This week on the Heinemann Podcast, we're excited to introduce the first of three special minisodes, and invite you all into the conversations of the Heinemann Summer Book Study, hosted in the Heinemann PD Teaching and Learning Facebook Group.
In this year's Book Study, we are hosting a conversation on two books with intersecting themes: Kids First From Day One by Christine Hertz and Kristine Mraz and Being the Change by Sara Ahmed. Our book study facilitator, Jaclyn Karabinas, sat down with Aeriale Johnson, a Heinemann Fellow from cohort two, to talk about this week's theme: Building and Practicing the Real Skills of a Strong Community.
See below for a full transcript of the conversation.
Jaclyn: So, Aeriale, I definitely wanted to start and ask you today about the physical and emotional environment. We've been reading Kids First from Day One, and Being the Change in the Heinemann PD Teaching and Learning Facebook group, and when I review the pieces about physical and emotional environment, I see how much they tie together. I noted a quote that the environment is the third teacher, and I was hoping maybe you could talk a little bit about how the environment is another teacher in your classroom?
Aeriale: Yes. I absolutely do view the classroom as the third teacher, and I think it's capable of offering provocation, providing support for professional and emotional growth, and intellectual growth obviously. I think that it helps children make their thinking visible within our classrooms. I think that our classrooms need to tell our children, "I have power here. I belong here. I can choose the materials and tools that I need in order to be successful here. And when I speak in this place, then people are listening."
So, I've had the great privilege of going to Reggio Emilia, and Opal School in Portland, Oregon. I think I always viewed the environment as a teacher, but that's when I came to the full realization and the power of that a physical environment as a classroom can have. Both traditionally and academically, I think we focus so much on charts, and tools, and all those things hanging on the wall, and those things are absolutely important. But where I teach, the demographics that I teach, I have a lot of students who are experiencing a lot of trauma, and have a lot of things going on in their lives that other children might not have going on in their lives, and I have found that creating an aesthetically pleasing environment that invites them in, and shows them how beautiful and wonderful they are have so much power.
For example, when you walk into my classroom there is an entryway before we walk into an actual classroom, and our entryway is covered with photographs that we accumulate throughout the school year. I watch kids stand in the entry way and look at pictures and say "Remember that?" Or "Man, I remember when I couldn't do that!" Or "I've grown." I think that creating an environment that is healthy and showing children how to exist in that space is incredibly important and I think the environment teaches them how to exist in it because I do want to sustain beauty. What they've been exposed to, you have taught them you know how to exist in that space.
Those are just some of the thoughts I have about the environment. The other thing that I think is critically important is that children's voice or voices are all about the room. That's hanging up their quotes, hanging up full conversations, making sure that there's documentation throughout your classroom that isn't reflective of the teacher voice and what I have to say about something that is reflective of the children's voices and the things that they have to say about certain things and so one things that I've found in doing this hanging of documentation and making sure that their voices are present on the wall is that they refer back to those things and they also use them as mentors.
They take pride in being represented throughout the classroom so once we learn how to talk about things there's this belief when you're teaching English language learners "Oh, let's have a sentence framed for every single lesson" and those sorts of things. And I've found that once you provide that scaffold initially and then you hang those things up about the room, children just speak like that in a very academic way as appropriate in a classroom because you've set up that expectation and you had kinda generated it. This is what we do here. This is how we communicate with each other. This is how we think deeply in this space. So I think it's so powerful just to hand a documentation and represent all of their voices and all of the thoughts.
And another thing about the environment that I have conversations with a lot with my colleagues about is how we set up our environment being a way to empower our children to make choices, thus being a form of justice ultimately. So, if you have children who have difficulty making choices, and you set up your environment such that they have to make choices in order to exist in that space, then you have completely empowered them and you showed them that they have the capacity to make choices, they will be expected to make choices, and they can make really, really great ones. That's a form of justice.
