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Dedicated to Teachers

On the Podcast: Building Better Heroes with Cornelius Minor


Today on the Heinemann Podcast, author Cornelius Minor on how the teacher as superhero narrative can be misleading if we don’t spend time with the imperfections that allow us to be human.

 In his new book, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, Cornelius crafts a better hero story for the profession of education. He writes: “we are allowed to fail, reflect, improve and try again.” To do this, he says it starts with authentically listening to our students.

Download the sample chapter from We Got This

If you’re a longtime listener of the podcast, you’ve no doubt heard Cornelius in earlier episodes on “Building Your Teacher Team,” or his recent interview with Kwame Alexander. Now, in his new book, Cornelius expands on his thinking of equity and access. He identifies tools, attributes, and strategies to help us make transformative teaching moves.

Our conversation begins with Cornelius’s early experiences in school, and his own search for powerful teaching…

Below is a full transcript of the conversation...

Cornelius: The peculiar thing about being a student who's new to the United States is, life can be really hard. I am originally from Liberia, and when I got to this country, I was used to Liberian ways of doing things, Liberian ways of saying things, Liberian ways of seeing the world. But then, when you get thrust into an American school, the object becomes to get as American as you can as fast as possible. And I think so many teachers encounter that where so many teachers are welcoming, and so many schools are open, but when you're a kid, you don't see any of that. You just want to fit in,.

And so I remember, as a young student, just laboring, doing everything I could to fit in. If American kids ate hamburgers, I wanted to eat hamburgers better. If American kids listened to hip-hop, I wanted to listen to more hip-hop. I spent so much of my life studying, really, America, specifically Atlanta and New York City, to figure out ... If I learn everything about McDonald's, and then a kid's having a conversation about McDonald's, I can jump in to that conversation and maybe I'll be cool. Or if I learn everything about hip-hop and read all the source magazines, maybe I can sit at that special lunch table where all the hip-hop kids sit.

And so I think, for teachers who are looking at a school ecosystem, that isn't always healthy for outsiders, or that isn't always healthy for the new kid. Considering culture and classroom culture and school culture is really important. Comic books were by ticket in. For me, hip-hop was my ticket in. For me, eating French fries at McDonald's was my ticket in. And so these things weren't mere cultural artifacts. They were survival for me. And I think for many of the kids that we mentor and many of the kids that we teach, doing our work in a way that is sensitive to those survival maneuvers and mechanisms is really important.

Brett: One ticket in for you, and you write about this pretty early on in the book, was Spider-Man.

Cornelius: Thank you.

Brett: How did Spider-Man become the ticket for you?

Cornelius: Here's the thing. Spider-Man is universal. So growing up in Liberia, I knew how Spider-Man was. I knew all the adventures. But the thing about transatlantic culture is we didn't always get all of the books. Or if we got the books, we got them years later. If we got the cartoons, we go them a season after.

Being in the United States and being able to pick up Spider-Man comics as they came out was a huge thing for me, and I remember getting my first comic book. For me, I read with a passion. Yes, I want to find out what's going to happen next. But I also want to know this world. Peter Parker lives in New York, and if he can navigate New York being as awkward and as strange as he is, then I can navigate New York being as awkward and as strange as I am.

So in many ways, it wasn't just a ticket. It was permission to be.

Brett: You also write that your ability to sustain a life depended on your teacher's ability to see you authentically. Say more about that.

Cornelius: Yeah. As I've worked in my own classroom and work through many people's classrooms, one of the things that I have to really resist doing is using this shorthand of seeing, where if I've got the kid that's the teacher pleaser, I've seen 20 other teacher pleasers before. And so if I meet a new kid that is a teacher pleaser, I start to treat them like all of the other teacher pleasers that came before them. Or if I've got a defiant kid, I start to treat that defiant kid like all of the other defiant kids before them.

