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.
At the Intersection of Racial Justice in Education, 4 Keys to Talking About Racism in Schools: #2 Readiness & WillingnessRead Now
Our last post introduced the work of Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick, who is co-authoring a 4-part series of posts on the intersection of racial justice in education. If you haven’t read that post, please do! It offers a great frame for the rest of the posts in the series. In that first post, Dr. Bridges Patrick shared four capacities that contribute to fruitful racial dialogue, which emerged from her research. To recap, they are: 1) readiness and willingness; 2) vulnerability; 3) adaptability; and, 4) a positive, encouraging, liberating dialogic environment. Each of the four posts in this series examines one of the four capacities. Today’s post will discuss: readiness and willingness to engage in antiracism and racial justice work.
The term readiness and willingness may seem intuitive, even simplistic, yet in the frame of racial justice work it is complex. Given its complicatedness, we’ll briefly explore the meaning of this capacity. We will connect them to having generative racial dialogue in our next two blog posts. Let’s hear from Dr. Bridges Patrick about readiness and willingness.
Let’s be real...who really wants to have honest, raw conversations about anything? A major part of my work and research is around exploring and interrogating racial dominance and I have come across very few people who are prepared to think and reflect deeply about it because it is HARD work. That we are in this moment, at this time is evidence of the ways the truth of race, its origins, its evolution, its abuse, and its power have dominated our lives.
Readiness & Willingness. In the context of racial justice, readiness and willingness is being prepared to proceed on a journey for which one never “arrives.” So what does it mean to be ready when there is no final destination? Where do you start? Given the complex, ubiquitous, evolving nature of racial dominance, this is what I would say with the knowledge that I have today.
Any topic or work that revolves around race - dialogue, education, healthcare, voting, trauma, healing, policy change, for example, often causes a visceral reaction from many people. From this perspective then, we can view race as a social “construct with teeth” (Menakem, 2020). Numerous educational scholars (hooks, 1992; Jeffery, 2005, 2011; Jeyasingham, 2011) agree that challenging racial inequality through everyday education and instructional practice requires a struggle with core tensions related to race—arguably the most fraught aspect of difference and inequality in American society (Guiner & Torres, 2002; West, 1993).
Do Your Own Work - With Accountability
Recently, increasing attention has been paid to antiracism and racial justice, and there are numerous resources available (we will provide a brief list in the next blog). For starters, asking oneself a few questions is always helpful.
Stop & Think: Why am I (thinking about) doing this work? What is my motivation...honestly?
There is ample evidence to suggest that addressing long-standing racial inequities in a substantive way has not been a priority for many...why is this the case and why now? Race scholar Ibram X. Kendi tells us that many Americans are committed to an idea that there is a neutrality – a place where there is no complicity. This idea presents quite a hurdle, particularly because he tells us the first step toward antiracism is acknowledging one’s own complicity.
Stop & Think: Let that sink in…”the first step toward antiracism is acknowledging one’s own complicity.”
What does that even mean? According to Kendi you’re either working toward antiracism or not. As for the work...doing your own work absolutely requires a thorough on-going inquiry into your own racial identity, history, experiences of internalized racism and whiteness, and how they have and continue to operate in your life. In my role as a leadership coach, accountability from someone who is vested in the growth of others is critical. We tend to think more highly of ourselves and accountability offers opportunities for processing and allows for a more rational (though imperfect) perspective. Accountability is especially useful for those who are in the early stages of antiracism work.
A commitment to racial justice is accompanied by risk. Racial dialogue is filled with landmines of emotion for which many are not prepared to navigate.
Stop & Think: As you read this, notice what is happening in your body...what physical sensations are you experiencing? (e.g. tension, pain, headache, fatigue, etc.).
These sensations are often uncomfortable so many of us avoid them. Loss is a big theme on this journey and it is experienced in many different ways. For example, several years ago a White middle-aged colleague expressed grave fear about wearing a Black Lives Matter t-shirt around her family as she believed they would disown her. Dissonance will make itself known. For example, our identities will be challenged leaving us to face that the kind of person we believe we are is very different than what our actual day-to-day behavior reveals. Uncertainty is likely to become a prominent feature leaving us to guess at what to do in any given moment. Readiness and willingness then encompasses the commitment, purpose, tenacity, and resilience that is necessary to engage in antiracist dialogue and practices.
In his book, How to Be an Antiracist, Kendi (2019) tells us that “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it–and dismantle it.” Antiracism then is a process that requires ongoing, consistent, intentional observation of our thoughts, words and actions, how they function within us and how they impact others and the larger society. We can view the concept of readiness and willingness as a developmental process that runs parallel to the work of antiracism. Every stage of antiracism work requires an ongoing and evolving recommitment to that process. From this perspective, antiracism is a perpetual opportunity for conscious choice.
For teachers, our readiness and willingness are critical to developing racially just schools, creating antiracist policies and pedagogy, and how we talk in the teacher’s lounge. Readiness and willingness means there is a conscious acknowledgment that we are willing to live in uncertainty, willing to fail, to try again, to fail better, and to try better.
We often close our posts with an action item, but the action you can take now is to re-read this post, paying particular attention to the “Stop & Think” prompts. Jot an “aha” down on a post-it note, and return to that key idea as you continue to work for racial justice in your schools.
At the Intersection of Racial Justice in Education, 4 Keys to Talking About Racism in Schools: #1 A Liberating Dialogic EnvironmentRead Now
The demand for racial justice is loud and clear. The concept of antiracism has transformative potential to realign and invigorate conversations around racism and can direct us toward “liberating new ways of thinking about ourselves and each other” (Kendi, 2019). As we plan to make our schools sites for antiracism work, we may wonder where we should focus our action. I’ve written previously about critically examining our policies and pedagogy, but we also need to be able to strengthen our ability to have generative racial dialogue—with colleagues and students.
