text is also endearing and positive, but I found it even more engaging to just talk with Ida about each baby featured and what they were doing, how they were feeling, etc. These books are still interesting to her at two and a half, and they can be used to spark many conversations, including geography lessons with a globe (which is a new interest of Ida’s).

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ABC, Look at Me! (and all of Roberta Intrater’s books):

Complex ranges of baby and toddler emotion are captured in simple photographs set before a black background. The babies and toddlers featured are of most major racial groups in the US. Unlike many children’s books, the children of color in Intrater’s books are not thrown in as tokens in an otherwise overwhelmingly white cast; they are evenly distributed, and all of the children in the book are irrepressibly cute and engaging. This book in particular has been able to grow with Ida and her ever-expanding emotional vocabulary. It is a true joy to read.

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First 100 words/primeras cien palabras by Roger Priddy/Bright Baby Books:

I am drawn to this and all of the Bright Baby/Bebé Listo books because of the crisp photographs laid over bright simple colors, which appeal not only to babies with developing eyesight but also to artists like me. I am particularly fond of this book, as was Ida, because the range of babies and toddlers photographed is diverse, and all are portrayed in the same way: doing normal baby and toddler things. I know this doesn’t sound revolutionary, but believe me, it is far from the norm for children’s books.

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Welcome Song for Baby: A Lullaby for Newborns by Richard Van Camp:

I found this book on a list of children’s books by Native American and Alaska Native authors. I’ve been showing it to my toddler, and will soon be able to share it/sing it for my newborn. I am anticipating that when I do, as I will be coursing with postpartum hormones, it will make me cry my eyes out, because the song (and the gorgeous, diverse photos of infants and their adult caregivers) reflects the sacredness and importance of this period of life.

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For Older Infants & Young Toddlers:

Peekaboo Morning by Rachel Isadora:

Actually, absolutely everything by Rachel Isadora. She has a remarkably wide range of illustration media and styles, book subjects, and locations of her books. We own this book for babies as well as two more that are more toddler-appropriate, but I want them all. All of her books center, normalize, and celebrate the beauty of children of all racial and ethnic backgrounds and often in other countries. This book, Peekaboo Morning, is an endearing walk through a young toddler’s daily life in her multi-generational home, and is illustrated joyously with delicious, thick pastels. Because of the repetitive use of “Peekaboo!” and because of the simplicity and focus on relationships, Ida could easily identify with the main character, a Black child whose gender is left to the reader to interpret (or not interpret).

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Mama, Do You Love Me? by Barbara Joosse & Barbara Lavallee:

This book tells the universal story of a child seeking comfort and safety in the unconditional love of a parent. It is a theme any child can relate to. And even if it is a little over the head of an infant, the repetition of the “I love you” provides an opportunity for the adult reading it to connect to the child and teach them these most important of words. The book takes place in Northern/Northwestern Alaska, with Iñupiaq words, objects, experiences, garments, foods, and practices providing the context by which the child asks her mother again and again to explain and assure her of her unconditional love. There are many board books that emphasize a parent’s love for their child, and all are heartwarming. But what I love about this one, in addition to its gorgeous style of illustration and its humor, is that it decenters the center – a universal story takes place not in the white suburbia of most children’s books in the US, but in the far North, among a people who are typically excluded from what most US Americans think of “America,” but who have been here for over 10,000 years, loving and raising their children.

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Mommy, Mama, and Me and Daddy, Papa, and Me by Lesléa Newman and Carol Thompson

Fun little accounts of a day’s activities, told from the perspective of a toddler about his or her two parents of the same gender identity. Kids can relate to the fun times and loving care received, so it’s a great way to normalize the concept that families with two daddies or two mommies are perfectly normal. Since my daughter has a mom and dad, she naturally universalizes this to all families, so these books have been helpful for explaining different concepts of family structure. She liked them as an infant, and still likes them as a toddler.

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Joshua’s Night Whispers (and the other board books written by Angela Johnson and illustrated by Rhonda Mitchell):

I will admit I don’t own this book; I actually have a different Angela Johnson and Rhonda Mitchell book called “Rain Feet,” which is a quietly beautiful and affirming board book about an African American boy enjoying the rain. But this one, in the same series, looks even more moving, as it is about a child needing reassurance at night and his papa providing it for him with love. I love stories that show fathers in nurturing roles because, amazingly, this still only occurs in a small minority of children’s books.

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A for Activist/ A de Activista by Innosanto Nagara (Spanish version also with Martha Gonzales):

We own this book only in Spanish, but I imagine it would be just as engaging in English. This selection is an exception to all the others, in that it does explicitly address just about every social justice issue you can think of – but it does so with rhymes, the alphabet, alliteration, fun pictures, and a cat on each page. So while the social justice stuff probably goes over their heads for a few years, maybe it seeps in slowly, and in the meanwhile it’s a fun book with a great diversity of people portrayed in its images.

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For older toddlers:

This is the age where my daughter’s intellectual growth and the evolution of which books she relates to are most apparent, so her taste in books changes every few weeks. She has a much longer attention span and can sit through much longer stories at two years and six months than she could at two years and three months. So figure out which books resonate with your kid as you go and then try again a few months later if now is not the time.

 

A Mother for Choco by Keiko Kasza:

I believe this book is actually intended for infants, but I received it as a baby shower gift for Rio at a time when Ida, at almost two and a half years, is particularly interested in concepts of parental presence and attachment, and really FEELS any story about someone not having a parent or being separated from a parent. So, this book really resonates with her now, but perhaps it would also work with an infant.

