I’ll start at the end: I’m in a car full of students from grades 7-12. It’s close to 10 PM. We’re listening to M.I.A. and talking about whether and how we can make space for people to grow when everyone at school thinks they know who you are. We’re talking about what it means to care about something in public, in front of strangers. We’re talking about how hard it is to be a human being. No one wants to go home, so we sit together at school to share our big take-aways from this incredible day.
Here is some of what I heard my students say:
I’ve never been in a space like that, where people snap for you and encourage you when you make a mistake.
I was surprised by all the different perspectives I heard.
The poetry was amazing.
I mostly act like I don’t care about anything. Today made me think it’s OK to care sometimes.
It reminded me how much I still have to learn. We’re all trying to unlearn what we’ve been taught by systems of oppression, and it’s a process.
We’d spent the day at the Hyper Bole, the largest individual youth poetry slam on the East Coast. This is my school’s third year participating. In 2016 it was me, one brave high school junior, and her father. Last year, because of that young woman’s leadership (shoutout to Tessa!), we brought five kids. This year we took eleven. Two competed, and a third shared a just-written poem on her family’s immigrant experience.
Here is the truth: to be an adult is to never have to take seriously the voices of young people. We have the power to avoid them, ignore them, exclude them, and silence them — and too often, we do. As a teacher — even one who strives to be student-centered — I know how tempting it is to always lead the discussion, deciding who can speak about what and for how long. But on Saturday, for ten hours, I listened. I listened to young people from Baltimore, D.C., Norfolk, and all over Northern Virginia make art, publicly declaring their experiences, their hopes and fears, their vision of a better world. And I was reminded why I need to listen more often.
Every poem I heard at the Hyper Bole was an act of seeing our deeply flawed world with open eyes and still insisting that beauty is possible when we show up for one another. The poets were unflinching in their critiques of injustice, yet they made space for hope. They reminded us that there are better ways of being with each other in the world, and that we can only get there by dreaming and acting together. Indeed, the choice to raise their voices and share their truth with strangers reflects that abiding belief.
In this sense, Hyper Bole participants offered all of us a model of collective action for social change: seek and tell the truth; envision a better way; act in the service of that vision, in solidarity with those different from you.
My students and I ended our day at Hyper Bole talking about how empowering and affirming this community was, and about all that becomes possible within such a space. This didn’t come together by accident; co-founders Joseph Green and Brian Hannon made purposeful decisions to create the conditions for a transformative experience.
To give a better sense of these conditions, here are some photos and videos:
10 AM – 12 PM: Welcome and Ice-Breaker
In the first moments of the day, Joseph Green said just what I was thinking:
There has never been a time in my lifetime when it was more important to create a space and then hand it over to young people.
This is in line with what our school founder Deep Sran says often: we adults can’t get out of young people’s way soon enough. This idea pervades our instructional design, our clubs and projects, and our broader school culture and civic mission. We want to help students become their better and fuller selves so that they can get to work changing the world.
We began the day by giving students time to get to know one another. Young people had the chance to connect with peers who lived within a few hours from them but nonetheless led very different lives under very different conditions. A set of questions about poetry and social justice — and the incentive of a $50 gift card — broke students out of their cliques.
12 – 2 PM: The Preliminaries
Organizers purposefully scheduled the competition early in the day so that poets could enjoy workshops, lunch, open mic, and dinner without worrying about their impending performance. Students competed in small breakout rooms, and judges did not announce scores. This year, LSG had two competing students: Cas (12th) and Hannah (9th), who also lead our Poetry Club.
2 – 4:30 PM: The Workshops
Split This Rock invites experts to lead small-group workshops on poetry and social justice. Here is a list of the breakout sessions kids could attend:
The Poem and the Immigrant Poet: Claudia Rojas, Split This Rock
The Art of Opinion: Peter Certo, Institute for Policy Studies
Art as a Core Element of Social Movements: Aaron Noffke, Poor People’s Campaign
Intro to Theater of the Oppressed: Annalisa Dias and Althea Middleton-Detzner, Theater of the Oppressed
Beyond Diversity and Community Building: GMU Office of Diversity, Inclusion, and Multicultural Education
4:30 – 6 PM: Dinner and Open Mic
Over pizza, students performed poetry and music (this year, my kids were super excited to hear a song from Hamilton). Shailee (10th), who had never attended a poetry slam before, stood in front of this large audience and shared a poem she had written just moments ago in one of the workshops. We were all blown away by her bravery.
The Grand Slam Finals
The ten highest-scoring poets from preliminaries competed on the final stage. Students performed poems about homophobia, Islamophobia, the loss of a father, antiblack racism, albinism, bullying, friendship, love, and truth.
One of my students noted that there was at least one line in each poem – often far more – that was fundamentally transformative for her. We gain so very much from listening to one another.
Because scores were announced aloud, it was here that we all remembered how absurd it is to assign a number value to a poem – especially these deeply personal and consequential utterances. But the competition (and the $1,000 scholarship prize) matters in the sense that it affirms these poets’ craft and effort as any public competitive event would. The scores remind us that something is at stake here — and the photo reflects that — though what’s truly at stake is much more significant than the points.
It would have been worth waiting 9 hours just to see the feature poet this year, Elizabeth Acevedo. Here is one of her poems. Just before it, she speaks compellingly about her experience in University of Maryland’s creative writing program as the only student of African descent, the only Latinx student, and the only student who came from a working class New York City background. Her words remind us all why a space like the Hyper Bole is so crucial. And her poem – an ode to the city’s rats – affirms everything in us that exclusionary spaces and standards fail to see as worthy.
