strategies for balancing voices and minimizing cultural-bias
by Third Eye Education, consolidated by Heather M. F. Lyke
I am addicted to podcasts. There is something about cramming learning into my commute, pairing it with laundry, and adding it as a workout buddy that fits my hectic lifestyle. Even when life slows down, I enjoy learning while listening in the bathtub, while swinging in my hammock, or while taking a scenic drive.
It is because of my podcast addiction that I recently learned a few new strategies for balancing voices, and in-turn minimizing cultural-biases, when collaborating with colleagues or facilitating student discussions.
Turn and Learn
Catching up on old episodes of Unlocking Us, I listened to Brené Brown’s talk with Dax Sheppard and Tim Ferriss. This is the part of the conversation that perked my ears:
“People’s expectations and understanding of things are so different:” now, isn’t that pure truth. Yet, in leadership roles and as classroom instructors it’s often easy to inadvertently allow halos to form and for bandwagons to take over. Not only does this enhance only certain voices, but it also can minimize the variety of perspectives that are brought to the table.
For instance, sticking with the element of time noted above. My husband has a degree in American Indian Studies from the University of Minnesota. He has shared stories about his sophomore year Ojibwe Language class—during which he was often the first student in the room. For my husband, a cis-gendered white male from a middle class family with European heritage who was raised by parents who often noted “if you’re not early, you’re late,” being on time was par for the course. Had you asked the sophomore version of him what was going on, he’d have likely said, “everyone else is late,” “they’re not respecting the professor,” or “I thought that if you’re not early you’re late.”
That said, had you asked is fellow classmates—most of whom were idigenous—to write down on a sticky note about the importance of being “on time,” you’d have seen a wide swath of answers:
Now, if the professor flips his sticky note first, people may wish they’d changed their response (bandwagon). If there is a classmate that many respect who flips first, others may wish they’d shared a similar response (halo). However, by flipping all sticky notes at the same time all voices get put on the table and, as in this instance, different cultural beliefs come to light.
The thing about listening to podcasts is that it’s passive. I hit play and I take in new learning. Sure, I have autonomy over what podcast I listen to, which episodes I download, and what I may opt to fast-forward past—but it’s still passive. If we’re not careful, meetings and classroom instruction can become passive, too.
Last week, our Third Eye Education collective came together for our April session. During our time together, John Alberts of Austin Public Schools shared a new-to-him strategy that he had learned from the IDEAL Center: we all tried it. Like Brené Brown’s Turn and Learn, this approach balances voices in a way that helps disrupt some dominant cultural norms.
Here is the process Alberts took us through:
There is some magic in what may seem like a simple rotation of ideas and share alouds: each woven in intentionally by the IDEAL center in the way it was shared with Alberts and his team:
Additionally, to assist in the above process and purpose, the IDEAL Center has at its foundation these shared norms (which are always evolving, according to a recent communications with their team):
Of course, depending on where you are in your journey with racism, cultural understanding, and appropriation, understanding why structures such as the Turn and Learn and Sharing Circles help (especially if the intentionality of these strategies are rooted in awareness) break down the dominant white-culture norms that tend to permeate many organizations across our nation.
To increase one’s awareness of how white supremacy exists in our communities and organizations, often without individuals even knowing it, is broken down in Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture” article from Dismantling Racism, which was shared by Shavana Talbert, the Statewide Culturally Responsive Practices Technical Assistance Coordinator for the Wisconsin RtI Center. Understanding the imbalance is one of the first steps to creating balance. How might these characteristics show up within you? Your organization?
When it comes to those norms from the IDEAL Center, my personal favorite is the second half of the last one: “what’s learned here leaves here.” Perhaps that’s why I love podcasts so much: there is power in sharing one’s learning and at its root, that’s what podcasting does. Podcasters share their knowledge, while in turn their listeners can share new learning with others. Unlike podcasting, however, Turn and Learn and Sharing Circles are less passive and less presumptive: they create a place for active engagement that leaves room for authentic individuality. (Maybe this is why we at Third Eye are so anxious to try out Clubhouse some day, as it’s a refined version of podcasting: it removes the passivity and presumptiveness. Anyone want to toss us an invite? Let us learn from you!)
