Every school year, on the last day on the academic calendar, the staff of the Dover-Eyota School District gather in the cafeteria at the secondary building to celebrate the work that has been done over the course of the academic year. This year, cupcakes were served and ice cream dished out, as were many awards for years of service, retirees, and more. One person always recognized is the Dover-Eyota Education Association teacher of the year : this year, that is the secondary band instructor, Ryan Anderson.
Thank you for giving me the opportunity to share with you today. I want to start with a question. How many of you actually know something about Social Emotional Learning within the classroom?
I was wondering what that was before I took a class this fall. If I could put it into one sentence or two, maybe a question, I would have to start with: “How does it feel to be in the classroom? How does it feel to learn? Are we recognizing the feelings of each other?” If I had to put that into why social emotional learning is important, it would be because it is the magic that gets us to the next level. And, recognizing people as individuals in unique circumstances--we aren’t all going to the same place, but us recognizing that we all have potential, understanding how our students feel in the classroom, is equally important as them passing a quiz or test. Right now, if we think about how we feel… Well, it has been such a crazy year.
I don’t think I really belong as Teacher of the Year, when you consider how everyone else has been able to do such amazing things. I want to recognize a couple people that could never get educator of the year. I want to start with Carrie Frank. Carrie Frank is our Food & Nutrition Director. I’ve been absolutely amazed at what she has been able to do this year. If somehow she was asked to feed our entire school district, she would gather as many spoons and pots as needed and get her staff together, and they’d find the resources and make it happen. She put together an absolutely unbelievable Christmas Dinner. Because Carrie cares about how people feel and you can’t learn when you’re hungry. It just doesn’t work as well. And, she cares about all of our students. She had this gigantic Christmas ham, which I still have some leftovers in our freezer. I swear to God it was at least 24 pounds. And it was really good. Really good. And she had potatoes, she had string beans, she had rolls, she had dessert...she had everything.
I asked her, “Carrie, what do you need help with?” You know what she said?
“Sign up and take some food.”
That’s all she asked. Just take. She is saying, You’re important. Our students are important. We need to eat. It’s all going to be okay. And she was a superhero. It would have been so much easier if we had put on a Covidproof, bulletproof vest and taken all the shots to our emotions and peeled it off and thrown it away when we were done, but that’s not the case, because we are human. Carrie is superhuman.
I’ll tell you who else I really think deserves some recognition because he is superhuman. It is Steve Herrick: Steve, the custodian. Steve is also the most popular person in the whole dang school district. When Steve comes by lunch, the sixth graders chant and pound the tables, “Steve, Steve, Steve, Steve;” because, Steve already gets Social Emotional lLearning. Because he asks kids their name, and then he purposely forgets it and gives them a nickname. My kids have the nicknames “Larry Bird” and “Harvard” because my son is tall and blonde and my daughter wears a Harvard sweatshirt. Because they already had this rapport. He remembers them. He jokes with them. He shares that it’s “Smiling Wednesday.” Steve matters. Steve’s important. Everyone is important. Look around the room: we’re all important.
I want to tell you a story. In fall of 2019, my friend Dan asked me to go skydiving, and skydiving is the type of thing where I’ve always wanted to say I did it, but didn’t really get that excited about falling out of an airplane because that’s pretty scary to me. I’m not afraid of heights, I like roller coasters, I love a good thrill like that, but jumping out of a plane is pretty scary.
But Dan called, so I said, “Let me check the calendar.”
Nothing was on the calendar at home, so I checked with my wife, and she said, “Do it.”
I thought to myself, You know, okay. I guess so.
In the meantime, before I called Dan back, I get a call from Lane Powell, who runs TriState Marching Band Association: it’s all marching band judges that go all over the country. He said, “Ryan, how would you like to judge the Iowa State Marching Band Competitions?”
I said, “Oh, that’d be awesome. What’s the gig pay?”
And he said, “$350.”
Dan had just gotten off the phone with me and said the cost [to skydive] was $350.
So now I had absolutely zero excuse. The calendar is open. I’m going to have the cash in hand. We’re going to go skydiving.
So, we put this on the calendar, a Sunday morning at 10:00. I’m nervous as all heck. Anyway, Skydive Place calls Dan up on Saturday and says, “Hey, we’re overbooked, we’re wondering if we can bump you to another weekend.”
Dan calls me, and I said, “If they can’t get us in, I’m not coming man. I’ve committed, I’ve already lost two nights of sleep, we’re doing this thing.”
So, Dan calls them back and says, “We’ve gotta take this if we’re going to do this.”
They say, “Fine, we’ll get you in.”
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.