And I have conversations with my kids all the time, kind of in jest, about me not wanting them to grow up to be that Black Friday Shopper who knocks somebody down in line. "I don't wanna see you on television one day because you have learned in this space that we have to be aware of our bodies, we have to be respectful of other people's bodies, and we have to make good choices that are going to keep us safe and other people safe" and those sorts of things. I think a lot of times we teach a lot of kids who don't have a lot of opportunity to make choices, so teachers respond to that by just making all the choices for children which inhibits them completely. Some teachers respond by giving them choices, and sometimes you have to integrate that slowly, but it's completely necessary to teach children how to make choices. Because children who don't know how to make choices become adults who don't know how to make choices. We all know what that leads to.
It’s a huge part of stopping the Preschool-to-Prison-Pipeline I believe that very strongly that the social, emotional, and physical environment that we set up has the power to keep our children from having lives that are less than what they are capable of.
Jaclyn: Well I think when you feel as though you are silenced at a young enough age you've learned that that is what's expected of you in the community. And I wonder if you've seen that. If you've seen children come to you almost expecting to be told what to do and expecting to be directed in every way. You've referred a lot to a lot of the things you've just said about explicitly teaching the skills of community, whether it's caring for materials or how you speak up for each other or how you speak to each other. When you talk about the Black Friday example, you're teaching children how to communicate with each other in a space now so that they don't act like that later.
I was wondering if you could a little bit about the importance of the time it takes to slow down and teach those skills of community.
Aeriale: I call it "Go slow to go fast". Some years are slower than others, but we have to be responsive to the actual children who are in our presence. And so, there have been years where it's taken me two weeks to build community and then we can move on to teaching in small groups and being able to confer more with children and those sorts of things. And then there are some years when it's taken me six weeks to get to a guided reading group. But I think ultimately what you're doing is by taking that time and slowing down, you're buying yourself a lot of time later. Like I said I gauge it every year based on the students that I am teaching and what they are able to do.
I don't go into a school year like I've worked at schools where they said "Oh you must be teaching small groups within two weeks or you're not doing it right." I just don't believe that that is true. I think you have to look at the children that you have and what capacity they have to self-manage and do the things that they need to do in order to be successful. Because it doesn't do the children that you're teaching in a small group or the other children or the work that you're trying to do. It's not a service to anyone if you have to hop up from the floor or the table or wherever you're teaching every few minutes to, I don't want to say manage behavior but, teach into it and teach replacement behaviors and show children what they need to do instead. You're not really teaching the reading group or doing the teaching of social skills justice when you have to do that.
So I think it's really important to slow down and make sure that everybody has what they need. And sometimes in the school year I have found we're rolling along just beautifully and then all of a sudden, chaos, all over everything. I think the classroom, like families, like marriages, or other romantic relationships or friendships. They all go through cycles, right, and I think a classroom does that as well. And you have to accept that you are going to have to, at times, even if you've already taught skills, even if it seems as though children have mastered those skills, there are times when you have to stop all over again and reteach think through things together as a community so that you can push forward and be successful.
Some of those times are predictable like immediately after winter break, which is two or three weeks long, where they haven't been in the routine of things. Those long breaks are kind of predictable times. Obviously one at the beginning of the school year and then the end of the year also seems like we can predict that you're going to have to stop and regroup and reteach and resync with children about how our community is doing, how we can make it better so that we're all doing what we need to do and getting what we need and learning and growing together as human beings.
I think that's the thing that's really important for teacher's to realize is that children are not becoming human beings, they are. They are fully realized human beings. They have experiences, they have language, they have culture that is specific to their families and their communities. And they are coming to school with all of those things and so it's important for us to not look at them as something that we're going to impress ourselves, our values, our culture, all of those things. I think that that is at the root of everything in a classroom, right.
