Where part I dug into why Co-CreatED disappeared for a year,
part II gets to the root of why Co-CreatED began in the first place and why any of it matters.
(PS... *Bonus!* Stay tuned for Part III-- Get a free tool to help discover your own unique Why, and craft a Why statement for your organization, school, or classroom)
WHY CO-CREATED BEGAN IN THE FIRST PLACE
On June 28 of last year, I wrote:
Hey Facebook. Gotta 'quick' life update for you...
So a lot has changed over the past year. I made two significant career moves— ventured out of my beloved Cloverleaf bubble after nearly 6 years to try to make change in the public education world, then took about 7 months to realize that change would be even harder to make than I had thought.
Cloverleaf showed me what great education looks like, and I wanted to take that learning on a larger scale and share it in the public school world. I thought coaching teachers would be a step closer to the classroom, a step toward making an impact on the teaching/learning side of the school instead of the business side that had been sucking the life out of me. It didn’t quite work out that way.
One thing hasn’t changed and never will— I still want education to be better and to serve more kids well. That’s still my life’s work and mission. It’s just time to approach it from a new angle.
During this year of career transition and soul-searching,
a quote from one of my life heroes hit me right in the gut:
I got suckered into this notion that you have to be a part of an institution in order to change that institution. But I’ve discovered there’s this other option. Creating something new-- that’s the 3rd way. There’s the silence, then there’s the anger (like, ‘I’m taking down this institution!’), then there’s a third way— CREATE A BETTER INVITATION.”
Enter: Co-CreatED. My third way, my hopefully better invitation.
With the help of two amazing colleagues, we’re launching our website! Our humble beginnings so far are a blog and a meetup group. From here, we’ll be growing toward consulting, training, and more as we work to humanize education and create systems of equity for all.
The path to learning is co-created.
Thank you for being part of the journey!
Fast-forward to present day, and another reason got added to the list of why to try a totally different approach-- a year of returning to the classroom in a progressive independent school setting. I was back in touch with the lived experience of a teacher, and I was immersed in the stark differences between public and private school. Teachers deserve better. Students deserve better. Our society deserves better.
So the big WHY…
To make education humanizing and equitable for all students.
That’s it. THAT is the why.
Break that down… what does “humanizing” mean?
A humanizing experience honors one’s humanity: it means being treated like a whole person, as an individual with unique worth, with needs that deserve to be met, with a life of value. When school is a humanizing place, students feel seen and known. Their needs are met, their voices are heard, and they feel they belong. When education is a humanizing experience, students grow in their agency, in the fullness of their own humanity. They self-actualize; they discover their power and passion, then use them to impact the world.
Conversely, a de-humanizing experience denies one their humanity. It is when people are treated as less than human. It is factory-model education, where students are treated as empty vessels to be filled up with an externally-determined dose of knowledge, cranked along the assembly line in 180-day batches of age cohorts, then run through the testing ringer, to be spit out the other end as passing (moving on to the next rung of the 180-day conveyor belt), or failing (re-wound to the start of their same 180-day conveyor belt to try again. Apparently the vessel didn’t quite get filled enough.) Students’ developmental needs are ignored (read: play time ever-shrinking, testing time ever-growing).
Which version sounds more common in today’s education landscape?
And what about the “equitable” part?
Equitable is often confused with equal. Equal is everyone getting the same thing; equitable is everyone getting what they need. Schools have to take into account that not everyone has the same starting line, and not everyone is aiming for the same finish line. However, the starting line shouldn’t determine the finish line. That is to say, where you start in life shouldn’t be a sentence to where you wind up in life.
A first step to understanding equity is accepting that privilege is a thing. Start here.
Next, equity recognizes that differences exist based on many factors-- and even the layering and intersections of those factors-- and that those differences result in inequities, injustices, and imbalances that must be acknowledged, addressed, and corrected. Celebrate diversity; fight inequity.
Finally, answer this “riddle” posed to me by a professor during grad school:
If you could only look at one document to predict a student’s future success in life, which one would be the most indicative?
A) Their IQ test
B) Their GPA/ transcript
C) Their standardized testing score report
Correct answer? None of the above.
That document would be…
Their parents’ tax returns. (See: here, here, and here.)
