The Importance of “Our”

Most reading this blog know that language matters. Many of us have dedicated our careers to the notion that the written and spoken words of humans are important and will continue to be. We analyze speeches, we critique our writing and that of our students, and we very carefully word assignments to avoid ambiguity. Even the standards and outcomes we use and create for our students go through draft upon draft upon draft.

Words matter, and we know this.

But there is always room for improvement. Always something we can do better. What about the way we speak in our schools? What about the simple words we use and the impact they could have? Have we considered what even the shortest words we use mean?

I’m talking about the distinction between “my,” “your,” and “our.”

Imagine the following sentences being said between colleagues in the same building:
“My students rocked that science fair!”
“Your students were talking loudly outside my classroom today.”
“My students didn’t do very well on their thesis statements.”

Now imagine them with just one small little tweak:
“Our students rocked that science fair!”
“Our students were talking loudly in the hallway today.”
“Our students didn’t do very well on their thesis statements.”

Small changes. Big impact.

If we are going to have schools that really have us all working together for the success of all students, we need to think of all students as all OUR students.

Then the conversations are less
“I’m sorry you’re having trouble with your students’ scores, but mine are fine,”
But more
“What can we do to get our students’ scores up?”

Less
“I’m going to try this new method with my students,”
But more
“I just learned this new thing. I’ll try it with the students in my room, and then we can talk and see if it’s something we should try with all our students.”

And while I don’t want to now argue against myself and say that all of that is not important, it really isn’t even the most important.

What’s most important are the children entrusted to our care each and every day. How we talk about them when they’re not around is important. It is.

But it’s not as important as the way we talk with them when they are around.

Imagine these sentences being said by a teacher to the students in their care:
“In my classroom, you will raise your hand if you want to speak.”
“I like my bookshelves arranged by author’s last name.”
“I want you to put your name in the top-right corner or I won’t give you credit.”

I. I. I. You. You. You.

I I I would not want to be a student in that classroom.

Now imagine those sentences with slight tweaks:
“We’ve decided that, in our classroom, we will raise our hands if we want to speak.”
“We’ve decided the bookshelves in our classroom will be arranged by author’s last name.”
“We’ve decided one of the things we will all do is put our names in the top-right corner of our papers when we want credit for our work.”

We. We. We. Our. Our. Our.

I don’t even think I need to ask the question of which classroom a student would like to be in more.

Of course, this is not just a pronoun shift, but a mindset shift as well. If the students are “our” students, and not “my” students and “your” students, then we’re all responsible for all of them, and we need to collaborate and plan accordingly. We cannot be left alone to teach on an island, for the students are not on islands. We’re all in this together.

High School Musical

Similarly, if the classroom is “our” classroom, and the students are not merely visiting “my” classroom, then we need to take some time to work on some norms and behavior expectations together. I, as a teacher, need to give my students say in what happens in the room and how. They get to have a very meaningful voice in what the room looks like. It’s difficult work. It’s messy at times.

But I promise you: there is nothing better than a classroom where every student feels valued, welcomed, heard, and wanted. Where every student feels part of an “us.” Where every student is part of the “our” to which the classroom belongs. It can start simple: a shift from “my classroom” or “the classroom” to “our classroom.” If you haven’t made that shift yet, try it. See how the students respond.

I bet you won’t look back.

Honest Conversations

Hallway Talk:

“ I cannot believe that I said yes…” I shared with a colleague one busy October morning as we walked our students back to our classrooms after art and music. I explained to my friend about an upcoming presentation I agreed to do at our neighboring middle school.  

“Do you think middle school teachers could really use any ideas I have to share?  I think saying yes to hosting this presentation was a mistake…” I added with a jittery feeling of dread.

“Well you’re not sounding very confident…” came a bubbly voice a few steps behind me.  I pivoted to see the smiling face of Gabby, a charismatic and outgoing student and the source of the unexpected comment.

