This is a continuation of a previous post. Part I can be viewed here.
During the second quarter of this school year, my teaching partners and I led our students in an intensive exploration of the concepts of racial bias and institutional racism. The impetus for this work emerged from a combination of concerns about what we saw happening in our country at large, and being aware of a microcosm of the same occurring within our school. We opened the dialogue through a series of seminar discussions. A more detailed account of these initial pieces is provided in Part 1 of this post, as linked above.
Throughout the time that we were seminaring on the issue of implicit racial bias, students were also engaging in novel discussions and assignments on After Tupac and D. Foster – a coming of age story about three African-American girls growing up in Queens in the mid-1990s.
Students were making connections between the novel and their own lives, as well as connections to the greater societal issues around them. It was at the end of one particularly provocative and rich discussion, where students had explored the motifs of stereotype, injustice, inequity, judgement, and racism, that Beau and I hit on the idea for our culminating group project.
Our work together in development of this task was a beautiful example of co-teaching at its best. Beau and I bounced ideas back and forth, and then worked through determining how to best structure each piece, so it would be accessible to all learners. (A copy of the complete student work packet is available here.)
We were so delighted with how the project developed through our collaborative work that on the day we introduced the task, we were practically shimmering with excitement. We hoped to convey this glee to our students, but, while a few reflected our enthusiasm, the majority of them looked back at us with expressions that clearly said, “I’m sorry, you want us to do what?!” They recognized the complexity and rigor of the task ahead, and the challenges that inherently arise through group work, and they were understandably apprehensive. Yet, we remained confident that we could support them in being successful with this challenging assignment.
The final two weeks of the quarter were dedicated to working on the project and groups predictably cycled through the various stages that come with any major task – excitement, anxiety, frustration, despair, pride, and relief. It was an intense time.
The project began with a creative representation of theme in the novel. Each group had to craft a theme for the novel based on the motif of racism. They then had to identify four scenes in the text which supported their theme, select a compelling quotation, provide reasoning for how this related to their theme, depict the scene, and construct a storyboard containing all these pieces.
They selected quotes like these:
“Cops always trying to bring a brother down. I’m coming from the park just now, trying to get home. I’m running down the street, and this cop just stopped me talking about ‘where you running from?’ I said, ‘I’m not running from I’m running to. Some days I’m thinking why God gave me these legs to run if it’s gonna mean getting stopped by some cop every time I try to do so.”
“’Brother in a suit is just a brother in a suit,’ he said. ‘His black head still sticking out his neck hole.’”
Students then created illustrations like these to represent the events of the novel.
Students were then required to connect their theme to the concepts explored in our seminar pieces (our supplemental texts): implicit bias in schools, stop and frisk policies, the Black Lives Matter movement, police relations with communities of color, and perceptions of race relations. None of these are easy or simple concepts.
They took the theme they had identified from the novel and expanded it outward to where they saw it represented in the real-world. Once again, they had to find evidence in the form of a direct quotation from one of the supplemental texts, and then develop reasoning to link that quotation to their theme.
The final component of the project was, perhaps, the most emotionally challenging. Students conducted an online search for images which reflected the topics they had discussed through both the novel and the supplemental texts. Many of them were shocked by what they saw.
As one student was searching for photographs, she exclaimed, “Oh, I can’t use this picture; it’s too upsetting!”
My response was, “I told you that these images might make us uncomfortable. That’s okay. It’s important that we feel uncomfortable.”
Finally, each of these components was assembled into a comprehensive display.
As the projects began to be completed, students and teachers alike witnessed the tremendous power in the work.
Josh Vogt, Gamble’s 11th and 12th grade social studies teacher, came to see how things were progressing. Josh has done considerable work on the concept of social justice, so his feedback was particularly valuable to us. He spent nearly an entire bell with us, looking at every group’s work and asking probing questions of our students.
When I spoke with him later that evening, his response was profound. He acknowledged the depth of the exploration. He shared that he wished he had been able to spend the entire quarter working on this unit with us, and he requested that I take photos and video of the project exhibition the following day, so he could share it with others doing this work around the country.
As a teacher, I was deeply touched by this praise, but I knew that it wasn’t me who most needed to hear it.
The following morning we prepared for the gallery walk of the completed projects. The tone in the room was a combination of anxiety and pride. Beau and I explained the structural and behavioral expectations of this task. Among other things, we asked that students remain silent during this activity. I clarified that the reason we set this expectation was to honor both their tremendous amount of effort and to be respectful of the seriousness of the subject matter. I also shared with them what Josh had said – that he was so moved by the work that he had been brought to tears, that he was proud that they had accepted the challenge to tackle this topic, that he found the work of such quality that he wanted to share it with others around the country.
An outside expert’s view of their work carried so much more weight than directions given by the same teachers they hear day after day.
Even with the reinforcement of Josh’s words, I anticipated having to repeatedly enforce the expectation of silence.
Once more the students surprised me. There was no need for any kind of redirection. For nearly an hour, as they viewed each other’s projects, they were silent. There was hardly any sound at all beyond the shuffling of feet as students moved between displays. They carefully examined each project, taking notes as directed. In all honesty, I have never experienced anything quite like it before. The tone was nothing short of reverent. So much so, that at the end of our time, several students expressed disappointment that they had to go to their elective classes, rather than spend more time looking at the projects. Here is a short video clip chronicling the gallery walk.
Later that afternoon, we concluded our project experience with a final seminar discussion. We focused on two primary questions:
How does the issue of racial bias impact us as a nation, as a community, as individuals?
How might we as a nation, as a community, as individuals address this?
The conversation vacillated between hopeful and hopeless.
An 8th grade boy optimistically indicated that he believed things were going to get better. As evidence, he proudly specified the work that we had been doing as a class, and Mr. Vogt’s intention to share it with others who were working on the same issues nationally.
One young woman angrily noted, “We can talk about it, and we can do things, but it won’t make any difference because of all the racist people who won’t change. You have to want to change in order to change, and they don’t even care.”
And then we talked about Change Innovation Theory – the idea that change is led by Innovators and Early Adopters, and it develops into a movement that grows such that the wave of the majority will do the work of influencing a resistant minority.
And with that, the bell rang and we ran out of time.
The issues addressed through this project are difficult ones. They are hard realities, but we do our students – of all colors and backgrounds – a disservice if we don’t being these concerns to the forefront and provide our students with ways to explore them.
For my students the conversation has only just begun, and the real work of change has yet to be started, but I am proud to teach Innovators and Early Adopters. They will change the world, and I hope that they will start with our school.
Sixty-seven percent. That was the number I was banking on. I was running discipline data, and I already knew that 67% was my golden number – the percentage I didn’t want to exceed.
But . . .the results were yielding something different.
90%, 87%, 85%, 90%, 82%, 84%
These numbers weren’t just above 67%; they were way above it.
As I ran quarter after quarter of discipline data, I kept hoping to see something different, a change in the trend, or at least an outlier or two.
But that wasn’t the case. Every quarter, the same pattern emerged: our Black students were involved in disciplinary infractions at far higher rates than any other racial group, and at far higher rates than their representation in our population would indicate – 67%.
As Gamble’s Positive School Culture Committee Chair, I had begun this process because we were curious about a blip we saw in the student survey data related to school climate. When we disaggregated the responses by race for the questions that dealt with fairness of consequences, we noted that our black students felt that consequences were less fair than our white students. The rest of the responses were fairly consistent across racial demographics, so it caught our attention when we saw that 52% of our African-American students felt that consequences for misbehavior were seldom or almost never fair; whereas only 34% of our white students felt this way.
