Last month, Stacey Abrams made history. Not just local GA history, but national history. The whole country was talking about the first black woman to become a major party candidate for governor (...in the year 2018...in the entire United States. While that is indeed progress and a milestone, it is still rather shocking that it hasn’t happened before now).
Guys, this matters on so many levels. I immediately think about our young female students of color all over the country. As the saying goes, “you can’t be what you can’t see.” Now they see they can run a whole state one day. It’s about damn time!
College junior and co-president of the Young Democrats of America (YDA) at Spelman College, Makailah Pempleston said to Teen Vogue: “Her primary win gave hope and broke the glass ceiling for more possibilities, and that's what it meant to me. To Atlanta, this means liberation. Keisha Lance Bottoms as [second ever black female] mayor of the city and Stacey Abrams as governor of Georgia will change the whole political atmosphere for the better.” Representation matters.
At a recent event I attended, I learned about the term “windows and mirrors.” We were discussing the show Sesame Street and the role it played in shaping parts of our racial identities. We learned that for many suburban white viewers, the show served as a “window” to see perhaps for the first time, an urban setting and a racially diverse array of actors. On the other hand, for viewers of color, the show served as a “mirror;” an opportunity to see themselves reflected on the tv. As shamefully underrepresented as minorities are in the media today, the problem was even worse back when Sesame Street launched in the 1960s. As Newsweek put it:
Perhaps the most radical part of the Sesame DNA has always been its social activism. From the start, Sesame targeted lower-income, urban kids—the ones who lived on streets with garbage cans sitting in front of their rowhouse apartments. The show arrived on the heels of riots in Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland and Chicago, and the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.
Windows and mirrors are the key to building understanding across the lines of identity divisions. What do the Stacey Abrams election and Sesame Street have in common? Making history, pushing society forward, and giving us the gift of windows and mirrors. How can we bring more windows and mirrors into the classroom for our students?
CREATING THE SPACE FOR CRITICAL ENGAGEMENT
In the traditional education system, the teacher is seen as the giver of all knowledge and the student is then the receiver of that knowledge. We know that this process of giving and receiving has worked when students can correctly regurgitate the facts they have been given on a multiple-choice test - a test in which only one option is right and the others are wrong.
With this as the measure of success, it is no wonder that students understand their world to be right/wrong or always/never. And it is no wonder that the process of learning then is rote memorization, often with the assistance of meaningless mnemonic devices. It is no wonder that education is based in simplicity over multiplicity.
A true understanding of our world (and the complexities that exist within human and natural systems) necessitates a release of the tradition of rigidity and an embrace of multiple perspectives. It demands an acceptance of evolving definitions and often an acknowledgement of the unclear or unknown. It demands that we value asking meaningful questions and seeking varied perspectives and solutions more than we value memorizing the one right answer. It demands that we create space for multiple truths to exist simultaneously - a space with the flexibility to think in “both/and”s rather than “either/or”s.
GRADUATING FROM LITERATE TO CRITICALLY LITERATE
Once we create a space for critical engagement in the classroom, we are ready to critically engage with texts. In this way, individual texts are not simply accepted as “truth.” Rather, texts are read critically in a practice of exploring the author’s perspective, seeking diverse perspectives, and reflecting on how it resonates with the student’s own way of seeing the world.
There are a few key questions to ask when developing critical literacy:
1. Who is the author and what is their perspective? (Understanding the Text)
In traditional literacy, the focus is on the text itself and developing the pure skill of reading in a vacuum devoid of context. We dehumanize books-- we pay little mind to the author aside from some cutesy “P.I.E.” charts and perhaps a brief look at that author’s other literary works.
In critical literacy, on the other hand, the author of the text is not overlooked; rather, we seek to understand the author as we view reality through their point of view. We analyze the work to see how the author’s identity and experience influences the content they create. Writing is a human act; considering the humanity of the author re-humanizes the reading experience.
