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:
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!
From Whitewater to the Classroom
Every now and again, I take a class because I like to be reminded of how it feels to be a student. And as soon as I sit down in a desk, the questions start:
- “Will I be clock-watching all hour?”
- “Will I be given clear directions or will I have to muddle through to make my own understanding?”
- “Is this learning relevant—something I can actually use in my life?”
It’s a Metaphor (which is a strategy you can use . . .)
As you consider these two seemingly unrelated stories, there is a theme with one common burning question between them: WILL I BE ENGAGED?
Dropping Out: The Unengaged
In chapter one of Total Participation Techniques-Making Every Student an Active Learner, authors Persida and William Himmele cite the number one reason for dropping out of high school: BOREDOM (5). These dropouts are disengaged. Further, seventy-five percent of prison inmates are dropouts (5). The deleterious effect of disengagement in the classroom could mean a lifetime behind bars. Of course, this is one of many factors that may lead to incarceration, but it is worth investigating.
We Just Can’t Chalk and Talk Anymore
“If we want our students to actually learn the facts and concepts and ideas we’re trying to teach them, they have to experience those things.... They have to process them. Manipulate them. To really learn in a way that will stick, they have to DO something” ("To Learn, Students Need to Do Something", Jennifer Gonzalez, 2018).
To combat BOREDOM and to truly TEACH our students, we must engage them.
Quick and Dirty: Thumbs Up/Thumbs Down
“Thumbs Up if this speech is protected by the First Amendment. Thumbs Down if it isn’t.
- “Burning the flag.” [Thumbs Up]
- “Burning a draft card.” [Thumbs Down]
- “Hate speech.” [Thumbs Up]
- “Falsely yelling fire in a theater.” [Thumbs Down]
While engagement is high, this strategy falls under what the Himmeles call “Low Cognition/High Participation” (15). Everybody is engaged, but what higher-level thinking is going on? If we want “High Cognition/High Participation” (15), we’ve got to level up, but how?
Try Lighting a Fire
I have used this strategy in my sociology class as we discussed the very sensitive topic of Rape Culture. Because my students were allowed time to read an article, digest a quote, and respond to a question on their own, our conversation was deeper and richer than a whole-group discussion would have been. Every student participated and every student benefited from hearing the thoughts of those 3-4 around them.
There are hundreds of ways to engage students; I highly recommend what I referenced above: Total Participation Techniques: Making Every Student an Active Learner. It's full of quick and dirty methods to engage your students.
Now, it’s not WILL I BE ENGAGED? But, HOW WILL I ENGAGE?
Feel free to connect with Eldredge via email
This month, our focus is on restorative circles. Each member of our equity team shares their experiences and insight.
From Dawn Bjoraker…
Everything we do is in a circle. We are born, we turn into youth, we turn into elders, and then we pass. Spring, summer, winter, and fall. Usually, around mid to late February we begin to wonder if the snow will ever stop and if spring will ever arrive. Without fail, it always does.
We have four parts of our being: spiritual, emotional, intellectual and physical. Mind, heart, body, and spirit, it is all connected. We are all connected. Mitakuye Oyasin (we are all related / all my relatives). One cannot function properly without the other. Much like a circle where there is no beginning and no end, it is a process. Instead of top-down, it goes around and around. We are responsible for and to each other.
In south Minneapolis, I coordinated an after-school group. All of the exercises and activities were conducted in the shape of a circle. There was no teacher and no student. We mutually taught and supported each other. We were able to see faces instead of the back of someone's head. Our sessions always began with an icebreaker. One of our most engaging activities involved The Medicine Wheel, also referred to as the Four Directions.
The Medicine Wheel (or Four Directions):
- Each participant receives a large sheet of paper.
- On this paper, they draw a big circle and divide it evenly into four parts. Each part contains one part of our being: spiritual, emotional, intellectual/mental, and physical.
- Participants then use a marker to fill in each part with words about themselves that describe each area. (I would also bring in magazines that the students would use to find words that would explain parts of their being. They would use scissors to cut those words out and then use glue to paste them into whatever part they felt best described those words.) We then discuss why some parts contain more words than others.
