Bleeding Scream

I am in a new role this year, one that means I am removed from classroom teaching. It’s been an adjustment, but one that is going fairly smoothly. That said, any time I have a chance to be in a school, I get excited and can barely contain myself. Even if it means I’m giving a short presentation to teachers about how they can use their new laptops in their classrooms.

As I’m also new to my school division, some of the building leaders have given me short little tours the first times I’ve been in their schools. The first building I was in was a K-8 building that was a modified open-classroom building. Most rooms didn’t have doors, and many walls were “missing” as well. The result was a really powerful experience as I would walk by “classrooms” and hear bits and pieces of the learning going on around me.

When I walked by one of the grade 5/6 areas, I saw the students all looking at their teacher, and I heard him say two words: “Bleeding Scream.”

I had to stop the person giving the tour, to make sure I heard that correctly. Sure enough, I did not miss those words. He was about to read a chapter of Wonder. For those who know the book, that is the chapter. The chapter when Jack Will says those words.

Wonder
Do you know the book? One of my favourite read-alouds.

I didn’t want to distract the students from that moment, so I continued on.

But those kids stuck with me. I’ve never read the book with that age level before. How did they react? What did they think? Were they surprised? Did any of them feel sick to their stomachs, as I did when I first read that scene?

Fortunately, the answer was but an email away.

I asked the teacher those very questions. His response was better than I had hoped. Sure, he let me know their thoughts. But he also invited me to come talk with them myself.

So yesterday, I had the opportunity to put on my teacher hat and read a section of Wonder to a group of students who were so invested in every word, I could have read with them for hours.

Some incredible things happened as a result of that experience:

  1. I was able to connect with my teacher self a little more deeply, feeding that fire.
  2. The classroom teacher got to a) have a well-deserved break and b) see his work validated by a colleague.
  3. The students got to see that this practice — reading a book and talking about it — is not something limited to them and their teacher. It’s something adults do because it’s a good practice.

As administrators, sometimes we can lose sight of the impact our actions can have. We get caught up in what we see as important, forgetting that the most important thing is the students in our care. Though they might not be directly in our care most of the time, they are still the only thing that matters in this profession.

The look on their faces, seeing someone from the division office (perhaps capitalized Division Office in their minds) step in and do what their teacher does with them every day, was one of wonderful realization. This isn’t just their teacher doing something good. This is something of value beyond their learning space. This is something that matters. They are someone who matters.

Some will say the time spent with these students could have been better spent. I suppose I could have worked some more on the database of instructional videos I’m creating. I could have met with my team members on a project we are working on. I could have done some more professional reading.

But that stuff will happen. That’s a required part of my job. What’s important are the things that aren’t required. For 30 minutes at the end of the work week, I chose to be with students and bring some validation to a teacher and his practice.

I can’t think of a better use of my time.

I don’t want to sit here and put a false air of importance on myself. But it is important that those of us on the administration side of things realize the “official” nature of our presence, whether we want it or not. How are we using it to validate and appreciate those around us? Worse yet, how are we using it to invalidate or depreciate those around us?

Let’s use the little bit of power we have for good, as often as possible. Because those students? The looks on their faces? I’ll never forget it.

Of course, doing a one-time visit is nice. But it is that much better when we can repeat these things. When we can really show the students how important they are. The students recognized that. They asked me to come back as I was leaving. And sure, that felt nice. As much as I validate their work, those words of theirs validated mine.

But to come back. To show them that yes, they are important. Yes, they matter. That is key. They are worth my time, no matter how busy I may be.

From the Top Down

As some who find themselves reading this may know, my family recently moved halfway across the country. Personally, this meant a move closer to family and to a community we knew, even as it did bring me farther from where I grew up and my family in that area. Professionally, this meant a new position in a new school division.

(Note: “School Division” is a largely Canadian term used the same way “School District” is in the US)

With this new position came meeting new people, attending new employee workshops, etc. Things most of us have been through once or twice in our careers — at the very least, at the start of our careers.

I’ve been at new schools and/or new school district/divisions 5 times in my career. 4 of them had largely the same new teacher orientation information:

  • How to get paid
  • How to request time off
  • Expectations of teachers
  • How to file grievances
  • Welcome to our team! excitement (either genuine excitement or not, this always exists)

This one was different. And I have to share why.

When the superintendent spoke at the beginning of the orientation, there was a bit of the “here’s what we’re doing as a division this year; here’s our new strategic plan for the next 3 years; etc.” That’s pretty standard.

