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It only takes a few seconds on Hanaa Elmi’s Twitter timeline for even the most oblivious observer like myself to know that what she is doing is magical. One post from February details several images of student contributions from reflections on Stone Soup and other related readings - child’s handwriting draws your eye to the center of each poster - We take care of each other by…We take care of water by…We take care of the Earth by… - student drawings and reflections surrounding those prompts create the shared understanding - Hanaa also captures “Our Ideas” in the margins - have a spirit of ubuntu (I am because we are), she writes, Be like the Water Walkers, Love water!
Another series of images shows her young students exploring questions like “What’s the heart of the story? What do you think the author wants us to know in our minds & hearts as a reader?”, one student reply reads “Ms. I think the heart of the story is that anger is okay and normal. We just have to breathe.”
Hanaa prompts students to explore the differences & similarities between justice & charity. She quotes from one of the dozens of books her students use, “What are words really? Are they just random letters arranged in different ways? Or do they have magical powers that can inspire and amaze?” A student uses a number string to double 40. Students with clipboards find and sort animals on a number line by their height. They write, draw, & reflect in dream journals. I could go on and on and on… In every post, it’s so obvious that students are deeply engaged & invested in the world & with each other.
Community, love, joy, and learning are self-evident in the work she does with kids.
Hanaa Elmi is an elementary teacher in Windsor-Essex County. She is a graduate of the University of Windsor who roots her work in community: creating thriving spaces that humanize students. She is passionate about creating spaces where students deeply connect with the world around them in just, restorative, and conscientious ways.
Miss Elmi's Reading List:
(1) “Teaching to Transgress” by bell hooks
(2) “Other People’s Children” by Dr. Lisa Delpit
(3)“Radical Dreaming For Education Now” by Dr. Jamila Dugan (https://ascd.org/el/articles/radical-dreaming-for-education-now)
(4)“Schooling the System” by Dr. Funké Aladejebi
(5)“Cultivating Genius” by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad
(6)“Fugitive Pedagogy” by Dr. Jarvis R. Givens
(7) “My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending our Hearts and Bodies” by Resmaa Menakem
(8) “Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World” edited by Dr. Django Paris and Dr. H. Samy Alim
0:00:00.0 Hanaa Elmi: They have given me so much in insight and how to trust and center kids, how to wholly believe in them and to see education as a life-giving force. And it's really pushed me on this trajectory to really see how humanizing we need to make learning spaces. And I'm really deeply interested in that and allowing students to reflect on their gifts and their voice and their learning, and give them time to experience things and deeply connect with others in the world around them and make those connections. And I'm just, yeah, I just love the idea of having learning spaces that give kids chances to have experiences that are actionable, restorative, healing, allow them to be conscientious. So anything that can lend itself to that vision, I'm always excited to learn about, which is how I came across Human Restoration project.
0:00:51.5 Nick Covington: Hello, and welcome to Episode 128 of our podcast at the Human Restoration Project. My name is Nick Covington, as with all of our content, this episode is brought to you by our supporters, three of whom are Sarah Mastenbrook, Ryan Boren, and Molly Swanhorst, thank you so much for your ongoing support. You can learn more about us and our work at humanrestorationproject.org.
0:01:16.6 NC: It only takes a few seconds on Hanaa Elmi's Twitter timeline for even the most oblivious observer like myself to know that what she is doing is magical. One post from February details several images of student contributions from reflections on Stone Soup and other related readings. Child's handwriting draws your eye to the center of each poster. "We take care of each other by," "We take care of water by," "We take care of the earth by." Student drawings and reflections surrounding those prompts create the shared understanding. Hanaa also captures "Our Ideas" in the margins. Have a spirit of ubuntu, she says, I am because we are. Be like the Water Walkers, Love water. Another series of images shows her young students exploring questions like, What's the heart of the story? What do you think the author wants us to know in our minds and hearts as a reader?
0:02:13.7 NC: One student reply reads, "Miss, I think the heart of the story is that anger is okay and normal. We just have to breathe." Hanaa prompts students to explore the differences in similarities between justice and charity. She quotes from one of the dozens of books her students use, What are words really? Are they just random letters arranged in different ways? Or do they have magical powers that can inspire and amaze. A student uses a number string to double 40. Students with clipboards find and sort animals on a number line by their height. They write, draw, and reflect in dream journals. I could go on and on and on. In every post, it's so obvious that students are deeply engaged and invested in the world and with each other. Community, love, joy, and learning are self-evident in the work she does with kids. And what a joy it is to be able to spend time with you today. Hanaa, welcome.
0:03:10.4 HE: Thank you. I'm so excited to be here.
0:03:13.0 NC: And I hope our conversation today can capture that spirit and bring it up close to us for us to get to know you and begin to understand that beating heart and the magic at the heart of everything that I was just listing there. So for folks who may not know you, Who are you? What is the work that you do?