When I think about what it takes to make sure the future Elizabeth Acevedos currently sitting in our nation’s classrooms have every opportunity to share their voices with the world, the student-centered events of the Hyper Bole are a crucial model. My students and I are so grateful to have participated.
For more on LSG’s approach to enrichment, please click here.
Me tearing up at graduation after my students presented me with a book of Dr. March-isms they secretly collected for three years
The holiday season seems like the right time to reflect on the place of love in my work as a teacher.
I began thinking about this back in September when I read that one of the goals set by DC Public Schools Chancellor Antwan Wilson is that “all students feel loved and supported at school.” The article explains:
While this idea might seem a bit idealistic, he believes without that love, students won’t be open to allowing others to challenge them academically. Wilson wants to change school culture through an increasingly popular movement in schools called social and emotional learning.
I’ve found this to be true. Strong working relationships with teachers give kids the confidence and motivation to take academic risks. Students show up when they know they are cared for.
I’m inspired everyday by the large and small ways my colleagues care for our students. Art teacher Danielle Ferrin brings in extra food for kids who forgot to pack lunch. Academic Dean Sylvia Israel talks kids through their stress and anxiety, helping them find solutions and strategies. Latin teacher Michael Hendry gives students unexpected gifts perfectly suited to their idiosyncratic interests. History teacher Jim Percoco shares stories from his difficult youth to show our students they are not alone. Teachers like Rita Lahiri, Wendy Huth and Carmen Carraway – and many, many others – arrive early and sacrifice lunch to help struggling students. And just in time for our holiday party, Director of Operations Maureen McCrae, who loves our kids in a thousand thankless ways, had students make “kindness chains” for each other, featuring thoughtful notes for each of their peers.
Red and green “kindness chains” my colleague Maureen McCrae compiled for each student, featuring compliments from their peers
The kindness and care of my colleagues challenged me to consider the broader impact of their work. What does it truly mean for all students to feel loved and supported at school? And how can teachers work toward this goal more purposefully and systematically?
Earlier this year, my colleague David Romero talked to our students about dignity and grace, and he opened by showing that beautiful moment from Dead Poets’ Society in which Keating puts quiet, shy Todd on the spot and has him create a poem in front of the class. Todd doesn’t think he can do it, but Keating insists, saying, “I think you have something inside you that is worth a great deal.”
David noted that Keating chooses to believe there is something great inside Todd without any outside information, without knowing it for sure. He asked our students, “What if Todd had given a bad poem? Would that change the meaning of what Keating said, that there’s something valuable inside Todd?” Through discussion, they decided that Todd may need time to develop that poem, and it may be longer than Keating is around, but there is something of value inside him, and inside all of us.
And that’s what I think of when I consider what it might mean for students to feel loved at school: it’s all the adults in the building making sure our kids know there is something of value inside them.
We can do this by practicing openness, commitment, and enthusiasm.
To love means to be open – to risk vulnerability and to make new things possible. Because he values Todd as a human being, Keating makes space in the classroom for his voice and ideas. Keating opens himself to Todd’s insights, listening intently, asking him questions, prodding him further.
To love also means to commit – to act in concrete and meaningful ways on behalf of the person or thing. Keating won’t let Todd off the hook. He takes the time to develop Todd’s voice, insisting on its value. He stands beside Todd and stands up for him when his peers laugh.
Finally, to love means to be enthusiastic – to care deeply and to show it unmistakably. Keating takes the work seriously – and takes Todd seriously (no matter how much Todd initially wishes he wouldn’t). He celebrates Todd’s greatness before Todd himself knows he’s great. Indeed, Keating’s praise and enthusiasm are the first signal to Todd (and to the class) that his voice is worth listening to.
That’s what my colleagues are doing when they show love to our students.
Of course, there’s another way to think about love and teaching: it’s also clear in this clip that Keating loves what he is doing. Just as we are called to love our students, I believe we are called to model a love of learning.
As I visit other schools (shoutout to Harlem’s Democracy Prep, DC’s Washington Leadership Academy, and Baltimore’s Lakeland Elementary and Middle), I find that the most important instructional question I can ask myself is, “Does this work seem important to the teacher and to the students?” This is another way of asking: do the people in this room love what they are doing?
There’s a classic and moving piece in the 25th anniversary edition of NCTE’s Voices from the Middle journal in which English teacher Maureen Barbierireminds us:
In the classroom, we have no choice. No matter what our curriculum, no matter what our methods, no matter what our philosophy, we bring our truest selves into relationship with students. Whatever we are passionate about, whatever we value, whatever we dream of or yearn for — all of this will be revealed to our students, will be impossible to disguise, and will be our ultimate gift to them. Our students will know who we are by understanding what it is we love. [emphasis mine]
Revealing our passion and geekiness is a way of sharing a bit of ourselves with our students – and inviting them to do so, too. It’s through that moment of shared exuberance that kids find a way in to our subjects. They may not love reading poetry, but they love what they see in their teacher when he talks about Whitman. And it’s that human connection that draws them toward the study and practice of the discipline.
The truth is, loving something publicly is risky. It makes us vulnerable to ridicule and rejection. Most of us are less like Keating and more like Todd, timidly hiding what we care most about.
But there is so much more to be gained when we show up and love boldly. When we model that boldness for our students, and help them know that they are valued, we prepare them to build a better and more beautiful world.
