As I am writing this, there is a new blanket of fresh snow on the ground. This can only mean one thing: winter is coming and with it, all the warm and fuzzy feelings I hold about the upcoming holidays are coming. I take time to reflect on what I am thankful for, make space to gather my enormous family, and look forward to the new year ahead.
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.
Most importantly, don’t be afraid to say I don’t know, but then don’t stop there--work with your students to find the answers. Ask questions, reach out to families, call on the expertise of others, and never stop learning!
This post brought to you by Kim Eversman, E-12 Equity Implementation Associate
Resources for Further Study:
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.
Cante' waste' nape ciyuzapi ksto! (I greet you with a warm heart and handshake).
Recently, I had a conversation with a student who was feeling lonely. He wanted to go back to the school he attended last year, which is out of state. He missed his friends, he missed being part of a community, and he missed a sense of belonging. He said, "I don't really talk to anybody but my dog."
I knew this student was seeking an authentic connection. I told him, "I talk to my dog too, in fact, I dress her up. Would you like to see her in a Wonder Woman costume?" I then showed him a picture of my dog in her costume.
His eyes sparkled and the corners of his mouth turned upward into a smile. He looked directly at me. We connected.
October 8th marks Indigenous Peoples’ Day, recognized by Rochester Public Schools, the City of Rochester, and several other school districts and cities across the United States. So, Why is this day important?
This simple act of acknowledgment of the Indigenous Peoples of this land and the contributions they have made can and will be the catalyst for Indigenous Peoples’ sense of belonging, existence, and self-worth. This is imperative; otherwise, it can be easy for American Indian students to feel like they don't belong. Others often question our identity and existence (I say ‘our’ because I am an Indigenous person) because many history books refer to us as being figures of the past: a people who did not exist before 1492. Acknowledging Indigenous Peoples’ Day will begin to dispel the myths of American Indians being nothing but relics of the past.
The Indigenous Peoples’ history, culture, and way of life were targeted for assimilation through the boarding schools and foster care system before the passing of the Indian Child Welfare Act in 1978 and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978. Very few American Indian families have not been directly impacted by the forced boarding school and adoption era.
My Mother was sent to St. Francis Boarding School and eventually ended up aging out of the foster care system. She was separated from her three older brothers, one older sister, and one younger sister. While in foster care, she repeatedly asked about her younger sister. A few days after her 18th birthday, she was contacted by the state of South Dakota and notified that her sister was living in a town 45 minutes away and she had been there for 13 years.
Most of us have an inherent human desire to belong and to be part of a community. Our ancestors existed so we can exist. Our existence is current. Our existence is our future.
If one does not understand the past and is told things about history that are inaccurate, one begins to internalize all of that information: one may begin to believe inaccuracies about one’s self. We must recognize how the past affects us today, how it will affect us tomorrow, and how it will affect our future generations.
Our American Indian students are the epitome of strength and resilience.
Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children. (Sitting Bull)
If you have a question about resources available for students or staff, or if you wish to discuss any of these ideas further, please consider reaching out to me.
Pilamaya. (Thank you.)
This post brought to you by Dawn Bjoraker, American Indian Liaison for the Rochester Public Schools
Feel free to contact Bjoraker at 507.328.4236 or to connect with her via email
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
Robert Longley writes that, “The Preamble to the U.S. Constitution summarizes the Founding Fathers’ intention to create a federal government dedicated to ensuring that 'We the People' always live in a safe, peaceful, healthy, well-defended–and most of all–free nation.” It is important for us to know that the Preamble does not hold, grant, or limit any legal power. That being said, it serves a very significant and powerful purpose: to explain why we have and need the Constitution.
It is this understanding that I wish for my son, a seventh-grade student, as he embarks on his first U.S. History learning-journey this year. I envision for him, a twelve-year-old who loves social studies, a deeper and more meaningful understanding of our country and how and why it was formed. I never dreamed, however, that I would spend two nights and two mornings using note cards to help my son memorize the Preamble. Furthermore, I’ve been struggling to understand the purpose of this requirement.
