When we share stories with one another we become bound together in powerful ways. Stories provide hope: they have the potential to shine a light into the darkness and challenge us to change our thinking. Stories matter. Stories are powerful. Each month, the Department of Curriculum and Instruction partners with the RPS equity specialists and American Indian Liaison to share the stories of those in our own backyard who are often silenced.
A song would get stuck in my head. I would have to either sing or listen to it in its entirety to stop the broken loop going through my brain. For a person who can never remember lyrics, I would google the words, play the YouTube video, and sing along to break the cycle. Yet, the next day, I am back to where I started, every time. This particular morning, going to work, I find myself singing and remembering most of the words to Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror. I walked into my assigned high school, planning to discuss restorative practices with a team of teachers. Our discussion ended. I walked to the front office and one of my principals cued me in on a situation that happened on social media the previous night. I heard myself say, “I’ve gotta go see the kids. Where are they?”
In this post, I will explore three questions that address cultural relevancy, encourage sensitivity toward others, and end with tips to create relationship-building.
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When our community members identified traits that they wanted to see in graduates one of the top characteristics was that students are ethical contributors. It is impossible to go to any of our high schools in the month of December and not notice the focus on contributing to others. Each of our high schools engages in fundraising for the following organizations in our community: Christmas Anonymous, Santa Anonymous, Bear Creek Services, Brighter Tomorrows, Dorothy Day Hospitality House, and the Women’s Shelter of Rochester. You will find students and teachers selling homemade baked goods, students paying money to stop the annoying passing music, and events like 'Breakfast with Santa' and a joint Drumline Showcase. While the competition is fierce among the three high schools, the goal is the same: contributing to the larger community. I am so proud that this is a focus for our students and staff.
Critical thinking was another characteristic our community wanted to see in our graduates. Here are ways I saw students demonstrating critical thinking skills in their classrooms.
In every classroom I observed students were asked to effectively communicate with their peers as part of their learning process. Some highlights included:
Many of the classrooms asked students to collaborate with one another as a part of their learning process. Employers agree with the RPS community about this being an essential skill for our graduates. I saw collaboration happening in the following contexts:
Another one of our hopes for our RPS graduates is that they are resilient learners. I saw evidence of this resiliency in classes in the following ways:
Instructional Rounds are all about the learning of the observer. They are meant to improve the school by focusing on a problem of practice or instructional core and coming to a shared understanding on identifying the next level of work to be done. By defining a problem of practice, we developed a common focus for our observations and discussion.
As a teacher, Instructional Rounds opened my eyes to the other things teachers were doing in their classrooms. Instructional Rounds helped me to gain a deeper understanding and appreciation of my peers as professionals, and improve my own practices to better meet my students’ needs. Having the opportunity within the instructional day to learn with my peers was some of the most powerful Professional development I had been involved in. People in my building who rarely pass each other in the hall were able to have rich discussions reflecting on their own practices and share ideas on how to most successfully implement practices within their classrooms. They had the time and space to share new learning or a deeper understanding based on observations from a round that they were excited to try in their own classrooms. Teachers were able to act on the excitement that came when they observed something new or gained a deeper understanding of based on the round.
So, why do Instructional Rounds?
The first time I went on an instructional round as a teacher it was mostly because my principal said it was something all staff needed to do. I was looking forward to seeing what other teachers were doing in their classrooms but also had some trepidation about losing instructional time with my students and disrupting our regular routine by being away from the classroom. Of course, I also had mixed emotions on the reciprocal side of Instructional Rounds, my fellow teachers coming to observe me.
When I got to the meeting space to learn about rounds before heading off to the first classroom, my instructional coaches shared this quote: “The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration, our growth is limited to our own perspectives” (Robert John Meehan). It resonated with me because—while I met as a PLC on a regular basis—it was very seldom that my colleagues and I had the opportunity to see each other in action practicing our crafts. My instructional coaches also explained that another big purpose of Instructional Rounds was to come to a shared understanding of what high-quality instruction looks like and what we need to do to support it.
We met back together to debrief and describe what we saw in each classroom. It was hard not to inject evaluative words such as “amazing” as I reflected on the instructional practices I had seen in other classrooms, but we had agreed that if we did that, it would change the focus of the round to being evaluative instead of keeping the focus on our own learning. My group members and I analyzed the patterns that we had seen and predicted what students were doing as a result of the teachers’ instructional practices. This conversation guided us to develop our own personal calls to action, which we wrote on a brightly-colored piece of paper that we hung up in our classrooms to spur us into taking action on our goals.
Lastly, we brainstormed the possible next level of work school-wide around the problem of practice that had framed our observation and our discussion.
