“Mr. McCormick, I need to sharpen my pencil!”
Me: “Again? Seriously? You just sharpened it.”
“I know, but it broke.”
5 minutes later.
“Hey! He threw paper at me!”
“I didn’t throw it AT him! I threw it TO him!”
5 minutes later.
“Mr. McCormick! Why did the chicken cross the road!?”
Me: “Eli, Jayden, get back to work. I need you to focus today.”
It’s my student teaching year. I’m twenty-five years old and I’ve been at the school for maybe a week or two. Jayden and Eli are nice kids. They’re good friends and really excited to be in class together. They’re 11 years old and love to skate. I’m pretty sure we would have been friends in middle school. They’re also completely bonkers.
Class with Jayden and Eli is tough. They both continually distract themselves, each other, and their peers. They crack jokes constantly. They intentionally break their pencils so they can go sharpen them. Thank God I teach 6th grade. I can’t imagine having them for a full day as elementary students.
While I liked both of them Jayden and Eli were a pain in my neck. I worked a lot with my cooperating 6th grade teacher to figure out how to plan around them. Split them up? They yell across the room to each other. Put them together and they’re constantly talking to each other. In the back of the room they’re always off topic. In the front of the room they want to have individual conversations with me while I’m in the middle of giving instructions.
Exhausting. Never mind the other twenty-eight students, and that was only second period.
One day was worse than normal. Their energy was off the walls. Joke after joke after joke. Constant requests to go to the bathroom. They were so present in my brain that I have no memory of the lesson was but I remember the two of them clearly. At my wits end I was ready to kick them out of class, but didn’t want to kick them both out of class together and in frustration I said something to the effect of “I swear, you need to go run around the school and get some of this energy out.”
They whipped to attention. I had an opportunity to shut them down, or I could show them I cared.
Let’s pause for a second.
At this moment I could have sent them to the office. By the standards of the school I would have been well within my rights to do so and my principal would have had my back without a doubt. Jayden and Eli were far out of line and it would have solved the immediate problem. I also would have been in good company with my colleagues. Trouble is, they would just be in class tomorrow. And the next day. Despite their craziness these two students are my students and as a teacher it’s my responsibility to help them learn. They can’t learn if they’re not in class. They’re also not learning at this moment and they’re making hard for the rest of the class to function. Something had to be done.
So much of teaching occurs in these tiny moments. A kid does something crazy because they’re a kid. How do you react?
A student asks a complete non-sequitur. What’s your response?
A kid makes an unexpected connection. Do you engage it or shut it down?
Speed is pretty much a giant metaphor for teaching. (I’m not even really joking that much… Maybe first year teaching?)
A master teacher has to carefully balance how they respond to the unexpected in a fraction of a second, while everybody is watching, and with full knowledge that these little moments can have enormous impact on students. Teachers don’t get do-overs.
So I had 2 wild young boys in front of me. I could kick them out of class or come up with another option. I still don’t even know why I made this choice, but I chose another option.
“Go run to the flag pole,” I said in exasperation.
“Huh?” they asked in unison.
“Look out the window. We can see the flag pole right? Go outside, run as fast as you can to the flagpole and come back in. You have 1 minute, go! I’m timing you.”
They bolted for the door, hit the flag pole and came back panting. I didn’t actually time them, but they were quick. They were also tired. And while I can’t remember if they focused on the lesson that day, they did calm down enough that I could actually run the class.
We did it again tomorrow. And the rest of the week. They started racing each other and the flag pole run became a routine with a bit of clarification.
- No running until you’re out of the actual building.
- I need to see you touch the flag pole.
And it worked pretty well. When they got extra wild they’d go run to the flag pole. Every once in a while another student would join them if they felt the need or desire. Under a minute and Jayden and Eli would be completely reasonable for the rest of the fifty minute period.
It’s Still Social Studies. Not Phys Ed:
As you might imagine, they would start looking for ways to run to the flag pole after a little while. An intentionally loud pencil break. An extra-obvious interruption. Particularly on a nice day (a prized luxury in the Northwest) they would look for excuses to go for the run.
We changed the rules.
They only got to run to the flag pole if they got to class early. If they were in class to check with me before the bell, they could race to the flag pole and I wouldn’t mark them late if they got back after the bell. This turned the behavior intervention into something of a privilege and I would routinely get small groups of five or six students running together. No one ever got hurt and it just became a feature of our class. They were never late again.
This didn’t solve everything for Jayden and Eli. They still cracked jokes and got distracted but it got them tired enough that I could get through class with a reasonable amount of redirection. I no longer had to use all my energy simply to keep them focused. I could actually teach.
I didn’t know the positive links between student exercise and cognitive function at the time. I also didn’t ask permission to let the kids run outside during Social Studies. I made a choice in the moment and it worked out pretty well. No one told me that running would work. When they got complacent we made adjustments.
I also allowed other students to opt in if they wanted to so it became part of the class community to run to the flag pole. I never did it with another class.
These momentary adaptive decisions are what make teaching work or not work for students. Every Social Studies class reads some non-fiction. Every Social Studies class works on expository writing. Only my second period 6th grade class during my student teaching year ran to the flag pole.
I’m pretty sure I first discovered Malcolm X through Spike Lee’s biopic starring Denzel Washington. Somewhere around 1995 in the 6th grade. I have some vague memories of my parents explaining things to me before the movie, but not too much.
In Ms. Kramer’s 6th grade class we had to do a “Famous American” project. The assignment was do some research, read a biography, then put together a snapshot biography of that person’s life highlights and give a presentation as that person in a way that illustrates why they are an important historical figure. The culminating event was called the “Night of the Notables” in which we all dressed as our notable person and had to represent the person to visiting parents.