It’s a sad, and then ultimately happy story about a funny-looking bird searching for a mother.  Various animals say “no” because they don’t look alike, leading the bird to weep. That is, until a kind Grizzly Bear who looks nothing like him meets his emotional needs and adopts him, and then brings him home to her warm home full of other adopted animals. I suppose one could argue that this happy cross-species adoption story is problematic given that there is not enough effort made in the child welfare system to recruit families of color to foster and adopt children of color, or enough adherence to the Indian Child Welfare Act to make sure Native children stay in Native homes…I don’t know if the author intended any metaphors here. But I guess I choose to look at it for my toddler as a story about how love and family is necessary and can be created from generosity, how caring can occur across difference. I see it as a way to help prepare my toddler to understand that not all of her friends at daycare and school will be able to live with their biological parents, and for her to be able to understand and empathize with their experiences of foster care and/or adoption.

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Happy in Our Skin by Fran Manushkin and Lauren Tobia:

This is a fun, easy-to-follow book about all the qualities and characteristics of skin (its color, of course, but also its ability to self-heal and grow and itch, its variety in terms of birth marks and dimples, etc.). And it just so happens that the main characters are a multi-racial lesbian family with three adorable children who live in a joyous and diverse large city – one in which people of all religions, ethnicities, sexual orientations, disability statuses, and ages are represented. Like “Mama, Do you Love Me?”, it is a universal story told with people who are not typically represented in children’s literature – and it is one of a handful of books we have that names and celebrates the beautiful diversity of skin color. Ida loves to recite parts of the page where all the different colors of baby skin are named – “Bouquets of babies sweet to hold: Cocoa brown, cinnamon, and honey gold. Ginger-colored babies, peaches and cream, too – splendid skin for me, splendid skin for you.”

Two other books along this theme are All the Colors of the Earth by Sheila Hamanaka and The Colors of Us by Karen Katz.

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Hello World: Greetings in 42 Languages Around the Globe by Manya Stojic

This is and has been one of Ida’s favorite books for a long time. The book features the word for “hello,” along with a pronunciation guide using English phonetics, in a handful of languages from each continent, along with cheery little paintings of children in various forms of greetings. Given that we are raising Ida bilingually, I think she already has some grasp of the concept of multiple languages from which to understand this book, but I think with some help, any kid could come to appreciate the idea in this book that kids who look different and come from different places say the same nice thing in different ways. I ask Ida to repeat each word after me while we read, which she does enthusiastically. And sometimes she will just greet me, “Jambo!” or “Dada Namona!” or “I ni bara!” or “Bonjour!” because these words have stuck for her. Given the importance of language for identity, political and cultural sovereignty, and for retaining and respecting the diverse worldviews contained within languages, I think that nurturing an early respect for language diversity is a good way to prepare a child to be a thoughtful human being, and this is a fun book for encouraging that.

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What Makes a Baby by Cory Silverberg and Fiona Smyth:

We have a collection of books for preparing a toddler for life as an older sibling and helping a child understand pregnancy and birth. This book is special and unique, though, in its easy-to-understand, scientifically-accurate description of reproduction in a way that applies to couples of any sex, gender, and gender identity and any form of conception. That is, it talks about some bodies having sperm and some bodies having eggs, and how the egg and sperm need a place to grow called a uterus, and so on, without limiting this conversation to the “a man and a woman love each other very much…” narrative. I know it sounds abstract, but Ida LOVES it, and while we read it we talk about the fact that she has a uterus and eggs, as do I, and how papi doesn’t, but he has sperm. The extra advantage of this book is that while it was written to be LGBTQ-friendly and inclusive, it also may appeal to people who may not think about LGBTQ couples, but want to explain reproduction without talking about sex – and will end up explaining it in a gender-neutral way!

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Mama Midwife by Christy Tyner

While on the subject of preparing a toddler to have a sibling, here’s another. I was disappointed that there was no simple book about “going to the midwife’s office” like there are about going to see the doctor. My friend Mystie Spargo and I intend to write and illustrate one someday. But for now, I did find this fabulous book about a mouse midwife and her daughter, and Ida sure loves this book. It is narrated by a girl mouse named Miso whose mom is a homebirth midwife for all the other animals nearby. In the course of the story, the mama midwife takes Miso with her to a grizzly bear’s birth.  The book realistically portrays the normal, healthy process of pregnancy and non-medicated, natural birth in a way that is empowering and very moving. Given that access to supportive, compassionate, evidence-based birth care is a crucial part of reproductive justice, that alone would be enough for this to be a recommendation. But I also couldn’t help but notice other cool things about this book that make me recommend it, like how Miso has both male and female friends, all of whom become interested in midwifery. Also, Miso wears blue “boyish” outfits sometimes, and pink other times.

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Who’s in a Family? By Robert Skutch and Laura Nienhaus

This book shares examples of families from many different cultural backgrounds, single mom and single dad households, children with two mamas and children with two papas, children being cared for by their grandma, children with divorced parents and step-parents, and more. It also shares how animals of different species have different kinds of family configurations, I suppose to help reinforce the idea that there is not only one “natural” way to have a family – and because kids like animals, of course. It’s not the #1 most captivating book on our shelves, but it is a toddler-appropriate way of explaining concepts like families, and that not all families are just like one’s own.

