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Why I’m Inviting Kobe Bryant Into My Middle School Classroom

Upon mentioning my decision to play Kobe Bryant and Glen Keane’s Oscar-winning animated short film “Dear Basketball” in my classroom tomorrow, it was met with instant scrutiny. An immediate response was: “I wouldn’t touch that with a ten-foot pole lol.” While it was likely an innocent comment, I couldn't shake it. If we as parents, educators, citizens, and ambassadors of change continue walking around careful not to lean into human experience, we are in trouble. This is why Kobe Bryant should be invited into every classroom in America:


In my classroom, I have committed to some powerful names in my field who have challenged the very way English classrooms look. Through research, my own experience, and what I know to be true about education, I have found that I do not stand in front of a list of names. I stand before children. People. Future shapeshifters. Future adults who, I hope, will leave my classroom with a better understanding of who they are and a clearer vision for what they want.


Because of this, we continue to read in my classroom daily. We also write daily. Each day, my students are given an “invitation” to write. If they choose to accept it, they interact with it in whatever way speaks to them via writing. An invitation can include a variety of modes. An image, an excerpt, a poem, a song lyric, a Twitter thread, a meme, music, an article, a children’s book, a question, a quote, a TED Talk, and in this case: a short film.


My own students can attest that this time to write, though not always enjoyable, can be cathartic. A therapy session. A few minutes a day in which a dozen distractions aren’t tugging at their attention. A time to reset. A time, hopefully for some, to fall in love with writing for the first time after being placed in a one-size-fits-all five-paragraph box for the entirety of their time in school. A time when I am not peering over a child’s shoulder and focusing on structure or the right way to communicate something that they have been carrying in silence. A hands-off approach to allowing what they have so desperately wanted and didn’t know they needed: someone to schedule a time to value unique experiences, to take writing risks, to discover their own voice in a world crippled by its definition of beauty and acceptance. Or, better yet, a moment not to focus on the reality of how difficult life can be and write a story about a talking hermit crab who gets lost on his way to shop for a new shell. The magical thing is that they get to decide the what and the how of their writing experience.


In other words, while adults are more capable of processing more confusing and mature emotions in a healthy way, our young people need someone to pave the way for dealing with one of life’s most cunning villains: loss. I don’t have to be a raving basketball fan to be affected by the recent death of Kobe Bryant. I don’t have to have any Lakers posters plastered on my walls. My heart aches as a parent and as a wife. A fellow human. But I do know that there are more people who I know that are truly and actively taking this much harder than I am.


I hear those who are unhappy with the headlines as they focus on predominantly one name. So, yes, this also lends itself to be a lesson in empathy and perspective. I also understand that many people die each day without global sympathy. To that, I say: remember intent. I have not felt that anyone has intended to write off any lives lost as less important or not worthy of grief. As we also honor victims this week for “Holocaust Remembrance Week,” we remember those whose names no one knew. This may be the first person that one of my students has ever really “lost,” had they met him or not. Someone will be sitting in my classroom tomorrow who lost a role model. While some may feel that there is far more turmoil in the world outside of this, I cannot disagree. The fortunate, albeit unfortunate, thing about this is that this will be more real to some of them than poverty or social justice ever will be.


I do not just teach reading and writing anymore. Educators are challenged now, more than ever, to take steps toward social-emotional learning. I am encouraged to step outside of my content area and focus on the whole child. It has never been a better time to foster a safe place to land for students who may not be going home to a dinner table with parents who are putting good character and healthy reflection at the forefront. If not me who takes learning to the next level, then who?


There are parameters. There are boundaries for where I can and cannot go in the classroom, sure. But reflection and introspective opportunities to think and write about topics like loss, change, character, unity, and fear, among others, and letting students think about what those things mean to them, is not one of them. Our current unit is focused on the overarching question: “When is the right time to stand up?” I can’t think of a more relevant and appropriate way to spend ten minutes in my classroom tomorrow.


Also as a response to my writing invitation tomorrow was this: “too soon.” It’s never too soon. But maybe it is for you. And that's okay too. If this is an extension of your own grief, leave him out of your room until you are ready, if ever. Age and stage are crucial here. In my own experience, in my classroom, we often go there with discussion. I also have the experience in knowing quite well how to navigate lofty topics and conversation. The question must be considered: who are the kids in the room? What relationship do I have with them? Is this going to be a healthy exercise or something out of the blue thus perpetuating trauma? Am I prepared?


I am not stopping instruction. I am not forcefeeding a sappy video to stir anything up. Some students will write about it because they want to or need to. Others won't. Some might write about it next week. Or next year. Or never. It is a normal day in my classroom. They may even continue their hermit crab story.


But because I care about my students and because I will not shy away from an opportunity to get kids, at the very least, thinking. Some memorial posts were met with comments like: "Find something else to care about. There are far more hurting" and "Wow. If only people were this passionate about [fill in the blank]" and the list goes on and on. This is merely an invitation. And permission to just stop and think for themselves without the world telling them that what they are dealing with isn't wrong. I will toss away any ten-foot-poles as they are unnecessary and, quite frankly, a safety hazard. I will engage in conversation, ask questions, and allow students to wrestle with the discomfort and confusion that often accompanies loss, however that looks for them. If the idea of a young person grappling with any sort of grief, however warranted you feel it is, is something that you’re constantly turning your back to, though, I hope you never teach my son.


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