#vted Reads: We Got This, with Kathleen Brinegar


Cornelius Minor likes to ask himself three key questions.

#vted Reads logoOne: what are his students trying to tell him? Two: What are they *really* trying to tell him, through their actions, and their silences? And three, what do these students — who he worries he might not be reaching — all have in common?

I’m Jeanie Phillips, and welcome to another episode of #vted Reads, talking about books by, for, and with educators. Today I’m with middle school equity scholar Kathleen Brinegar, and we’ll be talking about We Got This: Equity, Access, and The Quest To Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, by Cornelius Minor. We’ll unpack some of our own biases and ask you to think about yours, as well as look at the shiny shiny power of disruption.

And remember: watch your language!

Let’s chat.

Jeanie: I’m Jeanie Phillips and welcome to #vted Reads, we are here to talk books for educators, by educators, and with educators. Today, I’m with Kathleen Brinegar and we’ll be talking about We Got This: Equity, Access, And The Quest To Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be, by Cornelius Minor. Thanks for joining me, Kathleen. Tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.

Kathleen: Sure! Thanks for having me, Jeanie. I am currently a professor in the education department at Northern Vermont University, Johnson.  I’ve been a member of the department for about nine years now, and I coordinate the middle and secondary teacher education programs. I’ve also recently stepped into the role of Associate Academic Dean, where I do a lot of work around helping students persist, through to graduation at the University. I’m also the co-editor of AMLE’S Middle School Journal, and I am a vice chair of the Middle Grades Special Interest Group. It’s a group of international researchers focused on middle grades education.

Jeanie: Excellent. Let’s turn to Cornelius Minor’s book, We Got This. The subtitle is, “Equity, Access, And The Quest To Be Who Our Students Need Us To Be.” And Minor begins the book with this powerful notion — and I’m going to quote him —

“If we are not doing equity then we are not doing education.”

Can you start by just telling us what this means to *you*?

Kathleen: Absolutely. To me, that is the mantra that I live by with my work, and it wasn’t always the mantra that guided my work, but over the past decade, my work has really become about equity. I truly feel that if the systems that we have in place to educate, particularly young adolescents since that’s my focus, if they’re not doing their job of supporting every single adolescent, then I don’t think we’re doing our job to support *any* adolescent. So, I think, the equity lens is — to me — the most important lens through which we can look at and measure success in education.

Jeanie: That’s really our mandate as public educators. Right?

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Jeanie: It’s not just to teach the kids who are easy to teach.

Kathleen: That’s right.

Jeanie: It’s to teach all the kids.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Jeanie: I love that Minor gives us some really strategic tools to do that. He says this other thing that really touched me. He says, “Labels can’t cover our full humanity.” And on page 10, he says,

“We need tools to build a bridge between the discourse of our profession and the children that populate the communities that we serve.”

And it seems to me that he gives us some of those tools to build that bridge between our profession and the specific kids that show up in our schools.

1. The graphic organizer concept

Kathleen: What I love about Minor’s book, in general, is his focus is on listening to students, and really what that means. How it’s more of a true authentic listening? And a listening to not just what students are saying, but what their actions are telling us, what their silences are telling us. It’s really paying attention to who they are as whole human beings. And not just as, even, learners or students in our classrooms.

His tool on page 22, in particular, he shares the Listening To Kids organizer. I find it to be such a powerful tool in terms of thinking about not just kids in general, because I feel like sometimes… I know when I was taught to plan my instruction, it was really a focus on, “What are the developmental needs of this age group?” Which is certainly significant and important, but it leaves students out who may not fit into the categories of development that we typically use in classrooms.

Listening to Kids Organizer, for Kathleen Brinegar interview

Jeanie: In fact, Minor gives us a caution, doesn’t he? He says, it’s sort of a “Don’t judge a book by the cover” kind of caution. But he says, be careful of the archetypes and stereotypes we apply to take kids. That those shortcuts —  while they feel like we need them in order to do our jobs — actually get in the way of us really knowing students well.

Kathleen: Absolutely. I say that to my pre-service teachers here. I say,

If there’s one thing that’s going to really give me pause about recommending you for a teaching license, it’s if you are teaching to blank rooms. Or rooms of who you think should be in the room, not who you want to be in the room. As opposed to teaching the actual individual human beings in the space you’re in.

To me, that’s the key to instruction.

