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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.

Healing:
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.

False Choice:
“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.

What’s Next?
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.

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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.

 

Beyond Sara:

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.