0:03:29.0 HE: Before I even start, I just wanna say something like, big fan girl, [laughter] because Human Restoration Project is like, I'm just so... I'm like so happy to be here. But not only that, but just to be a part of it in this capacity is I'm just like so, I don't have the words to describe it, just indescribable. So I just wanna start off with that. Thanks for having me and all the work that you do, Nick, and all the work that Chris does to create this platform and space for educators and people who are invested in education, I think this is so, so important. So I wanna start off just by saying that.
0:04:00.4 NC: Thank you.
0:04:01.3 HE: Thank you. And so I'm Hanaa. A self-described reader, learner, a big super fan of Abbott Elementary, [laughter] and I'm a public educator.
0:04:11.5 NC: Shout out.
0:04:12.6 HE: Yeah, I love that show. I'm currently in my 10th year as an educator. Just started my 10th year. And I live in Ontario, Canada. So that's a little bit about me and what I do. I teach second and third graders, so they're about 7, 8, 9 year olds. They're just the best. So I'm just enjoying all of our time together.
0:04:30.9 NC: That's incredible. As the father of a second grader, thank you [laughter] for your service. Thank you for your work [laughter] and it really is. I just have such a deep admiration for elementary teachers in particular. And I really think are un and underappreciated in the timeline of education K through 12. I mean, you're at such an important level there. So what are the ideas, thinkers and the work that informs the work that you do with kids? And maybe a follow up to that too, How responsive are they to that?
0:05:05.0 HE: First of all, like you said, they're just so eager to learn everything. So anything that I bring forward, they're like, "Tell us more. We wanna know more," which I just love. Like I said that age group is so underappreciated, [laughter] really they are. But for me, when I think of thinkers or work I really just think of Black women leaders in my own life. And educators around me and elders who have poured into me in my own life, guided me, I think about my mom, who's also an elementary educator. I think about my colleague, my mentor, Mrs. Hurst, who my first years of teaching really guided me and took me under her wing. You really understand, appreciate when you see someone who's further along in their career and all they've been through and they can espouse advice to you about what they've seen and how to do things, it's really, really just such a gift.
0:05:55.1 HE: All of the work of Bell Hooks, anything Bell Hook's writes, I'm like, yes, this makes... [laughter] this makes sense. She's giving me the words that I need. So I just love anything from her. I think about Dr. Lisa Delpit, Dr. Jamila Dugan, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad in particular, who just, they have given me so much in insight and how to trust and center kids, how to wholly believe in them and to see education as a life giving force. And it's really pushed me on this trajectory to really see how humanizing we need to make learning spaces. And I'm really deeply interested in that and allowing students to reflect on their gifts and their voice and their learning, and give them time to experience things and deeply connect with others in the world around them and make those connections. And I'm just, yeah, I just love the idea of having learning spaces that give kids chances to have experiences that are actionable, restorative healing, allow them to be conscientious. So anything that can lend itself to that vision, I'm always excited to learn about, which is how I came across Human Restoration Project. Just I was like, this is it. This is the stuff right here.
0:07:07.9 NC: It's all in the name.
0:07:09.0 HE: Yeah.
0:07:10.3 NC: And that's what I find so incredible is that I think a lot of times people, educators even, we try to wall off that work towards either higher grade levels or even just for higher education. You mentioned the work of Bell Hooks in particular. We think that work of critical pedagogy can only happen with older learners or perhaps even with college students or beyond. And I don't wanna say that it's rare to see in elementary schools, but I think it's just, it doesn't have a light shone on it as much as maybe it should to see how younger learners actually can participate in those restorative practices, restorative spaces, as you had mentioned there too. And I'm curious because last month you had also spoken with the Learning Forward Ontario, is that right?
0:07:55.9 HE: Yeah.
0:07:56.6 NC: On liberatory learning. And that I think is something that connects well with Denisha Jones's work as well in liberatory play. What is liberatory learning in your vision? Why is that central to your work with students? How is that expressed in what students do?
0:08:13.8 HE: I've written some notes on this and I [laughter] I try to put it in encapsulated in some form to kind of streamline and it just, it gave me pause to really think about. 'Cause I think sometimes we miss the daily actions that we do. How do you describe what you do in the classroom and how do you name it and how do you explain it? So I just always go back, I said like Bell Hooks and she explained it so beautifully when she wrote that education as a practice of freedom affirms healthy self-esteem. And it promotes students' capacity to be aware and live consciously. And to me that perfectly encapsulates liberatory learning, giving students the ability to reflect and make the personal connections and meaning from their learning. It's about agency and students having control of what they learn and the ways in which they model and consolidate that learning.
