As part of our long-term commitment to the career of educators, Friends School provides an opportunity to apply for what we call our "mini-sabbatical" program. The mini-
sabbatical offers a teacher a short time away to pursue an area of professional inspiration, and to research and practice outside of the footprint of the regular school day.
As many of you may have heard from your children, music teacher Kent Jue is the recipient of a mini-sabbatical this year, and he is currently off on deep dive into choral music for the next three weeks.
Our long time performing arts substitute teacher (and also an SFFS parent), Jennifer Perfilio, will be stepping in during this time to cover Kent's classes. She and Kent have collaborated and planned together, and Jennifer is now serving as a "professional guest teacher," delivering some of the same aspects of Kent's music program in K-8, but also offering a unique experience during this period, focusing on choral movement. Kent returns after February break, on March 2nd. Friends School thanks you, Jennifer!
Each year, students focus on a service topic for a year long study: immigration, public accessibility, natural disaster relief, and more. Recently our school has been putting in lots of time and effort into these topics. The eighth grade has lobbied at City Hall for ADA compliant playgrounds, raised over $40,000 for fire relief, gone to conferences with Bill Nye about minimizing our carbon footprint. We have also spent ten days in Nicaragua volunteering for community projects.
This year, eighth graders have been focusing on homelessness. Our work includes biweekly visits to the Gubbio Project, baking for At the Crossroads, and holding seminars that discuss our interests of actions.
Last Thursday, five students attended “Solving Homelessness,” a community workshop. Hosted by Friends School neighbors the Impact Hub SF, it was organized by The San Francisco Public Press. SFFS first grade parent Abigail Stewart-Kahn was also there to share her work with the city’s new Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing.
This workshop focused on possible solutions to end homelessness within San Francisco. Upon entry, we were given name tags and handed bags with a reporter’s journal, articles on homelessness, and brochures. We came into an open room occupied by about 150 audience members, some formerly experiencing homelessness, radio producers, designers, and journalists. We were the only students.
How would you feel if you were ignored every minute of every day? We as an eighth grade are working towards revealing shared humanity between ourselves and people experiencing homelessness...
As the five of us took our seats in the swivel chairs that were scattered about the room, we noticed a man sitting in the row in front of us with a bearded dragon perched on his shoulder. Sitting next to us was a woman named Joy that told us about her nonprofit and who kept striking up conversations with different neighbors. The room of strangers most definitely made for a strong community that we could feel and made us want to take action. People buzzed around, taking food and drinks from the counter and mentioning how great it was that children were attending.
The workshop consisted of many panels, presentations, and brainstorming solution sessions, but we thought it fit to share our favorite parts of the workshop—possible solutions towards solving homelessness and a panel of people experiencing homeless that were willing to share their stories and experiences.
SFFS eighth grader Jiya said, “It feels odd to me to discuss an issue about someone without them being there. Hearing their stories motivated me further to want to help solve homelessness.”
Riley, also from SFFS, agreed, “I loved this workshop. I never thought that I would hear these things at an event like this—I assumed that we would listen to ideas from (a not very diverse set of) people who have never experienced homelessness.”
First-hand stories also made the experience of homelessness easier to empathize with. The speakers gave homelessness faces. There was Daniel, a guitarist with his bearded dragon Jupiter; JR, an art teacher for 13 years who lost his job when he was hospitalized; Cooper, a firefighter disabled on the job who lived in Diamond Heights and drove an Audi; and Moses, who spent twenty years on the streets of San Francisco. Homelessness suddenly felt more relatable—something that could happen to anyone, even us.
Another SFFS eighth grader, Dexter, said: “After listening to all of the presenters, I noticed this event had people of all races and genders; some homeless, some not. The variety really helped me get perspective and ideas on homelessness as a whole. I think that we all got more information that we expected and it really broadened our perspective.”
“We have to deal with invisibility,” was one line that really stood out to us. How would you feel if you were ignored every minute of every day? We as an eighth grade are working towards revealing shared humanity between ourselves and people experiencing homelessness, but hearing from a person living on the street that they feel invisible is so much more heartbreaking than hearing it from a teacher who as never had the experience of experiencing invisibility.
