From the Desk of Dr. glover

Week 1

“Teaching is not something one learns to do, once and for all, and then practices, problem free, for a lifetime, any more than one knows how to have friends, and follows a static set of directions called ‘friendships’ through each encounter. Teaching depends on growth and development, and it is practiced in dynamic situations that are never twice the same.” ---William Ayers

I think that most teachers would agree to the sentiment expressed above, including those teachers that don’t regularly practice its meaning. Teaching never truly remains the same. While lesson plans may be similar in many instances, there should always be room for growth and modification from class to class or year to year. With this in mind, the central reflection question for this first newsletter is: how are you growing?

I believe that one of the characteristics of stellar teachers is constant reflection. A reflective teacher takes time to ask questions about his or her practice and determine what worked well, what could be improved, and how to become better at the teaching craft. Similarly, the best teachers reflect on how their own experiences and background affect their biases (unrecognized or otherwise), worldviews, and practice. We all view our school subjects and our students within a particular cultural lens that must constantly be evaluated and assessed in order to reach all students. Teaching is an art (that’s what pedagogy means), after all, and art is constantly evolving. So, why do you do teach the way you do? Why do you have the rules you do? Why do you interact with students the way you do? Everything must have a purpose, and that purpose should not be based on assumptions. You may say that doing X leads to Y, but is that the way you expect it to work in your head, or is that the way it actually plays out in your classroom. Does your discipline strategy actually increase student achievement, or does it only make sense in theory?

As we enter the next week of teaching, think about how you are already growing and how you can grow more. Maybe this is in acquiring a certain skillset, content knowledge, or cultural awareness of your students. All of these things improve teaching. I challenge you to intentionally seek out others that can help you grow. Too often teachers remain in silos scared to admit their weaknesses and have others critique them. Instead, try to see everything as an opportunity for growth. We all have areas that need work.

Week 2

Some subliminal second thoughts:

He’s in my classroom, but he didn’t choose to be there…

He didn’t choose this school, and he didn’t choose me as his teacher.

He didn’t select his father’s income, his mother’s absence, or his crowded house.

He didn’t choose to confound my pet curriculum and my pet teaching prescriptions.

He didn’t choose to value different things than I, or to speak a different, albeit more colorful, idiom;

He just didn’t choose…

He can’t smile nicely when his world tells him to feel anger, nor can he frown away warmth and fair play…his mask is not like mine.

He could never comprehend the gap that separates his mercurial moods from my pale, practiced rightness.

He didn’t decide one day to shape his nose, his brow, or his mouth into forms that trigger my discomfort and disdain.

He doesn’t know that he won’t learn if I don’t think he can, or that my eyes and voice limit his circle of friends.

He just doesn’t know how much his future depends on ME.

He just doesn’t know…

- White woman teacher, 1969

(Larson & Olson, 1969, p. 17; as cited by Hancock, 2011)

Statistically speaking, the significant majority of teachers in the United States are white females, while the majority of students are now students of color. Quite obviously, this is not the scenario for everyone. There are teachers of color and male teachers. There are teachers with different religious beliefs, political views, and life experiences. Some teachers have homogenous classrooms, while others teach a variety of students differing in socioeconomic status, race, and prior academic achievement. What is consistent, however, is that most teachers across the nation are charged with teaching students that are often very different from them. Considering this, how does the above poem cause you to think about your relationship to your students? Though it focuses on white females and students of color, the basic premise can be easily applicable to many different scenarios.

Teachers and students often come from different worlds—generational, linguistic, and cultural. What you (and I) have that our students don’t have, however, is a position of power within the classroom. Educators often focus on the responsibility that students have in their own learning and achievement, and this is an important point that should not be ignored or neglected. But too often teachers and administrators fail to give equal recognition to the numerous direct decisions they make that affect their students’ outcomes. How can you understand your students more this upcoming week and beyond? Conversely, how can you share more of yourself to help them get to know you? One of the inherent challenges of teaching is recognizing the power and influence that teachers have and being careful to not simply try to make students “more like us.” How can you create a safe space for mutual growth? I believe this is a task we are all up for.

Week 3

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”—Wendy Mass

Many people often think of educating others as focusing on skills and strategies, but we all know that empathy and relationship building play a large role as well. Despite this, as we go through our days and weeks, we can often forget the struggles that others face that are not disclosed to us. A terse word from a colleague or a rebellious attitude from a student may be a reflection of inner turmoil and angst. In these cases, we often either take two stances: (1) We do not hold others accountable and instead feel sorry for them, or (2) We buckle down and attempt to gain minimal understanding and provide limited grace. I believe that our responses do not have to be so dichotomous, however. We can hold students accountable for their actions and demonstrate compassion, grace, and empathy. Similarly, our colleagues need some grace as well. Instead of being quick to jump to assumptions about a student or colleague that frustrates you this week, try to understand his/her perspective or reaction and then share yours—in that order. I am reminded of the importance of this quote often as I talk with students, parents, and staff going through their own battles. I know there are many more I know nothing about. I hope to model that grace and believe that you all will join me. Grace contributes to trust and trust enables better relationships and teaching. So much of quality teaching is effective communication and building relationships. How can you grow in this area this week?