But before he even got to that, he started with talking about trust. He started by talking about how all the teachers in the room (there were about 40 of us) were going to build relationships with our students and with each other, and how that was the most important thing that we do. RTI, PLCs, curriculum, best practices: these are all important supports. But the most important thing is the relationships we have with our students and the community of support that we build.

I was blown away.

I’ve never had the leader of entire school division say that, much less kick off the year by saying that. But maybe it was an anomaly. He might have the most powerful voice, but maybe other senior administrators didn’t buy in to that same philosophy.

Then it was an assistant superintendent’s turn.

He shared with us 8 Standards of Excellence in Teaching. But he highlighted one in particular that was the necessary starting point: Interpersonal Relationships. He went on to say, “Building relationships is the foundation of your classroom practice.” Essentially, if you don’t have that one, the others aren’t really going to matter nearly enough.

Think about those words. “Building relationships is the foundation of your classroom practice.” If I had asked you before this post who said that, what would you say? A classroom teacher? A former teacher turned speaker? Perhaps a principal? The impact of a superintendent saying these words is significant.

I felt it in myself, and I saw it in my colleagues as we understood. It was clear what is important to this school division. It’s not just the academic outcomes that we lead our students toward. It’s an adult caring about every student. It’s every student having an adult who cares about them. It’s about helping each student feel a sense of belonging. It’s about community. It’s about relationships.

I thought this was as amazing as it was novel to me to hear it from the highest administrators in the division.

Then I really started to think about it.

When the primary directive to teachers is to build trust, community, and relationships among themselves and among their students, that’s going to look different than what I’m used to. I’m used to raising test scores. I’m used to graduation rates. I’m used to proficiency targets and goals.

When the first thing talked about from the top down is student scores, that is the desired target. Everything teachers do, then, becomes about raising student scores. Good teachers know that relationship-building is part of this.

When the first thing talked about from the top down is building relationships, then that is the desired target. Everything teachers do, then, becomes about building a community with their students. Good teachers know that this will raise student scores.

What is the message you send, when you get to talk to others? Whether you’re a teacher, administrator, parent, or student: what is your focal point? If it’s student scores, then everyone who comes through the doors of your building is ultimately a number. They’re a lot of things along the way, but they come in as a number and they leave as hopefully a higher number. Any thinking or practice otherwise becomes dissent.

If the message is trust, community, and relationships, then everyone who comes through the doors of your building is a person. They’re a lot of things along the way, but they come in as a person and they leave as a hopefully more enriched person. Any thinking or practice otherwise becomes dissent.

I would dissent if I had to. I’m fortunate that I don’t. Others are not so fortunate.

I will leave you with this thought. I believe that most people in senior administration in school districts believe in the importance and power of relationships and community in education. I’m not sure how many think it’s the most important thing, but they know it’s quite important. For those in those roles: are you communicating that to your staff? Do they know that you believe that? How? What are you doing to show that every day?

What will you do today to show those around you that you believe in the power of trust, relationships, and community?

The Elephant in the Room

On Friday night, hundreds of American white supremacists had a rally in Charlottesville, VA. In the violent aftermath, dozens of people were injured, and three people died, at least one of whom was a victim of this racially-motivated domestic terrorism. On top of that, people around the world were reminded that racism is alive and well in the United States.

Every single person in that latter group looks just like those who put on the rally.

White people, such as myself, have the unique ability to forget that there are those who wish we didn’t exist. I have been reminded time and time again by people of color that they do not have that luxury.

But right now, it is on all of our minds.

Including the minds of our students.

What do we do? How do we help the next generation be better than our current generation? How do we help make sure the next generation lives long enough to actually become the next generation, and not the last generation?

What I know is that I don’t know.

I’m not going to claim to have the answers. But I have some ideas and some resources that I think can help.

But to begin with, we must shed the notion that our classrooms — our communities of learners — are not able to handle this sort of discussion. Again, for those of us who are white, we are at times able to ignore this, even when it is shoved in our faces. The same is true of our white students. But we are doing a disservice to ourselves and to all our students — regardless of race, religion, and ethnicity — if we make the choice to ignore this or pretend that it is not important to our students. They’re all thinking about it. Our silence on the matter would speak louder than anything else we could say.

This is their world. This is the world they are going to need to make better. It is our job to help them do so. So we need to do some work.

Be properly informed.

Students will be looking to their teachers as thought leaders and will often take their word as bond. So if you start spreading misinformation to your students, that will do one of two things: 1) cause them to lose faith in you, or, more likely, 2) cause them to believe and perpetuate the falsehoods you accidentally proclaimed. Do your research on the events before you share about them.

