If you know me, you know my husband and I are shopping for a new home. Wanting to downsize (I want a tiny house, he wants no yard, so we’ve compromised on looking for a condo), we’re slowly filtering through our belongings. We’re pulling items out of closets that we forgot we even had: placing in boxes the linens not used in years, the sweaters we no longer wear, and the camping gear we’re not even sure why we purchased in the first place.
Perhaps the hardest part of this downsizing escapade, is that we sometimes run into those items we should get rid of but struggle to part with. Those items that served a purpose in their time but no longer are of use. Items like:
Again, if you know me, you also know I love a good extended metaphor. As I see it, downsizing our course content is much like downsizing a home. Fourth quarter, and on into the summer months, we often find ourselves with a bit of extra time to focus on what’s next—and with no fifth quarter on the horizon, this often means making adjustments for the school year to come.
In our classrooms, just as in our homes, there are items that are easy to donate or toss:
However, also like with our homes, there are items that are hard to part with, although maybe we should:
To get inspired to downsize our home, my husband and I (along with much of the US), have been watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondō on Netflix. Having read her first book a few years ago--The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up—this new Netflix series has served as a reminder of many of Marie Kondō’s key ideas. Ideas that, of course, work great in homes, but that also can be used to help create even more magic in our classrooms.
However, if doesn’t spark joy, set it aside. Consider making three piles or lists for those items that no longer spark joy in you and your students:
This, at least for me, is the hardest part of tidying up. It may help to keep in mind what Marie Kondō notes in her first book: “when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
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Finish discarding before moving on.
Likewise, in our classrooms, we have to get rid of—or least commit to revamping—those items that no longer fit our students. Only then, once we see what remains, do we know what new format or structure might work best for the year to come. Only then, do we see if we have any gaps in our instruction.
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Organize by category.
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Designate a spot for everything.
This step reminds me of what I did about ten years ago when I revamped the American Literature course I was teaching. After having purged a few novels and some grammar units that were no longer sparking joy in my students, I rearranged. Because I figuratively laid everything out on the table, I was able to then see that my remaining content, texts, lessons, etc. fit into six themes. Embracing that fact, I rearranged from teaching American Literature chronologically, as I had always done in the past, to teaching it thematically. But it also meant I had some holes to fill: I was suddenly able to weave in a new book group unit and adjust how I taught grammar by embedding into our reading and writing tasks. It was a lot of work, but, ultimately, it lead to more effective learning in the years that followed.
As my husband and I are experiencing firsthand with our home, the act of downsizing can feel overwhelming while in the process of discarding. However, we look forward to placing all our remaining items back in the best order (ideally, in our perfect-for-us condo in downtown Rochester).
As Marie Kondō states, “the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming...not for the person we were in the past.” This is true for our classrooms, too: we need to make them a place where students can grow into who they will become in this ever-changing world...not for the students we taught in the past.
All of us have those days where we wished we could press rewind and start over. But there is no rewind button. We just have to keep on keeping on and hope that whatever has crept into our day to sour it dissipates as soon as possible. I would like to share a recent experience I had with my dog, Walda. (Did you really think I would write a blog post without mentioning her?)
While this girl is no longer considered a puppy (she turned 3 on April 2nd), she does possess an endearing puppy-like quality. Man, this girl has done so much for me. She’s licked my face, rested her head in my lap, brought me her tug toy to play with, you know, all the typical doggie-companion stuff. But just a few days ago, I realized what she has done for me in the vein of personal/spiritual growth.
Now, back to what she taught me a few days ago. I came home and, just like clockwork, she got all sorts of excited: zoomies, pet my belly, here’s my tennis ball, tippy-tappy with her big-girl paws, circle-circle-circle.
I asked Dr. Cecil White Hat (Rosebud Sioux Tribal Member, deceased) one time why it seems we suffer so much from historical trauma.
He looked at me and said, “We have forgotten how to use our natural medicines.”
Great. Now, here comes a discussion on roots and herbs. And, because I hold much respect and admiration for this Elder, I need to listen to what he is going to say.
