Holding Space for Connection

It’s early in the morning and I am enjoying the way my medium roast coffee with milk tastes like home. Dawn is just starting to break across my front window. In the States, the days are getting longer as we press toward spring.

Earlier this week I was in Brazil, working and learning with teachers and students, seeing old friends, and starting my days with strong coffee and sweet pineapple. There, people told me they were looking forward to more fall breezes. 

I have so many stories to share from this trip. This first one begins with an Uber ride and ends with a 6-year-old comedian.

An Uber Driver with 13 Siblings

Our Uber ride has arrived and the four of us pile in.

“Boa noite. Qual é o seu nome?” (Good evening. What is your name?)

“Boa noite. Sou a Kathryn.”  (Good evening. I’m Kathryn.)

I look at the uber app on my phone to find the driver’s name. “Marcelo, sim?” (You are Marcelo, yes?)

“Sim. Você fala português?” (Yes. Do you speak Portuguese?)

“Estou aprendendo.” (I am learning.)

“Ótimo.” (Wonderful.)

The drive is 15-minutes long. During that time Marcelo tells us his life story. We learn about his 13 brothers and sisters. We see photos of his lovely wife and daughter. He is very proud. We learn about the upcoming trip he is taking to visit a brother in Japan. 

We learn these things in little bits, told with enough patience and pauses for me to translate them to my colleagues. 

As we make our way, through the busy São Paulo streets, Marcelo asks us about our faith, our work, and how often we’ve been to Brazil. I translate the answers back to him. 

The car feels like it’s moving at a slower, easier pace than the Saturday night blur and bustle outside. When we arrive at our destination, Marcelo says, “Eu vou desligar o carro. Eu quero dar um abraço em cada um de vocês. Obrigado por ouvir a minha história.” (I am going to turn off the car. I want to give you each a hug. Thank you for listening to my story.)

We embrace, all of us changed from this spontaneous connection. 

What gives certain places weight in your heart? 

On Sundays, Avenida Paulista is closed for traffic, which opens up a huge stretch in the middle of the city for artisans, musicians, and walkers. I’ve had the gift of so many Sundays on Avenida Paulista that I now know some of the artisans. I smile at the potter whose coffee cups have the most glorious glazes. I stop and buy more paper earrings from the young woman who has a fondness for wild designs and also a finicky credit card machine. 

I think about a line from a poem I wrote last year: 

When did this city evolve from being somewhere I visit, 

to somewhere I return to? 

What gives certain places weight in your heart? 

After a rainy week, the sun is shining today. We weave through the crowds to an ice cream stand owned by a young woman. I buy us scoops of ice cream and ask the young woman if she will take our picture. 

“Claro!” (Of course!)

We group together and smile at her. She laughs and comes out from the stand to take the photo from the other direction. 

“Se você quiser tirar uma foto, deve ser com meu carrinho de sorvete.” (If you want to take a picture, it should be with my ice cream stand.)

The young woman beams as we pose in front of her stand. Sweet, sticky strawberry ice cream runs down my fingers. 

She couldn’t have imagined this, but there she was 

My friend is zooming through the streets at dusk to get us to the highest point in the city before sunset. She wants to show us the view. 

“The lights on the buildings look like beads on a necklace.”

As we drive, she tells us about her mother who is recovering from emergency surgery. 

“It can happen so suddenly,” my friend says. “One moment, you’re fine and the next you’re not.”

We nod. We’ve all experienced this with people we love. For a moment, her words blur and I am no longer in the car. I am with my grandma in another state, in another country, across the ocean. 

Something pulls me back into the conversation. My friend is telling us about the under-resourced hospital and how she fed the strangers who roomed near her mother. 

“They didn’t have anyone,” she tells us sadly.

She said she couldn’t have imagined this, but suddenly there she was cutting up meat, adjusting bed pillows, and bringing in extra linens for people she had just met. 

We arrive at the overlook just as the light is starting to change. We take photos and watch the sun dip into the sea. The lights shine across the shore exactly like beads on a necklace.

Their secret handshake starts with a high five

The students will arrive in a moment. For now we are organizing crayons, preparing ourselves for the chaos and excitement of twenty-three 6-year-olds.

The first child to enter walks right up to me. In a few moments, we will learn that she is both the class leader and class comedian. For now, though, we are just meeting for the first time.

I lower myself to her eye level.