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I’m New Here by Anne Sibley O’Brien:

When I bought this book about immigrant and refugee children starting school in a new, English-speaking country, I thought it would be way over Ida’s head. I was pleasantly surprised when she fell in love with it and asked for us to read it over and over again. Three children – Spanish-speaking Maria from Central or South America, Jin from Korea, and Fatimah, who wears a hijab and is a refugee from a war-torn country in Africa – all speak firsthand about their fears and the difficulties of adjusting to the new school culture. With support and the kindness of classmates, all find their way slowly in this new home of theirs. This clearly teaches children from the destination countries how to empathize with and support their immigrant and refugee classmates, and also affirms for immigrant and refugee children that they are not alone in their experience. The author offers, in the back of the book, the following website to find more books for and about immigrant and refugee children: www.imyourneighborbooks.org

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How Raven Stole the Sun by Maria Williams and Felix Vigil

There could be many other books in this category of indigenous legends and creation stories from around the world, but as an Alaskan this Tlingit story is a particular favorite of mine – one I have read and told to children since for the past decade and a half, and one that Ida now enjoys. Like many other books on this list, this story centers the lives, images, and worldviews of Tlingit people, and it does so in a fun, magical, colorful, and engaging way. I have a number of books retelling legends from indigenous peoples in México, Hawai’i, and elsewhere, and they are wonderful books, but for now, they seem to be a little too complex for my 2.5-year-old. I will add them to the list for slightly older kids that I’ll make sometime in the future.

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Hug Machine by Scott Campbell:

This is a very simple story about a little white boy who hugs every person, animal, and object he comes across, and who calls himself the “hug machine” for his ability to make others feel good with his hugs. It is rare to see boys portrayed in affectionate, loving, gentle, caretaking roles in books, so this book very simply and subtly challenges gender roles. Plus, it’s funny and easy to understand for young children.

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The next three books are examples of books that affirm the everyday lives and values and families of Latinxs. I think books like these are incredibly important for: 1.) affirming for Latinx children that their lives and language are valuable (when they are barely visible in television or movies or the majority of children’s literature, and when they are as under attack by politicians as they are right now in the United States) and 2.) helping non-Latinx children relate to and value the lives of their Latinx classmates, friends, and neighbors. This is just as important for Pacific Islander, Asian, Middle Eastern, Alaska Native and American Indian, African, and African American children, but in our family we have more of a collection of Spanish-English books.

 

¡Qué cosas dice mi abuela! Dichos y refranes sobre los buenos modales by Ana Galán and Pablo Pino

I love this book for its celebration of a way in which wisdom is so often manifested and passed on by women in Latin America – through dichos y refranes (sayings and refrains) that often rhyme and that teach important life lessons. The book is narrated by the children who are being raised by their abuela (grandmother) in what seems like suburban United States or Canada. The children appreciate the life lessons their abuela tries to teach them about being polite, studious, well-groomed, kind, honest, respectful, healthy, generous, and compassionate, and they recount all of the (often rhyming) words she uses to instill these life lessons. For example, “A quien mucho miente le huye la gente” (“Whoever lies a lot makes people run away”) or “Quien comparte su comida no pasa sola la vida” (“Whoever shares food will not spend their life alone.”). What a rare gem of a book that honors the wisdom of women and Latin American idioms, and the intelligence and strength of a grandmother lovingly raising her grandchildren.

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We Are Cousins/Somos Primos by Diane Gonzales Bertrand and Christina E. Rodriguez

This is a very simple book with few words on each page, meaning it would likely fit well in the infant section as well. I just find that Ida is more interested in and able to describe family relationships now, so she can now relate the cousins in the book to her two real-life cousins. This book goes through the ordinary life of mestizo Latino kids spending time with their cousins, sharing their abuela and abuelo with one another, and getting together with their tíos and tías. Basic stuff, but toddlers love simple, comprehensible, repetitive stories that they can relate to.

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Sip, Slurp, Soup, Soup/ Caldo, Caldo, Caldo by Diane Gonzales Bertrand and Alex Pardo DeLange

This is a story about a rainy Sunday in which mamá prepares her special caldo (long-boiling bones, grinding garlic in the molcajete, slicing potatoes…) while the children eagerly await it. They then take a trip to the tortillería and slurp up their soup with hot tortillas. I know, it sounds very simple. I think because Ida can understand and relate to it (caldo is a mainstay of the diet of Colombians from altitude like Oscar’s family, and important here in cold Alaska too) and because of its sing-songy use of repetition, she wants to read this book just about every day. This book especially appeals to Oscar because it affirms the everyday lives, health practices, and values of Latinx families like the one he grew up in. Particularly before his family acculturated to the US, he and his siblings ate caldo and eggs for breakfast regularly. To have books that reflect your own family and its practices was not something Oscar had growing up, and I’m grateful that it’s something Ida and Rio can have.

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I know this is in no way an exhaustive list; indeed, I have many more books I’d love to add to it, but I haven’t borrowed or bought them yet: these can be found at Ida Luna’s Amazon list here:

https://www.amazon.com/gp/registry/giftlist/2XUE54TK1YJ6/ref=topnav_lists_2

 

Which books for ages 0 – 3 would you add to this list?

 

Written by admin

July 24th, 2016 at 9:35 am

13 days postpartum

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I think pregnancy is as long and as challenging as it is to prepare us for birthing our babies. And birthing is as difficult as it is to prepare us for parenting. It’s a good design.

Still, this first week and a half of being mother to little baby Ida has been full of surprises, realizations, and feelings that I had no name for or experience with previously. I am writing these things by dictating my voice to the iPad while nursing or pumping or while Oscar is driving. I am doing so in part because I am so grateful to Anne Lammot for writing her uncensored feelings and experiences of this strange new period of life in her book Operating Instructions: A Journal of my Son’s First Year, and I want to be able to contribute similarly useful. Plus, I think I have to write to keep my sanity.

Some of the surprises of parenthood so far:

The Corporeal

It is strange and exciting to have my body back; that is, to be able to hug Oscar with my arms and chest and stomach against him, to move through spaces without worrying about hitting my belly on things, to have a lower back that amazingly does not hurt, to have soft and non-itchy skin, and to be able to eat runny egg yolks and sushi and a bunch of other delicious things. Of course, there are also the discomforts of having birthed a baby and some residual iron loss that I am now making up for, and an inability to regulate my temperature for the first week or so. But mainly my body feels familiar.

