Coaching Notes: Reimagining Literacies Through Art-ELA Collaboration

The multiple literacies—visual literacy, maker literacy, reflective literacy—being taught and activated in art classrooms each day make them some of my favorite places to coach.  These disciplinary literacies are one of the reasons that art classes are vital to student success, as they teach ways of thinking and seeing that learners aren’t typically getting elsewhere in their school day.  This is something I may have known or considered, but it’s not something I had ever really seen activated.  Art classes can feel like an outpost, separate from other content areas (even physically in our school), but there would be important benefits for student literacy if there were strategic collaboration between art and the so-called “core” classes, particularly English, my core subject area, as we think about promoting the transfer of important literacy skills and moves across our school for students.  These sorts of cross-discipline learning opportunities have been on my mind, as our school begins an Instructional Rounds pilot for a more comprehensive roll out next year: how do we normalize and encourage this sort of learning?

What English Teachers Can Learn from Art Teachers

“I care more about the message and meaning of your art more than anything else.”
–A Colleague

My core philosophy centers on trusting students—the trusted become trustworthy, as Adrienne Maree Brown concludes—and art classes are some of the most trusting spaces in our schools, as students are given instruction with models, raw materials, and radical choice about their process, materials, and design.  In short, students are embedded in classrooms that center a kind of maker literacy.  Students are consistently making and remaking, they are experimenting without the common worry if what they’re doing is exactly “right.”  What’s made can be unmade; their work is always in beta.  This isn’t the ethos in many English classes, which can, at times, be “over-scaffolded” and prescriptive.  Marcelle Haddix reminds us that, in most cases, students’ competence is rarely ever presumed; they are assumed incompetent until proven otherwise.  That means rather than experimenting—making, unmaking, remaking—there is a top-down approach that stifles.  This might mean several iterations of drafts and a good amount of productive fits and starts, but it also might be the most productive learning experience our students can have, especially as we trust them as experts on themselves and their own learning.

In my Writing Center course, students write autoethnographies about their literacy and writing histories.  Here’s a representative example of a pattern I’ve been seeing, a pattern which has become increasingly dominant:

Upon closer inspection, however, there is another difference that I’ve become aware of; a difference that doesn’t show up in my old writings, but one that nevertheless has become apparent to me…my once-apparent love for reading, writing, and history seems to have dampened somewhat.

In the art classes I’ve observed, I’ve watched teachers honor student literacies through thoughtful, genuine encouragement and value student funds of knowledge even when they haven’t always shared the same knowledge.  Students will tell stories—often personal stories—through their work, and the level of support they receive when sharing vulnerability is a trait we should be actively emulating.  There’s no constricting prompts or tight guidelines, and, from the conversations I’ve heard, this feels fundamentally different from some other parts of their experience, which challenges us to make changes in our instruction that these feelings aren’t isolated to certain parts of the school day or school building.

It’s at the intersection of trust and respect where we see the power of maker literacy in our art classes and how it might be extended across curriculums and schools: students are learning how to think through their own changing interpretations about the world and their place in it rather than following along with narrow interpretations, remix and adapt the thoughts and techniques of others to say something meaningful for authentic audiences rather than producing solely for grades for a standardized test, and how to extend these skills across different media and platforms rather to being confined to a single output, like a five-paragraph essay.   What I’ve seen students do in art with some fairly basic tools and every day materials is nothing short of incredible; it’s critical thinking at the highest possible levels.  I’m taking the maker literacy ethos I’ve learned from my art colleagues with me in my coaching across the curriculum.

What Art Teachers Can Learn from English Teachers

If art teachers have the ethos, we might say that English teachers can provide the literacy frameworks that can help build or reinforce certain skills.  This isn’t to say that art teachers (or teachers in any other discipline) lack literacy pedagogy, especially in their disciplines, but ELA teachers often have the kinds of specialized training to put key literacy skills into action, make them tenable and tangible.  Put simply, we want students to be able to activate key literacy skills in a choice-based, trust-rich environment.  If I had my wish, I’d co-teach with an art teacher for a term because the results could be powerful.

My latest coaching experience in an art class came about. because my colleague is having students write artist’s statements for their work, which is an awesome way to build student metacognition about process, but they needed some support helping students understand and activate the skills necessary to do this level of work.  Part of my coaching centered on the sequencing of instruction, and another part of my coaching looked at practices that could help teach students what it means to analyze, interpret, and evaluate, as these are distinct moves.  While I knew commonalities existed, I had to respect that analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating might look a little different in the art room than they did in ELA room.  ELA teachers sometimes think these are “our” moves, and they are, but they have shared ownership and multiple meanings depending on discipline and context.

