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The Four Components of an Equitable Classroom

Editor's Note: This week I was honored to be awarded the Editor's Choice monthly content award for my last entry entitled 'Breaking the Class Ceiling.'  It is an honor to author this blog throughout the school year and I look forward to completing three additional posts before a summer break. Thank you again to everyone who has supported, read, retweeted and hopefully learned from this blog. Let's keep working.

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"What would Rhianna do? Shine bright like a diamond." -Dunbar High School (D.C.) English Teacher

A little over midway through this school year, I had a tough conversation with two members of my English/Language Arts Department. We reviewed the data from the beginning of the year and midyear diagnostic assessments. The results were not good. So we talked about it further. Each question wrung out new meaning as these dedicated teachers got to the root causes that were impacting student outcomes.

"At the end of the day, we have to push our students harder. We cannot allow them to simply not do complex independent tasks."

Following that conversation, one of the teachers talked to me about an idea she came up with from the meeting. 

"I want to have a serious talk with my students. And in this talk, I want to let them know that it takes pressure to make diamonds and that I will be putting positive pressure on you all from here on out to be the best that you can be."

Thus began her running encouragement for her students to 'be like diamonds.' I admire the way she took feedback and turned it into a mantra. The process of making a diamond also reminds of the making of an equitable classroom. There is the jaggedness of the learning process, the different facets of reaching all children and the beautiful black and brown faces that greet you (and challenge you) each day. And then there's the pressure. Loads of pressure. 

Some classrooms buckle under the pressure while others thrive and turn into touchstones of equitable learning experiences. In the spirit of diamonds, I think that we can judge the quality of an equitable classroom in the same way diamonds are evaluated. Below are the four C's of an equitable classroom:

Counter-Narrative - The equitable classroom is a classroom that is connected to the lives of black and brown students. This connection helps the teacher, co-teacher and teacher's aides to understand the negative narratives that persist around the intelligence, beauty and efficacy of our boys and girls of color. This knowledge then informs everything about the classroom itself. It informs the messages sent to students about themselves, how they are greeted and even the way the teacher frames ways students speak to and treat one another. It informs the content that is engaged in and the assignments students should complete. Below are pictures from my Journalism I class (don't judge my handwriting). We are currently learning how to counter the destructive narratives that exist around people that look like them:

Counter-Narrative.jpgCounter Narrative Two.jpg

The students are to respond to one of three damaging narratives with a counter-narrative that they have researched. (Guess which group selected the task of composing a counter-narrative to the idea that African American teens don't care about their education. Hint: It's the biggest group). The classroom that seeks to define equity must understand that in the absence of a counter-narrative, promoted by a caring teacher, every damaging narrative has indelible staying power. 

Content (Expertise) - Think of the measurement for this quality of an equitable classroom as being a range of mountains versus a flat field. The equitable classroom has a content expert (hopefully the teacher) who builds new content (and skill) experts through a jagged and iterative process (peaks and valleys) where students are taken from where they are to the grade-level (and beyond) standard for that skill/topic. Where there is no equity, there is not a jagged and at times circular path forward, but just a flat, one-size fits none learning experience that is facilitated by a novice in content who does not take into account the needs and opportunities for scaffolding and enrichment that our children need. For they are all our children..

In the equitable classroom, students leave knowing content so well that they can use it to help others and create rich meaning out of their lives. The teacher in this classroom ensures that the content is internalized along with the development of the skill for a balanced learning experience. In the picture below, I display the transfer of content expertise shown by my students amidst headlines and the journalists of the month that we vote on throughout the year (we only have two more journalists to vote on - also, bulletin boards were never my strong suit - don't laugh):

Headline.jpg

Control (Continuum) - For this dimension of an equitable classroom, imagine a horizontal line with points on the opposite ends. Then, growing out of each point is a large sign. On one sign is the word: GROWTH. The sign on the other side of the line is the word: CONTROL. I recently heard a message where the speaker said 'I have learned that you can't have growth and control at the same time.' I have seen this play out in a classroom of black and brown faces, especially males.

Teachers are rewarded for how well they control, or silence, the students in their classrooms. Sometimes I wonder what we fear about certain students not being 'under control.' Is agression always a negative trait? What makes the concept of control so intergral to the equity of a classroom is when it is compared to high achieving classrooms. Whether those classrooms feature traditionally underserved students or not, control is not the operating construct, but rather collaboration. And meaning. I contend that in too many classrooms full of our black and brown children, the over-emphasis on control stifles true academic growth. Students cannot grow if they cannot experiment. Students cannot grow if they are not trusted to struggle with complex text or even have a content-based discussion that may get heated. The quality of equity in any class with traditionally underserved students can be understood by looking at the imaginary line between control and growth. If the majority of the learning experience is spent on the control side, you can expect growth to be compromised. 

Communication (Quality) - This domain of an equitable classroom could be broken into four quadrants: teacher to student, student to student, content-based building and content-based acquiring. The equitable class is the class that co-creates meaning. The collaborative class is one that is not dominated by teacher talk; but by student discussion. Over the course of my career in education, getting students to discuss content has been a real challenge. I believe the challenge comes not from their ability, but because they have spent hours, months and even years in learning environments that valued their copying and listening over their meaning-making and discussion. If a student arrives at 10th grade and is asked to participate in a Socratic Seminar after years of guided notes, popcorn reading and teacher-to-student dialogue, what can we reasonably expect? Communication that is frequent and builds content knowledge (as well as skill development and logic) is an indispensable aspect of the equitable classroom.   

Counter-narratives. Content expertise. The Control continuum. Communication quality. These are four C's that can determine the quality of the equity environment you are creating for your students. How will you help your diamonds shine? Let's get to work. 

Classroom Instruction Principle

The quality of equity in your instruction lies at the nexus of the content expertise, communication quality, control continuum and counter-narratives that are present in your practice. 

Three Actions to Implement by Your Next Lesson

1. Build a conversation protocol. There are many ways to structure an academic conversation. From the Socratic Seminar to the Fishbowl; find the best protocol to use with your students. Once you have selected a protocol, model it and then practice it with your students. Students should regularly be in a position to build, refine and extend their thinking using skills and content that reflects grade level expectations. 

2. Compose your exemplars. In order for students to be able to become experts in contents, they must have exemplars. The exemplars can be used to help them model and revise their own products until they reach grade level standards. These exemplars should be completed by teachers in advance of the class and be used constantly. As students begin to master the content, their exemplary work should be displayed prominently (with their picture attached to it) around the classroom. 

3. Integrate counter-narratives into your content. This action may be difficult as some disciplines lend themselves more to the integration of outside stories and articles. However, wherever you can find information and stories that show black and brown students in counter-typical positions of prominence, influence and intelligence, make it your mission to put it in front of every student that comes through your doors (no matter the race).  

Two Resources for Further Study

Countering the Narrative by Jason D. DeHart: https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/summer-2017/countering-the-narrative

Counter-Narrative Curriculum by The Goalbook Toolkit: https://goalbookapp.com/toolkit/strategy/counter-narratives

One Inspirational Quote/Video

Deonte Bridges' Valedictorian Speech - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0Wcr82UOsw 

"For they are all our children; we will either profit by or pay for what they become." -James Baldwin

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