While recently giving a lecture on racial identity at the local university, I discussed the trauma of black girl hair. To my surprise many students in the class, the majority of which were white and female, looked back at me with confusion plastered on their faces. I began to tell them about my Saturday night experiences as a little black girl with the dreaded hot comb.
It's the time of year when educators are making plans and gearing up for all their students to return! During this time, teachers spend hours in professional development sessions learning much about the expectations of the states, districts, and campuses they serve. And while all of those things are very important points on which to be clear about for a new year, none of them is more important than focusing on the students that will file into those hallways when the bell rings on the first day of school.
This year, we charge you to (yes you, my educator friend) to spend as much time considering ways to integrate the interest of your students into the lesson plans you create, as you do considering the standards themselves. Decades worth of research on culturally responsive instruction has shown that a teachers' ability to connect the standards they teach to the interest and prior knowledge of the students they serve, can be the difference between success for All or success for some.
For this reason, we created the Student Interest Survey. A quick tool teachers can download, print, and distribute to students that assesses what they care about. While many teachers make it an annual practice of giving such surveys to students, we challenge you to take this survey beyond the ritualistic approach of collecting and discarding them to reflecting, sorting, and keeping track of the contents of the surveys. Take time to study and reflect on them. See any patterns? These will teach you about the shared interest of your students, some of which may be more common knowledge and some things you may have to look up because you wont have a clue what those crazy kids are referring to. After you've taken time to get to know a little about your students, work to include their interest. Here are 3 ways to do that:
- Context. When planning your lessons, ask yourself this question: How do my students encounter or interact with this concept/skill naturally? Where does this matter in their real lives? How can I create a touch point in this lesson that connects to that? Asking these questions and answering them will help you embed the content you're teaching into the context of things your students care about organically.
- Hooks. Knowing some of their specific interests, like their favorite YouTube channels, musicians/songs, and hobbies outside of school, will help you create powerful hooks that draw students into your lessons from the time you post the bellringer.
- Relationships. Taking time to become a student of your student can't be an internal endeavor between you and yourself. Use the content of the surveys to speak about things your students care about by name. Make it a point to follow up with things they've mentioned specifically (especially if you have a student you perceive to be a challenge). These moves must be intentional efforts to let students know you care about their interests, which are more holistic than just their status as a student in your 5th period class.
As you endeavor into this upcoming school year, we pray your students return with open hearts and minds to learn and that they are met by you... the person who has the power to rock their school year and make it the best they've ever had. Go ahead Rock Star! Rock out!
Many of us have been classically trained to be conformists. We master the art of looking good and saying the right things to get the right jobs to work, build, and execute the visions and dreams of others. But what if we could reimagine what life is. Creating our own realities and defying the rules.
As an English teacher, I encouraged students to use poetry... As a tool. A tool to decompress, to yell on the page, to laugh on the page, to transport thoughts from the deepest parts of themselves, to the page... At the end of the poetry unit, we concluded with a poetry café! During this event, students presented their best (student-selected) poem to the class. They listened to each other, encouraged each other, and celebrated each other’s successes!
After many years of following the greatness that is the Ron Clark Academy, I FINALLY made it to Atlanta, GA to see what all the hype was about. I must admit that I started the day cautiously skeptical of the lights-camera-action experience that would be carefully crafted in anticipation of this educator training day. As a researcher and Ph.D. student, I prefer visiting campuses during a normal day of school, when visitors are typically not present, so I can get what I refer to as "the real deal experience". After all, I am a principal attempting to glean best practices to take back to my campus, and how can I do that if someone orchestrates a dog and pony show for my educational enjoyment? All I can say is, I came in excitingly skeptical and left a believer!
As I shuffled down the sidewalk toward the building, the pandemonium and energy were literally spilling out of the door as students greeted me with handshakes (not slouchy ones either, but firm handshakes), salutations and smiles from the time I came through the school gates headed towards the front door. But the best was yet to come.
As soon as I crossed the threshold into the building, a wave of electricity hit like a bolt of lighting! Walking the red carpet through the entrance there was an electric guitar belting out a rock song, drums were banging, students were dancing and I couldn't help but to smile through by cynical lips, as I attempted not to let this constructed welcome impress me too much. After all, I was there to look for the real deal experience that could only be sought out by me remaining calm and looking through the presenters and their theatrics.
After being escorted into the gym I noticed students intermingling with other educators as we waited for the day to begin. But I didn't personally talk to any of the kids. I wasn't planning to let their scripted interactions get me drawn in too deeply and keep me from staying woke. So I observed. I quickly found out these conversations bustling around me were not scripted at all. It appeared that these students were having authentic conversations with educators all around the gym about what they did and where they were from, etc. At this point I assumed what any knowledgeable educator would: they sent out the "shining stars" to talk to us. Where were the regular students that weren't primed and prepped to impress visitors? I didn't know then, but I figured I would find them by the end of the day.