0:09:02.8 HE: It's life-affirming, it's humanizing, it's without hierarchies. There is no teacher at the top, student at the bottom. It's intrinsically compassionate to self and others. It's about grace for the learners in our room together and the people around us. And to me, it's never been about a singular piece of knowledge that I'm trying to teach students. It's about their learning and their ways of knowing as a process. So when I think about liberatory practices or liberatory learning, my hope with my students is that they always can recognize and tap into their own brilliance and their own embodied knowledge. And that they use the importance of collective care as a guiding force in their own lives as they grow and they learn and they flourish. So those are just some thoughts of what I would define liberatory learning is and why it's so central.
0:09:49.2 HE: I think just thinking about the learning and teaching with my students, I just always think about how dehumanizing learning spaces have been and continue to be. Which is probably why I was so compelled when I learned [laughter] about Human Restoration Project. Like you said, it's in the name. I just thought this is exactly what I needed when I needed it. And I think about my own educational experiences as a Black Muslim and how those primary educational experiences have really stayed with me, the positive and the negative. And I think about how like most educators, the last few years have been some of the most difficult for me. I think I can speak on others' behalf as well and emotionally complex. And we're experiencing what I believe to be, I named it like I said, I might be having some kind of moral distress or deep moral injury because I found a very, very deep and pronounced and painful misalignment between what I valued as an educator and what the education system expected me to value.
0:10:46.5 HE: And that was really hard to kind of figure out how to navigate that misalignment. Because we're in these spaces every day trying to do what we need to do and what we believe to be correct and right, and honoring students. But it's not always honored in that way. So for me, thinking about myself and then about my own students who are and still are grieving, they're anxious, they're fearful. They're in need of a lot of assurance a lot of times. But on the flip side, they're also incredibly curious. They're very compassionate, they're excited about learning, and they have very deep desire to be seen, heard, honored, believed, and listened to. So when I think back to when I first started, when I first stepped into a classroom, all I knew at that point on my first day teaching was like, I just don't want students to have to heal from their experiences at school.
0:11:35.7 HE: That was like my one goal. Just think about my own experience as a student and what I had seen during my practice teaching. And I just really wanted kids to never have to heal from experiences at school. So although my first year as a teacher, I didn't have, I wasn't able to articulate or have the language to talk about I want our learning space to be anti-carceral or connected to community or centered around student voice. I didn't have all the vernacular for that, but I did know that viscerally the system has existed and as it still exists, was something that I needed to push back against. I was like, there is something there that I don't align with and I know I can't name it. I feel like there's something here. But I knew that that's the path that I needed to be on. So years later, I'm looking at as my 10th year leading with my own embodied knowledge, like trusting that I know when something feels right and good and safe and honors kids, I lead with that and honoring student dignity to understand what that looks and sounds like at this point, at 10 years in to understand what experiential learning connected to community and lived experiences can look and sound like.
0:12:44.3 HE: And learning more about how early Black freedom schools created liberatory learning spaces that not only sustained students and communities, but transformed them. And those liberatory learnings, they were just central to the type of classrooms. When I see that model of early Black freedom schools, I see that that's something that I want to embody and create in our own schools, in our own classrooms, because that's it. Everything about liberatory education within those schools. So how it's expressed in our room, we really strive to express it in tangible ways. I think that's really important to me. There's not a lot of stuff that's just words we need to actually do the thing, [laughter] we have to do the thing. So as...
0:13:22.5 NC: That much is evident. They're always doing. That's what's so awesome.
0:13:27.3 HE: Yeah, we have to... Like, I find that some kids learn best as we actually have to like, let's go, go in, let's dig in, let's have conversation, let's do some writing. Let's ask the question. So when I learned about Bell Hooks's concept of Homeplace, that was something that was really sacred to me. I was like, I really just wanted to create that in the classroom. And she described it as like a community of resistance. It's a place of hope and we're thinking about it as a place of softness for us because the world externally is not always soft with us. And human connection, that was really deeply important to me for kids to be connected to each other in very deep ways. So for us it's a space to witness each other and be witness and safety.
0:14:08.3 HE: We're very intentional about making students words, their ideas, their perspective, visible and central to what we do. We talk a lot about voice and choice in our room. We talk about who we are, what our dreams are for the world and ourselves, what it means to be agents of change. We talk about the differences between justice and charity and how those manifest in the world around us. We love getting to really dig deep, like I said, into questions about the world and who we are. And one thing that we're really excited about this year is we we're talking a lot about dreams and it's inspired by the work of Dr. Jamila Dugan, but she talked a lot about dreaming and freedom dreaming. And we decided we are talking a lot about dreams, why don't we make a dream collective?
0:14:49.4 HE: Let's just talk about our dreams and what we want for the world. So we got a bulletin board and we put our words up there and each student got to draw and write about a dream they had for themselves, a dream they had for our community and our city, and one for our world. And just phenomenal like 7, 8, 9 years old are thinking about, We want people to have fresh food. We wanna have gardens. I wanna have a swimming pool in my neighborhood. I wanna have clean water for everyone. And just so profound like you said, this isn't college or high school. They're our youngest learners, but they know what the world should look like. [laughter] So it's really powerful to see that. And yeah, we've just really dug into that and even asked our loved ones at home to write dreams that they have for us to also add to the board so we can see those every day.