Third Eye Education recently had the pleasure of speaking with Ian Levy, both for this podcast episode as well as for this interview where we discuss his new book Hip Hop and Spoken Word Therapy in School Counseling: Developing Culturally Responsive Approaches. What we found most enjoyable was how applicable the book is to all areas of education. For the podcast, we focused on ways hip hop can be leveraged as a tool in the classroom and in the counselor’s office.
For this article—a transcribed interview and the first of a two-part series—Levy and our team focus on the empowerment of students through the creation of space.
We’d like to focus on chapter four and chapter six, if that's okay?
Yeah, absolutely. The office creation and then the cypher chapter. Yeah totally. Those would be great.
A Safe Space: physical & dialogical
Perfect. A question from Jean Prokott, our poet in residence: Could creating space translate to classrooms and to broader educational use in some way? What obstacles prevent that from happening?
When I think about creating space, I think about the ambiguous, hard to find emotional space, and then the physical space. I think about both spaces. The physical space is more the focus of chapter four, in particular. It boils down to: Why do we create spaces based on an assumption of what feels comfortable for youth rather than saying, “Hey, what kind of space do you want to come into every day?”
It is a very simple idea, but a powerful one. This came from years of experiences being in schools—we come in those few weeks before school starts and we get our room set up and we plan really hard. That is really wonderful and we get a lot of great work done in that time. But I don’t think it always involves youth voices. It is based on our assumptions, but not that next step of, “Hey, what do you want to do? How do you want to design that space?”
When I looked at the literature, there wasn’t a lot on that. When you look at differences culturally--What does it mean to create a space that is inclusive and intersectional?—that didn’t really exist at all. I found a multicultural checklist that was like: put some posters on the wall of different cultures. That was as close as it came, which was so far off the mark. So, there was this pivot to say, “Hey, I’m just going to go into school and work with the youth to define what it is that a space needs to look and feel like for them to want to talk about their emotions within that space.”
When I started thinking about where that happens in hip hop—the studio has always been that. Rappers explain studios as spaces for personal transformation: as comfortable environments where they can engage in this emotional labor. Those spaces are usually—dim lighting, comfortable seating, being able to sit with other people and process things out loud: very lounge-like. It is interesting because the little bit of literature about asking youth, even after the fact, those things came up: dim lighting, couch—all the things the studio has already been doing. There’s evidence that those are helpful, but no one has connected those things and said, “Let me take some young people and say, ‘Why don’t you help me create a space?’”
The other reason is more dialogical. What skills do educators have or lack that allow or don’t allow emotions to come to surface? If a space is a safe space, a lot of the time we conflate a space where there is no tension to be what we need. A space where we ignore the difficult stuff isn’t the answer. A radically uncomfortable space isn’t the answer, either. But I know from group processes that this storming phase of group work—that groups have to be in—this place of discomfort is needed to get to a place of cohesion. We need to be able to facilitate dialogues in a space that youth have decided is the space for them to feel comfortable. Then, conversations need to occur in that space: emotions can come up, difficult conversations can occur. Get us to a place of cohesion.
What is so impressive about chapter four in particular, but the book in general, is that any doubts you have--for example, “I could give students the voice and the opportunity to shape the room, but that’s going to take time, and that’s time that I could be spending instructing. I could be helping with skills around my content...”--you’ve gone on to show that: student voice is the skill. Their participation is helping grow their skills faster and be more productive.
What skills stood out to you in terms of the things students developed as they went through this process with you?
There are skills that students developed and skills that students had. I learned a lot about the skills that students had that I might not have seen before.
Students were putting the microphone in a specific place so that there would be some ability to have privacy. If I put the mic in a specific way, one where I am facing all the other students, then all eyes are on me while I’m sharing. But, if I’m facing this corner wall nook, I’m away from everything else. So students knew how to create a pocket of security within a room.
",,,they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others..."
But also, this act of sharing and being heard within the studio, students valued it on a personal level, but then they started to think about this ability to showcase empathy and wanting to uplift others; which is something hip hop says, “each one teach one.” Youth saying, “Hey, this space is really great for us. We could use this space for freshmen when they come next year.” Youth were starting to think about how the studio itself was not just a space for them to process or work through whatever they needed to, but then [how it] could become this large component of school culture and could shift policy and practices within the school to make it more safe and inclusive for all students that come into the school building.
There was self-advocacy, the ability for youth to look out for each other—to showcase empathy and compassion for their peers, and to show they have this knowledge already.
I’ve had schools that have tried so hard to create a nice transition program for youth that are coming into the school building. While students working inside the studio figured out a more appropriate and valuable process within a couple weeks. When we relinquish power, everything happens, because youth already have a lot of the skills that we think they need to develop. Maybe they can be refined, and built upon, and explored in new ways, but the core of those behaviors exist within youth already, and that is very humanistic. We just need to create the conditions for those to then shine and be cultivated further.
