This year, paying attention to students’ social and emotional needs is more important than ever. There are a lot of SEL sites and strategies to support educators in doing this work. BetterLesson’s bank of SEL strategies is a great resource for teachers looking to explore new practices.
Let’s say you implement a bunch of SEL strategies, but you still have a student say or do something that harms another person in the class. Keeping the importance of students’ social and emotional health in mind, we want to respond in a way that restores the harm done.
Restorative conversations helped me address the harm done in my class far more effectively than consequence charts or punitive measures. It also helped me empathize more with students—the students harmed the students who harmed someone else, and also students who I may have harmed.
That is the beauty of restorative conversations—and the most important part of doing it well, in a way that is anti-oppressive—they can be used with everyone, adults included.
What are restorative conversations?
Once a class/school community is built (and it has to be built first), restorative conversations enable us to repair the harm done to a member of the community. They are opportunities to unpack each student’s understanding of what happened, how they felt, and their suggestions for repairing the harm. The origins of restorative conversations come from Indigenous nations in what is currently known as the “Americas” and the South Pacific.
What are the benefits of using restorative practices in schools?
The restorative approach center on the dignity and humanity of each participant. It promotes listening and empathy followed by accountability and action. Research has demonstrated restorative conversations contribute to improved attendance and aspects of school climate such as safety and connectedness. They also advance racial, gender, disability, and economic equity, as exclusionary discipline rates (e.g., suspensions that take students out of their classes), are significantly reduced among Black, low-income, female, and special needs students when restorative practices are employed (West Ed, 2019).
How are restorative conversations facilitated?
Participants include the facilitator, the person(s) who caused harm, the person(s) who experienced harm, and each person involved can choose to invite an adult or young person to attend for moral support. The facilitator (an adult or a student that has been trained in restorative conversation facilitation) will ask a series of questions, one at a time. Each participant in the conversation will have an uninterrupted opportunity to respond to each question, speaking from the “I”. I use a talking piece to remind participants not to speak when someone else is speaking. (An adaptation for virtual conversations could be to stay muted until it is your turn to talk.)
The following questions form a basic outline of a restorative conversation:
Several resources exist for educators to see more nuanced lists of questions to ask in restorative conversations. (For example, see this Teaching Tolerance resource or these Restorative Resources cards.)
A final note for this section: Schools have different rules about the types of harm that should be addressed with restorative practices. Most schools specify that incidents involving violence are not handled with restorative conversations. Instead, students may engage in a re-entry circle or restorative conversation upon re-entering the community.
Why is it important to identify feelings and unmet needs through restorative practices?
This, to me, is the heart of the practice. The opportunity to listen to someone else describe how they were feeling in the moment or what need they had that wasn’t able to be met humanizes the person(s) who caused harm and enables that person to experience empathy for the person(s) they harmed.
Even as a facilitator, many of these conversations have resulted in a much deeper understanding of my students’ experiences and a recognition of what I might be able to do to meet students’ needs or to support students to identify and address intense emotions in a healthy way.
These conversations also helped me and my students in our immediate responses to disruptive or harmful actions. The more we practiced listening and identifying unmet needs in ourselves and others, we were more likely to respond to disruptive behavior with questions like “What do you need?” rather than reprimands.
Practicing with Students
It does not require students to harm or be harmed to engage in restorative conversations. Talking about unmet needs can be a lesson on its own. Every person can identify a time in their lives when they had an unmet need, so asking students to think about their own experiences and name the unmet need can be a powerful way to practice.
For activities in which students are thinking about their own stories, you could invite them to share with a partner if they wanted or write to themselves or just think about it without putting it into words. I also have used book characters or historical actors or sample SEL stories to invite students to identify the character’s unmet needs.
There are also a variety of sample lessons out there like this one from Teaching Tolerance that can help introduce the idea of restorative conferences to students.
What if students struggle to identify unmet needs & restorative approach tumbles?
As an adult, I still struggle with identifying what my underlying unmet needs are when I have an intense emotional response to a situation. Of course, students will likely struggle with this.
I have adapted Glasser’s 5 unmet needs (survival, belonging, power, freedom, and fun) into an acrostic that helps me remember what the most basic unmet needs could be. I have been calling them BASE needs: Belonging, Autonomy (encompassing power and freedom), Survival, and Enjoyment.
I made a poster for educators to remind ourselves and share with the class to help students identify (and ask about) others’ unmet needs when (or even before) disruptive behavior occurs.
This mindset shift towards identifying unmet needs and hearing from students what emotions they were/are feeling refocused my attention from assigning a consequence of tackling the root cause of the problem. This also helped me as an individual bring more self-awareness to my emotions and unmet needs and improved my relationships with students, colleagues, friends, and family.
As we pay increasing attention to all of our social and emotional needs this school year, let’s remind ourselves of the power of asking: “What does this person need?” These are what restorative practices are in their essence.
In the past two weeks, I have read Layla Saad’s White Supremacy and Me and Tim Ferriss’s The Four-Hour Workweek. These are very different books, but they both ask readers to dig into deeply held beliefs and uproot them to make a powerful shift. As I think about the lasting impact of these books and what about each one has caused me to make real change, it is these two components: identifying and unlearning long-held beliefs and taking three next steps.
In White Supremacy and Me, Layla Saad has readers end the book by writing “three concrete, out-of-your-comfort-zone actions” you will take in the next two weeks. In The Four-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss has readers identify four life-changing dreams they have, and then tells readers to take three next steps over the next three days for each of the four dreams. He notes that each step should take a maximum of 5 minutes.
I am constantly dreaming of what is possible, envisioning how things could be better. But I do not like just existing in a dream world. I then try to break these bold ideas down into concrete steps to make big changes and make what initially felt impossible, possible. Sometimes, that can come off as “This is easy to do!” which is far from the truth. My brain just goes directly to action. In a year when COVID-19 has caused a major upheaval in the lives of educators, I tend to skip right over the fact that this is incredibly difficult work to be forced to adapt instruction and while navigating the uncertainty and anxiety of ourselves, our students and families, and our colleagues.
Additionally, in doing antiracism work, it is important to sit with new understanding and seek to learn more about the complexity of the problems—not rush to action. So many of us (definitely including myself here) want to rush to action before taking the time to fully understand the complexities of what’s going on and how our response could be unintentionally harmful, possibly by just paying lip service to racial justice without enacting any real change.
That said, once we have a deeper understanding of a problem or can concretely define who we want to be or how we want to show up for our students, we will need to take action. That is when I can lean into my strength of breaking down a big goal into actionable steps to make big changes. I achieved my goal of running a marathon without stopping (after two attempts that required some walking), and I completed my Ph.D. program in three years while working full time. I did this through sheer force of will and some very specific calendars and timelines.
I have also had dreams that have remained in dream form for years. For example, becoming multilingual has always been a goal. Why haven't I been successful? My goal wasn’t specific and I didn’t make a plan. Because I never made a clear plan, I never really got started.
I often end my professional development workshops by encouraging participants to write down one next step they will take after the workshop. But, what I’ve learned from Saad and Ferriss (and my momentum towards the goals I set for myself after reading their books) is that taking one next step is not enough. There are more aspects to this “next step” thing that I did not realize missing from my workshop closing.
Set a Deadline. Saad’s deadline was two weeks. Ferriss’s deadline was three days.
I have found one week to be a helpful time frame for me to complete three steps. This has provided enough flexibility to work around the busy-ness of life and work, but also a close enough deadline that I’m less likely to forget. Whatever you choose as your deadline, make sure it is soon enough that you won’t put it off until “tomorrow,” which in my experience quickly becomes much later.
Build Momentum. The difference between one next step and three next steps to make big shifts? Momentum. I can energetically dive into a new goal on Day 1, but after that, it’s easier to fizzle out. If we commit to three steps, one after the other, we build momentum, we start to make real progress towards our goals. That momentum is critical for working towards real change.
Make The Actions Doable. Tim Ferriss says each of the first three steps should take no more than five minutes. In another book, Atomic Habits, James Clear recommends each habit takes two minutes or less. For example, if my desired habit is to practice on Duolingo every day, I can complete a lesson in two minutes and still continue my daily streak of practice. For these first few steps, aim for actions that will take 2 to 5 minutes.
Write out your plan. I used to write down two big things I wanted to accomplish each day and focus on completing those tasks. Now, it feels more powerful to tie each of those tasks to a larger goal. So, I now frame each day’s task as: Which life-changing goal(s) am I working towards today? That fills my day with far more purpose than two random “check-the-box” tasks.
Connect these steps to your identity. Layla Saad talks about being a “good ancestor.” Antiracism work requires us to unearth and discard white supremacist beliefs we have (often unknowingly) held. Rooting them out is difficult, emotional work, and what enables us to do that work—even when it’s hard—is to tie our identities to being antiracist or being a “good ancestor.” Atomic Habits author, James Clear talks about linking our habits to our identities as a way to ensure we follow through on our goals. He talks about conducting a yearly “Integrity Report” in which he asks: What are the core values that drive my life and work? How am I living and working with integrity right now? How can I set a higher standard in the future? He says this work helps “revisit my desired identity and consider how my habits are helping me become the type of person I wish to be.” We are more likely to continuously take action towards a goal if we see this work as critical to living out our desired identity, our best self.
In the last two weeks, I’ve facilitated several virtual workshops on culturally responsive teaching and systemic racism. These particular workshops were focused on increasing awareness of racial injustice and learning how to first identify the problems. This is an essential first step, developing our understanding of the complex ways racism has been embedded into the fabric of institutions like school.
However, many of us want to know what to do. Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick has taught me that you first need to sit with it and truly seek to understand the complexity of the problems before jumping right to action. So, recognizing we need to do that first, I’ll do my best to answer what is becoming the most common question asked of me during racial justice workshops: “Once I have an understanding of the problem, what can I do about it?”
Before diving into action steps, let’s look at a framework that may help us understand the variety of ways racism can play out in educational spaces. This framework is called the Four I’s of Oppression. (Described in detail here.) Here’s a brief summary:
When we understand the different forms oppression can take and we recognize they are all interconnected, we are better able to form a plan for action.
In the Moment
Since ideological oppression is the idea that emerges through the other three I’s, I will focus here on what we might do when we see these other I’s in our schools.
Addressing interpersonal oppression. Teaching Tolerance has a “Speak Up” pocket guide (linked here) that suggests four actions you can take when you witness someone do or say something racist. The four actions are: Interrupt (say something like “That phrase is hurtful”); Question (ask “Why do you say that?” or “What do you mean?”); Educate (explain why it’s harmful); and Echo (if someone else speaks up first, back them up with a simple “Thank you for speaking up. I agree that’s offensive.”) This pocket guide was actually designed to support students in speaking up, so you can use this with students as well!
Addressing institutional oppression. Initiating policy change requires a multi-step approach. Although, some of the previous suggestions could serve as an initial step. For example, if you want to bring up a problematic policy, you might plan to say something at an upcoming meeting. You might pose a question like: Is the dress code helping all students learn? Then you can ask another teacher to be your echo so you are not positioned as the only person who sees this policy as a problem. When constructing your initial message, I like the approach developed by Opportunity Agenda, an organization that helps writers effectively communicate messages about social justice issues. They suggest this formula: Values, Problem, Solution, Action.
