by Stefanie Whitney
I remember the day I unearthed my father’s report cards from a cardboard box in my parent’s basement. I was old enough to have felt failure in school but not wise enough to anticipate my dad’s reaction to us stumbling upon evidence of his formative years. I felt relief and recognized common ground. Maybe some of my math struggles were actually genetic? Dad did not share my feelings. As I waved his dusty cards in the air, his discontent was as palpable as my relief.
We all have stories that bolster our belief systems.
I cannot recall how old I was when my mom first described herself as not very “school smart.” I do recall, however, how firmly she believed in this story regardless of how fervently I disagreed. Her proof? Report cards. Flimsy little pieces of paper that manage to fortify entire perceptions of self.
I could tell countless stories about both of my parents’ experiences as learners. About the lasting impression grades made on them. How their experiences in school influenced my own, and how learning was often reduced to letters on a crumpled piece of paper. I feel compelled to proclaim, unequivocally, that my parents are and were wise, compassionate, intelligent, and inspiring folk. I was supported, encouraged, and challenged throughout my childhood, teenage, and college years. My parents were also deeply impacted by a grading system; so much depends upon…. I’d like to sit down with William Carlos Williams and compare notes.
And while my parents’ stories are not mine to share, I do have one story of my own to offer. This story stands out among many, in part, because it represents the lasting imprint of a lifetime of being graded.
From November 28, 2016 through the end of January 2017, I took a leave of absence from my position as a high school English teacher. I left the classroom so I could return home and spend time with my mom during what we believed would be her last Christmas. We had big plans: a 45th wedding anniversary celebration (December 10), a Christmas Eve pajama party, baking all the cookies, wrapping the tree in mom’s favorite white lights, and sharing space with one another as often and as long as we could.
On Wednesday, November 30, 2016, seizures changed the landscape of that leave.
Mom remained with us for two weeks. Within those two weeks, I was an untrained hospice nurse, a grieving daughter, and a student trying not to fail in a system I had been conditioned to prioritize. I was in week 7 of a 9 week course for the Educational Leadership program in which I had enrolled eight months prior.
We had only two more weeks. During this time, I stayed awake at night with my dad, sister, and husband to hold our breaths when mom’s labored. By day, I helped take care, entreating moments of lucidity--when mom would return behind her smiling eyes. In spare moments when she slept, I wrote papers, read textbooks, and tried to prepare for a test that required rote memorization.
Finally, admitting I needed help, I reached out to my professor and asked for more time to take an online multiple choice exam on which I needed an 85% to pass the course. I could try three times before being marked a failure. Because my parents lived too far out in the country, no Verizon wifi booster could procure a strong enough connection to take the exam at home. To this, my professor offered the idea of “coffee shops with internet access.” So, when mom was resting, my husband and I drove 15 miles to the local Perkins in the midst of an early December snowstorm. After internet drops interrupted and consequently eliminated rounds one and two, this was my third and final opportunity. We sat in a side booth, me wearing headphones to drown out the noise of stranded motorists, as spotty wifi and shock carried me through a “successful” third attempt.
Now, I just had to write two short essays to be finished with this class. And I had done the math. I asked my professor to allow me to forgo those essays, and I’d take the 'B'. We knew the time was nearing. I no longer had the mental bandwidth to write any more about the effectiveness of data used in peer-reviewed papers. I had done enough. My professor, however, had not done the math. According to his calculations, I would need to write at least one more essay to earn a 'B'.
Consequently, in between helping plan my mom’s funeral and going through boxes of pictures, I wrote a paper.
I submitted the essay one day later than the brief extension given to me. One day late because, on the due date, I was attending my mom’s funeral. I apologized for my delay and awaited his response. It came 48 hours later: “I did the math wrong; you didn’t actually need the paper.”
I have to tell you: I don’t know this professor’s stories. I don’t know why he felt bound to an “accountability” system that felt so dehumanizing. I do know he was not a bad person; he had a kind smile, apologized when he floundered with technology, and cared about his content.
I also have to tell you that there are questions I still ask myself. Could I have dropped this course and taken it later? Yes. Of course, I had that option--at the cost of retaking a class without my peer group and graduating a semester later. I’m not sure whether it was any one of these factors or a strong fear of failure that most encouraged me to power through. What if mom left while I was away? I carried that worry with me every moment I was away from home and ceaselessly called to check in.