For advice on this, I turned to my brilliant colleague, Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick. Her research on racism denial in workspaces examined the ways in which racial dominance is (re)produced in everyday professional interactions, often without intent. We have combined our expertise to merge racial justice into all aspects of education. In the course of her research, the term racial dominance is used to express the combination of racism and whiteness. These are complex concepts, in part because their destructive nature is obscured and often consists of what is not said, what is not obvious, or what is imperceptible.
Ibram X. Kendi, author of How to be An Antiracist, argues that “the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—then dismantle it.” Dr. Bridges Patrick’s work interrogates discourse—text and talk—to help expose, deconstruct and name patterns and processes in discourse structures.
In talking to Dr. Bridges Patrick, I asked what educators could do to address the issue of perpetuating systemic racism and the dominant presence of whiteness in schools. The first step in identifying and describing racism requires an ability to talk about it. She recommends building educator capacity to effectively engage in productive conversations around race while also ensuring measures of accountability for schools and educators who commit to doing this work. Four capacities or characteristics that contribute to fruitful racial dialogue emerged from Dr. Bridges Patrick’s research: 1) readiness and willingness; 2) vulnerability; 3) adaptability; and, 4) a positive, encouraging, liberating dialogic environment.
First, let’s unpack the most foundational element of racial discourse capacity building...a positive, encouraging, liberating dialogic environment. What does that entail? Driving the necessity of a dialogic environment is the notion that many of us don’t know how to talk about race, which often results in various forms of denial including willful avoidance and silence (often driven by a desire for comfort).
An example of a denial strategy is offered because they are often present in racial dialogue. In her thematic analysis, Dr. Patrick found several discourses of denial, one of which was comfort/discomfort. Discourses of comfort/discomfort are about maintaining white comfort without consideration of the costs to others. Emergent data suggested that comfort served to prioritize the needs of white professionals at the expense of their non-white colleagues. Comfort is often undergirded by fear and insufficient skills to navigate the discomfort of racial dialogue. A white professional in the study stated:
“there’s a fear, I think that kind of what I was talking about before, like, there’s this elephant in the room, but you’re scared to like say the wrong thing… step on someone’s toes, be perceived as racist.”
Building skills to navigate racial dialogue will be part of the upcoming discussions on the interpersonal aspects found in the remaining three discourse capacities.
Positive, Encouraging, Liberating Dialogic Environment. The dialogic environment is led by a confident facilitator with highly developed racial literacy and an ability to navigate the tension, discomfort, and stress that accompany racial dialogue, while honoring the dignity of every person. When describing this type of environment to me, Dr. Bridges Patrick clarified that this is not a “safe space,” but a generative one, one that is free of physical and emotional violence and exudes an atmosphere where people can be vulnerable. In her research, she further explains this environment is not specific to one space. She writes, “Whether a classroom, office space, or coffee shop, the environment can be liberating when grounded in dignity, and the humanity of all is recognized and honored.” This environment includes online environments given our current shift to distance education. She continues, “The liberating dialogic environment is a space where tension, conflict, and challenge are invited and used for information and transformation. “The dialogic space is one where disagreement is needed and must be expected, and strong emotions are seen as expression rather than personal attacks” (Bridges Patrick, 2020, p. 172). Feminist scholar and social activist bell hooks (2000) supports the need for disagreement. She argued that work around revolutionary feminist consciousness-raising could occur “only through discussion and disagreement,” from which participants could begin to gain a “realistic standpoint on gender exploitation and oppression” (p. 8). The work of antiracism requires a similar stance. Amidst the serious nature of racial discourse, Dr. Bridges Patrick also highlights, “Laughter is critical to this work and the environment should allow for levity.”
In Dr. Bridges Patrick’s research focus group, emotions were invited while dignity and humanity were positioned as nonnegotiable by these comments:
“We can be angry, we can be frustrated, we can be whatever . . . but, at the end of the day, when we leave this Zoom room, we should all have our dignity and humanity intact and recognize that shared humanity” (p. 172).
Facilitating a space for racial dialogue requires the centering of dignity - the notion “that all human beings are imbued with value and worth” and a sense that all persons are honored as contributing to the collective (Hicks, 2011, p. 4). Honoring the dignity of others is not connected to the unique qualities or accomplishments of people, rather it is the belief in one’s inherent value and worth no matter what they do. Dignity then is an intrinsic part of being alive and cannot be granted through authority, only honored or violated (dishonored). Treating people poorly because they have done something ‘wrong’ perpetuates the cycle of indignity and we violate our own dignity in the process.
To help you further understand the elements of dignity as you engage in conversations ripe with disagreement, we’ve put together a free resource you can use with colleagues and with students. Click the button below to get a 1-pager, summarizing Dr. Hicks’ 10 elements of dignity as well as a student-facing poster of the elements, which can be a great starting point for developing class agreements next year.
I always find it helpful to ask students to share their experiences of the year—the good, the not so good, the ideas for improvement for next year, anything else that feels relevant to share. I think it’s helpful to ask for student reflections throughout the year too (e.g., the end of each unit, after introducing a new protocol). So, let’s think about how you could ask your students to reflect on this school year.
What to Ask
What did you miss most about in-person classes? (You can make sure you do more of whatever it is kids missed next year.)
What were the best parts of distance learning? (There’s a chance we’ll be continuing remote learning to some degree next year, so, note what worked for students and do more of that in the future. Of course, different students may say different things, so consider ways to provide multiple options for engagement so all students can have an opportunity to engage in the way that works for them.)
What was difficult for you during distance learning? (Depending on how you word this question, you may get some responses that are out of your control. Focus on what you can control and identify possible areas of support you can offer in the future.)