Independent Choice and Independent Learning in Elementary Physical Education
By Eric Aeschlimann
In most ways, this pandemic has been a tough ride for teachers but it hasn’t been all bad. As educators, if we can’t see obstacles as opportunities for growth, then we aren’t living up to our growth mindset ideals we expect our students to strive towards.
In Physical Education (PE), my system has always included a schedule of units and skill-building that allowed an introduction to skills, time to practice, and opportunities to build on previous skills. Out of necessity, the schedule depended on weather (soccer in fall, gymnastics in winter when stuck in the gym, etc.) and much of that has stayed the same. But, this year, with fewer minutes for PE, it was an opportunity to take a risk and attempt something I’d been wanting to try for a long time: independent learning for grades K-5.
I wanted to have students come to class and immediately start independent work for the first 5-10 minutes of class. In theory, if students were motivated to improve on these chosen skills then these 5-10 minutes would add up to a lot of practice by the end of the school year. After set time for practice, then our PE units would follow the same order as before: a quick chat about the day, a warm-up, and finally our daily unit/game/activity.
Once back in the gym in late January, I trained students to choose a skill to practice for the first 5-10 minutes of class. Luckily, I had whiteboards at my disposal for daily reminders, and I put 6 skills on one board and 5 exercises on another. I had skills and levels of expectation for grades K-5 on each whiteboard. It looked like this:
This became a habit: students were taught that each day they’d have 5-10 minutes to work on a skill or exercise of their choice. My goal for them was to get to their grade-level-ability or better by the end of the school year: the first number was generally a first-grade level and the final number listed a fifth-grade level. I stressed to students that this year we were behind in our typical learning and that while some kids already had some of these skills, others may not, so each should choose a skill they individually needed to improve upon. To keep the “watch me’s” at bay, I told students this was independent work time and that I would ‘test’ each of them on a different day: my goal was to check about 5 kids each day and give feedback to those students, while everyone worked independently on each of their skills of choice.
What I’ve learned in the first month and a half of this process has proven what I had hoped.
Additionally, I have noticed how much interest there has been in the pull-up bars. I have five spots for this and they’re typically full: students race to get to them so they can work on pull-ups or the flexed arm hang. We’ve also had the rope and arm ladders available during much of February and it has been so fun to see students getting stronger just by using those muscles.
I am always reminding students that if they want to get better at something then they need to practice. Climbing the rope, swinging on the rope, pull-ups, and flexed arm hangs are very real examples to students, who after a little over a month of practice, are seeing their work pay off: those who could not do a flexed arm hang have been able to hold themselves up after they work on it and play on the rope.
Students have been able to choose a skill, find out which grade level they are at, and then work on it every day they have PE and track their own improvement. It has been exactly what I had hoped for: not just me telling students what was important, but them choosing a skill and putting actual effort into improving at it. The focus has been tremendous.
I will continue to use this system of choice within my classes moving forward. I’m impressed with how much content I’m able to assess with this new system. Plus, the smaller class sizes we have had this year due to Covid-19 have allowed me to really get to know each student’s skill level better and to monitor individual progress. With elementary PE, units are still practical and necessary due to equipment set-up and the simple fact that elementary kids, in order to learn new skills, need personal practice as well as to see their peers demonstrating practice. At the older levels, however (fourth & fifth), I can see this system expanded to more than the first 5-7 minutes of PE: I can see a warm-up choice, small unit choice, or even skill-practice within each unit.
Prior Understanding Matches Findings & Bonus Discoveries
What I had previously learned about personalized learning was that students would be on task with more focus because each student’s education was tailored to their current level. Students in their ‘sweet spot’ of not too hard and not too easy would take ownership of their learning and really focus to improve their skill. This is true in my newfound experience.
A healthy side effect of this model has been how little I’ve had students give up or refuse to participate. Discipline is hardly needed, as kids simply know what to do and do it. They don’t get bored because they have eleven choices and each one at their own skill-level.
Tips for Sucess
I am excited to see how far, moving forward, I can stretch putting kids in charge of their own learning as they become independent learners. After all, students becoming independent learners is our endgame.
