Democratizing Neuroscience

A special post for International Day of Women and Girls in Science

In October 2020, I released a book on science education. Last month it was nominated for the Phi Beta Kappa Science book award. 

Teaching is advocacy. As an educator-researcher, my work explores equity, representation, opportunity, and gender and education. For several years, I partnered with a Chemistry professor to coordinate lab internships for young women while they were still in high school. And yet, when I signed the book contract for Brain-Based Learning with Gifted Students, I was reluctant to share this good news with anyone. The earlier messages I had internalized in middle and high school rang out in my head. These messages said that science wasn’t for me. 

The Books I Read at Home

As a young person, my standardized math scores were always higher than my language scores. Yet my teachers encouraged me to take advanced English courses, not advanced Math or Science. My high school teachers didn’t know that I was studying books on neurology, psychology, and science on my own at home. There are still plenty of young people self-studying subjects that light them up. As a teacher, do you know what those passions are? How can you call these out and encourage them in schools? What students continue to be underrepresented in your advanced science and math programs and how can you join in the solution?

In my junior year, our public school launched a new course called “Physics for Girls.” My best friend and I signed up. When we were the only two students enrolled, the principal put us in the regular physics class with 18 young men. We were strong students and still have fond memories of our enthusiastic teacher.

This was not long ago. I graduated from high school in 2000.  I didn’t attend an under-resourced school in a remote community. I attended a strong public school in a suburban area in the midwest. 

Democratizing Neuroscience for Educators

Despite higher degrees in teaching and learning, I continued to have very few formal lessons on the brain. In fact, even as a graduate student, science still felt set apart; as though it were reserved for subject matter specialists in secondary programs. I could rationalize that this was false. I knew that science was ubiquitous. It shapes how we understand and learn about the world and I acted on these beliefs in my classroom. However, at the end of the day, I often wondered if I was the right person to lead the labs and ecology field trips. My new book encourages classroom teachers that they are indeed the right person to ignite a passion for science in their classrooms. I use my personal childhood fascination with neuroscience as the driver for this work.

Our students, including our youngest learners, are hearing about brain research on TV, in the news, and in magazines. When they pose questions on these topics, are our teachers equipped with the knowledge to answer them? Do educators have the background information to recognize a neuromyth propagated in the media and to call it out? Do our teacher preparation programs include lessons that can help teachers answer general questions on brain anatomy and function?

How can we democratize neuroscience for teachers and students? 

I hope this book is a start. Fact-based information about the brain and the possibilities of science can cultivate a healthy sense of wonder. Our students deserve to know that their brains are unique, special, and constantly developing over their lifetime. I hope young people use these lessons to become advocates for health, access, inclusion, and empathy in their communities. Science is both the study of forces and a force itself. In the closing chapter, I tell students that being a good scientist is about asking interesting questions that matter for our communities

Sorting out Imposter Syndrome

So, how did I sort out my sense of imposter syndrome and finally write this book? The long answer is an ongoing, continual process; even writing this blog makes me nervous. The shorter answer lies in one of my favorite big ideas in science – interdependence. I took a big breath and reached out to several people in the neuroscience community, most of whom were strangers. I sent emails and Twitter messages explaining what I hoped to achieve with this project. I didn’t expect folks to respond, but they did.  To my surprise and gratitude, nearly every scientist I reached out to responded with encouragement. They told me they thought this project was a good idea. They offered to read chapters. They sent me articles to expand my knowledge. They talked to me about their own research and asked my opinion on how this translated to the classroom.

Reflecting on this journey has taught me many lessons. In closing, I want to summarize my top three. First, the power of an affirmative mentor is staggering, as is the converse. When someone brings an idea to your office, classroom, or inbox, ask how you can affirm that spark and encourage learning. Educators must be champions for our students. Next, we still have important work to do in ensuring that women and girls are supported and encouraged across the sciences. And, finally, to our elementary and middle grade learners, I hope you see that science is the story of our world. That means it is your story and we need your ideas to push our collective narrative forward.

____________________________________________________________


International Day of Women and Girls in Science – United Nations- February 11, 2021, Science and gender equality are both vital for the achievement of the internationally agreed development goals, including the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Over the past 15 years, the global community has made a lot of effort in inspiring and engaging women and girls in science. Yet women and girls continue to be excluded from participating fully in science (para 5)

Brain-Based Learning with Gifted Students (Grades 3-6) – combines relevant research in neuroscience with engaging activities for gifted elementary students in grades 3–6. This book teaches how development and learning processes happen in the brain, helps students and teachers explore specific brain-based concepts together, includes a concise research overview on why each concept works and matters, offers extension ideas to deepen the activities and strategies for applying each concept to other content areas, and aligns to gifted programming standards. Through the lessons in this book, students will learn how to cultivate curiosity, neuroplasticity, metacognition, empathy, and well-being. Grounded in research on the latest findings in neuroscience, this book empowers educators with relevant information on brain-based learning.

Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, Ph.D. holds a faculty position at the University of Missouri, College of Education, where she serves as the Interim Executive Director for Mizzou Academy. She is the author of three books in education: Wholehearted Teaching of Gifted Young WomenWhen Your Child Learns Differently, and Brain-Based Learning with Gifted Students.  Twitter:@kfishmanweaver

Celebrating History Makers

Black History Month in the Middle and High School Classroom

This past year has been a year of great reckoning. Teacher leaders are striving to reimagine curriculum around the manifestation of love, justice, and inclusion. In classrooms across the county (and across the globe) schoolteachers are sitting with young children and teenagers, often over zoom, processing complex and important topics. We (Adrian and Kathryn) have come together from our current work in Brazil and the United States to think together about how to cultivate continued equity practices in our classrooms and beyond.

A couple weeks ago, I (Kathryn) facilitated a session with my school team on the value of democracy, the dangers of white supremacy, and the importance of peace. Teachers shared (1) the importance of celebrating the power of today’s history markers, and (2) the need to revise and in some cases reimagine curriculum.  In this conversation we talked about inclusion and diversity.

As we approach Black History Month, I (Adrian) believe it is important to break open our understandings of inclusion and diversity. What we hope to accomplish in our classrooms moves beyond that. We want students and educators to step outside of our own (and their own) reality, to see other truths and other experiences as valid and right. I think of a tapestry of experiences.

These ideas were the spark for the following resource document. We have put together several classroom activities and resources to celebrate the Black leaders, thinkers, artists, and activists who are making history today. It is our hope that celebrating the works of current history makers will lead to a forward-facing, affirming, and current dialogue in our schools.

As with any such list this is only a modest starting place—a few ideas that we hope will be a catalyst for new bold conversations and projects in your own school communities. The work cannot and must not fit neatly into February—instead it continues all year, becoming part of the fabric of our classroom experiences. 

To educators everywhere, thank you for having conversations that matter, for teaching more complete histories, and for believing with the young people we serve that they don’t have to wait to become the history makers our world needs. 

Yours for the journey,  Dr. Kathryn Fishman-Weaver, and Dr. Adrian Channel Clifton

Essential Questions for Students
What does it mean to be a history maker? 
How are leaders, artists, and scientists shaping history?
What voices and stories would you like to hear and see more of?
Reflective Questions for Educators
Who are the history makers right now and how can you celebrate these efforts in your classroom?
What revisions or reimaginings does your curriculum need in order to teach a more complete history, increase representation, and celebrate Black voices?

Starting with Children’s Literature 

Regardless of age or grade level, children’s literature is a powerful conversation starter in the classroom. Below are two new children’s books you might use to jumpstart these activities. Both titles explore some of our key history maker themes including intersectionality, leadership, hope, and change. 

I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick BarnesAmbitious Girl  by Meena Harris 
Questions for discussion: 
What stands out to you in this book?
How does this book make you feel and why?
What messages does the narrator offer in these books?
Do these messages imagine new possibilities or present things as they are?
What do you think was the author and illustrator’s purpose in creating this book?
OPTIONAL EXTENSION: CHALLENGE STUDENTS TO CREATE THEIR OWN BOOK PAGE. CREATIVITY AND COURAGE ENCOURAGED.

“…but I won’t be the last.” 

One history maker that may be on your students’ minds is Vice President Kamala Harris. When Harris took the oath of office on January 20, 2021, she became the first woman vice president in the history of the United States.  She is also the first Black person, and the first Asian American to hold that position.

In her acceptance speech, Vice President Harris said, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last.”   

Media Link: Watch an excerpt of this speech here

Questions for class discussion (adapt as needed for your grade level): 

What does it mean to be the first? What are your responsibilities? 
How does seeing more lived experiences represented in leadership positions change things? 
What had to happen in history to make this (and other) groundbreaking firsts possible?

In Vice President Harris’s speech she mentions several identities including race, ethnicity, and gender. Our different identities intersect and contribute to our worldviews, perspectives, and experiences. This idea is called intersectionality and it was proposed by legal scholar and professor, Kimberlé Crenshaw.

Questions for class discussion (adapt as needed for your grade level):  

What identities make you you?
How do your different identities intersect and inform your perspectives, worldviews, and experiences? 
Are there times when certain identities are more foregrounded? If so, what are those times? 

