Cultivating Home in our Classrooms

They were getting ready to leave for college. They were nervous, excited, and full of questions. What would it feel like to leave home? What would it mean to come back home? Would their new college campuses ever feel like home? These were the questions my students asked me in the summer of 2015. I had been with this particular student group for all four years of high school.

The summer before they left, we met at Shakespeare’s, Lakota, and Yogoluv— places that felt like home. I listened and told them that over time, home would seem like less of a location and more of an emotion. Yes, I conceded, you won’t return to this exact same constellation of people, emotions, and circumstances. However, it’s been my experience that home doesn’t shrink, it expands. My students found this notion curious as they packed their cars with posters, books, gym clothes, going-out clothes, mementos from high school that they would rarely look at, childhood blankets, new pillows, and chocolate chip granola bars.

They drove off to their new campuses, and I kept thinking about our conversations. Shortly after, two significant things happened that contributed to my interest in exploring home in the context of schools. First, I took my current position as the Academic Director for Mizzou K-12, an international middle and high school program. Second, I finished a study on the conditions for healthy affective development in schools. Both of these experiences pointed me to new more complicated ideas of what it meant to be at home and why feeling at home is essential to culturally responsive teaching.

During this past month (July 2018) I had the terrific opportunity to explore these ideas more deeply with a team of twenty international educators. These educators and their students were visiting the University of Missouri for Mizzou International Experience (MIE). Our professional group included teachers and coordinators from three countries (U.S.A, Brazil, and Vietnam). Together, we explored the following questions:

  • What does it mean to create a sense of home in our schools and classrooms?
  • How does the way we understand home change over time?
  • What are the conditions that make someone feel at home? How can we foster these conditions in schools?

We shared stories from our childhoods. Some were funny; some were painful; many were both. We shared stories from our classrooms. We laughed. We cried. We saw ourselves in our colleagues’ stories.  Our project operated under three guiding assumptions: (1) home is less about place/space and more about emotion/experience; (2) cultivating a sense of home leads to positive learning environments; and (3) understandings of home are highly contextualized.

We pulled out momentos and pictures from our childhoods that we hadn’t looked at in a long time. We studied Sandra Cisneros’  novella The House on Mango Street and talked about the ways race, class, gender, culture, and language influenced how we and our students experience home. Through these conversations and this project we formed a professional community of trust and warmth. In this community we we felt at home, which was precisely the point. We paused to consider, how does this feeling happen and how we can cultivate it in schools? Below are four ideas for teachers and other community leaders.

Cultivating a Sense of Home in our Classrooms

Give space to share personal stories, including exploring where those stories started.
Create together. Use the arts as a sense-making and storytelling tool.
Laugh and play, not as auxiliary practices to the “main work” but as integrated practices to community-building and being.
Honor culture. Explore and share the traditions, languages, food, music, dance, beliefs, and customs that make each of us unique.

Our project culminated in a creative showcase held at The Bridge (a “brave space” for inclusivity and equity efforts at the University of Missouri’s College of Education and beyond).  Each of the educators on our team shared a creative arts piece exploring the theme of home. Many of the canvases were decorated with family and school photographs. Additionally, each educator read a personal vignette, poem, or letter they had written in the spirit of Cisneros. The texts were courageous and often followed by both tears and applause.

At the showcase, I looked around this room full of brave educators and was struck by how collectively we call so many different places home and also how we all agreed that home is more than a place. Home matters. Home is where we can feel fully ourselves, where we can take risks, where we become who we want to be. Home is where many of our stories start.

This is an important conversation for schools and a new way to frame student support. Last Friday, MIE 2018 came to a close and the students and educators who had been with us for the past few weeks traveled “home.”  We said this wasn’t “goodbye” — it simply was a “see you soon.” We could return to each other here or there, and we all agreed to stay in touch via technology. Yet I knew, just as I had told my students years ago, that we would never return to this exact constellation of people, emotions, and circumstances.

Some things are fixed in space and place by a swirl of variables we can’t perfectly replicate. Our classrooms fall into this category. Through this project, we affirmed that home doesn’t shrink, it expands. On the dawn of a new school year, I am excited to think of all of the teachers locally and globally who are setting up their classrooms as spaces where students will feel affirmed, valued, and at home.

Warmly, Dr. KFW

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This article first appeared in The Columbia Missourian

 

 

Crossing the Stage

Reflections from the principal of an online high school

University of Missouri High School 2018, On-Site Graduation Ceremony

The sky is stratified with shadows and light, an imminent thunderstorm that doesn’t break. This strange magic light saturates the red brick and white stone paths across campus. More than two hundred people are driving in from five different states.  I arrive early, an excited bundle of nervous energy, balancing on beige high heels.