It wasn’t a huge gap; it was just bigger than anything we had seen in response to the other survey questions. However, it caused us to pause and reflect on what it might mean. This survey question was about student perception, but we realized that if we disaggregated our discipline data the same way that we had for the survey data, that we would be able to compare reality to perception.
Which is how I found myself repeatedly staring at my computer screen in disbelief and horror as every quarter showed nearly the same thing about our discipline data – our Black students were markedly over-represented.
I shouldn’t have been so shocked. These results aren’t different from what has been widely reported nationally: students of color face harsher and more frequent disciplinary consequences than their white counterparts. In fact, the national data shows a significantly wider discrepancy than the data at Gamble. Proportionally, our data notes that every 1.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of our Black population; whereas nationally 2.3% of high-level consequences were assigned to 1% of Black students.
Doing better than the national average is not, however, something to celebrate. The cost of these high-level discipline responses is high. We know that suspensions and expulsions lead to a decreased likelihood that students will graduate from high school and an increased likelihood that these students will wind up incarcerated. On average, one out of every three African-American males will be incarcerated during their lifetime.
None of this was new information for me. I just didn’t want any of it to be true at Gamble. I wanted my school to be different. I didn’t want us to be culpable. I wanted my students to be protected. Unfortunately, that’s not what our data indicated
Schoolhouse Rock taught us, “Knowledge is Power.” Now that we had the knowledge, what were we going to do with it?
Turns out, it’s easier to compile the data than it is to address what it shows. There is no quick fix solution.
We decided that the first step was to be transparent — to share the data and to acknowledge our concern about it. To this end it was shared on teacher teams and at PTO; some of our high school teachers shared it with students as well.
Those of us who teach junior high chose not to share it with students. We didn’t know how to craft the conversation in such a way that it would be structured and pro-active, and we didn’t know how to guide our students toward recognizing both the gravity and the complexity of the situation.
So, for more than a year, we did nothing.
Although, I suppose, it wasn’t really nothing. It weighed on all of our minds as, tragically, during the same time frame, police shootings of black males – another example of implicit racial bias – was repeatedly in the public eye.
Eric Garner, John Crawford, Michael Brown, Ezell Ford, Dante Parker, Akai Gurley, Tamir Rice, Rumain Brisbon, Jerame Reid, Tony Robinson, Philip White, Eric Harris, Walter Scott, Freddie Gray, Brendon Glenn, Sam DuBose, Gregory Gunn, Philando Castile, Terrence Crutcher …
It is not possible to see this list of names and not worry which of my students could join them.
We knew that we had to talk with them about all of this, but the prospect of that was so intimidating. I know there are other teachers, like this one, who were braver than I. There were teachers all over the country who were having these difficult conversations with their students.
It wasn’t that we didn’t want to have these discussions – we did – we just wanted to make sure that we did it “right” – that we found the right materials, that we structured it well, that we prepared students correctly, that we tied the content to our cycle of study, that we identified the perfect time to have the conversation, and that we did everything within our power to ensure that it was a productive conversation, rather than a damaging one.
While each of these factors is important, waiting for this confluence of perfection was, of course, a subtle kind of avoidance. Waiting on perfect, allowed us to do nothing.
But, finally, this October, we began to find some traction. Our second quarter novel, After Tupac and D. Foster, included thematic undercurrents of racial bias. In light of this, Beau, my teaching partner, also assigned a reading about a study of implicit racial bias in preschool classrooms: Implicit Racial Bias Often Begins as Early as Preschool, A Study Finds by Yolanda Young.
With this assignment, the die was cast. Although we didn’t even realize it yet.
We didn’t yet know how profoundly this beginning would impact the entirety of the quarter, but we did know that we needed to be very conscientious about how we prepared our students for engaging in this conversation. Because we wanted all students to receive an identical message about the expectations for how we talk about these sensitive topics, we arranged the room to accommodate both of our seminar groups at the same time.
As we do before any seminar, we reminded students to keep their comments relevant to the text, to disagree with statements rather than people, to give everyone opportunities to speak, to not form alliances, and to be open to changing their minds.
But this time, because of the emotionally-charged subject matter, we had to provide additional guidance. We had never before explored such challenging content with our students. This type of careful preparation is critically important before embarking with students on any topic that is likely to elicit strong reactions.
We instructed students to give each other the benefit of the doubt. To be careful of their words but also to be honest and to risk making a mistake. To recognize that we might inadvertently hurt each other’s feelings and to be willing to share these feelings and question one another as a means of seeking understanding.
And then we began. It felt a bit like jumping off a cliff.
But, like in most things, our students rose to the challenge beautifully, and we had a powerful and engaging discussion. We hadn’t planned to bring up the school discipline data, but in both groups, the conversation naturally led in this direction. When that moment appeared, (and it happened nearly simultaneously in both groups), we openly shared the disproportionate percentages, and explained why they were concerning.
The students’ response was flabbergasting. I was prepared for them to be angry. I was prepared for them to be indignant. I was prepared for them to blame us.
I was not at all prepared for them to discount it entirely.
“That used to happen at my old school.”
“My teacher did that last year. I always got in trouble just because I am black.”
“I have a friend who says that happens at his school.”
And most notably, “Well, that probably happens in high school.”
The closest they came to seeing the data as personally impacting them was by claiming that if it was a problem in our building, it must be something that happens in our high school program and not about junior high … or them … or us.
Their interpretation is simply not true; the data contains no indication that there are differences between grade levels, and I am still dumbfounded as to why they responded in this way. Perhaps, like us, they simply needed more time to process it.
We hadn’t intended to make the concept of implicit racial bias and its impacts the subject of all our seminar discussions for the quarter, but the deeper we delved into the subject, the more there seemed to be to discuss. We decided to run with this idea, and each week throughout the quarter, we seminared on a different aspect of racial bias.
At times, our conversations were uncomfortable.
When reading about “Stop and Frisk” policies, a student asked whether that meant that every police officer who engaged in this type of policing was racist. That’s a touchy question to answer, but it helped us examine the difference between individual racism and societal racism, as well as the difference between overt racism and implicit racism.
During one discussion, a white student courageously noted, “Somewhere, deep down inside, everybody is at least a teeny, tiny bit racist.” This comment elicited strong reactions, but it helped us to turn the lens on ourselves.
On several occasions during the quarter, when given behavioral redirection, students accused us of racial bias. That felt terrible, but these challenges helped us to reflect carefully on our reactions and responses to student behavior.
It was through this process of self-reflecton that I realized that we had made a mistake – we had skipped a step.
Maria Montessori said, “It is not enough for the teacher to love the child. She must first love and understand the universe. She must prepare herself, and truly work at it.” This is one of my favorite quotations, and yet I had forgotten it here.
The teacher must prepare herself. It was not just our students who were impacted by these difficult conversation; we were experiencing this, too. We had been guiding them, but had failed to use our resources to prepare ourselves.
Confronting the societal demon of racism in a mixed-race group of colleagues is a daunting task. We agreed to commit one meeting a month to discussing this topic through the lens of a variety of resources that we would take turns providing. Like we did with students, we established special meeting norms for creating a “Courageous Space” in which to engage is these conversations.
This work is an ongoing process, but so far we have watched Bryan Stevenson’s video Confronting Injustice and read John Metta’s article “I, Racist” and engaged in rich conversations on each.
None of this is enough. None of it marks our ending place, but taken together, it is our beginning. We have embarked upon this journey. It is a complicated one, and it requires us to be brave. And to be humble.
It requires us to take a hard look at both what is happening around us, and what exists within us. Next week’s post will detail the initial work we did with our students to help them synthesize their learning and their experiences, and to guide them toward activism.