Week 4

“A teacher is a moral agent. It is a secret hidden in plain sight. Almost everything a teacher does, has the potential to carry a moral import because ‘the place we call school is an environment of moral interaction and sometimes moral struggle’ (Nash, 2005, p.4; as cited in Kumaravadivelu, 2012). A teacher’s moral agency is revealed in myriad ways: in the selection of textbooks, in the way curricular content knowledge is re-structured and re-presented, in the use of instructional strategies, in the choice of classroom interactional patterns, in the way classroom activities are organized, in the teaching style, in cultivating student relations, in responding to conflicts generated by students and peers, etc.”---B. Kumaravadivelu

Do you ever think about your teaching profession as it relates to morality? I think that most of us recognize that we have a moral obligation to provide our students with the best education possible. I’m even willing to venture that many of us became teachers at least in part because we wanted to help others and help change lives. That in itself is moral. But how do personal morality, values, and beliefs affect even your small decisions in class? If a teacher is a moral agent as the author above notes, then we must reflect on all of our decisions in the classroom and how they affect students. We must think of ourselves as transmitters of morality and determine what morals and values we are perpetuating. Though we aim to get students to think for themselves and come to their own conclusions, teaching itself is never neutral. We pass on many recognized and unrecognized lessons in the midst of our interactions and instruction. What morals, values, and lessons are you passing on to your students today?

Week 5

Though I typically begin each reflection section with a quote and some subsequent questions/thoughts, this week will be slightly different in that there will be no central quote. In light of the continuing protests surrounding black lives matter, police brutality, and racial disparities and divisiveness, I would like to ask some questions, offer some suggestions, and challenge each of you.

My first questions are simple: Did you (or do you ever) address issues dealing with race and racial tension in class? Did you discuss the events of this past week in Tulsa and Charlotte with your students? If your answer was yes or no to both of these questions-- why?

I would like to propose that not addressing these issues in class can be more harmful than tackling them imperfectly. Teachers are often afraid of discussing tense or controversial issues in class, but I believe these are the very things that we need to discuss. Civic engagement, which has historically been a large part of the mission of public education, depends on the ability of students to engage, evaluate, and determine solutions for divisive issues. And teachers have the ability to help students process these events in class instead of solely through social media and friends/family members. Students need to have the space to engage in divisive issues and learn how to share their feelings and perspectives respectfully, and even when emotions overflow, empathize with those that have those emotions. Finally, students need to learn how to truly listen to each other and walk in someone else’s shoes. This does not happen if opportunities for these discussions are not given in class.

In addition to the above reasons, however, I fear that not addressing the events of this past week further validates the opinion of some students that school is not relevant to their lives and that teachers do not really care or understand their fears and perspectives. I fear that not addressing racial issues diminishes the credibility of the school in some students’ eyes. We have students that have real fears and real anger and real sadness, and overlooking these things does not help them learn better. These are students who are racial minorities and students who have parents in law enforcement, or both at the same time. It alienates them and causes the wounds to fester. And ignoring issues does not make them go away.

Perhaps you are saying to yourself that you don’t feel prepared to have discussions surrounding these issues. You don’t know how to begin. Maybe you are worried about getting off track with your lesson plans. These are valid concerns. To answer I would say: (1) It’s time to be more prepared to deal with these issues and you can begin that process today by researching more yourself (and I plan on putting together reading lists and a professional development proposal for the division to hopefully fund); (2) Begin with at least a simple affirmation of what has happened and an understanding that there is pain, fear, and differing perspectives. Offer your empathy and begin the process of asking questions and listening more; and (3) I would argue that taking time out of your lesson plan to deal with large current issues is important and could pay more dividends in the future. Even if this is not so, contrary to some beliefs, tests are not the most important thing for learning ever created. And many completely relevant lesson plans can be built around these issues. Take for example, the 1967 Kerner Report and examine its relevance to today as a historical document. Ask why things have not changed very much. Look at the rhetorical skills and devices used in MLK’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail and help students understand the process of constructing persuasive essays for topics they are passionate about. Examine statistics surrounding racial disparities and help students evaluate their genesis. I can come up with examples for every subject if you would like some help. Lastly, embed in each of these lessons the notion that social issues do not have to be an either/or position.

I leave you with one final question. If you were able to go throughout your week and not have to concern yourself with the issues taking place in Tulsa and Charlotte, or numerous other cities, why do you think that is? If you are able to go about your day as if nothing ever happened, not addressing the issues at either school or at home, it’s time to embrace a deeper level of discomfort and tension to understand the pain of so many students and families that you teach, both those that are black and those that are close to police officers. We can support both at the same time. Doing nothing, however, maintains the status quo, and that is something I aim to change with your help.

Week 6

"...Young people themselves, including those who are the most neglected, have the answers to their dilemmas and issues. Let's call things as they are. Instead of just forcing change on our youth with punishment-driven policies, test-driven curricula, or even Ritalin for unfocused and attention-starved children, let's change the dispirited and imaginative environment of their homes, neighborhoods, and schools. A truly liberating classroom is one in which the spirit of learning, inherent in all children and youth, is met with the most vigorous, innovative, and challenging spirit of teaching."

When you read the quote above, what is your first response? Is it one of pessimism and cynicism, or one of hope and an invigorated spirit? Does it reflect your views about education and your students, or do you disagree? I believe that one of the keys to engaging youth in learning is to bring in their community and their culture, providing them with opportunities to come up with solutions for the problems and issues they see all around them. How do math, science, history, English, art, drama, band, or any other course relate to their lives if they are not taught to use those subjects to change the world in which they live? As we prepare students for college and careers, let’s make sure we also prepare them to focus not just on their own desires, but also on serving and making the world a better, more equitable place. This week, consider the questions below from the series foreword to Holler If You Hear Me by Gregory Michie (p.XVII). Consider whether or not they have shaped your teaching philosophy and how they should:

• What are the issues that marginalized or disadvantaged people speak of with excitement, anger, fear, or hope?

• How can I enter a dialogue in which I will learn from students about the problems and obstacles they face?

• What experiences do students already have that can point the way toward solutions?