Jeanie: That seems to be the key to meaningful implementation of Vermont’s Act 77, too? That we really know our students. It also seems to me like if we’re not listening deeply to students, we’re not knowing students well, that’s where our implicit bias can *really* show up.

Kathleen: Absolutely. And, and to me it’s the difference between asking students, and listening to students. Because I think we have mechanisms in schools where we attempt to solicit student feedback and student thoughts? But I don’t know how much of their thoughts and their feedback actually manifest themselves into the transformation of our schools. So, the way that he really operationalizes that concept of listening?

To me that’s really about, again, that authentic piece of thinking about individual students with every decision that you make in the classroom.

The way he frames his organizer is this: he uses four different students each time he’s planning a piece. And he thinks about what those four students need in relation to:

  • What are they trying to tell him?
  • What are they trying to tell him, again, through their actions, their silences?

And he takes some notes about each of the students. Then he takes it a step further and starts thinking about:

  • What do these students — who I may not be reaching — what do they have in common?

To me, that’s when it really helps get at looking at those biases, those stereotypes. Are there components of those students’ identities that I may be completely missing, yet, that might be a pattern in my behavior as a teacher?

I’m thinking about: what are the ways to engage these students, both as this group of students that I’m missing, as well as individuals. He asks you to think about practices that you’re going to implement and try.

2. Listening deeply in action research

I love the way that he approaches his teaching as a constant action research project. That everything that he does, he acknowledges he doesn’t know whether it’s going to work. It might work, it might not. It might work for this student, but it might not work for another one. So his graphic organizers are a way for him to keep track of what’s working and what’s not working, in the way that any social scientist would study any environment in which they’re working.

To me, it really positions the educator as one of the most significant educational researchers.

Jeanie: That makes me think of Jamilla Lyscott, she said this thing that really resonated with me. She said, “Perhaps it’s not your students who are disengaged, but your pedagogy that’s disengaging.”

In a lot of ways what Cornelius Minor is doing is putting the ball in our court as educators and saying,

Okay, you’ve got disengaged kids. What are *you* going to do about it? How can you think differently? How can your instruction be more responsive to their needs so they engage?

Minor is specific about asking us to disrupt the systems in classrooms. He says on page 31,

Systems don’t change just because we identify them, they change because we disrupt them.

He particularly points out the way in which education can be a little colonialist.

3. The effects of colonization

Kathleen: Sure, absolutely. No, he references in the book that when he talks about the colonizing aspect of education, that it’s an act of violence to students if we do not think about their humanity. So, when we think about colonization, and we think about this notion of coming in, assuming that we have the answers. That we can do things better. That way that we view the world is the way to view the world.

If we approach education in that way, and our students are left out of that conversation and left out of that equation, that in essence we’re erasing them, as he references. Not only, he talks very specifically about the students, but I’d argue, we’re also erasing the communities in which these students live and exist, if we’re not centering our education in what those communities — and therefore what those students  —  value.

Jeanie: Yeah. He has this quote that I think is really powerful. He says,

Colonialism has everything to teach and nothing to learn.

It strongly reminded me of the native Hawaiian word for teach, it also means learn. It’s a reciprocal term, in that the same word means both, to teach and to learn. Because the culture believes that teaching and learning go hand-in-hand.

If we, in our classrooms, pretend we’re the only one with something to teach, and students’ job is only to learn? That’s a kind of colonialism. We’re missing out on the richness that comes from students lived experience.

Kathleen: Absolutely. To me, it’s sort of the center of everything about equity work. I feel like I’m on this “permanent equity journey” because I feel like I could never define myself as an expert in equity. I don’t believe you *can* be an expert in equity. To me, equity is all about that reciprocal learning that takes place.

Every time I engage in a conversation with someone around equity, regardless of how they feel about it or what their perspective is or their background or their level of comfortability with it, *my* notion changes and grows and shifts. And I see that as central to being an educator. To view your work with students that way.

Every conversation that you have with a student or a parent or a community member, should be shifting and changing the way that you think. About supporting that community and that student, and creating a space for their values and perspectives to be at the center of the work.

Jeanie: It’s so interesting because teaching is one of the few professions where we experience what it’s like to be in a classroom deeply as students. And it’s really hard not to carry forward that notion of what we experienced. Yet, good teaching is a constant inquiry. We’re constantly inquiring into how to get better, what our students’ needs are, who our students are. Minor reminds us that just because we work with young people, it doesn’t mean that their understandings of the world aren’t valid. Or that they don’t have things to teach us about how the world works and what life is like in it.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Every human experiences the world completely differently. And therefore I feel like every opportunity you have to get to know a human in this world us another opportunity to sort of open your own perspectives on what the world has to offer and the way that we can, you know — as cheesy as it sounds — that we can continue to hopefully make it a better place. The only way you can do that is to, again, going back to Minor, is to listen, listen to the people around you.