 U.S. Department Of Education Office For Civil Rights. “Civil Rights Data Collection Data Snapshot: School Discipline.” CIVIL RIGHTS DATA COLLECTION 1 (2014): 1-24.Education Week. U.S. Department of Education, Mar. 2014. Web. 1 Jan. 2017. <http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/rulesforengagement/CRDC%20School%20Discipline%20Snapshot.pdf>.
 Amurao, Caria. “Fact Sheet: How Bad Is the School-to-Prison Pipeline?” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 01 Jan. 2017.
This is one of the fundamental questions asked at Gamble before the start of each quarter. The quintessential yellow Post-It doesn’t carry much value – everyone has those. But red, blue, green, and purple are hot commodities, and colors like coral and turquoise practically make you a hero.
So what’s all the fuss about Post-It notes?
Seating charts, of course.
I mention this to my husband, who is also a Cincinnati Public School teacher, and he looks at me like I’ve come unhinged. “So what? Everyone does seating charts.” I asked him, “What criteria do you use to develop your seating chart?” His response was exactly what I had expected, “Behavior.”
Right. Every teacher worth her salt creates a seating chart as part of an effective classroom management strategy. I’m not saying this is an easy task,
but it takes into account only one of many factors we consider when deciding where students will sit in one of our junior high classrooms at Gamble.
Where students sit is the final task in a complex balancing act to ensure diversity in our classrooms. Like all seating charts, it comes with mixed reviews from students. I am reminded of Darnell, who during the very first bell of his new seat assignment asked to speak to me in the hallway.
“Ms. Taylor, I need a different seat.”
“Why do you think so?”
“Well, me and Destiny don’t get along.”
“I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me a little bit about what’s going on?”
Darnell then began to tell me a classic he-said, she-said story of typical junior high unrest.
As he wrapped up his explanation, he looked at me expectantly. Clearly I would understand the seriousness of his problem and the importance of relocating him immediately.
Unfortunately for Darnell, I don’t think I provided the kind of response he was hoping to elicit.
I acknowledged the social challenges that were at play, provided a few suggestions for how to work with someone that you don’t get along with, and then, like hammering the final nail into a coffin, I said,
“And Darnell, you know, part of leadership is being able to manage yourself in the face of difficulty, and this current challenge will help you continue to grow the leadership skills you’ve begun to develop. Now are you ready to head back into the classroom, so you can begin that work?”
To fully understand this complex process of seat assignments, we have to rewind to a day at the beginning of the previous summer. (#WhatSummerBreak? #TeacherRealities) This day is affectionately known as “Draft Day.”
Each year, Gamble Montessori draws incoming 7th graders from more than thirty different elementary schools across the city of Cincinnati. We have four junior high “communities” in which to place them. A community is comprised of two classroom groups each made up of students in the seventh and eighth grades. Students stay in the same community for their entire junior high experience. “Draft Day” is the day we assign our newly enrolled students to the community in which they will spend the next two (and occasionally three) years.
This is a complex process. The first challenging task is to assemble a spreadsheet, which includes name, gender, race, disability status, and the school the student is coming from. We sort the spreadsheet by school because the first order of business is to ensure that we don’t over-cluster students who already know each other. The transition to a secondary program allows children the opportunity to experience a fresh start; to that end, we attempt to avoid the continuation from elementary school of cliques or of problematic relationships.
Next, the bidding war begins.
Just kidding. It’s actually a very civilized process based predominantly on simple mathematics. Each teaching team brings a breakdown of their current community population. (Remember that we keep students for two years, so approximately 50% of our students return to us each fall.) We look at special education caseloads, racial diversity, and gender balance within each community, and as we place incoming students, we work to maintain equal numbers across all four communities. This meeting takes several hours, but we think it’s really important.
Here’s the thing.
No one seems to want to talk about it, but we know what works to create greater equity in education. It wasn’t Obama’s Race To the Top, or Bush’s No Child Left Behind, or Clinton’s Goals 2000.
What was it?
The busing and magnet programs of the 1970s and 1980s have gotten a bad rap, but they worked. They worked to create racial diversity in schools, and they worked to decrease the academic achievement gap.
“When the National Assessment of Educational Progress began in the early 1970s, there was a 53-point gap in reading scores between black and white 17-year-olds. That chasm narrowed to 20 points by 1988. During that time, every region of the country except the Northeast saw steady gains in school integration. In the South in 1968, 78 percent of black children attended schools with almost exclusively minority students; by 1988, only 24 percent did. In the West during that period, the figure declined from 51 percent to 29 percent. But since 1988, when education policy shifted away from desegregation efforts, the reading test score gap has grown — to 26 points in 2012 — with segregated schooling increasing in every region of the country.”
Gamble is fortunate to have a fairly diverse student body with 68% of students identifying as Black, 23% as white, 6% as multi-racial, and 3% falling into a variety of other categories. We are balanced at about 50% each males and females, and 35.6% of our students have been identified as having a disability. These percentages closely mirror that of the district as a whole, with the notable exception of our percentage of students with disabilities. Cincinnati Public Schools are comprised of 63.2% Black students, 24.6% Caucasian students, and 5.9% Multiracial students, with the remaining 6.3% falling into several other categories. Nineteen percent of students in the district are identified as having a disability.
Cincinnati has a long history of magnet schools (beginning in 1973) in response to the requirement that school districts offer voluntary desegregation strategies alongside mandatory ones such as busing. Sands Montessori School was a part of that initial magnet school movement, and as a result, Cincinnati Public Schools was the first district in the country to offer public Montessori education. Today, every high school in CPS is considered to be a magnet program pulling from a city-wide base of students and offering some type of unique educational strategy or focus.
Obviously, at Gamble Montessori, our educational focus is Montessori instruction. Many people view Montessori philosophy as an educational pedagogy for the elite. However, this idea very likely causes Dr. Montessori to roll over in her grave. After all, she developed her educational method teaching those deemed as uneducable – children from the slums of Rome who were considered to have mental deficiencies. I have no doubt that Maria Montessori would be highly in favor of having her practice implemented in urban, public school districts, and in schools with a high proportion of students identified with a disability.
Montessori’s philosophies of cosmic education and peaceful cooperation are perfectly aligned with a diverse classroom setting. And yet, as a society, we continue to struggle with issues of race, ethnicity, and gender. (Just look at today’s headlines for reassurance that this is at the top of our list of concerns.) So how do we make progress? What can we possibly do to begin working toward resolution on this issue?
The answer seems obvious – as obvious as the desegregation seen in the 1970s and 1980s. We must engage with “the other.” We must “desegregate” at the personal level.
We know this to be true.
“Among school children, greater interracial friendliness has been associated with beneficial outcomes in both achievement and social domains. . . . cross-race friendships among children can improve their academic motivations, their feelings about same vs. cross-race friends, and their social competence.”
But how do we accomplish this?
In 1997, Beverly Tatum published the oft-mentioned text, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria. Right. That. What do we do about that? Should we do anything about that? These are hard questions.
As a means to address this, Teaching Tolerance, a branch of the Southern Poverty Law Center, launched its “Mix it Up Day” initiative. Essentially, this is one (or several) days a year where students are asked to intentionally “mix up” their lunch seating arrangements.
“Mix It Up is a Teaching Tolerance program designed to help students identify, question and cross social boundaries. Launched in 2001, Mix It Up recognizes that some of the deepest social divisions in schools are found in the cafeteria. Each fall, Teaching Tolerance sponsors a national Mix It Up at Lunch Day when schools around the country encourage students to move out of their comfort zones and share a meal with peers who are different from them.”
