Category Archives: Equity

Prioritizing daily movement and experiential learning in Newark

Dillin, a seventh grade student at Newark Street School (NSS), had this to say about starting school with 30 minutes of daily movement:

“So my perspective is, I really like it. It gets you healthy. Your heart beats, and then you get ready for the day you have after you’re done doing it. Like you get to take all your energy out.”

Asked what would happen if he didn’t get his energy out, Dillin replies, “Oh, it’d be different. I’d be annoying. … With Power Hour, my brain is ready to learn – it, like, observes more.”

This 30 minutes of daily movement is called Power Hour (along with 15 minutes of breakfast and a 15 minute morning meeting). The school started it this year along with Exploratory Fridays, which devotes a half day each week to activities such as hiking, canoeing, or skiing. 

These programs are having a positive impact already. Students seem to love it, especially students like Dillin who need to “get their energy out” or others who aren’t able to regularly access these activities because of cost or other barriers. The school has seen benefits in terms of student engagement, academic achievement, and behavior. Let’s take a look at how it works and why it is readily replicable. 

Power Hour

The structure for Power Hour is simple: every day starts with 20-30 minutes of a movement-based activity. For K-2 students, it is similar to a recess. For students in grades 3-8, they get to choose among a number of activities. During warmer seasons, the choices could include biking, walking, running, or playground games. During the winter, there’s snow shoeing, cross country skiing, calisthenics, and sports in the gym.

Images of students engaging in biking and games. A table shows a schedule with teacher names and activities and location.
Shared by Tim Mulligan, principal, and Ty Mulligan, grade 8 student, in a presentation at the 2023 Middle Grades Conference.

After exercising, students have breakfast and then circle up for morning meetings to get ready for the rest of the school day. In several interviews with students and adults, there was widespread agreement that Power Hour carries benefits throughout the school day in terms of focus and social connection. More on that later.

Exploratory Fridays

Once a week, students spend half of their school day engaging in experiential activities that often have a recreational or creative emphasis. 

In some cases Exploratory Fridays are extensions of Power Hour. For example, students might bike each day around the school, and then head to the Kingdom Trail network on Fridays. I accompanied one of these trips and students conveyed that the daily biking was fun but that the Friday trips were the place where they got to see their skill and stamina gains pay off.

A table with grade level bands and activities. Includes things like biking, canoeing, art, music, hiking, etc.
Shared by Tim Mulligan, principal, and Ty Mulligan, grade 8 student, in a presentation at the 2023 Middle Grades Conference.

In many cases, Exploratory Fridays involve community partners to provide more supervision and structure. Many of the activities plug students into established offerings that in past years may have been accessed more as one shot field trips. 

Tatum, an 8th grade student, noted that while Power Hour is all about exercise, Exploratory Fridays was better described as “personalized learning.” It is less about getting the heart rate up as it is about leveling up. 

Why does it work

There is solid scientific evidence behind the theory that daily movement prepares the brain for learning. Tim Mulligan, principal of NSS, had encountered this evidence in the book Spark, written by Dr. John J. Ratey. In a recent presentation at the Middle Grades Conference, Tim summarized Ratey’s evidence for the benefits of daily movement:

  1. Opens neurological pathways that prepare the brain for learning
    1. Cardiovascular activities actually create new neuro-pathways. The best way to take advantage of this is to engage in academics following sustained movement! 
  2. Provides therapeutic effects for everyone!
    1. Especially for students with ADHD, anxiety, depression and other mental, emotional, and social health conditions.
  3. Increases cardio-respiratory fitness
    1. Develops a healthy habit that reduces risks of many chronic diseases.
  4. Supports a healthy body composition
  5. Promotes greater sense of self-worth and esteem
  6. Creates positive social interactions and builds a stronger community

Tim has not been shy about sharing the research rationale for daily movement with teachers, students and community members. Mary Jane, a 7th grade student, had this response to a hypothetical skeptic that worried about a loss of “academic” time: 

“Actually, studies show that biking or walking, or doing anything that exercises your body in the morning helps your brain learn better which will make our grades go up compared to having less movement in our day.” 

Quite convincing!

As for Exploratory Fridays, the focus on doing is exactly what many students need, especially young adolescents. According to the Association for Experiential Education

“Experiential education is a teaching philosophy that informs many methodologies in which educators purposefully engage with learners in direct experience and focused reflection in order to increase knowledge, develop skills, clarify values, and develop people’s capacity to contribute to their communities.” 

The approaches used in Exploratory Fridays, such as outdoor learning and place-based education, are squarely in the experiential learning umbrella. Middle grades students at NSS reflect weekly in their personalized portfolios to make connections to their learning and lives.

Titled "Exploratory Friday," shows images of students engaged in activities such as biking, canoeing, on computers, and in a circle in a classroom.
Shared by Tim Mulligan, principal, and Ty Mulligan, grade 8 student, in a presentation at the 2023 Middle Grades Conference.

Early evidence of impact

So far, these programs appear to be living up to the promise of the research that is behind them. The principal cites several indicators heading in the right direction:

  • Attendance has improved
  • Test scores are up
  • Bullying incidents and misbehavior is down

There is a positive vibe about the programs. In interviews, students shared things like:

  • “I’ve noticed that when you are active, your brain works better” (Andrew, grade 6)
  • “I really enjoy it, and I do feel a difference in wanting to be at school earlier, and being more motivated to get up in the morning, get dressed, eat breakfast, and pack my bag” (Tatum, grade 8)
  • Yeah, it puts me in a better mood, because it’s waking me up. And I just like that moving in in the morning before I do school.: (Graham, grade 7)
  • “I would encourage other schools to do it, because it’s just so much fun to not just be in a classroom and just to be outside and doing all of these things.: (Ava, grade7)

These positive comments align with the survey feedback that NSS solicits from students and parents every few months. The vast majority of responses show that these programs are perceived as enjoyable and that students feel well supported. For those few who respond otherwise, the principal follows up to improve things for those students.

How do they do it

Tim Mulligan, principal at NSS, has worked with local community members to defray the costs of these programs. Through monetary and other types of donations (like letting students ride bikes on their land, or parent volunteerism), the cost of these programs to the school budget is kept to $15,000 per year.

The title says "Community partners and creative scheduling (how are we able to do this?)" and notes that donations, parent volunteers, and a fantastic staff make a huge difference.
Shared by Tim Mulligan, principal, and Ty Mulligan, grade 8 student, in a presentation at the 2023 Middle Grades Conference.

Morgan Moore, the Director of Experiential Learning for the district, supports Tim with some logistics and in making connections to community organizations. The district uses grant funds and deploys staff from their after school programs to support these types of experiences in other schools. Morgan brings in students from the Outdoor Education program at Northern Vermont University as well. At Concord School, Applied Academics teachers are the backbone of Exploratory Fridays. 

Morgan notes: “Every school is different for how they can make this work. But it’s so important to make these opportunities available during the school day. Every student deserves to be exposed to these skills, the land, these local organizations, and of course Transferable Skills like teamwork.”

Making these opportunities a priority is perhaps the most important element in making them widespread and equitably available. Tim points to the challenges facing schools as the ultimate justification for innovation:

“How are we meeting the needs of all of our kids? ADHD, mental health, depression, the trauma so many have experienced. And all of us adults going through the same things? We have to try something different than what we’ve done in the past.”

So every school is different, and it is time to try something different. Getting students moving and exploring is a great place to start, however you do it.

How will you get students moving and exploring at your school?

On Fostering Brave Spaces


Audio only
Annotated Transcript

Hello, my name is Grace Gilmour. I’m a seventh and eighth grade social studies teacher. And today I’m going to be talking about:

“How do we foster brave spaces for discussions about race and other forms of oppression in our classrooms?”

In the fall of 2020, I designed and implemented a unit that was meant to create a framework that we can come back to throughout the year.

It was supposed to (and did) introduce different social justice concepts and vocabularies as well as skills. So throughout the year, as we were discussing other time periods in history, case studies through history, we’d be able to come back to these concepts to help us understand them through a social justice lens. And the other purpose of this was to really build my students’ stamina for having increasingly difficult conversations about racism and other forms of oppression.

I think it’s first important to note that intervention may take different forms in different communities.

So, I work in a community that is majority white, and so our focus has to be on:

How do we protect and empower those few students of color that we do have while also giving our white students the understandings and skills and literacies?

True literacies, that they need in order to live in a more equitable world and a democratic society in which all people are valued. So I want to start by just reading this quick paragraph that I wrote that I think sums up why this is all necessary:

“Race and racism are key to understanding and dismantling inequity in America due to the persistence of the ideology of race and white supremacy. The hegemony of whiteness remains entrenched in systems in ways that are not always immediately apparent, especially to white people. This is compounded by individualism and claims of colorblindness which serve to justify or hide racial disparities in a racist world. These historical ideologies have left many white people racially illiterate, but racially conscious when perceiving other racialized groups. Imagining that race is not real conserves white supremacy by preventing it from being interrupted.”

And this plays out in what we know about how white students interpret race and understand race.

In a study done by Michael and Bartoli in 2014, they found that overall white students and white teenagers did not have the understandings and skills to engage in discussions about race. They found that by and large white teenagers held really contradictory ideas about race. They oftentimes expressed so-called colorblind ideas while also holding stereotypes. So, they would say out loud, “I don’t see race” or, “I don’t see color”. Or “We’re all the same race: the human race.”

But then they would also hold stereotypes about Black people. And they also saw any mention of race as racist.

I know I oftentimes saw my students try to avoid naming race; try to avoid it to the best of their ability. They would say anything but someone’s race. Say anything *but* race or racism.

And this really comes down to this idea that white students overall lack an ability to analyze systems through the lens of racism. Therefore they’re looking at outcomes and they’re putting those through the lens of individualism. They’re seeing these things as individual failures rather than as a result of historical and current structural racism.

So we really need to give our kids understandings about race and about racism in order to be able to accurately interpret what they’re seeing around them.

Schools have a clear responsibility here, right?

The way I see it is we can really either be interrupters or perpetuators of the systems of oppression. Right? We can either continue them by omitting discussions of race and other forms of oppression in our classrooms or we can face them head on.

And in addition to that, we also have a duty to prepare our students for an increasingly multi-cultural multi-ethnic multi-racial society. We have a duty to prepare our students to take part in a democracy that involves a lot of different types of people.

So how do we do that?

That is a big ask.

Grace Gilmour Fostering Brave Spaces


I kind of boil it down to components and to understandings and into skills. What are those things I’m wanting to target to make sure my kids understand and make sure my kids are able to do so?

I wanted them to understand that race is not biological, but rather a social construct and a power construct as Kenny would call it. Explain why race —  despite not being biological — is an important aspect of many people’s identity. Being able to identify the difference between individual and systemic racism.

Most of my students if you asked them what is racism, they would tell you racism is when someone calls another person a racial slur. But before this unit, they really lacked that understanding that racism is also systems that have inequitable outcomes. Also being able to analyze the importance and impact on intersectionality.

Thinking about both as an individual, as looking at others, what are those different parts of their identity that are impacting their experiences in the world?

And then finally being able to analyze my own privileges and disadvantages. Looking at my own social identities,  what are the aspects that maybe marginalize me? What are those aspects that give me privilege?

In terms of skills, there’s some clear skills kids need.
  • Being able to identify and analyze racism and anti-racism in language, actions and media.
  • Being able to interrupt when they see or hear bias remarks or actions.
  • And being able to take action and create change through civic engagement.

Again, thinking about that democracy piece. Recognizing and analyzing both racist and anti-racist ideas and actions in myself and in others. Again, that self-reflection. And that acknowledgement that racism isn’t always in some far-off bad guy, but also is found within ourselves.

And then I can use strategies to manage my racial stress. I’ll talk about that more in a bit, but that’s that idea of:

How can I manage my feelings of discomfort, my feelings of strong emotions that maybe prevent me from hearing what people are saying?

That might pop-up as fragility, for instance. Or defensiveness. All right, so why start with social identity? For middle schoolers in particular they’re at this age where they’re already trying to develop a sense of self. Who am I and who am I in relation to others? And they’re also developing their own moral compasses thinking about what is fair, what’s not fair, what is just.

Social identity gives all students an entry point because we all have social *identities* — plural, right? We all have different aspects, different social groups that we all belong to.

And then finally this idea that the self and understanding ourself is a precursor to understanding society. And through doing this work with social identity, we’re able to build the empathy that is necessary to have these further discussions about race and colonization and other forms of oppression.

The next thing that’s really important for us to think about is how we’re thinking about this word “safe” and what is its role in education.

We oftentimes talk about creating “safe spaces” and I understand why, right? We need to feel safe in order to learn, in order to connect with others. The problem with that is: whose safety is being valued? Whose safety are we valuing, especially when we’re having conversations about racism?

And so many people have talked about the concept of brave spaces.

Glenn Singleton has done a lot of work on courageous conversations. I really like though what San Pedro proposes; this concept of a sacred truth space where our goal is to seek truth rather than seek safety. So he said he proposes the creation of a sacred truth space where students are able to engage in the often vulnerable act of telling and hearing multiple truths. Where safety is not necessarily the goal. Rather the goal is creating a dialogic space to share our truths and to listen and learn the truths of others.

So this idea of like, shifting our idea of safety and what our goal is.

Easy, right?

How to put it into action

So in order to kind of break that down into what that actually could look like, these are some things that I sought to do as I was building my community with my kids:

  • Generating community agreements
  • Building community connection
  • Feeling connected to each other
  • Explicitly teaching skills and practicing these skills around social, emotional skills that would help us to engage in these conversations.

Because listening feels particularly important:

  • How do we listen patiently?
  • How do we listen actively?
  • And how can we be aware of the space and time that we’re taking up with our voices?

And then a part of that also is teaching and practicing strategies for dealing with strong emotions. So when we’re feeling those strong feelings how can we deal with that? And how can we deal with that with others? Also establishing norms for conversations that are practiced regularly and are reinforced. Creating time and space to debrief individually, in small groups, in whole communities, in small groups.

It also might be helpful especially in majority white spaces to create affinity groups.

I have not done that this past year, but that is something that I’m interested in thinking about as well. Plan for strong emotions as a teacher; it’s going to happen. Have a script for yourself. What are you going to do when those strong emotions come up?

And then finally scaffolding discussions. Sentence stems are great, or sentence starters, discussion protocols. What is the system that we’re using is also great.

I use a lot of talking pieces in my room, they’re wonderful. How can we scaffold these discussions so we’re not just throwing kids in and expecting them to know what to do?

Starting with norms and standards

I started by looking at standards. I use Teaching Tolerance’s social justice standards. They have K-12 and they’re in these four kind of big categories of identity, diversity, justice, and action. These are are the pieces that we were working on with this first unit.

Grace Gilmour, "Fostering Brave Spaces"


I pulled from Quin Gonnell’s middle grade social justice curriculum. I’ve relied on him very heavily for the beginning of this unit when we were kind of starting and setting the stage for this work. So we started with looking at what our hopes and fears were. And then we thought about how could we create norms that would help us reach our hopes while also addressing our fears?

So these are the norms that I developed with my students that came out of that work:

  • Listen to understand rather than respond.
  • Be open to new ideas.
  • When we mess up, we make it right.
  • Stay present and engaged.
  • Speak your truth, and
  • Be respectful of each other.

And we’ve used these throughout the year.

Making space for strong emotions

The next thing we did — also pulling a lot from Quin Gonnell’s work — was preparing students for strong emotions.

We talked about comfort zones and learning zones.

We discussed and modeled strategies for responding to triggers, and actually had little sentence stems to help them with those as well. And we spent a lot of time at the beginning of the year just building community and connection — and hopefully trust — through check-ins and games. Then we practiced those discussion protocols so that we can kind of fall back on those structures. And we practiced those with accessible topics.

We didn’t jump in right away talking about racism or talking about sexism.

We initially talked about things like “would you rather” games and things like that, to get them used to those protocols.

And then some of our major topics were levels of oppression, social mobility, intersectionality, positionality, gender and sexuality bias, personal versus social identity, social and power construction of race. And then just the concept of justice. What is justice?

As a white woman I thought it was really important for me to try de-center myself as much as possible. And also just be really reflective and vulnerable with my students.

“What do middle schoolers need to understand about social identity and oppression?”

With that in mind, I wanted to really carefully integrate the arts and the personal testimony of people of color, as well as people with other marginalized identities.

So, we oftentimes started class with poetry or music or art or TED Talks or short stories just to kind of anchor ourselves, as well as center people with these marginalized identities. We also journaled every day, we modeled and practiced vocabulary usage. We had structured discussions. And then we oftentimes would end class with a more individualized guided inquiry where I would pose a question such as “Why are schools still segregated after Brown v Board?” And then kids would investigate that using resources that I provided.

So that was kind of every lesson.

And then the end of the unit we did a project where kids were asked to answer the question,

“What do middle schoolers need to understand about social identity and oppression?”

That was kind of our big overarching question. And then kids designed projects to do that.

Here’s some of the projects that kids created.

One was looking at the intersection of race and LGBTQ identities. Others looked at the school-to-prison pipeline, racial socialization in America, implicit bias, impacts of redlining today.

Overall for my students, the biggest kind of takeaway that was reflected in a lot of their reflections that they wrote was the shifting from an understanding of racism as something that happens between individuals to something that oftentimes happens between systems and from systems down.

Grace Gilmour, "Fostering Brave Spaces"


Some successes that I had: students regularly utilize social identity and justice concepts now without prompting. And with increasingly less prompting over time, they’re showing a much higher level of nuance. When we’re looking at history or current events, they’re able to kind of use these frameworks as a lens. They’re showing a greater understanding of their different social identities and how they impact them.

On a personal level I feel very much closer to my students this year than I have in the past.

I think that the vulnerability and the level of reflection that a unit like this takes just makes you closer as a community. I had six students come out to me this fall. And in addition I just had more students reaching out to me for various things and to seeing me as a person that they trust. Which I have really valued.

Over the course of this unit and this year, students also showed just less discomfort and hesitancy especially when talking about and naming race and racism. They’re no longer treated as bad words by my students. I’m hearing them just feel more comfortable naming those.

They’re also increasingly using strategies to interrupt oppressive language without me intervening. I hear very little oppressive language in my classroom anymore. I’m not naive to think that that is true outside of my class, but we’ve created an environment in which it’s very clear that oppressive language is not acceptable. And students have been able to interrupt that language without my support more and more.

Other things I’m going to work on are things I’m willing to work on.

In my curriculum, I’m wanting to — in addition to talking about oppression — also be talking about Black joy and Black creativity. And really also emphasizing moments not of oppression, because I think there’s a real danger of re-traumatizing kids, traumatizing kids or having my white students see Black people as only oppressed. I really want to emphasize that moving forward.

I also want to have a greater emphasis on Indigenous history and current events.

This is admittedly an area that I need to do a lot more learning in. I’m really trying to seek out resources right now to be able to do that more effectively with kids. And I’m wanting to make more explicit connections to the present oppression throughout my curriculum.

I’ve never shied away from the more traumatic or more difficult aspects of our history. I have at times done a poor job of connecting that to what we’re seeing now. So showing the through line from this history to our present. I’m really wanting to be better about that.

And then professionally I’m really ultimately wanting to acknowledge that this is a process, that I’m never going to do it perfectly and that I need to always be striving to do it better. A big part of that is just centering myself on the why, right? Which for me is I’m really wanting to do my part in creating a world in which people from a variety of identities can feel valued, can feel empowered and have equitable access to society. I believe strongly in democracy and in creating a world in which we actually can have an equitable democracy.

So that’s my why. And I want to continue just to center that as I’m doing this work.

If you have any questions definitely email me at Thank you so much.


Flood Brook’s Classroom Library Audit

Flood Brook School has been talking about a classroom library audit for A LONG TIME. Like, a real long time. It became one of those running jokes in some of our classrooms.

7th and 8th graders talked with teachers about how inclusive (or not) our libraries are, and we always intended to do a formal classroom library audit.

To be honest, a lot of the members of our community didn’t feel like this was a pressing issue. We discussed the matter in class. We focused on identity, power, privilege, and discrimination in middle school humanities. And our school-wide library began a diversity audit last year.

Students at Flood Brook regularly use vocabulary from our humanities course. Whether debriefing team-building games by discussing power and privilege, or critically analyzing school discipline practices by debating how students are treated differently at times for behaving in seemingly similar ways, we talk a lot about identity and representation.

So why not let this one classroom practice slide when there is so much “else” to learn about every day? We’re busy people, right?


Thanks to the supportive push of fellow educators, our class finally made it happen. And did we ever find out how wrong we were!

The Accessibility of Bar Graphs

The classroom library audit at Flood Brook was a natural extension of a year of humanities exploration that spiraled around the core themes of identity, community, and social justice.

With everything going on in an already hectic year of pandemic classroom learning, digging into representation, and exploring the stories that surround us led our class to deeper discussions about the content that we were already learning.

Following a simple bar graph model made the work seem more manageable. And fortunately, it was VERY manageable. But it was also incredibly impactful! (Though if we did it again we would probably follow a more structured approach.)

Here’s what we did:
    1. We began by removing all the books from our classroom library. (Added bonus to all you clutter-busters: this gave us an excuse to clean neglected crannies of our classrooms).
    2. Students then worked in groups to research the authors we found. What does the cover art and inside cover tell us about the author? What can we find out at their website? And what about quick biographies from trusted sources?
    3. The next step was to make a simple bar graph of the books based on our findings. Following the advice of rock-star librarian Jeanie Phillips, we made bar graphs by sorting and piling our books for a quick and tangible display of the the makeup of our library.

For our audit we chose to organize our library based on the self-identification of the author.

With that in mind, our next steps were:

Engage in conversation

The class talked about what identities the stories represent in our library. Who was included? Who was left out? And what does it say about which stories are valued?

When students were confused about the background of a writer, we read anything we could about the life of the author. Where did they grow up? What events shaped their life? How do they self identify?

Admittedly, the bibliophiles in our presence were much more into this. They delved further into the conversation to talk about how life experiences may impact the stories each author tells.


The research was by far the most engaging part of the process. By focusing on our research and the discussion of it, students made connections between who was well represented and who was in danger of being simplified in the literature of our classroom.


After a lengthy conversation about which books would go, which books would stay, and where books should go on the shelves, students re-shelved the library.

We donated books that had not been checked out in years. Or we offered them to teachers who had previously expressed interest. In *rare* circumstances, our amazing up-cyclying art teacher recycled them.

The group decided to place newer books on more accessible shelves. They tended to be purchased by student-led orders, recommended by peers, or selected because they contributed to a more inclusive collection. These included stories of joy and strength that helped to expand the horizons of our very white, rural Vermont school. 

Many Hands, Light Work

Our advisory has 11 in-person learners, so keeping everyone occupied in a meaningful way took some problem-solving. The group decided to divide and conquer. Throughout the week, students took turns pulling books, researching authors, and re-shelving books.

We found that working in pairs was the most effective way for our group to do this. That way, everyone had a partner to hold them accountable, to ask questions, and to talk about the books as we moved through the audit.

Our Findings on: Gender

Our class decided to sort books based on the gender, race, and country of origin of the author. We found that, even with the bulk of our literature budget in the past few years going towards the purchase of diverse books, the results were similar to other classrooms in our school.

White men overwhelmingly dominated our bar graph.

While we quickly realized that the majority of the books that are currently checked out skew towards authors of color, the resulting change would have had no chance to catch up to the “white man” pile. This pile was literally so tall as to need structural support to plan for its height.

One student in fact, while placing books atop the highest stack turned around to his classmates. “Oh no, I would hate to think the white males might come tumbling down.” The whole room laughed.

A pause. “No guys, I really meant the books.”

We had built together literal structures holding the literature of white men above others. Meanwhile the class began discussions of the metaphorical (and literal) structures that were proving the same within our curriculum.

We found that while women authors were well represented, women of color were one of the least represented groups in our audit. I have never been so relieved to have started my year with identity work. Discussions of intersectionality became the necessary framework for meaningful discussion in our learning community.

Our Findings on: Intersectionality

To add to the disparity in gendered representation, 8th grader Trinity, an active member of our school’s Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), noted that queer authors were poorly represented and trans authors were entirely absent.

In fact, as 7th grader Anna noted, “The only historically marginalized group that we have a lot of is women.”

Which brought us back to our discussions about intersectionality from earlier in the year. Our classroom library’s books written by women were almost exclusively written by white women.

The Z Axis of Class Sets

Enter the “Z Axis.”

While we have *a lot* of books written by women, the bulk of them are represented by titles for which we had numerous copies.

The class engaged in a lively debate here. Do we count books twice if we have two copies?

Some of us wanted to tally each title independently. Others thought the total number of copies was more important. After a lively debate and sharing our ideas with another advisory, the group came up with the idea of adding a “Z Axis” to the graph. After all, having full classroom sets of a title clearly communicates someone’s opinion of the importance of that story.

The class ultimately decided to have one copy in each stack, while piling duplicate copies in front of each pile. This way, we were able to see both ways in which our library represented authors of different backgrounds.

One big takeaway here was that white authors were heavily represented in classroom sets. After all, most of these sets were purchased in recent years, by teachers or other professionals in the district. The connection between titles taught through EngageNY curriculum was unmistakable. And while white women represented the largest quantity of books when factoring in classroom sets,  the stack of titles written by white male authors still dwarfed them. 

In one of the “Most Progressive” Classrooms in our District

The final step for this audit, which was actually the culminating activity for a mini-unit on reflecting on reading revolved around sharing our findings. I challenged students to find a place where they could share their findings with the world.

Students took to our middle school’s instagram account, shared with their families, and even met with our superintendent Dr. Randi Lowe to discuss their findings.

Our superintendent was not surprised to learn about the results of our audit, but we think it’s fair to say that she was disappointed. “If this is what a classroom library looks like in one of the most progressive classrooms in our district, we have to do better.”

Fortunately, the students’ work paid off. Dr. Lowe congratulated the class on their hard work, challenged them to use their findings to create action steps and left us with exciting news. Each wing in our school, in fact every school in the district, has newly dedicated funds to purchase literature that will surround us in stories that better represent the truly complex experiences of humankind on this planet.

Our first action step? Working our way through some of these great book lists/resources and purchasing books that allow for all students to see themselves reflected in our class’s literature.

classroom library audit Flood Brook Middle School



This blogpost on Flood Brook Middle School was co-authored by Cliff DesMarais, Zola Bruner, and Anna Carson.

Culturally Responsive Instruction and Assessment

At their heart, Culturally Responsive Practices (CRP) are about teaching the way students learn. It is an unfortunate truth of being human that we are biased by our own experiences. As Mahzarin Banaji, a professor of social ethics at Harvard University says,

“The quickest way to define what implicit bias is [is] to say it is the thumbprint of the culture on your brain.”

For educators, this means our internalized notions of what good teaching looks like emerge from our own experience.

Our task then is to think outside of our own ways of knowing, being, and learning in order to meet the needs of our students and build on their cultural ways of knowing, being, and learning.

Hold up… let’s make sure we are on the same page. What do we mean by other ways of knowing, being, and learning? Jamila Lyiscott provides a powerful explanation (video).

Now let’s explore some of the ways we can expand our methods so that all students can exercise and grow their genius.

Culturally Responsive Instruction and Assessment

We are going to use four themes from the research literature on Culturally Responsive Pedagogies to look more closely at instruction and assessment:

  1. Be transparent and intentional about culture.
  2. Take an appreciative stance.
  3. Provide mirrors and windows.
  4. Educate about and for social justice.

Each theme will allow us to tease out culturally responsive practices and examples for consideration as you plan instruction and assessment.

1. Be transparent and intentional about culture

In her seminal book The Dreamkeepers, Gloria Ladson Billings noted, “All instruction is culturally responsive. The question is: to which culture is it currently oriented?”

Unless teachers are intentional, classrooms are likely to parallel the dominant culture. As institutions, schools have embedded and unquestioned structures (the “grammar of schooling”) that traditionally have not centered the needs and assets of students, especially students from historically marginalized populations.

Since most teachers experienced some form of traditional schooling, culturally responsive teachers often seek to look beyond their own experience. They constantly ask themselves “Whose ways of knowing am I centering? How might I incorporate different ways of knowing?”

It is a safe assumption that every classroom represents a range of learner types and dispositions at any given moment. And most youth cultures value novelty. The Education Alliance at Brown University’s site on culturally responsive teaching notes that “instruction is culturally mediated when it incorporates and integrates diverse ways of knowing, understanding, and representing information.”

Thus a hallmark of culturally responsive classrooms is variation in instructional format – independent work, small group learning, direct instruction, self-paced activities, student-directed workshops, whole group discussion, etc. These formats are not used willy-nilly, though. They are carefully chosen for purpose and embedded in routines. A good example is Team Quest at Crossett Brook Middle School in Duxbury, Vermont, who revamped their schedule to increase student voice and choice. The two-person team transformed their approach based on the perceived needs and input of their learners.

Cultural validity in assessment

Assessment validity refers to accuracy. Just like instruction, if the assessment process is a mismatch for a student’s culture, it’s not going to accurately measure what students know and can do.

Trumbull & Nelson-Barber explain it this way in their article The Ongoing Quest for Culturally-Responsive Assessment for Indigenous Students in the U.S.:

“Achieving cultural validity in assessment means, first, recognizing that tests and assessments are cultural artifacts and that the ways in which students respond to them are affected by their cultural knowledge and experiences. It means accounting for students’ cultural and linguistic backgrounds, epistemologies, educational experiences, communication styles, and socioeconomic situations in the processes of assessment development and implementation” (para 12).

The article includes an excellent list of research-based questions that teachers can ask themselves at each phase of the assessment process. The overarching idea here is intentionality. Teachers must keep culture at the forefront of their instruction and assessment practices. Otherwise they will default to their own acculturation and biases.

culturally responsive instruction and assessment
Image by Elise Trumbull & Sharon Nelson-Barber, “The Ongoing Quest for Culturally-Responsive Assessment for Indigenous Students in the U.S.”. Licensed via Creative Commons 4.0 (International-Attribution).

2. Take an appreciative stance

“You are good enough. I appreciate you and care for you unconditionally.” A teacher who carries and lives this sentiment embodies culturally responsive practices. These educators are what Lisa Delpit calls “warm demanders,” and they inspire young people to reach their full potential.

In an interview titled “Antiracist grading starts with you,” Cornelius Minor points to three harmful beliefs (what he calls “pernicious ideologies”) in assessment that get in the way of appreciating students.

  1. Should know – expectations and assumptions about what students should know and be able to do based on grade level
  2. Transactional gratitude – I’ll teach you as long as you are thankful for it
  3. Deservedness – intertwining the grading of behavior and academic skills

These ideologies are huge barriers to appreciating where students are and focusing on how to help them grow. Growth-oriented systems such as proficiency-based education (PBE) can help teachers move away from these problematic ideologies. The TIIE toolkit on PBE, for example, includes this core belief: “The goal of education is not to sort and rank learners, rather to help ALL learners grow towards their potential.”

By being appreciative we build student agency. As put in the report Equity and Assessment: Moving Toward Culturally Relevant Assessment, “Our assessments approaches— how we assess and the process of assessment itself—should align with the students we have, empowering them with narratives to share and document their learning journey.”

Culturally responsive instruction and assessment uses assessments that let students author their own narratives, such as portfolios, personalized learning plans, and student led conferences. Students can use multimedia tools to tell the story of their growth from their own perspective. The appreciative stance firmly takes hold when students are supported in appreciating their own learning.

3. Provide mirrors and windows

Rudine Sims Bishop developed the metaphor of mirrors, windows and sliding glass doors to help us understand the importance of diverse representation in literature. This metaphor can also guide us to more culturally responsive pedagogy. It can remind us to make certain that students see their own ways of knowing, being, and learning mirrored in our classroom.

If our instructional practices are only mirrors of the way we learn best they are most certainly not culturally responsive. If, on the other hand, they are intentionally varied, they provide mirrors for all kinds of learners to see their strengths.

Look at the view from the windows in your classroom

As educators we can position ourselves such that our work with students allows us to learn from the windows they provide for us, thus better informing our instructional practices.

Perhaps the most straightforward way for teachers to benefit from student perspectives is to ask them directly. Conferencing allows feedback from students about what is working and what could improve along with direction from teachers about next steps for students. CRP teachers survey their classrooms regularly to check in about the extent to which students feel they belong or how the teacher’s instruction affirms cultural identity (see, for example, the Copilot-Elevate measures).  Teachers may also employ more targeted data gathering through action research.

Other pedagogical approaches, like formative assessment and negotiated curriculum , provide the opportunity to learn more about our students. They provide windows into the cognitive processes of our learners, allowing us to inform our instruction.

