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Giving VoicePosted by Marc Smith on 5/19/2022
About a month ago, I shared with you that our Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at the high school was participating in a Day of Silence protest. In that same post, I shared some action research that I have been conducting as it relates to LGBTQ+ students in Monomoy and their sense of belonging, as well as some of my preliminary findings.
Today, I would like to share with you some ways that you can support LGBTQ+ students in our district. As I noted in my last post, our LGBTQ+ students disproportionately feel a lower sense of belonging here, and experience higher rates of bullying and harassment. I also shared that regardless of our personal beliefs, opinions, political affiliations, and connection to religion (personally I am a confirmed Catholic), as public employees we are responsible for upholding the law, which states that every child is entitled to feeling safe when attending school. Beyond that, I know that we all got into education because we love children, ALL children.
It is also important that we distinguish between belonging and fitting in. In order for someone to fit in, they typically have to change certain aspects of their identity in order to blend into the dominant culture and norms within a particular community. That may look different within different communities, but it means hiding some aspect of self in order to be accepted by the group. Belonging is being accepted for who you are, as you are. Belonging is being able to be your full self, your entire identity, and being accepted by the community as that person. A strong sense of belonging for all students is our goal here in Monomoy.
In considering what to share here, I pulled from three main resources. First, I utilized a resource called the Safe Space Kit put out by GLSEN in 2019. Second, I wove in student voice from my action research where appropriate. Third, before publishing this post I brought it to the Monomoy GSA students for their thoughts, feedback and advice.
Normalizing LGBTQ+ in the Curriculum
When thinking about why it is important for students to see themselves represented in the curriculum, I could not say it any better than a high school senior that I interviewed: “I think, in the sense of normalizing it, choosing authors or historical figures that are part of the queer community humanizes us and makes us seem just like everyone else, because that’s what we are. I think that’s important for mental health and how you perceive yourself as a queer student, and how other students perceive you as a queer person.”
On the contrary, it can be harmful if LGBTQ students do not see themselves in the curriculum. A sophomore student noted, “It is again important to have that type of representation in a curriculum, because without that form of representation, we kind of just become ghosts.”
So what does normalization mean? Perhaps you are reading a picture book to your students in an elementary class and the theme of the story is about creativity. Maybe traditionally you would have used a book like The Dot, Ruby’s Sword, or The Artist who Painted a Blue Horse. To help normalize inclusivity, consider opting for a different book with a theme of creativity that happens to have a main character that has two moms, or two dads, or is a trans person. Especially at the elementary level, it is about subtly showing our students that their family (because yes, we have students being raised by same sex couples and trans folks) is just as normal as other families. It doesn’t have to be the main focus of the story -- in fact, it helps normalization if it is not.
At the high school or middle school, it might mean that the main character of a novel is homosexual, and has a same-gender love interest. This may feel uncomfortable to you at first, but consider something that a high school student brought to my attention: Is the depiction of a homosexual relationship any more innappropriate than the depiction of a heterosexual relationship? If we are comfortable having students reading about heterosexual romances and relationships, then we need to be comfortable having students reading about homosexual romances and relationships, on the same level of age-appropriateness. Our LGBTQ+ students have crushes, date, and have relationships just as their non-LGBTQ+ classmates do, and deserve to see their experiences reflected.
Language is continually evolving and old habits are hard to break, but being intentional about our language choices can be a clear signal to students that they belong. At the elementary level, traditional practices of organizing students by “boys” and “girls” assumes two genders and can be exclusionary for any child that is wondering about their gender identity (yes, it often starts in elementary school). Instead, consider other ways for organizing and addressing students in your classroom that are not assigned to gender (table group, birth month, pet ownership, etc., or calling them students, friends, etc.). Also, consider intentionality around classroom activities that make a big deal out of Mother’s Day or Father’s Day. Classroom activities and celebrations centered around these days presumes the traditional nuclear family as the normal family, and anything else (gay family, single parent, foster parent, raised by grandparent, etc.) as not normal and not belonging. Students are always learning from the activities that we have them do, so make sure we are intentional about what that is -- be careful that they are not learning an unintended lesson that says, “Your family structure is not normal and does not belong here.”
At the middle and high school level, students often begin or are in different stages of the coming out process, as they discover where their romantic and relationship interests are found. According to GLSEN, “coming out is a means to publicly declare one’s identity, whether to a person in private or a group of people.” It is important to note that because we live in a heteronormative, cisgender-normative society, coming out only applies to people who are declaring anything other than being heterosexual and a gender other than their sex assigned at birth. In middle and high school, if a student comes out to you, this should be taken as a gift. That student has chosen to share something personal with you and it means that they trust and respect you enough to do so. GLSEN offers a few things to consider if a student comes out to you:
- Offer support, but don’t assume the student needs help. Many students are completely comfortable with their sexual orentation or gender identity.
- Be a role model of acceptance.
- Listen, listen, listen -- The coming out process is a long process. The student is likely to come back to you multiple times during this process to discuss challenges and joys of being out in school.
- Assure and respect confidentiality -- The student may have come out to you, but may not yet be out with their peers or other teachers. Coming out is a personal process and the timing of that process is at the discretion of the LGBTQ+ person.
- Ask questions that demonstrate understanding, acceptance, and compassion: Have you been able to tell anyone else? Do you feel safe in school? Are you supported by adults in your life? Do you need help of any kind?
- Remember that the student has not changed -- They are still the same person that they were before they gave you this information, you just know a little more about them. Let the student know this.
Names and Pronouns
For a wide range of reasons, transgender students may not identify with the names and/or associated pronouns on their official school record (what is in Aspen). This can pose a challenge for teachers, especially at the start of the school year. While transgender students using different names and pronouns than those assigned at birth is more likely at the middle and high school levels, it does occur at the elementary level as well. Often at the youngest elementary levels, the parents and child have been involved in the process together, and your role as the teacher will be to work with the family and other school staff to support the needs of the student and family as you would with any other family in your classroom.
In middle and high school, it can be a bit more complicated. As mentioned earlier, students can be in different stages of the coming out process. So how do we honor each student’s identity in a respectful way without outing them to others before they are ready?
In interviewing several middle and high school-aged LGBTQ+ students, they have offered the following suggestions from observing practices of teachers that were validating. More than one student talked about “getting to know you” forms at the beginning of the year (done either on paper or digitally through a Google Form) that included questions like name, pronouns, and questions like, “Who is it safe to use this name/these pronouns around?” As one student I interviewed noted, “I thought that was really thoughtful, especially like, can I use this around parents, who is this safe around?” Lastly, it is important to remember that this is a fluid process and it is important to include multiple opportunities throughout the year for students to update this information with you.
Another student shared that they had a teacher that started the first class by doing attendance by last name only. “[The teacher] did like attendance on the first day by last name versus by calling first name and then asked people their names in private to like make sure he didn’t like deadname anyone” (Deadnaming is a practice of using a trans person’s name assigned at birth after they have transitioned).