• What narratives are missing from the “official story” that will make the problems my students encounter more understandable?

• What current or proposed policies serve to privilege the powerful, and how are they made to appear normal and inevitable?

• How can I expand the public space—in my classroom, in the larger community—for discussion, problem-posing, and problem-solving in order to encourage fuller and wider participation?

Week 7

"The purpose of education, finally, is to create in a person the ability to look at the world for himself, to make his own decisions, to say to himself this is black or this is white, to decide for himself whether there is a God in heaven or not. To ask questions of the universe, and then learn to live with those questions, is the way he achieves his own identity."- James Baldwin

"We must strive for education and literacy that teach us to never quit questioning and probing at the assumptions of the day"- Bryant Mcgill

One of the goals of the current LCS evaluation guidelines is for teachers to encourage higher-level thinking in students and prompt them to engage in their own questioning of the world around them. For this week’s reflection, I would like you to simply think about how you encourage students to think critically and evaluate competing claims in your subject area. Is there an area in which you promote more rote memorization as opposed to problem-posing? Is there a particular group of students that you do not push to ask and answer the “how” and “why” questions in addition to the “what” and “where” questions? Are you a teacher that embraces student questioning and even student challenges (appropriately), or do you discourage this form of intellectual curiosity with simple answers? Does your body language tell students that they are free to question? I personally believe that one of the problems we have in education today is that we too often give answers as opposed to questions for students to figure out themselves. In reality, the world doesn’t fit into a neat set of tidy answers—there are too many competing claims, perspectives, and arguments for people to evaluate to simply provide trite answers for students. And students must come to conclusions themselves. The act of evaluating questions and arguments, as the top quote claims, allows for ownership of learning and identity formation.

One of the things I often look for when I am reading books or listening to speakers is what assumptions they are making to reach their conclusions. Every person has assumptions in how he/she views the world, but many do not recognize them. The taken-for-granted notions of today will soon change, as they are always changing. Often, we fail to properly evaluate the assumptions of the world around us. We take in popular views and values in media, in our social interactions, and in our education without stopping to probe those assumptions and the evidence for them. Learning to first recognize our assumptions and evaluate them will lead to us being better educators. As we critique the world around us we become better at helping students navigate their own.

Week 8

I have been challenging you to reflect on many things related to teaching and understanding your students over the first half of this semester. My questions have been intended to make you think about your assumptions, your practices, and your engagement. They have also asked you to reflect on how your past experiences shape your current teaching style and perspectives of students. Future reflections will probe even deeper into these areas and more, but I recognize that it can be draining to constantly focus on how we can improve and what we can do better. This is needed and should be continual, but it should not be without some reflection on the successes that you have experienced and how you and your students have grown. With this in mind, please reflect on the following this week (focusing on the first nine weeks):

• What have you learned about your students that was enlightening for you?

• What have you learned about the practice of teaching that was enlightening for you?

• What successes can you celebrate for yourself?

• What successes can you celebrate for your students?

• How have you grown over the first nine weeks of the year?

• How can you balance celebration of success for both you and your students with the need for continual growth?

I know that I personally focus on challenging myself constantly and looking at how I can grow. I like to challenge myself, as I’m guessing many of you do, but I find that I often fail to reflect on the growth that I’ve seen in myself. I mostly focus on what needs improved, and I can also do this with others. I need to get better at celebrating small successes, focusing on the process instead of the final product. The process is filled with ups and downs, uncertainty, weariness, and joy. We all need encouragement (both staff and students) in this process. I know I will be thinking about how I can improve in this area myself and be a better encourager to many of you.

Sadly, things as complex as education systems and human lives often change incrementally. Focusing on the process, however, allows for continued progress without the loss of hope. I’m hopeful for the future of Dunbar and for the future of our students. I know the challenges, I know the statistics, and I know the obstacles. I may not know them experientially, but I know them the only way I can—through listening, researching, interacting, and teaching students of diverse backgrounds and experiences. I can’t lose hope because it’s what keeps me going. I can’t lose hope because our students need mine when they struggle to find any at all. We are all in this together, and I thank you for the work you have done so far and the work you will continue to do. Celebrate your successes this week (and every week). Step by step, we will get where we need to be.

Week 9

“As they grow into their teens, many gradually come to the realization that for them, the so-called American Dream is no more real than John Henry’s hammer or Cinderella’s glass slipper. It is a gringo myth, a textbook fable. As kids come to internalize this, and feel their options narrowing, the gang culture around them looms larger and larger. So when they finally join, it is not so much a choice as a surrender, an acknowledgement that, in their eyes, there are no other choices left.”—Greg Michie, 2009

This quote above, written from a teacher in Chicago, describes what I have come to learn is true for many low-income students of color in urban schools. I do not focus so much on the gang culture that he references (that is much more prevalent in Chicago than Lynchburg), but the sentiment/belief that the American Dream is not readily accessible for many students. They are told to work hard and pull themselves up by the bootstraps, but as many of these students get older they realize more and more that their world and their experiences are not the same as many others. Their hard work doesn’t necessarily pay off in the same way as it does for other students. I don’t think many struggle to see the importance of education, but they struggle to see the relevance of education as it is traditionally carried out in schools. It often does not reflect their world and their experiences. And they feel powerless to change things unless someone teaches them how. They literally begin to lose hope and see few options for the future.

