Table of Contents

    Free Editorial
  • Free #SchoolsToo: Educators’ Responsibility to Confront Sexual Violence

    By the editors of Rethinking Schools

    The ongoing, persistent verbal and physical violence against women, youth, and LGBTQ communities has not been adequately addressed in most schools. Instead of educating children and youth about gender equity and sexual harassment, schools often create a culture that perpetuates stigma, shame, and silence. Student-on-student sexual assault and harassment occurs on playgrounds, in bathrooms and locker rooms, on buses, and down isolated school hallways. Students experience sexualized language and inappropriate touching, as well as forced sexual acts. And they encounter these at formative stages of their lives that leave scars and shape expectations for a lifetime. What isn’t addressed critically in schools becomes normalized and taken for granted.

  • Cover Story
  • Free What Students Are Capable Of

    Sexual Harassment and the Collateral Beauty of Resistance

    By Camila Arze Torres Goitia

    “We have something to tell you but we’re worried about getting you too involved. We don’t want to get you in trouble,” Baylee and Zaida whispered excitedly as they wiggled through the crack in my classroom door on my prep. I was confused to see them in such high spirits because earlier in the day they had been crushed by news from our administration. For more than two months they had been part of our Restorative Justice club that had been planning two half-day workshops around women empowerment for female-identifying students and toxic masculinity for male-identifying students. The club of 11 demographically diverse students had been urging adults in our building to do something about sexual harassment since October, when they made sexual assault and harassment their Restorative Justice club theme of the month and visited 9th grade classes to lead circles on the topic. This opened up a door for 9th graders to continue to reach out to upperclassmen about the harassment they were facing.

  • Cover Theme
  • #MeToo and The Color Purple

    By Linda Christensen

    During a recent conversation, a former high school classmate said, “I always wondered why you left Eureka. I heard that something shameful happened, but I never knew what it was.”

    Yes, something shameful happened. My former husband beat me in front of the Catholic Church in downtown Eureka. He tore hunks of hair from my scalp, broke my nose, and battered my body. It wasn’t the first time during the nine months of our marriage. When he fell into a drunken sleep, I found the keys he used to keep me locked inside and I fled, wearing a bikini and a bloodied white fisherman’s sweater. For those nine months I had lived in fear of his hands, of drives into the country where he might kill me and bury my body. I lived in fear that if I fled, he might harm my mother or my sister.

    I carried that fear and shame around for years. Because even though I left the marriage and the abuse, people said things like “I’d never let some man beat me.” There was no way to tell them the whole story: How growing up and “getting a man” was the goal, how making a marriage work was my responsibility, how failure was a stigma I couldn’t bear.

  • “Young Women Like Me”

    Teaching About Femicides and Reckless Capitalism on the Mexican Border

    By Camila Arze Torres Goitia, Kim Kanof

    Since 1993, the Mexican border city of Ciudad Juárez has been shaken by disappearances of teenage girls and young women. Officials say they have few leads. The murders in Juárez have received some international attention, primarily due to government inaction. Yet little has been done by the government to prevent violence against women and girls, as officials neglect to bring their perpetrators to justice.

    Residents do not let these deaths go unnoticed as hundreds of pink crosses — a symbol of these missing women — dot the border. An increase in these deaths coincided with the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). A treaty between Mexico, the United States, and Canada, NAFTA sought to increase investment opportunities by eliminating tariffs and, like many other economic agreements, benefited the economic elites of the three countries while resulting in widespread unemployment, increased class stratification, and mass emigration. Most of the “disappeared” women work in assembly plants or maquiladoras, owned by the United States and transnational corporations that dashed to northern Mexico post-NAFTA to reap the benefits of lower wages and lax environmental regulation.

  • The Women of Juárez

    By Amalia Ortiz

    at the West tip of Texas
    a line divides us from them
    and on the other side
    they all look like me
    yet on my side we sit passively nearby
    while the other side allows a slow genocide

  • Free “I Believe You”

    Responsive Teacher Talk and Our Children’s Lives

    By Michelle Gunderson

    To all of my students: I believe you.

    Every Monday morning Lilly would walk into our 1st-grade classroom with downcast eyes and a heavy heart. She would wait for everyone to settle in and then quietly beckon me over to her seat and say, “My head hurts.”

    It became a routine. I would stroke her head and say, “I know you miss your dad. Let’s try participating in school and see if it helps you feel better.” This seems like a reasonable response from a seasoned veteran teacher in her 31st year of teaching. My message to Lilly was I understand children, I understand your life, and I know what is best for you.