And since the holidays are all about family, here is a clip of my mom and uncle talking about the rewards of strong working relationships with students:
Last week my colleague Kevin asked our philosophy students a question that has perplexed great thinkers for millennia:
Crunchy or smooth peanut butter?
Here is the discussion that ensued (a group role play exchange channeling Aristotle, Descartes, and Hegel):
We talk a lot at LSG about the role of the question: how great questions open up unforgettable discussions, how a worthwhile education means confronting difficult questions, how we can help students form and pursue their own lines of inquiry.
But to be truly open to all the truth and beauty the world has to offer, shouldn’t our students also learn how to make ordinary experiences into material for great insights?
This morning, I read the latest Dear Pepper advice column in the New Yorker, and I realized that a committed truth-seeker and divergent thinker can do beautiful things with almost any question.
The question in the column is just as mundane as our peanut butter inquiry: the advice-seeker shares that her friend’s husband constantly walks around with his fly down, and she wonders how to manage the awkwardness of informing him.
The response is rich and nuanced. Liana Finck points out: such a situation forces one to choose between being a Cassandra, constantly sharing bad news, or a Jonah, who fails to warn Ninevah of God’s impending judgment. She goes on to discuss parenting choices, the gendered implications of obliviousness, and Einstein and Nabokov.
We teachers owe our students great questions and worthwhile texts. But I also want to leave my students with a sense of how to find beauty and truth in the quotidian. I want them to know there are ways of orienting themselves toward one another and the world that can enrich their lives (and the lives of those they touch). I want them to take responsibility for doing that every day, for engaging the possibility that each experience offers them (even mundane questions about zippers).
The morally reprehensible Louis CK nonetheless gave us perhaps the best statement of that responsibility when he talks to his fictional children here:
You live in a great big vast world that you’ve seen none percent of. Even the inside of your own mind is endless, it goes on forever inwardly, you understand? The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to be bored.
Showing kids what to do with a question is ultimately about teaching them to be responsible for their own boredom — teaching them to be grateful for all the world offers.
Tanner (12th) teaches computer science to Jack (10th) and Abel (6th)
This year, one of our high school seniors is teaching a computer science course, and our most senior faculty member is taking two high school STEM classes alongside his students.
Tanner (12th) created his year-long game design course after teaching himself AP Computer Science A last year. He worked closely with faculty mentors to develop a syllabus, select appropriate texts, and design assessments. His class of five students, grades 6-10, meets three times per week to learn basic programming skills in order to create a polished game, a non-digital prototype, and a short commercial for a broad audience. You can follow his progress on his blog.
My colleague and Philosophy Wars co-teacher Dr. Kevin Oliveau is an MIT-trained computer scientist and political scientist whose professional distinctions include founding and building a cohousing community and being awarded a patent for work he developed as a micro-coder. He is also a bit of a deity for our students, who follow him closely, challenge him good-naturedly, and meme him incessantly. But for 60-90 minutes each day, Monday through Friday, Kevin sits among the kids he teaches as “one of them” – taking seriously his role as a student in high school chemistry and an elective called Introduction to Mathematical Reasoning: Proof and Logic.
In fact, Kevin had to delay joining us for a pre-event faculty dinner this week because he had to finish his chem homework first.
Dr. Oliveau participates as a student in Mr. Ragsdale’s AP Chemistry class.
What I’ve discovered watching my student become a teacher and my fellow teacher become a student is that there is inherent value in shifting out of our established roles. We see things we’d otherwise have missed, and we empathize with people we wouldn’t have understood as well.
Here are five things I’ve learned from Tanner, Kevin, and the students in their classes about the value of these experiments:
1. Peers learn more deeply from students who teach
Jack (10th), one of Tanner’s students, shares what he loves about learning from his classmate (and also adorably assures me that I am “not old”):
I guess I can kind of connect with him a bit more because I feel like he’s more my age. Not that you’re old; you’re not. He’s more – he’s my friend, he’s more friendly and I feel comfortable around him and tell him stuff, like whether I understand.
The kids in Tanner’s class feel comfortable expressing confusion and asking for help. I watch them call him over for guidance with roadblocks. I see them attempt to answer in-class questions before they are certain they understand. Tanner doesn’t have to administer regular formative assessments to know what his students grasp; they tell him right away.
Because of their unique relationship to their students, students who teach give their peers access to the content in a way traditional teachers cannot. This is the rationale for the high school writing center movement, which draws on the university model of leveraging peer tutors to help all students become more effective writers.
The impact transcends academic discipline. The Young People’s Project (YPP), for instance, trains 500 high school students to teach math literacy to 2,000 students in elementary schools across six American cities. A Black Enterprisepiece about YPP points out that the kids teach:
in a way that is low-stress, informal, even playful, yet the results speak for themselves. According to internal and external assessments from 1997 to 2014, YPP involvement has improved test scores and increased mathematical confidence.
The measurable academic gains resulting from peer instruction have clear implications for underfunded schools and schools that serve black and brown kids. Students can get more instructional time and individualized attention at little or no cost. And they learn from people who look like them, which affects achievement and college acceptance.
2. Students who teach learn more deeply
Knowing he was going to have to teach his peers made Tanner want to learn the content inside out. He explains:
Last year I basically only had time to skim the stuff that I was learning about. Now that I’ve spent an entire summer rereading the books, teaching a subject forces you to know about it because you can’t bullcrap your way through it. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot better knowledge because I have to teach it. Probably the whole game design aspect in general, I went pretty deep into the field and learned a lot more because I had to teach it. I’ve gotten a lot more programming skills now because I’ve had to come up with new ways to teach the same stuff. It helps when you can approach it from a different perspective.