And then there are the new sensations – learning to get a good latch so that breast-feeding doesn’t hurt so much (again, I am so grateful for Geneva Woods for having a lactation consultant to problem solve with and for her offering a class during pregnancy so that we were prepared). How hungry and thirsty I am from breast-feeding. What it feels like to sleep an inadequate amount for some many days in a row. (I never even did this in college, so this is brand-new to me.) What it feels like to have my baby’s skin against my skin as she feeds and how soft her hair is under my fingers and how smooth her little cheeks are when I kiss them and how much this fills me with love.

The most startling thing about my body, however, is the way that I have felt fear for Ida grip my chest and stomach many times, and how on two occasions in the first week, I experienced fear, stress, worry, and anger in my body like an earthquake, like an explosion. It is both a physiological and an emotional reaction that is some combination of mama bear and sleep deprivation and post birth hormones, I suppose. It frightened me.

The Cognitive and Emotional

Shame versus useful self reflection and critical learning

It is hard to write about the things I have been experiencing cognitively and especially emotionally. For some reason, during pregnancy I felt so comfortable being vulnerable and exposing whatever truths for happening in me. But doing this in motherhood feels different, feels like I am opening myself and Oscar up to endless torrents of judgment. This realm of parenthood and especially motherhood feels like a coliseum in which shame and judgment are released onto parents—especially moms—with their teeth and claws bared, while others spectate.  And I am among those judging parenting decisions; as a social worker and epidemiologist who works in child maltreatment, domestic violence, and maternal child health, I do learn and think and try to do a lot about what is best for children in their raising, and that means critiquing and improving. And of course, I hold our decisions up for the same judgment. But how fraught with shame this can be! My goal is to stay out of the realm of shame, to learn about parenting for us and Oscar so we can do the best job we can, to share that journey here in a nonjudgmental way, and to engage in open conversations with other people who raise or care about children. And it is to walk that line between acceptance and self reflection and critique in a healthy way.

But I can’t say that it has all been done in a healthy way so far. I mostly feel better now than I did the first week, especially after getting a few  nights of slightly longer sleep and after experiencing some of the things that scared me and them going just fine. But I am sure that the fear and guilt will resurface in many ways throughout Ida’s life, and it resurfaces every time that I realize we have made some mistake. I feel like such a terrible person for any mistake made at her expense. (I know, this isn’t sustainable. We will do our best and we will make mistakes. I’m working on having more acceptance and levity about this.)

Ida Luna during tummy time on her 11th day of life. Baby girl’s neck muscles are so strong already.

Paralyzing fear versus useful caution

Throughout pregnancy, I remained cautious at every moment, watching where I put my feet on the ice, making sure that I had my spikes on my shoes, being careful not to slip on rugs or things under my feet, making sure my animal-based food was fully cooked, avoiding second-hand smoke and environmental toxins, trying my best to breathe deeply through stressful situations, etc. It took attention but I didn’t experience an inordinate amount of fear.

But oh, safe sleep and the floppiness of newborn necks and suffocation risk and the dangers of falling and the risks of being too hot and the risks of being too cold! This all feels so much scarier than when she was safely contained in the environment of my uterus. I am scared for her but also know that Oscar and I and our friends and family who have visited are careful and caring. And this fact, that we are doing things (mostly) right but still I worry because it takes vigilance, makes me so scared for all the babies out there in worse situations. I have this pain in my chest for the babies who are being born right now to women in abusive relationships, to parents who drink and smoke and use drugs, to parents who because of their own trauma histories lack emotional self-regulation skills, as well as those born to women who are malnourished or otherwise can’t or don’t make adequate milk. I also find myself worrying for women who have very little leave time from work and/or chores, women who do not have supportive partners or family members, and for those many many many families who cannot afford or find quality daycare. As it did during pregnancy, the ill-informed policies and funding priority of the United States and the conditions of poverty and sexism around the world upset me on a political and deeply personal level.

I  also find myself wondering that more babies don’t die. I find myself thinking about Alaska’s infant mortality data: Sudden Unexplained Infant Death (SUID) in unsafe sleep environments is the #1 cause for our higher-than-the-U.S.-average rate of post-neonatal death. Neglect, especially by an impaired caregiver and inadequate follow-up by child protection both play major roles in these deaths. Abusive head trauma is one of the leading causes for post-neonatal deaths as well. We have so much work to do to prevent these deaths.  I also find myself thinking about the neurobiological effects of babies left to cry for long periods without their needs met, of inadequate nutrition, of depressed or angry caregivers, etc. Of course, I work in this field so I think about this stuff all the time anyway, but now it is with the awareness of how I feel about protecting and nurturing Ida’s little growing brain.

I know that all of this stuff is important to think about and work to change. I also know that I need to be happy and not sick with fear for my daughter or other people’s sons and daughters. And given that this has already gotten way easier in the past week, I suspect that this balance is something that I will go developing with time and that many other parents, probably especially breast-feeding moms filled with mama bear hormones, struggle to achieve. Because the simple fact is, when you have a child that is in your care, you do walk around “with your heart outside of your body,” as they say. This means that you can look upon the child and love them and find immense joy and happiness and fulfillment in them. It also means that there is always this sort of terror—whether well-subdued or hyper present–that they could be hurt. This just is. Probably especially so during infancy, childhood, and adolescence, which strike me as the most dangerous times.

They are also—and primarily—all joyous times. Oscar and I experience so much joy playing with Ida, reading to her, singing to her, doing tummy time with her and watching her strong little neck develop its muscles, wearing her on our chests, dancing with her, watching her silly sleep faces. We love her so immensely and she is so fun and beautiful. If I am going to experience worry, I can’t imagine a better reason for it than this.

Oscar took this on Ida’s 3rd day of life. He used foam alphabet letters and a complicated set-up of glass to reflect the letters.

