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With Larry Ferlazzo

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Teaching Opinion

Want Great Life Lessons? Pay Attention to Students

By Larry Ferlazzo — December 16, 2021 18 min read
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(This is the fourth post in a five-part series. You can see Part One here, Part Two here, and Part Three here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

What are the most important lessons you have learned from your students?

In Part One, Kyle Lawrence, Irina McGrath, Ph.D., Blanca Huertas, and Denise Fawcett Facey shared their experiences.

In Part Two, Naomi Bailey, Donna L. Shrum, Crystal Watson, and Jenny Edwards, Ph.D., contributed answers.

In Part Three, Aisha Christa Atkinson, M.S., Jen Schwanke, Matthew Johnson, and Andrea Baney offered their reflections.

Today, Cindi Rigsbee, Regie Routman, Ann Stiltner, and Janice Wyatt-Ross respond.

‘The Life Lesson of Unconditional Kindness’

Cindi Rigsbee is a national-board-certified ELA/reading teacher currently serving as a K-12 literacy coach in North Carolina. With over 30 years in education, Cindi was named the 2009 North Carolina Teacher of the Year and is the author of Finding Mrs. Warnecke: The Difference Teachers Make. She blogs at cindirigsbee.com:

I have always said my students have taught me more than I could ever teach them. I’m indebted to them for teaching me about relationships, unconditional kindness, and forgiveness. I owe my students so much. They have been teachers, too, without even realizing it.

Before I became a teacher, I didn’t understand how relationships develop. Now I know: They take time and they take information. For example, my students and I don’t automatically have positive relationships on the first day of school. I need to know more about them so that I can make connections. I assign interest surveys and journal entries in order to find out more about them. After teaching for several years, I realized (when I took new jobs or moved into new neighborhoods), I have to do the same thing to establish relationships outside of the classroom: I have to make connections with adults, too. And I have to be patient.

One year I started in a new school and introduced myself to a teacher. She apologized that she had to take a phone call; she was having child-care issues. In an effort to make a friend quickly, I offered to keep her children during the upcoming weekend. She looked at me like I was crazy. We had just met! It was then that I thought back to my students and how I patiently worked on relationships with them and watched them develop over time. I transferred that understanding to my adult life, and it worked. By spring, that teacher and I were friends—we even went camping together with our families!

Students have also taught me the life lesson of unconditional kindness. While developing relationships, I came to understand that I needed to be kind to ALL of my students, not just the ones who did my work, not just the ones who were being raised like I had been, and definitely not just the nice ones. ALL of them. Some of them made it difficult, I’ll admit. So I envisioned them as a parent might; for example, I thought of them asleep in their beds at night. Sometimes I would make a mental list of every redeeming quality I could think of. Once I had a student who pushed every button I had. I paced the floor one night thinking of him and I remembered: He talked incessantly about his new puppy. That was it—my connection! He loved his puppy. And I loved mine. We had a place to start.

Students also taught me about forgiveness. How many times did I get in an altercation with a middle schooler during the school day, fret about it all night long, rush to school to make amends, only to find that the student hadn’t thought another thing about it? I eventually learned to move on after conflicts like kids do. No more holding grudges or mulling over circumstances. Just smile and keep going. A 7th grader named Jamal taught me that.

When asked what students have taught me over the years, I can definitely think of teaching strategies they have shaped or learning styles I understand better now, but they also gave me great lessons to use in life, with students and adults alike.

ihavealwayscindi

‘Who Tells the Story?’

Regie Routman is an educational leader who is passionate about improving the literacy and learning lives of all students. For full information on Regie’s many books, articles, podcasts, videos, and professional learning offerings—and to contact her—go to www.regieroutman.org and @regieroutman on Twitter:

Looking back over five decades of teaching, learning, and leading, the biggest lessons I’ve learned from students all revolve around learning what’s possible when we prioritize and acknowledge learners’ strengths, interests, and efforts; respect and honor their language and culture; and truly “see” them and their families. When students know we value them and believe in them, teaching, learning, coaching, and leading can be transformed in profound ways. Learning efforts, expectations, enjoyment, and achievement can soar—for our students, our colleagues, and for us.