  • "How Could You Let This Happen?"

    Dealing with 2nd Graders and Rape Culture

    By Zanovia Clark

    I was just about to finish my second year teaching 2nd grade. It was the first week of June and school was quickly coming to a close. The sun was out and everyone’s energy was extraordinarily high. We were in Seattle after all; when the sun comes around, you rejoice. One morning that week I came to work and noticed I had an email from a parent. This was a parent I had a good relationship with, and she often checked in to see how her daughter was doing. But this email was different. The mother explained that her daughter had been cornered at recess the previous day by some boys who were also 2nd graders. The boys grabbed, groped, and humped her. They told her they were going to have sex with her. Her daughter told them to stop and to leave her alone, but they persisted. As this sweet one told her story of shame, confusion, and hurt to her family later that day, she became so upset that she threw up in the car. Her mother knew this wasn’t a miscommunication or misunderstanding.

  • Features
  • In Philadelphia, Teacher Book Groups Are the Engines of Change

    By Kathleen Riley, Shira Cohen

    On a chilly day in the late fall of 2015, in the pews of the Old First Reformed United Church of Christ in the Old City Neighborhood of Philadelphia near the Delaware River, we sat, excited with anticipation, among nearly 200 participants at the second annual Philadelphia Caucus of Working Educators (WE) daylong convention. The nine members of our slate who would challenge existing union leadership in the upcoming election had just been announced and Ismael Jimenez, the nominee for vice president of high schools, took the mic:
    We need to start shifting this paradigm. This paradigm that has us disengaged. Powerless. Beholden to interests that aren’t ours. They are treating us like objects. Things just happen to us. No longer can we sit in complacency. The victory that I’m talking about isn’t just a PFT [Philadelphia Federation of Teachers] election. This is a means to an end. And the end is justice.

  • Black Boys in White Spaces

    One Mom’s Reflection

    By Dyan Watson

    Right away I recognized her. Ruby Bridges. The courageous girl who defied white racists and became the first to integrate an all-white elementary school. My 7-year-old son pulled a handout out of his backpack with her face on it. He is in a bilingual, two-way immersion program at our local elementary school. As is our custom on Friday, we emptied his backpack and sorted the contents. We determined what needed to be recycled, what would be hung on our whiteboard, and what needed to be stored in my Things-to-take-care-of box by the fridge. I smiled, because as a former history teacher and lover of Black history, I was happy to see my son learning about this important historical moment. And then, I took a closer look and saw that it was in Spanish. I was elated as it dawned on me that my son truly is emergent bilingual. “Caleb, what’s this about? Did you read this in school?”

  • Beyond the Travel Ban

    Refugee Educational Prospects in the Era of Trump

    By Michelle Bellino

    In May 2016, while I was carrying out ethnographic research in the Kakuma Refugee Camp in Kenya, a Form 4 (12th grade) history teacher asked me if I would teach his students about U.S. democracy. We flipped through the history and government textbook to one of the last chapters where the national curriculum outlined political systems in Kenya, England, India, and the United States. It was a peculiar moment to put the U.S. democratic system on display.

  • Free Ignoring Diversity, Undermining Equity

    NCTQ and Elementary Literacy Instruction

    By Katherine Crawford-Garrett

    NCTQ, which claims to “provide an alternative national voice to existing teacher organizations and to build the case for a comprehensive reform agenda that would challenge the current structure and regulation of the profession,” was created by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation in 2000 and incorporated in 2001 as a policy response to a perception that colleges of education were not adequately preparing teachers. According to education historian and NCTQ critic Diane Ravitch, the conservative members of the Thomas B. Fordham foundation perceived teacher training as problematic due to an overemphasis on social justice and a lack of focus on basic academic skills and abilities. Thus, NCTQ was originally founded as an entity through which to encourage alternative certification and circumvent colleges of education. Indeed, early on, NCTQ was closely connected to ABCTE (American Board for the Certification of Teacher Excellence), which created a series of tests that potential teachers could pass in order to bypass teacher education programs altogether by paying $1,995.00.

  • Departments Free
    Education Action
  • The Teacher Uprising of 2018

    By Bob Peterson
  • Commentary
  • Climate Change, Gender, and Nuclear Bombs

    Column: Earth, Justice, and Our Classrooms

    By Bill Bigelow
  • Resources
  • Our picks for books, videos, websites, and other social justice education resources.

“I Believe You”

Responsive Teacher Talk and Our Children’s Lives
“I Believe You”

Simone Shin

To all of my students: I believe you.