I picked Malcolm X. 12 year old white kid in the suburbs was about to research, write about, and present as one of the most polarizing political figures in American history. What could possibly go wrong?
What’s strange is nothing went wrong. I picked Malcolm and I don’t remember my teacher batting an eye. I don’t remember anyone questioning me or giving me a hard time. No comments like “why did you pick a Black guy?” I wanted Malcolm X, I got Malcolm X.
I read the Autobiography of Malcolm X as the biography and did research. I made the snapshot biography. When it came time for the presentations I wore a suit (maybe glasses?) and presented. No fake facial hair, no blackface. It didn’t even cross my mind and thankfully no one suggested it. During the Night of the Notables I was right next to a girl who studied Ayn Rand as her notable American. My 12 year old self didn’t get the irony. I don’t remember any reactions from other parents.
As I think about the 52nd anniversary of Malcolm’s murder, which comes a few short days before my own birthday, on February 21st it strikes me that ever since that project I’ve felt an unspoken affinity for Malcolm. I’m not black and I didn’t grow up with his experiences, but I identify nonetheless. As a 6th grader I took on his persona and had to put myself in his shoes – to cross identify with why he said what he said. I had to figure out why this man would call people “white devils” or felt the need to speak so strongly for uplifting Black people in this country. Somehow even in his early and most militant stages I never felt like the target of Malcolm’s fire and I’d like to think that this early experience helps me be a more understanding adult.
I’m also struck, in this current racially and politically charged moment in my lifetime, at how normal it all felt to me then. As I’ve gotten older and as I’ve taught high school, I realize that a white kid in the suburbs even knowing of Malcolm X is not that common. Reading the autobiography? Taking on Malcolm’s persona for a presentation? That’s quite rare. Someone probably should have told me that those are all strange or that I was taking a risk, but no one did. And I’m glad. I might not have done it.
My parents, teachers, and peers all helped normalize the idea of cross-identification for me. I have no idea how much of that was intentional, or accidental. I can even imagine a situation where all the other parents at the Night of the Notables were too stunned to even bring it up, whispering behind closed doors about this strange kid, potentially wondering if my “commie-pinko-hippie” (my words) parents had pushed me to make the choice as a way to “make a statement.” They didn’t. They all let me make my own choices.
My proudest moment of the whole experience actually came a few months later when I showed the snapshot biography to my older cousin. (I still have it, but it’s buried in storage at my Mom’s house. It’s one of the few school projects I’ve kept.) We were going through the book I made and on the page covering Malcolm’s Hajj I wrote about how he changed his name to el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz. This helped her understand who was being referred to in Lauryn Hill’s verse in “The Beast” when she rhymes: “The subconscious psychology that you use against me / If I lose control will send me to the penitentiary / Such as Alcatraz, or shot up like el-Hajj Malik Shabazz / High class gets bypassed while my ass gets harassed” When she told me that I helped her learn something I was over the moon. (This was about 1996 so it’s a pre-Wikipedia, pre-Genius internet.) When she later bought me the album for my birthday “The Beast” quickly became my favorite track. More than anything that interaction cemented in me the idea that I could teach things to people older than me through study. This wasn’t part of the original lesson.
The fact that I could choose to study and portray Malcolm X as a 12 year old white kid in suburban America significantly shaped my life. I hope that as an educator I’ve learned from the model that Ms. Kramer set for me in 6th grade. I hope that when my students took on potentially risky academic choices that I was able to support them and help normalize their ideas in a positive way. I also hope that now as a teacher educator I can help teachers feel comfortable supporting their students in these areas.
Even twenty three years later I look out for anything that relates to Malcolm X and I have a personal connection to his work. The experience was one of a handful of truly memorable school assignments and there are so many ways that it could have been stifled. My teacher could have encouraged me to pick a safer choice. My parents could have raised concerns about me portraying a Black revolutionary. My peers could have made fun of me. Instead I was allowed the space to make my own choice and I poured myself into the project. As a result that lesson sticks with me forever when so many others are gone.
One week ago at the New Teacher Center Symposium on Mentoring and Induction Chris Emdin used Martin Luther King Jr.’s words and urged me to examine which parts of society I am willing to be deliberately maladjusted to. The next day Monique W. Morris urged me to respond to behaviors demonstrated by Black girls, particularly those behaviors we consider unacceptable, from a place of love and healing. For the past week these ideas have been flying around my brain like particles in the Large Hadron Collider creating new possibilities and new ways of thinking as the concepts smash into each other.
Standard Operating Procedure:
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school intoxicated schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot be intoxicated and remain at school.
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school with a weapon schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot carry weapons and remain at school.
Currently if a young Black girl comes to school in clothing that violates the dress code schools are structured to respond with punishment. You cannot violate the dress code and remain at school.
More subtly Black girls are pushed out of schools for disrespect, disobedience, defiance and a host of other subjective violations. This is not unique to Black girls, but Black girls are overrepresented in every single discipline category from the most benign to the most severe.
If schools are structured, not to respond with love and healing, but instead to respond with punishment does critical love then require a position of intentional maladjustment in order to exist in the school environment?
Both Emdin and Morris were excellent speakers with a strong combination of academic credentials, anecdotal story, and personal history. The whole time though, all I could think was: “this shouldn’t be that hard.”