When it was time for the day to start, we were welcomed by Ron Clark himself. I figured we'd hear him talk about how awesome the school is, how successful the students are and how he's going to show us all how to fix schools. If I had any doubt about the authenticity of this day, it was shattered during that welcome.
Hearing Ron Clark, a white man, talk to a room full of educators of all races about the importance of us all having important dialogue around race relations and understanding how this dialogue can move us forward as a country was awe inspiring. To hear him share stories about lessons he himself learned about being culturally competent when working with people of color was impressive. I mean before this day I hadn't personally ever heard a white person charge other white people to be more, as we say, "woke" (or acutely socially conscious, if you don't prefer slang). But here was Mr. Clark, pacing and skipping the length of a table with a non-threatening, captivating demeanor just sprinkling seeds of consciousness in the minds of all of those that came to learn how to be more successful with students (and more specifically with students of color).
These kinds of conversations are not easy to have, and quite frankly, they happened all day. From Mr. Brandon Fleming to Ms. Kim Bearden and all of those in between, this resounding charge for educators to become more culturally responsive and socially woke made this school a shining example of the transformational power of culturally responsive education and what it looks like in action.
I would encourage any educator looking to be a part of an educational revolution to visit the Ron Clark Academy. I'm sure you too will leave a believer!
The last three years I have been on a journey working simultaneously as a PhD student at the University of Texas in Arlington, while climbing my way up the leadership ladder in multiple sectors of the school system. I've worked hard. Been professional. Set goals. Achieved them. And now, a year after reaching my ultimate professional goal (according to my vision board) of becoming a principal by the age of 30, I resigned.
When sharing this information with people that have known me for years and watched all the hard work, discipline, and stewardship that allowed me to be elevated in my professional pursuits, many of them asked what came to be a resounding question: "Why would you give up your title/position/pay without having another job lined up?" I'd say the loose translation was something more like, "Girl are you crazy? What the hell are you going through?" Oddly enough, these were the same kinds of questions I began to ask God when he started deal with me concerning this transition. I quickly came to the answer that the call God has on my life is bigger than titles and paychecks. In order to position myself to finish my PhD in this 4th year of my program and be prepared for the mighty works God has planned for my life, I have to be available.
Anyone that's ever been a principal that may be reading this can attest to how real the struggle is, and to the amount of dedication and self-sacrifice that is required in the position. One of my former principals always said, "S**t gets real when they put these keys in your hands." As a teacher I was sure I had all this education stuff figured out after about year 3. But didn't we all? I can't remember how many times I came across conversations with teachers where we would decry the latest directive from the principal and hypothesize about 4 other more viable options that the principal just wasn't smart enough to think of. LOL. The truth of the matter is that we all think we know what we would do, until we are forced to put our feet into the shoes of another. My how things change.
Spending a year in this role quickly helped me realize I had come to a fork in the road that was requiring introspection at a level I hadn't experienced since being an undergrad student. I started with intense prayer and a series of why questions that sound something like this:
"I can't quit my job!"
"Because this is what I do! And I need my pay check! We need the money!"
"Because we have a mortgage and bills and vacations and stuff that work because we work."
"Because... ummm... we need our house and stuff."
As you can imagine this line of questioning yields a lot of reflection.
Here I am 31-year-old degreed, professional, married with no kids; yet, I was convinced that my "stuff"... the material possessions we had acquired over the years and planned to acquire in the future was sufficient enough a reason not to fully pursue my purpose. Think about it, what purpose did God put in your heart when he created you, his masterpiece? What is the thing that sets you ablaze? What is that thing for you? What price can someone offer you (in the form of a salary) to negotiate your destiny?
So we prayed. Made plans. And we Jumped.
Resigned from my job, rented out the house we own with more space than we actually need, found a smaller place to rent, moved, sold off much of our "stuff", downsized our lifestyle and took a leap of faith.
While I loved the school I served in and the awesome work we were able to do with the kids, I have come to realize that we must doggedly pursue the passions that propel us. On the other side of that, lies the greatness that comes from being a vessel that is not just willing, but available to do the great things God created us for! The fight for equity in education on a local, state and national level requires that I prepare and position myself to join in with the fight for the liberation of least of these.
Shout out to my loving husband for taking my hand and leaping with me. God knew what I needed when he made you.
*Follow the journey on IG @srboyce Twitter @srboyce_10 and here as I update blog posts periodically!