How Do We Show Up?

This morning, on the 19th anniversary of the Columbine shooting, I stood on a high school football field in the heart of Texas, surrounded by students. Around 10:30, a young man with a bullhorn yelled, “Now!” and all around me, dozens of students dropped to the ground. They lay there, some holding up hand-painted signs, silent.

For seventeen minutes.

Their communal silence was a testament to their conviction and their power. Our kids have had enough of gun violence. They’ve had enough of politicians who won’t stand up to the NRA. They’ve had enough of empty promises followed by inaction and apathy. And so, they’re giving legs and a voice to their grief and their anger and their fear and their hope.

I sat down near the students and read the signs they held aloft: “How much am I worth?” one asked. Another asserted, “Fear has no place in my school.” Every few minutes, more students walked onto the field. A girl sat down nearby, orange paint streaking her cheeks. One boy kneeled, his jaw set, holding a heart-shaped poster board.

A staff member patrolled the outskirts of the group, grimacing. The noise from his walkie-talkie broke the silence. “Should kids have food out here?” he asked the person on the other end. Static, and then, a woman’s voice: “No. We’ve got to protect the football field.”

Twenty feet away, two girls held a closed box of donuts. They’d been selling them that morning to raise money for a local homeless shelter, excited that they’d made $60 so far. The man stalked toward them, whistling to get their attention. He pointed at them threateningly, gestured for them to leave. They looked confused. He kept trying to get their attention, picking his way through the students lying on the ground.

The contrast—students using silence to speak volumes about what matters and an adult more concerned about the health of the football field than about supporting them—was heartbreaking.

How do we show up for our students? It’s not about whether we should “give them permission” to protest; student protest doesn’t require or ask for our permission. It’s about how, when we find ourselves in these moments with them—moments that matter—we choose to engage.

Do we try to control them, like the man with the walkie-talkie and the donut vendetta?

Do we fear them, like an administrator who watched students from the parking lot with distrust on his face?

Do we silence them, like the staff member who confiscated students’ petitions?

Or do we support them, like the school leader who met with student organizers in advance to listen to their concerns and goals, then sat silently on the edge of the crowd during their protest?

Do we mediate for them, like the teacher who eventually stepped in to settle Donutgate?

Do we partner with them, like the teacher who rescued the students’ petitions and brought them onto the field?

Our students’ collective power can be scary to us as adults. It upsets the balance we’re used to, the tenuous agreement between adults and kids that school can sometimes feel to rest on. But if we are committed to our students not just as scholars, but as citizens, we’ve got to let go. We’ve got to be present for them. We’ve got to let them lead.

We’ve got to remember that protecting the football field is not more important than protecting our kids.

How Schools Can Support Student Activism

Student activists often stand on the front lines of social justice movements.

To many adults, that can be scary. We worry about our kids’ safety as they engage in activism, wonder whether they will be taken seriously, and, whether we want to admit it or not, fear what consequences their rebellion may have on our authority.

But as I wrote yesterday, our students are fired up, and they are unstoppable.

Right now, we’re living in a time of increased student engagement with activism. In response to a 2015 survey, 8.5% of college freshmen reported that there was a “very good chance” they would participate in student protests during their college career. That may not seem like an impressive figure, but it represents the highest number of students planning to engage in activism at college since 1967.

And research shows that activism correlates positively with students’ political participation, civic engagement, and commitment to their communities later in life.

In other words, students are telling us that activism is important to them, and researchers are telling us it helps students learn. Now it’s up to us to listen.

We shouldn’t see kids choosing to engage in activism as detracting from the work we’re doing in schools. We should see it as them taking what we’re teaching them and making it real. When our kids are fired up about an issue, that’s an opportunity for us to help them see connections between the curriculum and real life.

So how do we do that? How can we support student activism from within our schools? How can we change our own mindsets about student activism, reframing it as a positive force for social change and an authentic learning opportunity?

Here are some resources that may help.

