Today on the Heinemann Podcast, we’re continuing our series of conversations with author Cornelius Minor.
Today Cornelius is teaching us how to make time for change, and the power of being what he calls “semi-brave.”
The ability to be brave, Cornelius says, is not an inherent trait, but rather a skill that is utilized when the time is right. In his book, We Got This, Cornelius says it’s not necessary to be brave every second of every day, but rather in the moments when we are called upon to raise our voice and advocate for the right thing.
We started our conversation with how to be rebellious in the classroom...
Cornelius: It's the thing I grapple with every day. I think to really get my mind around it, I've thought about all of the things that we know about the world of kids and habit. We know that our girls are underrepresented in science and technology. We know that children of color continue to be suspended at rates exponential to their white peers. We know that poor children are more likely to attend schools that are underresourced and underfunded. These things are wrong. They're racist, they're classist, they're sexist. I think for many of us who care about children and care about communities, we are backed into this radical stance where we are staring at racism every day. We are staring at sexism every day, that even though school is a great place, and we are great people, school as an institution continues to perpetuate these things.
I feel like for the last few years, especially, educators who are really close to kids are in this radical distance, but then that does force the question, yeah, how do I stay job secure when I'm combating rampant sexism, when I'm combating homophobia, when I'm combating classism. How do I stay job secure? I've really been grappling with that because there's not quite a clear answer. For me, I've really tried to boil it down into three things. So many teachers in our communities really care about children. They care about families, and so I locate my first action or my first teacher action where I think about how do I communicate to the communities that I serve?
When I think about what I can do as a radical teacher, stay in touch is the first thing where I'm always thinking about, how do I speak with parents? How do they speak back to me? Do parents have a way to get to me that is not a parent-teacher conference? Do parents have a way to get to me that is not through the principal's office? I want to make sure I'm as close as possible to parents. I've been thinking at the top of each year for the last two years, I've been asking parents, "What's the best way for me to get to you?" Is it an email newsletter, or do you all have the kind of inboxes that are cluttered all the time? Is it a text message? Really allowing parents to talk to me and say, "Hey, Cornelius, this is how we want to hear from you."
Recently, I've been using a few apps, or I tell parents, "Hey, I'm always going to post student work on this hallway," so if you want to know how the kids are doing, it's always going to be over here, but really just establishing that communication because what starts to happen is I want to make sure that communication is two-way. It's not just me communicating out to parents, but if I do it well, parents start to talk to me. When parents start to talk to me, what shows up is their concern about their girls. What shows up is how much they want their kids to read. What shows up is their frustration around not having access to certain resources. Now all of a sudden, my radical posture is justified because I've got parents.
When I think about how I maintain my job in a system that forces me into this radical position, it's because I'm always in touch with community. If every action that I engage in is linked to the community, then I'm always going to win. I think that's been a big thing. For me, the second big action has been rooted in the actual content that I teach, that I've got to be really good at my content. If I'm going to be a radical educator, I got to be good at teaching English because that's what I do. The nouns, the verbs, I got to be on it. What happens is you get a lot of autonomy in a school building if people know that at the end of the day you know your stuff. Even though I care about racism, sexism, homophobia, classicism, ableism, even though I care about all these things, I got to be really good at the teaching of literature.
Brett: Yeah, you’ve got to be on top of your game.
Cornelius: Exactly. It's been really fun to inform informal study groups with other teachers, some in my department, some at other schools, but to sit and say, "Hey, we're going to meet once a week, and we're just going to get good at what we do, so we'll be those people that when you come to our classrooms, every kid is going to be on top of their game in terms of vocabulary." Every kid is going to be on top of their game in terms of their essay writing. That way, when I do these other things on the side that speak to some of the broader issues that concern me, those actions are not questioned because I've taken care of first things first. That's been really huge for me.
Then the third thing, how do I maintain my posture as a radical educator, is my peers and my colleagues, that a lot of times when I'm tired, a friend will lift me up, and so staying in touch.. I think one easy way to destroy any social movement is to keep its participants occupied and isolated. If I want to kill a movement, I just make everybody busy, or I force everybody out of contact. I think if we want to move toward more equitable futures, we got to be in contact with each other. That's been huge for me.
