It’s the Who and Not the What

This post was contributed by Hollie Marjanovic.

Last November I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Learning and the Brain Conference.  The last speaker was a man named Principal Baruti Kafele.  It was appropriate that he spoke to us on Sunday morning, because as the saying goes….he took us to church.  His passion for schools to be places that are inclusive and equitable for all students is unmatched.  His simple message to us was “It’s not what you teach, it’s who you teach that matters.”  A very basic mantra and we all get it, but what does it mean?  Do we really know our students?  

He talked about having his teachers during workshop week going to drive through some of the neighborhoods where kids live or doing research on the music, games, tv shows, or other things with which they engage.  Doing so creates a better understanding of who they are.  It also gives us some connecting points when we try to connect the lines of our lessons to their brains.  So much research shows that students can engage content more effectively if it already connects to something with which they are familiar.  It is also encouraging to know that taking this step does not sacrifice time in your curriculum.  Yes, there are pressures to perform for AP exams, MAAP testing, and other things (state tests were a huge one for me in public school).  However, making these connections early on and utilizing practices which allow students to have a voice or work to make sure that they are celebrated in some way in your classroom will help them to become more confident in themselves and be more receptive to the lessons, leading to deeper understanding and learning.  There might even be lessons for you.  

Principal Kafele’s primary message was that certain groups are very much underrepresented in many schools.  When I first started at SA in 2016, we had a 2 day workshop in the summer with a phenomenal DEI leader from SAIS.  He talked about how we should walk around our school and look at the art, the books on the shelves, the pictures, then listen to the lessons in our classroom…and see who’s culture they represent.  Can we walk through our campuses and see who is represented?  If they aren’t represented, can they feel like they belong?

There are amazing teachers here who are working hard to make sure that inclusivity and belonging happen and I’d like to share some tidbits of wisdom, advice, and lessons learned from some of them…..

Linda Rodriguez

  • Dipped her toe into project based learning a few years ago and realized that if kids can be given choice in how they express their knowledge, then it creates opportunities for more inclusive conversations about topics of student interest.  
  • In journalism, the kids have a lot of autonomy to choose stories that they are interested in and we have strict parameters about who they interview to make sure that we are reaching outside of just their friend group and getting input from a diverse collection of the SA community.
  • In history she is always looking for the different lenses from which to examine historical facts and I’m especially interested in finding the hidden voices–the people who don’t get into the history book.  It is tempting to rely on our textbooks in our classes, but by doing that we only present half of the story.  It is VITAL for us to make sure that everyone in our classes feels included in what we are teaching and student choice helps them not only express their own interests but also explore different facets of our curriculum.

Anna Johnson, Director of Choirs

  • The voice, in particular, is a very intangible and personal thing.  It is important for our students to feel that they can contribute to the larger body of work with what they have to offer.  It comes through a LOT of encouragement…..”I know I’m pushing you, but you can do this”….It also comes through them creating relationships with people they might not associate with outside the classroom door.  They might not realize it, but when we voice at the beginning of the year, I place the weaker with the stronger to make them weaker stronger and also the stronger stronger.
  • As far as music goes, trying to include repertoire that speaks to our students in the same way that it speaks to me.  That means we naturally have to do some more classically based choral especially for adjudication, but it is important to also include some more popular songs with which they are familiar, along with music from other world cultures because it is important for them to find their place in our music.  I tell them all of the time that they leave having an appreciation for the art form of music and can contribute to their communities, whether they are a good singer or not.  

Thomas Riesenberger, Co-Chair of the World and Classical Language Department

  • The things I do well is to realize the class is about them, but I use the what to get there… content is the shared thing we can talk about 
  • The first thing I do as much as possible is to make space for them to tell me how they feel and what they need.  I have the luxury of teaching the students for 3 or 4 years.  I find teaching freshmen super hard because of that.  When starting to cultivate this relationship with the freshmen, it can be awkward.  But when they return to me as sophomores, they can relate to me more as a person than as an authority figure.  
  • One of the things I do is to pretend that class is starting 5 minutes late….be pretending to connect the projector, or something like that, then they start to talk to one another and then I pick up on the common thread of what they are discussing and then I insert myself into that conversation……I feel that these moments are very genuine and real….and I take it that way….even if they say some dumb teenager stuff, I take it very seriously and then they take it very seriously and they are saying less dumb stuff….having these relationships with them gets me to the point of where I need them to be to do the hard stuff with the content of the class
  • They know by Latin 3 that I’ve never denied anyone entrance to AP Latin, they are welcome to join the ride.
  • Because I have had them for 3 to 4 years, it is really important to hear out that kid because I can’t burn bridges with them.  It is really important that I have them invested in the relationship with me, then they will be invested in Latin. There is space in a classroom for the curriculum, because of the space for them.

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