This stuff should be baseline. None of this should be controversial. None of this should be revolutionary. But it is. The fact that Morris needs to say that Black girls are sacred and worthy of love tells me that we live in an environment where this is not the status quo. The fact that Morris needs to explain that she centers Black girls tells me that this is a revolutionary act. The fact that Emdin has to say that neoindigenous (his term for urban) students’ interests from outside the school building are artifacts worth of exploration tells me that this is not standard operating procedure.
I can’t tell if I’m naïve or arrogant (both?) when I think that this shouldn’t be hard – that we should be able to assume that teachers care about and love their students. It is hard though and schools are highly resistant to change.
Why is it a challenge for educators to act with critical love toward the children and adolescents in their care? More specifically, why is it a challenge for white educators to act with critical love toward the children and adolescents of color in their care?
I could say institutional racism and sexism. I could say a history of class warfare. I could say centuries and decades of oppression that are passed down from generation to generation through epigenetic inheritance. I could say all of the above. Oppression, like liberation, is intersectional. Emdin made it simpler though and I’m biased toward explanations that cut to universalizing root causes.
Broken people break people. Hurt people hurt people. Broken teachers break students. And healing is hard work. We’re not adjusted to school as a healing place.
You want to make schools a place where we can heal students? You need to heal the adults. This, is not standard operating procedure. Standard operating procedure in schools ignores the need for healing and instead pushes teacher and students to leave their personal lives at the door in favor of a neutral academic environment. This simply does not work. We need to change what we’re adjusted to, and it’s not a new idea.
With all the talk last week about the importance of identity, love, belonging, trauma, and emotional health I’m frankly shocked that no one brought out Maslow. Maslow published the Hierarchy of Needs 1943. We’ve had access to this knowledge for seventy-four years. For seventy-four years we’ve been able to make claims that in order for people to self-actualize (which is what all our educational standards shoot for) we need to make sure that people have their physiological, physical, belonging, and esteem needs to be met. And yet all the time we have students entering our classes without these needs met.
Students come to class hungry and without sleep. Some students come to class intoxicated. Some students are homeless and come to school without shelter.
Students come to class from physically unsafe homes, through physically unsafe streets, into physically unsafe schools.
Students come to class from psychology unsafe homes, throughout psychologically unsafe streets, into psychologically unsafe classrooms.
Students come to class wondering if they have value. Wondering if anyone will miss them if they just stopped showing up.
Some students experience only one of these circumstances. Many students experience all of them at once.
And then we ask students to pay attention to the history of the Byzantine Empire, or to analyze The Iliad? Or when we’re really excited we ask them to do deep personal reflection and self-actualize in class? Please.
Students need us to see them as fully formed and worthy human beings. Emdin drew a parallel to graffiti writers who literally risk jail and their lives climbing buildings to write their names – to have someone see them. Morris spoke on how Black girls are trying their best to cope with trauma on their own by self-medicating, running away, or fighting, yet when they need healing the most, schools push them out and punish them.
Closing the achievement gap (or repaying the educational debt we owe students) will require that students of color are capable of self-actualizing within the school environment. The standards require it and to paraphrase Morris equity without a standard of excellence is not equity.
We need our students of color to succeed on their own terms as well as the terms of the dominant society if we have any hope of continued success for this country. People of color have the demographic dividend in this country and across the world. Our country cannot be sustained by an ever-shrinking ruling class. (Feel free to look at the bleak world of Lazarus) The small ruling class model does not have a history of long-term success and tends to end in horrific bloodshed. I am unwilling to accept that future for this country.
So if we want to close our gap (or repay our debt) we need students to be capable of self-actualization. This then helps us define or work. Maslow and Wiggins makes it easy for us: just backwards plan and move each step in the pyramid.
We want self-actualization: Do our students have high esteem? Yes – let’s go. No – work on esteem.
When working on esteem: Do our students have love and belonging covered? Yes – work on esteem. No – work on love and belonging.
If broken people break people then our first step is to heal the adults. Healthy adults are required for this work because we need to be able to stay present and calm when a student insults you. We need to know that a student’s outburst is more often a symptom of some underlying need for validation or healing than it is an intentional act of aggression.
The next step is to know our students. We cannot pretend to heal our students without knowing their authentic selves. This is the core argument for Emdin’s reality pedagogy model.
Accept What Is:
The core premise of Emdin’s reality pedagogy is that regardless of our opinions about it, we have to accept and interrogate our student’s realities. Particularly the realities of the neoindigenous because their realities are the least often reflected by the status quo. This is the path toward affirming identity and moving a student toward self actualization.
If your 6th grade student’s favorite movie is Scarface because their favorite rapper rhymes about Tony Montana then guess what – that’s their favorite movie and it’s an important reference point for their identity. You will make a stronger connection with your student if you see the movie and can connect this schema to the work of your class.
Is Genghis Khan similar to Tony Montana? Both self-made men interested in expanding their control that get brought down by hubris? Perhaps. And how many other literary figures or world leaders could be connected that way? You’ll only know that if you engage with your student’s interests. You don’t have to be an expert and you don’t have to like it. If you know enough though it will make you a better teacher for that student.
Emdin’s example includes the hypothetical of what if your student comes in singing “I wish I could f___ every girl in the world“? (Also interrogate if that student is male, female, Black, white, Latino, Asian?) Regardless of your opinion of the song, the song is already a part of the student’s reality. The student will engage with it whether you are there to guide them or not. If you can engage with them then you can bring this part of their reality into the classroom and interrogate it. Is this a sentiment that they truly believe? Does this extend to sisters, aunts, mothers, cousins? What’s their relationship to the message of the song? The mental shift is that teachers can’t reject things they don’t like out of hand because those touchstones are already real to our students. We have to work with the students to understand the meaning and context of the world they exist in. Even when it is uncomfortable or repugnant. If we are thoughtful we can also make explicit connections to the ideas, issues, and values in the standard curriculum. How many of Hemmingway’s protagonists could have written the same song under different circumstances or in a different time? What does this tell us about their misogyny? There’s a whole lesson right there.