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February 6th, 2014 at 2:15 pm

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Protected: Week 36

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December 30th, 2013 at 9:14 pm

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Week 28 – third trimester

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Oscar took this week's photos at the International Gallery of Contemporary Art, where we went to go see the "Rareified Light" show, in which I have a piece. It's the small square environmental portrait in the upper left corner of the side belly photo.

The things that prepare us for parenthood

I’ve noticed that as the day of baby’s arrival nears and as we learn more about newborns and breastfeeding, the part of this whole process that is about actually having a little baby in our charge is getting way more real. Initially, there was a lot to learn and experience about pregnancy and the birth process was farther from my and Oscar‘s mind. Birth has since come into much sharper focus, and the fact that we will, in just one more trimester, have a tiny little person in our home to care for and lose sleep over has too.

This thought can be a little intimidating. I am not nervous about being a parent in general, but newborns are just so fragile and needy that I have caught myself at times a little scared of the idea that we will soon be responsible for one. Three things have made me feel much more confident and excited about this stage of life and being able to meet those needs. One has been meeting my friends’ newborns and watching them care for their small babies with confidence and joy. Another was watching the DVD of Dr. Harvey Karp’s “The Happiest Baby on the Block,” learning about the different ways to soothe newborns. The other, oddly enough, was a lecture about child trauma at the Alaska Pediatric Symposium this weekend.

Josh Arvidson is the Director of the Alaska Child Trauma Center and an international trainer on the ARC model of trauma-informed care (which is a wonderful model). He gave a talk about what trauma is, how it affects children’s development, and what we can help put in place for children and families to prevent and successfully intervene in trauma. What inspired me was that in order to discuss how abuse and neglect and domestic violence affect children’s development, he told detailed stories about what happens when a child is raised with caregivers who do meet her needs. He told stories about the physiological processes that occur in a three-month-old and her caregiver when her caregiver responds to a hunger cry with an attentive feeding–how this creates circuitry in the brain, how it helps the baby develop positive stress resilience that will serve her when she is three years old and waiting for a sandwich or four years old and struggling to learn her alphabet, how it creates the foundation for learning communication skills and emotional self-regulation.

I am fortunate that in my field of work, I get many chances to learn about early childhood development. Every time I do, especially through such compassionate and neurobiology-informed talks as Josh Arvidson’s, I feel more and more excited to take part in the everyday heroism of so many billions of other caregivers who are building their babies’ brains simply by changing diapers, feeding, and smiling at babies, by responding to their coos, snuggling with them, and putting them to sleep safely. My hope is that when Oscar and I are stressed and sleep-deprived and changing the 15th diaper that day, or when I am spending yet another hour at night feeding baby on my breast, that we will recall with some satisfaction that by meeting baby’s needs and interacting with baby, we are building baby’s brain and affecting the way baby’s physiology and even genes prepare her or him for the world. That we are being the kinds of heroes that every baby needs.

I can’t say I look forward to the sleeplessness, but I so look forward to that glorious opportunity.

I was able to use a beautiful in utero photo by Lenart Nilssen this week, but had to debate--do I start to draw genitalia and alternate female and male, or do I avoid it with the umbilical cord since I have no idea what parts baby has? I went with the latter. This is the one time where I kinda wish we knew baby's sex, just for the sake of artistic and anatomical accuracy.

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November 4th, 2013 at 10:20 pm

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15 weeks

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15 weeks pregnant. Baby is 4 to 4 1/2 in. long.

Inclusion and Exclusion in the Parenting Clan

A few days ago, a TSA agent in rural Alaska asked me how many weeks along I was. This was a first. Most of the time people can’t tell I’m pregnant or they are embarassed to ask in case I’m not. It was nice. I felt seen, and I would be dishonest not to admit that this is something I have longed for–to be seen and welcomed as part of the parenthood clan of humankind.

That this longing to be part of the parenthood clan was a painful one arose both from the very personal and simple and timeless struggle of wanting children and not yet having them, and also from a frustration with our cultural rhetoric around parenthood and the inclusion/exclusion it creates. We have all heard countless times phrases such as: “There is nothing as meaningful as being a parent” or “you can’t know love until you are a parent” or “you don’t know anything about kids until you become a parent.” I have heard these things through my lens of living a life in which, since I was eight years old, I have been dedicated to ending child abuse and interpersonal violence. I have heard these phrases as a schoolteacher working 80 hour workweeks for my struggling students; as a sexual violence educator for kids and a victim advocate; as a social worker/epidemiologist specializing in interpersonal violence, child trauma, and healthy child and youth development; and as the person at the party who is super happy playing games with the six-year-olds.  I have always loved children and felt completed by having them in my life and making a difference in their lives–whether as a professional or auntie. And I know I am not alone.

There are countless aunties and uncles–of the blood and non-blood type–and adopted grandmas and grandpas, foster parents, step-parents or partners, teachers, social workers, policy-makers, pediatricians, and so many others who DO have wisdom about children and who DO have meaningful connections with and love for kids, and who live lives rich with meaning. (Not to mention people whose lives are rich with others kinds of meaning as well, such as great social or scientific innovations, community-building, etc.) Some of these people never become parents. Some won’t become parents for a while. I reject a discourse that says that these people’s work and love is less important than those who biologically bear children.

Before this pregnancy, I had to reject that discourse on ethical grounds, while also feeling wounded and excluded by it and reminded of what can seem, when steeped in it, like a biological failure to do this meaningful and seemingly easy thing. I rejected that discourse and yet longed to be a part of this group of biological parents, longed to join in this magical experience of creating a being and giving that being life through natural birth and then raising that being well and being there for him or her until I die.