0:15:38.3 HE: But just incredibly powerful and humbling to be reminded of the power and agencies that kids have to vocalize the type of world they wanna see. Yeah, we also read a lot about dreamers and the ones who look like us, the ones who don't, the ones who inspire us, and we add their dreams to our wall as well for aspirational vision. And as the years progress, we're starting to think about action plans. We're thinking about how these dreams can be actualized. So again, they're 7, 8, 9 years old, but they're already world building. They're writing to members of local government. They're organizing walks to raise money. And to me that's so emblematic of liberatory learning because we're leveraging their gifts, their knowledge, their passions, their talents to critically think about what we need as a collective in order to live full and healthy lives. So just their visionaries, they're so little, but they're visionaries.
0:16:27.8 NC: And it's such a stark contrast to the narratives that we hear about young people as being in crisis, having huge rates of depression and other mental health issues and those kinds of things. Perhaps in part because they don't have the hope that a better world is possible or they haven't been able to, well, either they haven't engaged in that re-envisioning or that re-imagining turning those dreams and those visions into action. Or by the time that they do that work, either in high school or in college, they realize like, I'm already living in this world that I had envisioned would be better. And so, like, then the reality perhaps kind of comes crashing down and it's just such a hopeful, optimistic counter narrative I think to just kind of everything else that is about preparing students for the world rather than like thinking about what about the world is worth preparing students for and having them engaged in doing that work alongside us and adults, kids and adults partnering to both reimagine, re-envision and then put into action the things that are going to create a better future that is sustainable, that doesn't burn us out, that doesn't depress us, leave us more anxious.
0:17:40.8 NC: And that I think is just so incredible. There is, I think to shift gears a little bit and think about those narratives, there is sort of this false idea or this criticism that this liberatory practice is like impractical or that joy, justice, community, all those things that you just had talked about somehow come at a cost to student learning. What I see that you share on social media deflates that criticism, right? But for those who might need convincing, What are some of those practical ways? You had mentioned the dream journaling and actually engaging in that with adults back at home as well. What are some of the structures and the practices and the way that you just structure a school day, perhaps, with students or that you structure a year with your second graders that actually put joy, love, and liberation into action?
0:18:32.0 HE: One thing that came to my mind as well as you were talking is, I think we're so focused on preparing kids for the future and not allowing them to exist in the world that they live in today. Like how do we navigate the world that we live in today as opposed to always telling kids, "Well, when you're older you can do X, Y and Z or the world will look X, Y and Z if you do this now." And yeah, kids are very deeply in tune with the fact that they exist in the world as it is right now. And that is their reality which is for all of us the same. It's our reality. I think being young doesn't change that. It just makes it more magnified because as a child you're really still under a lot of control. There's a lot of adults in your life telling you what you should do and where you should go and what you should believe. And you try to just break all that down when they come into the classroom and say, "You know what?" You have agency and authority. What do you wanna learn about? What are you interested in? What are we talking about? What are your questions? I remember at one point last year...
0:19:30.4 HE: Again they're leading the learning. A student had come in and asked about what was happening in Ukraine and I said, "Okay, let's talk about it, and the concept of what does it mean to be a migrant or refugee or what does it mean to be... " So even digging into that for 7, 8 or 9 years old pulling texts or read-alouds that we can read together. Looking at junior level news articles that kids could read about what was happening and giving them an understanding because that's the world they live in right now. That's what they care about because it's happening immediately in front of them. But when I think about people who view it or... It's nice to struggle. I think it was funny I was listening to something the other day and it was talking about how in teacher preparation programs you won't find many teachers who say, "I'm so excited to administer a standardized test. That's my dream." [chuckle]
0:20:20.2 NC: That's my aspiration. I aspire to one day to be a test doctor. Yeah.
0:20:26.1 HE: Right? Like it's just you... People don't go into education hopefully with that vision in mind. So yeah, Nick's like, you don't know. [laughter] We hope anyways, fingers crossed that that's not their vision, but I think a lot of the hopes that many educators have gets drowned out and bogged down by all of the other external factors that they feel are out of their control. And when I think about at the end of the day it's really just allowing ourselves as educators to really act on that gut feeling. There's this intuitive understanding as educators that says this doesn't feel right. Our kids are here to learn about the world and who they are and how to be free conscious thinkers. And when that becomes something that we were misaligned with and we see that there's that guiding force is becoming a skewed I always just think back to like, "Okay, the joy, the learning, liberation and love of students it has to supersede everything else." Our whole day just I have to enter that classroom thinking like, "The joy, the learning, the liberation, the love. It has to supersede everything else." And there's this common misconception like you said that classrooms they can't exist in that. And I think for a lot of people they hear joyful classroom and they just think, "Oh, you guys are just laughing all day long. That's what joyful... "
0:21:43.6 NC: Right.