As much as I love the Teaching Tolerance program, and the Southern Poverty Law Center, I find this strategic plan short sighted. Okay, it’s a start, but I worry that in making this day special, unique, and different, we reinforce the very behavior that we hope to discourage. That, in drawing attention on these special days to the importance of sitting with someone at lunch who is “different” from you, we merely point out that this is unusual behavior. By making it “special,” we run the risk of increasing the divide of difference, rather than decreasing it.
So, where does that leave us? Well, it doesn’t leave us in the dark. Once again, we actually know what works. There is plenty of research on this subject.
“If you looked and looked at all of the solutions proposed by scientists over the years to combat prejudice and racism, you’d be hard pressed to find a more effective antidote than intergroup friendship.”
“The best-documented strategy for improving racial and ethnic relations involves the creation of opportunities for positive equal status interaction among people from different groups. These strategies are most effective when they organize cooperative activities so as to ensure that people from different backgrounds can contribute equally to the task involved.”
We must intentionally diversify our classroom seating in the same way that we once desegregated our districts.
Which brings us right back to those colorful Post-It Notes.
At Gamble, students are seated at tables rather than individual desks. This is part Montessori and part project-based learning, but it leads to forced interaction between students, as well as the development of functional collaboration over time.
Essentially, for an entire quarter, a group of four students are seated in close-proximity to one another, complete all group tasks together, and learn to function as a team.
“Cooperative learning groups are not only an effective tool to stimulate academic growth through participation, but they may also be a successful vehicle to help eliminate racism. Through the creation of a team, a micro-society, educators can attempt to break down the superficial barriers that students may see when they are individuals. Group work exposes individual attitudes, ideas, experiences, and beliefs that are used to achieve a common goal through a collective effort. Group work leads to better understanding of the task at hand, the dynamics of team-work, which will be valuable in later stages of life, and opens the lines of communication between group members despite race, sex, age or religion.” 
When our table groups experience challenges, as they surely will, it is up to the group to resolve them together. Problems belong to the whole team. Conversely, if we allow students to move to escape difficulties, we send a message that the other student is the problem and that the best way to handle it is to avoid it, thus missing a powerful opportunity for learning.
Because a community is comprised of two classroom groups, and because we want all members of the community to ultimately get to know each other, and we want students to practice developing teaming relationships with multiple groups, we switch up the classroom groups, and thus the table groups as well, each quarter.
That makes for a lot of Post-It Notes.
We need eight colors– one for each group, as we have defined them, at each grade level: 7th grade Black males, non-Black males, Black females, and non-Black females, and 8th grade Black males, non-Black males, Black females, and Non-Black females. (We have engaged in intense conversations about how to name these groups, and whether we should expand to include separate groupings for Hispanic students, Multi-Racial students, etc. So far, we are overall satisfied with our system, but it is an ever-evolving strategy.) We note students with identified disabilities, and then we begin building our groups.
Like most teachers, we first note which students must be separated for behavioral concerns. Then we place anchors – students who model the behavioral and academic expectations of our program – at every table.
From there we begin developing the table groups, making sure that there is a myriad of Post-It Note colors represented at every table, and that no table is over-weighted with students with disabilities.
Then, we simply count to ensure that our lengthy process has yielded our intended result.
It’s never perfect. Invariably, we have days when student behavior challenges our patience, and we look at each other and exclaim, “How on earth did we ever put those students together?!”
It’s admittedly insufficient as an isolated tool to address race, ethnicity, gender, and ability bias, but it’s a place to begin. Instead of a Mix-It Up Day, let’s make it a Mix-It Up Year. This generation can be better than ours. We need to provide them with every tool we have to eliminate the toxin of our -isms. Carefully constructed seating charts are a place to begin. And, of course, none of this addresses the bigger issue of segregation that continues to plague our public education system as a whole, but that’s a topic for a different post.
But, in the meantime, perhaps we should all buy stock in 3M.
Whether or not you use Post-Its, consider how you will assign seats upon returning from winter break, and how conscientious seating assignments might have impacts that extend far beyond classroom management.
 Theoharis, George. “‘Forced Busing’ Didn’t Fail. Desegregation Is the Best Way to Improve Our Schools.” Washington Post. The Washington Post, 23 Oct. 2015. Web. 13 Nov. 2016.
 Page-Gould, Elizabeth, and Rodolfo Mendoza-Denton. “Cross-Race Relationships: An Annotated Bibliography.” N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
 “What Is Mix It Up at Lunch Day?” What Is Mix It Up at Lunch Day? | Teaching Tolerance – Diversity, Equity and Justice. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
 Mendoza-Denton, Rodolfo. “The Top 10 Strategies for Reducing Prejudice.” Greater Good. N.p., 3 Jan. 2011. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
 Hawley, Willis. “Strategies for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Prejudice: Essential Principles for Program Design.” Strategies for Reducing Racial and Ethnic Prejudice: Essential Principles for Program Design | Teaching Tolerance – Diversity, Equity and Justice. Teaching Tolerance, n.d. Web. 19 Nov. 2016.
 Morgan, Richard. “Eliminating Racism in the Classroom.” Eliminating Racism in the Classroom. EdChange, n.d. Web. 20 Nov. 2016.
(*While in general, this is not a political blog, the impact of this election runs deeper than mere politics. It has affected me as both a teacher and as an individual. I share my thoughts here with the understanding that they exclusively reflect my personal experience, and not necessarily that of teachers in general. If you are looking specifically for strategies to implement in your classroom related to the election, I recommend Jennifer Gonzalez’s blog post After the Election: A To Do List )
It was 8:35 am on November 9th, and the bell had just rung to release students to classrooms as I was frantically wiping the tears off my face.
“What are we going to say to them?” I desperately asked Beau, my teaching partner.
He just looked at me blankly and shook his head.
The shock hadn’t yet worn off. A mere 24 hours earlier, I was delightfully ensconced in a ballot box with my daughter, giggling joyfully while filling in the box next to the words “For President: Hillary Clinton.” I had tears on my face then, too, but those were tears of a different kind.
My entire family had stayed up late to watch the election returns come in. I wanted my children to be part of this incredible moment in history. Earlier that day, my in-laws, who live in Rochester, New York, had attempted to pay their respects at Susan B. Anthony’s grave, only to discover that the line to do so was more than an hour long. There were so many celebrants who wanted to honor the journey for equal political rights that began in 1921 with the passage of the 19th amendment giving women the right to vote. In no small part as a direct result of the passion and courage of Ms. Anthony, tonight that “highest and hardest glass ceiling” would finally be shattered as America elected our first female president.
Our historic moment, however, was not to be. As the night wore on, and one state after another turned red, the celebration that had seemed so certain grew increasingly dim. By the time I went to bed after 1 am, the results were clear. My husband tried to talk to me, to offer consolation, but I was beyond words. I simply couldn’t understand how this was happening.
The next morning, I didn’t know what to say to my children. What could I possibly say to my 16 year old daughter, whose greatest dream is to become an international diplomat, who campaigned door to door for Hillary, and who had tears in her eyes as my husband told her that Donald Trump had won the presidency.
What could I possibly say to my 12 year old son, who struggles to handle disappointment of any kind, and who turned rageful eyes on his father upon hearing the news.
How could I explain that our country had just elected a man to the highest office in the land who ridiculed people with disabilities, spoke of women by noting that he could just “grab them by the pussy,” and discussed without compassion the deportation of Mexicans and the building of a physical wall between us and our nearest neighbor?
I didn’t know what to say to the children at my breakfast table, and I didn’t have any greater clarity about what to say to the children in my classroom.