For this particular act of hate, I have found this resource to be fairly reliable. It appears to have a slight bias, but does not in any way alter the facts that are presented: http://nymag.com/daily/intelligencer/2017/08/state-of-emergency-in-va-after-white-nationalist-rally.html

Survey your own biases in the classroom.

Pay attention to the way you are teaching your students. Are you consistent in your demeanor to all students? Do you have different expectations for different students? Probably. Many of us do, and often times, it’s for a good reason: different students are at different levels, and may need different expectations.

But what about when it’s not a good reason? What if you have higher expectations of the boys in your room than you do of the girls? What if you are short-tempered more often with students who are of a different race than you are?

Obviously that’s a problem in terms of fostering a positive learning environment, but what about the unintended lessons that teaches our students? If you are a white teacher and you are quicker to discipline your black students, what is that really doing? The message to the black students is that they are more likely to be discipline problems, based on their race. The message to their white classmates is the same one.

Imagine you make that mistake often. Imagine it happens for our students year after year after year. Hopefully the students being taught they are less than have other sources in their life that remind them that no, they are just as worthy of respect and have the same level of dignity as anyone else.

But what about the majority students? If they receive the message from school that their minority classmates are less than they are simply because of their race, religion, ethnicity, etc., what happens if they don’t receive a message that says the opposite? Who do they become?

“They sat in our classrooms. Let’s do better.”

The full quote to the above is from LaNehsa Tabb, @apron_education on Instagram. Here’s the full post:

apron_education.png

A lot of teachers like to talk about how teaching is the profession that trains all others. Well, if we’re going to take credit for doctors and artists and lawyers, we also need to take credit for our white supremacists. Many of us back down from these conversations, as we are not the parents of our students. That doesn’t mean we can’t provide a model that is perhaps drastically different than what they see at home. Yes, if you speak up against white nationalist viewpoints or Trump’s rhetoric, you might get some phone calls from parents angry about you bringing your politics into the classroom. You might cause some of your students to lose faith in you. You might lose your job.

You might also get a call 15 years down the road from a former student thanking you for showing them there was a different way to be an adult. You might have a student stick back at the end of the day to tell you they are glad someone said something. You might have a student choose to speak up against racism when they see it. You might cause a student to second-guess a rally they were going to attend. You might cause there to be one less white supremacist in the world. And, as many teachers know, if you know for sure that one person was impacted by your teaching, there are probably dozens you don’t know of.

Be mindful in your curriculum choices.

Keeping in mind what LaNesha Tabb mentioned in her post, we need to consider the future of our students when we decide what to teach them. We know that diversity breeds empathy (see here, here, and here). What are we doing to bring that to our students? What actions can we take? I reached out to Kathy Burnette (@thebrainlair on Twitter), and she had some wise words:

It is hard to put into words actions we should take because I’m sidetracked by my own alternating feelings of of rage, sadness, and despair. Trying to work my way back to hope. But it’s very difficult right now. As a book nerd, I believe that books, and the way we use them, can provide us some of this hope. But what we have to do is move the literature conversation forward. When we are posting our book lists, deciding what we are reading to our classes, picking books to share with other teachers – take a few minutes. Check that book. What kind of message does this book send? Have I sent that same message to this group before? Is this a book that’s written about people of color but not by people of color? Is this “social justice” book only looking at Jackie Robinson or Rosa Parks?

How are we using books to advance humanity? Are people of color shown as, well, people? Is it like When Dimple Met Rishi by Sandhya Menon where the main characters are two teenagers who are funny and passionate but happen to be Indian. Or The Sun is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon where Natasha and Daniel meet and Daniel is sure he can convince Nicole to fall in love with him and the main characters happen to be Korean and Jamaican? Is it about twin brothers who go to school and play basketball but aren’t in jail or do drugs? We need to make sure we are sharing stories where people of color are living everyday lives. That’s what should be “normalized”.

Consider that. As teachers, we can help prevent future racists from existing simply by making smart choices in the stories we share with our students.

“If our shelves are diverse but our lives are not, we have missed the mark.” — Chad Everett

I think that speaks for itself. See Chad’s full Nerd Talk text here.

Read Lynsey Burkins’ post on this blog.

Then go read it again.

Own your own racism.

Our students suffer from an epidemic of adults in their life being portrayed as perfect. Their teachers make no mistakes. What they say is always correct.