Signs of Support
Visible signs of support can go a long way in helping LGBTQ+ students feel safer in school. Even for students who may not yet be out with their teachers, when teachers take active steps to show signs of support for LGBTQ+ students, like posting safe space stickers, displaying rainbow flags, asking for preferred pronouns, or posting quotes from LGBTQ+ icons, LGBTQ+ students feel better about being in school (GLSEN, 2019). A strong sense of belonging is grounded in relationships. Research has shown that school belonging has strong roots in the relationship that the student has with their school and the decisions teachers, staff, and leaders make to value student identity impact those relationships.
It is crucial that we as school staff let all students know that their identities are valued, important, and belong here at Monomoy. Whether that identity is tied to their status as an LGBTQ+ person, their race or ethnicity, the language that is spoken in their home, their neurodiversity, or many of the other unique factors that make an individual an individual, we must make it utterly clear that we see, acknowledge, and validate those identities. Taking an approach that says that we don’t see differences means that we don’t see the individual, and all the unique strengths that each individual brings with them.
Where do I Belong?Posted by Marc Smith on 4/8/2022
Where do I Belong?
As our high school staff are already aware, but many of our other staff across the district may not be, our Gender and Sexuality Alliance (GSA) at Monomoy Regional High School spent the last two months organizing students to support the “Day of Silence” protest. The students at our high school organized their day for today, April 8th. A Day of Silence protest is meant to be a student-led demonstration, organized by LGBTQ+ students and their allies. The students commit to a day of silence as a symbol of the effects of harassment and bullying that LGBTQ+ students face in schools and communities regularly and how that often requires them to silence that part of their identity (learn more about the day of silence here).
Today seemed the right time to share work that I have been doing parallel to the GSA’s work, and how we might better support all students in their sense of belonging here in Monomoy. As part of course work that I am currently engaged in, I have been conducting an action research project that has been focused on exploring LGBTQ+ students’ sense of belonging within Monomoy along with their sense of physical and emotional safety. This project has included both work with the GSA, independent research, and focus group interviews of LGBTQ+ students. This is what I have found so far:
Extensive research has already been done to explore the experiences of LGBTQ+ students as compared to their non-LGBTQ+ peers. In an extensive study of the educational and psychological outcomes between LGBTQ+ and non-LGBTQ+ youth, Robinson and Espelage (2011) found several risk factors for LGBTQ+ youth. In their survey of students, they found that LGBTQ+ students were more likely than their non- LGBTQ+ peers to have attempted suicide. Similarly, LGBTQ+ youth were more likely not to report considering suicide and significantly more likely to have seriously considered suicide than their non-LGBTQ+ peers. Related to belonging, Robinson and Espelage (2011) found a significant difference in the sense of belonging between LGBTQ+ identified youth and non-LGBTQ+ youth, noting that this difference was even more pronounced for middle school students (p values < .0001 for all above differences). While the authors of the study remind readers that they found many LGBTQ students that had developed healthy academic and psychological profiles, their research indicates that continued work is needed in schools to address the disproportionate risk that LGBTQ+ students currently face.
Unfortunately, the literature is clear regarding disproportionate experiences with bullying and harassment that LGBTQ+ students’ experience along with the associated feelings of thwarted belonging and threats to safety (Arslanv & Allen, 2021; Hill et al., 2017; Massachusetts Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youth, 2021; Robinson & Espelage, 2011; Trevor Project, 2020). As a result, LBGTQ+ students are twice as likely to miss school due to feelings related to comfort or safety than their non-LGBTQ+ peers (GLSEN, 2019). Even worse, when LGBTB+ youth feel disconnected from their community, they experience thwarted belonging, which is a significant risk factor for suicidal ideation (Hill et al., 2017).
However, not all is doom and gloom, because we can make a difference. Benedict et al. (2017) found that one’s sense of belonging is tied to a connection between one’s personal beliefs and the beliefs of the group to which they are a member. This means that if we as the adults in the building show LGBTQ+ students that they are just as valuable as every other student, then it will go a long way towards building their sense of belonging. Schools and school staff play a key role in creating safe spaces that mitigate risk factors for LGBTQ+ students (GLSEN, 2019).
Students confirm the literature:
During a faculty meeting at the high school in early March, 11 brave students from the GSA chose to present their story to the faculty. They shared their personal experiences with hate, harassment, intolerance, and not being accepted for who they are. One student eloquently stated that, “Transphobia and homophobia are normalized in the culture here.”
During my focus group interviews, a different group of LGBTQ+ students talked about having to hide their identities in certain situations. One student stated, “In other areas it’s more so just like it’s not really a part of you. You put that part of you aside, and you’re just a student when you walk in there. Your identity isn’t really as much a part of who you are in your interactions in that classroom.” Another student echoed a similar statement when saying, “I would agree that there are rooms I am more hesitant to be myself in, umm because I know there are students in that room who call other queer students slurs. Umm, so then I, yeah, I’m more hesitant.”
Unfortunately, the students don’t just assign an unsafe label to only those of us who directly hurt them. When discussing students in a classroom a student shared, “For me, because I know that maybe one of their friends said one thing one time. For me. It’s like I assume that they are all unsafe. None of them outright say like I’m a safe person, or make an effort to do that. So then I assume that, like the whole side of the room is unsafe.” And students are looking for our help. The students that presented at the faculty meeting talked about a desire to have staff address incidents of transphobic or homophobic language when it occurs in the classrooms and hallways. One student in the focus group noted, “I think a big part of it is that they don’t know how, a lot of teachers are afraid they’re going to say the wrong thing or mess something up, so they just don’t.”
However, our students are asking for their identities to be validated. As one student stated in the focus group, “Without that form of representation [LGBTQ+], like ___ said, we kind of just become ghosts.” And when speaking about seeing themselves represented in the curriculum, one student shared, “I think, in the sense of normalizing it, um, by choosing authors or historical figures that are part of the queer community humanizes us and makes us seem, that makes us seem just like everyone else, because that’s what we are. I think that’s important for mental health and how you perceive yourself as a queer student, and how other students perceive you as a queer person.”
The literature and the student stories create a compelling argument for why this work is important to take on with LGBTQ+ students, but it is not the only one. There is a reason that is less emotional, more practical, and more grounded in plain logic. It is our legal responsibility to ensure all students have access to a public school environment that is safe and free of bullying and harassment. There are two laws in particular, the Massachusetts Student Anti-discrimination Law, Chapter 76, Section 5, which was amended in 1993 to include sexual orientation as a protected category; and The 2012 Gender Identity Law, which amended Chapter 76, Section 5 to prohibit discrimination on the basis of gender identity that speak directly to LGBTQ+ students. Additionally, the bullying law (Chapter 71, Section 37 O) was amended in 2014 to include our roles as school staff in bullying and harassment incidents involving students.