In the sequencing of instruction, we focused on getting students to move from seeing a piece of art, a sculpture in this case, to generating a list of what they notice, to sorting through their observations and starting to make meaning from them both in writing and conversation.  The process is very similar to Rosenwasser and Stephen’s “Notice and Focus” method in Writing Analytically.  Students had time to look at Karon Davis’ Muddy Water sculpture and collect their thoughts, then they were given two minutes to record every observation they had—whether it was about materials or composition or even some overarching theme considerations—on separate sticky notes, and then they were given time to sort through their observations, considering what stuck out to them.  From there, students engaged in some conversation with their tablemates about what they chose and why, maybe it was interesting or strange or revealing or problematic.  Had there been additional time, we had talked about doing a Harkness Discussion in a way that may have even made the discussion more robust, but the reality is that time isn’t always on our side.

IMG_2553

Following their conversation, students slotted their sticky noted into where they fit in the critique method that the teacher was using, and students were able to talk about why they put their sticky notes in certain spaces, which gave my colleague an opportunity to do some formative assessment on how students were thinking about describing, analyzing, interpreting, and evaluating.  The discussion, which was open-ended, generated content for each move that students would have to make, and provided a generative model for them to do their own work.  This high-level discussion was, in part, made possible by the way the lesson was sequenced, which allowed students to generate ideas, test those ideas, and share them with a broader audience.  It also helped that the teacher wasn’t searching for “right” answers or having students play a guessing game about what they were thinking, the maker ethos was maintained throughout, but the process of noticing, discussing, and debriefing did help foster important conversations about what this process of metacognitive reflection looks like and what skills are needed to do the work.  This process provided students with the necessary prewriting to create strong artist statements.

Final Thoughts

When we combine the foundational literacy pedagogies of ELA teachers and the maker pedagogies of our art teachers, a powerful set of classroom practices start to emerge that are authentic and engaging, as we’re valuing what students know and their natural curiosity while helping them understand how to best use their knowledge and wonder to reflect on their work and express themselves to external audiences.

Coaching Notes: The Year of Ungrading

EKJxZxOX0AA5uwy
A group of teachers thinking about assessment and evaluation differently at #NCTE19 in Baltimore, Maryland.

In her book Emergent Strategy, Adrienne Maree Brown urges those interested in making substantive change to start small because, often, seismic change is too unwieldy and overwhelming to be successful.  Changes that work at the micro level are more likely to work at the macro level; in other words, it’s all about scaling up rather than scaling down.  The most exciting part of coaching this year was the number of teachers that asked for help disrupting traditional grades and grading in their classes.  This enthusiasm was also palpable in my team’s NCTE presentation about using face-to-face conferencing as a replacement for assessments that make the writer ancillary: many teachers are ready for something different.  In my excitement, I went into meetings with my colleagues ready to smash the traditional system (which I’ve talked about here), but my colleagues were in a different place, wondering how they might experiment with different systems to find out what works for them and for their students.  As a coach, I had to remember Brown’s emergent strategy: small is good.  Rethinking grading, which is a core tenet of education and often a deep-seated part of our pedagogies, takes courage and time. My goal as a coach wasn’t to put the cinderblock on the gas pedal with my colleague terrified in the front seat, but, instead, to help them navigate their own course toward change at their own speed, giving them needed encouragement and support along the way.  This reminded me of another of Brown’s emergent strategies–move at the speed of trust—which is key for making change sustainable.

My colleagues made some amazing changes this year in their classrooms to push back on these dominant systems to reduce the emotional toll grades have on student mental health and well-being and to work to be less unfair and more equitable in their evaluations.

Single-Point Rubrics

One of the small-yet-significant changes made by several of my colleagues, particularly in the disciplines, is using a single-point rubric.  Single-point rubrics, especially those that are ungraded, help students focus on the skill they’re working on without tying their process to grades.  These rubrics prioritize feedback over ranking and sorting, which more traditional rubrics do with overly-restrictive categories that tend to focus on what students can do wrong rather than what they can do right.  Even as evaluators, traditional analytic rubrics cause us to look for error rather than celebrate assets.  The rubrics that we use send messages to students about what we believe about an individual assessment and school writ large, and we can change the message we’ve been sending by changing the rubrics we use.  Several of my colleagues asked themselves if their evaluation of student work aligned with their values as educators, which provides opportunity for healthy self-reflection.

One of the biggest issues I’ve heard teachers discuss with single-point rubrics is time.  Moving away from easy analytic rubrics does reduce grading efficiency, but changes almost always require additional labor, particularly as teachers and students learn how to navigate a new system.  The narrative feedback required by single-point rubrics forces us to be thoughtful and intentional about what we’re telling students about their work and how we’re telling them, which is never easy.  Despite the additional time that my colleagues are spending giving feedback, they are finding that students’ relationship to assessment is changing in a positive way. Students seem to be taking more risks, asking more questions, and seeing assessment as less transactional.  The other benefit is that, with a “bless-press” or “plus-delta” model, all feedback is actually feedforward.