I can imagine many teachers blanching at the thought of anchoring a lesson around Lil’ Wayne and a hook with an F-bomb in it, never mind the misogynist content. And you’re probably right to blanche and instinctually reject the idea. It’s a huge risk in most schools. We are adjusted to a certain version of school with written and unwritten rules. This is why in order to change standard operating procedure, we have to get maladjusted to the status quo. This shows up instructionally as described above, and it can also show up in discipline.
Respond With Love:
During her talk Morris rejected the school-to-prison pipeline when it comes to Black girls. Instead she offered a model that is more like a sexual abuse to prison pipeline. Under this model young Black girls are abused or assaulted, they then come to school exhibiting a variety of unhelpful coping behaviors like bringing a weapon to school, self-medicating or being aggressive. These behaviors typically violate school policy in some way, often the behaviors show up under the catchall of “disrupting the learning environment.” Students are then referred for discipline related to the violation (often suspension) and in many circumstances these violations escalate to the juvenile justice system. Black girls are then pushed out of school and prevented from additional learning due to how these coping mechanisms present in the context of school.
This brutal pattern forms the basis of Morris’ book and the premise for why she argues that we should instead respond to these behaviors with love and healing instead of punishment. These girls are not “misbehaving” in order to cause trouble or to “disrupt the learning environment.” They are responding to trauma in the only way they know how. And schools push them away. It doesn’t have to go like this. Schools could be places for healing instead.
On it’s surface this change again seems simple. Instead of referring students to the juvenile justice system or suspending students, you respond with interventions designed to heal the trauma at the root of the issue. The violence or self-medication is a symptom. We should treat the cause.
Yet this change in response stands in direct opposition to standard operating procedure on school discipline. In order to make this fundamental change educators need to be maladjusted to the idea that students who violate school policy should be removed from the school environment. And educators need to accept their students’ realities no matter how difficult or uncomfortable that is for the educator. Morris began to flip this narrative when she said: “Can we all agree that there is no such thing as a child prostitute? Instead we have girls exploited and forced into sex work.” This is an enormous paradigm shift away from criminalizing coping behavior, particularly in schools that use zero tolerance policies linked to criminal justice. It takes a healthy, bold, and confident educator to reject school or district policy at possible risk to their job and their livelihood.
Decide to Be Creatively Maladjusted:
Maladjustment is not a safe choice, but the stakes are high. The lives of our current students are the lives of this country’s future adults regardless of how they turn out. We shape the future through action and inaction at the same time.
I like the idea of individual teachers taking this on at a grass roots level. It has a satisfying revolutionary appeal: individual teachers opting out of referring students for suspension or teaching lessons rooted in students’ realities. That’s not going to fix things though. We have an enormous issue of scale when it comes to PreK-12 public education in this country. It takes larger commitments from all levels of the organization.
Oakland Unified School District is one district leading this work by making a move toward restorative justice across the district. This is the kind of change to policy that, when combined with day-to-day work supporting students, can allow teachers to take risks from a safer position. District leadership can create policies and guidelines that support and protect teachers when they actively engage students. We can recreate the standard operating procedure, but in order to do so we have to be maladjusted to the current one.
After the clip that Emdin used to illustrate the concept of maladjustment King asks for an International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Emdin made a claim that this association exists and that it’s hip hop. I think that public education can do it too.
What’s the point of education? We have millions of teachers and students in our schools all across the country spending innumerable hours in classes year after year. So what’s the point?
Well, if you believe Dr. Chris Emdin, (and after hearing him speak, reading his book, and then spending a day with him I am inclined to do so) the point is healing. We embark on this moral endeavor in order to heal people.
Healing? Wait a minute! That’s not what the brochure said this was about.
The written description for the session was the Emdin would cover his 7 C’s of Reality Pedagogy that he describes in his book, but instead he opened his soul and shared the fire that keeps him motivated and hungry.
Summarizing a 6 hour intensive session into a single post is a pointless task. (And at the rate this man speaks? Forget it. I won’t even pretend to try that.) If you want to know what Emdin talked about I’ll bend your ear as long as you’ll let me. I promise. For this purpose though I’m going to give you the same-day snapshot on what I want to do next with the three areas that are currently sticking out. By the time I get home in three days I might be sitting with something completely different.
“The goal of teaching is to heal. Broken people break people.”
As soon as the first hour of the day Emdin shifted away from the advertised topics into a concept of humanizing pedagogy (pulling directly from Ladson-Billings, Freire, and Giroux) that allows students to be fully themselves while also pushing them toward excellent outcomes and in doing this he dropped the massive claim that “the goal of teaching is to heal [and] broken people break people.” The room sat up a bit straighter with a “what did he just say about me?” look on their face.
Emdin did not say this to indict teachers – he was speaking to a room full of mentors and coaches. Instead, he positioned the coaching role as a parallel healing role with teachers. If we want teachers to be healers in the classroom we need coaches in place to heal the adults. Broken teachers will break students. Broken principals break teachers. Broken parents break children. We see it all the time and we can change that.
Emdin’s fire comes with a large serving of truth.