I remember my first year of teaching, fresh out of college and teaching high school juniors. My fifth period American history class started with 27 students at the beginning of the year and I had a horrible time trying to get them to behave and pay attention. I had the assistant principal come one day to observe the class, hoping for some insight and some guidance. She told me that I had about 15 students in that one class with discipline records. My response to their behavior was to lessen the engaging activities, keep them from talking at all, and focus on administering punitive consequences. I actually continued this method into the beginning of my second year of teaching, focusing on maintaining control rather than figuring out how to engage students better. It created a miserable learning environment for students and a miserable teaching experience for me. Sure, the students were much quieter, but quiet does not equal engaged. My focus on punitive consequences was killing any excitement and desire to learn.

What I’ve learned since that time is that many of those students were misbehaving because my teaching style was not relevant or engaging to their personal experiences and their world, which was so different than mine. Focusing so much on punitive consequences only made some resentful, and it did not teach them self-control. It taught them to only behave in a certain way as a response to external control. Surprisingly, my SOL scores for that class were actually not bad, but I do not conflate good SOL scores with providing real learning and hope for the future. Some of the students in that class did not graduate, one was arrested during that school year, and at least one was later killed after he had left high school.

As we begin this next week, please reflect on how you already provide hope to students and how you can learn more about what gives them hope. Additionally, how do you ensure that students are actively seeing the relevance of their education in their own personal lives? If your background is different from many of your students (as it was in my case), how do you know what is even relevant to them? Does your teaching style center on control and punitive consequences, or relationships and engagement (this is not to say that you shouldn’t have consequences, because you should)? And finally, what can you do to ensure that all students have equitable opportunities for success, both in and out of school? Perhaps begin this process by simply being intentional about asking students how they experience and perceive the world and how you can make their classroom experience more relevant to their world and their desires for the future. After all, this hits at least two parts of LOLET/COLET if implemented. I do not claim to be perfect in these areas—far from it—but if I can be of any assistance with ideas and lesson planning, please let me know. Thank you for all your hard work and perseverance despite difficulties…I’m really grateful.

Week 10

When you opened the link to this week’s newsletter, some of you were probably expecting to see a reflection about the results of the 2016 presidential election. Some of you may in fact be relieved that this newsletter does not address that. As I wrote when the riots were happening in Charlotte and Tulsa earlier this semester, I think it is extremely important to address these relevant issues in school. With that said, I have not had time myself to process exactly what questions and perspectives I want to pose regarding the election. There is so much to unravel and I want to be thoughtful in what I ask you to consider and reflect upon. I aim to have that reflection done for next week.

This week, however, I want to ask you to think about something I have been reflecting on more recently—something that is so easy to slip into and yet can have harmful effects. It’s called teacher lounge talk. The name itself is somewhat self-explanatory, but it masks the fact that all staff, not just teachers, can engage in this form of conversation. It masks the effect that it can have on students while so often being presented as harmless venting. And it masks the fact that it doesn’t just occur in teacher lounges. This week, I ask you to consider how you talk about students when they are not around. Do you complain about them endlessly? Do you focus on their faults and frustrating tendencies? Do you simply wish they were out of your classroom?

I personally acknowledge that, as much as I love our students, they can also be frustrating. Everyone can be at some point, including me. I can also acknowledge that sometimes I catch myself complaining about a student with no real purpose in mind. Sometimes we need to vent, but I challenge you (and myself) this week to make sure our venting is constructive, tempered, and focused on constructive actions. When I am tempted to simply talk about students in a negative light, I try to remind myself what I tell the students everyday—“If you can’t say anything positive, don’t say anything at all.” I try to remind myself that I don’t know all of their individual struggles, just as they don’t know mine. I try to remind myself that these are kids, that they ARE growing, and that my negative attitude is likely to affect how they relate and interact with me and the school they attend each day. In short, I try to assume the best. It’s the same thing I would want for myself.

We often forget that language and words matter. They shape what we focus on in students, they shape how our colleagues see students with whom they have little interaction, and they shape our students’ perceptions of their acceptance and ability. Even if we don’t say the words in front of students, they are very perceptive in knowing what labels they have been assigned. And research tells us that labels and teacher expectations have tremendous impact on student performance. I am not asking you to never have a criticism of a student or a need to vent. I am asking you to join me in trying to assess how helpful our student comments are and if we truly strive to see the best and focus on the strengths in each student. Let’s try to make our comments meaningful, constructive, balanced, and fair. And after we vent, if it is necessary, let’s get back to work and focus on growth.

Week 11

“One of the most powerful dynamics of human interaction is when people feel as though they have been heard. Really heard. Hearing someone does not mean we necessarily have to agree with what is being said. Rather, it is working to understand where people are coming from and then going to a new place together. Dr. Joyce Brothers has commented that listening, not imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery.”- James Hunter

Most of my reflection pieces have focused on self-evaluation and on understanding our students or improving instruction. This week, I want to focus on colleague relationships. Relationships among teachers and other staff are, I believe, important to the overall climate and success of the school. Teachers that respect each other work better together, and teachers that work better together help students more. This process is the same for administration. Collaboration breeds creativity and innovation. To do this successfully, however, there has to be a team mindset and a desire/willingness to listen and understand our colleagues better. Do you focus on how well your particular students perform, or are you concerned about your grade level, subject, or school as a whole? If we all view achievement of all students as our responsibility collectively, instead of just individual teachers, I think we are more likely to have success. Sometimes we are reluctant to work with others because they frustrate us or we don’t agree with their approach or their views or their personality. Is there another staff member that comes to mind when you read that? Will you intentionally make an effort this week to really understand where they are coming from and figure out a way to better work together? Sometimes this requires putting aside pride. It’s a process I’m still learning myself, but it’s one we all need to practice and model for our students as well. As divisiveness continues to grow in many ways across our country, educators should be central in modeling how to listen, empathize, and work together despite differences.