Jeanie: Yeah. He even says that we need to look beneath the surface of the behavior of… My, do I wish I had this book when I was a brand new educator.

Kathleen : *makes strangled noise* I say that all the time.

4. Teaching the kids you have (not the ones you wished you had)

Jeanie: I love on page 80, he says,

Kids are simply trying to cope with all the input at school, home, hormones, and the world are handing them.

And he’s got this spectacular tool on page 38 and 39 called The Thinking About The Kids In My Classroom graphic organizer.  I wonder if you could unpack how you might use this with pre-service teachers or with teachers that are in the classroom.

Thinking About the Kids in My Classroom organizer for Kathleen Brinegar interview

Kathleen: Sure, absolutely. I’m actually going to be using it with college professors. Next week, I’m working on a workshop on our campus for our faculty. The title of the workshop is “Teaching the students you have and not the students you want.” The theme of the workshop really came out of this notion of, all of us as educators had our own educational experiences and, largely, those educational experiences drive the way that we then teach. What worked for us tends to be for the most part, what the strategies we employ in our classroom. Yet, the reality of it is, is we’re not teaching a classroom of us.

We don’t have 20 versions of ourselves sitting in front of us, but instead, we have 20 completely unique individuals in front of us.

So, the “Thinking about the kids in my classroom” protocol allows us to really think about the kids. For me, I often think about it from the perspective of– he poses it as who are the children that I worry about. In many cases, the children that I worry about, or even if I think about my pre-service teachers, the pre-service teachers that I worry about are often the ones whose experiences I understand the least. And because of that, I don’t always know the best way to support them or reach them. Or help them achieve, in my case, their goal of being a teacher.

But in the middle grades classroom, it’s whatever the goals are that our students have.

He proposes this notion of listing those students and then classifying them into groups of:

  • What kind of worrying are we doing about them?
  • Why are we worrying about them?

Again, I often have my pre-service teachers use graphic organizers such as this one when they’re learning how to plan lessons for the first time. What that does is when they’re in practicum experiences, it allows them to say, who are the students that you know and feel like you have a sense of understanding, and who are the ones that you don’t? Again, he uses worry. Sometimes I use it differently in terms of who we feel like we know and don’t know yet, and why is it that we don’t know them? In terms of thinking about: what is it?

In his graphic organizer, he talks about, for example, you may have students that are chronically late or absent or the kids that never seem to get it or the kids that talk all the time. Then he uses his action research model to then think about, well, what are strategies that I can use to help these students?

And what’s really powerful about this process is oftentimes it forces you to take a strength-based instead of a deficit-based perspective with your students.

Jeanie: That is so powerful, and you are very kind to say the students should worry about, or he uses the term worry, and you used another term. I think about this in terms of who are the students that drive me crazy!  We know as teachers that sometimes we have learners that for whatever reason we find particularly frustrating, and what frustrates us about them. Then he asks us to think about what would help them be successful, and then turn the page over — and here comes the really powerful part:

  • What are the barriers or obstacles?
  • And how might I remove those obstacles so that they can be successful?

I love that again, this puts the ball in our court. What can we do to eliminate the barriers? It forces us to have empathy for kids that maybe had just been driving us a little bonkers.

Kathleen: Absolutely, and sometimes I think it forces us to make the realization that *we* are the barrier, which is really hard to come to as a teacher when you know that you’re putting your heart and soul into your work.

But sometimes you’re an unintentional barrier to your students’ success. I think that can be a really powerful uncovering, that a graphic organizer such as this one can help you get to.

Jeanie: It took me a long time as a new teacher to realize that when I raised my voice, it got high and squeaky and sounded stressed.

Kathleen: I think we have the same voice.

Jeanie: And kids picked up on that and they picked up on that energy. The most impactful thing I could do was whisper. It took me too long to figure that out, and so something like this I think could have helped me go to even deeper truths? About things that I was doing that got in the way of student learning. And how I might eliminate those barriers and become a better educator.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Absolutely. I had a pre-service teacher recently plan a lesson, and I had him use a graphic organizer similar to this in terms of thinking about his students before he planned it. Well, first I had him plan a lesson before it. And then I had him re-look at that lesson using a graphic organizer such as this one. What he realized after diving into his students and really focusing on some specific students and planning the lesson, was that his lesson took out the mode of learning that the majority of his students identified as needing, to be successful.

