Cyphers as Restorative Circles
Ian, you make our minds jump to places we weren’t anticipating. In this particular moment, we jump to a fabulous teacher in a nearby district, Sweta Patel, who has been doing work with restorative circles. She has found fabulous success—said this year in particular has been amazing, which seems to be in large part because of the ability to have individual conversations with students through new uses in technology. It seems like another example of a different way to involve students, make sure they are heard, and have hard conversations. My assumption is that, if we do that, hip hop will emerge as a key vehicle.
I think about it in a couple ways. One way is - yeah, you can do restorative work, and if it is done authentically and there are hip hop voices within that space, that will naturally come to the surface. I also think that, when you talk about chapter six, which talks in depth about interacting in cypers--Isn’t a cypher itself a restorative circle? I think they are.
This idea of creating circles in school environments so youth can process conflict with each other, come to some sort of resolution, reach restitution—the cypher has always been that. Much like the circle has been as well. There are connections to Paulo Freire and all the work that has been done circularly in Brazil. That’s where all the critical consciousness ideas come from—all situated in circles. I am thinking of African drum circles. Circles themselves have cross-cultural meaning as communicative spaces. If I’m not incorrect, circles are pulled from a lot of inuit populations and culture. Again, hip hop is a version of the restorative circle in so many ways, and that is a beautiful thing.
Having the Bigger Conversations
The examples in your book, such as students making a mix tape around police brutality, with them you mention resolving conflict. We have the internal things we may be dealing with, then we have the large external things that may be happening. Was the choice of the police brutality example in your book about speaking to a larger audience, or is there something about grappling with those large world issues that makes students feel like they are trusted to have bigger conversations?
Youth decided on that topic, that concept, and all the songs on that album—very much because that was what was happening around them at that time. Effective group counseling work is able to grapple with the impacts of the larger context and the worlds in which youth live in and how that impacts them and can pivot to those when it needs to.
I can come into a group and say, “We’re only going to talk about your self doubt in your math class.” I could make a group narrow, and there is some evidence that can still be effective even if you’re very prescriptive with the direction. But, at the high school level, in particular, I love facilitating groups where youth decide on the direction of the group. That is very process oriented. That is what happened here.
There were a ton of shootings. A lot of death of a lot of youth—black and brown boys and girls. It was all over the media. This was at a time that the media was hyper focused on it. It was everywhere. Youth were saying, “We need to talk about this,” “We need to talk about this: did you see this case happen?” so naturally. As we talked about each and created songs around each and their feelings around each, this project came together.
I think it is hard to separate that out from what youth are experiencing in school. Unfortunately, that’s often what happens—that we say: this student didn’t do their homework, they were struggling at home to finish it, and they must not feel competent at math. But what if it is just that when the student is at home and they go to pull out the book, they are thinking about the world around them? And then they are bringing that to school and they walk through a metal detector and see police officers at school. If you live in this hyper vigilant kind of world and you feel like you are being watched and seen as threatening, how can you focus on anything else?
Naturally, this stuff came to the surface. I don’t think you can parse out one’s reaction to a specific situation in school, whether that be relationally or with regards to academic content, and not think about the larger context. Youth took it there because that is where it needed to go. That is the value of this kind of work.
We loved the story about going to a school and students coming in wearing sneakers being forced to change into the school uniform. Are you familiar with the poem, “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound?
The apparition of these faces in the crowd:
Pound said he was trying to capture a moment that something external became something internal. In grappling with the larger issues, well, you aren’t isolated from them. You are showing that they interweave.
They aren’t binary, right? We can’t just deal with one and then deal with the other, they don’t work that way.
In terms of those externals and internals are “zones of control.” Something internal, I can control to a certain extent: something local to me, I hope I can control to a certain extent. The wider mindset of the world, it would be great if I can influence it, but probably less influence than with something local. Is there power in these activities because of the feelings of helplessness around certain topics?
Yeah, in a myriad of ways. If I express something that I am expressing as external, and a bunch of people around me are like, “Hey, I felt that also,” that is universality. That, in and of itself, helpful in realizing, okay, this isn’t a “me thing.”
By the way, when you are fifteen, everything’s a me thing. News flash—when you are thirty-two, it still feels that way. That’s life. Everything feels like it’s us. To disconnect oneself from that—to say, I’m not alone in feeling this—is great in terms of control. In terms of realizing that I don’t need to bear the burden of this myself. This is something that the world is feeling, that my peers are also feeling.