Creating Bridges & Fostering Connections
You spoke about collaboration. Another question from our poet in residence, Jean: Have you noticed that creating space at school translates to creating space in the wider community? How can students owning their space exist outside of the school building?
I think that this kind of a space invites parts of youth that historically have been relegated to only exist outside of the building to come into the building. I might love hip hop, and love the cypher, but I’ve got to go do that somewhere else. Maybe I even cut school to go to a cypher or go hang out with my friends and rap. Because those forms of who I am are not welcomed in that school. So now we say—you can enter this space; which not only upholds part of who youth are outside of school, but it also naturally creates bridges to foster connections.
I’ve had parents come for parent meetings and see a studio in the corner of the office and be like, “Hey, you know I make beats,” and then offer to do workshops outside of school. I’ve had DJs reach out who are in the local community that heard student’s songs on Soundcloud somehow, and say, “Hey, I was a student in the Bronx, too. I wish we had this when I was in school. Let me come and do some work with your students.” The community will come. “If you build it they will come” [Field of Dreams].
If you create the confines for this to occur. If you validate and appreciate the skills—that youth and community, youth and families have, the assets they have—and you allow them to exist within the school, then all of the ones that exist around it—the ancillary partners, collaborators, stakeholders—they’ll come. They will flock towards the school. I’ve heard time and again from parents and others that came into the school, “I wish we had this when I was in school.”
This is again in the Bronx, where a lot of my research is done. Parents that were saying that were the same age as the students I work with in the 70s and 80s. They resonated with the culture in a huge way and loved seeing it in the school. The community was ready for it. We just weren’t ready for it. The school, the education system weren’t ready for it. So once you open that door, it’s all going to come in as long as you’re authentically engaging in it. How do you do this from an authentic place? I think those connections form and youth are upheld and their communities are upheld when you invite hip hop to exist within the school.
Opening Doors to Inherent Community Builders
The book is really good at talking about realness and authenticity--and helping the reader to understand what that means.
Part of what you are talking about also connects to something coming up. We will be having a discussion with Lazerbeak & Ilan Blanck on the podcast: they are teaching us how to build community. In having those conversations, we realized we don’t teach our students how to build the community they are desperate for. At every age level, they want to know how to belong to one, and we don’t teach them how to create one.
The work you did empowering students--showing them how to collaborate--you were teaching them how to create a community. Was that intentional? A happy byproduct? Would you have any advice to help other schools in being more purposeful in teaching young people to create communities?
Again, I would return to something I was saying before, which is that the hip hop community understands in a very deep and personal way how to create community. I don’t think it is teaching youth to create community as it's calling on the power and potential of hip hop to foster community.
When the Bronx was literally burning and falling apart, rival gang leaders said, “We’re not going to do this any more. Let’s form communities.” They came together in the midst of the chaos that surrounded it to chart a path forward and process. That is the origin of hip hop.
I like to think sometimes of the studio work as a microcosm of that much larger process. School isn’t an inviting place: it's kind of all falling apart. I’ve worked with a lot of young people who were traditionally struggling, or at risk, or however the school wanted to frame them (even though that’s a deficit way of framing our youth); then the youth came together to create community—to make sense of all of the chaos that is surrounding them. It wasn’t super intentional to form community. The intention was: let’s make a mixtape—let’s make a studio. Through doing something that was inherently connected to hip hop, through creating some physical product connected to hip culture, that community formed.
Facilitating as a group counselor, [I] naturally processed things and worked through tensions to build cohesion. I operated with a group counseling mindset, which naturally is about fostering community.
Again, I cannot understate that youth are hungry for connection: they’re hungry for community building. Yet, there are never—or seldom—authentic ways for community to be fostered. We’re asking youth to build community inside a sterile classroom where they’ve never learned real things about each other and they don’t know their teacher very well. That kind of environment doesn’t pull on the innate community building skills and tactics that youth have been given as a result of identifying with hip hop. When you allow hip hop to come in, a community is built. It is overly simplistic, but it is inherent, so it will happen whether or not intentional about it. It’s a cool thing.
Next week, you can look forward to part two of our interview with Ian Levy.
A taste of what to expect: it opens with the statement, "One of the nice things about talking to you is that you make my mind jump to places that I wasn’t anticipating."
Excited? We are...
A Hip Hop Education
with Ian Levy | 5.25.21
Ian Levy discusses authentic empowerment of students through hip hop—a truly fantastic conversation.
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!)
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.
The Story of Transforming a School System
By Gina Meinertz
Globally, educators are seeing a need to change school systems. We believe in the possibilities of equity, all students achieving, and all students graduating ready to contribute to the common good, but we also know there are barriers standing in the way of those beliefs. The hard work to transform our system will not only mean we will need to identify the barriers but that we will also need to find solutions that include more voices and better outcomes.