Here’s what this might look like: “We’re all here because we want to help each of our students get the best educational experience possible. When students are removed from class due to dress code violations, they are losing instructional time. The latest data shows x number of students were removed from class last week for at least y minutes, and z number of students were sent home to change, missing hours of instructional time. To make sure our policies are maximizing student learning, I think we should start a committee to take a closer look at the dress code. This committee should include teachers, students, and families so that everyone who is affected by this policy has a voice in this process.
It’s important to ensure our action reflects the inclusion and equity we want from the policy change. (For more on this, check out my previous post on shared leadership structures.)
Addressing internalized privilege/oppression. Responding to internalized privilege and internalized oppression will require different approaches. For privileged students to recognize their privilege, you may want to introduce white privilege as a concept and highlight this is one way in which white supremacy manifests. Depending on the age of your students, the list in Peggy McIntosh’s article may be a helpful place to start. White students will also benefit from hearing stories and learning about the experiences of people of the global majority. Windows and Mirrors is a powerful approach with which to analyze your curriculum to ensure all students can have windows into stories of people who do not hold the same racial identity. This lens is also valuable for addressing internalized oppression, as Black, Brown, Indigenous, Asian, and AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian) students need to see positive and complex representations of their racial groups in the curriculum. This Teaching Tolerance article also suggests explicitly debunking stereotypes and racialized myths, which cultivates students’ ability to be critically conscious of unjust representations of racial groups in textbooks or media. The article also distinguishes low self-esteem from internalized oppression, which is an incredibly important point. Whereas we may support a student with low self-esteem to see themselves in a more positive light, that’s not enough to address internalized oppression. We must help students recognize it for what it is: internalized oppression, stemming from ideas of white supremacy. We can help students identify how these stereotypes are perpetuated and who/what purpose these ideas serve.
Acting in the moment is often what we think about when we wonder how we can respond to racism in schools. It’s certainly an important capacity to build. However, changing the broader school culture, shifting the system itself, can reduce the likelihood of racism moving forward. We don’t always want to be reacting. We want to find ways to be proactive.
Make time for ongoing meetings about racial justice. One way to shift the culture is to make time for conversations about race with colleagues on a regular basis. As educators, we never have enough time to get everything done, so it may be challenging to see “adding” something else as doable. But racial justice isn’t something we’re adding to our plates. We are constantly “doing race” in our daily interactions. It’s embedded into everything else we do. If we can recognize this, we will see the importance of looking at our policies and data through the lens of its racialized impact. Through these conversations, schools can develop a culture of productive dialogue about issues of race and individual educators can build their capacities to see the complexity of racial injustice, including all of the identities that intersect with race to produce unique experiences of schooling for Black girls or queer Indigenous students, or Latinx students with dis/abilities, or transgender white students.
Broaden the school’s conception of data. When we think of data, as educators, we often think of standardized test scores. Perhaps report card grades. Possibly graduation rates. Rarely do we move beyond this to consider other sources of data. Individual teachers may collect qualitative data from students and families throughout the year, but this is not usually systematized. We don’t usually look at qualitative data on a school-wide basis. Broadening our ideas of what types of data are valuable requires us to be clear on what we value as a school. Looking at standardized test scores, report card grades, and graduation rates reflects the importance we place on educational outcomes. Might we also want to look at how students and families experience schooling? Could we collect survey data and hold interviews or focus groups with students and families around questions of the degree to which they feel they belong in school or their voice matters? Asking what data matters and who we should gather data from can generate powerful shifts in thinking about how schools measure “success.”
Inspired by Teaching Tolerance’s "Speak Up" pocket guide, I’ve made a pocket guide for this blog post to share with colleagues or keep as a handy reminder of the types of oppression and actions to take to address them.
As we all grow and learn from one another, I invite you to share your ideas and experiences of identifying and dismantling racism in your schools.
Since March, I have written many blog posts on distance learning. I thought curating these previous posts and bringing them together in one space may be helpful as we enter and continue to figure out the new school year together. I’ve linked each post related to distance learning below and provided a short summary to give you a sense of what the post is about. This year is asking a lot of educators. It is incredibly hard, complex work. It is my hope these posts can offer some support as you structure your distance learning tasks and supports for students and colleagues. Explore away!
Transitioning to Virtual Learning: Questions to Consider
This post is framed by questions to consider for each of the 4 R’s: “Room” setup, Rituals, Relevance, and Relationships.
Transitioning to Virtual Learning: Tech Tool Suggestions
While most of us know how we will deliver content this year, the second section of this post—assessing student understanding synchronously and asynchronously could be helpful. I particularly like the Two-In-One tools that enable you to share content and assess for learning simultaneously. This post includes a freebie describing 5 of my favorite tech tools and how I use them.
Update regarding Google Meet: Breakout rooms are coming in October!
Supporting Students with IEPs in the Virtual Learning Space
Organized by Tomlinson’s 4 ways to differentiate, this post gives examples for differentiating content, process, product, and affect/environment. There’s also a choice board template freebie in this post.
Supporting Students’ Mental Health During the Coronavirus Outbreak
This post addresses topics like addressing racism and xenophobia, integrating COVID-19 into your lessons, sharing mental health tips with students, and additional resources to share with students (e.g., support hotlines).
How to Be Well when Teaching from Home
Following a rundown of the 6 dimensions of wellness from the National Wellness Institute, I share specific examples from my practice and a well-being tracker freebie. A version of this post was picked up and published by the National Wellness Institute in their International Journal of Community Well-Being.
Digital Instructional Resources For Self-Paced Learning
I share concrete examples of how you can use instructional resources to support students’ self-paced learning. The freebie for this post is a list of online sites and programs (nearly all of which are free), organized by subject.
Opportunity: Rethink Assessment & Grades
This post is the first in a mini “opportunity” series—posts that introduce the mindset shifts that can help us see beyond the challenges of the situation we have been thrust into (teaching remotely) to envision opportunities for new ways of teaching and learning. This post specifically focuses on how assessment and grades might look different in a distance learning environment.
Opportunity: Genius Hour
Genius Hour is one way to promote student engagement during distance learning. In this post, I share the 3 big lessons I learned when doing Genius Hour in my class. The freebie is the student planning doc I used to jumpstart a semester of Genius Hour.
Opportunity: What I Need (WIN) Time
Many teachers offer small group support or 1:1 meetings for students during distance learning. Just like in a physical class, you may wonder what the rest of the class is doing during this time. This post walks teachers through the basics of WIN Time to help students identify what they need to work on and ensure they have access to the tools they need to work on it.
Opportunity: Student Goal Setting
Asking students to set personal goals during distance learning is brilliant. This post talks about how you can make the goal setting process truly impactful. There’s also a SMART goal template freebie.
Opportunity: Personalized Pathways (Part 1)
Personalizing instruction or differentiating instruction have always been big in the education world. The need for personalized instruction has grown even more during distance learning. Pathways are one strategy educators can use to personalize instruction. This post provides an overview of pathways (i.e., what, why, and how).
Opportunity: Personalized Pathways (Part 2)
This post covers the logistics of how to literally set up a pathway, including what tech tools to use and how a pathway differs from a playlist. There’s also a pathway tracker template freebie to get you started.
Live Classes or Asynchronous Tasks: Benefits of Each
This post summarizes the benefits of synchronous vs. asynchronous activities with the goal of helping teachers think about which activities can be done live and which can be completed during non-class time.
Live Classes or Asynchronous Tasks: The Best of Both
Sometimes you don’t need to sacrifice the benefits of one form of instruction when you choose the other. This post covers how you can use particular tools (many asynchronous) and still maintain many of the benefits of the other type of instruction (often synchronous). The freebie for this post is a set of student-facing weekly plan templates to help you and your students organize what they will do each day or week
Live Meetings or Asynchronous Tasks: Leader Edition
The leader version of the synchronous vs. asynchronous post series, this post helps leaders think about when to hold live meetings with staff and what can be done asynchronously. It wraps up with a few final tips and a podcast recommendation.
Scheduling Your Work Week While Working From Home
This post contains what is perhaps the most popular freebie I’ve ever created. The post itself lists 5 tips for structuring your work-from-home life. The freebie is a scheduling template set up to reflect the tips listed in the post. Within the freebie, you will also find a sample schedule to help you get started.
In case you missed one of these posts the first time around, I hope this collection provides you with some inspiration to support your students during this unique school year.
This post is the second of two on inclusive language in educational spaces. If you haven’t already, please go back and read Part 1, which introduces the importance of inclusive language and covers terms related to gender and race. Once you’ve done that, you can return to this post, which addresses what I’ve learned about language related to other axes of identity.
Ability. People-first language is something to keep in mind for all descriptions of people. When referring to students with IEPs, we can use the term “students with IEPs” or “students with dis/abilities” (I use the “/” to recognize some dis/ability activists prefer terminology that is less deficit-based while other dis/ability activists prefer the term “disability”. As a teacher, I have gotten caught up in educational shorthand and said “SPED students,” but I want to eliminate that phrase because it’s not people-first language. Terms like “handicapped” and “cripple” are not acceptable terminology. When referring to a person who uses a wheelchair, we can literally say that (“uses a wheelchair”) or we could use a more general term like “a person with a physical impairment”. Of course, we don’t use phrases or allow students to use phrases to demean others, but I just want to note that terms like “moron,” and “idiot” originated as offensive terms used against folx with mental impairments. If we hear students use this language, we can explain why this is harmful for multiple reasons.
Age. This one overlaps with race. White supremacists have infantilized and oppressed Black men in the U.S. through use of the offensive term “boy.” While this should be commonly understood as racist, a similarly problematic use of age-inappropriate terms may be affecting Black children in our classes. Studies have shown Black children are seen as older than their age compared to white children. This is called “adultification bias.” (While many studies have focused on Black boys, this is also a problem for Black girls.) This is particularly problematic as adultification bias often results in increased rates of discipline or increased use of physical force against Black children.
LGBTQ (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer). When referring to a spouse or person that a student or family member or colleague is dating, using the term “partner” is more inclusive than “husband” or “wife” or “boyfriend” or girlfriend.” It encompasses all genders and does not assume the person’s sexual orientation. Also, when referring to families in a same-sex relationship or teaching about marriage equality, the phrase “same-sex” is preferred to “gay marriage.”
Socioeconomic Status. My brilliant professor, Dr. Philomena Essed, helped me change my language from terms like “poor” and “poverty” to be more specific (e.g., “economically poor” and “economic poverty.”) The first set of terms implies a total lack of wealth beyond money—a lack of values, dignity, etc., but in being specific (adding the adjective “economic,”) we can uphold the person’s dignity. The term “low-income” also works here.
Issues. When discussing students facing housing insecurity, rather than saying students are homeless, we can a student or family is “experiencing homelessness” or “experiencing houselessness” (this term acknowledges “home” is more than a physical structure) or “living in temporary housing”. Recently, I heard Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley say one of her constituents told her he preferred the phrase “food aparteid” in place of the more commonly used “food desert,” explaining people in his neighborhood are capable of growing their own food, but the system has not provided access for them to do so.
Bias. Generic words like “bias” can sometimes be used to cover up specific injustices. If we don’t specifically name what we are talking about, we cannot address the oppression. Anti-bias training can be helpful, but without naming the specific ways bias is enacted (e.g., racism, sexism, homophobia) and the various forms oppression can take (e.g., interpersonal, institutional), it can lessen the impact of the work. It’s not that we have to throw out the term, we just want to be mindful about naming specific oppressions and not focusing on individual acts of bullying at the expense of tackling the policies and structures and systems that perpetuate the oppression.