“Você fala português?” (Do you speak Portuguese?)

“Estou aprendendo, assim como você está aprendendo inglês.” (I am learning, just like you are learning English.)

She looks at me seriously and to make sure I am telling the truth, she quizzes me. “Um dois três…” (One, two, three…)

When I answer, “quatro cinco seis!” (four, five, six!) she giggles and gives me a hug.

Now that we’re such good friends, she teaches me their class’s secret handshake, which starts with a high five and ends with a fist bump. 

________________________________________________________

In each of these moments, what gave us the grace and good sense to hold space for connection? Maybe it has something to do with being so far from home and feeling a little bit lost ourselves. Then again, it bears mentioning that sometimes even at home we still feel a little bit lost and searching for connection.

Regardless of where you go, almost everyone you meet warms when they show you photos of their families. Small business owners are always proud to showcase their work. When someone is sick they need our prayers and when someone is lonely they want to be seen and heard. These things transcend place.

What if these simple sparks of human connection are what tethers us to each other?

This may be my most important lesson from last week.

The more I travel, the more I’ve learned that it isn’t the unfamiliar landmarks that give us direction, but the familiar spaces we share.

With you for the journey,

Dr. KFW

Teaching Self-Advocacy Skills

This post comes from Dr. KFW’s latest book When Your Child Learns Differently (2019).


“Self-advocacy is the ability to make sure your needs are understood and met. This can look like speaking up, speaking out, stepping in, and educating others. While…we can [and must]…help young people practice self-advocacy, the way each person advocates is contextualized by their individual identities, experiences, and communication styles. Self-advocacy is an essential skill for everyone to develop and for young people who learn differently it is often the key to getting the services, accommodations, and supports needed to be successful.”

Below is a framework to support young people in becoming more confident self-advocates:

Love and High-Expectations Warriors

Hanoi Journals

“I was a problematic student.”

I am listening to a new teacher tell a story. The story is being translated in real-time from Vietnamese to English. I could write an entire post on the brilliance and poetry of the two young women who translated this conference for us, but I’ll save that for another day. 

Despite being 8,000 miles from the classrooms I usually call home, the story the teacher is telling us is a familiar narrative. 

He courageously shares the following story: He was in trouble a lot in school. Classes didn’t click for him. His teachers didn’t expect much out of him. 

And then…he met a critical teacher. 

In his case, it was a tutor. The tutor saw something in him and told him so. She believed he was capable of important and interesting work and helped him believe in himself. 

Now he is doing the same for other kids. In fact, this is why he became a teacher. 

Critical Persons

In my last book, I wrote about how a critical person can change the trajectory of a child’s life.

A critical person can be anyone who sees your child not only for who they are right now, but also for who they might become. In the book I call these people the “love and high-expectations warriors at your children’s schools.” 

(Fishman-Weaver, K., 2019).

During our time in Hanoi, I met students and teachers who are both acting as critical persons and who are continuing to be affected by critical persons in their own lives.  Recently I wrote about the “universal language of the classroom,” how kids are kids are kids all over the world. 

Since then I’ve been thinking about how human beings are human beings are human beings all over the world. 

No matter where you go, showing up for one another causes ripples in our narratives.  During our trip to Vietnam, there were moments when I was uncertain and vulnerable.  These moments were met, not with judgment, but with compassion; I think about the smiles, encouragement and hot cups of coffee and tea shared. 

Let’s make schools places where we show up for each other with the same compassion. Most of us have been fortunate enough to experience the positive impact of a love and high-expectations warrior. 

When I meet with educators or aspiring educators, I often ask them to tell me about the teacher who had the greatest impact on them. Almost without fail, they tell a story similar to the one I heard in Hanoi. They talk about a teacher who saw something in them that no one else had. They talk about a teacher who believed they were capable of things they didn’t know they could do and then who helped them accomplish those things. 

A Renewed Opportunity

As we approach the new year, we have a renewed opportunity to commit to being the love and high-expectations warriors our students need. Are there young people in your buildings who think they are “problematic,” who aren’t being held to high expectations, whose stories are assumed but not known? Think about how many years that new teacher had to wait for the critical person who saw him and changed his trajectory. Let’s don’t let kids wait for years to be seen. 

And as we show up for students, let’s also show up for each other just as my new friends in Vietnam did for me. 

Sending compassion and strength to my colleagues across the hall and also across the ocean.

