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Conflict and Consensus: From Debate to Deliberation

From Debate from Deliberation

Today we are pleased to present part two of Conflict and Consensus, a three-part conversation led by author and educator Pablo Wolfe. Last episode, Pablo explored the meaning of the term “civics”, and the role it plays as a guiding value in our classrooms.

Today, Pablo is joined by Rachel Hsieh, an elementary educator in her 13th year. She believes in centering student voices and learning alongside her students. She and Pablo discuss the preparation needed to set both teachers and students up for civic learning, why self-reflection is so important, and how to move from debate to deliberation.


Below is a transcript of this episode.

Pablo: Hello, colleagues in the education world. Welcome to Conflict and Consensus, three teachers on the pursuit of civic learning. I'm your host, Pablo Wolfe, and I'm here for our second episode with my co-host for the day, Rachel Hsieh.

Rachel: Hi, everyone.

Pablo: If you're just joining us, our series is a three-part conversation with teachers about what it means to tackle civic learning in the classroom in this particular political climate. In our first episode, we talked with our colleague and friend, Ylisse, who shared how she dealt with anonymous Facebook posts about her teaching, the school board whirlwind that resulted, and finally how she managed to handle it all with grace and resolve. Today we'll be talking with Rachel about her experiences in Oregon and how she relies on complete transparency as a way to build community and trust with the families of her students. Rachel, thank you so much for coming on.

Rachel: Thank you for inviting me.

Pablo: Rachel, can you share a little bit about what you teach and the community that you teach in?

Rachel: Yeah. So I'm Rachel, she/her pronouns. I'm currently an instructional coach and mentor in a small suburban school district in Oregon. Prior to this role, I was a fourth grade teacher. The district that I teach in as of 2019 stats our student population is about 76% white, 15% LatinX, 2% Asian, 2% black, 1% indigenous, and about 0.5 multiracial. There's a wide range of social economic status as well as political leanings. What I'm sharing today, and based on my personal experience, our district a little bit more conservative, but I do want to note like what I share today is just my own experiences. I don't speak for my district at all.

Pablo: Thank you for sharing that, Rachel. Since you told us of this demographic information, I want to start with a question around identity and demographics because in a civic learning space we often start with who we are and how that affects the way we view the world, but not everyone agrees with that. So I was going to ask, there are some that say that thinking about identity and race in the classroom is divisive, that it's even racist potentially. Well, what do you think about that stance? Should identity play a role in a civic learning space?

Rachel: I think they absolutely should play a role. What I didn't mention in my earlier introduction is I'm a first generation Chinese American, and I say that a lot when I introduce myself. So knowing my own identity is really a huge part of who I am, and it's something that I can't hide. Well in this podcast, you can't see me, so I can hide it here a little, but it's the same for our students, right? When they walk in, there's just identity markers that they cannot hide. And so for schools to matter to students, they need to know that they belong, that their identities are honored in the classroom and in the learning that we do. One of the quotes that I often refer back to is a quote from Emily Styles. It's half of the curriculum walks in when students do and just knowing that even though we have to follow district adopted curriculum, there's a way I can teach it that honors who my students are, their identity, their questions, their curiosity, knowing that they have power in their learning as well.

Pablo: Have you ever had an experience, Rachel, where in talking about race and racism, it backfired on you as a teacher?

Rachel: Yes. As much as I want to plan things out, I can't always anticipate what might happen and where the backfire might come from. So there's one year I discussed Dr. Seuss when Dr. Seuss was still the face of Read Across America Week, and I posed this question of whether or not he should still be a representative for the week. I had some resources via Conscious Kid highlighting Dr. Seuss' racist drawings as well as a news story about two students who were advocating for Dr. Seuss to be removed as a representative. I opened up the discussion in class. I let families know, and within that we still had the discussion in class, but I did have families reach out to me.

They were upset that I was telling students or their interpretation was that I was telling students to not read Dr. Seuss, which I can't say that. I won't say that as a teacher. My job as a teacher is to lay out to facts. Opinions are students' only, and what resulted was just having a conversation with families, letting them know this was a objective of our discussion. I just wanted students to think about it, think about who Dr. Seuss is. I understand Dr. Seuss plays a very strong role in many families' lives with reading, rhyming, and just love of reading. So again, it's just letting families know and I just didn't anticipate that.