0:21:46.1 HE: Laughing every second of every day. And I'm like, "That's not what I mean when I say joyful classroom. I think of joy and love as embodied attitudes and worldviews." So joy is also in those quiet moments when I think about my students are writing in their journal about how they wanna share their gifts with the world and they're in this deep thought and they're trying to think of that vocab word they just learned and how to spell it and they overcome it. That to me is joy. That's that moment of joy. It's when they answer that math question in a really interesting or different way and they're sharing their thinking aloud and you just see them beaming with pride, that to me is joy. Creating opportunities for joy. Many classrooms will have shared reading time. And to me I'm like, "You know what? You can read whatever you want, however you want. If you wanna sit on top of your desk, if you wanna sit in the corner, if you wanna read with a flashlight, if you wanna... Those are things that we can do as educators to facilitate joy in the classroom because it doesn't take anything away from us. It only increases the joy for them in the classroom. So art pieces they're creating, we love on them when they celebrate and they build each other up when something's really difficult or insurmountable.
0:22:53.3 HE: And we collectively create this container. It's that when they come into this room, there's joy, love and liberation. It's growing, it's sustaining. It's allowing all of us to feel like when we come in this room all the facets of joy are welcome. All the facets of love are welcome. Liberation and all of its facets are welcome. So it's in all of those moments. I don't think there is one standard definition, but that's the envisioning of a lot of people as well. Joy is just you're laughing all day.
0:23:24.0 NC: It's so shallow. Turns it into this like a really shallow thing like we're just in here. And it's just, I don't know, playing games or watching movies or something.
0:23:34.4 HE: Exactly.
0:23:34.8 NC: Like using engagement strategies. But when you talk about joy and love there is no deeper engagement than that, right? Rooting those things in connections to each other and connections to community, connections to the world. You're not only lighting a spark but you're getting the kids to work in tandem on these deep level issues. As you had mentioned the one leading back to the war in Ukraine, to explore these huge themes that are present and active in the world rather than waiting until again high school to begin to have this awakening about community and joy and love and justice in the world. I'm really curious to kind of go back to what you had talked about being influenced by the... Was it the Black Freedom schools in the United States?
0:24:19.1 HE: Yeah.
0:24:19.9 NC: Could you unpack a little bit more about how you got interested in that? What you kind of saw as your interest and the transfer of what you found there into your philosophy and practice today?
0:24:34.5 HE: Yeah. So I think to me that was really eye opening, was reading Dr. Gholdy Muhammad through her Cultivating Genius. And she talks a lot about Black literary societies and because in a time when Black people weren't allowed to read or told that they didn't have equal access to education and they had to create their own schools and their own literary societies to help support people in building their capacity to think critically, to read, to make those critical connections. And looking at it here locally where I'm in Ontario studying and understanding that we had them here as well.
0:25:12.7 NC: Oh, okay.
0:25:13.0 HE: Where people were collecting together and opening small schools. They were teaching children to read as young as three, two years old. Really investing because understanding that that was the the portal to a whole other life is having access to... The ability to read. And when I think about the freedom schools, it really makes me think that second part of that question about people who are kind of seeing the two cannot work in tandem. It just makes me think about there's this fear that the joy and the learning or the academic rigor can't coexist. There is this... Yeah. They're like, "No, no, if they're having fun they're not learning."
0:25:50.4 NC: Yes.
0:25:52.2 HE: Or if there's this love in the classroom and there's no hierarchy where the teacher is giving information, kids really aren't learning. And I've heard that from many, many teachers. Or they say things like, "You know, they can't learn about the realities of life if the classroom doesn't mirror the harshness of the real world." And it's also been my belief that classrooms are the microcosm for communities at large. So if we don't engage in that joyful learning, the authentic community building, the collective care, the unstructured and free play, the freedom dreaming, we're just continuing to prop up and create communities that are harsh, inequitable and just harmful to us all. So students will continue to just be in these learning spaces that simply recreate these systems of harms that we really should be working to eradicate. So in those freedom schools, we learn that we're not only lending, liberatory learning doesn't only lend itself but it's necessary for meaningful academic learning. They're not in opposition to one another.
0:26:46.8 HE: And from what I've seen in my work with students they always, always are more confident and capable in their learning when they experience true agency. And those freedom schools it always started with protecting dignity and letting students have self-direction in their learning. Knowing who students are and where they come from. Those are all things that were core to those freedom schools. So it just really begs the question of how can we access the teachings and the example and the models of the legacy from the past and how can we incorporate that into our classrooms? And Dr. Gholdy Muhammad does amazing work with teaching us about how to bring that into the classroom.