He must have sensed what I was thinking, because he then said, “Our laughter and tears, we have forgotten how to use our laughter and tears.”
I know I always feel good after a laugh or a cry. But why? Our tears release cortisol. If that doesn’t come out during a good cry, it stays in the body and can cause all sorts of negative effects. Cecil was a very wise man. He never carried himself as if he were a walking library. He was a relatable guy. I am forever grateful to have spent time with him and I appreciate his words and lessons.
His brother, Albert White Hat (Rosebud Sioux Tribal Member, deceased), was also well known for his Lakota language and culture revitalization work on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. In this video, he talks about the importance of forgiveness and what can happen if you hold onto anger.
We all get caught up in our feelings and emotions and there is nothing wrong with that. But if we stay stuck in our own thoughts, we may just lose sight of what is really important. Make a commitment to yourself to never allow your own thoughts to blind you to what you have in front of you. Tears come up to come out. Let them out and let go.
One more thing, if your dog brings you her slimy tennis ball, or does circle-circle-circle, or wants sporadic belly rubs: engage. These beings are in our life not by accident, of this much I am sure. I love you and your slimy tennis ball, Walda.
Feel free to contact Bjoraker at 507.328.4236 or to connect with her via email
I was able to experience all the joy one experiences when walking into a neighborhood bodega with several food stamp bills stuffed inside my torn blue jeans. And although everyone in my neighborhood, an area roughly few miles long but supporting over 80,000 people, were in similar situations as my family, I still found it embarrassing using food stamps. I remember the feeling of shame and humiliation course through my body as I readied myself for the monetary transaction. Truth be told, I hated that our family needed help. Yet, like anyone living in poverty can tell you, the worst part is asking for it.
Several years ago I had the pleasure of speaking to a parent volunteer, Donna Greason. She had told me that if there were ever any student needs, she would be happy to help. I informed her that our school actually had a resource room for students who had clothing or food needs. The only issue was that it was only accessible by walking through a teacher’s personal office and, to top it off, a key was needed. Not many students knew about the room and those who did were required to ask a staff member to open it.
Basically, if I thought using food stamps was embarrassing, I could only imagine how it must feel to be a high school adolescent having to find an adult to open a room so I may pick out food for my family while inadvertently being gawked at by the same person who opened the room up for me. But like many of us are very well aware, space is limited in just about all of our school buildings. And, as is often spoken in my household, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.”
Yet, when I brought Mrs. Greason to the 7’ x 7’ Support Our Spartans Resource Room, S.O.S. Room, she had other thoughts. She too had financial difficulties growing up and started questioning whether our school could provide a more appealing space. Being the only school social worker for over 1,700 students, honestly, the S.O.S. Room was not particularly on my radar…at all. It had been established well before I ever stepped foot into the building and was a group effort, mostly stocked by the generosity of other Mayo High School staff members.
Her idea was to move out of the space we were currently in and be more centrally located. The other portion of her idea was to be more selective in terms of the items we were taking in, and lastly, “make it look like Target.”
Growing up surrounded by poverty, many of my classmates would still manage to come to school with new Jordan sneakers, Guess Jeans, and Hilfiger sweatshirts, although they too were living in the same poverty stricken neighborhood as I was. So, it was difficult for me to imagine students embracing walking into a resource room to grab a pair of pants and walk out with little shame. And yet, it was so much the opposite of everything most of us were brought up to believe that it might actually work!
With support from our administration, we were provided a larger room right across from the lunchroom. The room is left open, unlocked, and largely unstaffed throughout the entire school day. Meaning, students can simply walk in and out of the room at their leisure. No more hiding in a small space, no more needing to ask for an adult to unlock the room, and no permission needed. Although we have no prior data to compare how many items are coming and going, I can gladly say we estimate it to be about a thousand items every month. We count empty clothing hangers to provide us with a base number of how many clothing items are taken from the room. The difficult part of keeping track of everything is that we offer more than just clothing: we also have school supplies, hygiene products, college readiness information, shoes, water bottles, books, and--to top it off--we also have a food pantry room for our weekly backpack program.
