Five Lessons Learned from Teaching Elementary Online

Twenty-seven rambunctious six-year-olds clamored into the classroom asking questions in Portuguese and English. They were generous with their hugs and excited to be part of a new international elementary program. It was February 2020, and my colleagues and I were in Santos, São Paulo, helping the Grade 1 team navigate new K-5 materials in our Learning Management System. After working with the technology, we spent time with the students — coloring, writing, talking, and laughing together. 

Classroom visits such as these are among my greatest joys as the Academic Director of a global school district. A short-time after this visit, our partner schools across the globe closed due to COVID, and our blended programs became fully online programs. The February 2020 launch of our elementary program has taught me important lessons about working with K-5 students and teachers in these online contexts. Below are the top five takeaways I am focusing on as we support elementary schools in preparing online options for the coming school year.

Teachers Matter. 

Dr. C is a performer and singer. She views the online platform as a new stage for her important pedagogy. Lately she has been sharing photos of her covered in number stickers, dancing with stuffed animals, and utilizing other performance surprises to keep her young learners engaged.

Mr. H. doesn’t like technology. He misses his classroom, misses workshopping with students at the kidney shaped table in the back of his room and he especially misses the energy when the students spill in from the hallway.  While his students know that he misses seeing them face-to-face, they don’t know how he feels about teaching online. Each day Mr. H goes out of his way to be enthusiastic about learning in this new model. 

What Mr. H and Dr. C share is a love of their students, a commitment to making this new approach work, and a love of teaching that still shines across the video conference screen. This passion translates directly to student learning and engagement outcomes. Studies have shown that  teachers continue to be the single greatest predictor of achievement and connection. The ways educators demonstrate care and high-expectations matters more than any other characteristic in student success.

Ms. L is honest and vulnerable with students. She shares that she is also new to online learning and her vulnerability puts kids at ease. Ten minutes into a lesson, students feel like they are sitting criss cross applesauce on the floor. She sings phonics songs and eagerly asks her young scholars to contribute to the conversation. 

Technology is a learnable tool.

After a lesson, Ms. L told some of us that she practices navigating the technical tools ahead of time with her son. The technical learning curve is real—it is also surmountable. In my experiences, young students often leap over this curve ahead of their teachers. Harness the technical skill set of young learners by asking for their ideas, and assigning students to technical support roles (e.g. much like the in-person “line leader” role). 

Families are critical partners in the learning process.

Four months into our new program, one of our international partner schools shared that since moving online, the Grade 1 math classes had become a family event. Parents and grandparents were logging-in with their children to count, add, subtract, and manipulate numbers in English. 

While this experience might not translate directly to the U.S. context, families continue to be essential learning partners in online elementary programs. We need to make sure they know how to access digital materials, help their children login for synchronous classes, and that they supervise appropriate online activity. Different children need this support to different degrees. 

One of the greatest strengths of these new models is that they cause us to think differently about space, place, and community. As school learning shifts to living rooms and kitchen tables, new school conversations are happening at different times and between different family members. Further, students learn that classrooms are flexible constructions and that learning can happen anywhere. 

The model requires flexibility and movement.

Utilize intentionality around the online schedule and build in purposeful movement breaks. Seven-year-olds weren’t made to sit in front of a computer (or iPad) screen from 7:30am-2:30pm each day. Students need kinesthetic breaks during online sessions and a full log-off every 45 minutes. Elementary learners, whether online or offline, are still elementary students, which means they need to wiggle, sing, and stretch.

As we develop online/ blended elementary classrooms, students need a combination of synchronous (online/real-time instruction) and asynchronous (off-line or anytime practice/instruction) strategies. Utilize different combinations of whole group, small group, and independent sessions to help students master concepts, learn skills, and practice new strategies.  Use synchronous moments to build community, talk through class material, and directly teach new concepts. 

Equity is essential in serving kids.

As we transition to more online learning options, we must advocate for equitable access. This requires creative community-based solutions.

How do we make sure all students have access to devices, reliable internet connections, and the materials needed to learn from home? How do we support families in partnering with children in these new models? How can we open up community spaces to create new kinds of classrooms? How do we run breakfast and lunch programs to students learning from home? How do we honor confidentiality and privacy during video conferences?  How do we cultivate safe space in online settings? How do we expand choice to all families?