You can walk into a classroom and see what a teacher's view of the child is. And that's gonna support it. I think the first question you need to answer is "How do I view children? What do I believe about children? And what their needs are and how to attend to those needs. And how to fully integrate them into the space as valuable, important people who have important things to say and voices." Listening to children is just so critical, it's so important.
Sometimes I go in my classroom with one idea about what I'm going to teach and it turns into something completely different. I remember once last year I was teaching a math lesson and one of my students figured something out on her whiteboard on her own and it was not at all how I was intending to teach that particular topic. And she showed it to everyone and she said "Hey, here, this is what I did." And they were all like "Oh! Show us that again, do it in front of us." And she did it, and she essentially taught the lesson, and they got it, and I could've not been in the room and they still would've learned from one another.
So I think it's important that we view children as knowledgeable, capable, incredible people who are going to awe us every single day if we allow them to.
Jaclyn: You know you mention something earlier about really listening to children and I started thinking about the chapter in Being the Change about listening with love. And I really think that the more you're modeling to students that you will listen to them with love, that students will also listen to each other with love. I think so often we want children to walk through the door having the skills already to be a part of a community. And we want them to walk through the door already knowing right from wrong and we forget that they're bringing with them their own experiences, they're bringing so much with them. I'm wondering if you have any stories you can share from your classroom where you found your students really listening and responding to each other with love.
Aeriale: I think that there's listening with love in everyday experiences and there's also listening with love in the midst of a crisis, kind of like the story that Sara tells at the beginning of that chapter. And I have both sorts of examples for my classroom. Even just last year, we were actually reading the book Love by Matt de la Pena, and we got to the controversial page where it is clear that the father is leaving, and the mother is incredibly upset and there's furniture turned over and the boy is hiding underneath the piano and the whole affair…
And we got to that page and I kind of just paused and let them take a look at it. And it was the most rich, incredible conversation we had to date. And it was that connection, right, they connected to the book because unfortunately that's an experience that they have in their own homes. And then they connected with each other on a very deep level because they realized "Oh, my friends have been through this too, they experience this too." There was a lot of hugging, and crying, and comforting one another. It was incredibly powerful, I left emotionally drained, of course, because it's hard to see five and six year old children talk about things that adults are doing in their homes. "My parents fight." and "My dad drinks too much too." or "I hide under things also when that happens."
There was another time when a little girl's father had physically abused her mother in the home the night before and there was a domestic abuse call made and she just had a really rough night. In our morning meeting she just blurted it out. And instantaneously, I didn't say one word I was still sitting there processing what she was telling us, and there were 18 other children wrapped around her. Hugging her, comforting her, consoling her, telling her that it was not her fault and that it would be okay. And a few kids said "I have this experience as well." Those are hard stories and those are things that are difficult and heavy. But also they're the moments where they listen to each other every day in such a way that they celebrate one another and share their lives and things with one another.
So one day one of my students walked in and was like "Miss J, miss J! I got so-and-so's favorite thing. I got him a book about his favorite thing." He pulls the book out of his backpack and it's a book about sharks, and sharks are that particular child's favorite thing. And he was wasn’t there yet, so that little boy, he stood in the entryway for our classroom with a book tucked behind his back, for at least five minutes, waiting for his friend to arrive. And as other kids filed into the classroom, they wanted to know what was going on. And so it became like a group thing, everybody was waiting for this child to arrive because they were so excited. Because they knew how excited he would be. Because he's always a passionate reader, and completely in love with sharks. So, finally the other child came in, and one little girl put her hand over his eyes and walked him toward the other child and she moved her hand and there was the big reveal with the shark book. He had used his allowance to buy a book for another child in our classroom and that child was so thrilled. He was so incredibly excited.
Jaclyn: Oh wow, he bought it.
Aeriale: Yeah, he bought it. He was like "I bought this for my friend." And he was like "You like it, bruh?"
