Welcome to Core Connections, a blog by Success at the Core. You'll find stories of best practices, inspiring experiences, and effective strategies related to leadership development, classroom instruction, and student engagement.

When Leadership Sets off Fireworks in the Classroom

Byington - Fireworks Blog Class Shot 6.29.12

As the Fourth of July approached last week, I found myself humming along to “Firework,” the Katy Perry song blaring on my computer, while a recent camp class’s photo slideshow danced across the screen. At that moment, I couldn’t help but reflect on the cast of characters who passed through another fourth-grade class of mine.

There’s C, who came in before school some days to preview the day’s math lesson, giving him the little boost he needed to stay on target. He always offered me a brilliant, white smile and a quiet thank you, while in class he always had a quick comment ready to make everyone laugh. There’s E, always the first to volunteer to help someone. She worked best when she had a chance to talk about her ideas with someone else. In class, K appeared quiet and introspective, rarely raising her hand to participate in a discussion. But in a footrace she was all swinging elbows and streaming hair, racing toward the finish line, eager to finish first. Y’s work was always a work of art, her hand-writing beautiful, in a myriad of colorful ink.

I have to admit, as Katy Perry belted the chorus, “Cause, baby, you’re a firework, Come on, show ‘em what you’re worth,” I got a little teary-eyed. Thoughts flooded my mind – of these students finishing their elementary years, crossing this threshold into a more grown-up world. Through my tears, the quickly moving colors on the screen blended, and it really did look like a firework finale, with the splashes of vivid color and my feeling of awe. Then it hit me: Knowing what makes my students tick – their interests, strengths, and abilities – is at the heart of culturally responsive teaching.

When I know my students, I can make new learning relevant to them. In the teacher development section of the Success at the Core (SaC) website, I can see teachers doing just that, connecting with students’ interests to make lessons relevant and really connect with students. SaC is a set of free, field-tested and web-based professional development resources designed to help leadership teams and teachers improve classroom instruction and boost student outcomes.

In my ongoing research for teaching resources, I found a featured SaC video called “Preparing Students to Read: Word and Inference Walls.” In a pre-reading activity in front of her class, teacher Cathy Farrell asks students to respond to two simple questions about the book The Outsiders: “Would you get in a fight to handle a physical problem?” and “Have you ever been approached to join a gang?” When students saw that the book they’d be reading in class was relevant to some of the choices they face, they were naturally more motivated to read that book. Generally, when they can make connections between themselves and the story, they want to know the story, read it, and analyze its ideas. When they get to express their own voices about their own experiences, without judgments, they feel empowered.

Farrell’s instruction mirrors a similar “a-ha!” experience in my fourth grade class in a school with ninety percent poverty and sixty-five percent English-Language Learners. Dexter the Tough by Margaret Peterson Haddix is a book I selected for the class to read. Dexter is a fourth grader who faces many challenges that lead to an identity crisis for him and a turn as a school bully.

Like Dexter, many of my students face challenges in their lives due to circumstances over which they have no control. And, like Dexter, they sometimes choose to act out their confusion and frustration by not making good decisions at school. Relating the text to my students’ lives facilitated my students’ deep comprehension of the book, their critical thinking about it, and the expressions of their thoughts and ideas in writing. This helps cultivate increased student engagement and, ultimately, achievement. This, too, is the heart of culturally responsive teaching.I’ve found that Success at the Core can help accelerate teachers’ ability to foster this type of achievement. It provides tools to engage teachers and leadership teams in the necessary conversations to develop cultural responsiveness among staff and better meet the needs of all students, so that every student’s colors can shine in a burst of color, like a firework.

You might also like:

Four Ways My School Tackled the Achievement Gap
Friday Forum: Any tips and resources for establishing classroom culture?
How an Instructional Coach Uses a Quiver of Strategies for a Bull’s Eye Approach

21 Responses to When Leadership Sets off Fireworks in the Classroom

  1. Rachael says:

    I agree! I just read “The Mighty Miss Malone” by Christopher Paul Curtis. In the story, Deza (the protagonist) fails to connect with the culturally insensitive novel (Penrod) her teacher makes her read. A neighbor, who is also a teacher, puts books into her hands with characters who are like her, the 1st time she experienced this:

    “The book grabbed me and shook me like a soon-to-die rat in a terrier’s jaws! It was about black people and they had real problems and thoughts and did real things, not like the black people in so many other books. Nothing like in Penrod.”

    Having books that connect to our students is critical. This resonates so well with what you’re doing in your own classroom. :)

    • SUE HARRIS says:

      As I read your comment, I couldn’t help but think about my first graders and their responses about their interests, strengths, and abilities. At the younger grades, I think it is also important to the students to know they will be listened to and a teacher’s willingness to engage in conversation with them. In our dual language program, it is crucial to model correct grammar and vocabulary and engaging in talking with the kids is one way to do that.

  2. Heather Byington says:

    What a wonderful example of a student making a cultural connection with a book! I am definitely going to have to check that one out this summer. Awesome!

  3. Marianella says:

    As teachers we need to understand how important is to know our student’s interests, strengths and weaknesses in order to create a plan that takes into account the cultural differences and challenges students face daily. That way, we find ways to approach our students and uderstand the things that are relevant to them. By doing this, their learning experience is more pleasant and effective. We will always have some polite charming students like C, winners like K, or volunteers like E, or even artistic ones like Y. Everybody has a talent and specific interest’s that motivate them. It’s our responsability to find ways to integrate those interests into daily reading by making connections. Thank you Heather! This makes sense to me.

