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.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Looking at Teaching and Learning Through a “Relationship” Lens

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The photographer Eve Arnold once said, “I don’t see anybody as either ordinary or extraordinary. I see them simply as people in front of my lens.” When we think about teaching and learning in schools, we want to emphasize the idea that all of us — teachers, administrators, custodians, secretaries, guidance counselors, parents and most importantly students — are viewed as people first. These people can be extraordinary or ordinary, but we want to send the message that places of learning should be filled with value building relationships first. We should be looking at everything through a relationship lens.

This blog’s primary purpose is to share the how and why it is vitally important for classrooms and schools to embrace the positive impact of building positive relationships. We are thrilled to have a great group of educators joining us to regularly post on Classroom Communities. Within our group we have decades of experience working with students and colleagues in schools. We love the fact our group includes elementary and secondary teachers, administrators, as well as current and former instructional coaches. We believe the community of voices we are creating will resonate with many different readers.

We decided to launch Classroom Communities at the 2017 Nerd Camp Michigan for many reasons, but one is the community of educators and authors who regularly attend Nerd Camp Michigan are wonderful. During a presentation there, we spoke about how relationships are vitally important to help students feel valued and empowered to learn. During our talk we shared the idea of how little things can turn into big things if you commit to them, or as Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada, recently said at the University of Edinburgh Commencement Ceremonies: “Do small things in a big way…whether you realize it or not, these things matter.”

Here are a few of the ‘little things’ we have infused into our classrooms, that over time have helped us to create meaningful relationships with the students in our learning community.

  1. Greeting students in the hall as they enter the room. This is a simple, but effective way to ensure your students know that you want to connect with them. This act doesn’t have to be fancy (you don’t need to have a special handshake or a 5 minute conversation), it can be as simple as, “Hey Alex, how is it going?” or “Good morning Salima, how was dance last night?” Two minutes a day in the hall, can have a tremendous impact of the culture of your classroom.
  2. Invite the teacher board. Consider a sign-up sheet in which students can invite you to out of school activities. Even in middle school and high school, students enjoy knowing if you can make it to a basketball game, piano recital, or theatrical performance. Of course you cannot make all of them (well maybe you can), but if you are able to attend, then you will show that you care more about the student than just the time you spend with them in the classroom. Another side effect of the invite the teacher board is that when you can’t attend an event, you still know when a student was doing something important to them. You can always follow-up with a quick chat after the event or wish them well the day of the event.
  3. Allowing students some say in the design of the classroom. We know that teachers value ‘their space.” There is almost something sacred about our classrooms. For many of us, we can be in our sacred spaces for many, many years. And we think we know exactly how we should design elements in our room. However, we have found that students value sharing input on how tables or desks are arranged. Since we share our rooms with 25-35 other people, we should consider the simple idea of asking them for their input.
  4. Joke Time. Let students share a joke with the class. This can be done at the end of the class period or day or at a transition time. You will need to set some expectations that work for you, but a quick bit of student driven humor infused into your classroom can do wonders for a classroom community.
  5. Share your own wonderings and learning. Schools should be places where everyone is learning. We know that is our responsibility to honor our curriculum and content, but sharing your own wonderings and learning that are outside of your curriculum allows students to see a teacher who is invested in other ideas. It also allows your students to see that you are with them on a learning journey. So open yourself a little to your students. If you spent 30 minutes the night before learning how to prepare a new dinner or reading deeply about a new topic, briefly share that experience in class.

If you have other “little things” that you use to build community within your classroom add the ideas into the comments. We want to learn what everyone else is trying with their students as well.

We hope this blog can serve as one of the little things in your professional life that help make each of us better teachers. Thanks for being a part of this community. We look forward to this journey with you.

– Tony Keefer and Brian Wyzlic

photo credit: Phototravelography Selfie without a stick. via photopin (license)