Together, our next steps will be to involve students more in better understanding the “why” behind these changes and involving them more in the continued development of assessment and assessment criteria that better aligns with their needs and their goals.  We should always need to remember that students are experts on themselves and their own learning, and, as a result, should be welcomed into conversations about assessment and assessment criteria. 

Student Surveys and Feedback

A few colleagues did take up the important work of involving students in assessment and evaluation design this year.  This started with asking students to do some reflection on self-assessment on what they wanted to learn, how they wanted to learn it, and the ways in which they wanted to show their learning, which, in itself, is an awesome step.  Often, we spend time differentiating instruction only to standardize the assessment, which can be frustrating for students who want a more relevant and authentic way to display their knowledge.  This requires flexibility on the teachers’ part, as they have to be willing to cede control over large parts of the learning and assessment process to students.  Some teachers have expressed reservations about managing students who are all doing different projects and who may be at different points in their project.  While the feeling is understandable given the way we collectively imagine the classroom to be, the truth is that students were likely always in different places anyway.  Not all students learn in the same way or develop skills at the same time, no matter what we say.  This willingness to involve students in important decisions about learning and assessment marked a small-but-important step away from giving students assessments that weren’t relevant to their learning and that they weren’t ready to take.

These conversations led to other conversations about how it didn’t feel “right” to grade student-centered learning in a traditional manner.  Coaches are tasked with helping folks reach their own conclusions about their practice, and I was happy that those that I worked with were able to see the incongruence between fledgling student-centered, liberation-oriented practices and the traditional practices we have in place. We can’t truly seek liberation for ourselves and our students until we change the oppressive practices that brought us to the current reality.  Many of my colleagues took an additional step of surveying their students regularly about their teaching practices, and while vulnerable, they have learned a great deal about how to be the best teacher they can be for each of their students.

Again, these changes are small, but fractal change is a key to success: asking students what they want and need and working to create structures that make it possible is a considerable move in a liberatory direction.

Portfolio-Based Grading

One of my amazing colleagues took a huge plunge into portfolio-based grading this year, and it was really great being able to help them navigate the nuanced complexities of a new system.

One of the first significant hurdles was describing a portfolio-based grading system to students and parents, especially in an AP course where students have, most often, benefitted from traditional systems that privilege being “best,” which relies on some transactional notion of ranking and sorting.  Under this system, students would be writing more, receiving fewer grades, and self-reporting the grades they did receive after conferencing with the teacher.  For our community, we gathered research about the benefits of pushing back on traditional grading structures, generally, and portfolio-based systems, specifically.  My colleague also stressed the humanizing element of portfolio-based grading: the opportunity to talk with each student about each piece of writing multiple times, allowing them to feel valued and supported as a person and writer throughout the process.  After some nervous moments during Open House, most—if not all—parents in attendance were supportive—or at least not actively unsupportive—of the new system.

As the system was implemented, however, the teacher started to feel the crunch of time.  While portfolio-based grading with student conferences are meant to push back against efficiency, there are practical limitations on time.  In talking with the teacher, we realized that she wasn’t keeping close track of time, often letting conferences extend to 20 minutes or more.  Talking to students is legitimately the best part of our job, but my colleague had already talked to them several times during the formative stages of their writing, so such extended summative conferences weren’t needed.  We also talked about focusing the conferences—“bless-press”—rather than going line-by-line through the paper, a practice that mirrors the generally ineffective on-paper feedback that marks up everything.  Moreover, the shifting of language away from evaluation to learning is hugely positive.  Future conferences were shorter and more focused, which helped the teacher get back important minutes in their day and helped students get the high-level narrative feedback they needed to improve.

Toward the end of the term, we developed an anonymous student survey about their experience.  Student responses were overwhelmingly positive, especially around feeling the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them, but a few students had difficulty with not understanding their progress in relative terms: they wanted to know where they were in relation to their classmates, not just themselves.  These students, though few in number, reported actually having more anxiety without the competition.  School has been extremely successful in getting stakeholders to buy into its transactional metrics of success and to feel lost without them, so much so that the only way to feel safe again is to return to the overarching authority of grades. Continued work with students is necessary to help the reimagine the possibilities of school and their learning, as we can’t expect them to work through seismic shifts in their educational processes any better than we can.  It’s important to be patient and empathetic to students who are working with new systems and frameworks; as Brown reminds us, move at the speed of trust.