My suggestion to any teacher who wants to put students in the driver’s seat more often:
Personally, I tried this a couple of years ago with fifth graders, tweaked a few things, then added fourth graders. Though it might not be viable in every subject area every day, I do believe whenever individual work is being done, it is possible.
The trick for the K-3 students was to ‘train’ students prior to setting them free to explore: I was nervous about them learning something the wrong way and becoming embedded muscle memory. Therefore, I spent a few minutes on each skill and spent the first few days after not tracking or assessing, but monitoring proper technique instead.
There is a sweet spot of not too hard, nor too easy. For younger students who are not yet readers, this can be tricky; so, I used pictures and symbols with numbers underneath and encouraged kids to help each other or ask me if they forgot or couldn’t figure something out.
Application Beyond PE
This technique is not only for PE! In a math class, for example, one choice could be flash cards, another could be white-board practice, another could be manipulatives (cubes, coins, etc.), money counting, etc. On a whiteboard or poster, could be the levels. I think it is key for students to know where grade level is and beyond. It could look like this:
I was looking for a way to give choice and voice to students and hoped for focused work that led to increased assessment scores and fewer discipline issues. What I learned in my K-5 PE classes this winter was that it can be done. Students were self-motivated and focused on the task at hand; therefore, I had fewer issues with students off task.
I am excited as I look ahead to how I can expand choices in different units and settings, as I feel I have opened a new door that has endless possibilities. When teachers choose to go this route, students will become more independent and self motivated. Who doesn’t love that?
by Heather M. F. Lyke
There is an old adage that, “It takes a village to raise a child.” This year, I thought I’d try and grow the population of the specific village raising ‘my children’ (or, in my case, the 174 students I taught first semester) by widening the access my students have with adults in our community.
The First Community Collaboration
Some might assume—because I’m married to a social studies teacher or because I once had a job supporting social studies teachers—that I am well-versed in all things historical. This is far from true. While I love reading historical fiction and I’m well versed in certain literary and philosophical movements, that’s where my historical expertise ends. For this reason, when a colleague of mine pointed out that a local expert on the orphan trains of the early 1930’s was going to be giving a Community Education Class on the topic, I decided to reach out—see if she’d come in and work with my students.
My sophomores and I had started the school year off reading the novel Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline. Not only do students love the snarky zest of the protagonist who happens to also be in high school, but this character’s world-view ties in well with our Native American Indian Literature state standards. Simultaneously, however, the other protagonist navigates a part of history my students and I knew very little about… So why not bring in a community expert?
My students loved Dorothy Lund Nelson’s visit. She had done a lot of research and was passionate about her topic. She had students wear name tags and she talked to them as if they themselves were orphans in the early 1900’s. For the rest of the book, and occasionally throughout the rest of the year, students would reference her visit. Plus, she left a copy of The Home We Shared: History and Memoir of the North Dakota Children’s Home at Fargo, North Dakota behind for our students to share, and when we were still together in the classroom it was checked out often.
The Next Community Collaboration
Working with Dorothy Lund Nelson is what got me started—and it led to a community connection that just keeps on giving: our Mayo High School collaboration with the Rochester Public Library (RPL).
We stumbled into this collaboration naturally because every Tuesday, when I would meet one-on-one with roughly a half-dozen students throughout the period to talk about what they were reading, I kept finding myself recommending audiobooks to my more reluctant readers and to my students struggling with fluency when reading aloud. Personally, being addicted to audiobooks, I was surprised by how many students were not aware of the audiobooks they had access to for free via our school library and via RPL. This prompted me to reach out to RPL and see if they’d have any interest coming and getting my students connected with library cards. Sarah Joynt, their librarian who does student outreach, was instantly on board.
Joynt spent the day with me and my students. Each period, she shared with students some of the many online resources RPL provides, discussed some of the in-person opportunities that teens often enjoy at RPL, answered a wide variety of questions that students had, and then got those who wanted them set up with library cards (which she delivered to us about a month later). A high-energy presenter, students leaned in and listened to her every word. They ask questions about the Bookmobile and the BookBike, they wanted to know how to get jobs at RPL, they even wondered aloud if there were ways to get overdue fines waved (yes, by the way, there is). In fact, this collaboration went so well, that now all 10th graders at Mayo High School—not just those who have me as a teacher— have had Joynt come into their American Literature and Composition classrooms to share about RPL’s free resources.