Not all windows are transparent

While we definitely want to get to know our students well, we don’t need to know everything about them in order to plan instruction. It is a both/and. Yes, our students provide us with windows into their world, which helps us make our instruction culturally responsive. AND we don’t need to know everything about their lives (or deserve to) in order to plan instruction that is relevant and meaningful to them.

Universal Design for Learning (UDL) is an approach to designing instruction that is accessible and engaging for all learners. It specifically asks educators to identify and remove barriers to learning. This UDL tool (.pdf) for example, pairs barriers with instructional strategies to engage all learners.

Another pedagogical approach that should be adopted outright is trauma-informed practice.

It is safe to assume, no matter where you teach, that some of your students will have experienced trauma. This doesn’t mean you need to know the specific traumas young people have suffered. You should plan for trauma no matter what.

Alex Shevrin Venet, in her book Equity-Centered Trauma-Informed Education, explains an approach to designing instruction that is culturally responsive and trauma-informed. As she designs a unit she prioritizes predictability, flexibility, empowerment, and connection. This approach, it should be noted, works within the larger context of a trauma-informed classroom and school.

4. Educate about and for social justice

Culturally responsive instruction and assessment engages students in what Gholdy Muhammad calls criticality:

“criticality helps students to name, question, interrogate, understand and disrupt hurt, pain and harm within the world.”

Culturally responsive teachers seek to to “create a better humanity for all” according to Muhammad. They engage students in the work of actively dismantling oppressive systems.

One instructional approach that engages students in this work is critical-problem based learning (Critical-PBL), as explored by Caires-Hurley, Jimenez-Silva, and Harrington.

Critical-PBL uses four pillars to move students toward action for a more socially just world:
  1. Standards that are critical: specifically the Social Justice Standards from Learning for Justice
  2. Problems that are critical: meaningful problems related to justice
  3. Content that is critical: content related to the experiences of minoritized and marginalized groups
  4. Discourse that is critical: includes a variety of voices and moves beyond “academic language”
The four pillars of Critical Problem-Based Learning: Critical Standards, Critical Problems, Critical Content, and Critical Discourse. For culturally responsive instruction and assessment
The four pillars of Critical-Problem Based Learning. Image by Caires-Hurley, Jimenez-Silva, and Harrington, “Toward a Critical-PBL: Centering a Critical Consciousness in the Middle Grades”. Licensed via Creative Commons 4.0 (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0).

This approach engages learners in the work of social justice while simultaneously engaging them in academic content and skills. The model units at the end of the article provide examples of these four pillars at work.

Some Vermont educators have been engaging their students in another form of PBL: project-based learning with a critical lens.

For example, Edmund’s Middle School teacher Jeremy DeMink engages learners in addressing social inequities through Hands-Joined Learning. Both PBL and C-PBL provide instructional trajectories that lead students to informed action that disrupts inequity.

Remember that what makes it culturally responsive isn’t just criticality, but also the connection to young people’s lives.  As Alex Shevrin Venet says,

“Students’ lives are full of rich areas for exploration and real problems to solve. We don’t need to give students fake work that is meaningless in the context of their lives.”

Performance assessments for social justice

A well-designed performance task provides an opportunity for students to practice skills, demonstrate critical understandings, and center their lived experience. In the article Keeping Students at the Center with Culturally Relevant Performance Assessment, researcher Maya Kaul explains outlines two critical components:

  • “Put relationships at the center and provide the space for students to share their stories.”
  • “Use students’ personal experiences to drive civic and community engagement.”

For example, she describes districts in California where students graduate based on assembling portfolios. This allows students to center their accomplishments. She also points to another model, where the Hawaiian Focused Charter School network has developed a series of capstone projects that each incorporate skills such as research papers and oral presentations deployed to make social impact. Ultimately,

“Such assessments provide a powerful vehicle for understanding students’ cultural identities, not as tangential to their learning, but as essential to their education and critical to their becoming valued contributors who are poised to serve their schools and communities. Historical trauma is reclaimed as a platform to empower individuals as social and political change agents, transforming and restoring the health and well-being to communities.”

School systems should measure what matters. To produce genuinely culturally responsive instruction and assessment, we must intentionally design assessments about and for social justice.

In search of wholeness

Equity is a process, an approach, and a lens for viewing the world and our work as educators. It is about more than equal outcomes. The ultimate goal is that every person is valued as their whole human selves in all spaces.

This blog series on Culturally Responsive Practices has focused on educational spaces. To properly apply CRP, we need all four of the themes. Many of the aspects seem like “good teaching.” But if we leave out teaching about and for social justice, for example, we won’t have the transformative impact that we need.

Similarly, although it’s helpful in some ways to separately consider the learning environment, curriculum, and pedagogy, we must attend to the whole system. Superstar teachers and isolated classrooms aren’t going to bring the transformation we need, either. The practices are powerful but can only be sustained and reach their true potential with systemic support. The inequities and oppression baked into our systems, through aspects that directly contradict CRP like standardized testing and tracking as well as more nuanced obstacles such as compliance culture, must be disrupted and dismantled.

To all the CRP educators whose work provided ideas and examples for this series, we thank you. For educators who are at an earlier stage of your efforts to become culturally responsive, we salute you. Your students deserve it.

This post is the last in a four-part series. In part one we identified four aspects of cultural responsiveness: cultural transparency, an appreciative lens, windows and mirrors, and a focus on social justice. We used these four aspects to explore culturally responsive learning environments in part two . In part three we took a look at culturally responsive curriculum through the lens of the four aspects. The series is co-authored by Jeanie Phillips and Life LeGeros.

Culturally Responsive Curriculum by design

If you want to know what an organization prioritizes, examine its budget. If you want to know what educators care about, look at their curriculum.

Curriculum is perhaps the most concrete representation of educational values.

Students’ day-to-day experiences are rooted in their direct engagement with this bundle of lesson plans, materials, and assignments. We package these bundles into units that, in their finest form, have the emotional heft and narrative arc of good stories.

The stories our curricula convey have a huge amount of power in terms of how students learn to think and navigate the world. A culturally responsive curriculum seeks to ensure students think appreciatively and critically about themselves and others. And that they see themselves as positioned to make the world a better place.

Culturally Responsive Practices

Culturally responsive practices (CRP) are the best way we know to create equitable educational systems and develop critical consciousness in all of our students. We’ve highlighted four themes from the research literature:

  1. Be transparent and intentional about culture.
  2. Take an appreciative stance.
  3. Provide mirrors and windows.
  4. Educate about and for social justice.

Let’s take a look at a couple of units to see how these themes show up in well designed, culturally responsive curricula.

Equity, Identity, and Art

Christie Nold teaches 6th grade social studies at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington. She designed a unit that centered social identity. It culminated with students working with teaching artists to express their learning.



She designed the unit based on standards, starting with an appendix to the C3 standards which include the expectations that students can “Explain the social construction of self and groups.” And she relied heavily on the Social Justice Standards from Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance).

Above all, Christie intentionally positioned this unit at the beginning of her curricular sequence so that students applied their learning throughout the school year.

“I find it’s really important to start by knowing ourselves…it was important to me that students have this opportunity to dive pretty hard into who they are and how that informs the way they see the world before they then started looking at other aspects of parts of our world.”

Early in the unit, Christie introduced tools that would allow students to tackle challenging topics and discuss them in a mutually brave space. Learning and dialogue about race are supported by the agreements and compass from Courageous Conversations (See the page on community building at the NMAAHC Talking About Race site if you are interested in checking out those tools.)

1. Be transparent and intentional about culture

The entire unit is based on social identity. Cultural identity is an aspect of social identity in so far as cultural markers show up as part of who we are.

For example, in the video one of Christie’s students explains the cultural iceberg. And she does this without looking at  notes or props. In essence, she did it right off the top of her head. In effect, her grasp of culture and social identity outpaces that of most adults. And that’s because of the intentionality of the unit design.

2. Take an appreciative stance

Educators show trust in their students when they engage them in complex and potentially challenging learning.

As students explored their identities in this unit, they learned to appreciate different facets of those identities:

  • Those they were born with.
  • Parts they had the power to choose.
  • And the way society shaped and viewed facets of their identities.

When they shared (what they wanted to) with classmates, it was in a context of mutual appreciation for each others’ differences. As a result, the underlying theme was that diversity is a collective asset.


Students learned that the unchosen aspects of their identities make them no better or worse than anybody else. Taking an appreciative stance means uplifting every part of identity or culture that is supportive of equity, inclusion, and love.

So for example, while white racial identity may be connected to a history of oppressive acts, students learned about ways to build an anti-racist white identity. Students can critically examine how their identities are positioned within society while choosing to leverage and lean into the most positive versions of those identities.

3. Provide mirrors and windows

Christie used literature to expose students to a diverse array of identities. Over the course of the unit she used two readaloud texts, Refugee and Ghost Boys to expose students to central questions about identity and equity.

Additionally, Christie taught students directly about the windows and mirrors concept. Then, students filled out influencer charts about the books they read and the relationships they had.

And finally, Christie was mindful of her own identity and the fact that most teachers are also white women.

“The impetus for the project was really to allow space for students to engage with who they are as people in the world and what that means and also to engage with folks closer in identity to them or farther in identity from them but either way don’t often represent the trajectory of educators that they have in their lives.”

The teaching artists who worked with students at the end of the project brought their whole human selves to the work.

4. Educate about and for social justice

Christie’s students explored, discussed, and applied powerful concepts such as bias in advertising, the pyramid of hate, and systemic oppression.

In the culminating project, students influenced the world through art. Students used poetry, storytelling, or visual art to express their learning about their own identities and/or the change they hoped to see in society.

As students reflected on the unit, their commitment to social justice came through loud and clear.

  • “It was great to learn about who I am and where I fall in this society and how I can affect others with what I do.”
  • “We are the next generation of adults so we have to move our world into a better place.”
  • “Since we are young we should know about this right now.”

Yeah, these students are verifiably awesome. And intent on changing the world.

Health for all

In another powerful example of culturally responsive curriculum, Lindsay McQueen, a health educator at Edmunds Middle School, in Burlington VT, used the equity literacy framework to transform a 7th and 8th grade health unit. The original unit was about personal choices and health. But Lindsay’s revised unit critically examined health disparities, along with the systemic conditions that lead to them.

Unit questions:
  • To what extent is health determined by individual choices and behavior?
  • Factual: What is the difference between health equity and inequity/disparity?
  • Conceptual: Why do health disparities exist?
  • Actionable: What is important to teach our community about health and equity?

Using the Health Rainbow and carefully planned instruction, Lindsay moved her students from focusing on individual factors and behaviors impacting health to the social, economic, and political factors impacting health. Certainly, this is a powerful reframing and one that incorporates all four of the themes of culturally responsive practices.

the health equity rainbow

1. Be transparent and intentional about culture

By moving from individual factors to social factors, Lindsay challenged the assumption of cultural sameness. She  intentionally named and examined different cultural experiences.

For example, living and working conditions, public services and infrastructure, and social, economic, and political factors all combine to create social determinants of health. As a result, students looked closely at systems of privilege and systems of oppression and how they impact cultural groups.

2. Take an appreciative stance

Lindsay deliberately named the social systems and structures that either foster health or promote illness. In doing so she shifted blame for poor health from individuals to systems that disproportionately over-serve some and under-serve others. This curricular shift moved Lindsay and her students away from a deficit approach. It helped them better understand systemic inequities that lead to poor health outcomes. Thus, instead of judging the choices of individuals, especially marginalized individuals, they examined societal factors limiting personal choices and exacerbating health issues.

But in addition to using a strengths-based approach to frame the content of the unit, Lindsay extended an appreciative stance to her students by engaging them as problem-solvers and engaged community members. Then, students chose areas of interest and created PSA’s or took action to educate their communities about health disparities.

3. Provide mirrors and windows

Lindsay reports that most health curricula focus on individual behaviors: diet, exercise, substance abuse prevention, and stress management. But she asked students to consider that our choices are not made in a vacuum. Instead, they happen in the context of widely varying environmental and cultural conditions. Lindsay shares: We watch this short video and really identify that health disparities are avoidable and unjust, and they are differences in health among groups of people.”

Instead of assuming everyone has the same conditions as themselves, students examine conditions experienced by others. For example, how close is the nearest supermarket, or how many e-cig ads are you exposed to?

Specifically, her students examine the systemic conditions relating to health for various cultural and identity groups. Moreover, her instruction asks students to step into the shoes of those whose lived experience is different from their own. Finally, they consider the health outcomes of such experiences.

4. Educate about and for social justice

A critically conscious approach often begins with essential questions. Lindsay’s unit questions asked students to consider issues of justice. Classroom activities like Unfortunate or Unjust encouraged students to use a justice lens to think deeply about health. As a result, the dialogue allowed students to practice applying critical consciousness to different topics. Lindsay says:

“There was some really interesting conversation among students. It’s not necessarily at that point in time that we say this is definitely unjust, but it allows for the conversation to happen where some say, well, that’s just too bad, but someone has to. Not really understanding how communities are intentionally placed. Not understanding yet that where landfills are built or power stations is intentional.”

And so some of that again is just sparking that raising that critical consciousness around what they’re thinking. Why sometimes some of the unjust statements would actually start off as kids thinking that they’re unfortunate.”

And finally, returning to the health rainbow allowed them to put it into the context of oppressive systems like racism and sexism.

“Kindness Kits” for the win

One group of 7th graders interested in the impact of gender inequities on health created “Kindness Kits.” Each kit includes menstrual pads and they are available to anyone who needs them. Other students created slideshows and video PSAs. Here is what students said about their learning:

  • “I would hope that it would help open a conversation about gender equity.”
  • “I hope that from my PSA, people who are part of the LGBTQ+ community will ask for help when needed and can talk to anyone and feel more comfortable around anyone.”
  • “It will help raise awareness to racism because it’s not talked about enough.”
  • “I think the main idea was to educate people on this issue [mental health and the criminal justice system] because it is not talked about enough.

How might you make your curriculum more culturally responsive?

In conclusion, critically examining units of study can be a first step to developing culturally responsive curriculum. As a result, you can revise and reframe your instructional plans like Lindsey did. Or adapt commercially designed curriculum materials. Or you might be starting from scratch. Whatever your starting point, we hope these questions will guide you as you work towards more just curricula.

Be transparent and intentional about culture

  • What cultural perspectives are represented in your instructional materials? Is there a singular perspective or are diverse points of view included?
  • Do you name dominant cultural narratives or traditions rather than assuming they apply to all and thus reinforcing them as the norm?
  • Does the curriculum present diverse ways of knowing and being?

Take an appreciative stance

  • Who, individually or collectively, play leadership roles or have agency? Who is portrayed as powerless or as a victim?
  • Are cultural strengths from different identities and groups highlighted and celebrated?
  • Who feels empowered and affirmed? Who feels disempowered?

Provide mirrors and windows

  • Who is represented in the materials you use? Who isn’t? Are you being transparent about representation with your students?
  • Does the unit or curriculum include visual images? Will every student see people like themselves? Similarly, will every student see people different from themselves?
  • Are the experts and examples you cite diverse and representative?

Educate about and for social justice

  • What critical questions focus the unit? How does the unit explicitly challenge the status quo?
  • Are there opportunities to examine and question systems and structures that oppress or elevate some groups and not others?
  • Do learners have opportunities to take action to make their community or the world more just?

Consider checking out these Culturally Responsive Curriculum Scorecards for an even deeper dive. And let us know how you are making your curriculum more culturally responsive, we’d love to learn with you!



This post is the third in a four-part series. In part one we identified four aspects of culturally responsiveness: cultural transparency, an appreciative lens, windows and mirrors, and a focus on social justice. In part two we used these four aspects to explore culturally responsive learning environments. In part four we use the four themes to look at instruction and assessment. The series is co-authored by Jeanie Phillips and Life LeGeros.

The Culturally Responsive Learning Environment


Imagine a place where every person can be their authentic whole human selves. A culturally responsive learning environment is a place where everybody belongs. The posters and images on walls, books and materials on shelves, the furniture and flow of the space all radiate belonging.

All Are Welcome: image from the Burlington High School International Club. Culturally Responsive learning environment
Burlington High School International Club
These tangible items convey important information: what is valued, prioritized, and yes welcomed in this space.

The culturally responsive learning environment encompasses way more than the visible. It also includes the dynamics of a space. Consider:

  • Whose voices are heard in this space? (And whose aren’t?)
  • What rules or expectations are stated? (Or unstated?)
  • Who is empowered? (And who isn’t?)
  • Who has a sense of belonging? (And who may not?)

We must ask these questions of our spaces as we strive toward making them truly welcoming. Orleans Elementary School teacher Andrea Gratton gives us a way to frame this work:

“I think a lot about the students that I have, but also the students that I may someday have. And making sure that whoever walks in my door can see themselves in my classroom and know that they feel welcome and included when they come in.”

Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Pedagogy, like teaching itself, isn’t a destination but rather a practice.

We’re using it as a framework to make some of these equitable practices more visible. At the same time, we certainly don’t want to give the impression that there is a set of tricks that can be added to a toolbox.

We are committed to continuing to do the ongoing self-work that is part and parcel of this practice, including:

  • Examining our own biases.
  • Interrogating our complicity in inequitable systems.
  • Seeking feedback to help us understand and disrupt our assumptions.
  • Working in loving accountability with others to help us grow in our understanding of racism and oppression.

This self-work is forever necessary but never sufficient. And it’s with this in mind that we share concrete examples of culturally responsive practices to illuminate what is possible in terms of action.

1. Be transparent and intentional about culture

Schools are cultural spaces, and when we assume they aren’t we center dominant culture. As individual educators, we bring our own values to our classrooms, and often these values need to be investigated. Dr. Kathleen Brinegar spoke about re-examining her practice on a recent episode of #vted Reads. She reminds us that with teaching, every day is a new opportunity for a “do-over”.


Cornelius Minor shares some additional values we may unintentionally bring into the classroom in this interview.  For example,

“In most academic spaces, there is a silent pact that teachers make with students: I will agree to teach you well if you demonstrate to me that you are thankful for it. And if you do not demonstrate to me that you are thankful for it, I will withhold quality teaching from you… We expect students to show up with gratitude because we do our jobs.”

The problematic dynamic of teachers (implictly or explicitly) expecting student gratitude is complicated by the fact that gratitude itself is shaped by culture.

Culturally responsive educators surface the cultural elements they are bringing in the door with them. They challenge themselves to make sure they are aligned with the goal of teaching ALL students. Further, they get to know students well enough to welcome and see the strengths in students’ cultural values as well.

Co-create class values, expectations, and agreements with students

One way to make culture intentional and transparent is to co-create classroom expectations *with* our students.

However, it’s not just about creating them. If all we do is co-construct norms then they might as well be wallpaper. It’s also important to use them, revisit them, and revise them.  Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School teacher Christie Nold demonstrates the power of leaning on classroom agreements in order to do challenging work.

Be careful! Students may just tell you what you expect to hear based on their experiences “doing school”.

Shelburne Community School teacher Meg O’Donnell reports that COVID has helped her reconsider asking students to create norms in multiple classes, leading to norm fatigue.  Rethinking Schools shared a thoughtful piece on making classroom norms that really engage students in what they need to learn well.

Solicit and engage student voice

Listening, really listening, to students’ voices is crucial in a culturally responsive classroom environment. Dr. Emily Nelson calls it a matter of justice, that students have a right to be heard and to inform their education.

One way to engage culture transparently and intentionally is to ask your students for feedback. It’s crucial, however, that we not only solicit feedback but that we act on it! Here is one way to scaffold feedback from students:

  • First, ask your students what is working *and* not working about class. A Google Form or anonymous survey can help them be honest with their feedback.
  • Then, process their feedback: sort and make sense of the data. Are their common threads? What might you learn from outliers?
  • Finally, share the data, and your next steps, with your students! Show them that their feedback matters by acting on it publicly, with humility and grace.

Kim Dumont, 4th-grade teacher from Ottauquechee School, shares another way to center student voice and feedback in order to create a culturally responsive classroom environment.

Then, Warren Elementary School’s Elizabeth Tarno shows us centering student voice can look like in a 5th-grade math class.

And finally, the Cult of Pedagogy provides a roadmap for soliciting and responding to student feedback.

2. Take an appreciative stance

By honoring students’ strengths, we seek to close the divide between home and school. Culturally responsive learning environments recognize and appreciate the strengths students exhibit in the classroom. And acknowledge the assets and inclinations students show outside of school.

Note that taking an appreciative stance does not necessarily mean that every single aspect of students’ identities and cultures are worthy of being lauded. While diversity valuable in and of itself, it must is bounded by an overarching ethos of love and justice. We needn’t uplift aspects of culture that aren’t fundamentally affirming of belonging.

Culturally responsive learning environments invite us to think beyond traditional ideas of what makes a “good student.” It compels us to define learners in ways that don’t limit or marginalize students just for being different than the norm.

Flexible seating

Few things are more starkly “school” than the inflexible expectations of sitting still in assigned uncomfortable desks.

Flexible seating is an important strategy for creating an asset-based learning environment. At Proctor Elementary School, in Proctor VT redesigned classrooms flow. In contrast to desks and rows, the unconventional furniture encourages students to explore movement as an organic part of their learning. Proctor Elementary School teachers reported more pride in their classroom, greater kindness and generosity between students, and an overall increased sense of community.


Another set of examples expands the concept of student-centered physical space to include not just seating (though there are some great examples there too), but also “schedule” and “spangle.” For schedule, we see instances where educators build from what kids naturally need and do well – time for movement, meditation, fresh air, and goofing off.

“Spangle,” you ask? Well, that refers to covering your classroom walls with student work. What better way to honor their thinking than to use it to envelop your community? It is a powerful message of trust.


Advisory & community meetings

Advisory time allows teachers to lean into connection and playfulness. Playing games, sharing personal stories, and just reveling in being together as humans are hallmarks of advisory. Advisory serves as a distinct, non-academic space where students (and teachers) can just be together.

Community meetings serve similar purposes but usually involve a larger group, such as one or more grade levels. Ideally, students run these meetings.

White River Valley Middle School developed an entirely student-led advisory. Students lean into and actively create rituals to feed their own mini-culture.

It might not be obvious that playing “would you rather” or telling a few jokes could have such a profound effect, but carving out spaces and routines that are purely appreciative of togetherness is crucial.

High expectations

Another concept that comes up in CRP is the idea of high expectations for students. We appreciate the strengths and potential of students insofar as we communicate that we truly believe they can achieve great things.

Some educators accuse critical pedagogies as lacking rigor because it rejects the idea that school must mold students to traditional expectations. Vermont’s focus on Transferable Skills de-emphasizes memorization of vast amounts of content or command of a traditional canon. Students can and should be great communicators, collaborators, problem solvers, and community members, even though these skills are complex and messy. (See a thoughtful treatment of the rigor question here.)

Rather than quizzes and tests, culturally responsive learning environments strive to be feedback-rich environments focused on higher level skills. Assessment processes are student-driven and asset-based. For example, students may gather evidence of learning and share appreciative reflections on growth with families through celebration-centered student-led conferences. Classrooms do important, meaningful, and impactful things together like service-learning and critical project-based learning.

Culturally responsive learning environments ensure that every student’s potential is highly appreciated, frequently fulfilled, and shared with the world.

3. Provide mirrors and windows

Every student has a right to see themselves reflected in your classroom. And every student deserves to see those who are different from themselves reflected in the environment as well.

Classroom walls

What is on your classroom walls? Might there be space for posters that include windows and mirrors, such as those from Amplifier?

It may not be enough just to hang things on the wall, but it sends a signal, a beacon of inclusivity.

Centering mirrors *and* windows  (.pdf) in your classroom serves as a reminder and a promise to also center them in your curriculum. Perhaps it may even spur you to invite your students to create images, representations, and posters that serve as windows and mirrors for you and for themselves.

Windows and mirrors on your bookshelf

Your bookshelf is another prime spot to engage in culturally responsive practices. Be thoughtful about how you curate books, making sure that all students can see themselves in the literature you provide.

Importantly, don’t just consider covers and titles, but look at the context of these stories. Are you providing stories about black and brown joy and excellence? If all of your stories about marginalized peoples are about struggle, that too is a problem. All students deserve to see themselves in a variety of contexts. Students use these contexts to frame their understandings of others. Check to make sure you are not contributing to single stories.

4.Educate about and for social justice

Social justice is in the air in CRP environments. Students interrogate injustices, both local and global. Students participate in ways of being together that provide alternative possibilities that center equity and belonging.

Who are your upstanders

In a culturally responsive learning environment, educators and students interrupt acts of cultural harm as soon as they arise.

Luckily, there is a great resource available to help prepare and practice how to react. Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance) developed an approach called Speak Up At School: How to Respond to Everyday Prejudice, Stereotypes, and Bias.

The approach involves four strategies for responding to incidents: interrupt, question, echo, and educate. Learning for Justice provides professional development modules, background information, and materials to use with students.

At Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, a group of Students Organized for Anti-Racism (SOAR) have learned about Speak Up strategies. Eventually they moved to sharing them with other students and even faculty. One of the adult mentors for the group, 6th-grade social studies teacher Christie Nold, wrote about SOAR’s origin story. She noted important structures that had been put in place to support the group, including racial affinity spaces and established protocols from Courageous Conversation about Race.

It takes proactive intentionality to create an environment where injustice is not tolerated.

Restorative justice

When harm is done, even if quickly interrupted, it is important to address it in order to learn from it and repair harm.

At Randolph Union High School, students in a project-based learning class developed a student-led restorative justice program as an alternative to the traditional disciplinary process.

In the video below, students emphasized how the power dynamic is transformed when they are empowered to solve their problems and address harm together rather than relying on adult authority for punishment.


Early evidence on restorative justice in schools suggests that it has the potential to improve school climate, decrease bullying and harassment, and increase compassion and mutual respect among students. By participating actively in the restorative process, students simultaneously experience, model, and create a social justice environment.

Addressing tough topics and challenging moments

Students should be engaged not just in interrupting and addressing injustices in the immediate environment, but also in discussing and acting on injustice outside of school. CRP involves analysis and disruption of oppression at the systemic as well as interpersonal levels.

Culturally responsive learning environments are places where conversations about issues related to social justice, no matter how controversial, are the norm. Discourse undergirds equal participation in a pluralistic democracy, which is a key goal of CRP. As Kathy Cadwell, a philosophy and history teacher at Harwood High School in Duxbury, put it:

“Dialogue is the heart of democracy. Civil discourse is the heart of community. …Why we engage in the art of dialogue, it’s not only to develop those personal skills but to develop the skills of citizenship and engagement in community.”

CRP thoughtfully scaffold and constantly reinforce the foundations for having these often challenging conversations.

Humans experience the world through the lenses of our identities. Students are situated in their cultures as they try to make sense of big moments such as historical events or unexpected collective trauma. In culturally responsive environments, the baseline assumption is that all students will be supported in processing these fraught moments, considering various perspectives and impacts, and ultimately learning from them together.

Consequently, culturally responsive learning environments are spaces where students can expect to address social justice on a daily basis, especially on those days when it may be most difficult to do so.

What are your next steps for creating a culturally responsive learning environment?

If teaching and cultural responsiveness are both practices, it means every day is an opportunity to do better.

How might you move forward, day by day, in creating a space that welcomes every single learner?




This post is the second in a four-part series. In part one we identified four aspects of cultural responsiveness: cultural transparency, an appreciative lens, windows and mirrors, and a focus on social justice. We used these four aspects to explore culturally responsive curriculum in part three and instruction and assessment in part four. The series is co-authored by Jeanie Phillips and Life LeGeros.

#vted Reads about Equity & Cultural Responsiveness in the Middle Grades

In January 2020, the Vermont state legislature proposed a resolution formally apologizing for the legislature’s role in passing a 1931 law making eugenics perfectly legal and encouraged in the Green Mountain State. Meanwhile, on the Standing Rock Reservation, in South Dakota, the future of the Dakota Access Pipeline is in doubt, but only at the cost of continued vigilance and advocacy on the part of concerned citizens.

How do these two events tie together?

In this episode, middle school equity scholar Kathleen Brinegar joins us to talk about her new book, Equity and Cultural Responsiveness in the Middle Grades. We step through two chapters in particular that provide roadmaps for educators to move into being ‘co-investigators’ with students. Co-investigators f work that is powerful, authentic, and above all, personally relevant and meaningful.

We also talk about how we’d really like to do our first year of teaching over.

Like, entirely.

Fortunately, as educators, we get unlimited do-overs. Today, for instance, is another opportunity to be better, both to one another… and to ourselves.

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads: a podcast about books by, for, and with, Vermont educators. Let’s chat.

Kathleen:  Thanks Jeanie.  I’m happy to be here.  So, I’m an Associate Professor of Education at Northern Vermont University.  I coordinate our middle and secondary teacher education programs.  I also serve as the co-editor of the Middle School Journal, along with my coeditors of this book Lisa Harrison and Ellis Hurd.  And I serve as the program chair for the middle level special interest group of the American Educational Research Association (AERA).

But I’m also a mother, a partner, an avid reader and a runner.

Jeanie:  I am so excited to have you on for the second time.  We got to be in person the last time we recorded and we talked about Cornelius Minor, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be.  It’s one of my favorite episodes.

And so, I’m really excited to have your experience showcased on the podcast again this time.

Thank you so much for agreeing to come and talk to me about this book, which I love and which I think is really important right now.  But before we begin that: you’re an avid reader. What are you reading right now?

Kathleen:  Yeah.  So, I tend to always have two books going at once, a young adult novel and you know, a “grown up” book because I think young adult is for grownups as well.  But in terms of young adults, I just finished Chlorine Sky by Mahogany Browne, which was just beautiful. Such a gorgeous debut novel by such a talented poet.  I love her middle grades picture book of poetry called Woke: A Young Poet’s Call to Justice as well. I highly recommend that one.

And then I’m also reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents, by Isabel Wilkerson. Which I find beautiful but in an entirely different way.

Jeanie:  Yeah. I love Wilkerson’s writing.  The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration was such an education for me.  And I’m definitely going to have to add Chlorine Sky to my “to be read” pile. Thank you for that recommendation.

Kathleen:  Yeah.

Jeanie:  I love talking with you about books, but we’re going to get to this particular book.  Could you give us a little background on this book? Why this book?  And why did you organize it the way you did?  Talk a little bit about how it’s organized for our listeners.

Kathleen:  Yeah, absolutely.  So, this book came about through a long-standing desire to create a book for a mainstream middle grade audience that centers equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Because it’s something that I and my coeditors felt like, it has been a huge gap since the beginning of the middle grades movement.

I knew I wanted this book to be born.  But I also knew as a white woman that I could not birth this book on my own, right?  It was not my book to put out into the universe.

So, I had been familiar with the work of Lisa Harrison and Ellis Hurd in middle grades communities.  So I reached out to them and said, “I feel like your work, your experiences, your identities would be really important to, you know, help bring this work to life”.  And it has become the start of a really important and powerful friendship and collaboration for me.

The book itself is meant to be a call to action. And really, it’s five calls to action.

The first is the need to equitize the middle grades framework.

And by that, we mean to demonstrate the ways that critical equity-focused frameworks and pedagogies intersect with (and actually improve) traditional middle grades frameworks.  And some of those equity-based frameworks include cultural responsiveness, culturally sustaining pedagogies, reality pedagogy, equity literacy, funds of knowledge, right?

Now, these frameworks are all created by scholars of color, and have existed for many, many, many, many years.  But they have largely not been part of mainstream middle grades conversations.

And so, that was a really important part of this work.

The second call to action was to help redefine young adolescents in culturally sustaining ways.

Through the important act of identifying young adolescence as a unique developmental period, what ended up kind of happening, over time, is this essentializing of the young adolescent.

And anytime any person becomes essentialized and we start to define what’s normal, then we also start to define what’s abnormal.

That automatically put some kids at the margins.

And the groups that tend to be at the margins, in middle grades work, as in pretty much any educational work that that essentializes, are the same groups that are systemically on the margins in society at large, right?  So: BIPOC youth, youth who identify as LGBTQ+.

So that was the second purpose.

The third purpose was to counteract bias by celebrating counter-narratives.  One of the things that I view as “whitewashing” in middle grades work is the notion of student voice.

Student voice is at the center of all middle grades work and it always has been.  And that’s actually the component that has drawn me into the field of middle grades education because student voice, I think is such an important piece.


The way I feel like we tend to talk about it in middle grades work — myself included — is that we talk about it in terms of empowerment, but not in terms of liberation, right?  And there’s a difference there.

So to me, this notion of bringing counter-narratives into middle grades, it’s not just about letting students pick how they want to present their learning, but it’s really about providing a space for them to define and write their own stories. In essence, to control the narrative about who they are.