•    •    •


Social Justice Belongs in Our Schools
Sydney Chaffee
“Social justice should be a part of the mission of every school and every teacher in America if we want ‘liberty and justice for all’ to be more than just a slogan. Schools are crucial places for young people to become active citizens and learn skills to work towards a more equitable society.”

Children have changed America before, braving fire hoses and police dogs for civil rights
Steven Levingston
“But the Douglas high school students who survived a mass shooting last week are motivated by the same idealism and hope that inspired Birmingham’s school kids. When the Florida teens lead a nationwide walkout from classrooms on March 14 and march in Washington and other cities on March 24, they will be following in the footsteps of children who were willing to risk their lives to change the country — and succeeded.”

Celebrating ‘Builders’ and ‘Burners’ in Student Activism
Chris Purcell
“In any case, it is wrong to narrowly reward and uplift activism that makes administration most comfortable or serves solely their needs. Such a narrowing of activism for our students stifles their creativity and inhibits their ability to imagine a campus and indeed a world that is more inclusive and equitable. Students are drawing upon historical movements and infusing their own energy and passions toward creating a more just society. It is our job to encourage this quest for justice, even if it challenges our power and our comfort.”

Embracing Student Activism
Cassie Barnhardt and Kimberly Reyes 
“…campuses derive their legitimacy in part on their commitment to developing excellence, integrity and a sense of community among their students. Student activism provides a space for institutions to be thoughtful about enacting those very commitments.”

Walkouts, Marches and the Desire to ‘Do Something’: What You Need to Know About Stoneman Douglas Activism
Cory Collins
“After the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, courageous survivors have inspired a groundswell of activism and advocacy. Here’s what you need to know—and what you can do, no matter your situation.”

•    •    •


Do Something
Teaching Tolerance
“Do Something performance tasks ask students to demonstrate their anti-bias awareness and civic competency by applying their literacy and social justice knowledge in an authentic real-world context.”
Note: In considering these resources, it’s important that teachers let our students’ interests drive the learning.

One way we can build on the momentum of young people’s activism is by facilitating class discussions where students can engage with one another in conversation about complex, controversial topics. This is a perfect opportunity for us to help kids learn how to talk to one another in a way that will lead to a stronger society, rather than a divided one. The following resources all deal with class discussions:

Community Inquiry
Teaching Tolerance
“Nurture students’ speaking and listening skills with strategies that ask them to draw upon texts during meaningful—and respectful—classroom discussions.”

Lesson Plan: Preparing Your Class to Discuss Controversial Issues
Close Up
“…the reasons to take on the study of controversial issues in the classroom far outweigh the objections against them. Recent research from the Civic Mission of Schools shows that when ‘schools incorporate discussion of current local, national, and international issues and events in to the classroom, particularly those that young people view as important to their lives. When students have an opportunity to discuss current issues in a classroom setting, they tend to have a greater interest in civic life and politics as well as improved critical thinking and communication skills.’”

Structured Academic Controversy Protocol and Materials
“By the time students reach adolescence, many believe that every issue comes neatly packaged in a pro/con format, and that the goal of classroom discussion, rather than to understand your opponent, is to defeat him. The SAC method provides an alternative to the ‘debate mindset’ by shifting the goal from winning classroom discussions to understanding alternative positions and formulating historical syntheses. The SAC’s structure demands students listen to each other in new ways and guides them into a world of complex and controversial ideas.”

Strengthening Whole Class Discussions (Grades 3-5)
John DePasquale
“…when they are thoughtfully and deliberately facilitated, whole class discussions have tremendous potential to build a communal understanding and knowledge base in a classroom while, at the same time, promoting student autonomy and voice.”

Guidelines for Discussing Difficult or Controversial Topics
University of Michigan Center for Research on Learning and Teaching
“Whatever the context, it is helpful to structure such discussions in a way that defines boundaries for the process and provides some degree of closure within the classroom. Such discussions are an especially important time to explicitly discuss expectations for respecting a range of perspectives and experiences in the room.”