I will probably write an entire post just about the need to apologize to our students, but let me give you a preview here. And it has to do with owning your flaws.

I am not perfect, though my students sometimes see me as such (and other times, I leave them no doubt that I am not). But I am not and never am. This includes my views on race.

There are parts of me that are racist. Parts of me that act as a white supremacist.

It may seem that I am one of the “good guys” because if I were in Charlottesville this weekend, I would have been protesting the rally, not being a part of it. But do I racially profile? Per above, do I discipline my students differently based on race? Do I assume my good intentions are all I need?

Sometimes, yes. And more.

I have seen this image bouncing around social media for a few months now. I can’t find an original source, but it’s important for us to look at again:

Here’s the thing. If I pretend that I am perfect in terms of my views on race because I don’t do the top of the triangle, it does harm to the students in my care. It does harm because it means that the stuff I do in the bottom part of the triangle is acceptable.

And it’s not.

It’s important that I own my failings, and do so in front of my students when appropriate. If you are having conversations with your students about racism, it’s okay to talk about your own failings. In fact, it’s vital. Many of your students will have the same flaws and failings.

It’s not okay to be racist. But it’s also not okay to pretend that you’re not. The best thing to do is acknowledge your shortcomings, and publicly talk about how you’re working to be better on it. This gives the students in your classroom permission to do the same. To say that they are working on being a better human being, because they’re not perfect.

Check your feelings.

Your students’ feelings are important, because they are developing the capacity to understand them and act on them. Your feelings are much less important. You’re an adult and can find healthy outlets that don’t sacrifice what your students need.

If we wait until the next major hate crime to talk about it with our students, we are complicit in fostering the attitudes that led to that crime. If someone comes through our classroom and we made a choice to NOT talk about the obvious evil that is in our world, and they go on to continue that evil in the world, we deserve part of the blame for their actions.

The community at stake here is more than just your classroom.

That being said, it starts in your classroom. Yes, we’re talking about the world at large, but right now, you have the students in front of you. Be the teacher they need. Don’t brush aside tough conversations because they’re tough. Have them for precisely that reason.

Let’s build a future of empathetic, free-thinking leaders. Ones that recognize white supremacy and similar ideologies as the evil they are. And let’s start that work now.

Final thoughts

Jen Vincent, who tweets at @mentortexts and was a leading voice on this topic at Nerd Camp Michigan along with Kathy Burnette and Chad Everett, offers her closing remarks.

After the act of terrorism in Charlottesville this weekend, you might have seen the hashtag #thisisnotus on Twitter. I think the sentiment intended is that we, as a country, as people, as citizens, can do better. This should not be us. I wish it wasn’t us. But it is. As much as we need to move forward and do better. Better at being informed, at speaking up, at discussing social justice with our students, we also need to understand how we got here. I implore you, if you have not seen the documentary 13th from Ava DuVernay, go watch it before you do anything else.

Before watching 13th, I knew how deeply seated racism was in America but I didn’t realize how people and their specific actions have overtly contributed to the pervasiveness of racism across our country. Truly, across our country. Here is a map from Southern Poverty Law Center that shows hate groups currently in the United States.

It is important that we check our biases, that we are well informed, that we have discussions with our students. Yes to all of this. But we also need to take time to know how we got here so we can make connections between the past and now. If we don’t understand the scope of institutional racism, I fear we will continue to stay in denial and claim that this is not us, when clearly it is and it has been for a very long time.

Additional resources:

A Google Doc of teaching resources
#CharlottesvilleCurriculum on Twitter
Teaching Tolerance has a wide range of resources
NPR has a compiled a list of resources
The Early Childhood Education Assembly of NCTE has two resources that may be helpful: here and here.

 

5 Ways to Share About the Importance of Relationships

Most teachers I am connected with on social media know the value of relationships and community in education. That’s part of why they’re on social media in the first place: they know the benefits of finding ways to connect with others. Every time I would say something about relationships and community, I would get hundreds of likes on Facebook and Twitter. Rarely would there be any negative reaction or pushback.

It makes me wonder if this is just a strawman argument. Do we really need to talk up the value of relationships and community in education, or does everyone pretty much get it already?

Then I would sit down and have some in-person conversations. You remember the type. The ones that go beyond 140 characters? And sometimes happen over shared food and beverage consumption experiences? In these conversations, I would hear stories of teachers who don’t think they should get to know their students. I would hear of principals who don’t allow their teachers to take a day off the scripted curriculum to do community-building activities. I would hear from parents who are pretty sure none of their child’s teachers know their child’s name. I would hear from students who feel so lost at school because they feel there’s nobody there who cares about them.