Coaching Notes: Building Community in Diverse Classrooms

EHkGP_CW4AEf7Rw

Recently, I listened to an edu-celebrity talk, at length, about “speaking our students’ language,” where I thought we might try to dig into centering non-canonical texts, valuing multiple literacies, and multiplying funds of knowledge in our classrooms. This was a chance, on an influencer level, to have a conversation with a full room of mostly white educators about how notions of “language” work in schools and what that means for students who aren’t in the dominant culture identities. However, the next slide featured a clip of “Old Town Road,” which was used as an example of “speaking our students’ language” and building relevant school environments for students, and a slide after that featured the edu-celebrity doing the Whip and Nae-Nae. While the inclusion of music, films, books, and other forms of media into lessons can be beneficial, the mere presence of Lil Nas X or Silentó or any another artist doesn’t make a classroom relevant or responsive to student, especially if the same oppressive pedagogies and practices that are responsible for the continuation of systemic inequity remain underneath the surface. In other words, these surface-level attempts at inclusion send a dangerous message to rooms of white educators: put on a rap song and dance your way to a more culturally relevant classroom without acknowledging the historical context and current reality of racism and other kinds of bias. Building more equitable environments requires consistent, ongoing work and effort to confront bias and unlearn inequitable practices that marginalize our students. Unfortunately, in the edu-celebrity’s speech there wasn’t any mention of the continued reflection and learning that white educators, myself included, need to do to understand how and what our identities mean in our classrooms and schools.  (By the way, if you’re interested in reading more on the way edu-influencers topics around equity, Benjamin Doxtdator has written extensively about it.)

This speech had me reflecting on coaching sessions I’ve been doing with teachers this year around building inclusive classrooms, a huge part of which is honest, open, and uncomfortable self-reflection. Two of the teachers I’ve worked with this year admitted to struggling with building a connective community in racially and culturally diverse classrooms because they don’t share the students’ experiences and because the students don’t share the experiences of one another. There was a way in which these practitioners want solutions with quick implementation and fast results, but there is no efficient way—whether its “Old Town Road” or the Whip and Nae Nae—to create connected classroom cultures. Chrysanthius Lathan writes: “Many white teachers are discouraged, believing that they are ill-equipped to meet the needs of students color simply because they don’t have the same experiences as them.” This discouragement often leads to what Lathan calls “avoidance,” or it leads to looking for surface solutions to engrained, systemic issues. It’s worth white teachers thinking critically about how to make our classrooms humanizing spaces for students of color, and I’ve been working with colleagues in large and small ways to try to do the hard work of dismantling exclusive spaces and building more inclusive ones in their place.

Don’t Avoid Talking About Race and Justice. Lathan’s idea of “avoidance” resonates because I know that many White teachers, including me, have at times struggled to have honest conversations about race and justice because of insecurity, fragility, and lack of education on critical issues related to race. Our students want to talk about identities and how and what their mean, and we need to be able to provide them with the space and support to have courageous conversations, which means rededicating ourselves to raising our level of consciousness through formal professional development and training, continued informal education, including seeking out our own resources to raise our level of consciousness, and a commitment to anti-racist, anti-bias education. Learning to lean into conversations about race and justice is truly learning to speak our students’ language. In the case of the edu-celebrity’s talk, they avoided talking about race save for in coded ways that made the conversation safe and sanitized for the audience; there was no direct discussion of the threats faced by people of color in this country each day.

As a coach, I’ve read Elena Aguilar’s thinking that encourages us to pursue justice for kids in our transformative work with teachers.  Perseverance is required in shifting these deep-seated mindsets that have impacted every element of teacher practice.  In this spirit, I frequently recommend the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards as a framework to use to reshape and reorient their classrooms; it sets out important ends that both teachers and students can use to work toward democratic, equitable, and socially just classroom spaces. The ideas of a “common language” and an “organizational structure,” phrases used in the introduction to the standards, help anchor teachers and their practices to the anti-racist, anti-bias work required to build the equitable schools and classrooms that we want. Having a robust conception of what anti-racism and anti-bias look like in practice make practitioners more likely to act. Many teachers don’t know that the Teaching Tolerance Standards exist, and more education around them is necessary in schools.

Build Healing Classrooms: Even with an emphasis on social-emotional learning, the teambuilding and connection-making work that are hallmarks of the first week or two of classes go by the wayside when “content” becomes the star of the show, which makes the connections hollow and sustaining relationships difficult. Moreover, social-emotional learning that doesn’t have anti-bias work at its center is, at best, incomplete. Antero Garcia and Elizabeth Dutro encourage teachers to consistently reflect on their positionality within the classroom relative to students and how students are positioned to each other based on the physical and social constructions of the learning environment and our society. Garcia and Dutro talk about ensuring that we are “critical witnesses” to students and that students are “critical witnesses” to each other, which means listening “deeply and compassionately.” This message is in direct opposition to the influencer’s key themes: there is individualistic competition for high-paying jobs, so we better start preparing you for the competition now regardless of toxic and oppressive that might be.

