Space Matters

When I think of space, I typically think of a physical space, or room. A location with space is a place with enough room for you to spread out. But when you tell someone you “need space,” the message is that you need time away from that individual, most likely be able to process your feelings on your own.

When it comes to being an educator, my goal is to have a classroom space that is welcoming and allows kids to be their true selves. But, kids cannot be their full selves if they are not given the space to discuss their lived experiences. This requires intentionality on the part of the educator, and I have found that the results can be truly extraordinary.

When I think back to some of the spaces I have attempted to build and foster student growth over the course of the last four years, two particular groups come to mind: the boys basketball team I coached in Providence my third year there, and the youth media program I ran with a group of young women that same academic year. In both groups, I was aiming to create spaces where kids felt safe and loved, but also pushed to achieve a certain goal. The goals, of course, were very different. In the first space, the goal was to help the team improve as basketball players and learn valuable skills needed on and off the court, such as time management, teamwork, and owning up to mistakes. In the other space, the goal was to provide young women with a place to discuss what it is like to be a female living in a patriarchal society. And, even more importantly, I wanted the space to be a place where the girls were lifted up and encouraged to be themselves by both myself, and each other.

Now, being that all of the girls in this youth media group were young women of color, I knew that while we could connect in many ways as females, it was essential for me to not ignore their racial identities. I needed help from a person who could speak to her lived experience as a black woman. So, I instilled the help of my former City Year Corps Member turned best friend, and phenomenal female, Drine. She became my co-facilitator, and could speak to her experiences as a woman of color, which deepened the conversations and encouraged the girls to share their perspectives as well. The two of us decided to name the program Renegades For Change, for we hoped our young ladies would be inspired to fight for equality and justice through the process of documentary creation.

For those that don’t know, youth media programs intend to provide teens from historically marginalized groups with a space to discuss issues plaguing communities of color, and think through possible solutions that young people can attempt to lead the charge in overcoming. Historically speaking, in most cases, young people, particularly youth of color, have been viewed as problematic members of a community, rather than ones that have the potential to spark positive change. Well, if there is one thing I have learned from working with young people in this capacity, it’s that adults should be turning to teens for help in generating ideas of how to better a community, for the thoughts expressed by the young women I had the opportunity to work with were insightful, and consistently challenged me to think in a new way.

Traditionally, in a youth media program, the format of documentary creation is as follows: first, the teens brainstorm possible documentary topics on issues of social change, then they conduct research, and finally, they interview community members and other teens to ensure that a diverse group of voices are represented in the film. Over the course of the second half of the school year, the girls created three documentaries. The one you will find linked below is called: “Womanhood Defined,” and is a little bit different from the traditional format, as it only features the members of our group. But, it is definitely a reflection of what can be accomplished when we give our students the space to discuss identity.

I’m committed to doing a better job of affording my seventh graders more space to discuss who they are, and who they want to be next year. Space matters. What can you do to give someone you care for the space to speak their truth?

Watch “Womanhood Defined”




Climbing in Skin

At nearly every professional development session I have been to since beginning to teach four years ago, someone mentions the importance of “behavior management.” Now, this phrase could mean many different things depending upon your personal experience as a student, teacher, or even camp counselor. But, no matter what, when facilitators lead a professional development on managing behavior, the question that is always posed is: what constitutes excellent behavior management?

It has been my experience as an educator serving low income youth of color in Providence, and now Philadelphia, that when the person leading the PD on behavior management refers to “best practice” or teachers who excel in this category, they often describe an educator who is strict and holds the bar high. This is not a criticism, per se, because I do think holding the bar high for students sends the message that you believe they are capable of achieving at the highest level, whether that be academically or behaviorally. And in order to facilitate the highest level of learning for kids, teachers must have routines and expectations that ensure students are held accountable. That way, all members of a classroom can feel safe, respected, and motivated to succeed. But what if those systems are actually leading to students feeling disempowered and disrespected by those who are supposed to be the leaders in the room – the educators?

Far too often, as teachers, we deliver consequences and fail to provide rationale. Even worse, we provide consequences and fail to ask students why? We fail to ask them anything at all.  And when kids try to explain themselves, we sometimes don’t listen, especially if they are expressing their discontent in a way that we deem “disrespectful.” Well, I recently had an eye-opening conversation with a student that challenged me to think about the importance of doing one simple thing before delivering a consequence to a student: listening.