•    •    •

The last thing it’s important to note is that, if we want this work to happen in our classrooms, it’s important for school leaders to facilitate professional development opportunities where teachers can collaborate and share best practices for embracing student activism. This might mean trying out some of the discussion protocols as a staff,  giving teachers time to work with one another in smaller teams, or doing some shared reading as a staff.

It’s Time to Listen to Our Kids

I wrote four or five different openings for this blog, but I got rid of them all. None of them felt right. Here’s why: they were all about me. And this moment isn’t about me.

This moment is about our kids.

These kids:  

Our kids are unstoppable.

·    ·    ·

The circumstances of kids’ activism this week feel uniquely American, but kids roaring at injustice is not a new story.

In 1976, during Apartheid, the South African government passed a law requiring that all students be taught in Afrikaans. Afrikaans was a language spoken by white South Africans that many Black South Africans referred to as “the language of the oppressor.”

Not surprisingly, students of color were outraged at this new law. Black students already attended segregated schools with overcrowded classrooms, insufficient materials, and a racist curriculum. Now they were expected to learn in a language neither they nor their teachers spoke. Some kids told stories of their teachers coming to class with a textbook in one hand and an Afrikaans dictionary in the other.

Students decided to take action. At 8:15am on the morning of June 16, 1976, thousands of students walked out of five schools in the township of Soweto after singing “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika”—“God Bless Africa.” Students of all ages—including elementary school children—marched peacefully through the streets holding hands and carrying signs with slogans like “Down with Afrikaans.”

At an intersection, the students encountered the police and the Defense Force, who ordered them to turn back. When the students refused, the police officers set dogs on them. Then they opened fire.

Within 36 hours of the march beginning, 29 people had died, and 250 were injured. The government lost control in Soweto as protests and riots spread.

News outlets around the world covered the story, publishing a now-iconic photo of one of the first people killed by police: 13-year-old Hector Pieterson.

Although the Soweto Uprising event ended in tragedy, and although Apartheid itself was not officially struck down until 1994, the students’ protest had a dramatic impact on the way the world viewed South Africa’s policies.

As news of the uprising spread throughout the world, it became nearly impossible to ignore the brutality of the Apartheid regime. In the months and years that followed, more and more countries exerted political and economic pressure on the South African government to end Apartheid—and it was due, in large part, to the activism of those students in Soweto.

Every year, my students and I explore this history, focusing in on the ways in which South African students exercised their agency within an oppressive system that sought to silence them and deny their humanity.

And invariably, my students draw comparisons between the South African students’ activism and their own power and promise as young people. They wonder about what forms of political power they have and what could push them to stand up in the face of injustice. They debate whether they would be willing to risk their lives so that future generations could live in a more just world. They ask themselves whether adults will ever listen to their voices.

I always tell them: yes. You are powerful. You have agency. You can change the world. Make us listen.

·    ·    ·

So? Will we?

It’s a scary question, because it demands us to come up with some real answers. Our kids won’t allow us to placate them. They rightfully fear our inaction. Standing on the precipice of real change is scary.

In Hope in the Dark, Rebecca Solnit writes, “The future is dark, with a darkness as much of the womb as the grave.”

It is our job to prove to our students that we will listen to their voices. It is up to us to inspire confidence in them that they do have the power to effect change. And it is our responsibility, as teachers, to ensure that they are equipped with the tools they need to insist on a more equitable world.

Maybe the scariest part of all of that is the fact that, when we decide that our students’ voices actually matter, sometimes, we will be the ones they rebel against. They will point out ways in which systems that we have set up or in which we are complicit have contributed to the problem. They will push us to question our own assumptions and beliefs. It will be uncomfortable and possibly even painful.

But we can’t be afraid of our students’ power. Young people—like the ones in Soweto, like the ones in Ferguson, like the ones in Parkland—will build tomorrow.

Our kids are unstoppable.

·    ·    ·

Students from the Marjory Stoneman Douglas School in Parkland, FL, are organizing a march on March 24, 2018. Support them.

