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Podcast: Beyond Student Centered with Lorena Germán and Towanda Harris

Podcast Beyond Student Centered (1)Today we are joined by fellow educators and Heinemann authors Lorena Germán and Dr. Towanda Harris.

Lorena Germán is a Dominican American educator focused on anti-racist and antibias education. She is a two-time nationally awarded educator whose work has been published in numerous newspapers and journals. Her new book from Heinemann is called Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices, which provides lesson design strategies that build literacy and social justice.

Download a sample chapter from Textured Teaching


Dr. Towanda Harris is currently an Instructional Leadership Coordinator and an adjunct professor of reading and writing in Atlanta, Georgia, with almost twenty years’ experience in education. Towanda is the author of The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. Educators rely on her wisdom about how to find resources that meet their teaching goals and their students’ needs.

When they realized there were meaningful overlaps in their work, Lorena and Towanda decided to sit down and talk about how by using both of their instructional frameworks, we can take a curriculum beyond just student centered, and engage in teaching that is both student driven and community centered.



Below is a transcript of this episode.

Towanda: When your book came out, oh my goodness, I was so excited and I saw so many connections to my book and I was excited to see Textured Teaching being student centered, that it was community centered, interdisciplinary, and experiential, like how awesome that is and wouldn't that be wonderful if that would be teaching every day for students.

Then I just think about my book and how I really wanted the resources to be centered by the students that I wanted to make sure that what teachers are using with students that it's not about the resources, but it's more so about the students that are before them.

What are your thoughts? I would like to just hear the foundation of your thinking process as to how the chapters even came about.

Lorena: First of all, I agree. I saw a number of connections between not just the book design, but what you walk us through and the impetus too. There's something to be said about books and what we write as a form of being a channeling of sorts, using that as a space to let things go or to put things up or to shake things.

Books are this space where a lot of action happens and whatever. It's just making me think about how the ways that books not only teach us a thing, but understanding the author and who they are as another layer of comprehension. I think that's probably where the richness of empathy, of getting empathy from books lies.

I'm just moving that thought right now does that as I'm hearing you because someone who doesn't know you who hasn't heard that, and the same for me who maybe doesn't read the intro and skips into the chapters, might not understand what's beneath the surface, what's behind the writing. I think that if you don't know that, then you miss maybe the reason, the why for some of those things and the passion behind some of those things.

Anyway, so how did this all come together? We've talked about how this was a form of documenting, where after a number of years, I was like, "You know what? This is not impossible. It can be reproducible. How can I get other teachers to do some of this for the improvement of our students' experiences in schools?"

It actually started as an article. The concepts were put together in this brief little article that I wrote for ASCD. I just let that live there. Then years later I was like, "That really is a whole thing. That's not just an article." When I built a relationship with the editor Louisa at Heinemann, she was like, "I think that's it. I think that's the book." I was like, "Really? You think that's a whole book though?" I had imagined maybe it was another article where I flushed things out a little bit further. She was like, "No, no, no, that's it."

She also heard this book and these ideas from that article, but in presentations that I was doing at NCTE and different places, and she was like, "It's all the same." I was like, "Okay, I hear that."

How did all of this come together? How did the chapters end up that way? In an effort to introduce a way of teaching, I wanted to itemize those steps. I wanted to identify them for teachers really clearly. That's how we ended up saying, "Well, what are the actual steps and can we make those chapters so that you can flush them out in as much detail as possible so that teachers know not just how to do it, but what not to do," because there's some trickiness in there, particularly the experiential chapter, which is where I talk about simulations and all that stuff that people like to do that are horrible.

I talk about what not to do very clearly. But then more importantly, what can I do then? What is available for me to do with my students to make it experiential, to make it very physical and support brain-based learning in that way? That's kind of how I structured it and why it ended up being that way.

Then I wanted to, I was like, "Wait, before we jump into this, we've got to name some stuff. We've got to call things what they are." I wanted to speak to the reality that people are facing in schools. Too often I'll read a book where we don't talk about how oppressive some of these systems are. You and I have talked about how our very first school setting was horrid. It was the complete opposite of any type of teacher autonomy. I just felt like none of these books that talk about teacher things to do really address that reality, or at least I haven't seen it. I shouldn't say none do. I have yet to seen it.