Within a year of implanting the new strategy, our room was so successful that we expanded into the hallway. Many of our school supplies are now located outside of our room and regularly stocked. Three clothing racks are also located in the hallway where students can grab a winter coat when needed. This model has opened the room up not only to those who are impoverished, but to any and all of our 1,700 students here at Mayo High School. It has really helped me reframe my initial position of what a student in need looks like. Because regardless of how much money your parents have, if you rip your jeans in gym class during 2nd hour, straight down the crack, you’re now in need – true story.
The initial planning took more than simply receiving a centralized location. In order to make the room look the part, it was going to take money. We enlisted the help of several Mayo students who were able to write grants for our room and generated about $2,000. The money was used to purchase shelving, clothing rods, hangers, etc.. Recruiting Mayo students to write grants took the burden off of my shoulders and provided students with an opportunity to give back to their community as well as provided them with a life learning experience and an additional item to add to their resume.
The next step was finding students who could be in charge of the daily maintenance and upkeep of the room. This was accomplished by soliciting the help of two student aides per semester. Simply put, there is no way any one person is going to be able to perform their job and effectively maintain a room of this nature. The last piece of the puzzle was to create a club that would be responsible for all of the behind the scenes operations involving the room.
Most people don’t know the S.O.S. Room is actually run by a student club. They meet every Tuesday morning for 40 minutes to discuss current and future needs, donations, monthly newsletters, and social media pertaining to the S.O.S. Room. The last several meetings, however, have not been about our room but were spent discussing ways of establishing a resource room in every school across our district. They are willing to write grants, organize food drives, and donate clothing resources in order to help any school get up and running, or anything else that a school might find beneficial to establishing their own resource room.
There are many myths surrounding a resource room that I would like debunked. The most important one in my opinion is that we need to secure the room behind a locked door. If I were to provide one bit of advice, it would be to make it easily accessible to any and all students. Throughout the past several years I can easily recount only three instances where students disrespected the work put into the room. When weighed against the thousands of times students have appropriately utilized the room...there is no contest.
Some of my tips would include:
- Get students involved. Why? Because if you believe doing everything alone will have an impact, you’re probably right. But if you embrace the student aspect it will not only have an impact, it will become a part of the school’s culture.
- Remember, neither Rome nor the S.O.S. Room was built in a day. It takes time and patience to get everything in order.
- You’re not in it alone. I have found our community and student body to be very responsive when asking for donations.
Outside of those three suggestions, any of the S.O.S. club members will be happy to do whatever it takes to help out another school because they all share the same common belief that all students can be more successful academically when their basic needs are met.
It is with this in mind that I write today. Recently, I was schooled on the term “codeswitching” and I want to share my new understanding as it relates to what Dr. Sharroky Hollie calls, VABBing.
First of all, for any of you readers who may not be familiar with the term VABBing, it is: “the validation and affirmation of indigenous (home) culture and language for the purpose of building and bridging the student to success in the culture of academia and in mainstream society” (Hollie 13).
When I first learned about VABBing, I could easily get my head around the validation and affirmation part, but I struggled with the notion of building and bridging. The idea that I should try to teach students to fit into the mainstream went against so much that I believed in. However, the more I read and the more I practiced VABBing, the more I realized building and bridging isn’t at all about forcing students to assimilate. It’s about giving our students the tools they need to be culturally dexterous. It’s about honoring and loving our students for who they are, first and foremost, while giving them the tools they need to navigate a complex, and often inequitable, human system. It’s about opening up the playing field so they can draw on their strengths while practicing the skills necessary for success beyond the classroom walls. I thought that this was what it meant to “codeswitch.”
It was with this understanding that I went forth into the world fielding questions about situational appropriateness and codeswitching, mistakenly assuming they meant the same thing. I had read Dr. Hollie’s book, studied the binder, wrestled with my own ideas about building and bridging, but never did I realize that I was misusing the term codeswitching. Today, I wanted to share a document that Dr. Hollie recently shared with me that clarifies the difference between VABBing and codeswitching:
Once again, I reiterate that this work is not easy. It takes time and openness to make change. It is my hope that all of us can feel supported as reflective practitioners as we walk along this road together.
