Kathleen Brinegar

#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.


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