And to me, that is way more powerful than the traditional notion of student voice.

The fourth call to action is to re-examine the middle grades concept.

In my 20-plus years in middle grades education, I’ve lived by this notion of a “middle grades concept”, right?  A series of practices that if used with fidelity is supposed to create the ideal experience for young adolescents.  Things like advisory, teaming, those types of practices.  But again, this model is largely based on the experiences of white middle class youth.

And so, the question that this book poses (or one of the questions) is:

What does a middle grades model look like that considers identity, and even more specifically, intersectionality, right?  Is that model still the same when we really think about the intersectionality of the identities of middle grades learners?

And lastly, this book is about preparing teachers who, I guess is the way I frame it, teach in no other way but in an equitable one.

How do we transform teacher education so that we’re moving from re-teaching to recognizing that it’s always evolving?  There isn’t a list of magic things on how to do it.  But what are the mindsets?  What are the frames of minds that developing teachers need to carry with them in order to be equitable in their teaching?

Each chapter in the book takes up one or more of those ideas and looks at middle grades work.

It’s divided into four sections: one focused on the failures of developmentalism, one on promising practices for supporting young adolescents with marginalized identities, one on building equitable spaces through culturally responsive practices, and finally one on pre-service teachers and supporting them.

Jeanie:  Oh my goodness, I feel like we could spend this whole podcast just talking about what you just said.  And I want to start with just noticing: I’ve been really frustrated that we keep *talking* about equity, but we’re not *doing*.  And so, I’m really grateful for this book that gives us a path forward in making equity affirmed. In making it actionable in schools.  Talk is important.  But at the end of the day, it’s not the thing that gets the job done.

And then I just love how you used this concept that comes out of the critical race theory of counter-storytelling. You sort of use it to re-shape the notion of youth boys. 

As students controlling the narrative I was strongly reminded of, Jamila Lyiscott and her TED talk on how if we think we’re giving students voice, we’re fooling ourselves. They already have a voice.  It’s not our job to give it to them. I hear echoes of that when you talk about allowing young people to control their narratives.


Kathleen:  For sure, absolutely.  As someone so steeped in traditional middle grades work, I’ve had to really recognize that. And then critically unpack these ideas that have so been a part of my pedagogy and my thinking for so long.

Really, that shift from student voice as empowerment through to liberation really is what has made the difference for me.  It’s creating space for youth to do what they already do, right?

Jeanie:  Yeah.  There’s this final thought I had while you were talking about how you’ve organized the book, and it’s this question of: can you be a good teacher without being a teacher who practices equitable teaching?  Can you be a good teacher without focusing on equity?

Kathleen:  I personally would say no.

Jeanie:  And so this isn’t optional. One of the things that holds us back, I will say in Vermont settings but I’m sure beyond Vermont as well, is pacing for privilege. Saying, “Well, these teachers aren’t ready yet to talk about race.”  But then are they ready to teach? Would be my question.

Kathleen: And I think that’s such an important question.  One that I think is at the center of what us as teacher educators should be grappling with and thinking about in terms of what does it look like so that equity work isn’t an add on in teacher education?  So, it’s not framed as this.

We learn how to be teachers, and then we learn how to be equitable teachers, right?  But what if we just learned how to be equitable teachers?

Jeanie:  Vice versa.

Kathleen: Otherwise, quite frankly, we’re centering ourselves and we’re teaching for ourselves.  And we’re not teaching for youth.

Jeanie:  Oh, you’re just giving me chills right now!  Thank you so much for that.  Yes, it’s not extra.  In fact, if we learn to teach and then learn equity, we have to unlearn much of what we learned about teaching in the first place. So why not do it right the first time?

Kathleen:  Absolutely, absolutely.

Jeanie:  Well, let’s get in.

We’re going to really focus in on a couple chapters, because honestly we could talk about this book for days if we didn’t focus in. So I’m going to start with chapter one, which is the introduction that you wrote with Lisa and Ellis.

It’s the section on developmentalism.  And it really begins as a critique of developmentalism, which was really helpful for me to read.

You talk specifically about G. Stanley Hall.  And you told a little story about him and his perspective and points of view as he did the research that led to him being called “the father of adolescence.” And so, I guess I just wanted you to unpack that a little bit for the listeners and the implications of his positionality, and the way he positioned his work and how it influences the middle level movement.

Kathleen:  Absolutely.  And I want to start by giving credit to Lisa Harrison for this, right?  So while this chapter was definitely co-created by Lisa, Ellis and I, it really centers in the work that Lisa has done for a long time as a scholar.

G. Stanley Hall is often considered the father, or grandfather or however you want to frame it, of adolescence.  In the early 1900s, he sort of popularized the notion of recapitulation theory, which is based in Darwin’s work.  It’s the idea that humans go through evolutionary stages, right?  And that has sort of formed the backbone of the developmentalism that we continue to use today.

We begin at birth, and we move through various stages to reach adulthood.  And the way that Hall defines adolescence is it’s the stage whereby humans move from their savage state to their civilized state, right? That notion of sort of becoming fully human, right?

You’re not quite human, yet you become fully human as you pass through adolescence. That notion has continued with us today.  We think of adolescence as this period of exploration, this period of time where you sort of become who you will be, right?

And some of the issues with the way that G. Stanley Hall presented it is a), he believed that white boys could move through to civility faster.  He also believed that non-white races were incapable of moving out of the savage adolescent state. That really only white boys could be like, truly human on this appropriate developmental cycle.

White females may get there, but it will take some time and some effort. And if you are not white, you will always remain in this savage state.  So what it does is it creates educational movements like the middle grades movement that are founded on these notions of developmentalism.

It centers the patriarchy and racist ideals in the very fabric of the foundation of the movement.

And it doesn’t center issues of power, privilege and equity, and therefore, in a lot of ways maintains the status quo.

Jeanie:  I’m just really mad right now. Like I’m just really ticked off that white supremacy is at the heart of this. And it makes me think about a conversation I had about PBIS recently.

And when you said earlier about defining what’s normal and abnormal behavior, situating normal firmly in white maleness means we really have to do a lot of excavating in order to figure out where subtle biases show up.

Kathleen:  Absolutely.  For me, the anger is so real because I have spent over 20 years as a middle grades educator sort of touting this developmentalist theory.  And I never learned this, right?  And that’s such an example of the way that this shows up. In our curriculum, even for teacher educators, right?  It has taken folks of color to wake me up as a white woman to say, “No, the foundation of your very the pedagogy that you have always practiced has always been racist.” Right?

Jeanie:  Right.  And so one of the antidotes — it’s even in the title of this book — is to add culture into the mix.

You and your co-editors and co-writers of this chapter argue that any look at developmental responsiveness must include cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. And so, I wonder if you could just explain what that might look like to the listeners.

Kathleen:  Absolutely.  So, while there have been some educational scholars who call for a dismantling of developmentalism, Lisa, Ellis and I are looking to the convergence of development wisdom and cultural responsiveness.

And by cultural responsiveness, I want to add, we’re including sustaining and revitalizing pedagogies when we use that term, but a convergence of the two so that we can acknowledge that there is a shared experience, right, around puberty and identity development and adolescence. While also promoting and understanding that there are unique experiences for every single young adolescent. And those experiences come out of our culture and our background.

Jeanie:  What I’m hearing you say is intersectionality.

Kathleen:  Absolutely, for sure.  Yep.  And I’m happy to share some examples of what that looks like.

So, take physical development, right?

We tend to think of physical development as there are typical ways our bodies develop. There’s a typical timeline around that development. Now, here’s two examples of the way that culture plays a part in defining what’s typical.

One is around notions of standard beauty. In the mainstream literature, middle grades literature, we do discuss issues around appearance for young adolescent girls, right?  Things around eating disorders and notions like that.

But rarely do we discuss the added implications of Eurocentric standards of beauty on our BIPOC young adolescents, right?  This includes and is often the cause of policing policies around hairstyles, right?  Such as dreadlocks and braids. And it leads to dangerous things around skin whitening. It leads to detrimental feelings about mental health issues around the way that you look.  That goes beyond, right, what we typically talked about.

Another example would be heteronormativity as the centerpiece of the way we talk about sexual and gender identity. Particularly as we talk about health education for young adolescents, because that is centered in heteronormative perspectives.

What is discussed in schools when it comes to sexual education normalizes both a gender binary and heterosexuality. It doesn’t leave space for any other way of being. Which is dangerous to youth who don’t identify within the traditional gender binary or as heterosexual. They’re forced to do their own learning outside of spaces created for that to happen.

Jeanie:  I really appreciate those concrete examples. I’m also interested and you’ve touched on it a bit, but the “both and” that I see in your book.

I heard you when you said, both cultural responsiveness in the middle grades and sustaining pedagogies. This building on the cultural knowledge that students already hold and having an asset-based lens on that. And critiquing what is oppressive about cultures. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about the both end of that.

Kathleen:  Yeah.  I believe we have to do both, right?  The reason being  because breaking down the stereotypes of what a centralized young adolescent is or who centralized young adolescents are is absolutely critical. For all the reasons I just explained.  And it’s only one component of centering equity in our middle schools, right?

If we don’t use the expanded knowledge of who our learners are to actually identify and dismantle the systems and practices that oppress them, then we’ve just fallen into the kindness trap, right?  We’re just being kinder to our students.

It’s about just talking the talk. Being kinder to our students, but not actually acting or changing things in a way that actually makes their experiences in our school systems better.

Along those same lines, if we try to identify and dismantle oppressive systems without also acknowledging the cultures, identities and experiences of our learners, then we fall into the trap of white saviorism, right?

Then we start identifying what we — and I’m using the word “we” as myself, as a white individual — then we fall into the trap of being able to say: I know what’s best for students of color. I know what’s best for students who are gender non-conforming.

And we can’t! Right? Without really actually having conversations and understanding their experiences.

Jeanie:  It reminds me of when I saw Paul Gorski years ago speak and he said, “You know, you can’t be a teacher interested in equitable teaching and not support living wage.”  And it occurs to me: you can’t be a teacher who wants all students to thrive and not stand up against racism. Not stand up against the systemic oppression and help your students to do so.

Two teachers, from Orleans VT, Kyle Chadburne and Andrea Gratton, have been doing some work last year, I believe, with students where they talked about poverty.

And some of the things they talked about in their community — which has a high poverty rate — is one, if you find yourself in this situation, when it’s not your fault, there are systems at play that are creating this.  Two, it doesn’t have to be forever.  And three, there’s no shame to it.  It’s the system that’s broken, not you.

And I think that’s an example of being able to sort of see students’ cultural knowledge, build on it, and also name the oppressive systems that are at work.

Kathleen:  For sure. A huge part of equity in education, and especially at the middle grades level, a critical component of it, is not only taking action yourself but helping students to understand how they can also take action. That they are not just passive people in these systems of oppression. Identify the ways that they and their families and their communities have been systemically oppressed, and then take those next steps.

Jeanie: I guess the thing that I want to tease out a little bit further is that this is no more political than doing nothing. That by not naming systems of oppression we are standing with the status quo. By naming them and asking students to critique them? That is every bit as political as doing nothing.

Kathleen:  Complacency is one of the worst places to be I think, as an educator.  We can’t be complacent.  Otherwise we are complicit, right? They go hand in hand.

Jeanie:  Oh, you said that so much better than I did.  I love that.  Thank you, Kathleen.

This is the perfect setup for us to move on to Chapter 9. I loved this chapter!  And I really want you to talk about it so people can get a little background.  It’s about designing culturally responsive curriculum around the Standing Rock movement.  Could you just frame it a little bit for our listeners to begin?

Kathleen:  Yeah, this is a favorite chapter of mine.  And I think one of the reasons it’s my favorite is every time I read it, I learned something new. There’s just so much to unpack in this handful of pages.

Every time I read it, I learned something new in terms of what it really looks like to create curriculum that is culturally responsive and steeped in the cultures of students.

In essence, this is the story of how two teacher educators collaborated with teachers at an Mni school to develop a curriculum for students around the Dakota pipeline.

Their intention was to explore what it might look like to develop curriculum that is truly culturally responsive.

What the authors do is they partner with Mni teachers and elders to member check their curriculum and to center not only the content of their curriculum but the instructional practices used to teach, that stem from Mni culture. What they develop is a critical literacy focus on media coverage of the Dakota pipeline protests.

And they merge traditional storytelling with social media.

What unfolds in this chapter is that through their experiences with the Mni teachers and elders, the educators realize how little they know as curriculum developers. It’s this really multi layered powerful story.

Jeanie:  We’ve recently had Judy Dow and Marie Vea do some webinars around de-colonizing place-based learning.  And the language I love that they’re using is “unsettling”. The unsettling of the settler narrative narratives.  Unsettling,not just what they teach, but how they teach it, how they engage with it. It’s just so good.  It just gets me thinking in all sorts of interesting ways.


I’m so inspired by this chapter.

The authors really begin by acknowledging their own identities and positionalities.  On page 84 they say,

“To understand the values of the community with whom we work we need to acknowledge first how our inherent values inform, how we listen, ask questions and draw conclusions”.

And they go on to discuss how they have to acknowledge their white privilege as they do this work.  And you sort of already started talking about how profound that experience is for them.  Can you imagine what this might look like in a Vermont middle school?

Kathleen:  Yeah. So, I want to start by saying that I would argue that without this acknowledgement of our own identities and positionalities as educators, we can’t do equity work, right?  You are not doing equity work unless it starts here.

And again: I think of the kindness movement’s colorblindness and white saviorism.  All of these notions arguably stem from good intentions, but because of their refusal to acknowledge power and difference? They end up causing more harm.

I think all of these are examples of what happens in our schools if we as educators take ourselves out of the equation.

What we’re actually doing is centering ourselves and de-centering systemic inequities, and the role each of us plays in perpetuating them. It goes back to that idea of complacency.

Jeanie:  When we talked about Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America, or when we think about Dr. Ibram Kendi’s work, I think what you’re talking about is the difference between being assimilationist — where being kind and colorblind is like, “It’s okay, you can be like us, too” — and being anti-racist. That latter is like, “Oh, how are the ways that I’m showing up limiting or demanding assimilation from my students?”

Kathleen:  Thanks for drawing that really important connection, Jeanie.

I think that highlights the way that even me as a white person talking about this work now, is centered in the work of Ibram Kendi.  And all of these amazing BIPOC scholars.

Without them, I wouldn’t be having these conversations and talking about these ideas.  Remembering to center them in this work is also a really important part of what needs to happen.

In Vermont schools, what does this look like?

In my work with a lot of Vermont schools sort of as a consultant around issues like this, the question always comes up around if we need to make sure that we’re de-centering ourselves by actually identifying, right?

What is our positionality? What is our thinking about our identities? And that’s ongoing work. That’s work that happens forever.

I find what happens is for a lot of teachers it paralyzes them.

It’s like, “How do I do this ongoing work, and feel comfortable?” Right?

And I think this chapter sort of highlights how these two teacher educators, scholars were able to do both at the same time.

Jeanie:  It’s kind of an iterative process, right?

Kathleen:  Yes.

Jeanie:  We have to assume that we as educators are never done learning. And a lot of our learning isn’t necessarily about our content area but about ourselves. How we show up for and with students.

Kathleen:  For sure.  And that means we’re going to make mistakes in the work. Like when [the teacher educators] talk in this chapter about misconceptions that they had.  You know, one was saying “I presented this to one of the elders that I was talking with, and through that I reframed my thinking.” Their whole curriculum process was iterative.

That also comes into play in how we need to teach future teachers to develop curriculum that it is iterative. We need to teach them that curriculum isn’t ever stagnant.

Jeanie:  It occurs to me that it also requires dispositions that are really hard to have as a professional.  And those are humility and vulnerability.

In my past, I have thought that when I arrive as a professional, I will be invulnerable. But what I’ve actually learned is my best growth comes from humility and vulnerability.

Kathleen:  Yes, I totally agree in every single way.  I think the more I acknowledge what I don’t know, the more open I become to being a better educator, right?  Yes.

Jeanie:  I appreciate that.  Thank you.  I appreciate how this makes my vulnerability an asset too.

One of the things I loved about this chapter is that the educators call themselves “co-investigators”.  I really appreciated that co-construction or collaborative perspective on the work.

One of my frustrations in Vermont is that  — and really thank many people, chief among them Judy Dow, for really helping me develop this understanding — is that most kids graduate from Vermont schools without ever learning about eugenics.

Kathleen Brinegar Seven Days VT article on current legislative activity around eugenics in Vermont


I have a lot of curiosity around that.

One thing is I often think of schools who say they’re predominantly white and wonder: do they know that eugenics in Vermont forced a lot of Native people to assimilate?

And I wonder how much how many of our students have lost their heritage because of our legacy of eugenics.

I also wonder: what would it look like to co-investigate eugenics with Vermont middle school students? Kind of coming back to this idea not just that culturally responsive pedagogies has you take students’ cultures into account but also helping them transform the world by understanding, critiquing and advocating against oppressive systems.

What would happen in Vermont if suddenly our students understood the eugenics movement and its impact on our state?

Kathleen:  Yes! So I love this idea of co-investigating as educators.

It really speaks to a type of pedagogy that de-centralizes teacher power. That, to me, is such an important notion of equity work.

It also reminds us as you’ve just said, that we can teach things that we don’t know. To me that opens up the possibility of what we can do with students in such important ways.

It goes back to that idea that so many of us feel paralyzed, right, particularly those of us who grew up with dominant identities, right?  We feel paralyzed as we realize how much we don’t know.

So this notion of co-investigating allows us to situate ourselves as co-investigators and acknowledge that our personal knowledge is incomplete. Acknowledge that publicly to our students and the communities in which we exist. That there are multiple ways to grow that knowledge with and for learners within our larger community. Our community becomes the teacher.

Jeanie:  For me, this really connects with the idea of providing personally meaningful and relevant learning opportunities.

I think that can feel really overwhelming.

The idea of it can feel like every kid is going to be studying their own thing, which I don’t think has to be true, necessarily, but like it also can feel like: “Well, how am I supposed to know all the things so I can teach them?”

And I think focusing on teaching skills and ways of investigating as opposed to content is a really powerful lever for help helping kids make meaningful connections to their learning. To have them drive the train. Or what was the language you used earlier? To narrate their own stories. To feel empowered.

Kathleen: Absolutely.  And I think part of that too is it also helps us as educators move from a deficit- to an asset-based look at our communities.

It’s that acknowledgement that our students and our communities, our assets, and should be parts of our curriculum. Our curriculum should embody their assets. The assets of our communities.

And sometimes acknowledging those assets is what really helps us dismantle the oppressive systems. To me, that’s the step up from white saviorism.

That it’s not my job to teach students how to identify what’s oppressive, and instead say, our students, and the members of our community already know what oppresses them, right?  They already know.

You’re opening them up to be the experts, right?  So that they can decide then how things need to be dismantled.

Jeanie:  I guess part of our job as educators is to get out of our students’ way.

And part of that is to dismantle the notion of what we should be teaching.

“By the time they’re in high school they should know about X,Y or Z, the Civil War, the colonies–”

How do we get out of the way of ourselves? By being critically conscious of the limitations of a canon that is steeped in white supremacy and patriarchy.

Kathleen:  Yes! I love that. [The teacher educators] based their work on the work of Paulo Freire and his work around critical consciousness.

I’m actually going to read a quote from the chapter because for me, they defined what a critically conscious educator is in a way that really speaks to me in terms of our work with middle school students.

On page 192, they say:

“The critically conscious educator must honor the dynamic ways in which young adolescents learn. And culturally relevant classrooms must position youth as intellectuals capable of thinking about how to reconcile social injustices”.

That takes me back to the work of Kyle Chadburne and Andrea Gratton, that you talked about earlier.

I also love this example they used to highlight how they became critically conscious: through work in conceptualizing this curriculum on the Dakota pipeline.

I love that they really opened about their fears. They came into developing this curriculum with this notion of what storytelling was, and that storytelling was devoid of technology, right?

And in sharing this idea with the Mni elders, the elders pushed back. The elders gave tons of examples of how technology has served to preserve their culture.  And how youth should be at the center of that preservation work through the use of technology.

That was such a powerful, critically conscious awakening moment for them. They had these misconceptions about storytelling and Indigenous culture.

Jeanie:  I love that.

When I was re-reading this chapter, I could not stop thinking about the latest Caldecott winner, We are Water Protectors. It’s about the Standing Rock movement. And it’s such a beautiful picture book.

Throughout it is this refrain that appears again and again: We stand with our songs and our drums, we are still here. 

And it’s just reminding me how common is this idea that Native people live in some past. I just wanted to bring that forward.

I feel like I could talk about this chapter forever! And I love how you helped me think more deeply about becoming a critically conscious educator.

That has resonance with the next chapter we’re going to talk about: Chapter 14.  I mean, I love this whole book, but this particular chapter feels like it should be required reading.

It’s about pre-service teachers.

But I kept thinking: wait, why are we using this with in-service teachers? Where’s the disconnect?

So I would I want to read this as an educator who’s been practicing for a long time. I needed this.

And I was really struck on page 312 with this quote:

“Classroom management challenges often communicate that educators are not meeting student’s relational, pedagogical or behavioral needs.  Young adolescents need to have personal connections with adults who care for them, to learn in classrooms that challenge them to think critically about the world around them and to know their teachers will treat them equitably and with respect.”

The authors continue in the beginning of this chapter, to talk about how marginalized students need culturally responsive approaches that affirm a sense of belonging for them.

It really made me think about knowing students well, and how this asks us to reframe that, or to go deeper than developmentalism does.

Kathleen:  For sure.  I think, what I love about this chapter, too, is that it goes back to whether our ways of knowing as teachers are more important in some ways than the students’ behaviors or misbehaviors.

Because everything that students do say — event their silences — are interpreted by us as educators in some way.

When it comes to knowing students, right, I talk about this with my own students.  It’s not just about knowing what they love to do, right?

When we talk about students as assets, it’s not just things like, they love to ride horses, or they’re really into NASCAR or those sorts of things. It really moves beyond that into:

  • Who are they in this very moment?
  • What are their hopes?
  • What are their dreams?
  • How are they defining themselves?
  • What are they trying to communicate with us every day?
  • And how might our own identities and experiences misinterpret what they’re trying to say?

Jeanie:  Yes! That rings really true for me.

As I was reading this chapter — first off, it’s really easy.  It’s written by Amy Murphy and Breanna Kennedy.  And as I was reading this chapter, it was really easy to feel remorse about my own lack in the past with students. It was really easy for me to see myself represented in unflattering ways.

Like, I could see places from my early teaching, but also places where I was like, “Oh, oh no, I see that with new eyes.” So that’s hard.  That’s hard work.  I just want to own that, that that is not easy.

Kathleen:  But it’s lifelong.  It’s one of those things that is lifelong, right?  We are never going to get it right the first time at any point.

But to me, part of what makes us equitable educators is that we can recognize when we make a mistake. We can admit what that mistake is.  And we can work with the person, or people the mistake was made with to learn how to move forward, right?

Jeanie:  You and I both do work with the School Reform Initiative, and I love their language of: we can take better action. Because it assumes you’re not going to get to best, because the work’s never done.

But you can continually strive for better action.

And for me, in particular, what this chapter brings up is, knowing students well is super important.

In order for me to truly know my learners well, I have to really do some work on noticing some of my own positionality that gets in the way of seeing them fully.

So there’s a lot of feelings that rise up.

And I guess I’m curious about a couple of things. One is: how do we strive to do that, and to be gentle on ourselves?

Like the “both and”. But also: how can we be really rigorous and interrogate our biases and assumptions, knowing that they’re human?

Kathleen: I find myself more and more, closing my eyes sometimes, as an educator, and asking myself: when I think of a good student, what do I think of? 

To me it’s this regular simple exercise to help me interrogate like:

  • What am I seeing? Like, what pops up in my brain?
  • How has that changed over time?
  • What parts of that are not changing?  And why might that be?

Then I think about based on what images pop up: what policies and practices am I implementing in my own teaching spaces that are reinforcing those notions for me?

Some concrete examples of that are, you know, I’ve changed attendance policies in recent years. I’ve changed assignment completion and revision policies. I’ve changed all kinds of things.

And I’ve come to realize how much privilege is in that statement.

How many people in our country do not have the luxury of prioritizing completing their homework over taking care of family members? Over making sure that there’s food in their house? Over like, all of those things.

So that’s been an important practice for me that chapters such as this one, remind me of regularly. What are those things that I grew up with, those assumptions that I make prominent in my classroom? Because they alienate students.

Jeanie:  I think this chapter is a lot about behavior too.

And, you know, I remember being a new teacher who had a really difficult time with figuring out what my boundaries were. There’s a teacher in your book that the book sort of follows: Emily.  And she has a lot of similar issues I had about trying to figure out how to be a young teacher who wants her kids to like her and wants an orderly classroom. That word, “orderly” is culturally defined, right?

And so I think a lot of my learning towards the end of my time in school libraries was about: is this just bothering me or is this disrupting learning?  Because if it’s just bothering me, I can change that.  I mean, I can change myself, right?

If it’s disrupting learning, that might be a different thing.  But if it’s just my issue, I’m paid to be here.  I can let that go.

Kathleen:  That parallels with the notion that our job isn’t to fix kids.

Jeanie:  Yes! Say it again for the people in the back, Kathleen.

Kathleen:  We need to work on ourselves regularly. Right?  And there’s things within ourselves that we need to fix.  But fixing kids is not part of the job of teachers.

And if we prioritize a culture of compliance, inevitably, we are going to try to fix kids so that they fit into whatever it is we’re viewing as being “compliant”.

Jeanie:  We see you, PBIS.

Kathleen:  Absolutely.


Jeanie:  I’ve been thinking a lot about this analogy of figure and ground and that I got from this book, my son was reading, actually, called Team Human.

This idea that when you look at an optical illusion, like the vase with the two faces, you can either see the vase, the figure, or the ground, which becomes the two faces.

Kathleen Brinegar two faces optical illusion
Image via Bryan Derksen. Licensed via Creative Commons 3.0


And I think of our students as the figures, right?

But our job as educators is to notice the ground — I mean, obviously to notice the students, but to cultivate the ground. So students can become their best versions of themselves.  So they can reach their potential so that they can learn.

Our job isn’t to, to focus on fixing them.

It’s on how are we watering the soil and fertilizing it and providing sunlight and, you know, the things that they need to grow?

Kathleen:  Yes, it goes back again, to that notion of how are we letting them define themselves?

Jeanie:  Yes.

Kathleen:  Right.  Are we defining them?  Or are they able to define themselves? And then we, create, as you said, we nurture an environment in which who they see themselves can, can grow and develop.

Jeanie:  And I think that’s tricky.

In Chapter 14, the authors of the chapter, Amy Murphy and Brianna Kennedy, draw on all this research on warm demanders.

And maybe we can explain what they call warm demanders. Teachers who have high expectations for all of their students and communicate them warmly. It’s not about compliance. But it is about high expectations for the learning, not the like, behaving in a specific narrow way.

That’s a tricky thing.

That requires us to get under our assumptions about what being a student should look like. What classrooms should look like.

And so how do you help pre-service or even in-service teachers see the difference between having high expectations around compliance and high expectations around learning?

Kathleen:  Yes! It’s something we unpack early and often in the teacher education program that I teach in.

I think it’s one of those ideas that, like all things around equity, has to be the lens by which they approach every part of teaching, right?

Sometimes, when we talk about this warm demander and compliance, we only think about the leading the classroom part of it. We don’t think about how the way we actually teach and what that we teach and how we transition students in between teaching moments.

We don’t always think about those pieces when it comes to when it comes to that notion of compliance.

So to me, if you think about high expectations being about the learning, the warm demanding encompasses every single part of our teaching. Not just the way we react to student behaviors in the moment.

Then, my hope is that with the pre-service teachers that I work with, that that just sort of becomes part of who they are as educators.

Jeanie:  It occurs to me that a proficiency-based system, done well, should allow that. It should allow that focus on high expectations to be more reasonable and manageable for everyone. Because it builds on an asset-based approach that says: what can the student do?  And what’s their next step for learning?

Kathleen:  To me, that goes back to this idea of, if your proficiencies themselves are not based in equitable thinking, and ways of knowing and being, then it doesn’t matter if you have a proficiency-based system or not, right?

That’s where this compliance impacts everything.

Because if your proficiencies are asking students to be compliant in what they know, and how they know it? That runs counter to their own cultural ways of knowing and being. Then, of course, their behavior is then going to respond in ways that you find non-compliant as a teacher.

So it really has to encompass every single part of the educational system.

Jeanie:  That leads to this quote from Alfie Kohn, that’s in this chapter that I just think I should write everywhere. I think this should go everywhere.

When students are off task, our first response should be to ask, what’s the task?

I think this gets at what we were just talking about, about not fixing students, but fixing pedagogy and curriculum so that it’s engaging and relevant and meaningful. Perhaps the “off task” is sending the message that these things are not relevant to the lived experiences of students.

Kathleen: Even beyond sort of not engaging and not meaningful.  But sometimes what we actually create is damaging.

Jeanie:  Yes.

Kathleen:  It actually demeans who our students are, and their culture. And it separates them, right, from their ways of knowing and being.

Of course, I would want students to act in a way that was uncompliant, right?  Because I would want them to advocate for themselves. To send that message.

Jeanie:  I am a student right now.  And I can really feel the difference in spaces that are hospitable to me as a learner and spaces that are not.

When I think about what that means, it’s instructors who are strengths-based, right? Who notice that we bring learning to the table.

And it’s about honoring our full humanity.

It’s about the professors I have that really create an environment where I want to learn and dig in. They are co-learners.

They’re not like: I know everything, and I’m going to instruct you. 

They’re like: how can we learn together?

For me, that latter? That’s the kind of environment where I thrive. As opposed to when I’m in a class where the professor is wielding more power, and I don’t feel like I can learn.

And I think that there’s a lot that echoes there with what’s being talked about in this chapter about creating hospitable spaces for young people.

Kathleen:  For sure, yes.  Based on what you’ve just described, the word “agency” keeps coming up to me.

The environments that you’ve described, you have a sense of agency in them. And that agency allows you to communicate your needs.

When I think of Emily, the teacher in this chapter, the first space that she creates is devoid of agency.

In the second iteration of what, how she could have started her school year, you see that agency.

Jeanie:  I love that because the authors of this chapter describe Emily’s experience, and then they reimagine it as counter-story.

And I’m just going to read that because I think it’s really powerful.

This is from page 330.

Emily readied herself for the school year by learning as much as she could about the 8th grade science curriculum and exploring the schools surrounding communities, which were largely Dominican and African American.  Although she had not yet met her students, she gathered preliminary information about their communities by walking through their neighborhoods, shopping in their stores and attending cultural events.  These experiences provided example she used in her first unit of the year, which focused on the processes of scientific inquiry.

Emily devoted the first days of school to developing a classroom community and establishing behavior expectations.  She stated the rules explain their rationale and gave examples and non-examples as well as model the routines that would make the class run smoothly.  Because the school expected her to teach content right away, she paired the standards with community building activities.  For example, students brought in cultural artifacts from their homes, and then made observations and inferences about each other’s objects as well as each other’s lives.  As the school year went on, she learned more about students by attending their games and events at the Dominican Community Center, and use this knowledge to design projects and activities that reflected their lives.

When she encountered classroom management dilemma, she thought critically about what may be at the root of the issue by considering her student teacher interactions, what instructional tasks she had assigned when the conflict arose, and whether her expectations were inequitable or unclear, no first years without challenges.  But Emily loved her students and was thrilled to be teaching them.

Jeanie:  I want a do-over for my first year.

Kathleen:  Don’t we all?

Jeanie:  And, you know, we get them.  We get to do over every year as teachers.  So we can we can strive for better action.

Kathleen:  Yes. We get a do-over every day.

Jeanie:  Every day, thank you.

Kathleen: We get to sort of, you know, reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and I don’t know that I would have said that honestly, prior to this pandemic.

But to me, that’s one of my biggest takeaways around teaching over this past year is every day I get to start over. I get to say to my students: yesterday felt like it didn’t work for me.  Did it work for you?  And if so, what did what didn’t write this co constructing?

To me that has evolved in a really powerful way over this past year. And I think we can do that with our middle grade students too.  How do we co-construct?  How do we honestly say to them: yesterday didn’t feel good.

Jeanie:  This is all about power.  It’s about really being aware of power and all the ways it plays out.  There are so many exemplary articles in this book, are there any other specific chapters you want to point readers to or just generally highlight?

Kathleen:  I think the best way I’ll frame it is recognizing that there are so many ways that we are essentializing of young adolescents impacts students, and sort of each of these chapters look at different ways that we do that.