Regardless of our personal, political, or religious beliefs about LGBTQ+ people, as individuals that have chosen public school education as our profession, we are beholden to uphold the laws of Massachusetts. As such, we must defend the rights of each individual child that walks through our doors. Please let that comfort you should you be challenged by any member of our school community that pushes back against you for validating the individual identity of one of your students. You are just upholding the law.
Arslanv, G., & Allen, K. A. (2021). School victimization, school belongingness, psychological well-being, and emotional problems in adolescents. Child Indicators Research, 14(4), 1501-1517.
Benedict, B., Verdín, D., Godwin, A., & Milton, T. (2017, October). Social and latent identities that contribute to diverse students' belongingness in engineering. In 2017 IEEE Frontiers in Education Conference (FIE) (pp. 1-5). IEEE.
GLSEN. (2019). Safe space kit: A guide to supporting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer students in your school. GLSEN. https://www.glsen.org/sites/default/files/GLSEN%20Safe%20Space%20Kit.pdf
Hill, R. M., Rooney, E. E., Mooney, M. A., & Kaplow, J. B. (2017). Links between social support, thwarted belongingness, and suicide ideation among lesbian, gay, and bisexual college students. Journal of Family Strengths, 17(2), 6.
Massachusetts Commission on Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer, and Questioning Youth. (2021). Massachusetts Commission on LGBTQ Youth: Report and Recommendations for Fiscal Year 2022. Retrieved from https://www.mass.gov/annual-recommendations
Nichols, S. L. (2008). An exploration of students' belongingness beliefs in one middle school. The journal of experimental education, 76(2), 145-169.
Robinson, J. P., & Espelage, D. L. (2011). Inequities in educational and psychological outcomes between LGBTQ and straight students in middle and high school. Educational researcher, 40(7), 315-330.
The Trevor Project. (2020, August). How the COVID-19 pandemic is impacting LGBTQ youth: Polling presentation. Morning Consult. https://www.thetrevorproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/10/Trevor-Poll_COVID19.pdf
What is in a Name?Posted by Marc Smith on 9/7/2021
I was surfing social media not too long ago, the kind of mindless scrolling you do when you are passing time, procrastinating, or trying to avoid eye contact with someone in a waiting room so you don't have to make small talk ... you know what I’m talking about. I stumbled across a meme that showed a picture of a Starbucks order. The caption on the post said, “I said, Marc, with a C." In the picture, you can clearly see that on the cup the barista wrote Cark as the person's name.
As someone who spells their name M-a-r-c, it is not uncommon for people to use the more conventional M-a-r-k spelling of the name when writing to me. This meme illustrates that often we have a difficult time getting our brains to shift away from that which they have become accustomed to. Depending upon the context in which we were raised, our brains have formed certain associations and locked those associations into our unconscious. This has occurred without us even being aware of it.
In his book Thinking Fast and Slow (2013), Daniel Kahneman describes this automatic way of thinking as System 1 thinking. In summary, Kahneman explains that System 1 is where the human sense of intuition comes from; it is our "gut" response to situations, and happens quickly with very little focused mental effort. Kahneman details through research in his book that this sense of intuition is really more a collection of experiences catalogued by your brain. This kaleidoscope of lived experiences allows your brain to predict your environment when it finds itself in similar situations. As he describes, this is an effective, evolutionary, adaptive survival mechanism in our brains that was necessary for our survival as a species. Our brains needed to be able to process large amounts of stimulus and quickly separate safety from danger as a part of our survival. However, as he notes, this prediction mechanism sometimes gets things wrong. As is the case in the example above.
Sometimes, System 1 is running so quickly that it produces false responses, responses that if only given a few moments of purposeful thought, one would have realized didn't make any sense ... like Cark (he highlights several research examples in his book). The more slow, purposeful thought process that would catch the simple error is what Kahneman calls System 2. However, as Kahneman points out, System 2 is notoriously lazy, and will often default to System 1, because it requires effort (his studies show pupil dilation, increased pulse, and respiration) to do this specific type of thinking and force ourselves to check our assumptions.
Our Students’ Names
As we start a new school year and spend these first few weeks getting to know our students, there are so many things for us to consider. Many moments of our day will fly by and there are many moments where System 1 will be driving our decision making. This is unavoidable and part of the human condition. There is one place; however, where I think we all should slow down and force ourselves to invoke some System 2 thinking.
A few weeks ago, Joy Jordan shared with me a Twitter post from an EL Teacher named Pamela Broussard (@LeadingELLs) that was so compelling I really felt it needed to be shared. She created an infographic for her staff (below) that really stresses the importance of learning our students' names -- especially those names that are not based in an Anglo-American dialect. As teachers, when we find ourselves faced with these challenging student names, System 1 is going to quickly go to the responses you see that Pamela has outlined below: "I can't say that name," "I give them a nickname," "They tell me it is ok or to call them___," "I just give them the American version of their name." This is a normal initial response of our brain. It is fast, easy and efficient. That is what our brain is built for -- efficiency. Our students deserve better than efficiency. They deserve identity.
As Pamela so perfectly articulates at the end of the infographic, "Our names are the first words off of our mother's lips to us. They ARE our identity."
People often ask me, "What is something that I can do to support the District's equity initiatives?" This is one thing: Through this one act of taking the time to engage System 2, through purposeful effort to learn to properly pronounce each student's first and last name, you will engage that student in the learning process, honor his/her family's history, culture, and the value that it brings to our community, as well as set the stage for a safe learning environment in your classroom. That supports Monomoy’s equity initiatives, improves access for all students, and bolsters our work on social and emotional learning.
Kahneman, D. (2013). Thinking Fast and Slow. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Konmarie --> Not Just for Folding ShirtsPosted by Marc Smith on 8/31/2021
Photo Credit: Christopher Williams - NY Times
Last spring, our district was fortunate enough to welcome a guest speaker, Dr. Jal Mehta from Harvard, who spoke at a community event. The event was organized by staff at Chatham Elementary School as a part of their continued work with Deeper Learning, and was the culmination of a community book read of his book, In Search of Deeper Learning, which he co-authored with Dr. Sarah Fine.
During the one-hour conversation, Dr. Mehta engaged a panel of Monomoy and DESE staff in a conversation around some of the big ideas from his book, asked some pointed questions, and gave all the participants many things to think about. As the session progressed towards its end, Dr. Mehta shared his 10 conditions that he felt were necessary for Deeper Learning to thrive as schools move forward in the years to come. There was one item on this list that really stuck out to me and has been swimming around in my head ever since.
Before diving into the idea that resonated so deeply with me, it is important to establish a common definition. What is it that we mean when we say Deeper Learning?