2. How does my perspective affect my interpretation? (Relating Text-to-Self)
“Making connections” is a common reading comprehension strategy taught in a traditional literacy classroom-- connecting text-to-self, text-to-world, and text-to-text/other media. Critical literacy builds upon this practice and takes it a step further by calling us to examine where our interpretation of a book is coming from.
We weigh the author’s perspective against our own experience and create our own meaning from it. In the process, we develop an understanding that a text can have many interpretations-- students may discuss with one another the different meanings they made from the same text. The meaning depends on the lens through which the text is read and on the context in which it is read. We value all understandings of a text as true to the individual.
A few helpful prompts at this stage could be:
In sharing different perspectives and understandings, the student-teacher partnership is strengthened. Students become teachers, and teachers become students.
3. Whose perspective hasn’t been heard? (Relating Text-to-World and Text-to-Text)
Once we have examined the author’s perspective and our own, we are ready to venture beyond those immediate perspectives into imagining or discovering the lived experiences of others. We challenge the commonly held assumptions, and we seek out the perspectives that are not represented in the text.
There is usually a “default” or commonly adopted interpretation of a text. In critical literacy, we engage in the practice of not only analyzing the default interpretation, but also examining gaps and contradictions that typically go unexamined. Where did this default view originate? Why? Whose perspective does it reflect? How does that differ from my perspective? Whose perspective does it ignore or leave out?
When building text-to-text connections, we consider how the ideas are similar and different from texts we previously explored, and how that understanding shapes the evolving meaning we are creating together. We compare and contrast the perspectives of two or more authors and how their content varies accordingly.
Next, we connect the text or texts to the broader world context. What was going in in the world at the time the book was written that might have shaped the content and influenced the author’s perspective? Why does this matter?
Prompts for this stage might be:
JUST AS HOW WE READ MATTERS, WHAT WE READ MATTERS
In the Western world, the perspective of the white male has manifested as “universal” for so long that it seems invisible -- in all modes of media and culture, the white male reality permeates. This creates a problematic mirrors/windows scenario that shortchanges everyone. White males are surrounded by mirrors that reflect back their lived experience, but encounter too few windows to develop understanding on the experiences of others. Conversely, women and people of color are hungry for the opportunity to see themselves mirrored in media, but find only windows to gaze through.
As educators, we have the opportunity to change that. All students deserve a curriculum that mirrors their own experience back to them and validates their reality. The fresh air of “windows” breathes life into the curriculum. However, this can be a challenge when we lack representative resources. Each year, the Cooperative Children's Book Center (CCBC) of Wisconsin curate and publish statistics on diversity in children’s literature. Hannah Hehrlich of Lee & Low multicultural book publishers analyzed the CCBC’s findings to shed light on the diversity gap in children’s book publishing, summarized in an infographic:
The gap is startling and troubling. One glimpse of hope though, as the graphic indicates, is the statistics are finally showing signs of progress, and we are starting to have more options to draw from.
A few of our favorite sources include:
Lee & Low
A Mighty Girl
Critical Literacy in the 21st Century
What We Do All Day
What are some of the ways you help students hone their critical literacy skills?
What are some of your favorite sources for diverse and/or socially conscious children's books?
We'd love to hear from you!
When the idea of parent engagement came up for the blog, I knew exactly who to turn to:
Meet Katherine. :)
A dear friend and former colleague, Katherine has been called names ranging from “the parent whisperer” by staff who admired her uncanny skills, to “my unicorn” by one self-admittedly tough parent with whom Katherine established a thriving relationship. I am thrilled for her to share some of her magic with you today!
At Co-CreatED, we know the learning path is formed not in isolation, but in strong collaboration.
Greatness comes from working together.
So it’s not only about the teacher-student partnership, nor the teacher-leader partnership, or even the school-community partnership. Parents are co-creators too, and our relationships with them have huge potential for enriching students’ learning experience.
There are many facets to the topic of parent engagement and many co-creators who have a stake in it, from parents to school staff to policy makers to citizens. There’s a close-up interpersonal piece, and there’s a big-picture societal piece. In this two-part series, we’ll take it from the up close and personal to the bird’s eye view for a deep and wide look at co-creating the learning path with strong parent partnerships.
