The Labels We Carry

When I was a girl, I was a dancer. Even before I was big enough to take ballet, I was twirling in my sister’s hand-me-down tutus. Once I started taking classes, I continued with many forms of dance all the way through college, with only a few years off when I labeled myself a gymnast instead of a dancer.

I remember when I first let the “dancer” label form as a word in my head. I was probably around nine years old when my park district dance director decided that instead of participating in a regular recital, all of his classes would work together to create the ballet Coppelia. The pivotal moment happened during dress rehearsal, when I saw the cast list up on the wall. There were a few people in the cast who were not dancing at all, and their names were listed under the word ACTORS. And the rest of us, well, we were listed as DANCERS. Oh! I’m a dancer!

One high school summer, I split my time between scooping ice cream and taking classes in the “carte blanche” program of a studio that was well-known for their professional adult dance company. Each day, I took a bus to Evanston, dance bag on my arm, and took as many classes as I wanted. By this time, I already realized that I wasn’t all that good — I needed more time than some others to pick up a combination, and I wasn’t really physically built for dance. And I’d been passed over for some dance opportunities at my high school. Didn’t matter. That summer, I was taking classes nearly every day, and besides, when I was nine and in Coppelia, my name was listed under the word DANCER. I can still remember what it felt like to walk down the long hallway to class, while girls chatted their dance-chat as they changed their shoes. The label worked for me: I was a dancer.

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I’ve been thinking about the power of labels recently. We’ve learned to view them as troublesome when we talk about students, not wanting kids to be limited by what we say about them. And I agree with this; we need to be awfully cautious with our language when it comes to children! We are especially carefully when referring to students with disabilities, using person-first language such as “child with autism” rather than “the
autistic” (it is hard for me to even write that — it now feels so wrong!), making sure that we label someone first as a person, and then describe a disability. Disabilities aside, we can do a lot of damage when we carelessly slap negative labels on young people (ANY people): trouble-maker, bully, liar. A mentor of mine likes to remind, “We don’t define people by their worst acts.” These wise words apply to so many situations, and are especially powerful when we think about the twists and turns of the days, weeks, and years of childhood. Because a child has made trouble, is she a trouble-maker? Because he has lied, is he a liar? We can address the behaviors without labeling the person responsible for the action. You never know… he might make a completely different choice tomorrow! Let’s let him re-define himself.

However, giving students certain labels can be positive. I believe there is power in giving students labels that define something that they can do: Writer. Reader. Helper. Athlete. Dancer. Artist. Leader. And we do hear this in classrooms: “Writers, please share your work with your partner.” “Artists, it is time to rinse out our brushes.” Those labels are empowering because they cause children to see their “work” as important, and help them dream up futures built on their passions.

My college-daughter, Sophie, has been home for a few days for part of her Spring Break. This time together has had three focuses: shopping for her older sister Eliana’s wedding dress (We found one! It’s gorgeous!) and her own maid-of-honor dress (We found one! It’s gorgeous!); celebrating her 21st birthday a little early; and preparing for an upstairs carpet/paint job by virtually emptying out her childhood bedroom. This last activity brought many delights (that sounds sarcastic, but isn’t, I promise!), as her room was chock-full of buried treasure. First of all, it turns out that this girl who always felt she wasn’t a Writer was indeed a Journaler. She found at least seven different notebooks that recorded a vast array of events, some monumental, some mundane, all important. Although I love to write, I’ve never mastered the art of journaling, can’t seem to write just for myself, and I’m green with envy that my daughter now has this record of her own young thoughts and events. Her Bat Mitzvah DVD also turned up, and we watched together, listening to her little voice carefully reading and chanting, remembering her Bubbe, and laughing at who awkwardly danced together at the party. And then there was a lovely moment when sixteen year old sister Eliana stood in front of about 200 people and said, “I’m a musician, and like many musicians, I like to express myself through song.” Instead of giving a lengthy speech, Elli labeled herself a musician and sang a meaningful song to her sister. Confidence can bring labels, and labels can bring confidence.