It was not only this quote that planted a seed for action in our hearts but many others as well, including, “Every step back feels like a mile and every step up feels like a quarter of an inch.” When JR said this and talked about substance abuse, we all knew that we needed to help make change.
When one of the brave panelists said that “human needs should be human rights,” there was a moment in the crowd when everybody pondered over what had been said. We were all at the workshop to make an impact, but why wasn’t anything being done?
“That is the problem with society. We are human, not things to be stepped on,” chirped in Daniel.
So how can we solve it?
Throughout the workshop, many ideas were mentioned. The first initiative shared was proposed by Ken Fisher, a film producer. The system was labeled as “Universal Basic Income.” UBI would be a dividend paid from government taxes and oil drilling profits to American citizens. In case of any financial instability within banks, the money would be paid in cash.
Despite the fact that Universal Basic Income is an ideal for San Franciscans, it’s real if you live in Alaska. Fisher’s strategy to solve homelessness was based on Alaska’s UBI system, which gives out around $1,000 per year per citizen. However, it had been set at $2,000, but because of oil production suddenly slowing down, this was recently cut down to only half. Universal Basic Income has also been run (experimentally and permanently) in the Netherlands, Finland, and Kenya. There are different opinions on if UBI has been working out well for its recipients, but it’s a fairly widespread thought that Universal Basic Income is somewhat idealistic.
Another proposed solution was “Village for Community.” Village for Community was brought up by architect Charles Durrett and was based off of Opportunity Village in Eugene, Oregon. The village would be made of tiny homes built by people experiencing homelessness and volunteers. Each village would have thirty housing units and was estimated to cost $420,000 as a whole. This makes the units $14,000 each.
With all of these stories, experiences, and possible solutions, we as a group of five reflected on our time and came to understand how meaningful our experience had been.
This workshop was insightful, informative, and eye-opening for us. After the workshop, we thought of homelessness as an issue that was more than statistics. Those experiencing homelessness are real people with personalities and lifestyles, and it motivated us to become a part of the solution.
For the past four years Hilary Palanza has led our K-8 dance program. From first graders dancing with our neighbors at the Francis of Assisi Community to seventh graders choreographing their own dance creations, Hilary has taught a broad range of students and styles. She carried on the lovely Friends School tradition of our end-of-the-year buddy dance with Kindergartners and our graduating eighth graders. Hilary has also been one of the few that works with every student in our school! She adopted a program that was still young, and has added her own flare and energy to it, helping it grow and flourish.
We’re deeply grateful for her collaboration in working with multiple teams and teachers, her flexibility with spaces and schedules, and her commitment to bringing out the dancer in all of us.
For the past year she has also been pursuing a Masters in public policy at UC Berkeley’s Goldman School of Public Policy, focusing particularly on how to support and advocate for the arts. This passion has evolved into her next project where she’ll be working on her long-held dream to develop and open the first ever interactive dance museum! Hilary shared, “I cannot help but feel overwhelmed with gratitude for the San Francisco Friends School. The opportunity to articulate and grow the dance program and teach such a wide range of abilities and ages continues to help me grow as an artist, teacher, and friend.”
This is a bittersweet good bye. We’re sad to see her leave Friends School after this school year ends, but excited to hear about her big plans. We wish her the best in her next chapter, and have launched a search to fill her dancing shoes.
We suspect that many of you are considering technology devices for holiday gifts this season and thought it might be a good time to revisit some of the work around technology at San Francisco Friends School. SFFS continues to adopt a measured approach to rolling out new technology and to be attentive to the usage of the tech we already have. Our hope is to avoid gimmicky gadgets and try to meaningfully use technology as a tool for teaching and learning.
...there is healthy food and there is junk food. We don’t want to get rid of all of the food. We want to keep the nourishing bits.
The Quaker tenet of Simplicity is often at odds with 21st century life. Threshing with the complexity of 21st century distractions and harnessing the core value of a tool is hard work! And, this wrestling is—in many ways—a defining characteristic of this generation students and our school. At school we often describe technology consumption with a food analogy: there is healthy food and there is junk food. We don’t want to get rid of all of the food. We want to keep the nourishing bits. I guess we are all waiting for an Alice Waters ‘California Cuisine’ inspired moment when we can appreciate the tasty wholesome stuff and recognize the junk food for what it is. We all indulge in the occasional sweet, but the whole foods help us thrive.