Research bears out Tanner’s insight. A 2014 study showed that students who expected to have to teach what they read in a passage had stronger recall and answered more questions correctly than students who merely expected to be tested on the passage. That was true even though the kids didn’t end up teaching at all. The mere expectation created the opportunity for deeper learning. Knowing you will do something public and social with what you’ve learned motivates you to learn it thoroughly.
And the act of teaching extends your learning. A D.C. nonprofit called Reach Incorporated identified high school students who struggle with reading and prepared them to act as reading coaches for second and third graders. Within a single academic year, the high school coaches demonstrated two years of reading gains.
Teaching well requires us to think metacognitively – to think about our thinking. To prepare his lessons, Tanner needed to reflect on his own learning: how was it that he came to understand this thing he wants to teach others? That sort of reflection makes us better and more purposeful learners. And by anticipating several different ways to teach the same concept or skill, Tanner came to understand nuances and details he missed the first time around. Teaching was an opportunity for him to do something meaningful with his learning. He explained:
I think tests are fine and all that but practical stuff that you have to actually be able to do, you can’t multiple choice or essay question that. You have to demonstrate that you know how to apply what you’ve learned. What I’m doing for myself is a huge leap, and you don’t necessarily have to teach a class on the material to demonstrate that you know the material. But you should be doing something more than just testing where it matters. Like actually going and building a game instead of just sitting through a class about game design.
Tanner reminds us here that just as we want the content and skills we teach to be important, our assessments should matter, too.
3. Shifting into new roles increases empathy
Most adults organize their lives so that they only have to do what makes them feel competent and comfortable. Tanner and Kevin chose to purposefully unsettle themselves by taking on new roles and experiencing education from a different perspective.
As with all things worth doing, the risk is huge, but the rewards are transformative.
Kevin described what he learned about being a student:
It gives me much more sympathy for my students and what they go through, the demands. If you missed what the professor said, you learn what it feels like to try and catch up. Also time, because it’s AP chem, so you have to be fast. So the quizzes are very stressful. And it’s also funny how quickly the students accepted me as a student. There was a day I didn’t notice the second page of the test, so I only did half the quiz. That rumor quickly spread through the entire school. Every quiz since then, it’s, “Oh look, Dr. Oliveau: there’s a second page.” It’s kind of humbling because you’re struggling.
Remembering what it’s like to struggle changes the way we relate to our students.
Veteran teacher Alexis Wiggins had been teaching fifteen years before she spent two days as a student, and her insights changed her whole approach to instructional design. Her entire piece is worth reading, but here are a few of her crucial take-aways:
High school students are sitting passively and listening during approximately 90 percent of their classes.
By the end of her first day, she felt mentally and emotionally drained. She also noticed the psychological impact of being constantly reminded that your personal needs or desires are inconvenient to the teacher’s aim:
You feel a little bit like a nuisance all day long.
Perhaps most devastatingly, she noticed that because teacher talk dominates classroom activities, students don’t feel like they play an important role in what happens in the classroom:
I asked my tenth-grade host, Cindy, if she felt like she made important contributions to class or if, when she was absent, the class missed out on the benefit of her knowledge or contributions, and she laughed and said no.
Shadowing for two days as a student helped Wiggins see that teachers were unintentionally placing their students at the margins of the work of the classroom rather than at the center. Kids’ voices and choices were too often a “nuisance” when they should have been the driving force of instructional design. This insight led to a dramatic retooling of her pedagogy.
And just as experiencing class as students challenges the assumptions teachers have about what kids are thinking and feeling in their classrooms, teaching has made visible to Tanner all the work that often goes unseen by students. He shares:
I spent the entire summer drawing up a syllabus and lesson plan. I was expecting some stuff to change through the course, but I was surprised by how much changed, how fluid and elastic you have to be, how flexible you have to be in order to get what you want done.
4. Students and teachers have fun shifting into new roles
Deep learning is serious and demanding work. It is filled with struggle, uncertainty, and increasingly daunting tasks. But it should be joyful, too.
The kids in Kevin’s classes delight in watching him raise his hand to talk, stress out over an exam, and make mistakes. Kevin explains why:
It’s fun for them to see a teacher struggling as a student. We’re always in this position of superiority as know-it-alls. And I’m always asking questions. I started out as the most backward student in the class. The last time I had chemistry was in 1978.
His classmates agree. Katie (10th) explains:
It’s an interesting exercise to learn with him. He makes the most interesting metaphors – he’s created this elaborate metaphor about bonding being like one atom bullying the other for electrons. And when we get tests back, it’s always fun to discuss answers with Dr. Oliveau since sometimes, rarely but sometimes he gets them wrong too. I really enjoy talking about the questions with him.
Kevin’s presence brings kids joy in AP Chemistry for a few reasons: 1) the incongruity of the role shift is just cool to see; 2) it’s genuinely fun to watch him wrestle with the material; and 3) he models that it’s possible to enjoy yourself while you’re doing something difficult. Kevin attempts almost 100% of in-class questions, gets excited as he gets closer to understanding, and finds ways to create a personally-meaningful understanding of the material.
The metaphor Katie mentions is a great example of this. In class, Clark discussed a diagram visualizing an aspect of covalent bonding theory:
Clark: No bullies to take the electrons away. (looks knowingly at Kevin)
Kevin: Right, this is all romance.
Michael (10th): Oliveau, you switched from bullies to romance?