“Do you want to talk about this with us?” she said with her dark eyes shining while beaming a most genuine smile.  

Surprised was an understatement describing my immediate reaction to Gabby’s question.  I was not expecting a child to hear, let alone listen and then process my worries. Unexpectedly, Gabby reacted and reached out to offer caring support.  Moving past the idea of looking under-confident to a child, I was intrigued by the possibilities of this learning opportunity.  What would students say when their teacher revealed her nervousness about an upcoming presentation at another school?

“We always talk about characters and the conflicts they face in their stories.  This time we could problem-solve with you and figure out this inside problem.” chirped Gabby, scurrying to walk beside me so we could chat.

Wait…what….???  My eyes must have widened-so Gabby continued her chatter.

“In class we always talk about characters having conflicts that happen on the outside in their world and also the struggles they have on the inside with their feelings.  Well… I can tell you are worried…your eyebrows have that crunched together look and your voice doesn’t have the usual pep.” replied Gabby.  

The life of a teacher is filled with the necessity of being flexible and accepting the spontaneous needs of children.  Ordinarily, I was accustomed to being the one supplying advice or helping students to craft solutions.  Taking a risk and accepting advice were two choices I often encouraged my students to  consider.  What would happen if I showed my students the power of reflection and the acceptance of help?  What did I have to lose?  More importantly, what did my students have to gain?

 

Unexpected Conversations

“Gabby is going to lead a discussion…” I announced to my students as we settled into our classroom’s community area.

“So you can make an oval to chat.”  directed Gabby, finishing my sentence.  Once she had the team’s full attention, she explained why we were gathered and shared her thoughts on the conversation she overheard.

“And I wasn’t really eavesdropping…” she added. “Mrs. Smith was talking about a presentation, which is just like a lesson with us, so I figured it wasn’t a private topic.  I think she would pick a better place to talk about private topics than the hallway.”

(Note to self-always assume someone is listening to you in the hallway.)

“So it seems that Mrs. Smith is worried about talking to a group of teachers for a presentation.” Gabby stated with a serious and confident voice. “I think she needs a conference.  Who would like to start?”

“What are you going to talk about with the teachers?” asked Michael.

I explained how my talk would focus on conferences with students during Reading Workshop.  I would describe how we talk about books and students’ reading lives. I was greeted with smiles and lots of nodding heads.

“Is that all?” asked Steele.

I continued, explaining how I would also show the way we use Google Forms to collect information about readers and then how we use the information to keep growing as readers.

“Why are you worried about sharing?”  added Steele after hearing the additional information.  

I was intrigued by the comfortable conversation hosted by students; their questions peeled away the layers to reveal my question:  Were my worries stemming from my teaching practices or the perceptions of my middle school colleagues?

 

Honest Revelations

“I don’t know my audience very well…so I am wondering if the information I share will matter to them and their teaching.”  I confessed.

“I felt that way when I had my first reading conference with you.  I figured you had already read the book, so what else could I say about it?” answered Tony.

“Yeah…me too.  But you let us talk.” added Sheri.  “You wanted to know what we thought about our books.  Isn’t that what you are going to do?  Share what you think about reading conferences?  So really this presentation is just like a conference.  Instead of one teacher listening, you will just have a bunch of teachers listening…Don’t you think the other teachers want to hear what you have to say?  You always want to know our thinking in a conference.”

“I never thought about it that way before.” I answered.  This conversation was more than a pep-talk.  I was learning about my own classroom community and the bonds created through reading conferences and conversations.

“Are you going to tell those teachers about the Google Forms because they help us?  Are you going to explain how the conference forms lets us feel confident and helps us tell you more about the books we’re reading?” asked Maria.

“The form helps you to feel more confident?” I asked, rather surprised by this news.

“Well of course…when you started conferences at the beginning of the year, you kept the form on the SmartBoard for everyone to see- even if we weren’t having a conference.  We saw and heard what you were doing in a conference. Then we knew what to expect when it was our turn to talk with you.”  Maria added, looking surprised that I had to ask that question.

