Friday, February 24, 2017

Year 7: Week 23 - Of Thee I Sing On

“The time to hesitate is through.”

The evening of election day, I was away from home, sitting in a dorm style cabin with the other fifth grade teachers during a outdoor education retreat. The students were asleep and all of the teachers were sitting together seeing the election results as they came in over our smart phones. As the evening grew later and later and it began to sink in what was happening, we created a plan of how to address the students.  One by one, teachers left the group to go to bed. We had another long day of us and even with the election, we were committed to keep the retreat focused on the work that we brought for our students to experience on this retreat.

I was in shock as I settled into the bottom bunk of the bed. I lay lost in a sea of confusion and uncertainty. My phone was on the floor next to me and I kept myself from picking it up and checking the news, knowing that I needed to get sleep. But I had to do something, I needed to do something.

I picked up my phone, but instead of checking the news, I turned on the flashlight, grabbed my journal and started writing. I had waited five years to get to work on this project; the time to start was now.

In the summer of 2011, I attended an Orff Certification Workshop in Boston. Orff is a approach to music teaching that is the foundation of much of the way I approach music education. One of the teachers, Prof. Baruch Whitehead from Ithaca College shared a musical presentation built around President Obama’s picture book, “Of Thee I Sing, A Letter To My Daughters.”

This beautiful book presents thirteen great Americans. The idea of the presentation is that after reading the part about one of the people students could make a connection with a song. For example, after Jackie Robinson, students could sing “Take Me Out To The Ballgame.”

Ever since that workshop, the idea of expanding Prof. Whitehead’s idea into a broader presentation for my school had been in the back of my mind. Every couple months, I would come to a point and think that it was the right time to put this project together and then I would decide it was too much work at the time. And that’s how this project existed for five years, something I was excited to do and thought about a lot, but never took action to make happen.

By the light of my iPhone, I sketched out an outline of this presentation, pulling from memory the people featured in this book.  I wanted to have the whole school involved. I planned to get different faculty involved from different parts of the school and involve different subjects. I started thinking about who I needed to talk to in order to get buy in, what obstacles I would face and I wrote out a plan. After vigorously writing for a while, I finally felt myself starting to settle. I couldn’t do anything about the election, but I could do for my school and myself to reaffirm what it meant to be American. As much as I felt our country needed this book to be read to them, I felt that I needed this book to be read to me.  If I needed this, then so did my students.  And then somehow, I slept a couple hours.

As I mourned the election results in the coming days, I kept coming back to this project as a focus. It didn’t lessen the grief or speed my through the process of coming to accept a new uncertain status quo, but it did give me a sense of purpose, a positive reaction to all of the chaos.

The first step was getting an approved date to do this presentation. I asked a date around Presidents’ Day and got the Wednesday after. I couldn’t get all of the students together for one presentation, so we planned to do a grade JK-2 assembly and a grades 3-12 assembly. I wrote up a script and started asking teachers to be speakers. I immediately felt affirmation and support from the faculty. Everyone immediately bought into the spirit of this project. I deliberately made sure that we had teachers who taught different grades and also included administration and assistant teachers. There was no convincing that had to be done. Each "yes" I heard brought me joy, hope and motivation.

I decided to honor every other person to keep the flow of the book intact. One of the art teachers was already planning to do work inspired by Georgia O’Keefe, so that was set. “Take Me Out To The Ball Game,” for Jackie Robinson, I kept from the original concept. One of the high school choirs sang “God Bless The Child” for Billie Holiday and for Maya Lin, a high school trumpet player performed “Taps.” We all sang “Ain't going to Let Nobody Turn Me Around” to honor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The 7th grade Spanish teacher enthusiastically brought back a unit on Cesar Chavez and some of her students put together a video about Chavez, including a reworking of “Alexander Hamilton,” from Hamilton, but with lyrics about Chavez. Finally, after George Washington, another high school choir sang “History Has Its Eyes On You,” from Hamilton. To bookend this presentation, we sang “My Country ‘Tis Of Thee.”

For the JK-2 presentation, we made some changes. We showed videos for the Billie Holiday, Maya Lin and George Washington sections. The elementary Spanish teacher led the students in a wonderful “Si se puede!” chant for Cesar Chavez. We also featured JK-2 teachers in this presentation as speakers along with some administration.

I purposely set up the presentation, so that I would do nothing during the actual presentation.  I wanted this presentation to be as much about the school as possible and not about me at all. If this was going to be what it needed to be for our community, it needed to be owned by all of us, not just one individual. All I did during the presentation was say, "go" to the first reader to start once everyone was in the auditorium.

While I watched, I sang, laughed, smiled, and almost cried a little bit.  Every word that was spoken on stage came from a place of personal belief that reflects the values of our school. The spirit of collaboration my colleagues demonstrated which are a foundation of progressive learning came to life. The pride they showed sitting on stage watching others speak and our students' brave and important work showed our whole community what it meant to value each others' voices as citizens.

Diversity, equity and inclusion work is often hard, challenging and uncomfortable, but it can also be joyful and celebratory.  The teachers and students brought that joy. Sometimes we need to take a chance and put ourselves out there to demonstrate what diversity, equity and inclusion looks like and feels like. By choosing to include themselves in the MX yesterday, the teachers and students demonstrated what it meant to be inclusive and to celebrate the diversity in our community.

What is the state of our union? I'm an optimist, and while I'm hopeful, I'm not sure. However, I am sure of the state of my school. This presentation is one example of many that shows that the state of my school is strong and getting stronger, unified by a shared philosophy, and strengthened every single day by our faculty, administration, students, staff and families.

I am proud to have worked on this presentation, I am proud of colleagues and I am proud to have the privilege to share this school community with such amazing people.

President Obama, have I told you how you inspired an entire school with your words?  Have I told you how grateful I am for all that you have given our nation?  Have I told you how you continue to bring hope into my life?

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