Kevin: Oh yeah, with bonding? Oh yeah.
The class loved it. Clark plays it perfectly, and the dynamic wouldn’t work without him – it’s like watching a straight man and an end man from an old vaudeville routine.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, these teacher-student reversals are fun for all ages. Veteran teacher Tova Rivera wanted to break with the typical end-of-year activities and instead prepared her fourth graders to teach their third grade peers a preview of what they’d learned all year. The whole thing took around two weeks, and kids “had a blast” finding creative ways to share what they knew.
Routines and clearly-defined expectations can help our students feel comfortable and confident. But we all long to break free from these constraints every now and then.
5. Students who teach are empowered, and students gain confidence when they see teachers struggle
The first great piece of guidance I received as a new teacher was to ask myself during a lesson: “who is working harder, me or the kids?” If the answer is me, I am doing it wrong.
That question reminds me that the classroom is a place where kids should be the ones doing (instead of passively receiving knowledge).
And at its root, that question is ultimately about control and trust. Am I willing to cede power to my students, knowing they might not get where I want them to be, knowing we might not cover what I’ve planned? Of course these are valid concerns, but by giving up some control, teachers create space for students to do great things.
The opportunity to teach your peers sends a powerful message. It says to students, “You have knowledge worth sharing, you have a teacher’s trust, and you have an opportunity to support your friends’ learning and growth.” Students teaching students is an authentic way to build confidence, leadership, and empathy.
And that contrasts starkly with the student Alexis Wiggins interviewed, who laughed when asked whether she thought her absence from class made a difference to her peers.
By redistributing some of the authority away from the teacher and toward the student, we help kids see themselves as capable thinkers and doers. We accomplish something similar when we take on the role of student. Katie (10th) explains that when she sees Kevin make mistakes in class, it is a powerful form of humility:
It’s sort of an admission that he doesn’t know everything, even though he seems to in the courses he teaches.
When students and teachers reverse roles, it helps kids see themselves as potential experts, and it helps us all remember that no one masters anything without struggling, failing, and trying again.
Of course this all makes me wonder about the curricular and policy implications:
Should each teacher have to experience school as a student every few years?
Should we build time into the school year for each student to teach?
Should local districts interested in boosting student learning formalize peer tutoring programs like YPP and high school writing centers?
Talking about the living past is always a fraught act, so I share this with some trepidation. But the best teachers (formal and informal) taught me that it’s my responsibility to use my voice to create necessary change.
In the first half of this interview, I talk about my experience as a teen mom and full Pell Grant student at The City College of New York. In the second half, I discuss teacher autonomy and deeper learning, with a shoutout to Loudoun School for the Gifted.
David Tow, a California-based teacher-researcher, wondered whether requiring his students’ unquestioning compliance with class rules was at odds with his otherwise inquiry-based instructional approach.
How could he encourage his kids to take risks and pursue truth in their academics while expecting mindless adherence to convention in their behavior?
At the same time, he understandably worried that abolishing rules could lead to chaos in the classroom. He didn’t want to tear down the old way of doing things without first envisioning a new and better approach to stand in its wake.
He decided to start with first principles: what sort of classroom community does he want to build? What are the values that shape this vision?
The entire article is worth reading, but the four first principles he sketches are particularly inspiring.
Be respectful to yourself because it sets the context for being able to participate in a community; to others because it is hard to be a student and everyone’s struggles merit your respect; and to the teacher because although it is a position of authority, the teacher should also be vulnerable and learning.
Be engaged, because merely being present in the classroom does not necessarily qualify as participation, and a truly pluralistic community requires all voices.
Be prepared, because informed conversation requires prepared members, and preparation transcends just the work that is assigned—and is closer to deep thought, sincere skepticism, and a general willingness to interrogate assumptions.
Be courageous, because learning requires acknowledging that there are things we don’t know, skills we lack, and ways in which we might still be foolish—which is a scary prospect for everyone in the class, teacher included.
I love the way each begins with a particular orientation toward the world – “be respectful,” “be engaged,” etc. – and then clearly justifies that orientation, showing how it contributes to a thriving and just community.
Through this model, as Tow notes, student infractions become opportunities for the student, peers, and teacher to reflect on how the behavior might detract from the sort of community they had all decided they wanted to build.
In other words, what used to be simple, top-down interventions (the teacher calls out student behavior and possibly imposes a consequence) are now sophisticated, student-generated metacognitive and collaborative reflections. Students become responsible for noticing and regulating their own actions, and they do so because they feel empowered to actively create classroom culture.
The article makes me wonder what other kinds of “first principles” students and teacher might converge around in additional communities and contexts.
“Teacher Perception Hole”: at Deeper Learning 2017, a conference participant improvised this visualization to show how much we simply don’t or can’t see about our students’ lives and experiences. The student is held behind the paper and can only be seen through the narrow hole.
In my first real year of teaching, my first-born son had trouble in elementary school.
I knew him at home as a bright and curious kid who loved to read; I knew him as a kind, dinosaur-obsessed game-changer with an impossible recall for song lyrics and an affinity for imitating the way jaguars walk. I had him young and (for his first six years) raised him on my own without many resources, so he learned how to make his own fun with what he could find around him. Like all parents do, I knew my son was an original, and watching him engage the world gave me hope for the future. (And it still does).
His fourth grade teacher didn’t see what I saw. She saw a kid who found it difficult to sit still. She saw a kid who secretly read novels in his lap while she taught. She saw a kid who rushed through his work and forgot important details — a kid who turned in shoddy products and didn’t appear to care much about learning.
