#vted Reads with Elijah Hawkes
Podcast: Play in new window | Download
Subscribe: Google Podcasts | Email | RSS | More
Listeners, I’m angry.
I’m angry about the failure of our political leadership, the unmitigated disaster of climate change, and the risks we’re asking our educators and students to take right now. I’m angry, and I’m hurt, and frustrated, and I’m not the only one. I know you’re angry, and I know our students are angry.
Our schools have long been held to the idea of being zones that are or should be, entirely free of politics.
But how does that work in the real world?
Are our students free of politics when they walk through the classroom door? Do they take their anger off when they put on a backpack, or turn on their cameras?
On this episode of vted Reads, we’re re-joined by Vermont principal Elijah Hawkes. Hawkes has written a book called, School for the Age of Upheaval: Classrooms That Get Personal, Get Political, and Get to Work.
It’s a powerful, powerful read, by which I mean that you can read it as a talisman against the notion that as educators we should stand by and pretend our students don’t see, hear and feel about politics as it unfolds around them. You can read it in order to figure out how to address your students’ anger — and maybe your own.
I’m Jeanie Phillips, and this is Vermont Ed Reads. Let’s chat.
Jeanie: Thank you for joining me, Elijah. You were very recently on the podcast at the end of last season, but I’m going to ask you to introduce yourself again, tell us a little bit about who you are and what you do.
Elijah: Hi, Jeanie. My name is Elijah. I’m currently principal at Randolph Union. I’ve been here nine or ten years now and delighted to come back for another year with this fabulous faculty, staff and community. I grew up in Vermont myself, in Moretown, and then left for college and found my way to New York City where I was a teacher and then a school principal in New York City. I also lived abroad and worked in schools and school settings in West Africa for a couple of years. well, all of that experience just affirms for me the importance of small, community-minded democratic schools and so it’s a pleasure to be here at Randolph Union and to be talking with like-minded educators. Like you.
Jeanie: I’m super excited to talk about your book. But before we get to that, I like to know what people are reading! What are you reading now? Last time, I think it was The Water Dancer.
Elijah: Oh, yes, it was The Water Dancer. I’m reading a book of essays, long form essays I’d never read before by James Baldwin called No Name in the Street, and it’s written much later than a lot of his other essays, so I’m enjoying reading it. It just feels like a different kind of Baldwin’s voice to a certain degree, a little bit more meandering, and free flowing but it always comes back to where it wants to go. So, No Name in the Street, by James Baldwin is what I’m reading.
Jeanie: Thank you for that. I haven’t read that so I’m going to have to add that to my list. But I’m also reading essays right now. I’m reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. They’re little small essays and they’re so delicious. I highly recommend it.
Okay! Let’s talk about your book. There’s a lot to talk about in this book. But I’m going to start just with the introduction, because you start by talking about anger. And I think this might be a time when kids could really feel angry.
I think if my own son is any indication, this is a time where you can feel really angry with society, given COVID, given the conditions of right now, given the political situation. And so, you say “We need their anger, and we need it to find its voice.”
I’m going to read that again, Audrey, you say we need their anger and we need it to find its voice. And I don’t think of anger as being particularly welcome in schools.
So I wanted to know more about what you meant by this, and maybe even a description of what it looks like.
Elijah: I think I start to talk a bit more about what it looks like in the get personal and to get political chapters where I think you’re right that young people today is experiencing what they are likely to be experiencing, watching the behavior of adults behaving in ridiculous and unjust ways, seeing the way their society is going. They have a right to be angry at the state of the world. They’ve been born into a world of runaway climate change that is likely to make civilization difficult for them to live in. By the time they’re in their older years (and even sooner) they have a right to be angry at the state of the world they’ve been given, so a kind of righteous anger, a kind of anger at the state of injustice. And so, I think that that anger is something we need and we see it in the streets and its, it can force really positive change in our world.
So, in the get political chapter, I talk about the need for ideological dissonance and debate that is, like, ideas and ideals that are being debated and upon which kids can grasp and channel their sense of what is unfair and what is not right about the world in political and political directions. So that’s oriented towards policy change and social change as opposed to directed towards themselves or towards other people in some kind of demeaning way towards others or shameful way towards oneself. And so, the get personal chapter touches upon that as well.