If we had to do the last 3 months all over again, what would you want me (as the teacher) to do differently to help you learn better? (Students often come up with great ideas here. List them all out, and remember some students’ responses may contradict one another, so offer choice where possible as you plan how you’ll implement these suggestions in the future.)
What else do you want me to know? (You can be specific here and focus on students’ personal experiences during the year, the best part of the year, what you hope for next year, etc.)
Feel free to make the questions your own and add others, but I would start with these basic concepts (successes, challenges, and suggestions).
How to Ask
Students could respond to these questions in a variety of ways.
Worksheet or Journal Entry. Students could complete a worksheet set up as a Google Doc (or Word Doc) with space to respond to each of these questions. Even more open-ended, you can provide the questions as journal prompts and have students write a journal entry addressing these in whatever way and to whatever degree they wish.
Form. You could create a Google Form (or Microsoft Form) with these questions set up for open-ended responses or prefill checkbox options, so students can have a list of ideas to choose from if you think they may struggle to come up with ideas on their own. I suggest leaving space for elaboration in the form of an open-ended response question following each checkbox-type question. An added benefit of having the checkbox options is that you can see a graphic representation of the data, which helps you pick out the trends more easily, and you could share these visuals with your students.
Here’s a free, Google Form template you can adapt and send to your students:
Note: When you sign up for this resource, you will get access to a Google Drive folder with the form inside. You don’t need to open the form. Instead, you will right-click on the form and select “Make a Copy.” This way, you can make it your own! (I know this is clunky, but right now, it’s the only way I know of to share a form, as there is currently no view-only link sharing option in Google Forms.)
Video. Students can respond to the prompts using a tool like Flipgrid, which will support your students who may struggle with writing to provide their ideas. If you want responses to be private, you can select the grid setting to require you to approve the videos before other students can see them, and then just don’t approve any videos. If you did want to share the video reflections with families or your administrators, you have the option to add each video to a “Mixtape” and share out the compilation of responses.
Subject-Specific Representation. Students could create a piece of art that represents the year and caption it in a way that addresses the question. Students could create a math equation or recipe for the best ingredients for learning from home. Students could write a song or a poem about their experience. Get creative here!
Student Choice. While we’re talking about student voice, you could also provide each of the above options (plus additional options you come up with) as choices on a choice board. Students can choose which way to share their feedback. You could also provide students with a “free choice” space where they come up with a creative way to share their responses to these reflection questions.
Once you’ve collected all of your data, share the wealth of student knowledge with other teachers! Share themes that came out of student reflections in the comments below or in our Time for Teachership Facebook group.
One of my amazing professors at Antioch University, Dr. Jon Wergin, held a webinar several months ago, and I finally finished watching it. As I listened, I couldn’t stop thinking about how relevant Wergin’s points were to the current situation in education. You can watch the full webinar here.
In this post, I want to summarize the key points from the webinar and identify how the events of the last few months lend themselves to creating constrictive disorientation for educators in order to spark long-term systemic change in our schools and the larger educational system.
What is constructive disorientation?
Wergin defines constructive disorientation as “an experience that unsettles us and sparks our curiosity, both at once; and does so in a way that we perceive an opportunity to change how we see the world, and for the better.”
Where does it come from?
Wergin says constructive disorientation can come from what Mezirow calls a “disorienting dilemma,” an experience that doesn’t fit with a person’s expectations or beliefs. But, Wergin says, “we don’t necessarily have to wait for a disorienting dilemma to hit us over the head and force us to pay attention.” He suggests a practice of mindfulness or critical reflection can surface smaller kinds of disorientation. A third source of disorientation, he says, is an “aesthetic experience” (e.g., a piece of art) is a change for someone to try on the perspective of an artist “at low risk” to one’s self. He gives the example of Kehinde Wiley’s Rumors of War statue, installed down the road from Richmond, Virginia’s Monument Avenue.
How do recent events promote constructive disorientation?
Wergin says there needs to be a disruption in routine. Nation-wide school closures have definitely disrupted how education is done. Protests over the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor have once again reminded us that this country is not a safe place for Black children. This may serve as a disruption for some educators who did not previously realize the extent of violent racism that exists today or had not previously been asked to discuss racism in their classes.
What else can we do to make the disorientation constructive?
Wergin says the challenge needs to be clear, but manageable. In terms of clarity of the challenge, some teachers may already see the need for a long-term shift in pedagogy following school closures and an intentional focus on anti-racist pedagogy. Others may benefit from one of the suggestions above (e.g., opportunities for reflection or mindfulness practice or artwork depicting students’ or family members’ ideas of what school could be). In terms of manageability for distance learning, at first, many educators were in a panic trying to figure out how to get their classes up and running in virtual spaces. After two months of adapting instruction to work in a distance learning setting, it’s likely teachers are closer to that ideal level of anxiety—just enough to want to do something about it, but not so much that it’s debilitating. The same goes for conversations about racism in schools, teachers may initially shut down, but as leaders, we want to present opportunities for conversation in which teachers can experience that anxiety and practice talking about racism with adults to be able to more effectively facilitate conversations with students.
Leverage (or build up) your staff’s social capital. Wergin says there is a direct correlation between the amount of social capital in an organization and the degree to which meaningful conversations can be had. In order to get teachers to reflect on this disorientation and listen to others’ points of view with empathy, thee needs to be: a sense of shared fate (remind everyone we’re all here for all kids); ideological diversity and an openness to hear contributions from all members (norm listening and focus on identifying shared goals and underlying values before debating how to move forward while also acknowledging that white folks are not the authority on what it means to be Black in the U.S.); and a collective responsibility for success (consider posing a question like: What can I personally do to help us move forward as a school?)