So, he was able to revamp the entire lesson. When I asked him afterwards, he said, the most successful part of my lesson, and the part that we carried on twice as long, is the part that came out of what I had written in my graphic organizers my students need. It’s just such a powerful example of how it really does make a difference.

Jeanie: Yeah. It could be really concrete.

I need to try building movement and talk breaks into the class

is one example he gives on page 42. Or,

I can find ways to utilize their voices in the classroom.

That’s really powerful, instead of just expecting them to be quiet and movement free.

I can work to eliminate the expectations that kids need to master a thing on the first try by creating a lots of low-stake opportunities to try things.

These are powerful strategies for any educator and the fact that he’s identifying these because of student needs is really… I don’t know, it gives me chills a little bit. And I love that you’re going to be using this same strategy with your teacher educators.

Kathleen: Yes. Well, I think as teacher educators it’s extremely important for us to model the teaching that we want to see in our classrooms. As soon as “teaching” came out of my mouth, I was like, it’s not quite teaching. It’s about the type of people, the type of educators we want our students to be, are the type of teacher-educators that we need to be. I still lesson plan as a teacher-educator. And I still revise lesson plans. I still take notes on my lesson plans. I’m actually going to use some of Minor’s graphic organizers to help me because then it allows me to show my students and say,

“Here’s what I was thinking I was going to do with you all first. Here’s what I learned when I completed this graphic organizer around my own teaching and you all as learners, and here’s what it looks like now. How would you have responded to each of these lessons?”

I think the more we can be intentional about that, I think the better our future teachers will be.

Jeanie: That’s just such a powerful way to make your practice public.

Kathleen : Yeah, I think we have to. I think we have to.  I’m using the example of teacher-educators, but actually, I think educators need to make their practice visible to their students. I think, particularly in our Act 77 context, if we want our students to become quote-unquote “expert learners,” we have to be transparent about the decisions we are making as educators that influence their learning.

5. We Got This: Power

Jeanie: That leads me to this next concept that I think Minor really gets at to in the book which is power. There’s this wonderful quote from page 81 that I just adore. I keep quoting because his writing is so powerful.

Listening to me is not the extent of the learning that kids can do in the classroom. Learning is something that kids have to elect to do and I as teacher can make it easier or harder.

That’s so powerful. The idea that when we are just asking kids to listen to us, that’s a singular modality that doesn’t meet their needs. But also, it makes us think about the reciprocal notion of listening to them — like the back and forth of listening.

I wondered if you wanted to talk at all about his idea of creating a space where kids feel safe, means creating a space where they share power with us? But it doesn’t mean a space that’s out of control.

Kathleen: Right. Absolutely. I think in some ways it’s a space that is co-developed and co-constructed in terms of, again, it goes back to that transparency as educators. Letting students know about the types of decisions that they need to make as educators in order for everybody in the classroom to feel safe and respected. But then use the voices of the students to decide what that actually looks like. So, posing those sorts of questions to students around:

  • How do we want to go about exploring this guiding question?
  • What are the different ways that you can demonstrate your understanding of whatever the concept is that you’re teaching?
  • What are the modalities?
  • And even opening it up to: do we all need to be doing it the same way at the same time, all the time?

Finding those different ways for students to have that ownership and be able to advocate for what’s going to work for them.

Jeanie: So, building in opportunities for voice and choice, whether that’s negotiated curriculum or having kids decide what product they’re going to produce to demonstrate their learning on a proficiency target. I was thinking, I’m reading Emily Rinkema and Stan Williams’ book, The Standards-Based Classroom. One of the things they say is that they went to a conference where somebody pointed out that not all group sizes needed to be the same, and what a revelation that was.

But I think that’s a revelation for many of us, that you can have kids working solo, in pairs, and in small groups within the same classroom. It’s not a one-size-fits-all model. But if you’d asked me as a teacher, I would have been like, “Well, I want six groups. So, I’m going to just divide the class.”

Kathleen: Either we’re going to count off or I’m going to make groups specifically so that I separate people who need to be separated! We had a really powerful experience in student teaching where I was working with a small group of students and they needed to work within groups within that small group. A group said, “We’re friends, but we work well together. Can we try it?” And I remember being terrified.