This made me want to take a more direct role in supporting our novice teachers. I want to help heal some people. I’ve done it before as a mentor and it’s some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever been a part of.
As a district level administrator I’m a few steps removed from teachers, let alone students, yet I run the mentoring and induction program for the district. I’m also working on building a case for more robust support of our novice teachers. After today I am thinking that I should take on a couple of novice teachers and mentor them directly in the way I would want mentors to work. This would let me lead by example and create a concrete example for our senior leadership to work with. Just like modeling instruction as a coach. If I can make this work it would let me film myself and my coaching to further make the case while also making more direct impact on our educators.
I definitely have space in my schedule to take on a couple of teachers and it shouldn’t be too hard for me to identify a couple people who would be willing to get some additional support so that I can demonstrate how effective mentors can support the individual person in their role as a teacher and move a novice teacher toward a healing role. All with explicit district support given my level of formal authority.
Call Their Name:
[By writing graffiti] “kids risk their lives to get their name called. So call their name.”
Emdin repeatedly touched on ideas of humanizing and recognizing youth as valid and worthy naming that most explicitly in the quote above. There’s a brutal simplicity in the idea that young people will climb buildings and hang off bridges, literally risking their lives, in order to write a name, a name of their choosing, in a public space. The need to affirm identity is literally being written in bright six foot high letters. What if we provided that affirmation in schools?
Emdin told the Decepticons’ origin story as a group of Brooklyn Tech High School students who were unable to actualize their identities at the prestigious exam school. This can be read as a cautionary tale for everyone who might read Emdin’s book and think “well, I don’t teach in the hood, so I’m all set.” The story about the Deceptz builds a sense of urgency, not from the fear that any group of educationally disenfranchised youth of color will spontaneously start a violent gang, (New York in the late 1970’s has a very important historical context after all) but more that the rise of the Deceptz highlights the need to shine a light into the underperforming areas of apparently successful schools. We can’t neglect small populations of unsuccessful or disenfranchised students just because their small numbers have a small impact on our aggregate ratings.
I don’t know yet what this means for my day to day work, but we need to make sure our students can affirm their identities while working to achieve at high levels in school. If schools are working correctly students shouldn’t need to look outside the school to be their authentic selves. There’s a long way to go here, particularly for students of color.
For me to help make this happen it could mean working on curriculum, running classes for teachers, supporting evaluators, or all of the above.
“What are you willing to give up in order to save lives?”
Emdin posed this question fairly early in the day and then proceeded to reject its premise. The initial premise is the idea that a teacher gives up time working on academic content (the curriculum) when they take time to learn about students’ identities or engage students through shared social capital. He (and I) rejected that premise from the perspective that without engaging with students at a human level and understanding them as fully formed humans (with ever evolving brains, souls, and identities) we will never actually teach them. There’s a lot of work to be done here within school systems.
In my work I can typically get educators to agree with the idea that they need to spend time getting to know their students or building community. Those educators will often mention taking time at the beginning of the year. Maybe a couple days, perhaps as long as two weeks. That’s not enough.
The beginning of the year is important – it’s critical, but it’s insufficient. Students change over the course of ten months, sometimes in very dramatic ways and teachers need to create routines and rituals that allow students to consistently and reliability check in. It could be a simple as an identity based Do-Now (entry task, warm-up, take your pick of terms) activity, or as complex as asking students to journal and turn journals into formal writing. Length and depth are less important than consistency and repeated opportunity for students to positively leverage their many identities. Again, I tend not to have problems convincing people that this is a good idea. The challenge comes from implementation.
The classic tension is that teachers have “so much content to cover” and this mentality can prevent teachers from doing the community and connection building work that they know is critical to ensuring student success. This is where I think we need to change the common perception of teaching. Paulo Freire stated that “there is no teaching without learning” and that is where I want to get every teacher. With this perspective the claim that “I taught it, but they didn’t learn it” can’t exist. It becomes an impossibility. Instead you have to take the perspective that no matter how many times I’ve said it, or presented it, or asked students to learn a concept – if they haven’t learned it, my work isn’t done. If a concept or topic isn’t important enough to go back to, perhaps it shouldn’t be there in the first place.
This then forces an examination of content and methodology. You can’t teach every topic on the curriculum at the necessary depth. I have never seen an attainable syllabus. (Including ones I’ve written.) Therefore we need to attempt to teach less and think critically about which concepts are worthy of teaching with depth and which topics can be merely presented to students for exposure. I want to help our teachers and curriculum coordinators figure out how to make this happen. We need our students to be with us and mountains of research show that we only get quality learning when students trust that teachers understand and respect them. This takes time and it takes work. We need to make it acceptable to take the necessary time. We’ll never get students learning otherwise.
There was so much more and I have so many questions about where to go next.
Emdin took the whole room to church for six hours talking about the power of Pentecostal preachers to enrapture and audience while living as an example of that very same power. I expect that I will be unpacking, rethinking, and applying what I learned for quite some time.
Throughout the day Emdin helped me take ideas and concepts that have been floating in my head and in my practice and put those ideas into words. His declaration of teaching as a healing act aligns directly with that I knew to be true about the best teaching, but struggled to articulate. He lives Freire’s concept of a humanizing pedagogy, but leverages a vernacular that is much more accessible than Freire.
In his accessibility Emdin is also explicit in naming how to accomplish these lofty tasks. He makes it sound so easy – because it is. You’re trying to make content relevant to your students, but you don’t know what their culture is like? Play dumb, ask them. They’ll tell you. We just have to get over our own fears and hangups and remember that we’re here for students’ lives. The stakes are high and our comfort as adults isn’t a good enough reason to not try. If we’re ever going to turn education into the system we all say we want we have to actually find the courage to take the actions we know to be effective. This day took me many steps closer and I look forward to the challenge.