As I was listening to her speak, one of the things that was on my mind was the immense pressure and joy that come from working in education. When I returned to Minnesota I spent some time looking into what she has to say about being an educator. I found a speech online that she delivered at the South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in 2017. In this speech she talks about the power that we, as educators, have to affect the outcomes for our students as well as the power that we have to affect outcomes for ourselves.
A few questions you may want to consider as you are watching:
- How does this challenge my thinking?
- What has been reaffirmed for me?
- What will I do moving forward?
I am cutting my writing of this blog short in order to allow time to watch the video. Think of it as a treat to yourself. It just may be exactly what you need.
That has certainly been true for me. I've been a teacher for 25 years and I love the profession. But at different points in my career, I have felt intense stress and exhaustion from the demands of the job. It usually hasn't been the heavy workload that gets to me. Rather, it's the emotional labor of the work that I have found to be particularly draining. We all have students coming to our classrooms with high levels of stress, trauma, and mental health needs. These issues affect our ability to teach our content material.
I finally realized what might seem obvious. I could only control myself- my reactions- the way I perceived these challenges and the way I managed my stress. And, so I turned to a practice that I thought might provide some relief- mindfulness. Not only did it make a difference in how I handled stress in the classroom, it helped me slow down and rediscover my happiness in being a teacher. Mindfulness is not a panacea, but it can be an incredibly useful tool for teachers.
Here is the classic definition of mindfulness from Jon Kabat Zinn: "Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally." He also says, "The real practice is living your life as if it really mattered-moment to moment."
Here is a video that I think sums up mindfulness in a fun, perfect way:
We all feel stress, and it can get the best of us in the classroom. Learning how to notice strong emotions, pause before reacting, and calming down our own nervous systems can be hugely beneficial to teachers. You don't need any special cushions, bells, or clothes to learn mindfulness. All that is required is an open mind and a little time every day. Teachers deserve rest, relaxation, and renewal, and mindfulness might just be the tool to help.
Here are a few tips and resources for beginning to learn about, and experiment with, mindfulness:
Start with 1-2 minutes a day of mindfulness practice. Or focus on taking 5 deep breaths when you're feeling stressed.
Don't go it alone.
There are a ton of resources out there. We all need guidance and support when learning a new skill. You are not alone.
- Use an app like 10% Happier, Headspace, or Insight Timer (free).
Take a class. If you have an interested group at your school, contact me and I can come on a PD day or for an after-school session(s).
- Take an online class like Mindfulness Fundamentals through Mindful Schools. (Contact me for a discount on Mindful Schools classes.)
- Sarah Rudell Beach, a former high-school teacher in Apple Valley and my mentor in the year-long Mindful Schools program, also offers online classes on mindfulness. She has classes for beginners, teachers, mothers, and stress reduction.
Read books on the topic. Here are a few titles that I recommend specifically for secondary teachers who are interested in mindfulness.
- Mindfulness for Teachers: Simple Skills for Peace and Productivity in the Classroom by Patricia A. Jennings
- Happy Teachers Change the World: A Guide for Cultivating Mindfulness in Education by Thich Nhat Hanh
- Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D.
Instant gratification is the enemy.
Mindfulness practice is not Candy Crush or Instagram. You're not going to have a huge hit of dopamine every time you practice or become instantly calm. So, take the long view and be patient with yourself. Over time you'll notice a difference.
Bring your mindfulness practice into your daily life.
Formal mindfulness practice (where you sit and pay attention to the breath) is the practice, the training, the bicep curl for real life. The idea is for this training to transfer to your daily life and kick in when you need it. So, the next time someone cuts you off in traffic, your brain can remember to take a deep breath instead of going into a state of road rage (as depicted in the video above).
Last spring, I found myself speaking to a group of 343 high school students about mindfulness at the SE MN Student Government Conference at Century High School. I had been presenting on mindfulness quite a bit at that point, but this gig was slightly terrifying to me. Not only was it a huge group, but they were all high-achieving teenagers. They had invited me, but I was worried about the message resonating with them. They were the best audience I had have ever had. Not only were they responsive to the concepts and practice of mindfulness, they were hungry for it.