I think that better again that if a child is – if a young person is feeling wounded or in pain in some way, children are too likely to internalize that as being somehow their own fault and so it can lead to feelings of shame. Something that then gets closeted. So if the world has mistreated them rather than them feel shame about that in some way or feel like lesser than I’d rather they be upset with the world that has been mistreating them, and that they find a way to express who they are, the stories that they’ve lived, and that they also have a sense of, like, how to shape their world for the better. But that’s something about what I mean by we need their anger.
Jeanie: I feel like part of what you’re saying is that we need to harness their anger. And part of doing that is giving it boundaries or using a phrase. Our mutual friend Mike Martin uses “limits as liberators.” Like, sort of giving it some structure and also giving a sense of something to rebel against. Something to sort some values and morals and cultural, traditions and beliefs, and ground them a little bit.
Elijah: Yes. Absolutely. To be both grounded and to have something to resist. I think but I think that that’s part of why it’s important for the adults in a young person’s world to have strongly held beliefs.
Whoever those adults might be, I think it’s important not to avoid complexities. Not to be a simplistic black-and-white thinker, but to have strongly held ideals and to express those in no uncertain terms.
As a lot of the writers that I quote throughout the book do when they’re talking to young people. So that they have something to either say: “Yes, that resonates with me and there’s a model that I can follow” or “No, that doesn’t resonate with me that’s a path that I’m not going to take.”
If adults are too wishy-washy or too ambivalent or too juvenile ourselves in our own pursuits and pleasure-seeking, young people won’t get that kind of mature confrontation with ideals and tradition that they need.
Again, like you said, either to have something to adhere to or something to reject.
Jeanie: I think what you’re asking us in that chapter about getting political in particular, is to show up as our moral selves, right? To show up and not shy away from politics and from conflict. And I guess what I would ask is:
What do you say to folks who feel that politics doesn’t belong in schools? Or that my morals as an educator don’t belong in schools?
Elijah: I think that I think everything is political, really. I think that our lives are shaped by common circumstances and those common circumstances whether it’d be the 90-degree temperature in September that causes us to issue heat warnings such that we can’t hold soccer games? Or whether it’d be the economic divide between the haves and the have-nots. Whether it’d be the quality of the water in our streams, whether it’d be who has money for lunch or not. I mean, I don’t know. Like, what is not political? What is not in some way shaped, either in in distant or very immediate ways by policy contexts by people in positional power?
So, I would reject the notion that, like, politics doesn’t have its place in the classroom.
I think that whatever we might be talking about has connections to policy contexts. And so when I say get political, I mean, put things in a policy context. Think about who has power to shape the world, and claim some of that power for yourself, and know how the world works in that regard. That’s what I mean by get political.
Now, there’s a book that I cite in that chapter called The Political Classroom, which is more of an academic text by some professors who are really interested in knowing how politics in the classroom engages young people. And of course, they find that classrooms where people are debating controversy in political issues are very engaging for kids.
But what these researchers also found is that the classroom can be very engaging for kids across the political spectrum, if the teacher withholds their own personal political beliefs.
Those classrooms can also be deeply engaging for kids across the political spectrum, if the teacher is more transparent about their personal political stance.
So, a lot of it is about the tact of the teacher in terms of how you share who you are as a person outside the walls of the school.
I chose to be pretty public through my writing, and in other ways about where I stand on the political spectrum, I suppose. And I think that over time that actually serves me well in working with a diverse community of people.
…How to say this?
I think it would be worse if people thought that I had a hidden agenda by which I was trying to manipulate their child. Whereas, if I don’t know if I’m having a conversation with parents and I think yes, I think healthcare is a human right. I think that there should be universal healthcare for all, I can be transparent with you about that.
At the same time, I can support students having debates in the classroom about it in really thoughtful ways that are pedagogically sound. But you as a kid and you as a family, you don’t have to be, like, wondering what my agenda is. You can be empowered to disagree with me in really articulate ways.
Jeanie: Right. I really appreciate that stance and that way of holding yourself in the world and being transparent about what you believe, and being open to other people’s ideas and feedback. I’m not the first person to say this by any means, but this idea that when we think we’re being neutral, we’re actually political on the side of the status quo. And so when we’re refusing to discuss these tricky issues — whether it’s climate change, or immigration, or any of these things that are sort of larger discussions in our culture — we’re sending the message that it doesn’t matter. That we don’t have much say in it. And that the status quo is just fine.