Brett: Even on the train ride here to talk to me today, you met a teacher who is in her second year. She was unaware that community was there.
Brett: You introduced her to the community.
Cornelius: Yeah, exactly. That, to me, feels intentional. When we think about the history even of union organizing in this country, one of the things that union busters wanted to do first, it was they wanted to make sure that people couldn't communicate. They discourage you moving in with your friends. They discourage you from becoming neighbors. They discourage you from having barbecues because those things foster collaboration. Those things foster forward social momentum. I do think that though it might not appear so on the surface, one of the most radical things that you can do as a teacher is to invite somebody for coffee, or to sit and talk about how your week went, and to strategize about next week. What these things do is they connect us because so many times we feel like we're in our own classroom suffering individually, and we're not, that we can reach out to another person and say, "Hey, your struggle is the same as mine. Let's share resources. Let's share insight." That, to me, has been so exciting to see.
I think that we're in a really powerful historical moment right now where you've got teacher social media that's on fire. You've got teachers reading more and more, that our access to research, and our access to each other is really just exploded. It's not uncommon for me to show up at my local coffee shop, and to have a friend drop by, and talk about teaching, but not just talk about it in the old way that we used to do. We used to sit around and complain a lot. As our profession has matured, I think what we're doing now is we're strategizing, that strategy used to be a word reserved for those people who sought to shape the world. Strategy was very much a top-down, national agenda kind of thing, but when I think about the proletarian nature of strategy, it's us getting together and deciding to be in control of our own teacher destiny.
Brett: You've said in the past to be mindful of not getting lost in the complaining, not to get caught up there, but there's a place for it, certainly. You're not saying, "Don't complain." You got to get it off your chest, but you said, "Do that, and then take the next step."
Cornelius: Exactly, so it's just been really fun, and even that our complaining, yes, it cleanses us. It gets us all out there, but then to say, "Let's lay out three ways that this can go now" is really, really important, or to designate time to say, "Hey, we're going to meet up on Tuesday, and Tuesday is going to be all complaining, but then we meet up on Thursday we're going to take those complaints and move forward.”
Brett: It's time to strategize.
Cornelius: Yeah, but that strategy isn't in the realm of a superintendent or a principal. It's in the realm of the teacher, and that we can do that.
Brett: A lot of teachers are worried about community, but there's a lot of other things we want to do with our days. At the same time, we want to get home by 4:00, pick up our kids. We want to make dinner. We want to be there for our own families. How do we decide where to put our efforts in?
Cornelius: The question that I've really been asking myself is exactly that. Where is the revolution for the semi-brave person who's got to pick the kids up by 4:00?
Brett: I like semi-brave. I like how you say that because it's like, "I've got till 4:00."
Cornelius: Exactly. I think so many times when we think about the activists who have cultivated the change that we appreciate, we think about those people in these heroic terms where these people are brave. They're courageous, and the titles of all the books that we're asked to read, How to Have More Courage, How to Have More Bravery, and sometimes I look at that and I'm like, "I got 65% courage. I'm not 100% courage.” There are some things that scare me still, so figuring out what do you do if you're the guy with 65% courage? How do you get stuff done? For me, again, the answer lives in a few places. I think, first of all, it's deciding on priorities, that as teachers we've got huge hearts, and because we've got huge hearts, everything concerns us. I've had to really identify the difference between my realm of concern and my realm of actual influence, that yes, I'm concerned about poverty. Yes, I am concerned about my neighborhood, and I'm concerned about the ecosystem. I'm concerned about the recycling program at the school, but those things are huge and can overwhelm me, if I'm not careful.
I've really had to sit back and think, "Cornelius, what are the things that you actually have power to change right now?" For me, sometimes, those are in classroom things. Those are out of classroom things. Those are things that my neighbor and I can get together to do. I prioritize my activism around what are the things that I actually have the power to do? Then the second thing I've been thinking about is, what can I teach myself, so that my realm of actual influence grows for the next time? When I'm thinking about that work of being that semi-brave educator, I have two hemispheres that I operate in. What are the big priorities that I can influence right now, and what's the learning that I can do, so that I can fight a bigger fight the next time? That learning has been so exciting because it means I get to sit next to other teachers. It means that I get to listen to children. It means that I get to check in with families.