Elements of restorative practices aren’t just for readmitting students; they can be used proactively to create healing environments that both acknowledge and work against oppressive systems that make students feel like they don’t belong. I’ve been encouraging teachers to use mini-conferences throughout the trimester to check in with each student so that no feels invisible or unheard. This requires teachers to attentively and actively listen without defensiveness, pretense, or trying to think of a response, even when they might not like what they’re hearing. I’ve also encouraged the use of circles at regular intervals where students can listen to the stories and experiences of their classmates, which are often visceral and always so important. Healing classroom communities have connection at their center, and restorative practices focus on individual and communal engagement. While these practices take time and might be mildly disruptive to content, they are central to the continued work of connection that our classrooms require to connect us to our students and our students to us. These are practices that help us and our students bear “critical witness” to each others’ experiences.

Center Stories, Not Stuff: Gloria Ladson-Billings and William Tate have both written extensively about the ways that centering stories can have profound impacts on how they see the world. Building the trusting space necessary to have students feel comfortable and safe enough to share vulnerability is incredibly intentional and difficult, which requires a rethinking of how classrooms are organized. In strange ways, the edu-celebrity presentation I watched was doused in capitalistic undertones about making students competitive in a cutthroat world, which certainly speaks to students have come to view school as a space to fight for limited resources. For someone who claimed to be so against deficit orientations, the influencer spent a ton of time on scarcity. Shifting away from “stuff,” like capitalistic notions of success, rank ordering students, and amplifying notions of “rugged individualism,” can have positive impacts on all students because it shifts away from notions of school as a communal space where students work together to have important conversations, share important stories, and empower each other is anathema to “stuff.” Building this communal space that undoes some of the more competitive and exclusionary elements of school requires teachers to reorient their pedagogies, reimagine their time, and respect the voices and values of those who don’t share their experiences, but, if they can do so, they may find themselves revisiting their beliefs along with their students.

One of the strategies I’ve been advocating with teachers is having communal writing days where students can write about important, compelling issues—issues confronting them and our society—without any sort of grading mechanism. Students can choose an issue, find mentor texts that can help the group along, and then share their stories with one another in an open forum. As Linda Christensen argues that we need to be “developing curriculum that builds students’ intellectual capacity to engage in national dialogues,” which gives credence to creating an authethnographic classroom.

The subtext of the influencer’s keynote was that our schools and classrooms are meritocracies, and putting students on the same “playing field” is about teaching students to code or making sure that Lil Nas X is blasting when they walk in. For me, anyway, I think this message misses the mark. Again, there’s nothing inherently wrong with teaching students to code, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with playing music when they come into class, but, on their own, these things aren’t going to fundamentally change the bedrock inequitable practices systemically built into classrooms and schools. It is the inequitable practices that lead to disproportionate outcomes. We can’t avoid talking about these issues and this work, especially when we have captive audiences of folks who need to hear it.

Coaching Notes: Building Anti-Racist Book Clubs

ECXjN5IWwAAS_RCThis summer, I worked with my administration to make a substantial investment in non-canonical texts for students in one of our AP courses.  Students were being assigned to read mostly white male authors like Fitzgerald and Hawthorne, even as the class was becoming increasingly less white and male due to building and districtwide initiatives to ensure that AP and honors classes were accessible and inclusive to all members of our community.  Students of color, in particular, saw mirrors for their white peers, but mainly windows for themselves (to paraphrase Dr. Sims Bishop), and there needed to be a different balance if we hope to create a sense of belonging for students.  To foster a sense of belonging, we needed to interrogate how whiteness influenced and was being enacted in curriculum.  Students now have access to Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Jose Antonio Vargas’ Dear America among others.

Access to texts is important, but so are the practices we use to teach them.  Too often, we read authors from LGBTQ+ backgrounds, authors of color, and authors from non-European countries to be compliant, to check a box, or to perform equity and inclusion rather than taking seriously the anti-racist, anti-homophobic, and anti-Eurocentric our work—and these works–demand.  In other words, there is a way to read any of the texts we purchased without actually reading them; we could attend to the words on the page without ever feeling discomforted or challenged.  Students can get bogged down in rhetorical analysis and lose sight of the larger historical precedents and systems we, teachers and students alike, must urgently confront.  Many of the text choices we made and much of the thinking we’re doing around how to best teach them are the result of the amazing ideas shared by the #DisruptTexts team.