As the principal of an online and blended high school, these face-to-face moments are significant. Our school has held an on-site commencement ceremony for the past 19 years. It is an opportunity for students who have studied at a distance to gather with family and friends, meet teachers and school staff, toss their mortarboards high in the air, and mark this moment in time.

Throughout their high school career, we’ve been flexible about space, place, time, and community. Today we trade being flexible for being synchronous.  We line up in alphabetical order, march in to a live band playing “pomp and circumstance,” and pose for photographs. We notice everything.

The narratives of our graduating class are rich and varied. We celebrate athletes, international students, students with disabilities, gifted students, medically fragile students, adult students, and many more.

Being a part of this global learning community has taught me important lessons as both an educator and a human being. During the ceremony, I look out from the podium at each of the graduates in their matching caps and gowns. Behind them is a swelling crowd of family, friends, and colleagues.

I offer, “Our most important lessons happen in the convergence of content: when we remember a dialogue, a concept, or a skill from class and then see that at play in a new way in our communities.  

The distances between people and communities keep getting smaller.  You have classmates in over 100 countries. Your AP teachers have scheduled chats across multiple time-zones and thousands of miles. Our students are logging in from an island off the coast of Honduras, a learning center in Vietnam, and a bedroom in Lawrence, Kansas — all to chat together about AP Calculus.

You have both an opportunity to make a significant impact and also an obligation to care for the shrinking web that holds us all together.”  

After the ceremony, we linger. We pose for more photographs. We visit. We eat cake.  Two different families tell me that finding our school changed their lives.  As both a parent and a teacher, I get it. I know what is like to take a non-linear path. I listen to stories about why a student (or a family) needed more flexibility with time, space, or place.

We need schools that think differently. We need classrooms that recognize that the world is small, deeply connected, and full of potential. I am thinking about these things when I spot Jessica, one of our graduates, sitting alone.

She is 30 years old. Earlier, when she received her diploma on stage, she asked if she could give me a hug. Over the past 13 years, she’s started, paused, and restarted her high school education. And now she has completed her degree. Next, she plans to study peace and conflict studies.  

Jessica has flown here by herself and after the ceremony wants to take some pictures on campus. A colleague and I ask if she would like some company. The storm clouds have cleared, and we spend the next hour taking pictures and hearing more about Jessica’s story. She is beaming, pausing every so often to text pictures to her husband and mother.

“You know,” she tells us when we say goodbye, “I choked up when the closing performer sang, All your life, you were only waiting for this moment to arise.”

My colleague and I look at each other and smile. “Us, too.”

Best wishes to all of the members of the graduating classes of 2018 and especially to those whose journeys to cross that stage are marked by courage and the faith that so long as we keep trying, eventually we’ll get there.

Enthusiastically,

Dr. KFW

 

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The University of Missouri High School’s 2018 graduating class included 671 students who earned high school diplomas during the 2017-2018 school year. These students were from 11 different countries: the United States, Brazil, Cambodia, China, Egypt, Honduras, Indonesia, Israel, Japan, Paraguay, and Vietnam.  Many of our international students complete dual high school diplomas and celebrate their graduations at their brick-and-mortar schools. Our on-site ceremony is most-utilized by domestic students who study independently through online classes.

Nurturing Courage in Schools

What does it look like to teach and lead for courage? What does it look like to practice courage personally and professionally? How can we nurture courage in schools? These are some of the questions our school district has explored over the past 18 months.

When we make the difficult and right choice we see great rewards including new solutions, deeper connections, and safer schools. Watch the following video to learn more about cultivating courage in schools.

 

We made this video when Ana invited me to give a lecture to students and families at Colégio Damas (Recife, PE, Brazil). Thank you to the Damas community for the opportunity to reflect on some of the lessons we have learned about courage. Enthusiastic thanks also to Dale Hargis for his video talents.

How are you cultivating courage in your schools? Leave a comment to join the conversation.

Enthusiastically, Dr. KFW

Somos todos mães. (We are all mothers.)

This is a story about a group of eighth grade students, a woman named Marina, a nine-year-old boy, and the power of our shared humanity.

Photo from our visit:  Learn more about La Casa MHP 

Last Wednesday, we had the privilege of visiting La Casa Maria Helena Paulina in São Paulo. The afternoon was organized by the Grade 8 Middle School Global Leaders at Pio XII. Our Grade 8 class focuses on human rights. To bring the curriculum to life, the students at Pio XII had spent several weeks collecting food, toys, and other items for La Casa MHP and they invited us to help deliver them. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect. We picked up a few extra bags of rice, pasta, and flour and arrived ready to help.

La Casa MHP is a free home for families to stay while their children are receiving treatment for cancer. The children’s hospital in São Paulo is nationally renowned and families come from all over Brazil and even South America for treatment. The home was started when Maria Helena Paulina was receiving treatment herself and saw families sleeping under a bridge near the hospital because they had no place to stay.