Somehow I got myself to work. I was in complete shock. I still had no words. As I walked into the classroom Beau and I share, he took one look at my face, and gave me a big hug. That did it. I was immediately overcome with sobs.
And then the students arrived, and I had to wipe the tears from my face and pull myself together.
The mood in the classroom was subdued. We opened by showing the day’s clip from CNN Student News, an unbiased reporting of the results of the night before.
Upon its conclusion, Beau looked at me and said, “You say things now.” This is our cue that means, “I need you to handle this.”
My mind was spinning. I knew I needed to be as unbiased as possible, but I also knew that I needed to be honest. And I knew that my students would need my guidance. How could I manage to cover all those things? I fell back on what I know to be true in all challenging discussions with children – ask them what they need to know.
So I said, “What questions do you have?”
Their responses nearly broke my heart.
In each of my classes, I had an African-American male student raise a sheepish hand. When called upon, they each said very nearly the exact same thing. “This is probably a stupid question, but . . . is it true that he’s going to make all the Black people go back to Africa?”
The relief was palpable at my response, “No, that isn’t true.”
This question was born out of misinformation, but it comes from a fear of sending people back to where they came from, and that concern is real and valid. It wasn’t just the students in my room who were worried about this. Many other teachers reported the same question being raised by their own students.
And there were so many other fear-based questions:
“Can President Trump call for a ‘purge?’”
“Is he really going to build a wall?”
“Is it true that he made fun of people with disabilities?”
“Is he going to start World War III?”
“Do they really have to give him the nuclear codes?”
“Can he be impeached?”
“What about assassinated?”
I defended our political system as best as I was able. I reminded my students about the system of checks and balances, the three branches of government, and the limited powers of the commander-in-chief.
I asked them if they had ever said anything in anger, frustration, or without thinking. In response, I got a resounding, “yes.” I told them that while I was deeply bothered by some of President-Elect Trump’s statements, I wanted to believe that his words could have happened in this same way. I told them that doesn’t make it right, but it could help to make it understandable.
I told them that presidents don’t act alone and that we have many people in Washington who will be advising President-Elect Trump, and that as he learns more and is influenced by others, he may have different views. I told them that impeachment is a very serious thing and would require that he act in a way that violated the law while in office. I told them that assassination is a terrible tragedy for any country and something that would not even be entertained in our classrooms.
I reminded them that nothing would change in what we do in our classroom, or in our school, where we uphold the concept that “Everybody does better when everybody does better.”
And I told them that I was having a really hard time understanding this outcome and what it means.
More than anything, I needed my daughter to hear Hillary’s incredibly gracious and inspiring words telling her that this election didn’t have bearing on the goals that she had for herself.
Even if I didn’t believe it myself.
In quelling the fears of my students — and in many ways I felt like a liar in doing so — I found anger. Anger at a society who would elect a man whose words made them feel so afraid. Anger at the, perhaps unintentional, legitimization of a movement that calls itself the alt-right – verbiage that we can’t allow to distract us from the neo-Nazi, white-supremacist message it purports– this shameful bastard child of White America.
How do we begin to confront and silence that hate? What do we do about that? How can anyone make an impact against that?
He writes, “We need to get over it so we can get on with it — the never-ending work of embodying and enacting love, truth, and justice. There is real suffering out there among people who can’t get over it, and we need to stand and act with them… These are big and daunting problems. But as I move toward them, I’m inspired by David Whyte’s poem, ‘Start Close In.’ It reminds me that when I try to start big, it’s probably because I’m seeking an excuse to get out of doing anything. The big stuff is beyond my reach, at least at the moment. But if I start close in, I’ll find things I can do right now,”
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
the step you don’t want to take.
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
way of starting
Start with your own
give up on other
don’t let them
your own voice,
Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
heroics, be humble
start close in,
for your own.
Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
the step you don’t want to take.
Start close in.
This was the same conclusion that I had reached through the course of my post-election day grief, and that evening I came home with new resolve.
I finally had the words to speak to my own children. I told them that our work would be in speaking up for those at risk. That as white people of privilege, we had a moral responsibility to speak up against injustice wherever we saw it . . . in words, in deeds, and in wallet. To stand in the way.
When my son asked me what I meant, I was able to powerfully clarify for him. Stephen was one of my students who asked about being sent back to Africa. Evan and Stephen had been in the same 6th grade class together last year. My voice broke when I said, “Stephen thought that because Trump was elected, he might have to go back to Africa. We must not allow anyone to ever feel like they are unwanted, or that they do not belong here. We must stand in the way any time, and every time, we see something that might make people feel that way.”
So that has been my way forward. To stand in the way.
In post-election America, we are being called upon by some to come together, to accept the results and move-on.
I don’t agree. I’m willing to accept the results, and while I respect the rights of those who are demonstrating against the election results or calling for “faithless electors,” this is not where I stand. Donald Trump won this election; we have no evidence that it was “rigged.” However, I also think it is a mistake to meekly accept this as our “new reality,” or as some kind of “fresh start.”
We must be vigilant. We must be prepared to stand in the way.
But what does that look like?
What does it sound like?
I was quickly provided an opportunity to practice.
Just a few days after the election, my husband was upset about a comment made on a friend’s Facebook post by someone we don’t know. This is what it said: “no more apologizing for being born white in America” Blake was bothered that our friend hadn’t directly responded to it. He told me he was considering “unfriending” this person, so he didn’t have to see any more comments like that. I said, “You can’t do that. Vulnerable people can unfriend others for hurtful and offensive comments, but those of us with privilege carry the responsibility of confrontation, of engaging in the conversation.”
He thought about this for a moment, and then said, “Okay, that’s great. So why don’t you? You’re friends with him, too.”
Yes. Right. That.
I took a deep breath, and wrote this in response to the comment:
“I don’t know you, but I do know that being born white in America automatically brings with it a certain level of privilege, and I find it hard to believe that anyone is in a real (not just perceived) situation where they feel the need to apologize for their whiteness. There are, of course, many forms of privilege. I don’t know how many of the categories of privilege apply to you, but I ask you to self-reflect on that. I, too, am over-all a person of privilege. However, I teach in an urban, public school and my students are predominantly African-American and often living below the poverty level. It’s not easy work, but I love what I do, and, more importantly, I love them. As a person of privilege, I stand with them, and I am committed to speaking up on their behalf wherever it seems necessary.”
I received a lengthy reply that, among other things, included many comments about perceived discrimination against white people, “WE ARE SHAMED by being born here and not black or wear a turban. that’s racism and “white shaming” It wont be tolerated anymore we now can stand up and demand equality.”
Instead of turning away, I continued to engage.
Our exchange was quite lengthy, and I do not think that I changed this man’s mind, but that wasn’t my goal. My goal was to challenge his thinking and his assumptions, and to push back publicly against the notion that these ideas are acceptable or common.
I think there is a great temptation during times of distress to circle the wagons – to insulate ourselves within our classrooms and communities and focus on that which is directly in front of us. This is understandable, self-protective behavior, but history has shown us the incredible risk in isolating ourselves from “the other,” and the dangerous de-humanizing that often comes with other-ness. If nothing else, this election has shown us how fragmented we are as a society, and it has left me contemplating the role of teachers. Teaching is an art, and we have been gifted with it. We know how to convey information. And, perhaps, more importantly, many of us walk pretty fluidly between two worlds – the world of privilege and the world without it. This provides us with a unique opportunity to tell our stories, and in so doing to shine a light that banishes the distance from “the other.”