While I was able to advocate for new books as a department chair, implementing responsive teaching around these texts is a significant part of my role as an instructional coach because, ultimately, we’re not teaching books, we’re teaching students.  Shifting practice, a second-order change, is especially difficult because our pedagogies—the way we’ve always done things—are so interwoven, often uncritically, with our professional identities.  To use DiAngelo’s work, pedagogical pushes toward equity are subject to white fragility, which can even stall changes that educators support at the conceptual level.

Our comfort as educators can’t come at the expense of our students and their lives, and when we work to drill a book like Just Mercyas AP test preparation through ahistorical teaching or without giving students space to freely talk about important issues, we’ve moved toward compliance.  Equity, inclusion, and anti-racism are not box-checking exercises.  This part of the introduction from Teaching Black Lives resonates:

“Provide a social justice, anti-racist curriculum that gives students the historical grounding, literacy skills, and space to explore the emotional intensity of feelings around the murder of Black youth by police.  At the same time, deep discussion of these heavy issues needs to be built on strong classroom community.  Students can’t launch into discussions of racism without a basis of trust and sharing among students and between students and teacher.  This is the slow, steady work of meaningful classroom conversation, purposeful group work, and reading and writing about critical social justice and personal issues.”

This provides the framework, and we have to think about the practices within that framework that will help us meet our equity goals as a school and a community.  Anti-racist outcomes are made possible through anti-racist practices, which require all of us—especially white educators—to consider whether we’re moving toward anti-racism or existing in symbolic compliance when the door closes in our classroom.  Important, urgent texts in the hands of people checking boxes can ultimately do more harm than good.  As Benjamin Doxtdator writes:

“Expanding the canon isn’t only about creating a culture in schools where students of color see people who look like them represented in what they read, but also de-centering whiteness so that all students have expanded perceptions of the intellectual legacies of people of color.”

I’m currently working with a teacher to ensure that we’re teaching our students and these texts responsively and responsibly by creating anti-racist book clubs that empower all of our students to have important conversations and take vital action on equity and social justice issues in a supportive, trusting environment.  Students will get to select their books during the book club.  While we know the benefits of this work for our students of color, our white students, who make up the majority of our school’s population, need to also engage in substantive interrogation of their identities and what and how they mean if we hope to create a more just future. Here’s how we’re approaching these anti-racist book groups, which are a work in progress.

Community Building + Goal Setting

Without a meaningful, substantive classroom community, meaningful discussions about social justice and equity are virtually impossible.  In order to build the student-to-student connections required to have substantive dialogue around important topics of social justice, students will work together to look through the Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance and decide two major goals they want to focus on during the course of unit.  Students will work individually and collectively to meet these goals during the course of the unit (and beyond), and they will complete several small reflections and one larger summative reflection to chart their progress.  These standards don’t replace the academic goals that we have, but we feel they make them more possible by making the classroom increasingly safe and equitable. Centering this work for students—and trusting and supporting them to own it—is an important step in reducing prejudice and engendering collective action, which the standards are meant to support.

Building Historical Context

In a different class that I was in this week, the teacher continually asked their students after reading a section of the textbook, “Who haven’t we talked about?”  These discussions are important, as our curriculums and the companies that control them, elevate and amplify the powerful while minimizing what artist Glenn Ligon calls the  “small-h histories” of the women, children, indigenous and black people of color who have been vital in the “big-H” History of our country and our world.  Each book group will spend time closely reading through curated primary and secondary documents designed to challenge, extend, or confirm their thinking.  Students will apply their thinking to their book, which we hope will provide them with important context for understanding from perspectives outside the privileged who have been consistently represented.  In a recent interview, Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow, said:

 “I think this mythology—that of course we’re all beyond race, of course our police officers aren’t racist, of course our politicians don’t mean any harm to people of color—this idea that we’re beyond all that (so it must be something else) makes it difficult for young people as well as the grown-ups to be able to see clearly and honestly the truth of what’s going on.”

An ahistorical teaching of these texts can allow mythologies to linger and the biases inherent in these mythologies to continue unchallenged, just as the myth of colorblindness has been allowed to continue. We need to correct the old histories we’ve heard repeated time and time again, and we need to find new histories, too.  In correcting old histories and learning new ones, it’s also important we resist the urge for a single story.  No group of people is monolithic, so thinking about the vast array of experiences is incredibly important.

Understanding Systems

In addition to book groups that will provide necessary historical context, I suggested using twice-weekly “panel discussions,” which allows students from each reading group to talk amongst each other about an important-yet-probing questions while others listen and generate additional important questions that they want to talk about or that they want to pose to the group.  Understanding the connections between the books and the systems represented within them is significant, as it permits challenges to and action against the supposedly normal, “common sense” structures that are in place to maintain the status quo.  Our students, as Ibram X. Kendi suggests in How to be an Anti-Racist, need to take an active role in thinking beyond now and engaging in thinking and action to build an anti-racist future.