Here are a few snapshots of the magic that Joynt brought into my students’ lives:
Future Community Collaborations
There was a time in my teaching career where I though bringing in community members wasn’t worth the effort it would take. Well, color me a different color now. In both cases this year, reaching out was fast, easy, and simple. The benefits far outweigh any negatives that came with scheduling these visitors. In fact, I’m already making plans for next year—and I’m not just planning to bring back Lund Nelson and Joynt: I’ve already started lining up community experts in the field of writing to work with my Creative Writing students in the school year 2020-2021!
If nothing else has been verified by the pandemic, it is indeed that it does “take a village to raise a child.” I am heartened by, and lucky that, this year I took the time to expand my students’ village this past fall, because it certainly made this pandemic-spring a bit easier for them to navigate. We never know what the future has in store, so why not give our students as many connections as possible? And those connections can easily extend far beyond our classroom doors.
by Heather M. F. Lyke
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As soon as Dessa’s voice hit the word slay in the third paragraph, I knew I had them. Even my most skeptical sophomore sat up a bit taller—took note. Clearly, this narrative exemplar was not what he and his classmates had been expecting.
We were just about to finish our Telling It Like It Is unit in American Literature and Composition, and the grand finale was to craft a nonfiction, mini-memoir overflowing with description and—ideally—cleverly framed. What exemplar could be better than the chapter “Household Magnets” from Dessa’s book My Own Devices? Oh. Wait. The audio version where Dessa herself reads her own words.
Honestly, most were leaning in, highlighters poised, right from the first sentence: “Mayo Clinic is a world famous hospital in Rochester, Minnesota.” After all, at the time I was teaching in Rochester, Minnesota, at a high school named after the famous clinic where many of my students’ parents were gainfully employed.
But, to hear the author herself use language like what students used in the hallways--slay, punk kid, s’pose—in an American Literature class was novel enough that even the cynical took note. Success!
My own students discovered what many educators know, and yet that many educators forget.
“The world is not organized like a university, with its sharply demarcated departments. There is one world, which we can (and should) approach from many perspectives. Dessa’s work is a great illustration of this principle.”
My students were expecting American Literature to be something that it is not. Stagnant. Isolated. Lacking soul.
The “transdisciplinarity of Dessa’s art and work make it well suited for rich conversation and analysis” that “allows educators to cross boundaries.”
In showing students how interlaced learning, content areas, and personal interests can be, it allowed them to break down their preconceived notions. This boundary-crossing approach is part of what makes learning “sticky” for students. According to John Hattie’s research, “Integrated Curricular Programming” has the effect of producing approximately a year and a quarter of growth, and “Creativity Programs” have an effect of producing over a year and a half of growth, when compared to an average school year. This is not how Hattie is meant to be read, but is our best approximation of simplifying his data.
“I teach English, but through that, my students learn Psychology, History, Cultural Context, and how everything ultimately connects together. The more connection between material we can make for our students, the more they will be able to see the full picture...It is not my job to tell them what to think, it’s my job to teach them how to think so they can make critical and informed decisions/ not be taken advantage of due to ignorance.”
In the same chapter I shared with my students, Dessa notes that for that day her “job was to talk about life as an indie musician, hopefully sparking some cross-disciplinary insights.” Yet, as the renaissance person that she is, Dessa manages to ‘spark cross-disciplinary insights’ even when she’s not necessarily trying to. As a rapper with a philosophy degree who once worked as a medical technical writer, it’s not surprising that her polymath skillset has her interweaving inspiration from across a wide spectrum into her vast portfolio of works.
Dessa’s work is beautiful, intellectual, witty - it speaks to me personally and is a great example to my Alternative Ed learners that you can weave your interests and your passions into your work. That the things we enjoy, like Rap, don’t have to be 180 degrees different from schoolwork, or your life’s work.
At the time I used “Household Magnets” with my students, I leaned on her references to local geography, to biological science, to kickdrums, as a way to ensure student interests. (You don’t like writing creatively, but you enjoy science? Well, maybe this will keep you listening! -- You don’t want to read a long piece by a dead white guy? Well here is a work of art created by a living, breathing, female rapper: so there!)
