by Heather M. F. Lyke
— The original version of this piece was first published in April 2019 by RPS Secondary Curriculum & Instruction --
If you know me, you know my husband and I recently purchased a new home. Wanting to downsize (I wanted a tiny house, he wanted no yard, so we compromised on buying and renovating a 1970’s condo), we slowly filtered through our belongings. We pulled items out of closets that we forgot we even had: placing in boxes the linens not used in years, the sweaters we no longer wore, and the camping gear we were not even sure why we purchased in the first place.
Perhaps the hardest part of downsizing was that we sometimes run into those items we needed to get rid of but struggled to part with. Those items that served a purpose in their time but were no longer of use. Items like:
Again, if you know me, you also know I love a good extended metaphor. As I see it, downsizing our course content is much like downsizing a home. As we shift into a new school year, we often find ourselves making adjustments for the school year to come. Particularly with over a year of Covid under our belts, we have had 18+ months of needing to trim content to simply survive in a world of constant shift: online instruction, hybrid structures, and long period of quarantining highlighting how even in education less is indeed more.
In our classrooms, just as in our homes, there are always items that are easy to donate or toss:
However, also like with our homes, there are items that are hard to part with, although maybe we should:
In 2019, to get inspired to downsize our home, my husband and I (along with much of the US), found ourselves watching Tidying Up with Marie Kondō on Netflix. Now, in the fall of 2021, a reminder of all the downsizing we did has resurfaced in the form of Kondō’s newest Netflix show, Sparking Joy with Marie Kondō. Having read her first book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, when it was first released, both Netflix series have served as a reminder to me of many of Marie Kondō’s key ideas (which are also reinforced by her newest book, Joy at Work). Ideas that, of course, work great in homes, but that also can be used to help create even more magic in our classrooms.
7 Steps for Applying the KonMari Method to Our Classrooms:
| 1 |
Commit to tidying up all at once.
Marie Kondō shares that the KonMari Method is most effective when you do all the tidying in one fell swoop. Kondō puts it this way:
"From the moment you start tidying, you will be compelled to reset your life. As a result, your life will start to change. That’s why the task of putting your house in order should be done quickly. It allows you to confront the issues that are really important. Tidying is just a tool, not the final destination. The true goal should be to establish the lifestyle you want most once your house has been put in order."
With this in mind, when you decide it’s time to start tidying up your course content, consider doing it in one fell swoop. Rather than doing what I used to do, which was to set aside a day every week or so during the summer to restructure and revamp; try instead setting as aside a few evenings in a row, a weekend, or even a full week to really dig-in to the task. Just as with a home, perhaps this will help you reset your instruction, allow you to confront the most important pieces, and establish the course structure you and your students need most.
| 2 |
Imagine the ideal to prevent relapse.
Ask yourself: What is the purpose of tidying up my instruction?
Is there a certain skill your students consistently struggle with and you need more time to fortify that skillset?
Keeping the answers to questions like these at the forefront will help you stay on track, should the tiding ever get overwhelming. (And, if you’re anything like me, it will.)
| 3 |
Ask yourself questions for each item.
Marie Kondō suggests a few simple questions, moving from a rational to a more emotional approach.
When working with home items, she suggests:
Since these questions don’t really work with instruction; instead, we might ask ourselves questions such as:
| 4 |
One element Marie Kondō is most famous for is the concept of discarding items that no longer ‘spark joy.’ (In fact, her second book is even titled Spark Joy.) Marie Kondō recommends holding each item with both hands and asking yourself: “Does this spark joy?” If it does, keep it. If it doesn’t, thank it for the purpose it once served and then set it aside to discard.
When it comes to course content and instructional practices, obviously this looks a bit different. We can’t easily hold up a worksheet we now only store electronically to see if it sparks joy, but we can open the file, look it over top to bottom, recall how it went over the last time it was used with students, and then ask ourselves:
If the answer to these questions is ‘yes,’ then keep it around: teach the lesson again, use that text next year, and/or continue to utilize that strategy.
However, if doesn’t spark joy, set it aside. Consider making three piles or lists for those items that no longer spark joy in you and your students:
This, at least for me, is the hardest part of tidying up. It may help to keep in mind what Marie Kondō notes in her first book:
“when we really delve into the reasons for why we can’t let something go, there are only two: an attachment to the past or a fear for the future.”
| 5 |
Finish discarding before moving on.