From my students, I have learned that three expansive actions and mindsets apply to learners of all ages and are necessary for promoting academic, social, and emotional well-being and are required for a thriving, enjoyable, equitable life in and out of school:

  • Love Your Students
  • Prioritize Student Voice and Choice
  • Make Storytelling Central

Love your students

I used to think it was enough to bond with our students, that it wasn’t possible to love them all, but a recent and ongoing experience—tutoring an adult man to read—has changed that. While developing trusting, respectful relationships with learners has long been at the center of my teaching and collaborating, that trust is sturdiest when students know we deeply care about them. Loving our students means “seeing” them, knowing who they are, speaking respectfully, and providing the guidance and supports that make high expectations for them real, not just rhetoric. When we truly hold high expectations for each learner, we act differently from when we view the learner primarily through a “disabled” or “labeled” lens. When we love our students, we provide expert guidance, resources and supports that build on each student’s strengths, interests, and culture and—very important—we celebrate their efforts and successes.

Some ways we love our students are to:

  • Help each student develop a positive identity as a reader, writer, speaker, learner.
  • Create a safe classroom culture where students feel free to express their thinking.
  • See the learner’s strengths before needs.
  • See errors as opportunities for growth, which takes away the fear that can work against learning.
  • Provide an intellectual culture with first-rate resources so all can succeed at high levels.
  • Start with a whole text or idea in reading and writing so students grasp key concepts and meaningful purposes. Starting with isolated skills and bits and pieces makes learning harder for students. Some never do get to see and value the overall purpose.
  • Build in more demonstrations and supports. When we ask students to try things on their own before they have had sufficient and expert demonstrations and shared experiences, we are setting many up for failure.
  • Reduce the need for intervention
  • Value ongoing formative assessment and informal evaluations, including students’ self-assessments.
  • Actively listen without judgment.
  • Give feedback that affirms the learner’s efforts and provides the learner with enough specifics, energy, and will to move forward in a positive manner.
  • Choose language carefully. A respectful, kind tone makes it more likely students will hear us and take a recommended action.
  • Assume all learners are capable.

Prioritize student choice and voice

Voice and choice are necessary for optimal learning. Like many teachers who learned how to follow a curriculum, mandate, or prescribed program, I used to do most of the talking and choosing in the classroom—topics to write, content to study, books to read, setting up the classroom library. One day a student said to me, “You talk a lot.” I thought that was my job. And, in fact, research has shown teachers typically do about 80 percent of the talking. But that student’s comment and decades of working with students—and getting better at my craft—taught me that until students choose most of the books they read and most of the topics they write about, too many students become compliant, bored, or “turned off” to school.

If having students do most of the choosing and talking sounds too radical, at least consider what I call choice-within-structure, that is, within a required framework or assignment, students have some choice and opportunities for their voices to be heard in a form or format they choose. From my students, I learned that the more they actively participate in their learning, the more engaged and successful they are.

Some ways we prioritize student choice and voice are to:

  • Actively listen, not just wait for the student to finish talking.
  • Value and encourage diverse thoughts and multiple ways to “show what you know.”
  • Make curriculum relevant and personal. Although there are always standards and nonnegotiables, refashion curriculum and the classroom environment to include a focus on real-world content and issues, writing for authentic audiences and purposes, and more student input in determining responsibilities, roles, and rubrics.
  • Encourage deep learning of fewer topics and give students more choice within structure.
  • Organize the classroom library with and by students.
  • Provide more opportunities for small-group work led by students.

Make storytelling central

Storytelling has gone on for eons; it’s how we express our full humanity. Storytelling includes—but is not limited to—the stories we read aloud, the stories we read and write, the stories of our lives, and the stories we tell ourselves about our students.