These are essential challenges to explore as we move to online models. In fact, if we aren’t problem-solving around these kinds of questions, we aren’t serving students. In this uncertain and unprecedented season in education, we must continue asking hard questions, implementing new solutions, and continuing to be vigilant in putting students first.

Like many in education, I am hopeful that we will emerge from this uncertain time with reimagined strategies and tools. I am also hopeful we will begin to envision new possibilities for teaching, learning, and community, and that we will use these lessons to better serve students and teachers. 

Encouragingly, Dr. KFW

Teaching for Anti-Racism

Can you read, love, or friend your way into fully understanding the lived experiences of another person or cultural group? If not, does this mean you should stop reading, loving, or practicing friendship? In fact, it is just the opposite. Teaching for anti-racism requires that we seek a greater understanding of cultural groups, as well as the conditions, systems, and structures that contribute to racism. Further, it acknowledges that we understand there are things we will never fully understand. Teaching for anti-racism requires us to center the voices of people of color in our curriculum, classrooms, and conversations; to celebrate, affirm, value, and learn from those who show us how to show up and be better. For this reason, in this historical moment, this document only points to resources authored by Black scholars, reporters, producers, poets, and authors. 

There are many excellent classroom book-lists about race and racism circulating the interwebs right now. We are thrilled to see these and link to several in the last section of this document. As a school community, we also wanted us to share our own list of resources that have personally mattered to us in our own work around anti-racism.

We wrote to this prompt: “Share resources that matter to YOU, have expanded your worldview, enhanced your teaching, etc. This isn’t a list of resources you’ve heard are great. It’s a list of resources you have already read, wrestled with, and left changed by.”

Key Concepts

As with any teaching resource, we want to start by defining some key terms. 

  • Race – refers to culture. This is a term used to define groups of people with similar physical and cultural characteristics. Race is a social construct that is defined differently across cultures.
  • Racism – refers to power and privilege. Racism is a system that unfairly gives certain groups power, access, and privilege over other groups. 
  • Anti-Racism the active and intentional process of identifying, resisting, and dismantling racism by changing systems, policies, practices, and attitudes so that communities are safe, people are affirmed and valued, and power is distributed equitably. (See especially Ibram X. Kendi’s work.) 
  • Education – “The most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” -Nelson Mandela

Resources for Teachers

Note from Kathryn (School Principal): Teachers often talk about “their children” or “their kids…” Do these references include all students? What subtle (or not so subtle) messages do teachers send about which children in their classes are “other people’s?” I read this book as a brand new teacher and my developing teaching practice is better for having studied Delpit’s work. In particular, it helped me foster an ongoing reflective practice about inclusion, othering, culture, the power dynamics of school, and the role my students and I can play in creating new realities together.

Note from Jill (Lead Teacher): My continual thought as I read this book is that every white person should read it. Austin Channing Brown writes with frank, unapologetic candor about the poison of racial injustice and how white people, sometimes even unknowingly, perpetuate that injustice. She challenges her readers to face their own biases and to do the hard work to help bring about healing and change.

Note from Stephanie (Assistant Principal): A fellow educator recommended this to me as eye-opening, essential reading. This book gives context to and helps frame our discussion of race, racism, and anti-racism. It’s a great place to start to build knowledge and to diversify your library. This book also has been adapted for younger readers: Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You: A Remix of the National Book Award-winning Stamped from the Beginning by Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi.
Note from Kathryn (School Principal): I read this book as an undergraduate. This was when I was majoring in Sociology. This was before I knew I was destined to be a teacher, before I knew school cafeterias and teaching for antiracism would be part of my life. This was definitely before I knew I would become the mother of Black son and watch as he (and I) navigated the politics of race, racism, and identity in schools.

Note from Jill (Lead Teacher): I was deeply inspired when I read (actually listened) to this book. I have looked up to Michelle Obama for years, but that level of respect deepened as I listened and learned her own story about her educational experience, the education initiatives she helped lead while she was First Lady, and her continued passion and work for all children, but specifically for students in the Black community.