Still today, this story is hard for me to tell. In part, because I feel like I made poor decisions. I should have had the wherewithal to stand up for myself, to recognize no grade was worth the personal cost. How was I so distracted by an arbitrary grading system during one of the most difficult times of my life? A system I no longer believed in, yet somehow was still bound by.
I offer this story as the most stubborn data point in my personal belief system. For so many reasons beyond the obvious, this story does not center a person who benefited from a successful grading system. At 39 years old, I struggled to self-advocate with the most understandable reasons against an enduring and flawed system; yet, I expect teenagers to have the capacity to self-advocate against this same system?
I also tell this story because we are emerging (albeit very, very slowly) from a collectively painful time in our world; one that, for many, resulted in both personal and professional hardships.
In this moment, a quote by Sarah Wilson, author of This One Wild and Precious Life, takes up space in my mind:
“Life has been fundamentally interrupted and all of us here have been given the most glorious opportunity to take an inventory of it. We now have a choice--collectively and individually. We can go back to our old ways. Or we can move forward into something wild, mature, and humanized.”
My fundamental interruption occurred five years ago. Whether five years, five months, or five minutes, this idea of a more humanized world speaks to the disrupted part of my conscience and heart.
Humanized. Human-centered. This concept seems so logical. But I have to ask:
If we are not centering humans, then what are we centering?
I have been asked a time or two for data to back up systemic shifts that I have come to champion. I understand why this question is asked, as we use satellite data--a term used by Safir and Dugan in Street Data: A Next Generation Model for Equity, Pedagogy, and School Transformation--often in education. Grades, graduation rates, attendance, anonymous surveys--these all fit into the category of satellite data. Useful, for sure, as this data points us in a direction. But what does the satellite data we most study tell us about what we most value?
I offer this: satellite data is not human-centered data.
Human-centered. A term I recently heard used by Cornelius Minor, educator, author, and equitable literacy reformer, as he described the concept of equitable grading:
“I am always striving for grading policies that are human-centered. And if they are human-centered, they are by nature anti-racist, they are by nature anti-ableist, they are by nature anti-homophobic or anti-classist….When I think about any anti-racist grading policy, or any grading policy that is human-centered, it really sees the human first. And by seeing the human first, it is a grading policy that centers growth over random measures of compliance.”
I have come to believe the data that most moves us to change might actually be our own: our own stories, fears, failures, and self-perceptions. Owning them, dusting off the moldy shame, sharing them with others, and finding common ground and humanity in one another’s stories. These approaches to storytelling and story listening allow us to see the human first. To be seen first as a human.
We all have stories. Stories that bolster our belief systems.
Our stories are the data that we most lean on when staring down a challenging situation.
Regarding stories, in her book Daring Greatly, Brené Brown references the work of neurologist and novelist Robert Burton:
“Our brains reward us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns….Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them...even with a half story in our minds, ‘we earn a dopamine reward every time it helps us understand something in our world--even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.’”
I have made all kinds of assumptions about my professor and others with whom I may disagree. In fact, I’m remarkably good (relative term) at creatively filling in the gaps of so many stories. It’s faster and easier, right? To fill in the gaps with what I think I know rather than sit beside someone and find out truths. But it seems to me that being human-centered is about taking the time to understand one another’s stories rather than filling in the gaps with assumptions.
I don’t pretend this is easy; I don’t pretend to have mastered this approach. But I do offer my personal story as one reason why I stand so firmly in my beliefs.
I know you too have stories that fuel your belief systems. Perhaps you will join me in sharing your stories, and to seek out and carefully listen to the stories of others. All the while wondering:
by Sweta Patel
“How do you say your name again?”
You might guess that this conversation played itself out over and over again throughout my school-age years. You’d be right. But the twist is that this particular conversation happened just yesterday between my tennis coach and myself.
I’d like to take you back to 1990 for a moment, when I entered second grade. I was seven years old, eager to fit in. And I was still “Svet-ta.” But that year, my teacher and classmates butchered my name enough times that I resolved to just change it to make it easier for them to pronounce. I was embarrassed each time anyone called me “Sweat-a” or strangely enough, “Sweat-er.” I started telling everyone (well, non-Indians) to call me “Sweet-a.”