There’s another—expressing it out into the world to potentially impact or effect change—is that advocacy work that is also very helpful. Letting youth know that there are ways they can advocate from a place of deep personal knowledge and experience affect positive change on the world. That is one way of taking control. Even if it's not changing the whole thing, but being able to produce this mixtape and share it and let other people hear how you feel: it depersonalizes it because you’ve had this experience and you’ve talked about it with your peers, and you realize that it isn’t only you, but then you’re owning it to the world as this thing outside of me. You're telling the world, “Hey, this is something that’s going on.”
That is the ultimate way of realizing that it's not you. Trying to hold the world accountable. What’s beautiful about hip hop is that the entire process is ideal counseling: ideal counseling is realizing universality, transferring what you’ve learned inside a session to outside a session. Mixtapes as a cultural medium offers the ability to discuss, to create a cohesive product with your peers, and a distribution plan so the world hears what you need to share. Hip hop offers this pathway for realization. Regaining control by saying, “this is you all, it isn’t me.”
I’m going to read one more comment from our poet in residence, Jean Prokott. (A plug for Jean--go buy The Birthday Effect and The Second Longest Day of the Year.) Prokott noted: “Just to comment on how amazing this professional development would be. Since I am in English, I always wonder how STEM teachers would address this. Notes on using hip hop as statistics, counting beats to per minute, etc., are so wonderfully applicable, something other books on pedagogy fail to do. This isn’t theory, it’s practice.”
I love it. That is really nice to hear. I think a hard task with books is to be practical. That’s something mentors of mine have modeled so well for me: how to keep one foot in schools and one foot in the academy, in such a way that you’re able to bridge theory and practice. To reimagine how we think about the work and applying it. That is an incredibly important modeling that I am trying to uphold in my career because I don’t want to become the classic stuffy old guy in an ivory tower. That balance has been on my mind a lot lately.
We love drawing lines in the sand in this world. Like counseling is here but education is here. As a school counselor, I’m like, then where do I go?
Well, Ian. You can be with us.
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
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.
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!
by Nick Truxal
article 3 of 4
“Social Emotional Learning,” “Trauma Informed Schools,” and “Mental Health Initiatives” are phrases we’ve heard a lot this year. Not surprising, considering the pandemic, the politics, and the persistence of this year have made these focus areas more important than ever.
Whenever I ask an expert on where to begin, the answer is always the same—authentic care and respect:
Pre-pandemic, I had the pleasure to attend a concert at my local arts center where Dessa was headlining. I have been to, and performed in, hundreds upon hundred of concerts. I have seen acts that lean into the fun, the disinterest, the mystery, the volume, the skill, the passion, and a great deal more. Yet, I had never seen a performer who leaned into being human—at least not in the ways that matter for social and emotional growth, mental health, or trauma informed education.
Dessa, however, did.
To be perfectly honest, long before Dessa even appeared on stage, it was clear that the community she has built thrives on mutual support, respect, and a genuine love for each other and for Dessa herself. However, once she took the stage, Dessa was acutely aware of her audience in a way that I had never seen before. Aware in the way that as a teacher, I strive to be—aware in the way that as a musician, I’ve avoided. Why adopt in one environment and reject in another? I honestly have no idea, and I’ve sought to change.
She came to the front of the audience at one point, speaking to a young man who was both crying and singing along: Dessa gave him a long and knowing embrace. She saw a young girl who was unable to fully engage due to her abbreviated height: Dessa motioned to the audience to part, walked through the center of their Red Sea, and pulled the young girl closer to the stage for a better view.
Humanity should be in all our lives—in everything we do. We should be seeing the needs of the youth in our classrooms and adjusting practices to make sure they have a clear view. We should be, if not hugging, extending empathy and compassion. Of course, as Dessa radiates this goodness, and as she has built a community that does as well, her work is particularly apt for bridging conversations and content that benefit our students.
Classroom Application Suggestions
by Jean Prokott
The book cover was a black and white pixelated picture of Mr. Hoffman with long California hair, holding a surfboard at his side. Three staples were smashed into its left margin. It held my very first publication: a poem titled “Scatological” that was written in rhyming couplets, one of which ended with the phrase “for you a just a crayon.”