I am excited to collaborate with Jen on this two-part, “zoom in, zoom out” series where we take a look at parent engagement. To start, I’d like to zoom in and talk about the parent-teacher relationship and what’s made a difference for me on both sides of the table.
See, I am a parent of both neurodiverse and neurotypical children. My daughter who is hard of hearing, has ADHD and a mood disorder just graduated high school, while my neurotypical son and step-daughter are in elementary.
I’ve also had the pleasure of teaching both neurodiverse and neurotypical children for five years, and then working six years as director of admissions and counseling for a small school educating students grades K-8 with ADHD, autism, and other learning differences.
So, I have literally been on both sides of parent-teacher conferences, phone calls (the good, the bad, and the ugly), and requests for support.
Along this journey, I’ve reflected on the tools and tricks of the trade that have helped me have meaningful and productive parent-educator relationships, thanks to the different hats I’ve had the opportunity to wear.
Here are a few of the essentials.
#1) Treat each other like humans.
I know it sounds basic, but this is the foundation.
The truth is, parenting is hard. There is not a job on the planet that opens a person up for more judgement than becoming a parent.
The truth also is, teaching is hard. I’ve always felt there is a unique weight that comes with being entrusted with other people’s children. Both jobs come with extensive public criticism and a list of expectations a mile long.
If you come away from this blog with nothing else, please take this:
People are doing the best they can, where they are, and with what they have."
I truly hope you’ve already developed and leaned into this belief about your students; I encourage you to extend it to their families, too.
Cultivate empathy, offer the gift of grace, and remember we are all in this together.
There is nothing more powerful than human connection.
#2) Equal is everyone getting the same thing. Fair is everyone getting what they need.
Raising my daughter in private schools that specialize in educating kids with disabilities, I never had a parent-teacher conference shorter than 1 hour.
When my son came along and I saw his public school conference was scheduled for 20 minutes (and that there was only one for whole the school year), I was shocked and appalled...until I experienced the first one. Where all my questions were covered with time to spare.
Then I was shocked that that was even possible.
My two kids had very different needs, and as a result received different things and had different experiences.
And it turned out... that was ok!
You wouldn’t water a cactus the same way you would a hibiscus; it would drown.
You also wouldn’t treat an ER patient coming in with severe chest pains and difficulty breathing with the same urgency you would a sprained wrist. "Triage" saves lives!
As a teacher, you have many, many demands on your time and attention. If you find yourself stressing over how to distribute these finite and precious resources, I think some version of the Pareto Principle or "80/20 rule" applies here.
EXAMPLES: In healthcare, roughly 20% of patients use 80% of the healthcare resources. It’s not that the larger counterpart is going without-- they simply have less need. In the technology world, 80% of "bugs" come from 20% of software-- repairing those specific glitches gives bigger bang for the buck. For bloggers, 20% of posts usually generate 80% of traffic to the blog site.
I’ve heard some teachers get pretty indignant about a handful of kids and/or parents each year who require more energy and resources than the rest of their class.
Instead, embrace the probability that roughly 80% of your students/ familes will need about 20% of your effort, while 20% of your students/ families will need about 80% of your effort. Lean into spending your time equitably and fairly instead of evenly.
#3) And while we’re talking numbers… we have to let go of a “100%” goal.
There will be some parents you reach out to-- maybe even repeatedly-- who are just hard to get in touch with or who don’t engage in the relationship you’re trying to build.
That is ok!
This is where the "parents are people, too" mindset comes in handy.
Think about all the many things parents and caregivers in general have on their plates. Then consider that there are families out there who are facing a whole gamut of challenges of which you may or may not be aware-- from working multiple jobs, to battling substance addiction, to escaping abusive relationships, to wondering where their family will sleep that night.
When you put those challenges in perspective, it becomes obvious that returning a teacher's phone call falls low on the priority list. (Lookin' at you, Maslow!)
To be clear, this is by no means an excuse to leave some parents out, to give up, or to blame.
