Recently, I was invited to speak on a panel for the Leveraging Leadership-Equity conference hosted by The Center for Strengthening the Teaching Profession, an organization I have had the pleasure and the privilege to work with in the past. Whenever I am invited to advocate on behalf of students and teachers I will always give a resounding YES. Advocacy and activism for equity, both in and out of the classroom, are core values of mine and those I’ve committed to pursuing fiercely and passionately in my career. They are just part of my job description. Nothing changes without people committed to being positive change agents in their communities, their schools, and their society at large.
At this particular conference, teams of educators from districts around the state were charged with the goal to develop a plan for how best to ensure equity in their district or school through collaborating with other districts. Teams had the time to reflect on their own district’s context and equity challenges, and to frame and discuss problems of practice.
During the panel, I had the honor to sit with smart, inspirational, and diverse educators from a variety of backgrounds. We were invited to share our stories about what had brought us to this incredibly difficult work, and how it shapes how we view equity for our students. I, of course, shared the story of how I had been one of the “bad kids” and how one particular teacher helped me to see something in myself that totally changed the course of my life. I have had a few opportunities to share this story in the past year, and if you’d like to know more about it, please check out the narrative published by CSTP last summer, and/or watch this video of the 5 minute Ignite speech I presented at the Seattle Times’ Education Lab event back in February of this year.
Why do I begin with my story? Because I believe many things about equity in our classrooms and about culturally competent and responsive classrooms and teaching practices, and the belief I hold most dearly is the importance of building meaningful connections and relationships with every single student in my classroom, and the power of storytelling as a way to do so. During my first year of teaching, my fairy-god-teacher gifted me with Linda Christensen’s Reading, Rising, and Rising Up: Teaching about Social Justice and the Power of the Written Word. It has been an integral part of my teaching ever since.
The lesson plan she shares which has been the most impactful in transforming my classroom is the Read-Around. Basically, it requires students to write narratives, sit in a circle, read-aloud to each other, and for the listeners to respond with positive feedback for the reader. I encourage every student to participate in the process, and I hold myself accountable to participate too, because I don’t think it’s fair of me to require that students become vulnerable, authentic, and honest in front of a room full of people without being willing to do the same.
What makes the read-around process so incredibly meaningful is that students begin to find their voices. They learn more about themselves and others, they are validated, seen, heard, known, and cared about. It creates a larger purpose for their writing than simply submitting it to the turn-in-basket for an audience of one. It identifies strengths, builds comradery, and brings students’ cultures into the classroom in an authentic way. It dispels assumptions and eradicates stereotypes. It lends itself to my ability to really know kids, and for them to know me. Best of all, it shows students the power of storytelling in building community, relationships, and connections.
This is one of the many ways I am able to do the work around differentiation and equity. What are you doing to ensure culturally responsive practices in your classroom? Share in the comments, and check out some of the other ways I work to incorporate student voice into the classroom.
CSTP has many additional resources for educators who would like to improve or strengthen their own practice, and here are a few of the best. Check them out and share with others!