by Jean Prokott
Part of an educator's job description includes insomnia, but nobody tells you that at teacher-school. It's more on-the-job training. The sleeplessness is nerves, mostly--did I remember to print those worksheets? how is that student's mental health? what if my zipper is down tomorrow?--but it's also anxiety-ridden in that instead of counting sheep, we spend hypnagogic moments counting our failures.
We make hundreds of decisions a day, and a healthy portion of them are mistakes. Failing hurts, and it is uncomfortable, yet we tell our students they learn through failure. It's only fair we know this for ourselves.
To reframe, we're counting the moments we learned. If a lesson plan goes awry, the students watch you flounder (if they're paying attention). If, like me, you say the phrase Netflix and chill in class thinking it's literally about relaxing while watching Gilmore Girls, you're going to sit in that for a while, and you're going to save Urban Dictionary to your Favorites bar.
Physiologically, we can attribute this to the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and which hangs out next to the hippocampus, where memories are retrieved. We recollect emotional experiences more precisely and colorfully because our brains are built that way. Theoretically, as educators, we know Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, (ZPD), which they did teach us in teacher-school, and which explores the sweet spot of comprehension. In a parallel, one can look at this as emotional intelligence, this sweet spot where you feel just uncomfortable enough to remember. A student ignores or forgets a class where they are not emotionally or intellectually challenged. A student does not feel safe or confident in a class that challenges them, content or skill-wise, too much.
Our job is to hover in the ZPD. It's not easy to create these moments for our students, to get their hippocampi to remember how we made them feel and what we taught them. Especially because every student's ZPD is different. So is mine, so is yours. And they fluctuate.
But, as I mentioned before, we must do for ourselves what we ask of our students. Teachers might not experience the anxiety of feeling intellectually or emotionally unsafe in our classrooms (not to be flippant, but aside from the fact that a student could kill me with a gun, or that I could be fired for saying the "wrong" thing). However, educators can find themselves complacent in the nucleus of the ZPD. Not because of laziness, but because of survival. In those rare circumstances when opportunity and time presents itself to us, we should strive for the next layer.
Education, as its own institutional beast, struggles to evolve on its own. For one cog to move, myriad others in the government and community must be greased. Fortunately, (hopefully), teachers have control over their classrooms. To move to the outer ring, we can challenge ourselves with new curriculum, new projects instead of tests, cross-curricular activities if the school structure can be manipulated for it. With support from our administrators and colleagues, we can set plans in motion for "hard conversations."
It isn't a leap to explore how this, too, is exactly how poetry works. (Everything is a metaphor, even a metaphor.) Third Eye Education is ever grateful for the conversation and new poems from poet Taylor Mali, who opened a door to the joy of discomfort by way of poetry, teaching, and shaking dice for a symbolic gamble.
Mali's new poems, "Momentum," and "Are You Going to Come for Me'' explore the Gestaltian circumstances when we're thrust from our comfort zones. Mali tackles how one new experience can change our big picture.
In "Momentum," the speaker challenges his sister on the accuracy of her memories with their father: "I repeated a story he had only ever told to me [...] his brothers locked him in a windowless shed—/ piled firewood against the door outside—and dared him/to escape in under five minutes." While the speaker uses the story as evidence of "joy," his sister interprets the story as evidence of "destroying everything around him to become free," which warps the memory of his father. This discomfort leads the speaker to rearrange his past relationship with his father, and perhaps to question whether any of his memories can be trusted. I think, here, of how this ties to the lessons I've learned in my classroom. How might I look at my prior discomforts now, as a seasoned teacher? Discomfort breeds when our Truths are challenged. Do we accept this, or do we double-down?
Speaking of “discomfort,” the next poem contains content
that might make some uncomfortable. But isn’t that the point?
strategies for balancing voices and minimizing cultural-bias
by Third Eye Education, consolidated by Heather M. F. Lyke
I am addicted to podcasts. There is something about cramming learning into my commute, pairing it with laundry, and adding it as a workout buddy that fits my hectic lifestyle. Even when life slows down, I enjoy learning while listening in the bathtub, while swinging in my hammock, or while taking a scenic drive.
It is because of my podcast addiction that I recently learned a few new strategies for balancing voices, and in-turn minimizing cultural-biases, when collaborating with colleagues or facilitating student discussions.
Turn and Learn
Catching up on old episodes of Unlocking Us, I listened to Brené Brown’s talk with Dax Sheppard and Tim Ferriss. This is the part of the conversation that perked my ears:
“People’s expectations and understanding of things are so different:” now, isn’t that pure truth. Yet, in leadership roles and as classroom instructors it’s often easy to inadvertently allow halos to form and for bandwagons to take over. Not only does this enhance only certain voices, but it also can minimize the variety of perspectives that are brought to the table.
