Teaching Self-Advocacy Skills

This post comes from Dr. KFW’s latest book When Your Child Learns Differently (2019).


“Self-advocacy is the ability to make sure your needs are understood and met. This can look like speaking up, speaking out, stepping in, and educating others. While…we can [and must]…help young people practice self-advocacy, the way each person advocates is contextualized by their individual identities, experiences, and communication styles. Self-advocacy is an essential skill for everyone to develop and for young people who learn differently it is often the key to getting the services, accommodations, and supports needed to be successful.”

Below is a framework to support young people in becoming more confident self-advocates:

Love and High-Expectations Warriors

Hanoi Journals

“I was a problematic student.”

I am listening to a new teacher tell a story. The story is being translated in real-time from Vietnamese to English. I could write an entire post on the brilliance and poetry of the two young women who translated this conference for us, but I’ll save that for another day. 

Despite being 8,000 miles from the classrooms I usually call home, the story the teacher is telling us is a familiar narrative. 

He courageously shares the following story: He was in trouble a lot in school. Classes didn’t click for him. His teachers didn’t expect much out of him. 

And then…he met a critical teacher. 

In his case, it was a tutor. The tutor saw something in him and told him so. She believed he was capable of important and interesting work and helped him believe in himself. 

Now he is doing the same for other kids. In fact, this is why he became a teacher. 

Critical Persons

In my last book, I wrote about how a critical person can change the trajectory of a child’s life.

A critical person can be anyone who sees your child not only for who they are right now, but also for who they might become. In the book I call these people the “love and high-expectations warriors at your children’s schools.” 

(Fishman-Weaver, K., 2019).

During our time in Hanoi, I met students and teachers who are both acting as critical persons and who are continuing to be affected by critical persons in their own lives.  Recently I wrote about the “universal language of the classroom,” how kids are kids are kids all over the world. 

Since then I’ve been thinking about how human beings are human beings are human beings all over the world. 

No matter where you go, showing up for one another causes ripples in our narratives.  During our trip to Vietnam, there were moments when I was uncertain and vulnerable.  These moments were met, not with judgment, but with compassion; I think about the smiles, encouragement and hot cups of coffee and tea shared. 

Let’s make schools places where we show up for each other with the same compassion. Most of us have been fortunate enough to experience the positive impact of a love and high-expectations warrior. 

When I meet with educators or aspiring educators, I often ask them to tell me about the teacher who had the greatest impact on them. Almost without fail, they tell a story similar to the one I heard in Hanoi. They talk about a teacher who saw something in them that no one else had. They talk about a teacher who believed they were capable of things they didn’t know they could do and then who helped them accomplish those things. 

A Renewed Opportunity

As we approach the new year, we have a renewed opportunity to commit to being the love and high-expectations warriors our students need. Are there young people in your buildings who think they are “problematic,” who aren’t being held to high expectations, whose stories are assumed but not known? Think about how many years that new teacher had to wait for the critical person who saw him and changed his trajectory. Let’s don’t let kids wait for years to be seen. 

And as we show up for students, let’s also show up for each other just as my new friends in Vietnam did for me. 

Sending compassion and strength to my colleagues across the hall and also across the ocean.

Warmly yours, Dr. KFW

The Universal Language of School

Hanoi Journals

I slide off my high heels adding them to the pile of shoes at the front of the brightly colored kindergarten building in Hanoi, Vietnam. Looking down the hallway I notice dozens of irregular snowflakes each cut with kid scissors and hung with a teacher’s care. I feel at home.

No, I have never been to Vietnam before or to this particular school, but my global travels have shown me that there is a shared humanity in our school hallways. Whether I am at a Catholic school in Brazil, a private school in Vietnam, or a public school in the United States, there are several things I know to be true. These things transcend language, culture, and worldview.  In fact, they may be the magic that makes schools work.

Connection matters

  • It only takes one spark of laughter to change the whole tenor of a classroom. 
  • Learning a new game can bring people together.
  • Though we show it in different ways, we all need to connect.
  • It is absolutely possible to sit with someone who speaks a different language than you and have a conversation.
  • Friends can share a joke without saying a word.
  • There is a renewed sense of possibility each morning when we greet students and colleagues. 
  • Few gifts are more treasured in a school day than receiving art from a student or a hot cup of coffee from a teacher.

Kids are Kids

  • Young children need to dance and sing.
  • Middle school students are curious about everything.
  • Adolescents are awkward in a way I find deeply endearing.
  • You can see the lasting glimmers of childhood and the new glimmers of adulthood flash across the faces of high school students at play or work.
  • Kids carry big worries and big ideas and they don’t always know how to express those.

Universal Language

  • We straighten our gaze with determined focus when solving an interesting problem. 
  • When we see something beautiful, we want to share it.
  • We nod when we say thank you.
  • We crinkle our eyes to show delight.
  • There is a telltale special kind of tired that teachers wear on their faces at the end of a school day.

I am grateful to Wellspring International Bilingual School for inviting us to spend the week with students and teachers. While I did learn a few phrases in Vietnamese, more importantly I learned that it doesn’t take any spoken language to say many of the things that matter most in school including: thank you, I see you, I value you, and I’m happy you’re here.

