This week on the Heinemann Podcast, we're excited to bring you the final of three special minisodes to invite you all into the conversations of the Heinemann Summer Book Study, hosted in the Heinemann PD Teaching and Learning Facebook Group.
This year, 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 Jessica Lifshitz, a Heinemann Fellow from cohort one, to discuss this week's theme: Designing Informed and Responsive Curriculum.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation.
Jaclyn: Thanks for coming here today Jess. I wanted to start by talking about becoming better informed. There's a chapter in Being the Change called Becoming Better Informed, and it notes a lot about capturing children's questions and listening to them. And I wondered if you could talk about how you allow children to bring their questions and conversation into the classroom and use that as your starting point for building curriculum?
Jess: Sure. I think that ... I teach fifth grade, so by the time kids come to me they know how to do school, and many of them know how to do it really well. And a lot of them by the time they reach fifth grade have come to understand that school isn't always a place for their questions, or their questions are only allowed at specific times. So my first task is to show them through my actions, and through our schedule, and through the time we spend together that their is space here for their questions, and their interests, and their thoughts about the world. So, that comes even from the very beginning sharing books and texts with the students, and then giving them time and space to share their thinking. And I think it comes in really easy ways at first, just in terms of what did you think about that book? And just making sure we slow down enough to provide them that space. And I think once they see the space is there they're more willing to fill it with their questions and with their wonderings.
And I think it's standing at the door at the start of the day and listening to their conversations. And we have all this stuff flying around in our minds of what we have to get done and what we have to cover, and we can put some kind of frantic with all of that as teachers. And I think we really have to deliberately slow ourselves down, and if there is an issue that students are talking about to make sure that they know there's space here for us to learn how to explore that in a responsible way.
Jaclyn: In that chapter Sara mentions that once students start conversation about things they're bringing into the classroom they're all speaking their truths, and assumptions are formed, and that when you allow this discourse that's how knowledge is constructed. And so, I didn't know if you could give an example of a time in your classroom where you've helped navigate conversations with your students and used that to build inquiry based on their conversations?
Jess: Yeah. I think inquiry is the perfect type of work to help kids sort of explore the things that they're walking into the classroom with because it's less about covering specific content and more about teaching them a process to which they can walk through outside of the classroom when they hear something that they're uncertain of, or they hear something that they need to find more information. We're teaching them ways to do that that exposes them to multiple perspectives and reliable sources. So, I remember a couple of years ago we were doing some inquiry circle work and the kids were looking into current social issues that they wanted to learn more about, and there was a group studying police brutality. And, as I was sort of walking around the room I noticed a conversation that was getting a little bit louder than any of the other conversations, and I think as teachers we are so conditioned to protect our kids from any conflict that we have this desire to run over and interrupt conflict before it gets out of hand. But when we do that I think a lot of times we're not teaching our kids how to navigate that conflict.
So there were two kids who from a far looked to be having a kind of heated discussion, and so I walked over and I just listened. I stopped and listened to the conversation that the kids were having. And they were talking about an article that they read and there was one student who was talking about how he had read several articles that discuss how black men were mistreated and treated unfairly by police officers. And there was the other student who was talking about how both his uncle and grandfather were police officers and they've shared conversations that had been had around the dinner table about how frightening it is to be a police officer and how unfair the treatment of officers has been through the media. And they were sort of arguing back and forth, and instead of feeling like I needed to stop the conversation or guide it in a specific direction I instead asked them if it was possible that there was truth to both sides of this argument?
And what I meant by that was could it be that police officers spend their time in a situation that often makes them fearful, while at the same time black men are being treated unfairly. And it was this idea that it wasn't that they were compromising but coming to an understanding that there could be truth within both of those without negating anybody's individual experience. And I think that's something we don't always trust kids will be capable of understanding, but I can tell you after I walked away they continued their conversation and what I noticed is that they started listening to each other in a way they hadn't been before that. Before we had had that conversation they were just sort of each spewing their ideas back and forth without listening, and then when I walked away they started really trying to hear and understand each other. And so, those are the skills that I think we can teach kids to help them navigate some of this stuff.
Jaclyn: Right. They probably didn't even know or have never even experienced a conversation where they could step and say we can have conflicting truths simultaneously. And think of how much learning happens in that moment, just the ability that you can take that and you can transfer that to the next conversation, and the next conversation to be able to sit back. That's something that adults need. We all need that.
Jess: The idea of being able to teach kids that I can honor your truth without negating anybody's humanity. There's a different between listening to somebody's lived experience, there's a difference between that and saying well, immigrants to our country don't have a right to be here. That's really negating somebody's ability to exists freely and justly in our country. That is not something I'm going to honor in my classroom. I'm not going to let anybody sort of negate another person's right to be a full human within our classroom, but that's different than allowing people to speak their truth and to share their lived experience with other, and teach kids how to listen to the lived experiences of others even if it's conflicting.
Jaclyn: I marked something in kids first room day one about how they ground their work, and they note three ways that they ground their work. That curriculum should be responsive and intentional, that we need to build a better teaching toolbox with clear teaching structures so we can drive complex learning, and that responsive teachers draw from all they know. And that last one really is sticking in my mind because to be responsive, if to be responsive means to draw from all we know, then it is our responsibility to continue building what we know. And so I wondered if you could share some of the ways you continuously build your knowledge to share with your students?