Later that same year, an optional instructional round at my building was offered around a different problem of practice. That time I signed up even though it wasn’t something my principal said I needed to do. Since then, I have had the honor of collaborating with other teachers, instructional coaches, and administrators to develop and facilitate Instructional Rounds, and the feedback we collected from teachers about participating in Instructional Rounds has been overwhelmingly positive.
Although the idea of Instructional Rounds was originally a bit foreign and scary to me, they have become an incredibly powerful way for me to learn. Having the honor of seeing the incredible work that my colleagues do and learning from them has made lasting change in my decision-making as an educator.
Feel free to connect with Schieve via email or Twitter
To explore further, consider the book Instructional Rounds in education: A network approach to improving learning and teaching (2009), which is often mentioned in City’s article.
You see, as a kid I didn’t have any tangible women in my life with whom I really identified—at least not holistically. My day to day life was filled with men—my father, my older brothers, and most of my friends. And then there was my mom: my mom, who was 100% sugar, and spice, and everything nice—while I, on the other hand, was mainly spice. Unlike my mother, I enjoyed changing the oil with my dad, going fishing with my brothers, and shingling roofs with my guy friends. However, I wasn’t ‘one of the guys’ either: I had a Caboodle full of banana clips and Bonne Bell, Yankee Candle was my favorite store in the mall, and I wore Love’s Baby Soft every day of junior high. So, instead, I found kinship in Mallory from The Baby-Sitter’s Club series, in Jo from Little Women, and in June Osborn [Offred] in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The thing is, each of these friends were introduced to me by teachers. I met Mallory at Jefferson Elementary when Mr. Vanort pointed out the series to me one day in the Library. I met Jo at Kellogg when Mrs. Ollenberg noted in the margin of one of my journal entries that I might enjoy it. And, I met June at Mayo when Ms. Evans set her own personal copy on my desk and said I should read it over winter break (I still have that copy, by the way: if you’re reading this Ms. Evans, let me know if you want it back).
But the other thing is: I’m white and cisgender. I was also born in the United States and raised middle class. These factors made it easier for me to see myself in the books I read growing up. It also made it easier for teachers to put the right books in my hands.
Unfortunately, for many of our students, it’s uncommon for them to see themselves reflected in the books they read, and while the diversity we are seeing in children’s and young adult literature is on the rise, it still doesn’t match our student population. It only takes one look at the numbers to realize how true this is:
Statistics for “our RPS study body” (above) were pulled from Rochester Public Schools’ Student Management Systems on 12.10.2018 and from this 2017 MN State Health Assessment. Statistics for “books published for young readers” (above) were pulled from this 2017 study done by Lee & Low, this 2018 study done by the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, and this 2014 independent study done by Melinda Lo.
As BJ Epstein, Ph.D., noted in The Conversation, “we know that children’s books can act like both mirrors and windows on the world. Mirrors in that they can reflect on children’s own lives, and windows in that they can give children a chance to learn about someone else’s life.” Knowing this to be true, then as educators it’s important we ensure students have opportunities to see characters who look like them, share similar backgrounds, and have comparable personality traits. Simultaneously, it important to ensure students are reading books that provide insight into worlds different from their own.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her 2009 Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” sheds light on how her personal view of how she saw herself and who she could aspire to become someday was inaccurate and thin because of the limited types of novels she’d had access to. In other words, the mirror she had access to—the one she was able to hold in her hands—didn’t give her a clear picture of herself.
Adichie goes on to talk about how the books one reads can also create windows into the lives and worlds different from one’s own. In fact, reading literary fiction helps build empathy.
For me, this was certainly true. My world view expanded greatly through literature. Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of being black, poor, and female in America. Cisneros' The House on Mango Street helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of poverty and immigration. Dorris's A Yellow Raft in Blue Water helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of holding on to one's heritage when one is Native American and/or biracial.
No matter our cultural backgrounds and experiences, reading fiction “can usher us into other worlds—it can make us step into other realities” (Elemans).
When it comes to surrounding students with literary mirrors and windows, one of the first steps is accessing the right titles and then getting those titles into students’ hands. Below are a wide variety of resources that can help you find texts to then share with students.
Book List Resources:
- American Indians in Children’s Literature “Best Books” list
- IRIS Center’s “Children’s Books: Portrayals of People with Disabilities”
- National Public Radio’s “Book Concierge”
- When applying the filters ‘Young Adult’ and ‘Identity and Culture’ to the 2018 books, this curated list is created.