“Letting us see the form on your laptop during conferences really helps too.   You also have our Book Partner charts nearby to help us with possible topics for our conference talks.  All of this stuff made our conferences easier… and then conferences became fun.  Didn’t you know that?” responded Emma with kind disbelief.  

“So about this talk.  I’m really confused.  Are you worrying about the talking or about whether or not people will listen?”  Gabby finally asked.  

Wow.  In one kind but direct sentence, Gabby summarized my worries.  The wisdom of children means you need to be ready to wrestle with some hard truths.  It never dawned on me that it wasn’t the talking that had me worried, but would my audience care enough to listen.  This short “conference” helped me focus on empowering ideas and now I could conquer my concerns as a presenter before a new audience.

 

Lessons Learned

A 10 minute conversation with my students accomplished more than easing my worries about a professional presentation.  Our talk confirmed my beliefs about class conversations and the confidence gained from a powerful literacy environment.  My students reaffirmed how meaningful conversations build the foundation of a supportive classroom community.  This confessional conference reminded me of the following truths:

Be a listener.  

Let students talk so you can discover their perceptions of selected classroom practices, routines, and rituals. By slowing down and letting a child lead the conversation, who knew I could receive reflective and powerful feedback from my students?  By publicizing my worries about an upcoming presentation, I actually discovered how important reading conferences were to my students.  In turn, my students realized that their observations and advice helped me feel more confident; their words helped me realize the necessity of being brave so I could share my ideas with others. Empowerment can be a shared experience.

 

Be vulnerable.  

We all have our worries and baggage that we try to compartmentalize and hide away when we live and work in our communities.  Decide when sharing your concerns and looking vulnerable is worthwhile so you can hear truthful comments from those around you.  Be open to the messages of your colleagues, your school families, and from children.  My unexpected confession to students reinforced the idea that we need one another.  Sometimes we need support.  At times we need to celebrate.  Each of us needs someone to listen.  We all need caring people in our lives to grow.  When students understand they play a role in creating a supportive community, we encourage children to be invested in themselves and in others.

 

Be appreciative.

When our short ten minute conversation came to a close, I was compelled to share my gratitude.  I made sure my students understood that I valued their advice.  I commended their empathy, thanked them for listening and congratulated them on supporting me even when they didn’t quite understand my concerns.  Their ideas shed new light on the powerful possibilities of Reading Workshop conferences. I thanked them for the way they focused on positive elements and solutions, helping me to find my purpose, and in the end my confidence.  I let them know that instead of making me feel silly for speaking my worries, I felt stronger for sharing the truth.

 
Confidence In Our Communities

No matter where you teach, our classrooms hold the potential power of a supportive community.  When we listen to the honest conversations of our students, their words and perspectives reveal perceived roles in our carefully designed community.   How do students value classroom practices, routines, and rituals?  Do students see themselves as contributing members with ideas to share?  Are they confident enough to offer advice?  Do students care about one another, including their teacher?  

As educators, we know our roles as leaders, mentors and guides.  Do our students understand their roles in classrooms?  We need our students’ perspectives and ideas to create thriving communities.  When Gabby asked me:

“Do you want to talk about this with us?”

I never anticipated the empowering feedback I could receive from children.  I learned that our team gatherings and individual conferences were more than instructional practices.  Our classroom communities can be the places we find our people, our voice, and the confidence to speak.  Our communities can help to discover the power of us.

Immersed in a Reading Community

“Talk is the sea upon which all else floats.James Britton, Language and Learning, 1970.

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Most of the time, the act of reading is solitary and quiet. I crave days in which I can carve uninterrupted chunks of time with a book. Sadly, this doesn’t happen as often as I’d like. My reading life, especially during the school year is short bursts of intensely focused time mixed in with longer stretches of time with multiple things getting in the way.