Perhaps the best outcome of my conversation with a complete stranger on Facebook was the heart-felt discussion it prompted with a dear friend. He and his wife were uncomfortable about critical comments they had received from others. They had seen parts of my above exchange on social media and, as a result, involved me in dialogue about the election.
This was hard. David is my husband’s oldest childhood friend. His wife and I have spent many hours exploring best parenting practices. I witnessed the births of all three of his children. He voted for Donald Trump.
Mostly I just wanted to yell at him, “How could you?!” But what good would that do? He knows how I feel about politics. I know how he feels.
But my students are afraid.
Of course David didn’t intend for my students to be frightened by the election of Donald Trump, but it is the reality of the situation. How could I continue to look my students in the eye if I didn’t engage in this conversation? Better yet, how could I work together with those who cast a ballot for Trump to address what makes my students feel afraid – no matter how uncomfortable it makes me?
This is what it means to “start close in.”
David, Let’s start with what’s most important. I love you and your family. Now moving on, I disagree entirely with your political beliefs and values. We don’t have to talk about that right now. But here’s what we do have to talk about right now. The only way that I can live with these election results and still face my children, and more importantly, my students – for it is they who are most at risk — is to commit myself wholeheartedly to speaking out against prejudice and injustice. But here’s the thing. To conservatives, I can be readily discounted as just another hippie liberal. Guilty as charged. You cannot. All I ask is for you to stand with me on this. Your voice matters more than mine because as a supporter, you have far more sway than I do. I invite you to publicly speak against those that are engaging in hateful actions. everywhere it pops up — which is a thing that is happening. I invite you to pledge to do whatever you can to ensure that women are treated with respect and as equally capable as men, to take care of immigrants to this country who are law-abiding, to refuse to accept the ridicule of people with disabilities, to protect people of color from being stereotyped and judged, to support those who have less than you do. I know you’re hurting from the criticism of those who don’t understand your choice — believe me, I am hurting, too. But there are places where we can come together.
And his response:
Hey K. I love you and your family too. As to your invitation, I of course hold it important to defend against those things. For now, I just want people to understand that whether they agree with my choice, it doesn’t mean I was careless or heartless or in any way less conscientious as they were with my decision. If I could put Jed Bartlett into Trump, I would. I wasn’t given that choice. And as scared as you are of someday watching tanks rolling down Fifth Avenue and gathering up minorities (imagery), I have my own concerns that are built on more than just a little thought, research, and soul searching. I want you to know that I hear you. I don’t think you’re calling me names. I don’t think you’ve found a way to reconcile my choice with being a good person either, but I don’t think you’re calling me names. I respect you, in some ways uniquely so. Believe that. But I don’t interpret all these events the way you do. Love, Me.
David’s words were what I needed to hear to know that while we see things very differently, we still share much of the same heart, and that while he made an election day choice that I will likely never fully understand, he, personally, hadn’t, and wouldn’t, betray the values that were critical to both of our families.
This is “starting close in” . . . and standing in the way.
It is uncomfortable, but as Bryan Stevenson says in his powerful video, “Confronting Injustice,” we must be willing to “get uncomfortable.” Remembering the fear on my students’ faces gives me courage. Their questions were, in many ways, naïve, but they were not baseless. My students are afraid because scary things have been said. We do not yet know exactly where this election will lead, but we do know that it has given a newfound boldness to hate. Since Donald Trump won the Presidential election, there has been a dramatic rise in incidents of racist and xenophobic harassment across the country. The Southern Poverty Law Center has reported that there were more than 700 incidents of intimidation between the election, on November 8th, and November 16th, targeting blacks and other people of color, Muslims, immigrants, the L.G.B.T. community, and women.
So, as each of us figures out what this election ultimately means for us, for those close to us, for those different from us, for our country, let’s remember to “start close in” by engaging with each other and having those difficult conversations in all areas of our lives. We must also be prepared to stand in the way whenever necessary. My students, their families, and so many others like them, deserve this from us.
 Yan, Holly, Kristina Sgueglia, and Kylie Walker. “‘Make America White Again’: Hate Speech and Crimes Post-election.” CNN. Cable News Network, n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2016.
It was a cold fall afternoon on the loading dock at Hughes Center High School in Cincinnati. We stood on a platform of concrete several feet above oil-stained pavement, bracketed by two scraped and dented yellow metal poles. I was a beginning teacher in an urban high school, skinny and white, dressed just a bit more formally than everyone around me to avoid accusations of being a student. I was looking everywhere for someone to mentor me. My current target, we will call her Roberta, was contemplatively smoking a cigarette, her black fingers flicking ash absently toward me, her other hand pinching shut the top of her jacket, which was cinched tightly around her waist. I stood shivering next to her.
We were discussing a text we had read by a black author and with a black protagonist. More accurately, I was asking questions about aspects of black culture that had arisen, and she was providing monosyllabic answers. I don’t remember the details of my questions. I am sure that they were misdirected, however well-intentioned they may have been. Perhaps they were insulting. I do not remember many of her responses, save one. The one with which she dismissed me, forever: “You can never understand,” she asserted. “You will never understand.”
I was stung. I believed then – as I believe now – in the power of the written word to convey the human experience. That is the magic and the lure of reading and writing. The Holy Grail I sought in every book I opened was that I would, upon conclusion, be able to honestly say about the author, “I know how she feels.” I was incensed that she believed I was incapable of understanding, or that even well-chosen words were incapable of conveying these truths. I invoked Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston and Alice Walker, and I held them up to Roberta. “Are you really arguing that these authors are incapable of expressing their perspective? These women, among the greatest authors of our time, are unable to explain the black experience?” I argued incredulously. Roberta looked at her watch, dropped her cigarette butt on the dock and ground out its flame with a twist of her foot. A cloud of cigarette smoke and the fleeting wave of her fingers underlined her dismissal as she briskly walked to the door.
I had started my intentional search to learn about others who were different from me years earlier while still in college. That is where I learned the transformative power of reading and writing. Under the tutelage of John Edgar Tidwell at Miami University, I was exposed to experiences of African American people who intrigued and fascinated me. I saw heroes and saints and villains and sinners. I experienced a range of lyricism and storytelling that matched what I had read from a canon of mostly white authors in the Anglo-Saxon tradition at Ashland High School. Ashland, Ohio is a rural town in north central Ohio, predominantly white, and at the time the largest minority population were a handful of first and second-generation families from India. Almost exclusively, my reading featured white male authors writing in the English language, with an occasional nod to other cultures. (Although it was there that I composed my first stanzas to my first song, an imagined additional two stanzas to Langston Hughes’ poem “Hold Fast to Dreams.”)
Somehow in that limited range, I nonetheless had come to believe in the power of literature to reveal a new world and convey it entirely. At Miami University I awkwardly bumped into the edges of that world, calling home almost breathlessly one morning to tell my mom I had seen seven black students sitting at a table together. I had never seen such a gathering. I believed I was in the heart of diversity. I still clung to my mother’s teachings about race, which was the simple mantra that we are all the same.
I had much to learn.
Some of what I learned over time was that my reading had taught me seemingly nothing. For just as Dylan Thomas’ poem cannot prepare you for the death of a parent, The Color Purple does not prepare you to teach in a predominately African-American school. So I asked questions. I paid attention. I was exceedingly polite. I learned about code-switching and ciphering and I learned to admit my earnest desire to do right by others.
Nearing the end of my college experience, still four years away from being dismissed on the Hughes Center loading dock, I was assigned to observe a teacher and then do my student teaching at Western Hills High School in Cincinnati.