Every Monday morning Lilly would walk into our 1st-grade classroom with downcast eyes and a heavy heart. She would wait for everyone to settle in and then quietly beckon me over to her seat and say, “My head hurts.”

It became a routine. I would stroke her head and say, “I know you miss your dad. Let’s try participating in school and see if it helps you feel better.” This seems like a reasonable response from a seasoned veteran teacher in her 31st year of teaching. My message to Lilly was I understand children, I understand your life, and I know what is best for you.

I had Lilly in mind this past January when Olympic gymnastics physician Larry Nassar was sentenced to 175 years for multiple sex crimes perpetrated on some of our nation’s most vulnerable young people. While watching the news and listening to some of their testimony during the sentencing hearing, I kept saying to myself over and over again, “I believe you.”

Thinking of Lilly and her Monday morning headaches, I realized that I was discounting Lilly’s experience and not fully listening to her. It was then that I recognized that I needed to change my response when children report to me — headaches, scraped knees, someone hurting their feelings — by saying “I believe you” before responding to the incident. Although Lilly was not reporting serious assault or abuse, as in the case of the gymnasts, I have come to believe that fostering a culture of belief in children and their words is a step toward giving them the tools to advocate for themselves in all aspects of their lives.

I teach an inclusion classroom, a blend of both general and special education, in a neighborhood school in Chicago. There are five adults who work together serving 27 children, nine of whom have special needs. The adult roles in our classroom include myself as the general education teacher, a special education teacher, two classroom assistants assigned to individual children, and a student teacher. There are many moving parts in our classroom and luckily the adults take time to talk and plan together. For the most part, all of us are on the same page when it comes to teaching children. We are justice-minded and strive to keep developmentally appropriate practice in our classroom.

That week of the Dr. Nassar news reports, I approached our team with the idea of deciding to respond with the “I believe you” sentence stem to children reporting incidents or concerns to us. We talked about the need to validate children’s experiences and feelings. We debated whether or not to say, “I hear you.” But in the end we concluded that telling a child you believe them gets to the truth we hoped to impart. My student teacher, Emily Lanz, said, “You can always tell someone you hear them, but believing someone is a whole different story. It is the investment in the truth of the child’s life.”

After several days of practicing “I believe you” as our response to children, we took time in our team meeting for reflections. Todd Reynolds, the special education certified aide in our room, is queer. He often tells us of how hard it was to grow up in Springfield, Missouri, and that he was often misunderstood by his teachers and peers. During our discussion he said, “I can’t imagine how much different my life would have been if someone had said ‘I believe you’ instead of ‘You’ll grow out of it.’”

Rolling Out “I Believe You” in Our Classroom
We spent the next three weeks putting this practice into our teaching routines. As a team we would note the occasions when we used “I believe you” with children, and we would discuss its effectiveness. All of us experienced a shift in our classroom climate and our relationships with the children. Emily Lanz, our student teacher, said, “Our room just feels gentler now.”

At one point during this three-week trial period, a child came to me and said, “David hit me.” I responded, “I believe you; let’s go talk to him to see what he has to say.” If the incident reported by a child involves someone else, we always give the other child a chance to respond. “I believe you” doesn’t mean that we think the child is telling the whole truth, but it is the truth from their perspective. The next step is helping the child see the other person’s truth.

Here are some more examples of our work that give a picture of this shift in practice.

One student said, “Mr. Reynolds, my brother gets all of the attention at home.” Mr. Reynolds responded, “I believe you. Let’s find ways to celebrate you at school.”

Jonah said to me on Valentine’s Day “Mrs. Gunderson, I just love Debby. My heart is bursting.” My reply included coaching, “I believe you. Debby is wonderful. Let’s talk about what it means to love someone in 1st grade, and what it looks like.”

And because we teach 1st grade, some of the reports include the typical squabbles of 6-year-olds. As we were walking out the door on Friday, a little one came up to me and said, “Jeff pretended to fart on me.” “I believe you,” I said. “Let’s go talk to Jeff about how to treat friends.”

One of the dilemmas I confront as a teacher of young children is how to respond to a child’s report when I think they are not telling the truth or exaggerating. I was listening to two children happily playing in the block center when the blocks came crashing down. Zora ran to me and said, “Tommie always knocks down my buildings.” I said to her, “I believe you about being upset about your building. Let’s talk about what the word ‘always’ means.”