Stacey Abrams – “Truth Seekers”

4 x 20 minute reflective lessons

Background. Stacey Abrams, a lawyer and voting rights activist, says that, “effective leaders must be truth seekers and that requires a willingness to understand truths other than our own.” Abrams is truly one of today’s history makers.  She is responsible for mobilizing 800,000 people to register to vote in her home state in advance of the 2020 elections.

Activity Description. Explore a recent TED Radio Interview with Stacey Abrams. This 25-minute podcast is framed around her identity as a student and contains powerful messages for students and student leaders. 

Media Link – https://www.npr.org/2021/01/06/953980644/bonus-episode-stacey-abrams

Spread the listening out over four days. This will give you and your class about 5-8 minutes per day or roughly one big question. Reporter Manoush Zomorodi’s questions and Stacey Abrams’s stories point to purposeful reflection and personal connection. After listening to each short segment, give students space to process, make connections, and discuss. Try a different processing method each day including free writing, socratic seminar discussions, and whole group dialogue. Close the week with a whole class discussion of key takeaways from Abram’s interview, any new intentions students want to set, and a list for future research questions. (See the possible lesson extension ideas below.) 


Key themes: expectations, race/racism, gender, goal-setting, leadership, service

Lesson Extensions

Explore Abrams’ run for governor in the state of Georgia followed by her subsequent work around voting rights. What lessons can we learn from her work? 
Research the history of voting rights, voting suppression, and voter mobilization in the U.S. How does the U.S. voting process compare to other countries?

Amanda Gorman – “The Hill We Climb”

3 x 30 minute sessions

Background. Amanda Gorman was the inaugural poet for President Biden’s 2021 inauguration. She is the youngest person to hold the honor of being a U.S. inaugural poet. In 2017 she became the country’s first National Youth Poet Laureate. Her poetry performances have been celebrated across our country. Gorman has two forthcoming books. 

Context setting: If needed, give background on the U.S. presidential inauguration and the tradition of inaugural poets. Activate prior knowledge by asking students to consider how the political, social, and historical context of 2020 might have informed Gorman’s poem.  

Description. In this lesson, we will study Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem, “The Hill We Climb” for President Biden’s 2021 inauguration. 

Session 1: Listen to Gorman’s poem and respond. Listen one time through without pausing. 

Media Link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ055ilIiN4

Discuss the following questions: 

What stands out to you about this poem? 
What phrases are particularly memorable?
What is Gorman’s thesis or main point?
Why historical context does a listener need to understand this poem?
What questions do you have about the poem?
Listen to the poem a second time after the discussion, pausing if necessary to draw out key points from the conversation.

Session 2: Pose the following question to your class. “If you were asked to perform at a presidential inauguration, what would you say or perform?” Challenge students to consider what message they would like to share with the nation. Give students space to draft, create, and workshop original poems, songs, and performance pieces. 

Session 3: Host a poetry slam with performances by the class.

Lesson Extension: Facilitate a paired analysis of Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem and Maya Angelou’s inaugural poem. 

Additional Teaching Resources (including complete lesson plans): 

Teach This: “The Hill We Climb” and the 2021 Inauguration
Lesson Plan: Discuss 22-year-old Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem “The Hill We Climb”
Amanda Gorman and “The Hill We Climb”

Dr. Kizzmekia Corbett – A Scientist Making History

1 x 50 minute lesson w/ possible science extensions

Background. Dr. Corbett is an immunologist with the National Institutes of Health. She is making history as a lead scientist in the development of a vaccine for COVID-19. 

Activate Prior Knowledge: What is a vaccine? What does an immunologist do? Several of the articles we will explore mention that it is important that Dr. Corbett is not a “hidden figure.” What does this mean? 

Description. Scholarly Jigsaw – Divide students into groups of 4. Assign each group to one of the following articles. 

Kizzmekia Corbett, an African American woman, is praised as key scientist behind COVID-19 vaccine (ABC News)
Meet the Black female scientist at the forefront of COVID-19 vaccine development (CBS This Morning)
Kizzmekia Corbett spent her life preparing for this moment. Can she create the vaccine to end a pandemic? (Washington Post)
The Black scientist who helped develop Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine just got her first shot (Insider)

The group will become an expert on this article by completing the following information: 

Article Name, News Source, Author
Summary of Key Points, Terms, and Concepts (Bullet points is fine.)
Questions this article raises for your group.
The most important takeaway.

Once the group has become an expert on their news article, jigsaw the class so that students are a new groups with a representative from each of the original groups. Students should then teach other on what they learned in their research and then work together in the new groups to synthesize information.

Who is Dr. Corbett?
Why is her work important to making history?
What have you learned about her life experiences that led to this work?
What science questions do you have about her work?