Douglas Fisher and Nancy Frey, in their book The Purposeful Classroom: How to Structure Lessons with Learning Goals in Mind talk at length about the importance of establishing a purpose for yourself as the teacher and for your students, and that instruction and learning should be focused on learning targets rather than tasks. Memorizing the Preamble, to me, seems like a task; whereas, understanding what the Preamble represents and means to us as Americans seems more like a learning target.
My fear, for my son, is that the task of memorizing the Preamble will lead only to a surface-level understanding and it runs the risk of disengaging kids like my son who thrives on learning through understanding. Yana Weinstein, in her blog entry “Memorizing versus Understanding” points out, “using a deep [learning] approach, a student has the intention to understand. Information may be remembered, but this is viewed as an almost unintentional by-product.” This is the type of learning I wish for both of my children: learning through understanding, rather than by memory.
In just under two years my son will have the opportunity to visit Washington D.C. and I hope that when he does he is able to take the values and ideas presented in the Preamble (and the entire Constitution for that matter) and make them come to life as he experiences our nation’s capital. And, when that time comes and he’s touring a national monument or walking down the national mall, should there be a sudden need for the exact wording of the Preamble, I hope he is able to successfully search the internet for this:
Please, know I do not intend to minimize the importance of memory in the learning process, but we must recognize there is a fundamental difference between memorizing something and learning it. Where memorization limits student learning to word-for-word recall and limits the ability to generate insight or see the relevance, targeting understanding in our teaching and learning leads to unique and individual insights, deduction and induction, application, comparison, and connections (all things we can find embedded into the RPS Graduate Profile!).
If you would like specific ideas for how to increase student understanding, replacing memorization-focused activities with those that increase students' learning-by-understanding, please reach out to your instructional coach or one of us here at Secondary C&I.
This post brought to you by Brandon Macrafic, POSA focusing on Career & College Readiness and administrator at CTECH
Casey* got an email yesterday from his daughter’s teacher. He instantly panicked. In a few sentences, it seemed the teacher was informing him that his daughter was having severe behavior issues in the classroom.
So, Casey reread it. He vacillated on what to do. He called his spouse. He called a friend. He vented to co-workers. Eventually, he went back to the source: he re-connected with the teacher, but this time over the phone.
Hearing Casey’s voice, the teacher sensed his anxiety and assured him that the email had been misunderstood. The teacher had meant to convey, I’m going to explore some ways I can best support your daughter; but Casey had interpreted it as, your daughter needs some immediate behavioral interventions.
This misunderstanding, and all the anxiety that came along with it, could have been avoided by skipping the email and picking up the phone instead.
As teachers, our lives are hectic. We have to manage our time, and often an email appears to be the quickest route for parent/guardian communication. We hop on Skyward, grab the parent/guardian’s email address, open Outlook and we’re off—just a few clicks, some tap-tap-tapping on the keyboard, and we’re all set. Communication home is done. But, in truth, it’s rarely that simple.
In my last classroom, the phone was on the other side of the room from my computer. Calling home meant (1) clicking into Skyward, (2) writing down the number [and crossing my fingers that it wasn’t a long-distance number since my classroom phone blocked such calls], (3) walking across the room to dial, (4) crossing my fingers that the parent/guardian picked up, while also (5) crossing my fingers that if s/he did there were only questions asked that I could answer without having to reference something on my computer which was still across the room... But, despite this complicated process, it was worth it.
Calling home has power:
While, calling home can may be daunting to some, here are three ways to make it more manageable.
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When thinking back to when my brothers and I were in school, the phone calls my parents received from teachers and administrators were almost always negative. One of us had been in the principal’s office, one of us had an unexcused absence, or one of us was struggling in math class. Where were the phone calls when I had been selected to attend a poetry workshop, when my brother got a ribbon in the science fair, or when my other brother had managed to not be in the principal’s office for an entire month?