Note from Kathryn (School Principal): I have a group of student leaders to thank for teaching me the power of using podcasts in the classroom. I’ve been listening ever since. Code Switch speaks important truths with powerful and purposeful closeness. Here is a trailer to the podcast.
Note: This podcast sometimes includes strong language and violence.
Note from Lisa (Elementary Coordinator): This podcast has a wealth of episodes to teach history from the point of view of People of Color growing up and living in the United States. 
Teaching Bonus: The Seeing White website also features a study guide if teachers plan to listen to episodes with their high school students.
Note from Jill Clingan (Lead Teacher): We often hear the saying, “This country was built on the backs of slavery and racism,” but before listening to this podcast I did not understand the depth of truth in that statement. The podcast 1619 was a painfully eye-opening education for me in understanding how, even before our country was born, the narrative of slavery was defining the narrative of our country. I now evaluate history, read literature, listen to other podcasts, and view current events through the lens of this narrative.

Resources for High School Learners

Note from Kathryn (School Principal): As soon as I read this book, I knew I wanted to teach it. Justyce’s voice leads readers to rich and powerful text-to-text, text-to-world, and text-to-self connections. Since first reading this book a few years ago, I have read it with teacher candidates and high school students. Nic Stone’s work has contributed to important conversations about race, racism, and justice. I recently shared this book with my college-aged son who has since recommended it to his friends. 
Note: this book includes some strong language and violence.
Note from Sherry (Lead Teacher): I discovered this book when Ruth McBride and her children were interviewed on a television show. James McBride authored the book so that the world to know about his mother, a remarkable woman who raised twelve children.
Note from Stephanie (Assistant Principal): I read this years ago in a book club, and this is one of those books that won’t leave me. It’s the story of two black men — one a lawyer and one accused of murder. As the author’s eyes are opened to how deep and evil the roots of racism grow, so were mine. It’s had a profound impact on the way I evaluate information and my understanding of a million small things combine and build to create huge injustice.
Note from Kathryn (School Principal): This powerful fictional story provides a springboard for exploring youth activism, police brutality, racism, change movements, and protests. The story follows Starr’s coming-of-voice journey to speak out against injustice. Thus far, every student I know who has read this book has read it positively gripped to see what comes next. The book has been adapted into an acclaimed motion picture. 
Note: this book includes strong language, drug references, and violence. 

Bonus Teaching Note: The film adaptation is now available for free streaming.

Note from: Lou Jobst (Lead Teacher): I have taught this novel many times to the delight–and horror–of my students. It truly engages readers and makes them think and reevaluate. It is poetic; it is thoughtful; it is powerful. As the last line of the book speaks so eloquently, “Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?”

Note from Kathryn (School Principal):  The trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans. I say, the trip to Mars can only be understood through Black Americans. I considered starting this resource with that quote from Nikki Giovanni’s poem, “Quilting the Black-Eyed Pea.” That particular poem is also one of my favorites to teach. I’ve found Giovanni’s poems powerful for all students, and particularly for students who don’t think they like poetry. In college, I had the wonderful opportunity to meet Nikki Giovanni, hear her lecture, and perform her poems. 

Teaching Bonus: Nikki Giovanni also has poetry collections that are perfect for younger readers, including Ego-Tripping (Middle School) and The Sun is So Quiet (Elementary)

Note from Lisa (Teacher): In 11th Grade, I knew to come to English class prepared, as the teacher would throw chalk at any student not ready for the class discussion. I made sure to do all the reading, It was this class (and teacher) that introduced me to the writing of Maya Angelou. Never before had I heard about or read a perspective of an African-American woman growing up with so much pain and sorrow, and yet always rising because of her spirit. This book and this English class was my first childhood memory of reflecting upon what it meant to be a girl, and I am grateful to Maya Angelou for igniting that spark within me. 
Note from Jill Clingan (Lead Teacher): This book, which won the Newbery and Coretta Scott King awards, is an engaging, powerful story that addresses racial and adolescent identity issues, police brutality, fitting in, standing out, and finding one’s voice. I appreciated this novel’s honest picture of Jade’s life as a high schooler and how she learned to celebrate and own both her struggles and her strengths. This book would likely be enjoyed by middle school readers, as well.
Note from Kathryn (School Principal): I listened to this segment alone on a run the other day. While listening, I was sad not to be listening to it with a group of high school students. The idea lends itself to classroom discussion and extension with rich opportunities for students to choose songs giving them (much needed) life, while also exploring the role of music in change movements, and possibly falling in love with new artists.