It was here, at West High, that I had a chance to experience life in a predominantly black school. The things I had read about were all there: the passion for learning, the aching poverty, the respect for educators, the ciphers, the storytellers, the Anansis. A depth, a resonance was added to my reading and, more importantly, to my understanding. But I had so many questions, and much more to learn.
It was also here that I learned about another minority group – white Appalachians. A decade later I would encounter Other People’s Words and The Education of Little Tree , meeting a group of people very conscious of how they were viewed by others, and quick to engage formally educated folks such as myself in conversation so they could “take me down a peg.” I proved adept at beating them to it, by insulting myself while proving my success, and quickly fit in.
Twenty years later I would be a veteran principal at a predominantly black urban Montessori high school just over a mile away from my home. In between I learned that one must read about every issue from multiple perspectives. I read Gandhi and Orwell to learn about Indian culture and to question a Eurocentric view of conquest and authority. I read Philip Roth and Elie Wiesel and learned about a Jewish culture not created by the Holocaust but forever haunted by it. I read the words of Chief Joseph which permanently dispelled any notion I may have held that Native Americans had been somehow less noble or brave than those who drove them from the lands that contained their entire history. Alone, reading is not enough, of course. One must take this information and apply it in interactions with others.
Cincinnati Public Schools house students from countless countries who speak over 60 different languages. In Gamble Montessori alone there are first and second generation Americans from over a dozen different countries on multiple continents.
The opportunities for mistakes are many.
How does one create a classroom and a school community that is racially and culturally responsive where there are so many cultures? How does one find the space and time to teach about all of this? How does any person ever come to understand a culture that is different from their own?
I can start by revealing there are two wrong answers. The first wrong answer is to impose one culture on everyone, using the term ‘melting pot’ to suggest that ultimately all that will separate us is a middle name revealing a secret ancestry. The second, equally misdirected wrong answer, is to try to eliminate any vestige of culture at all. Both are equally impossible, and both rob us of the great gift of experiencing new cultures. My mom was partially right: in some ways we are all very much the same. However, it is our differences as much as our similarities that make us more than merely the object of curiosity, but which extend us to a greater sense of what it means to be human, and to challenge our concept of equality. Culture infuses every action, rule, and conversation in the classroom. Your culture, and your students’ cultures, will seep through no matter what you do. So instead of pretending they don’t exist, they should be learned about and celebrated.
Here are some ways we have found to create a place where students are welcome and appreciated for who they are:
Get to know your students.
Go to your students’ sporting events or concerts at school.
Personally call to invite their parents to Open House and Student-Led Conference nights (you do student-led conferences, right?)
Allow students to choose what they research for assignments.
Ask questions about their interests, perhaps using a start-of-the-year survey, and then follow up.
Go to other sporting events or religious events where they will be performing or working, or visit them at work.
Learn about other cultures, individually and as a class.
Read books or articles by or about people from other countries and groups, especially those represented in your classroom.
Intentionally diversify readings and experiences, perhaps by asking “What cultures and countries are you interested in learning about?”
Work cultural and ethnic studies into your thematic lessons.
Standardize and teach the rules of grace and courtesy in your classroom – this softens the edges and creates space for being gentle when we make mistakes
Expect polite language for even common interactions.
Practice what to do in common classroom situations: someone gets angry and storms out, someone drops something fragile or loud, two students bump into each other, two students disagree on an important issue, a class divides over a thorny topic, etc.
Provide a place or a time for students to talk to you individually to address concerns about something that happened.
Teach students how to mediate their own differences, and include the practice of stating the other person’s position.
Keep reading books and articles about culturally responsive practices and apply what you learn.
I don’t claim to have gotten it all right. I have certainly made mistakes. I have, unfortunately, said things that were offensive in the moment or in hindsight. When these setbacks happen, the best thing, generally, is to acknowledge them and own them, and offer to try and make it right. Ultimately the best approach is to get to know each person individually, and try to meet them where they are.
Last year, one of our seniors had organized a walk through the neighborhood to raise awareness about abusive relationships. The group of twenty or so walkers who had gathered was comprised almost entirely of African Americans, students, and family members. We were milling around in the lobby, talking to each other as we waited for the signal to begin. I recognized a former student in the group and, as I spoke to him, my stomach growled. I had postponed lunch because I knew my senior had planned a lunch with green beans, mashed potatoes, wings, and my personal favorite: fried chicken.
I was about to make a big mistake as a white guy standing in a crowd of blacks. I asked my former student, “Tell the truth: you’re here for the fried chicken, aren’t you?”
As if hitting a switch, the group got noticeably quieter. I realized what I had done. I had just blurted out a stereotype of black Americans. I owned it. “Oh my God. That sounded really racist, didn’t it?” As he started to nod, and say, “Yes it really did,” I added, “I just said that because I, myself, am here mostly for the fried chicken, I hear her mom can really cook.”
From behind me a voice said, “She can cook, but it was MY recipe. And you can have two pieces.” There was laughter. A reprieve. Another lesson learned.
“Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B. Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”
I’m sorry, what?
It was the first day of math training, and this was the initial task. I had signed up for this professional development opportunity because Jack said it would be good, and because I have spent a significant amount of time over the past several years trying to improve my math instruction. Because, you see, I was “bad at math,” and that is not something that I ever want to pass on to my students. As a result, I have worked hard at becoming a better math teacher.
Math has never come as easily to me as other subject areas. In the 7th grade, I was “honors-tracked” in all subjects. I only stayed in honors through the end of the 8th grade, but by then the damage was done because my course of study in math had already been accelerated. I skated through Algebra II in the 9th grade, and very nearly failed Geometry in the 10th. At that point, I stopped taking math altogether. My advisor told me that I shouldn’t even consider taking Chemistry “because of all that math,” so science went as well. While that opened a lot of time in my schedule for terrific courses like Art History, and the History of the Theater, ultimately quitting math early did me no favors.
What irony then that teaching math has been a part of my job description throughout my career.
It wasn’t until I spent three years co-teaching math at Gamble with Katie Doyle that I began to feel a sense of competency. This was reinforced by the occasional proclamations of my own children when, upon returning home from work in the evening, I would hear, “I’m glad you’re finally home; I’ve been waiting for you to help me with my math homework!” Every time, I was tempted to turn around and look for whoever most certainly was coming in the door behind me. “I’m sorry, you’re waiting for who to help you with your math homework?”
Which brings me back to the math training. I want to be a better math teacher. I want teaching math to feel as fluid for me as teaching English does. I want to be certain that I am serving my students in the best way possible. To that end, I know I need to keep working at math. So, I committed to four summer days of math PD.
Which brings us back to, “Verify that P = (1,-1) is the same distance from A = (5,1) as it is from B = (-1,3). Find three more points that are equidistant from A and B. Can points equidistant from A and B be found in every quadrant?”
I wanted to raise my hand and say, “Excuse me, but you see, I think I’m in the wrong training. I want to get better at teaching math, not doing math!”
I wasn’t nearly that brave, so instead I did this. (Okay, with the group I was working with, and assistance from the teacher, I did this. It’s still pretty cool.)
I’ll admit it, as an adult learner, the math was interesting. We were working on problems from the 9th and 10th grade math curriculum at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire.
Yes, THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Arguably the most prestigious 9th-12th grade prep school in the country. Tuition for boarding students at Exeter is $47,000 annually; for day students, it is a mere $36,500, and there are rigorous admission criteria. The average class size is twelve; the student-teacher ratio is five to one. THE Phillips Exeter Academy. Full stop.
The Exeter math program is unlike any math instruction I have ever experienced.
There is no textbook, only a binder full of problems.
There is no direct instruction.
There is no modeling.
There are no examples.