 

These are the urgent-yet-imperfect first steps we’re taking to #DisruptTexts in a course that needs it.  As Tricia Ebarvia writes, we know that there will be “discomfort and defensiveness” from teachers and students as we engage in this process, as we have to confront racism directly and whose knowledge gets valued and whose stories get heard shifts away from those in dominant positions, but we need to remain committed to this work and critical of our own practice to avoid slipping back into what’s comfortable at the expense of what our schools, students, and communities need: an anti-racist education for an anti-racist future.  An unwillingness to do the urgent work required of us means that kids will be (re)traumatized and (re)harmed, and we have a moral obligation to work actively against trauma and harm.

The Case Against Cell Phone Bans: Trust, Equity + Student Voice

 

images (2)

Groundhog Day: Phones + Their Discontents

As a department chair, the first few weeks before school often feature meetings and conversations about implementing new and revising existing school policies and procedures with other school leaders.  Revision of procedures to meet the needs of dynamic people in a changing environment is a healthy organizational practice, and, often, the conversations uncover ideological biases, ideologies, and assumptions that, sometimes wittingly and sometimes unwittingly, get written into our school handbook, course syllabus, or classroom norms.  Interrogating the origins of our beliefs and values given our identities and experiences and understanding how they manifest themselves in educational spaces is critical if equity is at the forefront of our thinking and practice.  Implementing policies without meaningful reflection about who they will impact and how is negligent, especially to populations who already face systematized discrimination.  Often, the policies least interrogated are those that folks feel most strongly about; we become entombed by our certainty, so minds rarely ever change.  Among the least interrogated, yet most wanted policies are schools are bans on mobile phones.  If you’re want to win Twitter today, all you need to do is post something about a phone ban and watch the flood of parents, teachers, and other administrators like, retweet, and reply with furious and effusive praise.

Phones are sites where we work out our frustrations about the other things that we can’t—or won’t—name.  As teachers, we know, logically, that outright banning tools with educational and connective purposes is both ineffective and unethical, but we, naturally, struggle with not being the center of the room or students’ access to massive amounts of information or our high need for control.  Taking students’ phones is an easy way to get those likes and retweets, to show that we’re serious about learning, but, in the end, it does little good and harms both our relationships with students and the sense of independence we’re trying to foster.  I’m aware of the research that talks about how students sometimes use technology in the classroom, and I’m not naive that this does, has, and will happen in my own classroom, too,  However, these studies didn’t mention anything about any conversations people had with students about responsible and contextual technology use, though we might reasonably assume there were strongly-worded warnings in the syllabus and, that, on the first day students were sufficiently talked at about the perils of phone use, much like the scene from health class in Mean Girls.  There’s also a load of problematic junk science on phones that folks rely on to craft harsh and oppressive policies, including the infamous study by Tom Bennett that is continuously brought up in these debates.

While this post may not change anyone’s mind about phones in their classrooms, I want to try to make a case against the full-scale banning of phones in classrooms and schools.  It is important to acknowledge that research exists that suggests creating distance between teenagers and their phones can help them focus and increase their achievement.

Start With Trust

We know that total prohibitions are rarely ever effective in both preventing a behavior or educating people about why a behavior should be avoided.  Our own experiments with abstinence-only sex education should be a clear warning about what happens when we aren’t presenting information that helps students make informed, educated choices.  Phones, like pencils, paper, and erasers, are part of our lived environment, and asking people to refrain from them, especially when they can have legitimate educational and connective purposes, is flawed; we need to be talking withstudents about how to use the technology responsibly and thoughtfully.  As Jesse Stommel writes, “We can talk to students about attention and have them talk to us about how attention works for them. This is the kind of metacognitive work that is the stuff of learning.” Together with our students, we can build collective norms that we individually agree to abide by as part of a community of learners. There is a fundamental difference between listening toand talking withour students about important decisions that impact their educational environments and surveilling them to ensure their compliance with ourrules, which often are meant to situate us at the seat of power.  Like any inclusive, consensus-building activity, working with students build collectively agreed upon norms can be messy, but I’d argue here that the process is more important than the outcome: not only do these activities signal trust, they encourage students to be  personally reflective about their own behaviors and make informed choices about their behavior.  These arguments, by the way, are not even taking into account how outright bans on phones may negatively impact—and further stigmatize—students who need devices to learn, including those students who may not have a diagnosis.

Statements like I’m making here have gotten me eye rolls—and much worse—from colleagues and administrators; I’m frequently accused of being “pie in the sky” about my belief that students can and should have a say in the conduct of their classroom, and I’ve been accused of being a lax disciplinarian.  School isn’t a panopticon, and I’m not a warden. I’m a teacher, and my most positive outcomes have been working with students as equitable partners rather than against them as a high-seated authority.  It’s difficult for me to take seriously the forever-and-always calls for “building relationships” from folks who are also encouraging the enforcement of rules that lack student voice or perspective.