I've really sought to learn, how can I listen better to communities? How can I listen better to kids, and then how can I act efficiently when I do listen? One of the things that I'm thinking about right now, I spend a lot of time playing soccer and skateboarding with kids. Almost all of my teacher ah-ha moments happen at soccer. Middle school is just a bizarre place. Middle school soccer makes it just even more so. During a game, there was a kid on the other team that was smack talking my goalie, and just every time he'd come down the field, just smack talk, smack talk, smack talk. Finally, the goalie was just like, "If you think you can do this, come on and try." The kid was like, "Okay." I'm on the sidelines, and I'm watching my goalie trade jerseys with a kid on another team where he dared the kid to step in the goal box and try it. This is mid-game, so I'm losing it. This kid that I don't know is now standing ...
Brett: In your goal.
Cornelius: ... in my goal, and my kid is wearing another ... Middle school, again, bizarre. We stopped the play, and I call them over. I'm just like, "What are you doing?" What he said was he was just like, "This kid doesn't understand how hard my work is." That was such a statement.
Brett: That's pretty powerful.
Cornelius: That's empathy, where he was just like, "This kid keeps trash talking me because he doesn't understand how hard it is to be me." He forced this kid into this capacity building position, and I've been asking myself, "How many times do I do that as a teacher?" Am I brave enough to do that? Am I brave enough to look at a thing that I want to critique, and force myself into that posture? When I think about my own professional learning, so that I can fight bigger fights the next time, it's getting with a couple of friends and forcing myself into a different posture. It's really easy to critique the literacy coach, but then to force myself into the posture of a literacy coach, even though I'm not one, is a really big thing. What it does is it generates all this empathy for that person, but then it also generates all this insight for me that I get to take into the next fight. I've been thinking a lot about that.
Brett: You've been giving a lot of thought about bravery, but you've also talked about being semi-brave. What do you mean by semi-brave?
Cornelius: It's a term that I've borrowed from my friend Dolly Chu. She has a great book where she really attempts to grapple with who we're supposed to be and what we're supposed to do in this fractured world. I think for many of us, as teachers, we didn't have to wait for politics to go awry to live in a fractured world, that for many of us we walk into classroom spaces where we don't have enough books, or where kids are so needy, or there's so much to do. I think, for me, when I think about all of the things that we are called to do as educators, I've got to say, "No" to something. That's been the hardest part of my work. I'm asked to do word study. I'm asked to do reading and writing. I'm asked to chaperone the seventh grade dance. I look at the hours in my day, and I've only got 24, but then I've got work enough for 36. Saying, "No" can feel like such an extraordinary thing especially when you've got a principal, or superintendent, or a literacy coach looking in your direction.
One of the things that it's just fallen on my consciousness is that I've got to find the bravery to say, "No" when asked to choose among a bunch of good things for children. Then sometimes I've got to find the bravery to say, "No" when asked to do things that I know aren't going to work for kids, and to say, "No" and look at a superintendent, or say, "No" and look at a principal can feel like a dangerous thing especially for a person like me, again, who ... It's interesting because that word brave comes up so much that people like to look at my work, and they're like, "Cornelius, you're thinking, you're writing. You're in a bunch of classrooms. You're such a brave person. You're doing all this social justice work. You're doing all this advocacy. You're such a brave person." I don't think any one of us is actually brave. I think that brave exists in units of time, that I don't think brave is an adjective that describes a person. I think that brave is an adjective that describes windows of time.
For me, brave is the two seconds that it takes for me to deliver a no when I know that a thing isn't going to be good for kids. For me, brave is the four seconds that it takes to stand up for another teacher when she's having a bad day. I don't think I live my day as a brave person. I think I have these windows of brave where when the world really calls upon me to do a thing that needs doing, I stand up, and I do the thing.