Marie Kondō notes that neat does not equal decluttered. It can be tempting to simply reorganize our material and call it good. But I can take all my pants from my closet, fold them into perfect KonMari rectangles, and move them to my set of drawers—but it won’t change the fact that they don’t fit right or that I never wear them anymore. For that reason, I have to purge items before I fold and rearrange. Only then, once I see what remains, do I really know where the best place is to store my pants. Only then, do I see if I have any gaps in my wardrobe.
Likewise, in our classrooms, we have to get rid of—or least commit to revamping—those items that no longer fit our students. Only then, once we see what remains, do we know what new format or structure might work best for the year to come. Only then, do we see if we have any gaps in our instruction.
| 6 |
Organize by category.
Marie Kondō always notes to organize by category, not by room. Classroom translation: organize by power standards/essential learning outcomes/prioritized learnings, not by instructional units or lessons. This helps ensure balance and eliminate holes.
| 7 |
Designate a spot for everything.
Everything that is left, should fill a need. **Whew!** Finally, the time comes to reorganize.
This step reminds me of what I did over decade ago when I revamped the American Literature course I was teaching. After having purged a few novels and some grammar units that were no longer sparking joy in my students, I rearranged. Because I figuratively laid everything out on the table, I was able to then see that my remaining content, texts, lessons, etc. fit into six themes. Embracing that fact, I rearranged from teaching American Literature chronologically, as I had always done in the past, to teaching it thematically. But it also meant I had some holes to fill: I was suddenly able to weave in a new book group unit and adjust how I taught grammar by embedding it into our reading and writing tasks. It was a lot of work, but, ultimately, it led to more effective learning in the years that followed.
As my husband and I experienced firsthand with our home, the act of downsizing can feel overwhelming while in the process of discarding. However, we have moved into our new home and have placed all our remaining items back in the best order.
As Marie Kondō states:
“the space in which we live should be for the person we are becoming...not for the person we were in the past.”
This is true for our classrooms, too: we need to make them a place where students can grow into who they will become in this ever-changing world...not for the students we taught in the past.
by Jean Prokott
We'll see how this year goes. That's what teachers say on August 1st, the exact spot of the year when mowing the lawn is no longer novel and when one single pumpkin shows up at Michael's, and suddenly your stomach hurts, so you abandon the cart in the middle of the aisle and run out the door.
It's my first year. Last year was my first year, too, and I had a first year back in 2008 (student teaching), and then another in 2009 (first year on my own), and then another in 2010 (new district), and then another in 2013 (this district), and then 2020 (online). It's human to mark time, especially when we define the year by nine months, like nesting mothers. Oftentimes, beginnings are celebrated. The new school year allows for this—busses weave their caterpillar selves in a parade through the suburban streets, Target sells out of oatmeal-colored cardigans, hallways smell like fresh books rather than freshmen—and it's worth our Cheers. Once summer says goodbye, we're a little ready even if we don't admit it, and we raise our glasses and thank it for its dedication to the company.
To be a first year teacher is to start planning too early, or to start planning too late. The anxiety of a blank calendar, or an overdone calendar, becomes nightmare fuel, as do the faceless heads of future students, new PLCs, new rules, new norms, new shoes to break in, literally and figuratively. You wonder how long it will take for students to know you're a cool teacher or how long it will take them to respect you, you wonder the protocol for going to the bathroom, you wonder how to set up your gradebook. During a teacher's first year, the stress of choosing the correctly colored paper is somehow equally as important as writing an entire unit plan, and prioritizing depends on which lottery ball you pull from the machine that morning.
So, 2020 felt like that, because I had no idea how to teach online—it was new platforms, new technology, new norms, new ways to build student relationships. (On top of this, of course, there was a global pandemic, if you've heard of it. Also we were all very tired.) It didn't matter how long you'd been teaching when you started the 2020 school year. You were a first year teacher. We survived by softballing the phrase we got this! over and over, we were selective about the "effs" we decided to give (sometimes it was zero effs, a few times it was negative effs), and we figured it out, as teachers do, and we did a good job, because we are good at our jobs.