According to Mehta and Fine (2019), Deeper Learning is the intersection of mastery, identity, and creativity. In this way, deeper learning occurs when students are able to develop new knowledge or skills (mastery), see themselves connected to what they are learning in a vital way (identity), and then are using this knowledge/skill along with what they bring to the table to produce something new (creativity) rather than simply receiving knowledge.
Fullan et al. (2018) describe deep learning as increasing student engagement through personalization and ownership, connecting students to the real world -- which is often more reflective of their own reality and cultural identity. Deeper learning resonates with spiritual values, builds skills, knowledge, self-confidence, and self-efficacy, and deepens the human desire to connect with others to do good.
In short, deeper learning means more than just receiving knowledge. It requires learning experiences where students interact with knowledge in a way that connects new learning with previous learning and that resonates with the students’ identity, both shaping it and being shaped by it. Also, deeper learning encourages students to connect their learning to the community, often in the service of others or for the greater good.
As I noted earlier, there was one condition for Deeper Learning that Dr. Mehta shared during his chat that resonated with me for a couple of reasons. First, it stuck with me because of the way he presented the concept. He had presented his 10 ideas as bulleted items, and this particular bullet read “Kondo the Curriculum.” This immediately caught my attention. I thought I was very well read on curriculum and was caught off guard that he was presenting a term that I had never heard before.
After a brief bout of anxiety prompted by insecurity that I had missed something in my study of curriculum, I settled in with anticipatory excitement to learn something new. As Dr. Mehta got to this bullet, I learned that Kondo-ing the Curriculum was a phrase he had made up (phew, anxiety quelled). It references the Marie Kondo (KonMari) Method for organizing your life and belongings.
I am notoriously bad at keeping up with pop culture and had to do a little research on Marie Kondo. In short, she is a personal life consultant that helps people reorganize their surroundings so that they can have time for the things that are important to them. Her process has some tenets to follow, one of which is to tidy up by eliminating anything that you do not need and that does not bring you joy.
Kondo the Curriculum
So, what does it mean to Kondo the Curriculum? Dr. Mehta’s point was that in order to clear space for students to go deeper on the content that matters, in order to build mastery with that content, to bring their identity to bear upon it, and to apply this learning in new and creative ways, we must trim the fat from our curriculum. His point is that we have jammed our curriculums with so much stuff that we as educators are forcing ourselves and our students to race through the material at breakneck pace. This fast-paced, cover-as-much-material-as-you can approach to schooling is the antithesis of deeper learning. A recent study done by Gallup (Calderon & Yu, 2017) showed that student engagement in school drops the longer students are in school. 74% of grade 5 students report being engaged in schools and that number declines each year so that by grade 11 only 32% of students report being engaged in school. Actually, more students (34%) report being actively disengaged in grade 11 than report being engaged. We have to start to think differently.
The pandemic forced us to think differently during the spring of 2020 and all of last year. Due to the overnight closure of the schools and switch to remote learning, followed by a school year that was 10 days shorter, shortened class periods due to COVID precautions, and overall slower pace of instruction last year, every teacher was forced to cut significant portions of their curriculum. At the beginning of last year, as Scott and I came around to meet with each school at the start of the school year, I asked you to focus on the skills and knowledge that were essential for students to be successful in their current grade-level/course, and that would best prepare them for the next level.
As a result, each of you worked with your grade-level and/or department colleagues to make purposeful decisions about what was critical to keep and what could go. This was important and valuable work, and has set the foundation for a great opportunity!
As we start this year, I have a question for us all: “If we were able to jettison content last year, do we need to bring that content back this year?”
“In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” ~ Albert Einstein
If a crisis is an opportunity for us to focus on what is truly most important, then maybe the last 18 months were truly a curricular blessing. Perhaps it gave us an opportunity to trim some “fluff” that had built up in our curriculum materials. Instead of adding back in more stuff, how might we instead slow down and spend more time on what we deemed was most important to hold onto during the pandemic? How do we create more opportunities for students to master the knowledge and skills associated with these important topics? How might we give students more opportunities to bring their own identity into these learning experiences or offer opportunities for student agency that afford students voice within the content to explore areas of their own desire? Lastly, how can we use the additional time created by not adding back in all the “stuff” to allow students to truly apply what they have learned in new and creative ways that perhaps extend the learning beyond the classroom in service of others?
Calderon, V. J., & Yu, D. (2017, June 1). Student enthusiasm falls as high school graduation nears. Gallup.com. https://news.gallup.com/opinion/gallup/211631/student-enthusiasm-falls-high-school-graduation-nears.aspx.
Fullan, M., Quinn, J., & McEachen, J. (2018). Deep learning: Engage the world change the world. Corwin.
Mehta, J. & Fine, S. (2019). In search of deeper learning: The quest to remake the American high school. Harvard University Press.
Assets Among UsPosted by Marc Smith on 3/15/2021
For nearly 30 years my parents have owned a small lot of land and small home on the island of Puerto Rico. Originally purchased as an investment with my grandparents, it now serves as my parents’ retirement home and for the past three years they have developed the typical migratory pattern of many Cape Codders who reach retirement age… fly south for the winter and return when the weather turns.
Throughout my life, I have been able to get down there on numerous occasions, but less so in recent years. Additionally, my daughter had only ever been once (prior to the age of two) and my son had never been. In the last year or so, they have been pestering me more and more to get down there. So, a little earlier this year when Puerto Rico became one of the three places identified by Massachusetts as a low-risk travel destination and airfare remained strikingly reasonable, I decided to take my kids down to visit with their grandparents for a few days.
We had a great few days escaping the New England cold weather exploring waterfalls, horseback riding, ziplining, relaxing on the beach, and making memories. On our last night there, we went to dinner at a nice restaurant down by the beach. We were waiting to be seated outside the restaurant (in Puerto Rico they, in response to COVID, do not let you inside establishments without first checking your temperature) and were quickly greeted by a young woman who began engaging with us in Spanish. When she could see that we (sheepishly) did not understand her, she quickly transitioned to English and continued to engage with us in English. As she brought us to our table, she moved back and forth between English and Spanish seamlessly as she engaged with both our group and other groups moving through the restaurant.
This experience with bilingual fluidity is one that I experience regularly in Puerto Rico. Quite frankly, it is how my very mono-ligual parents can spend 5 months a year there. Each time I return, I usually spend a few days thinking about how I wish I had really learned another language (more than the few phrases I remember from high school Spanish) and am left in awe of those that do speak more than one language. This trip however, I found myself thinking about it from a slightly different perspective.
I am not sure if everyone is aware, but one of my responsibilities in the district includes the oversight of the English learner program in the district. Following this trip, I found myself thinking a lot about the English learners in our district. In my experience from conversations both here and across the state, many of us have developed a habit of seeing English learners as a problem that needs to be fixed. By that I mean, that we tend to see English learners as lacking something (English language proficiency) in order to be successful in school. As a result, we put things in place to address that deficiency and limit access to opportunities because of those perceived deficiencies.