It is a reminder to take a human perspective and to see any parent involvement as a gift. Practice gratitude for what you do get, instead of a hyperfocus on what you don't get. One teacher reminded me we have to “aim for the moon so that if we miss we hit the stars.”
One way to aim high for reaching parents is to diversify your efforts.
Mix-and-match: phone calls, text messages, home visits, open door hours, class newsletters, class website/ learning platform blasts, Twitter, printed letters & flyers, formal conferences, 2-way notebooks or folders, etc.
Pick a few go-tos that parents can count on from you, and ask parents what they prefer. Knowing a parent's preferred mode and time of communication can drastically reduce frustrating communication barriers.
#4) Make an up-front time investment, then bask in the returns.
In short, you get what you give, and it helps to front-load the year with positive interactions.
As a parent of a child who struggles with impulsivity and emotional regulation, you better believe I’ve gotten more than my fair share of phone calls and emails detailing ways my kid behaved poorly or unexpectedly.
So much so that any time I saw the school’s number pop up on my phone, my heart would race and I would start sweating profusely.
Reaching out within the first week for a quick phone call to highlight something positive that happened in class or on the playground will go a long way, especially with parents who have historically only gotten those negative calls.
Even just reaching out in a neutral way early on can be a big step toward cultivating a relationship. Introduce yourself, see if the parent has any questions, and let them know you are there if they ever want to touch base.
Later on, if you do have to reach out to troubleshoot a concern, it will be after you’d already established a foundation, so it will likely be better received.
An added benefit to building that parent relationship is that it’s not lost on the student.
Kids know when you are talking with their parents about the good and the bad, and that can definitely have an impact on how they conduct themselves in the classroom. They connect that their actions at school get communicated home and vice versa, so it brings an added level of awareness.
#5) You gotta ask!
Parents are not mind readers, so if you need help, you have to reach out.
For the most part, parents want to help out where they can, so be sure to vary the ways they can contribute. Items/supplies for the classroom and volunteer time during the school day are the most common requests, but not everyone can afford to give in those ways.
This is where take-home tasks come in-- cutting things out, assembling folder games, mending pillows, repairing torn books, laundering bean bag covers, etc. Everyone wants to feel like part of the team, and take-home tasks can loop in parents that are normally left on the outs.
Blanket asks, like in your class newsletter, are great for getting the word out, but even with the most involved group of parents, I would sometimes still have holes to fill.
That’s when I would rely on my relationships with parents to make direct asks. Which brings me to...
#6) Cold-calls always suck.
Awkward and uncomfortable-- that’s how I feel reaching out to someone I don’t really know to ask them for help.
It’s like the equivalent of a “cold call” in the sales world. On the flip side, a “warm call” doesn’t feel quite as awkward, and tends to work out better.
Relationships make the ask easier and make a ‘yes’ more likely.
Knowing your parents individually not only helps you narrow down who is best to ask based on the task at hand, but it also exponentially expands your bank of resources. For example, based on the relationships I had built with parents, I knew who to ask for what, and it greatly enriched the learning experience for ALL students.
I asked the parent who sews to help us out when our cozy corner pillows were bursting at the seams. I asked the Spanish-speaking parent to be our guide on a fieldtrip to Plaza Fiesta during our Latin America Unit. I even took up one parent on her offer when she said she’d rather just donate than volunteer. She and I shared a passion for diversity and activism, so she sponsored a class set of critical literacy books for our library.
In those examples, asking for support actually deepened our relationships, because the parent felt valued and included for what they uniquely bring to the table.
The parent-teacher relationship is just that-- a relationship.
Think: interactions, instead of transactions.
In my experience, there are no shortcuts to building relationships. It does take time and effort, and I certainly appreciate how valuable both of those commodities are. I will also say, though, that it’s entirely 100% worth it-- because when you make this switch to developing richer connections, you will actually be more likely to get what you need, and so will the students and families you serve.
To all the school leaders, classroom leaders, and parents out there:
What are some of the ways you've partnered with each other to co-create the learning path together?