Don’t forget about supporting students in the Black Lives Matter movement, too. Parkland students are getting a ton of attention right now–and they should be–but young people have been active in BLM for years without always benefiting from the same kind of widespread championing. Start here. 

Read more about the Soweto Uprising here, here, and here.

On Haiti

When I was hired as the ninth grade Humanities teacher at Codman Academy in 2007, my principal told me that my course would be called “Justice and Injustice.” And while the bones of the course were there, and some of the topics had been taught by teachers who came before me, there was one unit that he wanted me to design from scratch: a case study of the Haitian Revolution.

Problem was, I had no idea what the Haitian Revolution was.

As I have said before, I was educated in a Eurocentric system. I grew up in a town where 94% of people are white. I learned history from white teachers surrounded by white students. A history textbook once convinced me that the primary cause of the Civil War was “states’ rights,” and I unquestioningly believed that until I got to college.

So I did what teachers do: I took myself to school. I Googled my heart out. I researched and read and took notes on the Haitian Revolution.

That episode was pivotal in my development as a young teacher. It forced me to reckon with the depth of my own ignorance and white privilege. It made me reflect on how my identity as a white teacher would impact my practice, especially in a classroom with 98-99% students of color, several of whom were Haitian-American.

•   •   •

Yesterday, during a discussion on immigration, President Donald Trump questioned why the U.S. should take in immigrants from what he termed “shithole countries.” According to the Washington Post, Trump asked, “Why do we need more Haitians?”

I can’t get those comments out of my mind. They’re playing on loop. I picture my kids and my face gets hot.

But I don’t want, ultimately, to focus on one man’s prejudice. I subscribe to Nelson Mandela’s belief that “education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” So if you, like me, never learned about the powerful history of Haiti and its revolution, let me tell you some of what I know about Haiti’s history. (Warning: This is gonna get nerdily detailed at times. I’m a history teacher. You can skip to the end if you know this history.)

•   •   •

The indigenous people of the Caribbean were the Taíno, who were part of a larger group of people who spoke the Arawak language. (Taíno means “good.”) Until 1492, they were doing well–farming, fishing, building civilizations, including one on an island they called Ayiti or Haiti.

Then Christopher Columbus showed up. He claimed Ayiti as a Spanish colony and renamed it “La Española,” or “the Spanish island.” (Later, that name would be translated into “Hispaniola.”) In their desire for gold, he and his men launched a genocide of the Taíno. When there wasn’t enough gold, he wrote, “Let us in the name of the Holy Trinity go on sending all the slaves that can be sold.”

At the time of Columbus’s second trip, sugar was all the rage in Europe. So when he returned to Hispaniola, he brought some sugarcane plants with him. Those little plants were the beginnings of hugely profitable sugarcane plantations on the island, and enslaved Taíno were forced to do the work.

By 1505, so many of the Taíno had died that, according to Philip Martin, “the Europeans turned to Africa. Between 1505 and 1888, an estimated 9.5 million Africans were brought into the Americas as slaves. About 2.5 million worked in the Caribbean, mostly on sugar plantations. For over 300 years, slavery reigned, and millions of human beings suffered, labored in terrible conditions, and died harvesting sugarcane.”

In 1697, Spain ceded the western third of Hispaniola to France. This French colony was called Saint-Domingue, and it became known as the “Pearl of the Antilles” because it was, by far, the most profitable European colony in the Caribbean.

On the night of August 14, 1791, enslaved people from plantations near the city of Le Cap gathered in the woods for a Vodou ceremony led by Cécile Fatiman and Dutty Boukman (so named because he could read and was, therefore, a “book man”). C.L.R. James, in The Black Jacobins, transcribes Boukman’s speech to those assembled: “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all” (87). The revolution began that night, and it lasted for thirteen years.