At the end of the session during the Q and A, one student pointedly asked me, "Why aren't we all learning this?!" I didn't really have a good or satisfying answer for that question, but I told him I was working on it.
What I am confident about is that the first step in bringing mindfulness to our students is for teachers to bring mindfulness to their own lives and the way they teach and relate to students. As Thich Nhat Hanh says in the title of his book, "Happy teachers change the world."
In this post, I wanted to take some time to address one of the most common questions I am asked in regards to Culturally and Linguistically Responsive Teaching: “What’s the deal with these call and response protocols?”
I have good news friends…you aren’t the only ones asking that question! There is so much wonderful literature out there that addresses the call and response conundrum.
Why does everything come back to call and response?
Why is it so important?
Culture plays its role, too. Many of our marginalized and underserved students come from indigenous cultures based in deeply rooted oral traditions. Storytelling, songs, rhymes, and poems were how information was passed on through generations. Furthermore, when we consider the historical context in which populations of marginalized people were denied access to the written word, we can recognize that oral expressiveness was imperative for survival.
For more on the neurological science behind call and response, here are some awesome resources.
How do I get past my discomfort using call and response?
I feel corny and inauthentic!
Another thing to consider is that call and response is just one type of attention signal. Culturally Responsive attention signals, such as call and response, use rhythm or have some sort of cultural relevance. Students have an opportunity to respond and have buy in. The most important thing that makes an attention signal culturally responsive, is when it is used with intentionality. If you are just doing a call and response for the heck of it, without a reason or a purpose, then it isn’t really culturally responsive. The other way an attention signal is culturally responsive is when the teacher uses all kinds of signals-traditional and responsive-to help students practice situational appropriateness. In other words-students need to know how to respond to traditional signals to be successful in school culture. But, when a teacher is only using traditional signals, he or she isn’t being responsive to the cultural behaviors a student brings to the classroom. Similarly, if the teacher is only ever using responsive signals, he or she isn’t being culturally responsive because they aren’t helping students learn to respond in traditional or situationally appropriate ways.
According to Dr. Hollie, there are three reasons why we use attention signals.
- To clarify directions already given or to give further direct instruction.
- To transition during the lesson.
- To bring the activity or lesson to a close.
Using a call and response or any attention signal when students aren’t talking is not useful and will most certainly feel awkward. I’ve found that thinking of these three reasons has allowed me to feel less pressure when planning for call and response. If I don’t need to pull a group who is talking back to attention to clarify, transition, or close, I just don’t use it!
Finally, if you still feel goofy, have the students make them up! And let them lead them! Use this as an opportunity to give your students some more voice and choice during the lesson.
I feel like call and response conflicts with my ENVoY training.
For example, I was raised Catholic, so when I hear a chime, my brain is wired to respond in a certain way. I was conditioned to pay close attention to people’s facial expressions because my parents are very quiet people, so it was easy for me, as a student, to recognize the classic, non-verbal, “teacher face”. Both examples are rooted in various rings of culture.
We just need to remember that not all of our students’ experiences are the same as our own, so we can’t assume they will know what our different attention signals mean. We need to remember to take the time to intentionally teach our verbal and non-verbal attention signals. We also need to remember that we should be using a variety of attention signals-traditional and culturally responsive-so our students can be comfortable with situational appropriateness.
Can I still be culturally responsive and not use call and response?
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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What does it mean to be an educator now
That particular day was a humbling experience. I had just spent time exploring strategies with teachers on what it means to have a restorative practice classroom so to understand how to provide a collaborative and collegial model for all students. This particular situation stopped me in my tracks and made me rethink educational equity. As I am listening to the pain in students’ voices, stories upon stories, I realized they mirror my pain. I took notes and wondered what does real equity look like? Many students are waging an uphill battle, be it about the color of their skin, their family history, their cultural heritage, their religious affiliations, their mental and emotional health, their sexual preferences, their gender, their grades, their sense of belonging, mistakes they cannot undo, combined with the fact that they are in their formative years. One thought ran through my mind: I have not been able to sleep properly for a long time. These things keep me up at night, dreading moments of reality such as this one. I am afraid, just like my students are.