Finally, there are many phrases that I hope are so obviously inappropriate I don’t need to list them. Two that I thought were gone, but I’ve actually heard educators say recently include: “That’s gay” and “That’s retarded.” Let’s stop using these phrases. Instead, say what you actually mean (e.g., “That’s ridiculous.”)
To help you keep all of these terms top of mind, I’ve condensed the big takeaways onto one page you can use as a quick reference.
Of course, there are many examples I have not included in this list and far more I’m not yet aware of, so I welcome additional contributions in the comments below. I’m looking forward to growing and learning alongside my fellow educators.
Language is so important. The words we use to refer to people and the issues people face carries a great deal of weight. While it may be cumbersome to unlearn old terminology and start using new words and phrases, if a group of people are saying certain phrases hurt, it’s necessary to listen and work to change our vocabulary. Ayanna Pressley says “the people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power.” I think this applies to who gets to determine the language we use. If people have experienced the pain of inappropriate or offensive language and I haven’t, I want to listen and learn and do my best to follow the recommendations of the people “closest to the pain.” As we enter a new school year already filled with anxiety, this is particularly important for us as educators to recognize, as we may be harming students or families with our word choices. For many of us, we may not know better, so I hope this post helps us know better, so that (in the paraphrased words of Maya Angelou) we can do better.
Before I share some of the things I’ve been learning with regard to specific identity groups, I want to say there is much I have yet to learn. Please share any additional information I’m likely missing or any corrections to what I’ve shared. Also, as a general rule, I like to listen to how people self-identify (or ask if this information is not shared), as each person may prefer different terminology, and it’s important we use the terms our students, family members, and colleagues want us to use.
Gender. A powerful practice for the start of the year as you ask students to introduce themselves and you introduce yourself is to ask for (and state your own) pronouns. This is a great way to normalize asking for a person’s pronouns, start a conversation about pronouns and their importance, and prevent any misgendering of students. You could encourage students to add their pronouns to their “screenname” for video conferencing and in their email signatures. Additionally, I have recently been trying to use the spelling “folx” instead of “folks” to intentionally include queer or GNC (gender non-conforming) people.
Race. Firstly, race is an adjective, not a noun. For example, in the phrase “white people,” white is an adjective, whereas “whites” is an example of using race as a noun. The term “minorities'' is often used to refer to people who are not white, but it’s a relative term. In a specific school, the majority of students may be white, but globally, white people are the minority. This is why I want to start using the term “people of the global majority;” it flips white supremacist language and the assumptions behind it on it’s head. Some folx like the term “people of color,” but this term has also been critiqued for its normalization of whiteness (ignoring that white is also a color) and for being US-centric. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) is a term that names specific racial groups, which is helpful when discussing topics that are particularly relevant to the listed groups (e.g., police brutality and mass incarceration). When calling out racial injustice, we want to be specific, making it clear which groups are disproportionately affected.
“Latinx,” (pronounced La-TEEN-ex) a term inclusive of all genders, is typically preferred over the term “Hispanic,” as the latter was imposed on Latinx people and reflects Spanish colonialism. Although, I have also worked with a “Hispanic-Serving Institution” that surveyed students about their preference, and the students said they preferred the term “Hispanic.” This served as a reminder to me that asking students’ preference is best practice. Another reason to ask is that some groups will prefer a more specific term than the broad “Latinx” like Chicana/o for folx of Mexican descent. “Indigenous” or “Native peoples” are terms I’ve seen most commonly used by Indigenous activists and scholars. However, some prefer American Indian. That said, the term “Indian” refers to people from the country of India, not people indigenous to the North American continent. The word “Oriental” describes material items, like rugs, not human beings. Asian is the term used to describe people. Terms like “Middle East” and “Far East” come from British colonialism, normalizing Britain as a reference point. Terms I have heard used in place of the “Middle East” include “the Arab world” and when referring to people from this region of the world, the acronym “AMEMSA” (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian) can be used.
Other problematic race-related terms I have heard used in schools include “gyp” (an offensive reference to “gypsies,” for whom the accurate term is Romani people; “Eskimo” (a label assigned to the Inuit people by colonizers), and “ghetto” (a racialized and classed term that is rooted in the religious oppression and physical segregation of Jewish people and has since been used as a racially coded adjective that perpetuates stereotypical attributes of low-income Black communities). “Diverse” is another term that in itself is not problematic, but how it is used can be. If we refer to a school as “diverse” and it’s 95% Black, that’s not diversity, that’s a predominantly Black school. Using the term “diverse” as synonymous with Black is just not accurate.
There are many more identities to discuss, so I will continue the conversation in the next post. I also want to acknowledge once again there are many terms I may not have talked about here, and there are likely mistakes I have made because I haven’t learned to correct them yet, so please feel free to share corrections or additional insights. I’m on this journey of growth along with all of you.
This fall, many educators will be tasked with building community in their classes without seeing students in person. Developing relationships with students and creating a thriving class culture will look different in the online space, but it’s not impossible! Let’s look at some things educators are considering as we prepare to build class community this school year.
Given the distance learning setting, many teachers are realizing it will take longer to build community this year. I think that’s completely okay! If we think about the necessary conditions for learning, feeling a sense of belonging and connection is one of the factors that will support student learning throughout the year. It’s valuable in the long-run to take time to develop it early on. I’ve heard many school districts tell teachers the first 1-2 weeks are for community building only. No academic content is to be taught. As you think about your context, consider how long you can spend at the start of the year and also how often you want to intentionally build community as the year progresses. You could even calendar it out.
Community building encompasses a lot. I find it helpful to identify my goals for community building and backwards plan activities from those goals. Basically, backwards planning without the academic standards. Some goals I’ve heard teachers share this summer include: providing time for socialization, helping students name emotions and share stress reduction strategies, and learning about student interests and learning preferences. As always, the start of the year, will also involve co-constructing class agreements with students. This year, that may include agreements specific to the online space, such as whether/how students should raise a hand before speaking or if they should just unmute and share when ready.
As you plan the specific activities you’ll want to use to engage students in community building, you might consider how you can use these community building activities to introduce and practice the tech tools or protocols students will need to use during the year. Here are some examples that could build community and tech tool/protocol proficiency.
Get-to-Know-You Game. At the start of each class, share one statement at a time, and ask students to turn off their video cameras if the statement is NOT true for them. If the statement is true for them, they keep their camera on. This is a great way to help students learn about each other and also become familiar with how to turn on the video camera. Alternatively, if you’re using Zoom and plan to use the annotation feature during the year, you could adapt the activity to practice that skill. You could share a slide with the statement listed and ask students to write their initials (or place a stamp if you want it to be anonymous) if the statement is true for them.
Emotion Check-In: Synchronous. You could also use the start of each class to ask students to share how they are feeling in the moment. This helps students name their emotions and gives you a sense of how everyone’s doing. How you ask students to respond will depend on the tools or protocols you want students to practice. You could ask students to type how they are feeling into the chat to practice locating and using the chat feature. This could be a private message sent to just you or a public message sent to the whole class. You could use a protocol like Pass the Mic to practice having a virtual discussion. In this protocol, a student says “I’m passing the mic to ____” after they are done sharing until everyone has had a chance to “hold” the mic. You can offer students an option to say “Pass” just like an in-person circle.
Emotion Check-In: Asynchronous. If you want to provide a space for students to check-in throughout the week when you are not seeing them live during class, you could set this up using additional tech tools students will be expected to use during the year. You might want students to practice using the Learning Management System (e.g., Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas), so you can set up a discussion thread inviting students to type, add an audio note (students can do this by using Vocaroo and pasting the link in the discussion thread), or by asking them to respond using GIFs. (To do this, students would click the button to respond to the discussion thread, then select Add > Link, and then paste the GIF link). You could also ask students to complete a Google Form that asks 1-2 emotional check-in questions. If you will want students to take quizzes with a tool like Google Forms, this is a low-stakes way to practice accessing and submitting a form. Finally, if you’re using another tool like Flipgrid or a blogging site, you could have students post their check-ins using those tools. In the spring, one school in New York had students post to a blog visible to the school community, which enabled students’ former teachers to see how students were doing and reach out to support them as needed.
Crowd-Source Resources. You could create a space for students to share resources with the class. You could use a tool like Padlet and set it up with column headings, which you can co-create with students or set ahead of time. For example, you might use categories like “Resources for De-Stressing” or “Things that Made Me Laugh” or “Strategies That Helped Me Learn at Home.” You can also use this as a chance for students to play with the various types of responses you can add to a Padlet. Encourage them to try adding audio or video or a drawing when relevant.
Whatever activities you choose, I’d love to hear how it goes! Feel free to share below or in our Time for Teachership Facebook group.
Our sharpened focus on issues of equity in education in the time of COVID-19, has raised many questions such as: How can we improve educational equity? What policies are perpetuating inequity? How can we replace them with policies that promote equity? How can we systematize equitable practices so they are not “one-time” strategies? How can we measure this? (In other words, how will we know if we are successful?) And with all the things that are uncertain, leaders are asking: What is within my locus of control?
As a leadership scholar, my response to each of these questions is: shared leadership. I prefer this term to the more popular, “distributed leadership” because while distributed leadership is inclusive of teachers in leadership, it stops short of sharing leadership with students and parents. Shared leadership enables us to be inclusive of all stakeholder groups. Additionally, the word “shared” is centered on what Mary Parker Follet calls “power with,” whereas “distributed” maintains a hierarchical sense of “power over.”
How can we improve educational equity?
We cannot answer the question of how to improve equity by ourselves. I can suggest some places to start, but to address the needs of your specific community, you’ll need to ask the various stakeholders in your community. Shared leadership asks us to listen more than we talk. So, the first step in identifying how your school can improve equity is identifying who can provide answers. That list will include families and caretakers, students, teachers, and perhaps members of the larger community.
What policies are perpetuating inequity?
Encouraged by this year’s renewed societal commitment to eliminate institutional racism, educators have been increasingly focused on identifying and dismantling the policies that perpetuate educational inequity. Many schools are starting to take a hard look at punitive discipline policies, problematic dress codes, and how students are graded. However, even if we can identify policies that need to be changed, we need to include stakeholders in the creation of whatever policies replace the old ones.
How can we replace inequitable policies with policies that promote equity?
Research tells us organizations benefit from improved decision-making when multiple stakeholders are involved in the decision-making process (Kusy & McBain, 2000). If we want to be more equitable, we need the students and families who have been historically marginalized by inequitable policies at the policy-making table. The policies are important, but how they are created and whose voices are involved in the creation process is how we ensure new policies don’t continue to perpetuate inequity.
How can we systematize equitable practices so they are not “one-time” strategies?
Creating shared leadership structures that inform the school’s decision-making process is a powerful way to systematize the school’s commitment to equity. If each time a policy is created, parents, students and teachers are part of the process, this communicates to stakeholders their voices are truly valued. Furthermore, given all the uncertainty of this school year, how decisions are made is one thing that is within a leader’s locus control. The decision to share power is a powerful step towards educational equity.
Logistically, researchers have identified several things to consider when creating shared leadership structures:
Embrace radical collegiality. Fielding (2001) defined this term in relation to students, but it’s useful for our work with families and caretakers as well. Basically, it refers to the idea that educators learn and become more effective when they see students (and families) as partners and they share responsibility for student success. This mindset is critical to the success of any organization rooted in shared leadership.