Pablo: But it raises such an interesting point. I know a little bit about your classroom because we've talked for a while, but picture books play a really important role in your classroom, especially when you were teaching fourth graders. Can you speak a little bit about how you use picture books as a tool to teach civic engagement, civic mindedness to your kids?

Rachel: Absolutely. I want to emphasize that students are never too old for picture books. I love picture books. Fourth and fifth grade, they love it as well. And what I do with them is I use them as mentor text for our discussions, just like we have mentor text for writing, or a  mentor text for looking at certain concepts so they can also be used for these critical discussions that I want to have. First and foremost, before we have these discussions, we need to set a strong classroom community. I want to make sure that students know that they belong again. They understand that they have shared power in our classroom. They lay out expectations for me, I have expectations for them. We kind of like share disagreements establishing clear expectations for these critical conversations. In these conversations we start with just what do you notice? What do you wonder? What questions might you have just to get the ball rolling and pipe in that curiosity. I never ever want to start with just laying out my opinion and I never will do that.

Pablo: I mean, it sounds like you prepare so carefully in terms of the books you choose for the situations and we try to make our plans around what we hope to get out of conversations. Has picking up a picture book ever taken you in an unexpected direction?

Rachel: Yeah. There was this one time I read the book, Each Kindness by Jacqueline Woodson and the point of the text, and this was well into the school year, but the point was really just to reset our classroom expectations. I noticed there's a little bit of tension. I noticed that we have forgotten some of our expectations and so really resetting our classroom, thinking about our space, like how is it a brave space for everyone? As we're reading the book and talking about how we can never assume what someone is going through and what could be happening in their lives and a little bit of kindness can go a long way. A student actually raised a hand and said, that doesn't work.

It doesn't work because we can do all those things, be kind, be nice, and there's still things happening like a school shooting, and I was not prepared for it to go that direction. Granted I do remember in that day that we read it, that week there had been school shooting or something going on that was very [inaudible 00:07:39] so it was on students' minds and I had thought we had already checked in about it, but this is happening at the right end of the day. So I'm trying to figure out where's the connection, how do we do this? And I had to just say, I hear you. Can you explain more about this? And can we come back to this later? Because the bell was actually about to ring, so we had to quickly end this discussion. I'm also trying to just let families know and realizing that I can't get this message out in time. There are going to be students who are already reaching their families by the time I'm trying to get this message out. Because it is really important, especially when someone, a student has a statement this big to really let families know ahead of time. Oh, yeah. One of our last statements at the end of the day today was a student saying something about a school shooting. So, I need to clarify.

Pablo: That's such a great story because it really does get at how we can't predict where things will take us. And that book doesn't have anything to do with school shootings, but it brought up something that students were caring about and thinking about. It gets me to my next question, which is really about how sometimes adults try to shelter young people from complex social issues. What do you think about that? How do you think complex social issues should be handled in the classroom?

Rachel: I really think that students should be given the space to ask questions, to be able to explore and wonder about these complex social issues because they're getting it from all formats in their lives. As much as I think adults are trying to shelter, and I know that the phrase "Let kids be kids," is used a lot. I question and I wonder, "Which kids? Whose kids get to be 'kids'?" And like I said earlier, our students can't hide their identities when they come in, some of our students can't. So, why not give the space for them so that they can explore this and realize like they're not taboo topics, they require a little bit more discussion. They require a little bit more thinking.

And letting students know that adults don't all have the answers either. A lot of times with my students, they ask all these questions, I'm writing it down, I'm writing down as my questions as we have, it's usually on chart paper or on a notebook. And then I tell them, "I'll get back to you. I need to take some time to research. Can I get back to you? I don't want to miss this." And I'm almost holding myself accountable, right? Letting them know that "I hear you, you've told me that your expectation for me is that I'm going to help you learn. So, I need to come back with some research, some answers, things that we can discover together."