One of the standout technology (junk food) concerns at school, and probably home, are digital distractions. It is nearly impossible for a classroom teacher or parent to compete with Youtube! We know that media companies exist to captivate our time and attention. To address this we are building on a strong foundation of digital citizenship curriculum that promotes responsible student behavior with technology. We are pleased that our Quaker values translate to the digital realm and we are working hard to leverage them for continued responsible use. Yet, we also recognize that digital devices have an undeniable ability to pull our time and attention in unproductive ways. Admittedly, many of us tech committee members and faculty struggle with efficient use of technology in our professional and personal lives.
Some of you may have heard about “Net-ref.” In order to help our Middle School students focus, we have introduced a pilot of a tool called Net-ref. Our Middle School faculty can use Net-ref to monitor network usage and help students avoid online distractions. If needed, our faculty can temporarily put students in a “Focus” mode which limits access to a few dozen core academic (wholesome food) websites. Students can request to be put into a “Focus” mode or faculty can review their data and nudge them into “Focus” if deemed necessary. So far, we have found that Net-ref works pretty well. A key to the Net-ref pilot’s success has been communicating to our students that we can and will “pull the internet plug” when it seems helpful.
Perhaps a similar approach could be useful in your home? I have previously tested two consumer products with similar functionality. Several vendors have made tools with parental control features, such as Disney’s “Circle” and Google’s “Wifi” *(both ~$100.00). They both have a small hardware box that provide a lot of utility. They allow parents to control the type of content (e.g. block hate groups, violence, etc.) and the time that internet is available. This makes it easy to “pull the internet plug” at bedtime for all of the children's devices in the house. Both devices are pretty flexible with time extensions (easy to temporarily extend the cut-off time in 15 minutes increments). And, also worth sharing that the setup is not much more complex than plugging in a wireless router.
So, if you are adding more digital devices at home this holiday season, please consider a tool to help manage them. Having a similar strategy at school and home may go a long ways in both locations. We hope that having a similar technology conversation and tools at home will be helpful with you managing your family's relationship with the wholesome food version of technology and media. We look forward to continuing this conversation and sharing additional resources in the near future.
This school year, Friends School has ushered in an array of STEM-related events and, we hope, strong new traditions. Middle school math teachers Kelsey Barbella, Diali Bose-Roy, and David Louis organized our first ever “Taking Chances with Friends,” a series of probability games that connected middle school students of all grade levels. More events are on the horizon through December, with a PA Meeting on Wednesday, Nov 29 that will focus on lower school science and middle school math. More details can be found below.
Taking Chances with Friends
Last week, middle school students enjoyed a math experience called "Taking Chances with Friends," investigating and exploring probability beyond the normal classroom experience. The event lasted two hours and integrated sports, simulations, science, and technology. In the gym, students calculated experimental probability as fellow students shot hoops on the basketball court or played cornhole. Other games that flooded the halls and classrooms incorporated throwing giant dice and predicting outcomes, such as in the game "horse racing." Another probability game included "catch and release," a simulation of taking random "samples" of fish from a lake. All students had a chance to host games as well as play each other's games. It was a great community building activity for the entire middle school.
This month we launched our annual series of “Math Mornings” in the lower school. Parents are invited to drop in to join their child’s classroom for math games that reflect some of the problem solving that students have been working on throughout the school year. Up next: Friday, Dec 8, third grade teachers Jake Ban and Amabelle Sze will hold a math morning from 8:30-9am. On Friday, Jan 12, second grade teachers Anhvu Buchanan and Jessie Radowitz will hold a math morning from 8:30-9am; and on Thursday, Jan 18, Kindergarten teachers Noah Bowling and Nick McGrane will hold hold a math morning from 8:30-9am.
PA Meeting: Focus on math and science curriculum
Parents are invited to a special PA meeting on Wednesday, Nov 29, from 6-8pm in the Meeting Room. Lower school teachers Rich Oberman and Courtney Wilde will highlight new lower school science projects and learnings from the year thus far. In addition, the middle school math team will take parents on a tour of the curriculum from blocks to algebra, highlighting a newer approach to teaching mathematics this year.