Possible Science Extensions – Using your research on Dr. Corbett, explore immunology and the process by which vaccines are made. 

Video resource on the development of the vaccines here
Short Wave NPR short podcast on how the vaccine works.
CDC resource on understanding mRNA vaccines.  

Possible Science Extension – Using your research on Dr. Corbett, explore immunology and the process by which vaccines are made.

Video resource on the development of the vaccines here
Short Wave NPR short podcast on how the vaccine works.
CDC resource on understanding mRNA vaccines.  

Yolanda Renee King – “We are the Generation”

Lesson Recommendation from Dr. Sherry Denney

3 x 40 minute sessions

Background.  Yolanda Renee King is the granddaughter of Martin Luther King, Jr. She is a student leader. She gave this speech to a large crowd at a racial justice rally in August 2020. The speech is her call for us to move into the next phase of the civil rights movement.

Context Setting. Ask students who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was and why he is an important historical figure in the U.S. Next ask students how they think his grandchildren might be living out his legacy. Share that today we are going to listen to a speech by Dr. King’s granddaughter. 

Activity Description.  

Session 1: Play the video of Miss King’s speech and then break the class into small groups to discuss. 

Media link: https://www.nbcwashington.com/news/local/mlk-jr-s-granddaughter-rallies-the-crowd-at-commitment-march/2404254/

Students should note the many historical references made in the speech as a basis for further research. If groups are struggling, you might play the video one more time.  When you come back together for a whole-class, debrief discuss these references and give context for any that are unfamiliar to your class. 

Session 2: Give each small group the prompt “We are the generation who is going to…”

Miss King offers her own answers to this prompt. Similarly, each young person who tackles this question will bring their own lived experiences and passions to the answer. Encourage students to choose the challenges they hope their generation solves. Working as individuals or in small groups, ask students to craft a two-minute individual speech based on their chosen issue. 

Session 3: Hold a class rally for positive change. In the next session, create space for students to give their speeches to their peers. Go over audience expectations in advance of the speeches.

Session 4:  In the final session, group students by common themes explored in their speeches, so they can begin developing clear action plans to enact these changes.

Key themes: civil rights movement, equality, social responsibility, leadership, climate change

Kehinde Wiley:  Portrait of a President

Lesson recommendation from Brian Stuhlman.

1×30 minute session – multiple sessions

Background.  As we explored with Vice President Kamala Harris, Barack Obama’s presidency carried the significance of being the first–in this case, the first African American to host that office. President Obama accomplished a lot during his 8-year presidential term. The talented contemporary artist Kehinde Wiley painted a unique and provocative painting of President Obama that hangs in the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D.C.  In this lesson, we will explore Wiley’s portrait reading for a multiplicity of meanings to honor a former U.S. president.

Description.  Spend quality time looking at (and reading) Kehinde Wiley’s National Portrait Gallery portrait of President Barack Obama.  The National Portrait Gallery not only offers a digital image of the portrait, but it also provides a guide full of ways to engage with the portrait.  This includes background information, engagement questions, and extension activity ideas.

Ask students to begin by writing about their first impressions, and ask them to share those impressions in a discussion.  Then, guide students through a discussion about symbolism and metaphor, and the meanings (hidden and overt) that the portrait contains.  Next create making session, for students to create their own self-portrait using Wiley’s use of symbolism and metaphor as a guide. This is a good opportunity to revisit our discussion of intersectionality.

Key Themes:  symbolism, metaphor, traditions, expectations, race

Lesson Extensions

Drawing on the following media link: Media Link:  https://npg.si.edu/learn/classroom-resource/barack-obama  explore these guiding questions and extension activities.
Students might also enjoy exploring Michelle Obama’s portrait by Amy Sherald:  https://npg.si.edu/object/npg_NPG.2018.15

If we want schools to cultivate hope, inclusion, and change, then educators must practice hope, learning, and possibility. To that end, below is a list of additional teaching resources and also a teachers’ reading list by contemporary scholars (history makers of today in their own right). Choose one of more of these reads for your next educator book study.

Additional Resources

BLM@School. Black Lives Matter at School – The BLM@School Curriculum Resource Guide is formed and maintained by a volunteer collective of educator activists from all across the US. We’ve launched on MLK Day to prep educators and advocates toward our 2021 Week of Action, which is Feb. 1-5, 2021.
Black Lives Matter at School Social Justice Books. Here you’ll find a growing list of recommended titles and booklists. The lists of children’s books below were compiled by Teaching for Change. 
The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. Each year the Association for African American Life and History sets a theme for Black History Month. The 2021 theme is The Black Family: Representation, Identity, and Diversity. Read more here. https://asalh.org/black-history-themes/
Teaching Hidden Figures – Celebrating the Work of Katherine Johnson
Katherine Johnson, celebrated NASA mathematician, passed away in February 2020. Below are some links to explore her work with your students. These can be paired with a viewing of the film, Hidden Figures

Math, Science, and Social Justice
Elementary Lesson Plans
The Power of Music in Social Movements – Check out this conversation with Black female activists on why music matters in social movements.