Pablo: I mean, I love that. I want to just point out those two really important tips that you gave. One is to say "pause," to not expect yourself to know the just right answer for whatever situation comes up. And then the second to do research, to have facts to present, so that the facts become the fodder for the conversation, not your opinions, just the actual facts. So, I think those are fascinating and important tips for all of us. Can you tell us a little bit about what happened when you read the picture book All Are Welcome?

Rachel: Another conversation I was not prepared for. Or I was, and I just didn't know that we were going to go on this tangent. So I read the book, All Are Welcome, and it's lovely picture book. And we were doing this to reestablish classroom expectations. This was day one of the year we were in hybrid that we'd just gotten back in person. This was the first time I'd seen my kids in person. So, we had had expectations on Zoom coming into the classroom in person trying to navigate each other and figure out what does it mean to be six feet apart. So I'm reading the book and there's a line in the book where it says, "And all are welcome." And it kind of repeats throughout the story. And after doing that, a student pauses and says, "Well, that's not true. That's not true at all. Not all are welcome. Did you know that the United States is the most racist country in the world?"

I had to pause. I just didn't realize that was the next statement that was going to be said. And so as I'm trying to think on my feet trying to go really fast on this because I can see and hear students in the background being like, "Yeah, wait." "No, I'm not sure." "Is that true?" And they're trying to question, they're trying to jump into a conversation and said, "Okay, I'd love to hear more about that. Do you want to explain a little bit?" And the student had a little bit of trouble explaining at the moment. So I said, "Can we pause? I'm going to write this down, we're going to come back tomorrow. And I need a little bit of time to think. I would love to hear your thoughts as well. So, maybe we'll talk about it more tomorrow."

Which the next day we come back and I pick up the book I, Too, Am America, which is Langston Hughes poem in the picture book format, and I start reading that one. And the purpose for me reading that book was really to show like, "There might be some validity in the statement that the student shared. I'm not sure, but I want you to draw those conclusions. Let's look at this book. Why did someone write a poem like this?" And we picked up our conversation from there. From there, my students talked about like, "Well, racism, doesn't..." It expanded into like, "Maybe racism doesn't exist right now. Or it's different now from back then." And so I had to clarify, "Fourth graders, what do you mean by back then?" And we had a whole chart of then and now how it shows up.

And fourth graders are funny. When they say back then they mean 1960s. Or they'll trace back to slavery and then they'll skip some time periods. And so trying to clarify with them and then going deeper into conversation because it became racism, sexism.

And at the time I also had another adult in the room and they were trying to support, I could feel that they were feeling uncomfortable. And they actually mentioned like, "What about ageism? I get passed by because of my age." And students like, "Okay. Yeah, we understand that, but not as important as these other -isms that we wanted to talk about." And we finished our conversation and I remember the adult coming to me later and being like, "These are just not conversations I had in my schooling. And this is a little hard." And I was like, "I appreciate for saying. I know these are hard, but these are conversations that we need to have in school, especially when there are students are asking."

Pablo: Can I just point out another expert move that you did right there that I think is subtle, but I just think is awesome? That you put two texts in conversation with each other. So, it wasn't you coming back with an answer, it was you providing another text to respond to the other one and to hold as another piece of conversation. And it deepened their understanding and their thinking, which I think is brilliant.

Rachel: I think ... Thank you. I think a lot of times I try to pair up books as much as I can, and I think that's just something I've learned over teaching. And do want to recognize a lot of times all the moves I've done, I've learned from lots of different educators.

Pablo: Can you speak a little bit, Rachel, about the role that transparency plays in these kinds of conversations, especially when something unexpected happens?

Rachel: Yeah. So, in all the stories I've shared so far, I've always sent a note home to families. It's sort of in a way a survival mechanism for me as a BIPOC educator, as an Asian American educator. And really as one of the only in my district, so only Asian American teacher I think at the time, or there might have been one or one or two more.