Hour of Code
At Friends, we choose to carefully integrate technology as a learning tool that complements our curricular goals. The lower school faculty’s inquiry and constructivist based approaches to teaching have also influenced how technology is used in the curriculum. One example of our evolving technology integration is a national program called the Hour of Code, hosted by Technology Integrator Beth Espinoza and lower school librarian Suzanne Geller. During Computer Science week in December, all K-4 students will take part in the Hour of Code, which gives students exposure to various programs that offer the initial steps of programming and coding: putting together instructions, conditionals, and loops. Students will work with a collaborative partner to troubleshoot commands and strategize mazes. Check out these resources to explore some great coding apps at home.
"Everybody is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will live its whole life believing it is stupid." ~Albert Einstein
On the evening of Tuesday, December 5th, SFFS parents will have a unique opportunity to participate in a free "Experience Dyslexia" workshop. Developed by the International Dyslexia Association, Northern California (IDA Nor Cal), this 90-minute interactive workshop simulates the challenges of reading, writing and listening comprehension that can accompany dyslexia.
Parents who have done the simulation say it was a helpful experience to get them back in touch with what it's like to learn something new, and how hard it can be! So if your child has a learning difference, or just struggles with learning something new on occasion, this is a wonderful opportunity for parents to both challenge their brains and have an experience that could help deepen their understanding of their child's learning experience.
This workshop may be especially of interest to parents of kindergartners, first and second graders as it is often during these years that learning differences, including dyslexia, are discovered.
Frances Dickson, SFFS Developmental Support Coordinator and Learning Special for grades K-4, as well as Mitch Neuger, SFFS Learning Specialist for grades 5-8, helped develop the most recently revised workshop for the IDA Northern California. We encourage you to check out this video from the IDA Nor Cal (featuring Frances!) to get a first hand look at what parents say about the workshop and to learn more.
The Learning Support Alliance (a PA Committee) and the SFFS Developmental Support Department are excited to bring this opportunity to you and we hope you will join us on December 5, from 6-8pm in Room 234 for this exciting opportunity of the "Experience Dyslexia" simulation workshop.
Unfortunately, we can only accommodate 30 people, so please reserve your spot on the parent wiki soon. This event is only for adults; free childcare will be provided for SFFS students.
We believe education provides our children with important building blocks they will use for the rest of their lives. At Friends, that education is grounded in the Quaker values of reflection, integrity, peaceful problem-solving, and stewardship. The Annual Fund is the woven into the fabric of a Friends education, touching every student, every day. Gifts to the Annual Fund help make class trips possible, support maintenance and upgrades of our facility, and support our incredible faculty as they work to meet our students where they are in and outside of the classroom.
For five days this past September, eighth graders journeyed into the Ansel Adams Wilderness area of the Inyo and Sierra National Forests. For many, it was their first backpacking experience, and one they’ll likely never forget. The 55 students joined 10 faculty and wilderness guides. Reflecting on the trip, one student noted: “Sleeping outside made me realize why people spend weeks on end away from their houses, and take time exploring the world, the mountains, lakes, and rivers. It seems like time is at a standstill, there is no deadline or due date, it’s just a place to be calm and free.”
Thank you to all of you who contribute to the Annual Fund and support enriching experiences such as these. Below are just a few snapshots this year’s eighth grade Sierras trip.
One group of eighth graders hiked more than 13 miles over the course of five days!
Weather experienced: thunder, lightening, rain, hail, snow, and lots of sun!
Wildlife spotted: deer, dragonflies, fish, and a marmot!
Highest elevation reached: 10,000 ft (Timber Knob)
"I don't think I'll ever do this again, but I'm so glad I did it." - Eighth grade student
Horizons at SFFS Executive Director Abby Rovner has a new colleague in the Horizons office this year. Veronica Oberholzer, an AmeriCorps VISTA whose role is to focus on capacity building, will help Horizons grow as an organization. Below, Veronica and Abby share some of the exciting things happening in their office this fall.
Veronica: How about we start by explaining what Horizons at SFFS is?
Abby: Yes! Horizons is a free six-week summer learning program that’s housed at and fiscally sponsored by SFFS. We receive lots of generous in-kind support from SFFS, but we rely on donations and grants from the community to fund the program. Horizons serves low-income public school students from the Mission District who are referred to the program by their teachers. Because their families don’t have the means to send them to camps, tutoring, and special programs during the summer, students like ours are disproportionately impacted by summer learning loss, which research has shown to be a major contributor to the achievement gap.
