The skittering hi-hat from Cardi B’s Bodak Yellow slunk through the classroom. Students bobbed their heads as they composed poems and personal narratives about their names. Period 1’s Class DJ surveyed the class with a smile and returned to his seat, leaving his phone plugged into the class speakers for the duration of independent writing time.
Before this year, classroom jobs remained off of my radar. They never interested me. For one, I struggle to delegate work and I have a severe perfectionist streak. I also assumed middle school students would turn up their noses at the quotidian ins and outs of daily classroom life.
I was wrong. The more I’m leaning back, the more they’re leaning in.
So this year, kids in my classroom will be:
- Griots: Taking pictures of what we do in class and posting them on our class social media accounts
- DJs: Creating playlists of instrumental versions of popular songs that they’ll play during independent work
- Teacher’s Assistants (TAs): Running any errands, distributing and collecting materials, and dismissing groups based on cleanliness when the bell rings
- Book-Keepers: Keeping our classroom library organized, helping suggest books, picking books for book talks
- Time-Keepers: Watching the clock every time we have timed tasks (which for the most part happens multiple times per class)
- Class Advisory Board members: Meeting with me every Wednesday during lunch to give me feedback on my teaching. What lessons are working, what aren’t, and how I can improve.
The first step involved asking the students to figure out what skills each job needed and how each job would benefit the class. I created a one-page description for each job, placed the sheet on a large sheet of butcher paper, and then hung the butcher paper around the room. In groups of 3, students rotated through each job station, spending two minutes jotting down answers on the charts. The idea was to help students think through the ramifications of each class job before applying. Here are the one-pagers I created. Forgive me the old memes.
Afterwards, interested students completed a simple Google Form application. They chose the jobs they were interested in and explained why they would be a good fit. At the end of the day I went through and selected students of color who expressed interest. The next day I wrote out “acceptance” letters in fancy font, printed them out on quality cardstock, and signed them with a flourish. In every class I revealed the acceptance letters with as much fanfare as possible.
It’s been a week since I passed out the letters. Certain jobs like the book-keepers and TAs were able to start immediately. The griots and DJs, however, have required slightly more attention. Class DJs had to figure out how they would pick songs, if they wanted to take requests, how often they would change their playlists, etc. Griots had to create social media accounts, figure out how to advertise them, determine what they would take pictures of and, as one student kept reminding the group, “find the right aesthetic.” As a result, these two jobs have yet to begin.
The decision to go all in with classroom jobs stemmed from Christopher Emdin’s essential For White Folks Who Teach In The Hood. Emdin devotes an entire chapter to discussing the intersections of student responsibility, classroom culture, and equity. He describes classroom jobs as a way to create “…a space where each student is a full citizen responsible for how well the class meets the collective academic, social, and emotional goals” (107). For Emdin, jobs are part of an approach to pedagogy centered on “fostering socioemotional connections in the classroom with the goal of building students’ sense of responsibility to each other and to the learning environment” (105).
In a few weeks, I’ll gather together every student with a job so we can reflect. What needs to be changed? What jobs should be added/removed?
I’m beginning to see how successfully implementing classroom jobs can shift the culture of a classroom. It’s not easy, and I’m finding that I need to spend more time helping students understand that their jobs are about sharing responsibility, not lording power over one another. I’m confident that as the year progresses, and as I become more skilled at working with students in this new way, we can shift the balance of power and co-construct the community we need.
Image credit: rawpixel.com
“Just as language makes some ways of saying and doing possible, it makes other ways of saying and doing difficult and sometimes even impossible.” (Gert Biesta, 14)
When it comes to education, language matters. The words we use to discuss education frame how teachers understand and approach their work inside the classroom. As teachers, our linguistic practices speak certain relationships into existence. Discussing children as “at risk” and “in need of remediation” creates a relationship built upon deficit ideology (there’s a problem with you), meritocracy (because you just aren’t working hard enough), and authoritarianism (Luckily, I’m here to fix you).
A basic example of this is education’s discursive shift from a language of teaching to a language of learning (Biesta). Every professional development I’ve attended in the last few years speaks in this modern language: student-centered learning, teacher as facilitator, students as consumers in control of their learning, and personalization are all examples of the language of learning.