An Ally for Sara – Using Positionality and Teacher Identity to Support Students
My principal came into my classroom during a planning period. While not unheard of, this was pretty rare. She usually skipped past empty classrooms during her walkthroughs.
Typically I could count on my principal’s consistent smile and energy, so when she came into the room with a demeanor of quiet seriousness I knew something was amiss.
“Sara wants you to be at this meeting we’re having with her parents tomorrow, are you available?”
Innocently, I responded: “Sure, what’s the situation? Why me?” Sara was a reasonably strong student, if a bit goofy in class. She was at an awkward phase (as if any 6th graders aren’t) and she was moving between friend groups so there were a few social concerns. That said, there were never any major issues in class so I figured any sort of parent meeting would be fairly innocuous. I didn’t think I’d established a particularly close connection with Sara so I was surprised that she would ask me to be at a meeting that wasn’t specifically related to my class.
“Well…” my principal hesitated, looking a bit uncomfortable.
This was completely out of character. Just the year before this principal had stared down a student with a handgun while six months pregnant, successfully getting him to hand her the weapon. “There was an issue with another student drawing swastikas on Sara’s notebook. She’d like you to be there when we talk about it because she says you’ll understand.”
Things started to click into place. We’d been studying the Holocaust by reading Daniel’s Story in our social studies class as part of a larger unit on World War II and Sara was one of very few students who proactively identified as being Jewish. When starting the unit we made sure to contact parents and notify other 6th grade teachers because the topic was emotional. As expected, there’d been some parent and student questions about Judaism, Nazis, and anti-Semitism in my class and others, but nothing out of the ordinary by my colleagues’ accounts. This was clearly more serious.
I also started to get a sense of why Sara would say that I’d understand.
My Identity Matters When I Teach
That was my first year of full-time teaching and I had four sections of 6th grade social studies. We had a big unit on 20th century Europe focused on the two World Wars and when we started the shift in topic from World War II as a political conflict into specifically studying the Holocaust as a genocide I took a moment to acknowledge that students may get uncomfortable.
Genocide and The Holocaust are uncomfortable even in an abstract sense and I feel strongly that studying genocide, and other forms of oppression like slavery or racism, should handled with respect to students’ age, but can not be sugar coated. We owe our students the truth when we study painful subjects. As such, I had no intention of sanitizing the Holocaust and I let the students know that we would be examining uncomfortable materials including stories and pictures. I told them that is was reasonable to feel discomfort and that they would have opportunities to examine what made them feel uncomfortable. Think of it as a trigger warning before the term came into fashion.
I also told the students about my Jewish ancestry and acknowledged that studying the Holocaust made me uncomfortable every time even though I’d done it before.
It’s also important to clarify that my Jewish ancestry is not obvious to an external observer. I don’t wear a yarmulke or a Star of David around my neck. I haven’t been Bar Mitzvahed and I’m not a regular at the Synagogue. In fact my last trip to temple was for my cousin’s Bat Mitzvah.
I’m the child of an Belarusian, Jewish, mother and an Irish/Scottish, Catholic, father. My last name is McCormick, and with the name for context, I look like I stepped right off the Emerald Isle. The Belarusian genes are more subtle without the Kabakov for context. Essentially, I came out to my students in a small way. I positioned myself for them and gave context for the seriousness with which I planned to take discussions of the Holocaust as related to my identity.
It Didn’t Seem Like a Big Deal
I didn’t really plan to tell my students about my background ahead of time. I didn’t write a speech or even play it through in my head. It just seemed like a good idea. I knew I had a couple Jewish students and probably a couple like me who weren’t obviously Jewish. I said it once and didn’t really make a bit deal about it in any sort of ongoing way. I figured f I could teach this stuff, even though it’s painful, then they could learn it alongside me. I didn’t think it would matter outside the classroom.
Sharing my identity in this way worked beyond my expectations. It worked well enough that when a student scrawled a handful of crude swastikas on Sara’s notebook during lunch, she asked for me for moral support. I was the first ally she thought of.
The parent/principal meeting went smoothly. To date that middle school principal is still the best boss I’ve ever worked for. She handled the situation with gravity and compassion without ever letting up on her deep sense of respect for everyone involved. She listened to Sara with the utmost respect with no attempt to downplay Sara’s pain.
The student responsible for the swastikas was treated appropriately for an eleven year old who didn’t really understand the seriousness of his actions. There was no radicalized Neo-Nazi or White Supremacist agenda. He learned the seriousness of his actions and the reason for their unacceptability. All of us were able to move on without further incident.
In the meeting I didn’t do a whole lot. I ended up pretty much just being there for moral support for Sara. The principal handled the whole thing and I learned a lot about mediation. The key was that Sara had an ally. Someone to corroborate her pain. Every time she described how hurt she was she would look at me and say: “you get it right? I mean, you’re Jewish too.” She could confirm that her feelings were justifiable by checking them against my feelings. No one could tell her that it wasn’t a big deal of a teacher agreed with her.
My small act of revealing my Jewish ancestry was just that. A small act. A small risk to share something that was previously invisible. That small risk on my part helped Sara feel more comfortable in class and established a powerful level of trust . I didn’t even know how important that revelation was to Sara until we had the incident with the swastikas because Sara didn’t need to rely on me before that.