Jess: What jumps out to me right away when I think about that is the work I've done outside of my own school just in terms of understanding concepts like bias, and really doing the work to look within myself to understand my own bias'. Because if I'm going to come into a classroom and ask kids to wrestle with their bias' I have to be willing to make myself vulnerable and share the work I've done confronting my own bias' and how I worked to try and move past some of them. I think if I had walked into a classroom and asked kids to think about assumptions that they make about groups of people without having done the work myself to look at my own assumptions I think that first of all kids would know right away that I was kind of a fraud, and I wouldn't be able to know the language to help them walk through that process. So, one of the things that I started to do was really listen the stories and lived experiences of people who experience the kinds of bias that I might not know. Racial bias in terms of making negative assumptions based on skin color.
That's not life experience that I've had, and because we live often such segregated lives it's not information that was always right in front of me. So I really started to seek out the stories of people who had been more effected by things like racial bias and systemic racism, and as I listened to the stories of others I then started to be able to better reflect on my own life and experiences, and then I could ask kids the kinds of questions that would help them to reflect on those things, and I could design experiences has I thought might help them see bias' that they carry around. So it's a lot of listening, it's a lot of seeking out stories that are being told but might not have been heard by us as teachers, especially those of us who are white teachers. I also think it's just sort of looking at the world in a way of always being on the lookout for things that I think my students need to know or need to be taught how to deal with. Our kids are just exposed to so much information, and I think as teachers we've been a little bit behind the times in terms of teaching the skills to help them deal with that information. So, being on the lookout for the examples of the kinds of things that I could bring in to my kids.
Jaclyn: Just the idea of seeking out other stories that are unlike your own experience I think that's pretty accessible. I feel like if you take kids to the library for example and you challenge them with trying to track down something that they wouldn't have normally chosen to read, or if you ask them to randomly mix up and have a conversation with a student they don't typically have a conversation with, and just model those things in ways where they can see how quickly they can find something out that they wouldn't have found naturally in the rhythm of their day.
Jess: Yeah. And I think also just sort of broadening our understanding. I teach reading and writing, and I think our idea of reading has sort of stalled at this image of a kid holding a chapter book, maybe annotating or using post its to write down thinking. And I think we need to sort of adapt that image of what it means to read because when we're out in the world and we're reading that looks so different, that comes from video clips, it comes from social media, it comes from the midges that bombard us daily as we navigate the world. And I think looking at, again, the things that I wish I had been taught to do so that I was better prepared to deal with all of this information that is reading. Those are the reading skills we need to be teaching our kids, and that it goes beyond teaching them how to annotate a chapter book. And I think the more we can bring that into our classroom we're going to see a shift in how young people are able to deal with the information.
Because they're already accessing the information, but they don't have all the skills they need to deal with that information in a responsible way. And I think as teachers we can be the ones to help them build that skillset.
Jaclyn: You weave all of this into reading and writing because obviously you teach fifth grade, you have curriculum, you have skills you want students to walk away with. And, I wondered if you might be able to share some of your favorite ways to weave these conversations into reading and writing in a natural way?
Jess: So, I don't think there's a school or certainly a public school out there that isn't looking at the common core standards and finding ways to bring them to students. And I think a lot of times we use things like common core standards sort of as an excuse as to why we can't tackle more meaningful and authentic work. But what I've found is the more I know the standards the better I am able to use the standards to sort of justify bringing in really meaningful, really authentic work to my students. Because so much of the standards, or so many of the standards, are based on things like supporting your claims with evidence, looking at an author's message, or the theme of a text, and those are the kinds of things that we're asking kids to do as we ask them to tackle tough topics by looking at multiple perspectives presented in multiple text.
So, my first response is to use the standards as justification for why we're doing this work with kids. And when I say this work I mean the work that's really being guided by what our kids are bringing into the classroom. I think the books that we choose to read in order to teach the skills we're tying to teach can also be a really easy way to start to weave some of this work together. And then the other thing that it makes me think about is always thinking about the purpose of why we're teaching what we're teaching. So when I first started teaching I felt like everything I did was sort of a checklist of items. I was teaching kids how to infer as readers, and that was sort of my end point and I checked that off the list. Then I moved on and I taught kids how to synthesis as readers. But, what I now try and do is to think about why I'm teaching those things, and that's my new end point.
So now I'll take something like synthesis and I will say to myself when I'm planning out a unit, okay I'm going to teach my kids how to synthesis so that they are able to pull together multiple text showing multiple perspectives, and reach a more complex and full understanding of a tough topic. So now synthesis is not the end point, the end point is being able to bring together multiple perspectives in order to understand an issue, and synthesis is the way I'm going to get there. So, always asking myself why do I want my kids to know how to do this? So, I'm still teaching that checklist of skills, but now there's a real purpose and meaning behind all the work that we're doing.
Learn more about the Summer PD Book Study!
Jessica Lifshitz teaches Fifth Grade at Meadowbrook Elementary School, Skokie, IL. She is a Heinemann Fellow from cohort one. In her words, "… I have been searching for ways to take my thinking about education beyond myself and beyond the walls of my classroom. I have been yearning for a place where the level of discussion is high and where teachers are eager to grapple with the difficult questions that we face. I have been on the lookout for a place to go to learn and to grow and to push myself to do more and to be better for my students…Anything that allows me to grow for my students is something that I am interested in being a part of."