The name that my seven-year-old self-deemed as more culturally appropriate has continued to follow me into my 30s in all aspects of my life, from my workplace to the tennis courts… and most likely, will continue to stick for life.
My own experience with my name has made it a priority for me to get my students’ names right. With each new class, I wonder how many share a similar journey. But most of all, I emphasize that if I ever mispronounce their name, I want them to correct me rather than silently go along with it. I never want to be part of the reason why a student chooses some other name because they feel it's easier for their teacher.
As I write this article, I’m forced to think deeply about why that moment in second grade hits such a nerve. Names are tightly connected to one’s identity. In creating a new name, I feel I cemented an identity split between my Indian and Americanized self. Yes, people often choose to change their pronunciation of certain words in an effort to be understood. (I know this all too well after receiving some funny looks when I asked a teacher for a “bowel” to eat my snack in. It’s how I always heard my parents say it!). But in the case of adopting a new name because others couldn’t pronounce it easily, I feel it was a forced change… that my choice had been taken from me.
In the years that followed, I struggled with the yo-yoing back and forth between my two identities. I still remember an open house night during seventh grade. My mom was sitting next to me, listening to my choir teacher talk about the class and expectations. The teacher must have asked me a question, and I answered back with a soft voice. My mom turned to me afterwards and said, “What was that? Where’d your voice go? I’ve never heard you speak so quietly before.” You see, “Sweet-a” was soft-spoken, unsure of her voice and opinions. “Svet-ta” was confident. She spoke and laughed loudly.
A more telling moment happened in eighth grade when I passed a bathroom mirror at school. I remember a surreal moment where I was taken aback by the brown skin reflected back at me. I had come to feel very white in those school halls.
And now, years later, to my Indian friends, I’m still Svet-ta” - a popular Indian name that signifies “purity.” I cringe every time I have to introduce myself to a non-Indian in front of other Indians as “Sweet-a.” I feel overly American in those moments. I’ve tried to teach these same non-Indians the correct pronunciation, and they do try… but the continued butchering makes me cringe even more. So, the two names have stuck.
I don’t know how much of these dual identity experiences and feelings are connected to the moment I adopted a more easily pronounced name. But I do wonder that had I been able to remain “Svet-ta” in school and at home, whether I would have felt more comfortable bringing my Indian self into the classroom. When we’re young, we’re eager to fit in and are quick to reject anything that gets in the way as ‘uncool.’ We try to scrap parts of us that others don’t accept as easily. As an adult, we know that one culture isn’t necessarily better than the other. “Sweet-a” is a nagging reminder of how I shoved my Indian heritage down and hid it away. I regret the feelings of shame that contributed towards the divide.
With a new school year almost upon us, I hope that all staff are mindful of working hard to get student names right, the way the student is requesting that it’s pronounced. After one or two failed attempts, students generally just silently accept it. Instead, staff can double check with: “It’s really important to me to get your name right. Please tell me if I’m still missing it.” That statement can go a long way in preventing mispronounced names from sticking not just for that one class and for that one school year, but for the rest of their life.
So many in my extended family have similar stories: “Chirag” is “Shiraq.” “Hemant” is “Harry.” “Suresh” is “Sam.” “Roshan” is “Ro-shawn.” And on and on the newly created names go, in an effort to provide “easier” names. My cousin often tells the story of always running to class whenever she’d find out there would be a substitute teacher that day. She didn’t want the class to laugh when the sub would predictably mispronounce her name. So she’d walk up and quietly give her adopted name before her classmates arrived.
One idea that districts might adopt is having a place within their student management system (SMS) to include the phonetic pronunciation of students’ names. Imagine if each parent/guardian who registers their new Kindergarten student had a chance to write in how their student’s name is pronounced. This information could then be integrated into their student profile page.
Parents/Guardians of current elementary or middle school students might get a pop-up message when they access the SMS system to enter the phonetic pronunciation. Current high school students could enter the information on their own.