Elijah: Yeah, I think that’s true. And status quo is an unmitigated disaster for, like, much of the world’s population right now.
I was with a group of teachers and other educators in a certification program and they were they had read the book over the summer as part of their program and many of them chose to focus in on the very question that we’re talking about right now. And I think we’re really wrestling with, “What do I do with my own beliefs as a teacher in the classroom?”
And we got into a conversation about, are you always going to perpetuate the idea that there are two or three or four equal sides to every political topic? Like, where would you *not* do that?
You know, like, if, when it comes to Nazism, are there two equal sides to that to that political stance? Well, no.
Okay, so you’re going to draw a line there and you’re going to take a stand. That’s good.
What about climate change? Are you going to say there are two equal sides to climate change? Like, right now? Teachers, school principals: are you going to say that there are two equal sides to that and you want both sides to be heard and want young people to make up their minds? No, you’re going to take a stand on that. Okay, good.
Like, I don’t know. Where you draw the line in where something is really, really important to the world and you’re going to sort of like, hide what you feel is right?
Jeanie: I feel the same way about hate speech, right? O homophobia. There’s a clear line for me.
Elijah: Yeah. Again, that said, I don’t think that teachers being transparent about what they feel is right for their world and for the children and it, precludes them from enabling children to really become evidence-based critical thinkers who are accepting this and discarding that as they make up their own worldview. In fact, how elsewise, can they do it? They need adults in their lives, who are presenting them with strongly held evidence-based beliefs that are also grounded in personal experience, they need to see that. And then they need to again, like, be able to decide if that’s something that they are going to accept in their world as true or a path forward or not and young people will, they will make up their own minds.
Jeanie: Much of your book get seems to me is about process. It had me thinking back on my own life. About how I came to believe what I believe. Where my ethics and morality sort of formed. How do we create conditions for kids to develop their own sense of self in that way? Develop their own beliefs and identity — you talk a good bit about identity in your book — and give them space to do that, instead of just assuming that they can make sense of the world.
Elijah: Yes, right. I don’t know if this is quite the appropriate analogy or not, but like, I often think about, like, when I’ve needed to acquire knowledge and skills and haven’t had it. And intentionally seek it.
I think often about how when I moved back to Vermont. When I grew up, I never used a chainsaw very much. My dad did and other people did, but I never did. And so, when I came back to Vermont and became a homeowner, there were some work to be done around the place with a chainsaw. I had friends who knew how to use chainsaws very capably. So, I went to my buddy Chris. I was like, “Chris, like, can you show me how to cut down a tree in a safe way?” Like, I very intentionally went to someone who felt like they knew what they were doing, to mentor me into that skillset.
Jeanie: One of the examples you use early on in the book is about a student who, like, your chainsaw, has an interest, but her interest is depression. Because she’s experiencing it. Because she’s in pain because of her own depression. And she does a project: she makes in video about depression. And so, in a way, the educator she’s working with is giving her the skills she needs. Is mentoring her in the skills she needs to talk about, to voice, this thing that’s important to her.
And, and I love that example because I think that’s really powerful way to capitalize on interest. It’s a really great example of a Flexible Pathway.
But I’m going to just poke at it a little bit, because I can imagine that some of the educators that I know or work with might say, “Yes, but how does that help meet curricular goals?” Or question the validity of that kind of personal work. So I’m going to put that question to you.
Elijah: Well, I guess yes. I can appreciate that question, although I think that any documentary filmmaker might very well push back and suggest that the skill sets that [they] have in order to make this film certainly fall into the realm of the language arts. Certainly fall into the realm of digital literacy, and depending on the subject area may very well dovetail with science standards or social studies standards or psychology. So it’s not hard, I don’t think, to connect a project, like, that to our graduation standards.
It may be hard to view it as test prep for an SBAC test in mathematics. But then again, a child who feels more self-assured and confident in herself may very well do better on a standardized test than the girl who walks into school with her, you know, bangs down over her face and a lack of a sense of pride and a lack of a sense of her own voice and place in the world. Because through that project, this girl was telling a story that she’d never before told. And I kind of believe almost every story wants and needs to be told. On its own terms when the time is right.