So, now I am a part of that group. I am going to be a real live mama in 25 – 27 weeks. Oscar really is going to be a dad. And it feels great for so many reasons, one of which is this naming into the community of parents and this sharing of pregnancy with my pregnant friends and my midwife mama and her practice. But even as I am welcomed in to the clan (and I should make clear that I have the beautiful souls in my community who welcomed me in as a mama-to-be  and an auntie and person-who-cares-for-children well before I ever became pregnant), even as I am now beginning to be SEEN as a pregnant woman and mama, I remind myself to not make this clan exclusive. I remind myself, even as I discover the wonders and joy of nurturing a being inside me and, in the future, as I discover the wonders and joy of being responsible for a child, to not place myself above others in some imagined hierarchy of meaning in life or ability to care for children.

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August 4th, 2013 at 10:49 pm

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From the Arctic to the Chattahoochee

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I have waited so long to write here about my travels to the Northwest Arctic villages of Buckland (Kaniq) and Noatak (Nautaaq) in January and travel to Georgia and Alabama in February because, being sort of a perfectionist, I want to write the perfect thing, but being an epidemiologist and adjunct faculty member and volunteer, I don’t have time to write the perfect thing. And what would the perfect thing be anyway? I am a visitor to both places and still know so little. So I will, instead, leave you with a few photos and these links to my Flickr collection from rural Alaska and The South. The photos on Flickr tell many stories through the captions.

Oscar took this picture of me as I was preparing for the trip to the Northwest Arctic region (Nunaqatigiich), where it had been -30 to -50 for the last month before we left. I didn’t end up using the goggles while there, in Buckland’s -35 or Noatak’s -48, but instead let my eyelashes turn white only a minute or two after going outside. I liked this feeling, and liked being able to see clearly. I also felt like Arctic Darth Vader with them and everything else on and I wanted to look as friendly as possible. Meeting people, conversing, gaining trust, forming relationships, finding out who you have in common, all these things were the basis of our work up there–and if mouth and nose are covered, I at least needed to show my eyes to do so.

The wolf parka, borrowed from our friend, Kiatcha, helped as well. It is so beautiful, rare, and warm a parka that many people came up to me and touched it, saying, “Aarigaa! What a parka!”  I would tell them how lucky I was to have been able to borrow it. One man hugged me because he was so happy for me to have this parka. As I told Kiatcha when I returned it, her parka is truly magical, and I feel blessed to have worn it.

Much of this talking and relationship-building happened indoors, of course, after we had stripped off a few of our layers. One of the most memorable conversations of the trip was with a woman we met in Buckland and her elder father. They told me and my colleagues about their reindeer herd and how every once in a while, the caribou will migrate through right by the herd, and some will stop and mate with their more domestic counterparts. The children of these couplings, the elder told us, are wilder than regular reindeer and harder to contain. This image of animals that blur the lines between domestic and wild—being a part of or leaving behind their herds—is one that I layered, in my head, with the white and sometimes pastel ice fog hanging over that beautiful, flat land of tundra and waterways. This image of animals and land and sky is one of the images that I most carry with me from this journey in Nunaqatigiich.

I miss it there. A lot.

I took this picture with my Holga. In it, I am on the rocks jutting out of the Chattahoochee River , between Alabama and Georgia, with our 3 and 1/2 year old niece, Lilly, teaching her how to hop from rock to rock, how to balance and climb and descend, how to trust her body and eyes. She was an avid and quick learner and it filled my heart up to see her move from fear to courage so quickly. I love the sponginess of young children’s brains and the adeptness and energy of their bodies. This capacity of theirs to absorb so much, however, is also what makes them so vulnerable, and I have been thinking a lot about this lately as I get more involved in the epidemiology of Adverse Childhood Experiences and health, and as I teach about determinants of health. Children, because they are so open to learning at this age, are also so vulnerable to the violence they see around them or experience, to poor eating habits, to a sedentary lifestyle, to television and computers, to neglect. These years are so important. I’m glad I can be a part of her life and take on the awesome role of auntie during these years, if only in little bursts or via Skype. I’m so happy I can do this with the young children in our community in Anchorage as well. I am so glad that when Oscar and I have children, we will have aunties and uncles—both biological and not—to watch over and teach them as well.

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March 18th, 2012 at 3:55 pm

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Suicide is Never Over

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Stevie

I dreamt about Stephen last night, my dearest friend from high school. He came to visit–back from the dead, but just for a little while, he said. In my dream, it seemed normal, but also very significant and powerful that he was allowed this quick visit with me. I cried as I hugged him and touched his face. He was back in the flesh, looking like his grinning, strawberry-blonde, 17-year-old self. He was wearing the red Bad Religion hoody that he always wore, the one I wear right now as I type this, the one I inherited, as an 18-year-old, after his suicide and have kept since to wear in my home.

Waking up from that dream was really hard. Today is really hard. While I am grateful for this dream visit (I haven’t had such a dream in years), I am also shocked by his presence, his absence. It’s been 11 years since his suicide, and most of my days go by just fine. We learn to cope with loss and have healthy lives. But today I am shaken, sad, vulnerable. I’ve been re-experiencing my grief all day. The wound is freshly re-opened and it feels like I’ve lost him yet again.

During the day, I couldn’t quite put words to this vulnerability that I was experiencing that made it hard to concentrate at work until that Adele song “Someone Like You” came on the radio and she sang:

“I had hoped you’d see my face and you’d be reminded

That for me it isn’t over.”

As tears poured down my cheeks I thought, “That’s it. Suicide is NEVER over.”

It’s never over for the survivors. Yes, it gets farther into the past, and  if we are allowed to grieve, then we can continue to live our lives well (and if we aren’t, then it has even more serious long-term consequences). But a dream like this makes us grieve all over again. Or another suicide in our community sets us back into hurt and guilt. Or a song transports us to a deep sadness, like the way “I See a Darkness” by Johnny Cash did for me two months ago when I first heard it.