There’s an excellent chapter by Matt Moulton on youth experience of homelessness.  And reframing what we think of when we think of homelessness. How the way we think about homelessness actually impacts the way we are with students and families experiencing homelessness, right?

And there’s a powerful chapter around the fact that our schools are English centric.

And what’s really interesting for me is although that specific chapter is in a linguistically diverse community, right, and it frames the fact that how being English centric in that classroom impacts negatively students. But it also looks at ways for liberating students who are linguistically diverse.

I think about the ways we do that in our Vermont schools all the time by prioritizing certain forms of English.  We constantly make our students and their families feel less than, for the different ways that they speak.  So I think even as Vermonters that chapter has a lot of important messages for us.

Jeanie:  Yes, I have a dear friend who works with refugee students.  And she talks about talking to one of her students who felt dumb.  She just posed some questions like, this is a high school student, and she said, well, what would it be like if those students you call smart, were in school with you in your native country?  And she was like, oh, I would be the smart one, then.  And it is a shame that schools are set up so that this kid feels dumb, just because of her language of origin.

Kathleen:  Absolutely, absolutely.  Yes.  So I just, you know, I want to honor all of the amazing authors and their work and the way that they’re contributing to the field through this book.

Jeanie:  Well, we’ve just scratched the surface.  So readers, get yourself a copy of Equity and Cultural Responsiveness in the Middle Grades, and follow your heart through it. There are so many places to take in so many entry points.

Kathleen, thank you so much for coming on the podcast again and for talking about this book.  And thanks for being in in a co creation space with Lisa Harrison and Ellis Hurd and bringing it to us.  I’m so grateful.

Kathleen:  I’m grateful for the opportunity to get to share it right with folks.  It was certainly a labor of love, and work that Ellis, Lisa and I continue in our work with middle school journal.  Our hope is that the ideas in this book are now continuously showing up in what we publish there.

Jeanie:  Fabulous.  Thank you.

Kathleen:  Thank you, Jeanie.


Culturally responsive practices for equity in the classroom

Equity. In Vermont and beyond, educators and administrators are talking about equity. But what does equity look like in practice? Most importantly, how do we stop talking about it and start doing it? Culturally responsive practices are a concrete way to do equity work in the classroom.

So what are they and what do they look like?

What we are calling culturally responsive practices (CRP) come from an array of research and pedagogies:

  • culturally relevant teaching;
  • culturally responsive pedagogies;
  • and culturally sustaining pedagogies.

To name a few.

In the 1990s, Gloria Ladson-Billings, one of the leaders in this movement, studied eight teachers who were positively impacting academic achievement among African American students. Her profound findings inform the work that continues to influence us today.

At the heart of CRP is this truth: education is not a culturally neutral practice.

Naming this forces us to reckon with reality: when we fail to acknowledge culture we are silently but powerfully endorsing dominant cultural narratives and sustaining the status quo.

4 aspects of culturally responsive practices we’ve identified from the research literature.

These themes will guide us as we move towards more equitable classrooms.

  1. Be transparent and intentional about culture.
  2. Take an appreciative stance.
  3. Provide mirrors and windows.
  4. Educate about and for social justice.

Let’s look at them one by one.

1. Be transparent and intentional about culture.

Randy Bomer defines culture as “a group of peoples’ way of life”. It includes patterns of communication, values, behaviors, habits of being, and ways of belonging and interacting. The default, in schools and beyond, is dominant culture. In the United States that means white, middle class, heteronormative, and able-bodied.

The problem isn’t culture itself, it is assuming that everyone shares the dominant culture. If we assume dominant culture is THE culture, we alienate some students from our classrooms.

This lack of belonging is a precursor to the school-to-prison pipeline. As a result, when we foster a sense of estrangement for some students we are unintentionally sending a message.  That message is that some people don’t belong, are not intelligent, or that school has no relevance to their lives.

CRP asks us to name culture, talk about it, and make it plural rather than singular.

Culturally responsive classrooms embrace diversity as an asset. As a result, they welcome cultural strengths from all students. They move from monocultural to multicultural by naming cultural perspectives. They make it clear that there are many ways of being, doing, and understanding the world.

CRP forces us to acknowledge all students’ lived experiences by planning learning experiences that are personally meaningful and relevant. We must build on their cultural understandings.

2. Take an appreciative stance.

Learners come to us with so many strengths from their lived experiences. As a result, we can only begin to understand these when we seek to know students and their communities well. This understanding becomes the foundation upon which to build new skills, knowledge, and understandings. As well as strengthening the skills, knowledge, and understandings that are a part of their cultural heritage.

It’s important to note that relationships are at the core of a culturally responsive classroom. Being in genuine relation with our learners and their communities is complicated.

For instance, it means seeing their assets and strengths, not their deficits. Griner and Stewart talk about this as closing the divide between home and school.

“CRP builds bridges of meaningfulness between home and school experiences as well as between academic abstractions and lived sociocultural realities” (p. 589).

For educators, this often means we must acknowledge and confront the stereotypes we hold about our learners in order to see them in all of their glory! An appreciative stance allows us to appreciate what they know and can do while moving them towards their next steps for learning.

3. Provide mirrors and windows.

Rudine Sims Bishop gave us the metaphor for windows, mirrors, and sliding doors when thinking about literature. Books serve as mirrors when they allow us to see our experience represented in their pages. They become windows when we see the lives of others come to life on the page. And sliding doors help us build common ground across differences.

Sims Bishop says,

“When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all the children from all the cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.

Children from dominant social groups have always found their mirrors in books, but they, too, have suffered from the lack of availability of books about others. They need the books as windows onto reality,  not just on imaginary worlds. They need books that will help then understand the multicultural nature of the world they live in, and their place as a member of just one group, as well as their connections to all other humans” (p. 1).

The metaphor of windows and mirrors has salience beyond the books we share.

In short, all learners should see themselves in the curriculum, environment, and instruction in their classroom. And all learners should see perspectives different from their own in these areas as well. If our goal is to prepare our students for participation in a diverse democracy, we should be providing windows and mirrors from the moment they enter our schools.

A key part of culturally responsive practices: turning windows into mirrors.

4. Educate about and for social justice.

CRP seeks to support students’ immediate success while also providing them with the tools to make a positive impact on their communities and society.

From the inception of Critically Relevant Teaching, Ladson-Billings identified sociopolitical awareness as a central component, alongside student learning and cultural competence. Yet in the recent book Culturally Sustaining Pedagogy: Teaching and Learning for Justice in a Changing World, Django Paris and Samy Alim observe that “critical consciousness is the neglected component of CRP.”

CRP is often used as a proxy for good teaching, but without systems analysis and active anti-oppression, it is more of a bandaid than a long-term solution.

Further, Paris and Alim bring us back to the need for CRP in a pluralistic democracy:

“Robust learning environments must address goals beyond cognitive skills alone [and also focus on] the problems of sustaining a democracy, resisting stereotypes, engaging in activism for that which is just, and learning to be resilient in the face of changing and evolving sources of threat.” (p. 270)

In CRP classrooms, students learn how to critique and dismantle oppressive systems. They have the opportunity to make immediate impact in their communities. Furthermore, they can make connections to the long-term project of transforming society so that inclusion and justice for all is the norm. They are not just learning how to be successful individually, they are learning how to live and grow collectively.

Culturally responsive practices are for all students

Ladson-Billings developed Culturally Relevant Teaching for Black students. The concept and practices have evolved for the primary purpose of supporting students who are marginalized inside and outside of schools. As white authors, we are sensitive to the danger here of centering whiteness and appropriating ideas into spaces that they aren’t designed for.

One strategy is to make sure we are clear about where the ideas and research originally came from. That’s why we will be quoting and citing extensively in this series.

Gholdy Muhammad makes it clear that these pedagogies are for ALL students in her book Cultivating Genius: An Equity Framework for Culturally and Historically Responsive Literacy.

“One fallacy is that criticality is only for Black and Brown people, or others who have been oppressed across the world… Perhaps the people who need criticality the most become those who share identities with the greatest oppressors of the world. But in truth, given the complex identities of youth, all students and teachers need culturally and historically responsive education” (p. 121-122).

Similarly, in a review of research, Equity and Cultural Responsiveness in the Middle Grades, editors Kathleen Brinegar, Lisa Harrison, and Ellis Hurd emphasize that culturally responsive approaches need to extend to white students as well:

“Two questions to guide this work might include: Does the middle grades concept sustain all aspects of students’ identities? And does it prepare students with dominant identities to be critically conscious? Given that its founders began the middle grades movement to create more equitable schooling experiences for young adolescents, it is time to revisit those activist roots” (p. 343-4).

Educating for and about social justice is for all students, and CRP is the best way we know of to get there.

Four books about culturally responsive practices: The Dream Keepers, by Gloria Ladson Billings; Culturally Sustaining Pedagogies, by Django Paris; Cultivating Genius, by Gholdy Muhammad; and Equity & Cultural Responsiveness in the Middle Grades, by Kathleen Brinegar.

A note on culturally responsive pedagogies in predominantly white schools

In Vermont, most schools serve predominantly white students and communities. We think that culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies are an important tool for furthering equity in these schools.

But we want to keep a few things in mind:

  • Our Black, Indigenous, and Students of Color (BISOC) deserve CRP in all educational spaces. This applies to predominantly white institutions, perhaps especially so. For example, Vermont is often referred to as a “white state.” This framing erases our BISOC students and their educational needs. Yet 10% of our students identify as BISOC – that’s more than 8000 students! And we know they have less access to opportunity and are harmed more by punitive policies than their white counterparts. Even if there is only one BISOC student in a classroom or school, that student has the right to fully inclusive and effective education.
  • White students have cultures too. Being transparent about culture means interrogating whiteness and also going beyond race and ethnicity. A white student may participate in youth culture, Vermonter redneck culture, sports cultures, etc. Like heritage cultures, these cultures can provide curriculum relevance, broaden perspectives, and strengthen identity and self-awareness. They are deserving of both honoring and critique.
  • White educators need to start with themselves. The “cultural excavation” work of white teachers, as Paris and Alim put it, is especially important since the pervasiveness of white culture makes it even more difficult to see. This is ongoing work of unlearning and learning history, interrogating whiteness, and recognizing biases in beliefs, perceptions, and actions.

The cultures and identities of students, educators, and their communities must be kept front and center.

We hope you join us.

In future posts, we will look at three aspects of schooling one by one: the learning environment, curriculum, and pedagogy. For each, we will apply the four themes that we’ve explained in this post. We will share practices and examples that can make CRP in Vermont and rural schools as concrete as possible.

How are you enacting or promoting culturally responsive practices?


This post is the first in a four-part series. We use the four aspects (cultural transparency, an appreciative lens, windows and mirrors, and a focus on social justice) to explore culturally responsive learning environments in part two . We use the four aspects to take a look at culturally responsive curriculum in part three and instruction and assessment in part four. The series is co-authored by Jeanie Phillips and Life LeGeros.



References and further reading

  • Bomer, R. (2017). What would it mean for English language arts to become more culturally responsive and sustaining? Voices from the Middle, 24(3), 11–15.
  • Brinegar, Kathleen, Lisa Harrison & Ellis Hurd (Eds.). (2019) Equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Information Age Publishing.
  • Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practice. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Gorski, P. C. (2017). Reaching and teaching students in poverty: Strategies for erasing the opportunity gap. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.
  • Griner, A. C., & Stewart, M. L. (2013). Addressing the achievement gap and disproportionality through the use of culturally responsive teaching practices. Urban Education, 48(4), 585–621.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogy. American Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465–491.
  • Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: A.K.A. the remix. Harvard Educational Review, 84(1), 74–84. DOI:10.17763/haer.84.1.p2rj131485484751
  • Paris, D., & Alim, H. S. (Eds.). (2017). Culturally sustaining pedagogies: Teaching and learning for justice in a changing world. New York, NY: Teachers College Press
  • Sims Bishop, R. (1990). Mirrors, windows, and sliding glass doors. Perspectives: Choosing and Using Books for the Classroom, 6(3).

How to have difficult conversations in the classroom

It’s not you; difficult conversations are a lot right now. While it’s fair to say that the history of the world consists of “being a lot” at regular intervals, right now is a moment where multiple unlikely catastrophes have collided, exposing deep rifts in conventional society. A lot of people we know and love hold diametrically opposed viewpoints, and they aren’t afraid to defend them.

And that’s where you come in, dear educators. Because a lot of those people with those viewpoints are the students in your classes. And you want to talk with them about what’s going on, and how it’s affecting them as learners. How they can affect the situation themselves, as participating members of this society. But how? Is it even possible to have those conversations? And what happens if something goes wrong?

Why address controversial issues?

Every Vermont teacher interviewed for this blog post came back to the same reason for addressing controversial issues in the classroom: for the sake of our democracy. Kathy Cadwell, a philosophy and history teacher at Harwood High School in Duxbury, got right to the point:

“Dialogue is the heart of democracy. Civil discourse is the heart of community. …Why we engage in the art of dialogue, it’s not only to develop those personal skills but to develop the skills of citizenship and engagement in community.”

Kate Toland, social studies teacher at Peoples Academy Middle Level in Morrisville VT, added that in a democracy we ned to engage in collective problem solving.

“Real problems require deep thought and deep thought requires being able to swim around in a topic instead of trying to build a wall that builds your point…who does that benefit? Thinking deeply with many people who see an issue differently or from different perspectives is where many solutions can lie and practicing being in discussion like that is I think what we want students to be doing and helping each other do.”

In her Open Letter to a Parent Afraid of Anti-Racist Education, English teacher and equity expert Christina Torres pointed out that this is not something new. “Teachers don’t just teach ‘content.’ We never have. For generations, we have also taught our students to listen, share, and be empathetic. Teachers don’t just help students understand themselves and the world around them, we also model how to have constructive discussions with one another.”

In a world of polarized politics and abundant hot takes, these difficult conversations may be more important now than ever. “Today, students are already inundated on social media with this stuff, so it is important to provide them with a space to explore these issues deeply in structured, safe ways.  It is also important to begin combating digital tribalism and echo chambers as early as possible,” noted Paul Kramer, who teaches Humanities at the Harwood Community Learning Center.

Middle School too? A big yes

Students should start delving into controversial topics as early as possible. We know, for example, that teaching about race and racism should begin as soon as students start attending school. They are already forming their ideas and without guidance those ideas will reflect the misinformation, biases, and white supremacist ideology that permeate our society.

Middle school is particularly crucial, in part because students are becoming naturally more aware of the world. As Meg O’Donnell, 7-8 grade Humanities teacher at Shelburne Community School, in Shelburne VT, noted: “It’s all around us. These topics are what kids hear in the news and see play out in social media. It is so important to create space to talk about these things.”

Young adolescents are more exposed to the world and actively working to formulate their identity. This combination puts them in a unique and in some ways ideal position to learn how to engage in dialogue.

Kathy Forrestal, 7th grade Humanities teacher at Lyndon Town School (Lyndonville VT) put it this way: “They are starting to question the world. They are noticing the world around them in slightly more mature ways. They are questioning who they are and how they fit into the world. Looking at who they are at home. And realizing that they are allowed to have a thought about it.”

For the sake of our democracy, students need to discuss and learn about controversial issues. And we need to get serious about this in middle school. Because they will be talking about these issues anyway.

Outside of the classroom

Research shows that children and teens worry about political issues. This anxiety may manifest in many ways, and when you throw in the social dynamics sometimes it can get ugly.

Lucia Johnson, Spanish teacher at Lyndon Town School, has seen and overheard some troubling examples this year:

I’ve had third grade students start a ‘Build the wall!’ chant while walking to computer class, sixth grade students declaring ‘I speak Taco Bell’ or ‘I speak American,’ and 7th graders ‘speak Spanish’ by putting on an exaggerated accent and making up fake words. Often they don’t understand the full impact that these words have, or the full context behind the issue.

Lucia noted that when she talked to students involved in these incidents individually, “about 75% of the time they didn’t understand what they were saying or how it could be interpreted.” She saw these conversations as crucial: “If you don’t talk with them and offer context and other perspectives, a massive opportunity for change is lost. These conversations are happening among even very young students, with or without the guidance of teachers.”

Gina Ritscher agreed. As a math interventionist she works with students across Lyndon Town School. “Teachers should address these issues because kids are already hearing about them and thinking about them. Sometimes in biased versions.”

The same logic of talking about race and racism can be applied more broadly: in the absence of purposeful instruction, youth are left to form their ideas largely on the basis of confusing and often problematic messaging from society.

Outside events entering the classroom

When big stuff is happening in the news, teachers are forced to decide whether and how to explicitly address it in the classroom. When those events have a partisan charge, or relate to something that is personally affecting, it can complicate a teacher’s calculus.

The recent Presidential election was a good example. Many schools and classrooms that had mock elections in the past skipped it this last round. Some teachers cited the fact that with everybody already stretched thin by pandemic schooling, the focus was on maintaining community and supporting social emotional safety. They didn’t feel up to inviting the divisiveness of the outside world into their classrooms.

Andrea Gratton and Kyle Chadburn addressed the election in the grade 5-8 Humanities classes they co-teach at Orleans Elementary School. Before the election, they mostly focused on the basics of the electoral process. They also helped students connect learning they had done about personal biases to the presence of bias in media sources. Afterwards, they used classroom time to hold space for students to ask questions and process their reactions.

difficult conversations election Kyle Chadburn


One question that often comes up for teachers is whether to reveal their own views in the classroom. All teachers interviewed for this post tended to keep things close to the vest. Kate Toland captured this approach well:

My advice to myself at the beginning of the year is to relax and realize there is absolutely no need to convince anyone of anything. It is not our job to create a particular set of political beliefs; it is our job to help students find their voices and express their thinking respectfully and to use and explore reliable and trustworthy evidence to make our decisions about issues.

This view aligns with what unabashed anti-racism educator Christina Torres noted in a recent interview on the Have You Heard podcast. She drew a sharp distinction between the way she approaches tough topics with adults versus her students. She noted that in her classroom the emphasis is on skill building: “’Here’s what a lot of people think, what do you think?’ I don’t present my own views. I’m not going to say what a 13 year old is doing is racist. I’m not saying they can’t be racist, but I’m not going to name it that way usually. Because I want them to come to realize that themselves.”

Even when current events are partisan and complex, and perhaps especially then, teachers are in a position to provide students with the space and skills to navigate the world.

Spontaneous classroom discussions

In many cases, students bring up controversial issues at times and in ways that teachers aren’t expecting.

Kathy Forrestal shared a recent example where a student brought up Black Lives Matter.

It vaguely related to the topic at hand but the classroom was quickly embroiled in a passionate conversation. Students expressed that they wanted to talk about racism and inequity in the context of current events more often.

Kathy asked them why.

  • “Because we are the next generation”
  • “We’re the generation that is going to be in law enforcement and government when you’re like 80”
  • “This generation is growing up with [conversations about racism] and knowing what’s going on is important”
  • “People are not addressing issues because they’re not knowledgeable about them – so we need to be knowledgeable so we can find solutions that are mutual”
  • “Adults are uncomfortable talking about this stuff because their parents were uncomfortable talking about this stuff, so if we talk about this, we won’t be”

Students get it.

Meg O’Donnell shared a different sort of example, where the class learning was focused on politics, but the conversation went in a direction she hadn’t anticipated. Students were looking at historical polling data that showed the large extent to which views on various issues had become polarized. After a few minutes of introducing the data, Meg noticed that a contentious discussion had blown up in the chat related to one of the issues on the list.

“It’s like when you are stuffing the Thanksgiving bird and the skin rips. I realized that the norms I thought were established in my class was more of a thin veil. They weren’t tightly woven as I thought, or integrated into daily practice. … When we were tested we didn’t have a strong enough scaffold.”

Meg noted that the norms in this classroom were particularly tested by external stressors and by the online environment. “There’s something about this moment. This interface. This child would have never said that in person.”

It can be tough when things go sideways

But Meg, as a consummate professional, simply redoubled her efforts. She reached out to colleagues to process the experience and for advice on how to reinforce norms and scaffold discussion skills on a daily basis.

This recent incident has reminded her of something she’s always known:

“Norms can’t just be a cover, they need to be a foundation. Norm setting is not something you do in a day and move on, but something you hit every day, every opportunity. How to ask a question, how to respond to something when it lands hard on us. How to understand the speaker and the perspective but not just shout louder.”

So what do we do?

We have to be intentional about having tough and timely conversations in classrooms. We may still overhear stuff that needs addressing. And students will surely keep surprising us by bringing up topics when we least expect it.

But every situation will go more smoothly if we’ve scaffolded the art and skills of dialogue.

Laying the ground rules for the hard stuff? Starts with the easy stuff.

As we mentioned in our post about online communication, the late great Ned Kirsch, longtime educator and Vermont superintendent, used to insist that digital citizenship is just citizenship, but online.

From day one, you’ve worked with your students on learning who they are, where they come from, and what matters most to them. As a learning community, you’ve built norms for interacting. These likely cover everything from seating choice to restroom breaks, device check-out and unlimited testing re-takes.

In case they don’t also cover face-to-face (or mask-to-mask as the case may be) communication, here are three sets of norms to consider in creating or revisiting conversational norms.

3 sets of conversational norms:

1. The Craig Ferguson Route

Three simple rules:

  • Does this need to be said?
  • Does it need to be said by me?
  • And does it need to be said by me right now?
2. Four Phrases for Kindness

Perhaps the most powerful phrases in any language are:

  • “Please.”
  • “Thank you.”
  • “I’m sorry.”


  • “If I’m understanding you correctly…”

Those first three might seem overly simple, but in the heat of conversations about emotionally charged topics, these phrases can be key in dismantling tension. Especially if as a group, you all are used to using them.

Especially that fourth one.

Let’s take a moment:

“If I’m understanding you correctly…you just stated that you believe aliens have landed in Bellows Falls and replaced all our regular coffee with Folger’s Decaf? Is that correct?”

While we’re all going to be extremely lucky if decaf-bearing space travelers are the 2020 topic causing conversational mayhem, the key here is that you can use this phrase to do two things in the discourse: 1) slow it down, and 2) ask for clarification. Both these approaches can be life-savers.

Sometimes, we misunderstand people.

Sometimes, we don’t hear everything they’ve said because of background noise, a lag in our speech-to-text device, a momentary distraction or because what we think we hear the person saying has whipped up our emotions to the point where they’re difficult to manage.

Additionally, the rise of social media has created what Kathy Forrestal refers to as “Tik-Tok understanding”: the idea that we can fully grasp nuance and context from social media soundbites. They’re so short! So easy to make! So easy to consume! And yet, without rigorous online information safeguards, they can also be misleading, biased, or flat-out wrong.

difficult conversations
Another slide from Kyle Chadburn & Andrea Gratton. Used with permission.

Social media in general can cause us to speed up or gloss over our comprehension in actual, real-life conversations, whether online or in-person. As Meg O’Donnell put it: “They have the soundbites, the kernels, but don’t always have the historic thread or the depth beyond the soundbite. They have the retort, but not the wisdom behind it.”

Building background knowledge using a range of sources can help. Regardless: there will be points where it’s time to throw the handbrake.

“If I’m understanding you correctly…” is your handbrake

When you use it, what you’re doing is creating a space in the discourse to focus on one sentence, or one idea, and ask for additional detail. You’re creating a space where you can connect with the speaker more directly by establishing a feedback loop. That feedback loop, in turn, can help the speaker understand if what they said came out right.

Oh, we have all been there.

Perhaps what they meant to say came out wrong. Perhaps their own emotions overwhelmed them during the discourse. Now they have a chance to connect with their listener (or listeners; this absolutely works in a group setting) and clarify.

Even if (and this is key), in those few seconds where they hear their own ideas repeated back to them, they realize that they’d like to retract, or amend their statement.

Give them that opportunity. Give them that grace.

Breathe in, breathe out. Listen well. Accept retractions, amendments or apologies in the name of preserving or re-establishing community.

3. Would you say it to your mother?

Part of learning is the importance of recognizing context. Again, during conversations where emotions are running high, it’s easy to get carried away, that’s why we’re all here in this article. But if students already have a known and used norm of thinking about whether they’d make a certain utterance to a specific loved one, that can slow down the derailment.

Let’s unpack, just a little. First of all, we’re going to recognize that the mother example will not just not work for every student, but can, in certain cases, be traumatic for students for whom their mother is a traumatic figure. That’s absolutely something to negotiate and work around.

The key aspect of the strategy deals with the idea that when our emotions carry us away from staying present and focused on who we’re speaking to, it’s helpful to have this norm which encourages us all to identify and re-presence one individual, one particular person in our lives whose opinion we respect, and to whom we always try to present our best selves: our mother, our beloved grandfather, our cousin serving in the Navy, our priest, etc.

This We Believe:

Now, that all said, part of your classroom norms discussion inevitably covers what’s up for discussion, and what’s not. Diana Hess and Paula McAvoy, authors of The Political Classroom, refer to these as “open” vs “settled” issues. (We love this NPR interview with them.)

As a community, you and your students sat down and decided on items that are established facts and firm beliefs; they are not up for discussion.

Black lives matter. Climate change is real. COVID-19 is not a hoax.

These are things that you can decide are simply not up for debate. They are settled issues. Instead, what could be up for debate are questions such as what to do about anti-Black police brutality, how to solve climate change, and what science says about preventing the spread of COVID-19. Those are topics that you can (and likely should) discuss.

When things go wrong (because they will)

Despite our best intentions, conversations will go awry. We’re all a little frazzled, we’re all 300% done with Zoom meetings. We’re all sad and scared and anxious and unsure. And while we’re all doing our best, we are in a situation where a lot of improbable events have congregated in one place and are cha-cha-ing all over our mental health. At the best of times, we all sometimes mis-speak or get carried away. And these are not the best of times.

Someone’s going to say something that hurts someone else.


That is the crux of miscommunication. As communication seeks to build connections, miscommunication severs them. So then the task we want to address is rebuilding that connection.

Let’s look at a couple ways to do that.

Learning to accept the consequences of your own actions, especially when they’re not always perfect, is a hard skill. Hard but necessary.

Rabbi Danya’s Guide to Repentance

Apologizing is a skill. And like other skills, you have to learn it. At the heart of every true apology lie two things: a recognition that you caused injury, and a focus on how you are going to atone for doing the injury.

Sounds simple. Too bad human emotions tend to get in the way.

Rabbi Mordechai Lightstone puts it this way: “No matter where it took place — in the workplace, the street, on Instagram or in someone’s DMs — if you hurt someone, you need to make it right.”

What makes a good apology?

Choose your venue: should you write it out on paper and share it with the injured party? Should you call them? Should you apologize face-to-face with authority figures involved? Does a text cut it?

First of all, the feelings and safety of the injured party are paramount. What feels safest to them? What would make them feel heard and attended to? And above all else, what will make sure to not compound the original injury?

Rabbi Danya Rutenberg has a thought-provoking thread unpacking teshuvah (תשובה), a process of forgiveness, atonement and repentance.

She focuses in her argument on how there is a large amount of very specific work for the injuring party to do, both on themselves, and in their community. How can your existing classroom and school norms support working through personal growth? If a communications breakdown occurs, what resources can your school bring to support examining the root cause of the utterance?

Calling in, rather than calling out

The prevalence of online communications, with its unfettered approach to crowd discourse, has given rise to a tendency to call people out on their utterances.

Instead: what does it look like for someone to misstep in a conversation, and for us to recognize that not only does the listening community need support in processing the impact of the hurt done, but that as we value every member of our community, we also need to attend to the hurt experience by the speaker that in fact causes the utterance?

We call people in, rather than out.

There are a number of educators doing amazing work around restorative justice in schools. At Randolph Union High School, in Randolph Center VT, students manage the school’s restorative justice system (video), which includes restorative justice circles.


But it’s worth it.

Students need to be able to engage in productive discussions about complex and controversial issues. They’ll be learning and talking about these things whether we address them in our classrooms or not. But with guidance they can build crucial skills in communication, problem solving, critical analysis, conflict resolution, etc.

We are obligated to “go there” for the sake of our democracy, but there are some short term benefits as well.

At the Harwood Community Learning Center, for the last several years teachers have set aside time in the daily schedule to talk about current events. Paul Kramer is amazed at how much students grow over time.

Students begin each year tentatively – not volunteering topics, passively listening – but as time progresses, we do see a change; students begin looking for content to share and engaging with each other using probing questions … it becomes a strong bonding experience for the group … I have actually come to view these discussions as a behavior support for my classes. They provide such an important outlet for some kids.

The world is a scary place. But when done well, delving into the controversies in our society and making sense together of the mess of misinformation can be hugely compelling for students.

Student intervention for anti-racist education

Schools are committed to bringing anti-racism into curricula and systems more than ever before. Even in predominantly white schools there appears to be a growing acknowledgment that anti-racist education is crucial for all students.

Big changes seem to be underfoot. And that’s a wonderful thing.

But there will be pushback. White fragility and white rage will ensure a range of resistance to anti-racism. Some of it will be coded and couched in other concerns. But some of it will come in the form of violent, ugly, and harmful backlash.

We need to be ready.

For educators, whose first priority is their students, we need to have a plan for students who struggle to incorporate anti-racism into their current worldview.

For those students caught in the middle of the inevitable backlash, we need to be ready to provide support. What might a system of intervention look like for anti-racist education?

Systematic support for anti-racist teaching and learning

Let’s start with the premise that our goal is for students to be active citizens in our pluralistic democracy. And that in order to do that, they need to understand anti-democratic systems, starting with racism. This is so they can analyze, navigate, and transform our currently imperfect system for a more just and democratic future.

A widespread concern in Vermont, and central to this blog post, are our anti-racism goals for white students. In her book Raising White Kids: Bringing Up Children in a Racially Unjust America, Jennifer Harvey draws on the work of racial identity scholars Janet Helms and Beverly Daniel Tatum, both Black women, to define “healthy white kids” as anti-racists.

“A healthy white identity is nurtured through experiencing the growth, freedom, and power that comes from taking anti-racist stances and learning to negotiate different racial spaces.”

With the goals clear, what would it take?

To help students become anti-racist democratic citizens, we need to mobilize such systems and strategies as:

  • Curriculum that includes identity work, people-centered history, systems analysis, and tons of transferable skills. Something based on the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards, for example.
  • Professional learning on the above content. This is especially important for teachers who will center this content in their classrooms (social studies, history, humanities). But really all teachers will need to learn much of this because it impacts how they approach the world.
  • Professional learning on student-centered, asset-based teaching methods. Such as Gloria Ladson Billings’ Culturally Responsive Pedagogy. For white teachers in particular, this would include reflection on their racial autobiographies, a deep dive into their social identities, and constant examination of their biases and impacts.
  • System changes including discipline policies, dress codes, diverse representation in the halls and literature, honoring student voice and agency, etc. Students learn from what they observe and experience.
  • Engagement with the community in new and deeper ways. Many families will have powerful assets to bring to this work. Some of them are the same families that may have felt alienated or been marginalized by school practices in the past. And other families will be resistant, overtly and covertly.

This last point brings us to our present focus.

In a predominantly white state and school system like Vermont, we will have a lot of white families, white students, and white-ness to consider. If we are teaching about anti-racism we are going to need a serious system of intervention.

White children

If students are going to learn about anti-racism, they will have a lot of unlearning to do, too. They will hear contradictory stuff at home and from the world around them via every type of media (social media, news, music, magazines, radio, etc).

White students in particular are unlikely to have encountered sophisticated thinking about race at home. In the article What White Children Need to Know About Race, Ali Michael and Elenora Bartoli noted that

“The research suggests that for fear of perpetuating racial misunderstandings, being seen as a racist, making children feel badly, or simply not knowing what to say, many white parents tend to believe that there is never a right time to initiate a conversation about race.”

If families don’t teach their kids about race, society will.

As Jennifer Harvey put it,

“White children are living in a society that is racially hierarchical, divided, and unjust. It seeks to draw white people into collusion with hierarchy and injustice every step of the way” (p. 100).

Put together the tendency for families to avoid talking about race with the damaging messages of society? We can start to see why we are where we are. When we consider how and what white people learn about race? It’s clear that we have a lot of work to do.

What we are up against

The excellent Talking about Race portal by the National Museum for African-American History and Culture (NMAAHC) lays out some useful definitions. In the section of the site on whiteness, they define the following terms:

  • White-dominant culture: “How white people and their practices, beliefs, and culture have been normalized over time and are now considered standard in the United States.”
  • Internalized dominance: “Describes the experience and attitudes of those who are members of the dominant, privileged, or powerful identity groups. Members of the [dominant] group accept their group’s socially superior status as normal and deserved.”
  • White supremacy: “An ideology where white people are believed to be superior to nonwhite people.”