However, I have come to understand that even if every day of my life had a few hours built in for me to read the way I want to read, I might not be involved in a community of readers. So, my typical 20-30 minutes of quiet reading time before school each day is enough for me, because several times each day I live within a community of readers. As Britton suggests, my life as a reader is enriched because of the sea of talk that opens and closes my reading workshop time, the sea of ‘talk’ that invades my social media feeds and the sea of talk about books that occurs in my home several times a week.

Over the past 20 years, I have dedicated most of my professional development time to learning how to help my students become better readers and writers. My mentors from afar and near include some of the smartest literacy people on the planet. My professional bookshelf looks like the who’s who of NCTE and the ILA. I have learned how to assess, plan, instruct, design classroom libraries, give book talks, be an advocate for choice, and so much more.

But, about 5 years ago I shifted from an over-planned reading instructor to one who decided the biggest impact I might be able to make is commit to using the power of talk to build a reading community. My over-planning was getting in the way of kids becoming a vibrant member of a community that reads for itself, not what others think we should read. By the end of the year, my goal is to help my readers not only feel confident in their personal reading identity, but have a sense for how to help each other become more confident.

This shift to a more authentic reading community happened about the time I was catching myself bending the truth about my own reading. I would share things like, “I read for 40 minutes last night,” when maybe I only read for 30. I would say, “I loved _______________,” when maybe I only tolerated it. I would say, “I haven’t got to book three in the _______________ series because I have too many other books to read,” when it was probably because after book two I thought there was no way I could live with these characters in my brain for any more time.

The most valuable part of our readers’ workshop may be the time the students get to read. Each day, the only sounds you hear in my room for 20-30 minutes is the turning of a page, a pencil scraping against a notebook, and the very hushed whispers of a reading conference. However, I know the most valuable part of our reading community is the 5 minutes of talk on either side of the independent reading block.

During the five minutes prior to independent reading, we share our reading lives in the past 24 hours, we honestly talk about the books we read and we set goals for reading in the next 24 hours. When this talk is happening a much more honest version of my reading life has emerged. My students know a great deal about me as a reader. My modeling helps them learn about a readerly life and it gives them permission to be honest.

If had a terrible night/week of reading they know it. They know I am frustrated about lack of time or I am stuck finding a book that speaks to me. When I have an excellent night of reading with a book that I can’t put down, they know that as well. They know I am partial to lots of books, but still have difficulty with historical fiction. They know I have friends outside of my school that inspire me to read more and try books I wouldn’t normally try. They also know I recommend books to adults as well as them. I work hard to make sure I am fully transparent during this ‘status of the reading community’ talk.

It may take some time for the kids to become fully transparent. Some will ‘stalk’ for a while and say what they think I want to hear. Some will choose to pass if I ask them to share. But almost inevitably they all end up joining, because they learn that a reading community, like any community accepts and wants to take care of each of its members.

Once everyone is fully invested, our communal knowledge of each other makes it nearly impossible to feel like an outsider. I am only 13 days into helping new reading communities develop, but I have already seen signs with this year’s group of students that are so promising. During our ‘status of the reading community’ meetings I have heard personal book recommendations because a student has already learned that another might like the book she is reading. I have seen kids give each other tips like, “read in study hall if you don’t have time to read at home tonight’ and ‘I read in the morning while I eat breakfast because it helps me want to read more once I get to reading workshop.’

During our conversation at the end of our independent reading time, the kids in pairs or small groups check in on each others’ goals, try to persuade others to read a book, ask each other questions, and share joyfully about what they read in class. During this time I join a group and model some more. I wholeheartedly take book recommendations and jot down a note or log the book into my Goodreads account. I share what I thought when I read a book being discussed. I share my plans for reading later in the day.

Without all of the low-stress conversations centered on reading, I know my goal to help build a community of readers would be much more difficult. The kids would be missing something that is really great. And selfishly I have learned I would be missing out on being a member, not director of a reading community. So while I know that giving my students time to read books of their choice in school is vital, I have learned that without the sea of talk that ebbs and flows in our room, our community would suffer and our reading lives would be less connected and joyful.

