A Call to Self Reflect: Transforming These Kids to Our Kids

Language is a powerful force in our lives.  The things that we choose to say and not say are rooted in our quiet private thoughts and deeply held beliefs.  No one can see these secret thoughts but language has a way of disclosing our true beliefs whether or not it is our intention.

As Jill Berkowicz  and Ann Myers have stated,

“In education there is a soft underbelly of that of which we do not speak.” (from The Stem Shift, 2015)

Scripture reveals that;

“The intrinsically good man produces what is good and honorable and moral out of the good treasure stored in his heart; and the intrinsically evil man produces what is wicked and depraved out of the evil in his heart; for his mouth speaks from the overflow of his heart.” Luke 6:45

Evil is not a term often used  in our culture and we would all agree that the overtly evil are locked up far away from us the law abiding members of society.  But while the word evil conjures images of blatant brutal and bloody violence, it also can be used to describe soft sweet destruction.  As in the case of disgruntled spouses lacing coffee and other dainties with cyanide. Dr. Luke here is implying that intrinsic evil can also manifest itself with words.

In American culture, coded language is the cyanide in the coffee.  And the teaching profession is no exception to the rule.  The coded phrase “these kids” is a term generally used to describe poor black, brown and now Spanish speaking children by some urban teachers of from various backgrounds.  For years I have heard this term used during meetings, in passing conversations, in faculty lounges and even in conversations with prospective teachers.

In this essay I’d like to expose this term as a counterproductive tool that reflects and promotes racism and robs children of the dignity they deserve as talented human beings.  Now as never before we must confront personal bias and do the self reflective work that empowers us to inspire this generation even as our profession is being attacked.  These, after all, are our children and as population trends continue we must all be equipped to deliver our best in order to prepare our citizenry for life for our quality of life will depend on it.  In other words while we are racing to memorize the academic standards we cannot leave our ethical standards behind.

When I first started teaching I heard teachers using the term “these kids” to describe our population of  urban students.  I must confess that I started using it too, it was a staple of the professional group lingo and was justified by the percentage of students living at or below the poverty level.  But as time passed I began to note that cynicism was the driving group-think of these teachers not intellectual acumen or instructional expertise.  It was then that this phrase began to rub me the wrong way.

This term came in to being after school desegregation in America when white teachers began to have regular contact with black students.  This group of teachers had little exposure to black students and black culture.  We were culturally different from white children in many ways and were considered “less than” because of these differences.  Let’s not forget that at the time of integration key arguments questioning the intelligence of blacks  were present in the media. (Arthur Jensen, Harvard Educational Review, 1969).  As a historical note I remember being bused to the suburbs for fifth grade in 1972  and being greeted not with milk and cookies but with displeased white parents standing outside the school protesting our arrival,  I was one of “those kids.”

Race is still the greatest stumbling block in America.

It is the beam in the eye that blinds us from seeing each other clearly.

As stated by Christopher Emdin in his 2015 book, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Y’all too…

“The work for (teachers of all ethnic backgrounds) becomes developing the self-reflection necessary to deconstruct the ways that media messages, other teachers (often exaggerated) stories and their own need to be the hero affects how they see and teach students. The teacher must work to ensure that the institution does not absolve them of the responsibility to acknowledge the baggage they bring to the classroom and analyze how that might affect student achievement.  Without teachers acknowledging the biases they hold and how these biases impact the ways they see and teach students, there is no starting point to change the dismal statistics related to the academic underperformance of urban youth.”

The cult of otherization is sweeping the nation as populist ideas resurface in our country. Otherization was an integral part of American slavery.  It was a key component among the psychological devices used to dehumanize Africans for the sake of wealth.  Recently several whites have subtly “confronted” me with their new knowledge that Africans were involved in the slave trade.  Henry Louis Gates in his book, Life Upon These Shores states that without African participation, the slave trade would not have been probable.  Greed comes in all forms…and colors and it causes much pain. I am shocked at the lack of forethought of those mentioning this me.  They seemed much more relieved with their new found absolution of guilt than unnerved at the notion that the fruit of American slavery standing right in front of them was quietly listening to their heart speak.