Friends can’t work well together. They’re never going to get anything done! And then they did. What they produced was one of the most beautiful products that I’ve ever seen. It came with a thank you note after saying, thank you for trusting us. Thank you for allowing us to work together because we knew we had the potential to do it, but nobody had ever given us the chance before.

Jeanie: Yes, absolutely. The other way that Minor does this, is through class meetings. And he has a whole section on how to show kids you hear them, through class meetings. And co-construct those class meetings so it’s a gradual release of power and control. So the students have more and more of a role in that.

I know many of our Vermont educators have town meetings or class meetings that allow for that as well, and I applaud them.


Kathleen: What’s interesting about Minor’s model that I had never thought about before, is he talks about those meetings being like 15 minutes in length, right?

He’s like: look, approach one issue, one thing that’s happening in your classroom and take that, 10, 15 minutes of time to really work with your learners about approaching it. About how you can rethink it. Get their feedback, get their perspective, and then you can go right back into the curricular learning that’s happening in the classroom.

I point that out only because I wonder if sometimes teachers in schools hesitate to use a town meeting model or something of that sort, because of the pressure sometimes that’s felt around time and the value of time and not wanting to take away from the curriculum. But Minor has found a way to do it in a way that accomplishes the goal of including student voice and student decision-making in a way that’s doable in any curriculum.

Jeanie: He also really talks about scaffolding. So, starting with something really low stakes at the very beginning of the year. In his case it’s eating salads in the lunchroom. And then he moves on to the kids kept encouraging him to see The Rock in a movie. So, he watched a movie and he engages in a conversation about that, but then he moves onto like, negotiating conflict. And it’s actually based on a book that they’re reading. You start low stakes at the beginning of the year and then you can talk about things that are curricular or harder or more intense, as you build the capacity to share that space together.

Kathleen: Absolutely. I love his salad example because he talks about the fact that he’s wanting students to eat, and to think more nutritiously about what they’re selecting and choosing to eat in the cafeteria. That it doesn’t need to be time happening during the day. But his salad conversations happen while he’s walking to lunch with students.

What I love again about his work is that he views every single minute he has with students as a way of building, of listening to them, building their confidence, building their strategies and their strategies of being able to advocate for themselves and think deeply about the little things in their lives, which is what they eat in the cafeteria, and the big things in their lives, such as how they manage peer conflict, which we know is a critical part of middle school.

Jeanie: It’s not him preaching at them about this. It reminds me of my friend Mike Martin. He often says:

the one doing the talking is doing the learning.

So, by listening to students, he’s also providing an opportunity for them to do the learning.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Absolutely.

Jeanie: On page 94, he has another graphic organizer. We’re going to link them in because they’re freely available. They’re available on the publisher’s website. The one on 94 is a blueprint for shifting your mindset from punitive to proactive. I think it’s particularly a powerful tool to use with students. It asks us to think about what we need to be successful, how the teacher can help with that and how students can help with that.


Kathleen : Absolutely. I’m teaching a methods class right now for middle and high school pre-service teachers. It’s their first methods class that they’ve had. Right now we’re looking at a reading on classroom management from Teaching Tolerance. It’s actually titled Reframing Classroom Management. Its whole premise is on this notion that the goals of teachers should not be to manage. It goes back to our conversation about Minor and power. If we’re managing, it assumes that we are in positions of power and our students don’t have voice or choice.

I’ve actually been thinking about using this graphic organizer in conjunction with that reading with my students because to me, that’s what it’s all about. Moving from punitive to proactive.

I think a lot of the ways that we traditionally define classroom management leads to punitive consequences for students.

So I thought about using this with my students to model it for them. It starts with, “We will be successful this week if we:” and I feel like you could do that with *any* community. I felt like I could do it with some of the adult groups that I work with. “Our work will be productive this week if we…” And to get us to think about collaboratively, we can help each other do that by et cetera. So yeah, this is one that I flagged as well as something I want to use.

Jeanie: Well, and it seems so important because it’s about not compliance, but community.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Jeanie Philips: It gets us to think beyond our outdated notions of what a successful classroom looks like.

And that feels really important to me because actually some of the best, most rich and rewarding learning environments I’ve been in? Aren’t pretty. It’s a little messy. It’s a little loud. It feels a little chaotic.