Jaclyn: You tell these stories and these stories, these aren't extra things, these aren't things that maybe just happen in one class here and another class there. These are things that happen because you intentionally create a community that really mirrors… you know Christine talk a lot about creating the world we want to live in. "Is your classroom a microcosm of the world?" And that isn't the exact quote but it's designing a classroom that is a microcosm of the world. And I think that the more that we can internalize that and you've described this, does it matter if kids can go out into the world and they can do math and they can read and write if they can't be citizens. And I think that that is something that we really need to hold close to our hearts. Because everything you describe, that's the world I wanna live in.
Aeriale: Yeah, absolutely. I want to live in a world where my friends buy me books and my friends comfort me when I'm struggling. And my friends relate to me when I feel like I need to connect with someone else. It's absolutely important and Susan MacKay from Opal School, every time I hear her speak she talks about the importance of the heart. And how critical it is that we are creating citizens who can go out into the world and be empathetic. Because if you only have intellect, then you may not make the best choices. And I think that's pretty obvious in the society in which we are living in today. Our world can be a pretty scary and terrible place where children are in cages, and adult human beings are gassed, and we are only teaching the mind. We are only assessing whether or not our children can read, write, do math, all of those things. But we are not creating children who are going to go out and create a world in which everybody can live successfully, happily, and as their authentic selves. So I wholeheartedly agree with you, I think that that is what I'm trying to create in my classroom, it's a microcosm of what the world should be like.
And that doesn't mean that everything is rosy and all the children or their teacher are happy all of the time every single moment of the day. You know I've had some pretty difficult limits this past year, you know I had a student who quite frankly was a racist. She looked me right in the face and said "You don't belong here with us because you're black." And that was a moment where I had to pause and think to myself "What do I need to do here? How am I going to deal with this child in such a way that she grows as a person through this experience with me? How can I make her hear me, how can I make her be more empathetic?"
And one of the important parts of that, it had nothing to do with me, is actually other children in the room, one in particular, who I often referred to as my abuela. She just was an old soul. And she looked her right in the face and said "That's not okay." Before I could even say anything. She said "That is not okay." And the child actually said "Well, she could be with you," because she was, or is, a very dark-skinned Mexican girl, "because you're really dark brown." Like she is. And she said "No, that's not okay. If you start leaving people out based on what they look like, or whether or not they speak English or Spanish or Vietnamese or something else, then you're going to have people being left out and then we won't all be able to be friends. And that's not kind, is that the way that you want to be treated?" And she said "Well, no! That's not the way I want to be treated." And that was the beginning of a very long study, and a lot of work, and a lot of it was emotionally draining for me.
But, by the end of the school year that child, when we were reading a completely different book at the end of the school year, one of the little girls said that the character had a lot of problems and wasn't behaving very well. And she related to that character because they didn't. And then that other child, the child who was racist, she said "No! No! It doesn't always have to be that way. You can change. You can change. Just because she made bad choices and did things that are not right doesn't mean you always have to be that way. You can change. I changed. Remember how I didn't like dark brown people before? And now I do. Because I learned." So that's the kind of work, and that's Kindergarten, that's the kind of work that we need to be doing in our classrooms from the day children enter them if we are expecting to build the kind of world that we all should exist in.
Were there literacy skills at play there? Absolutely. You know, most of the work that I did with them was to read aloud, rotating to that particular topic anyway. The children need to be our curriculum. And you can teach everything that needs to be taught while also teaching children. If I had followed a script, I would have ignored every bit of that particular situation, or many others that arose in my classroom. But I don't follow scripts, I follow children. And I think that's where the power is.
Aeriale Johnson has taught in districts across the United states from Florida to Alaska to California and has served at nearly every level of public education. She currently teaches Kindergarten at Washington Elementary School in San Jose Unified School District. In Aeriale's words, “Professional educators need to question the world around them, but especially themselves. We cannot reflect on our practice without inner reflection. As an educator, I consider it a moral and ethical imperative.”
You can follow Aeriale on Twitter @ArcticIsLeTeach