What Are Your Superpowers?

“I have 5 younger brothers and sisters.  My superpower is that I am really good at helping somebody feel better because at my house, someone is always needing something like a band aid or a hug.”

“My superpower is that I am good at showing others how to use technology.  I think computer might be my second language.”

“I am really organized.  My superpower is helping to clean things up and make them look nice.  Our team’s supply tub looks really good because of me.”

“I’m really good at helping new kids make friends.  Everybody needs at least one friend.  I’m good at helping others be together at recess or lunch.”

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We are good at book recommendations.

“I can help at Chapman Elementary because I speak two languages.  I know that you cannot speak or read Arabic, Mrs. Smith…so I can help you with students or their parents.”

“After my mom died, I learned to be a good listener.  At my house, my brothers and sisters, but especially my dad needed quiet time to think about things after my mom died.  When someone at my house needs to talk, it’s important we pay attention.  My superpower is listening because sometimes a good listener is what someone needs to feel better.”

“My superpower is music.  I love playing piano for others…it makes me happy to see people smile and sit while they listen to me play.”

These are some of the quotes lifted from recent interviews with my students.  Sifting through my notes the other evening, I smiled, I cried, I laughed, and finally breathed a sigh of relief.  There is hope for our world when we uncover the strengths students carry in their hearts and spirits.  I am renewed with determination every time I think about the amazing children surrounding me each day in our classroom.  These kids are my heroes and heroines, making my community better one day at a time with their superpowers.

Before I start focusing on last year’s test scores and this year’s baseline assessments, I need to acquaint myself with the superheroes residing in my classroom.  In a world challenged by so many issues, I gain priceless information when I take time to discover the many gifts and talents my students bring to our classroom community.  In today’s world, we don’t need someone who can lift a boulder, but we do need someone who lifts the spirits of others.  Our community doesn’t need someone who can out-battle enemy storm troopers in another galaxy, but we do need someone who can unify a group with friendship and respect.  We need skilled listeners and bilingual community members that respect the voice and perspectives of our diverse community.

This is why we need to know our children.

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Our superpowers:  Helping someone who is sad or lonely feel better.  

We notice other people.

I start the year sharing an Ignite-style collection of images that capture what I believe to be my “superpowers.”  I share a few slides each day with a short explanation of my strengths.  With each slide, I talk about my perceived talents that I bring to my school and home community.

I show a picture of a bookshelf in my classroom.  My superpower is that I can help kids find captivating books. I turn kids into literacy ambassadors determined to turn the world into a community of readers.

I show a picture of a beautiful meal, my favorite recipe to prepare for my family.  My superpower is that I know the healing power of healthy food and the value of sitting down at the dinner table together.  I want all of my students to always have breakfast and lunch, so I let them know, “If you are worried about groceries, come and see me so we can work this out.”  I want to make sure that families have information and access to nutrition programs as needed.

I show a picture of me trying to do Crow Pose, a tricky yoga balance.  My superpower is NOT that I am great at yoga or any sport for that matter.  However, I am brave enough to try something hard, something that challenges me.  I want to be reminded of the challenges and frustrations students face as learners.   My goal is not to be perfect.  My goal is to keep trying, to keep going after something that is difficult.  When I keep trying, I am proud.  When I tip over, I laugh, but roll up and try again.  I am a super-heroine because I am determined to get better.

After a few days of my personal stories and being together in our classroom, students start to feel comfortable enough to chat with me about themselves.  During a mini-lesson, I explain how readers and writers rely on understanding the strengths of characters to help them understand and explain their stories. Since a classroom is a living story, we need to know one another.  As I’ve revealed what I believe to be my own superhero talents, I now want to know what makes my students special or unique.

Rather than put children on the spot, I meet with informal groups.  Using a simple question, I launch a conversation and record the comments of children.  