Week 12

“It is impossible to begin to learn that which one thinks one already knows.”- Epictetus

Throughout this first semester, I have tried to post reflection pieces that encourage each of you to think about your teaching practice and how your own personal experiences and backgrounds shape how you view students and teaching. Many of these reflections are based on questions I have wrestled with and issues that I think about frequently. A first step in growing, of course, is recognizing our need for growth and our lack of understanding of certain issues. I am constantly reminded of this fact myself. As the quote above notes, there is a need to approach issues, even ones where we have extensive experience, with an attitude of humility and an open mind. I believe that most of us are already like this, and in that spirit I have included a list of six books that have made me think, have challenged me, have helped me understand my students better, and have offered perspectives and research that are not always obvious to me as a white male from a middle-class background.

I grew up surrounded by a good amount of diversity and was still partially blind to the experiences of those different than me. My hope is that these books will challenge you in ways that they did me. I do not mean to say that I agree with everything the authors say (that rarely happens with any author), but that they do say much that is valuable in helping me learn and grow. Some of the books may prick some of you a little bit, but I encourage you to keep reading. It should also be noted that these books are not just important for my fellow white educators—in fact, they can be beneficial for all. They are also all primarily education-focused. Many of my favorite books that have benefitted me the most are sociological, but those are not listed here.

For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood…and the Rest of Yall Too: Reality Pedagogy and Urban Education Christopher Emdin

A relatively recent release that really is for all teachers, not just those that are white. The author is a Brooklyn native who also taught in Brooklyn before training teachers at Columbia University. He talks about what he learned as a teacher, provides a good theoretical foundation, and offers practical tips that he utilized in the classroom. Most of the information is not groundbreaking or completely new, but he does a good job of making it accessible and blending theory and practice.

Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom Lisa Delpit

Written in the 90s and considered a seminal work, this book is actually a collection of essays by the author. Her specialty is literacy, and she deals a lot with cultural differences and power imbalances in instruction. She also has a section on her teaching experiences with minority groups in other countries and shows their similarities to minority groups in America.

Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting in the Cafeteria: And Other Conversations About Race

Beverly Daniel Tatum

This book takes a psychological approach to helping us understand how racial identity develops in people. The focus is not solely on black students—it also deals with the racial identity development of white students, biracial students, and students of other racial groups.

The Way Schools Work: A Sociological Analysis of Education Kathleen Bennett de Marrais and Margaret LeCompte

Exactly what the title says, this book looks at education and schools through a sociological lens. If you want a book that will look at the process of education in America as a whole and challenge you to think about it critically, this is it. Even if you don’t share the author’s perspective, it’s worth a read to understand different views.

How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character Paul Tough

A good introduction to the importance of social-emotional/character development in students. The author is a journalist, not an educator, and the book is very engaging. He makes the case that social-emotional development is actually more important in a student’s future success than the intense focus on academics that is common in most schools (of course, he is not saying that academics should be neglected).

Education and Racism: A Primer on Issues and Dilemmas Zeus Leonardo and W. Norton Grubb

The authors take a very complicated issue with loads of research and narrow it down to a rather small book. They discuss how race shapes different areas of education and impacts outcomes for students. Most of what is discussed is not recognized by many teachers. They give a quality overview.

Week 13

“In all things that you do, consider the end.”- Solon

As we begin a new semester, I decided to keep my initial reflection brief and to the point. In addition to any personal resolutions you may have made for the new year, what goals are you setting for your classroom? I do not mean the SMART goals that you fill out for the division, but your personal work goals for the end of the semester. Maybe it’s not easily dissected as data or doesn’t align to a particular standard. Maybe it doesn’t relate to academics directly at all. Or maybe it does. All are okay. As I do for myself, I just challenge you to set some goals for this semester and track yourself to see how well you do in meeting those goals. If you want to make more positive phone calls home and do something nice for a coworker each week, that’s fine. Maybe you want to attend more after-school activities. I don’t know. Just consider how it will make a positive difference in your life and/or the lives of those around you. And when you get off track, as most resolutions do, remember that it is the process of growth that is important. Habits don’t become habits immediately. I hope you each have a great start to the year and we continue to learn together!

Week 14

“I got students to engage with me and each other differently because I blurred the lines between the in-and out-of-school contexts…Teaching more effectively requires embedding oneself into the contexts where the students are from, and developing weak ties with the community that will organically impact the classroom…When students have developed a disdain for school because they feel that to be successful they must repress their authentic selves, making them see that the content being delivered respects and values their culture makes them feel like the classroom is not at all like the rest of the school. The classroom that respects their contexts becomes a way to reconcile the broken relationship the neoindigenous have to schools and schooling.”- Chris Emdin

By now, as a result of training or schooling or daily interactions, most of you are aware that culture matters when teaching. And culture is not merely a coded word for race, though racial differences can and do contribute to culture. It includes many overlapping parts of our identity, from race and religion to geographic location and age. What many of us do not recognize, however, is how schools reflect a certain culture. If you are generally part of that culture, like I am, then it is more difficult to see. In contrast, the disconnect between some students’ culture and school culture is obvious, even if they don’t know how to articulate it. And many students, when they don’t sense that their culture is valued or represented in school, become disengaged or disdainful, feeling that to take on the culture of the school is to not represent themselves authentically. This leads to a tension that other students never have to face.

Chris Emdin suggests that creating a bridge from students’ out-of-school contexts and in-school contexts is the path that leads to healing and engagement within school. This leaves three questions for us that I encourage each of you to think about this week:

(1) How do you recognize the culture of the school? With what groups or identities do you think this culture most closely relates?

(2) How do you learn the culture of your students, especially considering that they are often a different race, income, and generational group that many of us? And

(3) If school and mainstream society operate from a particular cultural viewpoint, how do we both value and include our students’ culture in the classroom while also teaching them the culture they will need to know to be successful in broader society?