I wanted to really clearly name that and start from there, saying, "I know where some of y'all are at. I was there. I know where some of you are at now because I'm there now." There's a lot of in-between. This is for everybody in those contexts and you're not going to be able to do it all everywhere, because teaching is so contextual.

Towanda: It makes me think about when you were talking about the way you organize the chapters or how they ended up kind of falling in line. When I was writing my book, I really had to think through, like you said, what were those steps that I had to go through in order to get to where I grew, I'm stronger as a teacher.

I remember my first year teaching. I'm walking in and I'm bright-eyed and bushy-tailed and all of that. I'm like, "Yes, I'm so excited. I get to teach." I get there and I get handed a scripted program. It was a line-by-line type of program. I remember feeling so deflated. You have all of these aspirations as a first year teacher to change the world, and then you walk into this system that was not created for our students to be those critical thinkers or those change makers.

Because of that, there was a lot of learning that I had to do on my own my first year teaching. I remember feeling alone in that process because teachers want to do right. Teachers want to always be on the good list. Sometimes this work doesn't put you on the school's good list, but you have to be reminded that it is not about you. It's more so about the students.

When I was thinking about the topics of the chapters, I wanted each chapter to be written kind of in isolation, so that if I'm a teacher, that guiding question, how do I know if this resource works, or how do I know if this is what my students needs and what are my students' strengths and so forth, that a teacher could just go to that chapter and find what they needed in that chapter and just providing some tools for teachers to do this work. Even I think about now my resource inventory checklist that I have in there. Well, that was because every year as a teacher, I was a hoarder. I would keep my things each year after year and veteran teachers would leave and they're like, "Oh, we'll give you this." And so you have this closet full of every thing.

Lorena: I show up, like "Where's the area where I can pull the thing?"

Towanda: Yes! It was literally they would sit the things in the hallway and you're just excited. And then you end up with a classroom full of stuff and you don't even know the students that would be before you from year to year, but you're creating this environment outside of knowing who your students are. And so that was a wake up call for me because I realized that I had a bunch of stuff, but not everything that I had connected directly to my students so I had to go through a period of just purging and finding out where those gaps were and what I was using with my students.

Lorena: I really like the student progress tracker. When I walked through that, I was like, "This is so helpful. This is so useful." I wish I would have had something like this in my first couple of years. Particularly when the demands for track the data. Here's the standardized tests. Here's the starting score, the second score. All of that stuff was so exhausting and it felt really useless, but I like how this just allows me to use data other than those tests. And it's still really thoughtful and fleshed out. You know what I mean? Yes, you know what I mean. And it can be very helpful. And then I really appreciated the one that has the extra accommodations for the students who have those additional needs and need that extra support. I really thought that was very useful and I appreciated how thoughtful you were in just how you even structured it. Can you tell me about using that?

Towanda: Yeah, it's interesting because to your point about the data points that we're using with students, a lot of times in schools, we use quantitative data. And so it's always a number that we associate with the value or the strength of a student. And I always tell educators there is always a story behind the number all of the time. And so even if we have two students that scored a 99, that means nothing. Because a 99 for one student might be great and it might be something that they've grown to, but then a 99 for another student might actually be where they've become compliant or complacent in their growth. And so it's important that we start to identify different characteristics of what we see as being successful. And I use that word loosely because sometimes our biases that you talk about in your book, they force us to put success in this box of, "Okay, if you do this, this is exactly what it will look like."

But we also know that our students are brilliant and that they don't always, more times than not, fit into a box. And so we have to even rethink what success looks like. And so the idea behind the progress tracker was how do we look at different characteristics along the way and not to feel restricted with that so that I can use this as an entry point, not as a landing ground like, "Oh, you are here and this is where you're going to be for the remainder of the semester or the remainder of the year." The goal is that I provide opportunities, rich opportunities, that you can build your own ownership, or not build your own ownership, but that student agency starts to take place. Where students start to own their journey or start to take the lead on their journey, because that's what we want students to do. We don't want to be the giver of all knowledge. We want students to understand that we are learning and growing together, but we have to also make sure we're creating spaces for that. So the idea behind that progress tracker was just that. How do we move away from this number, but really peel back the layers to see the characteristics of that student progress performance.