Most importantly, suicide is never over because we can never ever have that person back.

I write this not just for my own processing. I write this to tell you, if you are considering suicide, to understand this fact of suicide. It may be quick to kill yourself, but the pain is never over for the rest of us. You leave great scars behind you that never quite close. Forever, there is someone missing who is supposed to be here. We always feel that absence. We always hurt from that absence. You are supposed to be here.

Please, if you are in pain, if you see no light in life, if you have been abused and mistreated and see no other way out, please call the suicide hotline (# below). Or please tell a counselor or teacher or friend and if they can’t get you help, tell someone else until you find someone who can. You do not deserve abuse and you do not deserve to die.

And to the friends, family, teachers, and counselors: Please ask. Notice that they are sad. Invite them, with compassion and a non-judgmental tone, to talk. Show them love. And please ask them if they are considering suicide. I wish so much that they had taught us this when we were in high school. I wish I had had some tools to keep Stephen alive. I wish our high school teachers had brought in suicide prevention experts after the first suicide in our school. Or, better, before it. Silence won’t keep your loved ones alive. TALK. ASK. Be there.

I keep hearing in my head Adele’s song:

“Sometimes it lasts in love but sometimes it hurts instead.”

Love is supposed to hurt sometimes, but not like this. Never like this.

Resources:

Alaska Careline (Suicide Hotline): 1-877-266-HELP

National Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-TALK

Jason Foundation

List of contacts and organizations prepared by the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium

American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

For those of you in the Anchorage area or wherever KSKA comes in, on December 1st at 2 pm and 7 pm they will air a panel discussion on preventing youth suicide.

Bring “The Winter Bear,” a thoughtful, funny, and powerful play about preventing youth suicide (set in Interior Alaska) to your community: www.winterbearproject.com or look for “The Winter Bear Project” on facebook.

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November 10th, 2011 at 9:03 pm

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My Photos in Hip Mama Zine!

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I got my first photos published! And in an independent, internationally-distributed feminist parenting magazine called Hip Mama, which is the kind of place I’d want to be published.

How did this come about? My rad fellow Mount Holyoke alumna, Amanda Englund is one of the magazine’s editors. She took a liking to my pictures, asked if she could use them in upcoming editions, and then she & the other editors picked some off of my Flickr account that they thought fit.

But, as Oscar pointed out, it’s not only the photos–it’s also because they see me as part of their tribe. I think he means that a photo has more relevance to a person or, in this case, a group of editors, when the person behind the camera shares some common hopes or values and wants to give their art to the same cause. And though I am not yet a feminist mother and Oscar is not yet a feminist father, we are hatching plans to become them. I guess this, indeed, makes me part of the feminist parenting tribe.

These is one of the pictures they used:

abandoned house w/ Holga

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July 9th, 2010 at 4:19 pm

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Sherman Alexie & Making Education Relevant

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I heard Sherman Alexie, my favorite author in the world, speak last week at the University of Alaska Anchorage. I am so excited to have heard and met this author and poet from whom I’ve learned so much over the years, but even more excited for the youth in the audience, particularly the Alaska Native youth to whom he spoke directly, at times crouching down on the stage to look into their eyes.

Alexie came from the most tremendous set of challenges, which he described in simultaneously hilarious and tragic detail—hydrocephalus & its many concomittant disabilities, poverty, social isolation, alcoholism, racist medical practices, etc. But education & leaving the reservation allowed him to find and become the poet and novelist he is now.  “We are nomadic people, we are meant to chase opportunities,” he told the Native youth specifically, urging them to go to school.

Sherman Alexie does in speaking—and his speech is a stand-up routine that could rival or better any so-called comedian—what his recent young adult novel The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian does for people who do not typically read: he hooks them with humor, with fun, with a story that is so lyrical and visual and so crudely honest that people can’t help but find their own lives in it and can’t help but be seduced, at least a little, into reading and into education. Sherman Alexie does this with a wit and humor that us educators or policy makers can’t ever quite match, but I believe he sets up a model for what we should aspire to in education.

We should strive to make education so real, so relevant to the lives of students, so engaging and fun (and even funny) and empowering to their identities that they get sucked in. It should speak to the tragedies and beauties of their lives so that students find themselves in their schoolwork rather than just finding a world from which they feel alienated.

This is particularly salient for me now because of what seems to be a preponderance of textbook and worksheet teaching in the Anchorage School District and a curriculum (at least the history curriculum) that makes irrelevant most of the global South and most indigenous people. It seems that children are being asked to remember events from history or describe the contributions of famous artists without looking at their art, without understanding the link between that history and today, without really doing anything other than searching for answers to test questions.

Here are some basic things I’d like to see and help to create in schools:

  • History classes would start with the question of “Why are we learning this?” and would begin by discussing social issues that the kids are aware of today and how those can be traced back, or talk about the rights they enjoy today and how those are the products of social movements. The teacher can present some of this and the kids would have to find some of this on their own to make it real for them.
  • Maybe as an introductory project to get kids hooked into history class, students would have to conduct oral histories and figure out their own family’s history of immigration to or indigenous ancestry in this land.
  • All students would come out of their mathematics and economics classes knowing how to make and balance a budget, avoid credit card debt, read nutritional labels and shop for healthy food effectively, and other survival skills.
  • Math classes could begin with and integrate hands-on examples and guest professionals who could demonstrate how math gets applied in the worlds of medicine, engineering, art & design, social science, etc.
  • Kids would learn by doing.
  • Students would see themselves, their cultures and socioeconomic class experiences and genders, in the literature selected for storytime or for literary analysis, in the examples used for math problems, and in “World History” class.
  • The content of health class and the way it’s taught would be informed by the public health and social pyshcology research that shows what does and doesn’t work to promote healthy sexual and nutritional/lifestyle decision-making. It would not just be based off of the fears and self-righteous dogma of educators, NGOs or policy-makers.
  • Educators would be paid enough and have enough time and administrative support to make all of the above possible.