It was hard for me to imagine how a teacher with so much experience could fail to see my son, to see all that he had to offer this world, all that was inside him that was begging to be cultivated. His teacher was obviously a caring professional who worked hard everyday to support her students. How did she overlook that beautiful eagerness to discover and create that beamed so clearly from his face?
And if she could overlook something that seemed so obvious to me, what was I, a brand new English teacher, also failing to see? Were there kids I had already decided couldn’t do advanced work or engage rigorous texts? Did the kids I’d written off as unmotivated have passions that brought out the best in them, like my son’s dinosaurs? To what extent might race or gender play into my assumptions about students’ potential?
Ultimately, what I was really asking was: whose gifts and abilities am I rendering invisible by the way I design and assess learning? Whose greatness and potential are hidden from me?
These are questions I believe all teachers committed to students’ humanity should ask. We have choices about how we craft learning experiences and check for understanding. And those choices privilege certain students over others. The learning outcomes in our classrooms are not inevitable or immutable. They are, at least in part, the product of our instructional design.
My literature courses, for example, tend to disadvantage introverts, students who process information more slowly, and students with social anxiety. The conventions and pacing of the seminar discussion simply do not give everyone an equal opportunity to demonstrate mastery. This doesn’t mean that I will scrap the seminar altogether. But if I want to create a just and inclusive classroom, I must give all my students access to the work of the course. I must design activities and assessments that help me see these young people as they are — indeed, I must design activities and assessments that help these young people see themselves and all they can be.
This article is a beautiful reminder of what a difference this can make in the classroom. Tara Malone recalls her experience as an introvert in college humanities courses. After some difficulties, she finally meets a professor willing to experiment in her students’ best interests:
One day after class, Professor Simon spoke with me after the other students had gone. She matter-of-factly but sensitively told me that she noticed I had trouble speaking in class and proposed a solution to boost my class participation grade. She invited me to email her after class with my thoughts and impressions about the readings, and to include anything I had wanted to say during discussion but was unable to. I greatly appreciated this alternative and returned to my dorm room and composed an email to her that very night.
It was amazing to me how quickly and easily the thoughts flowed onto the screen, and I realized that I had a lot of insights and original ideas when I was alone, free from the pressure of the classroom environment. I developed the habit of composing a thoughtful email after each class, which Professor Simon would carefully read and respond to with some ideas of her own. The exchange of ideas and dialogue was rewarding, and it made me realize that I had a lot to contribute, even if I wasn’t the biggest talker or the fastest debater.
The last line haunts me. Without this intervention, she may not have discovered all that she had to contribute; she may not have realized her capacity for insight or originality. The choices we make as teachers are ultimately about creating the conditions that allow our students to be seen in all their fullness and potential. If we truly care about cultivating our kids’ humanity and helping them all flourish, we must reflect on whom we empower and whom we marginalize through these choices.
Students know our purpose by the questions we ask. By our questions, they know whether we are about “business as usual” — what they’ve come to expect from all the adults and institutions in their lives — or the lifelong, collective work of understanding and enriching the human condition.
Shailee, 9th grade, records her thoughts at a student-produced interactive multimedia exhibit about social justice.
In large and small ways everyday, our students show us how deeply they care about what’s going on in the world around them. They ask questions; they share articles; they talk outside of class; they joke and wonder and argue and read. This year, as the adults in their lives and on their screens debated what a more just nation might look like, our young people took notice and added their voices to the conversation.
In and out of the classroom, there is palpable energy around the divisive political questions of our time — the kind of energy that would capture students’ attention and extend their learning. But we rarely make space for these worthwhile and difficult questions in our classrooms.
It’s not hard to see why this is the case. Although we know our students’ academic needs and interests best, most teachers lack the power to choose what and how to teach our students. Even those who can exercise some control might understandably play it safe to hold onto increasingly precarious jobs. Teachers have a well-defined and often worthy curriculum to cover; we have tests to prepare for and benchmarks to meet. We are hesitant to appear biased. Most of us are not experts on these issues. And we are working through these questions for ourselves, uncertain of what we should say, uncertain of whether there’s a place for it in the classroom at all.
Despite all of this, we teachers, administrators, and parents — we adults who care about the people our children will become — must argue in defense of the difficult questions. Students know our purpose by the questions we ask. By our questions, they know whether we are about “business as usual” — what they’ve come to expect from all the adults and institutions in their lives — or the lifelong, collective work of understanding and enriching the human condition. And when kids recognize our classrooms as sacred spaces for making sense of the world around us, education becomes beautiful and transformative.
How do we know a worthwhile and difficult question when we encounter one? I’ve found that such questions do several vital things:
1. Difficult questions force a new way of seeing and confront us with new considerations. They surprise us.
So much of what we encounter each day leaves us unchallenged. To the extent that we have the power to do so, we organize our lives around our own comfort and security – as any rational person would. But this choice narrows the ideas and experiences we can access: we come to inhabit a bubble that requires less of us each day. A good question surprises us, reminding us that there is more to consider than our own interests. Who are we leaving out or leaving behind? Whose experiences are we ignoring? Whose stories are we not telling? What does this event or institution look like for someone very different from me? A good, difficult question opens the wide world to us and demands we expand our vision to make space for all that we don’t know.
