In October, I heard Kelly Gallagher explain that “our job is to create an ecosystem that serves to democratize opportunity.” In December, I observed Cornelius Minor facilitate this in my classroom. Yep, you read that right. THE Cornelius Minor spent an hour with my students, modeling the moves he makes to “disperse power throughout the room,” swiftly engaging students while simultaneously instructing a group of educators.
At all times, Minor modeled what democratization looks like. Prior to the hour in my classroom with students, he spent time with the staff who would be present during the lesson, in his own words, “planting seeds of ownership.” He asked us, “How are you?” and “What’s one thing to work on with you that would meet the needs of students?”. We delineated this, worked in conjunction with him to plan the lesson, and ultimately, “opted into learning” (Minor’s words again).
What followed in the classroom portion of the experience was remarkable. Because my colleagues asked for modeling of close reading, selecting evidence, and metacognition, Minor engaged the students in a digital text–a short video clip from a TV show–and chunked close reading into noticing stuff and providing structured opportunities for talk (structured in that each student had a role to fulfill). From there, he moved to a more complex text (a controversial poem) and continued to ask students to notice stuff; then he offered multiple perspectives on the text, asking students to grapple with these frames, seek evidence, and explore the inherent symbolism. My students simply, as they later reflected, had no timed to get bored or distracted. I observed true cognitive energy, energy sparked by intellectual curiosity, energy that connected my students one to another, each connection a charged particle contained into a beam of light on that December morning.
This light pushed me to confront the idea that my kindness and my work ethic will be enough. That when things aren’t quite right in the classroom, I can just work harder–at relationships, strategies, skills, feedback, whatever. I am not Orwell’s Boxer. In fact, if I continue defaulting to my strengths (of hard work and kindness) instead of working in small deliberate ways to grow, I oppress my students and myself. I’ve got work to do. I’ve got new terms to perseverate on, strategies to focus to, and questions to keep asking myself. And that beam of light will keep me focused on growth.
Terms to Absorb
Important: (for the student to know later–for that test, the next class, college): a teacher-centric term, a framing that doesn’t necessarily account for students’ perspectives or experiences at that moment.
Text Agnostic: without preference for specific texts. See “important” above. Connects to the value of choice in workshop. Means seeking out regularly what’s on students’ minds to cull texts.
Cognitive Overload: what a learner experiences when both the context and content are beyond readiness (both content and context are hard or unfamiliar). This stifles growth and ultimately creativity.
Justice: “what love looks like in public” (Minor).
Aspirational Discomfort: What I’m experiencing as a professional right now. Have I mentioned I’ve got work to do? But I’ve already mentioned my Boxer-like tendencies, so…
Strategies to Disperse Power
Feedback: One of the most important ways workshop presents opportunities to democratize learning is through feedback. Yes, by providing students with affirming and constructive feedback, I communicate to my students that their ideas and words matter in this classroom. But by seeking feedback from students (which is an additional strategy Minor modeled so well), I model the openness a writer needs for growth–even when not modeling this with writing. After all, I am a person in position of authority seeking opportunities to keep growing and getting better. Yes, we tout teacher vulnerability all the time as a tenet of workshop. But there are a million tiny little ways to do this beyond what we do already that will strengthen our ecosystems.
- Position students in roles to provide feedback (and Minor emphasizes to let students know you’re doing just that); during his time in my class, Minor selected a student to help signal when something was confusing. Since his visit, I’ve been more deliberate and consistent about pulling aside a few students to check in on my pacing, and I plan to make this a routine in my classroom.
- Seek feedback mid-stream: check in with students in various ways. Ask for permission to keep going. Ask how they’re feeling. Read Minor’s book and you’ll discover other informal ways, including the on-the-fly class meeting.
Roles: A fairly common practice of collaboration, especially within small groups, relies on taking roles.
- As a teacher, I can share with students when I have conflicted feelings or interpretations of a text (this is a good thing–it models how our understanding is always evolving. Several students reflected on the power of this.). Awareness of my confliction communicates that the authoritative interpretation of the text doesn’t begin and end with me. My role shifts, however infinitesimally.
- Use these conflicted interpretations, critics’ various interpretations, or ones students generate themselves to assign students roles to take. Minor used a complex and controversial text and, after offering two ways to frame it, assigned students (using partners A and B) to find evidence to support their viewpoints. Roles extended to other tasks of this close reading of this text. Another student noted how “each person had something to look for” while another remarked that “he made us all feel included and excited.”
Questions to Encourage the Reflection Necessary for Doing the Work
- How do I fuel my students to preserve that cognitive energy?
- How do I scaffold experiences so as to avoid cognitive overload?
- In what ways and at what times do my students “opt” into learning?
- In what situations in the past have my students “opted” into learning?
- In what ways can I plant seeds of ownership?
- How do I send power throughout the room?
I’ll keep doing the work. I’ll continue the journey of democratizing my classroom in small ways, every day. I’ll work to improve how students see themselves in my classroom, helping them harness the power that’s always been theirs. I’ll keep sowing seeds of light.
Kristin Jeschke teaches College Prep English and AP Language and Composition at Waukee High School in Waukee, Iowa. She marvels at her students who so readily engaged in the moment, even with a classroom full of educators studying their every move. She marvels, too, at the light emanating forth from the giants in our field, inspiring us all to keep reaching. Follow her on Twitter @kajeschke.