But it makes me think about in your book, you have the traits of textured teaching. And so, as I'm talking about this, I'm drawn to the infographic that you have. I think it's figure 1-5 on the traits of textured teaching and how it really compliments or goes hand in hand with the student progress tracker. Because we're talking about student driven and community centered and that the learning is interdisciplinary. It's experiential and then it's flexible. Oh my goodness, flexible. I always say as an educator, I need a t-shirt. I think I'm going to make that. I have a Cricut. So you have to have flexibility is a non-negotiable because our students come to us with so many layers, so many factors, and so many things that we don't know. And it's like you open Pandora's box and you see all of the intricacies that make up this little tiny human of a learner. And our goal is to pull that out. So can you talk a little bit more about just the traits?

Lorena: Yeah. So, too often other teachers and particularly administrators will talk about this good stuff that's happening in a teacher's classroom and say, "Oh, they're just so great. They're just magic." And there's this understanding that if you end up in that teacher's classroom, then you're all set for the year and it just doesn't happen anywhere else. And so, again, back to me wanting to demystify that and say, "No, this is not magic. This is just hard work and being very methodical and being very strategic." That's how we get to these trades. I thought about what are all the different things that I do? What are all the things that I know other good teachers employ and how can I categorize them into something that then comes together to be this texture teaching. And that's how I ended up in those trades.

And I was going to do student driven alone and community centered separately. But then I realized that I wanted to go beyond being student centered because student centered is very important, which is my kids are at the center of my planning. My kids are at the center of what we do in this room and the choices that I make. I wanted to say the community is one that you can do that with. You teach in Flint. There's a lot there that we need to center. There's a lot about this community that we need to center. And instead of you feeling like you need to make those decisions for students, you can let them drive that centering. So that's how I ended up with, it needs to be student driven and community centered together.

And then I want to talk a little bit about flexibility. So that the flexible one speaks to the nuances that are required for good teaching. I might have a lesson plan today and then I realized, "Yeah, that's just not where the kids want to go right now. And instead of it taking place in 50 minutes, it's going to take three days.

Towana: Uh-huh.

Lorena: And so I have to be flexible to move about. But even more so, I've got to be flexible then in how I adjust my expectations of what they're doing. Right. And so I have to adjust my expectations of what success is going to look like to your point. I've got to adjust the rubric now. Because now instead of me thinking they're just going to write this and we're going to spend more time on that. No. You know now we have to sit together as a group and reevaluate this rubric. This obviously doesn't meet what it is that we're doing. Our goals have gone beyond this rubric now. So let's revisit that and let's tailor it a little differently and allow students to drive some of that process.

Towanda: It makes me think of the responsiveness. You know, being responsive to the students that are before you. That, even though you created this lesson plan that doesn't mean that it should be a line-by-line check box for you, but, that you are responding directly to the students in real time.

Lorena: I can hear teachers who are like but I'm time bound.

Towanda: Uh-huh.

Lorena: I don't always have the luxury of saying, oh, this is now going to take a week instead of a day. And I guess that's where I get really angry at these standardized tests. Cause that's really what is causing so much ruckus, right? And these tests, the way that they are designed and the way that they function in our students' lives are the opposite of all of this. They are completely inflexible. They are not at all student driven. They're not community centered. Right? They're not experiential. Quite the opposite. You got to just sit there and do the thing. Its interaction with these bubbles. And they're not interdisciplinary. And then the fact that they really do play this role in determining the quality of people's lives. I don't think we think about that enough.

Testing is one of the reasons why I left the first school I was at. I mean I will say it was the main reason, actually. It was the reason. I remember the principal who I became good friends with. He came into my room. It was the end of the day. My lights were off because of course, I'm like mental break. Pretend I'm not here, hide. I needed a break. And he knew I was in there anyway and came in and sat there and said, "what do I have to do to keep you here?" And I said, "get rid of these tests." And he said, "I can't." I said, "I know you can't, but that's it. If we can get rid of these tests, I will stay here." Because it just, I mean, Towanda the year I left, we ran out of school days and we were still testing.

Towanda: Yes.

Lorena: We had more. We had like three weeks left of testing. There were no more school days.

Towanda: Yeah.

Lorena: So it was like the last day of school. And we still had two more [inaudible 00:18:52]. That doesn't even make sense.