Warmly yours, Dr. KFW

The Universal Language of School

Hanoi Journals

I slide off my high heels, adding them to the large pile of shoes at the front of a brightly colored kindergarten building in Hanoi, Vietnam. Looking down the hallway I notice dozens of irregular snowflakes each cut with kid scissors and hung with a teacher’s care. I feel at home.

While I have never been to Vietnam before, much less this specific school, my global travels have shown me that there is a shared humanity that runs across our school hallways. Whether I am at a Catholic school in Brazil, a private school in Vietnam, or a public school in the United States, there are several things I know to be true. These things transcend language, culture, and worldview.  In fact, they may be the magic that makes schools work.

Connection matters

  • It only takes one spark of laughter to change the whole tenor of a classroom. 
  • Learning a new game can bring people together.
  • Though we show it in different ways, we all need to connect.
  • It is absolutely possible to sit with someone who speaks a different language than you and have a conversation.
  • Friends can share a joke without saying a word.
  • There is a renewed sense of possibility each morning when we greet students and colleagues. 
  • Few gifts are more treasured in a school day than receiving art from a student or a hot cup of coffee from a teacher.

Kids are Kids

  • Young children need to dance and sing.
  • Middle school students are curious about everything.
  • You can see both the lasting glimmers of childhood and the new glimmers of adulthood flash across the faces of high school students at play or work.
  • Kids carry big worries and big ideas and they don’t always know how to express those.

Universal Language

  • We straighten our gaze with determined focus when solving an interesting problem. 
  • When we see something beautiful, we want to share it.
  • We nod when we say thank you.
  • We crinkle our eyes to show delight.
  • There is a telltale kind of tired that teachers everywhere wear on their faces at the end of a school day.

I am grateful to Wellspring International Bilingual School for inviting us to spend the week with students and teachers. While I did manage to learn a few phrases in Vietnamese (thank you mostly to a group of sixth grade students), more importantly I learned that it doesn’t take spoken language to say many of the things that matter most in school including: thank you, I see you, I value you, and I’m happy you’re here.

Appreciatively yours, Dr. KFW

8,124 miles, Learning in a Global World

Hanoi Journals

Last week was our Thanksgiving holiday. I spent it with my extended family including my maternal grandmother. We looked at photos from her childhood: small black and white images of the horses her family used to plow the fields, a favorite farm dog, a small country house with a roof that let in snow in the winter, meaning that sometimes my grandmother and her siblings would wake covered in white flakes. 

Yesterday, I boarded a plane for Hanoi. It is 8,124 miles from my hometown to the capital of Vietnam. This is the furthest I have ever traveled. Along the way, I messaged my family from the airplane. My eight-year-old daughter tracked my flight on her iPad.

What does it mean to teach and learn in this global moment? What kind of world are we preparing our students to lead? 

When we arrived in the city, a friend picked us up and drove us to our hotel. It was late at night. Along the way she told us stories about the city, mixing legend (dragons and fairies) with practical (a new bridge built to streamline airport traffic). She pointed out a river, telling us this is where Hanoi, which means inside of the river, gets its name. We drove by the famous miles-long mural, an art installation to celebrate the 1,000 year anniversary of Vietnam’s independence.  It sparkled even in the dark. 

I wake up my first morning in Hanoi still foggy from travel. I step outside with a cup of coffee and watch the motorbikes whiz past as the city wakes up. I think about the students and teachers we get to work and learn with in this city. Many have  already visited us on campus, what a gift to reciprocate and see them here in their hometown. These young people amaze me, not only for their ability to study in both Vietnamese and English, but also for the radical hope they have for a different world.

This hope is a palpable constant in classrooms I’ve visited around the world. 

This morning, I wonder about my Vietnamese students. What stories do their grandparents and great-grandparents tell them about childhood? What complex memories do the black and white photographs from their basements hold?  I know history bears many weights. And yet, when we meet our friends here, they embrace me. When I great our students, they light up. 

I sip my coffee, watching the light change from dawn to day across the narrow streets in the old quarter, I think of our collective ability to move forward. I think of the new classrooms, questions, and projects our students are creating.  Our young people seem to approach the world as if it were an abstract origami project. They fold history, ingenuity, and grace together, offering us something that is both familiar and also completely brand new. 

Warmly, Dr. KFW

P.S. Check back soon for more updates from our travels.