As I have been reflecting, I am recognizing how limiting that perspective is. With the same awe that I looked at the young woman who seated us, we should be looking at our English learner students. The fact that our English learners speak another language is not a deficit, it is a superpower! In an ever globalized world, being multilingual is an asset that should be celebrated. Do we have to support students in their continued development of English proficiency? Yes, but that does not mean that we have to stamp out their native language in order to do it. Students can develop literacy in more than one language, and native language can be used to help students learn academic content until they are able to acquire the academic language in English.
Largely, what I think I am coming to realize is that I need to take more of an asset-based approach when thinking about English learners and I invite you to do the same. When we see students’ native language, lived experiences, cultural differences, and varied perspectives as assets to the classroom, then we see an opportunity to to enhance our lessons for all the students in our room, to develop empathy in our students, and to do what Zaretta Hammond refers to as widening our aperture by studying the characteristics make our students unique.
Reflecting ReflectionsPosted by Marc Smith on 12/11/2020
Earlier this week, I was working on a project. As a part of that project, I went back through the feedback and reflections that you all had shared following our November 3rd professional development day. As I was re-reading the feedback on the structure from the day, three themes began to emerge from the pages and I would like to share them with you along with my thoughts on their implication for our work as educators.
The three themes that arose from the feedback were:
- People enjoyed having choice in sessions/topics and agency in directing their own learning by choosing the learning opportunities that best met their needs.
- Spending all day in front of the computer screen was very challenging for most people.
- Having four sessions in one day, where a lot of information was being "thrown" at participants was too much. Many referenced a want for time during the day to apply what they had learned, practice with it a bit, or process it with others.
As a leader of professional development in the district, I am very appreciative of this feedback and I will incorporate it into future district professional development days. I also think there are some important "truths" that arose from the reflections of adult learners that we should apply to our student learners.
Good for Us, Good for Them?
As I found myself reflecting on this feedback and considering how to shape adult learning experiences going forward, I started to wonder about the students that we serve here in Monomoy. If these strengths and challenges around learning were identified by the educators in Monomoy, are they strengths and challenges that we need to address for our students as well.
Choice - The positive feedback that we received, around teachers having choice in which sessions they participated in, aligns tightly with anecdotal comments/conversations that I have had with folks over the past few years here in Monomoy. I have heard things like, "Teachers want to have more choice over their learning." "Teachers want PD to have meaning for their job and context." "Not every teacher needs the same thing." Research supports that choice is a key component to successful professional development, mainly because it is a key component to engagement and learning (Scheninger, 2019).
So, if this is what we want as learners for ourselves, how are we creating this same opportunity for our students? Are we giving them opportunities to choose what they learn or how they are learning new material? Do we provide students with choice on how they show us what they have learned? Do we allow students regular opportunities to explore their areas of interest in our content area, or is it mostly framed around what we think is interesting, valuable, and important?
Screen Time - Many of you noted how difficult it was to spend all day on your computer, and few noted that it gave you a different understanding for what the students are experiencing who are remote or hybrid learners. So, with that knowledge, experience, and perspective, how can we adjust learning activities so that they are not always computer dependent?
Are there ways that we can construct lessons, assessments, and learning experiences that push students away from their computers and into other modes of work? Does every assignment need to be turned in? If not, which ones can move off screen? If we employ more student choice as outlined above, can that create more opportunities for students to pursue or demonstrate learning in ways that do not require hours of screen time during the day, followed by hours of screen time completing homework?
Information Overload - This last theme came up the most often across all the feedback. In multiple ways, from most participants, there was an ask that participants in the November 3rd PD day had more time to process the information they were learning with their peers, to practice with the new learning with the presenters, and begin to apply the new learning in each person's context (grade-level, specialization, content area, etc.).
To be frank, this information overload is what I see that we do to our students everyday at school. In our race to "cover" everything, we are continually pumping kids with information. As a system (here in Monomoy, and public schools across the country), we continue to stuff kids head with information and provide them with comparatively little time to process, practice and apply that information.
As we consider our secondary students (starting in grade 5 here at Monomoy), this happens in one class, then they get up, move to another class and it happens again... and again... and again.
If this pandemic has taught us anything, it is that it is really important to focus on the important things. The information collected on a test on February 17th from a third grade (fifth grade, 8th grade, 12th grade) math (ELA, history, art, science, etc) test is not what our student will NEED when then leave Monomoy and head into the world. What they will NEED are thinking skills, problem solving skills, analytical skills, and the ability to synthesize their own unique thoughts, opinions, and perspectives from learning across multiple domains.
Are we providing students with time to process information, to apply information, to practice with an expert (us) in the same way that we want that as adult learners? Have we taken a hard look at our curriculum and decided what the essential elements are and what the core skills students should be developing? Or are we simply in a race to "cover" everything and our students are left barely holding on?
A facilitator from The New Teacher Project recently used a simple three-word phrase when discussing this same topic in a PD session I attended. She said when constructing learning activities think, "New, Chew, Review." Present some new information, give kids time to chew on it through practice, discussion, application, and then review to ensure the learning is cemented.
Reflection for Growth
For the past 5-6 years I have had a quote on the signature line of my email from Albert Einstein. It states, "Intellectual growth should commence at birth and cease only at death." I strongly believe in the message of this quote and that each of us is on a learning journey. To me the single most powerful skill of great teachers and leaders is self-reflection.
With that I leave you with a challenge. I ask that you please take some time to reflect on these three concepts above and how they affected you as a learner on November 3rd. Then with that perspective in the forefront of your brain, consider what you can you take from that experience, from those wants you had as a learner and best apply them in your work with students.
Thank you for all you are and continue to do for our students.
Reference: Sheninger, E. (2019). Digital leadership: Changing paradigms for changing times (2nd ed.). Corwin; International Center for Leadership in Education.
Implicit Bias and MePosted by Marc Smith on 10/7/2020 3:00:00 PM
(Photo Credit: Wikimedia)
A few weeks ago, I finished a class and started my trip home. It was late and I had a bit of a drive ahead of me. I was tired and operating mostly on auto-pilot. As I merged onto the on-ramp, I was instantly caught in heavy traffic. As I slowly merged onto the highway, I could hear (and feel) a deep thumping bass sound with a distinctive hip-hop rhythm and rap lyrics approaching over my left shoulder. As I turned my head, I noticed a white woman driving the car next to me where the sound was coming from. The first thought my tired mind registered was one of surprise. In the next 2 to 3 seconds, the analytical, reflective part of my brain turned back on and jumped into overdrive, questioning myself: “Why are you surprised?” “What, you think white women don’t listen to rap?” “What did you expect to see?” “What is wrong with you?”
