Archive of ‘social-emotional learning’ category

10 hours of poetry on a Saturday: Hyper Bole 2018

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.

Elizabeth Acevedo

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.

On Love and Teaching

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 Barbieri reminds 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:

Daily happiness is an important part of what makes us different. Find out more here:

What if we got rid of classroom rules?

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.

  1. 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.

  2. Be engaged, because merely being present in the classroom does not necessarily qualify as participation, and a truly pluralistic community requires all voices.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

Our students want to be seen. What is getting in the way?

“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.

Mr. Rogers: Feelings Are Mentionable and Manageable

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.


How can we prepare students to take academic risks?

Students model the directionality of RNA polymerase, to understand which strand of DNA is used as a template during transcription.

When it comes to student work, audience matters. My students simply care more when they know they’ll share their work with the school community or outside experts instead of just with their English teacher. They think more purposefully about what they say and how they say it. The extra effort and thoughtfulness show in the quality of their work, and education research bears out my anecdotal experience.

But authentic audiences also provoke fear and anxiety. What if my ideas are wrong? What if I seem stupid? These nagging questions keep students from taking risks in public. In her study of behavior in a girls-only middle school math class, Janice Streitmatter observes:

without taking academic risks, asking or answering questions in the classroom, a large part of students’ lives may be excluded from their conscious or subconscious deliberations during this period of identity.

Chase Mielke echoes this insight with a provocative question:

Imagine the growth potential if 100 percent of our students attempted to answer 100 percent of the questions we asked 100 percent of the time. But they don’t—at least not at the secondary level. There’s no physical danger in raising your hand in class, only social danger.

I remember well what that social danger felt like in high school – the knotted stomach and fluttering heart, the loud voice in my mind warning me what others might think. I stayed silent far too often.

Useful resources abound suggesting interventions to make classroom culture or assessments more supportive of risk-taking. But I was reminded last week when I sat in on my colleague Ashley Gam’s biology class that instructional delivery can make or break students’ willingness to share out their ideas.

Ms. Gam structured her lesson so that student thinking moved in stages from entirely private to increasingly public, first using individual writing, then small-group discussion, small whiteboard visualization, and finally, whole-class presentation with peer feedback. At every step, she moved through the classroom, peppering individual students with Socratic interrogation to refine and extend their thinking. Below, I look at each step and offer some thoughts about why this model is so effective at getting kids to take risks in class.

First, it always bears repeating that well-planned instructional delivery is purposeless without meaningful learning goals. Ms. Gam’s lesson forms part of an ambitious study of evolutionary history inspired by the quirky, award-winning book Your Inner Fish by vertebrate paleontologist Neil Shubin. By the end of the unit, kids will have produced a timeline tracing human biological adaptations back millions of years — and they might also come into class fully costumed as some of our evolutionary ancestors in a culminating exercise (can’t wait!).

Using trade texts instead of textbooks helps students see that what they’re learning is part of ongoing conversations by researchers and academics. By engaging this material, students are participating in the ongoing production of scientific knowledge.

Stage 1: Individual Writing

Class began with the outward appearances of a conventional high school biology class: students grouped at lab desks to record short responses to prepared questions. But as Ms. Gam walked around the classroom, I noticed that she used Socratic-style questioning to tailor this exercise to each student’s abilities. I tried to transcribe a representative exchange:

  • Ms. Gam: “In the nucleus, when MRNA is produced, what’s the process called?”
  • Student: “Transcription. But what’s the purpose?”
  • Ms. Gam: “What do you think?”
  • Student: “It’s just a copy.”
  • Ms. Gam: “Yes, it’s just a copy. Why do we need a copy?”

She continued prodding the student until it was clear the concept was fully understood. Ms. Gam’s parting words to the student were, “You already knew the answer.” That’s exactly how these exchanges felt: like each student was uncovering knowledge that was already hanging around somewhere in their mind, and Ms. Gam’s questions were just helping them call that knowledge up.

Perhaps best of all, Ms. Gam was visibly, genuinely excited as students happened upon new understanding.

Ms. Gam helps students construct their own knowledge in one-on-one conversations.

Stage 2: Work in Small Groups

Once she felt everyone had a working familiarity with the lesson’s key concepts, she directed kids to confer in small groups about their responses. She told them:

I’m going to assign you one of these questions to diagram and share with the class.

Ingeniously, though, she didn’t tell groups which question they’d be assigned. It seemed to me that this ensured two things: 1) students felt responsible for discussing and understanding each question, just in case; and 2) Ms. Gam was able to listen in on the group conversations and assign questions based on student ability.

Because everyone had received candid, immediate, and kind feedback from Ms. Gam already, kids were more willing to share their ideas with one another. It’s a small detail, but I was struck by how frequently students looked up from their papers at each other’s faces.

Students discuss their answers and use textual evidence to refine their ideas.

Stage 3: Small Whiteboard Visualization

Students work together to prepare their model on a dry erase board.