One of the most famous leaders of the revolutionary army was Toussaint L’Ouverture, who rose from slavery to face off against Napoleon Bonaparte at the turn of the century. L’Ouverture was strategic, alternately allying himself with various European countries’ armies to ensure his people’s freedom and driving them out of the colony. Eventually, he succeeded in taking over the entire island of Hispaniola. In 1801, he sent a new constitution to France, proclaiming, “There cannot exist slaves on this territory, servitude is therein forever abolished. All men are born, live and die free and French.” L’Ouverture was captured in 1802 and imprisoned in France, where he died a year later.

Leadership of the revolution fell to Jean-Jacques Dessalines, also formerly enslaved in Saint-Domingue. Legend says that Dessalines famously cut the white fabric from the center of the French flag and gave the red and blue scraps that remained to his goddaughter, Catherine Flon. She sewed them back together and embroidered the new revolutionary flag with the slogan Liberté ou la Mort (“Liberty or Death”). The rebels defeated the French and declared independence on January 1, 1804. Dessalines signed a new constitution in 1805 declaring Saint-Domingue an independent country, to be named “Hayti” after the indigenous Taíno name for the island.

Dessalines’ constitution also abolished slavery, named him Emperor, and, radically, proclaimed: “All meaning of color among the children of one and the same family, of whom the chief magistrate is the father, being necessarily to cease, the Haytians shall henceforth be known by the generic appellation of blacks.” In other words, all Haitians would be called “Black,” blurring the racial divisions that violently divided them before (and during) the war.

The Haitian Revolution was the most successful large-scale slave rebellion in the world. Haiti was the first country founded by people who had been enslaved, the first free Black republic, the first sovereign country in the Caribbean and Latin America, and the second country in the Western Hemisphere to successfully free itself from European colonization.

Haiti has not had an easy path since 1805. France demanded to be paid for its lost revenue and refused to recognize Haiti’s sovereignty until 1825. (Haiti’s crippling debt can be traced back to the roughly $21,000,000,000 in “damages” it finally paid.) The United States was terrified of Haiti’s power to inspire and influence enslaved people here and didn’t recognize Haiti as an independent country until 1862. Haiti has suffered under a series of dictators and from coups, massacres, and outside interference. In 2010, the country was devastated by an earthquake and has yet to recover. And in 2018, my students read headlines calling Haiti a “shithole.”

•   •   •

Haiti’s history is rich and inspiring. I love exploring it with my students. I love it when they connect the dots between Columbus and Napoleon, when they read Boukman’s speech aloud and debate the ethics of revenge, when they grapple with whether France should pay reparations to Haiti.

Most of all, I love the pride in my Haitian-American kids’ eyes when they see that we are studying their country not as “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” but as an example of a place where people fought for justice.

All of that complexity and beauty gets flattened out by stereotypes about Haiti and its people.

We can’t change the world unless we’re willing to confront our own ignorance.

•   •   •

Here are some of the resources that my students and I use to learn about Haiti:

  • Howard Zinn’s A Young People’s History of the United States gives us Zinn’s admittedly-biased view of Christopher Columbus. You can read Chapter 1 of Zinn’s original book here.
  • Philip Martin’s article “Sugar and Slavery,” from the book Rethinking Columbus, helps students understand the link between Columbus and the African slave trade in the Caribbean, as well as the details about what manufacturing sugar required.
  • Brown University’s Choices program has a great curriculum on the Haitian Revolution that helped me understand the history as I started trying to educate myself. They also have a series of videos available online with scholars discussing the history.
  • C.L.R. James’ The Black Jacobins is dense and tricky for my students, but we read excerpts from his chapter on the beginning of the rebellion to bring the history to life.
  • For years, students read Edwidge Danticat’s short story collection, Krik? Krak!, to accompany our study of this history. “A Wall of Fire Rising” weaves together Haiti’s revolutionary past and its present really beautifully.
  • Nick Lake’s In Darkness is a newer YA book that takes us into the mind of Shorty, a Haitian boy trapped after the 2010 earthquake, who begins having visions from Toussaint L’Ouverture’s life.
  • Just today, someone posted this booklist for teaching about Haiti online.