Spending six weeks each summer reading, exploring, and learning at Horizons has a significant impact on our students’ skills, confidence and school success: this past summer, instead of losing ground, they gained an average of 3.8 months in literacy and 1.4 months in math! Horizons’ children enter the program the summer after they complete Kindergarten, and they return year after year through 8th grade. In 2018, Horizons will serve 85 K-4th grade students, and each summer we’ll add a class until we have 153 K-8th graders on campus every year.
Veronica: One of the students I worked with advanced from the 3rd to 44th percentile on his literacy test from the beginning to the end of the summer — I was so happy!
Abby: Yes, every summer we see incredible growth in our students, not just academically but also socially and emotionally. As we enter Horizons’ fifth year, we hope our new website conveys the program’s powerful impact on the children and families who participate. You can check the site out here to see tons of beautiful photos and great videos of Horizons’ students and teachers in action!
Veronica: Every so often I enjoy going back to the website and looking at the pictures of our kids, like the one of them performing for their parents at our annual “Back to Program” night — they were so proud! I can’t wait to see them again in November, when we have our first Saturday family event at Slide Ranch. We’ll have five other events throughout the year – family learning activities that are great opportunities for our families to stay connected.
Abby: I love our families! The majority of them live in our neighborhood and working with them has been one of my favorite parts of running this program for the past four years. I consider parents essential partners in the work we do and Horizons’ families involve themselves in the program in a wide variety of ways. At the end of every summer, we ask for feedback from parents and guardians and we use their input to inform the program’s design for the following summer.
Veronica: The results of the survey were so uplifting. Parents really confirmed how much their kids love our program. I definitely saw that this summer, when the kids would run through the front gate with huge smiles each morning.
Abby: Horizons summers are magic and we’re so grateful for the resources, time, and talent that many members of the SFFS community have shared to support the program.
Just one final note, I want to let all of our readers know that I would love for them to reach out to me at email@example.com if they have any questions or would like to learn more. They can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter, and don’t forget to glance at our new website!
"Coaching is the art of creating an environment, through conversation and a way of being, that facilitates the process by which a person can move toward desired goals in a fulfilling manner."
During the 2016/17 school year, I had been fortunate enough to receive professional development funding from the Cathy Hunter Fund for the Future (CHFF), which enabled me to begin a coaching role that will take me through the end of this school year.
I used the time and opportunity to explore and work with my colleagues as their “coach." This experience has allowed me to strengthen my relationships with my colleagues, getting to know them in and outside of the classroom. I also learned that, even though I may not be able to teach middle school science, I can identify common threads in childhood development and student behavior. Whether it is individual coaching, peer coaching, or mentoring new faculty, I have opened doors and made connections that will only strengthen the greater school community over time.
You might imagine that being surrounded by 22 students and a teaching assistant all day is highly social, sometimes noisy, and never dull. All of this is true, but teaching can also be isolating, particularly when working in a self-contained classroom. I have been drawn to mentoring and coaching at this point in my profession as an aspiration to share experiences and observations collaboratively, but also to stretch my own teaching. What better place to do this than with other dedicated and skillful teachers in their own spaces?
It is abundantly clear now that a valuable resource is right here within the four walls of 250 Valencia—each other.
My journey has included working with teachers outside of my classroom at Friends School since the spring of last year, as well as visiting others in the East Bay, where I also supervise and mentor trainee teachers with the Bay Area Teacher Training Institute (BATTI).
For most teachers, coaching is a valuable feedback tool. It complements nicely the relationship teachers have in place with their direct supervisors. It carves out more informal time, is driven by choice, it allows for reflection, sharing of ideas, and ultimately insight into how to improve the learning experiences of students. Teachers can meet to discuss pedagogy and curriculum, utilize me as a second set of eyes in the classroom, or allow me to be a sounding board.
So far, I have worked with a range of both middle and lower school teachers and also specialists in varying roles. In the first semester, I observed in an eighth grade science classroom for the first time with a little trepidation. What did I know about middle school science? It was extremely reassuring to find the familiar aspects to nearly every classroom, no matter the grade. Whether in first grade or eighth, sometimes transitions are slow, some students are focused and engaged, while others prefer to chat to their table buddy. What is most important, however, is that the teacher being observed is clear about the goal of their observation and feedback. Then it doesn’t matter who or what I am observing, the focus can be directed to where it is most needed.