0:27:25.0 NC: It's connecting to such a deep history and a deep legacy and a deep purpose of liberation as opposed to those shallow notions of engagement. I think that's absolutely fascinating. I kind of had a follow up to that but maybe it doesn't need to be explored so much. 'Cause I don't wanna give the haters on this side too much credit. The work that you're engaged with really is like creating... You had mentioned that word microcosm. It's really creating a model for what the world could be. And then I think for students who experience that and then go on to experience either as they go throughout their education and find hierarchies and more traditional educational experiences, they will always have that as a model kind of as an inoculation of what learning could look like, of what community could look like, of what these things look in absent of these hierarchies. And perhaps they would push back or be advocates or they would be able to see the ways that those things are unjust or the ways in which they oppress or the ways in which they exclude. With the goal perhaps of being then, when they spend the rest of their lives outside of a school environment they also see those things.
0:28:33.7 NC: It's really an inoculation I think against those. And you had mentioned this word, dignity in there as well and confidence. And that just comes out I think whenever I'm feeling down I literally just go to your Twitter handle. I'm just like," I need like a pick me up here." So I'm scrolling through and I'm seeing but that works to a tee. I think the idea of kids with dignity is such a... In a society that is overly hostile to children, right? Is such a fantastical idea. And yet again here is this space that you've created. It really is almost like the tip of the iceberg. All the things that you've just been describing are what are informing under the surface, right? Your own experiences and your mentors and your reading and your own inquiry and investigation. And then the iceberg is just that little actionable tip that we get to see out in the world. And I can feel all of those influences. And I'm so glad that you've been able to explain all those things on here. I'm wondering do you have a favorite experience that stands out from the last year or two? I know kind of in the wake of COVID you had mentioned a crisis of values and all of these things.
0:29:49.1 NC: But I guess amidst that is there a powerful or hard fought moment from the last couple of years that you'd like to share that sort of is a microcosm of those ideas and values?
0:30:01.1 HE: Yeah, thinking about that question it really made me kind of have to pause and reflect 'cause I think there's so many moments that make me... I could say... Well, I should rewind. A lot of experiences that made want me to leave the classroom and pull me away or push me out. And I've had so many moments on the opposite end that have made me feel, no this is where I need to be and this is where I want to be and this is where I wanna stay. So you're almost fighting to stay in the classroom but I hold onto these moments.
0:30:34.7 NC: Yeah. Just the tension all constantly. I bet.
0:30:37.3 HE: Yeah. Yeah. Constant. So when I think about a lot of those moments that have grounded me, I think of how hard we fought to keep that joy and the hope alive in our learning space. For us music and dancing is a big one. Just like dance breaks during the day, it's so joyful. The kids love it. Stories, all kinds of stories. They bring so much light in our room. We love reading and those books really help ground us and make heavier conversations feel a lot lighter. But one moment that really sticks out to me this year is I was overhearing a conversation between two of my students whilst they were in the middle of creating an art piece and one was talking about their aspiration to be an artist one day and what they wanted to do. And she's like, "In the future when I'm really old... " And I quote she said, "Like 29."
0:31:24.9 NC: Oh gosh. As I crumbled to dust.
0:31:29.0 HE: Right? And I'm like, "Oh, okay." So and I just listened, just listening to her conversation. The other one just said, "Remember what Ms. Elmi said? She said we already are artists." And that's something that it just positively reaffirmed me in so many ways in my decisions that I've made as an educator, just students as embodied dreams. That they don't have to wait for those dreams to be realized in order to claim them. 'Cause they're existing in it right now. And I always tell them, "You can be and you are a writer at eight years old because you write. You spend time crafting that skill. So you're a writer. You're a scientist at seven because you use a scientific process, you experiment, you test. You adapt your theory. So I'm constantly just encouraging them to claim and name that. So it's just another way to further see themselves as inherently brilliant, as valued, of worthy. So just, I'm really committed to making sure that they know I'm doing my best to make that space and for them to use that language of self-trust. So when I heard those students having that conversation I'm like, "There's a student who's embodied that. Like you know what? I am these things and I am worthy, I am smart, I'm intelligent, I'm brilliant because I am doing these things.
0:32:38.3 HE: So I don't have to wait for a future date or time to claim these things. I am these things and I'm claiming it. So they're just so intuitive and they're just so vocal about what brings them joy. And it makes that so much easier when they talk to us and we listen for us to make that space for them to let that brilliance flourish as opposed to just guessing all the time. Kids are talking, we just need to listen.
0:33:02.4 NC: Oh, so well said.
0:33:03.9 HE: Yeah.