Build a representative leadership team. Research has found groups larger than about 15 members can become unwieldy and ineffective (Calvert, 2004; Pautsch, 2010). As much as possible, stakeholders should be represented equally, with a slightly higher percentage of students to reduce the ratio of adults to students, which has been known to overwhelm and thus, silence students (Osberg, Pope, & Galloway, 2006).
Clarify the governance structure. Explicitly state how and to what extent power is shared. Identify which types of decisions will be made solely by the school’s administrator(s), and which types of decisions will be shared. Clarify what is needed to move forward with a decision (e.g., majority vote, unanimous agreement). Determine leadership team members’ responsibility to communicate with the stakeholders they represent (e.g., weekly, only to get feedback on major policies). For example, the leadership team may draft a new policy and want to get feedback within one week from all stakeholder groups so they can vote to approve the policy the following week.
Use stakeholder research to inform decisions. Decisions made by the shared leadership team should be based on data. To address the question of how we measure equity—sometimes, we will look at student data like grades or test scores. Other times, that data will be survey data in which stakeholders share their degree of belonging in the school or the extent to which they feel their voice is valued. Students may self-report their level of engagement in class.
Members of the leadership team should receive the support needed to enable them to communicate regularly with the stakeholders they represent. This could take the form of tech tool training so all members are able to create and send out a survey using Google Forms or to communicate asynchronously using an app like Voxer or an LMS like Google Classroom.
Meet consistently. Meetings should be held consistently, at the same time and in the same place (whether that’s the same physical location or the same virtual room) if possible, to avoid confusion that may exclude members from participation in the meeting.
To help you get started in thinking through all of these considerations, I made a worksheet with a list of relevant questions. You can use it to guide your thinking as a leader or prompt discussion among stakeholders or in your leadership team!
Two leaders who have informed my coaching and leadership practice are Ella Baker and Mary Parker Follet. Ella Baker, a staunch supporter of shared leadership during the U.S. civil rights movement has said, "I have always thought that what is needed is the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership in others." Follet (1924) addressed leaders’ fears that power was a zero sum game, by writing, “first, by pooling power we are not giving it up; and secondly, the power produced by relationship is a qualitative, not a quantitative thing” (p. 191). She later wrote that sharing power is generative, that confronting and integrating different ideas “means a freeing for both sides and increased total power or increased capacity in the world” (pp. 301–302).
I’m excited to hear how your shifts towards shared leadership increase capacity and equity in your schools.
As a teacher, it was never comfortable making a mistake. Whether I made an assumption about student behavior, answered a question incorrectly, or mispronounced a student name, the guilt and shame of making that mistake hurt. Those feelings of guilt and shame never fully went away, but I became more comfortable with apologizing and seeing the opportunity to recognize my mistakes as a chance for growth. This year, as I have grown my business, I’ve been figuring out how to do the same in a different context.
Being in the public eye is not comfortable for me. I’m not a big fan of social media. I’m an introvert whose ideal weekend is reading a book at home on the couch. However, we miss out on a lot when we remain in our comfort zones. This year, I’ve received more critical feedback than ever just by virtue of having a larger audience. While some “feedback” has been unhelpful anger about the goal of educational equity, far more feedback has been immensely helpful critique from this brilliant community of educators.
While I’m still working on releasing the feelings of guilt and shame that linger way beyond the day I receive the feedback, I have to say, I am truly grateful for the time educators have taken out of their busy days to share how I could do better. I think about how much courage and energy it takes to read something, feel frustrated by it, and then decide not to discount the author, but actually send an email to share that frustration and give me a chance to do better. I also think about the trust required to take the risk of providing feedback—the belief that the message will be heard, that it will result in change, that it will not result in anger-fueled backlash—and I am profoundly grateful for that trust.
I will continue to make mistakes, and I will continue to work on my response to critical feedback. If I cause harm, I want to apologize and also commit to doing better moving forward. (A book that has helped me think about apologies is On Apology by Aaron Lazare.) I will continue to do the work to learn about racial, gender, sexual, and dis/ability justice. I will continue to invite feedback from educators.
I also bring all of these commitments into the virtual teaching space as I prepare for the Fall semester. This semester, my class will be fully remote, and so I’ll need to establish that trust and co-construct (with students) a community focused on growth, not perfection. I recognize that building this community at a distance may look different than it did teaching in person, but it is still possible, and it is, perhaps, more important than ever.
As many of us learned during Spring 2020, holding class in virtual spaces comes with additional challenges like having family members or others watch you teach. I know many teachers are concerned about students sharing recordings of live classes and being under scrutiny for mistakes made during class. I have no magical solution to this concern. I’ve worked with teachers this summer who have reported such a thing happened to them this spring.
However, it makes me think about when I taught high school and we had a standing invitation to any family members or caretakers who wanted to shadow their children in their classes. While this was a bit nerve-wracking, I appreciated the oversight. I wanted that accountability, not as a “Gotcha, you’re fired,” but as a learning opportunity to share feedback like, “You never called on my child when she had her hand raised,” or “My grandson struggled with the assignment and didn’t know how to get help when he needed it.” A family member courageously delivering feedback to me with the trust that I will listen and do better? I want as much of that as I can get.
I don’t say this to discount the real fear of recorded classes being misused in harmful ways or to pretend the guilt and shame doesn’t sting, but to help us frame our thinking about how we view productive critique when we make mistakes.
To increase the likelihood of productive criticism in my own class this year, I want to start the semester by framing the learning journey as something we’re all on together, myself included. I want students (and their families) to know I see them as partners in the work, and I want to create space for members of the class community to courageously and without fear of reprisal share critical feedback if I made a mistake, omitted a marginalized perspective, or caused harm.
I was recently on a webinar in which Dr. Ibram X. Kendi shared a powerful analogy about diagnosing a problem. He said when his doctor diagnosed his GI symptoms as Stage 4 colon cancer, he was immediately resistant. “Not me,” he thought. I don’t drink; I don’t smoke; I work out. Being an antiracist scholar, he drew a parallel to people’s defensiveness in being told their actions were racist. He said it’s the same with the doctor—diagnoses aren’t shared to hurt anyone. Diagnoses are delivered with the intention to heal. I found this analogy incredibly powerful in thinking about the mistakes we make as educators and the mindset required to view critique as opportunities for growth.
If it helps to track your growth over time so you can see the benefits of listening to criticism and growing as a result, I’ve made a Mistakes as Growth worksheet for you!
Here’s to a new academic year filled with learning, healing, and growth for all of us.
Last week, I took a week off of the blog for the first time since December. It was my attempt to practice boundaries and self-care to continue the collective care work. The day I was scheduled to take off? I worked all day.
My rational brain understands taking the time to rest and recharge is necessary to sustain my energy for the important work we do, but there are several mindsets I continue to struggle with—mindsets that hold me back from putting this understanding into practice. In this post, I want to share a behind-the-scenes look at the struggles that often prevent me from striking a work-life balance. I hope you do not recognize these mindsets in yourself, but if you do, you are not alone.
Side note: I intentionally use the phrase “work-life balance” because while I think there are interesting elements of
Struggle #1: I Tell Myself “I Can’t Afford the Time Off”
Being my own boss, I have the great privilege of setting my own schedule. However, I’ve found I rarely let myself take time off. I tell myself I can’t press pause on the things I have going on. Last week, for example, I took a week off of blog writing, which freed up about a day’s worth of work. I scheduled my day off. One day. I had been physically ill for several weeks, I hadn’t been sleeping or eating well, and I still couldn’t value the importance of my mental and physical health over the tasks that could wait another week or take a week off. The rational part of my brain says, “The late night comedy shows I watch have been taking time off. I should follow their lead!” But I tell myself my work can’t wait. Ha!
I’ve been learning more about white supremacy culture, and the sense of urgency that I need to get everything done now and do it all perfectly are two aspects of white supremacy culture. Maintaining these mindsets of urgency and perfectionism actually inhibit my ability to learn and grow. I want to learn and grow; therefore, I need to take the time to be well enough to recognize learning opportunities when they present themselves and be well enough to dig in and do the work to grow in those moments.
Struggle #2: I Can’t Put My Brain in Vacation Mode
That one day off? I ended up working a full 10-hour day. Something came up that needed to be done, but I know myself. I would have been thinking about work most of the day anyways. I struggle to turn my work brain off. In some ways, this can be helpful. I like randomly thinking up ideas for new units when I’m going for a run or doing something non-work related. That’s a part of work-life integration I can get behind. But, I struggle to simply “be,” and I recognize that’s a problem. It has always been a struggle for me. I’ve gotten sucked into the fast-paced, work-centered culture we live in.
Recently, I’ve been scheduling 15 minutes of mindfulness into each day. I use the Stop Think Breathe app on my phone to spend some time paying attention to my body and my breath, and I have created a separate work “log in” on my laptop to create a digital “door” to my virtual office space. My identity has always been tied to my work, and I don’t think that, in and of itself, is harmful. It’s part of that passion and drive I feel to do the work I do, but when I don’t give myself the proper space and time to relax, it also takes a pretty big mental and physical toll.
I’m still working on overcoming this struggle, and I don’t think it’s realistic to expect I’ll never think of work when I’m taking time off, but I do think it’s possible to get to the point of recognizing the work thoughts as I have them and perhaps writing down ideas or reminders if I need to, so that I can stop fixating on work and let the thoughts leave my mind until the next work day.
Struggle #3: “I Must Be Constantly Available”
On my days off, all I want to do is stay very far away from my computer because my computer—as a result of working from home in a one-bedroom apartment—is the physical representation of my workplace. I know I feel better when I can completely separate from my workplace, but any time I step away, I feel like I am somehow failing the amazing community of educators who may be counting on me for a quick response to an email or a Facebook message. This was the same mindset I struggled with as a high school teacher—what if my students are emailing me with a question and I don’t answer it until tomorrow? I thought that would make me a total failure as a teacher! (I hope you’re able to laugh at me because you see how ridiculous this idea is, but I really believed it.)
What helped me with this was seeing my principal model these boundaries. She would let everyone know they needed to go home and be home and there was zero expectation of checking email because she would not be checking her email. A few times over the years, I was frustrated that she was unavailable, thinking I needed an immediate answer to something, but in each of the situations I thought required an immediate response, it didn’t. I was able to adapt and make it work. I realized that her insistence on email and vacation boundaries were far more helpful to me than a quick response to a single question. She was modeling healthy boundaries.
Modeling Healthy Living
Many of us integrate SEL practices into our classes because we know students need to be socially and emotionally well to thrive. This has become even more relevant during the pandemic. This notion of modeling is really helpful for me—if I won’t push myself to be well for my own sake, I will do it to help others. So, what can we model for students and fellow educators?
Urgency & Perfectionism. Flexible deadlines helped me model for students that while we need to get things done, I didn’t want my students having a mental breakdown because they were so stressed about a due date. Some assignments, like public presentations, had a deadline that could not be altered, and students knew they needed to meet it. Other assignments that were submitted to me had somewhat arbitrary deadlines that I set, and I could afford to be flexible if it helped a student’s mental wellness. I’ll be writing more on perfectionism in my next post, but as a teacher, I found I had a great opportunity to model how to overcome perfectionism. First, when I would make a mistake (because of course I would, I’m human), I would apologize, and I would let students see that being perfect is far less important than how you respond when you make a mistake.