This is where the strategy “8 Greats” comes into play.
If you’d like to read more on this idea--or similar ones--consider exploring the following:
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Make a Sandwich
I’m from the generation labeled as ‘xennials’. Much like many of my millennial counterparts, I am uncomfortable making phone calls. I’d prefer to send a text, an email, or even leave a voicemail. The thought of actually having to talk on the phone with someone gives me anxiety.
Whether you are of a similar generation or are simply not sure what to say once you get someone on the other end of the line, the “Make a Sandwich” strategy might be for you.
Start each call with a respectful, collaborative, and positive opening.
In the middle, add in the details, listen, and adjust. Know that the more complicated or negative the message, the more effort we need to use when selecting our words and tone.
End each call with a respectful, collaborative, and positive finish.
If you’d like to read more on this idea, consider exploring chapter 6 “Positive Communication with Parents” from the book Dealing with Difficult Parents by Todd Whitaker and Douglas J. Fiore; as well as chapter 13, “Delivering Bad News.”
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Making phone calls doesn’t have to take a lot of time. A few years ago I worked with a middle school teacher who often had students make the calls home, whether the news be uplifting or difficult. There was power in how these students took ownership of communication with their parent(s)/guardian(s).
This is where the strategy “Quick Calls” works well.
No matter what information is shared, imagine the conversations that will happen between those students and those parent(s)/guardian(s) when, later that day, they get picked up after school or sit down at the dinner table.
Whatever structure you use to make phone calls home, keep parents/guardians like Casey in mind. We want to work collaboratively with our students and their important adults, and that often begins by picking up the phone.
This post brought to you by Heather Lyke, Secondary Implementation Associate
*The name of this parent has been changed for data privacy purposes.
Well, we are officially rolling with the school year! The new supplies are in their places, new routines are being solidified, and classrooms are buzzing with new learning. We’ve introduced ourselves to our students and had them introduce themselves to us. There have been all sorts of ice breakers and “get to know you” activities. We know that this student loves dogs, this other one loves to dance, another one loves music, and this one over here loves to read science fiction. Our traditional “get to know you” activities are really great tools to gather information about our students. We talk about them a lot at the beginning of the year, but I’m proposing we don't stop doing them once the shine wears off of those new school supplies.
This time of year, when I reflect on the different ways we get to know our students after the first few days of school, I often think of my tenth grade English teacher, Mr. Anderson. Our first assignment of the year was to write our own obituary (yeah…super morbid, right?). I wrote the required one page of, “She was loved by her family…”, “She was preceded in death by…”, “She did this and that…”.
I turned it in and a few days later, it came back to me, dripping in red ink. I was convinced I had completely failed. As I started to read the comments on my paper though, my anxiety lifted. All along the margins, I read comments like, “No way! Your grandpa was my bus driver when I was a kid!” and “Your cousin is my best friend!” Awkward-and-anxious me suddenly knew I had someone in my corner. Mr. Anderson was making connections with me that went beyond my favorite color or which sports I play, and I suddenly cared much more about my English class than I ever imagined I would.
Throughout the year in that English class, every writing assignment came back with Mr. Anderson’s commentary along the margins, forcing me to rethink my thesis or supporting arguments, or cracking a joke about a silly spelling error. Every once in a while, I would find a post it on my desk, introducing me to authors like Jane Smiley or Toni Morrison (who is, to this day, still my favorite). Mr. Anderson had taken the time throughout the year to get to know me both as a learner and as a person who had a life outside of his classroom.
This year, you are going to hear a lot about the district’s continued work around culturally and linguistically responsive teaching practices (CLR). We know we need to think about culture and bias. We know how important it is to understand who our students are culturally and the cultural nuances they bring to our classrooms every day. That is why I’d like to provide a few “get to know you” strategies that can be used throughout the year, multiple times, to continue to build relationships and connections with your students and get to know them as cultural beings.