When I first began teaching, I didn’t hold the same high expectations for all students. A group of 1st graders struggling to learn to read changed all that for me in the mid-1980s when they pleaded to read the picture book I’d just read aloud to them and I said, “This book is too hard for you.” The children persisted as children do, and I relented. With their engagement and excitement and my support, they could and did learn to read the cherished book. My teaching changed forever that day. I saw the power of a well-told and illustrated story and moved away from prescriptive curriculum and adapted-language stories to real books and literature—those by published authors, those we wrote together, and those students wrote and published. That story is detailed in my first book for educators: Transitions: From Literature to Literacy.

As a nation, we are struggling mightily with “Who gets to tell the story?” Power, class, and fear of reprisals often mean those in power get to tell the stories. In his crucially important book, How the Word is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America, author Clint Smith asks the question: “How do you tell a story that has been told the wrong way for so long?” (p. 83). The curriculum we teach, the stories in the books we have students read must be inclusive to all students by respectfully and truthfully acknowledging their language and backgrounds. I have learned from my students and my life that who tells the story and how it is told are colored by how we view history, beliefs about other people and cultures, and how we see ourselves. Authentic storytelling—at the heart of every joyful classroom—has the potential to encourage and promote well-being, open-heartedness, active participation, creativity, and students’ willingness and eagerness to communicate and learn through their own stories and others’.

Some ways we make storytelling central to teaching and learning are to:

  • Read aloud every day, all kinds of literature—including picture books—regardless of the age of the students.
  • Encourage and make time for students to tell their own stories—orally, in writing, through multimedia, podcasts, videos, raps, songs, poems, scripts, texts, graphics—in various forms and formats.
  • Ensure the classroom library—and access to it—provides equal opportunities for all students to find and be able to read what interests them and dignifies them.
  • View history as stories—his story and her story—and ensure we include primary sources.
  • Bring our own stories into the classroom and encourage students to do the same.
  • Use stories to teach point of view and empathy—who is telling the story and how and why it’s told—and the danger of limiting information on a topic to a single story or text.
  • Use stories of courage, challenges, and hard-fought success to inspire students.

Perhaps, most crucial, storytelling is a way to help promote equity and hope—to ensure all students get to tell their stories in their own voices and to come to believe their future life stories are not predetermined, that students can have agency in their lives. We remember stories; they define us, so we need to ensure the stories we read, write, and share are inclusive and respectful to all and worth the time we devote to them.

onedayastudentregie

‘White Privilege’

Ann Stiltner is a high school special education teacher in Connecticut. She writes the blog from Room A212 Follow her on Twitter @fromrooma212:

The most important lessons I’ve learned from my students are also some of the most difficult lessons I’ve learned. Many of my high school students are young men of color. Through the years I have worked as an educator at this school, I thought I knew best how to teach them, connect with them, and help them. Recently, in light of George Floyd’s murder, the Black Lives Matter movement, and experiences with my students in the classroom, I have had to reevaluate my assumptions, take a hard look at my beliefs, and make changes to my instruction.

One conversation several years ago stands out. On this given day, I had chosen an extra reading assignment for students to work on if they finished the class activity early. Two young men of color finished their activity, and I gave them the assignment: a Scholastic Action article on Harriet Tubman. They reacted strongly saying they didn’t want to do the assignment. In talking to them some more, they shared that they were offended by the topic of the article. They did not understand why they had to read this. They did not want to be reminded constantly of the history of slavery. They did not like the implication that this is what teachers thought of when they saw them. Being related to former slaves is not how they were comfortable identifying themselves. They also shared that they had been uncomfortable reading novels dealing with gun violence and police brutality, things that they felt were not related to their life or the way they saw themselves and their experiences.