Vacation Brain. Many of our students (two-thirds by age 16) have experienced some form of trauma. Taking just a minute or two of my class each day for mindful breathing helped me and my students build our capacities to simply “be”. One day, after doing our 30-seconds of breathing time, a student thanked me and said “I never have time to just breathe.” I saw myself in her comment, and I realized we all needed to continue this practice. Another way I tried to support students in embracing vacation brain was not assigning homework over vacation. (Some students liked to use vacation time to get a jumpstart on projects, so I would often share what we would be doing when we returned from vacation, so students could do work if they wanted, but there was no pressure to complete any assignment for the first day back.) We all need that break.
Being Constantly Available. I was fortunate to have an administrator who modeled healthy boundaries for me and respected the ones I set for myself. As a teacher, I realized, in setting and sticking to boundaries of my own, I could model healthy practices for my students in the same way my principal modeled this for me. My students grew used to the fact that I didn’t respond immediately to email, and they learned to figure things out for themselves or wait until we were back in class to ask. For this last piece to work effectively (in other words, to prevent students from experiencing high levels of stress while waiting on my response), I had to be flexible in my deadlines for assignments and make space during class for students to work on whatever they needed to work on. This flexibility was necessary for the boundaries to work, but it came with another host of benefits—opportunities for more 1:1 or small group meetings with students, additional chances for me to give in-the-moment formative feedback, and students generally experiencing less stress and more agency regarding their work.
Personally, I often struggle to overcome these challenges because I add too much to my plate. Saying “No” is difficult, but I will continue to work on doing it better. In fact, I’d like to shift my focus from what gets a “No” response, to what, as a result of the "No"s can finally get a “Yes”. Jenna Kutcher says when she says no, she frames it by saying: Here are my current priorities, and I have to say no because it doesn’t fit with my priorities at this time. I like that frame because it provides a rationale (although, to be clear, we don’t need to rationalize our “No”s) and we are also modeling for others how they can say “No” themselves.
For reminders about this, I’m re-sharing my boundary reminders printables. Click the button below to grab them and put them in your workspace.
I learned a lot from listening to my students. Recently, I looked back at some of the feedback I got from students when I taught 10th and 11th grade literacy. Their responses are illuminating even years later.
What did they say they liked?
What did they say should be improved?
I am still blown away by the insightfulness of my former students. They wanted more choice, more opportunity to share their ideas with the world and make a meaningful, positive impact on relevant social issues. The last point on the feedback list emphasizes students’ eagerness to learn and grow as writers, but they were strategic in how to go about this. They advocated for less drafting and more of a focus on revision. Students are brilliant!
I realize all students are not the same, and these reflections of my students from years ago may not perfectly align with what all other students prefer, but I’ll pull out some notable themes that may help us all as we design engaging units for our own students.
Choice-based PBL can supercharge motivation. My students’ reflections and my observations of students in action support what the research says about the power PBL and student voice have to increase student engagement, motivation, independence, attendance (BIE research summary), positive-self regard, feelings of competence (Deci & Ryan, 2008), and academic achievement (Mitra, 2004). They were aware of this, and wanted to continue reaping these benefits, which was evident in their suggestions to have even more choice in the topics studied, books read, and demonstrations of mastery.
Students learning from other students is powerful. Many students said that circle discussions were one of their favorite activities of the year. Several students explained that hearing from other students was the reason they became more open to other perspectives and were able to recognize oppression that they hadn’t seen before. Being open to hearing other perspectives and recognizing oppression was one of my primary goals for students—a clear and relevant application of the critical thinking and analytical standards so many of us are tasked with teaching. Students’ comments made me increasingly aware that the time students have to share their ideas with one another and the space we make for students to truly be listened to, is critically important. When I plan my units and individual lessons within those units, I try to keep this in mind. As a result, at least half of my lessons are dedicated to student work or student talk time, to enable students to have these meaningful learning experiences.
Student voice as reflection is a learning experience for teachers. One of the things student voice researchers advise is that when we ask for students’ opinions, we do something with the feedback. This doesn’t mean we always implement every idea a student shares, but we want to sit with it, think about it, and respond to each of the pieces of feedback with what we’re doing to move forward with it or why it’s not able to happen in this moment or in the exact way a student suggested. (For reference, I followed up on the above student feedback, the following year by trying out at semester-long Genius Hour in which students had full control of designing their own units—we had 60+ topics going and nearly as many different ways of demonstrating mastery. While it did not go perfectly, my returning students were able to see my commitment to listening to their ideas.)
Dana Mitra (2006) depicts three levels of student voice as a pyramid. At the bottom level, students are simply being heard, perhaps by sharing their opinions on a survey—this is the most common type of student voice and also the lowest level. At the middle level, students work alongside adults in partnership to accomplish school goals. At the top level is building capacity for student leadership—less common than the others and the highest level of voice. While a reflection activity on its own seems like it would fit on the bottom level of Mitra’s pyramid, enabling students to recommend or even make these adjustments themselves during the unit or prior to the unit, would have brought us up to at least the middle level of the pyramid. Engaging in my own reflection on teaching, I would like to create more opportunities for students to be in the top two levels of the pyramid, so students (either independently or by collaborating with me) could make the necessary course corrections the moment it’s needed.
Students are engaged when they have choice and voice in what they learn about and how they demonstrate learning as well as the opportunities they have to learn from one another. Designing curricula that enables students to choose their own pathways of learning content and building skills, amplifies student engagement and enables students to flourish. Adopting project-based learning, enabling meaningful opportunities for reflection and critical feedback, and making space for students to learn from each other are just three ways we can do this. What other ways do you amplify student voice in your classes? What else have you learned from listening to students?
I still remember sitting across from my curriculum coach, Janice, during my third year of teaching. When she shared the concept of a unit arc, I could barely believe it. I was awestruck, while at the same time, thinking, “Really? I can do that?” With the introduction of this one concept, my entire idea of what was possible with regards to curriculum design drastically changed. All of a sudden, I saw a path forward that involved creating amazing, topical units without spending 20 hours every weekend to finish them.
So, what is a unit arc?
I define a unit arc as: The pattern of purposeful learning experiences in which students engage throughout a unit. As with any unit, we pack it with learning experiences for our students, but the key difference with a unit arc is the intentional pattern it follows. This pattern becomes predictable to you and your students because you reuse it from unit to unit.
Once I had a unit arc, I no longer spent hours determining which activity to prepare for each lesson, because I used the same arc and same templates for these activities. From then on, my prep time was focused solely on collecting and organizing the content material.
What might an example of a unit arc look like?
Different subjects may gravitate towards different kinds of unit arcs. In Science, the 5 E’s may frame the unit arc. The unit arc I adapted from my coach was originally intended for Social Studies content, but with small adaptations (e.g., bullet point 4), it can work for many subject areas. I’ll share it here:
You’ll notice there is an arc of engagement here. First, interest needs to be sparked, so we’ll start with a whole lesson dedicated to a hook. This might be a current event or a documentary that connects key concepts we’ll cover in the unit with a modern issue or event. Then, building on students’ existing knowledge, we lay the foundational knowledge with an overview of key concepts and important primary sources. From there, students are given space for exploration, discussion, further research, and as they work, students apply the learning in novel ways and creativity to produce original work. The units culminate in a presentation of some kind. I think it’s important, whenever possible, to provide opportunities for students to present or share with an authentic audience, beyond the teacher. Following student presentations of their creations, we reflect on what went well, what students found helpful or unhelpful (e.g., project strategies, types of teacher or peer support, specific protocols), and what could be improved next time. Taking the time to reflect was critically helpful to me because I was able to learn so much from what students had to say about the ways I could better support them in their work.
Don’t students get bored of the same activities over and over again?
I get this question a lot, and surprisingly, students were rarely bored by repeated protocols. In fact, many of my students said they liked the predictability of knowing what was coming next. I found the content, more than the process, was what made the activity engaging, and that changed each day. That said, certainly, all students are unique, and you know your students best, so do what feels best for your class.
In my class, the one protocol that students sometimes grew tired with was circles, simply by nature of how many times they engaged in it. I used circles more frequently than any other protocol in my unit arc. We had weekly circles in my class, and students regularly had circles in their other classes, as it was a practice used by several teachers in our grade team, so students often engaged with this protocol several times a week. Despite being tired of the protocol, an engaging topic of discussion in circles would usually be enough to re-engage students after the initial “Another circle?” comment a student would occasionally make when they saw the setup of the room.
Ready to get started planning with unit arcs?
If you don’t already have it, grab my free backwards planning template to get started building your next unit. Go to File > Make a Copy to be able to edit the unit arc to one that fits your content area, your grade, and your teaching style.
Once you’ve made your own unit arc, you can share your creation in the comments section or in our Time for Teachership Facebook group!
In my review of the literature on student voice, I have attempted to catalogue what I call “mechanisms” that amplify student voice in educational spaces. One of the mechanisms I have identified is “pedagogy,” a very broad mechanism that encompasses several key practices, including: scaffolding, discussions of social injustice relevant to students, flexible space (i.e., co-creating learning spaces with students), and co-constructing curricula with students. It is the latter practice, rare but powerful, that this post will address.
The notion of co-constructing curricula sounds intimidating at first, but I think it’s much more accessible and actionable when we think of it as a continuum. Teachers who have been co-constructing curricula with students for a while are going to have much more fluid and flexible planning practices than teachers who are trying it out for the first time, and that is completely okay. I want to spend some time talking about what co-constructing curricula is and what that could look like in your classes.
To help frame this post, I use the work of Dr. Patricia Gross. Specifically, I share insights from her book, Joint Curriculum, which details the stories of two teachers who enlisted her help in shifting their teaching and planning processes to co-construct curricula with their students. Gross describes what is involved in joint curriculum design as follows:
“(a) Students and teachers who communicate goals, envision and strive toward common aims; (b) they mutually interrogate what content choices stimulate inquiry through individual and group interests; (c) they negotiate methods of how to proceed to accommodate individual needs and learning styles; (d) they collaborate to sequence when sufficient exploration and practice lead to comprehension; and (e) they devise assessment criteria to specify why to inquire into topics and determine expected outcomes” (1997, p. 5) [emphasis in original].
In Gross’s bolded words we see some key ideas of co-constructing curricula. It involves communicating with students about the goals of the class (and recognizing that each student’s goals may be slightly different). It involves figuring out what specific content is interesting and relevant to students (again, noting that interest level will not be identical for all students). It involves a conversation and perhaps a provision of options to students about the class protocols, “text” choices, and perhaps tech tools that are available for students to engage in learning course content and skills. It involves a co-construction of a clear path to mastery of a particular skill or content understanding with the flexibility for learners to move at the fastest pace that they are able to move without disrupting comprehension. It involves a degree of co-construction of a project-based, perhaps course-long, rubric (e.g., the course priority standards and what success looks like at each level of mastery). This assessment piece also involves providing a range of assessment options, so that students’ grades are reflective of a portfolio of work, the pieces of which they should be able to revise and resubmit.
One place along the continuum of co-constructing curricula with students is the use of Genius Hour, also known as 20% Time. This strategy gives students 20% of class time (maybe one day a week or one hour a day) to work on projects of their own design. I was fascinated with this concept in my last year of teaching, to the point in which I tried doing a Genius Hour semester, all day, every day! After testing it out, I would not recommend such extreme fluidity for such a long duration. However, during the first 2 months, students were incredibly energized by their work!