The Halfway Point

I’m about halfway through this National Teacher of the Year journey, and although I’m not a fan of New Year’s resolutions, this marks a good point for me to reflect on how it’s been going.

I’ve visited 20 states and represented U.S. teachers in Ethiopia, Israel, and Palestine. I’ve published some articles and started this blog. I’ve given a lot of speeches (and even memorized a couple of them). I’ve talked about the urgency and the magic and the hard work of teaching, about race and educational equity, about social justice.

I’ve met incredible educators and future educators everywhere I’ve been. I’ve questioned whether I deserved any of it directly after giving a speech to a roomful of award-winning teachers telling them to stop questioning whether they deserve any of it.

I’ve been excited and confused and lonely and inspired. All of it.

It’s been amazing.

When I got this chance, I told myself not to squander it. I knew that I had a year where people would listen to what I had to say about what’s happening in our schools. So I set out to advocate for teachers and kids, even if it meant being uncomfortable in rooms full of people who were more powerful, better connected, older, or years more experienced than me.

I think I’ve done okay. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished so far, but I know I can do more.

In the next half of my time as NTOY, I’m going to push myself to be bolder. I want to write more and be less afraid of what people will think. I want to stop just admiring teacher activists who are more outspoken than I am and actually work to be more like them. I want to say what I mean.

I’ve seen a lot of people pledging to live “one word” in 2018. (More here.)

I think, this year, my word will be brave.

Let’s do this.

•   •   •

If I haven’t been to your state yet, you can request me here. I’d love to come.

Living in the Growth Zone

Every fall, my school takes our kids on a camping trip in the woods of New Hampshire. When we get there, the counselors take us out into a clearing and draw three concentric circles in the dirt. The center circle, they tell us, represents our comfort zone. Being in our comfort zone feels good. It’s, you know, comfortable.

But staying in the comfort zone doesn’t push us. We’re not going to learn much there. So they point to the second circle and call it the “growth zone.” That’s where we safely push ourselves to try something new or challenging. We’re able to grow there, but it isn’t always comfortable.

The outer circle is called the “danger zone.” When we’re in our danger zone, there’s no learning happening, because we don’t feel safe. We shut down.

The counselors explain that, during the camping trip, everyone should try to live in their own personal growth zone–whatever that may look like–to get the most out of the experience.

My best example is the “night hike.” It’s actually just a walk in the dark down a gravel road or across an open field, but to those city kids who have never been outside in the woods in the total darkness before, it’s huge. They hear rustly forest noises and see stars sprayed across the sky, and it’s overwhelming for some of them. They hang onto each other and hiss, “It’s too quiet!” And then the next year, they look forward to that hike. Their comfort zones expand.

One of the other things students do on the trip is write “intentions” for the year ahead. Intentions aren’t so much concrete goals as they are statements of who and how kids want to be. We ask them to reflect on what it looks and feels like when they are being their “best selves” and go from there.

Since I missed the camping trip this year, I’ve been thinking about mine on the road lately.

My intention for the rest of this year as Teacher of the Year is to push myself into my growth zone, to get more comfortable being uncomfortable.

•   •   •

This morning, I was relieved to see that Alabama’s citizens voted against Roy Moore for Senate. They rejected a man who has been accused of sexual assault, who said that America was “great” when slavery was legal, who equated being gay with being a sexual predator, who suggested that getting rid of all of the Constitutional amendments after the 10th might be a good idea.

Except here’s the thing: when you break down votes by race and gender, 63% of White women voted for Moore.

As my sister wrote on Twitter, “Hey, fellow White women? DO BETTER.”

In Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness, she talks about Bill Bishop’s research. As Americans, she explains, we have “geographically, politically, and even spiritually sorted ourselves into like-minded groups in which we silence dissent, grow more extreme in our thinking, and consume only facts that support our beliefs…. This sorting leads us to make assumptions about the people around us, which in turn fuels disconnection” (47).