That’s a daunting reality, and school is only one piece of a highly complex puzzle surrounding the income gap and economic mobility in America. But if we really want to disrupt the deeply-entrenched poverty cycle, equity in educational access would be a pretty decent lever to pull.
WHY DOES IT MATTER?
Just imagine… let yourself dream wild and big for a moment...
If those “what-ifs” came true, we’d be living in a completely different world. That stuff matters massively.
Education touches every last one of us-- everyone has to go to school. Education is the one and perhaps only key to changing the world.
Fixing school has the power to fix several equity gaps:
I’ve worked in schools serving students from poverty, and schools serving students from affluence; schools serving neurotypical students, and schools serving neuroatypical students; schools serving mostly students of color and schools serving mostly white students.
There’s not a single one of them who wouldn’t benefit from a co-created education.
We’ve got our work cut out for us. Let’s get to work.
(continued in part III)
Now you know our why...
What is YOUR why?
Up next in the three-part series on Getting Back To Why:
Part 3) What's YOUR Why?
Discover your unique Why, and craft a Why statement for your organization, school, or classroom
*Coming Saturday June 22*
Why it took me a year to get this site back on track,
Why Co-Created began in the first place, and
Why it matters
(PS... *Bonus!* : Discover your unique Why, and how to craft a Why statement for your organization, school, or classroom)
A year went by.
The last time I authored a blog: July of last year.
The last time I edited and published a colleague’s blog: August of last year.
Well, a lot of learning, for one thing.
I learned a lot about myself. I learned how to not define myself by my job title. How to respect myself and see my worth whether others do or not. That I am resilient. That the size of my ideas makes them hard to fit inside a classroom. That I crave flexibility in my work.
I learned how to have a boss, and how to work with a team of peers. I learned what strong leadership looks like through both examples and nonexamples. I learned that there is a need in the education world for team dynamics training, team profile building, and generally investing more in the teams of adults who invest so much of themselves into the students they serve.
I learned that while Project-Based Learning (PBL) is engaging and deep, it is not an inherently student-centered approach or philosophy. In fact, it leans heavily in the teacher-centered direction. More on that in a future post.
I learned more about the key differences between private and public schools, which further fueled my fire to make education better and more accessible for more kids.
I re-learned some things too.
I re-entered the classroom after 4 years outside of it, and the impossibility of the job known as “teaching” came sharply back into focus.
(...You want me to work how many hours for how much money?!)
There aren’t enough hours in the day. There is no flexibility, only rigidity. There is a constant tension between reporting past learning and planning future learning, which meant never living in the present moment with students. As I looked around, I saw a million opportunities for improving the job, the field, the experience… and zero time to actually carry out any of those great ideas.
And to top it all off, there is certainly no prestige.
All these factors left me more motivated than ever to try to make a difference for teachers, for students, and for the broader world of education.
WHY A WHOLE YEAR WENT BY
One of the biggest re-learnings of the past year was something I already knew about myself but hadn’t yet accepted: I’m an all-in person. Whatever I do, I do all the way. I dive headfirst into the deep end and pour my whole self into it. I mean, Wholeheartedness is one of my top 4 values in life. So this past year, the classroom became my world. No matter how many promises I made to myself to balance running Co-Created and running a classroom, I wasn’t able to keep them.
I told myself I could learn to be different, to multitask, to spread my interests and passions more widely, especially if the different elements were complementary.
It turns out that’s not a learn-a-new-skill thing, in my case. It’s a fighting-against-my-nature thing.
That was hard since Growth is another of my top values. Why couldn’t I just grow to be different, or better, or more? Surely I am a smart and capable enough person to figure out how to juggle a main hustle and a side hustle. People do it all the time! I mean, look how many teacher-bloggers there are out there. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t swing it? Self-doubt and even self-resentment crept in.
I thought I was broken. I was wrong.
Some people are meant to do multiple things at a time, extending themselves broadly. Others are meant to do one thing at a time, extending themselves deeply. I’m in the one thing at a time camp, and I’m learning to accept that that’s ok. It can even be a good thing. I couldn’t have helped start a school, lead it, and grow it for 6 years without being an all-in person. My all-in-ness was a strength. (Though, to be fair, every strength has a shadow side. With all-in-ness comes a need to consciously seek out life balance and actively work toward moderation-- a life-long work in progress).