Towanda: I completely feel, I just feel it in my gut what you are talking about. And I remember just being frustrated because I was in a setting in which the test scores meant more than anything. More than anything. And so I remember around March, that's when we shut down instruction and we moved into test prep zone. When you say it out loud, it's just so. It's so not student centered. The opposite. Like you hit it on the nail. Like that is the opposite. And so where we are transitioning into doing mock tests. Shutting the whole school down. We're running this and helping students to be great test takers. And we're not showing them how to take the learning and apply it to their everyday world and connect it back to their community. To your point about student driven being community centered as well.

But, in the book, I talk about there is this one student. I'll never forget he was such a wonderful student and his mom was absolutely amazing. She was so supportive of his education. We had just a great relationship and I was a third grade teacher at the time. And, in our state, you had to pass the test in third grade in order to go onto fourth grade. None of the things that were the student did throughout the year were considered with this test. It was like the end all be all. And so I had a student, he had really bad test anxiety. It was really, really bad for him. And, I remember on the day of the test, because as a school, we put a big focus on it. And so of course you're nervous. You're a third grader. You want to go with your friends to fourth grade.

So he gets on the test and the first part of the test, he ends up, his whole breakfast came up over his test. Now this was the crazy part. So, the way it works, if you see a certain section of this test, you can no longer finish that test. So he did not finish the test which meant that test was unscored which meant that he did not pass the test. So he ended up not passing the test. He had to go to summer school. And again, he gets really, really worked up and really nervous.

And finally, I just had to just say in a meeting, this is one of my just strongest students. This student does not have any skills that he is lacking. He needs to go to fourth grade and I remember having to pull all of my documentation to show that this student was a student that would do well in fourth grade.

But think about all of those students that there isn't someone to advocate for them. But because of this one test, this one measure, regardless of what they've done throughout the year, that determines their educational, their access to education, in a sense.

Lorena: Yeah. So in Massachusetts, your passing of the state tests at the high school level, determines graduation. You telling me, that a kid who just arrived from Dominican Republic months ago is going to pass this test? And, they're not. And so they have been sent here by family to achieve the American dream. And they spend two years here, barely learning academic language, academic English enough to pass this test. And now they're 18. And in this country, what are you going to do without a high school diploma? What kind of job are you going to have? So, that's the quality of life stuff that I'm talking about that we don't discuss. That is determining the quality of your life. What kind of job you're about to have? What kind of social standing you're going to have, right?

What potential involvement with the law you're going to have? It is no coincidence that many of those students ended up falling into gangs, falling into the drug trade that has taken over New England, mainly because of the opioid stuff that's going on in New Hampshire. This ends up all tying into each other. I've got a bunch of students that are in prison, prison, right. And it's not because, oh, they're lazy. Or they just didn't know what to do. Or they just made bad choices. Like, no, this was very much systemic. It was very much systemic. I don't believe that anybody wakes up and says I want to go for. I want to get into a career where I do things that can end me up in prison and I'm potentially killing people.

I just really don't think anybody's really doing that. Particularly, these students who don't come from privilege. Who have a big sense of empathy because they know what it's like to be in a country where poverty is the norm. And then you get here and it's the opposite of what you thought it was going to be. And I'm supposed to come here and sit down to this thing and pass these tests that I have no idea what they're asking me?

Towanda: Well, then there's assumptions that are being made about students in general. I remember having a conversation with an administrator, and I said, my question was, "Are you going to give biased training to your staff?". And, the response was, " Well, my teachers look like the students that they're teaching". And, I'm like, "That means nothing, because we all have biases". And, because of that, we really have to call them out, and hold each other accountable for those things, because ultimately the danger is that it's hurting students. And, it determines the classes they're going to take, it determines the access that they have to additional educational opportunities. It determines everything.

And, to your point about the high school graduation, we have that in Georgia. And, I know we're not supposed to have favorites, so please, if any of my students ever listened to this, I didn't have one favorite. I had multiple favorites, but there was one student, oh, she was my absolute heart. I was her third grade teacher. Years later, she came back and she was a senior, and she could not pass the test. And, she never ended up getting a diploma at all.

And, she was one of my Hispanic students. Because, she needed to bring in some money for her family, because they were all working together, and everyone was living together, she had to opt to just go ahead and take the track of working. And, I'm like, this student was absolutely amazing. I could sit to the side and she could teach my class. And, I'm like, what is this assessment measuring? What is it?

But, I know we could be here forever talking about this. But, if we can end with this, what are the things that we want to leave with educators, that do have the pressure of thinking about this assessment at the end of the year, but know that they want to allow spaces for their students to bring their entire selves?