This summer’s professional development was no different. I shuffled between schools and sat in various rooms while consultants and administrators told me what to focus on for the upcoming school year. Regardless of the content of the presentation, the speakers always circled back to phrases such as “what’s best for our kids.” I learned about the latest software acquisitions, the retooled curriculum, and various policy changes. Everything to “meet the needs of today’s learners.”
After Charlottesville, I was hoping to hear how my affluent and nationally ranked district was planning on tackling racism and white supremacy. Unfortunately, these topics were only mentioned during an optional break-out session. The session took place during our single day of county-wide training. Teachers had the opportunity to choose between sessions on race, gifted services, or the county’s new standardized test. The 45 minute session was the only time I heard mention of Charlottesville, white supremacy, privilege, or racism throughout the seven days of professional development my district mandates before the new school year begins.
I split the rest of my time working on my classroom and listening to outside consultants talk about differentiation and assessment. The presenters were all wonderful, and I walked away from every session with new ideas. The topics are worthwhile for sure, and teachers need to be knowledgeable about how to work with a variety of students. The problem isn’t with what was included; it’s with what was left out.
We didn’t talk about race, class, gender, or any social category. We didn’t talk about the opportunity gap or how disparities in discipline cause children of color miss to miss more instructional time than their white counterparts. There was no talk of stereotype threat, implicit bias, or the various ways white teachers like myself continue to perpetuate white supremacy on a daily basis. We talked about data without interrogating the systematic racism and unnamed white, middle class norms propping it up. We nodded along to talking points about the need for democratic citizenry without exploring what that actually means. We spoke of critical thinking without engaging in it ourselves.
Ijeoma Oluo writes that “Everything short of racial justice is white supremacy. Everything.” With this as my guide, everything I experienced in my in-service training served the interests of white supremacy. To me, racial justice education must go beyond exposing children to multicultural texts and telling teachers to have “tough talks.” Again, these things are important. But unless they’re hitched to an antiracist curriculum that de-centers whiteness and equips children with the skills to analyze society in order to change it, it’s not enough.
Speaking about “what’s best for all learners” allows us to stop short of taking those steps into direct antiracist education. We need teachers, administrators, and schools who are willing and ready to name white supremacy and attack it with an unwavering focus. I wasn’t one of those teachers. I didn’t speak up once throughout the training. I was afraid of being judged and becoming “that guy.” What privilege it is to be able to place my own racial comfort above doing my job as an educator and speaking out against racism. I’d say something about ‘how it won’t happen again,’ but it will because that’s how privilege works.
So with this post, I check myself and begin again.
Image credit: Kimberly Farmer
Can empathy save the world?
Cindy O’Donnell-Allen, author of Tough Talk, Tough Texts: Teaching English to Change the World, argues that it can. Tough Talk explores how teachers can use tough texts to build empathy, challenge students academically and, like the subtitle suggests, change the world. O’Donnell-Allen’s book helps children enact democracy by teaching them to read challenging texts and engage in civil discourse in the classroom.
Tough Talk is a superb classroom resource. It combines critical literacy, discussion protocols, and contemporary research. O’Donnell-Allen highlights empathy as a crucial element to civil discourse inside and outside of the classroom. Empathy becomes a way for students “to view both the characters they read and the classmates with whom they interact more compassionately” (31). This post is not meant to disparage O’Donnell-Allen’s wonderful work but instead to grapple with empathy and think through what happens next.
Framing empathy as a potent force for social justice is not uncommon. Last year, my district embarked on cultural competency training designed to build empathy and improve ‘educational outcomes’ for students of color. Over the course of the year, facilitators from central office led us through various workshops. We responded to YouTube videos, participated in reading groups for classic social justice texts, and interrogated our subject positions as teachers. Who are we, where did we come from, and how do these formative experiences shape our daily interactions with students?
I do not wish to discount this work. Helping our students navigate and appreciate the plurality of life is a worthwhile goal. But is it enough? For the critical pedagogue, instructional methods and political power are intertwined. If we begin with Paulo Freire’s declaration that students must read the world and the word, then the social justice classroom should prepare students to analyze, critique, and ultimately challenge society’s vectors of oppression.
In my middle school English Language Arts class, students have analyzed the diversity of my classroom library. We used a diversity wheel to explore the various ways our identities intersect. A privilege walk helped students make concrete the effects of race, class, and gender on our lived experiences. But when it comes to resisting and overturning our white supremacist capitalist patriarchy, I’m not convinced that empathy is enough.