And so that’s part of what that’s part of the subtlety of all of this is that, how do we help young people find that time? And that time may never arrive in the years that they’re with us.
You know, I was just in a professional development session with the Vermont Principals Academy over the summer and I offered a poem that I thought we could read. Because we were talking about Vermont and we were talking about race and racism and we were talking about people being in our classes and our colleagues and the poem is called, “Every Traveler Has One Vermont Poem” by Audre Lorde.
In that poem, a speaker of the poem — who one can presume is Audre Lorde or an African-American person like her — is in Vermont and she’s called the n-word by a young boy on a tractor.
And one of the participants in the session over the summer said that there is a story that she carries with her, that she feels sometimes the need to tell the people she’s working with in schools — but she hasn’t told it yet. But seeing something of her story in that poem? Was important. And was humanizing. It brought her a step closer perhaps to sharing some of the story that she feels the need to tell.
So, in that summer professional development session she didn’t share her story. But she acknowledged that there was a story inside her and she saw something of that story in the literature. And so, she and that story are working it out. At some point, when the time is right that story will be told, and the world will see her and she’ll see herself in the world in a new way and perhaps even more complete way.
Jeanie: I can’t love the idea of sharing story and the power of story enough. I think that really led me to one of my favorite quotes from your book is on Page 12 and it says — it’s about a specific student but it could be about any student —
Better we help her find the words, and that they be spoken in safe and supportive spaces, with adults who care to listen. Better they be written in ink than in blood.
And I guess the question I have is: how?
You give many examples in this book of how to help young people find the words, over and over again. In your examples of Jeremiah and other students, right? And this young woman. But I guess the “how” I’m really interested in is: How do we, in the limited time we have in schools, teach or encourage adults to care to listen?
I think schools often feel really times starved and it can be really easy. I can think of myself countless times not having time to really hear a student that needed heard… and that haunts me a little bit. So, I guess that’s the question I’m putting to you is: how? How do we make that a reality?
Elijah: Well, gosh, it feels to me like there’s ample time. So, maybe it’s more the question of: how do we work with adults such that they care to listen and create the space?
Because I got a typical high school class and I’ve got students with me? More than 200 minutes a week? For 10 months of a year? That’s some time. So, maybe it’s more about how do we as adults ready ourselves to create the spaces where those stories can be told and heard. And I think that may be the real key to this, to unlocking these spaces in schools. A lot of adults aren’t comfortable with the pain that young people carry. And that they even themselves may carry. A lot of teachers, a lot of English teachers, may be very comfortable talking about Faulkner but not talking about themselves.
A lot of math teachers may be comfortable teaching algebra but not reflecting on their own racism, right? We need to create spaces for the adults in the building to have those conversations and do that kind of work. And then that helps us all learn how to personalize our interactions and see the world we live in policy and political context. We have to practice it as adults.
That’s some of the work that we’ve been trying to do at Randolph Union, which is just like, to very regularly in our precious faculty meeting time, to sit in small circles of five to eight people and do some of this work together. Where the listening is practiced, where people start to get a sense of how meaningful it is to feel heard…
And to have opportunities — invitation, not coercion — but to have opportunities to share a story or to see that story reflected in what something. What someone else has shared. So, I think creating adults who are ready to listen means practicing and doing that work as the adults in the school.
Jeanie: I couldn’t agree more with the idea that listening is a skill we have to develop that it’s not something we’re really, that comes really easily to us especially in this current moment, in this current culture.
That to me feels really connected with another quote that I love that reminded me of Carla Shalaby’s Troublemakers. And it’s specifically about Jeremiah, one of the students you write about and that says:
“Love. Any other response seems inadequate.What else can be said other than love him?”
Listening feels like a really act of love. And so part of what you’re saying to me about relationships and circles and the ample time is about prioritizing love. Prioritizing knowing students well and that’s another place where I can hear folks, maybe folks that might say focus on the 3 Rs, you know, the Reading, Writing, and Arithmetic say that’s not the job of education. So, what do you say to that?
For me I say learning is social and that relationships are key. But that that L-word, the love word, I think can be challenging for folks.
Elijah: Well, what I, I guess what I would say is… I guess I would say to someone who is skeptical about the focus on relationship building, I would say give it a second. Give us a little bit here.