Book Club Recommendations for Teachers

We Want to do More Than Survive
Bettina Love
Stamped from the Beginning
Jason Reynolds and Ibram X. Kendi
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness
Austin Channing Brown
How to Be an Antiracist 
Ibram X. Kendi

What I learned about love and leadership in my first year of teaching

It’s been fifteen years since I met the first-grade scholars who would become some of my most important teachers. I now work as a school administrator and also coordinate courses for our university’s teacher preparation program. I often tell pre-service teachers that everything important I know in education I learned in my electric first year. As educators, our first group of students often leave a lasting mark.

My first teaching position was to set up a self-contained classroom for early elementary learners in a multilingual, urban school district. The decisions and mistakes I made that first year, taught me about context, culture, and equity. The relationships we built, taught me about pedagogy, expectations, and strengths-based approaches. Below are four lessons I learned that first year which continue to inform my work in teaching and school leadership.

High expectations are an act of love.

As a new teacher, I tried to set up a literacy-rich environment with stories representing the lived experiences of my students. I believed that if we read and wrote regularly enough, that together we would become scholars. However, when it came to my student population, I learned that not everyone shared my beliefs about rigorous and relevant curriculum.

In that first year, I discovered a prevalence of low, false, and misguided expectations in IEPs and in the ways professionals spoke about my class. This shadow hung around us when families told me what specialists, doctors, and others had told them their children could and couldn’t do. 

In that first classroom I learned the power teachers, students, and families have in speaking back to deficit-based frameworks. My students again and again distinguished themselves as scholarly readers, writers, mathematicians, and leaders. 

The best classrooms are built on love.

Most acts of love don’t require advanced scholarship or technical training and this may be one of the reasons it’s something I got right in that first year. We built our classroom community through songs sung, hugs given, stories shared, and lots of laughter.   Affirming and celebrating the cultural wisdom young people bring to our school community means centering the possibilities young people have for greatness and genius, not in our terms, but in theirs. Dijano Paris offers important scholarship on culturally sustaining pedagogies to honor the multilingual and multicultural pluralism of our schools. This wisdom is essential in offering a “loving critique forward” (Paris and Alim, 2014). 

Be relentless in pursuing equity and inclusion.

Like many self-contained classrooms, our room was a reclaimed corner of the building—a space that wasn’t intended to be a classroom but became one. Almost immediately, it became clear that if I wasn’t relentless in pursuing inclusion, my students would not interact with their general education peers. 

To disrupt the separate education of my students with disabilities, I knocked on doors, made phone calls, asked, begged, and partnered with anyone who would listen. We launched science and art expeditions with the general education K-1 team, and math partnerships with our 6th grade student leaders. We were the first self-contained class in our district to adopt a new rigorous math program, we hosted a service dog in training, we launched a wiffle ball league, and filmed a documentary on caring.  I am sure I also said yes to initiatives that flopped, but as I think back I’m struck by how often saying “yes” or saying “us, too” led to projects that mattered. Teaching is advocacy. 

Relationships are the heart of great teaching. 

In the whirlwind of school, relationships tether us to each other and to our purpose. In that first year, I celebrated birthdays, shared meals, visited homes, got to know siblings, parents, and grandparents, played in the teacher-student basketball game, laughed, cried, and grew with an exceptional group of young people. 

As a first-year teacher, I was a livewire of energy—rapidly alternating between trepidation and optimism. In fact, I can still feel the racing in my pulse as I remember what it felt like to navigate that year. On many of my best days as a school leader, my mind flutters back to that sunny corner of a school building and the thirteen seven-year-olds who ignited in me a current of hope, heart, and high expectations. This is the gift I want to give to the pre-service teachers in my university classes. However, it’s not mine to give. They will have to discover it in their own early years, in saying yes to projects that work, and projects that fail, in showing up again and again with love and high expectations, and listening to the genius of the young people who will teach them how to be an educator.


References:

Fishman-Weaver, K. (2019). When Your Child Learns Differently: A Family Approach for Navigating Special Education Services with Love and High Expectations. Sourcebooks, Inc.

Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (2014). What are we seeking to sustain through culturally sustaining pedagogy? A loving critique forward. Harvard Educational Review84(1), 85-100.