Appreciatively yours, Dr. KFW

8,124 miles, Learning in a Global World

Hanoi Journals

Last week was our Thanksgiving holiday. I spent it with my extended family including my maternal grandmother. We looked at photos from her childhood: small black and white images of the horses her family used to plow the fields, a favorite farm dog, a small country house with a roof that let in snow in the winter, meaning that sometimes my grandmother and her siblings would wake covered in white flakes. 

Yesterday, I boarded a plane for Hanoi. It is 8,124 miles from my hometown to the capital of Vietnam. This is the furthest I have ever traveled. Along the way, I messaged my family from the airplane. My eight-year-old daughter tracked my flight on her iPad.

What does it mean to teach and learn in this global moment? What kind of world are we preparing our students to lead? 

When we arrived in the city, a friend picked us up and drove us to our hotel. It was late at night. Along the way she told us stories about the city, mixing legend (dragons and fairies) with practical (a new bridge built to streamline airport traffic). She pointed out a river, telling us this is where Hanoi, which means inside of the river, gets its name. We drove by the famous miles-long mural, an art installation to celebrate the 1,000 year anniversary of Vietnam’s independence.  It sparkled even in the dark. 

I wake up my first morning in Hanoi still foggy from travel. I step outside with a cup of coffee and watch the motorbikes whiz past as the city wakes up. I think about the students and teachers we get to work and learn with in this city. Many have  already visited us on campus, what a gift to reciprocate and see them here in their hometown. These young people amaze me, not only for their ability to study in both Vietnamese and English, but also for the radical hope they have for a different world.

This hope is a palpable constant in classrooms I’ve visited around the world. 

This morning, I wonder about my Vietnamese students. What stories do their grandparents and great-grandparents tell them about childhood? What complex memories do the black and white photographs from their basements hold?  I know history bears many weights. And yet, when we meet our friends here, they embrace me. When I great our students, they light up. 

I sip my coffee, watching the light change from dawn to day across the narrow streets in the old quarter, I think of our collective ability to move forward. I think of the new classrooms, questions, and projects our students are creating.  Our young people seem to approach the world as if it were an abstract origami project. They fold history, ingenuity, and grace together, offering us something that is both familiar and also completely brand new. 

Warmly, Dr. KFW

P.S. Check back soon for more updates from our travels.

On Writing Academic Papers

Dear Promising Undergraduate Scholar,

I recently found an old paper I’d written that made me think of you. At the time I wrote it I was teaching at high school classes and had just started my doc program. My professor asked me to write about academic writing. My response was a little cheeky, which is no surprise to those of you who know me. It began: 

I teach my students the five-paragraph essay so that they can rage against it. Formulas belong in math. Yet, as an emerging scholar, academic writing seems wrought with formulas. For me, writing is personal. I studied creative writing as an undergraduate. Yet, here in higher education the negotiation between the “creative” and the “scholarly” seems volatile. Since entering the Ph.D. program, I’ve already noticed some changes in my writing. Change can be hard. I recognize I am both learning a new genre of writing and writing for a new audience of readers. 

Now that I’m on the other side of my Ph.D., I work as a faculty member in the College of Education. In that capacity, I have the honor of teaching you and your peers.

I find you precocious, compassionate, engaged, and often ill-equipped to write academic papers. 

Much to my dismay many of you did not learn the five-paragraph essay, much less how to effectively rage against it. I’m here for you, just as I am for the students in my lecture classes. Below are some basic tips for starting to write in the ways your professors are most likely looking for.

When writing academic papers:

You need a thesis. A thesis:

  • responds directly to the prompt/question/assignment.
  • serves as a road map to your paper.
  • makes a compelling claim that others might disagree with.
  • is specific.
  • can be identified in a single sentence, usually at the end of the introduction.

You need evidence/support.

  • Cite your sources. If you didn’t think up an idea on your own, cite the scholar(s) who pointed you to that idea.
  • The Owl at Purdue is your friend.
  • Always include a reference page.
  • Cite readings from the class you are writing the paper for. Professors want to know you are doing the reading and thinking about it.

Organize your paper.

  • You simply must use paragraphs.
  • Your paragraphs should have topic sentences directly based off of your thesis statement.
  • You need a clear introduction, body, and conclusion. Please find more tips on this in the outline section below.

An outline is a beautiful thing. Here is one you can use.

I. Introduction
What is my hook?
What am I going to prove?
End with your thesis.

II. Body Paragraphs
Point 1 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Point 2 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Point 3 from my thesis: What is my evidence?
Etc. (Note, each new point is a new paragraph)

III. Conclusion
What did I prove?
Why does it matter?

A few more tips for good measure.

  • Read your paper out loud slowly to catch any errors you may have missed. Do this even if it feels odd.
  • Title your paper.
  • Number your pages.
  • Make sure your name is on your paper.
  • If you are turning in a hard copy, for goodness sake, staple the pages together.

We still have more to learn together. College is such a wonderful time for learning. When we next chat, let’s visit about evaluating sources, showing instead of telling, and developing voice. However, it’s getting late and I have a feeling your paper is due tomorrow morning. Good luck, scholar. Take care of yourself. 

Encouragingly yours,

Dr. KFW