0:33:05.0 NC: I wonder because I bet your experience with that tension that you had mentioned at the beginning of that response there of, I need to leave or I should I leave? You go to sleep with those questions and then the work in the classroom just affirms like no. This is the place that I need to be, this space is too important, these kids are. And then just constantly that back and forth. I'm willing to bet that that describes the experience for the vast majority of teachers in the profession right now. If you could like be in a moment of vulnerability perhaps, what are those things that you think I should or I need or I... What are those tensions that risk pulling you out? And then how do you... What causes you to kind of dismiss those things or kind of live in that tension like a lot of educators are right now? What do we have to say to those people?
0:33:56.9 HE: Yeah. I think back, I remember having a similar conversation with one of my... I call her my guide but her name is Sarah Ishmael. And she talked a lot about how for a lot of us in education we exist as trespassers. These spaces, yeah, they're not for us. They don't exist for us. And when we come in, it's like the episode of like the spy coming into a very heavily guarded area. You're just tiptoeing everywhere. You're hiding things. You're just trying to exist and you really deeply feel like this space does not exist for me, not only as a student when I was a student but even as an educator in a very deeply harmful way. 'Cause you're constantly having to explain yourself and this is what I believe and this is why we should do these things. I don't believe students should be suspended for X, Y, Z reason. I don't believe students should be suspended at all. And those are conversations you're constantly having to have. So you're up against a lot of things that again that misalignment it just creates a fissure of like, "No, this doesn't feel like... I'm not really down with this." But then I go into the classroom and for the longest time in that middle year, middle years after my first couple years of teaching, I thought I'll just go in the classroom, I'll close the door and I'll teach and I'll create this little bubble and I'll do what I need to do and that's really gonna fill me.
0:35:26.4 HE: And then COVID happened and then you're kind of you're right, you're re-exposed to all the things and you're like, "Wait a second, What's this learning loss conversation? Wait a second." Right? So then you're kind of re... The wound is reopened and you're like, "Wait a second, maybe now I should leave." And then it wasn't until conversations that I've had with other educators about what's really holding them. And for me it's always been my students, it's always been my students that are just keeping me there. I can't imagine not being in the classroom with them. I can't imagine getting to learn with them every day and getting to world build with them and answer questions and learn with them. But it's very, very difficult. I can't deny that. I won't say that it isn't but it really makes me think about Bell Hooks when she talks about theory, it's not inherently healing or revolutionary and it only only fulfills that function when we actually direct it towards that end. And I think in a lot of ways teachers we've been told a lot of theories about practices and ideas but when I was able to turn those theories and these practices and say. "You know what? How can I use this for healing? How can I use this for care? How can I use this for joy and nurturing students? How can I imagine something better?" Then I was able to say, "Okay, now I feel like I'm in the right spot. I wanna be here.
0:36:50.5 HE: And I can't sustain myself with that vision of just everything I am being told or instructed to do. I'm just redirecting it and saying like, "I'm gonna use this for healing. I'm gonna use this for joy. I'm gonna use this for care, community. And that's how I've been able to sustain myself and to really be intentional about that because, like you said, teachers are being inundated with a lot of things right now, a lot of things, so. Yeah.
0:37:14.9 NC: That's it. Just re-centering those values as your North Star to just follow. And how can I treat the crises of the moment to actually... As you had mentioned, redirect and reiterate those values? That I think is just such a powerful way of looking at the challenges and the crises that we do face in education. Because I think as educators we are both tempted and pressured to kind of just give in and perhaps put the next test or put the content or put this future goal of preparation or this, that or the other thing at the center and then we lose focus on the rest of it. And it becomes sort of the... The pedagogy practice becomes aligned to where the ends justify the means. So...
0:38:00.3 HE: Correct.
0:38:00.7 NC: We diminish student agency and autonomy, we diminish community and we isolate students and we use technology in the service of alienation instead of in the service of community because we say you have to achieve X, Y and Z for this, that or the other thing. But right, if we can just take inventory probably as step one on what are those values and you've explicated those very, very well I think. Joy, liberation all those kinds of things, that I think is incredible. I have kind of a question that I think probably should have come a little bit earlier in the conversation but you had mentioned it a couple times here. Like to kind of be a model that may be counter to your own experiences as a student. Again, I wonder from your background and perspective, what was your experience of school and and how did it look similar or different from the the world building that you are providing for students here? How does your experience inform that work or the models that you wish to be or not?
0:39:10.0 HE: Yeah. That's... Nick is digging in, just like...
0:39:14.0 NC: I'm sorry. Yeah. I'm ending with the hard stuff here.
0:39:19.2 HE: No, it's good. I think... And this is my thing, I can talk about the ways in which I felt invisibilized by my teachers. I think a lot of that was just you were never seen, you were never... I think in the same ways witnessed that I'm trying to achieve with my own students. You could go through a whole day sometimes without your teacher ever really acknowledging you. I think that was a common thing where you just go to school, you sit in your desk, you face the front, your teacher's up there talking. Sometimes they might call on you but sometimes I remember going through whole days where my teacher would never say my name or acknowledge me. And I can ruminate and think about those examples, but I always just go back to the teacher who did it for me. And I try to model that in my classroom. And that was my kindergarten teacher Ms. Lee. And the way that she deeply acknowledged and celebrated and would constantly touch base base with us. And she cared about us in a deep way that everything she did you knew it was rooted in like how can I be in service to my students? She just like would play us songs in the piano, have us sit up there with her and she's like, "You don't know how to play but let's do it." And like, "Let's try."