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SOME COMPLETED STUDENT EXAMPLES FROM PAST YEARS
- An online survey. At our final 2017-2018 new teacher training session, Heather Willman shared this online version, created by teacher, author, and speaker Pernille Ripp, who uses a Google Form to collect her data.
- An essay reflection. I have personally used this type of end-of-year data collection as well. (An added bonus here is that I was able to give them feedback on their writing, while simultaneously collecting feedback on what they took away from the course as a whole!) Here is the prompt I used a few years ago with my juniors in AP Literature & Composition, along with a few examples of student responses:
SOME STUDENT EXAMPLES FROM PAST YEARS
- Small group reflection. Vanderbilt University recommends using a small group approach to collecting end-of-year feedback from students. You can read more about this method here.
- Explain the purpose of the survey to your students. If they know that you are going to use the data, and how, they often take it more seriously and provide you with more precise examples. In the past, I have gone so far as to share will students how I have adjusted which texts I use in the course, how much homework I expect students to do over long breaks, and how I no longer expect all assignments to be typed—all decisions made based on feedback that students shared in the end-of-year surveys in years past.
- Share examples of helpful vs. obstructive feedback. Sometimes students need a quick reminder of what constructive feedback looks and sounds like. If a student writes, “Your class is dumb,” not only does that hurt my feelings as the instructor but it also does not help me make changes for future students. However, if that student instead writes, “I don’t understand why grammar matters, so I hate our Tuesday grammar lessons and find them boring”...well, now that’s information that I can work with. Making students aware of this difference seems to help them weave more constructive criticism into their answers.
- Ensure students have enough time allotted. When students are rushed, they may skip an open ended question or two, misread a question, or even circle answers at random just in order to be done in time. This type of inaccurate data is misguiding later on when you go to reflect on the responses.
- Consider anonymity. Some students will be more honest with you when they know their name is not attached. Then again, without names it can be hard to follow up with any personalized feedback that should be addressed right away. Again, consider what your goal is in collecting the data, along with when you’re giving the survey (if it’s the last week of school, for instance, you might not have time to follow up on responses so names would not matter anyway).
- Look for trends. Sometimes you will have data outliers, but as soon as you have three or more responses that send similar messages they deserve our time and our attention (sometimes the outliers do too, for that matter). Once you notice trends, record them.
Ask yourself hard questions. Take a look at your trend data. What does it say about your classroom, your course, your own instructional practices, the demographic of your students? Frankly, this part of the process can be hard. In the past, trend data has made me turn inward as I wrestled with a wide variety of issues, some of which included:
- Many students indicated not having computer access at home. Can I continue to expect students to type everything?
- Multiple students noted that they struggled with Cold Mountain as their book group novel. What could I replace it with? Could I just eliminate this title and make groups a bit larger?
- Too many students noted that this is the first English course that they’ve taken where reading Spark Notes wasn’t enough—they had to think about the texts. What (likely hard) conversations can I have with my co-workers to ensure that we’re all asking students to think about their reading, not simply recall plot/characters/etc.?
- Make a list of intentions. Data collection often isn’t worth the time it takes unless it helps you in some way. To ensure you take action on what the data indicates, make a list of intentions and then save that list in a place where you know you will reference it as you lay out your plans for next year.
- Share your intentions with your PLC. Ideally, others in your PLC gave the same (or similar) survey, which allows you to share the trend data and merge your list of intentions into one unified set of goals. An added bonus is that when you share your intentions, research shows you are more likely to act on them.
- Preserve surveys that will help you refuel when running on empty. I have a “Why I Teach” folder. I borrowed this from a mentor of mine, Sandy Nieland (teacher at John Marshall), who shared that she uses this as a way to refocus when she starts to get distracted by negative forces. For this reason, I pull surveys that have particularly kind comments, insightful reflections, or purposeful remarks and hold on to them. In times of high stress, I pull these out and remind myself why all the stress is worth it in the end. In recent years, I’ve shifted to an electronic version of this folder, taking pictures of such reflections, as you can see here:
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