I was forced, in light of the books I was reading at the time and current events around racial injustice, to confront my white privilege and my presumptions about my students of color and their lived experience. It opened my eyes to the idea that their self-images were complicated and were a result of an intersectionality of diverse identities. They were showing me that their identity as a person of color was not what I had assumed. It challenged my preconceptions and made me take a hard look at my beliefs.

Many of these experiences, big and little, over the years have allowed me to reflect on my role as a white female teacher in a school with a population made up predominantly of students of color. It has pushed me to make changes in my instruction. I began to have students vote as a class on the books that they wanted to read, not assuming I knew what they would like to read. I realized, not surprisingly, that not all young people want to read about violence or trauma.

More importantly, these experiences have changed me as a person. I continue to thank those students for their honesty and bravery. They have helped me on my path of personal growth. They have allowed me to reflect on my role, challenge my identity and my privilege. I had been looking at their lives through my own lens and not actually hearing them.

By far, these are the greatest lessons my students have taught me no matter how hard it is to admit. I am appreciative to them and thank them for these opportunities to grow as an educator and a person.

iwasforcedann

‘I Took the Time to Listen’

Janice Wyatt-Ross has a bachelor’s in special education from the University of Central Arkansas, a master’s in special education from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, and a doctorate in urban educational leadership from the University of Cincinnati. She is now the program director for the Success Academy of the Fayette County public schools in Kentucky:

From the perspective of many adults, many students do not care about anything. They don’t care about their appearance. They don’t care what other people think about them. They don’t care about their future. As adults, we often view young children, adolescents, and teens as beings in need of guidance, direction, and protection only. While they do need all of those things and more, we tend to overlook the fact that they have thoughts, feelings, and opinions about their own selves. There have been times I have made judgments about a student’s decisions and forced my own preferences on that student. That all changed one day when I took the time to listen.

I was an assistant principal at a school that had a reputation of being full of disciplinary-problem students. We fought battles every day over cellphones and head coverings (hat, hoodies, and scarves). While doing my daily supervision of the cafeteria during lunch, I approached a young man and asked him to please take off his hat. He ignored my request. I stopped and asked him again to take off his hat. He moved his hand up toward his head as if to remove his hat. I kept walking, but out of the corner of my eye, I saw him push the hat further down on his head.

I turned around very sharply and sternly repeated my request. This time he responded in an angry tone, “I don’t know why it’s such a big deal anyway.” I was feeling disrespected at this point. But one thing I was not going to do was to have an argument with this student in the presence of 500 or more students in the cafeteria. I asked him to come to my office so that we could discuss this further. I explained that this was a private conversation that we should have in the office and not in front of everybody else. He slowly and begrudgingly walked with me across the hall.

After entering the office suite, I asked him why he did not want to remove his hat. After a little coaxing, he confessed that he had tried to cut his hair and he “messed it up.” I asked if I could see it. As the adult, I had the audacity to think that I could judge whether his haircut was good enough for him not to be embarrassed by it. He pulled his hat back, ever so slightly, and I saw the “messed up” haircut. He was absolutely correct. It was MESSED UP.

I told him, “Yeah, I can’t let you walk around like that and be teased all day.” I called our Youth Service Center (YSC) coordinator and asked if she had anything that we could use to hide this haircut. She said she did not know, but we were welcome to come look. The student and I walked to the YSC and found another hat that we could cut to fashion into a head band. The student happily put on the newly created headband, and I apologized to him for my behavior. He apologized as well, and I offered to get him another lunch because I had interrupted his. He thanked me and said he did not want anything. He wore his new headband for a month, until his hair grew back.

I have countess more stories of what I have learned from students. Because of this lesson learned the hard way, every other encounter with students wearing hats, scarves, or bonnets always began with “why.” Students in fact do care about their appearance. They do not want to be embarrassed. They have pride in how they present to the world. I do want them to understand appropriateness of time and place, but in the end, I learned to not be so quick to pass judgment on students based on my perception.

ilearnedwyatt

Thanks to Cindi, Regie, Ann, and Janice for contributing their thoughts.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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