As students are becoming critical readers and thinkers, O’Donnell-Allen states that “they are also learning to view both the characters they read and the classmates with whom they interact more compassionately” (32). Then the best we can do as educators is to plan meaningful learning experiences, provide feedback, and create a space where this sort of vulnerable learning can occur. I’m reminded of education’s perennial debate over inputs, outputs, and the black box of the mind. Will the input of empathy lead to the output of liberation? Will tough talks and civil discourse create students who are ready to resist? We must be proactive. Our classrooms cannot start and stop with empathy.
Empathy does not require realignment of social relations. This is not to say that it cannot be a component of social transformation, but in our current context that conveniently confuses dialogues about diversity with material transformation, dialogue for empathy can all too easily become parking lots for emotionality and white fragility, recentering whiteness and irrationally requiring people of color to bear witness to these emotions. (83)
I have witnessed this emotionality among white students in my classes when we discussed issues of privilege and oppression. In fact, my previous blog post can be read as another indulgent display of white fragility. It’s too easy for me to think that such discussions are enough. That my only duty is help students analyze structures of domination in schooling and society.
As a white educator speaking to other white educators, it’s imperative that we guide our students beyond discussion. This coming year, my focus will be on the second part of praxis: action. Inside the classroom I must orient my pedagogy towards social justice work. Because as Patel explains, such talk “cannot be read as politically comprehensive or inherently facilitative of social change” (83). Talk and analysis must lead to student engagement with society. Otherwise,
we risk falling short of social justice’s ability to transform and liberate.
It’s the penultimate day of school and I’m staring out my classroom window. This morning, like every morning (unless it’s raining or the temperature drops below 33 degrees), a gaggle of students push and jostle each other around. One large group of popular kids dominates the corridor leading up to the double doors entrance. The abundant shade and benches make this spot prime real estate. Down a slight hill on both sides of the main strip are “the pits,” small concrete courts bordered by a series of wooden planks. The pits are dominated by boys who alternate between whacking each other with sapling twigs and tossing semi-deflated footballs at each other. Other kids, mostly girls, run messages back and forth between various groups.
Where would I have been in all of this? Not the popular group. And for sure not down in the pits. I probably would have hung out in one of the peripheral groups, the smaller masses of kids hovering in and just beyond the popular group’s center of gravity. This sort of comparison to my own middle school experience isn’t common, but isn’t unheard of, either.
“Don’t regress. Just because you’re teaching middle schoolers doesn’t mean you become one again.” This is one of the few pieces of advice I remember from my teacher training. It seems foolish, but regression is easier than you might think.
To celebrate the end of the year, my team is taking a field trip to one of those combination amusement parks/arcades that seem to exist only in industrial parks around the exurbs. After an hour on a bus, my team and I “lead” a throng of middle schoolers into Fun Place/Zone/Land. The building’s atmosphere of recycled body odor and repressed hormones is the kind of smell that’s somehow timeless.
Without thinking, I latch onto Mr. Carter, my team’s math teacher. The two of us get along well, and I know I can count on him for a steady stream of Dad jokes and enjoyable silliness. He’s “fun” in a way I could never be. We spend fifteen minutes wandering through the epileptic cacophony before settling in at a Terminator arcade game. It’s fun, but I can’t shake the feeling that something is wrong; I’m nervous. Of making a mistake, of not being funny, of saying something clumsy, of being rejected. My nerves twitch from memories of my own childhood.
After the Terminator eats our money, Mr. Carter asks if I want to play a round of laser tag with him. My response is immediate: No thanks. I was spared any noteworthy humiliation during my teenage years, but I’ve always been awkward, perfectionistic, and “eccentric”. “Okay!” he replies affably.
As Mr. Carter wanders off into the laser tag area, I sense a galumphing that can only mean teenage boys. I turn around to see Jason and Jorge in front of me. “YO! Mr. Anderson! Come do the bumper cars with us!”