0:40:33.0 NC: Oh, I love it.
0:40:35.5 HE: Right? And I remember even special things on our birthdays she would make us a special crown. And even outside of singing happy birthdays, she would tell us multiple times in that day like, "I'm just so happy that you exist in the world. I'm just so happy that you're with us in this class. We just love you so much." And being five years old and having your teacher see you in that way was just so incredibly powerful for me. So when I think about the teachers that maybe struggled to do that for me I always think back to her as she's the light. She's like you said the touchstone that you say like, You know what? Maybe my other teachers weren't there yet in their trajectory as teachers, but she was there and she did that for me. And that's something I do with my own kids. I model after her, like on their birthday we do special things and we sing and we tell them how much we love them and how excited we are that they're with us. And just those small things that just it makes a world of difference. Sometimes I think teachers we overthink things. Like you said, it's engagement. We have to do X, Y and Z to get kids to learn. And sometimes it's just checking in with the kid and saying like, "I see you. How are you today? What are you excited to learn about?" That goes further than anything else.
0:41:46.1 NC: It's not hard. They're just people. [chuckle]
0:41:47.5 HE: It's not. That's the thing.
0:41:50.1 NC: They're just people.
0:41:50.2 HE: Yeah, that's the thing. I said...
0:41:51.5 NC: Just treat them like people.
0:41:53.5 HE: Yeah.
0:41:54.4 NC: Yeah. Well, that... I mean shout out to her for starters for planting that seed and being that model for you, but then also you're carrying on her legacy as well. And being that for kids it's exactly what we were just talking about 10 minutes ago, where it's they are gonna have that one example of Ms. Elmi's class as like whether or not they get into education. Maybe they'll have kids who will have educational experiences and they'll have that model and remember how they were treated. And they'll remember that community that you had built in your classroom space as that homeplace for them. And they will want that replicated throughout as well. Yeah. That is just a tremendous way to carry on her legacy for you as well. Is there anything else Hanaa, that we missed in the course of this conversation that you're like, "Nick, I would be remiss if I did not get this in before we ended here."
0:42:47.6 HE: No, I just, I really want to thank you for the time, and for me I was like, "Wait, Nick wants to talk to me on this part." Like this is the epitome of Human Restoration Project. It's just like... It's everything, so powerful the work that you guys are doing.
0:43:03.9 NC: Oh my goodness. I appreciate that.
0:43:05.7 HE: Yeah. It's just such a gift and I just think I wanna give a shout out to all the teachers out there that are really just doing the best that they can and caring forward for their students. And the things that they do to resist against a lot of the dehumanizing things that we see and experience in schools. And it's not easy, but they're not alone. And one thing I have learned and that's even just through the conference this summer is that when we get together and we combine and pool our knowledge together and you feel like you have supports out there, it's very, very, very, powerful and not as isolating to know that these spaces exist and that the work is being done. And we can lean on one another to keep going. And if you haven't subscribed to the podcast, subscribe. Okay?
0:43:54.8 NC: I'm gonna clip that out forever now. And I'm just gonna... I'm gonna use that as promotion. I'll have you sign something after this, but...
0:44:01.9 HE: Oh, gosh.
0:44:04.3 NC: It's exactly what you're saying, right? The the things that dehumanize kids, dehumanize adults as well. So it's like we're both on the brunt of these dehumanizing structures, practices, systems. But then the process of humanization for kids actually works to empower adults too. I think that not only is a testament to this conversation and hearing you speak to that very much humanized, right? This is the work of teacher as professional. This is you leveraging your ability and practice and experience to improve the lives of kids. And that is evident in the work that you do with kids as well. So it's just a testament to that notion that it doesn't have to be dehumanizing for kids and adults. We can re-humanize it and actually change. Teachers can feel empowered and want to be in those classroom spaces and kids can feel empowered and want to be in those spaces too. And how can we then turn that into this transformative experiences?
0:44:58.2 HE: Correct.
0:45:00.4 NC: World building invisibilized homeplace trespassers, you had mentioned in your educational journey giving language to your experiences. And I thank you for giving language to describe what we see only a sliver of on your social media too. Thank you for sharing those experiences with us. Thanks for speaking with me today. And thanks for the work that you do.
0:45:23.0 HE: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me.
0:45:30.3 Speaker 3: Thank you again for listening to Human Restoration Projects podcast. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. You can learn more about progressive education, support our cause and stay tuned to this podcast and other updates on our website at humanrestorationproject.org.