[Sometimes, those students are my own students, and it makes me pause and reflect quite intensely]

I am reminded that this is not just a battle worth fighting, but it is, in fact, a battle that exists.

So: how do we fight it? What are our defenses? What are our weapons?

[Note: I’m going to stop the battle metaphor here; I don’t think it’s appropriate for a post about education]

Here are some things I’ve found that we as teachers can do to support ourselves, our colleagues, and — most importantly — our students, in the conversation about relationships and community.

1. Have Conversations

It really is a conversation, not a battle (sorry, those of you who really wanted that battle metaphor to continue). If you want to effect change, you need to begin with a relationship. It’s really just putting into practice the very idea! If relationships help students learn, then they will also help others learn.

Let’s say the goal is for your colleagues to be more open-minded about and maybe even agree with you about the role of relationships and community in education. You could:

  1. give them a pile of research that they will probably not read
  2. tell them they’re wrong and have them shut down every idea you ever give them
  3. drop subtle hints about how your students enjoy that you get to know them and seem to perform better because of it and have that colleague feel awkwardly passive-aggressively attacked, or
  4. have a conversation with that colleague.

Which sounds more likely to help you achieve your goals?

The benefit here is that the conversation doesn’t even have to be about the topic at hand! What’s important is that you have a staff that feels comfortable talking with each other. If you can’t even talk about last night’s game or political trends or how excited you are for the weekend, how would you ever be able to talk about topics of disagreement in the education world?

2. Read the Research

Of course, at some point, you are going to go beyond water-cooler talk and get to the important issues of the profession. But it’s tough to have a conversation with someone who disagrees with you if you don’t have support for what you’re talking about. Imagine: you have a colleague who is open to talking with you and wants to hear what you have to say — but then you have nothing to back up your arguments! We wouldn’t accept that from our students, and we shouldn’t accept that from each other.

I should start this section by saying I’m not an expert. My master’s degree is in educational technology, and most of my pedagogical research has been in mathematics and literacy. But there are a couple pieces of research on relationships I have found important:

It’s more than just the research on relationships, though. If relationships are so important, information should be everywhere, right? Well, it turns out that is. So it’s also important that we…

3. Read Other Research with a Relationship Lens

Most things we will be reading for our professional lives will not be directly about relationships. Between reading books our students will be reading, content area pedagogical texts, and other things that are just for us, it’s hard to get a lot in. I know.

But when you’re reading those other pieces of research and pedagogy, look for the relationship piece. I have been, and I’ve been shocked how much it comes up (well, shocked and not shocked — it IS important, after all!).

I have found lots of good sound bytes and anecdotal evidence about the importance of relationships while reading Donalyn Miller, Penny Kittle, Kelly Gallagher, Dave Burgess, and George Couros, to name a few. In fact, it seems like more often than not, I’m finding intelligent human beings noting the importance of relationships, whether or not this is the explicit focus of their writing. I read a brain-based learning book last year, and even it had plenty to say about relationships! It’s all around us if we are looking for it.

So look for it.

4. Formally Share Your Findings with Your Colleagues

This, to me, is the big one. If we want to help others realize what we are discovering about the role of relationships and community, we need to put it out there. The informal conversations are vital. There’s a reason I listed them first. But formal presentations probably pack the most punch.

So where to begin? Start with those around you. Does the person in charge of PD for your building have teachers lead internal PD? Sign up. If not: ask if you can do one anyway. It might be a welcome change to the PD culture at the school.

State-level conferences are also great for this. I have been fortunate enough to present on this twice in Michigan at state-level literacy conferences. It was very easy to submit a proposal and they were low-pressure presentations. That said, the first time I presented, there were only 4 people in the room, including me! But the 4 of us got a lot out of it.

You could also start a blog. Or, if you don’t think you have enough for a full blog, but have maybe an idea or two that you’d like to share, get a hold of us here at Classroom Communities to see if we would be open to hosting you. [Spoiler alert: we totally would be]

Which brings me to…

5. Follow, Read, and Share this Blog

We are going to be updating this blog with stories, research, strategies, and questions all focused on the role relationships and community play in education. Keep an eye out for particular posts that will be helpful to you in your own classroom, but also might be good to share to a colleague. Just remember: build that relationship with your colleague first, and then share the link. Because as James Comer said: “No significant learning occurs without a significant relationship.”