After a year of learning these lessons and many many more, I knew it was time to get back on the horse. Learning all these lessons would be worth it if I could share them with others and use them to help make change.
To do that, I had to get back in touch with my WHY.
(continued in part II)
What is YOUR why?
Let's make this a conversation -- I look forward to reading your comments!
Up next in the three-part series on Getting Back To Why:
Part 2: Why Co-Created began in the first place, and Why it matters
*Coming Monday June 17*
I never really admitted it before now, but the truth is, I quit.
After 21 years of working in public schools across three different states, in multiple roles, and at various grade levels, I quit.
Of course there were some circumstances that led to my leaving a career that I gave my heart and soul to for all of my young (and middle-aged) adult life. But I quit my job and decided to do something else. I didn’t quit because the kids were “bad,” or because I didn’t like the people I worked with. Actually, I love (and miss) the kids and colleagues whom I shared ALL of my time with. I quit because I deserve something better.
You may ask, what is better than being fulfilled by creating positive, life-changing experiences for others on a daily basis? The answer is simply, nothing. Nothing beats that feeling, with the lone exception of wanting to LIVE my LIFE too. I want to have some control over my time, my hobbies, my travel, the quality time with my family, and the lengths to which I can enjoy life.
I cannot name a K-12 educator who has the autonomy and freedom to LIVE their best life *and* be considered a successful, reliable teacher of kids at the same time. Many other careers afford employees time off that is truly theirs, breaks that allow them to (really) take a break, and weekends and vacations that they can plan without restriction. That is simply not the life of a typical teacher. For years, I have read the statistics about teacher retention and why we can’t attract (or keep) our best and brightest into the profession. The list is usually something like this:
While these reasons are compelling, they don’t entirely define the reason I left the profession. I worked for 21 years, found the pay in my area fair, had been promoted and recognized for my talent and hard work, felt respected by my school, community and leadership, and found advancement in the profession. I even looked forward to going to work everyday. By all counts, things were going relatively well on an individual level. It’s the systemic level that wore me down. I left because the system is broken.
I don’t feel that the life of a teacher is fair, reasonable, or sustainable. As much as I enjoyed going to work everyday, I wanted to go home and enjoy my family. My hours as an educator ran late, and I often worked from home in the evenings and on weekends. When I became a supervisor of teachers, I had to ask others to do the same thing to “get the job done.” The reason for this is because many communities expect schools to be everything to everybody. They expect teachers to be the “single most important factor of student success.” Wow… That’s a lot of pressure to place on a single individual. If we are depending on an individual to be the single greatest factor in the success of the next generation, then our systems are flawed.
In my opinion, public education will only be a success when we move beyond focusing on the individual-- i.e. the teacher-- as the pivotal changemaker, and instead apply systems thinking and begin wrapping our heads around the system as a whole. Great people in a broken system yields demoralizing situations and disenchanted workers. The changes I want to see are those that allow schools to function with quality individuals, who can perform tasks within an outstanding system, to support the growth and development of children. While I agree that teachers are immensely important in shaping the lives of their students, I want us to pick up our heads and see the forest instead of just the trees. We need an education system that creates optimal situations for both students and teachers alike.
I believe great schools-- with realistic expectations for teachers and robust experiences for students-- do exist. However, they need to be equal and available to all. While my intent is not to focus on the disparity between the experiences of students and educators in varying socioeconomic statuses, it is hard to ignore that teachers who service low-socioeconomic communities are called to do more for their students.
Vox contributor Amy Piller agrees in her 2016 article on school segregation, "The most challenging jobs in teaching are the least competitive. Those jobs begin with a task that is near insurmountable, offer the same pay as an easier school, with fewer resources and less support, and thus create a high likelihood of failure and burnout." Unfortunately, the problem isn’t unique. Throughout our country, administrators, teachers, and staff are expected to do the same job with fewer resources in low-income schools as their counterparts in more affluent areas.