Along with many other professions, the job of an educator is never done. There isn’t ever a moment where you say to yourself: ‘Well I think I’ve learned everything there is to know now.’ As someone who has been teaching for many years now, that has never been more apparent than when visiting a colleague’s class. Although my role has been as coach and support, I have walked out of each classroom several times thinking, ‘I can’t wait to try that out,' or, 'I think I can adapt that for first grade.’
I noticed that last year, for example, Anil Chopra (former SFFS middle school science teacher), would give immediate feedback to students in the midst of a project. This created an environment where students were more excited about making a revision in the moment. And rather than students focusing on making a mistake, they viewed the feedback more as a piece of the process.
It is abundantly clear now that, indeed, a valuable resource is right here within the four walls of 250 Valencia—each other. Many of us want to take advantage of opportunities to see one another teach even more.
Like most busy professions where there is a lot of contact time with others, moments to share and have someone just listen are in short supply. Hence a large part of my work has been to provide that space. Albert Einstein once said that, if he had an hour to save the world, he would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and five minutes finding the solution. This suggestion resonates for me; it’s a reminder to slow down and and deeply think about the situation before offering a way to remedy it. I also want the colleague I am working with to search and find the solution, with my role guiding and hopefully providing questions that make the path a little clearer.
The Professional Development Committee has met to discuss the way that “peer coaching” support our goals. Our plan for the 2017/18 school year is to continue to incorporate coaching into the professional development experience of Friends’ teachers. Using feedback from teachers who have been involved in coaching this year, and incorporating new ideas, we are working to build a program rich in professional discourse that continues to nourish and sustain teacher’s professional growth.
Here is just some of the feedback from my colleagues involved in this journey. They inspire me to continue lifting up how important this work is for our school:
I believe that new programs need multiple years of commitment. I was rejuvenated, I was encouraged, I was refocused on old, bad habits and newly focused on new deficits that we discovered. There are many teachers who will benefit from having a coach.
~Anil Chopra, former SFFS middle school science teacher
It was nice to have another set of eyes in the classroom and simply a fresh perspective on the day to day...WE NEED THIS. Whether it be in more of a peer coaching format or a roaming person like Erin. Generally, it seems that coaching is missing from our professional development repertoire and it felt really important to my own development as a teacher.
~Jake Ban, SFFS third grade teacher
Teens from SF and Oklahoma City build bridges
Waking up on November 9th in San Francisco, I felt unprepared to teach that day. How were we going to move forward as one country with such a palpable divide? In a search for understanding, I posted a call for pen pals, one that read like a dating ad: "Blue State students looking for Red State pen pals."
With the help of some colleagues and handy listserves, we found a willing partner to begin a correspondence with Friends School eighth graders by winter break. Below is my window into the exchange.
The first letters from Oklahoma arrive. “She’s me!” a student calls out noting that her pen pal is also a dancer, loves Christmas, has a sister and is 14. We laugh as another shares a part of his letter, a letter that states, numerous times, that “nothing ever happens in Oklahoma.” We learn the names of far-away pets, names like Oliver and Ruckus. We hear sadness and anger at the loss of Kevin Durant to the Warriors and a bit of joy from one student who insists that he isn’t even any good.
They read on and the room sobers. Now our pen pals are dipping into serious topics; they describe their beliefs in their right to own guns and the necessity of the death penalty. They share their value of honesty, hard work and effort. Some talk about the importance of family.
Eighteen students gather in a circle to discuss. We note the shared values, but reflect on how those values seem different when looked through a conservative or a liberal lens. We are struck by how many are undecided as to whether they identify as conservative or liberal; how some even have one Republican parent and one Democrat. A student asks the class whether here, in this liberal school in the liberal city of San Francisco, they would be able to respect and to listen to a classmate who believed in President Trump and no one has an answer. Another worries that few of them can even explain why they believe the liberal things they do.
I feel gratitude to the teacher who answered our school’s call for pen pals. For the first time since the election, I feel some semblance of hope. We write back immediately.