The school planned for an immediate response to address the issue before a long weekend. I went home and poured over books because the students were exploring cultural issues that are pervasive in our current lives. I looked at machine theorists who believe that the privileged few can truly understand the conditions of those who are less privileged. I considered how combining being privileged and understanding the plight of the disenfranchised can be a humbling experience, leading to sense-making (Marion & Gonzales 2014).
However, the students are right, it is true that some capitalize on the irrational nature of people in decision-making. Listening to students, asking me how much sense-making is happening in our culture right now, is humbling. Situations like this make it difficult to have meaningful answers for students.
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How do we help students with the burdens that they carry?
In my own experience, I learned that we often react to students’ behaviors based on “growth needs” but confused them with “deficiency needs.” While I support working on the needs which speak to the satisfaction of developing students’ potential, I wish to see us unafraid to confront deficiency needs.
I can’t help but think that part of this issue is lack of access. Helping students get past their deficiency needs toward their growth needs is a process. However, education is the system that enables human flourishing—not just keeping students afloat and helping them survive but giving them the tools to thrive (Strike 2007). Student readiness becomes a result of intellectual capital and human flourishing. Just as we reflect on our practice to improve as educators, we need to create safe spaces for our students to reflect on who they are, what they do, and why they should care. Because we work in loco parentis, it becomes a moral imperative to explore issues with students that touch on moral values and working at answers to change our culture positively.
Two things became clear that day in moving forward: collective impact and collective wisdom. Maltbia & Power explain that “leveraging diversity is the collective impact of individual and organizational responses to differences in both the workplace and the external environment in pursuit of personal and organizational objectives” (2009). Collective wisdom creates the space for us to hold conversations that matter to build on these objectives. Brown & Isaacs showed that “people already have within them the wisdom and creativity to confront the most difficult challenges” (2005).
This is a lot to digest.
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How do we as educators move forward to meet deficiency needs for our students so they all can start examining their growth needs?
As Rosenberg explained it, challenges us to give from the heart, from a place of abundance and not scarcity, to replace alienation with compassion (2015). On that day, nonviolence as a response helped us to align the unexpected under a single cause to make the situation work for the good.
In our attitudes as educators, it is important to remind our students that boldness is not defined by disrespect or a lack of acknowledgment for others’ situations. Challenging others with divergent views should be based on charitable truth. Such an approach gives everyone involved a chance to look at their own response and actions, a chance at arriving at the truth, a chance at reaching for and finding compassion. The same chances we want for and give ourselves. In this way, we become the ones who work to develop cultural skills and sensitivity with both individuals and groups to advance a collective goal (i.e., here we are, we are all in this together).
Feel free to connect with Mrs. Haglund via email
When I got to high school, it was still a very diverse setting but there were other white students. There were advanced classes where education and learning was actually the focus and the classroom was full of students who were there to learn. I thrived in this environment, learning from my teachers and peers who all had a variety of cultural backgrounds that brought in many different perspectives.
For those without my experience, maybe it is best to think about a school lunchroom. The lunchroom in a diverse school is a fascinating place. While in the classroom you will walk in and students of different cultural backgrounds are learning and working together, in most lunchrooms students tend to be pretty segregated. The black students sit with other black students, Hmong students with other Hmong students and white students with white students. There are always a few exceptions, but for the most part this is what a lunchroom looks like in my experience.
Once I became a teacher, and was no longer a student who was part of this segregated-by-choice system, I began asking “why?”. Why do we choose this? Why can’t we create the atmosphere--the one so many college pamphlets show when trying to demonstrate their diversity--where all students are friends who are able to cross the barrier of race to all eat lunch together. Personally, I have always thrived in diverse setting and can see the importance of the different perspectives but have also struggled with the idea that when given the choice we tend to gravitate towards people with similar skin tones and backgrounds when in social setting.
