Do You Value Who Your Students Are?

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When you receive your class list, it’s just a collection of faceless names. Nothing about the individual students shows up on that list. In fact, even if you review their records, which isn’t a true reflection of all that each student is anyway, you still don’t know the people who will be seated before you during the upcoming school year.

Records don’t tell you students’ goals and dreams; they don’t indicate students’ gifts and talents; they say nothing of students’ compassion or kindness. Those are the real elements that help to define students. Instead, each student essentially begins the school year with a blank slate.

However, as the year progresses, those blanks begin to fill in, adding color, depth and dimension to the picture that is each student. Getting to know students individually is what fills in the blanks. Discovering who they are, who they hope to become and what they bring to the table, so to speak, allows teachers to learn the details that make each student distinct from other students just as much as it builds positive relationships between teacher and students. It’s the discovery of those details that I always liked most.

That’s why the concept of “assets-based teaching” appeals to me, despite my dislike for education buzzwords. A popular idea right now, it basically means using what a teacher knows about students’ abilities and talents to reach and teach them.

If an additional language is spoken at home, for instance, learning and using a bit of that language is culturally responsive, validating the students’ culture. I found out that this particularly resonates with students when I learned to say “thank you” and “you’re welcome” in the languages of all my students who spoke other languages. Then, as I collected test papers or essays, I used the phrases. Students enjoyed teaching them to me as much as I liked learning and using them. It became a bond among us as well as a classroom tradition as the other students began picking up the phrases as well.

Allowing students to be the experts on topics in which they actually have expertise also nods to their abilities and talents. When I relied on the computer-savvy students to repair my computer glitches and encouraged well-traveled students or those who have lived in other countries to speak of their experiences as we discussed that part of the world, it gave students a platform for displaying their knowledge and for having that knowledge affirmed and appreciated.

Likewise, fostering an environment in which students feel free and safe to voice their fact-based opinions and to defend those opinions not only broadened viewpoints and empowered student voice but also nurtured nascent interest and careers in politics and public speaking. Those were students’ natural abilities that flourished in that setting.

So the question is this: Do you value who your students are? The only way to answer positively is to know each of them individually and then to create opportunities for the details that make each student unique and capable to shine. It’s just another way of reaching and teaching the whole child. Everyone benefits from the results.

Why the Books in Your Classroom Library Matter

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What was your favorite book as a child? Better yet, why was it your favorite? It likely resonated with you in a special way, was relevant to your individual life. That’s often why books become favorites. Unfortunately, many kids have to find those books outside of school, in libraries or bookstores, rather than in their own classrooms.

With the prominent role that technology has in education today, you might think that books have literally been put back on the shelves. That would explain why so many kids don’t find favorites in school. Yet that’s not the case. Books still abound. Even traditional textbooks are still used in many classrooms despite the increase in digital versions. What’s more, literature is still primarily read from real books, whether they are picture books in kindergarten or great literary works in high school. Still, many students never find a book that speaks directly to them.

The reason may well be in your own classroom library. Many students never see themselves reflected in those books. With white protagonists so often the standard and males the heroes, students of color and girls are left out. Yet, if these were just a few among an array of diverse books, there would be no issue. However, the impact as well as the implications are far reaching when such books are the norm:

  • Reinforces stereotypes – When white males are always the heroes in books, it advances the stereotype that girls and students of color aren’t capable of that role. This is detrimental to all students, as they all need to see girls and students of color in leadership roles.
  • Implies a level of inferiority – Similar to the negative impact of stereotypes, when students don’t see themselves reflected in books, the implication is that they are not worthy. Therefore, classroom libraries without a variety of students of color and a melange of cultures effectively deem them not noteworthy. Not only do the omitted students feel the sting of rejection and inferiority, but that viewpoint is adopted by other students toward them as well.
  • Denies students characters with whom they can identify – Lacking characters of the same race, ethnicity, language, culture or any other similarity leaves students without a character with whom they identify. This is particularly problematic when the book is read to the entire class in younger grades or assigned reading for older students. In such instances, the characters remain remote, their lives theoretical. While emotions and even some life experiences are universal, being able to identify with the characters makes literature more accessible to readers.
  • Limits students’ view of their options – Books, like movies and television shows, offer readers a view of potential choices. While students’ daily lives might not encompass certain careers, travels or artistry, books offer vicarious experiences. Reading of characters or real people depicted as lawyers, world travelers or ballet dancers, for instance, broadens students’ view of their own options. Of course, the reverse limits their view.