Whitaker, T., Good, M. W., & Whitaker, K. (2016). Your first year: How to survive and thrive as a new teacher. Routledge.

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Kathryn Fishman-Weaver holds a faculty position at the University of Missouri, College of Education, where she serves as the Interim Executive Director for Mizzou Academy. She is the author of three books in education: Wholehearted Teaching of Gifted Young Women, When Your Child Learns Differently, and Brain-Based Learning with Gifted Students.  Twitter:@kfishmanweaver

Everyday Ethics in Schools

Reflective Work To support Critical Thinking about Equity, Scholarship, and Hope

In her essay on bioethics in medicine, Rebecca Dresser (2011) proposes that small choices have significant impacts on patient treatment. In the words of one of her colleague interviews, “Doctors and nurses make ‘constant small ethical decisions [in their] everyday clinical work’, like whether to make eye contact with a patient or take seriously a patient’s complaints about treatment side effects. . . . Their choices have a major impact on patients and caregivers (p. 15).”  I believe the same is true in schools.

What happens when we trade the medical terms in this quote for school-based terms? Principals and teachers make ‘constant small ethical decisions [in] everyday school work’, like whether to make eye contact with a student or take seriously a student’s feelings about a lesson, teacher, or peer group. . . . Their choices have a major impact on students and learning. Equity work and microethics go hand-in-hand and both have a tremendous impact on school culture and student learning.  

Below are two case studies that illustrate some interpersonal everyday ethical decisions from my own teaching practice. Although these interactions were brief and happened several years ago, I was reminded of these two young men last spring when our academic team began studying antiracist work more intentionally. Both stories use pseudonyms to protect the identities of the scholars.

Case Study 1: Hank

Once identified as struggling readers, students were assigned to my literacy intervention program. Often my students did not lack reading skills as much as they lacked an interest in engaging with books that had little to do with their own lived experiences. 

This was the case with Hank, a bright-eyed football player. One day, Hank’s general education English teacher cornered me. She demanded to know why he was in her class “because he clearly doesn’t know how to read.” 

I asked if Hank would please read his football strategy book to us. “Sure,” he said, fluently, offering his own complex commentary and insightful connections to the text. 

Case Study 2: Jamal

During our passing period, a lanky young man tumbled into my classroom.  He reached into my bookcase and grabbed a copy of James McBride’s The Color of Water (2006). 

“ Can I borrow this? I’ll bring it back soon.” Before I could answer, he was gone with the book.

He brought it back during the next passing period. “Thanks!” he shouted, running off. 

After two weeks of borrowing and returning the same book, one of his teachers appeared in my doorway. Visibly upset, she accused me of “enabling” him for her silent reading activities. 

“By lending him a book to read?” I asked, clearly miffed.

“He’s not reading it. He’s just using you to game the system.” 

Just as Chad Donhue (2016) reminds us that if a student shows up without a pencil you let them know, there is always one available in your classroom, I assured her that teenagers were always welcome to “use” my classroom for access to books. The next day Jamal grabbed the book from his spot on the shelf and called out to me, “Did you read the part about him teaching his mom to drive? I did that, too. Teach my mom to drive.” 

I wish I could tell you that Jamal and I developed a close relationship, that we talked about books for the rest of the year, exploring narratives and making connections. However, we didn’t.  I was simply a teacher with a full bookshelf and an open door. Jamal borrowed a few more books during the course of the school year. Whenever he did, he would periodically shout out evidence that he was indeed reading them.  

An Exercise in Equity

Like many school leaders, my team and I are engaging more deeply with antiracism work. When we started this process, I was surprised that Jamal and Hank, were the students who rose to the front of my consciousness. Their stories certainly aren’t the most illustrative or overt examples from my career, nor were they the most impactful for me. 

After some reflection, I realized it wasn’t Hank and Jamal that drew their memories to focus, instead it was my interactions with their teachers, and what those interactions have taught me about teacher support and school leadership.

These two educators came to me angry, sharing that they believed students either wouldn’t or couldn’t read—accusations that cut deep in my teacher heart. These same remarks had been pointed at my own son, also an African American young man, and also a highly-proficient reader at home.  I was so anxious to prove these teachers wrong, that I failed to do the more important work that needed to follow.

What should I have done in these situations? If I had it to again— and unfortunately, I do, in countless microethical moments— here is the protocol I wish I had followed: 

  1. call out inequitable and unjust behavior, 
  2. address the systems that allow and encourage these beliefs and actions, and
  3. act with empathy recognizing that we are all works in progress.  

Micro-ethical moments, like those shared above, have a significant impact on the self-efficacy and achievement of our children. Positive school change is complex and big, but it’s also simple and small. Sometimes so much takes place in those brief 4-minute passing periods.

