In Others’ Words, Pt. 3: Sonia Wang

I asked a friend, Sonia Wang, to comment on the current moment with a particular view toward our teachers and what she’d say to them. As she has before on this blog, Sonia gives us clear, translatable instruction for which I’m thankful.

Dear Teachers,

Our job is a complex tapestry of nuanced roles that impact and influence the young people we engage with on a daily basis. We teach, we counsel, we push, we heal, we redirect, we advise, we feed, we hold hands, we remain present. All the while, we ourselves grow in who we are as men and women because of the amazing young people who walk through our doors each day.

In the current state of affairs, where the lived lives of many of our students are marred by injustices from the minute they awake to the minute they rest their eyes at night, we have to ask ourselves, how do we best honor our students and their families? their lived experiences? And we make difficult decisions – what realities do we bring into the classroom, provide platforms for or safe spaces to come into? And how do we preserve our commitment to the words we say to each child through our own words and actions – that, when the going gets tough, we remain present?

Thanks to Ryan McGuire

Thanks to Ryan McGuire

We must anchor ourselves in aggressive honesty and expect nothing short of the most rigorous achievements of our children.

aggressive honesty

Our black and brown children are living in a time where they are seeing themselves in the media, and the message tells them clearly that they don’t matter. They may have learned about or been exposed to historical events or literary works that resemble their current lived lives.

As teachers, we need to first be honest with ourselves, in a “Come to Jesus” and aggressive manner that this is the reality. For some, it may not be our reality, but it must be part of our known reality, because it is our students’ reality. And thus, our curriculum, our language, our classroom structures, and our approach to relationships building must honor this reality. Now.

Why aggressive? Because our students don’t get back those eights hours from their day in school of being overlooked or denied of their lived reality. The time is, and must be, now. When we are honest with ourselves, we can be honest to our students in the choices we make. How awesome that we have the agency and power to impact students as they enter our classrooms.

And how much more awesome that we honor their voices in the very realities of their lives in their learning. (And yes, I’m thinking of all grade levels, considering what is developmentally appropriate at each grade.) You, teachers, do this. You can do this. Your students learn from you; we must learn from them to best teach them.

most rigorous achievements

Yes, our students come from broken streets. Violence pervades their walk to the bus stop. They see children who look like them being oppressed and wrongly persecuted. They belong to a city, a world in fact, that is comprised of too many broken systems that perpetuate privilege that does not bat an eye towards them.

Yet, our students are Poets. Mathematicians. Architects. Actors. Critical thinkers. Debaters. So, why do we succumb to the second class curriculum of drilling reading and math skills into their hungry minds in the name of closing the achievement gap? We don’t. Because we know who is in front of us.

We set high expectations for our students, and we make it clear that they are going to reach those goals with soaring achievements. We create inquiry and comprehensive units that explore themes and questions that are interesting. And we ask our students to think for themselves to get to your final objective for that unit. And then we scaffold the concept and the skill, we confer with our kids, pull small groups to re-teach, and we continue to push and honor their achievements when they have achieved them.

remaining present

And we continue to do this complex job because we know from our own lived experiences in our schools and classrooms, the deep joy that comes when our students gain those understandings, master the objective, show kindness to a peer, and stand up for an opinion of theirs.

Teachers, we are in the beautiful position to impact and influence. Which I often find immensely scary as well. But it is in this tension that we must remain: the tension of all the roles we play, being warm and demanding, of recognizing yet safeguarding from realities, of supporting through and pushing towards high expectations…

Our students deserve the empowerment that comes from knowledge. To have agency to make informed choices. We play a role in shaping these young minds and characters. And we must remain present to them – knowing that the strength to do so does not come from immediate evidence, because we know all too well that sometimes the fruit takes a few years.

And we also know it doesn’t necessarily come from our system in regularly honoring the amazing work of teachers. But my hope is that the strength comes from the deep understanding that we are part of a much larger tapestry – one in which the beauties we only get glimpses of are more perfect and frequent.

And so we persevere each morning, welcoming back each young person into our lives to reaffirm to them that they absolutely matter.



Parents in a Student’s Life

A couple years ago, I asked Sonia Wang, a teacher and friend to write about the importance of parental involvement.  I’m sure you’ll enjoy her post again for its continued relevance.

Advocacy. This word is often seen as a job of someone else. But I think we forget that advocacy is merely being “in the know” so that we can speak up and respond appropriately as needed. One thing that our students, especially in urban environments, are lacking is having an ample group of advocates.

Where does this absence of advocates stem from? Often it starts with the students’ parents. It is argued that students spend the majority of their day in school, however, the more important truth is that students need consistency in their lives.

Consistency must be obtained in two ways—from home to school and from school to home. When a student is told in school that they need to read at least 30 minutes at home, but they are expected to cook dinner, watch their younger siblings, and then manage their work without a space to do work, there is a mixed message sent to the student. At the same time, when students are told at home that helping out with the family day care program holds priority in their lives and that message is overturned at school, students are flooded with mixed messages.

How do we as adults integrate into the lives of our students to best support them? As a classroom teacher, I strongly believe that there are two main sources for support—parents and mentors, which include teachers.

The role of parents in a student’s life is invaluable. A teacher can only impart so much when it comes to skills, content, and values, but if that is not reinforced by what happens at home, it becomes obsolete to the child. From my years of teaching, I cannot count how many times a student has referred to their parent’s indifference or absence in their academic achievement as a reason for their own indifference or absence of care for their academic progress or goals. The attitude and tone a parent holds for their child sets the baseline for the child’s personal expectations and hopes.

When a student knows that his/her parent knows what’s going on in their lives, especially in their school life, it not only sets a new tone to the importance of this thing known as “school” but it also redefines the student’s approach to school. Suddenly their work in school matters because what they do in class matters to people who matter to them. Reading a chapter and jotting personal thoughts on what was read isn’t just homework but it is an opportunity to show the parent what’s happening in class, what is being learned, and what thinking is happening.

Furthermore, let’s consider an example situation:

If a student is reading a novel that is perceived to be at a lower level than the student’s ability, his/her parent is now able to advocate for their student. This can lead to multiple outcomes:

1.)If the book is in fact easy, the teacher is now held accountable to meet the learning needs of the student in order for the student to GROW!! and

2.) If the book is actually at the student’s reading level because he/she is struggling, then there can be an honest conversation about where the student is at in their reading progress, what supports are in place in the classroom to monitor and assure growth, and what strategies can be implemented at home to support the student’s growth.

Regardless of what the outcome might be, the more important fact here is that the student has multiple advocates in his/her life; no longer is their education a passive one but one that is active and purposeful.

Parents must be involved in their student’s educational journey. Involvement does not mean teaching algebra in fourth grade or having the student comprehend Beowulf in middle school. I would actually discourage this type of involvement.

Instead, knowing your child’s syllabus, asking what he/she is learning, and checking in about their academic strengths and weaknesses are ways to be involved in his/her life. By doing so, our young people know they have advocates, people who will not allow them to be invisible in our current education system where too often our students are reduced to an ID number or a test score.

With advocates, our young people begin to see the importance of knowledge and voice. And in turn, they become our community’s most effective advocates.