I have to do that internal judgment of like, okay, pay attention. What’s really going on here? Look beneath the surface, what’s really going on here? Minor says something that is just like, I want to put it on big banners, and parade it around schools. He says,

I am not interested in raising a nation of well-behaved children.

Kathleen: I loved that one too.

Jeanie: Just this idea that our job is to help kids learn. It’s not to keep them neat rows, raising their hands all the time. I think that sometimes we get in our own way around thinking about what learning looks like. This graphic organizer asks us to really deeply think about what does success look like, and let go of the rest. If we really focus in on what successful learning looks like in the context of *this* classroom with *these* kids and *this* learning target, and we’re specific about that? It might be noisy.

Kathleen: Absolutely. When we were talking about this article, one of my students said,

If I focus on the noise level in my classroom, I am going to be ignoring my students who grew up in an environment where noisy is normal. Where noisy is accepted, where noisy is just the way that they present themselves.

That’s huge for me around this question of equity, right?

When we think about anything to do with compliance, it assumes that someone else’s way of being is better than somebody else’s… than another individual’s.

6. Disruption & “unconditional positive regard”

Jeanie: Yes. He also really asks teachers to be thoughtful about how they deal with disruptive behaviors. He has on page 99 this beautifully thoughtful way of thinking about what I say with my voice, and what I say with my body.

A page from We Got This, by Cornelius Minor
Click or tap to enlarge

Another great moment of learning that I wish I had had sooner in my own teaching career was realizing that I could have a script that allowed me to interrupt behaviors that were getting in the way of learning without having to rationalize it to my students. It could be quick and simple. I could use my whole body — my body language, my vocabulary, my short sentences — to get the point across without laying a guilt trip on kids, making them feel bad without negotiating with them. That I could just be really plain about it.

He asked us really to think about that. What do you say? What does your voice say, and what does your body say? It reminds me, and thinking about that in advance, allows you to stay strengths-based and positive. Recently, I was talking to Christie Nold, and she brought up something that Alex Shevrin-Venet uses, which is, “Unconditional positive regard.”

That I can develop a script that allows me to have unconditional positive regard for my students so that our relationship is intact, but still allows me to disrupt behaviors that are out of place in the classroom.

Kathleen: I love that notion.

Jeanie: Right?

Kathleen: Yeah. Absolutely.

As educators, we make so many in-the-moment decisions, and every single one of those decisions has an impact on at least one other human being.

So to think ahead of time about what our responses might be, could be, should be in any given situation, certainly would make me feel better about going back and managing a middle school classroom again. It just gives you that reflection time to think in advance of the power that your actions have on students. So, really thinking about those consequences in advance.

Jeanie: Yes. Libraries are a free and *nowadays* noisy place. When I was a school librarian, in my 7- 12 library, occasionally, as one might imagine, a kid might use a naughty word. And I really have zero tolerance for naughty words for a lot of reasons that I won’t go into here. But I found that the quickest, easiest way to deal with it was just to say “language” or “Watch your language.”

If I said more words than that, I just sounded like a teacher from Charlie Brown anyway, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. That was just the quickest, easiest way to deal with it. I think that often quick and easy, firm and kind is the way to go.

Kathleen: Absolutely. It sort of opens the door I found, and for me in my classroom, I think we all have those things that we focus on is teachers. For me it was those comments: “He’s so gay,” or use of the word “retard.” Those sorts of things. For me in my classroom, those were the things that just shook my whole body. What I found was the same exact thing that you did, that one word of, “Language…” And what I found is that my students started saying *that* to each other outside of our classroom space. And I don’t think that would be the case if, as you said, it became this big back and forth conversation. Then I think it would become a power struggle as opposed to just a norm.

Jeanie: Yes.

Kathleen: Right?

Jeanie: Absolutely. If I said something like that, I would want to be called out on it.

Kathleen: Yes, absolutely.

Jeanie: I would want to be reminded to be my best self.

Kathleen: Right, right. Without being embarrassed. And without becoming this big production! Without forgetting that you’re a human being who makes mistakes. Or in some of my students’ cases, they had never even heard why those terms were problematic. But just using one word allows them to bring the conversation to “why,” versus me going at them.

7. We Got This: Curriculum

Jeanie: This book is not very long. It’s less than 150 pages. The last thing that Cornelius Minor really addresses, I think, so beautifully is curriculum. I want to talk a little bit about that before I ask my next question. He says,

My job as a teacher is not to teach the curriculum or even to just teach the students. It is to seek to understand my kids as completely as possible so that I can purposefully bend curriculum to meet them.