For example, projects that were created in that semester included: student-designed t-shirts to raise awareness of problems facing the LGBTQ community and incarcerated mothers; a video game a student created after learning a new coding language; 30-minute documentaries including one on the hypocrisy of the founding fathers and one on the importance of music; a student-designed field trip series, in which a student filmed visits to social justice art installations around the city; and a comparative essay written after reading two novels (this student wanted more practice before completing this task for their senior portfolio the following year).
If you’re interested in starting Genius Hour with your students, I’ll re-share a template I used for the first few days my students engaged with this project. Just click the button below to access it!
(Also, if you missed my masterclass this week, sign up for a spot next week, where I’ll be sharing how you can get my entire Google Drive folder of Genius Hour resources.)
Of course, you don’t need to start Genius Hour to co-construct curricula with your students, you can simply ask for their thoughts more often (and then use that information to adjust your planning.) I love Gross’s point that, “Joint curriculum design values teacher expertise. However, teachers impart information sparingly to pique students to verify or question information to draw and substantiate their own conclusions” (p. 29). So, we can create a unit, and begin implementation, but leave some space (perhaps in the form of choice boards to explore content subtopics or open-ended projects options) for students to run with whatever piqued their interest.
At first, my students were wary about co-constructing curricula. I was met with initial resistance (by some students, not all) in the form of “Just tell me what to do, Miss.” This saddened me, but when students have experienced education as being told what to do and having little voice in that process for so long, it makes sense to me why that was their initial reaction. For these students—there were several in each class—we formed a small group to brainstorm ideas together. After asking what interested them and getting no responses, I threw out some possible options for discussion, and they chose one and adapted it as they went. I will say those students were less enthusiastic about their projects than the other students, and this realization reinforces my conviction that student voice in the co-creation of learning experiences is critically important at all ages of learning.
Students enter school as 4 or 5 year olds, curious about everything! If we consistently teach without consulting and co-creating with students, that curiosity fades more and more each year. Gross points out that students are mandated to be in your class, but she poses this question for thought: “Why not switch the tone from an obligation to a span of time in which to explore options within acceptable boundaries? A spirit of investigation overrides a sense of duty” (p. 59) [emphasis in original]. I love this concept of exploring options within acceptable boundaries.
While it may be intimidating, remember it’s a continuum. Determine what degree of co-construction you’re ready to test out, and plan with choice and flexibility in mind. Given the decreased levels of engagement many teachers have seen during distance learning this past school year, I think this approach is definitely worth a shot.
Protocols, also called activities, procedures, or learning routines, are the structured ways in which students engage in learning. For more background on protocols, check out this previous blog post.
I specifically advocate for student-centered protocols, which ask students to grapple with the work and require very little, if any, direct teacher involvement. Of course, teachers can always support students as needed during protocols, but students benefit from the grappling when they are engaging in an activity within their zone of proximal development (e.g., they are able to accomplish the task with some peer support or scaffolded questions built into a protocol).
For example, a well-built SMART Goal Template makes it possible for students to independently set and track thoughtful goals far more effectively than simply asking students to set a goal and track their progress without the scaffolding built into the protocol material.
How many protocols should I use?
One of the key ideas for making planning and teaching manageable for teachers and students is identifying a few high-leverage protocols that serve a handful of different purposes, and re-using them again and again. The re-use of protocols enables you to spend less time making new materials or teaching new directions for class activities. It also provides consistent, predictable routines for students, which frees up brain space to focus on the learning itself because they’re not wasting energy learning a new protocol. In science speak, it reduces the cognitive load.
I like EL Education’s recommendation of having three to five go-to protocols that span a few different purposes. This is just enough for about one protocol per key purpose. Of course, you can always rotate in a new protocol to mix things up, but “mixing it up” too often can lead to student confusion and shut down. What may seem very repetitive to us as teachers can be reassuring and engaging for students.
What are the different “purposes” protocols serve?
EL Education shares the following protocol purposes on their site: text-based, discussion, peer feedback, decision-making, and presenting. When I think about these purposes in terms of how I used them in my class and how I’ve supported teachers in using protocols in their classes, I would adapt this list slightly to focus on the first three (text-based, discussion, and peer feedback) and I would add independent work time as another protocol purpose. The EL curriculum includes one hour daily of what is effectively a differentiated station rotation, but most teachers don’t have that time baked into their schedule, and thus would need to fit that into regular class time.
If you can identify one go-to protocol for each of these—four total protocols—I think that’s all you really need. Your content or your teaching style may make you gravitate to one of these purposes more frequently than the others, and that’s okay! You can have multiple protocols for your most-used purpose. For example, in my high school class, I had two core discussion protocols, but used them in different ways and at different rates. I used circle protocol weekly, mostly for current events discussions and community building. I used the more content-focused Socratic Seminar, which enabled students to practice collecting and analyzing evidence to form and present academic arguments, about once a unit.
Can protocols be used during distance learning?
Absolutely! Student-centered protocols are great for distance learning, as they promote student independence and if well-designed, do not require direct teacher intervention. You may want to use different protocols for distance learning than you would in a physical classroom, but you can also adapt an in-person protocol for online use. For example, a gallery walk is a great text-based protocol. Instead of physically walking around a room and writing on chart paper, you might instead have students use a Padlet, with each column representing one “chart paper” or station. Alternatively, you could set up a Google Slide presentation for students to add digital post-its to a “digital chart paper” (i.e., a slide).
EL Education suggests a virtual protocol called “Pass the Mic” for share outs in virtual class meetings, which essentially asks students to volunteer to share with the class by umuting, sharing for no more than 60 seconds, and then saying “I’m passing the mic to _____.” That student then unmutes and continues the process. This just simplifies the structure of the share out a bit, and can be used with many other protocols that have a whole class share out component. EL’s sample virtual learning norms are also worth a look as we think about how to build a virtual class culture for student engagement and discussion. (The norms are linked on this page.)
As you decide which protocols you will use this year, and how you will adapt them for digital spaces, remember to keep the students at the center. Choose protocols that will enable students to do the work without your intervention, perhaps in partners or small groups so they can work collaboratively and help each other out. (To do this in a virtual space, you could use breakout rooms during a whole class meeting, or you could set up meetings with small groups of students in exchange for fewer whole class meetings each week).
Finally, centering students in the learning process also means asking students to weigh in on what is working for them and what is not. Typically, I’ll ask for feedback on a protocol once I know students understand and can do the steps of the protocol, so that I know the feedback I’m getting is really about the learning potential of the protocol and not the students’ unfamiliarity with the protocol steps.
Sharing your go-to protocols with other teachers on our Time for Teachership Facebook group or in the comments below is always welcome. This way, other teachers draw inspiration from you, and you can get inspiration from others!
As we continue our journey into justice-oriented unit design, we’re moving from how we spark engagement with a driving question to how we assess student mastery and offer standard-specific feedback. This post will address questions including: What kind of rubric should I use? How do I determine which standards will be assessed in this project? Do you have tips for using effective language in my rubric? What steps should I take to start building my rubric?
Let’s take these questions one-by-one.
What kind of rubric should I use?
To do this well, we need a standards-based rubric. Holistic rubrics, or rubrics that just give one overall grade (as opposed to a specific grade for each standard being assessed) are less effective in advancing student learning and subject to increased grading bias. Specific feedback on each standard enables students to see where they are and where they need to go next.
Ideally, the rubric should also be mastery-based, meaning it defines what different levels of mastery look like within each column of the rubric. Research found mastery-based grading resulted in a 34% increase in student achievement compared to traditional grading (Haystead & Marzano, 2009). Mastery-based rubric categories might include: approaching the standard, meets the standard, and above the standard. Alternatively, a single-point rubric could be used, which would list the standard in the center column, and have blank columns on either side (one for below or approaching the standard and one for above the standard) for students and teachers to write in their own language so they can specifically address the evidence of the students’ degree of mastery for each standard.
If you’re interested in a mastery-based rubric template, I’ll re-share my free rubric templates below.
How do I determine which standards will be assessed in this project?
The rubric should be the result of backwards planning. (For more on backwards planning, see this post and this post.) This means you’ll want to identify the priority (i.e., most important) standards the project will assess. Your rubric should be given to students at the start of a project or unit so they know what they will be assessed on from the start. When choosing your priority standards, try to choose higher-order standards (e.g., DoK 3 and DoK 4).
Do you have tips for using effective language in my rubric?
Effective rubrics use language that focus on what students can do, rather than what they can’t do. This is particularly difficult in the below or approaching phase of mastery. I still struggle with this piece myself, but I’ve found it helpful to think about the supporting standards (e.g., DoK 1 and DoK 2) that are stepping stones students need to master before they are able to master the higher-order priority standard, and I try to use language that reflects evidence of these “stepping stone” standards.
Language should also be clear and accessible to students. Rubric language should include all of the details required to make it clear to students what is being asked, but should include no more language than is absolutely necessary. To keep the document accessible to students, a rubric should be as short as possible. Finally, the language used across different levels of mastery (i.e., in each column) should be similar. This parallel language will make the rubric more coherent.
What steps should I take to start building my rubric?
Building a rubric is a lot of work. (Tip: I actually build one rubric for the whole year with all of my priority standards, and then delete standards if they are not to be assessed in a particular unit. This saves me a lot of time and provides students with consistent expectations.) Before doing anything else, choose which kind of rubric you will use (see earlier section on this question). Once you have chosen a rubric style, I would start with one priority standard. Read the standard as written, and then define what mastery looks like using similar language. This will be your meets standards category (or the middle category in a single-point rubric).
Before you continue, review the language for clarity and student accessibility. Revise as needed. Once your meets standard column is all set, adapt the language for the mastery level above and below. Once the entire row of your first standard looks good, move on to the next standard.
Creating a coherent, standards-based rubric is a necessary component of backwards planning, and it is critical to equitable grading. If you have additional rubric design tips, please share in the comments below or in our Time for Teachership Facebook group.
This past week, I wrote about the importance of student engagement and teaching for racial and gender justice as a powerful opportunity to engage students in academic learning. If you haven’t read those yet, I recommend starting there to better understand the context and the why behind the next several blog posts, which will focus on aspects of curriculum design. (You can read “Promote Student Engagement + Teach for Justice” here and “Why Teach for Justice?” here.)
As I continue to discuss curriculum design, I will use a project-based learning approach. This is because research indicates project-based learning (PBL) enhances student engagement, student motivation to learn, student independence and attendance, content understanding and retention, and even test scores compared to traditional, non-project based, teaching (BIE Research summary). According to PBL Works, one of the “Gold Standard” elements of PBL is: a challenging problem or question. Let’s take a closer look at this element.
Is a driving question the same as an essential question?
Grant Wiggins, co-author of Understanding by Design, distinguishes between an essential question, a compelling (i.e., driving) question, and a supporting question in this blog post. He clarifies that an essential question “recurs over time” and “points toward important and transferable ideas,” while a driving question is rooted in specific content. Supporting questions “have agreed-upon answers” and “assist students in addressing their compelling questions.”
All of these question types are valuable, but they all serve different purposes. By virtue of being broad, an essential question can frame an entire semester or year. Because driving questions are grounded in content and they require application of content understanding, they are better used to frame a project for a specific unit. Finally, supporting questions help us check for factual understanding and provide scaffolded support to enable students to address the more open-ended driving question.
This synthesis of ideas from Grant Wiggins and Debbie Waggoner does a great job of clarifying these differences with examples (Bush, 2015).
What makes a strong driving question?