And what that does is it erases a kid's identity. I don't get to see Rosa or Marshall or Virgil for who they are. I see them as this composite history that I've experienced, and that's not who kids are. So I think that we can best reach kids when we can look at Marshall and see Marshall for who he is. And so even if Marshall might be resistant, he's resistant a different way than last year's resistant kid was, and I can optimally teach Marshall when I labor to understand why he does what he does.

I think when we look at kid behavior and we look at the work that kids compose in our classrooms, all of that is communication. So when Marshall sits in the back of the classroom and puts his hoodie up, he's saying something to me, and I've really gotta listen.

Brett: You talk about how when we focus on heroes and when we think about heroes, we tend to omit the messy. Why is that a problem?

Cornelius: Hero worship is more American than almost anything I can consider. When one considers the story of America, there's the founding fathers. There's George Washington. There's all of this stuff. And what hero worship does is, again, it erases complication. If you have a society that is upheld by powerful teachers, things get disrupted, things change, because teachers see individuals. And if we see individuals, we can't do business as usual.

When I think about how oppression works and how silence works, one way to silence people is to deify them, because when you deify a person, what happens is that person all of a sudden now is not allowed to make a mistake, because they're a hero. Or that person isn't allowed to be complicated, or that person isn't allowed to grieve or to mourn.

I think hero worship is problematic because it takes away my humanity. It takes away all of the parts that aren't fully formed yet, all of the parts that are flawed. I really resist anything narrative that teachers are heroes. Yeah, we do awesome stuff every day, seven periods a day. But also, life is hard sometimes, and also, I don't know which direction to move, and also, I need support. And I think that's what excites me most about this current historical moment, is that there are teachers actively engaged in the dialogue of becoming. And I think when we label ourselves as "hero", that says I've already become.

Brett: One of the biggest themes in the book is how listening is our teacher superpower. How do we be better listeners?

Cornelius: Well, listening, first of all, centers the student. And we talk about being student-centered all the time. We go to big conferences that want us to be student-centered. But when we get to the question of how, again, that's where it often eludes us.

And one thing is always being present. I think a lot about my lesson planning, for example, and if I'm always in my head with what I'm going to teach next as a social studies teacher, as a science teacher, as an English teacher, then I'm not present with the kid. And so I've really been thinking about planning ahead of time and simplifying my plan so that when I'm in the classroom, I'm not thinking about my content, but I'm thinking about my children.

A second big part of it has been understanding that kids won't always communicate with words, or they won't always communicate with words that I want to hear. I think a lot of times as a teacher, the impulse to tone police kids is huge. And I have to consider my position. Often as a teacher that's communicating to a kid, I'm holding a lot of power. And whenever the powerful engage with the relatively powerless, that can become an issue, and kids can't always say the things that they need to say for fear of retaliation in my grade book.

And so wanting to distribute power is a really key component of listening. If I am listening, but then I'm holding all the power while I'm listening, kids aren't really communicating to me. And so really thinking about, how can I distribute power? How can I meet kids where they are so that when messages come up, even if they come up in ways that I don't want to hear or I'm not used to hearing, I'm still allowed to hear them?

And so, again, understanding that behavior is communication. Understanding that when a kid enters the room, their posture is communication. Understanding that when a kid engages another kid, the way they make eye contact is communication. And there's so much that we can read. But if I'm always listening for the message as my teacher ears are used to hearing it, then I'm going to miss out on so much of the kid life that's happening in my classroom.

Brett: You have a lot of personal stories in the book where you talk about your failures of not listening, or moments where you realized you weren't listening, and then something negative or something bad happened on the other end of it.

Cornelius: The consequence for not listening can be great in any relationship. In amorous relationships, in student-teacher relationships, in family relationships. So I think it's important for us to hold onto stories. Each failure that I have is instructive. We know the instructive nature of failure in sport, in writing, but to really look at the instructive nature of failure in relationships is critical for me. I think I tell stories not just so that I can be better, but so that we can be better.

Brett: You also talk about how you listen for what you call transferable skills.