He goes on to think about harmful curriculum is a curriculum that doesn’t see students, that isn’t flexible, and it doesn’t grow him as a teacher. But that powerful curriculum is relational. It allows you to relate to kids and their lives, and allows them to grow into what the future holds for them. I wonder if you wanted to think about his conception of curriculum, and its purpose. And how they use it for good and not harm.

Kathleen: Absolutely. One of my favorite things that you sort of allude to is his notion of: curriculum should benefit our students now. In the moment. Our answer to why am I doing this should never be “because you’re going to need to use this at the future.”

To me, we are educating our students at a point where they are who they are, in that moment. If our curriculum, as he says, doesn’t bend to meet them, who they are in that moment, then I question its effectiveness.

I know in my own learning as an adult, I don’t choose learning opportunities that don’t feel relevant to what I am thinking about in the moment or what I’m focusing on or what I need. So, I very rarely choose a professional development opportunity by, “I’m going to need that one day in my life or in my career.” I think as, as educators, we owe it to our students to approach it in that same way. I appreciate that Minor, again, he creates, provides some graphic organizers for teachers to say, if you are given a mandated curriculum, here are some questions to ask yourself about how you can bend that curriculum to be appropriate for your students.

I feel like in many ways we’re lucky in Vermont because we have fewer schools providing us with scripted curriculum and that sort of thing. But there are constraints in our work as teachers, and Minor not only gives us permission to subvert those, but he gives really some concrete strategies for how to do that.

Jeanie: He says pretty plainly, people want to learn more about the things they care about. So, it behooves us to help our students connect to what we’re trying to teach them and care about it. Through relevance or by making it relevant to their lives as they are. Which reminds me of John Dewey, and “education isn’t preparation for life but life itself,” but it also just reminds me of how we can situate content and skills in ways that feel real to students.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

It goes back to the choice and voice and allowing them to advocate for approaching the proficiencies or learning outcomes, learning targets, however, you’re framing your curriculum.

But it allows students to say, I have a way that I can demonstrate this.

I have a topic or a theme that I want to spend some time with that allows me to get at that. Sometimes we try that, and it doesn’t work, right? What I have to keep reminding myself and reminding the educators that I work with, is it doesn’t work not because it’s not an effective strategy. It doesn’t work because our students haven’t been brought up in an educational system that gives them that power and that voice. So the first few times we throw that out to them, it’s no wonder that it’s not going to be effective.

Again, it goes back to this notion that he talks about a lot that we all know is going to come from Piaget of scaffolding. We have to scaffold choice as well sometimes for students. And acknowledge that in one classroom of individuals, we may have some students who are ready for that sort of full-on, self-directed choice. And we have other students who need us to scaffold it for them.

Jeanie: So you’re making me realize that these strategies are meant to be used in concert with each other.

Part of knowing how to make the curriculum bend to the needs of our students is to know our students well.

Kathleen: Absolutely. Yeah.

Jeanie: Back to the beginning. This was such a powerful book, I think for the individual practitioner in the classroom. This book can help you really change the systems in your own classroom to better meet the needs of your students so that your teaching is more equitable. I guess my question for you is how did these ideas apply to Vermont’s specific educational landscape in where we have this move towards personalization and flexible pathways, and proficiency-based education and personalized learning plans?

Kathleen: To me, the most significant point of connection is none of those elements of personalized learning — proficiency-based assessment, personalized learning plans, flexible pathways — none of that works without first listening to students.

We can create as many flexible pathways as we want, but if they are not the flexible pathways that our students want, then we’re not changing the system at all.

We are changing the structures in terms of providing various opportunities for students. But in no way are we making an educational system, in general, that listens to our students any more than the old system did. So to me, that’s the bottom line around all of this, is listening to our students.

Jeanie: Yes. I think this book is really powerful for classroom use. I just would love to see a whole school using these strategies, because I think the students in that school would be so empowered in their own learning. It would just seem to be such an amazing thing. I think this could be a great all-school read. Because if everyone was applying these principles, it would make such a difference for students.

Kathleen: Absolutely. As a pre-service or as a teacher-educator, that is my biggest fear when I send my students out into the field.

We ground our teacher education program in equity, and then oftentimes students go into the field and we don’t necessarily have the systems in our schools that support teachers work towards being equitable.