Make time for the conversation. Research tells us we learn best in the presence of others, when we can try on others’ perspectives. For some schools, a natural time for this may be during scheduled testing week (which, for most, has been cancelled). For others, this might be summer, when lesson creation and giving feedback to students are no longer daily concerns. Wergin says it’s necessary to have a setting conducive to deep work, so teachers can deeply concentrate and not be distracted by logistical tasks like checking email. Take other tasks off teachers’ plates if needed so they can be fully present in the conversation. Facilitators of this conversation will want to keep an eye on the levels of anxiety to keep folks at the edge, but not let people fall over it. Wergin says to maximize autonomy of participants, so you may provide multiple ways teachers can participate in conversation (small group, whole group, writing activity like Collect and Display).
Finally, give teachers the freedom to try and fail. School building closures have helped many leaders do this better than ever. When we’re all trying to learn how to do something new with little preparation, we tend to be (or we should be) more forgiving when things don’t go perfectly. This is also true for anti-racism work. We cannot allow our fear of failure prevent us from taking action. In conversations with teachers, encourage teachers to share their successes but also to share things they tried that didn’t work. Focus on extracting the learning from those experiences. Celebrate teachers for trying and being committed to growth. Keep this attitude in mind for next year when considering how teachers will be evaluated. Is there a place on your evaluation rubric for informed risk-taking? Is anti-racist pedagogy an aspect of the evaluation rubric? If you want teachers to try something new, will you reward them for trying it even if they fail? Or does the criteria on which they are evaluated as teachers promote rigidity and conservatism? Wergin talks about goal displacement in the education system nationally by using the example of standardized tests—when we say we value student problem solving and creativity, but students are defined by one high-stakes test measuring rote memorization, those things we said we value are replaced by what is measured.
This emergency transition to distance learning, anxiety about COVID-19, and the latest instances of racist violence have certainly disrupted our classes and our school communities. But, as leaders, it’s up to us to find ways to use this disruption to foster post-traumatic growth. We can use these events to create “constructive disorientation,” and from there, spark long-lasting change that better serves all of our students.
Many educators have been sharing resources and suggestions for talking to students about racism and police brutality in the last few weeks. We absolutely need to continue having these conversations with our students. We also should be asking what we can do to address the problem of systemic racism.
I’m trying to use my area of expertise to focus on anti-racism work in educational contexts—taking steps to identify and eliminate places where our schools or classrooms are perpetuating systemic racism. Often, these practices are unintentional and involve a lot of self work. We may need to read up on the practices that perpetuate the opportunity gap, and un-learn these practices while we learn better ones.
In this post, I’ll share some of the major pedagogical shifts for you to consider as you think about how your school can advance educational equity moving forward. As you read, consider the hat(s) you wear in your school—teacher, department chair, instructional coach, administrator—and think about what you can do in your role to support larger shifts towards equity, in your own classroom and across the school.
What does the research say?
First, educational inequity exists. Black and Brown students, students new to English, low-income students, students with IEPs (National Center for Educational Statistics), and transgender students (Gender Spectrum) are being severely underserved by traditional educational systems.
Second, we can identify practices that cause this marginalization. Some practices are school-wide policies. Discipline policies that keep students out of classes for non-violent acts, like not following codes or acting “unfeminine,” are disproportionately pushing Black girls out of schools. Preventing students from using the bathroom that aligns with their gender identity or failing to provide gender neutral bathrooms leads to trans students avoiding bathrooms or avoiding school itself.
Other practices that perpetuate inequity are pedagogical. Our approaches to grading, curriculum design, and partnership with students are all practices to interrogate. Let’s take a look at each.
Grading practices. Grading student work holistically instead of analytically (i.e., a grade for each standard being assessed) leads to unintentional educator bias, which often perpetuates the so-called “achievement” gap. Grading each of the year’s assessments with equal weight (instead of weighting end-of-year grades more than start-of-year grades and replacing draft submission grades with revised work grades) perpetuates the opportunity gap because this approach to grading does not value academic growth over time. Instead, it rewards students who entered the class on (or close to) grade level and punishes students who were already behind. Teachers who measured skill growth over time on mastery-based scoring scales noted a 34% gain in student achievement compared to traditional grading systems.
Curriculum design. Traditional “sit and get” instruction followed by graded quizzes may continue to disengage students who have, historically, not had success in school. However, research on project-based learning as an instructional strategy has seen positive results for historically low-performing students. PBL classrooms have higher student engagement, student motivation to learn, student independence and attendance compared to traditional classrooms. Students using PBL understand the content on a deeper level, retain content longer, and perform as well or better on high-stakes tests than students in traditional settings.
Partnership with students. If we communicate the message that a valued student is one who is quiet and compliant, we deny students the opportunity to be fully engaged, self-directed learners who take ownership of their academic growth. But, when students are given opportunities to co-construct their learning environment and learning activities, research has found students have better relationships with their teachers and peers, improved feelings of competence and positive self-regard, and are overall, more engaged, which ultimately, leads to improved academic performance.
What do I do now?
Consider the policies you can influence given your role in your school. For teachers, that will likely be the pedagogical policies. Take stock of your own policies. What could be adjusted to be more equitable?
Once you’ve identified your area for growth, determine what you might want to learn more about this summer to prepare to implement your updated policy in the fall. Ask your school or district leaders about related PD opportunities. Check out educational podcasts, books, and blogs that discuss these topics. Next month, I’ll be holding free 1-hour online masterclasses that address the pedagogical shifts discussed in this post.
If you are a school leader, consider providing summer PD opportunities or resource recommendations for teachers to do some asynchronous self-paced learning on these topics. If you still have time left in the school year, consider discussing these shifts before summer break.
You may want to let the ideas of these big shifts come up organically. For example, ask teachers to identify what has been challenging this year and also identify moments of success. Then, have teachers notice themes of success and how they may connect to themes of challenges raised.