2. Difficult questions remind students that they have power over what happens in the classroom and in their lives.
When teachers ask questions we don’t know the answers to, we make it possible to have conversations and make discoveries we couldn’t plan in advance. Engaging with uncertainty leaves room for students to take responsibility for making sense of complexity. Our students are less likely to step up if they sense we already have an answer in mind: why would anyone take ownership of a lesson that had clearly been settled before the discussion even began? When we pursue understanding alongside our students, though, we empower them to decide how their learning takes place. School is no longer something that happens to them; it becomes a place where they can shape the goals and outcomes of their inquiry. And when our questions explore issues relevant to their lives, we help them see all the power they have to shape the world outside the classroom, too.
3. Difficult questions show us that our world is not the inevitable product of unchanging processes: things could be different and better.
So much about the world can seem fixed and hopeless; most people find ourselves resigned to the way things are. But a worthwhile, difficult question can reveal the choices we make every day, too often without realizing we have made any choice at all. How have our public schools become so racially and socioeconomically segregated so long after Brown v. Board? Why do most federal housing subsidies benefit the affluent while the majority of poor people receive no federal housing assistance? Is our criminal justice system the best way to address drug addiction or mental health crises or poverty? What rights do the animals we eat have? These kinds of questions remind us that it’s possible to do better. And this is the mindset most conducive to the curiosity and problem-solving orientation we hope to inspire in our classrooms. If we implicitly present our world as a settled state of affairs, we leave little incentive to wrestle with the problems we confront. But if our questions suggest that things can change, that a commitment to truth-seeking and hard choices can build a better world, students might decide it’s worth thinking deeply about how to make that happen.
4. Difficult questions reveal something about the person who asked the question: that we’re curious and willing to risk being wrong in the pursuit of truth.
Asking good questions shows our students who we are and what we care about. In this sense, worthwhile and difficult questions build meaningful relationships between teachers and students. We risk something when we ask a question that matters to us, one that we are still trying to understand. We risk a bit of our authority and control; we risk our apparent mastery; we risk revealing a glimpse of our flawed humanity. All important relationships require these kinds of risks, but classroom conventions constrain us, so students rarely encounter their teachers as fellow humans on a quest for understanding. When we are willing to show up as people who don’t yet have it all figured out, difficult questions can produce important, enduring conversations.
So this year, in response to what I heard from my students, I worked with a colleague in history to build an interdisciplinary course asking a question we continue to confront today: how have people fought to extend America’s grand promise of freedom and equality beyond its initially narrow application?
We took inspiration from Martin Luther King, Jr.’s hopeful pronouncement that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice” — a statement he uttered in a Hollywood synagogue three years before his assassination. In our current moment of deep uncertainty about our nation’s future, such a sentiment offers a longer view of how change happens. Placing King’s vision at the center of our inquiry, we called our course “The Arc of Justice in American Literature and History, 1830-1915.” [syllabus link]
Our whole-class readings focused on the past: African Americans’ struggle for civil and human rights in the nineteenth century. But students’ individual projects and choice reading assignments were designed to help kids frame and pursue the difficult questions that seem most urgent and worthwhile to their present. Over the course of a semester, we drew on history and current events to explore how movements for justice take shape.
A variety of primary and secondary historical sources, as well as novels, films, poem, stories, photographs, and paintings, helped us explore what forces might effectively bend the arc toward justice. We grappled with John Brown’s legacy through Tony Horwitz’s biography and James McBride’s novel. We explored Lincoln’s shifting perspective on abolition by reading Harold Holzer’s compelling account and Henry Louis Gates’s edited volume of Lincoln’s writings on race. We examined the crushed promise of Reconstruction with the help of Eric Foner, W.E.B. du Bois, and novelist Howard Fast. Field trips and guest speakers supported real-world connections to the continued relevance of our course content.
Three essential questions structured our inquiry, and each question was linked to one of the three units of study described above:
How have individuals decided for themselves whether violence is a morally acceptable means of achieving justice?
How have leaders wrestled with – and evolved on – their historical moment’s central questions of justice?
Is a period of political and extra-legal backlash inevitable after civil rights gains?
But the real work of the course was students’ self-directed study of a movement for justice they each decided to explore independently. My essential questions became both models and touchstones for the students’ original inquiry. It was important for me to get out of the way so they could ask the questions that seemed most pressing to each of them.
Some wanted to learn more about intersectional feminism; others gravitated toward immigrants’ rights; two explored Black Lives Matter, mass incarceration, and police brutality. Other projects focused on veterans’ rights, animal rights, LGBT struggles for justice, workers’ dignity, poverty, the American Indian movement, activism around mental health and disabilities, the complex role of music within the politics of liberation, and the question of whether sentient robots could lead a successful movement for self-determination.
As we moved through the whole-class readings on African American experience, students drew on what they were learning independently to identify patterns structuring how people create change. In student-led seminars and peer workshops, kids pushed each other to interrogate their assumptions and account for their biases. They suggested additional readings, helped each other craft persuasive texts for authentic audiences, and made connections across their individual projects.
The questions the students framed for themselves and posed to one another harnessed all the potential inherent in worthwhile and difficult questions. Over the course of the semester, they produced a collective understanding of the shape that movements for justice have taken in America’s history and present. They noticed that movements typically begin with a catalyzing event that promotes awareness and causes people to take a side. Next, people committed to change often fracture along ideological or strategic lines: more moderate and more militant approaches, for example. The separate paths coalesce around a moderate gain the majority can support, but this brief victory is often followed by violent backlash and political losses.