Here we are once again. During my first in-person meeting since March 2020, I sat in a small room and felt a stomachache. While a PLC and I collaborated on a writing diagnostic, I thought about my classroom desks, which need to be cleaned, and also my entire curriculum for three preps, which needs to be rewritten. Should I sharpen some pencils and tidy them like a floral arrangement in a coffee cup, or should I write a unit test? These are the same, somehow. I feel like I've forgotten how to talk to students, face to face. I spent the last school year teaching to SpongeBob icons and Helvetica letters, so I've forgotten what students look like, and when I pulled up class lists last week, I saw that students had grown weird mustaches and landed on haircuts that might have been dares. It was a grid of aliens. What do we say to these awkward, beautiful beings? We got this? So, 2020, amirite? Will they answer? How do I put them in groups? How do we count our traumas? Will I learn names, since they'll be wearing masks? Is decorating your mask too corny of an icebreaker? Are they sick of adults asking them how they're doing? How do I teach students how to read, or how to write? If I sit with this last question, the answer moves farther and farther away, and years of schooling and experience bubble as they sink to the ocean floor, to live in a pineapple under the sea.
For a few years, I taught new teachers through Winona State University's Teacher Preparation Collaborative—folks who'd gone to college for other careers and found their way to the secondary classroom. These classes were the second week of June—I'd gotten only two days of summer before diving in—and it was difficult to be optimistic after a long school year. But the first-years' excitement was always contagious. They'd put their lives on hold to become teachers, so they helped me to see the work was worth it, that there was magic in school, that magic was fueled by nostalgia. They hadn't been tainted by the political nuances or roadblocks I'd met during battle. The first-years were me a decade ago. She was nervous, but she was all-in.
One good thing about last year's first year, and again this year's first year, is we are learning this together. Whoever learns to tie her shoes first bends down with the rest of us to loop our bunny ears. While our traumas, losses, weight gain, coping skills, relationships, etc. are different, what we have in common is that we must use each other to advocate for ourselves. If the last school year and the pandemic has taught us something, I hope it is that we are allowed to be vulnerable. Lean, hover, take a mental health day. We tell our students to prioritize their mental well-being far in front of algebra problems or pages 3-20 of The Scarlet Letter. I don't think new teachers hear this (or tell themselves this) enough: it doesn't have to be perfect. Get off Pinterest. Nobody who is normal or who has a life actually has that color-coordinated HGTV classroom. Your Expo markers are a little dry, sure, but the kids in the back can still read the board.
We'll see how this year goes. We should find our people at school and vent and learn with them. We should learn to be comfortable with sending "I need help" emails to administrators without worrying we will look weak—do it as a team, if you need to. Administrators should make clear on day one that they encourage, and will respond to, these emails. Don't let anyone pretend things are "back to normal" no matter how much they want them to be, because normal is something else now. Put the brakes on a meeting whenever you'd like to declare: this doesn't matter right now—Covid is still here and kindly excuse yourself. Remember that the things you love about school—that caloric nostalgia—will still be there. You have students and Crayolas and those ingredients are enough. Absolutely do not compete with one another, do not brag, do not declare you are doing a bad job. Pray for snow days. Have a movie day and feel good about it. Build in independent reading time and don't feel bad for it, and do your own independent reading with the students rather than plan or grade. We're tired, we're green, we're ready but won't know it until we're in it.
Students are not behind and neither are we. It's their first year, too. There is no rush. There is no "lost time*" to make up for—there is only the time we give ourselves to heal.
by Sweta Patel
Science teachers teach science... Math teachers teach math... We’re all familiar with teacher licensure dictating our course load.
But what if... an English teacher taught a fine arts class? Or a math-related class?
As a teacher at an alternative high school in Minnesota, the state grants us variances to take on classes outside of our licensure areas. Some might balk at this and slam an educational ethics textbook at our door.
Therese Huston, the author of Teaching What You Don’t Know, would reply: “Can you be a good teacher before you’ve mastered the subject matter? Or perhaps while you’re mastering it? I believe the answer is yes.” And I agree.
Stretching Skillsets of Both Teacher and Students
In these past two years, I became aware of a growing need for more elective options for our students. I wanted to be a part of the solution. In a Googling session, I perused a variety of high school course catalogs in search of a topic that would engage both the students and me.
This past year, I—an English teacher—was approved to teach Cell Phone Photography for a fine arts elective credit.
The next minute, fear set in. Ah, crap. What did I get myself into? I don’t even know where to begin. My own photos are often a blurry mess (and sometimes, my own finger makes an appearance). I’m such a fraud, and the students will pick up on it. I quickly spiraled down the Drain-of-Negativity-and-Anxiety. Fortunately, the “fool factor” soon set in.