A wedding and a new job will bring new labels for me in the year ahead: mother-in-law and superintendent. These labels will bring new experiences and new perspectives, and likely will layer over some of my older labels for a time. But they will still be there. Am I still a dancer? Any family member who has spent enough time hanging out in my kitchen will tell you, “Yes.” Thank you, Mom and Dad, for supporting those years of dance when you surely knew that I was not headed for the Joffrey. It made a difference.



I came close to crying in a middle school hallway today, and I am not a middle schooler

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I came close to crying in a middle school hallway today, and I am not a middle schooler.  I’m not even a middle school parent, well not anymore. It was the glorious first day of class, and this assistant superintendent had the honor of helping out at two middle schools. Due to the outstanding organization and cheerful goodwill coming from staff and students at both of these schools, my “helping out”  consisted mostly of assisting lost 6th graders with finding classes and opening reluctant lockers.

Ok, what was the lump in the throat about? It came on quite suddenly when a sixth grade boy politely asked me to help him find his class. So… huh? Well, most of the emotion came from the sheer joy of being in a school with excited students and staff.  The boy and I chatted about his summer a bit as we walked down the hall together, and don’t worry, I held it together. Didn’t freak the boy out by actually letting this overwhelming burst of emotion show! After we parted ways, I returned to intermittently helping nervous kids open lockers and watching/listening to middle schoolers who were in their element. A few favorites:

  • The Greetings and Supports – “You’re going to gym? I am too!” (followed by a hug and a High 5); “Come with me, I did this last year!” (I LOVED that one!!!)
  • The Nerves – “Dude, it feels so weird!”
  • The Tough Vulnerability (5 eighth grade boys dressed to impress, swaggering down the hallway together, but still peering at their schedules)
  • Blending In and Standing Out (Who is inside those Nike Air Force 1s? Who is beneath that awesome rainbow-colored hair?)

I taught middle school for a year at the very beginning of my career, and do not remember the students being quite this fantastic. I don’t recall them encouraging each other this much, or being this fresh-faced and cute. Of course, I may be remembering my students from the weary end of the year rather than from the excited start. Maybe, though, part of it is that all of our emphasis in the social-emotional realm is paying off, and adolescents really are nicer than they used to be. You don’t have to look too far to read about bullying… educator friends, we need to tell the great stories, too.

So back to the heightened emotion I was feeling in the hallway… it also may have been because I was hit in the face with all that it took to get ready for that moment. In late May, I had committed to my work self that in the slower summer months (HA! NOT!) I would make sure that just about everything I worked on would in some way make things better for someone, or would support my own learning and reflection (“What’s In Your JunePile?“). It was an extremely busy summer, and I tried very hard to hold myself accountable to this goal. Of course, ultimately, “making things better for someone” could be distilled down to making things better for this sixth grader. I collaborated with other administrators to write and submit a grant (fingers still crossed as we await news!) in order to forward this boy’s social-emotional goals, a colleague and I took new staff on a bus tour while teaching them about our district in order to prepare them to help this boy grow, another colleague and I labored over decisions about this year’s staff evaluation assignments so that we could best support the professional growth of the adults who work with this boy. Etc.

Later in the morning, I had the pleasure of watching the Principal, Assistant Principal, and Dean model vulnerability when they introduced themselves to a class via a slide presentation. They invited students to guess which of them sometimes has trouble maintaining a “conversational level” (the Dean!) and who is sometimes distracted and off-task (the AP?)…  Without banging them over the head with it, they showed the students that we all have differences and hurdles and wonderful strengths as well. Bravo, adults! What a fantastic message for adolescents who are trying so hard to figure themselves out, who need permission to struggle with their awesome, terrible selves every single day!

Tomorrow I start the day with a brief meeting in my office, but I know I will be itching to return to the wonderful staff and students in Middle School 2, where I spent part of the afternoon today. The truth is, the adults and preteens in neither school needed me very much today, and I’m sure that tomorrow will be the same way. Who are we kidding? I needed them.