We can change school culture through a series of countless small moments, as well as committing to better systems and policiies. The scenarios above are supported by policies and practices that conflate grading with behavior, or worse, with access to resources. They are convoluted by the ways we identify students for remedial classes, and by a curriculum that centers narrow and Eurocentric narratives. These case-studies are also reinforced by bias about what or whom a scholar looks like.

We must commit to positive school change. This change requires continual difficult and courageous intentionality In his bestselling memoir, How to Be an Antiracist, Ibram X. Kendi (2019) challenges that decisions and policies are not race neutral. In fact, he says there is no such thing as “race neutral.” Policies are either racist or antiracist and so are our behaviors.

So where can you start? While there are many places to start, below is a list of questions to aid your teaching teams in this work. These are hefty dismantling questions, in part, informed by Ohito’s work on antiracist teaching, which found that teacher educators’ beliefs about antiracist teaching are “shaped by the (inter)connections between and among the following: 1) race(ism) and family histories; 2) race(ism) and schooling experiences; and 3) race(ism) and embodiment (2011, p. 5).”

Rather than trying to tackle all of these questions in a single session, spend several months, engaging deeply, courageously, and honestly. At the start of each monthly session share what you have learned over the previous month. At the end of the session, set specific and actionable goals for the coming weeks.

Month 1: Stage Setting 
What feelings did these two case stories bring up for you? When have you been the different characters in the story? What are your important takeaways from this article? Who will you partner with to hold you accountable for equity and compassion? (Assign partners.)
Month 2: Hope and Connection
How do you communicate hope and connection to students? Be specific. Who in your classroom isn’t receiving these messages and why? How will you change the messaging in your classroom? How will we change our messaging across the school?
Month 3: Biases
What biases are interfering with your ability to reach, teach, and connect with all of your students? What is your plan to address this? Include specific actions and behaviors. As a school community, how will we support each other in this work in ways that move beyond looking at data?
Month 4: Exploring Anger
When students (or teachers) make you angry at school, what is the root of that anger? How can you use your anger more productively? As a school community, how can we honor the productive possibilities of anger and other big emotions?
Month 5: High Expectations
Which students know that you believe they are capable of just about anything? Which students don’t know if you believe they are capable of achieving at high levels? How will you commit to intentionally building relationships and changing this narrative? As a school community, how will we commit to supporting all students’ achievement in tangible ways?

On Hope and Anger 

Hope and anger are intentionally entangled across these questions and within this work. In a 2017 essay, I defined hope as “a universal form of resistant imagination.” Likewise, Black feminist scholars, such as Audre Lorde have taught me that anger may also be a resistant imagination. Lorde’s address at the NWSA Convention in 1981, reminds us that anger is not only useful, but necessary in addressing racism. 

“We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor to seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty; we must be quite serious about the choice of this topic and the angers entwined within it… (Lorde, 1981, p. 8)”

“To hope,” I wrote, “is to believe that situations, circumstances, and practices can be better. This decision making framework centers hope by calling on educational leaders to consider how schools can create more equitable responses and practices to dynamic situations in schools. (Fishman-Weaver, 2017, p. 10)”

Hope and anger are not opposite positions in a philosophical debate. Instead they are partner drivers in antiracist teaching and school leadership. 

May these questions and stories be a positive tipping point for your school. And certainly, if a long-legged teenager comes tumbling in from the crowded hallway seeking a book, a pencil, or connection, make sure he knows that these things are always available in your classroom.

References

Donhue, C. (2016) Give the Kid a Pencil. Teaching Tolerance. Retrieved from: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/give-the-kid-a-pencil

Dresser, R. (2011). Bioethics and cancer: when the professional becomes personal. The Hastings Center Report, 41(6), 14-18.

Fishman-Weaver, K. (2017). A call to praxis: Using gendered organizational theory to center radical hope in schools. Journal of Organizational Theory in Education, 2(1), 1-14.

Kendi, I. X. (2019). How to be an Antiracist. One world.

Lorde, A. (1981). The uses of anger. Women’s Studies Quarterly. Retrieved from: https://academicworks.cuny.edu/wsq/509/

McBride, J. (2006). The color of water: A black man’s tribute to his white mother. Penguin.

Ohito, E. O. (2019). Mapping women’s knowledges of antiracist teaching in the United States: A feminist phenomenological study of three antiracist women teacher educators. Teaching and Teacher Education, 86, 102892

Five Lessons Learned from Teaching Elementary Online

Twenty-seven rambunctious six-year-olds clamored into the classroom asking questions in Portuguese and English. They were generous with their hugs and excited to be part of a new international elementary program. It was February 2020, and my colleagues and I were in Santos, São Paulo, helping the Grade 1 team navigate new K-5 materials in our Learning Management System. After working with the technology, we spent time with the students — coloring, writing, talking, and laughing together. 