Since starting my journey to become a more culturally proficient educator, I have found myself having more and more experiences like this one. I am becoming more attuned to my own implicit bias and the assumptions I make about the world based upon my cultural background, as well as the messages that have been imprinted on my brain throughout my life. While I still tend to quickly transition into questions of judgement like, “What is wrong with me?”or “What type of person am I to have that thought/feeling?”, I am also working to see these moments of self-awareness as progress. A few years ago, I am not sure I would have questioned my surprise -- or even noticed it. I am not sure I would have analyzed where the thought was coming from or how it really signals an automatic connection my brain has made between rap/hip-hop music and people of color.
Implicit Bias in Systems
In education, we continue to see inequity in opportunity, access, and achievement for students of color across the country and here in Monomoy. While these inequities may not always be a product of overt acts of racism, they are the product of systems that are influenced by the unconscious, automatic beliefs that exist in all of us. We have left these biases largely unexamined. Many systems and structures that operate in schools today have their roots in a different time, when society was separated into those who were fit for education, property, prosperity, and advancement, and those who were not. Often, this meant if you were a white male from strong economic standing, then you were fit, and all others were not. We may be tempted to say that this idea is one that is representative of a time long gone in public education. Yet, if we examine our current public education system and the policies, practices, regulations, and structures that support it, not much has changed in the last 100 years. These systems also work to reinforce bias by producing outcomes that seem to legitimize the collective stories we have been told through movies, music, television, news media, and our own cultural upbringing. As such, it requires us to actively challenge these stories and systems, examining what we do, how we do it, and why we do it.
As a part of my journey towards culturally proficient practices and becoming an anti-racist educator, I have worked to learn from others who are further along in this journey than I. In taking on this new learning, one message that I have heard time and time again is that working towards cultural proficiency and anti-racism begins within. You may recall Dr. Wornum talking with us about this last year. As she said, exploring our own culture and how it shapes the way we view the world is a critical first step in becoming a culturally proficient educator.
Where to Start?
If you think you are ready to begin this work exploring your own bias, I would like to recommend a powerful tool to you. Since 1998, Harvard University has sponsored Project Implicit (linked here). From the Project Implicit website:
“Project Implicit is a non-profit organization and international collaborative network of researchers investigating implicit social cognition - thoughts and feelings that are largely outside of conscious awareness and control. Project Implicit is the product of a team of scientists whose research produced new ways of understanding attitudes, stereotypes and other hidden biases that influence perception, judgment, and action.”
The way the tool works is that you are first asked to select an Implicit Association Test. There are a wide range of tests that you can take, exploring bias in a plethora of categories (race, skin tone, religion, disability status, etc.). The test is simple, straightforward, and easy to participate in. It tests your responses to associations made between a positive or negative statement and a particular bias category. You are asked to respond as quickly as possible without thinking. The goal is to help you uncover your automatic associations, the ones that exist well below your conscious mind and that are a product of inputs that have shaped your subconscious your entire life. It is very important for you to know that this is not meant to be a tool for self-judgement, or to prove if you are a good or bad person. Rather, it is meant to inform you about your unconscious mind and serve as information that you can use to mitigate implicit biases by making you aware of your automatic associations.
My Vulnerable Moment
In the spirit of vulnerability and openness, I will share the results of one of my Implicit Association Tests (IAT) and how I use that information. I took the IAT for skin tone about a year ago. My test results indicated that I have an automatic preference for lighter skin tones over darker skin tones. After the initial feelings of guilt and shame passed, I began to reflect on what the test was telling me. First, the more I thought about it, the less surprising this result was. I was born and raised here on Cape Cod. As a result, my day-to-day interactions with family, friends, community, work, shopping, etc., have been dominated by interactions with people that look like me: light-skinned. I went to Stonehill College, often referred to as Clonehill because everyone looks the same: light-skinned. Growing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s, the characters that largely dominated the movies and TV shows I watched also looked like me: light-skinned. This all had an imprint on my unconscious mind. Largely, I had no control over it. Something over which I do have control, however, is what I do with this information and insight, and whether I make a conscious effort to push past my initial implicit reactions.
There are specific steps that I can take to ensure that I do not let this automatic preference result in actions and decisions that reinforce systems of oppression. I know that I need to actively pursue opportunities to learn more about different perspectives on education, especially those that are founded in cultural backgrounds and experiences that differ from my own. I do this by listening to podcasts, reading texts, and watching TED Talks by prominent thought leaders of color so as to deepen my understanding and challenge the narratives I have internalized. I also know that I need to actively monitor my thoughts, impressions, and feelings in a variety of professional settings to ensure my automatic, unconscious preferences are not influencing my decisions. As an example, when on an interview team, I need to make sure that I am actively monitoring my “feelings” and “impressions” about each candidate and his/her “fit” to ensure none of my automatic preferences are superseding the qualities of the candidate. This takes purposeful, deliberate work on my part and is necessary if I want to be a culturally proficient educator and leader.
Practice Makes Progress
Many of us have heard the expression “Practice Makes Perfect.” There are two iterations of this phrase that I think more accurately reflect real life, as I am not sure perfection exists in the human condition. “Practice Makes Permanent” and “Practice Makes Progress” are both more appropriate reflections of our work to be better educators and better human beings. The more we practice something, the more it becomes a part of who we are … not because the work gets easier, but because we get stronger. And once we get a little stronger, we are ready to progress towards our next goal, which is why practice makes progress. Give yourself the permission to stumble through this work -- to be awkward, to flounder, to have self-doubt. Allow yourself to be vulnerable -- what Brene Brown would define as experiencing uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. Nothing worth doing is easy, and this work is definitely worth doing.
Why We Should be Talking About Race with Our StudentsPosted by Marc Smith on 6/2/2020
Photo Credit: Goalcast.com
As I sit down to write this, it has been just over a week since George Floyd's death. Like me, I am sure many of you have followed this story closely, and I imagine none of us have been able to escape the emotional turmoil that seems to be in the air across our nation. Personally, I have been flooded with a wide variety of emotions and have spent a large portion of my quiet moments processing these feelings.
The current protests are a result of many historical elements that cannot be ignored. First, our country has a history of systematic oppression of people of color. Second, many of the policies, procedures, and practices that govern large systems in our country presently have been part of those systems for a long time and were established by intentions long forgotten; many of those intentions were not ones of inclusion, but rather intentions of segregation. Third, historical policy decisions in this country frame our current reality. For example, According to the Pew Research Center, "Black Americans are nearly three times as likely as white Americans to live in poverty, according to the 2012 March Current Population Survey. Among whites, 10% were poor in 2011, compared with 28% of blacks, 25% of Hispanics and 12% of Asians." As a result, when we make certain decisions that seem unconnected to race (like deciding to close small businesses due to a health crisis), we disproportionately affect people of color. Fourth, public education is a system, and like all other large systems, has underserved children of color for a long time. Historically, a lot of that has been on purpose and presently we are living the results of that system. Last, Monomoy is not immune from any of the above facts. As we discussed earlier this year, when we disaggregate our data at Monomoy, we see that our students of color are underserved in achievement, recognitions, access to advanced courses, and academic growth.