Cornelius: Yes.

Brett: What do you mean by that?

Cornelius: Well, a transferable skill for me is any skill that can be used in one context and then taken into a different context. I think a lot of times about what we teach kids, and the skills that we teach kids are good when you're in class. But class is a relatively sanitized environment. It's safe in a classroom. I control all the conditions.

But to take something that I learned in school and to walk out into society with it, sometimes it doesn't work. So if I teach kids, this is the way, how an essay always goes, and then they walk out into the world and an essay doesn't go like that, that erodes trust. Being able to transfer skills, for me, isn't just academic. It's relational, that I can build trust in a classroom community if, when I teach you a thing in this classroom, it works when you talk to your stepdad. Or if I teach you a thing in this classroom, it works when you talk to your two moms.

And so one of the things that's really, really important for me is thinking about, how can I help kids to do a thing like text evidence, and then also helping them to understand, yeah, text evidence in my classroom, in this essay, is also going to help you live in a way in the world where people are going to give you what you want because you're always supporting your ideas with evidence? We're not going to get kids who hold onto our lessons if they only work in academic settings, because so much of the lives that they want to live, so much of the world that they want to change, is out there. And I've gotta teach you how to use the tools that I give you here out there.

Brett: And you even have some really good examples in the book of the tools and certain situations ... You have the story of [Quick 00:09:21], for example, who ... That was a moment where both you needed to listen, and you also needed to give him some transferable skills.

Cornelius: So years ago I taught a kid. His name was Quick, and Quick was in many ways the perfect student. He was the most popular, the most athletic, the most good-looking. He was everything that a middle school kids wants to be. And there was one day during lunch where he stepped into my classroom and he asked me for help.

And Quick never struck me as the kind of kid that would need help. And so when he came to me, and he's like Minor, I need your help," I looked at him and I was just like, "Quick, for all I know, you're passing all your classes, your friends are really supportive. You don't need my help." And he immediately became angry.

And as I watched his anger grow in intensity, one of the things that I realized was my initial statement that you don't need my help was dismissive, that I read his social status and I assumed that a kid like that would never need my help. And so I completely erased his truth in a sentence.

And the lucky thing for me was that Quick was the kind of kid that wouldn't let me get away with it. So immediately, he challenged me. And at the time, he was going through a really tough situation at home, and he's hidden that from all of his peers. And so that wasn't a thing that I would've seen in the classroom, but he was ready to tell me about it, but I had silenced him. And one of the things that came up for Quick was that he needed to get some adults to listen to him. None of them were listening to him, and so he wanted my advice about it.

And the more I reflected on that, I was like ... Wow. I've got all of these adults who profess to love students and profess to love kids like Quick, but they're not listening to them. And Quick needed to figure out a way to be heard. And the more I reflect on it, I thought I had taught him these things. But I had taught him these things in a very academic kind of way. So I had taught him how to make strong claims in essays, and I had taught him how to present counterpoints in essays. But I hadn't taught him how to do those things when you're confronted with adults who refuse to hear you.

So how do I teach a kid to take the claim that I taught you in English class and bring that claim into a principal's office so that the principal will listen? How do I teach that kid how to take this counter-evidence and take that out of an essay and present it to the director of a homeless shelter to get that person to listen to you?

And so I've really become quite obsessed with looking at ... What do kids have to face in life, and how can I take all of these discursive tools that I'm teaching in literature class, and teach them how to use those tools in their lives?

Brett: One of the things you said there was that Quick challenged you, and you write in the book how you like to create an environment where the students challenge you. Why is that important to you?

Cornelius: So much of teaching, if we're not careful, can become monologue, where it's me talking at kids. And if I create an inclusive environment, there's a possibility that our teaching can become dialogue, and I live for that possibility.