In the weeks to come, my aim is to go deeper into each of these questions, as they are central to teaching diverse students in an urban school such as Dunbar. For now, I hope they are enough to get your brain turning. Happy Spirit Week Dunbar family!

Week 15

“Recognizing the teaching Self is all about recognizing teacher identities, beliefs, and values. That is to say, a teacher’s personal disposition toward various aspects of their professional life is so vital that it determines their teaching behavior and hence shapes learning outcome.”---B. Kumaravadivelu

I consistently return to the theme of knowing ourselves, including how we are shaped by our personal experiences and the culture around us, because I believe that it so drastically influences teaching. It does so even when we don’t realize it. A reflective teacher is one that reflects on his or her practices in the classroom, while a reflexive teacher is one that consistently reflects on his or her own identity and how that shapes teaching.

The first question I mentioned last week asked you to consider how you recognize the culture of the school and what groups might identify most closely with it. Understanding the history of schooling in America and examining the taken-for-granted notions about how schools and classrooms should be run are important for improving outcomes for all students. Public schooling in America has traditionally been based on a factory model and was explicitly designed to sort students into groups. The structure of having summers off was put into place for students that needed to be home during the summer to work on farms. Other policies and practices closely reflect particular cultures. Some are widely known: the alignment of winter break and Christmas, as well as the alignment of Easter and spring break, reflect a historical association with Christian culture. The emphasis on individual achievement and competition reflects European culture, while Latino, Native American, and African cultures tend to be more communal. The hyper-emphasis on individualism is actually very American—research surveys have shown that America is the most individualistic country on Earth. Interactive, communicative, and linguistic styles in schools often reflect European traditions and norms. And curriculum has traditionally been Eurocentric in nature, leaving out significant contributions of other people groups and presenting a singular perspective.

There are other examples of daily interactions and values that are imparted to students by you as their teacher. These things are known in education lingo as the “hidden curriculum”—things that are taught implicitly rather than explicitly.

The questions I leave for you this week are: (1) What culture does your classroom privilege, if any? (This doesn’t mean intentionally—most of the time it’s not); (2) What cultures and experiences influence your teaching style? What core beliefs, values, and identities do you have? Knowing these things is important because they shape how we conduct our classroom and how we expect students to learn. After knowing these things, we can turn to knowing our students’ culture better and we can begin to see potential conflicts and challenges when the two come together. That is the topic we turn to next week.

Week 16

“Impacted by profound social isolation, the children face the basic problem of alienation. Many students become smug in their lack of appreciation of what the business of the school is and how it is connected to the world outside…Education is thus undermined because the mission of the school cannot equal the mission of the kids.”—Anderson, 1999.

The last reflection I wrote focused on seeing and understanding the intrinsic culture of most schools and how our own culture influences the way we teach and structure education. Much of this is invisible to us because it is so normalized in our daily lives. This week, we turn to understanding the culture of our students. This is a large task (and one that I do not claim to accomplish in one reflection post) because culture is so ambiguous, debatable, and varied for many people. There are multiple overlapping factors that influence our students, and in diverse schools students cannot be easily lumped together. Nonetheless, I will focus on research-based cultural characteristics for many of our African-American students since they represent the largest group in Dunbar and the culture that is opposite most of the teachers.

The quote at the beginning of the reflection comes from a seminal work by Elijah Anderson entitled Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (highly recommended, by the way.) Anderson outlines how many inner-city kids are so isolated from mainstream society and successful adults in their neighborhoods that they do not see the relevance of school to their lives. Their culture includes a “code of the street” that develops and includes an intense focus on respect and retributive justice. This code is applicable across races and is mainly based on geographic location in high-poverty neighborhoods. You can likely think of students in our school, both black and otherwise, that act at least in part according to this code. In general, however, many black students have even broader cultural characteristics that are common even across socioeconomic status, gender, and religion. See the list below (from Boykin, 1986; as cited in Irvine, 1991).



Harmony with nature

Organic metaphor

Expressive movement



Event orientation

Orally-based culture

Expressive individualism

Uniqueness valued

Person-to-person orientation



Mastery over nature

Mechanistic metaphors

Impulse control



Clock orientation

Print-based culture

Possessive individualism

Sameness valued

Person-to-person orientation

Before I go any further, let me comment that I realize each of these characteristics is not easy to understand without further explanation (unfortunately, that is limited for length’s sake). I also understand that cultural characteristics are not set in stone for every individual. Each individual is still unique though influenced by culture. It is also important to note that our students are shaped by a generational culture that is different than ours, as well as experiences related to gender, geographic location, immigrant status, sexuality, religion, and a host of other things. Despite all this, consider the above cultural characteristics as a start to understanding many of our students. This week, consider the following questions: (1) What do you agree and disagree with from the chart above?; (2) How do you see these cultural differences playing out in your classroom and in your interactions?; (3) How can you address multiple cultures in the classroom with such distinct differences?; and (4) How can you understand the diversity of your students’ experiences and cultures better to help incorporate them into the classroom? Next reflection, we turn to the conflict that happens when cultures collide in the classroom and some practical strategies for addressing those issues.