Absolutely. I think if we did more as whole-school communities around reading texts, around equity, around engaging in conversations, around sharing what we know about our students — I don’t just mean sharing what we know about who our students are in our classrooms, but what we learn, and know about our students as human beings, and grounding our work in the values that they and their parents bring into the community? Without that I don’t know that we can make the changes that we need for our systems to, I guess to transform. We can change, but we can’t transform.

Jeanie: I think one of the things we need to do is shift those conversations. So, then when we’re having those conversations about our students we’re really shining a bright spotlight on their talents and their strengths, and the shiny brilliance that every kid has.

Kathleen: Absolutely.

Jeanie: Sometimes we have to dig for that shiny brilliance. Sometimes they’ve locked it off a little bit, or made it hard to see because of their experiences in the world, but every kid has that as their birthright gift.

8. Unpacking our own biases in Vermont

Kathleen: Absolutely. One of the questions that I like to pose to educators is, to think about the various identities that we hold as human beings, right? Whether that is around gender, around race, around sexuality, around socioeconomic class. Whatever those pieces are, and to really think in your school environment, which of these identities, which components of each of these identities are privileged? And which components of these identities are not? And how does that make you rethink the way that you approach, not just your individual students, but the larger policies that exist in your school, the way that you talk about kids, what you value as a community, what your culture values.

Jeanie: Yeah. It can be so hard to interrupt those implicit bias, the biases that we hold. In fact, the first step is just being able to see them.

I became aware of a couple of years ago of the bias I have around language. That I really held this belief, hold it still in some ways, that people who speak standard American English are smarter. That’s simply not the case. There’s no difference in size or ability of the brain if you speak standard American English versus vernacular. I have to constantly remind myself of that internally in my brain.

I have to interrupt those judgments that I make, and it’s really challenging. The first step was just noticing, just seeing, having that pointed out to me, by me really.

Then the second step is to start to interrupt that so I can see the content of what somebody’s saying and not judge it by my own notions of grammar and syntax and sentence structure.

Kathleen: Absolutely. I can give you an example from my own practice as well. For me, I had to reframe what it looks like to be engaged in education.

I’m coming at that from the perspective of thinking about my own students. And thinking about the fact that being late to class doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t want to be there. Or you haven’t tried really hard to get there. Or placing significance on family events over being present in a classroom setting or an educational setting.

And really having to check my own biases about growing up in a family where school came first, and if something was going on at home, we deal with that later. That’s not a norm that exists in every household. For some households, the necessity is what happens in our home has to be figured out first. It doesn’t mean my students who are coming from homes that come from that orientation don’t value their education just as much as I do or my parents did. It just means that they need to step back for a moment and then step into it when they have the capacity to do it because it’s so important to them that they need to be wholly present.

Jeanie: Yeah. I so appreciate you being vulnerable enough to spell that out.

I think that education, being an educator is vulnerable work and one of the most vulnerable things we can do is check our own biases and assumptions.

Really look, dig in there and it can be uncomfortable, but it’s also can be the most rewarding work you do. It can transform your practice in powerful ways.

Kathleen: For sure, and I think it goes back to, again, that listening to students, because my students, I think all of our students are sending us messages about what our biases at our stereotypes and things are. We just need to watch them and listen to them and they’ll help guide us in terms of figuring out what those are.

Jeanie: Listen to your students. You heard it here. Kathleen. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to me about this fabulous book, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be.

Kathleen: Thank you. It’s been fun.

Jeanie Phillips

Jeanie Phillips is a former (and always!) school librarian and a Professional Development Coordinator for TIIE. A 2014 Rowland Fellow, she is passionate about student engagement, equity, collaboration, and questions. Jeanie likes to hike the woods of Vermont with her dog Charlie and is always in search of a well-brewed cup of tea and a good book.

2 thoughts on “#vted Reads: We Got This, with Kathleen Brinegar

  • michael.eppolito@trsu.org'
    May 16, 2019 at 1:37 pm

    Great conversation! So much of you are talking about here intersects with trauma informed practices, racial equity and intentional learning communities. At the heart of each of these is the concept that you need to know yourself before you can effectively work with others. Minor’s ideas have to be coupled with teachers doing their own identity work.

  • abigailkent1122@gmail.com'
    May 17, 2023 at 1:47 am

    I appreciate how this article was written with full of impressive words. I have learned more information after reading this. Big thanks for sharing this informative article.


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