When I say "the system is broken," one of the systemic factors glaring in my mind is school funding. Allena Semuels of the Atlantic details the inequities in spending and their effects on public education:
Nationally, high-poverty districts spend 15.6 percent less per student than low-poverty districts do, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Lower spending can irreparably damage a child’s future, especially for kids from poor families. A 20 percent increase in per-pupil spending a year for poor children can lead to an additional year of completed education, 25 percent higher earnings, and a 20-percentage point reduction in the incidence of poverty in adulthood, according to a paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research."
Teachers have remarkably difficult and complex jobs everywhere, but the severity of the work is compounded when the system is stacked against you and those you give your life to serve. It’s not enough to improve schools, we have to create an equality of opportunity for all children. When considering my life as an educator, it is disturbing to think of how much I have given to and sacrificed for a faulty and unequal system. Sacrificing my personal life while remaining unable to create systemic change is why I needed a new career path.
A NEW PATH
The need for change that I was feeling ended up landing me in the corporate world for the first time. In my new corporate work reality, I was simply hired to do a job. That may sound silly, but it is a major change for someone used to the purpose-driven, self-sacrificing life of an educator. This new reality has given me the space to reflect, to notice, to look at things from a different angle. It turns out there may be a few lessons that the education world could consider borrowing from the business world.
Onboarding makes a tangible difference.
I spent my first week shadowing people whom I would support and work with. I was given small tasks to complete to fully understand the components and expectations of the job. I spent my entire second week being immersed in the culture of the company. I was given a mentor who sat next to me and answered my basic questions as I got comfortable in my new role. My supervisor has met with me twice in the first month to find out how to better support me in my transition.
Easing into the new job in this way has been mind-blowing! Especially when I compare it to the onboarding processes I was a part of back in the education world. Though teachers are being described as “the most important factor in the achievement of our students,” our onboarding processes communicate the complete opposite. Teachers are all too often dumped in the deep end to sink or swim, which contributes substantially to our high teacher attrition rate. If we want to attract and keep quality new teachers, and if we want them to experience success, we can’t just drop them in the class with kids and turn them loose. It is essential to properly onboard them and guide them to success with appropriate support, scaffolded experiences, and mentorship.
Jobs are doable when they are focused and streamlined.
I currently work in a corporate training department where great lengths are taken to ensure that trainers have all the tools and support needed whenever a new training is launched. The trainer's job is solely to deliver the content. There are a host of other people who inform the content, develop the activities, and create the materials. I know my part, I do my part, and I know I have a team around me doing the same so we can put together a cohesive puzzle.
Again, mind blown! Imagine that level of focus in the teaching field. A whole team of professionals contributing parts to a greater whole rather than 1 individual expected to do it all. As a society we seem to expect teachers to be parents, nurses, social workers, therapists, data analysts, curriculum writers, academic researchers, marketing and communications experts, as well as tech-savvy, multi-tasking, well-organized, impartial judges of everything that happens in a kids life. To draw a rough analogy, most professionals won’t accept a job as a doctor but spend the bulk of their days doing the work of a lawyer. This bait-and-switch is another factor leading to high teacher attrition; newbies go in with anticipation of being "teachers," then run away a few short years later when the laundry list of titles becomes too long to take on any more.
Staffing means hiring enough heads to wear all the hats.
Chronic funding shortfalls in schools often means understaffing and overstretching: a recipe for burnout. Teachers and school leaders alike are expected to wear way too many hats, because the alternative would be too expensive. Increasing the number of people on payroll costs money, and for some reason, we as a society have come to accept that schools just don't have any money. We treat it like a big unsolvable mystery and move on. But what if instead of expecting teachers to do it all, we staffed adequately for the reality of the job at hand? What if we accepted that schooling is an expensive public good and ponied up the dough that it actually takes?
School funding is a complex, multi-faceted topic for another day (blog coming soon!). For now, there are seven positions I think all schools should have on staff to make the job more realistic:
While some schools have some of these roles already, this should be the standard for all schools, whether they serve affluent or poor communities, and regardless of race or background. The expectations should be the same for all schools, teachers, and children.