The poem was legit the worst.
And bless Mr. Hoffman for pretending it was good. He was my AP Literature teacher in 1999, and the book was creatively called Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999. Everyone had a poem in this book—and we each had our very own copy of the book—our class collection of poetry.
I’d like to be humble, but I thought my poem was the best, and I’d convinced the whole class to get on board with this sentiment. Mr. Hoffman used to make transparencies of my essays (remember transparencies? in my first year of teaching, I melted a hot number of those in the photocopier) and projected them to the class with all the best sentences underlined. I don’t think anyone cared much, except for frenemy Sarah, who also sometimes had essays projected, so the dust settled at Jean’s the best writer in the class except for when Sarah is.
I loved every single thing about writing, and Mr. Hoffman played a substantial role in that. It was only to thirty small-town kids, but he published my work. High school years were a hot mess for me, and I am grateful he offered me overhead projector light.
My nickname in high school was “English Teacher,” and even though I tried to Jocasta myself out of this prophecy, it happened that twenty years later I, too, was smashing staples into the left margins of poetry my American Literature students had written as a contemporary response to Transcendentalism. Each student, just like in my 1999 version, had their very own poem on their very own page.
If my students knew what kind of garbage I wrote in 1999, there is no way they’d trust me to be their English teacher. I cannot explain how exponentially better my students are ahead of my personal curve. Those sophomore poems are pretty damn good. People need to see.
That is, this is not a story about surfboards and scat, but rather a reflection on what it means for kids to get their work out there.
Building Confidence: forming a foundation trust for students to share on
Convincing my high school students to publish doesn’t mean in a formal sense. For some, it means sharing their personal writing (not the “peer review” of a literary analysis, but a poem, personal narrative, or short story) with a large group of classmates, and that’s enough. It takes a lot of confidence for a kid to pass around thirty copies of his poem to students who just-so-happened-to-also-take-the-class. In my classroom, this act alone is publication. It allows us to start in a place we will never get rejected.
The creative writing workshop is the groundwork of confidence, and I’ve found this works best when the class observes the one-one-one I have with a student after their workshop. It allows me to model a “confidence/constructive” dialogue. Usually, I will tell them what I love, tell them what’s “muddy” and needs some work, and then throw out a “but what if you tried this! when you revise?” because it helps them understand the effort is worth it—their teacher is stoked about their work. On the really good days, after we wrap things up, I hear one kid say to another your poem was amazing after they’re in the hallway, and I do a villain laugh: ha ha, got you to care, suckers!
Not every workshop is perfect, I make a lot of mistakes, but this is a good first step. Students who truly embrace this first publication are the ones who meet with me about more formal opportunities.
I don’t require kids to publish as part of my curriculum (I think some kids might be a bit too fragile for rejection). However, I do show everyone how to do it. And I’m successful at healthily harassing kids to send out their work. When there’s a flier for a contest, I tape it to the dry erase board and draw 40 arrows pointing to it, when there’s a student who needs an extra nudge, I’ll photocopy the flier and drop it on her desk.
Each year, Rochester holds a Martin Luther King, Jr. poetry contest for K-12, and I have had a few students win or place in that prize. I put the flier on the board with the arrows and mild threats to submit, but one year I went to each student and told them which of their poems could win the whole thing. Only some submitted, and I think a few did just to shut me up. And when the “fine, just leave me alone Ms. Prokott'' kid won, it was truly a gift to say, well, Garrett, I flippin' told you. You have to give me half the prize money.
The best way I nudge students is with secondary dialogue on their drafts, such as you need to publish this immediately, let’s talk about how to get things out there! Or on my sophomores’ personal narratives and poetry: please, please sign up for creative writing next year!
Many teachers, all of my colleagues, do this. And again, this is not to be a trick—I genuinely want the students to do these things, and I take it a little personally when they don’t.
Submitting for Publication: steps for students to get their words in print
This is a note I posted in Google Classroom before I talked about publishing with my seniors:
When it comes to formally publishing work, I take students through the process of using Submittable, which is a free website that most professional publications use. Luckily, it’s easy for them to sign up: they just need an email address. I recommend their personal one so they may access post-graduation.