One of the complications we experienced was dealing with tattling, a normal part of teaching 1st grade. Children at this age become reporters of every transgression, and it is important that educators help children learn to independently work on their own problems. In our classroom we define “tattles” as saying something just to get someone in trouble and “tells” as reporting something a child needs adult help with or something an adult should know. It is an imperfect system, and takes a long time for children to process the difference between the two.

When reflecting on our new process, Todd Reynolds said, “Some of these examples are ‘tattles’ and others are ‘tells,’ but by saying, ‘I believe you’ you let the child know that no matter the outcome, their concerns were not dismissed when they came forward. I think it is not about a new way to handle conflict resolution — we will still use the opportunity to help the child distinguish between a ‘tattle’ and a ‘tell’ and each will be dealt with appropriately — but, ‘I believe you,’ sends a strong message to children that the adults in their lives are present and take their safety and concerns seriously.”

Making Our Practice Public with Our Students
After three weeks of practicing and analyzing our “I believe you” focus, we were ready to talk to the students about it. Our kids love it when we gather them on the rug to have a serious life talk. They quietly sat down in our gathering space and looked at me with the seriousness that always settles over our special talks.

I told the children how much we care that they experience school as a safe and caring place. Then all of the teachers explained that we have been very intentional in using “I believe you” when they come and talk to us. We gave the children our examples and our explanation about our decision. I talked about an incident that happened the day before when Elsie told me that someone had taken her place at the lunch table and that it hurt her feelings. Elsie remembered that I had said, “I believe you. Let’s go see how that happened” while taking her by the hand to talk to the group of girls.

We then read the book Mae Among the Stars by Roda Ahmed. This is an illustrated biography of Mae Jemison, the first African American female astronaut. Of special interest to my students, Dr. Jemison was a student at Morgan Park High School on Chicago’s South Side. In this picture book, Mae Jemison explains to her parents her dream of becoming an astronaut. They take Mae to the library and buy her a telescope. She is determined to “see Earth from out there.” But on Career Day, when Mae told her teacher that she wanted to be an astronaut, her teacher said, “Mae, are you sure you don’t want to be a nurse? Nursing would be a good profession for someone like you.” The subtext of this encounter being, that as a Black female this would be the obvious profession open to her.

After we read the book I asked our students to write what they were thinking about how the teacher treated Mae.

One student wrote, “What I was thinking is that it was mean to treat Mae like that. She should chase her dream not the teacher’s.”

Another child said, “If I was going to have a new teacher, I would want to be told ‘I can.’”

“I was thinking the teacher did not treat Mae how a teacher should. Like she didn’t care deeply about Mae.”
Our students are very young, yet they understand the subtlety and subtext of adult and child interactions. We noticed that the children’s writings were not as rich and developed as the whole group classroom discussion we had. For example, John said during the discussion, “In the story, the teacher put Mae in a box,” which is a very colorful description of the story event. In his writing, however, he said, “I was mad.” This is to be expected.

Many times 1st-grade students can verbally explain complex thoughts, yet their writing does not capture it all. This is one of the reasons we allow children to talk issues through, draw, and write in our classroom. Multiple responses are important in order to engage children on different levels. All of their responses reaffirmed to our team that we were on the right track. After reading through the children’s work, our student teacher said, “Imagine if our students insisted on being spoken to fairly throughout their lives.”

Students are now recognizing “I believe you” moments on their own. The other day we read Amazing Grace by Mary Hoffman in order to develop a character study, totally aside from explicit teaching of “I believe you.” In this book, Grace is told by her classmates that she cannot be Peter Pan in the play because she is Black and a girl. Grace eventually takes on the persona of Peter Pan and astounds her classmates at the audition. At the end of the reading, Elsie said, “That was an ‘I believe you story.’” We all agreed.

This is how we embarked on our journey together with our students, letting them know that our words and actions are intentional, and that we care deeply about them. After our Mae Jemison lesson our team discussed our hopes for our students. We concluded that our hope is that we are building a pathway to empowerment for them.

Many of the people I have spoken to about this have told me instances where an adult saying “I believe you” would have changed their lives. Imagine the difference across race, across class, across gender if we would say “I believe you” to one another instead of “really?” or “well, actually . . .” It is no small thing we do when we structure our classrooms around respect and empowerment — our words can make all the difference in the world.

Michelle Strater Gunderson is a 31-year teaching veteran who teaches 1st grade in the Chicago Public Schools. She is the chair of the Early Childhood Committee for the Chicago Teachers Union, where she also serves on the board of trustees.

Illustrator Simone Shin’s work can be found at simoneshin.com.