I get to implement this philosophy of pedagogy with my students in the after-school program, two of whom are pictured above shopping for groceries as part of a nutritional-literacy and food budgeting segment of the math course I am teaching. It is thrilling to see these kids stay til 6 pm excitedly calculating family budgets, calculating net income, writing pretend checks, comparing the nutritional information of meals, multiplying recipes. It is a profound reminder of why kids—and learners of all ages—need to investigate, apply their knowledge to solve real problems, and create meaningful products in order to truly invest in and learn an idea.

This is not to say that my math instruction works to make mathematicians or healthy eaters or provident spenders—this is a very humble beginning and could be far more effective. But it does reinforce for me the need for schools to engage and excite students, to make learning so relevant that students are seduced into learning more, just like Sherman Alexie does with his books and his humor.

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March 9th, 2010 at 11:37 pm

On Education: Close the Achievement Gap & Have Fun Doing It?

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(Left: photo by Oscar Avellaneda. Right: photo I took of my newcomers reading group in 2005)

Now that I am teaching again (math in an afterschool program & substitute teaching for the Anchorage School District), I am compelled to put words to paper. Teaching is inherently difficult and if we are at all self-reflective, teaching requires of us that we grapple with questions about how best to educate. Here are the questions that have come up for me lately:

How do we marry the need for creative, holistic and culturally-relevant education with the careful, structured and measured approach that seems to help move underprivileged kids forward in school? That is, how do we create forms of education that promote and reward creativity, that encourage children’s curiosity and love for learning, that are holistic and open to the different ways that children learn, that incorporate the best of the “open optional” kind of education I was blessed to receive, and that do this not just for the overwhelmingly white and upper class population of open optional magnet, charter, or private schools? How do we close the achievement gap between kids of color and white kids, between poor kids and rich kids, BOTH using the careful and structured approach of measurement, goal-setting, and data-driven instruction that studies show to be effective AND not leaving the holistic and creative approach behind?

At least in my own short life as an educator, it seems that sometimes in the effort to bring kids up to grade level and achieve educational equity, we are so focused on the core academic areas and on measurable achievements in those areas that we tend to push art, dance, P.E., music, sometimes science, and the open exploratory wonder of learning off to the side.  We are so focused trying to motivate kids to bring up their scores or graduate, that we frame education as a means to an end and may not encourage them to get immersed in the fun process of learning.  Lastly, we may be so (rightly) concerned with educational equity that we feel all underprivileged youth should have the opportunity to go to college and therefore need to excel in all academic areas, and in doing so we may miss that genius dancer or painter or singer in our classroom, or we may be pushing them to behave better and do their math when they should be in art school instead…On the flip side, of course, more underprivileged kids who have been in underfunded and racist systems may only believe that they can dance and may not have ever discovered their inner mathematician, and we must give them the chance to do so.

This conflict has come up recently with a student in the after-school program who attends a private alternative school and who is very far behind in math. I tested the kids in my best effort to do data-driven instruction and have the kids use scores and standards to set goals for themselves. But for this little girl, seeing her score crushed her and pissed off her mom. Her mother told me, “We don’t believe in putting kids into pegs and levels and scores.” And in a way, I agree with her. Learning should be fun and kids shouldn’t be overly burdened with scores and judgments. But the girl needs to know how to identify fractions, read a clock, divide, etc., and I needed to identify those areas so we could work on them.  Yet I felt terrible telling the girl a score that made her feel like a failure. I don’t believe in that. I am conflicted on this still.

This question also came up when substitute teaching for a 3rd grade class. There was one boy with extreme and violent behavior difficulties who, I discovered, loved to draw. After a lesson on the Montgomery Bus Boycott, I had the kids do the silly worksheet that the teacher left behind (ugh, there is WAY too much worksheet teaching going on) and then told them they could write or draw about it in their journals. This kid with the behavior problems drew a great picture. I gave him some ideas for how to make it more detailed and he did, and so here was this fantastic visual demonstration of what he had learned about segregation, Rosa Parks, etc. As a teacher, I knew I had to catch the kid being good at things, so I praised the drawing and put it on the board. When the teacher came in at the end of the day, I proudly showed her the drawing and she said, “Oh, he knows he’s not allowed to draw in my class. But I know what it’s like to be a substitute and sometimes you have to do whatever it takes.” I told her, in the friendliest voice I could muster, that I actually think drawing is a good way to integrate information, particularly for visual learners.

I was fuming.

Yes, the kid has to learn to write, but we also have to have an educational system that approaches writing through the strengths that kids have.  And sometimes art is the only thing keeping kids in school! (A great example is that my love, Oscar, excelled in photography class in high school and actually ended up teaching the class; this was what kept him attached to a school system that was otherwise not built for the way he learns. It encouraged him and kept him going.)

In the after-school program, I have enough control to experiment with fun, holistic, real-life learning and data-driven instruction. I tried back when I had my own third grade classroom too, largely scrapping the scripted curriculums and using CELL and ExCELL practices and culturally-relevant examples. I have yet to find that balance between the education I grew up with and the Teach For America-move-kids-1.5 grade-levels-or-more approach in which I was trained. Since I am not a full-time educator, I imagine I will not have time to develop that balance.

I think what this foray back into education is helping me figure out is how I want to combine my love for community based participatory research and social services with schools and education. I have a long and exciting journey ahead to do this and look forward to insight from others on how.

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February 20th, 2010 at 3:10 pm

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