Week 17

“According to Greenfield et al. (1996), children come to school acting in accordance with the invisible cultures of their homes and communities, but conflict often arises when their behavior differs from the invisible culture of the school. Three things may occur: the school may devalue and even punish children for behavior their parents value, teachers may structure classroom interaction patterns that violate the invisible cultural norms of various minority groups, and such conflict may not be recognized as cultural because of their invisible nature.”—Bireda, 2010

The previous two reflections have dealt with the culture of schools/many teachers and the culture of many of our students, respectively. When looking back at those two reflections, it is hopefully easy to see how putting different cultures together in the same space could lead to conflicts, especially when one has power over another. This week, I offer some suggestions and thoughts on how to bridge that cultural divide in the classroom in order to help raise achievement for all students. Before doing so, I think it is important to point out a few things: (1) There are both positive and harmful aspects of every culture (we are just not conditioned to see it easily when it’s our own). Helping diverse students achieve in school does not mean that they should be “cleansed” of their culture—their culture has many positive attributes; (2) Helping bridge the cultural divide in classrooms does not mean that teachers go from teaching in one way that appeals primarily to one culture to teaching in another way that appeals primarily to other cultures. Diverse classrooms provide a mixture and a balance; and (3) Learning different cultures of students requires intentional and consistent effort to engage with students and their worlds—preferably going into their social contexts to better understand their lives.

The suggestions I offer below are brief and not intended to be all encompassing. For further information, please come talk to me or refer to Cultures in Conflict: Eliminating Racial Profiling (Bireda), For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all Too (Emdin), and Black Students and School Failure (Irvine), among others.

Sharing Perspectives

One of the easiest and most effective ways to make classrooms more multicultural is to structure your lessons in such a way that students are encouraged to share their own perspectives on many issues. They also need to feel safe to do so. Create guiding questions, set boundaries, open the floor up, and listen.

Use Local Examples

Many teachers try to incorporate hip-hop and various forms of entertainment culture with which youth identify into the classroom, and this is good. Try, however, to go beyond this and learn family norms and traditions, or local landmarks and events, and bring them into your lesson. Work backwards—figure out what is important to them and then figure out how to structure it into your lesson.

Become Familiar with Code Switching

This one will likely take more training, but diverse students can benefit when educators talk to them about how to code-switch—adjusting their language and interactions based on setting. It is helpful to learn that Standard English and certain interactions are needed for certain settings and that other vernaculars and ways of interacting are fine for other settings. Students should not have their language and interaction styles demeaned, however. This leads to alienation and further disconnection from school, or it leads to internalized shame.

Use Physical Movement

For many students, physical movement is important to their culture and to their engagement in learning. Though it may make you feel uncomfortable, try incorporating some physical movement into your lessons.

Use More Oral Responses

Call and response techniques, or other oral strategies, can be helpful in increasing engagement and retention.

Encourage Student Reflection

Just as I encourage each of you to reflect constantly, encourage your students to reflect on how they are represented in curriculum, the school, classroom practices, and broader society. Create a space where they feel comfortable expressing dissent and offering feedback for you to improve how you teach them.

I leave you with one question for the week: How will you try to learn more and use these strategies (or others) to bridge the cultural divide in your classroom?

Week 18

“Teachers like students who like them. Those students who let teachers know that they are liked, valued, needed, and appreciated engender the affections of the teachers, who subsequently spend more instructional time with them.” – Jacqueline Irvine

I came across the above quote in one of my books when I was searching for something else and I decided to use it for this week’s Pen because it made me reflect on the complex social processes and student-teacher relationships that affect classroom dynamics and learning. The truth is, it’s natural for all of us to like others who clearly display their fondness for us. We often don’t even recognize when we do it. This has clear implications for teaching, however. Many students don’t treat us as we would wish. Many don’t really know how to express their affection, or they are cautious in their interactions with adults in authority. Others’ personalities or cultures clash with ours. The result of these interactions, or lack thereof, is that we often give more positive attention and the benefit of the doubt to some students over others—and we may not even realize it. This scenario also works in reverse, making the entire process cyclical. As we express more positive attention to students, they are often more likely to reciprocate.

For this week, think about how these social interactions possibly play out in your classroom. Which students might you favor because of how they treat you? Which students need more help and intentional focus but you might fail to give it to them on a subconscious level (or purposefully) because of how your interactions with each other occur? What factors (external, internal, or school-related) might be causing some students to not appreciate you, or express their appreciation, like others do? What factors might cause you to not appreciate some students like you do others? Do you think these things impact your teaching?

Week 19

I was recently thinking about the labels we assign to others in society and how those labels impact our relationships and our teaching. Truthfully, I think about labels a lot. It is pretty much a universal experience. Our society is constantly dividing people and things into binary categories and establishing us versus them mentalities. In fact, we evaluate and start making judgments about other people within a few seconds of seeing them or meeting them. It’s a natural part of how human brains function—categorizing everything into groups—but it can be extremely harmful to both our working relationships and our teaching of students when not recognized. And once we assign a label to somebody, mostly subconsciously, we are more likely to remember or notice things that serve to reinforce that label instead of contradict it. We label people in terms of in-groups and out-groups, and the labels then become self-reinforcing in our minds and often in reality. Research also shows that when we assign labels to students, they are often aware of those labels and it affects their educational outcomes. Many students often become what adults or society has labeled them, for a variety of reasons. Sometimes labels that educators assign students subconsciously affect expectations, the help students receive, discipline that is handed out, and resources or opportunities that are given.

One of my professors told me once that all stereotypes are false. Every single one of them. A common saying is that stereotypes exist because they have some basis in reality, but the simple fact is they distort the uniqueness of each individual and are often used as a basis for judgements without taking the time to get to know someone in depth. Of course there can be commonalities among people or people groups, but labels and stereotypes are too often used as harmful simplifications. In the end, they can even become self-fulfilling. Social psychology, as a field, has a lot to say about these things and how they impact interactions and education.