For instance, sticking with the element of time noted above. My husband has a degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Minnesota. He has shared stories about his sophomore year Ojibwe Language class—during which he was often the first student in the room. For my husband, a cis-gendered white male from a middle class family with European heritage who was raised by parents who often noted “if you’re not early, you’re late,” being on time was par for the course. Had you asked the sophomore version of him what was going on, he’d have likely said, “everyone else is late,” “they’re not respecting the professor,” or “I thought that if you’re not early you’re late.”
That said, had you asked is fellow classmates—most of whom were idigenous—to write down on a sticky note about the importance of being “on time,” you’d have seen a wide swath of answers:
Now, if the professor flips his sticky note first, people may wish they’d changed their response (bandwagon). If there is a classmate that many respect who flips first, others may wish they’d shared a similar response (halo). However, by flipping all sticky notes at the same time all voices get put on the table and, as in this instance, different cultural beliefs come to light.
The thing about listening to podcasts is that it’s passive. I hit play and I take in new learning. Sure, I have autonomy over what podcast I listen to, which episodes I download, and what I may opt to fast-forward past—but it’s still passive. If we’re not careful, meetings and classroom instruction can become passive, too.
Last week, our Third Eye Education collective came together for our April session. During our time together, John Alberts of Austin Public Schools shared a new-to-him strategy that he had learned from the IDEAL Center: we all tried it. Like Brené Brown’s Turn and Learn, this approach balances voices in a way that helps disrupt some dominant cultural norms.
Here is the process Alberts took us through:
There is some magic in what may seem like a simple rotation of ideas and share alouds: each woven in intentionally by the IDEAL center in the way it was shared with Alberts and his team:
Additionally, to assist in the above process and purpose, the IDEAL Center has at its foundation these shared norms (which are always evolving, according to a recent communications with their team):
Of course, depending on where you are in your journey with racism, cultural understanding, and appropriation, understanding why structures such as the Turn and Learn and Sharing Circles help (especially if the intentionality of these strategies are rooted in awareness) break down the dominant white-culture norms that tend to permeate many organizations across our nation.
To increase one’s awareness of how white supremacy exists in our communities and organizations, often without individuals even knowing it, is broken down in Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture” article from Dismantling Racism, which was shared by Shavana Talbert, the Statewide Culturally Responsive Practices Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Wisconsin RtI Center. Understanding the imbalance is one of the first steps to creating balance. How might these characteristics show up within you? Your organization?
When it comes to those norms from the IDEAL Center, my personal favorite is the second half of the last one: “what’s learned here leaves here.” Perhaps that’s why I love podcasts so much: there is power in sharing one’s learning and at its root, that’s what podcasting does. Podcasters share their knowledge, while in turn their listeners can share new learning with others. Unlike podcasting, however, Turn and Learn and Sharing Circles are less passive and less presumptive: they create a place for active engagement that leaves room for authentic individuality. (Maybe this is why we at Third Eye are so anxious to try out Clubhouse some day, as it’s a refined version of podcasting: it removes the passivity and presumptiveness. Anyone want to toss us an invite? Let us learn from you!)
Ideas by Shannon Helgeson, Suzette Rowen, Tami Rhea, & Natalia Benjamin (consolidated and framed by Heather M. F. Lyke)
In Adam Grant’s recent Taken for Granted episode, “Jane Goodall on Leadership Lessons from Primates” (released March 1, 2021), Goodall shares that “at some point in our evolution we developed this way of speaking with words so that we can teach children about things that aren't present. We can gather together and discuss something--people from different views--and that is what I believe led to this explosive development of our intellect.” Likewise, Sir Jony Ive of Apple is often quoted for noting that “the best ideas start as conversations.”
After each session spent recording a new podcast episode, Mike Carolan, Nick Truxal, and I gather together in one of our offices or via a video call, and these follow-ups often begin with a version of the phrase “I learned so much.”
There is a creative energy and a passion for new ideas that often comes from the collaboration and conversation between individuals. For our podcast team, that is what makes the time devoted to our efforts more than worth every minute spent. This is also the root of why our team walked away with so many new ideas and revitalized energy after our discussion with four of Minnesota’s 2021 Teacher of the Year nominees.
Snapshot of a Collegial Conversation
In our conversation with our four Minnesota Teacher of the Year nominees, three threads of focus soon emerged, despite being braided together. We sorted them here:
Cultural Exploration and Understanding:
One clear thread that came up during our conversations was a desire to expand one’s personal understanding of bias, racism, and cultures other than one’s own. Some of the resources shared were:
Two professionals in the field come up often, including in this conversation, when talking about teacher leadership—specifically in the area of instructional coaching. A portion of our conversation kept circling back to the works of Jim Knight and Elena Aguilar.