- Discussions then turn into ones of balance and the importance of maintaining it.
- This entire activity takes place within a circle.
"In this materialistic, fast-paced culture, many children have broken circles, and the fault line usually starts with damaged relationships. Having no bonds to significant adults, they chase counterfeit belongings through gangs, cults, and promiscuous relationships. Some are so alienated that they have abandoned the pursuit of human attachment. Guarded, lonely, and distrustful, they live in despair or strike out in rage. Families, schools, and youth organizations are being challenged to form new "tribes" for all of our children so there will be no "psychological orphans." -- Dr. Martin Brokenleg
From Willie Tipton…
Group Norms or Guidelines are based on the values identified by circle participants. Guidelines are not rigid constraints, but supportive reminders of the behavioral expectations the participants in the circle share. Typical norms or guidelines are as follows:
- Remain in the circle
- Use talking piece
- Be honest
- Speak from the heart
- Trust what you need to say, no need to rehearse
- Listen with respect
- Speak with respect
- Honor confidentiality: what’s said in circles stay in circles
An environment of trust and safety allows group members to share more deeply with others. In our circles, the teacher cannot guarantee students will protect each other’s privacy, but can explain and discuss the issue with students and work toward establishing norms that specify the importance of privacy, while defining the expectations we have about confidentiality (keeping in mind that educators are mandatory reporters).
From Martine Haglund…
I have brought restorative practices using circles at my feeder schools following two themes. The first one is relationship-building where students and teachers practice forming positive connections with each other. This theme creates the space where participants come as they are so to receive from one another kindness and support around authentic dialogue regarding conflicts or classroom issues. The second theme uses specific questions to engage participants in discussing and processing a challenging situation so they arrive at making things right. In either theme, as a facilitator, I remain consistent in the sequence of events and outline the steps. I open and close with the bell. I do a check-in rounds to establish connections. Then, I dive into the restorative content. Each circle step is intentional, yet is presented as effortless to participants.
There are various types of circles that teachers can use in their classrooms to connect relationships with high-quality learning consistently. Brief description are listed below:
- Basic Circle -- Everyone faces the center and the talking piece is passed around clockwise, making sure that everyone gets a turn to speak.
- Popcorn Circle -- Teachers employ a Basic Circle format and use this type when it is not necessary for everyone to speak. In this case, they can either use or forego the talking piece
- Fishbowl / Witness Circle-- Teachers use Basic Circle format for opening and check-in, then invite a volunteer group to form a smaller circle on the inside. While the inner circle discusses the restorative content, the outer circle listens until it is asked to comment on the inner circle's dialogue.
- Spiral Circle -- Uses Fishbowl /Witness Circle guidelines, but an empty seat is left in the inner circle to encourage one outer circle listener to come, sit, and participate when they want to contribute.
- Feedback Circle -- This circle applies a Basic Circle format but limited time is allotted to the person speaking, and the next speaker is responsible to keep the time.
- Wheelhouse Circle -- Chairs are placed to form an inner and outer circle where participants sit facing each other, forming pairs to talk. At the sound of a bell, students in the outer circle move seats clockwise to interact with someone new.
- Small Group / Student Circle Leaders -- Teachers can use this type if they have a large class. The idea is to break into smaller Basic Circles with student-leaders who can serve as facilitators.
From Toby Taylor…
I have used Restorative Circles for the last eight years. They have become part of any group work I’ve done since my training here in Rochester. I have found that through Restorative Circles students and staff have found a sense of community through commonalities and vulnerability. I have heard stories of depression and others of hope, which has often propelled me to action or simply allowed me to appreciate my own life a lot more. Students have talked about topics of handling school, mental illness, mass shootings and the state of our country. I have learned a lot by listening as others have given their viewpoints about these touchy subjects.