Spring Grove Public Schools is on a journey to transform a traditional public school into a culturally relevant learning space that ensures every child confidently uses their passions and strengths to find purpose. To do this work, a team of teachers, students, parents, leaders, and board members created a vision of the 21st Century One Room Schoolhouse with pillars of self-paced curriculum, project-based learning, flexible learning spaces, and real-world learning opportunities.
Here are some thoughts on how a more traditional system can transform into a student-centered learning environment.
Transforming Traditional Roles and Feedback Loops
Hidden Voices: Designing A System for All
Spring Grove consistently uses design teams so students, parents, and educators collaborate to envision, prototype, and research the best next steps for our school. We use a series of improvement cycle protocols, including empathy interviews, to hear all voices. When we collect this information, the order of the collection is integral. Unlike most systems, feedback starts with our students so that the adults listen to the voices of the youth before sharing their own perspectives. This ensures the traditional power holders are listening before speaking. We also have a practice of looking at our data from a series of lenses. We start with common themes, and then take a second look purposely searching for hidden voices with concepts from equity design principals intertwined. If we are missing any stakeholders or groups, we seek out empathy interviews with these individuals. If we are hearing passionate or loud voices, we may use the “5 Whys” technique to find and respond to the root cause.
Flexibility: The Students and Families Shape Their Own Success
We know our school system will forever be changing and transforming. This is because Spring Grove offers opportunities and choices to students, parents, and staff members. This relationship of communication and trust has allowed us to continue our healthy transitions, even during a pandemic.
Here are a variety of ways we have been able to use the shifts and stressors of the pandemic to further our advancements in culturally, relevant student-centered learning.
Transformational Leadership: A Shift In How We Support Our Vision
Maybe because of the size of our system or maybe because of creative thinking, Rachel Udsuen, our Superintendent, has created a Transformational Leader position that combines Transformational Coaching with Leadership (this is the position I hold). The primary goal is to break down barriers holding back the vision of culturally relevant, student-centered learning by working with teachers, students, parents, community members, and other staff individually, in small groups, within the community, within the county, and within the state. Another role of this position is to listen with empathy, dig for voices that may have been missed, and support everyone interested to achieve desired outcomes. Lastly, the role includes analyzing systems, writing and revising policies, and supporting the system to represent the voices and perspectives of multiple stakeholder groups.
Our goal was to create a setting to support the passions, interests, and individual professional development needs of all adults, so that the adults could in turn implement deeper learning, whole child development and personalized learning experiences for students. As a coach, I personally use experience mapping to storyline the growth and needs of our system as we transform. As a leader, I work with my team using human-centered design and Studor Education to visually transform feedback loops and research into practice in a transparent way.
Impacting Community and Place
Place-based Learning in Outdoor Classrooms: An increase in Inquiry & Engagement
Our educators wanted to find ways for our students to feel safe and engaged in learning during a pandemic, which led us to outdoor learning. We reached out to some friends in Norway at Hoppensprett. They shared how they started outdoor classrooms with details about how they would instruct, eat, and learn outdoors. This inspiration helped us as we designed three outdoor classrooms in the elementary, a middle school partnership with a city park, and additional outings for many students to prairies, woods, and wetlands.
Outdoor Classrooms have been such a success from the perspective of our students, teachers, parents, and community members. Students ask more questions, observe with more detail, focus better, and make more connections between learning and life. Projects of learning include but are not limited to the following learning themes:
The city has supported our efforts by renovating three shelters to create spaces of flexibility where windows can be closed and opened to protect students from the wind and other elements. Our Communications Company gifted the internet to our outdoor shelters. Teachers invite guest speakers frequently to share their experiences and expertise to engage students with authentic and relevant learning. These students will end their year by creating a new outdoor natural reading space for all students in the school. They are organizing funding, designing a log to be transformed into a bench, and planning a native plant garden to surround their reading bench. In years beyond, they plan to increase the native plant populations around the entire school grounds and city.
Place/Based Learning: Experience Drives Learning
Traditionally, all students in seventh grade and above in Spring Grove functioned with a similar eight-period day schedule. The pandemic brought us to create a middle school pod. The teachers started teaming to create interdisciplinary units of study focused on real-world problems, self-reliance, and collaboration.
The students partnered with the City of Spring Grove to research, plan, and design a park with more native plants and natural spaces. Students learned from an environmental educator about biodiversity, habitat, and prairie plants. Using this knowledge as well as their aesthetic preferences, students designed maps and presentations to share their ideas of how to improve the park with the grant funding. Students shared this with the Mayor and Parks and Recreation committee. They will receive feedback before ordering the plants. The City and students plan to continue this project into the spring so the students can learn about soil preparation and testing, planting conditions, and will in the end complete the project alongside community members.
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