For this week, I leave you with several questions for reflection: (1) What labels have people given you in your life that you disagreed with?; (2) How did labels assigned to you (either positive or negative) affect who you became? (you might have to dig deep for that one); (3) What labels might you subconsciously assign to certain students without really getting to know them?; (4) What labels might you subconsciously assign to certain colleagues without really getting to know them?; and (5) How might these labels affect your relationships and teaching? I can assure you that I will be answering these questions along with you. It takes consistent practice to develop that reflective demeanor that searches how we see other people.

Week 20

“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do.”- James Baldwin

The quote above is a personal favorite of mine, and one I used to share with my students in history class on the first day of school, because I think it clearly articulates the power and importance of history. As I’ve discussed in previous Principal Pens, our history (and the legacy we inherit) affects us in numerous ways that we often don’t realize. Our values, teaching style, interactions with others, personal beliefs, and social benefits (or lack thereof) are all affected by our history. As we approach the end of the school year and upcoming SOL tests, I encourage you to not only reflect continuously on your personal history and the larger history of America, but also on your individual history with certain students this year.

You may have had several negative experiences with a student and those experiences now shape how you approach the student, the expectations you set, the patience and assistance you give, or the care that you exhibit. Personally, I know this is true for me. I have caught myself many times lately just wanting to complain about certain students and not seeing (or searching) for the positive attributes they have. I have caught myself just wanting to be negative about them. The reality is that this does not solve anything, but in fact can make the relationship with the student worse. Though it can be tiring, I encourage you to keep pushing, holding students accountable, showing them that you care, and trying to emphasize the positive assets that they may not see in themselves. I will be working on this right alongside you. With this in mind, my only question for you this week: What student(s) came to mind when you read this reflection and what will you purposefully do to promote positive interactions with them?

Week 21

“It's a funny thing about life, once you begin to take note of the things you are grateful for, you begin to lose sight of the things that you lack.”--Germany Kent

This past week and weekend were good reminders of the many things I have to be thankful for in my life. Teachers’ Appreciation Week and Mothers’ Day both remind me of the people around me that have helped to shape who I am. This year, however, there was a new dynamic involved since it’s my first year as an administrator. Rather than just thinking about the teachers that taught me and those I taught alongside, I am also encouraged to reflect on the many things that you all do for Dunbar and how I can express my appreciation for you in this new role.

In the midst of the busyness of school life and personal life, I don’t always thank you for how hard you work and for how you help me grow. I haven’t thanked you for working alongside me and giving me a chance, even when you might be unsure about some things. Truthfully, I am not always sure how to make people feel appreciated. Much like love, different people receive appreciation in different ways. And sometimes I don’t say what I should to each of you or I focus so much on improvement (even in myself) that I fail to appreciate properly. Nevertheless, I want to make sure that I thank each one of you for the work you have done this year and for being willing to grow alongside us. As the quote above mentions, I do believe that noticing (and expressing) the things for which I am grateful is a good way to stay positive and hopeful. Happy end of Teachers’ Appreciation week Dunbar family! And in typical reflection style, this week I encourage you to ask yourself the following questions: (1) What things do I have to be grateful for at Dunbar?, (2) What do I have to be thankful for in my students?, and (3) How can I focus on and express these areas of thankfulness this week?

Week 22

“If, like those with the growth mindset, you believe you can develop yourself, then you’re open to accurate information about your current abilities, even if it’s unflattering. What’s more, if you’re oriented toward learning, as they are, you need accurate information about your current abilities in order to learn effectively. However, if everything is either good news or bad news about your precious traits—as it is with fixed-mindset people—distortion almost inevitably enters the picture. Some outcomes are magnified, others are explained away, and before you know it you don’t know yourself at all.”—Carol Dweck

One of the things I like most about a break from students and the busyness of school is the chance to reflect more extensively on the year and figure out how to restructure and retool some areas while sustaining the areas that are already moving in the right direction. Though I reflect frequently during the school year, there is less time for sustained reflection than during the summer, and even less time to reorganize and restructure various areas. I certainly know better than anyone my weaknesses and flaws, in part because I reflect on them and in part because I try to be open to helpful criticism and hearing the perspectives of others. Additionally, data sometimes speak all too clearly and tell me where I need improvement. What I have learned, and what I try to model for students and staff, is that we are all in the process of growing. I ask for feedback and tough conversations and critique precisely because I want and need to grow. I received mostly helpful feedback for both glows and grows on my assistant principal survey, and I am trying to have end-of-the-year conferences that allow teachers to express concerns and issues with the school as a whole or with me personally. My weaknesses, and your weaknesses, are not something to be afraid of, but rather something to embrace and be open to learning about.

The interesting thing to me, however, is that I think most of us preach this view to students but don’t necessarily look at ourselves in this way. We beat ourselves up over every mistake, misstep, or failure. Or we become defensive when someone offers a critique or a perspective that threatens the established identity/perception we have of ourselves. It’s not easy to open ourselves up to examining our weaknesses, much less having someone else point them out. I often find myself simultaneously wanting critique and not wanting critique because I know it’s good for me but it doesn’t always feel good. The good news I’ve found is that when I open myself up, I’m better because of it.

As we end this year, I encourage you to reflect on the year as a whole and figure out what needs improvement and how you will improve in these areas. Yes, you already did your teacher self-assessments, but I am also interested in how you will know the perceptions of your students. Beyond administrator evaluations, self-assessments, and SOL scores (all of which should be used for reflection), your students have valuable perspectives that should not be overlooked. Some may be immature and petty in their responses, but how can you get feedback from students that will help you evaluate yourself? Where can you see value and learn from their perspectives while also recognizing that you don’t have to agree with all that is said? I am looking forward to improving with all of you next year and hope that your summer is full of rest, relaxation, and reflection:)

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