One student cries on my couch at break. I am wondering if I was naive in thinking that teenagers could find a way through the country’s divide. It is a while before we feel ready to write back.
A second round of letters! This time, more individual personalities take shape. It is clear that the students from Oklahoma do not all think the same way. A Jehovah’s Witness admits that she lacks confidence and doesn’t like to discuss politics. One student writes about unborn babies and how he is “obviously pro-life” because he thinks “it is wrong to murder a child before it is born,” and how he also loves to watch “The Walking Dead.”
The pen pals share that they can relate to being nervous about high school but not to the stress. They, too, have to take tests to get into high school, but they are confused by the anxiety we feel about whether or not we’ll get an acceptance letter. There, in Oklahoma City, “everyone gets in.”
Some tell us a bit about Oklahoma City; it is clear that even though the one student continues to insist that nothing ever happens there, there is pride in their hometown. Some kayak on the river that flows through downtown, while others zip line over it. Another rock climbs. For many, a local pizza place serves as a Friday night hangout spot. We laugh, reading how one boy really just cannot understand how someone could be vegan or shop for used clothes for fun, and how he wonders what a zine is.
This same student, however, shares that their class recently had a debate about poverty, one that asked them to choose whether poor people are victims or losers. He is confident that poor people are losers and that “the government shouldn’t help the poor, if the poor are done with living poverty then they can work hard enough and get out of poverty.” He is not the only one to talk about this debate. The teacher clearly instructed each of her students to share a position from the day’s class debate, and the opinions weigh heavily.
Losers. Victims. Losers. Losers. Not sure. Losers. Victims. Both. Losers. Losers. One student cries on my couch at break. I am wondering if I was naive in thinking that teenagers could find a way through the country’s divide. It is a while before we feel ready to write back.
Carefully, we write back to them from San Francisco. We begin our letters with thoughts about the Warriors, descriptions of family, confessions of fears of being on stage, a shared love of Kiera Cass, and the inability to get a volleyball serve in consistently. There is the debacle of The Oscars to discuss. Surely, we can agree on that, can’t we? We include copies of our recent projects, projects meant to capture the spirit of the city of San Francisco in the style of FDR’s Works Progress Administration, projects that include photography, music, radio, oral histories, travel writing.
Niceties taken care of, it is time to address their poverty debate. Some start slowly, looking for shared political beliefs. “My family hunts, so keeping guns legal is a good thing for us because it is our roots.” One describes a fierce belief in equality for LGBTQ rights but admits that the “bathroom thing” makes him feel unsettled.
In the end, it doesn’t matter whether they start slowly or dive in; all share confidently that they “strongly, strongly disagree” that they are “shocked” “horrified” and “surprised” by the poverty debate. “Labeling isn’t respectful,” they point out. Some write that they are working to use the phrase "people who are experiencing homelessness" rather than "homeless people" because “this way people who are experiencing homelessness aren’t being labeled, which is what they feel a lot of the time…they are more than just someone wrapped up in a blanket on the sidewalk.”
In some way or another, each student voices disagreement with the “belief that people in poverty are losers.” This consensus prompts one to end her letter, “At my school almost everyone is liberal, and everyone’s opinions are the same. That’s why I find these letters that our classes exchange so interesting, for the first time we actually are hearing about people who have different views than us. SF is a very diverse city, yet there is no difference in opinion…”
For a long time, we do not hear back from our pen pals. We wonder if the chain has been broken.
We are not cookie-cutter liberals, but a class of critical thinkers. Thank you, Oklahoma City.
The day’s lesson must be postponed. Letters have arrived! The pen pals do not start with musings on basketball or a book recommendation. Right away, we read that they enjoyed the projects we sent and have thoughts about the opinions we shared.
They share that they, too, did a project about the Great Depression, and recently they had another debate, this time arguing whether they believed in a safety net. Specifically, “Is it the responsibility of the national government to help its citizens from hard times during economic crisis?”