But what I do is at the beginning of the week, I send a short blurb home. I really try to keep it as concise as possible for bullet points. Just letting families know these are topics we're covering. Also letting them know like, "This is the math topic they're covering." So, I'm not just highlighting these are the critical conversations we're covering. We also have the academics that we're covering, although everything's academic. And then when we have these critical conversations, when we have an unexpected conversation, I'll send a quick note home just to let families know, "This came up in school today. This is what we said. Here's a couple questions you can ask your students." And I'm not telling families ever how to parent a child, I just want to give them some guiding questions like, "How did the conversation go today? What did you talk about? How are you feeling?" If I can, and if there are resources that are available for caregivers, I will send a link home. If I can't find it that day, then I'll follow it up with the next week's blurb.

Pablo: I think some people would be afraid of starting to open that door, that as soon as you start to share, then you open the door to a conversation coming back at you, and that can be unexpected too. Have you ever gotten an earful from parents about something that you've shared, that you've done in class or experienced in class?

Rachel: I do recognize that, right? It is scary to open up conversations, but at the same time, the way I see it is I only get to see the students and interact with them for a very tiny period of their lives. Caregivers are there for longer, and so what a privilege to get to be hopefully a positive impact on a student's life. And so I want caregivers to be part of the story, part of this relationship that I want to build, we don't have to agree on everything, but they should be on just the same page so that we know what's going on.

There has been a few times, I think one that really stands out to me was the first day of school. Luckily this was a group of students that I had some interactions with, but it was just, you never want to start the year by calling families with, "Hey, I have to do a really critical conversation." The next day, on the second day of school and, "Hello, welcome to the new school year."

But I had a student who used the word transgender in not the most positive way, and because it was a relatively new word to a lot of my students who just, they weren't sure. They hadn't inkling that it wasn't used correctly or used properly and just not in a positive way that I knew we had to have a conversation. So I spent that evening calling families, letting them know and simultaneously introducing myself and also like, "Hi, this is what's going to happen." And just letting them know, "We're going to have this conversation tomorrow. Here's what I'm doing. Here's some books that I'm going to be reading for the rest of the week. Here's how I'm also trying to build this community to let students know that it's safe. They can ask questions."

And I had a caregiver who really, really disagreed at first. When a family member or when a parent disagrees, usually what I do is I'm listening. I'm taking notes because a lot of times it's a learning experience for me. I'm trying to figure out, "Okay, I understand where you're coming from." Or, "Oh, I didn't think of that." And so I'm trying to write things down for next time to think for myself, "If this happens again, what can I do?" He hung up and I said, "Okay, that's fine. I have a plan for your student the next day."

And I continue calling the next families. That parent calls me back and we have another conversation where the parent decided, "You know what? No. Let's have my student be a part of the conversation. I want them there." It becomes a few more calls actually. It becomes a back and forth and in the end, so there was a lot of changing minds, and in the end there was a voicemail for me. This was after I guess, 6:37, and the parent called back and said, "I just want to let you know. I think I'm going to have my student stay. Thank you so much. I'm so sorry for taking your time, but thank you for giving the space to process this. And I recognize what you're trying to do. I will also have a discussion at home."

But it was just really about just giving space for the adult to really process what was going on. I don't think they were expecting it. I wasn't expecting it, and so to have to do this so early in the school year, and so it's just a really nice experience. I know a lot of times for teachers and the negative experiences tend to stick with us, and what I want to say is a lot of the experience I just described on this at the moment is really stressful, but I don't see them as negative experiences. I find them to be ways for me to learn. They're pretty positive experiences overall, especially now that I've had a few years away from the situation.

Pablo: I mean, just to point out, another expert move that you did there is how receptive you were instead of coming back with your, "Well, this is why I'm doing it." You let that parent express themselves to the point where they're like, "Now that I've been heard, maybe my fears have gone away." And that allowed for the doors to be opened rather than slammed in each other's faces.

Rachel: It does take a lot of practice. So while you're pointing out these moves, as someone who's a mentor and a coach right now, I don't want newer teachers or new to career teachers to be panicking. This is definitely something I've been working on. This is year 13 for me, so definitely wasn't doing this my first four years. Has taken a long time for me. And I think another move I do is a lot of times I'll get my first thoughts on paper or somewhere first, but as long as I have my frustrations written down somewhere that I can shred later, hide later, I'm more receptive to listening to others.