Before coming to John Marshall this year I taught at Fridley High School in Fridley, MN where I was first introduced to Dr. Hollie and his CLRT strategies. It was the first year I was teaching at Fridley, which was very similar to the cultural makeup of John Marshall. I had been teaching for three years when I was introduced to CLRT, and I can honestly say there had not been a college course, a teacher training, or a professional development day that had affected my teacher and classroom culture the way this training did.
Dr. Hollie was about to outline the “why” behind the lunchroom conundrum. He explained why my peers in middle school where not interested in the content nor how my teachers were presenting it. He went through our differences, the different rings of culture, how we communicate with one another, and how much we lose when we do not understand the cultures that those around us have grown up in. As a student in north Minneapolis, I was very aware of other cultures. I was invited to and attended many events, family gatherings, and birthday parties that were very different from my own home culture. Even when writing this, I feel it ridiculous that it took this long to truly understand my educational experience as a student and now as a teacher.
Using CLRT strategies is so important, especially when working with students with other cultural backgrounds than our own. Creating a space where all students feel you understand, at least a small part of their home culture and that you want them to be able to express themselves in this way, builds a bridge that impacts the relationships you have with your classes as well as individual students in your classes. As a student who identifies with white culture yet grew up in a diverse school setting, it would have been really beneficial to have had teachers use CLRT strategies in my classes because other students would not have always had to code switch into the mainstream traditional teaching strategies that have been typically used in the United States over the last 200 years. The students as a whole would have been more engaged and I would have been able to focus on my education--even in middle school.
I have only been teaching in the Rochester Public Schools the last four months and in that time I have talked with teachers in my building who are aware I do quite a bit with CLRT and have said, “I understand why this is important but I just do not feel comfortable, or just do not understand how to even start using some of the strategies.” First, I want to say, I get it. I too was once uncomfortable with the idea of using ‘call and response’ because it felt like it did not fit my personality. However, I would say now that I do not go a class period without using it. Now, I love ‘call and response’. Starting is the hardest part, but once you do you will not go back.
Below, I have outlined a few of the strategies I use on a weekly, if not daily, basis.
This is the easiest strategy to use; yet, I think it can be a really intimidating. I did not feel comfortable with this one right away, so I found a way to engage the class in the process that made it feel more natural. I asked students to help create the ‘call and response’. he first one that one of my classes decided to use was “When I say Holla, you say Back!” It was fun because they came up with it and it was specific for that class.
As I have become more comfortable with ‘call and response’, I started to come up with them on the spot and students come up with them as well. Together, we might have different ones that relate to the unit we are studying, others that students know are more serious, and some others that are more fun. It is a full-class engagement tool to use!
I use ‘silent appointments’ a lot when I am trying to get students to have conversations with people whom they do not tend to gravitate to in the classroom. Students must use eye contact to choose a partner. I tell them they have to make an appointment with someone on the other side of the room. They all look down at the floor and when I say, “One, two, three: look up!” They then have some time to make eye contact with someone. Once they have a partner, they put their hand over their heart. If they are still looking after 20 seconds I tell them to put their hand in the air so they last ones can find each other. It works really well!
This is a strategy I use when I want students to get a lot of different perspectives from their peers. They must answer a prompt or begin a compare contrast assignment task independently (that’s the “1”). Then, they move into a group of three to share and elaborate on ideas (that’s the “3”). After a set amount of time, I finally have them move into a group of six to discuss (that’s the “6”) For added learning, I also usually have a full-class Venn Diagram or an example on the board that groups can take turns filling out as they are working in or finishing up their six-person conversations. At the end, we discuss the topic as a whole group.
I am still a CLRT work in progress. The reading strategies still feel foreign and forced when I use them which is why I do not have many listed above. I am still working through them in my classroom. Honestly, I have failed many times when using these in my own class, but part of it is owning the failures. Students are more willing to be real and understanding with you if you do the same with them--that has been proven time and again in my own classroom.
It really is fun to shake things up, try a new strategy, and sometimes even fail. I enjoy this work and feel it is really important, especially in districts with a growing diverse population like here in the Rochester Public Schools.
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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.
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