Living in a home with four school-aged children, I know that our students are aware of what is going on in the world, that they have feelings about what they are seeing, and that they need support in navigating complex issues. As a district, we have an obligation to support our students and to talk about race with them. Avoiding conversations of race is a privilege reserved only for those of us that are white, and as a school staff that is 97.5% white, that makes up most of us. Silence is only an option for those privileged (learn more about white privilege here) to be part of dominant culture and we need to have the courage to set aside our own discomfort with conversations of race, so as to affect change. Our discomfort is not more important than addressing issues of racism, injustice, and inequity.
How to Talk About Race with Our Students
First, we must acknowledge that it is going to be messy and we have to give ourselves the permission to make mistakes. Please know that myself and the rest of the administrative team are here to support you in this difficult work.
As when thinking about any conversation we want our students to engage in, we need to think about the structures that will help students discuss issues of race in a safe way. Dr. Kalise Wornum gave us a set of Guidelines for Discussion that can be very helpful in establishing a structure:
- Respect confidentiality, no attribution
- Be willing to "try on" the ideas of others
- Speak your own truth - Ground communication in personal experiences using I statements
- Ok to disagree; Not OK to blame, shame, attack (self or others)
- Share "air time" - actively listen to other participants
- Practice "Both/And" thinking
- Say "ouch" when something is done or said that is hurtful
- Expect and accept a lack of closure (complex issues require on-going dialogue)
- Be aware of Intent vs. Impact
- Stay Engaged! Never Give Up! Never Give In!
Additionally, there are many great resources to help us in this important work. Specifically, Teaching Tolerance (https://www.tolerance.org/) is a great resource for both professional learning and content/plans you can use with your students on a wide variety of inclusive topics. In 2017, Teaching Tolerance did a webinar entitled "Let's Talk! Discussing Race, Racism and Other Difficult Topics With Students" which is directly related to supporting educators in facilitating conversations around race. You will need to register for a FREE account in order to view the webinar. They also have a downloadable pdf (linked here)
Scholastic magazine has curated a set of materials that you can use with students to address difficult topics, including race. The website is organized by grade level bands and easy to navigate (Scholastic Link).
We are all in this together. One of the things that makes me so proud to be a member of the Monomoy community is the sense of caring and comradery that permeates the district. While race conversations are very much in our consciousness today, they will need to continue in the district as an integral element if we are going to make substantive change towards equity. In that, we will need to lean on each other in this work. So if you find a great resource, share it with your colleagues. Talk about race and racism with each other. Offer each other forgiveness and patience as we all move through this difficult work. Be curious.
I do not promise to have all the answers. I know I will make mistakes. I know that I have a mountain of information to learn about race and racism. I also know that I will continue to ask questions, to dig into the structures of our district that are disadvantaging students of color, to learn from those that have expertise to share, and to use my position of privilege to make change ... and I invite you to join me.
With love, respect, and humility ~ Marc
Drawing New LinesPosted by Marc Smith on 4/27/2020 1:00:00 PM
Just the other day I found myself on another of what has come to feel like an endless stream of Google Meet and/or Zoom meetings that now make up my life. I was on a call with two people I have met briefly before from one of our community partners and two others from their Board of Directors that I was meeting for the first time. Just as I was about to start talking about why I had asked to meet with them, my dog decided it was a good time to assert his presence and start barking at me. Now for a point of clarity, he is a 200 pound English Mastif with one heck of a bark.
After apologizing for the interruption and ignoring the mastif so that he would move along, I finished my introduction and asked a few questions to prompt our discussion. Just as one of the members on the call began to speak, I found myslef launching for the computer mouse to mute my microphone just in time to block out the noise of the teenager who decided the middle of my confernce call was the best time to fill her Hydroflask with ice... in the same room as my "home office"... also known as the kitchen table.
As I reflect on this experience, along with the experiences I have heard in conversations with teachers, admininstrators, parents, friends and colleagues from within our district and from other districts, it is clear that we are all trying to figure out how to operate in a world where our home life and our work life blurred together. I know I am not along in feeling this pressure to be constantly checking my email and responding almost instantaneously for fear that someone might think I am not working when I am supposed to be. I know I am not alone in feeling like I need to be available all the time and flexible with my work time so as to meet the needs of others. And I know that I am not alone in feeling like it is starting to wear me down.
As we settle into the next two months of distance learning, I think it is important for us to take the time to consider how we will try to establish healthy boundaries that allow us to have work/life harmony in this new way of doing business.
There is this concept in Dialectical Behavioral Therapy called Radical Acceptance. In short, the idea of radical acceptance is that there are certain parts of our reality that we can not change and that we just need to accept. In accepting these realities, we can then be proactive and take actions that will mitigate the difficulties posed to us by the reality we face. COVID-19 has changed our reality in many ways, most of which are out of our control. We did not create the pandemic, we did not determine the social distancing measures needed to combat this pandemic, we did not enact stay-at-home orders, and we did not close schools for the remainder of the school year.
Radical Acceptance doesn't mean that we are ok with the way things are or that we approve of this new reality, it means that we acknowledge it and plan accordingly.
Planning for Power
Planning ahead is one tool that we can use to reclaim power over our lives. In doing our work from home, it is too easy for the hours to slip by and for abstract ideas of excercise, meals, meditation, walking, sleeping, etc. to continue to be pushed aside for that email that just popped up, article I need to read, or meeting I should schedule. Without a plan or schedule, we are at the mercy of external inputs and we are constantly responding to them and our lives are driven by our work.
As we look forward to the next two months, I encourage each of us to take some time (put it in your calendar) to make a plan for the things you want to protect for you and your well-being. Do you want to excercise? Do you want to spend time reading a novel? Do you want to spend more time with your children? Do you want to garden? If so, when will you do it? For how long? Where in your home/community? Once you have determined all that, put it in your calendar and stick to it. Planning and scheduling will help us to ensure we are doing things to mitigate our reality and keeps us healthy during these difficult times.
Setting Healthy Boundaries
Although it doesn't always feel this way, not every email is an emergency. Part of establishing work/life harmony is establishing professional boundaries for yourself, communicating them to others when necessary and sticking to them the best you can. As an example, I have worked really hard over the past 3-4 years to ensure that my weekends are for things that keep me sane (my children, my health, and my pursuits of joy). As such, I have worked to leave my email until Monday morning. I will say that the transition to distance learning broke this habit pretty quickly; personally placing this pressure on myself that I needed to be available and responsive all the time. I am working on restablishing this boundary for myself.