Classroom visits such as these are among my greatest joys as the Academic Director of a global school district. A short-time after this visit, our partner schools across the globe closed due to COVID, and our blended programs became fully online programs. The February 2020 launch of our elementary program has taught me important lessons about working with K-5 students and teachers in these online contexts. Below are the top five takeaways I am focusing on as we support elementary schools in preparing online options for the coming school year.

Teachers Matter. 

Dr. C is a performer and singer. She views the online platform as a new stage for her important pedagogy. Lately she has been sharing photos of her covered in number stickers, dancing with stuffed animals, and utilizing other performance surprises to keep her young learners engaged.

Mr. H. doesn’t like technology. He misses his classroom, misses workshopping with students at the kidney shaped table in the back of his room and he especially misses the energy when the students spill in from the hallway.  While his students know that he misses seeing them face-to-face, they don’t know how he feels about teaching online. Each day Mr. H goes out of his way to be enthusiastic about learning in this new model. 

What Mr. H and Dr. C share is a love of their students, a commitment to making this new approach work, and a love of teaching that still shines across the video conference screen. This passion translates directly to student learning and engagement outcomes. Studies have shown that  teachers continue to be the single greatest predictor of achievement and connection. The ways educators demonstrate care and high-expectations matters more than any other characteristic in student success.

Ms. L is honest and vulnerable with students. She shares that she is also new to online learning and her vulnerability puts kids at ease. Ten minutes into a lesson, students feel like they are sitting criss cross applesauce on the floor. She sings phonics songs and eagerly asks her young scholars to contribute to the conversation. 

Technology is a learnable tool.

After a lesson, Ms. L told some of us that she practices navigating the technical tools ahead of time with her son. The technical learning curve is real—it is also surmountable. In my experiences, young students often leap over this curve ahead of their teachers. Harness the technical skill set of young learners by asking for their ideas, and assigning students to technical support roles (e.g. much like the in-person “line leader” role). 

Families are critical partners in the learning process.

Four months into our new program, one of our international partner schools shared that since moving online, the Grade 1 math classes had become a family event. Parents and grandparents were logging-in with their children to count, add, subtract, and manipulate numbers in English. 

While this experience might not translate directly to the U.S. context, families continue to be essential learning partners in online elementary programs. We need to make sure they know how to access digital materials, help their children login for synchronous classes, and that they supervise appropriate online activity. Different children need this support to different degrees. 

One of the greatest strengths of these new models is that they cause us to think differently about space, place, and community. As school learning shifts to living rooms and kitchen tables, new school conversations are happening at different times and between different family members. Further, students learn that classrooms are flexible constructions and that learning can happen anywhere. 

The model requires flexibility and movement.

Utilize intentionality around the online schedule and build in purposeful movement breaks. Seven-year-olds weren’t made to sit in front of a computer (or iPad) screen from 7:30am-2:30pm each day. Students need kinesthetic breaks during online sessions and a full log-off every 45 minutes. Elementary learners, whether online or offline, are still elementary students, which means they need to wiggle, sing, and stretch.

As we develop online/ blended elementary classrooms, students need a combination of synchronous (online/real-time instruction) and asynchronous (off-line or anytime practice/instruction) strategies. Utilize different combinations of whole group, small group, and independent sessions to help students master concepts, learn skills, and practice new strategies.  Use synchronous moments to build community, talk through class material, and directly teach new concepts. 

Equity is essential in serving kids.

As we transition to more online learning options, we must advocate for equitable access. This requires creative community-based solutions.

How do we make sure all students have access to devices, reliable internet connections, and the materials needed to learn from home? How do we support families in partnering with children in these new models? How can we open up community spaces to create new kinds of classrooms? How do we run breakfast and lunch programs to students learning from home? How do we honor confidentiality and privacy during video conferences?  How do we cultivate safe space in online settings? How do we expand choice to all families?

These are essential challenges to explore as we move to online models. In fact, if we aren’t problem-solving around these kinds of questions, we aren’t serving students. In this uncertain and unprecedented season in education, we must continue asking hard questions, implementing new solutions, and continuing to be vigilant in putting students first.

Like many in education, I am hopeful that we will emerge from this uncertain time with reimagined strategies and tools. I am also hopeful we will begin to envision new possibilities for teaching, learning, and community, and that we will use these lessons to better serve students and teachers. 

Encouragingly, Dr. KFW