Last year, I had the opportunity to do some Restorative Circles at ALC that had a great turnout and response. These Restorative Circles were centered on three simple questions, those I call the “Big Three”:
- What is your inner struggle? This questions ask for the members of the circle to look within to reflect on the main struggle that one should have a grasp on but has yet to conquer. This could be procrastination or lack of trust for others.
- What is your outer struggle? This question asks for the members of the circle to reflect on the main outside distractor to their well-being. This could consist of a person, place or thing such as a parent overwhelming academic expectations or babysitting siblings.
- What is your worldview? This question asks for members of the circle to be completely honest about their view of life through their eyes. One’s worldview could be from the standpoint of an individual living in his home to a community member of a neighborhood.
No matter the type, teachers should maintain classroom circles as an activity to acknowledge the unique voices of students, focusing in on the quality of the process and not immediate results.
If you have a question about the resources available for students or staff or if you wish to discuss any of these ideas further, please consider reaching out to our team.
For more information in the ideas touched above, consider the following:
- Clifford, Amos. “Teaching Restorative Practices with Classroom Circles.” Center for Restorative Process. San Francisco Unified School District. San Francisco, CA. 2013.
This post brought to you by Dawn Bjoraker, American Indian Liaison for the Rochester Public Schools;
and Martine Haglund, Willie Tipton & Toby Taylor, Equity Specialists for the Rochester Public Schools.
Feel free to connect with them here.
As an educator I also feel the weight of the holidays and the responsibility I have to consider that others around me may not celebrate the same ways I do.
It's probably not a surprise to those who know me that I have always been interested in world cultures. I wanted to learn all the languages and travel all the places and meet all the people. That’s probably one of the reasons why I became a teacher. When I began my journey as an educator, I was ravenous for information about the different cultures of my students. I believed that if I knew all I could know about their home cultures, I could be the best teacher I could be for them.
However, the more I learned, the more I realized how little I knew! I don’t have to tell you how quickly I became overwhelmed and hopeless. I was convinced that I would offend someone if I said or did the wrong thing because I couldn’t possibly know it all. This fear led me to nervously gloss over questions students would ask or cobble together some half-truth from the bits of knowledge I had. The fear I had that I would be thought incompetent kept me from truly honoring the curiosity of my students. It certainly wasn’t that I didn’t care--I was simply not equipped. That is, until I encountered the notion of cultural humility.
Cultural Humility is a philosophical approach that pushes us to continually challenge our own biases or previously held beliefs, knowing we can not possibly ever know all there is to know about cultures other than our own. It is different from the notion of Cultural Competency, which suggests that by studying a culture we can know all we need to know in order to provide support to our marginalized students. Cultural Humility rather calls on us to examine power imbalances and work to fix them while developing partnerships with those who can advocate for greater systemic change. In other words, it is about lifelong learning and being comfortable with saying, “I don’t know, but I will find out!” It’s considering new understandings, not wallowing in the embarrassment of, “I never knew that,” and striving to rethink the old ways of doing things.
Cultural humility is a motivating force behind the work we are doing in Curriculum and Instruction here in RPS. We know that the myths we’ve been told are not accurate and we know our students--all of our students--deserve better. It is our desire to do better that guides us as we work closely with our American Indian Liaison, Dawn Bjoraker, and our American Indian Parent Committee to improve the way we teach about those who are Indigenous to this land. We have much work to do, but it is with a sense of cultural humility, that we move forward, striving to honor the experiences of our American Indian students and families.
As the snow continues to fall and Thanksgiving approaches, many may be wondering how to best approach the holiday with our students. Luckily, we have some wonderful resources available through our media specialists. I’ve included some links to check out. Also, below is a short video that highlights some ways we can begin to take a new look at the way we teach the upcoming holiday.
- "Deconstructing the Myths of 'The First Thanksgiving'" by Judy Dow Abenaki (Abenaki) & Beverly Slapin
- "Good Books about Thanksgiving" by Debbie Reese (Nambe Pueblo)
- "Teaching Tolerance: Teaching Thanksgiving in a Socially Responsible Way" by Amanda Morris
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