As you facilitate, you could highlight emerging themes that connect to the research. That could look like:
Note: If you are in a leadership role, leading a staff PD or PLC meeting, this activity can be part of the meeting, but you could also informally suggest this activity to colleagues by sharing that you tried it and found it helpful to prepare for fall.
If your colleagues or supervisors need a quick summary of the research and the instructional pivots to close the opportunity gap, I made a one-pager for you.
Many students are experiencing high anxiety without the usual relational supports like seeing teachers and peers in person. Many students have been impacted by death this year—from disease and racist violence— and the resulting fear for their own safety and the safety of family members can be overwhelming. There is much to do to resolve these larger issues of systemic racism and a pandemic, but let's think about how we can support students to manage their anxiety in the moment.
As a teacher, sometimes I forgot to teach coping strategies as part of a lesson, but it’s important to do so. Not all students have coping strategies, or they may have coping strategies that are unhealthy or ineffective. So, it’s up to us to explicitly teach students a variety of strategies they could use to cope with stress, thus enabling each student to make an informed choice about what works best for them.
Encourage students to move their bodies. Research has shown that physical activity can reduce anxiety and depression. Some students may have physical limitations on how they are able to move their bodies, so provide a range of options here.
If students have a phone, they can track their steps over the course of a day or a week. They can exercise by running, doing bodyweight activities like squats or pushups, or following along with an online fitness video.
Help students take mindful moments. Some students may want to use a simple strategy like breathing deeply for 60 seconds. Others may need more structure. Here are some options you could offer:
Suggest a breathing strategy like smell the flower (inhale), and blow the bubbles (exhale) or balloon breathing (lifting arms over the head on an inhale to “blow up the balloon” and bringing arms back down on an exhale to “deflate the balloon”).
Tell students about guided meditation sites like Stop Think Breathe (there’s one for older students and one for younger students), Calm, or GoNoodle (this one’s typically for young students).
To help bring mind and body back into the moment, take a minute to experience each sense. One at a time, focus your attention on your sense of sight (e.g., identify 5 objects in your space), then sound (e.g., notice what you hear around you), then touch (e.g., touch 2-3 different textures around you), then smell (e.g., notice what you smell), and finally, taste (e.g., if you are eating or drinking).
Create spaces for students to talk. If you have the time and emotional capacity for this work, this space could be facilitated by you as the teacher. However, recognizing that emotional labor takes its toll on the facilitator, you may also want to suggest other places for students to go. This might be a school-based resource like counseling, or an anonymous online space like ADAA’s online support group.
Set up new school initiatives. How could we think outside the box to dream up innovative ways to support students’ mental health moving forward. Is it possible to partner with a local organization to offer animal therapy at your school? Is it possible to designate a room as a mental health break room where students can take some deep breaths or even a quick nap? Could you help students start a club to raise awareness of youth mental health?
Facilitate reflection. You may want to set up a reflection space (either private or public to other students) for students to record how they felt before the activity, what strategy they tried, and how they felt afterwards. This way, students can identify trends to increase their own awareness of their bodies and moods. If you set up a community space for your class to share these insights publicly, some students may benefit from the additional accountability and/or learning from their peers’ strategy uses or “aha” moments.
Taking time to teach these practices and help students identify the ones that work best for them is investing in students’ lifelong abilities to be more present and resilient. This is especially helpful for students who have experienced trauma, which research tells us, is the case for most of our students.
Earlier this week, I mentioned Morningside Center, a restorative practices organization in NYC, which creates community circles for teachers that are responsive to current events. Since I published that post, Morningside Center put this circle up on their website. Educators can use the listening circle to facilitate class discussions of the police killing of George Floyd.
Inside the resource, there are several options for how to open the circle, questions to ask during the listening portion of the circle, and several options for quotes to close the circle. Read through the options, and choose what feels right for your students.
In addition to sharing the circle lesson itself, I also want to share some additional things to consider as you prepare to have (or continue to have) conversations about racism and police brutality in your classes.
Process as a staff. If you are an administrator or teacher leader, facilitate a staff circle so educators can discuss police brutality with their colleagues. You could even do the same listening circle with staff that you do with students. There are a few reasons for this. One, staff members may benefit from processing their own emotions and being able to listen to others. (Read the section below to ensure you are mindful of how Black educators’ needs will differ from educators who are not Black.) Second, teachers may be better equipped to facilitate conversations with students once they’ve talked as a staff—it may prepare teachers for specific ideas that may be shared (and how to respond), and it may be helpful for teachers who have not facilitated a circle before, to see circle practice modeled and experience circle participation first-hand.
Consider the different needs of your students.
If you have both Black and non-Black students in your class, be mindful of how Black students would like to participate. Black students do not need to carry the additional emotional weight of their white peers or act as spokespeople for the Black community. Don’t force students to participate in a way that is uncomfortable, and offer Black students a separate space to talk with one another if desired.
If you have a class of all Black students and you are a white teacher, be mindful of that. Recognize your privilege, listen, and make a commitment to anti-racism by stating what action you will take to address system racism in your community.
If your class is all white, bring in Black voices (either live, if someone has expressed a desire to talk to your class, or by selecting an existing video, article/text, or social media posts). Help your students recognize their white privilege and provide them with examples of white allyship and anti-racist activism.
Remind students of your community agreements. Likely, you set agreements or “norms” at the start of the year. You may have revised or rewritten then during distance learning. Remind students of them before you start. You may need to update them again before you begin. It’s important to establish an anti-bias class culture that is conducive to listening and values empathy before you start discussing any difficult topic.