Outright bans on phones further entrench schools in asymmetrical power dynamics where students have little voice or say in the rules and norms they are being asked to follow and are often given very little rationale for why the rules and norms exist.  Look around your next faculty meeting and see who is in violation of your school’s cell phone ban.  In a recent meeting I was in, more than half the participants had their phones out and used them at one point during the meeting.  If we aren’t willing follow the rules we set down for our students, then those rules are likely flawed, unless we only care about solidifying our place at the top of the hierarchy.

Implicit Bias + Discipline

A new study, led by Kate Wegmann at the University of Illinois, shows that Black students receive fewer warnings than their white peers for misbehavior.  White students were generally given more warnings, which are opportunities to correct behaviors, than Black students who faced harsher punishments earlier and more often.  Our implicit biases manifest themselves all over our classrooms—from our beliefs about student achievement to grading—so it isn’t surprising that is has an impact on who we discipline and how we discipline them.  What feels like an equitable policy—an outright ban—probably isn’t in practice, and what we’ve convinced ourselves is equitable might be very well hurting students who have already been traumatized by our systems and policies.  In other words, it’s easy to look at inequity as something that just happens rather than something that’s explicitly caused by our values, beliefs, and actions.

The disproportional outcomes students face when overzealous rules are put into place are harmful socially and academically, but the processes used to get to those outcomes are also in need of examination and change.  My concern with these kinds of blanket rules is that teachers, some wittingly and some unwittingly, will replicate the traumas of “zero tolerance,”subjecting Black and Brown students to harsh punishment for minor violations.  Indeed, it is easy to see how these policies can lead to “broken windows policing” in classrooms where teachers are looking for violations and acting swiftly and harshly to “make an example” of the student so others won’t mimic or replicate the behavior.  All the while, the teacher can claim they were following the rules of the school, which are clearly and carefully laid out.  A violation is a violation, after all, and exception shows softness.  Before we argue about lost academics from cell phone use, let’s also acknowledge that an estimated 20 percent of the Black-White achievement gap is attributable to inequities in school discipline, which are often related to the zero tolerance, broken windows policies described here.  Moreover, harsh punishments for banal violations can actually cause more disruptions and higher rates of misbehavior among the punished.

All policies that we enact and enforce reveal our assumptions about our students—they make our implicit biases explicit and codified—and blanket phone bans are no exception.  If phones are the sites where we play out our unspoken fears, where our generational and positional proxy battles are played out, it is worth examining what we’re saying and who were saying it about when we ban them.

What’s Next: Try Using a “Liquid Syllabus” for Classroom Policies

I was introduced to the term “liquid syllabus” by Michelle Pacansky-Brock in 2014, and, in addition to make course syllabi more beautiful and appealing to engage with, she encourages us to think about making them interactive and crowd-sourced.  Indeed, the whole idea of the “liquid syllabus” is that it’s malleable and shifts based on the dynamism of our environments and the people within them. As we head back to school, it’s useful to keep your syllabus open for a period of time—maybe we a week or two—and have students engage with it, provide you feedback, and reach consensus on key issues.  Not only will this invest them in the content of the syllabus, you’re showing, early, that their voices will be taken seriously and the environment is one where their ownership is encouraged and valued beyond just show.  The process matters, as we want to teach our students to make decisions, to reach consensus, and to be part of a democratic system.  If this is too much, too soon, there are baby steps: you might keep a few non-negotiables while letting your students determine the rest, but, remember, you can’t just throw them the scraps.  They need to have a legitimate voice in the pressing matters of the classroom. Student have to know that your serious about providing them a voice; they won’t participate meaningfully in an exercise that doesn’t lead to substantive engagement or change (nor should they).

The “liquid syllabus” is uncomfortable for some, as it may reveal—and students may comment on—implicit biases and unfair assumptions embedded in rules and policies that we thought were equitable and reasonable.  Over the years, students have asked me about and pushed me on practices that were lodged deep into my pedagogy.  Their questions weren’t mean or rude—they were genuine attempts to both understand and push—and this is where I’ve gotten the best instructional coaching of my career.  It’s easy to get defensive, but it’s important to remember that our temporary discomfort in confronting our biases matters far less than the weight of oppressive systems that traumatize our students.  There’s a lot to be said for modeling how to be vulnerable, take feedback, and grow for the students in your classroom.

Next week, I’ll be using a “liquid syllabus” protocol with my Writing Center students to build working agreements for our time together throughout the year, and I’m excited to see what our new tutors bring to the discussion while also understanding what our returning tutors learned from their previous experience.