I can only surmise that this exciting knowledge relieved them of their white guilt so much that they felt free to tell me.  I on the other hand, saw the excitement of this newfound fact as their opportunity blame the progeny of this evil institution for their own demise thereby circumventing their empathic core and giving them a free pass on compassion.  Carried out to its logical conclusion this train of thought would end with,

Slavery was essentially their fault not ours, so what do I care about these kids?

In the book of Genesis, the first book of the bible, God confronts Cain (one of the sons born to Adam and Eve) and asks him the whereabouts of his brother Abel. Knowing as they say in the south “full well” that he had just murdered Abel because he was jealous of him as he had offered up a more acceptable sacrifice to God.   Cain’s response was filled with what C.H. Spurgeon called the coldest impertinence as he asked in response  “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

This one question is one of the most challenging human considerations for it cuts to the core of what it is to be human and righteously navigate relationships. Whether or not we believe in God and no matter our religious affiliation we must confront the relationships that we have with others and the extent to which we are responsible for the reciprocal process of relating.  Our existence depends upon this.  Cain’s response is typical of human behavior.  Instead of owning up to his own shortcoming he becomes angry and lashes out against his brother.

American educational fiscal policy, has long reflected a cold impertinence towards children of color.  So over the years, instead of laying the ground work that would provide equal access to high quality education it became easier to ignore children in certain neighborhoods and dis-invest in their futures.  Why would anyone care about what happened to these kids? We are currently paying a very high price for this evil. We will never know how many mathematicians, scientists, engineers, doctors  and the like have been lost because they were the others  who were deemed unworthy.  But there is hope.

Our Children

I believe as Rev. Dr.  William Barber of the North Carolina Forward Together Movement, that the way out is to seek higher moral ground.  Our children are worth the uncomfortable self reflection that it will take to change our thinking so that we protect their futures and thereby the future of our nation.  It starts with transforming our hearts so that our language changes. These kids must become OUR kids.

This blog exists to inspire teachers towards increased self awareness, inspiration and hope.  I believe that hope begins with greater spiritual insight through the renewal of the mind.  I want you to take the time to watch the video below and hear Rev. Barber as he enlightens and inspires us all to get to the higher moral ground that this requires.  Feel free to comment after you reflect upon his words here on wordpress or on facebook.

The Power of Teacher Collaboration: Teaching in the Spirit

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Our classrooms may be public places but in some ways they are very private.  Unlike other professions my teaching is a deep and meaningful expression of who I am.  Long before the new evaluations and reform many teachers were consistently seeking to improve their craft in substantive and long lasting ways that reflect closely held beliefs.

However, no matter how much a teacher reads, studies or implements good classroom practice, nothing can replace watching an experienced, gifted, self reflective teacher at their craft in their own space.

For years my sister Stephanie Morrison and I have toyed around with the idea of visiting each others classrooms. She teaches in the suburbs and I teach in a city.  So a few months ago I asked my BFT (Best Friend Teacher)  Lelia Craigg if she would be interested in leaving her classroom to go watch my sister teach and to my delight she said Yes!  Several weeks later Mrs. Morrison came to our school to observe us teach.

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These are the smiling faces of Mrs. Lelia Craigg  Grade 3 (left)  of Morse School, Poughkeepsie City School District, NY and Mrs. Stephanie Morrison Grade 4 (right) of Central Valley Elementary School, NY.

On January 6, 2017  after planning and discussing our learning focus and goals via  google docs and a conference call, we traveled to CVE to visit Mrs. Morrison and observe her instructional day.  We took notes asked questions during the day and debriefed at the end of the school session.

I took the above photo in Mrs. Morrison’s class. She is a well respected 20 year veteran in her school district.

What did I learn?

I came to observe the math lesson of the day while Mrs. Craigg focused on guided reading.

I had questions about math algorithms. I did not really understand the difference or relationship between an algorithm and a math strategy.  I also had questions about the efficacy of teaching first graders multiple math strategies.

What I learned was that an algorithm is the step by step solution to solving the math problem at hand and that any strategy used to solve the problem, is based on the specific algorithm that is being taught.  Also, on the ride back home Mrs. Craigg reminded me that student knowledge of fewer strategies with thorough mastery is more important than their acquaintance  with many strategies and weak mastery.