As we move forward, take time to consider when and where you will do your work. When will you check email and for how long? What is a reasonable expectation for you for returning emails? Should you communicate that out? Should you take your work email off your phone and just use your computer, or at least turn off the screen notification on your phone (this was a game changer for me as a principal)? Is there somewhere in your house that you can do your work that you can close off behind a door when you are not working?
Look for the Opportunities
Maybe some of these blurred boundaries also create opportunities for us. Can you incorporate a healthy habit into one of your work requirements? (I have been thinking about slowly pedaling on my Peleton while participating in some of my Google Meet meetings instead of just sitting in a chair for hours). Can we enjoy a nice healthy lunch and take longer than 22 minutes to eat it? Can we take a walk after lunch or in the middle of the day because we have a break in scheduld meetings? When we have a meeting or lesson that doesn't go the way we wanted, can we reach out to a spouse, partner or child for a hug to boost our Oxytocin right in that moment instead of having to wait until the end of the work day.
So as we move forward together, I ask that you forgive the occasional bark that may enter one of our conference calls, and I ask that you too take some time to plan for our new reality in a way that preserves your personal power, sets appropriate boundaries and looks for opporutniteis for work/life harmony.
So Many Initiatives...Posted by Marc Smith on 2/4/2020
Photo Credit: FreeSVG.org
Differentiated Instruction, Cultural Proficiency, Social-Emotional Learning, Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices, Closing the Achievement/Access Gap, and Curriculum Development/Review/Revision can seem like a daunting and unrealistic collection of initiatives to accomplish in one school district. Taken as separate initiatives, the work is overwhelming at best and mental breakdown inducing at worst; however, the key to sanity and clarity lies in looking for the overlap.
In my role in the district, I am involved in many conversations with a wide range of staff that support our students in a variety of ways. One great benefit of this work is that I get to have some rich conversations with teachers, specialists, and leaders both inside and outside the district. This affords me the opportunity to see patterns within the themes of those conversations and make connections across many seemingly disparate change efforts. One great challenge is remembering that most staff that work in Monomoy do not have the benefit of traveling with me and engaging in these conversations. As in any large organization, any one person's understanding of the system as a whole is largely shaped by his/her interactions with others within the system. The more we have the opportunity to interact with diverse members of the organization, the deeper our understanding of the system becomes and the more we are able to see how all the parts move together.
Recognizing that not everyone can follow me around the district, I thought it best to share the connections that I see in hopes that it will help others consider a systems view of our district, reduce initiative anxiety, make meaning of complex terms, and establish a deeper sense of the "why" behind our work together.
When first thinking about how to describe the way that I see these initiatives fitting together, I was initially struck by the image of puzzle pieces. Independent pieces that come together to create a bigger, more complete picture. However, after thinking more about the ideas and how to describe some of the interrelations, I decided that perhaps puzzle pieces were not the best analogy. Instead, I think that the way these initiatives interact is more like gears; moving together interdependently where the motion of one gear affects the motion of all the others.
Let's imagine that one of the gears represents Social-Emotional Learning (SEL). Here in Monomoy, we have adopted the CASEL five core competencies model for SEL; for this analogy, I will look at two of those five, self-awareness and relationship skills. As adults, we continue to develop our own skills while also supporting our students. In working on self-awareness for our students and ourselves, we need to continue to learn more about who we are, what we believe, our strengths, our limitations, our emotions, and our values. When exploring our values and helping students to understand their own, we can not fully explore these ideas unless we pay careful attention to the role of culture in the development of one's values (and the gear of SEL turns the Cultural Proficiency gear). Lindsey, Lindsey, Nuri Robins, and Terrell define culture as, "a set of practices and beliefs that is shared with members of a particular group and that distinguishes one group from others"(13). Using this definition, each of us belongs to many cultures. Reflecting on our own cultural values along with how they influence our relationships with students and our teaching decisions in the classroom is a core principle in Cultural Proficiency as well as developing self-awareness within SEL. Further, if we are to help students to develop relationship skills and deepen our relationships with students, we must study diverse cultures so as to understand how the values of those cultures shape interactions with other cultural groups.
As we are studying our students and their cultures, and reflecting on our own culture so as to deepen our own self-awareness; we begin to make adjustments to our instructional decisions in the classroom. Perhaps we learn that some of the students in our class come from a culture that is expressive, using body language and facial expressions to convey meaning. As a result of this learning, we decide to add an option to our end of unit assessment that allows students to demonstrate their understanding in an oral defense, or by structuring a debate in which students have to take opposing viewpoints on one of the unit's Essential Questions. We have now just differentiated the product for students (and so moves the Differentiated Instruction gear). As students have the opportunity to demonstrate what they know in different ways, we develop a deeper understanding of who they are, deepening our relationship with them, and adjusting the cultural lens that we bring with us into the classroom. In this way, the gear of Differentiated Instruction (DI) affects SEL and Cultural Proficiency.
Or perhaps we learn that a few students in our classroom have experienced trauma in their young lives. As a part of our work on understanding the effect of trauma on the brain, we know that students that have survived trauma can have a heightened "flight or fight" response mechanism that can manifest in many ways including hypervigilance and anxiety. We have also learned that when the brain is in this heightened state, it is not able to access high-level thinking skills and/or take on new learning. Maybe we know that the School Psychologist has introduced the child to the Lazy Eight breathing technique or we have taught it to our students in the class. As a result of this knowledge, we decide to put an infinity symbol (lazy eight) on the test we are about to give out to the class right next to the spot where the kids put their names. This serves as a simple visual reminder to have the students use this technique before starting the test. This helps the students to develop better self-awareness and is a simple DI technique where we are differentiating process.
When we share effective differentiated practices with our colleagues, perhaps considering how to better reflect the cultural backgrounds of our students in our common assessments, then we impact our shared curriculum in a positive way. Looking at how students are performing on common assessments and looking at that data through a lens of race, gender, socio-economic status, etc. can help us to identify areas where certain populations of students may not be accessing school in the same way (the achievement/access gap). When we begin to notice patterns and trends around certain populations of students, we might then begin to study those students to learn more about their culture. In this way, our curriculum work deepens our cultural proficiency work and helps to take action in closing achievement/access gaps.
These examples are a small sample of the interactions between Differentiated Instruction, Cultural Proficiency, Social-Emotional Learning, Trauma-Informed Teaching Practices, Closing the Achievement/Access Gap, and Curriculum Development/Review/Revision. As the adage states, it is important that we don't lose sight of the forest for the trees. Each of these initiatives is in the service of student learning and is best when not viewed as disconnected, individual areas of focus. When observed as separate it is very easy for us to become overwhelmed; however, when we begin to look for connections we see how much work in any one area positively affects each of the other initiatives.
Works Cited: Lindsey, Randall B., et al. Cultural Proficiency: A Manual for School Leaders 4th Edition. Corwin, 2019.