Like our advisory program at Randolph Union? We based it on some of the work of U-32 in past years where they have about, you know, six year at least in the past they did a six-year relationship between an adviser and students and families. So, when we first launched this kind of advisory program at Randolph Union a bunch of years ago, there was a great deal of skepticism.
But now? It’s one of the most important questions that new parents for our school want to know. “Who is going to be my kid’s advisor?” Because they’re going to be with them for so long. And they know from their neighbors and from their siblings how important that relationship is over years and years and years and years and years.
Or in a classroom: if you give me a semester to do really powerful work with young people and then let that work be shared, watch that girl’s film on teenage depression, the work and the students will speak for themselves. It will be of such undeniable power and relevance because the young people speaking about who they are that it just want, it just can’t be questioned.
We got to share that student work. Don’t just keep it in the classroom.
So if we’re doing really meaningful work with young people, again whether it’s with their names attached or even anonymously, share the powerful stories that we’re hearing and that students are writing because the power of the stories will speak for themselves. And every parent that’s out there and every neighbor and community member and grandpa and grandpa? What they want most of all is to see and hear the young people in their lives and to know them as whole people. So, the work will speak for itself.
Sometimes it’s just a matter of finding the time and the means to share it.
Jeanie: So, I have two thoughts about that, and one is I think that exhibition of student work is really crucial as an antidote to, like, judging schools by test scores alone. Because test scores give you such a narrow, small, little, biased I’ll say, notion of what’s happening in a school.
But student work, it tells more of a story. Coming back to story again and student’s stories.
And one of the things that I really saw in your book was a kind of listening to students and not just what they say and not just what they write, but listening to how they hold their bodies and the work they’re producing and the work they’re *not* producing and, like, this kind of deep full listening to kids.
And that reminded me a lot of Acts 77 and PLPs or personalization, right? And that we have to know kids really well in order to create flexible pathways that matter for them, right?
And that this kind of works that you’re talking about is part and parcel of that work. I’m really playing devil’s advocate. And I’m going to quote the fakequity blog that I really love, where they say: “the devil has enough advocates.”
But I’m going to do it anyway, which is:
If I’ve got 15 or 20 students in my classroom.
If I’m a middle school teacher.
Or if I teach 50 or 60 students a day, how do I operationalize that kind of deep listening? How do I not leave some kids out? How do I not just listen to the loud kids?
Elijah: And how do you help the students who don’t want to speak, or feel comfortable speaking? Because all that takes time too. So I mean there’s some discussion of that kind of pedagogy in the book. Of course, it’s really important for the classroom teacher to establish a climate of trust where the norms — whether they’re crafted with the young people or not — that the norms are norms the adults are going to uphold. That they’re going to make sure that it feels like a safe space where there is kind of, like, boundedness and contained-ness that the adult is helping to create, so a person can feel safe sharing their story.
I think there should be opportunities for work to be shared anonymously, as well as with your name attached.
I think there’s nothing more fun than reading a child’s work to them. Because there may be students who can write the most wonderful thing — but they’re afraid to read it themselves to their peers. So, the teacher could read that work to their peers. Or you bring in some older students to read the work or you bring in some of your drama students who want nothing more than to read in a performative way, and bring the child’s text to life.
There are ways to create a very celebratory culture that values the questions kids ask and the stories that they tell, and finds ways to share what young people contribute whether it’s anonymously or not.
I don’t know, I think there are ways to create those spaces.
And then if you’ve got a lot of students, there are lots of different ways to display and share student work.
Sometimes I’ll walk down the seventh grade hallway here and they’ll just be 60 or 80 very short poems on the wall; no names attached, but every student’s voice is out there.
And then I think also, you know, over time there could be discussion forums and other, like, Socratic seminar.
I’m thinking of the discussion forums that have been really carefully scaffolded over time, so that students again feel supported by the teacher and by the work they’ve done in sharing their voice and sharing their opinions. It’s certainly possible and we’re blessed to be here in Vermont where there are so many different models of that and so many teachers who are willing to share their work.
If a teacher wants to do this kind of work, the resources are out there to help them do it.
That said, it’s also important that the administrators of the school are willing to support it. That’s key as well.
And it’s important that teachers hear from their administrators that we’ve got your back if you’re going to be doing work that has personal and political intersections as long as we’re doing that carefully. Like, work carefully. I’ve got your back; I’ll support you and we can do this well together.