  4. Erin says:

    As faculty at a large university, I have received much more training in my area of expertise (writing and rhetoric) than teacher development or student engagement. The principles Ms. Byington discusses are applicable at all levels of education, and I would have liked to view the links she included. However, unfortunately much of the content on this website is not Mac/ipod-compatible.

    • Heather Byington says:

      Success at the Core resources can definitely benefit all learning contexts, from pre-school through college. I am aware of some of the learning activities that you’ve applied in your rhetoric class, and I know that you really try to connect with your students, to increase their engagement with content. Didn’t you have your students respond to an episode of the Colbert Report in one lesson?

    • admin says:

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  5. Heather Byington says:

    Here is an article from NEA Today Express on getting to know students by having them write their autobiographies during the first days of school.


    • Wendy says:

      I love this idea! To better understand students, their backgrounds, and their interests, I also have had students create “all about me” posters on 8 1/2 by 11 card stock which I posted around the classroom the first week of school.

      • Heather Byington says:

        Thanks for sharing, Wendy. What a great opening days activity! Opening days activities that help everyone get to know each other are an important part of culturally responsive teaching.

        • maureen says:

          Have been doing the poster and autobiography in my classroom for years. They are always something my sixth graders are excited to complete. Adult former students have kept them and shared with their own children.:) Although I am retired, I continue to volunteer in three schools. What bothers me is that many of our fourteen elementary schools now divide the curriculum between teachers. One of my grandchildren has four teachers and this does not include specials. My daughter has received messages with her daughter’s name misspelled. Do they really know these children? I don’t think so!!

  6. Jean Sheckler says:

    Heather, thank you for sharing “Firework”. You reminded me of the importance of really getting to know our students (family background, educational experiences, learning strengths/challenges). A former student recently shared that being able to demonstrate his learning with art helped motivate him to want to do well in our humanities class. Knowing our students’ learning styles and ensuring opportunities to demonstrate understanding beyond visual and auditory styles, reflects cultural responsive teaching and learning.

  7. Deb Gribskov says:

    Connecting with students is important at all levels of education, even those soon to graduated high school students. They don’t care what you know until they know that you care. Those teacher development videos show me new ways to reach out to my students

  8. Ailene Baxter says:

    Thank you Heather and others for comments and ideas. In my setting, we have explored using the “power of story” as a means of creating inclusion for both adult learners(teachers) and students. We begin each meeting with one staff member sharing their story. This helps us better connect as a learning community and a team, and it also powerfully models examples that can be transferred to the classroom. We value the inclusion of every member of our schooling community as a key foundational component of culturally responsive teaching.

    • Heather Byington says:

      Aileen, I’m fascinated by the idea of the staff sharing their stories to strengthen the culture of the school. Do they share stories about working with students or about their personal experiences? My school building is currently working on strengthening our school’s culture and trust. Can you share more about story sharing in terms of staff members? Thanks!

      • ailene baxter says:

        Heather, thank you for your question.
        One day each month at our school-based professional development meeting, we begin with one staff member sharing “my story”. There is no theme. Every story is different-some choose to talk of family connections, others important influences in their life-how they came to teaching, hopes dreams for their students,an influential teacher in their past, etc. Because it is “their story” each individual gives whatever version they choose. Stories range form 10-15 minutes. These stories have become a powerful way for teachers to know one another on a different level. In many ways, these stories serve to break down barriers-particularly at the secondary level where teachers can often feel more isolated. Feedback from staff has been overwhelmingly positive and something that we look forward to each month. Some are extending this work into the classroom. We will also open our school year with the parent sharing her story and her opes and dreams for her two sons, both of whom have significant struggles academically and social/emotionally. “My Story” is based on work by Margery Ginsberg, PhD.and comes from a recent book Diversity and Motivation, Corwin/SAGE

    • Suzanne says:

      Ailene, I really see the benefit of this type of personal connection. It’s something that, I think, we tend to overlook when dealing in an adult environment. I find that when I share things about my weekends, my family, my fears, my opinion about a movie I just watched… with my students, they become more eager to share with me. I am a “connection junky” and believe that making those types of strong bonds is at the basis of all we do as educators. Like Deb said… they need to know you care and, in my opinion, the first step is creating a safe environment that promotes the ‘airing and sharing’ of feelings, opinions, etc. What a great conversation!

      • Wendy says:

        Great points, Suzanne. The more we can humanize ourselves to our students, the better. Thanks for joining this conversation!

  9. Nisha says:

    I love the “my story” idea. At one school our principal started every staff meeting with celebrations. He usually had a funny “story” to share himself and there was also some celebration from other staff. I loved the idea and it did get us personally involved with each other. I thought about doing that it my class to start Mondays off on the right foot but forgot about it. Maybe I will have to revisit it.

  10. Jennifer says:

    When I find myself with a student that presents particularly challenging behavior, as I do almost every year :) , the very first step in creating a positive classroom environment is finding the right connection to make with them. The moments we spend doing that go a million miles towards learning, culturally relevant teaching, and good relationships.

  11. Jeanne Korver says:

    It is so true that when we know our students, we can make new learning relevant to them. This year in my classroom, a spontaneous, before the bell-rings, “I have news” has developed in my classroom and I have used it to springboard ideas for writing workshop. It has not only helped me to know my students, but it has also helped them to know each other.

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