The idea that what I say isn't ever going to be the final word, that learning has to occur, and the best way for that learning to occur is for kids to talk back to me. There are really concrete things that we can do to create these spaces for kids, and one of the things is showing vulnerability so that kids know that I am not an expert. I apologize to kids, and so when I mess up, here's an adult who's going to say, I'm sorry. And so what that communicates is, if he messes up again, we can alert him, and it's not going to be dangerous for me, the kid.

So many times when kids alert us to our own shortcomings, that becomes an academic liability for the kid. And so what that does over time is it silences kids. We've grown whole generations of kids that don't talk back to adults because we don't let them. And so I think it is really, really important to craft these spaces where kids can challenge us.

One of the things that has happened to me is sometimes, I silence kids if the message doesn't sound like I want to hear it. There was a day where we were all supposed to go on a field trip to the Botanic Gardens, and the Botanic Gardens in Brooklyn are amazing. They're probably the best Botanic Garden on the planet. I'm very biased, but they're amazing. And it rained on that day, so we couldn't go. And the kids were visibly disappointed.

And as we were filing in that morning, I was meeting them at the door and just telling them that the rain is pretty severe, so we can't go to the Botanic Garden. And one particular kid was audibly and visibly angry. So when she communicated her anger to me, it was not pleasing to my ears. And so again, I silenced her. But then as I moved through the day, I was like, a kid who's been looking forward to the Botanic Gardens all month is not going to be calm when they talk about not being able to go.

And so I realized that I should've created some space for her to be angry, because that's what I would be if I was looking forward to the Botanic Gardens all month. That's what I would be if first thing I learned in the morning is I'm not going to go on this trip. And so I've really been thinking about ... I'm going to communicate a message to some kids, and they're going to feel a certain way. They might be sad, they might be angry. What part of my classroom allows that sadness to sit for a while, and then what part of my classroom helps them to work through that sadness so then it can be productive?

I don't allow for things like disrespect or just rampant, unchecked anger. But I do allow for anger, because we feel it. I do allow for sadness, because we feel it, really illustrating for kids that sadness can belong here, and that's okay, that you're allowed to emote. You're allowed to be an individual, you're allowed to be human. And we all are that. And I think that so much of teaching and learning, we've subscribed to this stoicism that is really unhealthy for us.

Brett: If a teacher hears that and they get nervous about things like losing control of the room or losing control of the class, how do you respond to that?

Cornelius: Well, there is a way to share power without losing control, and I think about that a lot. For example, everything down to the time that I use in a classroom ... So one of the things I might say simply to a kid is, hey, I'm about to teach this lesson. This lesson's going to be nine minutes long, but I tend to run over some time, and so could you hold onto my watch and just give me a hand signal when I'm at eight minutes, and so I'll know that I have one minute left?

And that seems like a pretty innocuous request of a kid. But that does several things. That publicly says to every kid in that room that this teacher values our time. And as teachers, often one of the things that we do is we undermine our own authority by lying to kids. So we say a thing like, hey, we're going to do this thing for five minutes. And then 17 minutes later, we're doing the same thing. That's an implicit lie, and so kids trust us less.

And so being able to say to a kid, I want my lesson to be nine minutes, will you help me keep track of the time, is a powerful thing, because kids ... Okay, this guy means what he says. But then every kid in the room just saw me hand power over to another kid. So now, all of a sudden, a 12-year-old can weigh in with the teacher and say, hey, your lesson's going too long. That simple sharing of power ... And do I really need a kid to do that? No, I can tell time. But I think it's really important to make these demonstrative, generous, giving power away, being really generous in that way, because then kids start to say, well, what else would he share? And if I share this idea, would he honor that? And through my actions, the answer is yes.

One of the things that I'm always looking at ... How can I raise a kid's status in the eyes of their peers? And so when you now have the power to ask the teacher to stop teaching, all of a sudden your status in front of your peers goes up. And when you are able to raise a kid's status around their peers, they become loyal to you. Here's a teacher who's not going to demean me. Here's a teacher who's not going to disrespect me. So anything this guys asks, I'm in. And I think that that's really important.