A strong driving question is key to the success of a project-based unit. If students are not excited to address the question, the project immediately becomes less effective. A high-quality driving question should meet the following criteria:
As you review or create a driving question for an upcoming unit, use these criteria as a checklist to make sure your driving question is strong. If it doesn’t meet these criteria, rewrite at least 5 iterations of the question, and pick the one that best aligns with the criteria. If none of your drafts check all of the criteria, keep drafting until you get there! Don’t be afraid to ask for feedback from teachers and students.
Let’s look at an example.
It can be difficult to write a strong driving question, so we’ll examine a concrete example. Let’s say I’m designing a unit for a Social Studies course entitled, Revolutions Through History. The unit is about the American Revolution. I draft the following three questions:
Looking at these three questions, I like the middle one best for a driving question. It’s grounded in specific historical content, it’s debatable, and it’s fairly straightforward, and students have to deeply understand the content to address the question with any nuance.
The first question I drafted would make more sense as a thematic question for the year. For any unit, any revolution we talk about, during the year, we could always return to this question. We could even use the unit’s driving question to inform a response to this essential question. For example, if a student says it wasn’t revolutionary because it only grants specific rights to white, land-owning men, they could then say a necessary ingredient to a revolution is inclusion of all social groups in the revolution and subsequent policy creation.
Finally, the third question is more of a scaffolding question. Let’s say all of my students say, of course it was revolutionary, it’s in the name: American Revolution. I might want to push their thinking by asking a factual question like this. Simply putting a question like this out there can help students come to see different perspectives and formulate new or more complex arguments.
For more examples, John Larmer, editor of PBL Works and co-developer of the Gold Standard PBL model, has a great article on the difficulty of crafting an engaging driving question. In it, he shares several sample questions and talks about the two main types of questions: debatable questions and solution-generating questions.
Lastly, if you’re interested in a worksheet to help you draft your driving questions, click the button below to get this week’s freebie.
Happy question drafting!
In her book Reading, Writing, and Rising Up, Linda Christensen begins the first page with, “Why reading, writing, and rising up? Because during my 24 years of teaching literacy skills in the classroom, I came to understand that reading and writing are ultimately political acts.” She goes on to write about how historically, enslaved people in the U.S. were denied opportunities to learn to read and write and in more recent history, government funds are spent on things like going to the moon rather than investing more resources in education while the racialized opportunity gap persists.
Curriculum is Not Neutral
I agree with Christensen. How and what we teach in literacy, history, math, science, art, physical education, technology...all courses...is inherently political. What we decide is worthy of inclusion in a curriculum is a political act. History and literacy are often cited as the subjects in which it’s easier to address issues of injustice, but unpacking how math and science are applied in practice is a powerful opportunity to examine how STEM concepts can and have contributed to racial and gender inequity, even today! Furthermore, we can introduce students to ways math and science (and literacy and history and art and PE) can be applied in ways that advance racial justice. By choosing not to surface and dismantle the ways our subjects can and have acted as tools of oppression, we are perpetuating that oppression; we then become agents of that oppression—namely, patriarchal white supremacy.
Learning About Relevant Issues is Engaging
Another reason to center issues that impact students’ lives in our curriculum is that it amplifies student engagement. Christensen writes, “I couldn’t ignore the toll the outside world was exacting on my students. Rather than pretending that I could close my door in the face of their mounting fears, I needed to use that information to reach them” (p. 4). Here’s the thing: all students want to learn. But, it’s hard to engage with a curriculum that is just not interesting. As educators, it’s tough to engage all of your students—some teachers have hundreds of students to engage! And to be perfectly clear, I did not and still do not engage 100% of my students every day, but once I started designing units around issues relevant to my students, the number of students I was able to engage was far higher than when I was teaching from a textbook. To ease the minds of teachers nervous about going off-book, Christensen writes, “I want to be clear: Bringing student issues into the room does not mean giving up teaching the core ideas and skills of the class; it means using the energy of their connections to drive us through the content” (p. 5).
How does community building fit into this?
When teachers ask what they can do to increase student engagement, I often share two key ideas: build a thriving classroom culture and design engaging curricula. Christensen notes both are necessary, pointing out that one informs the other. She says, “Building community means taking into account the needs of the members of that community. I can...play getting-to-know-each-other games until the cows come home, but if what I am teaching the class holds no interest for the students, I’m just holding them hostage until the bell rings” (p. 5). Building relationships is a critical piece of engagement because it enables us to be more effective educators.
To Foster Justice-Oriented Student Leadership
Something I often hear in education is the importance of educating “future leaders.” While I insist students can and should be leaders while they’re still in school, to be effective leaders, as youth or adults—students need to learn and practice leadership skills. And the type of leadership we support in students to practice is critical. As a leadership scholar, I can tell you there is far less scholarship on student leaders than on adult leaders. In my research, I suggest we specify the kind of leadership we’re trying to foster in students. Specifically, I posit student leadership should encompass critical awareness, inclusivity, and positivity. Let’s take a closer look at how I define that first one—critical awareness:
“Preskill and Brookfield’s (2009) book on social justice leadership as well as the self-awareness and self-development tenants of authentic leadership (Walumbwa et al., 2008) contributed to this study’s definition of critical awareness as reflecting on, understanding, and questioning positive and negative attributes of one’s self and society to foster equity and growth.” (Lyons, Brasof, & Baron, 2020).
By this definition, students with the capacity to be critically aware are focused on working towards equity and are able to critically reflect and question information and events as well as their own thoughts and actions, all in service of personal and societal growth towards racial and gender equity. This is what I hope for all of our students and leaders, but this capacity doesn’t just happen. It takes work to enable it to flourish. We can help students do that work.
If you’re interested in teaching for justice but overwhelmed by the idea of building units from scratch, I have something for you. In just over a week, I’m offering a free 1-hour online masterclass where I’ll be sharing my biggest secrets on creating brand new units.
Click the button below to save your seat in the masterclass.
For approximately the next 30 days, I want to focus on how we create amazing units for our students this year. I think it’s every teacher’s dream to have 100% student engagement in their lessons, and I want to help you achieve that dream.
Most educators saw a drop in student engagement this spring during distance learning. Of course, lack of access to devices and WiFi contributed to this, but getting our students online is just the beginning. We’ll also want to consider what kind of supports (e.g., emotional, relational, cultural), pedagogies, and curricula (e.g., content, assessments) will best support our students to be successful this year.
As many educators are committing (or have renewed their commitment) to antiracist teaching, these educational pieces—supportive environment, pedagogy, curriculum—can be critically examined with antiracism in mind. Each teacher can ask: Does the class environment (building-based or online) we’ve built, the pedagogies I employ, and the curriculum I use foster racial equity? If the answer is no, we’re fostering racial inequity.
Each of these pieces could get their own blog post series, but I’ll quickly address the first two and then address equitable curricula in more depth.
Creating racially equitable environments require an extra effort to help students and families of the global majority (a term I’m starting to use instead of “people of color”) feel a sense of belonging in school. Equity necessitates we offer more support to students who need more support. Equality is offering the same to everyone; equality maintains the status quo. We need equity, not equality.
Zaretta Hammond talks about culturally responsive teaching as prioritizing the learning. Kids need to get into the learning pit and grapple. We need to have high expectations for students, and give grade level work even to struggling students because remediation does not work. Of course, we will need to support students with scaffolding as well, but they need exposure to grade level content or else the opportunity gap, which disproportionately hurts Black, Brown, and Indigenous children, will persist. To take stock of your equitable practices, I’m re-sharing the equitable practices inventory—a freebie from Fall 2019.
Choose to teach about injustice and activism. We have an incredible opportunity to build on our society’s increased attention towards racism in the U.S. and to bring that energy into our classes this fall. The last 4 years of my teaching career, I made the decision to teach all of the Literacy standards my class was supposed to cover through intersectional feminist content. We can build curriculum around social issues like racial and gender injustice, and we can support students to become civically engaged activists. We can do that, but not as an add-on. Doing it well requires an intentional choice to make this a priority.
Co-construct unit ideas with students. Once I made a conscious choice to teach for racial and gender justice and built units around current events and issues relevant to my students’ lives, I saw significantly more student engagement. I learned to share ideas for units with my students and ask them for feedback or to tell me what they wanted to learn about.
Create projects for an authentic audience. Another key piece to the increased student engagement I saw was having an authentic purpose for summative assessments beyond submitting work to me for a grade. This often meant my students presented their work to an audience beyond the class. Here are some examples of my students’ projects: a live poetry performance and a social justice expo that school staff and students were invited to watch; a product created for purchase, like t-shirts raising awareness of the mistreatment of pregnant women who are incarcerated; documentaries submitted to a national film competition; issue-based circle conversations facilitated with younger grades; a proposal presented to school leadership to change school policy. Knowing their project would be useful to an audience beyond just me and the members of their class was a strong motivator for students to learn as possible to make their project the best it could be.
Grade social justice skills. I’ve written a lot about grading lately—I support a mastery-based grading system that provides students specific feedback on where they are in a progression towards mastery for each content standard. What we measure and grade communicates to students what we value, so I recommend incorporating social justice standards into the curricula we build. Teaching Tolerance has an excellent list that’s slightly adapted to fit each grade band.
Find inspiration. Finally, if you’re thinking all this sounds great, but how do I get ideas for these amazing units I want to build? I often got my ideas from reading, watching the news, and listening to podcasts. The more I learned, the more I had questions to advance my own learning, and it was these questions that produced the seeds that eventually grew into units. Places where I consistently find sparks of inspiration include the podcasts: Codeswitch, Teaching Hard History, and Queer America. I also love publications like the blog from ReThinking Schools, particularly their posts tagged as curriculum. Also, the PBL Works Youtube Channel has a project videos playlist that’s great for seeing the possibilities of what amazing units could look like. You could also reach out to a local activist organization to help you co-construct a unit.
Quick note: you can absolutely create justice-based curricula in any subject area. For example, ReThinking Schools has an entire book published about the intersection of social justice and math.
Given the possibility of continued distance learning, this is a critical time for us to invest in student engagement, and we can do so in a way that prioritizes racial justice. We don’t have to choose between addressing COVID or racial justice. They are not mutually exclusive. As we create new curricula, let’s explicitly integrate racial justice work, activism, and civic engagement so our students are both engaged in our lessons and building the skills to be impactful leaders for justice in their lives.
At the Intersection of Racial Justice in Education, 4 Keys to Talking About Racism in Schools: #4 AdaptabilityRead Now
This is the final post in our 4-post series featuring Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick’s research on the four capacities that can enable us to have generative racial dialogue. Please read the others! You’ll find part one that discusses the importance of a positive, encouraging, liberating dialogic environment here, part two, on the readiness and willingness to engage in antiracism and racial justice work, here, and, part three, on vulnerability here. Today’s post will focus on the fourth and final discourse capacity: adaptability.
Let’s dig in.
Adaptability. This capacity comes from Heifetz, Grashow, and Linksy’s (2009) work on adaptive leadership.They argue that one of the biggest reasons for leadership failure is trying to meet an adaptive challenge with a technical fix. They define an adaptive challenge as, “the gap between values people stand for (that constitute thriving) and the reality that they face in their current lack of capacity to realize those values in their environment.”