Facilitate with intention. As the circle keeper (facilitator), you are not speaking very much. You honor the talking piece, and only speak when you have it, like all other members of the circle. However, you will speak at the start to frame the conversation, and at that point, you may want to define important terms (e.g., systemic racism, police brutality, white supremacy, white privilege). You will also want to frame the current event as one moment in a long history of racist oppression. It’s important to contextualize the conversation and highlight that this is not an isolated incident. Finally, consider using your final circle question to help students, particularly white students, identify an action they can take to be better allies to the Black community. You may want to do some research beforehand, and read what Black activists recommend white allies do, so you can offer some examples and also model with your own response (if you are a white teacher).
Adapt for distance learning. Circles may be slightly more challenging to facilitate on Zoom or Google Meet, but they are still possible. I’ve found it logistically easiest for the facilitator to read off students’ names (either from a class list or in order of how they entered the room) so that everyone knows where the virtual “talking piece” is. Then, the students can unmute and respond by answering the prompt question or saying “pass.”
If you want to use the Morningside Center circle as a jumping off point or create your own circle from scratch, I’ll reshare my simplified circle template below. Just make a copy, and add in your own content.
If you feel comfortable, you can share the finished product in the comments section of this post or in our Time for Teachership Facebook group to support other educators in anti-racist work.
To be clear, I, as a white female educator, am in no way claiming I know how to do this work perfectly. I’ve facilitated conversations about racism and oppression with students for 7 years, and I still have a lot to learn. I’m sure there are things to add or adjust here, so please, let me know what else educators should consider as they implement circle discussions.
The killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and George Floyd are just the latest in a long history of racist violence in the United States. As teachers, we may feel uncertain as to how to address these events in our classrooms or unprepared to have conversations about race with our students. But, we have to have these conversations. We have to talk about racism.
Educators and non-educators alike have told me throughout my teaching career to keep my curriculum “neutral,” but there is no such thing as neutral content. Silence reflects an acceptance of the status quo. As Jamilah Pitts, writing for Teaching Tolerance says, “Students pay attention to everything we say and do. They particularly pay attention to our silence.”
Black children need to know their teachers believe their lives matter, that their teachers see their humanity and will speak out against actions that violate that humanity. Children who are not Black need to see compassion, courageous conversations, and anti-racist activism modeled by their teachers if they want to be able to do these things themselves.
So, where do we start?
Self Assess. If this is unfamiliar territory to you, start by self-assessing where you are on this cultural proficiency continuum or take a look at various theorists’ stages of racial identity development. Identifying where you are in these progressions can be a start. It shows you a path forward and may highlight some ideas or practices that you may not have previously thought about.
Learn More. Educators who seek to learn about the problem of racism will be more likely to highlight racism when it happens and be more prepared to thoughtfully respond to racism in the moment. There are many amazing resources out there. Books I’ve found helpful include: Understanding EveryDay Racism by Philomena Essed, The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander, and Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, by Beverly Daniel Tatum. There are so many more.
For white educators, be an ally. White educators, we need to recognize our white privilege. A short, but powerful article I continue to use in my teaching practice is “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” by Peggy McIntosh. Also, we need to push past our discomfort in talking about race in order to be better allies to the Black community. The book White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo does a great job of breaking this down, and this podcast episode provides a great summary if you don’t have access to the book. As a white woman, I struggle with the fear of being labeled “racist,” and I am continuously working to overcome this fear that inhibits me from engaging in uncomfortable, but necessary conversations. I’ve found Jay Smooth’s dental cleaning metaphor to be helpful in accepting that we are all steeped in racism. It’s not about “not being a racist,” it’s about accepting feedback and working to “clean your teeth” everyday to remove the racism that pervades our culture.
Find resources to share with students. This “web package” of resources from Teaching Tolerance on teaching racism and police brutality is filled with ideas for your own learning and for student-facing content. Look through the resources and find something that fits for your context. This New York Times piece also includes links to texts and resources to help students start to think about race in your class.
Invite conversation. While set up for an in-person class, this circle developed for teachers to discuss the shooting of Philando Castille with students provides a list of questions and concepts that are still relevant today. Morningside Center, the creators of this circle, often produce new circle lessons based on current events, so keep an eye out for new circles as well. [UPDATE: This is the circle Morningside Center developed in response to the police killing of George Floyd.] Let’s Talk from Teaching Tolerance is a 44-page guide you can read for free to support you in effectively facilitating difficult conversations with your students. For administrators and teacher leaders, it’s also helpful to create spaces for conversation among staff.
Consider the difficulties of having tough conversations at a distance. The Teaching Hard History podcast (from Teaching Tolerance) recently shared an episode a few weeks ago about the difficulties of hard history with students while we are in a distance learning setting. The episode, “Hard History in Hard Times – Talking With Teachers,” shares many tips and resources that are also relevant for discussing racism in the context of current events. For one, you don’t need to share the traumatic videos. Lauren Mascareñaz writes, “Witnessing the seemingly constant horrors that are happening in our society is a call to action for many people, young and old. But we have to be aware of the potential effects of what we—and the children in our schools—are seeing.”
For young students. Research has shown kids as young as 5 years old hold many of the racist attitudes adults in our culture hold, and they “associate some groups with higher status than others.” If we don’t interrupt these messages at a young age, students will continue to internalize the systemic racism that pervades U.S. culture. How you address racism with students may look different at age 5 than at age 15, but it should still be addressed. This post shares ideas for bringing Black Lives Matter into classes at various grade levels.
I chose education as a profession because I thought (and still think) it’s one of the most powerful ways to address systemic racism, xenophobia, and gender bias. I’m certainly not perfect in how I facilitate conversations about race with my students, but I have a responsibility to try my best and commit to constantly improving my practice. Let’s all help each other do the same.