This change would allow staff a better chance of getting student names right on the first try. It would also help to lessen student anxiety and embarrassment around butchered names. And not to mention, graduation ceremonies would be a lot less painful for students and their families. I can still clearly recall last year’s ceremony: A student walked up to accept her certificate and told the staff member, “How did you get my name wrong? I’ve been here for four years. Really?”
To help our students know that we see them and that we hear them and that we value who they are as they stand before us, we can start with their name and take care to do our best to get it right.
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.
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?
by Jean Prokott
Part of an educator's job description includes insomnia, but nobody tells you that at teacher-school. It's more on-the-job training. The sleeplessness is nerves, mostly--did I remember to print those worksheets? how is that student's mental health? what if my zipper is down tomorrow?--but it's also anxiety-ridden in that instead of counting sheep, we spend hypnagogic moments counting our failures.
We make hundreds of decisions a day, and a healthy portion of them are mistakes. Failing hurts, and it is uncomfortable, yet we tell our students they learn through failure. It's only fair we know this for ourselves.
To reframe, we're counting the moments we learned. If a lesson plan goes awry, the students watch you flounder (if they're paying attention). If, like me, you say the phrase Netflix and chill in class thinking it's literally about relaxing while watching Gilmore Girls, you're going to sit in that for a while, and you're going to save Urban Dictionary to your Favorites bar.
Physiologically, we can attribute this to the amygdala, where emotions are processed, and which hangs out next to the hippocampus, where memories are retrieved. We recollect emotional experiences more precisely and colorfully because our brains are built that way. Theoretically, as educators, we know Lev Vygotsky's Zone of Proximal Development, (ZPD), which they did teach us in teacher-school, and which explores the sweet spot of comprehension. In a parallel, one can look at this as emotional intelligence, this sweet spot where you feel just uncomfortable enough to remember. A student ignores or forgets a class where they are not emotionally or intellectually challenged. A student does not feel safe or confident in a class that challenges them, content or skill-wise, too much.
Our job is to hover in the ZPD. It's not easy to create these moments for our students, to get their hippocampi to remember how we made them feel and what we taught them. Especially because every student's ZPD is different. So is mine, so is yours. And they fluctuate.
But, as I mentioned before, we must do for ourselves what we ask of our students. Teachers might not experience the anxiety of feeling intellectually or emotionally unsafe in our classrooms (not to be flippant, but aside from the fact that a student could kill me with a gun, or that I could be fired for saying the "wrong" thing). However, educators can find themselves complacent in the nucleus of the ZPD. Not because of laziness, but because of survival. In those rare circumstances when opportunity and time presents itself to us, we should strive for the next layer.
Education, as its own institutional beast, struggles to evolve on its own. For one cog to move, myriad others in the government and community must be greased. Fortunately, (hopefully), teachers have control over their classrooms. To move to the outer ring, we can challenge ourselves with new curriculum, new projects instead of tests, cross-curricular activities if the school structure can be manipulated for it. With support from our administrators and colleagues, we can set plans in motion for "hard conversations."
It isn't a leap to explore how this, too, is exactly how poetry works. (Everything is a metaphor, even a metaphor.) Third Eye Education is ever grateful for the conversation and new poems from poet Taylor Mali, who opened a door to the joy of discomfort by way of poetry, teaching, and shaking dice for a symbolic gamble.
Mali's new poems, "Momentum," and "Are You Going to Come for Me'' explore the Gestaltian circumstances when we're thrust from our comfort zones. Mali tackles how one new experience can change our big picture.
In "Momentum," the speaker challenges his sister on the accuracy of her memories with their father: "I repeated a story he had only ever told to me [...] his brothers locked him in a windowless shed—/ piled firewood against the door outside—and dared him/to escape in under five minutes." While the speaker uses the story as evidence of "joy," his sister interprets the story as evidence of "destroying everything around him to become free," which warps the memory of his father. This discomfort leads the speaker to rearrange his past relationship with his father, and perhaps to question whether any of his memories can be trusted. I think, here, of how this ties to the lessons I've learned in my classroom. How might I look at my prior discomforts now, as a seasoned teacher? Discomfort breeds when our Truths are challenged. Do we accept this, or do we double-down?
Speaking of “discomfort,” the next poem contains content
that might make some uncomfortable. But isn’t that the point?
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.