Brett: You even said that bravery can be choices that we make in our classroom in the moment.
Cornelius: Exactly. When we think about all the heroes that we look up to, I don't think anyone gets up in the morning and plans for brave. I think a kids sneezes and needs a Kleenex, and you're right there to give it to them. You're brave in that moment, or somebody's mom is late to pick them up. They start crying, and they're afraid that their mom might not come, so you spend the extra five minutes until their mom gets there. None of us wakes up in the morning and plans to be brave. I think that the brave happens to us. As I have matured in my career, brave has gone from being the one that spends the extra four or five minutes with the kid who misses their mom to now being able to sit across the table from a principal and say, "Actually, the thing that you're asking me to do that we know might be good, I'm going to have to say, 'No' to that because I'm doing 20 other things." That can feel terrifying.
Brett: Oh god, yes.
Cornelius: That notion of semi-brave, that I'm not the one that's going to be at the front of the march. I am not the one that's going to testify in front of Congress, but I am the one that's going to make the right call when that right call needs making. I think that as teachers, all of us can be that. Not every one of us is going to go testify in front of Congress, but every one of us can look at a moment and say, "Do I really think this is good for children?" If not, I say, "No." If yes, I proceed. It even gets to issues of race, and class, and gender, and ability, and nationality, that as these issues come up in a classroom, people say, "Cornelius, you again, are brave because you know how to talk about race in a classroom," or you are brave because you know how to challenge books when they don't belong in our library, or you are brave because you know how to lobby for more inclusivity.
Again, I don't think it's the way that I live my life. It's how I look at the library and realize that these books might give negative characterizations of specific groups of people, and I can find better books, or these books might not be inclusive enough of kids with disabilities, or kids from single-parent homes. I think, again, when we push for things that bravery it feels like every other book want us to be brave, or every other book wants us to be a change-maker. Those things are great, but those things can feel overwhelming.
Brett: Sometimes it seems like, too, we forget that, or maybe we don't know in some cases, that we all possess a little bit of power.
Brett: We all have the ability to wield that power in various different ways. As you say, in units of time, that power can be shown in just four seconds.
Cornelius: Yes. I think so much of our world is dominated by all that we love and all that we have to do. It can be hard to think about brave as a lifestyle, but to think about brave as an impulse, it's a very different thing. I had a conversation with a great teacher friend a few days ago. One of the things that she said to me is she was like, "You know, Cornelius, you have the time to think. I don't have that time."
Brett: It's a luxury.
Cornelius: I'm going from period, to period, to period, and teaching, and Cornelius, you're a coach, so you have time to teach, and think, and reflect, and teach again. I have really embraced the idea that yeah, my time to think is a luxury, but then how do I help the teachers that I support to craft that time for themselves? Yes, things are very, very busy, but then looking at how we spend our time, looking at how we spend our love and saying, "Wow, where's the time where I'm going to feed myself?" Where is the time where I'm going to do that work? That's where a lot of my brave comes from. When I'm able to make that impulse call, it's because I have thought about it. I think that working in teams of teachers, and really laying out priorities.
One of the things that my father always told me is he says, "You know, Cornelius, in this life you're not who you profess to be. Rather, you're where you spend your time." If I profess to be value driven, if I profess to put children first, but I spend all my time collating documents, and making copies, then that doesn't really ... I spend a lot of time making copies. I've really been sitting with teams of teachers and sitting with my mentors, and doing time audits, and really looking at, how did I spend my time today, and does that reflect my professed value, and am I okay with that? That's been a really big thing, but for me, it's been practicing bravery in four, six, eight second increments, that again, I don't have to be at the head of every movement if I am the first to make the right decision in a classroom.
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Cornelius Minor is a frequent keynote speaker for and Lead Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project. In that capacity, he works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support deep and wide literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe. Whether working with teachers and young people in Singapore, Seattle, or New York City, Cornelius always uses his love for technology, hip-hop, and social media to recruit students’ engagement in reading and writing and teachers’ engagement in communities of practice. As a staff developer, 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 follow Cornelius on Twitter @MisterMinor