Inspiration from Outside Education:
It may be hard to believe, but educators do take breaks from time to time—spread our wings outside our field. That said, we never fly too far from the tree of education that roots us to the profession, often discovering ideas and tools that lead us back to the field we love. Such as was found with:
Bringing Conversations into Classrooms
These types of collaborations may happen more organically in our collegial world, seeing as adults have often developed the skills needed to listen, to build off of others, and to see the future potential of a conversational thread. That said, we all learned these skills somewhere.
Rich conversations need to happen in classrooms too. As Goodall noted, it is in conversations where the “explosive development of our intellect” comes into play. There is a thirst for learning that happens naturally and sporadically when we bounce ideas off of each other: in podcast conversations and in classrooms.
If you’re looking for ideas for increasing student growth, learning, and passion through conversation collaboration, consider digging into these resources:
Knowing that “the best ideas start as conversations,” we encourage educators to model conversational learning by participating in these opportunities often, as well as creating a space for such learning in our own schools and classrooms.
Teachers of the Year
with Shannon Helgeson, Suzette Rowen, Tami Rhea, & Natalia Benjamin | 4.26.2021
We have the pleasure of digging into innovation, inspiration, and influances with four of Minnesota's Teacher of the Year Nominees.
by Amit Sood (with a frame by Heather M. F. Lyke)
— The original version of this piece was first published in Dec. 2020 by the Rochester Post Bulletin --
Just like you can't get your home's radon levels to zero, you can't completely empty your mind of negative thoughts and feelings.
I work with everyone in my role at Dover-Eyota schools, both in classrooms and outside of them. Collaborativly, staff and I work with students, or we meet to plan for future work with students: anything to help students grow. This year, whether it be during an online check-in or over an outdoor beer after work, conversations have been particularly interesting. This week alone, four staff have made note of how much more they are grinding their teeth this year versus past years. I can relate.
This has been a school year like no other. Our staff, students, and community are having to navigate more stress and more negativity than many have had to process in years past. Knowing that, what can we do?
A few years ago, we discovered high radon levels in our home, three-fold higher than the desired. Suddenly, our basement felt like a live nuclear reactor.
With the pump installed and the radon back to less than 2.0 pCi/L, our sleep quality crawled back to normal. Then I had a brilliant idea--why not take radon levels down to zero? Just to compensate for the years of radiation. Few quick clicks on the internet, and I knew that wasn’t possible. Radon is part of the natural environment. Its level can be reduced, but not eliminated.
It turns out this is true for most other toxins. The normal blood mercury level is less than 10 micrograms/liter. It isn't zero. Even if you never enjoyed grilled mackerel or a tuna sandwich, you still will have some mercury in your body. The same is true for lead, arsenic, aluminum, and now micro-plastics.
“Isn’t that true also for negative thoughts?” I thought.
Our minds can’t have zero anger, zero fear, zero sadness, zero envy, zero falsehood. Research shows that for most of us, negative thoughts often exceed positive thoughts. I don’t know anyone who sits in a corner thinking just happy thoughts.
Every week I think thoughts I would rather not think. Being alive is being imperfect.
Here are three ways you can leverage these insights:
If you agree with the preceding, then...
Here is your challenge:
I wish you peace, health, joy, love, and healing in 2021.
Dr. Sood, my dentist (and my pocketbook) thank you for this. I suspect my colleagues' dentists will be thanking you, too.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
— The original version of this piece was first published in December 2018 by RPS Secondary Curriculum & Instruction --
My best friends when I was growing up—the ones that I kept going back to again and again for support, reassurance, and comfort—were all fictional. It wasn’t so much that I was a nerd or a bookworm per se (although I did grow up to become both), but rather that my day to day world didn’t have in it anyone who looked or acted like me: so I sought them out in books.
You see, as a kid I didn’t have any tangible women in my life with whom I really identified—at least not holistically. My day to day life was filled with men—my father, my older brothers, and most of my friends. And then there was my mom: my mom, who was 100% sugar, and spice, and everything nice—while I, on the other hand, was mainly spice. Unlike my mother, I enjoyed changing the oil with my dad, going fishing with my brothers, and shingling roofs with my guy friends. However, I wasn’t ‘one of the guys’ either: I had a Caboodle full of banana clips and Bonne Bell, Yankee Candle was my favorite store in the mall, and I wore Love’s Baby Soft every day of junior high. So, instead, I found kinship in Mallory from The Baby-Sitter’s Club series, in Jo from Little Women, and in June Osborn [Offred] in The Handmaid’s Tale.