What are some of your super powers?

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We can speak two languages.  Can you?

As we talk, children are inspired to think about their talents in new ways.  With guidance, my soccer players move past their skill sets and number of goals scored to consider they are cooperative leaders who know how to work together with teammates.  I discover the budding mechanics who like fixing things; then I know who will be tending our pencil sharpener throughout the year.  Students who excel at caring for siblings often become the caregivers not only to classmates in need, but our classroom plants and pets.  Children who view themselves as active and fun become a go-to person for shy kids looking for a playmate at recess.

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We like taking care of the lunch boxes each day.

As each group talks with me, the others in the room are thankfully eavesdropping on the conversation.  As discussions unfold, things that matter to children are presented.  

“I’m really good at untangling knots in shoelaces.”

“I’m an expert at redoing ponytails and braids because I do all of my sisters’ hair at home in the morning to help my mom get us ready for school.”

“I love to listen to someone who is sad and help them figure out a solution to the problem.  My sister fusses a bunch at home, so I’m good at stopping the whining.”

As I take notes, we build a web of our class’ superpowers.  

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As kids see our growing visual display of superpower categories, they often add their names to the evolving lists.  Using small photos of the kids, I add their pictures to the names listed with our “superpowers” so our community can see and recognizes the strengths and expertise of others in the classroom.  Our superpowers web becomes a community bulletin board, used like Angie’s List, a resource used by adults to find goods and services around the community.  Your shoelaces somehow got tangled?  Go and see Ali.  You need someone to help you with editing your story?  Go and find Omar.  If you are not feeling well and Mrs. Smith is sending you to the nurse, ask Remaz to walk you down because she is good at helping others feel better.  

One way to create a strong, close-knit community is to build the confidence and awareness of its members.  If a child feels valued for the strengths or life-skills he or she brings to the classroom, that same child will be more willing to be a risk-taker as learning opportunities unfold during the school year.  When children feel valued by classmates, connections are established and a supportive community thrives.  Every student, no matter his story or her challenges, has something to contribute.  It is up to us as leaders in our learning communities to take the time to discover and celebrate those superheroes and super-heroines amongst us.  We need them.  In this sometimes crazy world, we need one another.

 

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:

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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.

 

Talk Matters

“Thanks for talking to me like I’m normal.”

At the beginning of the summer, I began to scan documents into Evernote. I knew that reducing my entire classroom’s contents wouldn’t be easy, but I didn’t anticipate how emotional I would get when stumbling across letters from students.

It’s this line from a former student and mentee that lingers in the back of my head. And it’s this line that is on my mind as I shift into a new role as an assistant principal for the following school year.

The way we talk matters. Whether it’s to our students or to the other adults in the room, our words do things. They have incredible power. Like the student I briefly mentioned above, our words can make someone feel “normal,” or they can make them feel infinitesimal. During this time in public education when we feel as if so much is beyond our control, how we talk to colleagues and kids is completely up to us. And as Peter Johnston wrote in Choice Words, “A teacher’s choice of words, phrases, metaphors, and interaction sequences invokes and assumes these and other ways of being a self and of being together in the classroom” (9).

Now that many of us are at the midway point of our summer vacations, I invite you to think about these questions that are guiding my own work this fall about language and community.

How do you want to position the person in front of you?

Johnston also says in Choice Words that “Language works to position people in relation to one another” (9). What is the power structure you want to create? Will everyone feel valued and welcomed? Are some people’s ideas more valuable than others’ ideas?

It’s not too early to start to think about how you can be intentional with your language, especially when the positioning occurs in conjunction with your position. Will you share the locus of control, or will you allow an existing hierarchy to continue in your classroom or building? Will you be the “sage on the stage” or will you take a more student-centered, constructivist approach?