Depending on your school calendar, you may be closing out the year this week or preparing to close out the year in a few weeks. No one knows what school will look like in the fall. (Will we “back to normal” with school resuming the way it ran pre-COVID? Will we still be doing what we’re doing now—purely distance learning? Will we have a hybrid model that blends occasional in-person classes with online tasks?) However, we can make a plan to prepare for whatever school looks like at the start of the next school year.
Quick side note: I know thinking about the next school year before you’ve even had a taste of summer break may have zero appeal. If that’s the case, bookmark this article or add the link to your calendar for a date later in the summer as a reminder to read it when you’re ready!
If you’ve already been thinking about Fall 2020, let’s dive into some things we can do to prepare ourselves for the various possibilities.
Teachers, especially if you’re still teaching, ask yourself what you can invest time in now that you can use later. Check out my recent “opportunity” series (posted from mid-April to early May) for examples. Generally, this could be a protocol (activity) or a tech tool you’ve started using or resources you’ve been curating and can re-use next year. The through-line could be even more general like a mindset shift or a new approach (e.g., promoting student ownership) that you’ve adopted in the virtual space and could continue to use next year.
Leaders, we’ve talked about this in a previous post. Communicate a clear vision that encompasses steps you’ve taken to adjust to distance learning now and the things you want to see next year and even further into the future.
Plan Your Budget
Teachers, this is not a call for you to spend your own money, although I know many of us do, out of necessity. I’m talking about your use of Teacher’s Choice money (if you have a similar program) or what request(s) you want to post on Donors Choose.
Leaders, if you’re still putting together your 2020-2021 budget, there is so much to consider. Of course, for most schools, funds are likely to decline either as a result of declining enrollment or COVID-related state budget cuts. Consider what you absolutely need to support students. If there’s a chance we’ll still be doing distance learning or a hybrid model, technological infrastructure like student devices and wifi access will be critical, but you can probably avoid spending money on software and opt for free versions of tech tools. You may want to consider reaching out to a school who recently received a tech grant to see if you could take or borrow their older devices they are no longer using. After you’ve covered all of the “must haves,” determine your priority for the remaining funds. (Do you want to invest the money in distance learning training for your staff this summer? Do you want to hire or contract someone to address mental health concerns? Do you want to pay people to run virtual clubs or sports practices to maintain the extracurricular elements of school?)
Invest in Summer PD
Teachers, seek out your own personal PD. This could be listening to educational podcasts or reading educational blogs or books. (My favorite educator podcasts include: Cult of Pedagogy, Truth for Teachers, and for tech—Google Teacher Tribe.) I’ll be holding a free masterclass on curriculum design in July, so keep an eye out for that!
Leaders, you too can seek out personal PD. The podcast recommendations I mentioned above are good for instructional leaders as well. Here are two leader-specific podcasts I like: Better Leaders Better Schools and Transformative Principal. With this knowledge, you can design your own PD for the staff, facilitate a staff success share (i.e., staff-led PD) or find external PD providers to work with your staff.
Teachers, I would prepare for at least a hybrid model of teaching (some days in person, some days online). Consider how you want to adapt your curriculum and pedagogical approaches for this possibility. If you’re excited to design new curricula or feel overwhelmed by the work involved—or feeling a bit of both—I’m launching my self-paced Curriculum Boot Camp course in July. Get excited!
Leaders, make time for teachers to connect as departments or grade teams so they can collectively brainstorm curricular and pedagogical approaches for the fall. Also, connect teachers with PD on this topic (again, hosted by you, your staff or an external provider). Enroll your department leads or grade team chairs in my self-paced Curriculum Boot Camp course in July or reach out to me to schedule personalized, live boot camps for each of your teacher teams!
As always, I’ll close the week with a free resource to get you started…
Curriculum writers, I’m re-sharing this Backwards Planning Template freebie from several weeks ago. Click the button below and plan to your heart’s content!
The immediate priority was to figure out how students would engage in learning. Now that we’re a couple months into distance learning, you and your teachers likely have a better handle on that question, but another issue has emerged: Zoom fatigue (or Google Meet fatigue).
At this point, students, teachers, and leaders are a bit worn out by constant video conferencing. While in some states, schools are wrapping up the year at the end of the month, other school districts, still have a month of school to go! Which presents a new question for leaders, similar to the one we’ve been helping teachers answer: How often do I hold live meetings and how much information can be shared asynchronously?
Leaders have been supporting teachers as teachers have been supporting students, so let’s consider some of the same concepts we apply to an online class. Below, I’ll re-share some suggestions I shared with teachers, but with a focus on staff communication.
Asynchronous tools with a synchronous feel. To maintain that sense of staff camaraderie, invite teachers who want to check in to post a video on Flipgrid. Help teacher teams set up group Voxer channels (or if your school is small, set up one Voxer channel for the whole staff). This way, you can hear and respond to colleagues’ voices without the possibly overwhelming visual stimuli or the need to be “on” at a particular time—you respond when you can.
Use a live chat. You may have office hours in the same way teachers have tutoring or conferencing with students, but you can also address staff questions through chat-based tech tools. You could set up a staff page on your Learning Management System (e.g., Google Classroom, Schoology, Canvas). Post a question and be ready to respond in real time for a predetermined time span (e.g., 30 minutes). If teachers have questions about a particular document, have them add comments to the doc so you can respond. (You can do this immediately by scheduling time to be in the doc. Or, you can have teachers tag you by typing “+” or “@” followed by your email address in the comment. This way, you can respond when you have time, and the teacher will be notified of your response via email).
Structure the asynchronous tasks. The same Define-Explore-Build framework I suggest for asynchronous classes, I use for teacher meetings as well. That might be: read the announcements, explore 1 distance learning article or tech tool tutorial from a list, and share out (i.e., what you learned, a question you have) on Flipgrid, in a discussion board, or in a shared doc/slide deck. As with students, keep the format the same. This is actually a great way to model for teachers what they can do with students, so be strategic here.