It would be easy to dismiss the White women who voted for Moore as totally different from me, to tell myself and the world that we have nothing in common. Easy, maybe. Safe. Comfortable.

But I’ve been paying attention, lately, to which men in my life are doing the work when it comes to the #MeToo movement, which ones are listening to women and taking our stories seriously, which ones are looking at themselves. And I know that, as a White woman, I have to do the same kind of work around race.

To be honest, I don’t exactly know what that looks like. But I do know that it connects to my intention. It requires me to stay uncomfortable.

•   •   •

So what does all of that mean for me as a teacher?

I have been talking and writing a lot lately about how education can and should be a means to work towards social justice, that by equipping students with skills to think critically and engage in tough conversations with each other, we’re helping them become people who can change the world for the better.

I think, though, that I need to keep pushing on this idea of Brown and Bishop’s–that continuing to section ourselves off from one another isn’t ultimately going to be helpful. Maybe we need to get closer, connect with one another more deliberately, to make change. Maybe we need to do the work we’re trying so hard to teach kids to do.

•   •   •

I’m going to add articles here that help me as I think through this. Send me more if you have them!

White Women, You Need to Talk about Racism

I Am a White Woman and I Must Confront My Racism

Project Implicit (Implicit Association/Bias Tests)




Beyond Carrots and Sticks

When I tell people I teach ninth graders, they sometimes react nervously, like maybe there is something slightly unhinged about a woman who voluntarily spends her time with fourteen-year-old people every day and claims to enjoy it.

Some adults harbor visceral fears of adolescents. I used to. Before I became a teacher, I would have rather had my eyelashes waxed off than return to a middle or high school. I was convinced that I’d revert back to my own teenaged self if I stepped inside of a school, and the kids would make fun of me and make me cry. (I don’t necessarily possess the thickest of skins.)

But then I worked with seventh graders for a summer through the Breakthrough Collaborative, and I absolutely loved it. Those kids were so funny and smart and genuine. I was hooked.

I can imagine, back in my pre-teacher scared-of-adolescents days, that walking into a middle-school music classroom would have made me itchy: Drums and xylophones all over the place? What if the children get ahold of those? It’ll be chaos. Noisy chaos! 

Last week, though, I got to visit Beth Davey‘s music classroom at Iveland Elementary School in St. Louis, Missouri. Beth was recently named the 2018 Missouri Teacher of the Year, and watching her expertly lead a class of fifth graders through a series of activities, including an extended musical improvisation (!), was super impressive and inspiring.

It was clear that Beth had taken the time to develop a repertoire of classroom moves that she could call on to keep the class engaged and focused. The kids moved quickly and comfortably from one activity to the next, from singing to drumming to xylophoning (totally a word) to using sign language to giving feedback to their partners. Sometimes Beth dropped her voice to a near-whisper so they had to lean in to hear. Sometimes she used hand signals or showed flashcards to cue students. She had high expectations; kids were using technical vocabulary to speak the language of music, and she wasn’t afraid to make them try something again if it wasn’t right the first time. She did all of this with a calm, warm, authoritative air that said, I believe that you can do this, and I’m so happy to be here with you. 

Sometimes folks think that schools need complicated behavior management systems–“carrots and sticks”–to keep students engaged. But watching Beth at work reminded me that what schools really need are highly-skilled teachers who know how to design engaging lessons and develop positive classroom cultures. What if we spent less time worrying about how many demerits to give a kid for a certain misbehavior and more time supporting that kid’s teachers in honing their craft?

Kids want to learn. They’re excited to learn. How do we set up classrooms that harness and build on that excitement?


What Makes a School Successful?

I was fortunate to spend the last few days in Tacoma, Washington, learning with folks from the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development. I got to have conversations with lots of smart adults about ways we can support kids as full people and how teachers, researchers, and policymakers need to work in partnership to do that work. But to be honest, the best part of the trip was when we piled onto buses and drove to a local middle school to see the Tacoma Whole Child Initiative in action.