Pablo: You've told me in the past that you had conversations with your students about the 2016 election and knowing that your demographics, that the political backgrounds in your community is diverse in terms of right and left. How did you handle that without inserting your own opinions?

Rachel: It's hard, right? A lot of times I think students are always asking, they want to know. They want to know what their teacher's thinking, and I've always have always said, "That's not my job. I can't tell you. My job is here to just give you some facts and you're going to go ahead and form your opinions. I'd love to hear your opinions instead, which are way more interesting than mine."

And the 2016 one was a really tough one. I remember I decided we were going to talk about it because it was so prevalent in the news that students were coming in asking questions. They had so many wonderings about it. And it was just again and again, having to pause and let students know, "Everyone's voice is heard in our classroom. Whether or not you agree with them, we can respectfully disagree." And I remember election day was definitely harder. There were two students who came in dressed in political colors, and they happened to be really good friends. But that day I think it caused my class to kind of a ripple effect of like, "Whoa." It was a really big impact to see your classmates come in and dress in specific colors for-

Pablo: Was it, "Make America Great Again"? Or some other slogans or?

Rachel: They didn't have any slogans. There really was just one of them. Red one was in blue, and I think they did it because they knew we had been talking about it and sort of like, "Well, I'm going to do this because this is me stating my opinion." And so again, in Community Circle, it was just like, "Okay, everyone has their own opinions, whether or not you agree with them. Today, we are respectfully disagreeing or agreeing, respectfully agreeing or respectfully disagreeing."

I remember the following day, we just had space for them to process. Again, whether or not you were excited about what happened in the results. If you were not excited, there's still things that we have to do in the classroom. We can still be kind in your classroom. We could still fight for justice. And so just given that time to process.

Pablo: You even had conversations about COVID and COVID mandates in the height of the pandemic, and I know that that was a particularly charged topic in Oregon. How did you handle that and how did that go?

Rachel: At this point I think everyone has figured out nothing's off the table for my classroom. Whatever students bring in is whatever we're going to talk about. And so to explicitly name it, my classroom is student-centered, students have a voice, and so for COVID mandates, the reason why we dove straight into it was really because my district was just having discussions about whether or not we were going to go back in person, when that was going to happen, how was it going to happen, and students had questions. They really wanted to know whether I was going to go back in person and again, I was not going to be the person who was going to influence their decision. I did not want to tell them I'm going to go back or I'm staying online because it really is about their learning. We dove straight into COVID stats for our community, for the county, the state. We looked into what does it mean to be six feet apart? How do we stay safe? What are masks, like why do we wear masks? What type of masks are helpful? What questions do they have about what school, like what did school look like pre-pandemic? What are schools going to look like after? What are the questions? Students really got to just explore, research, write their opinions. I did a before survey just to say, "Oh, right now without any information, would you go back to in-person or would you stay online?" Then we did a post one.

Diving deep into that, I also had to have conversations about anti-Asian hate in the middle of this because my students would say things like, Ooh, I heard it was from bats and like, because Asian people or Chinese people eat bats," and I would pause, I'm like, [inaudible 00:25:35], if you remember, I'm Chinese. The statements you have impact on me. I'm not upset at you. I just want you to know and let's go back and look at these information that we know about COVID right now. What's the facts? From there, I had students who families, like their caregivers, decided, "You're going to go back in person," and students were like, "I can't do that. After all this research that we done in class..." This was two hours over Zoom. They managed to convince their caregivers, they were like, "I'm not safe. Here are the reasons why, I want to take care of our family. I want to do this." Then I had students who were like, "Nope, I'm going back and here are my reasons why." There were students I've never met in person that year because they didn't come back.

Pablo: Well, as you said, Rachel, no topic is off the table in your class, which is fantastic. Do you feel brave when you go into these types of topics? Would you describe yourself as brave?