So for white children there is a cycle where they are raised in white-dominant culture which socializes internalized dominance and ultimately upholds white supremacy ideology. And that bestows benefits on white people, thus reinforcing white dominant culture. The cycle keeps chugging along.

In a future where anti-racist education is widespread, all students will deal with the contrasts between anti-racism and white-dominant culture.

And this is why we will need to think carefully about intervention.

White students will be struggling to counteract their internalized dominance. And this is a particular problem we have to account for in the intervention model.

Plus, for a small set of white students, that internalized dominance will be especially extreme. These are the students where white supremacy is *explicitly* part of their home environments. Where a loving caregiver espouses white supremacist ideology, for example.

There is a danger that without strategies and systems in place, these students may be pushed harder toward white supremacy. Which underscores the importance of this work. Schools may be the only chance for intervening in a life course based on white supremacist beliefs and actions, harmful to them and potentially ruinous or deadly to others.

The stakes are that high.

The Multi-Tiered Racial Equity Support System

Schools have systems in place to support students who are struggling with math, literacy, or behavior. Schools often call them multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS). This is based on the premise that students receive different intensities of support based on their needs.

What if our goal was a healthy relationship to race?

Based on the work of racial identity development scholars such as Janet Helms and Beverly Daniel Tatum, Jennifer Harvey envisioned the end goal this way: “A healthy white identity is nurtured through experiencing the growth, freedom, and power that comes from taking anti-racist stances and learning to negotiate different racial spaces.”

So what would a multi-tiered system of support (MTSS) look like to help develop anti-racist students with healthy white identity?

Christie Nold, 6th grade social studies teacher Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School, imagined how anti-racist teaching might map onto a MTSS model:

“Tier 1 is what everybody gets in classroom instruction. I have a long way to go in my practice to make it true. Responsive, relevant, and sustaining pedagogy for all students. That’s the goal for Tier 1.

Tier 2 for me is collecting formative data throughout instruction, what higher level instruction for groups of students who are grappling with certain aspects of identity or with learning in a pluralistic society. I imagine in Vermont this is particularly important because not all students are getting natural exposure because I imagine many of them live fairly segregated lives.

To me the Tier 3 level is who are those students who are showing red flags and pushing back against Tier 1 and 2 instruction.”

Here’s a visual of a pyramid model of multi-tiered systems of support for anti-racist education:

Tier 1: Universal Instruction

Culturally Responsive Pedagogy used to teach all students:

  • Personal and social identity
  • Non-Euro-centric history
  • Anti-racist, anti-bias, social justice education
  • Transferable Skills such as critical thinking, citizenship
Tier 2: Targeted Supports
  • Educators support students in specific ways:
    • Affinity spaces for Students Of Color
    • Extra instruction for struggling students
  • School-wide Restorative Practices
  • Counselors ready to help students who transgress
  • Supports during tragic events
Tier 3: Intensive Intervention
  • Racial Literacy Intervention
  • For students repeatedly pushing back on Tier 1 and Tier 2 instruction

A couple of things to notice from the pyramid

First, as in a traditional MTSS system, the main emphasis is Tier 1. As Christie put it,I wonder if students were getting high quality Tier 1 Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy from Pre-K on, we start to lose the need for Tier 2 and Tier 3.”

In contrast to math and literacy intervention, however, with anti-racism we will have schools swimming against the tide of the dominant culture in our society. Denial is the heartbeat of racism, to paraphrase Ibram X. Kendi. So students will be learning about things that many of their home families haven’t come to grips with.

Especially white students.

On this point, Christie referenced the example of recycling. She noted that it became standardized practice through schools. Students learned about it at school, went home, and shamed their parents into it. Perhaps adults could become enlightened about anti-racism and oppression through their kids.

Another difference with applying the Tier 2 concept to anti-racism: identity and social identity really matter here.

Students will “struggle” with Tier 1 very differently depending on their relationship to racism. For Students of Color, especially those in predominantly white institutions, Tier 1 anti-racist instruction is likely to trigger some of the trauma they’ve experienced living in a racist society. They will need “healing centered spaces,” as Christie calls them, such as a racial affinity group facilitated by a skillful mentor where they can process together.

When white students struggle with the ideas and skills of Tier 1 instruction, at times they may do so in a way that could be harmful to Students of Color. Consider a misconception such as the idea that it is post-racial to believe that “I don’t see color, I treat everybody the same.” This can be harmful because it invalidates the impact of race and racism. If a student clung stubbornly to this stance, a teacher could not allow it to enter class after class. The lived experience of Students of Color is not up for debate.

An example of Tier 2

Christie recounted one student who was struggling and whose comments during class were doing harm. “Luckily in this case I already had a strong relationship with the student and family, so when I contacted them we were able to work out a plan.” The plan involved the student writing down responses rather than objecting out loud when certain ideas surfaced. The student then decided whether to give the writing to Christie and whether he wanted feedback from her.

If the student was severely struggling to engage with a certain topic, or couldn’t contain what was likely to be harmful commentary, there was a plan in place to involve the school counselor.

Happily, Christie reported that the student made a lot of progress, and “came out on the other side.” She also noted that this kind of success was rare. Often there weren’t resources or receptive families available.

When Tier 2 doesn’t work

Christie shared that,

“Every year I can identify at least a few students who this is going up against something they have learned, something they have already built up walls about. They are being conditioned into white supremacy culture – in 6th grade there may be walls but often I can break them down in Tiers 1 and 2. But for some they have cemented too much. Two or three years later I hear ‘oh this student was involved in an incident,’ and I’m not surprised.”

These are not students who hold common misconceptions. They aren’t merely blundering as they grapple with complex concepts. Instead, they are students who are “pickling in white supremacy at home,” as Christie put it, drawing on a term used by her friend and mentor Shadiin Garcia. “They are hearing something very different from at least one caring adult in their life. It’s not their fault that they are confused – they are just kids.”

These students, typically white males, are in a tough spot. These are the type of students who Christie may expect to hear about later. She wondered aloud “What would a system look like to prevent the harm that student perpetuated? And also the harm they perpetuated on themselves? Because this system hurts everybody.”

How do we provide Tier 3 intervention for these high priority students?

Before we get to the how, let’s consider the who.

Meet a Racial Literacy Interventionist

Netdahe Stoddard lives in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, where he grew up. He describes himself as a “Vermont rednecky dude who makes a living with [his] hands.”

He has fought racism in all aspects of his life for as long as he can remember, and has been working with schools for the past few years. This work takes many forms but the place where Netdahe feels like he has the most impact is intervening with white boys who are doing harm through racist behaviors. “As a member of the in group I can help them disentangle the ugly racist parts from the beautiful things about being a redneck.”

He calls himself a Racial Literacy Interventionist, based on a term used by psychologist Howard Stevenson to describe the skills required to defuse stress caused by racism.

The system will surely be stressed if we are going to seriously take on racism in Vermont. We are going to need a lot more people in this role.

A success story

To illustrate how Netdahe operates and why who he is plays such an important role in the work, let’s dial back to a time before he worked in schools. Netdahe has worked for more than 20 years on job sites where mostly white men labored together to build, chainsaw, and dig whatever the job required. And one of his main rules was that “I won’t tolerate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, or any of that sh*t on a job site.”

This has caused a certain amount of tension with some of his co-workers.

Which is why this random text last week, from an unknown number surprised Netdahe:

student bias intervention: “Hey I know this must not be good time for you but I’ve been thinking about you with everything going on and I also know you are a loud voice for Black Lives Matter and just wish you the best and stay safe my friend.”


He called the number and sure enough it was a man that he had worked with years ago. They had clashed repeatedly as Netdahe called him out for racist behaviors. At one point things nearly became violent between them.

But now? “I consider you a friend,” the man told him by phone.

Netdahe recalled that he had stood up for this man when it looked like he might lose his job. “I had treated him like a human and showed I cared enough to try to help him grow.”

Netdahe reflected on their relationship: “We had a bunch of hours together as fuller humans, busy being humans together in the world. That allowed us to come to this heightened place after almost becoming violent with each other. And over time we chose to engage in more depth around these issues.”

Believing in humanity is the crux of Netdahe’s approach with students as well.

In fact, Netdahe worked with this man’s son a few years ago. He talked to his former co-worker before meeting with the 8th grader, and the man hadn’t been super happy about it. After a two hour conversation Netdahe had told him to please follow up with his son, and to circle back if there were any questions.

In that case, the student had gotten in trouble a few times for flashing a Confederate Flag. Eventually the school asked Netdahe to help when he asked whether it would be okay to wear a Confederate Flag in rainbow colors.

The school assumed the student was intentionally pushing buttons.

Netdahe, on the other hand, approached the situation with curiosity. “The kid told me ‘this is a flag that I identify with and that I care about. I don’t understand how it is tied to hate. Other kids have Black Lives Matter flags or Pride flags, and this is mine.” Eventually the student came to understand that the other flags did not exclude him or other people, which is what set the Confederate flag apart as a hate symbol.

In another case he worked with a student who wore the flag out of pride for a great-great grandfather who had fought in the Civil War. Netdahe made space for them to admire what it must mean to fight in a war as a young man, and to connect to other soldiers around the world throughout history with the courage to risk their lives. “I tried to get him to realize that rocking the flag might actually get in the way of people respecting his ancestor.”

These stories illuminate the importance of the identity, or “social position” as Netdahe calls it, of the interventionist when we are talking about racism. The socialization process is strong and internalized supremacy can build thick walls. Netdahe’s background, his connections in the community, and his social identity as a white man make a difference in his ability to successfully intervene.

He also has a deep grasp of the literature. He’s developed a range of practical strategies. And he’s built a system of support and accountability so he can carry out his work with integrity.

Building Fearless Futures

As long as he’s been working in schools, Netdahe has partnered with educators of color to do so. He does this to help guard against the ongoing influence of white-dominant culture on the way he carries out his work.

As he put it, “I’m a broke white dude from Lyndonville, VT. I exist as a middle-aged man with white skin. No matter what I know about racism, I’m having the experiences of a white skin man in our society.”

Natdahe and his partners recently created a non-profit organization called Building Fearless Futures. They take a team approach where the process looks something like:

  • A school calls in Netdahe, and they provide him with a description of the situation. Usually a student is in trouble and being forced to meet with him as part of a package of consequences.
  • He drafts a plan and then consults with one of his educator of color partners. They provide feedback on his approach with particular attention to any ways he might be inadvertently reinforcing white-dominant culture or white supremacist ideology.
  • He meets with the student.
  • He consults with one of his educator of color partners to process the session. They help him make a plan for any future sessions.

If the student’s actions harmed students of color, one of Netdahe’s partners may come in to meet with them, and hold a space for healing. The educators of color get compensated for their time, while Netdahe doesn’t get paid for the pre and post-session consults. He considers it professional development.

Key skills for racial literacy interventionists

Netdahe’s approach to working with students boils down to honoring the positive parts of Vermont rural culture while exposing and extracting the racist and oppressive parts.

His main strategies:

  • Build relationships by leading with love. “When I meet a student I want them to know that I’m super excited about these things. I love talking about them. All kids are genius and beautiful souls. I have no history with you but I’m just pumped to be here with you. What are you thinking? What are you interested in?”
  • Seek common cultural ground. “What are you proud of as a Vermonter? Family, making it work, hunting and fishing, having fun with friends? Me too.”
  • Show students how their expressions of rage and violence, although projected as strength, actually display weakness and insecurity. “I let them know I see through it because I am them. Underneath that rage is someone who doesn’t yet know how to love or believe in themselves fully. They fear living in a world with folks of color, unless those folks are limited, controlled and harmed, and they fear living in a world where women have full control of their own bodies. This says something sad about us. Luckily we have the power to shift our thinking. You can actually just live in a world with equal rights and still be a whole person in the world.”
  • Use analogies with zero emotional triggers. “I might explain intent versus impact by showing them my split thumb and explaining that though I intended to hit the nail, I sure feel the pain of hitting my thumb on accident. I don’t need to feel ashamed about it but it doesn’t do any good to deny it either.” Another favorite of his is the Christmas tree: he could have a great Christmas without one. And rednecks can live great Vermont lives without the Confederate flag.
  • Celebrate successes. “I hold them up intellectually every chance I get. And they may not hear much of that in school. Every tiny bit of ability to pop out of that bubble they are in, I tell them ‘you impressed the hell out of me.’”
  • Be ready for the rhetoric. “I keep up with the media put out by white supremacists so I know what these kids might be encountering.” And he’s ready to break it down.
  • Build class consciousness. “I show them examples of how racism is used to justify policies that hurt them.”
  • Show them examples of collaborative efforts between races to reach share goals. “I hold up Black, brown, and white people in every era who fought back against injustice.”

This approach is a powerful alternative to purely punitive measures. A suspension may feed resentment and reinforce the narrative that the world is against a student. It also gives them time to potentially expose themselves to online recruitment by white supremacists. Whereas the Building Fearless Futures roots their approach in humanity, dignity, and learning.

Hillbilly roll call

Netdahe is clearly a special guy. He has developed strategies and has resources and readings at the ready to tailor his work to each student.

Now: imagine many Netdahes deployed as interventionists to support Tier 3 services in anti-racist MTSS systems.

Netdahe thinks he could teach his approach to other people who occupy his social position. “I have three or four righteous broke white dudes I can think of off the top of my head who I could train up to do this work.”

This would tap into a long history of poor rural cross-racial resistance, as detailed in historical accounts like The Real Resistance to Slavery in North America by Russell Maroon Shoatz.

In this same vein, is a recent blog post by self-described hillbilly Adam Jordan (who happens to have a PhD). He spoke directly to people across Vermont: “Folks throughout history, usually rural folks, who have felt economic oppression, and who have pushed back against that oppression through collective action or self-reliant practices.”

Then for the call to action: “If you fall into this description of redneck or hillbilly, and you benefit from whiteness, I’m talking to you. Consider this a hillbilly roll call. We have work to do.”

Yes indeed, there’s a movement afoot.

Wrap around anti-racism

Netdahe and Christie have strikingly similar pictures of what a dream system of anti-racist education in predominantly white schools could look like.

They both described a systemwide commitment to the type of anti-racist and equity-focused curricula that is expected to be recommended by Vermont Coalition for Equity and Ethnic Studies in Schools.

They both talked about schools becoming more connected to communities and providing an array of wraparound services, similar to the Community School model.

Both affirmed the crucial role of healing spaces for students of color such as affinity groups.

And they both described diverse teams of interventionists that could work with students and support teachers.

It may sound far fetched but if we are going to get serious about creating anti-racist education systems, we need to take seriously the investments required. Intervention to support anti-racist education is even more necessary than math and literacy. While math and literacy intervention is meant to close gaps, to do something similar to what Tier 1 is meant to do with more intensive structures, racial literacy intervention provides alternate structures such as affinity groups that serve entirely different functions than Tier 1.

And as we’ve pointed out, the stakes are high.

In her seminal book on racial identity development, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Alone in the Cafeteria, Beverly Daniel Tatum talks about how we need to support the development of an identity she calls “white anti-racist.” Truly committing to anti-racism in education would mean that the typical categories of white identity identified by Tatum – ignorant, colorblind, or racist – would all be viewed as unacceptable outcomes.

We are in this together

To create a less racist society we will need to redistribute resources to people of color and transform systems to decrease white privilege. AND, racism is a problem caused by white people. So we will need to invest in changing white people’s beliefs and behaviors.

Both Netdahe and Christie agreed, as would almost any educator, that children are not at fault for their internalized supremacy. They should be held accountable for their actions but they are fully redeemable.

Reverend Angel Kyodo Williams, co-author of the book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, asks us to expand this type of compassion to all as we seek collective liberation:

“Simultaneously with our commitment to disrupting and dismantling structures that degrade humanity, a commitment to the practice of engaging the humanity of people wed to perpetuating those structures must co-exist. Whether by arrogance, ignorance, or fear, we must bear witness to their suffering as our own. Challenge what is unjust. Invest in their basic goodness. Always moving toward integration. Without this commitment and practice, we merely mirror the destructive forces of polarization and power.” (p. 203)

In the most extreme cases, for those students being misguided by their caregivers toward a path of white supremacist ideology, we must ensure schools “invest in their basic goodness” by providing the intervention they deserve.

The other pandemic.

“What is the implication for how we understand ourselves and each other in reference to our racial identities? And if we are dissatisfied with the way things are, what can we do to change it?”

–Beverly Tatum, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?

This is not the post we originally planned to publish this morning.

We have been so inspired, lately, by Vermont educators and families and students, all making this strange and challenging pandemic learning work for students as best they can. We have been so inspired by everyone’s creativity and flexibility in making this pandemic situation work on any level.

But this is not the pandemic learning work we’re talking about today.

This is the other pandemic learning work.

The pandemic of white supremacy and racism.

It’s work on a pandemic that’s been raging for centuries, one that has infected all levels of American education and society. This pandemic has long infected our government, and our social infrastructure.

It infects us.

As an organization, we focus on personalized learning that honors student identities, and their lives and learning outside of school. Their communities. And for Black students, and students of color, those identities and communities continue to come under attack. Those lives have been, and continue to be, under attack.

The current political situation has emboldened white supremacists to violence at every level. We’re all seeing the news reports, and the twitter feeds.  So the question becomes: what do we do?

Before anything else? We admit we’re going to get things wrong because of privilege.

First off, an admission: the writers of this post, personally, are going to get things wrong, in a way that hurts Black educators and students. We will bumble through and try to fix things with imprecise helping hands and accidentally make things worse and then have to start over with those same hands. Because the authors of this post are both white, while we are committed to being anti-racist, the way we try and make things better will likely be blind to some realities. We welcome feedback on this post, either in the comments down below or via our contact form

But while we get things wrong, we still have to try.

We can begin by acknowledging the decades of hard work done by BIPOC — Black, Indigenous, People of Color — educators, writers, activists and thought-leaders.

We commit to reading and learning from BIPOC work in this area and beyond. White educators, students and community members need to learn and unlearn the true history of this nation, and listen to BIPOC people about issues of race, racism, and history.  

Then we as white educators get to work, holding explicitly anti-racist work as a constant goal.

  1. Honor student identities — and protect Black students and BIPOC students. This might look like making sure you create an intentional educational space for students of color to feel safe, valued, and important. This will take work of building trust, calling out and calling in students and staff, and creating a loving community that can openly discuss hard topics and plan action.
  2. Honor student lives and learning outside of school — especially those of Black students and BIPOC students.  Schools have often valued a limited way of being for learning.
  3. Honor student communities — especially those of Black students and BIPOC students. Student communities encompass the full range of communities any given student exists in: their family, their peer group, their place of worship, their service organization. How can we support and validate the learning done in those communities when the communities of Black students are under attack from white supremacy?

With a focus on the needs of BIPOC students, educators can develop a framework for personalized learning that responds to the pandemic of white supremacy. Paul Gorksi’s Equity Literacy Framework (.pdf) is an excellent tool for this work.

What can this look like in action?

Honor student identities

Scan the curriculum:

Let’s do a diversity audit of our school and classroom libraries. Whose voices are represented? Whose voices are missing? And are we interrogating the conventional literary canon? Are we reading about Black experiences? Are we reading about the experiences of other people of color? How are we centering Black voices? How are we centering Indigenous voices? How are we centering the voices of all marginalized students as we negotiate that curriculum?

Check on students and their experiences

But beyond that, how are we providing direct support to Black students and others as they negotiate our schools? We know that BIPOC students are on the receiving end of hundreds of micro-aggressions in their lives. How are we constructing spaces in our classrooms where we work towards having everyone understand a) what micro-aggressions are, b) why they are actual violence against students of color, and c) how we repair the damage in our constructed communities when they occur?

How are we building restorative justice systems for our classrooms that center Black students and mitigate those violences?

How are schools handling:

  • Hats, hoodies and other unequal dress codes
  • Display of the Confederate flag in any form outside a textbook
  • Policies affecting anyone’s hair at any time
  • Disciplinary rates that affect Black students and students of color disproportionately.
The list goes on; ask your students and they can fill that list out for you.
…But they shouldn’t have to.

Instead: negotiate school policies with students and their families, and your colleagues, in a way that centers and protects BIPOC students. Provide students with the support and means and the structure to negotiate and design more equal schools. Open that door, and be the educators and administrators who listen, who advocate, and who pro-actively create anti-racist spaces and structures in your schools.

Honor student lives and learning outside of school

We need to ask ourselves how school currently provides a way for students to get credit for the work they do outside of school. For their work with Girl Scouts, or their mosques. For the work they put into family businesses, and the work they do looking after siblings. The work they do showing up to protests, organizing action and doing protest support.

And then we need to figure out how to dismantle systems that block students from getting that credit. We need to examine those policies for assigning credit for out-of-school learning and dismantle any piece that upholds ongoing racial inequity.

Honor student communities

Center Black voices and Black community organization. Support Black families. Hold a space for them to share their knowledge of their students, for them to share their experience — uninterrupted. Listen to Black students when they share who those communities are, and how valuable those communities are in informing and supporting their learning. Then go listen to those communities some more..

In conclusion:

As an organization, we are going to get things wrong about race, and about educating about racial equity.

And again, the writers of this post, personally, are going to get things wrong, in a way that hurts Black educators and students. We will try our best not to make things worse, and we will take responsibility for our actions and try again.

But we are committed to this work.

The point is always the starting over and the doing again.

Because if we were silent, we would do even more damage.

Our silence would be a form of violence. We are not satisfied with ourselves, and our organization’s work, when racial inequality and violence continue to plague Vermont’s education system.

We are in no way experts on equity, but we know that we and everyone else need to focus on equity — hard and consistently, in-house and beyond — in order to be anything like effective in whole school change in Vermont.

There is so much we have to do, right now. There is so much work to get stuck into, fighting this particular pandemic.

But we have always known the work is worth it. We are not here for white supremacy. We are here for Vermont’s Black educators and students, and their families and communities. Black lives matter.




Please note: The original version of this post featured an image of a plain black square. It has been brought to our attention that that image has been recently used in ways that are hurtful to the Black Lives Matter and activist communities. We deeply regret this error, and will use the moment to think through better guidelines for image choice in all blogposts moving forward, and will post those as part of the editorial guidelines we’ll make publicly available on this site. Photo credit: Elly Budliger, age 13.

On equity in the middle school movement

The middle school movement has been a powerful force for positive change. It’s rooted in progressive education, with special attention to the developmental needs of young adolescents.

In Vermont, we are ahead of most other states in implementing middle school systems and associated student-centered practices. That’s a good thing. Relative newcomers to this place, like me, should give big props to so many educators here who have championed innovative learning environments.

Yet there is a flaw at the heart of the middle school movement.

In the fervor to be maximally responsive to the developmental needs of young adolescents, it has downplayed the individual identities and complex contexts of our students.

For middle school educators who look to the movement for guidance, we may be missing the trees for the forest. And this is causing us to miss out on fully apprehending the strengths of our students. Or giving them them the guidance they need to meet challenges and to thrive. For middle school movement equity, we must strive to combine the developmental with the cultural to create an approach that is more authentically personal.

Engagement for whom?

While there is consensus that student engagement is paramount, we can’t truly put students at the center without being very specific about who they are.

In an editorial titled “Engagement for Whom?” in AMLE’s Middle School Journal, Lisa Harrison, Ellis Hurd, and (Vermont’s own) Kathleen Brinegar posed this key question. As a team of editors, they asked us to support every young adolescent “by shifting the conversation from focusing on middle school organizational structures in general, to contextualizing them within broader social, cultural, and political contexts.”

If we look at the Vermont context, we see glaring inequalities. As catalogued in the report Education Matters: The Impact of Systemic Inequity by Voices for Vermont’s Children:

  • The school-to-prison pipeline is flowing – Students with disabilities, Black students, and Native American students were suspended up to three times as often as their counterparts. They were also more likely to be referred to law enforcement by school staff.
  • Opportunity to learn gaps persist – The average standardized test score gaps are 18 percent by race and 25 percent by income. Schools graduate marginalized students on time at significantly lower rates.
  • Schools are not safe spaces for too many students – Students of color and students who identify as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender (LGBTQ) are two to four times as likely to miss school because they don’t feel safe there.

In middle schools specifically, we continue to have too many students from marginalized backgrounds who are don’t feel valued or like they belong. This is despite the fact that structures such as advisory programs and teaming are fairly widespread.

We simply can’t assume that by changing school structures and improving instruction generally, we will achieve equity.

Middle school movement equity: Cover of a report called Education Matters: The Impacts of Systemic Inequity in Vermont
This report synthesizes baseline information on educational inequity in Vermont.

Beyond generic engagement

In the past I believed that if we could raise the overall quality of our systems and instruction, that equity would take care of itself. For example, take my blog post from 2016, Equity begins with engagement. I argued that educators could tackle systemic inequality by “lighting a spark” in every student. In effect I pointed to personalized learning as a panacea that could battle inequity in all its forms.

Now I recognize that personalized learning is limited if it doesn’t focus on dismantling oppression.

And that means we need to do the hard work of truly centering the identity of each of our students, in all their complexity and cultural depth.

Middle school movement equity at the moment isn’t as helpful as it should be in reorienting us to active anti-oppression. But there are a growing number of scholars and educators trying to change that.

“Middle School Movement Phase II”

The editors of the Middle School Journal have called publicly for the middle school movement to shift its focus to equity.

“If middle level education wants to remain relevant and truly embrace education as a tool for empowerment, then we must focus on researching and sharing middle level practices that work to disrupt the status quo. This includes racism, classism, xenophobia, religious discrimination, heterosexism, ageism and other forms of oppressive structures within society.”

I interpreted this as a provocative challenge: if we are all about equity, then let’s fight for it directly. We don’t need to rely on entry points like engagement. Our middle school movement equity needs to actively promote equity both instructionally and institutionally.

Just as we must avoid over-relying on engagement as an entry point, we must come to terms with the limits of developmentalism. The middle school movement’s focus on early adolescence as a stage of life may have caused us to lose sight of knowing the individual students in front of us.

This is why the Middle School Journal editors call for a course correction. They argue that in Phase II of the movement:

“While we need to celebrate and be responsive to the unique characteristics of early adolescence, we cannot do so without recognizing and celebrating the unique identities and lived experiences of every young adolescent who enters our schools. When we do, we are recognizing that our job as middle grades educators is to empower each student to transform themselves. Such empowerment has the potential for youth to become critically conscious, which in turn supports their development as producers of knowledge and transformers of society.”

Let’s get radical

Critical consciousness is an ambitious goal.

In Critical consciousness: The key to student achievement, Aaliyah El-Amin and others describe critical consciousness as “the ability to recognize and analyze systems of inequality and the commitment to take action against these systems.”

Paulo Freire popularized critical consciousness 50 years ago. It is a key component of many asset-based pedagogies, including Culturally Relevant Teaching, developed by Gloria Ladson-Billings.

Yet some people may be alarmed by the idea that middle school education would seek to teach students to dismantle systemic oppression. This is why the push for Phase II is a big deal. It is unabashedly anti-oppressive. Though it is not partisan, it is political in the sense that it seeks to redistribute power to fully support students from marginalized communities.

Getting serious about middle school movement equity will indeed challenge the status quo. And that’s never an easy fight.

Screen shot of an article.
The Middle School Journal editors’ call to action: Ellis Hurd, Vermont’s own Kathleen Brinegar, and Lisa Harrison.

Revisiting our beliefs

The middle school movement intended to challenge the status quo from the beginning. When This We Believe dropped in 1982, it represented forceful advocacy for ideas that had been swirling around for at least a decade. The document challenged the junior high school model that was dominant at the time. What young adolescents needed were radically different and very much in line with the values of progressive education: lots of socialization, student choice and voice, and real world relevance.

I have personally found This We Believe incredibly helpful and have used aspects of it to drive professional learning numerous times. Yet recently I have become more acutely aware of flaws in this foundational document.

It’s time to talk about race

Let’s consider how race is addressed in This We Believe. And just as importantly, how race is not addressed.

Starting with a race-focused critical lens is important and instructive for many reasons. First, racism is arguably the primary oppressive force in this country. Second, studying the way racism operates and how to fight it informs all other anti-oppression efforts. And third, racism is really difficult to talk and think about. So if we don’t start with race then we are unlikely to go there naturally.

Using critical race theory, Christopher Busey systematically analyzed what is said and unsaid about race in This We Believe. He concluded that the text upholds two problematic narratives:

  1. There is no story about race.
  2. Racial difference as deficit.

For the most part, race is not an issue for young adolescents. But when it is, it’s a problem.

“The heartbeat of racism is denial”

The title of Ibram X. Kendi’s opinion piece in the New York Times is applicable here.

Ignoring race doesn’t make racism go away. Quite the opposite. Per Busey: “This We Believe’s colorblind ideology is complicit in constructing a racial reality of disproportionate discipline, culturally desynchronized curriculum, and hostile learning environments for early adolescent children of color.”

Color-evasiveness (often referred to as colorblindness) is problematic and has demonstrably racist impacts. Race impacts everyone, even if some white people don’t realize it or perceive impact in their own lives. When somebody says “I don’t see race,” they are not acknowledging the racial realities of people of color. When teaching students of color, color-evasiveness is a barrier to curricular connection and harmful to relationships.

Alternatively, a deeper understanding of how race operates allows us to be critical of the systems of inequity in which we participate. We may be able to start to understand how schools privilege certain ways of acting and learning that unnecessarily disadvantage many students. And we may be able to take steps to move from deficit- to asset-oriented mindsets that help middle schools become places where all students can thrive.

Busey offered three belief statements in opposition to This We Believe:

  • We believe race is central to identity development.
  • We believe smartness is a racialized construct; racial difference is not a cognitive deficiency.
  • We believe race matters in creating positive school environments and subsequently, socio-emotional and psychological development.

These crystal clear belief statements directly address racial equity. If we don’t say this stuff out loud and commit, equity won’t happen organically. Busey’s statements leave less room for accidentally perpetuating racial inequity.

It’s about impact, not intent

Racism and other oppressive systems do not require overtly bad intentions. Impact is what matters. The authors of This We Believe, while they were mostly white men, meant for the document to align with equity. But as Stephanie P. Jones put it in her recent article Ending Curriculum Violence,

“The notion that a curriculum writer’s or teacher’s intention matters misses the point: Intentionality is not a prerequisite for harmful teaching. Intentionality is also not a prerequisite for racism.”

In that spirit, I must recognize that my reliance on the ideas birthed in This We Believe has made me complicit with racism and oppression.

It hurts me to say this.

But once I’ve recognized this as a problem I need to put my energy into fixing it.

Beyond developmentalism

Seeing our students as young adolescents is not enough to be responsive to their needs. We must seek to understand race and other social forces that impact their lives and their learning.

As Bettina Love put it even more pointedly in her Education Week commentary Dear White Teachers: You Can’t Love Your Black Students if You Don’t Know Them:

“Let me be clear: I do not think White teachers enter the profession wanting to harm children of color, but they will hurt a child whose culture is viewed as an afterthought.”

We must center the aspects of identity that are most important to each student. In some cases that is race. In other cases and moments it may be gender, class, sexuality, and the intersections thereof.

Simply put:

“Middle level educators must realize that culture and identity often matter more than age in shaping the experience of young adolescents.”

The above statement appears in Chapter 1 of a recently published book called Equity & Cultural Responsiveness in the Middle Grades (edited by Brinegar, Harrison, and Hurd). It compiles research from twenty some scholars delving into the themes of this blog post.

This straightforward statement represents a call for recalculating the weight of developmentalism in the middle school equation.

Middle School Movement Phase II: Book cover : Equity & Cultural Responsiveness in the Middle Grades.
This recent Handbook compiles research to fuel the Middle School Movement Phase II.

Where does cultural responsiveness (or the lack thereof) play out in middle schools?

Consider how important considerations have been left out of the mainstream discussion of the three major areas of adolescent development.

  • Physical Development
    • Emphasizes traditional Eurocentric standards of beauty
    • Emphasizes heteronormative understandings of gender and sexuality
    • Minimizes the impact of food and housing insecurity on physical development
  • Cognitive Development
    • Lacks culturally responsive pedagogies
    • Fails to recognize the limitations of monolingualism and benefits of multilingualism
    • Overrepresents culturally diverse students in special education
  • Social-emotional Development
    • Downplays or ignores the influence of cultural identity on belonging
    • Uses predominantly color-evasive approaches, particularly by white teachers
    • Fails to pay attention to the importance of creating affirming spaces for students with historically devalued and marginalized identities

If we aren’t sufficiently aware of the social-historical forces operating on layers of identity, we are in danger of seeing differences as deficits.

We are more likely to see deviations as bad or abnormal when adolescent development is framed in general terms. We need to connect developmental and cultural responsiveness.