I’m Still Learning from Summer Camp

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“My heart is full and mushy and running over with feelings.” Not very eloquent, but it is pretty much what I said to my daughter yesterday as we walked the grounds of the overnight camp that taught us each so much about ourselves. It was Alumni Day, and both of my daughters and I are all alumni, having collectively spent 24 summers there.

It is not possible explain what this camp means to me. Here’s the anecdotal data, though: when I was seventeen, I spent the summer there on the work crew, where I cleaned bathrooms and emptied garbage FOR FREE. Need I say more? If you were lucky enough to go to overnight camp and loved it, you understand that it does not matter that you drank “egg water”, ate indescribable food, gave up all privacy related to your personal hygiene, slept in cabins or tents that horrified your parents (“We are paying all this money for you to sleep in THAT?!?!”) and were driven round the bend from the itch of mosquito bites (while there) or maybe lice (a delightful surprise after you got home). You understand that you want your own kids to go there, and if they do, you are sure to either drop them off or pick them up (instead of putting them on the bus both ways) so that you can experience having your heart quicken as you drive through the camp gates and hear the singing and smell the smells. Ok I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I love my camp.

As I drove home with my brimming and mushy heart, I considered why people who are lucky enough to attend overnight camp often feel connected to their “summer homes” in ways that supersede their attachments to their schools. After all, unless you move often, you certainly spend more hours in the year at school than you do at camp. However, although I went to excellent public schools and have great school memories, for me, at least, there is absolutely no comparison.

We could talk about the joy of independence with no meddling parents around, of making our own daily decisions about things that are both not all that important and also enormously important. We could talk about the value of choice, of picking which activity to attend (basketball or friendship bracelets? paperbag dramatics or canoeing?), and of learning from counselors who are maybe just 4 or 5 years older than us, and therefore hilarious, wise, and incredibly cool. We could talk about possibilities of summer flirtations and all-out romances, if that is our type of thing. But what is on my mind just now is the idea of Belonging.

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My K-8 school district chooses specific Areas of Focus to frame our work with children, and for the next few years, along with Literacy Throughout the Day, we will be focusing on Positive School Climate. And we’ve written this vision for that focus: Students and families are invited into a school environment in which they feel valued, safe and engaged in meaningful learning. Yes, well, that is indeed exactly how I felt at overnight camp — valued by my friends and counselors, safe to take risks, and engaged in learning which meant an awful lot to me. All of this, because it was clear that I belonged.

Of course, not every camper is a happy camper. Children leave before the session ends, or muscle through but never return. Ask them for their stories, and there is a high likelihood that they were shown by others, usually campers, that they did NOT belong. Like schools, the camps keep trying, but haven’t made it right for all kids.

When I think about my own school experiences, there is one particular middle school teacher who brought school connection to me and so many of my friends. His teaching techniques were unusual, and I’m sure our parents rolled their eyes often at what they heard about and saw come home in our backpacks, but his message was clear and it worked: “If you are in my class, you are part of a community. We care about each other, we risk showing each other who we really are, and we are safe.” If you went to Maple Jr. High School in Northbook, IL awhile back, there is no question that you know exactly who I mean. He was a legend. I went back to observe his classroom while I was preparing to be a teacher, and quite frankly was appalled. I was learning the science of teaching then, and what I saw did not at all fit with what I was studying at college. Now that I know more, I wish I could go back and take a peek at the art of his teaching. For sure, a huge part of why he helped us to feel connected to our school and to each other was because he showed us that we belonged.

Most kids do not get to go to overnight camp. It is an expensive luxury, and well out of the realm of possibility for the vast number of families. Lots of kids would not want to go, and lots of parents would not want to send their children. And of course, families have a myriad of ways of creating wonderful summer memories for children that have nothing at all to do with camp.

Going to school, though, well that’s pretty common. So what can we learn from camp? How can we help our children love school the way that I love that bunch of buildings, trees, and people who gather every year next to a lake in Wisconsin? I feel sure that it is less about drinking “bug juice” and telling ghost stories, and more about creating a feeling of belonging. That, we can do. Our teachers already work very hard at this, and I’m so glad that we’ll be giving time to ongoing conversations as we learn how to get even better.