Lorena: They're going to have to think out of the box, and they're going to have to do some of their own training, unfortunately. There's always exceptions to the rule, and there's always going to be teachers who have these great admins who do all the things that teachers really need. But, that's not the norm. That's not widespread. And, so I say that, yes, because I want them to buy our books, but also because I know that I did not consider in my first several years of like, I can actually go and develop professionally outside of what my school offers me.

And, so I want them to think out of the box, to say, you know what, I need to learn more about the right tools to bring to my class, this book called, The Right Tools. Like I need to go in there, and I need to figure out some new systems for myself, so that I can find the loopholes of where I'm at, and bring a more humane approach.

And, my hope is that with my book, they'll be able to pull from there what they can use, if not the whole thing, and implement it in their own spaces, and start it that way. And, then build capacity in their own building, by sharing ideas with others. And, that way you build community, and then you're all doing some of this PD together. And yes, unfortunately it means that you're spending extra time on it, but maybe with enough support from other teachers, y'all can get your admin to turn things around too.

Towanda: And, I would just add to what you were saying. I think about me as, in my first couple of years of teaching, how I was handed a package program. And, I know that I work with a lot of schools in which they have a package program that is in hand. And, the expectation is that they're going to follow it, book by book, question by question. But, one of the things that I always say is, during your planning, you can always look at the questions, the titles of the books, all of those things, and really pause long enough to say, are multiple perspectives being brought into the space, or are these questions allowing this learning to connect back to students?

So, one thing that could be really helpful is, as teachers are planning for instruction, instead of saying, oh, well, it's time to teach. I'm just going to turn to lesson five, unit five, lesson four and keep going. But, plan before that happens. And, as you're looking at the question, I would have sticky notes. I'm going to add this additional question here, or I'm going to modify this, or I'm going to have a pause, and let's do a gallery walk of the images. What do we see? What do we connect? Because, if we can't get our students to connect to the learning, then they are not going to feel a part of-

Lorena: It's whack.

Towanda: Yes! It's like, listen, I'll pass the test, that's what I'll do. But, trying to put the heavy lifting or the ownership back over into the hands of the student, it requires work and it doesn't just happen by picking up a manual, and teaching for the day.

It's always, always great to be in conversation with you. I'm so excited about just your book. And, of course I was selfishly excited that there was a connection to my book. I was like, "oh yes, this is wonderful". But, just thank you for writing from your experience, to help educators do this work.

lorenagermanLorena Escoto Germán is a Dominican American educator focused on anti-racist and antibias work in education. She earned her master's degree at Middlebury College's Bread Loaf School of English.

Lorena is a two-time nationally awarded educator whose work has been featured in newspapers and journals including The New York Times, NCTE journals, EdWeek, National Writing Project, and Embracing Equity. She is author of The Anti Racist Teacher: Reading Instruction Workbook. 

A cofounder of the groups #DisruptTexts and Multicultural Classroom, Lorena is the director of pedagogy at EduColor and Chair of NCTE's Committee Against Racism and Bias in the Teaching of English. Of all her work, Lorena is most dedicated to her roles as wife and mami.

Lorena is the author of Textured Teaching: A Framework for Culturally Sustaining Practices.


towandaharris-1Dr. Towanda Harris has been a teacher, staff developer, literacy content specialist, and an instructional coach. Currently an Instructional Leadership Coordinator and an adjunct professor of reading and writing in Atlanta, Georgia, she brings almost twenty years of experience to the education world. Towanda is the author of The Right Tools: A Guide to Selecting, Evaluating, and Implementing Classroom Resources and Practices. Educators rely on her wisdom about how to find resources that meet their teaching goals and match their understanding of their students’ needs. Teachers turn to her to learn how to employ those resources, blend them with best practices, and help all students reach their full potential.

In addition, she serves as a #G2Great Twitter chat Advisory Team member. Towanda is a Heinemann PD provider, presenting One-Day Workshops, Webinar Series, and On-Site PD. Some of her workshops include the Wisconsin State Reading Association Conference, National Reading Recovery Conference, Indiana State Reading Conference, and the GDOE Impacting Student Learning Conference.

You can find her online at TowandaHarris.com, on Twitter at @drtharris, and in Instagram at @harrisinnovationcg

Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, The Right Tools, Towanda Harris, Lorena Germán, Textured Teaching

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