And the first best thing we can do is to broaden our understanding of identity. We need to deepen our understanding of students so that we see can clearly see their assets. The middle school movement helped shine a spotlight on the positive potential of young adolescence. Now we need to commit to being equally responsive to cultural and social aspects of identity.

The way forward

If we are willing to do the work, we can draw on any number of well established asset-based approaches. These are deep pedagogies that require attention to self and systems.

… engaging in social justice work requires the acknowledgement that equity frameworks such as culturally relevant pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995; Ladson-Billings, 2014), cultural responsiveness (Gay, 2000), culturally sustaining pedagogy (Paris, 2012: Paris & Alim, 2017), equity literacy (Gorski, 2017) and reality pedagogy (Emdin, 2011, 2016) are not just lists of practices or strategies, but philosophies or ways of being and thinking. There is no list of silver-bullet strategies that make us equitable, transformative educators or that make our curriculum socially just (p. 1).

We can continue to celebrate and cater to the developmental characteristics of young adolescents. We also have the opportunity to more fully honor the assets that students bring with other aspects of their identities.

In practice, taking into account the complex array of characteristics for any given student boils down to seeing them as an individual. Not just in a “celebrating diversity” sort of way, but recognizing that each student’s individuality has a context. Each student carries an intersection of identities and many of those identities are culturally situated.

If we can create learning environments that validate, affirm, draw upon, and sustain those identities, our students, schools, and communities can thrive.

Always, always, start with ourselves

Lest our own blindspots and biases get in the way, it is incumbent on educators to constantly critically analyze our beliefs and practices. This is especially important for educators such as myself who carry privileged social identities. Whether looking at my internal blind spots, my external mistakes, or the impacts of systems and organizations in which I participate, I resolve to stay committed in the face of inevitable pushback.

I am also excited to work with others who are trying to bend existing and emerging systems to the equity task at hand.

Middle school structures such as advisories, curriculum integration, and teacher teams continue to have a lot of student-centered potential. And in Vermont there is much change afoot via promising personalized learning strategies like Personal Learning Plans, Flexible Pathways, and proficiency-based learning.

We need to make sure that anti-oppressive education is the driving force of systems change rather than an add-on or assumed byproduct. We need to build on the work of educators and scholars of color who model how to make equity our primary unapologetic orientation.

In essence, we need to develop our own critical consciousness so that we can (1) instill it in our students and (2) disrupt inequity in our systems.

So let’s get critical, get conscious, and get to work.

How will *you* contribute to middle school movement equity?



Brinegar, Kathleen, Lisa Harrison & Ellis Hurd (2018) Becoming transformative, equity-based educators, Middle School Journal, 49:5, 2-3, DOI: 10.1080/00940771.2018.1524253

Brinegar, Kathleen, Lisa Harrison & Ellis Hurd (Eds.). (2019) Equity and cultural responsiveness in the middle grades. Information Age Publishing.

Busey, C. (2017April). Arrested development how This We Believe utilizes colorbind narratives to neglect the racial realities of early adolescent development and middle grades educationPaper presented at the meeting of the American Educational Research AssociationSan Antonio, TX.

El-Amin, Aaliyah, Scott Seider, Daren Graves, Jalene Tamerat, Shelby Clark, Madora Soutter, Jamie Johannsen, and Saira Malhotra (2017) Critical consciousness: A key to student achievement. Phi Delta Kappan 98 (5), 18-23.

Emdin, C. (2011). Moving beyond the boat without a paddle: Reality pedagogy, Black youth, and urban science educationJournal of Negro Education, 80(3), 284295.

Emdin, C. (2016). For White folks who teach in the hood… and the rest of Y’all too: Reality pedagogy in urban educationBoston, MABeacon Press.

Freire, P. (1970). Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York, NY: Herder & Herder.

Gay, G. (2000). Culturally responsive teaching: Theory, research, and practiceNew York, NYTeachers College Press.

Gorski, P. C. (2017). Reaching and teaching students in poverty: Strategies for erasing the opportunity gapNew York, NYTeachers College Press.

Harrison, Lisa, Ellis Hurd & Kathleen Brinegar (2018) Middle school movement phase II: Moving towards an inclusive and justice-oriented middle level education, Middle School Journal, 49:4, 2-3, DOI: 10.1080/00940771.2018.1490569

Kendi, Ibram X. (January, 2018). The heartbeat of racism is denial. New York Times Opinion.

Ladson-Billings, G. (1995). Toward a theory of culturally relevant pedagogyAmerican Educational Research Journal, 32(3), 465491.

Ladson-Billings, G. (2014). Culturally relevant pedagogy 2.0: A.K.A. the remixHarvard Educational Review, 84(1), 7484. DOI:10.17763/haer.84.1.p2rj131485484751

Love, Bettina L. (March, 2019). Dear white teachers: You can’t love your Black students if you don’t know them. Education Week.

Paris, D. (2012). Culturally sustaining pedagogy: A needed change in stance, terminology, and practiceEducational Researcher, 41(3), 9397.

3 ways to ensure equity is at the heart of your work

VTDigger reports that Vermont Secretary of Education Dan French said “From our standpoint, we portray districts being on a journey. Just like everyone in the world is on a journey. And we don’t see 2020 as some sort of hard and fast date.”  However, regardless of a deadline, we should remain focused on centering equity as we implement personalized learning. Equity is at the heart of this state policy.

Whether you are well on you way or just starting work on the three pillars keeping equity at the forefront of education work is a moral imperative. And here are three resources to help in your journey.

What do *you* mean by equity?

The National Equity Project  defines it as “each child receives what they need to develop to their full academic and social potential.” Furthermore, they offer that moving toward it involves:

  •  Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system. Removing the predictability of success. Or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor.
  • Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases. And creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children.
  • Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

Sounds simple in theory; challenging in practice.

3 structures for centering equity
1. Equity audits

Equity audits help examine us examine gaps in opportunity. Even more, they identify solutions to addressing those gaps.

First and foremost, Teaching Tolerance recommends using the equity audits from the Mid-Atlantic Equity Consortium. You can choose the right grain-size for your work. Everything from systems level to classroom/teacher level audits. And they’re robust!

Another resource: the The School-Wide Cultural Competence Observation Checklist (.pdf) They arrange questions into the following categories:

  • Community & Parents
  • School Policy & Practice
  • Classroom & Teacher
  • Student
  • Curriculum & Instruction

Along those same lines? The VT Agency of Education’s tools and checklists to support implementation of the Vermont Guiding Principles. The AOE lists resources in the following categories:

  • Frameworks
  • Classroom/Program Tools
  • Individual Tools
  • Family Engagement Tools
  • Professional Development Tools
2. The Equity Literacy Framework

Paul Gorski and EdChange developed the Equity Literacy Framework. 

The framework encourages you to consider applying the following frames:

  • “The ability to Recognize even the subtlest biases and inequities.”
    • How are you engaging a variety of perspectives to help you recognize bias and inequity in your system?
    • What perspectives are missing?
  • “The ability to Respond skillfully and equitably to biases and inequities in the immediate term.”
    • What steps are you taking to respond to bias and inequity?
    • Who holds you accountable?
  • “The ability to Redress biases and inequities by understanding and addressing them at their institutional roots.”
    • Have you examined your policies and procedures for bias?
    • Who needs to be at the table to construct or revise policies so they are more likely to be bias free?
  • “The ability to Sustain equity efforts even in the face of discomfort or resistance.”
    • How do you communicate your equity efforts?
    • What values help you stand firm when the going gets rough?
3. Examine your own practice

The most important resource by far, on this list, is you. Don’t underestimate your own power as a change agent. Push your thinking. Stay informed. Find ways to reflect. Collect feedback, think deeply, and reach out to other educators doing the same work.

Reach out to your students. They can provide invaluable feedback on your journey.

Here are a few more resources to consider:
How will your practice change?

Equity connects many of Vermont’s educational initiatives. Still, we always have more work to do. So as you, your team, your school, and your district continue to make transformational change, find your leverage for greater equity. You’re the single most valuable change agent in bringing — and keeping — equity at the heart of teaching.

Getting personal about systemic equity

Sometimes pursuing systemic equity in education can feel a little like the carrot vs. the stick. Since No Child Left Behind, federal education policy has talked about equity while applying punitive measures to schools based on students’ aggregate performance. We have been largely mired in deficit-based policy that is ineffective for spurring transformation and generally demoralizing. That’s the stick.

At the same time, for many educators the fight for equity is real and heartfelt. Every student, every day. And when a young person feels truly seen and supported, when a spark is lit, it’s pure gold. We strive for it and we know it when we see it. That’s the carrot.

But realistically: how do we get that carrot to grow in a garden that too often suffers from the infertility of systemic inequity? How can we help educators support the students who need them most when we art part of a larger system with demonstrably inequitable impacts?

One way is to make it personal. We can ask educators to make sure that we each examine our own biases and work on a personal level so we’re better equipped to fix the system. We need to test our soil for pests and pesticides, folks.

Let’s dig in.


Self work

Educators in Vermont are increasingly doing what Susie Merrick, the Healthy Schools Coordinator for South Burlington School District (SBSD), calls “self work.”

Susie pointed to the Beyond Diversity (BD) training from Courageous Conversation as an exemplar of self work. “BD training is, in my mind, absolutely essential training for anybody who works in schools or with young people. It involves the self work: how do I look at my own race, my own implicit bias, and then use this learning to address and dismantle systems of oppression and inequity wherever I work.

Self work might include:

  • considering the existence of and ongoing implications of our implicit biases.
  • thoroughly examining our personal and professional complicity in racial oppression.
  • raising our awareness of micro-aggressions and other ways that we are harming colleagues, students, and families.
  • thinking about the ways that our own identity impacts or limits our ability to effectively support all students.

Learning and unlearning

The starting point is to acknowledge that we are all products of and participants in our inequitable society. Formal institutions such as schooling, as well as more diffuse social influences such as media, have shaped our perceptions and understandings. Our beliefs, both implicit and explicit, impact everything. From classroom decisions to how we analyze school policies. 

This is especially true for white people who have been shaped by the system and privileged by it. To become forces for equity, good intentions and kindness are not enough. White educators need to interrogate our beliefs and actions. We have to unlearn things we’ve taken for granted as true or natural. We have to start with ourselves.

Dean Melen, a school counselor at the Chamberlin Elementary School in South Burlington, sees self work as personal yet essential. “Every thread of who we are will be impacted by what we do with our new learned understanding. White privilege is not new to most communities. We know this and continue to dream about equity. We know too, that dreams are not enough. The voice from our students, families, staff, administration and community must out shine our lack of understanding from the past.”

Let’s look at how SBSD, along with other Vermont districts, is putting personal identity work at the center of their systemic change efforts.

Diversity / Equity / Inclusion in South Burlington

Five years ago, in the 2013-14 school year, a group of SBSD administrators and staff attended the We All Belong training by CQ Strategies. The training focused on cultural competence. Based on this learning, SBSD created a Healthy Schools Coordinator position. Then they merged four mutually reinforcing programs: diversity/equity/inclusion, wellness, mentoring, and mindfulness.

Venn diagram showing circles with wellness, mentoring, mindfulness, and diversity/equity/inclusion intersecting at healthy schools.
Four distinct programs merged in South Burlington School District to create Healthy Schools.


SBSD hired Susie Merrick as the first Healthy Schools Coordinator. She was very clear that Healthy Schools built on important legacies already in place.

“The creation of the Healthy Schools positions was certainly not the start of the equity work we are doing in South Burlington. When I was hired, I had the gift of hearing how dedicated many past and current staff were to social and racial equity, including our Superintendent David Young. I also witnessed first-hand colleagues doing courageous work alongside students that reflected their deep and genuine commitment to equity. But we still had a lot of work to do, like any place.”

A community conversation about equity

During the Healthy School’s first year of existence, conversations about race and identity took center stage due to broader forces in the community. The Student Diversity Union (now the Student Justice Union) at South Burlington High School, co-chaired by students Isaiah Hines and Madison Premsagar, led a movement to change the “Rebel” identifier.

Susie noted that every community has its own story. She recalled “Here in SB what really jump started conversations about race on a deeper level was our story connected to the Rebel identifier.

As staff, we became more aware of how racial inequity was harming our students — and they were the ones leading those discussions because they were courageous enough to speak up. I believe student voice pushed us as staff to more authentically address issues in our schools such as implicit bias and microaggressions.

Courageous Conversation for transformation

The fight over the Rebel moniker raged for over a year. In February, 2017, the School Board changed the name to “Wolves.” Principal Patrick Burke supported the name change unequivocally. He was quoted in an article by the student newspaper: “When I have kids of color saying, ‘I’m not comfortable with this,’ then I have to listen.”

During that school year, SBSD administrators and staff participated in training related to implicit bias facilitated by external providers. The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (which had grown out of the team who attended the original We All Belong training) recognized the need to build internal capacity in order to create sustainability. SBSD secured grant funding to send a team of 10 staff members to the Courageous Conversation National Summit in Detroit in the fall.

The national summit was a transformative experience for the educators who attended. Susie identified the summit as a pivotal moment in her journey.

“As a white woman, I had never experienced training of this kind. Robin DiAngelo talks of ‘white women’s tears’ in her amazing book ‘White Fragility’: the idea that white people are so uncomfortable discussing race that we get defensive and/or experience guilt. My own white fragility showed up as tears throughout the conference.

The training helped me understand my reaction, try to address it with integrity and then work to build my skills and use my privilege to address issues of inequity in my professional and personal life. This has been an ongoing journey for me.

Other educators who went to Detroit had similarly transformative experiences. The question was how to bring that back home to the entire staff.

Bringing it home

The Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee recognized that equity work, especially self work, first and foremost required a safe learning community. So during the 2017-18 school year the district allocated 90 minutes of each district-wide gathering (Convocation and two in-services) to relationship building. They called it “Coming Together”. The 400+ staff gathered in small groups and shared stories about things like family, life goals, and their hopes for the world.

In the following year, the district increased investment in this work and put in place several important structures:

  • The Detroit group, who had continued meeting regularly, formally took on the design of professional learning related to equity and became the “Equity Planning Team”.
  • The district brought in a Courageous Conversations trainer to offer the foundational Beyond Diversity course so that more educators could do deep self work. Nearly 60 educators volunteered to participate.
  • The time allotted for equity work during the district inservices was doubled to three hours per session.

So now the district had substantial internal capacity to support the work. The inservices included time where educators presented in the auditorium. They talked about changes they were making in their practice to further equity, using the Teaching Tolerance Social Justice Standards to help guide their presentations. And then educators gathered in cross-district small groups, facilitated by Beyond Diversity trained staff, to process, deepen, and personalize the learning.


To support authentic engagement in this intense work, SBSD adopted district-wide group norms. Rhiannon Kim, Speech Pathologist for SBSD and Adjunct Professor with UVM and Saint Michaels College teaching Mindfulness Based Practices, developed a set of agreements. She used an extensive process that included multiple rounds of trial and feedback from various stakeholders.

The agreements are relevant far beyond the inservice sessions. Staff across SBSD have used the agreements in a wide variety of settings. For instance, the agreements have supported collaborative team meetings, book discussion groups, the District Level Committee Meeting, and even classrooms.

In the future, funding will continue to be invested in building internal capacity. The district plans to continue offering the Beyond Diversity training to develop more facilitators for district-wide work.

The conversations will continue. And the impacts have already been far reaching.

Beyond conversations

The district level work in South Burlington has made a difference in practice..

For example, the two educators from Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School who were part of the original Detroit group have continued to deepen the work in their own classrooms and beyond.

Curriculum and student leadership

Christie Nold has developed powerful curriculum that addresses social identity and equity in her 6th grade social studies class. She has also worked with several colleagues to launch and facilitate a student leadership group called S.O.A.R. (Students Organized Against Racism).

Christie reflected: “In many ways, I find the district level work we engage with sets conditions in the soil. It is not until the fruits of that labor begin to grow that we are able to identify the impact we’ve had on creating conditions. For me, the most beautiful fruit has been our Students Organizing Against Racism. This does not mean we have finished our work, but instead is an indication that we are feeding our soil well.”

Collaborative learning about Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy

Jeff Novak has worked to diversity his classroom, from the books assigned and available for students to the posters on his walls. Also, he presented at one of the in-services this year. He shared a story from the Beyond Diversity training in Detroit as an example of a transformative experience.
Jeff found a way to continue to deepen his own learning in collaboration with colleagues. He co-facilitated a professional learning strand about Culturally Sustainable Pedagogy for a dozen of his middle school colleagues. He and his partner Lauren Bartlett presented about their experience as facilitators at two different conferences.
Titled "Framing the Conversation" - shows images of "Home of the Rebels" and a "Black Lives Matter" logo.
A slide from Jeff Novak and Lauren Bartlett’s presentation at the Dynamic Landscapes Conference.
Jeff noted that he wouldn’t have and couldn’t have made this much progress on his own. “The district had taken a firm stand on the issue of racial inequity in our system: that it’s a real problem baked into everything and most of us are just waking up to the extent of it. I’ve felt supported and buoyed by the district and faculty who are steeped in this work and feel heartened by our efforts to address the racism in our systems. It’s humbling work without any sense of completion or achievement, but the community that’s formed around this work has been the strongest and most supportive I’ve experienced in teaching.”
The intentional building of relationships and community has been a key aspect of SBSD’s equity work. And we see more and more communities being built across Vermont for this same purpose.

The movement in VT

Consider the work of Lamoille South Supervisory Union (LSSU). During this last school year, Drs. Kathleen Brinegar & Hannah Miller, from Northern Vermont University, worked with all educators Pk-12 from LSSU. LSSU dedicated half of each of three in-services to this work.

Tracy Wrend, Superintendent of LSSU, saw the need for self work alongside the systemic.

We quickly discovered that the continuum of readiness to incorporate culturally sustaining practices and the range of emotional and experience with racial and social justice–particularly inequity–was hugely individual, personal and emotional.  In order to support our students, we needed to take a step back and reflect on the ways our own experiences shape our views as educators, practice listening deeply to the voices of others, and ensure a safe, respectful adult culture where we can have uncomfortable conversations about our personal and systemic educational practices.”

Personal equity projects and district goals

Kathleen described the content: “The in-services focused on defining equity and understanding systemic and structural inequities based largely on the work of Gorski, Ladson-Billings, Django & Paris, the National Equity Project, and our own research. Educators throughout the district engaged in community circles focused on identifying inequities within the district and exploring their own bias.”

Educators engaged in self work and critical analysis of practices within the district. Based on their analysis, each educator developed a personal equity project. They worked with small accountability groups to help develop their projects and process together.

The year’s work ended with the development and unpacking of the following four goals for LSSU:

  1. Educators take proactive steps towards recognizing the ways they perpetuate and reproduce inequities.
  2. All learners have access to the supports, tools, and opportunities they need to grow.
  3. Youth and adults can safely construct their identities.
  4. Educational experiences are transformed by listening to the words, actions, and silences of youth.

The work with educators across the district will continue next school year. The district plans to add specific sessions for district administrators as well.

Self work and systemic change efforts are mutually reinforcing

The self work increasingly happening in districts and schools can complement professional learning focused on systemic equity.

For example, the theme of the Middle Grades Institute this year, is “Advancing Equity”. Rebecca Haslam from Seed the Way will facilitate an opening workshop. The workshop will lead each of the 150 participants through social identity exercises. Kathleen Brinegar will close the week long institute with a keynote about equity. Faculty will continuously ask participants to connect their efforts to fight systemic inequity with their self work.

Vermont educators will have ample opportunities for external professional learning about equity. For example:

  • Based on requests from member districts, Champlain Valley Educator Development Center is offering the Courageous Conversation “Beyond Diversity” workshop twice this fall, plus an in-depth series for administrators.
  • Rhiannon Kim is offering a week long strand at the BEST/MTSS conference called “Mitigating Bias in Our Schools and Uncovering Unconscious Bias.”
  • Paul Gorski will likely be back next year to continue spreading the word about his Equity Literacy Framework, after offering multiple events organized by various prominent organizations last year.
  • The Agency of Education developed an Equity Literacy Grant program and published a set of supportive Equity Literacy Resources.

District sponsored self work is a critical component of this broader equity movement. When time and funding is put into the self work, it sends a strong message about priorities. It also makes sure that all educators are involved instead of just those who seek it out on their own.

And those educators who do seek out additional learning about equity are better prepared on a personal level to understand and apply their learning.

Embrace the challenge

As the equity work becomes more personal, the challenge intensifies. Susie Merrick is quick to point out that the work in South Burlington School District is by no means perfect. It has been emotional and raw and nearly overwhelming for staff at times. She shared that “I am heavily steeped in both conviction and humility. Not a day goes by that I don’t wonder whether I’m the right person for the job.”

Yet, she has persevered and she has learned a lot along the way.

Tips for taking a personal approach to systemic equity

Susie offered three tips for school systems that want to do this work.

  1. “Make sure to give staff an opportunity to do the self work first. Talk to white staff about the fact that this is not the job of our staff of color to lead this work or to turn to in order to get answers to our questions. I would have named something different two years ago but to me that’s the most important. It’s been a game changer for us to have increased numbers of white staff do their own hard work.”
  2. “In South Burlington it’s been helpful to work toward allowing a critical mass of staff in all five schools to get the same equity training. I am so inspired by our staff developing a common language, becoming familiar with the Courageous Conversation protocol and sharing a set of guidelines for courageous dialogues. A growing number of our staff have even been using this learning in classrooms with their students.”
  3. “If you are an aspiring racial and social equity leader in your school community, really honor self care as you do this work and remember that change is hard and takes time. The work can be lonely, so be sure to find a group of colleagues with whom you can connect. Hold close the awareness that you are working toward allowing every single student in our schools to show up as their full selves. I want to make sure that I’m holding space for those reminders because not honoring them can impact well-being. There is an urgency to the work that doesn’t lend itself to pausing, but the pause is so important.”

Challenging ourselves so we can transform systems

“Embrace discomfort” is one of the Courageous Conversation agreements. This norm acknowledges the inherent challenge of self work. Confronting our implicit biases, our problematic beliefs, and our complicity with inequitable systems is hard. But it can be liberating. And it is oh so necessary so that we can transform ourselves, and then our systems, to give all students the opportunities they deserve.

How will your school system give time and support for educators to do the self work needed to advance equity?

Equity, identity & art

Tracing a middle level social identity unit

Identity. Oppression. Social justice. Structural racism. Liberation. These are some intense ideas to grapple with at any age.

Yet 6th grade student Deng isn’t willing to wait: “We need to learn about this stuff early on before it gets pushed off and becomes a problem. We are the next generation of adults.”

Christie Nold and her 6th grade students have tackled these topics together as a courageous learning community that was built intentionally over the course of the year. They showed that not only can young adolescents handle it, but they thrive when given the chance to go deep into identity and equity. Let’s take a peek into Christie’s classroom at Frederick H. Tuttle Middle School in South Burlington, Vermont, to see how she did it, what kids got out of it, and the art they created as a result.

Social identity learning for young adolescents

Young adolescents work hard at figuring out who they are and how they fit into the world. They may not know it, but they are constantly learning about social identity — the way that their concept of self is based on the groups they belong to.

By teaching about social identity in school, Christie sought to provide a safe and supportive environment for students to explore these complex yet deeply personal ideas. She also connected identity to larger ideas about society and history – social inequality, structural racism, Civil Rights.

And finally, she gave students the opportunity to process and to act. At the end of the unit, students worked with teaching artists to express their learning. And what they created was amazing.

Starting with self

Christie wanted students to learn about identity in the context of equity and diversity.

“The impetus for the project was really to allow space for students to engage with who they are as people in the world and what that means and also to engage with folks closer in identity to them or farther in identity from them but either way don’t often represent the trajectory of educators that they have in their lives.”

Circle of students and teacher.
A poetry workshop with teaching artist Rajnii Eddings.


In addition to the teaching artists, students met guest speakers such as Kiran Waqar, a member of the slam poetry group Muslim Girls Making Change. This inspired two students, Brianna and Zina, to start writing poetry together. Zina noted that Kiran “taught me what it means to stand behind what you really want to say to the world.” Later, the girls were thrilled to work with Rajnii Eddins, who had mentored Muslim Girls Making Change through the Young Writers Project.

Christie also saw the social identity unit as an important first step in her curricular sequence. She wanted students to think about their own identities as a basis for exploring other cultures.

“I find it’s really important to start by knowing ourselves. I think often without a solid understanding of who we are and also an understanding of at least bias if not our own biases it can be really easy to do a unit on cultures and just continue to engage in stereotypical thinking.

And so it was important to me that students have this opportunity to dive pretty hard into who they are and how that informs the way they see the world before they then started looking at other aspects of parts of our world.

Standards-based social identity learning

Christie used the social studies standards as her starting point. The unit addressed standard D2.His.1.6-8 from the College, Career, and Civic Life (C3) Framework for Social Studies State Standards: “Analyze connections among events and developments in broader historical contexts.” The C3 Framework also includes a Sociology Companion Document with competencies such as “Explain the social construction of self and groups.”

Christie knew that the social studies standards had her back. And she knew that she could design a unit that would provide ample opportunities for students to develop Clear and Effective Communication, which was the Transferable Skill she was working on within her proficiency-based classroom.

The Social Justice Standards

For detailed learning targets directly related to social identity, she turned to the Social Justice Standards from Teaching Tolerance. Identity is one of the four major domains of the Social Justice Standards and includes five anchor standards. Christie used the 6-8 outcomes, derived from the anchor standards, to craft her unit.

The Social Justice Standards gave specificity to the framing Christie had already done based on the C3 standards and Transferable Skill proficiencies. And it connected her with resources. She could access resources from Teaching Tolerance such as this PD module on the website or a PD cafe from the magazine. And she could network with educators all over the world who are helping their students dive deep into identity.

Screenshot of five standards that put the grade level outcomes into grade level language. Equity and art.
The 6-8 Identity outcomes from p. 8 of the Social Justice Standards by Teaching Tolerance.


Christie received a grant from Teaching Tolerance to fund the teaching artists. But before creating an artistic representation, students delved deeply into the social identity learning.

The arc of the unit

Christie wanted to make sure that her 6th graders were able to engage with complex and intense ideas in a thoroughly supportive environment.

Laying the groundwork

Very early in the unit she introduced resources from the Courageous Conversations protocol which is designed “for effectively engaging, sustaining, and deepening interracial dialogue.” Students explored and upheld the agreements (norms) during discussions and collaboration. And they frequently relied on the Courageous Conversation compass to process intense material by considering whether they were in the feeling, believing, acting, or thinking quadrant.

The classroom community added a norm that basically gave permission to “lie” when exploring identity. When writing, students were told to “put on the page only what you are comfortable putting on the page.” Most of the verbal sharing was also optional. Students controlled what they wanted to disclose. This maintained the personal and intellectual safety of the classroom.

Christie also used two read aloud texts to ground the learning throughout the unit. During the first part of the unit that was focused largely on identity, the class read Refugee, by Alan Gratz, which is a story about three young refugees from different nations and eras. During the second part of the unit, the class read Jewell Parker Rhodes’ Ghost Boys, about a young black boy killed by a police officer. Ghost Boys served as a reference point for learning about implicit bias, systemic oppression, and civil rights.

Activities and ideas

With these structures as a backbone, students explored complex concepts by:

  • watching this video on the iceberg model of culture and filled out an accompanying worksheet to learn about the explicit and implicit manifestations of culture.
  • learning that identity is socially constructed (i.e., it is created in interaction with others).
  • looking at various aspects of identity, such as race, gender, sexual orientation, class, and citizenship.
  • creating identity pie charts including various social identity and cultural markers, for Refugee characters and then themselves, which they shared with each other if they felt comfortable doing so.
  • considering dominant and minoritized identities by watching videos about people featured in Ghost Boys such as Emmet Till and Tamir Rice; then looking at the positionality of aspects of their own identities.
  • exploring implicit bias by watching a Trevor Noah clip and then (optionally) taking an Implicit Association Test on race.
  • watching and reflecting upon Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story Ted Talk about stereotypes.
  • examining their social and author influencers and asking “who are we listening to?
  • critiquing bias in advertising by looking at ads that are problematic and ads that are trying to change the paradigm, such as the Gillette ad about the #metoo movement.
  • encountering the concept of microaggressions and watching a video about Black parents giving “the talk” to their children.

Take a moment to marvel at the bullets and bolded words above. Consider what a shift it would be for most adults if they took time to learn about these things. Then watch the videos and see how students truly internalized and learned these complex concepts.

Screen shot of a blank table where students record the gender, age, race of the authors and main characters of books they have read. Equity and art.
Students considered the social identity of their influencers.


Christie assessed understanding in several ways. Formatively, in addition to the ongoing reflections and discussions, she has administered a survey three times over the course of the year. The questions were based on the Social Justice Standards. Christie saw significant growth base on student responses.

For summative assessment, students wrote about social identity and made connections to the Ghost Boys book. The performance assessment included a vocabulary bank that students were expected to use in their responses.

Application through art making

After the written performance assessment, students were ready to process and express their learning in a completely different way.

As Christie put it, “I think that because it was so deeply personal and it was about who we are, I wanted to allow students the opportunity to think really expansively. … I had had the opportunity to collect the data and understand how my students were performing. Which then opened up the space for this project to be truly expressive without the confines of an evaluation from me.”

Leading up to the teaching artist experience, students chose the medium that they wanted to explore. Then they connected with a teaching artist for a 45 minute workshop: Rajnii Eddins for spoken word poetry; Max Jennings, a teacher and Moth Grand Slam winner, for oral story telling; or Allison Treston, an art teacher at the school, for visual arts. Students started their projects during the workshops and then used one work day to finish before the exhibition.

One student, Myra, seemed to agree with the non-evaluative approach:

it’s nice to do art because whatever you were doing it’s right because it is about your identity.

Myra created a collage about her identity and shared things that she had never shared at school before. “Identity is not just one thing, it is many things layered on top of each other. … I wanted other kids to learn about who I am and realize that there are parts of me that are different than what they expected.”

Bonding by performing

Though his hands were shaking beforehand, Jesse was proud to hear his story greeted by gales of laughter. He thought that the art project helped show what he had learned in a different way: “writing an essay would show what you know but telling the story we shared what we have learned about identity. The story was about our identity and an essay would just be about the unit’s identity.”

The exhibition was a powerful example of true student engagement that included emotional, intellectual, and behavioral dimensions. The event perfectly blended deeply personal expression with a public display of deep learning.

And the sense of community was palpable. Yorda noted, “I learned so much from my classmates and it was inspiring to see their passion.”

Deng shared:

My classmates gave me courage because they put out tough stuff about their lives so I thought if they can do it I can do it.

And Will captured the selflessness of a volunteer performer. “I shared my piece not for a response but just to spread awareness and positivity.”

Ready for the tough stuff

Christie’s students impressed Rajnii. He commented that “they seemed particularly primed to explore to a deeper degree issues of our identity and to connect to issues of our humanity in vibrant ways.”

In interviews, students validated Rajnii’s reflection on their readiness and eagerness to learn.

From Abby: “Kids around the world and even younger kids should learn about this because we are the future leaders. Christie and Rajnii are so important because they help us learn about ourselves and let us form our own ideas but that can help us see what we want to do more clearly.”

Yorda agreed that combatting bias should start early:

Young people should learn it so they can teach others. It’s easier to learn when you’re young so you don’t have as many bad biases in your brain yet.

And it’s not just preparation for a far-away future. Many students emphasized how they feel empowered to make change now, through art or otherwise. Brianna observed, “children are not just people who learn something and put it in their mind and put it away, they are ready to think about what’s happening and do something about it.” Zina added, “we might be young but we can make a difference.”

Young adolescents can certainly have an impact, if they are given the knowledge and the opportunity.

Where to start

Christie’s main suggestion for educators who want to help students learn about identity and equity is to look inward first. “Start with self and return to self early and often. And so as much as I am reading about Critical Race Theory, as a white woman I’m reading about whiteness. Understanding what it means to deconstruct the system of whiteness. Not just my White racial identity but the system of whiteness from within myself and within the greater system and world that I move between and around.”

For White educators in particular who want to start by looking inward:

Here are some resources for anybody interested in moving this direction:

Be gentle with yourself

Christie recommends working in community with others to learn together and care for each other.

One of the things I think I’ve learned in this work is if I think I’ve got it right I don’t. So the closer I am to being convinced that I am doing it in the right way probably the farther I am from doing it right. … a lot of this involves being able to sit in your discomfort and the mess that is trying to undo hundreds of years of systemic racism. Find communities of practice and and folks who are willing to hold one another lovingly accountable. It gets really hard and if you don’t know who those people are.