Again drawing on my recent learnings in the corporate world, I see there's a thing or two we could borrow and apply to the education world. In many corporate learning or training situations, there are teams of people who write the curriculum, provide the learning aides, train the trainers on how to deliver the content, and then find ways to follow up with and assess the adult learners in real life situations. While I know their is a large difference between schools and companies with adults in them, the expectation of responsibility should be systemic and task specific. Teachers should be provided assistance with tasks that take their attention away from delivering awesome experiences for children. That should be their job and focus. Someone else should be staffed to respond to parent concerns, manage paperwork, assess and analyze data, and monitor lunch and recess. I don’t believe the teacher should be absent from those other responsibilities, but I believe staffing in this way would make for a more systemic approach to the expectations we have for schools and teachers.
Modern day teachers are expected to encompass a much wider variety of skills than persons in other professions. They are expected to be able to be warm and fuzzy with children, be content experts for language, math, science, and social-studies, provide social-emotional learning for students, be great and consistent communicators with parents, have perfect written and oral skills in multiple media forms, be able to manage apps and websites, and respond to the needs of our kids everyday in an ever-changing landscape of teaching and learning. I am exhausted just writing the list. It makes me want to quit again.
I know schools are non-profit entities and not profit-yielding companies. I understand that my suggestions would cause a significant increase in funding for public schools. My stance is that it is worth it. It is imperative that we make the profession rewarding and enjoyable. Opportunities for success have to be available to all. Finally, work-life balance should be the new expectation for educators, and our systems need to reflect this.
These days, everyone is talking about 21st century skills, 21st century curriculum. It’s the 21st century after all, and we gotta get with the times! But what about 21st century discipline? I’ve read a little about 21st century learning environments, but it generally focuses on the physical environment, not the place a school’s discipline plan holds in the social-emotional-behavioral aspect of that environment. Come to think of it, school “discipline” doesn’t even sound like a 21st century word...
Fall in line.
Shudder. To be honest, when listed together like that, that’s a set of words that kind of give me the heebie-jeebies (in a robot-human, 1984-esque dystopian kind of way). I’ve started referring to these type of words as the “Command and Comply” approach to classroom management and even to school management (more to come in a future post on the connection between the ways we manage kids, the ways we manage adults, and the trickle-down effects that can occur). “Command and Comply” is a common approach-- dare I say even the most common or prevailing approach out there. It’s what most of us grew up with in both our homes and our schools, which leads many to the “...but I turned out fine” argument fallacy. It’s an approach that somehow got frozen in time and remains intact today, reminiscent of a bygone era while time continues to pass it by.
Unfortunately, that set of words listed above gets hurled around a lot-- not only by education outsiders, but sadly insiders as well-- when talking about what ”kids these days” lack and what we need to give them to teach them a lesson. Our human nature leads us to fear what we don’t understand, and let’s be real-- there’s a lot going on in the 21st century world that many of us just plain do not understand.
But do these words really represent what “kids these days” need? Let’s take a look at the top 10 skills that the World Economic Forum (WEF) indicates are most needed for the workforce of today and even tomorrow:
The skills the WEF cite from their research are not the kind born of a 19th-century “command and comply” norm. That norm seemed to work out ok as a classroom management style back when we were preparing students for a future in an industrial era job. Punch in, do rote tasks all day, punch out, repeat. The industrial revolution required a hard-skilled, compliant workforce. It was up to teachers and parents to make sure kids were prepared academically and behaviorally for the demands of their future jobs. If there were one word we could use to sum up the goal of 19th century discipline it would be compliance.
On the flipside, if there were one word we could use to sum up the goal of 21st century discipline, it would be autonomy. The 21st century brings with it what the WEF calls a 4th industrial revolution, characterized by a “range of new technologies that combine the physical, digital and biological worlds. These new technologies will impact all disciplines, economies and industries, and even challenge our ideas about what it means to be human” (Forbes).
Now that the “4th revolution” is upon us, it’s time to update not only our curricula, our buildings, and our views on teaching and learning, but also our views on discipline and behavior. A new era requires a new approach; new goals require new strategies. To butcher a wonderful quote by John Dewey, “If we [discipline] today’s students as we [disciplined] yesterday’s, we rob them of tomorrow.” Such is the case when we practice 19th century discipline in a 21st century world; it’s a classic square-peg-round-hole situation.