Resources for Middle School Learners

Note from Kathryn (School Principal): My daughter picked this book up at a school book fair and became instantly absorbed in it. She read entranced, looking up only occasionally to ask me a question about school integration, racism, or xenophobia. As soon as she finished Pinkney’s book, she set it on my nightstand so I could read it and “we could talk about it.” With the Might of Angels is a great book to start or continue conversations about school integration, belonging, and perseverance.

Note from Brian (Middle School Coordinator): This book is jarring, but accessible, for middle school students as well as high school students. Students find it easy, yet occasionally unsettling, to identify with main character Cassie, a strong young girl navigating a world that is occasionally and brutally unfair and unjust.
Note from: Lisa (Elementary Coordinator): Brown Girl Dreaming is a young people’s novel that I discovered and read when I was already in my 30s! I love Woodson’s voice throughout the book as she tells her stories in free verse.

Note from: Megan Lilien (Science and Health Division Chair): My daughter and I were introduced to this book as part of the family book club we participate in at school. The first-person narrative made the story relatable to my daughter. It also helped both of us learn about injustice and racism from several perspectives. Each character has different approaches for the same fight. Our book discussion led to several thoughtful questions.
Note from Stephanie (Assistant Principal): What would happen if we stopped letting race or gender decide what someone can accomplish? How many brilliant ideas, solutions, and cures have we lost because of ignorance and injustice? This movie is a great peek into our history and a fantastic reminder to keep pushing for recognition and equity. 

Bonus Teaching Notes: Journey’s in Film has created a free curriculum around this movie.
Students can (and should) also read the book on which the film is based by, Margot Lee Shetterly. In addition to the original, which is appropriate for high school readers, Shetterly has also written adaptations for both middle and elementary students.
Note from: Lisa (Elementary Coordinator): I appreciate the young People of Color, especially young women, that are amplifying their voices and pushing the movement for social change. In the words of the filmmaker, Kiki Finley: “I wanted to make sure this message was told from this young lady’s perspective. She has been taught to appreciate her skin tone no matter what and pass the wisdom to her friends at a time when skin tone and gender can actually be an offense.” View the short film here.

Resources for Elementary School Learners

Note from Kathryn (School Principal): I read this book with my daughter when she was in third grade. I just asked her what she liked about the book and she said, “The Watson family.” She’s right, you can’t help but fall for the “Wacky Watsons”to use the protagonist’s term. As an adult reading the book, you know what happened in 1963 at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham and you know that this story is headed to that horror. For moments though you forget and laugh along with the Watson family. Then suddenly you remember where the story is headed and hold your breath as Christopher Curtis brings you there through an adolescent protagonist named Kenny.

Note from Lisa (Elementary Coordinator): Young children are the most keen observers of other people.  They notice every little bit of people’s appearances from their hair down to their feet. When doing a unit of self-portraits with my Kindergarten students, I Love My Hair was one of the books I read to share the uniqueness of children and to acknowledge and celebrate our differences.

Note from Lisa (Elementary Coordinator): a kids book about racism is written by an African-American father. From my perspective, it is one of the most simple yet straightforward ways to begin conversations about racism with young children, particularly if you are unsure where to start. I appreciate that the word ‘racism’ is in the title because too many times adults back away from even starting to talk about racism with their children. It is my hope that we can all begin and then continue these conversations.

Note from Lisa (Elementary Coordinator): During my first year teaching first grade, I stumbled upon Angela Johnson’s work while looking for books written by African-American authors with Black children as main characters. Her books have simple text and vivid illustrations that celebrate love and joy in Black families. Other note-worthy books for young readers by Angela Johnson are Do Like Kyla, A Sweet Smell of Roses, and Daddy Calls Me Man.