Christie adds that she is available to connect. “I’m always excited to meet people who are willing to do this work. I think that that is what keeps me going and give me faith and hope. I love meeting other educators who despite how challenging this could be understand that it’s the most important thing that we can do.”

There is a movement afoot in Vermont and beyond to bring these critical conversations into schools. Classrooms like Christie’s show that learning about social identity is not just possible but essential for young adolescents.

How will you and your students learn about social identity and equity?

Using protocols for equity

So, maybe you’ve been using protocols at faculty meetings or professional learning community sessions.  Perhaps you’ve found that they make space for all voices in conversations about proficiency-based education.  Or you like how they foster collaboration as you work together to structure personalized learning plans.  Know what else they can do?  Support us as we have the toughest conversations of all: those focused on equity.

In fact, the mission of the School Reform Initiative, whose protocols and structures I use regularly, is all about equity.

First, let’s make sure we have a common meaning of equity.

The National Equity Project defines it this way:

Educational equity means that each child receives what he or she needs to develop to his or her full academic and social potential.

They go on to say that working towards equity means:

Ensuring equally high outcomes for all participants in our educational system; removing the predictability of success or failures that currently correlates with any social or cultural factor

Interrupting inequitable practices, examining biases, and creating inclusive multicultural school environments for adults and children

Discovering and cultivating the unique gifts, talents and interests that every human possesses.

Protocols, facilitated well, provide structure to do this crucial work. They are workhorses that help schools identify their shortcomings in creating structures that produce “high outcomes for all” students. A well thought out protocol session makes space for unearthing assumptions, uncovering biases, and exposing inequitable practices and policies. And protocols can help us fine-tune our work so that we are increasingly able to help every learner reach their full potential.

Let’s begin to explore some of the ways we can use protocols to create more equitable schools for all Vermont students. We’ll start by using structures to examine texts about equity.

Time for a disclaimer:

At the bottom of every School Reform Initiative protocol is written the following statement:

Facilitating a protocol is more than executing a series of steps.  Sure, protocols look like recipes, but not everyone is a good cook!  I encourage you to get trained in facilitation or work with a trained facilitator to select and use protocols well.  Poorly facilitated protocol sessions can sour a faculty on protocols for good!  And it is almost never the protocol’s fault, rather it is the result of sloppy or ill-conceived facilitation.

Interested in getting trained as a facilitator? Learn more here.

… and a word about fidelity.

When I train facilitators we often talk about facilitating with fidelity. New facilitators often take that to mean that they have to time each step to the second, be rigid about moving on, and control the entire process with precision.  It often takes a lot of practice before their understanding deepens.

That word, “fidelity”, always takes me back to my days as an undergraduate when I took an art history course. Specifically, I think of the van Eyck painting “Arnolfini Wedding”, with its small dog in the foreground. That little pooch, according to my professor, symbolizes fidelity. When I facilitate I think of my own pup, Charlie!

Charlie ponders protocols for equity

He is loyal beyond a doubt, but he is not awfully obedient. He barks at strangers, would rather run to greet a friend then listen to my command to stay, and finds every opportunity to roll in stinky substances.  And yet, he is my best hiking partner, my most devoted friend. He seems to know that his true purpose isn’t compliance or aesthetics, but love.

I am reminded, each time I facilitate with fidelity, to be like Charlie: to be faithful to the intentions of the protocol session first and foremost. While I follow each step (these structures are designed deliberately!), I sometimes add a little extra time if not everyone has had the opportunity to speak or I build in a little space for thinking.  I remember why we are doing what we are doing and use the protocol to serve that purpose.

One more thing before we get started: NORMS!

Conversations about equity are challenging, and while the structure of a protocol helps, they only work when a group also has agreed on a way of behaving together.  Shared norms or agreements help create a culture that can sustain difficult conversations.  As Elena Aguilar says,

Norms cultivate trust and safety.  They exist to prevent unhealthy conflict from mushrooming, to guide our behavior, and, most important, to help us do whatever it is we’ve decided to do as a team.

I’ve found the Four Agreements for Courageous Conversations to be especially effective at helping teams engage in equity work:

  • Stay engaged
  • Experience discomfort
  • Speak your truth
  • Expect and accept non-closure

This video is a great way to introduce these agreements and explore their deeper meaning. I generally add an additional agreement:

  • Honor confidentiality

Vermont educator Rhiannon Kim has adapted these to create some amazing meeting norms for creating spaces for doing equity work.  Whatever norms you use, take time to review them at the beginning of the meeting and debrief them at the end.

Using protocols to explore texts about equity

Using protocols to explore texts is a good place to start. They provide the structure many groups need to stay focused on a reading and to push us to deeper meaning-making. When paired with an equity-focused text, they can lead to a shared understanding and transform school practices.

The Text Rendering Protocol is a great entry point.  Use it to examine a short piece to prime the pump on what equity even means in schools.  Equity in Education: Where To Begin?, for example, can help a faculty build some common ground on the subject.  At the end of the session you’ll have a list of phrases and words that seem especially important when considering this topic.

Protocols often ask us to slow down in order to learn from a text

The Four A’s Text Protocol is one of my very favorites because it encourages us to be aspirational. You might use it to discuss Equity Literacy for All with a group of colleagues.  The protocol will ask you to identify the assumptions the author holds, find places of agreement, look for places you might argue with the author (or ask a question), and finally find something to aspire to or act upon. It’s a fabulous way to learn more about equity literacy and commit to some action.

Consider using the Making Meaning Protocol as a way to examine Best Practices for Serving LGBTQ Students.  This structure will help you take time to understand the text and its significance before considering its implications for your school.

Perhaps you are ready to discuss racial or class equity

Some Vermont educators have been reading Ali Michael’s What White Children Need to Know About Race.  The Save the Last Word for Me protocol can allow educators to deepen their understanding of this challenging text while listening to other’s perspectives and sharing their own. I guarantee this article will spark new thinking! You can follow it up with a discussion of What is White Privilege, Really?, using the same protocol or trying out another one.

One of our most challenging jobs as educators is to interrogate our own biases. Paul Gorski’s piece Five Stereotypes About Poor Families and Education provides an opportunity to jumpstart that work. Using the Three Levels of Text Protocol can allow participants to explore the implications of his research to their own teaching practice.

Take your PLC to the next level

These same protocols could be used to discuss content focused articles like The Courage to Teach Hard History, Just Science, Seeing Themselves in Books, or Solving Problems Beyond Math Class in a professional learning community.  The possibilities are endless! All you need is some time, attention, and a community to stretch your thinking.

Collaboration is a practice

As we strive to make Vermont schools more equitable places that provide rich opportunities for every learner, we need all of the help we can get.  Protocols are a powerful tool for fostering the conversations that will help us get there.  But, just like anything worth doing, they require practice!  When we engage in facilitated dialogues with purpose and intention, we build our collective capacity to recognize and address inequities in action, one conversation at a time.

#vted Reads: Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty

In this episode of #vted Reads, I return to my old stomping grounds at Green Mountain Union High School. I’m talking with school counselor Ally Oswald, about the realities of reaching and teaching students in poverty. Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty is also the title of a 2013 book by educator and reformer Paul Gorski. And we’re going to use Gorski’s text to identify some concrete strategies to help us, as educators, move from wishful thinking to direct action. Our students need us, and we all know they’re worth it.

So let’s roll up our sleeves and figure it out.

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: I am Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads. We are here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today, I’m with Ally Oswald. We’ll be talking about Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty: Strategies for Erasing the Opportunity Gap by Paul Gorski. Thanks for joining me, Ally. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Ally: Thanks, Jeanie. It’s great to be here. I’m a school counselor here at Green Mountain in Southern Vermont. I’ve been here for about 10 or 12 years now. My husband is an educator in the building. My two sons come to school here so, this is really a family affair.

We’ve been reading this book as part of a group of teachers from our district, as a study group. We meet once a month and discuss a chapter. It’s really helped me learn about the wealth gap. To learn about how we think about students in poverty. The stereotypes that get associated with families and really question my own practices. It’s been really great to be a part of that group.

How poverty shows up in Vermont schools

Jeanie: You are the perfect guest then for us to dig into this book and think about what action it calls to us in our Vermont schools. Thank you so much for joining me.

So, Paul Gorski begins this book by dispelling the myth that public education is a great equalizer. He says, that’s what we want it to be, but that’s not how it works out. And sighting just countless research, he begins with this,

Students from poor families continue to be subject, on average, to what Jonathan Kozol has called the savage inequalities of schooling. The examples of these inequalities are numerous. Poor students are assigned disproportionately to the most inadequately funded schools with the largest class sizes and lowest paid teachers. They are more likely than their wealthiest peers to be bullied and to attend school in poorly maintained buildings. They are denied access to the sorts of school resources and opportunities other children take for granted, such as dedicated school nurses, well-stocked school libraries, and engaging pedagogies. In fact, by these and almost every other possible measure, students from poor families, the ones most desperate to find truth in the “great equalizer” promise, appear to pay a great price for their poverty, even at school. Of course, these conditions are not the fault of teachers, who are often are blamed unjustly for their effects. In fact, teachers who teach at high-poverty schools, as well as an increasing number of their colleagues at all public schools, too often are themselves denied access to adequate resources.

I wondered Ally, as a school counselor in Vermont School, do you see this playing out in your experience? That schools are being blamed for the effects of poverty over which they have no control.

Ally: Yes. I mean, I think it’s really interesting here in rural Vermont, because there’s not a whole lot of coordination of services between towns and so, schools become the community centers. They become the hub where people come to expect services. Expect food and clothing. The schools are the one place where we can provide those services, because we have access to families. We have access to students and we do have the funding to do that.

I worry about our students in poverty here in Vermont. Especially because housing is so hard to find. Long term housing is so hard to find. I think that students often have to leave schools and transition to different schools. That really gets in the way of their learning.

It just seems to be present all the time. As I’m sitting with students in my office and I’m reading this book, I keep seeing evidence where poverty is getting in the way of students being successful in school. Things like when kids are being evicted from their home, that’s definitely a stressor. When kids don’t have access to food, that’s definitely a stressor.

Health care, I had a student tell me that their parents had to decide whether they’re going to get their wisdom teeth pulled. If they were going to do that, they were going to have to sell their car, or dad was going to have to lose his second job because their family was making too much money to on Dr. Dinosaur. These things are present all the time in our Vermont schools.

Jeanie: Right. While teachers can be there for students in so many ways, we can’t make sure kids get adequate health care.

Ally:  Yes.

I think that’s what great about this book is that it allows us to understand sort of the full spectrum of how these injustices sort of reoccur both in and out of school for families.

Our job as taking care of kids like, we just have to be aware that these things are at play. At least we can’t perpetuate these stereotypes and these biases that we have. We work to serve kids and remove these obstacles and remove these barriers.

Jeanie: Yes. So, let’s get into that.

Ally: Yes.

The transformative power of educators

Jeanie: The mission of Gorski’s book is really to expand our capacity to teach for class equity, as he says. He starts with a really awesome quote. I thought I’d ask if you could read it. In my book, it’s on page five.

Ally: He writes,

I also wrote it because I believe in the transformative power of educators, perhaps not always as the frontline people in the struggle to end global poverty (at least not on their own), but as people committed enough to walk into classrooms and schools full of students, dedicated to do the right thing by each of them despite all the challenges.

Jeanie: We see you, teachers. We know that you want to do right by kids. We just want to honor you at the very start of this. Even as we’re digging into things we might do differently or ask you to look at differently, we see you and your vision to be there for kids. To help every kid learn.

Ally:  Schools are full of educators who care and want nothing but the best for these kids despite what kids actually think what their teachers think about them.

I have yet to meet educators who don’t want the best for these kids. So, I really believe in the power of educators coming together and understanding these issues deeply and working towards solutions.

Jeanie: Yes. I have yet to meet an educator who doesn’t work their butt off for kids, who doesn’t work so super hard. We just want to honor you from the beginning. I think Gorski does that too. He sees you and knows that you work hard and that you love kids. So, here we go. Let’s see what he’s asking us to think about.

Starting with definitions

Gorski really begins this book with definitions. He defines poverty and working class, middle class. He goes through all these different terms. I was really struck by this. I think we throw around terms like poverty and middle class, right, without really thinking about what they mean.

There are always these studies out for years now in the paper that say, “Most people see themselves as middle class even if they aren’t.” It’s like we all sort of put ourselves in that middle class bucket. I found it really interesting that Gorski starts with definitions and what he means in this book in order to be more precise.

Ally:  Yes. To really clarify who the injustices are happening to. How it’s been designed and framed in the last 30 years in terms of politics. I think that really plays into how we fund things and how we make decisions about policies. All of those things.

Language is important.

He talks about how important language is in his text and framing the language.

Jeanie: Yes. We’re going to get to that more because he talks about a strength-based approach to language too. I just found this so interesting because it’s really easy to be unclear. That causes like obfuscation, right? If we’re unclear, then what are we really talking about.

It’s really nice that he starts this book with some real clarity about what he means when he says working class,  and middle class. He talks about the owning class. He talks about wealth in ways that are different than I’ve seen in other places. I just appreciated his frankness about that.

… and numbers

Ally:  Can I point out some statistics?

Jeanie: Yes, please.

Ally: Is that okay?

Jeanie: Yes.

Ally: I’m going to turn to page 41 in my copy.*

A record 47 million people in the United States live in poverty, about 15% of the population. Actually, that figure is based on that government standard for poverty line income we explored earlier, which is, for example, $24,600 for a family of four. Another 30 million are living just above the poverty line, in constant danger of dipping below it. That’s 77 million people at or near the poverty line in the United States alone.

I just think it’s really important to know that the poverty line in the United States is $24,600 for a family of four. I don’t know about you, but my family of four is struggling to get by on quite a bit more than that. So, I’m wondering why these numbers are these numbers. Who benefits from the numbers being this low?

The fact that we have another 30 million people living just above that line and are constantly in danger. He talks about us being an emergency visit away from poverty.

Jeanie: Yes. I don’t know many educators living a lush life either, right?

Ally: Right.

Jeanie: On their salaries and yet, we are as educators formally in the middle class. Even if we weren’t middle class growing up, we’re middle class now by virtue of being educators. Yet, most educators I know have to take second jobs or think about how to make ends meet.

Unequal access

Ally: He talks about how poverty… so, in public schools, we say that everybody has equal access to things, right? But, when we talk about wealth. Kids actually don’t have equal access, right? Every summer program that my kids are signing up for, costs money, right? I’m fortunately in a place and I have family who can help pay for those things.

But, my kids are learning math this summer at camps. So, of course, they’re going to come in better prepared next year. Other kids don’t have access to those kinds of camps. I think VSAC in our State does a great job of trying to reach out and provide services for kids who are first generation and who fall in this poverty line. But, like what I just said, that $24,600 annual income, if that’s our basis, then we’re missing out on a whole lot of kids who need some extra supports.

Jeanie: Yes, absolutely. In that way, just like some families are just missing out on Dr. Dinosaur. You know, Ally? This isn’t in the book, but it makes me think about lately the news has been full of talk about how the economy is so strong.

I’ve got to tell you, every time Marketplace comes on NPR, I turn it off because I’m a little ticked off that our measure of economic success is all wrapped up in the owning class, as Gorski would refer to them, and how much they’ve traded stocks. Like if our measure is only in the Dow.

I want us to measure economic progress by how many children are living in poverty.

I want to know the number of kids who went without a meal on an average day as a measure of economic success. And I want to know how many families had to make really tough choices between medicine and food. Like, I want our measures of economic success to not be wrapped up in the owning class, but to be wrapped up in the working poor.

Ally: And the number of jobs that are available. I keep hearing that that number is so low right now. It’s because people are working two or three jobs to get by. That’s not the measure of how successful we’re doing.

Quite frankly, we’re not taking good care of our children right now. We need to invest money in feeding our kids, in providing preschool, education for our kids.

We’re here to talk about the book. I’m not going to go on a political rant, but this book helps me see these small injustices that happen every day, right?

Kids can’t… our food service people do a great job getting people access to food here on campus, but the fact that a family has to fill out a form to get access to free food. Why aren’t we just feeding every kid? Why do they have to… he talks about showing their poverty or… I forgot the word he uses now, but I’ll see if I can find it.

But, we’re asking kids to like present their poverty for food. Let’s just feed everybody. What’s the harm in that? How much would that really cost us? I’m sure that we can find money to feed kids in schools, right?

Jeanie: Yes. It’s like demonstrating your poverty.

Ally: Yes.

The Equity Literacy Framework

Jeanie: Yes. I’m sure we can talk about this for a long time. I actually think that Gorski’s point is that we have to act up in society if we want equitable conditions in schools. We’ll talk about that as we begin to delve in to the equity literacy framework that Gorski outlines.

I really want to spend some time on this. Let’s do a pair reading Ally. I’ll read one and you read two, et cetera. Because there are four abilities of equity literacy. The first ability is:

the ability to Recognize both subtle and not-so-subtle biases and inequities in classroom dynamics, school cultures and policies, and the broader society, and how these biases and inequities affect students and their families

Ally:  It’s recognizing these small injustices that are happening.

Jeanie: Yes. What’s number two?

Ally:  It’s about responding.

the ability to Respond to biases and inequities in the immediate term

He says, it’s having the skill and will to call it out when you see it happening in schools.

Jeanie: Yes. Number three is:

the ability to Redress biases and inequities in a longer term, so that they do not continue to crop up in classrooms in schools

Not only do we have to recognize them and respond right in our classroom in the moment, we’ve got to figure out what’s causing them.

Ally:  Right. Understand where it’s coming from and change the system. Like, consciously find solutions that solve the problem and not further perpetuate the inequities.

Jeanie: Yes. Number four?

Ally:  Number four is:

the ability to Create and Sustain a bias-free and equitable learning environment

Doesn’t that sound amazing?

Jeanie: It sounds amazing. It sounds aspirational.

Ally: It does.

Jeanie: I think that you and I both saw Paul Gorski speak at a School Reform Initiative Fall Meeting. I’m not sure if it was the same one, but this is reminding me of a story that you and I both love from one of those fall meetings.

Pulling babies out of a river

The story was this, there’s a person standing by a river. They start seeing these babies coming down the river. First one baby, so they pulled the baby out of the water. Then, another baby floats down the river and they pull that baby out of the water. Then, another baby, and they pull that baby out of the water. The person with them goes running off, “Wait, wait, where are you going?” There are all of these babies, right?

The person that runs off said, “I’m going to find out how come these babies are getting into the river in the first place.” In a way, number three redress biases and inequities in a long term, is about figuring out why the babies are in the river in the first place. I know that story resonated for you because I know you as a school counselor feel like you’re yanking babies out of the river.

Ally: I do.

I feel so helpless in this current system to be able to provide what children need.

Nothing is more frustrating in my job than… I get to know kids and be with kids through really tough times. I feel like that’s something that I do really well. I’m proud of the fact that I can sit with kids in their grief and in their struggles.

But it would be so satisfying to find ways to help them not feel like their suffering so much. To find solutions so that they aren’t ashamed of their lives. So that they feel empowered to become these amazing people that they are. I want them to see that.

Jeanie: I wanted to be able to unpack the equity literacy framework. I wondered if you would play along with me. I chose an example that’s a little easier than poverty, that I think is a little clearer. I’m going to lay out a situation, a scenario if you will. Let’s see if we can figure out what it would look like to use these four abilities to get underneath of it.

Ally: Okay.

Applying the Equity Literacy Framework to school dress codes

Jeanie: Here’s my scenario. It comes from real life. This is not made up. When I was a librarian here at Green Mountain, I heard… this is actually not unique to Green Mountain actually. I would suggest almost every school in Vermont probably has this same issue and across that country.

I would often hear kids, female kids, girls talk about the dress code. They were really annoyed by the dress code. I would hear some girls say, “Oh well, if you’re skinny, you can get away with dress code violations, but if you’ve got a little flesh on you, you can’t.” Or I would hear, “None of the boys ever get called down for dress code violations. If they do, they just have to turn their shirt inside out because it has something on it.”

So, I would guess, that if we looked at dress code violation data in almost any school in Vermont it is disproportionately affecting girls.

If we go through this framework, the ability to recognize both subtle and not so subtle bias, what do we see?

Ally: Yes, I think we see girls in half-tops who are getting called down because they are a distraction to other people, right? They are a distraction to boys or other adults in the room. We’re not really… the first recognition is that, that’s sort of unjust. She’s not responsible for the distractions that are happening in the classroom.

Jeanie: Yes. When my son was in middle school many years ago now. A lot of the boys in his class tried to get called out for dress code violations and couldn’t. Meanwhile, girls were shopping at the stores available to them, buying the clothes available to them and they couldn’t wear them to school.

In order to meet the dress code regulations at his middle school, those girls had to go buy clothes at like, old lady shops. Shops that I shop at, right? Not fashionable teenager wear.

It was almost impossible sometimes, especially the short requirement. That the shorts had to be longer than your fingertips. Pity that poor tall girl with the long arms and the long legs, right? She always ended up in the office for a dress code violation. These were often families who had money to go buy clothes. Imagine how challenging it is if your wardrobe is limited because of the income of your family.

Ally: I would say that this is… there’s also an unjust piece to this about kids in poverty because I often see the kids who are well off or who are popular, well put together wearing real skimpy stuff and nobody calls them out. Where it’s a red flag if one of the kids who often gets in trouble, who might be a little bit on the larger size, who is more noticeable as a student on… at somebody’s radar gets called out more often for it than the kids who are well behaved in our school. I think that that’s unjust as well.

Jeanie: Yes.

I call that the red sports car, having been the mother of a red sports car. The red sports car gets more speeding tickets because it’s more visible.

We do have those kids who stand out and get in trouble because then they have a reputation for getting in trouble. We unjustly call them out for wearing the same thing that somebody else is wearing.

There’s all sorts of ways we can recognize both subtle and not so subtle bias about who’s getting called out. I would say just the disproportionate number of girls that get called out for dress code violation should be a flashing red light that says something’s wrong with our policy if only girls are getting in trouble.

Then, if we move on to set two, the ability to respond to biases and inequities in the immediate term as they crop up in classrooms and schools.

Ally: This is a hard part, Jeanie. This is where I am struggling to find the courage to do this. It’s in those everyday moments when we’re talking as teachers about… well, those parents just don’t care. They won’t take time to come meet and talk about their kid. I think we all know these moments when they happen where they are cringe worthy and I let them slide.

This is about not letting them slide. It’s about having the skill to say… actually, parents of students in poverty care just as much about their kid’s futures as kids from their wealthier peers. Having the skill and will to call it out.

Jeanie: Yes. I also didn’t take a very courageous tack. Now that I’m no longer employed by a school, I can honestly say that my response to what I deemed as sexist dress codes was just to ignore kids’ clothing. Like, I didn’t call. I never once reported a kid for a dress code violation. Because I felt like the policy was not worthy of being implemented. Not a very courageous move. Not really a response that changed anything, but that was my response.

Now, if I could go back and have a do-over, I might respond differently. I might actually seek out and get a group of girls to go with me to the principal’s office and say, “Hey, let’s have a look at this dress code. Let’s talk about it.”

Ally:  And really get to the root of what the problem is.

Who is affected? How are they affect… what is the problem? I feel like in education so often we go and thinking, making all kinds of assumptions about what’s at play and putting a band-aid on things. Instead of really deeply looking at and figuring out what the problem is.

Then, practical solutions to that problem.

Jeanie: This is an example I think where band-aids are prevalent because I remember a staff meeting here at Green Mountain about the dress code. One of the things that I think we can all agree on is that not one of us wants our young women to be preyed upon by predators outside of this building.

Like, we’re genuinely concerned for their safety. So we want them to dress appropriately so, they don’t draw that kind of attention to themselves and that they don’t get in trouble. That’s a legitimate concern for kids that we don’t want them to get hurt.

But unfortunately, what we’re demonizing is girl’s bodies instead of a culture that preys on young women and that’s really problematic when we make girls feel like their bodies are shameful or should be hidden when the real problem is elsewhere.

I remember having that conversation. I remember feeling like… obviously, I don’t want these girls to be assaulted. I also want them to feel free in their bodies.

Ally:  Mm-hmm. And feel good about themselves.

Jeanie: Yes.

Ally:  And powerful, right?

Jeanie: And powerful. That gets us to that next ability.

The ability to redress bias and inequities in the longer term. This is where I feel like activism about rape culture and calling out that women are not responsible if men and boys are distracted by their bodies. That women have a right to their own bodies. That their bodies are their own. Men too, by the way, your bodies are your own too.

Ally:     Yes.

Jeanie: So, that gets to that. This is where I think Gorski is asking us really to step up beyond what’s in our control in our classrooms and schools and address larger societal problems. Because they show up so often in our schools, right? So rape culture shows up in schools. Even if it doesn’t originate in schools.

Ally:  Right.

Advocating for young people

Jeanie: Yes. It’s complicated. He asks us in a way to be political. To be engaged. To be advocates for young people beyond our schools.

Ally: Yes. He does this. I wanted to talk about this at the end, but now might be a good time to talk about it. I’m going to turn to page 87. One of the things that was really helpful for me in understanding, I think I had a really narrow window of what it meant to live in poverty. But, in this chapter, I think… I forget what chapter it is.

He talks about how… it’s chapter six. Class inequities beyond school walls and why they matter at school. So, he helps us… even though we may not be able to change things about food, and housing, and access to medical care, we need to understand that those things are intertwined, right?


As we strengthen our equity literacy, we begin to see how these disparities are the result of structural disadvantages.

He talks about livable wage jobs with benefits, health care, adequate and healthy food, stable affordable quality housing, healthy living and working environments, recreation and fitness options, community and social services, quality child care, cognitive enrichment resources and a validating and bias-free society.

Jeanie: That’s a tall order.

Ally:   We can do it, Jeanie. I know we can. But when we’re talking about creating and sustaining equitable ways of living and creating educational opportunities for kids that are free of bias. He’s really talking about these things. These things that are outside of our realm of control. It is bigger than us and we have a responsibility.

Building our Equity Literacy muscles

Jeanie:  I love how he started with, “As we strengthen our equity literacy skills.” This idea that this is a muscle. That these four steps recognize response, redress, create and sustain feel like a lot.

But, we can start just with recognizing. Then, we can recognize and respond, right? We can slowly build up this muscle like, we would a muscle at the gym, right? We can slowly practice this until we become stronger and stronger.

It starts with just being able to see the inequities that are present for our students.

Ally:     I’m going to tell you a story about fall meeting this year. I was at the School Reform Initiative’s Fall Meeting. I was facilitating a small group. It was educators from across the country at all levels who are really interested in this particular conversation, talking about race and inequities around race.

We met and we were all on the same page. Paul Gorski has a second book that’s called Case Studies on Diversity and Social Justice Education, by Paul Gorski and Seema Pothini. In this book, they outline actual case scenarios from school around bias and inequities.

With that group, we started reading three of these. We sat in different groups. We read three and processed what would you do in this scenario?

One was about a student with a physical disability and a field trip. Getting access to the learning that other kids were doing on that field trip when a state park is not allowing a student to go on a particular trail.

We were practicing that muscle. When we were debriefing that, people in the room were like, “Oh my god! I thought I knew. Like, just because I believe in justice doesn’t mean I can call it out and change it.”

It’s so confusing, it’s so murky. What’s the right thing to do in the moment? And then how do I respond. I have to take care of this kid who doesn’t have access. I have to deal with the parents.

Like, there’s so many layers to this that I think it is really good to find a group of people and practice these things with and keep talking about it and thinking about it because there’s no simple solution.

Teachers as life-long learners

Jeanie: Yes. This just makes me think about how as educators, we have to constantly be learners. So many of our schools right now are sort of engaged in some sort of learning around trauma-informed practice. We’re doing work on proficiency. We have to constantly be learners. Our students are changing, but this is just another way in which we have to keep learning. Keep getting better. But we can, we can get better.

Ally:  It’s for the benefit for our kids. We want to do better.

We don’t want to hold the stereotypes in our brains and in our hearts.

Educators want kids to be successful. It’s worth it if we can start to explore sort of all these things that we hold to be true in ourselves.

Jeanie: There’s another way in which we can have our students help us with this work too. Christie Nold is doing amazing work where she has kids recognizing bias into her classroom, in the books they read.

There’s a school library in Ottaquechee which is engaging students in finding, doing an audit of the library collection to find bias and redress bias.

Our students can be our partners in this work, but also we need to be doing this work.

10 principles of equity literacy

As if these four abilities weren’t enough, Gorski also outlines ten principles of equity literacy that all seem really important. We don’t have time to talk about all ten, but I wondered if you wanted to talk about one that is especially meaningful to you in your work.

Ally:  Yes, I think I’d like to talk about number five.

What we believe about people experiencing poverty informs how we teach, interact with, and advocate (or fail to advocate) for them.

One of the truths that he explores over and over in this book is that the most powerful change a teacher can make or the most powerful learning that we can have is this recognition that we hold stereotypes about people of poverty. We have those and we need to challenge those. We need to look at those and understand them so that we can challenge them.

Because the biggest shift that can happen for educators is if we do this. If we believe in students experiencing poverty and have high expectations for them. Believe in their power, then we can help them be successful.

He talks about no amount of professional development, no books, or number of pencils you provide is a substitute for shifting your beliefs about students in poverty.

Jeanie: Yes. It’s like starting with your heart before you move to your head. I’ve been thinking a lot about how in education we try to shift practice without shifting beliefs. This is really important. What we believe in our hearts shows up in our bodies, in our heads, in our brains, right? Comes out of our mouth.

Ally:  Right.

Jeanie: So, we have to believe that all students can learn. We have to believe that all students are doing their best. That makes a huge difference. That really resonates for me.

Number eight. These all stand out for me. But number eight, I think ties in really… these all tie in together too. In my book it says,

Equitable educators adopt a resiliency rather than a deficit view of low-income students and families.

Equity illiterate educators recognize and draw upon the resiliencies and other funds of knowledge accumulated by poor and working class individuals and communities and reject deficit views that focus on fixing disenfranchised students rather than fixing the things that disenfranchise students.

For me, this is all about shifting my language from a deficit-based vocabulary to a strengths-based vocabulary. That is constant work. I think I used to use words like, I think I used to refer to students in ways that I thought was really sensitive to them, but actually was further marginalizing them, right?

So, I tried to change my language to be more strength-based. That ties in with what I believe. It helps me more adequately express what I believe and also shifts what I believe when I use a different language.

So, the title of this book is a perfect example. For years, we’ve heard about the achievement gap. Kids of color are not achieving at the same level as white kids. Kids in poverty are not achieving at the same level.

When we call it achievement gap, then we’re blaming the kids or their families. When we call it an opportunity gap, the implications of having different opportunities, a gap in opportunities if you’re poor turns that on its head.

Ally: Right. It completely shifts your thinking when you change the language and you frame it a different way.

Jeanie: Yes.

Ally:  He does that with the term generational poverty. We have this term generational poverty that we often use. He changes it to “generational injustice.” So generations of people having their lands taken away. Having their rights stripped. Not allowing access to purchasing things, purchasing land, owning land.

How you talk about things matters.

Do you mind if I find that place in the book?

Jeanie: Go ahead. I would love for you to share that. I think words do matter. Generational poverty makes it sound like we’re passing poverty down, right? Like, this is your inheritance. I was poor, so now, you’re poor. Generational injustice points to what’s really happened, that systems have made it impossible for certain groups of people to accumulate wealth.


Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty. Photo from the book with the quote: "...generational poverty always seemed to me to be a deficit suggestion: the idea that poverty is a result of a set of cultures, behaviors, and attitudes reproduced in families experiencing poverty and passed down from generation to generation."

Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty. Photo of the book with this quote: "What if, instead of talking about generational poverty, we talk about generational injustice? How would it change the way we defined, understood, responded to, and redressed the problem? Suddenly, we’re not looking at poverty as a personal or cultural failure focusing on how deficit mindsets are passed from generation to generation. But instead, examining how policies, practices, and institutions marginalize generation after generation of some families and communities."


Jeanie: Thank you for sharing that. That really speaks to me about a question that I… you know I ‘m very fond of questions. A question that I often… that sits in my tool kit for equity is this question of… especially around policy is, is this policy trying to fix people?

Because if the answer is yes, it’s likely an inequitable or inadequate policy, right? Is this program trying to fix people?

If we’re trying to fix people, we’re part of the problem, right? What we need to do is fix systems.

As long as we’re focused on fixing people, we’re avoiding or ignoring the real problem which is systemic inequities, systemic biases that create the disenfranchisement, that create the inequities that show up. That really shines up my question for me and make me think about it more. About how that question can be used as we’re designing policy or procedures in schools.