To further support teachers with structure, you may want to offer a model of a sample educator schedule for working at home. Modeling scheduled breaks and how to set up your day for maximum efficiency could be helpful. (For example, I generally try to use mornings to create and afternoons for meetings or more menial tasks. Knowing this is the most efficient use of my energy, I try to avoid scheduling meetings in the mornings. I also need a brain break after the creativity-intensive mornings, so I try to use a walk outside as a way to reset before the afternoon tasks and meetings.) Model purposeful scheduling and boundary setting for your staff!
Record live meetings. If you do have live meetings that are not super interactive, make them optional! Share the recording after you end the meeting. People can still get the information, see familiar faces, and have the option to watch it on 1.5x speed to save time.
Add audio to asynchronous tasks. Record your meeting updates or staff memos using a screen sharing app like Screencastify or Screencast O'Matic. This way, you can explain something that may be confusing in writing. You could also annotate a website using InsertLearning (also modeling how teachers could do this with students). You could use the Talk & Comment Chrome extension to add a voice note in any conversation on any platform where you can add text. This also saves you time typing everything out!
Optional synchronous sessions. Your live meetings could be purely social gatherings. So, extroverts who want that connection can attend and introverts who are meetinged-out don’t have to worry about missing important information.
On this 12-minute Bossed Up podcast episode, Emilie Aries shares 10 tips for reducing Zoom fatigue. I addressed many of Emilie’s leader-based tips above, but there are a bunch of suggestions that staff members could benefit from hearing as well. Give it a listen, and if it feels helpful, share the episode with your team!
As a preview, here are just two of Emilie’s tips and my thoughts on how they apply to leaders:
Finally, to support your staff with this last piece, direct them to my last blog post so they can read some working from home scheduling tips and get the free template and sample schedule.
That’s a wrap on the tips for today. Go forth, and defeat Zoom fatigue, fearless leaders!
While some schools may require teachers to be on video for most of the work week and some schools have told teachers not to teach live classes on video, most schools are somewhere in the middle. For most teachers, that means more flexibility than usual in how and when you get your work done. To be clear, this does not mean teachers have less work by any means, but the structure of the school day is less than usual.
So, how can we effectively structure our days when we are working and teaching from home? Here are 5 tips (and a free template) to help you think this through:
Tip #1: Set boundaries. Working from home is tough because it’s easier than usual to just keep working. You never leave your place of work! (If you can, designate a space just for work or put your work-related papers out of sight at the end of the day.) Scheduling-wise, try to limit yourself to 40 hours a week. That means 8 hour work days and no-work weekends. I know this is hard—I’ve launched an entire course around this premise, but the goal here is to set boundaries, so choose boundaries that work for you.
Tip #2: Schedule in alignment with your energy. For me, that means tackling creation-based tasks in the morning when my energy is fresh, and saving my meetings and menial tasks, like email, for the afternoon. Your energy may be the opposite, so you may want to make time for lesson or activity creation towards the end of the day. We’re all used to a school day that starts early in the morning, but if you don’t have live classes to host or meetings to attend at that time, start your work day later if you’re more productive later in the day!
Tip #3: Batch your work. For those of you who attended my live masterclass, you’ve heard me say this before. Batching your work is productivity gold. My preference is 4-hour chunks of time, but that may not be realistic if you have scheduled times you need to host a live class or staff meetings to work around. I recommend spending at least one concentrated hour on a task (aside from something like email or short “check the box” kinds of To Dos). Batching is great because once you get in the zone, you are far more efficient than when you first start a task. We often restart when we’re interrupted (by ourselves or someone else) to do an unrelated task.
Lately, I’ve been trying to limit myself to 2 big goals each day: 1 creation goal in the morning (e.g., create x number of lessons) and 1 task-based goal in the afternoon (e.g., check in with students I haven’t heard from this week). Having just 2 big goals instead of a laundry list of To Dos makes me feel less overwhelmed and really productive.
Tip #4: Take breaks. Get up and move. Get away from the screen. In her podcast episode on Zoom fatigue, Emilie Aries shares the expert recommendation for breaks: 10-15 minutes of break time for every 2 hours of work. When we batch, that productivity can sometimes go into overdrive (I’m speaking from experience here!). Sometimes, we can roll with it and take a long break afterwards, but this should be the exception, not the rule. I’ve been scheduling at least one mid-day walk break for myself to make sure I get up and move around and get out of work mode. Full transparency? This is still a struggle for me. I often listen to educational podcasts during this time so I’m still doing research for work, but this is how I convince myself to take the break!
Tip #5: Put it on the calendar. Let’s imagine you are staring at a long To Do list with no hope of getting it all done. A colleague emails you and asks you to do something for them, and you say yes because what’s one more thing on your To Do list? Later, you read an article about self-care and decide exercise should go on that list too. The To Do list continues to consume your life and few things get done. Here’s what I do to keep my To Do list small and my completion rate at 100% (while also reminding myself to take breaks): I put my To Do list on the calendar—I eliminate the “list” part. I have my big goals for each day, but the specific tasks I need to accomplish? They go in as events on my calendar. I estimate the amount of time it will take to complete the task and add it to my calendar. Once the day’s filled up, I know I can’t do any more tasks on that day, so I’ll need to add it to the next day. If something comes up that absolutely has to be done today, I move the tasks that got ousted to open slots later in the week. Notice that I do not delete them (unless they don’t actually have to be done) and I don’t lengthen my work day to get them done (at least, I try not to do that.)
Feeling ready to implement these tips? I have a free scheduling template to get you started. Two, actually. One is set up for batch mode, but there’s a basic template if you want to make your own batching slots. There’s also a color-coded sample teacher schedule I created in case it’s helpful to adapt that.
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.