I was endeared to the school as soon as I saw a sign on the library bulletin board that said “READ RISE RESIST,” but I liked it even more when I learned that it was a bit of an underdog. The school has a reputation for being a “bad” school. One student told us that his aunt attended the school as a child and told him that he should stay far away from it. The principal shared some of the school’s test scores with us, which showed that almost a third of students are not yet demonstrating proficiency.


Student voice shouted from the hallway walls–posters, examples of work, college aspirations. Inside of classrooms, students were writing, talking, solving problems, advocating for their needs. Students who used to get sent out of class or suspended frequently were using strategies to manage their emotions and stay in class. At the same time, staff members were interrogating their own patterns and biases and implementing restorative practices to decrease exclusionary discipline. When we asked students what they liked about the school, they told us that the teachers were always willing to help, that everyone is included in the school’s “family,” that “teachers try to get to know us so we can trust them.”

I walked into a 6th grade math classroom and saw small groups of students gathered together. In each group, one student stood at a whiteboard and presented a question they had about what they had been learning in class. I sat down next to one girl and asked her what they were doing.

She explained that this was something they did every week, that they helped one another review and untangle their confusions by asking questions that will help the presenting student understand. They aren’t supposed to teach their classmate, she said, only ask questions to help them discover the steps they should follow to solve the problem.

“So what happens if someone gets frustrated?” I asked her. “What if they are feeling really confused and they just want you to tell them what to do?”

“Oh,” she said, “well, then we just do emotional labor.”

Just to be clear, this was a sixth grader. Telling me about how she and her peers do “emotional labor” in math class like that’s the most ordinary thing in the world.

I asked her to explain what emotional labor was. She said, “Like, we help that person feel less frustrated by telling them a joke or making them laugh, and then we get back to doing the work.” I asked her if she could tell me any specific examples of emotional labor strategies they had learned, and so she asked me, “What did one vegetarian say to the other vegetarian?”

“I don’t know, what?”

“‘We’ve got to stop MEAT-ing like this!'”

There was really no topping that, so I went over to watch another group, and they were giving their classmate a new problem to solve to make sure she really understood how to do it. After she finished, she asked them, “Did I do it right?”

One of her group members gave her a wry smile and said, “Did you do it right?”

She rolled her eyes and smiled: “Yes, I did.”

Another boy, who was pedaling away on an exercise bike attached to a desk, said, “Wait! Let’s do emotional labor! Let’s do a cheer.”

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When I told the story about the sixth graders’ “emotional labor” to my friend later that night, she said she’d never heard the phrase used in such a positive way, explaining that she’s mostly seen it referred to as a burden that marginalized people have to bear. 

In a recent Slate article, Haley Swenson outlines the history of the phrase “emotional labor”:

“In her 1983 book The Managed Heart, sociologist Arlie Hochschild first coined the phrase emotional labor to describe the work of flight attendants and bill collectors to consciously regulate their own feelings and attempt to shape the emotions of others to get their jobs done. Women and low-income workers were being asked to very subtly (and very deftly) fix up people’s feelings without being recognized or compensated for that very tricky part of their labor.”

My friend and I agreed that we liked the idea of doing emotional labor with someone else instead, as a way of being in empathetic partnership with them. We loved the idea of teaching that skill and that vocabulary to kids. And we never would have had that conversation if I hadn’t talked to that sixth grader in that classroom in that “bad” school.

That “bad” school is doing transformative work with students–good work. And while the school leaders will be the first to tell you that they have more work to do (decreasing suspensions, raising test scores), that shouldn’t discount the great things that are happening in those classrooms.

Schools are complex places. If all we look at, in considering whether schools are successful, are test scores, we’re missing out on seeing so much beauty and innovation and learning. How will we ever learn about cool and interesting work, like teaching sixth graders how to do “emotional labor” for one another, if we discount schools based on a single metric?

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The protocol I watched students do is called “collaborative study groups.” Read more about it (from a different school) here.