Ally: He also says, and I agree with him when he says, that students know. Students know if you’re pitying them. They know if it’s a band-aid. They know if it’s really getting to the root of the problem or if it’s unjust. If you wonder about that, if you just ask kids like what’s going on? They’ll tell you.

Jeanie: Yes. Nobody wants to be fixed. Don’t tell me I’m broken, don’t pity me, don’t try to change me. Change the systems that create the inequities that make it hard for me. Yes, thank you for that.

Dismantling the myths of the culture of poverty

Gorski spends a whole chapter dismantling the myths of the culture of poverty.

Ally: And really addressing those stereotypes that are common stereotypes of families in poverty.

Jeanie: That section, in particular, you and I, that’s also posted as an article online. That section that dispels common stereotypes about poor families. That’s a really powerful section. You and I have used that in a Collaborative Practices course we co-facilitate to help people look at bias that they have unconsciously held.

We found that to be really painful in a lot of cases for our teachers who are like, “Oh, shoot! I had no idea.” Painful but fruitful that teachers are really having to scrutinize their own beliefs in ways that can be really uncomfortable.

I wondered if you wanted to talk about a particular stereotype that stands out for you from that section.

Ally:  I actually am reluctant to read any of these stereotypes because I think they perpetuate, they further perpetuate the story.

What I got out of this chapter is sort of understanding where stereotypes come from. That there’s an inside group and an outside group. Often stereotypes come from an outside group. They don’t come from the people who are experiencing those things.

All you need is a hint of truth for people to buy into it.

I’m going to read this part at the top of page 72.

we tend to require less evidence, and less accurate evidence, to convince us of the legitimacy of a stereotype about a group to which we do not belong then we require to convince us of a stereotype about a group to which we do belong. Social psychologists have referred to this phenomenon as in-group bias…

Jeanie: Yes. So, it’s who gets to call the shots. Who gets to decide?

Ally: Right.

Jeanie: It’s about power.

Ally: It’s about power. It’s less about what’s true and what’s not true.

When you hear Paul Gorski speak, he has this quiz that he makes you take. So, those questions are sort of jaw-dropping about… I even think he lists them in here. About the things that we believed to be true.

Photo from the book: Poverty Awareness Quiz
Click or tap to enlarge.


Jeanie: Yes. He calls on us again and again to evaluate those things we believe to be true. He throws a ton of research at us. This book has so many parenthetical citations that it exhausts me a little bit.

The one that stopped me in my tracks when I first read it and that I still struggle with is this idea about linguistic deficiency.

For me, the reason is that I grew up working poor. My family to this day does not speak with Standard American English grammar and syntax. They say words that embarrass me. “Ain’t” probably being the least embarrassing of them, but the way they talk is not the way that I talk.

What I love about Gorski is that he cites so much research that just made me have to rethink my thinking about that. He says,

Linguists roundly reject this superior/inferior dichotomy. Some call it “standard language ideology” in reference to the presumptuous and familiar term “standard English.” According to Kathryn Woolard and Bambi Schieffelin,  “Moral indignation over nonstandard forms [of language] derives from ideological associations of the standard with the qualities valued within the culture, such as clarity or truthfulness.” In fact, since at least the early 1970s linguists have bemoaned the ways of which students are taught to misunderstand the nature of language, including the false dichotomy of “correct/proper” and “incorrect/improper” language varieties.

In linguistic reality, all variations of a language and all dialects, from what some people call “Black English Vernacular” to the Appalachian English spoken by my grandma are highly structured, with their own sets of grammatical rules.

This notion that we have, that when kids speak in their home vernacular, they are less intelligent. That shows up for me. Like, I hold that bias and I have to work hard against it.

Ally:   I think as educators were in a unique position too because it’s not to say, “This is the only way to do it.”

We can say, “When you are writing a resume, when you’re applying for a job, when you’re writing an email to your boss, this is the way communication happens. In other circles, in other places, this is also powerful language and it’s still valued.

Jeanie: Yes. You said that so well. Folks, I’m going to pull us back to a more hopeful place. Because Gorski asked us to do all this hard work to look at ourselves really closely and the biases we hold. To work on recognizing bias in action and redressing it. He’s really asking us to do a lot and it’s hard work.

But he also has this section where he points out strategies that research has shown to be effective for children living in poverty. Let’s turn to that.

Instructional strategies for equity

Jeanie: There’s some great stuff in there. There’s a great little instructional strategies that work list. Then, he digs into them a little further.

These are good for all kids. Just like good trauma-informed practices is good for all kids.

These eight strategies are great for all kids, including kids living in poverty. Would you read the list of strategies that work for all students, not just those in poverty. Then, we can talk about a couple.


Photo of book with this quote: "The equity educator has the knowledge, skills, and will to: 1. consider data humbly, responsibly and collaboratively; 2. prioritize literacy instruction across the curriculum; 3. promote literacy enjoyment; 4.  have and communicate high expectations; 5. adopt higher-order, student-centered, rigorous pedagogies 6. teach critical literacy; 7. teach about poverty, economic injustice, and class bias; 8. analyze learning materials for class (and other) bias; 9. make curricula relevant to students experiencing poverty; 10. incorporate music, art, and theater across the curriculum; 11. incorporate movement and exercise into learning."
Click or tap to enlarge.


“These strategies just sound like good teaching,” he says.

Jeanie: They are.

For me, I, of course, adore “promote literacy enjoyment.” I hate when reading is turned into a chore. I want it to be fun. As a librarian, it was really important to me that I had books that kids could enjoy. That they felt drawn to. I wanted kids to love the books that they took home, right?

Like, the come to me and say, “Oh my gosh! I love this so much.” That was like my best reward. That combines with the making curricular relevant to the lives of our students. So, it’s really important to me that whether in classrooms or in libraries, that kids be able to see themselves in books.

That means having LGBTQ+ characters in books. That means having kids of color in books. Kids who are refugees in our stories. That we have stories about kids living in poverty where it’s not just demoralizing, right? We don’t have a single story of that, exactly. That we have opportunities for kids to see all different kinds of people like themselves and not in literature and in the curriculum.

It’s super important to me. I’ll give a little shout out to a book I’m in love with right now. Ann Braden’s The Benefits of Being an Octopus. It’s a great opportunity for kids to see their strength and resilience in a character, Zoey, who is experiencing poverty and some abuse in her life.

What rings true for you out of this list?

Ally: I love the last two about incorporating music, art, and theater across curriculum and incorporate movement and exercise into learning.

I think when kids are able to be physical on their bodies that the learning sticks with them.

But, I also want to draw attention to number one. Because we can do this easily. I want to stress how important this is to educational leaders that we take time to do this. Consider data humbly, responsively, and collaboratively.

 Data doesn’t have meaning until we look at it together and make meaning together. Then, create a vision for how we want things to be. I can’t do that by myself as a school counselor. You can’t do that on your own as a librarian. We have to do this collectively.

Jeanie: I think that you’re absolutely right about that Ally. That we need to work together in community to look at data and figure out what the biases are and how to redress them. I would recommend to administrators, and teachers and leaders who are interested in doing this work the book, Solving Disproportionality and Achieving Equity.: A Leader’s Guide to Using Data to Change Hearts and Minds by Edward Fergus.

This book was recommended to me by Jillian at the School Reform Initiative. I haven’t had a chance to put it into action yet, I have a copy and it’s just like this amazing opportunity to dig deep in data. You’re right, it doesn’t have meaning until we start to make sense of it and use it for the good of our students.

Focus on relationships

I also love that you called forth the same thing that Gorski calls forth at the end of his book which is a focus on relationships, right? That we need each other to do this important work. Gorski says,

Every practical strategy in the world will not work if we treat poor and working-class youth, or their families, even in the most implicit ways as though they are broken or some lesser other.

Remember, as we learned earlier, that research has shown that who are what we choose to blame for poverty guides the policies and practices we are willing to implement. In other words, what we believe about low income students, how we relate to them is just as important as how we teach them. In fact, it plays a considerable role in determining how we teach them.

This quote really reminded me of you because having known you and worked with you for such a long time, I know that you have this gift for seeing students, really seeing them. I wondered if you wanted to talk about what that means to you.

Ally: That’s really nice, Jeanie. I think what that means to me, in my own personal work that I do. I’m part of a Courage and Renewal cohort. During that work what I’ve realized is that my… I’m only good at my job when I can show up as my full self.

When I begin to be honest about who I am, with everything that I’m awesome at and also everything that I’m not so awesome at. If I can just be fully available for kids, it’s better for them.

I think fully seeing kids is creating spaces where they too can be their honest self. They don’t have to deal with judgment. They don’t have to deal with shame. That they can be a mess, because we’re all kind of a mess.

I think the more spaces we can create, not just for kids, but for people to be their full selves, the better aligned we’ll be as a society about like what matters to us. We can sort of follow our hearts and trust. Trust the choices that we’re making. To feel powerful about changes that we need to make.

Just even in my own personal stuff, I think we all got caught up in our insecurities and feel like, “Oh, I’ll never be able to do this things.”

When we create spaces for people to explore their full selves, they start to recognize that they have a lot of power. They have a lot of skills and they’re really beautiful. They can make changes and make things happen for themselves.

Jeanie: Yes. I think that the special thing that you do, Ally, is you… by helping kids feel fully seen, they also really trust you. So, they can…so many of the ways in which kids, especially kids experiencing poverty show up in schools is to hide.

You helped them realize they don’t have to hide themselves. That they can come clean about what they need or what’s going wrong in their lives.

Ally:  But, can I tell you? It’s sort of terrifying too, right? To hold this trust in a system that doesn’t necessarily work for them. In a system that sort of feels unjust. Like I have to talk to girls about their dress code issues. I have to tell kids that college is really important, right? Like, there are all these scripts that I have as part of being in the education system. I worry about having that. It feels like a huge responsibility to hold that trust.

So, this work around equity literacy is really good for me to make that the stories that I’m… these scripts that I’m using are not holding kids back, are not further perpetuating these stereotypes.

Jeanie: Yes. You reminding me that as educators in buildings, we really have to have a two-pronged approach. Like, we do need to play by the rules of the school even as we may be behind the scenes for kids, we may be talking to administrators, to other teacher and to school boards about why those rules need to change. That we do need to uphold policies even as we’re advocating for changes in them.

Ally: I think that’s where people in the world of equity in schools sometimes get sort of chewed up a little bit is in that, in the place of those two things. Sort of ground up in the wheels of holding and creating space and upholding the principles that are in the foundations of education.

Jeanie: It’s exhausting work.

Ally:  It is, but it’s so worthwhile when you get to see students being successful in opportunities that they have.

Access and opportunities, those are what we need to focus on for kids.

That’s what Paul Gorski argues about, access and opportunities.

Jeanie: Yes. Teachers, take care of yourself. We know you’re doing so much. We hope you’re doing a little self-care as well because it’s a lot, as Ally said, it’s easy to get ground up in the wheels of this work.

There is so much more to this book. It’s a thin little book, but there is so much more that we haven’t discussed because it’s such a rich resource. Just chock-full of profound thinking and references to research. I wonder if there’s anything else you’d like to call attention to.

Ally:  I don’t think so. I had a lovely conversation with you, Jeanie. I think we covered a lot of ground.

Jeanie: Yes.

Ally:  I can’t imagine people want to listen to this. Sorry.

Jeanie: How am I supposed to respond to that? Well, I enjoyed listening to you Ally. You have so many great insights. Thank you so much for joining me on the podcast to talk about this really important book.

Ally: Yes. Thanks, Jeanie for having me.



*Ally quoted from the 2nd edition of Reaching and Teaching Students in Poverty, while I quoted from the 1st edition.

Vermont schools have a transportation equity problem.

When I travel to schools around Vermont, I hear many versions of the same concerns:

  • Going anywhere from our school costs hundreds of dollars.
  • We want to take students into the community, but we burn through our budget by October.
  • Transportation funds are running low (or are gone).
  • We know it is so important to give our students community and field experiences.
  • Technology can support this work but nothing takes the place of getting students out into the field for hands-on experiences and opportunities.

How is this supporting the promise of Act 77?

Specifically, the promise “to extend and validate learning experiences in our communities, campuses and beyond”?

It’s a complicated issue in Vermont schools, but it comes down to two things: what we know works best for students, and equity. So let’s take a look at some of the transportation equity issues Vermont schools are facing — and what a few rural educators have to say about them.

What we know works best for students,

First of all, why do middle level students need to have access to community and field experiences?

(Hint: it has to do with engagement, motivation and transferable, lifelong skills). Let educator Morgan Moore sum it up for you:

These allow authentic audiences for our students. Seventh and eighth grade students are much more motivated to research, write, present, etc. when they know they will be presenting outside of the school. In a K-8 school we provide many leadership opportunities for them in the building, but after nine years they need new, challenging, audiences. They also learn more while out in the community, by interacting with other students and places. It is imperative that they are on college campuses, at fish hatcheries, local libraries, ordering food on Church Street, etc. In all of these experiences they learn about the resources in their community and state, and apply school skills to real life experiences. After thirteen hours in Burlington for Vermont History Day last Saturday, students went home and immediately started researching for next year’s project — that is not the norm in a typical social studies classroom.

-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher, Burke Town School

And what we know inequity looks like.

Reducing isolation and increasing access — across the board

Vermont is a rural state. Many students live in rural locations, with limited access to transportation and activities beyond schooling. Teachers often marvel how many students have never been to Vermont largest city, Burlington, or even to a park in their own towns.

This impacts our students living in poverty most of all.

Families who can provide transportation to extracurricular activities do so. They bring their kids to lessons, activities, and sports regularly. This is not available to all of our students, creating an opportunity gap for learning key transferable social skills, growing social capital, developing interests and purpose in the community. Providing increased transportation equity to field experiences for students can reduce some of this isolation and the associated opportunity gaps.

The majority of our student population have limited resources to plan experiences beyond the local area. Most families have two parents who work. As a result, children (esp. in rural areas) do not have access to a variety of experiences; they are limited to what is available in their particular community.

Students of all ages need a wide variety of experiences to build background knowledge, language development, an understanding of the wider community, and an understanding of people and places outside their limited communities.

-June Murphy, literacy coach

Reducing dependence on parents — and teachers — hauling students

Many times we hear that students getting out into the community in support of their project-based and service learning experiences hinges on teachers driving students to these locations. This is, of course, incredibly generous of these teachers, but can put them in a difficult spot, driving students in their personal cars. Do we want to place this extra burden on our teachers? Often, teachers doing this is the only way they can make these experiences happen.

At The Cabot School, in Cabot VT, a trio of middle school students have the opportunity to spend school time working on one of Vermont’s oldest organic farms, Molly Brook Farm, over in West Danville, as part of the Cabot Leads program. West Danville is about 10 minutes from Cabot, by car. The students describe the experience as invaluable and engaging. Farmers Myles and Rhonda Goodrich teach students math, biology and economics on the farm — and the only way for students to get to Molly Brook is through the good graces of Cabot’s school librarian and her electric blue hatchback.

We also frequently call on parents to provide transport. This comes with its own set of concerns. Insurance, safety, and yes, equity. Does every parent in your class have the ability to take time off work? Do they all have their own vehicles in good repair?

Also, many districts require parents to undergo a background check, complete with fingerprints. It’s a long process, and a complicated one and extra expenses for the district to pick up.

So, classes with more parents available and willing to do this can go more places.

How is this equitable? Who might it leave out?

Buses are expensive

Buses in rural locations can be prohibitively expensive. In school budgets, teachers can blow through the allotted amount for field trips by October, and often with one trip. Sometimes schools only budget for one field trip a year for each class. Do we really want just one performance, presentation, community visit, field experience and opportunity per year? How does that limit the experiences of our students, especially those who have a one somewhat traditional field experience (such as a museum visit or theatre performance) in the spring?

What about collaborating with other students regionally? Or presenting at state-wide conferences such as Dynamic Landscapes and Vermont Fest?

This spring, three schools took part in the first ever Battle Physics tournament. The tourney was located at Green Mountain Union HS in Chester VT. Now, Leland & Gray students wrote a grant application to support their tournament entry, and it included bus rental. At the same time, The Dorset School, in Dorset VT, provided funding for student bus transport. Two schools, two school budgets, one big disparity.

Incredible learning opportunities cost money for transport.

Buses are very expensive and we are not able to take frequent enough trips to allow students to pursue personal interests and flexible pathways, within their school day. Therefore, it means that only students who have transportation can truly pursue flexible pathways. I wrote a grant to address this challenge, but then found out that buses are only available within school hours – so we are not able to use the buses for trips that end later. Being in a rural area, it often takes us 1-2 hours to get to a destination, which leaves us only two hours at most to be in a location (often this is not long enough and we need to leave conferences or experiences early, or miss them due to timing).

-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher

Often, schools have a limited budget for transporting students on longer trips by bus. Many classes rely on parent chaperones/drivers in order to plan field trips. This is an obstacle for some classes. This also poses inequities from class to class. If there is a grade level where there is a “pocket” of parents who are available to chaperone AND have larger vehicles to fit more students, those classes tend to have more field trip experiences than others.

-June Murphy, literacy coach

Arranging transport shouldn’t be a teacher’s responsibility.

We know authentic audiences want to hear from students. We know students benefit from sharing their learning widely. But all the time and effort it takes teachers to plan opportunities for their students to share their work makes my head spin. Fundraising and grant applications take hours of extra work. Work that takes teachers away from teaching and their personal lives. All of this impacts the sustainability of teaching as a career.

Coordinating and leading these experiences is no small task. Adding “find funding” to this list makes these experiences only available to students where the teachers take this on.

The promise of act 77

The two tenets of act 77 are flexible pathways and personalized learning plans. According to Vermont’s Agency of Education, flexible pathways (bolds mine):

Flexible Pathways Flexible Pathways are any combination of high-quality expanded learning opportunities, including academic and experiential components, which build and assess attainment of identified proficiencies and lead to secondary school completion, civic engagement and postsecondary readiness. Flexible pathways allow students to apply their knowledge and skills to tasks of personal interest as part of the personalized learning planning process. This does not refer to a finite menu of pre-selected pathways from which a student must choose, but also includes school-based course offerings, virtual or blended learning opportunities, community or work-based learning opportunities, and post-secondary learning options among others.

If we are designing ways students can have equitable access to expanded learning opportunities, we must address all facets of the system.

And transportation’s one of them.

If we had access to affordable transportation students could regularly meet with community partners, engage in field activities, present at conferences, visit other schools, see performances, art, etc. A teacher could truly create captivating experiences at the start, and during lessons, that would engage middle school students. Students would be interested in learning because they would see the real life applications and be able to present to real audiences, win awards, prizes, recognition, etc.

-Morgan Moore, Humanities Teacher

Leaving students out of learning experiences based on access to transportation is a serious problem. Plans for Act 77 implementation have to include district-wide plans for transportation.

No really: #fleetofvans

The hashtag #fleetofvans first emerged in a #vted Twitter chat about equity and flexible pathways. Lindsey Halman of UP for Learning, tweeted #fleetofvans as she highlighted this problem and ignited a hashtag, but really, a way of thinking about this issue.

Is a fleet of vans the answer to the transportation issues faced by Vermont students?

Imagine if all Vermont schools had a fleet of vans — or affordable buses — at their disposal.

Imagine if those vans and buses could be booked by students as part of taking the reins of their opportunities.

I’ll leave you with a quote from teacher Kim Dumont, from the Ottauquechee School, in Quechee VT.

In order to provide authentic, meaningful learning experiences to all children, regardless of location, transportation is crucial. Children in rural areas would particularly benefit from having readily accessible vehicles at their school. Without vehicles at their disposal, valuable opportunities may be out of reach. In this case, investing in a fleet of vans is truly an investment in our future.

Districts, schools boards, communities, and school leaders: how could *you* address the transportation equity problem in Vermont?

Equity and the in-school business

Mettawee Community School, in West Pawlet VT, loves tradition. They’re a small, tight-knit school in a rural area, and home to two very important traditions: the annual Christmas holiday fair, and the sixth grade trip to Boston. And in order to address inequity in one tradition, they developed a unique solution that tied the two together. Mettawee’s sixth graders staff pop-up stores at the holiday fair, selling handmade items. To make the items, students can draw a loan from the in-school “bank”, of up to fifty dollars. They learn about contracts, and legal signatures, and take it very, very seriously. They know the bank must be paid back by 11am on the day of the fair, and that at the end, all profits from the day are pooled together and divided equally between all students as Boston spending money. 

Economics, equity, pop-up stores and group tie-dye. Here’s how it all fits together.

Leveling the field trip experience

Students in the rural Vermont towns that make up Mettawee’s school district eagerly anticipate the annual sixth grade trip to Boston. For some of them, it’s their first time in a big city. But as anyone who’s chaperoned a field trip can tell you: students have access to wildly different amounts of spending money. And that can cast a pall over the experience. It’s an equity issue. So Mettawee’s sixth grade teachers put their heads together and figured out how to level the field trip playing field in an authentic, learning-appropriate manner. Teachers tell the sixth graders:

“You will all have the same amount of spending money. What’s more — you will earn it.”


As students advance through each grade, the annual Christmas holiday fair is the event of the season. It’s a genuinely joyous occasion. It features an intriguing rummage sale of goodies ranging in price from twenty-five cents to a full dollar, and a hallway of sixth grade pop-up shops. The shops all feature handmade items: tie-dye shirts, candles, birdhouses, dreamcatchers, baked goods, wind chimes, jewelry and tea lights. Holiday carols pipe gently from a side room, and each classroom of Mettawee students takes turns perusing the available goodies. Many students do their full holiday shopping that morning, finding trinkets and baubles at incredibly reasonable prices for family members. Teachers and community volunteers even provide on-site gift wrapping.

But as every small business owner knows, in order to sell product, you have to make product.
And that’s where the bank comes in.

Educators Patty Lea and Alison Zylstra serve as the in-school savings and loan department. Each group of sixth graders can borrow up to fifty genuine American dollars from the bank, with which to produce their products. However, the process is very formal, and ties to learning goals. Students first arrange an interview with the two bankers: a specific time and date to sit down together and talk business. The students must arrive with a business plan, specifying what they’re going to produce, what materials they’re going to need, how much materials cost, what their sale prices will be, the name of their business, and their proposed advertising. Lea and Zylstra review the business plan with students at the appointment, asking questions and prompting deeper consideration.

Once the business plan meets with the bank’s approval, everyone signs a formal contract, specifying how much is being loaned, and that the students understand they have until 11am on the day of the holiday fair to repay the funds. Not all groups take out the full amount on offer, and watching the students realize they should take out only as much as they really need, is part of the process. So too, is the idea of the contract itself. For most sixth graders, this is the first exposure they’ve had to contracts, and a lengthy discussion on the nature of legally binding contracts and who and why you enter into them is provided free of charge. Students sign their names — and for many of them, they have to practice their signature in advance, to meet with approval.

After that, they get to work.

The students have time during the school day to work on their holiday sale products. Part of the bank’s requirement for a loan is that each group must maintain a calendar, indicating when they’ll be working on which parts of the process, and a journal, documenting what they accomplish at each workshop. Additionally, the bank arranges for consultations from the library media specialist on the language of a good advertisement, and from former sixth graders, who offer advice to the new crop of business owners.

The sixth graders have all shopped and participated in the holiday fair as younger students, and that makes them aware just how much is riding on a successful table.

December rolls around, and excitement builds for the holiday fair. The sixth graders begin setting up their tables early that morning, laying out their wares, setting up their signs, putting up decorations and eagerly awaiting the crush of first customers. Shoppers begin to arrive, and the fair gets underway. It’s a mad whirl of students digging for treasures, punctuated by the sharp tear of wrapping paper and the squeak of scotch tape.



Eleven a.m., the golden hour, approaches. Every so often a student darts away from their table, cash in hand, hot-footing it over to find Lea. Lea is the day’s banker-in-charge. She counts out their cash and checks it against the loan paperwork. Then double-checks it.

As younger students who have shopped the student marketplace, these sixth graders are ready. They’ve eagerly anticipated their turn behind the tables, and they’re ready to take it on with the utmost seriousness. And inevitably, every student that we talked to said, “It’s so much more difficult than it looks.”

But it works.

At the conclusion of this year’s holiday fair, all student groups repaid their loans. Then  the bank gathered all the remaining profit into one pool and divides it equally between all 25 sixth graders. This June, when Mettawee Community School descends on the Boston metropolis, each student will be carrying thirty-three dollars in spending money. And they’ll all know they earned every single penny of it.

“Trickledown empathy”

Students learn a ton about economics over the course of the unit, and pick up a number of transferable skills. But they also learn something else: empathy. Says Patty Lea,

“Many kids will say that they have more respect, at the end, for their self-employed parents. Because they have small businesses. And they understand that it takes a lot of organization, time, patience and money, to run a business.”

How do you address field trip equity?

Very few units can school can accomplish so much. Sixth graders learn necessary economics and math concepts. They engage in authentic and purposeful learning that levels the socio-economic playing field on a class trip. And their efforts culminate in a community-level tradition that sparks pride, ownership and efficacy for the whole school.

Educator Patty Lea offers some advice to other teachers looking to try out the in-school bank experience.


Tell us about your school wide traditions that fuel student motivation across the years.

Unpacking equity in Passion Projects and Genius Hours

Equity in education has — and needs — many lenses. The work is hard, the work is myriad, the work is vital.


While listening to VPR’s Vermont edition the other day, a friend and fellow author, Ann Braden came on the air, and was reading from her new middle grade novel called The Benefits of Being an Octopus. It features main character Zoe, who like many Vermont kids, faces the challenges of living in poverty. Ann read (reprinted here with permission) this excerpt on the radio:

“I glance down at my backpack. My debate prep packet is inside, and for the first time ever I’m tempted to do my homework. I’m not a kid who does homework. And I definitely don’t do big projects, which usually require glitter and markers and poster board and all sorts of things. None of which I have.

Plus, last year in 6th grade, when I actually turned in a poster project, Kaylee Vine announced to the whole class, “OH MY GOD, everyone. Zoey Albro turned in a project. Alert the authorities! The world must be coming to an end.” Then she made that “AHGN AHGN AHGN” sound like a fire drill, and did it every time she passed me in the hall for the whole next week.

But this project doesn’t need any glitter.

And everyone else won’t have fancy posterboards with foam letters that make my flimsy piece of newsprint that the teacher gave me look like gray toilet paper. All I need is to know something – and I do. And maybe, just maybe, if I do this – and if I can rock it – all the others kids will have their minds blown, and it’ll be completely satisfying to watch. “Who would have guessed,” they’ll say, “that Zoey knew so much cool stuff? I had no idea! I thought I knew who she was, but clearly I didn’t AT ALL.” Maybe Kaylee Vine would even stop switching seats on the bus while holding her nose to get away from me.

This excerpt expresses so much of what many of our students face.

Poverty in Vermont

According to Seven Days:

 “71,329 Vermonters lived below the federal poverty line in 2016 — roughly 10,000 more than in 2015. Vermont was the only state to see a statistically significant increase in its poverty rate, from 10.2 percent in 2015 to 11.9 percent in 2016.”

And according to the Burlington Free Press, Vermont kids are more acutely affected:

For Vermonters under the age of 18, the poverty rate is 13.8 percent, which means children are more likely to live in poverty than the average Vermonter, and twice as likely as senior citizens. In part, that differential is because the federal government gives a lot of money to people over 65, rich or poor, in the form of Social Security and not as much to children.

Ann brings up in the interview that often teachers are in the middle class, while many of their students can be living close to or at the poverty line. That can lead to blind spots around issues such as homework, projects, and opportunities.


Take for example the movement toward Genius Hours and passion projects in personalization. These are blocks of time schools are devoting to let students explore their own interests and to foster a love of learning and engagement, and put students in the driver’s seat of their own learning. That all sounds great, right?

Remember the science fair? Did you participate as a child, or do this with students? Were all students given equal access to materials? Right. I remember the students who had shiny kits their parents bought. Or elaborate games or rewards for observers who came by. Or the shiniest, most beautiful letters, like Zoe describes above.

As a sixth grade teacher, I remember adding to my budget 20 something tri-folds every year so every student had one, and didn’t have to buy one. And I kept my art materials stocked up. But inevitably those students who had snazzy materials like metallic sharpies, or special stencils often brought those to these projects. And those same students often had the time to work on them at home, and the support from an adult to deepen the project. Not all students have these same privileges.

Enter passion (or curiosity) projects

Passion projects are an incredible way to engage students in self-driven, engaging work. Our own Emily Hoyler described them in this post:

I stumbled onto Scot Hoffman, Mike Jackson, & Sammi Smith’s Google Doc of Curiosity Projects last spring. Their Curiosity Projects are a six-week, inquiry-based research exploration on a topic of personal interest to the student, and culminates in a showcase of student presentations. The project’s goals are for students to “initiate their own learning, gather information, share information, and reflect on their learning.” Teachers become collaborators, guiding students to resources, helping connect them with mentors, and prompting frequent reflection to help students make meaning of their learning.

We also have a snazzy toolkit of video, examples, and tips about creating genius hours, passion and curiosity projects defined here:

Genius Hour refers to open-ended, student-driven projects during a pre-determined time. Students pick a topic and decide how they will exhibit their learning. During the research phase students often connect with mentors within the school or in the community. (Genius Hour is also called Passion Projects or 20% time.)

This is an incredible tool for personalization…


How do we create personalization that is truly equitable?


"It’s important to consider students’ lived realities: these are not homework projects because not all students have access to materials, internet, support & free time at home."

It’s important to consider our students’ lived realities, even when we are operating in schools with limited budgets and access to materials, when we launch these types of projects. Educators can’t assume that students will be able to find the materials they need to do these projects. In the planning, for these projects, educators can consider how they will make sure all students have access to the materials they need, as student project ideas are thought of and projects take shape.

Resources to consider in the planning

Once you have an idea of what students are planning, make sure to have materials on hand. If you don’t have the funds in your materials budget, here are some to consider:

  • Front Porch Forum. You can request any needed materials from the wider community on this listserv.
  • Donor Choose. Rebecca Whitney, library media wizard at Ottauquechee, uses this cite to fund Makerspace and library needs.
  • curriculum budgeting

Not homework

It is essential plan time during the school day for the project. These are not homework projects, because not all students will have access to materials, internet, and support. 

Help students explore interests

Not all students will arrive at passion project or genius hour times knowing what they are interested in. Many students will not have had the opportunity or support to explore their own interests, especially in a school setting. Students might need interest inventories or surveys, conversation and dialogue, and to hear ideas from others to help them discover a topic they are interested in exploring. We as educators can’t assume they will come to us with these ideas and interests fully formed and ready to explore.

How do you make sure passion projects and genius hours are truly equitable?

What strategies have you found effective, and what are some additional challenges you’re seeing?

How can students teach educators about social identity?

A trio of Tuttle 6th graders led educators from around Vermont through activities in bias-awareness and social identity at the 2018 Middle Grades Conference. And what they learned from those educators is every bit as powerful as what the educators learned from them.

Continue reading How can students teach educators about social identity?

Race Against Racism VT

It all starts with an idea. Races Against Racism have taken place around the country, and last spring, a community member and organizer Henry Harris suggested that 15-year-old Hope Petraro organize an event in her community. He said she might be interested in having this event in Montpelier. That was just the spark she needed.

Since then, Hope, with the support of her teachers and community mentor, has created an important event to fight back against racism during a time when our country is seeing a resurgence of racial conflict.

Continue reading Race Against Racism VT

VT Secretary of Education speaks on equity in Vermont

“I don’t believe you can be an educator committed to student voice and not be a powerful advocate for equity.”

This past August, the University of Vermont played host to an international conference focused on ways to amplify student voice and increase student partnership in the classroom.

Attendees were lucky enough to hear an address by Vermont Secretary of Education Dr. Rebecca Holcombe, who spoke powerfully on the need for intersectional equity in Vermont, in supporting students.

Continue reading VT Secretary of Education speaks on equity in Vermont

Equity begins with engagement

Care about equity in education? Start with engagement

Educators care about equity. We all want to bring out excellence in our students, but the thing that keeps us up at night is our constant striving to do that for ALL of our students.

There are many systemic barriers to equity. Our students and schools mirror society, so the efforts of educators slam up against macro forces such as generational poverty, distressed families, institutional racism, and other forms of social injustice.

Yet we still have the power to light a spark.

Continue reading Equity begins with engagement

Equity and technology in schools

How do you level the digital playing field?How do you even start taking on a task like that?

Equity has always been a thorny issue for schools to deal with, and adding technology to the mix has added a whole new layer of complications.

As more research emerges linking technology to student engagement and decreased drop-out rates, the stakes get higher, and the consequences for students with diminished access to technology grow more drastic.

So what can you do?

Continue reading Equity and technology in schools