Brett: What are some other ways that we can remove barriers of success for kids?

Cornelius: Yeah, there's so much about school that's about us and not about children. And it's fascinating that I often ask kids, what could I do for you that would help you to be optimally successful here? And I learned so many lessons. The simple mandate, I was working with a kid, and I'm left-handed too so I should've known this. But he is like, you just mandated that we all use a spiral notebook, and I'm left-handed. Every time I use a spiral notebook, it hurts my hand and I smear ink all over the page. Can I use a different notebook? Yes, of course you can use a different notebook. And so the notebook itself was a barrier to success.

But so many times as teachers, we get caught up in ... Your notebook has to look this way and it needs to be this color, and your name needs to be on the upper left-hand corner. And all of this stuff that doesn't matter. And so being able to suspend all of those stupid rules and just say, use the notebook that works best for your hand. And that's a small barrier to success, but we also engage in these huge barriers.

I was working with a group of kids and we were doing this project that required each kid to weigh in publicly in front of the class. And a young man came to me and he's just like, "I have been practicing my speech. I have written my essay. But I just don't feel comfortable in front of the class. If I do it, I'm going to cry and it's just not going to go well." And I was like, of course I'm not going to make you do the thing. And I remember sitting in the teachers' lounge after, and there was this huge argument where we were going back and forth. They're like, well, you didn't make Stan give his presentation, and that's unfair 'cause every other kid had to give their presentation, and Stan's going to get the same grade as some other kid. Well, I'm like, well, Stan talked to me at length about his anxiety. And so I'm not going to force him to go through that humiliating experience if it's going to undermine his personhood, that Stan and I can think about doing something different.

And Stan was totally cool with making a YouTube video. And so we did that instead, and to be the kind of teacher that sticks to the in-class presentation in that particular context ... And there's nothing wrong with in-class presentations. But to take a kid who suffers from high anxiety and say that you've gotta do it just because every other kid did it is wrong, and then it again is a huge barrier to Stan's success, that Stan could communicate his ideas in other ways. He'd already written the essay, he'd already rehearsed the presentation. It was just being in front of the audience that terrified him.

And so, hey. We'll do a YouTube video today, and if audiences terrify you and you want to get better at audiences, we can practice later. But really recognizing what each kid needs and laboring to give kids that thing can be powerfully liberating for children.

Brett: We've talked a lot about how important it is for us to listen to our students, and all the different ways that we need to listen to our students. But how do we then come back around to getting our kids to listen to us?

Cornelius: Yeah, yeah. I think about that so much, and so much of my career has been the eternal teacher battle, will these kids just listen to me? But one of the things that I've really started thinking about is ... If I make it a point to listen to children first and to center their desires in my teaching, then they'll listen. A kid told me once ... We were on our way to a soccer game, and he was complaining to me that his parents would not let him go to the seventh grade dance, and he really wanted to go to the seventh grade dance. And I asked him, "Well, why won't your mom let you go to the seventh grade dance?" And he's like, "Well, she says that she never knows where I am."

And so I was like, "Well, just get good at telling her where you are, and you'll build trust." And he's like, "What do you mean?" And I couldn't answer in that moment, and I remember going home and thinking about it. And then I showed up the next Tuesday, and I remember embedding into my lesson ... I was teaching kids how to look at details in their writing. And I was like, one detail that you might want to include in your writing or in your speech is you can be really specific about place and time. Now, when you're really specific about place and time in your writing, that does all kinds of wonderful things as a storytelling. But in your life, if you're really specific about place and time, adults trust you more, and they'll be more willing to let you go to dances.

And all of a sudden, all of the kids looked up at me. They were like, what? And then all their notebooks came out and they were writing this down. So, you mean to tell me if I'm specific about place and time, adults will let me do things that I want to do? And I'm like, absolutely. Now, I'm not guaranteeing that this will happen every time, but yeah, if you're the kind of person that gets used to always communicating that, adults will trust you more.