Jeanie: You’re right. The Get Personal chapter gets really specific and I really love the ideas. They’re about building trust in the classroom and how to go about that. Modeling that vulnerability, being yourself in the classroom, being willing to share your story to be person of yourself.
I really love this idea of it being an invitation rather than something that’s coercive or compliance-oriented, right? That the engagement is an invitation. And that kids get to join in or to put a toe in when they’re ready, and ease in.
But the last thing in that chapter is about validation and praise, and it didn’t strike me the same way.
I questioned it a little bit.
As somebody who has really done a lot of work giving praise and validation to students in the past? About a year or so ago, I listened to a Hidden Brain episode about clicker training and, you know, just giving feedback that’s nonjudgmental. And it really struck me that as a student myself, I was so wrapped up in the validation and praise from others, that I didn’t actually ever know when I was doing good work myself.
And so, I guess I’m just going to question that a little bit, about the role of validation and praise.
Elijah: You said as a young person, it sounds like you were more focused on the external validation and didn’t have your own sense of, like, when you were doing something worthy of the praise or not? Can you say more about that a bit?
Jeanie: Well, I think we’re all attention-seeking, right? And some kids when they don’t get attention go about it in a negative way, right? We see that in classrooms all the time.
But for a kid like me who was very compliant, and a good little girl, I often went about getting attention by trying to do my best work. Not because it was my best work, but because I wanted the teacher to give me that star. That gold star, those kind words, right? And I won’t even just say as a young person. I think even as an adult, it’s taken a lot of work for me to value my own growth and my own work internally as opposed to looking externally for folks to approve of it.
I’m just curious about that, right?
Elijah: What I’m thinking is that it’s certainly not healthy to create a culture in the classroom where everyone’s motivation is dependent upon some external rather than intrinsic motivation. That’s certainly, that’s really not healthy.
That said I feel, like, positive feedback, goes a long way towards motivation, as well as sort of modeling.
I guess, if a student presents something that has, you know, like several strengths about it and several weaknesses, sometimes, especially early on in a class, we just accentuate the positive because that shows the rest of the class what kind of work is worth doing. You don’t even have to say, like, I wouldn’t do that. There can be a strong emphasis on the positive, especially at first, and you can help create the criteria you’re seeking to attain by emphasizing the positive aspects of what people are doing.
I don’t know; I just feel like a lot of positivity and enthusiasm goes a long way as a teacher and is part of loving the kids.
And again, just an abundance of care and validation — but kids know when something is empty. You can’t be insincere; that will be a problem. You can’t just throw fluff out there. Like, you can’t praise someone for asking a question when they didn’t actually ask a question. You have to be a careful listener and you have to be sincere and you also have to be balanced and share the love with everybody.
Jeanie: Well, that makes me think when I got to page of 132 which is in the Get Meta section.
You talk about a strategy that Alex Shevrin Venet uses in her trauma-informed teacher toolkit, and that’s: disconnect before you correct. And that positivity really rings true there for me. Like, “I can see you have your head on the desk” — a question can follow. “Are you feeling tired or hungry?” Instead of just saying “Get your head off the desk!”
I think it was just the words validation and praise that brought back my own experience a little bit. So, I can really appreciate that. Thank you for going deeper on that.
Elijah: Yes, sure. I appreciate your question.
Jeanie: I am a huge fan, so I’m going to move along to the Get To Work chapter. I’m a really big fan of the Get To Work chapter. I’ve actually written a little bit about this for a school librarian audience about doing, I think I called it work that is real. When I think young adolescents, young adults but also little people, can really do really work that’s relevant and meaningful and engaging to them.
It’s a little bit like going back to your chainsaw example of like: it’s going to do real things, right?
We see that in action right now. right like the Winooski students for anti-racist education. They’ve just made huge changes in the Winooski School District based on their activism. And that’s work that’s real, right?
And so, any time we can get kids out and doing the real work of testing water quality and streams or developing prototypes to solve a real problem feels really powerful to me.
I wondered if you had any examples from the book that you’d like to share with our listeners from Randolph Union.
Elijah: Yeah, in terms of the in terms of the get to work modality, yeah I think that well, let’s see. One example that I talk about in the book, which is from Randolph Union from a couple of years ago, was a local community organization, Economic Development Corporation needed a place for their board meeting or their shareholder meeting or some large annual meeting and they asked if they could use the school. And I said, well, yeah you can use the school, but how can the young people help you organize and pull off the event? Because there’s a lot of work that we could do in having you here that we could learn from.