Education should both reflect who students are and broaden their definitions of who they can be. Diverse literature does both. That’s why the books in your classroom library matter. It’s also why they should encompass all that your students are, honoring and respecting them while also introducing them to one another. That’s just part of educating the whole child.

Building Classroom Community and Trust

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Most educators know that students learn more with teachers who have a strong and caring relationship with them. However, what’s often overlooked, particularly on the secondary level, is the importance of equally strong and healthy relationships among the students. After all, students are people first, and people simply do best when they can relax, when they can trust those around them, when they can share mutual respect and even appreciation for one another. All of this builds a sense of community.

That’s exactly what elementary schools have traditionally been better at doing, with all the students remaining together Continue reading “Building Classroom Community and Trust”

Why Healthy Relationships with Students Matter

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Opening my Facebook page recently, I discovered a lovely post placed there by a former student. It was a quote by educator Justin Tarte that read, “Teachers who put relationships first don’t have students just for one year; they have students who view them as ‘their’ teacher for life.” I really liked that. In fact, I’m smiling again just thinking about it.

Building bonds with my students and among them was integral to what I tried to do as a classroom teacher not only because I saw them as “my kids,” but also because I believe students learn more with teachers who genuinely care about them, Continue reading “Why Healthy Relationships with Students Matter”

The Value of Creating a College-Bound Culture for Students

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Attending a high school football game is one of those a-good-time-is-had-by-all kind of experiences. In other words, it’s pure fun. Encouraged by the cheerleaders, the crowd rises, shouting chants, clapping wildly, doing whatever comes to mind in support of their team. The raucous atmosphere is exactly what’s expected, and the enthusiasm and camaraderie are just part of the fun.

Now imagine applying that level of passion and spirit to cheering for students who are applying to college. With supporters lining the streets, shouting encouragement and words of praise, a group of high school seniors marches together to the post office, college applications in hand to be mailed off. Can you picture it? Continue reading “The Value of Creating a College-Bound Culture for Students”

The Power and Eloquence of Student Voices

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The magnitude of the scenes across the country this past Saturday, March 24, 2018, as students and like-minded adults participated in the March for Our Lives, was awe-inspiring. Galvanized by the 17 murders at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last month, the outcry against gun violence and in favor of gun control has continually risen, reaching a crescendo during Saturday’s marches. Indeed, what was most striking was not the enormity of the crowds—immense and entirely peaceful by any measure—but rather the power and eloquence of student voices, speaking with passion and determination, representing a generation propelled by their fear of what the future could hold. For some it was a fear of being shot to death at school while, for others, the fear was of being in a shooter’s midst for a second time and not living to tell the story. Continue reading “The Power and Eloquence of Student Voices”

Why Cultural Understanding Matters in the Classroom

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You can’t help but notice the wonderful cultural diversity of 21st century classrooms. Enriching each class with a melange of languages, traditions and worldviews, this diversity is something to be celebrated, not vilified, as has so often been postulated recently. Yet despite all the rewards of this diversity, when teachers don’t fully understand the way cultural differences impact learning, problems quickly ensue. For instance, consider the following scenarios:

  • Tang is struggling in your class despite his fluency with the language. You later discover that he misunderstood a couple of basic concepts but was unwilling to ask questions.
  • Consuelo is hardworking and well-behaved, but she has a habit of never looking at you when you speak to her.
  • Arjun is a great student who Continue reading “Why Cultural Understanding Matters in the Classroom”