The word choice of the pen pals’ letters seems purposeful; they use new terms or introduce us to theirs or ask about others: “I found it very interesting that you had gone out and talked to and interviewed people experiencing homelessness...Your project was like something I’ve never seen before and it gave me more of an insight to the way they live.” “In Oklahoma there’s not as many homeless people...just a few panhandlers as we call them…”
Most are curious. One describes how he noticed that “San Francisco’s culture can be very independent but close together in the same way...I think that the world you live in is much more connected…I think you have a much different culture than Oklahoma’s; we seem to be very individual.” Another writes “I was very interested to read about the neighborhood called Castro. I really liked the idea of a neighborhood like that and wish the OKC had one.” Declaring the WPA projects interesting, one highlights the project “with the photos of the unique clothing of San Francisco citizens. They were all very different and something I have never seen. We do not have very many people wearing very unique clothing in Oklahoma.”
One pen pal’s statement produces a collective smile from the class: “We all came to the conclusion that all of you seem like really open-minded people.”
And then, the letters shift back into common experience of being a teenager: laughter at Westbrook and Curry’s shoving fight, a recommendation for Fanfiction, a complaint about a mom who only listens to Bon Jovi and Journey paired with a confession that he now likes both, a description of a walk and talk elective which is just what it sounds like, many pleas to contact them on Instagram and Snapchat with one apology that Snapchat has been taken away from her and a promise to let her know when she earns it back. And, yes, the Oscars were crazy.
A student asks me why we don’t ever do debates like they do. She tells me that we just assume that helping the poor is the government’s responsibility. She reminds me how often I talk about critical thinking. It is a good question.
Today, I have added a new lesson and they talk about abortion, leaving behind the labels of pro-life and pro-choice. Instead they are asked to wrestle with defining when (if ever) it is okay to have an abortion. At 1 week? At 15? At 20? At 25? They are given the standard visual comparisons—the size of pea, a kumquat, a honeydew melon. Flummoxed and frustrated at the lack of a clear answer, hesitant to mention that religion says it is never okay, absolutely convinced that it is a woman’s choice. We are not cookie-cutter liberals, but a class of critical thinkers. Thank you, Oklahoma City.
Today, we write back. We thank them for looking at our projects and ask for more details about what they mean when they say “safety net.” We try to answer their questions about our thoughts on the “Muslim ban.”
There are attempts to talk about race. Trying to explain how her sister is at the White Privilege Conference this week, a student struggles and ends by saying that she hopes she’s explaining it well, that she doesn't want her pen pal to think that “...it’s just a bunch of white people talking about how they have great lives.”
It is the student who tries to respond to her pen pal’s enigmatic question about Donald Trump and animal abuse who ends up reflecting on the project as a whole. “I haven’t heard much about that, but I agree that sometimes all of us, no matter our political affiliation, we can try to find a scapegoat and then blame everything on them...I eagerly await your reply and I’m glad we have been able to discuss our differences and hope that we can continue to find things we disagree upon (I know it’s sounds crazy, but I think it’s the only way that either of us will grow and understand the other side of the issues).”
Not all are serious. One laughs at his pen pal’s story about the thumb-biting monkey, and another suggests that her pen pal should listen to Enrique Iglesias. After asking what his pen pal would change about Oklahoma, one writes that if he could change one thing about San Francisco that he would make it “way hotter than it is because it’s freezing 24/7” and admits that “with the end of the year coming closer, I watch and play more sports than I do homework.” Many write about “13 Reasons Why.”
Our pen pals received our last letters and, according to their teacher, they loved them! Video hello to come.
We don’t receive a video hello, but they do send a class photo and a crowd quickly forms around it. Turns out that many know which one is their pen pal; in their free time, they have moved from our required medium of letters to their world of Snapchat and House Party. Still, they crowd around to see this group photo. “They are so pretty,” sighs one girl. “They are so white,” points out another. “No, I think that one might be Asian.”
I am told that there was a long group snap chat last night, but no one will give me specifics. They exchange looks that imply that the details are not something I want to know. I plead, and one student feels bad for me. She offers me the story of how, after sending a video of herself dancing, the pen pal snapped back, “No time for dancing. There’s a rat in my house!” The group laughs and dances and then fades away. They have another class.
Tomorrow, we’ll make a quick video saying “happy graduation” because they’ll be walking across the stage weeks before we do. Next year, we’ll open up a new set of conversations between two new groups of kids. Bit by bit, we continue.
(Thank you, Annie Gwynne-Vaughan and Ruth Ann Regens for being my colleagues of communication and to Guybe Slangen for helping bring us together.)