So, the students at the tech center helped make the food for the evening. And the students from some of the project-based learning classes helped provide some of the content for the evening. It’s just a matter of looking for any opportunity to put young people to work doing the doing the tasks that the community needs doing.
There’s no reason to not do work that the community needs doing. You know, I think it’s a problem and we should look to reform teacher preparation in this regard.
It’s a problem that I could be a student at Harwood Union High School who really liked and did well in his English classes and then go off to college and university and really like and do well in my English classes and then go on become an English teacher and replicate what I did in my English classes and have no contact with any professional other than teachers.
And that could be the same for science. And that could be the same for math and that could be the same for almost anything.
Jeanie: Yeah I really love that and I love pulling in community partners and asking them what work needs doing, and how can our students do it. I’m also thinking about how much our core classes and teachers could learn from tech centers and wood shop teachers. And I just think about how much energy goes into the school play or the school musical. How excited kids get and how that’s this high stakes performance. And what could the rest of us learn from the drama teacher who puts that on.
Too often those things are sort of shunted to the side and treated like they’re not the core, or they’re not even those core subjects because so often that denotes like, the other things they’re less important.
And yet I think we could learn so much about how to make our classes more relevant and meaningful and engaging from those disciplines because they do real work.
I still have the lamp I made in wood shop in middle school all these years later.
Elijah: I think that sometimes maybe it could be helpful to think about it’s not always about reaching out into the community. It can also be about just doing the work that the school needs doing.
So, for instance, one of the things that’s worked well here it at Randolph is to take what used to be an after school endeavor and a kind of club activity, that is, the world language students going abroad. Going to Spain or Morocco or France or wherever, that used to be an after school activity.
We pulled it down into the school day and made it a teacher’s prep or responsibility and enrolled students who wanted to be there in the class. Of course, there was also an after school component for the students who couldn’t be in the class but by making it a class it could become so much more than students raising money.
It could be students in partnership with Planting Hope from Montpellier, an organization that does work in schools in Nicaragua. The students could be co-planning their own travel to Nicaragua, developing their own materials that they’re going to then use when they’re in the schools in that in that country.
It could be writing the grants themselves to the foundations to raise the money to support their trip so that any kid can go regardless of their financial backing. Writing emails to airlines and picking up the phone with travel agents and learning these real world skills.
Sometimes it’s about opening up the space in our classes to just do the stuff that the school needs doing.
Jeanie: It reminds me of Peter Stratman, one of my fellow Rowland Fellows from my cohort does this thing called Cabot Leads. Every middle school kid gets a job in or out of the school. So some kids are working as assistants in the PE class or as mentor readers with kindergartners, but others are in the cafeteria, right? Helping with food prep. Some kids are going out into farms and helping with the milking.
Elijah: They’re doing work that they’re interested in and it’s worthwhile.
Sometimes when we just ask young people what they’re interested in, of course that can lead in powerful directions but it but I think having as a point of departure what needs do we have collectively or do you have or that can start to fill that the work that’s done to meet a need can be very, very important words. If I’m just interested in something it might be slightly more superficial. I’m not saying necessarily is, but I think as the first point of departure is thinking about our individual and collective needs is a really, really powerful way to start the work of getting to, of getting to work.
Jeanie: Well, and I think that the research, the newer research points out that people are happier not when they’re pursuing a passion but when their life feels purposeful.
Like having a sense of purpose. Feeling like you’re making a difference in some way. That you’re meeting a purpose. That, to me, is about community need. That’s way more rewarding for folks than just pursuing an interest or a passion, right?
Elijah: I think also if you’re talking about needs as a point of departure, it can neutralize some of the knee-jerk reactions to anything that is political. If you’re focused on like, there are hungry people in our community — that’s obviously a political concern.
But if your point of departure is focusing on that need? Then if the teacher is courageous enough, you’re going to get yourself to the policy context of that hunger. Focusing on needs is a way to get to the personal and political in ways that are: how can you object to that? Of course, we’re talking about something political! We have people who are homeless in our community! That’s a political concern! It’s all interwoven.