Sara told me later in that year that as soon as we started the World War II unit she was worried about studying the Holocaust. She was worried that she wouldn’t be able to handle it, that she would be too upset to stay in class. When I told her I was Jewish that helped her feel confident that I would handle the subject with sensitivity and propriety. (I’m paraphrasing a bit here from 6th grade speaking patterns.) Throughout the unit Sara did have some issues and even had a few nightmares about Nazis coming for her. Each time it happened either she, or her parents let me know and we gave her the option to sit out the class. She only took that option once and she stuck through some of the more emotionally challenging lessons that had some other students feeling overwhelmed.
When I shared my Jewish heritage with my class I couldn’t predict that it would become so immediately important for one of my students. I couldn’t predict that another student would leverage Sara’s Judaism against her leaving her desperate for an ally. I shared anyway, without a specific plan or strategy.
There are numerous other times when I’ve shared other aspects of my identity and in most of the cases I wasn’t sure which students would latch on to which aspects of my identity. Will any of my students care that I lived in California? Who knows? Will any of my students care parents got divorced? I have no idea. That didn’t stop me from opening myself when the time felt right. I’ve absolutely mentioned my parents’ divorce when a student’s family situation is making it hard for them to stay focused in class. I think of it a lot like fishing with the philosophy that I could catch more fish by casting more lines into the stream. Without casting my lines of identity I stood a much lower chance of making connections with my students.
That said I am also mindful of when I cast which lines. Like any other professional, educators need to use the right tool for the right situation and the goal is not to share everything. In her excellent book on the power of vulnerability, Daring Greatly, Brené Brown draws a sharp distinction between effective vulnerability and over sharing. I am not a complete open book with my students and there are definitely pieces that I elect not to share and questions that I won’t answer. Students don’t get to hear about my relationship with my wife and they don’t get much about my sister. My general rule of thumb is to be as open as I hope my students to be. If I expect students to write about a challenging academic or social experience in our AVID class, I should be able to provide them with my own example. If I am unwilling to share about my biggest mistake in life I shouldn’t expect my students to be that open with me. As a general rule my AVID class got more than my history because of the content of the class itself.
Educators won’t always have such an obvious area of connection between themselves and a student that ties directly to curriculum. I didn’t plan that by revealing my Jewish ancestry that I would be able to help a student through a difficult experience. I just thought my students would be more attentive and respectful of my own emotions when we discussed a charged issue. I definitely made sure to mention my ancestry again when I taught the Holocaust for a second time.
I also never hope for students to experience harassment due to curricular connections, yet it happens. The country is seeing a rise of hate crimes and emboldened Neo-Nazi and white supremacist organizations since the presidential election that schools can’t ignore. Educators should expect this to continue as racist and hateful rhetoric become more common on the news and across the country. If sharing some of our identities as the adult in the room can help students feel safer in the classroom then we should do that. It is a small risk for the adult with explicit authority to open themselves when the reward could be protecting a vulnerable or targeted child.
If educators can’t prevent examples of hateful speech, graffiti, or actions from appearing in schools (and we have never been able to prevent this) we are responsible for addressing those issues head on. While I think the concept behind wearing safety pins is an admirable one, I think more concrete examples of solidarity will prove to be more effective over the long term. Authentic alliance requires authentic connection. If you as an educator can make an authentic connection to your students this will help them see you as an ally. When I told my classes about my Jewish heritage I immediately became an ally for Sara. I’ve had similar experiences by sharing that I speak Spanish, read comic books, and listen to hip hop along with countless other facets of my identity. I’ve made myself an ally for students battling with substance abuse, gang affiliation, and teenage parenthood. If anything I was shocked at how easily it happened when I allowed it.
As an educator I encourage you to make a strong human connection with your students. Allow them to see you as the full human you are – particularly if you think you can make a connection with a student, or group of students, who may feel isolated or targeted in your school community. This could look like my example with Sara where I connected an aspect of my identity to the curriculum. This could also be early in the school year when you are introducing yourself. You could also use it as a bridge when a student is experiencing difficulty in your class. There is no perfect way to open yourself to others. You’ll need to take a risk and put your line in the water. You won’t catch much otherwise.
Resolved: Drake is a better rapper than Lil’ Wayne.
Carlos – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!
Ralph: WHAT!? Pro? I can’t argue for a lie!
Carlos: Oh, you’re going down!
That’s that way it goes. First card I draw is pro, second card is con. Get ready Ralph, you’ve got 30 seconds. Go!
Ralph then proceeds to deftly tear down his favorite rapper using every possible negative argument he can come up with off the top of his head in 30 seconds. The class roars their approval. Carlos’ rebuttal in support of Lil’ Wayne doesn’t hold up and Ralph wins the mini-debate to another round of cheers and applause.
Resolved: Soccer is more popular than Football.
Khadija – Pro
Elma – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!
Resolved: Singing is harder than dancing.
Anna – Con
Thirty seconds – Go!
After each 30 second statement for one side or the other students cheer, laugh, and congratulate each other. Expertly delivered lines receive additional cheers mid-statement. Everyone is having a good time and the kids are hooked on public speaking.
Abruptly, the classroom door opens.
“Mr. McCormick? My class next door is doing an in-class writing assignment and they need a quiet environment. Your class is disturbing them and they can’t stay focused. Keep it down please.”
A fair point I thought. We had been pretty loud. I tell the class that: “while we’re doing well and I love everyone’s energy, we need to keep it down a bit so the class next door can write.”
This lasted for about five minutes before we were shushed by my colleague again. Through the 50 minute period we ended up getting asked to quiet down five or six times so that the class next door could complete their writing assignment. My students made efforts to keep the volume down to 3 or 4, but every time someone did well with a debate or delivered a strong line they shot right back up to 10.