I have a brilliant student. In fact, I have many. This student, in particular, is not only incredibly bright, but he also has a laugh that is infectious, and would do anything for his best friends. His penmanship is font-like, and the words he chooses to put on the page reveal that he was made to stand out. And yet, in spite of all of this, he is repeating seventh grade for the second time. He is also in danger of repeating it for a third. Because he isn’t smart enough? Absolutely not. Because he doesn’t care? Also incorrect. So what is it? What has led this incredible young man to a place where he may have to do this grade for the third time? Well, like any middle school relationship on Facebook – it’s complicated.

Currently, this young man is my mentee. He sees me for office hours to complete work for his classes (I selfishly prioritize Literature work, as that is the subject I teach). Each week, he comes to me and we spend time focusing on making up missed assignments, and he asks me questions to clarify what we have talked about in class. Every afternoon he spends with me I think the same thing: why is a kid so brilliant on the verge of failing seventh grade for the second time? What are we doing wrong? Well, that is also complicated.

This child was in my classroom alone and working when I walked in with another student – a tenth grader. I know this student from interactions in the hallway, and, for whatever reason, he has been willing to share some of his struggles at school with me throughout the year. Bound for AP English and History next year, this young man is filled with potential. And, yet, he is one of the students identified as “high risk” based on the amount of consequences he has received over the past school year. How can that be?

In the fifteen minutes or so that we spoke, he opened up about feeling like his teachers are hyper-focused on him, and are often expecting him to do the wrong thing. When asked if he has voiced these concerns to his teachers, themselves, he replied: “They aren’t going to listen, Ms. Kelly. I have tried. It’s not even worth it.” I proceeded to tell him how mature and impressive he comes off to me every time we have a conversation, and that I am confident that if he approaches his teachers to share that he feels targeted and seen as a “problem,” there is no way they won’t be receptive. “I don’t even want to do that. They just don’t listen.”

Well, after wrapping up the conversation, and sending him on his way home, I still had my seventh grader sitting in his seat, writing away. Not even five minutes later, he began to share with me information about his personal life – the fact that he feels a constant sense of pressure to pass because he already messed up once, the fact that he misses seeing his mom as much as he used to, the fact that he feels like sometimes school is the only place he gets to play and be a kid. In five minutes, I went from knowing surface-level information about this student, to beginning to understand who he is, and how I can better support him in and out of my classroom. He opened up – for the first time this year.

There is no doubt in my mind that the conversation I had with that tenth grade student helped my seventh grader come to a realization: the realization that I, his teacher, just might actually listen. That, for once, rather than give him a demerit, or call home, or call the Dean, I might actually be willing to hear him out – to see the world from his point of view. And, in the words of one of my literary heroes, Atticus Finch, “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.” Today I attempted to climb into the skin of a seventh grader and walk around in it. And, in doing so, I came to the conclusion that I would be a much better educator, and human being, if I tried to do this more often.

The Most Important Thing

Anyone who tells you they have “no expectations” for their new relationship, friendship, job, or otherwise, is not being honest. All of us, whether we want to or not, have expectations when we head into a new experience. Expectations are what make New Year’s Eve the worst holiday of them all. We expect it to be awesome, which is why we spend tons of money to buy tickets to attend some “exclusive” event in New York City. But, somehow, it is always a let down. Not because it’s a terrible time, but because it didn’t meet our expectations.

Let me take you back to my first year teaching. I was fresh out of college, had joined Teach For America, and been hired at a middle school in Providence. I was a wide-eyed twenty-two year old that firmly believed that every child deserves a fair shot at fulfilling his or her dream, regardless of their zip code. I had a vision that my classroom would be a place where students could explore and grow. A place where they could develop their voices so that they could one day contribute to a more democratic society. A place where students could see the power of language. A place where they could explore how language can be used as a tool of manipulation or a tool for liberation. I had expectations.

Well, on my first day of school as a 7th grade teacher, I delivered a grandiose, well-rehearsed speech about the power of words, and that I hoped my classroom would be a place where students could be able to develop their own unique voices. (It should be noted that when I use the word “voices” here, I’m referring to a perspective, or worldview, that can be conveyed through written and oral expression, and used to combat injustice. See Why Voice Matters by Nick Couldry for more information). When I finally stopped talking (which, I’ll admit, was quite a while later), I looked out and saw a bunch of contorted faces that conveyed the message: “What in the world is this crazy lady talking about?”

Now, it should be noted that I taught English Language Learners my first year teaching, which means that in each class, there were varying levels of English proficiency. And, although I didn’t know it on that first day of school, teaching these classes would turn out to be one of the greatest blessings I have had in my life. I met incredible, hard-working families who were determined to give their children a shot at the “American Dream,” and I also learned that the answer to any question lies within the classroom.