A nine-year-old boy who had been receiving treatment for five-years met us and gave us a tour.  He is small, has an amazing sense of humor, and took us through every room of the house telling great stories along the way.

During our visit to La Casa MHP I met mothers, children, students, teachers, and volunteers all showing up for each other.  A mother and I joked together about our teenage sons who live in different realities and yet are still very much both teenage boys.  My friend who works at Pio XII overheard us and said, “Somos todos mães./We are all mothers.”

After the tour, we pulled chairs and couches into a makeshift circle and sat together in the living room. Several residents, a few volunteers, and the house psychologist came to join us. I looked around and was struck by this sudden community we had formed. Marina (Maria Helena’s cousin who still manages La Casa MHP) facilitated the conversation. Our students asked questions, heard stories, and shared laughs. It was warm–literally and figuratively. We closed with a giant group hug.

Just before leaving I had a few minutes to speak alone with Marina. I knew what I wanted to say and even how to say it in Portuguese. I got about two sentences in and started crying. We hugged for a long time. Love is universal.

I am thankful that there are so many places across the globe doing important work with great love. Like La Casa MHP you can find these organizations in your cities, just off the sidewalk and around the corner. And what amazing classrooms these are for young people to learn about social inequality, generosity of spirit, and the power of human connection. There are countless people like Marina and the volunteers at La Casa MHP who are making a difference in their communities. And what important teachers these people are for our young people as models of leadership, empathy, and compassion. These are the kinds of lessons you have to learn in the context of community. These are also the kinds of lessons you have to revisit over and over again. I am grateful I had the chance to re-learn them myself last Wednesday.

May we all, always remember to take care of one another. If you are interested in learning more about La Casa Maria Helena Paulina, please click here.

Appreciatively, Dr. KFW

 

Culturally Responsive Teacher Education

Reflections from my semester working with pre-service teachers; plus an invitation to view our open access journal, which will restore your faith in our future classrooms.

Dr. KFW and Mr. Pinto with some of the 2040 Scholars who presented their community-based work to the College of Education

The Classroom

We meet in 133 Mumford Hall on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Mumford Hall is tucked away behind Memorial Union. It is a 10-minute walk from the College of Education and a big breath away from downtown. Mumford Hall is home to the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. The faculty that calls this building their home sometimes seemed surprised by our constructivist teacher-ed antics. Maybe it has something to do with the marching band instruments we integrated into our lessons on more than one occasion. In short, we made ourselves at home and we piqued some interest along the way.

We know this building now; we know the conference rooms and sunny corners perfect for gathering to host book club discussions or work out presentations on school equity. More importantly, in this building, we found a home for our class community. Here we leaned in to moments of hope, concern, vulnerability, and courage.

The path to becoming a culturally responsive teacher is marked by countless moments, big and small, of connection and learning. We processed these together n 133 Mumford. Yet our classroom extended beyond this building.  The community was our classroom as well. In fact, thinking about teacher education as a community project is consistent with the thesis of this journal.

The Class

LTC 2040,  Inquiring into Schools, Community and Society I, is a required foundation course for all teacher education students in the College of Education at the University of Missouri. This course serves two important functions.  First, 2040 lays a foundation for understanding some of the structure, history, and issues surrounding schools and teaching. Second, it investigates the complicated and challenging nature of what it means to teach in a diverse society. The course addresses the importance of being a culturally competent advocate for all students in our classrooms.

The Idea

On the very first day of class, we posed this question: How will I create an inclusive culture to support my students’ achievement? The future teachers in our class tackled this question though reading, dialoguing, and engaging in powerful community-based work. We were so struck by their projects and insights, that we wanted to create a platform where they could share their action research with others in the education community. For this reason, we are thrilled to launch “To be of Service” the first-ever 2040 Open Access Journal. This journal will be released at our Research Roundtable on Thursday, April 19, 2018.

The Journal Prompt

Dr. Fishman-Weaver has often said, “Relationships are the heart of great teaching.” This sentiment is shared by Mr. Pinto and has become a theme of many of our conversations. In a reflective essay, defend, refute, or qualify this claim. Use your cultural immersion project, service learning experience, and our dialogues and readings as evidence.

The Journal

As usual, the scholars in our class knocked this out of the park. We hope folks across the education community dive into this first volume and are reminded that our future classrooms are full of hope and promise. In the following pages, you will read about the lessons these scholars have learned about connection, difference, and the importance of relationships. The stories are honest, vulnerable, and make it clear that our future teachers and their future students will build inclusive classrooms filled with both connection and learning.

Curious about this journal? Click here to read.  You will be so glad you did.

Enthusiastically, Dr. KFW