Keep it down!
Were we disturbing the other students and their learning environment? Likely. The school’s walls aren’t that thick and it’s generally pretty easy to hear a loud teacher or movie through the wall, so I’m sure a class full of thirty cheering students carried straight through. Each classroom is one piece of a larger school community so while it is critical that each teacher and each classroom operate in ways that serve their students, they must do so without preventing other classrooms from doing the same.
What happens then when two different learning styles or teaching methodologies rub against each other in conflict?
In this case my 10th grade AVID class was engaged in public speaking practice. Public speaking by its very nature is not a silent activity. In this case we were performing no-prep 30-second debates to work on quick thinking, argument building, and presence in front of the class and the class was into it.
All my students were actively engaged, they listened to their peers, and they provided just-in-time peer feedback. Unfortunately, we were also disturbing our neighbors and disrupting the larger social contract of the school in the process.
An important contextual note: AVID is an elective course that selectively targets students who are traditionally underrepresented in college. There is no single factor to determine eligibility, however, identifying factors often include a student’s race, ethnic background, family history of college attendance, socioeconomic status, test scores, and grades. AVID specifically targets students near the “academic middle” and helps them develop skills and practices to finish high school in a position where they are equipped to enter, and succeed in, college. As a result the population of the AVID class was significantly less white and lower income than the average for this suburban high school and shared many similarities with a more urban classroom comprised of neoindigenous students.
Our neighboring class was 9th grade Gifted English. Students were required to score very high on a district test in order to be eligible to enroll in the gifted program. I was a new teacher at the school and my neighbor was a highly respected veteran. When she entered my classroom and asked me to keep my class quiet my colleague was (intentionally or unintentionally) exercising a power dynamic that prioritized her students’ quiet learning over my students’ loud learning.
Keep it down?
At first glance it would appear that if every class is quiet then all students will learn; no learning will be disturbed. My initial assessment in the moment confirmed this idea.
That concept is only true, however, if every student learns best in a quiet environment. The information before me on that day showed this assumption to be false. My students were interacting directly with their peers’ words and providing high levels of peer feedback in the form of cheers, applause, and other emotive reactions. My class was learning more effectively in a loud environment than I’d previously seen from them in a quiet environment. The speakers were getting more timely feedback on their speaking skills from the class than I could have ever delivered on my own. Every student had multiple chances to debate and practice. By changing the classroom environment to transform that class into a quiet space I was complicit in disrupting my students’ learning in favor of the class next door.
This perpetuated the structure by which those who learn best in a quiet “traditional” school environment receive preferential treatment to those students whose preferred modes of learning do not conform to those “traditional” models. In this specific case wealthier white, South Asian, and East-Asian students were provided preferential treatment over their lower-income Latino/a, black, and Southeast-Asian peers. This particular interaction was a microcosm for the way broader school culture preferentially serves some students more effectively than others.
To further complicate the matter, it is quite possible that teaching exclusively in a “traditional” manner that prioritizes quiet individual work does a disservice to students who prefer that model. The quiet seatwork, lecture, or test-taking model of education is a far cry from the reality of the working world across nearly every field. There is very little of working life that includes listening to lectures or taking tests. In order for our students to be successful when they leave school they need to be able to perform at high levels even when they work day to day in a fast-paced, collaborative, often noisy, work environment.
Complaints are easy young man, solutions are harder.
This interaction had lasting impact on my students’ learning and my own pedagogical decisions. For my students it was an additional cue that their preferred modes of learning exist in conflict with expectation – another example of how they don’t belong. For myself, I intentionally shied away from lesson structures where students would get “too loud” for fear of being reprimanded again. As a result, even though I had the skills and knowledge to replicate the learning environment that created high levels of learning and engagement during the mini-debates, I never repeated that success for the rest of the year because I did not want to rub up against the dominant definition of a good lesson and a well-controlled classroom. I was scared of being reprimanded or judged.
So how do we solve this? How do we create schools and classrooms that accept and value students’ range of learning? Yes, there is plenty of work on multiple intelligences and universal design for learning that highlight the importance of designing learning opportunities that allow all students to leverage their strengths and to shore up their weaknesses. This cannot be reality until the larger structure values that diversity in such a way that one group of students, typically neoindigenous students of color, is no longer asked to continually subordinate their preferred mode of learning to that of other students. These various modes of learning need to be explicitly valued in multiple ways.
One option is to leverage the physical space to allow flexibility. When we design schools we can create spaces that include thicker or soundproof walls so that my loud class doesn’t disturb your quiet class. We can include furniture that moves easily to allow for quicker transitions between seating arrangements from rows, to groups, to a circle. A flexible space would help all teachers and make the creative pedagogy we desire more accessible on a regular basis.
Additionally, school leaders can explicitly validate a range of instructional methods. In my experience with the mini-debates I was immediately concerned that my loud class would reflect poorly on my skills as a new educator. What if my neighbor complained to the principal? Would I be able to keep my job? Would the principal say I had weak classroom management in my review?
The situation could have played out differently if I had more explicit support from my leadership that these methods were valued. In hindsight I think my leadership was supportive, but in the moment I experienced a conflict between my students’ engagement, my neighbor’s sense of disruption, and the power dynamics of the expected learning environment. If we want to fully educate each student that enters our schools we need to create spaces that validate their identities while also creating avenues of access this can be done if educators across all levels of the system are willing to rethink our basic assumptions of how students learn and what that learning looks like.