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Dedicated to Teachers

Commuter Series: Making the Work in Your Class Relevant

Red Center (3)-1

We know that students are more engaged and feel affirmed and centered when they're doing work that is relevant and meaningful to them. But how can we design units that are truly useful to students? Today, we'll hear from teacher, author, consultant, and DisruptTexts co-founder Lorena Gèrman. In this excerpt from her audiobook Textured Teaching, Lorena reminds us that making work relevant means knowing students and centering on community within and beyond the classroom.


Heinemann Audiobooks


Below is a transcript


Hi, this is Brett from Heinemann. Thanks for joining me on the commute this morning. We know that students are more engaged and feel affirmed and centered when they're doing work that is relevant and meaningful to them. But how can we design units that are truly useful to students? Today, we'll hear from teacher, author, consultant, and DisruptTexts' co-founder Lorena German. In this excerpt from her audiobook Textured Teaching, Lorena reminds us that making work relevant means knowing students and centering on community within and beyond the classroom.

Lorena Gèrman:

When you plan a course or select texts or design a unit, do you consider what your students are interested in? What content do they consume in their social and personal lives? What is happening in their local communities? I'm not talking about gimmick bulletin boards with a cool wrapper display or the infamous handshakes at the doorway. Although these things aren't inherently bad, they do not build relationships and create genuine trust. Dr. Gloria Ladson-Billings articulated quote, "Over and over, I see young white teachers on YouTube doing routines with their urban, mostly Black students to popular songs as proxies for cultural knowledge and competence. Instead of actually reading, observing, and engaging in conversation with people who are a part of a culture they are learning. No, just no," end quote. Units focusing on the troubling gentrification, developing down the street, that builds relationships, that builds trust, that diminishes disconnect, and creates teaching centered on love and justice.

A community centered teacher is aware of what is happening in that local community, values that lands and the justice the community may need to work toward and incorporates that community into the classroom curriculum, however they can. Community driven teaching requires that you consider your positionality, what community you're teaching in and how this plays a role in the curriculum. Teachers who are members of the community they teach within may have the advantage of insight into the needs and opportunities, but whether you're a local resident or not, all teachers can read the local newspaper, tune into the local news, check in and chat with parents, and create space in the curriculum for students to share what is happening and their community centered concerns. As you stay abreast of the community struggles, actions, successes, you and your students become researchers, ethnographers, advocates, and writers of community affairs. This is also an opportunity for you to connect with two important stakeholders of the community, parents and community organizations.

I know you already know the importance of developing positive and warm relationships with them, so the real issue at hand is how can I build a healthy relationship with parents who seem distant and disconnected or with overbearing parents who should actually take less space? I get it. I've dealt with both. The first step is identifying communication methods that work for each family. It won't be one size fits all, and although it can require some extra steps that make our jobs harder, it does make a world of a difference. I send a monthly newsletter to parents that informs them of the topics we're discussing, the books we might be reading, and the issues that may come up. Depending on the parent's individual needs and comfort level, I distribute this newsletter by email via our school's communication platform as a text message link or as a printed hard copy. To engage students and offset the additional effort, I get them involved.

I have them help to make this happen. They might get the documents from the printer, help come up with some of the content, or remind me when it's time to send the newsletter. More often than not, conversations from our classes continue at home. When parents are looped in preemptively, they don't have to ask their kids, "What did you talk about today?" Or, "What did you learn?" They already feel included and can simply join in on the dialogue. Newsletters create a positive energy between us even if we don't see each other regularly. This also opens the door for communication from parents, so it's two-way, and you become knowledgeable about life outside of class. In addition to staying abreast of what's happening in your community, you can incorporate real time issues in your curriculum by inviting community organizations and change agents to engage with your students.

Additionally, this is an opportunity to offer these organizations access to young people in a safe environment. Often local organizations host their events in public spaces. Young people may not be able to participate if they can't secure transportation or might not feel welcome to participate fully if they have to attend with their parents. Bringing the organization to the students eliminates many barriers to access and allows our students to see firsthand what advocacy looks like in action, and that working for change is possible. A problem solving classroom prepares students to engage in grassroots efforts that work toward liberation. As you all learn about local issues, you welcome students into the conversation and create curricular space to engage in writing and working on solving issues. But how do you know which issues students want to address in the classroom? Keep in mind that the topic itself is not the most important part.

The real magic is in the process, highlighting for students what they're achieving, showing them how change happens, revealing to them power structures and systems at play in society, and encouraging them to use their voice and skills to take it on. Here are three strategies to help you and your students select a community issue to take on. Number one, smash it. On a piece of paper, students write down what they're most mad at or what bothers them most about their community. When you instruct them, they can collectively express their frustration by crumbling up their paper and throwing it at the board. A couple of students then go and open the papers and jot down all the ideas on the board. As a class, you select only one to address together. You may consider specific roles students embody during these whole class projects to avoid confusion or disengagement.

You may also want to consider requiring a reflection toward the end or afterward to offer students space to think through their experience. Number two, group topics. With several students taking notes at the board, you facilitate a brainstorming session of all the topics students want to address in their community and categorize them. As a class, distill the list to four or five items and form small groups around those topics. The small work groups will require you to multitask, but can be highly engaging for the whole class. Students' voices are heard, they get to address what they want, and many topics are discussed. Your facilitation for each small group plays a large role in their success. Number three, one problem. As a teacher, you identify an important issue in the community that you want the class to tackle. You may choose the issue because you already have resources you can pull for this conversation or you know beforehand that it's pressing and the majority of the group wants to discuss it.

Then use the background building strategy in chapter three to help students understand the context and the problem. You can be flexible by allowing them to work on this as a whole class or in small groups. In the strategies smash it and group topics, students ultimately make the final decision about the issue. In the one problem strategy, the teacher selects for the students. Either way, as much as possible, be sure to maintain student choice in the method you use for addressing the issue once it's chosen. When students take ownership of the process, they become responsible for the outcomes leading to genuine learning. Although you are facilitating, offering insight, suggesting techniques and polishing details, they should be driving the process.


The classroom work that Lorena describes goes beyond in the moment engagement. It really does, as she says, "Let students become researchers, ethnographers, advocates, and writers of community affairs." Well, that's it for our commute this morning. If you'd like to hear more, you can stream or download Lorena's audiobook Textured Teaching wherever you get your audiobooks. Thanks for listening, and let us know what you'd like to learn more about in our time together on the commute. For more information about Heinemann audiobooks, visit heinemann.com/audiobooks.


Lorena 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.

Topics: Podcast, Comprehension, Heinemann Podcast, Lorena Germán, commute

Date Published: 09/18/23

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