In Using Discourse Analysis to Improve Classroom Interaction, Lesley A. Rex and Laura Schiller also encourage teachers to think about how they position students. They note that “Becoming aware of our assumptions about students and how those assumptions lead us to position students has much to do with student engagement and motivation” (13). They continue by explaining it isn’t simple work to reflect on the ways in which we engage and position students. They note that “we think we know our assumptions about our students… yet our words can give us away” (9).

What identities will be created, and what stories will be told?

Johnston also gets at the idea that language is “constitutive.” In other words, “It actually creates realities and invites identities” (9). We all know the student who has been embarrassed so many times because he said the wrong thing and is now entirely reluctant to participate. We most certainly know the colleague who feels as if her opinion is never valued in important conversations. I wonder about the language that has been shared with both of these people that has shaped their identities of feeling unable or helpless.

Johnston continues later by adding that “To understand children’s development of a sense of agency, then, we need to look at the kinds of stories we arrange for children to tell themselves” (30). I would even go further and say that we need to look at the arranger. Who is shaping and contributing to the vignettes of students’ identities?

How will you work to ensure that the existing identities are challenged, and create spaces where new identities can form or be arranged? Whether you start back in August or September, it’s a new opportunity to create spaces where new identities can develop or existing ones can be refined. I’m not saying this will be easy, but we have more power than we often think about when it comes to the very people forming in front of us. Our identities are always malleable and works in progress, but our language has to be open enough that it can allow this identity work to happen on individual and group levels, or our language can reinforce the very identities that exist in front of us.

And this work takes time! As Rex and Schiller also note, “It takes repeated displays for others to recognize someone’s identity” (20). They continue by adding that the same is true for students’ thoughts about teachers. Identity work doesn’t happen over night; it takes weeks to occur. But we do need to be intentional early on about the “repeated displays” that will take place in order to allow those identities to form, especially if we are rewriting old identities.

What are your iconic phrases?

“Make good choices.”

“You are better than that.”

“What are you reading?”

I polled a few students during the summer and asked about my own language. These are the top three responses that students sent back to me when asked about what I say most often.

What I like about the third one in particular is that it assumes that the student has developed an identity as a reader. I don’t anticipate that they aren’t reading; I, instead, assume the opposite.

Think about the unwritten messages that your most common language implies. Are you assuming the best of all the people around you, or are you letting other things get in the way? What’s even more important is to think about how some of the phrases you say too often negatively position others or create identities that are not as conducive to learning as you’d like.

How will you repair moments when another “loses face”?

Rex and Schiller also introduce the idea of “saving face,” when someone works to protect their views about themselves so they are not embarrassed or diminished (45). Sometimes this happens. It is inevitable. In fact, I still remember the time my fourth grade teacher told me—in front of the entire class—that I did a project “entirely wrong.” Our words can linger and the damage can last if we don’t intentionally work to repair hurt identities.

One of the best ways to notice if we need to repair and help “save face” is by reading students’ body language. As Rex and Schiller also point out, “In order to determine if we have threatened our listener’s face, we should focus not only on what we meant, but even more on the listener’s reaction” (45). So if we see a student slouched over, turning away, or ask immediately to leave the room after contributing, we know that we have done something wrong. So it is our responsibility to intervene. In my own experience, students have appreciated my intervention when things go awry. And they most certainly will! We’re working with humans here. One move that I make regularly during discussions is to act as the clarifier. I’ll use a prompt (often it’s some form of “So, what I heard you say is…) and help the student enter a position of explaining their point in different words so that everyone can better understand.

How will you name and celebrate what they have done?  

Johnston also writes that “Children, and adults, often accomplish things without any awareness of what they have done” (15). As teachers, especially within the content areas, we have the ability to name and label the specific things students do that are quite complex. They might do them automatically, but we can invite them into disciplinary specific ways of thinking by sharing the language and helping them name their moves.

 

The old saying goes that “talk is cheap.” In education, I would argue that it’s our currency. It’s where we get the “most bang for our buck.” Spend your words wisely and intentionally, and don’t be afraid to have open, honest conversations about language.