In her book, Huston writes, “Content novices are often more effective learners because of the 'fool factor.' The fear of having nothing to say, or, perhaps worse yet, the fear of saying something that is contradicted… is highly motivating.” She adds, “Instructors who were happy teaching on the edge of their expertise often diffused the imposter problem by finding a way to be honest with their students about their limited knowledge.”
For a period of time prior to the first day of class, I browsed dozens of syllabi for high school and online photography classes, lesson plans, websites with project ideas, forums, and more. I decided to teach students one composition technique at a time, eventually leading to longer projects that would require combining techniques. I was highly motivated to build up knowledge so that I could confidently guide my students’ learning (and not appear the fool). For instance, to prepare for teaching the Rule of Thirds, I turned to article after article for descriptions, tips, and sample images. But I was very up front with my students as well—this was my first time teaching this class, that I was a cell phone photography novice myself…that we would have to help each other grow.
So, my students also researched and studied articles, collected and imitated examples, experimented with their cell phone camera tools, and helped each other to carry out their vision for a particular project. We spent an equal amount of time projecting our photographs, offering self-reflection, and giving each other feedback about what was or wasn’t working and why. This feedback helped to shape the choices we made as photographers.
Some might say that our school’s art teacher should have been the one to teach this class. She has the content knowledge after all. I would agree that she’s an exceptional teacher and would have created an engaging class. In fact, she was my mentor and sounding board throughout my course planning.
However, I disagree that only the art teacher is qualified to teach an art class.
Huston writes, “The obvious assumption is that students learn less from faculty who know less about the subject matter and learn more from faculty who know more. But that assumption isn’t correct. Evidence from cognitive science, organizational behavior, and optimal environments suggests that experts are not always the best teachers. If you’ve ever had a brilliant professor drone on at the chalkboard about something no one understands, then perhaps you’re not surprised.”
With search engines at our fingertips, we can build our content knowledge. A good teacher is one who can create an engaging learning environment. That’s the art of teaching. Huston feels content novices bring three strengths to the classroom:
“Being an expert can get in the way of seeing the issues from a student’s perspective. After all, when you’re the expert, you’re fascinated by the inner latticework of the issues and often can’t formulate questions that beginners will relate to…. The beauty of being a content novice is that you have an outsider’s level of excitement and curiosity… You see what’s interesting and what matters to someone who is new to the topic because you’re new to the topic, too, and you see how the topic relates to other problems and questions in everyday life.”
With the endless topic of photography before me—where library shelves are filled with volumes and volumes of thick books—I had to make choices about what aspects to cover in the 9-week class. I thought about the end goal that excited my students and me—to become better cell phone photographers. This would require learning the most popular composition techniques and practicing them. We would have to take lots and lots of pictures. I could have included lessons around the history of photography or studying famous photographers in depth. A content expert may have made that decision. But as a content novice, taking pictures was priority #1. And my students—also content novices—were inspired by the same.
“We know that teacher expectations impact student achievement. High expectations are motivating when they are realistic about how much effort and time a task requires… What’s surprising is that people who have a lot of experience and are regarded as experts are much worse at estimating the amount of time a task will take for beginners than are the beginners themselves. In fact, the experts’ predictions are worse than those of someone who has never performed the task at all.”
“Concrete explanations lead to more efficient problem-solving—if you’re teaching students how to solve a problem that you recently learned to solve yourself, research shows that you will probably provide a more basic and concrete explanation than would a content expert. As a result, your students will probably experience fewer frustrations and more successes when they sit down to work on that problem.”
As a content novice teacher of this Cell Phone Photography course, I made sure I completed every task, assignment, and project I planned to assign to my students. In doing so, I had a better understanding of how long they would take my students to do. I worked through the same challenges I knew they would encounter. This often led to breaking down longer assignments into smaller chunks, including specific brainstorming tasks, clarifying written directions, adding more examples and links to resources for help. Essentially, creating a more supportive learning environment. As students came across challenges or questions I didn’t account for, we problem solved them together. I also often asked them for feedback on the class itself and let them help shape the direction we took with our projects.
But it’s another point that Huston makes that excites me the most about teaching what you don’t know:
“It would seem, at first glance, that content experts would be in a better position to foster deep learning. They know so much more about the field than the content novice; they have a sense of the big picture; and they’ve invested a lot of their own time finding meaning in the material…. Not necessarily. Keep in mind that a deep approach to learning involves helping the student find meaning in the material from the student’s vantage point. It’s the student’s discovery of meaning, not the teacher’s that makes or breaks the deep learner. So who is better equipped to create that kind of environment of discovery?”