- It defaults to the 2018 list, but one can always go back to explore books published in previous years
- The NCTE (National Council of Teachers of English) Blog, Literacy & NCTE—specifically these posts:
- “Build Your Stack: Widening Our Lens by Bringing Books from around the Globe into K-12 Classrooms”
- “Diversity in Graphic Novels”
- “Culturally Sustaining and Inclusive YA Literature: Valuing the Knowledge, Stories, and Truths of Adolescent Life”
- “Book Recommendations for the African American Read-In” (scroll toward the bottom for YA texts)
We Need Diverse Books’ subsite “Where to Find Diverse Books”
- Also, explore more suggested titles on Twitter: #WNDB
Reading Challenges that Honor Diversity in Literature:
- Rochester Public Library’s “Open Book Challenge”
- MacMillan Publishers’ “Reading Without Walls” challenge
The Academy of American Poets subsite “Teach This Poem”
- Educators can also sign up to receive a weekly email including one poem and supporting resources
National Education Association’s subsite “Read Across America”
- Also, explore more suggested titles on Twitter: #ReadAcrossAmerica
No matter what your role in education, you could be that staff member who hands out mirrors to and opens windows for our students. It’s important that we all work together to guarantee our students are able to see themselves reflected in the books they read and ensure that they’re able to build empathy for those who are different from them.
My childhood would have been rough without characters like Mallory, Jo, and June. My worldview would have been much thinner without authors like Hurston, Cisneros, or Dorris. To this day, I am grateful for those teachers who introduced me to these close friends and who showed me more of the world.
These protagonists taught me that being smart and outspoken, being strong-willed and brash was admirable—even if I was a woman. These authors taught me to empathize with others different from myself. Now, imagine what lessons our students will learn if we just introduce each of them to a wider array of books.
And then I had an AHA! moment: perhaps learning styles are not completely bogus, but more likely, we haven’t looked at them through a cultural lens.
- She comes to school every day talking a mile a minute about everything from the latest episode of her favorite show to who was sitting next to whom at lunch yesterday. She is bubbly and bright and loves school.
- First hour she walks into a classroom where there are opportunities for her to verbalize her thinking and to work in small groups and talk with her friends about her ideas.
- Second hour, she heads to a different classroom where she is expected to sit quietly and work independently.
When it comes to students like Fazia, how often do we ask ourselves why a particular student is a verbal learner?
- What does her home culture value about orality and verbal expressiveness?
- What does her gender group or age group value about it?
- What experiences has this student had that have informed her approach to learning and being in the world?
As I wandered into the rabbit hole of research on this topic, I found so many articles and studies. (If you want to have a few cups of coffee and talk about it all, give me a call! This stuff is my jam!) But, then I came back to the foundations of the work we are doing with Dr. Hollie. He explains, “Notably, the teacher has to know what is cultural and what is not. Fortunately, research provides ample data…about the commonly accepted cultural behaviors of many underserved students” (103). The chart below helps illustrate those particular behaviors.**
Yet, we don’t stop there. This work recognizes the importance of teaching all students in all styles so they can practice modes of learning that may not be as comfortable for them, but that they will need to be successful in both the classroom and the world beyond the classroom walls. The power of this work lies in our intentionality and the moments when we see our students as bearers of cultures that may not be validated in traditional school culture. When we come up against those moments of struggles and can say to our students, “I see you and I honor you, and I care about you enough to give you the tools you need to be successful.”
And so, as we continue on our CLR journey, we continue to ask ourselves the following questions:
- Is this behavior cultural or not?
- What experiences have my students had that inform their learning styles?
- Similarly, how do my own cultural experiences impact the way I view my students and their learning styles?
- How can I validate and affirm my students’ learning styles and am I providing opportunities for them to practice other learning styles so they can build up their cultural dexterity?
If you have any questions or want to talk more about how culture impacts students’ learning, give me call or email me!
** I want to acknowledge that culture is much more fluid than this particular chart shows, and there is a mountain of research on various ways to consider this fluidity, but for our purposes here, it is helpful to consider cultural behavior in this simplified way.
Sometime last winter Superintendent Munoz bumped into a gentleman by the name of Ed from McKinstry Engineering at a conference. They began talking about how to engage students in hands-on, real-life engineering and exchanged contact information. This led to a meeting between Ed and myself during which he explained his story as a student and why he was interested in creating this partnership. He also mentioned that his hope was to create a partnership template that his company could use in other areas of the country. Fast forward six months and Ed’s willingness to drive from the Twin Cities every Thursday for a 70-minute class and his ability to secure guest instructors from all over the area have created an unprecedented opportunity for twelve Rochester students, four from each comprehensive high school. These students come to CTECH once a week and learn directly from Engineers in all different areas of the profession.
Every year our district partners with the Rochester Fire Department on fire prevention education at the elementary level. This year a spin-off conversation started about a possible collaboration at the high school level that would prepare interested students for the statewide firefighter certification exam. Over the course of several conversations we were able to create an opportunity through our existing mentorship program that will allow students to complete the bulk of the learning online and combine that with five days of onsite skills training with the Fire Department. As a result of this collaboration we are able to provide this opportunity to our students at minimal cost.