As I watched Mrs. Morrison teach the double digit multiplication standard algorithm lesson it reminded me that:

1.  First graders MUST KNOW their math facts cold.

2.  Student focus and stamina play a  pivotal a role in math.

and

3. The importance of teacher patience during a long math lesson.

Small inaccuracies in calculation are very costly in the upper grades.  Hence my belief and emphasis of math fact mastery in first grade is warranted.  Math stamina is another area of importance.  Children must endure to solution in math.   Focus and control are important here.

(You might want to listen to my posted interview:  What Kind of People do We  Want our Students to Become, with Marianne Goodwin) for a discussion of early life skills like focus and control.)

Mrs. Morrison’s students seemed quite accustomed to long math lessons and followed along.  She kept this direct instruction lesson upbeat and was very positive while moving throughout the class encouraging students frequently.  She deftly corrected imprecise calculations, redirected behaviors and kept the lesson humming with 100% student engagement. Watching her reminded me that there is no substitute for content mastery by the teacher and that the spirit with which we teach is just as important.

I believe there are  essentially three C’s to good teaching.

Know the CONTENT

Know the CHILDREN and

Know your CHARACTER.

Soul Content

Before we go any further there is something that I want you to know.

If you are going to teach…then teach

There is no substitute for knowing your stuff period.

Expert knowledge of a subject frees you to flow and teach in the spirit.  It gives you license to teach the subject at hand with transforming grace.  The subject does not matter.  Students are soul hungry and they need to be fed.  Good teaching offers utensils with which to dine.  That’s what I like about Mrs. Craigg and Mrs. Morrison – collaborating with them is a study in content and teaching with the soul in mind. Their passion to change lives is evident in the rich feedback I get whenever talking to them.  I rarely interact with them and leave empty.  In the same way, they challenge their students to think critically not because of the lesson’s objective but because it’s how they think.

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I listened to them talk about the lesson and then ease into a conversation about their own teaching philosophies.  They actually had many shared understandings.   Both hold high high expectations, have a no nonsense approach to classroom management and believe in skillful student centered planning.

On several occasions  Mrs. Morrison has told me, “I put so much love in these children! I fill them up!” She knows the secret.  Love is the best motivator in the world and it works.  This is where our shared history comes in.

Teaching in the spirit means that we teach so fiercely that we go beyond the texts and tests and reach for a testimony.   In church, a good testimony is the powerful verbal declaration of spiritual transformation.  I always ask students at the end of the school year if they can   “give a testimony” that is stand and tell  what they have learned.

Sometimes the testimony is academic in nature and sometimes more personal.  Older students (I have also taught upper grades) often give heartfelt testimonies of how friends got them through tough times. They report that they do not know “what would have happened” if it had not been for so and so.  I have had to fight back tears and remind myself that I was listening to fifth graders.

These are the most poignant and the testimonies that have taught me the most. I did not realize how much children currently rely on each other for moral support.

After a few giggles and with gentle coaxing most first graders get up and testify too.  Their testimonies are of personal milestones (learning to ride a bike for example), mastery of specific subjects (math), recent topics taught and of course, learning how to read. Some of these are purposefully funny and we laugh at the shared stops along our together journey.  “Remember that time!…”   Some very mature first graders give more formal testimonies and specifically thank me.

My testimony is last and is sprinkled with a few catch phrases from mini literary sermonettes given through the year.  (The diligence of Katy in the book Katy and the Big Snow by Virginia Lee Burton for example.)  Afterwards we all clap smile at each other we close the school year.

I share my experiences with Mrs. Morrison and Mrs. Craigg and they share with me.  This has kept me going going for many years.  Adding this recent experience was priceless for entering the others sacred teaching space was truly inspirational.  There is nothing like visiting a teacher who is on fire to watch them burn!

To end I want to say that while I understand, appreciate and uphold the sound cognitive goals of school reform my prayer for my students is that they are blessed with successful lives that do not exclude faith and hope. These are the bedrock upon which I stand and teach.  If I have learned anything in life I know that above all else these will sustain them.