“Uhm, yea, sure! Let me just check out laser tag with Mr. Carter first,” I reply unsteadily. Unfortunately, he’s scooted off and can no longer provide me with an excuse to decline the invitation. It’s not that I don’t want to, it’s just that interacting with anyone outside of a classroom is unnerving. Within the borders of my classroom and the standard 42 minute class period, I’m unstoppable. My purpose is clear. Outside those boundaries, however, is another story. When it comes to just sort of hanging out, my brain hiccups. I don’t enjoy small talk and I prefer to chat about lessons than weekend plans.
Without a solid reason to decline, I follow Jason, Jorge, and a handful of others to the line. I let Jason explain to me how to operate the cars. Jorge already told me while we waited in the line, but Jason was visibly excited to let me know what to do. Besides, there’s something sweet in these small moments of relationship building.
“How do I get my seatbelt on?” I ask no one in particular as I flail my arms around.
“Mr. Anderson! Look!” Jason replied as he took his own seatbelt off and demonstrated the simple process. “Just lift your arms up and let it fall into place.” I’d already figured it out, but again, moments like this make my heart sing.
The operator turned the cars on and everyone immediately smashed into each other. Cackling, we spent the next five minutes caroming around the course, ricocheting off one another and weaving serpentine paths to set up sneak attacks. There was no malice or latent aggression, just fun. “YO! Mr. Anderson! Look! Spin some wheelies!” Jason shouted to me. I looked over at him and saw him spinning in place with Jorge. I cranked one lever back and pushed the other one forward, causing my bumper car to revolve around and around. In that moment we spun as one, howling together as the rest of the kids continued smashing into each other around the periphery of the track. This continued until the operator ended the ride and we poured out of our bumper cars and gave each other daps.
Jorge and Jason ran off to annoy some girls who had congregated near the photo-booth, leaving me alone and fulfilled. Buoyed by the bumper car success, I hazarded a walk past the laser tag area. “Anderson! Laser tag game. Teachers vs students. You in?” My team leader called out from the arena’s vestibule. After a split second of hesitation, I stopped and turned towards the group of teachers and students gathered together. One of my favorite things about teaching is are the endless opportunities it presents for practice and improvement.
“Come on!” Jason yells, hopping up and down.
“You gonna get CRUSHED!” Jorge hollers, aiming an invisible gun at me and firing off a few rounds.
“Absolutely,” I reply. “Let’s do this.”
During testing week at my school, students show up dressed in their finest sleeping apparel and rocking their favorite bedtime accessories. In an endearing trend I began noticing two years ago, students walk into their testing rooms loaded down with blankets and pillows of various sizes, shapes, and patterns. They use them to turn their desks into pop-up sleeping quarters when they’re finished testing. Since they can’t go anywhere, speak to anyone, or listen to anything during exams, many have taken to curling up beneath the room’s glaring fluorescence in order to nab a few Zs.
Although I suspect comfort is the primary reason for the bedtime theme, I can’t help but wonder if ornate sleeping masks and emoji pillows are also a quiet form of rebellion. When it comes to the do’s and don’t’s of testing season, student apparel is just about the only area Pearson and the state have yet to dictate.
During testing week, children and teachers are subjected to a draconian set of restrictions. Students spend roughly four hours every morning hunkered down in front of dusty laptops, clicking through absurdly boring reading passages and math problems. The monotony is crushing. They aren’t allowed to chew gum or eat food, and any trip to the restroom or a water fountain requires waiting outside the room until a hall monitor is available to escort them to a restroom. This can take a while because during testing only one student is allowed in each bathroom at a time. For teachers, our four hours are spent tracing and retracing serpentine paths up and down rows of desks. Just like the students, we aren’t allowed any distractions. There can be no reading, writing, or planning. Just continuous motion. So today, for the third day in a row, I walk and they click.
There’s something disarming about watching a student in an Eyore onesie focus intently on a high-stakes exam.
My group starts off strong. Except for an unfortunate bout of hiccups, the first two hours glide by in silence. Every kid is in the zone. Students who are allowed to use bilingual and English dictionaries during the exam put them to work, flipping between page and screen for what seems like every question.
Cracks begin to form during the third hour. Feet start to tap. Exaggerated sighs and poorly muffled coughs ping pong around the room. Students begin squirming in their chairs as if the hunks of faded plastic were covered in ants. At this age, students are 95% arms and legs, and it’s charming to watch them contort their ungainly limbs in an endless (and futile) quest for comfort.