The thing is, each of these friends were introduced to me by teachers. I met Mallory at Jefferson Elementary when Mr. Vanort pointed out the series to me one day in the Library. I met Jo at Kellogg when Mrs. Ollenberg noted in the margin of one of my journal entries that I might enjoy it. And, I met June at Mayo when Ms. Evans set her own personal copy on my desk and said I should read it over winter break (I still have that copy, by the way: if you’re reading this Ms. Evans, let me know if you want it back).
But the other thing is: I’m white and cisgender. I was also born in the United States and raised middle class. These factors made it easier for me to see myself in the books I read growing up. It also made it easier for teachers to put the right books in my hands.
Unfortunately, for many students, it’s uncommon for them to see themselves reflected in the books they read, and while the diversity we are seeing in children’s and young adult literature is on the rise, it still doesn’t match our student population.
As BJ Epstein, Ph.D., noted in The Conversation, “we know that children’s books can act like both mirrors and windows on the world. Mirrors in that they can reflect on children’s own lives, and windows in that they can give children a chance to learn about someone else’s life.” Knowing this to be true, then as educators it’s important we ensure students have opportunities to see characters who look like them, share similar backgrounds, and have comparable personality traits. Simultaneously, it important to ensure students are reading books that provide insight into worlds different from their own.
Author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, in her 2009 Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” sheds light on how her personal view of how she saw herself and who she could aspire to become someday was inaccurate and thin because of the limited types of novels she’d had access to. In other words, the mirror she had access to—the one she was able to hold in her hands—didn’t give her a clear picture of herself.
Adichie goes on to talk about how the books one reads can also create windows into the lives and worlds different from one’s own. In fact, reading literary fiction helps build empathy.
For me, this was certainly true. My world view expanded greatly through literature. Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of being black, poor, and female in America. Cisneros' The House on Mango Street helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of poverty and immigration. Dorris' A Yellow Raft in Blue Water helped me begin to comprehend the challenges of holding on to one's heritage when one is Native American and/or biracial.
No matter our cultural backgrounds and experiences, reading fiction “can usher us into other worlds—it can make us step into other realities” (Elemans).
When it comes to surrounding students with literary mirrors and windows, one of the first steps is accessing the right titles and then getting those titles into students’ hands. Below are a wide variety of resources that can help you find texts to then share with students.
Book List Resources:
Reading Challenges that Honor Diversity in Literature:
No matter what your role in education, you could be that staff member who hands out mirrors to and opens windows for our students. It’s important that we all work together to guarantee our students are able to see themselves reflected in the books they read and ensure that they’re able to build empathy for those who are different from them.
My childhood would have been rough without characters like Mallory, Jo, and June. My worldview would have been much thinner without authors like Hurston, Cisneros, or Dorris. To this day, I am grateful for those teachers who introduced me to these close friends and who showed me more of the world.
These protagonists taught me that being smart and outspoken, being strong-willed and brash was admirable—even if I was a woman. These authors taught me to empathize with others different from myself. Now, imagine what lessons our students will learn if we just introduce each of them to a wider array of books.
Concepts and ideas by Wiley Blevins; compilation and added resources by Nick Truxal
Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop's excellent piece on books serves as mirrors to reflect on our own experiences; windows to peer into other’s experiences; and sliding doors that can distort, allow access, or serve as a barrier frames many wider issues in literacy. One that we as educators can struggle with is finding the material that will have the content we need, the skills we need to teach, and the diversity to serve as windows and mirrors.
So, this article shall be that. Where do we find quality resources, and where do we find quality resources that help us find quality resources. It is a babushka doll of an article. Plus, if you’d like to read more about mirrors and windows, we’ve got you covered there, too.
Suggestions from the Rochester Public Library
Third Eye Education has been lucky enough to partner with Rochester Public Libraries (RPL). The resource we can most heartily recommend is one they created just for us; yet, we share here with you because we believe it’s important to spread good resources wide and far.
This list recommends books (mostly at the elementary level), along with how they can be taught across content areas, what controversies they may spark, what grade levels they best fit, and most importantly—how it may act as a mirror and window. (If you check the link, make sure to try the category tabs at the bottom.)
Suggestions from Wiley Blevins
Wiley Blevins, in his podcast episode with Third Eye (released April 13th, 2021), covers these topics and in it he shares a plethora of other resources. Blevins, a world-renowned expert in early reading and the Associate Publisher for Reycraft Books suggests the following:
Ideas for your own Reading
Finally, pick up a book yourself. Read it with a friend, or even a stranger!
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.