She and I would both argue that it’s the content novice. We say that we believe that teaching isn’t imparting knowledge into empty vessels. But if we truly believed this, there would be more widespread acceptance of content novices teaching what they don’t know. I believe the biggest strength of the content novice is our full acknowledgment that we don’t know all the ins and outs of our class topics ahead of time and that we will have to co-construct our understanding of them through outside resources - print, online, and people.
Because of this acknowledgment, content novice teachers have to think outside of the lecture box (as knowledge givers) and have more of a push to create collaborative, engaging learning environments.
Additional Application Approaches
Perhaps you’ve reached this point of the article and are left wondering, Well, we don’t all work at alternative schools. This isn’t relevant. But there can be creative scheduling moves that can be made to allow for more teachers to teach what they don’t know.
A mainstream school in our district used to schedule an “e-term.” For one full week, teachers would stop their regular classes and host different seminars that students could sign up for. A history teacher with an interest in children’s literature might offer a weeklong seminar in “Writing and Publishing Children’s Books.” A math teacher with an interest in cars might offer “Basic Car Care & Maintenance.” A Special Education teacher who coaches baseball after school could offer “Building a Workout Plan.” (At our school, we used the “e-term” as inspiration for our own “j-term” in January—here’s a copy of our course guide.)
Then perhaps, these initial, brief dips into unknown waters could lead to something longer. Our district requires 24 credits, 8.5 of which are elective. Why not offer quarter-long elective credit opportunities? Teachers could teach around a topic they have some interest in (or a topic that students are requesting), like Basket Weaving, East Indian Music & Dancing, Podcasting 101, Music Production, Tattoos & Storytelling... By graduation, imagine all of the different experiences students would leave with: one such class topic could even lead to a lifelong hobby or interest. I know I’m not considering all of the logistical issues in scheduling and staffing, but that’s purposeful. There are always reasons we can find that a new idea won’t work. The key is to find a way around all those “but we can’ts.”
Another “but we can’t” might be this: We don’t all have the time it takes to learn and develop the content for brand new, unfamiliar classes. In my case with the photography class, I did do a lot of research to develop a course plan and then again for my daily lessons.
However, I think I did that primarily out of the “fool factor” fear. Instead, I think teaching what we don’t know could lend itself very well to student-led project-based learning, where the teacher is a facilitator or guide. I could have said this to my students on day one: “This class is called Cell Phone Photography. What are some of our goals for ourselves around this topic? How do we get there?” As the teacher, my job would have been to guide students to form questions, develop a plan of action, self-reflect, and seek feedback. Perhaps the class could have generated a list of techniques they wanted to learn about, and then each student could have been responsible for teaching that technique to the rest of the class. I think when we teach what we don’t know, we can help our students learn how to learn. And that’s a skill they can carry with them well past graduation.
Lean on Community & Collaborators
Finally, as content novice teachers think about their unfamiliar topic, they should be reminded that they aren’t alone. With technology like Zoom and Google Meet, professionals are easier to access than ever. Teaching what we don’t know offers a bonus opportunity of networking with others who can serve as our mentors, or checks for our instruction. In my course, I not only had the support of our art teacher, but we also regularly conducted Google meets with a former photographer for the Post-Bulletin (our local paper). She got to know my students and we developed mini-portfolios for her constructive feedback.
She was as proud as I was over my students’ (and my own) growth in our photography composition skills over the course of nine weeks. I can now confidently say that I’m no longer just an English teacher.
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.”
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.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
I had the pleasure this week of working with a third-grade teacher when our conversation turned to the distance learning we did this year. She shared a powerful takeaway. For her, the gem she honed in on was that she now had a better understanding of what students’ lives are like at home, seeing as she bore witness to certain at-home distractions, had to work more closely with parents as they worked together to keep students engaged, and as she became a sounding board for some guardians to share frustrations regarding discipline issues and learning struggles. Moving forward, this teacher shared that she wants to maintain that better understanding of the complex layers that students and families are navigating outside of school, as they have a direct impact on students’ engagement, behaviors, and learning abilities within school walls.
This got me thinking. There have been many discussion lately about the ‘learning loss’ that has occurred during the past year as we’ve been navigating ever-changing educational structures. Simply do a search for ‘learning loss’ and one will quickly discover that there has become an obsession with how Coronavirus has supposedly created a dip in our youths’ knowledge and skill growth.