When a kid drops his calculator and everyone whips their heads around to stare at him, I know students have hit the wall. From that point forward, sounds that would have been ignored earlier become the subject of intense scrutiny from everyone in the room. All it takes is a single automatic pencil click to cause half of the room’s heads to whip around and glare at the source. Kids are now raising their hands to go to the restroom at a fever pace.
A girl in the back of the room takes off her oversized sweatshirt and drapes it over her testing shield (a cardboard trifold blocking a student’s primary lines of sight). I watch as she tries to push herself into the plush cave. A boy in the back of the room is about to make a farting noise on his arm, but I glare him down.
With only twenty minutes until lunch, kids who haven’t finished yet begin speeding through the remaining test questions. They don’t want to consult any dictionaries or highlight any evidence, they just want to go to lunch with their friends. Because when you’re in 7th grade, the possibility of missing out on treasured, unfettered social time easily outweighs some test.
I’m not allowed to make any comments other than “Please click on the ‘submit test’ button” or “Be sure to use the pointer tool to select the correct answer,” so I simply continue pacing. Finally, the bell rings. I collect everyone’s materials (any scratch paper is collected and shredded) and dismiss them to lunch. I’m exhausted. I cannot imagine what this feels like for the kids.
And just like that, the moment is gone. Although test results begin rolling in immediately, we refrain from telling the students their scores for a few days. And even then, we only reveal whether they passed or failed (versus the common performance categories of below basic/basic/proficient/advanced).
After lunch, the schedule goes back to normal. I tell the students in my three afternoon classes that they can do pretty much whatever they want. They play Uno, take silly Snapchat pictures, and write on the whiteboards. I play a few hands with them and photobomb their snaps.
Next week we’ll be back to academic content, so on these days I try to give them as much space as possible. The summer itch is real, and I’ll need my strength to lead them through one final (and short) unit. So for now I sit on top of my desk and laugh with them, marveling at the hyperbolic existence that is life as a middle schooler.
David Foster Wallace once wrote “The vapider the cliche, the sharper the canines of the real truth it covers.” As far as education bromides go, ‘They don’t care what you know until they know that you care’ is pretty bad. But for the most part, it turns out to be true. A teacher’s ability to form relationships with their students sets the tone for the classroom.
I sometimes like to imagine that every student has a giant padlock on their chest. This is where a student’s motivation, empathy, and trust live. The only way to access these qualities is to find the right key. Some students make it easy, entering the classroom already unlocked. Others keep their key in easy to find places; revealing its location through their words and actions. Some students keep their key hidden away, hesitant to open up for a variety of valid reasons. While this analogy is obviously simplistic, it underscores the importance of trying to understand every child on an individual level.
While this analogy is obviously simplistic, it underscores the importance of trying to understand every child on an individual level. Building relationships with students can be challenging. Our default collection includes our personality traits and hobbies. For me that means hyperactivity, goofy faces and voices, video games, and guitar-based music. Over time I’ve come to fashion crude keys from hip-hop, popular apps, and young adult literature. They’re never a perfect fit, but I know enough to apply pressure to a lock. Having the right key can make a big difference in building a relationship with a student.
I have a student who spent the first two quarters sleep-walking through my class. He’d never enjoyed English, he told me. It just wasn’t his thing. I tried jokes, letter-writing, and music, but nothing seemed to fit. Then, during the brainstorming phase for our last unit (critical reviews), he asked me if he could review For Honor, a recent video game. My face lit up; I had my key.
Lots of students play video games of some sort. A stroll through my school’s cafeteria during lunch reveals plenty of kids glued to their iPads, tapping away at Clash of Clans, Marvel: Avengers Alliance, or whatever app the hive mind has become obsessed with that month. But this kid asked me about For Honor, a brutal, team-based game that requires a decent gaming computer or a current generation Playstation/Xbox to play.
The switch in demeanor was immediate. The kid strutted into class the next day, eager to tell me about For Honor’s DLC and recent patch update. From that point forward, I tried to touch base with him about video games at least once every few days. Sometimes that meant willfully ignoring other students so I could ask him what he thought about the game’s declining popularity.
Now that the relationship has been established, I’ll need to spend the rest of the school year keeping it kindled. Today, for instance, I asked him what games he was looking forward to playing this year. This ends up being quite a bit of work. The nature of my job requires me to allocate every spare minute to a task, so building relationships can take some strategic planning. I’ve been known to call students to my class during other periods in order to secure a few minutes of one on one conversation. Sometimes these go well, and sometimes they end up being exercises in futility.