However, when I return to the classroom, I suspect I will do things differently. I missed a golden opportunity with this chapter. Rather than just hook the science-loving learners, what if I had collaborated with Mr. Devine on an analysis of the accuracy of Dessa’s biological descriptions in this section? Rather than simply connecting with the musicians in the classroom via the content covered, what if instead we had worked with Mr. Cole and Mr. Devine to do a side by side analysis of how a kick drum sounds in comparison to the beating of a heart?
Perhaps, this is one of the most inspirational ways in which Dessa can push us to be better educators. She is never locked into the confines of one content area, so why should we be?
Classroom Application Suggestions
by Nick Truxal & Heather Lyke
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Choosing the Challenge
“The marriage of intellectual rootedness with artistic creation alongside cultural production makes [Dessa’s] work particularly meaningful for many students who want to think about an array of issues as they affect the body, our social and political presence with others, and how we build and develop community… It allows educators to cross boundaries, intellectually, artistically, and in praxis, encouraging students to inform study as they encounter the world: not sewn into neat and singular pockets of isolated subjects but rather as woven and entangled webs of knowledge and embodied experience.”
We like to lean on research at Third Eye Education, as well as to give voice to researchers whose work has not yet become widespread—boosting their influence to a wider audience. Yet, for this particular article in our series, however, it does not seem as necessary. Having hard conversations is hard. It is a tautology—a truism in itself. We’ve all had to come up with our key strategies for approaching hard conversations.
Of course, the choice each of us makes is personal, and each decision has its own benefits. However, if instead of directly addressing a hard conversation, one would prefer to discuss something external and therefore likely easier to broach, Dessa’s work is an effective way to still get to the roots of what students and staff have a need to talk about.
It removes the barriers that being personal can have, while maintaining most of the benefits that being personal involves.
Why have the conversations at all?
Because the content and skills we seek to teach aren’t always easy: avoiding them simply isn’t a choice that we can make. But if hard things are hard, we can accept the help of others, seek out appropriate supports, and embrace opportunities that present themselves, such as can be found in the work of Dessa.
Classroom Application Suggestions
by Nick Truxal
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“Social Emotional Learning,” “Trauma Informed Schools,” and “Mental Health Initiatives” are phrases we’ve heard a lot this year. Not surprising, considering the pandemic, the politics, and the persistence of this year have made these focus areas more important than ever.
Whenever I ask an expert on where to begin, the answer is always the same—authentic care and respect:
Pre-pandemic, I had the pleasure to attend a concert at my local arts center where Dessa was headlining. I have been to, and performed in, hundreds upon hundred of concerts. I have seen acts that lean into the fun, the disinterest, the mystery, the volume, the skill, the passion, and a great deal more. Yet, I had never seen a performer who leaned into being human—at least not in the ways that matter for social and emotional growth, mental health, or trauma informed education.
Dessa, however, did.
To be perfectly honest, long before Dessa even appeared on stage, it was clear that the community she has built thrives on mutual support, respect, and a genuine love for each other and for Dessa herself. However, once she took the stage, Dessa was acutely aware of her audience in a way that I had never seen before. Aware in the way that as a teacher, I strive to be—aware in the way that as a musician, I’ve avoided. Why adopt in one environment and reject in another? I honestly have no idea, and I’ve sought to change.
She came to the front of the audience at one point, speaking to a young man who was both crying and singing along: Dessa gave him a long and knowing embrace. She saw a young girl who was unable to fully engage due to her abbreviated height: Dessa motioned to the audience to part, walked through the center of their Red Sea, and pulled the young girl closer to the stage for a better view.
Humanity should be in all our lives—in everything we do. We should be seeing the needs of the youth in our classrooms and adjusting practices to make sure they have a clear view. We should be, if not hugging, extending empathy and compassion. Of course, as Dessa radiates this goodness, and as she has built a community that does as well, her work is particularly apt for bridging conversations and content that benefit our students.
Classroom Application Suggestions
Third Eye Education posts weekly articles focusing on education and innovation.