When Leadership Sets off Fireworks in the Classroom
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.