Jeanie: It makes me think too that if you’re doing that well then you’re not just sort of raising money. When you get to what you call the political context, you’re moving past just the savior mentality or quick fix mentality. You’re actually having to understand the real issue.
Elijah: Yes, absolutely I couldn’t agree more and that’s part of why I advocate for a shift in terminology: from “service” to “citizenship.” Think less about serving others and think more about my rights and obligations as a citizen in the society to which we all belong.
Of course one could be a global citizen, but where do you really practice and build a muscle of helping others in a way that like, you’re held accountable as well? It can only happen in close proximity at first. You really need to see the impact of your actions, the mistakes that you make, and how those mistakes reverberate among the people that you’re working with.
And so if we build our citizenship muscles and sensibilities in our own communities first and build outward global citizenship can come but I agree with you. We need to also be sensitive to the needs right here at home where we can really start to feel our privilege if we have it, our power and of course we have it if we organize and work together collectively.
Jeanie: Yeah, I love that. I love that. I guess something I’ve been thinking a lot about is the word “reciprocity.” The give and take.
And one of the things that I’ve talked about in other episodes is like: who gets to serve?Sometimes we only let, you know, we only let the gifted kids serve, right? So how do we make sure everybody who wants to, gets to have impact? Right? Everybody wants to be engaged in that way. That’s a human need, to be connected and to be helpful to others.
And your book is a lot about that. How do we create conditions so that kids get to have that need met, and not just be alienated from themselves in their communities and their cultures and their schools?
I really appreciate that.
The last chapter before you write a lovely letter to teachers is about getting reflective and metacognitive and it makes a great case for me about PLP’s or portfolios. Places that we can capture those reflections.
I don’t really have a question about that, just deep appreciation for the resources and the perspectives you share. The strategies you share in that section. It’s a chapter I’m definitely going to be using with the teachers with whom I work.
Any thoughts or anything you’d like to add or any snapshots of that chapter you’d like to add for our listeners?
Elijah: Yeah, I talk a little bit about the student, the student portfolio presentations or effectively it’s like a personal learning plan or personal learning portfolio at the end of eighth grade, at the end of 10th grade, 12th grade, it could have been you know at any grade level but it is, we do them at the end of the year here at Randolph Union. It’s like a huge scheduling nightmare. It’s worse than scheduling exams. It’s really hard to do it well because we want to kids to be presenting to their advisor as well is there a past teacher and a future teacher.
And so, it’s hard to put those panels together but it is so healing, it is so important for educators to just sit and listen to young people talk about who they are as people in as learner’s. So, it’s one of those ways that we create like really meaningful academic and personal rites of passage in the school and it means a lot to the students because of course they’re building their vocabulary and their sense of and their sense of self and where they have struggles and they start to learn how to ask for help and where they have strength so they can learn how to apply those strengths.
It’s really good for young people. It’s also really good, really good for educators especially if it’s like I’m going to get to teach that kid next year or I worked with that child last year and look how far they’ve come, it could be such a healing ritual and the stakes feel really high but in a like a traditional bureaucratic accountability sense the stakes are very low, it’s not an exam. Yeah, you have to do it but really does your promotion to the next grade level depend on it? No, not really. But it feels really high stakes to everybody because people are sharing of themselves and it’s public speaking in your own community where you feel accountable and where you have those relationships.
I think it’s well worth the effort to have those personal learning journeys shared in person.
Jeanie: Yeah, I have the Compass School is down where I used to live and I spent some time at Compass School with students being on their panels for their senior portfolios and I hardly knew these students and I had tears in my eyes and it was such a beautiful process to watch them go through that and it reminds me again of two things that we talked about earlier.
One is exhibition night. Community members being able to come in. Because they always have community members on their panels, and see the impact of school on this kid.
And then two was the power of those stories. Coming back to the young person’s story and their developing story. Their developing narrative of themselves. And so I really appreciate how we’ve come full circle in this conversation, really thinking about that quote from the very beginning which I’m going to read again.
Better we help her find the words, and that they be spoken in safe and supportive spaces, with adults who care to listen.
I love that. Elijah, thank you so much for this book. I’m really grateful that it exists in the world and that I’m going to get to use it with teachers that I work with and thank you for talking to me about it, I really appreciate it.
Elijah: I’m very grateful for the conversation, Thank you Jeanie.