There are plenty of students with whom I will never form a relationship. During the beginning of the year, a student told me he likes to write fanfiction on Wattpad. As a writer who loves pop culture, I jumped at the student’s admission, demanding to read some of his writing. “Nope. I like to keep those worlds separate. School is school, and outside of school is outside of school,” he said. “No offense.” No matter how hard I tried to convince him otherwise, he wasn’t having any of it. As is his right. We get along in class just fine, but our relationship exists firmly inside the comfortable teacher/producer – student/consumer dynamic.
Plenty of students excel in school regardless of how they feel about their teachers. These hyper-students have internalized the game of formal schooling. They know the language of worksheets, assignments, and points, and simply want to be told what to do and how to do it. As is their right. But these students aren’t as fun. I like kids who make me work for it. Who make me stretch and try new strategies and get outside of my comfort zone. These are the kids who help me evolve as an educator.
I sometimes imagine that teaching is sort of like playing in a local band. You’re the opening act for some larger performance. As the opener, not everyone is going to like you. Most of the audience didn’t come to see you, and they simply have to tolerate you. They bought a ticket to the show, they’re with their friends, and they’re excited for the headliner, so they stick around. But there are always a few diehard fans who are ecstatic to hear you play. They know the words to every song. They come early and stay late. When everyone else is on their cell phones, the diehard fans are pumping their fists and sharing that moment with you.
I use this analogy not as a way to compare teachers to rock stars (shudder), but as a way to think about the unique connections that can form between teachers and students. What starts out as a fandom built on the superficial aspects of performance (I love his energy! or He’s awkward like me!) can, over time, develop into a meaningful relationship. This is more the exception than the rule.
The analogy speaks to my belief that students will connect with certain teachers for specific and often idiosyncratic reasons. Some teachers might collect more fans than others, but even the quirkiest among us can make a difference in another human being’s life.
Over time, relationships between teachers and students can grow beyond the hierarchical structures common (and somewhat necessary) to schooling. If a student I taught last year stops by after school to talk, I’m able to engage with them holistically. We can interact with each other outside the realm of immediate academic transactions. Discussions of academic progress can still play a role; they just don’t have to be the focus.
Last week I received a Facebook message from a former student asking if he could come visit me at school. Since his high school classes don’t start until later in the morning, I told him to stop by around at the start of my first planning period. The two of us had kept in sporadic contact ever since we first hit it off four years ago when he was a student in one of my 7th grade English classes.
As he left my room and I scurried off to my meeting, I was struck by how joyous it felt to see him and talk to him about his life. To watch a life grow and stretch and push outwards. He is finding his groove, and I am so proud of him.
Although this might reflect poorly on my character, I’ve always looked forward to the possibility of former students reaching out and reconnecting with me. I guess it’s a reminder of what I love about teaching: growth, relationships, knowledge, the dialectical possibilities of minds interacting with one another.
The rest of the day was a fairly typical middle school day. I left the building exhausted, overloaded with work, and saturated with the tiny victories and big defeats that sometimes seem to characterizes my life as a teacher.
After the school day ended, I found myself in a situation inverse to the one described in the beginning of this post. Now, as I’ve written about before, I enjoy emailing people whom I admire. I’ve been lucky, fortunate, and privileged that some of my correspondences have blossomed into mentorships, leadership opportunities, and professional growth.
I’m currently co-writing a piece with Julie Gorlewski, one of my academic idols. We had a productive Google Hangout session yesterday, speaking through video chat about teaching, the state of public education, and our article. Julie is in every way my superior. She has published widely, taught in a variety of settings, and knows infinitely more about education than I probably ever will. But she treats me as an equal. I left our 75-minute conversation feeling valued as a thinker, learner, writer, and person. She took my ideas seriously and validated how I perceive the world. This, to me, is some of the raw power of education. It reminded me of who I want to be as an educator. Of how I want to interact with everyone I come into contact with.
As I reflected on the day, I was struck by the richness of education. By its ability to forge powerful relationships through generations and influence the outcomes of multiple lives. Most of all I felt an almost cosmic connection to those around me. In my former student and my new co-author, I felt my place as an educator and a human being.