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“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.

Time Out:
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.

Game On:
“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.

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malcolmxmovieposterI’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.

malcolmxbookcoverI’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.

 

 

 

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.