Under the guidance of our brilliant art teacher, my students worked together to turn these insights into an interactive multimedia exhibit experienced by the entire school on our last day of classes. They likewise presented their individual projects to their peers and teachers during a two-hour academic conference and panel discussion. It was clear by the end of the event that the work of the course was not done: students will continue reading, discussing, writing, wondering, and dreaming long after they receive their final grade.
As a teacher, I know that many adults are skeptical about whether our young people have something worthwhile to say about the topics my students chose to explore for this course. The arguments are familiar: adolescents’ experience is limited; they don’t yet understand how the world works; their expectations are unreasonable.
But as a teacher of English, I know why some of the most celebrated American novels about issues of justice use child narrators to tell their story. Think of Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird. The frank and uncompromisingly ingenuous voices of Huck and Scout remind us that things don’t have to be as they’ve always been — that we have choices about what kind of society we want to build. What some might say discredits young people’s perspectives — their inexperience, their idealism, their lack of stake in the way things are — is exactly what makes their voices so powerful. They are free to imagine other ways of being and to work passionately toward achieving this vision.
Risking the enduring conversations prompted by worthwhile, difficult questions can help our young people change the world.
The question of how we teach and evaluate good writing is the sort of thing that bitterly divides English departments, sending instructors fleeing into well-worn ideological grooves.
There’s the generational divide: some embrace old-school grammar drills and sentence diagramming, and others champion the post-1960s move toward modeling and low-stakes, iterative writing. There’s the philosophical chasm: some argue that composition instruction should instill the syntactic and discursive structures students must imitate to succeed, and others see writing lessons as opportunities for students to experiment with different genres, ideas, and voices. There are methodological fissures: how and whether to craft rubrics, the value and pitfalls of peer workshops, the language and methods we use to evaluate, and the perennial question of how best to deliver feedback that will actually make a difference. And then, of course, there’s all the sociocultural baggage around what forms of English we value; the complex intersections of race, class, culture, and access to standard English; the implicit and problematic conflation of “proper” English and intelligence; the question of who belongs in college; and the tedious claim all older generations make about subsequent ones: things aren’t as good as they used to be.
Given all of this, when I encounter clear and thoughtful arguments about composition instruction, I share them widely, invariably annoying my colleagues and social media contacts in the process. This is one of those articles. Along with the beautiful Joy Write: Cultivating High-Impact, Low-Stakes Writing, this article will form the basis of my school’s faculty-led conversations about writing across the curriculum this fall.
The piece shares writing teacher John Warner’s response to a controversial Washington Post guest article embracing a Mr. Miyagi-inspired approach to writing pedagogy (rote practice focusing on style and sentence construction).
Warner draws on research and experience to explain how that approach fails our students. I quote him at length below, but the article is worth reading in its entirety. Ultimately, Warner reminds us, when we teach writing well, we are teaching students how to think deeply. We must keep this big-picture goal in mind as we design our instruction.
Students struggle at writing because in an era of standardization and accountability, very little of the “writing” we ask them to do requires them to engage deeply with the true basics of writing: ideas.
Maguire analogizes writing with the “muscle memory” that Mr. Miyagi teaches Daniel in “The Karate Kid,” but writing is thinking, and thinking is not a reflex, but is instead a complex and deliberative process.
Maguire’s focus on sentence “readability” as the basics of writing is actually rooted in the same problems with writing instruction that is oriented toward passing standardized assessments judged on surface level traits. Students are coached on rubrics and rules that will help them pass muster on these tests — for good reason when teachers and schools are going to be judged on the results — but genuine, meaningful writing does not adhere to rubrics and rules.
Sure, drilling students in what competent sentences look like will allow students to create something that resembles writing, but to invoke another classic film, “Blazing Saddles,” it’s writing that’s akin to the fake version of Rockridge the townspeople erect in order to fool the marauders, flimsy facades with nothing behind them.
If we want students to truly write well, rather than settling for surface features either through a “readability” approach, or one rooted in the necessity of passing a standardized assessment, we must require students to engage in a much more rigorous curriculum centered on the most important skill all writers must practice: making choices.
Writers choose what they want to write about (subject), who they want to write to (audience), and why they’re writing (purpose). In composition circles we call this the “rhetorical situation,” and without it, you’re not really writing. Instruction that ignores these dimensions will prevent students from developing meaningful writing practices.
This is not the fault of teachers, or parents, or students, but instead is a consequence of a system that was put into place bit-by-bit without sufficient thought as to the larger implications, a system that privileges shallow traits over genuine intellectual engagement.
Social and emotional learning, like reasoning and other worthwhile educational goals, is an abstraction. This makes it tricky (and all the more necessary) to clarify the specific ways teachers can guide students toward competency.
In this 1969 footage of Fred Rogers’ defense of federal funding for educational television, Mr. Rogers identifies at least three things he tries to do for kids through his show:
He makes it clear that “feelings are mentionable and manageable”
He offers models of people – especially men and boys – working out feelings like anger in constructive ways
He consistently presents a “meaningful expression of care”
That simple, alliterative formulation — feelings are mentionable and manageable — is a powerful, clear vision of what we undertake when we make social and emotional learning a goal.
His words offer teachers lots to think about. There are implications for how we design instruction, relate to students personally, and manage interpersonal conflicts between students. This is also just a really moving speech.
And I feel that if only we in public television can only make it clear that feelings are mentionable and manageable, we will have done a great service for mental health. I think that it’s much more dramatic that two men could be working out their feelings of anger. Much more dramatic than showing something of gunfire. I am constantly concerned about what our children are seeing. And for fifteen years I have tried in this country and Canada to present what I feel is a meaningful expression of care.