Based on the WEF list, the one skill that stands out most to me when I think about our ever-changing world is “cognitive flexibility,” which I would pair with resilience. This pair of dispositions will become more and more critical over time since “65% of children entering primary schools today will ultimately work in new job types and functions that currently don’t yet exist.” We are preparing students for a world that we can’t even visualize. A “do as your told” approach to discipline isn’t sustainable when we don’t even know what to tell them to expect.
In the same vein as the WEF study above, a second study was conducted by nonprofit research group The National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE), which Forbes highlighted in 2013:
Again, skills like these are not the kind that thrive in a militant environment. Compliance-based discipline is in direct conflict with the skills listed above because it is extrinsic rather than intrinsic. No amount of forcing, telling, intimidating, or dictating will result in stronger decision-making skills, problem-solving abilities, information processing, creativity, or influence. Externally imposed controls deny children the opportunity to develop internally moderated self-control.
Writing for the blog A Fine Parent, educator and parent Lisa Anderson elaborated on this concept from a parenting standpoint as well:
Did you ever hear, “Because I say so, that’s why!!” or “Do what I tell you, or else!!” at some point in your childhood? Intimidation was the tool of choice used in those days to create compliant children.
It is all interconnected-- our approach to discipline has a striking effect on learning. In the math classroom for instance, I've seen students freeze up entirely when asked to "choose flexibly from a range of strategies" and apply them to various problems. Similarly, at the conclusion of a science project, I've watched students stare holes through their shoes when asked to self-assess their level of critical thinking on a rubric.
Should any of this be surprising though when the environment in which these classes take place communicates to students around every turn that they cannot be trusted to think for themselves? How could we expect sophisticated reasoning in a STEM context when we don’t even let students make decisions about meeting their own basic needs? Everything from their eating schedules to their bathroom breaks are heavily regulated and outside their control. If we want critical, reflective thinkers, we have to stop micromanaging their every move.
SO IF THE OLD WAYS OF DISCIPLINING WON'T LEAD TO NEW WAYS OF THINKING, WHAT WILL?
Sometimes complex ideas are best summed up in chart form. Here are a few ways to give your 19th century discipline a 21st century makeover:
DISCIPLINE & EQUITY: CHOOSING TO WIDEN OR CLOSE THE GAP
Why change? How will we escape our addiction to "that's the way we've always done it?" What is going to be motivating enough for us to overcome our innate fear of change and do things differently?
Perhaps the economic reasons above have captured your attention. The employment landscape is drastically changing as technology progresses, and schools must prepare the future workforce to further our economy and our society.
Or maybe you would consider the issue from the standpoint of moral development, as Kohlberg did in the 1950s. We want students graduating to higher levels of moral reasoning to make their lives and the world a better place. Imagining a society made up of individuals with intrinsic moral reasoning capabilities could be a convincing motivator to reconsider how we are designing and running our schools.
But if none of the above feel motivating enough, try equity. We see time and time and time again that current practices are grossly inequitable, that they disproportionately target poor males students of color, and that they contribute heavily to the school-to-prison pipeline.
WEF sheds light on a stark realization:
In addition to being a key economic concern, inequality represents the greatest societal concern associated with the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The largest beneficiaries of innovation tend to be providers of intellectual and physical capital—the innovators, shareholders, and investors—which explains the rising gap in wealth between those dependent on capital versus labor. The demand for highly skilled workers has increased, while the demand for workers with less education and lower skills has decreased. The result is a job market with a strong demand at the high and low ends, but a hollowing out of the middle.
So we have a choice to make as educators. Our practices demonstrate our choice to either widen or close the gap. There is no 'neutral' in this matter.
Change is hard, and we get that. Updating a centuries-old model requires a serious investment of both time and money. As we’ve mentioned before, mindsets might be the hardest thing in the world to change. Concerns range from budget, to PR, to risk assessment, to district support, to parent education... the list of “why not”s could go on and on, but it’s the “why”s that we are interested in. We’re not saying it’s easy. We’re saying it is worth it.
Take a self inventory: is your school’s discipline system a relic of a bygone era, or on the cutting edge of tomorrow? Is your classroom a 19th century or 21st century environment, or somewhere in between? Is your parenting style shaping compliant children or self-managing children?
And lastly, what do we do as Co-Creators to face these issues and make change happen?
We look forward to hearing from you!
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?