Just over a month ago one of the owner/operators of the Chick-fil-A Ear of Corn quick serve restaurant accidentally stopped into CTECH as she was looking for the Workforce Development Center located next door at the Heintz Center. We informed her that we were a public high school facility and that we don’t post flyers, etc. for job openings. As we chatted and exchanged niceties as typical Minnesotans do, it became clear that an opportunity to collaborate existed. We ended up scheduling a follow-up and, after a quick email introduction, our Business Education instructors were able to have these franchise owners speak to their students. Within a month, this chance opportunity provided a learning opportunity for each of our three high school Business programs and even resulted in, at last count, two students receiving job offers from Chick-fil-A.
These represent just a few of the many collaborations we have within RPS and there are more in the works!
Paul Parisi does a great job outlining the parameters that surround a solid business collaboration and it is my belief that these can be directly applied to the business and industry collaborations we continue to seek as a district. I encourage all educators to keep your eyes and ears open for possible partnerships and when you recognize an opportunity remember the following:
- Identify the specific challenge you can solve together.
- Think outside the box to find unexpected expertise.
- Start with a shared goal.
- Lean into each other’s strengths.
- Place an emphasis on clear communication between partners.
And always remember that strategic partnerships benefit everyone involved!
On a brisk walk one abnormally cold, Sunday, November afternoon, I realized I don’t just like summer because of those lovely activities, but because I find myself able to stop, breathe, and take a few moments for myself away from school and teaching. Then I began to wonder, why don’t I stop, breathe, and take a few moments for myself during the school year? A recent conversation with a fellow teacher reminded me that as education speeds up, we keep trying to keep up. Why don’t we try to slow it down? How can we slow down during the school year? Here are some ideas that I am going to try in the next few months. I know that life is just going to get busier, so hopefully these will help me to stop, breathe, and slow things down.
Take a calming breath
According to the website The Best Brain Possible by Debbie Hampton, “your breath is your remote control to calm your brain and body”. Here is an effective breathing technique that slows oneself down.
- Take a long, slow breath through your nose. First, fill your lower lungs, then your upper lungs.
- Hold your breath to the count of “three”.
- Exhale slowly through pursed lips, while you relax the muscles in your face, jaw, shoulders, and stomach.
Here is a 30-second video that is a great guide to a breathing technique.
Visualizing, sometimes known as guided imagery, is a great tool to add to the calming breath. Visualizing a place that brings you peace, even for a few moments, can help to re-center a person. According to MentalHealth.net, visualizing creates “an element of distraction which serves to redirect people’s attention away from what is stressing them and towards an alternative focus”. This can be especially helpful for assisting one’s sleep, so it is a well-spent five to 15 minutes prior to bedtime. My favorite imagery is sitting on my Dad’s boat, hearing a loon call, seeing the calm blue-green water and smelling the fresh scent of pine trees in the air. This image, along with the calming breaths, is a great way to slow down after a busy day.
If you need a place to start, you can try this video which is a guided imagery tour in a mountain forest.
Anyone who knows me knows that asking for help is not one of my strong suits. I have found that it stems from expecting perfection of myself. However, this desire for perfection and lack of asking for help actually increases my stress. Asking for help and dividing large tasks between colleagues can make those stressful, large tasks seem much more manageable. Then it doesn’t just fall on one person to complete. Seek out colleagues with whom you feel comfortable asking for help and let them know you appreciate their assistance.
Know your limits
The old phrase of “just say no” applies here. As educators, we are dedicated to doing everything for our students and families. However, there comes a time when you need to know your limits and just say no to a new task or project. This simple word can be a huge stress-saver. Obviously, there are some tasks we must do, but there are other times I find myself adding things to my plate without realizing it. I have to remind myself that I can do a few things well, or many things poorly. Let something go, for now, and come back to it when you have more time to dedicate to it. Sometimes it isn’t “no”, but rather “just not now”.
Reflect on what makes you laugh or smile
According to the website The Science Alert, researchers at the University of Maryland “have linked laughter to the healthy function of blood vessels – something that can lower your chance of heart attack”. Furthermore, the same researchers found that laughter could boost ones’ heart rate and the production of certain antibodies, which can strengthen ones’ immune system. Considering how it is quite easy to get run-down and sick in education (especially since those of us in the education field are exposed daily to many illnesses), couldn’t we all use a few more antibodies? Each day, I try to find one thing that a student does that will make me laugh and remind me why I love teaching. I sometimes even jot down the funny statements students say on a post-it note and stick it on my computer. That way, when I am stressed and feeling overwhelmed, I read that little statement, smile and remember why I love what I do!
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