Note from Lisa (Elementary Coordinator): Recently, I saw a picture of a friend’s three beautiful Black boys holding a sign at a protest that read “When do we go from cute to a threat?” The photograph and the sign’s message really struck me as our country battles for racial justice. In Be Boy Buzz, bell hooks celebrates the multi-facets of this young Black boy.  “Beautiful…I be boy laughing, crying, telling my story, talking way too loud…All boy, hug me close, Don’t let me down.

Note from Lisa (Elementary Coordinator): My two sons are mixed race. When they were younger, I wanted to surround them with picture books that featured families that looked like us – parents and children with all  different shades of brown. On a deeper level, I also wanted to instill within my children a sense of gratitude for families that had to fight to be together. At it very core, it is love that connects and defines a family.

Note from Brian (Middle School Coordinator): After meeting brilliant illustrator E.B. Lewis, this book (and Across the Alley) became one I have regularly read to elementary school students. The pictures are textured and evocative in several different ways, and gently address a sensitive issue. I also recommend Across the Alley by Richard Michelson, which includes more moving illustrations by E.B. Lewis.

Note from Megan (Science and Health Division Chair): This book is a new discovery for me. It is beautifully written and illustrated. The book helps kids find their voice when they feel different and left out and to use story to teach acceptance and to celebrate diversity.

Additional Resources

Thank you to Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, Jill Clingan, Lisa DeCastro, Stephanie Walter, Brian Stuhlman, Megan Lilien, Sherry Denney, and Lou Jobst for contributing to this resource.

Social Revisioning at a Distance

On St. Patrick’s Day, area children searched for shamrocks in their neighbors’ windows. Over the past seven days, I’ve taught several friends in their 60s how to use FaceTime and Zoom. My daughter’s teacher now sends us an email at 8:30 each morning.

All of this doesn’t feel like social distancing, it feels more like social revisioning, albeit at a distance. Semantics matter — so does practice.

The Heart of Social Revisioning

In the face of COVID-19 uncertainty, these acts of compassion and connection are the heart of social revisioning.

Are we experiencing physical distance? Absolutely. This physical distancing is often difficult, scary and uncertain.

Socially though, it seems we are drawing into each other and seeking new ways to practice proximity. Thank goodness. We need each other right now.

Social revisioning is the nurse at my grandma’s retirement center who brings her own iPad to work each day so that my grandma can see our faces when we tell her, “I love you.”

It is waking up every day grateful for health workers such as these, as well as food service workers, truckers and grocery store clerks. It is recognizing our inherent interdependence.

Social revisioning is all the teachers finding new ways to reach out, check-in, offer support and give positive feedback.

It’s educators using new tools outside their technical comfort zones. Social revisioning is our public schools sending WiFi hotspots to students needing access.

Social revisioning is the bakery that had to close, so they baked up all of their remaining cookie dough for nurses, doctors and hospital workers.

It’s cards sent to nursing homes and essentials delivered to the elderly and immune-compromised neighbors. It is my mother learning how to video chat.

Social revisioning is church services held from our living rooms, Shabbos candles lit at home and daily prayers made from the quiet corners of our houses. Social revisioning is the friend who calls just to chat, even though we’ve never been the kinds of friends who call just to chat.

Feeding Each Other

And, of course, it is feeding each other. Our local Food Bank immediately started strategizing for what it knew would be a food insecurity crisis. Local restaurants are offering free lunches to children and health care workers.

Community members are organizing drives, collecting supplies and delivering groceries.

Social revisioning reminds us that no matter the situation, we can always find ways to reach out, to connect and to reimagine what it means to be a community together.

As the cases increase, will we keep checking in? Will we keep calling just to chat? Will we keep seeking new ways to connect with students?

As the closures continue, will we keep coming together to care for those in need? Will we accept care ourselves when needed?

Will we seek ways to support our small businesses who need our ongoing patronage? Will we hug the people in our homes close and reach out to those feeling alone?

With hope, we’ll become even more proficient in creative ways to connect and care. In the meantime, let’s keep pressing forward — together.

Warmly, Dr. KFW

This article originally appeared in The Columbia Missourian. You can view the original here.

Five Strategies for Navigating Working and Learning from Home

Three weeks ago our local public schools announced that they would be closing for COVID-19. That same day, my university colleagues and I were also asked to work from home. On the eve of this new era for our family, I rolled up my sleeves and designed the most beautiful “learning schedule” for our  8-year-old. 