Rachel: I don't think so. I don't know that I would use [inaudible 00:26:46] like brave in that sense because I just think these are necessary to be talking about in classrooms. Students are coming in with so many questions and they want to know. I think although you and I have talked about the purpose of school before and wondering what's the purpose of the school and I want to think about the purpose of the school is for students to learn, to build that curiosity, to take that curiosity and become critical thinkers and critical global citizens of the world. I don't think I'm brave. I'm constantly worried about what could happen next, what might students say. I constantly think I'm flying by the seat of my pants and I think to some people they're like, "Oh, she knows exactly what she's doing." I don't because every year's different. I can read the same book to one class one year and read the same book the next year and it's a completely different conversation.

Pablo: We're coming to an end, but I wanted to ask you, Rachel, before we let you go, you're a teacher of teachers now, what tips do you give to those teachers who are wanting to take this kind of work on, but are just not sure how to take that first step? What suggestions would you give them?

Rachel: I think to always keep in mind that we're student-centered. As educators, we want to empower our students, so let students take the lead in terms of questions. I think it's really scary, these topics. I totally understand that they are hefty topics and we are worried about what could happen, what could families say, but I think try it. I think let students take the lead. There's no harm in saying and being really transparent with students, it's like, "I don't know the answer," or, "I'm not sure how to discuss this with you yet, can I take a couple days to do my own research and come back to you? In the meantime, you can keep writing me questions and asking the questions. I'll write them down," and taking time to do it bit by bit.

I think now in my teaching, and it's hard for me sometimes to just have to pause and especially if I'm working with newer teachers, it's like this is so integrated in what I do now as a teacher and integrated as in interdisciplinary as well, that I have to go back and backtrack and say like, "Oh no, you can start with just a discussion in reading or start it in math or start it in one subject." This doesn't have to be all day every day, but eventually it becomes an all day, every day way of teaching and that's a good lens to have, I think, throughout life as well. Always asking questions, letting students know, like shared power, I think.

Pablo: Thank you so much, Rachel, and thank you for reminding us that it's by being open to these conversations that we make progress and we develop these civic bonds between us, our students, and their caregivers. That's what makes it possible for us to have these really strong conversations. It's the openness, not avoidance. Thank you so much for being with us, Rachel.

Rachel: Thank you. Thank you so much. Thanks for listening.

Pablo: Thank you all for joining us. In our final episode, we'll be joined by Hillary from South Carolina, an elementary Montessori teacher, and she'll talk to us about the power of inquiry and why it's an ideal pedagogical approach for exploring complex social issues even in this political climate. I hope you'll join us for the conversation.

pablowolfePablo Wolfe is a Washington DC-based educator who promotes civic education as a means to improve student engagement, celebrate student identity, and embolden the next generation of citizens. He's been a public school administrator, a staff developer with the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project, a teacher, and a parent, and in all of these roles has sought to make school a training ground for civic life. He is the co-author of The Civically Engaged Classroom: Reading, Writing, and Speaking for Change and the Unit of Study: Historical Fiction Book Clubs. His work has also been featured in School Library Journal and Middleweb Blog. 

Pablo is the Founder and Executive Director of the Coalition of Civically Engaged Educators, a national K-12 community of practice for civic-minded educators who seek to improve student outcomes and transform schools. Pablo is also a Visiting Fellow at the SNF Agora Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Whether planning town hall meetings with groups of 7th graders, writing letters to elected officials, or organizing opportunities for service learning, Pablo believes that academic skills are best learned when applied towards addressing injustices. A strong believer in the role of teachers as agents of social change, he strives to thread this idea through his writing, staff development and teaching.

You can connect with Pablo on Twitter @pablowolfe and apply to join CCEE, at www.civically-engaged.org

RHsiehpic_032023[55]Rachel (she/her) is elementary educator currently based in Oregon and in her 13th year as an educator. She believes strongly in centering student voice in the classroom and learning alongside her students. Rachel teaches from an instructional equity framework and often uses picture books to help launch critical conversations with students. You can read more of Rachel's work that is a part of the book: Equity in the Classroom: What it Looks Like and How to Achieve it as well as connect with her on Instagram @inspirationdownthehall.



Topics: Podcast, Heinemann Podcast, Pablo Wolfe, Civics Education

Date Published: 05/25/23

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