Nearly every problem is a multi-step, word problem.
The structure of the class is such that when students enter the classroom, they immediately begin putting answers on the board from the homework the night before. Then the group discusses each problem, assessing accuracy, determining alternate methods, revising the work, questioning the results. The teacher’s role is to provide a few prompts and probing questions to deepen the understanding of the group, and to correct inaccuracies. Once all of the problems have been explored, new homework is assigned to be analyzed the next day in class. That’s it. That’s the entirety of the instructional process each day.
But, at the end of Day 1, I found myself feeling aggravated. I wanted to get better at teaching math to MY students. My 7th and 8th grade students at Gamble Montessori High School in the Cincinnati Public School System. How in the world was spending 8 hours a day for 4 days completing Exeter math problems going to help me to do that?!
Exeter students are not my students.
Exeter students pay tens of thousands of dollars in tuition each year. Seventy percent of my students are eligible for the Federal Free Lunch Program. Exeter students must demonstrate academic excellence in order to be admitted to the program. Thirty percent of my students are identified as having a disability; many more struggle with significant skill gaps. Exeter students either live at school full-time or remain on campus until 8:00pm each evening. My students go home at the end of a 7-hour school day, and some of them experience significant stress in those home environments. Exeter students are instructed in class sizes of 12. My students are in classes with 25-35 of their peers.
Exeter students are not my students.
The second afternoon, during a break, I had a casual off-hand conversation with Sami Atif, one of our instructors who is a math teacher at Exeter. We were discussing the make-up of the student body at Exeter.
He said, “It’s a cultural thing.”
Taken aback, I defensively asked, “What do you mean, exactly?”
His response surprised me. “It’s about culture. These kids are empowered. They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem. I don’t think I ever questioned a teacher when I was growing up. I wouldn’t have dared. These kids don’t have that issue. It’s about power. They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”
The conversation lagged, the break ended, and we went on with class. But his words hung with me. I revisited them on the drive home, and at some point before I went to bed that evening, it hit me like a kick in the gut.
“These kids are empowered. They don’t hesitate to question a teacher or a problem . . . It’s about power. They believe they have the right to question and to speak up.”
I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them.
Days three and four of the training were different for me. I was all in. Not just for me, for my students, too. It helped, of course, that I was witnessing my own math development in action. I was thrilled on Wednesday evening to discover that not only was I able to approach nearly every problem assigned for homework, I was able to get to an answer that I was near certain was correct.
Here is an example: “Let A = (-2,4) and B = (7,6). Find the point P on the line y=2 that makes the total distance AQ+BQ as small as possible.”
That was the change in me after three days of practice.
And I started to observe the instructors. This was far more than a curriculum; it was a methodology. The first thing I realized was that they never (never!) provided or confirmed an answer. This prompted more than one person to question whether the instructors actually even knew the correct answers! Instead they met questions with questions and provided guidance in the form of suggestions or references back to previously constructed knowledge.
By this point, I was writing down everything they said because I know from past experience that when looking to make a shift in practice, sometimes you have to “fake it ‘til you make it.” I was seeking a script, so I allowed the instructors to unknowingly provide it for me themselves. Here are some of their prompts:
“It looks like maybe you were thinking . . . “
“Are there any other ways to get there?”
“That’s a step I want to process more.”
“That’s really interesting.”
“Are there any other ways to look at this?”
“Are you convinced that you’ve found the correct answers?”
This strategy is known as “Harkness teaching” as it was first conceived of by Edward Harkness, an oil magnate who gave a significant donation to Exeter Academy for implementation of a teaching style that he described thusly:
“What I have in mind is a classroom where students could sit around a table with a teacher who would talk with them and instruct them by a sort of tutorial or conference method, where each student would feel encouraged to speak up. This would be a real revolution in methods.”
Oh, yes, Mr. Harkness, I, too, see your vision as revolutionary.
And yet I remain haunted by the question of “how.” How can I possibly implement this in my classroom – keeping in mind that many of my 7th and 8th grade students arrive with math skills that are expected from a 4th or 5th grader. What can I do to help them to reach this level of math confidence and comprehension?
What I didn’t realize initially was that this work had already been begun by Savannah Rabal, a junior high math teacher at our sister school, Clark Montessori. Savannah was out of town for the first two days of the training, but when she arrived on the third day, I began picking her brain for how she had done it. Her wise words, “Trust the Process,” provided me with hope in my ability to implement something similar in my own classroom.
Here are some of the expectations that she and her class developed for working with this type of instruction.
So perhaps it is possible to do something like this after all – to provide my students with the opportunity to work collaboratively with their peers solving high-level math problems through exploration, discussion, discovery, and critical thinking. I do not know yet exactly what implementation of this methodology will look like in my classroom, but here are my thoughts so far:
Begin with just 1 day a week
Provide direct instruction in expectations for the process; allow for student input and suggestions as we identify strategies for working together
Establish small groups that would work together consistently
Groupings could be heterogeneous, allowing stronger students to support those who are struggling
Groupings could be homogenous with differentiated questions, allowing strong students to work together toward acceleration, while struggling learners would be obligated to take risks and make attempts to approach the task without the support of their typically-relied upon peers.
Groupings could be a flexible combination of both homogenous and heterogenous groupings, allowing for the benefits of both options
Develop scaffolded supports to support student exploration and learning
Written structures such as guiding prompts and organizational supports
Pre-select appropriately leveled questions or design our own
Begin the process by working the problems together in class rather than expecting students to tackle them independently as homework in the initial roll-out phase
I’ll be honest. I am nervous as all get-out to even attempt beginning this process. There seems to be so many hurdles in the way. The challenges my students face with math content is just the beginning.
How on earth will I get my colleagues on board? They will not have the benefit of a four-day experiential training to elicit their buy-in; they will only have me (and Rosalyn and Erin, who also attended the workshop) waxing prophetic and showing them the materials that at first glance seem utterly ridiculous.
Even if I only implement this approach one day a week, it will throw us further off the curriculum content pacing that the district expects. How can I demonstrate that this is beneficial enough to make it allowable?
What will the parents think? Savannah already had this experience when a parent contacted her saying, “So, I hear you don’t teach math anymore.” Many parents are already wary of Common Core math, and already feel beyond their ability to assist with junior high-level math. What will they think when we throw this at them?
And what will happen when it doesn’t go as I have planned? In fact, the only thing I am certain of is that it won’t go exactly as I have planned. What then? Will I have the courage to stick with it? Will my students? Will my fellow teachers? Will my administrators?
It helped to discover this excerpt by Elisabeth Ramsey in the Exeter “Introductory Math Guide – Written For Students By Students.” It feels a bit as if she was writing directly to me regarding my apprehension about implementation, “I learned one of the more important lessons about math at Exeter; it doesn’t matter if you are right or wrong. Your classmates will be supportive of you, and tolerant of your questions. Chances are, if you had trouble with a problem, someone else in the class did too. Another thing to keep in mind is that the teacher expects nothing more than that you try to do a problem to the best of your ability. If you explain a problem that turns out to be incorrect, the teacher will not judge you harshly. They understand that no one is always correct, and they will not be angry or upset with you.”
And I continue to hear Savannah’s words echoing in my head, “Trust the Process.”
And Sami’s comment, after I acknowledged him for the powerful impact his words had on me, “Yeah, this is social justice work.”
So, remembering the feeling of: “I want that! That empowerment? That questioning? I want that for my students. I don’t care how I get them there. If this math strategy is what will give them that, then I want that for them, and I will do whatever it takes to get it for them,” I am ready to take the plunge. I’ll let you know how it goes.