I went to bed as dozens of Zoom meetings appeared on my calendar. At 6:00am I woke up to an iPad screen in my face and my daughter announcing that she was “ready to get started” with her new learning apps.

Wait a minute, I thought learning apps would come later in the day. Mama needs a cup of coffee. Did Mama just refer to herself in the third person? When is my first Zoom meeting? It’s in an hour. I hope the audio-video works okay. Alright child, you can preview the apps. 

And that is how we fell off my schedule before we even started. Sort of. This brings me to my first point about this new reality of working and learning from home. 

Give Everyone Grace

We are navigating uncharted waters in healthcare, learning, working, and living. This means neither school nor work will look or feel the same as they do face-to-face. Accept that balancing your work responsibilities with added childcare and teaching responsibilities is challenging at best, and in our most-stressed moments downright impossible. (Those moments typically pass.)

Through Zoom, my colleagues heard my daughter yell, “Hey Mom, I’m starting a fire.” She meant in the gas fireplace, but still—also it was 60 degrees outside. 

Pro-tip: Mute your microphone until you need to talk. Do this even if your work space seems quiet.

Create Structure and Choice

As I organize work-and-learn-from-home days, I’m not concerned with the order of activities. Instead, each day, my goal is simply to create structures where both my daughter and I can keep making progress.  I use Canva’s menu templates to make our learning schedules. Below is an example that you can print out and modify.

Learning Schedule Template by Dr. KFW

Our daily schedules include 9 activities for our eight-year-old to check off each day. We always include reading, arts, math, and wellness activities. She gets to choose the order. 

One day she read several chapters of a fantasy book, completed two of the fitness challenges her P.E. teacher sent home, wrote her teacher a letter, tested out two reading apps, started writing a creative story, challenged her dad to Blokus, yelled at Khan Academy while working on some math problems, and helped me launch a social media fundraiser for our local food bank. 

On our best days, we end the day by talking about what worked well and what we need to adjust for tomorrow. On our worst days, this doesn’t happen. See the first tip on giving everyone grace. 

Utilize Technical Tools

Technology is both helping us to stay connected and also teaching our daughter important technical literacy skills.

  • Google Drive is a wonderful resource for children (of all ages) to share their written work. During school closures, my daughter is sending updates, questions, and creative stories to family, teachers, and friends. While learning from home, being able to engage, with our supervision, through Google Drive, FaceTime, Skype, and Zoom helps our children feel more connected. 

Additionally, below are five learning apps and websites that we’re enjoying. All of these are either free or have free trials.

Remember, Wellness Matters

As we receive news about the impact of COVID-19, it’s okay to experience a huge range of emotions. These feelings are valid. As we navigate this new reality, keep prioritizing wellness. 

For me, this looks like starting our day with a snuggle (not an iPad in my face), our favorite breakfast beverage (pink lemonade for her and coffee with cream with me), a reasonably healthy lunch (my definition of reasonable is pretty liberal), affirming my daughter’s feelings as they come (even when that means muting my Zoom), and a walk (alone for me) in the evening with Yo Yo Ma in my earbuds and a dog by my side.  

Reach Out to Others

I have been touched by the tremendous outpouring of connection and curriculum by teachers (including my daughter’s teachers) across the nation. Teacher education students, retired educators, and homeschool parents are posting invitations to help with homework questions and tutoring. Schools that are experts in online and blended learning are offering their support. Authors and media specialists are recording read alouds. 

Remember, social distancing only refers to physical proximity. Don’t go on this journey alone. Reach out to family, friends, and experts. Ask questions. Share funny stories and difficult ones. Revise your home learning schedule (again) and accept that, with hope, tomorrow is yet another opportunity to learn, work, and love. 

Sending you and yours strength and well wishes, Dr. KFW

I recognize that having a position that allows me to work from home, technology resources, and enough food to feed our family are privileges that many do not have during these uncertain times.  Both my household and my school community are sending support, resources, and compassion to those in need of extra care. If you are able, I encourage you to incorporate this kind of caring into the fabric of what it means to be home during this historical moment.

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. 

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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