While there may be truth to the idea that some of the types of skills that typical students may have typically attained in a previously typical school year could have been lost, have we not learned from the atypical nature of this past school year?
Looking for answers, the Third Eye Education team and I took to social media—asking educators and parents to share their thoughts on what we learned during this past year that we want to be sure not to devalue. In this online conversation, the following clear themes emerged.
The Learnings from Teaching During Covid-19 That Many Wish to Maintain
Inequity Awareness & Efforts to Create Balance
In many ways, teaching during a Coronavirus outbreak brought forth inequities (or at least an awareness of them) and, in some cases, fast-tracked solutions.
As students started to need to learn from home, it became clear who did not have access to computers and/or at-home-internet. Many of these students had likely been negatively impacted by these truths in past academic years, specifically in regards homework expectations, but as students shifted to all schoolwork being done at home, suddenly districts strove to provide laptops and Wi-Fi hotspots, along with other creative solutions. As we find ourselves seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, let’s be sure to maintain this awareness and continue to adjust as needed to support our students. Returning to in-building school doesn’t instantly place all students on an equal level—we need to maintain this awareness even as we come back together.
This year we’ve had a window into students’ home lives in ways we have not in the past, which has increased empathy and allowed for adjustments. Some students have learning environments full of distractions while others have a quiet place to study and focus. Some students have parents who can help them with their homework, while others (due to the time constraints or the specific skill ability of those living in the home) may not. Some students have responsibilities, such as taking care of siblings, while others do not. This imbalance is one teachers are able to continue to adjust for, as long as we maintain the awareness.
Other such discrepancies uncovered this past year to which adjustments were made in some schools included:
Flexibility, Autonomy, & Focus on Individual Need
Covid-19 created a constant need to adjust. Systems had to keep shifting as we learned more, as the virus morphed, as vaccines became available. So did the methodology used in many classrooms.
Particularly in the spring of 2020, asynchronous opportunities for learning became a must for many learners as their schools and families adjusted to spending most of their time indoors and at home. While not always ideal, and certainly not best for all learners, it did become clear that some students learned better this way, at least on occasion, in certain contexts, or in specific content areas. Therefore, we need to maintain this as an option when possible: when it makes sense to, consider utilizing a flipped classroom approach, experimenting with outdoor learning spaces, and supporting online/hybrid courses. (In fact, last year I taught Creative Writing in a hybrid structure: in-person three days a week, writing and one-on-one conferencing twice a week—a perfect balance for such a course.)
Other flexible environment suggestions emerged as well. Due to safety concerns, buildings got creative in what classrooms and shared spaces looked like:
Similarly, the realities that learning doesn’t always happen at the same pace and in the same order for students was highlighted during this past school year. As we have the opportunity to adjust back into more traditional educational structures, educators will want to maintain this realization. One way to do this moving forward is to consider creating more of a ROWE (results only work environment) or adjusting the focal points of what we teach.
Amber Henry, a teacher in Rochester, Minnesota, noted that this malleability has helped students grow skills in the areas of “resilience, grit, flexibility, and technology independence.” These may not be skills we see on a traditional academic report card, but they are exactly the skills we want them to grow none-the-less. Such skills will surely help them grow academically in the years to come.
Other new flexibility, autonomy, and individualization made this year include:
In such a complex year, everyone has been navigating life differently than they likely did in years past. What that looked like, or how it impacted each individual, varied. This led to an increase in empathy in schools in ways that many had never seen before. Students and staff were often reminded to “be proactive about spending time with people [they] care about,” district leaders and teachers exuded more patience, teachers wove more coping and planning skills into their teaching rather than simply making one-size-fits all structures for students to follow.
In Think Again, Adam Grant’s newest book, he notes that “we live in a rapidly changing world, where we need to spend as much time rethinking as we do thinking.” If nothing else, Coronavirus has illustrated how rapidly changing our world really is, and has forced educators to rethink certain aspects of how we run our schools and support our learners. As the concern around the virus subsides, let’s not lose the power that rethinking can have.
Grant goes on to state that, “questioning ourselves makes the world more unpredictable. It requires us to admit that the facts may have changed, that what was once right may now be wrong.” This is not an easy feat, as “we’re mental misers: we often prefer the ease of hanging on to old views over the difficulty of grappling with new ones,” but there is no denying that it’s the new views that are the ones often helping us move forward into a world we don’t yet understand.
Is ‘learning loss’ really the concern we should be having? Or, should we be concerned that we may lose the learning we’ve gained from such an atypical school year?
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.