But, on this day, when I delivered this passionate speech about the power of written and verbal expression, I was met with blank stares and confused faces. I had an expectation – an expectation that the vision I held for my classroom would resonate with the students. But, it didn’t. Now, what?

It took me a few months to swallow my pride and accept the fact that what I had initially wanted as the vision for my classroom needed to be adapted to fit the students in front of me. So, I finally did it. I altered the language of the vision in a way that emphasized the power and opportunity that can be acquired from being bilingual in America. The kids immediately connected to it. So, even though my expectations for what would happen in my classroom did not match up with what actually occurred, I did learn that sometimes you have to be flexible and remember the most important thing about being an educator: it’s about the students – not about you.





Be True to You

Since I first started teaching, I’ve been asked on numerous occasions what my teaching style is like. Who do I aspire to be? Mr. Feenie from Boy Meets World? John Keating from Dead Poets Society? Erin Gruwell from Freedom Writers? Mr. Ratburn from Arthur? (Ok, no one has ever asked me about the last one, but he was a complete boss). But, to answer the question: I admire qualities that each of these teachers possess, and look up to them in different ways. I’d love to be able to deliver wisdom to students like Mr. Feenie, instill a love for poetry in students like Mr. Keating, promote the importance of empathy and inclusion like Ms. Gruwell, and expect the most from students every day like Mr. Ratburn. But, the reality is: we all have to figure out how to be ourselves in front of the classroom – not somebody else.

You might be thinking: “That’s ridiculous. No one has to ‘figure out how’ to be themselves – you just are.” Well, it’s actually not as simple it may sound. And, my experiences this year in a new school, and new city, have caused me to reflect on the person I am, and the person I want to be, when I am in front of a classroom.

This year, I came into the year feeling incredibly confident in my ability to seamlessly transition from one school to the next. However, I had a lot of mixed emotions about the move. I was excited to be in a bigger city closer to home, but I already missed my former students and coworkers terribly. Countless tears had been shed at the close of the previous year, as I watched my 8th graders walk across the graduation stage and move up to high school. These were my babies. I had taught many of them for two years, coached, and played basketball with them multiple times throughout the week, including Saturdays. They took up, and will forever hold, a huge place in my heart, and I am beyond proud of how much they grew over the course of the two years that I had the privilege of teaching them. But, above all else, I am just thankful to have gotten to know them, laugh with them, and learn from them that caring for others is the greatest gift life has to offer.

So, needless to say, my new students had big shoes to fill. But still, my hopes were high. I, the confident teacher, thought I would be able to establish relationships with them quickly, and soon, I’d build the type of bond I had with my former students. 

I was sorely mistaken.

The first mistake I made was that I continued to compare my new school, and students, to my old ones. As a result, I had completely unrealistic expectations of how my classroom should operate and how my students would see me within the first few months of arriving. I had completely forgotten that the bonds I had established with my former students were forged over the course of two years. How could I possibly expect to have the same level of connection with my new students having only known them for a few months?

The second mistake I made was far worse. Somehow, in the midst of holding the bar high for academic and behavior expectations, I completely lost myself. The joy that I once had for teaching somehow disappeared. I gave consequences like a madwoman, and I barely ever smiled. I was miserable every day that I woke up and got ready for work, miserable while I was there, and once I left, all I could think about was how much I hated the person I had become. Where was the fun? Where was the kind and understanding teacher I had been for the last three years?

This cycle continued on for a few months, until one day, I reached my breaking point. Tears flowed from my eyes as I exited the school building. Never before had I thought about leaving a job mid-year, but I didn’t know how I could continue on the path I was on. Luckily, this happened just a few days before Winter break, so I had the chance to head back to my parents’ house and reflect on my year up to that point.

It was over the course of that week that I came to an important decision – the decision to stop pretending to be someone I was not, and start to find the joy in teaching again. It took some time, but, eventually, I started to feel like my old self again. I started to spend more time bonding with students inside the classroom by providing space for them to share their thoughts and feelings about the literature we were reading – something I should have been doing all along. I also committed myself to having lunch with kids, playing basketball with them after school, and asking them questions about their lives. And, as a result, I, and the kids, were so much happier to be in my classroom.

The latter was shown directly in the survey data I received in May. To the comment of: “My teacher cares about me,” my student responses landed me at a 4.5 out of a 5 point scale, up significantly from the beginning of the year. Being myself had worked. So, whether you’ve moved to a new job, new field, new city, or even made a new friend recently, don’t forget to be yourself. People will love you for it!