I'm really learning to listen to what kids want out of life and make sure that those things are present in my lessons. So if kids want to go to dances more, I think about, how can I teach reading, how can I teach writing, how can I teach science, how can I teach social studies in a way that's going to position the kids to be that kind of person in life?

There was one kid who was sharing with me that she really wanted to support her grandmother. Her grandmother was going through a medical procedure that was really scary for her, and the adults in her family kept secrets from her. And she wanted to figure out how to support her grandmother, understanding why an adult would keep a secret. But she's like, "I feel like no one's letting me in." And so I thought about it again, and I wanted to ... We were working on some stuff in social studies. And I was like, "So, here's a way to study an event that demonstrates your maturity so that people will share more with you."

And so, yeah, we did it in social studies. We were looking at the Civil War, and we're studying this event in this very mature way. But then I'm like, then you can take this and you can study family events in the same mature way, and you can engage adults in difficult conversations around your personal history, around your family history. So the same difficult conversations that we have around US history, you can have those at home, and adults will let you in. And kids listen because they want to be in those conversations at home.

And so really identifying, what do kids want outside of my classroom and how do I bring those things into my classroom, is really important.

Brett: What I'm noticing there in your teacher [inaudible 00:21:57], Cornelius, is that you aren't necessarily giving your students a response in that second. You're talking to them, you're listening to them. But you're also going away. You're thinking through a lot. And then you're coming back a few days later and weaving it into something else.

Cornelius: Absolutely.

Brett: That seems like a really important thing to highlight. How do you balance the need of the answer you need to give your student right now? 'Cause we know middle schoolers. They want an answer right now. They want everything right now.

Cornelius: Exactly.

Brett: So how do we balance that, between the immediacy, and ... You need time to process, you need time to think.

Cornelius: Yeah, yeah. One of the things, and I've gotten good at just doing it in front of children, where I just name ... Here's what I can tell you right now. But because I love you, I'm going to go home and think about it some more, and I'll be able to tell you more later. So I always give a sample. But then I walk away, and then when I come back, I can say, "Brett and I three days ago were talking about a thing. And so this lesson is for you, Brett." And so I almost dedicate a lesson or I dedicate an anchor chart or I dedicate an aside to kids.

And so there are several times in my lesson where I'll just say, "This thing is in my lesson because of a conversation that I had with Brett." And what happens socially is Brett sits up straighter, and what happens socially is all of Brett's friends start to wonder, how can I get the teacher to dedicate a lesson to me? And so it fosters even more conversation. And so people come to me after class and they're like, that thing that you said for Brett? Here's what I was wondering.

And so I find myself in these really beautiful conversations with people because I'm willing to go home and reflect on it. And I think people know that you love them when you go home and think about them. So I don't have to tell you that I love you, because that can feel very awkward in a middle school classroom. But I go home, and I think about you, and kids come to me all the time. They're like, wow, you really went home and you thought about that question. I'm like, yeah, because you're my student and I think that's a big thing, because kids are forever loyal after that.

I always joke, and I teach in Brooklyn, and Brooklyn kids are colorful. And I used to say that I wouldn't normally say that a Brooklyn kid is well-behaved, but they are loyal. And I think that's true of kids everywhere, that as teachers, we struggle with this notion of behavior, and behavior suggests compliance, that you've gotta listen to me and do what I say. But I want to build loyalty. I want to listen to you and do some of the things that you say, and so this becomes not a ... I have to listen to the teacher thing, but this becomes ... we listen to each other, and our classroom community is stronger for it.

Brett: So how do we balance being a good teacher and being a good employee?

Cornelius: That's a tough one. So many times when we think about teacher culture, teacher culture is also built on compliance, that you do what the principal says. And you have to do what the principal says because the superintendent said it first. And if you don't do what the principal says, then you're going to have a hard time.