Dr. Bridges Patrick challenges the common desire for many White people to commit to colorblindness or to the notion that racism is about the individual noting that it limits people’s ability to “efficiently identify, talk about, and address systemic challenges.” Heifetz and his colleagues contextualize this within their adaptive challenge idea, writing, “[We] resist dealing with adaptive challenges because doing so… requires a modification of the stories [we tell our]selves and the rest of the world about what [we] believe in, stand for, and represent.” According to Dr. Bridges Patrick, building up this adaptive capacity requires us to engage in critical self-reflection and praxis (applying theory in practice), accept living in a state of moderate uncertainty, be open to shifting our “priorities, beliefs, habits, and loyalties”, and engage fully with our whole selves, body, mind, and spirit.
What does this look like in educational spaces?
From the perspective of adaptability, Dr. Bridges Patrick suggests that technical fixes and practices consist of responses, beliefs, and practices that contribute to maintaining the status quo. These are well-known, commonly accepted routines that are practiced without conscious thought. She says, “take Sophia in my study, for example. She was a Black professional committed to antiracism who worked with an all-white medical team. Using a longitudinal study, Sophia presented the ways racism impacted the kind of medical care African Americans received. What Sophia experienced with her team in that moment was performative silence:
“I just shared an article with my team that just came out of a longitudinal study that looked at [medical care] for African Americans and the ways that racism impacts the kinds of care they get, how soon they get a [medical] diagnosis . . . all of those things and so I gave them the article and I broke it down and they’re like, oh, this is really very interesting.”
The silence was an unspoken, group agreement to avoid a potentially informative conversation about improving health care. There are too many other challenges that arise from this scenario for me to explore, but one is the impact the silence had on Sophia, members of the team, and the patients they served. Sophia ended the story by saying “you would have thought I threw a bomb in the middle of the room”.
Adaptability then is both an individual and group or organizational characteristic that moves beyond technical, implicit processes. Applying adaptability to the previous scenario in the context of antiracism would have required someone in the group to do something different. Rather than remaining silent, an adaptive response may have encouraged a question to advance a conversation.
Adaptive capacity is having the skills necessary to fill the gap that exists between aspired values and living those values into existence. Within the adaptive individual or team/organization is a container or structure that welcomes and supports new ways of thinking and practicing. This flexibility shifts, expands, and shrinks to allow for imagination, time for critical reflection, making and recovering from mistakes, and evaluation and adjustment of new or different practices.
Adaptability means interrogating our long-held beliefs about how school is done and what school should look like. It means critically examining disconnects between what we say we value and what our policies, pedagogies, and assessments indicate we actually value. It means having a structure (leadership, resources, etc.) that supports this kind of work and a plan to navigate the resistance that will surface to maintain the status quo. Let’s take one example of each.
Policies. If we say our primary mission as an organization is to educate all students, but our dress code sends students (disproportionately Black female students) out of the classroom, we are not actually prioritizing students’ education. Instead, we are valuing conformity to the dominant (read: white) norm about how students should dress and groom themselves more than ensuring students learn educational standards.
Pedagogies. If we say we value student engagement, but we (teachers) talk for the majority of the class time, lecturing and asking students to remain silent, and never asking for critical feedback from students, we actually value obedience to authority (often, white authority) more than student voice and engagement.
Assessments. If we say we value creativity and critical thinking, but we grade students by how well they answer factual multiple choice tests, we actually value memorization and regurgitation of content more than an ability to creatively apply concepts to novel situations. (The use of standardized tests has not served as an accurate measure of students’ abilities, namely students who have been grossly underserved by our education system, many of whom are our Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students.)
An adaptive approach to racial justice requires a bold, imaginative vision. Hopefully the increased visibility of antiracist work and its importance will serve as what Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma,” an experience that doesn’t fit with a person’s expectations or beliefs. Many educators may have believed their schools were working for racial justice, but upon further examination, are becoming aware their schools are perpetuating white supremacy. We hope you can use this moment to call others into the work, collectively identify racist policies and practices, and collaboratively dismantle them.
To help you, we’ve put together a resource list.
Finally, although this is the last post in Dr. Bridges Patrick’s 4-post series on the Time for Teachership blog, we can all continue to learn from her! You can follow her on Instagram at cheriebpatrick, on LinkedIn, or visit her website.
At the Intersection of Racial Justice in Education, 4 Keys to Talking About Racism in Schools: #3 VulnerabilityRead Now
This is part 3 in our 4-post series featuring Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick’s research on the four capacities that enable us to have generative racial dialogue. You can read Part 1 here, which focused on the importance of a positive, encouraging, liberating dialogic environment and Part 2 here, which focused on a readiness and willingness to engage in antiracism and racial justice work. Today’s post will focus on our recent discussion about the third discourse capacity: vulnerability.
To define vulnerability, Dr. Bridges Patrick uses Brené Brown’s (2006) grounded theory work on shame resilience in women, in which she refers to vulnerability as being “open to attack.” As mentioned in the previous post, antiracist work is not without risk. Dr. Bridges Patrick writes, “the characteristics of facing vulnerability and risk include ability to trust (in the process, people, or one’s own ability), and ability and willingness to articulate fears and internal conflicts” (2020, p. 167). Vulnerability in the context of racial dialogue is more likely to happen when the discourse environment has been sufficiently prepared. Part 1 of our 4-post series offers a description on the dialogic space.
A white participant in Dr. Bridges Patrick’s study reflected her fears, first related to her ability to carry out the work then on the impact that calling out racism at work can have on one’s collegial relationships, saying:
“I have a fear of if I get into this what is that going to entail, it’s going to be a lot of work. And also to be perfectly honest, how are my coworkers going to look at me if I’m always the one bringing this up, and . . . can I take that on myself? I shouldn’t be putting it on other people to bring it up . . . everyone individually should be doing it, but it’s hard and you don’t want to be that person.”
When talking about race, vulnerability seems particularly difficult for white people. Why?
There are numerous perspectives as to why vulnerability is a particular challenge for White people. Some readers are aware of how Robin DiAngelo describes the phenomena in her book, White Fragility. She writes “As I move through my daily life, my race is unremarkable. I belong…It is rare for me to experience a sense of not belonging racially, and these are usually very temporary, easily avoidable situations” (2018, pp. 52-53). DiAngelo suggests that people who are Black, Brown, Indigenous, and Asian do not have this luxury, rather they have been forced into situations of discomfort, where they are “open to attack.”
DiAngelo also gives an example of the ease with which white people can opt out of chances to exercise vulnerability, stating, “Many of us can relate to the big family dinner at which Uncle Bob says something racially offensive. Everyone cringes but no one challenges him because nobody wants to ruin the dinner...In the workplace…[we want] to avoid anything that may jeopardize our career advancement” (p. 58). These are examples of white solidarity which uphold white supremacy. White people need to make the conscious choices to put ourselves into these situations.
Dr. Bridges Patrick offers her perspective on why vulnerability is so difficult for White people. There is so much to respond to in these two very rich statements by DiAngelo although, I will limit myself to two comments. I posit that it is not a luxury for White people to remain absent from racial dialogue. I do acknowledge the material and psychic gains that Whites regularly receive, yet at what cost? Those who have been sincerely interested in antiracism work, have likely, at times, experienced overwhelming guilt or have denied personal values in exchange for the acceptance of family and/or social values, for example.
White people are concerned with being perceived as racist (van Dijk, 2008). In my work on racism denial, a strategy of defense often presented by Whites is positive in-group presentation, or face-keeping (van Dijk, 2008) that is performed to present an image of ‘not-racist’ or an image of goodness. Denial is also used to accentuate peoples roles as competent, decent citizens (van Dijk, 1992). Both arguments as to why vulnerability for Whites remains impenetrable potentially end up with the same or similar results yet the strategies to get there are different.
When we make ourselves vulnerable, sometimes we may receive critical feedback. What’s an appropriate response?
The work of antiracism absolutely requires feedback so we would be wise to welcome it. How we respond to feedback that others have been negatively impacted by our words is critical. Dr. Bridges Patrick offers this perspective: when feedback stings (and it will) before I verbally respond, I first pause, take a deep breath, and notice what is happening in my body. The first questions I ask myself are “is what I am hearing true?” and “do I need clarity?” Responding with tears, defensiveness, or hostile body language does little to further generative conversation, although it can invite other participants to return to the shared agreements that were developed at the beginning of the conversation.
The purpose of feedback is to challenge patterns of thinking and behavior and to support growth. That’s the goal—to be better not to remain stagnant and steeped in the “smog” (Daniel Tatum, 1997) of racism we all breathe.
How do we build up our capacity for vulnerability?
Dr. Bridges Patrick says we need to “[grapple] with conflicting values and perceptions, particularly how [we] might be perceived by peers” (2020, p. 208). Discussions around race and racism engender emotions...remember that “race is a construct with teeth” (Menakem) while racism continues to wreak havoc on our lives, relationships, systems and souls. This means we must practice in those liberating dialogic environments or with an accountability partner. If we think about what has contributed to difficulty with engaging in productive conversations around race we find that many White people have not been having them, and quite honestly, some of us would rather not have them. When race becomes a topic, the example below is a common way race is brought up by White professionals in the workplace. Sophia, an African American, is responding to the question of when race comes up at work:
“It comes up when there’s a problem, or, and I shouldn’t say a problem, but a challenge. So . . . let’s say there’s a patient who’s having some issues with safety in their neighborhood, then it’ll come up and somebody will say for example— because we level our community—so level one, high alert safety is really concerned about the neighborhood. So they’ll say, well, this patient is new to me and now, I’m not, you know, please don’t take this the wrong way, I’m not saying it’s because she’s Black you know, so that’s how it usually comes up.”
How do we support our students to increase their capacity for vulnerability?
Building our own muscle for generative racial dialogue is one of, if not the most important element for supporting increased capacity for students. In the first post of this 4-part series, we included a free resource to help teachers set class agreements that would support fruitful conversations about race and racism. In White Fragility, DiAngelo highlights common discussion agreements that she says are ineffective. As teachers, we can spend some time here, clarifying through class discussions what we as a class mean by our co-constructed agreements. For example, DiAngelo says “assume good intentions” is a problematic agreement because it positions intent over impact (not to mention that intent cannot be substantiated and is often used as a strategy of denial). Donna Hicks’ seventh element of dignity offers an alternative, “Benefit of the doubt.” While these two points might at first glance seem contradictory, they are not. We can, as Hicks says, “Start with the premise that others have good motives,” while also focusing on impact over intent.
As educators, we want to make time for these important conversations about nuance with our students, so they can effectively engage in conversations about racism. Using what you’ve learned in this series and in other readings about antiracism work and racial dialogue, start making a list of points or clarifications you want to bring up when you and your students develop your class agreements together in the fall. Although only class agreements are mentioned here, in any planned group racial dialogue there should always be a discussion around rules of engagement. A perspective offered by Dr. Bridges Patrick notes that “one of the ways I start that particular conversation is to first position dignity and honoring each person’s humanity as non-negotiables. I then ask the question: What do each of you need to have honest, vulnerable conversations about race and racism?”
As Dr. Bridges Patrick eloquently writes in the closing to her dissertation, “dominance does not sleep nor does it vacation, rather it feeds off of fears and ignites the propensity to look away from its reality. Simultaneous to this is the silent presence of resistance that must also receive attention” (2020, p. 218). Thus, we must look inward to deeply reflect on our values, refuse to look away, and build our capacity for resistance.
Lindsay is a educator and leadership coach who helps teachers develop engaging project-based curricula, fosters student and teacher voice, and works to advance racial and gender equity and culturally responsive practice.