In his published work on the acquisition of expertise, Anders Ericsson argues that superstar athletes and musicians develop their skills by creating sound mental representations, or structures that help people encode information into their long-term memory. (Here is an interview in which he discusses potential pedagogical applications).

As Ms. Gam’s student groups discussed their answers, she handed them whiteboards and asked them to represent certain concepts visually. Their whiteboard work actively engaged students in the task of constructing mental representations for the lesson’s key concepts.

This is one of those times when tools matter. I’ve done variations of this activity with posters, graphic organizers, and post-it note parking lots. But by using a whiteboard, Ms. Gam minimizes student anxiety: mistakes can be erased effortlessly and completely, at any time. Knowing that, kids can put their ideas down with little risk at all.

The whiteboard makes student thinking even more public: it’s large enough for anyone walking by to see, and its size accommodates easy collaboration. By this point in the lesson, most of the students are confident enough in their understanding to make their ideas visible.

Groups were at various stages of the process by this point, and the classroom was a bustling and dynamic space. Some kids needed to go back to the text to rework their models; others were ready to share their work out with the class. (To the latter group, Ms. Gam suggested “If you want, take this opportunity to add to your notes in your notebook.”) Everyone was busy doing something.

The classroom was a bustling place, with students at various stages of the process.

Stage 4: Whole-Class Presentation and Workshop

Students respond to feedback on their models of key genetics concepts during a whole-class workshop.

Forty minutes into the hour-long period, Ms. Gam called the class together and asked the first group to present. She gave explicit instructions to the class to make sure everyone knew this was a workshop: everyone will be responsible for accurately constructing knowledge. She said:

The purpose of this is to review and make sure everyone’s on the same page. While you’re listening, make sure that what is being talked about is consistent with what your group identified. If there are any discrepancies between what you found and what the group is presenting, that’s your opportunity to ask questions to either help the group come to a better understanding, or to improve your own understanding.

As students shared their ideas, she’d prod the class: Do you guys agree with that? Did others have different ideas? The presenters made changes to their model in real-time.

Ultimately, Ms. Gam consistently pushed her students into an active role throughout the lesson, but she also started with lots of support and scaffolding to ensure kids felt comfortable trying. Her lesson plan methodically removed layers of support as students became ready.

Here are some ways I can imagine using this four-stage process in my English classroom:

  • For teaching vocabulary or literary terminology (students start with a list of words from a text or unit of study, work individually to research and understand their denotation, work together to extend their knowledge, and visualize one or more words on the whiteboard)
  • For studying poetry: same process, but groups are assigned stanzas
  • For analyzing text structures: how particular paragraph examples from genres are organized (I’ve seen a great visualization of the standard academic essay here, for example)

Looking forward to trying some of this!

Human Relationships as Classroom Content

The best part about my job is that the administration actively encourages us to do what’s best for our students — to recognize and prioritize kids’ humanity in all our professional decisions. To my mind, giving teachers that kind of power constitutes a radical experiment in American education.

This article by teacher Kelly Lagerwerff reminds me of what it’s like for most kids in private and public schools that prioritize order, compliance, and test scores over human dignity. Lagerwerff problematizes the disconnect between classroom management and instruction, noting that a student’s behavior and emotional needs are inextricable from their intellectual development.

Over and over, I have seen teachers ignore children’s natural curiosity and interest in learning about the world. For whatever reason, they are reluctant to let students’ experiences and feelings—the intensity of which is constricting their ability to move forward—become a door to learning. Instead, they use prizes to buy compliance. And, to be truthful, the kids love the prizes.

She also challenges us to think about the social-emotional “lessons” we’re inadvertently teaching our students through our approach to discipline.

“Worry about yourself” and “mind your own business” are refrains that I hear incessantly at my school. When kids are dragged off to the “break room,” the padded cell we have for children who become violent, the others are told to carry on with what they are doing. Human relationships, especially the way that teachers treat children, are inescapable lessons of every education. They occur regardless of whether or not they are written into the Common Core standards. Watching a classmate being carried kicking and crying to a padded room and being told to ignore it is a lesson.

I am free to place human relationships at the center of my classroom in response to my students’ needs; this article poses the question of what such a middle or high school English class would look like.

Peer feedback is awesome

I’m sitting in class listening to my students give each other candid feedback on their interview skills.   They are learning things about themselves they’d never have gotten from my comments in the margins of their writing.

Some of the comments I overheard:

“You didn’t really ask that many follow-up questions, and you kept cutting me off.”

“You seemed prepared, but your style was a little too informal. It made me feel like you didn’t really want serious answers.”

“You were responsive. You laughed and asked good follow-up questions.”

“Most of your questions were yes or no.”

“It was like you had an idea of what article you wanted to write before you interviewed me.”

I was even more impressed by how the students reacted to criticism. They took down notes, nodded knowingly, and seemed to genuinely want to hear their classmates’ thoughts (even when they were a little harsh).

Peer feedback can be such a powerful force in the lives of adolescents – I’m glad this class lets us harness it for good.