But then when you listen to kids, that requires you to step outside of the lines sometimes, and so if I center a kid and kids really need to know how to have the kinds of conversations in their communities that give them more power, and kids really need to know how to have the kinds of conversations at home that give them more independence, sometimes that's not in the script. So I find myself as a teacher in this really interesting tension where, on the one hand, I want to be a good teacher, and that necessitates that I listen to kids. But then I also want to be a good employee, and that necessitates that I listen to the principal.

And so balancing that, for me, has really been rooted in research. I think about the things that are going to be best for children, and I think about the things that I've been asked to do, and ask myself, is there space in here for that? And if there's not space in here for that, how can I create it? And when I create that space, I go ahead and I try the thing. And when I try that thing, I'm trying it with an eye toward my research, and I'm measuring my results.

So I've tried the thing that I want to do that's going to be good for kids. It might not be the thing that the principal said I do, but I'm trying it anyway. And I might only try it for four or five or seven days. And when I've tried that thing for a short amount of time, while I'm working on it, I'm making notes about how the kids responded. I'm making notes about how productive they were. I'm making notes about how much work they got done. And now I can go to the principal and I can say, hey, principal. That thing that you asked me to do? I did it a little differently, but here's how productive the kids were. Here's some examples of their work. Here are the quality of the conversations that they had. Here's how happy they were.

And so instead of being in a yes sir, yes ma'am kind of situation, now I'm in a negotiation where we're looking at ... Here's the thing that you asked me to do. Here's what I added to it, and here is the net impact that it had on the children that we both profess to love. And that's been a really important move, that I'm not just saying a rampant or blanket no to a thing that I'm being asked to do, but I'm really thinking about the things that I'm asked to do through the lens of student experience.

Brett: But there are times when we do need to say no.

Cornelius: Yeah.

Brett: How do we do the no in a productive way?

Cornelius: I am really good about saying no, A, because I'm a teacher and I can't do everything. When you look at all of the initiatives and mandates that come down, we're often asked to do 500 things in a day that will only allow us to do 499. And so how do I choose the thing that I'm going to say no to?

And so I've started saying no by making earnest attempts. So even if I have misgivings about a thing that I'm asked to do, I'll do it anyway, to a point. And again, I'll do it with an eye toward, is this thing making my students more productive? Is this thing supporting and sustaining our classroom community? Is this thing making kids happy? And if the answer to any one of those things is no, then now I've got a legitimate complaint about the thing that I've been asked to do. So if I'm asked to do a reading activity, or if I'm asked to do a writing activity, I get to ask, well, what's the point, first of all? Can I do it in any other way? And if I have to do it this way, then what's the impact that it's having on kids?

And so I'm able to justify my nos because if I do a thing and it doesn't have a positive result for children, then I can bring my data. So I can collect all the student work, I can videotape a few student conversations, and I can sit in the [great 00:27:45] team meeting and say, "Hey, I tried the thing earnestly, but then here's what came of it. So we're going to have to figure out a way to make this thing better."

So my nos aren't terminal nos. My nos are invitational nos, where it's like, yeah. I'll try the thing because I want students to write strong essays too. But the way that we've been asked to do it isn't going to get us there. And I know that because I've actually tried it and researched kids. And so now we get to think about how we can do it in a different way.

We've sold ourselves on this notion that there's only one way to write an essay, or one way to get to the solution of a math problem. It's completely false, that following a curriculum doesn't mean that I am a zombie, that doesn't mean that I have to follow it blindly ... that I can follow it with my students in my heart and my creativity on my mind.


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Learn more about We Got This at Heinemann.com

Download the sample chapter from We Got This

corneliusminorCornelius Minor is a Brooklyn-based educator. He works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support equitable literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe. Whether working with educators and kids in Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York City, Cornelius uses his love for technology, hip-hop, and social media to bring communities together. As a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, Cornelius draws not only on his years teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with young people.

You can connect with him on Twitter at @MisterMinor.

Topics: Cornelius Minor, Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, We Got This, Peter Smagorinsky, Cornelius Minor Podcasts

Date Published: 11/15/18

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