My school doesn’t have a literary magazine or a newspaper, but schools with those could hold contests in a similar way; this year, our yearbook has a poetry competition and winners will be published. But in my realm, beyond Submittable, opportunities sometimes fall into my lap. My colleagues put any mail they get for creative writing contests in my e-or-mailbox; a friend will let me know of a contest at his university; an editor will send an email to high school teachers informing them of a contest; a parent will send a note.
The opportunities above led to my students publishing online and in print over the last few years. The editor of Up North Lit emailed me about their high school contest, and I convinced some students to send poems. One of my students won the contest and had three poems published, and another had a poem published. It is worth noting that I submitted to the adult contest and got a big fat rejection.
There are opportunities hiding in the community, too. Students have published Op-Eds in the local paper, students have organized or attended poetry slams. Two of my seniors were locally published because a parent emailed that she was looking for young, female, writers of color for Rochester Women Magazine. I knew a few students perfect for the break, so I gave them her information, and they published two beautiful pieces last spring. The day the magazine came out, they sprinted up the stairs, handed me a glossy copy, and told me exactly which page to turn to.
Providing a Sense of Place: being vulnerable and embracing vulnerability
Distance learning has afforded many weird opportunities, but one I intend to keep is that I have started to write letters to my students. Last year, I wrote my class of 2020 a three-page singled-spaced monster letter that included a personal anecdote about a car driving into a gas pump. I wrote my sophomores a letter about the George Floyd murder to amplify the importance of rhetoric and of Raisin in the Sun. Instead of a syllabus this fall, I wrote a letter (a “letterbus” [student eye roll]) to introduce myself. I wrote my seniors a letter in response to the Amanda Gorman inaugural poem.
I don’t know if they read these letters—it might truly be a TL;DR situation—but the ones that do, I hope, know that their teacher loves to write herself, which very much matters.
Here’s how I see my role:
It’s remarkably cheesy, but Mr. Hoffman’s AP Literature Class, Fall 1999 is one of my most important publications. I’m a bit of a pessimist—adamantly critical of toxic (and sometimes regular) positivity—but it’s one of the stories people might post on Facebook during National Teacher Appreciation Week regarding the “teacher that changed them.” (I intend to send Mr. Hoffman a copy of my poetry chapbook, The Birthday Effect, once it comes out this month, no note or anything, just to show him what’s up—something I have looked forward to for a long time. Also, why do I feel vindictive about it? That’ll show that jerk to believe in me!)
Teachers know we don’t know the long-term impacts of the nudges and notes we leave on our students’ writing. My students don’t know a lot of my praise comes from the jealousy that they are such better writers than I ever could have been in high school. It’s just not that hard to get excited about their work. I throw a few tools at them, smash a stapler, and they take it from there.
by Victoria Gillis
Classrooms need to be safe places where students and teachers can teach and learn. One way to create a culture of caring in your classroom is to get to know the students and let them get to know you. Taking the time to create an atmosphere of trust helps you save time later in the year. Collaborative learning activities and small group work are more effective and efficient if you have taken the time to create a strong foundation for productive student interaction.
Two strategies that help students get to know each other as well as get to know themselves are featured below: the 'Biopoem' and 'What’s Easy/What’s Hard'.
This is an excellent creative writing strategy that can also be used to have students summarize their knowledge about a topic. An example of a Biopoem used to get acquainted is provided in this issue along with a pattern for the Biopoem. Feel free to adapt the Biopoem pattern to your own needs.
What’s Easy/What's Hard
Another strategy that is very helpful for both teachers and students is What’s Easy/What’s Hard. This is a kind of Think/Write that asks students to consider what is easy for them about a particular academic subject and what is hard. The act of reflecting on their own learning will help students to become more aware of their own learning and thus more metacognitive.
How to Use Relationship Building Strategies
When using any new writing strategy, provide students with an example of a good response. This helps students understand the task. With “Get to Know You” strategies, we are using writing to learn about students. Providing them with an example helps students get to know you. I always provide my own 'Biopoem' as well as my own 'What’s Easy/What’s Hard' for students when I introduce these strategies to students. They are provided for you above.
Some teachers like to use the 'Biopoem' or 'What’s Easy/What’s Hard' in a 'People Search' after students complete the assignment. To do a 'People Search', give students a specified amount of time, dependent on the number of students in class, and have them find one or more students with something in common with them. You could have students introduce each other, if time permits. In any case, some walking around and conversation time sets an expectation that students will participate.
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.