Character, Celebrations, and Consistency: Charging Ahead to Change Culture


Rachel Klein is a middle school resource teacher for the Diversity, Equity, and Poverty Programs division of JCPS. She is driven by helping schools find ways to recognize the beautiful diversity JCPS has, as well as elevating the practices of those who have found ways to do it successfully. Follow her at @RAKlein6.

It can be done.
It can be done systematically.
It can be done consistently. With love, with high expectations, and with consideration for each student.

We can incorporate culturally relevant teaching strategies while maintaining rigor. We can teach the students who sit in front of us while still holding every student accountable. We can establish relationships and still have high expectations for academics and behavior. But the best part is that you don’t have to bend over backward to fundamentally change who you are as a teacher.

Today, I spent time in three classrooms at Newburg Middle School. I was invited to come by Principal Nicole Adell, who was excited to showcase her 6th grade English Language Arts PLC. Ms. Adell claimed that the members build culturally relevant teaching strategies into everything they do. As a newly minted district resource teacher for the Diversity, Equity, and Poverty Programs Division, I knew I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to witness this first-hand. I have never wanted to stop learning, and I wanted to absorb as much as possible. She didn’t want me to announce when I was coming so that I could see authentic teaching and learning. After what I observed in these three rooms, I left nearly in tears because of what these models of excellence demonstrated.

Classroom 1: Denaye Hylton

I was greeted with colorful walls and decor, posters with academic language, and messages on the walls that made it clear that each student was a valuable member of the learning community. The teacher used a non-verbal check-in system to see who understood the instruction and who was confused. Students raised their hands for both answers, demonstrating that the teacher spent time creating an environment that allowed and celebrated confusion and mistakes. She had a system of student empowerment in the classroom, as they were mobilized to fill roles like “tech support” and “exit manager”. When students were encouraged to respond, she didn’t punish those who called out.  Clearly, she valued the response more than the “appropriate” means of sharing that response. Most notably, the teacher clearly enjoyed what she was doing, allowing students to see her true passion as she squealed in delight when a student shared a high-quality answer. Positive rapport was obvious, as one student playfully shushed her, and she played the role of the shameful child (with a smile on her face). She was silly when it was ok to be silly, and she was the master of expectations when it was needed.

My big takeaway: Be you. Be real for your kids. Let the students contribute to the tone of the class, and allow them to respond and demonstrate understanding in their own ways, as long as it fits within the overall classroom community expectations. Once this is in place, the rest will come.

Classroom 2: Cynthia Fields

The teacher set the tone from minute one as she greeted students at the door, calling each one a “scholar”, and commending them for following expectations right away. One student greeted her, and she said “good morning, (student name)! Love you!” She wasn’t afraid to use this love to hold students to high expectations, either. “Tuck your shirt in, Scholar. How you present yourself says a lot about how you feel about yourself.” She barely let a clearly-out-of-sorts student get past her before she swept them back into the hallway to check in on them, showing that she maintains a pulse on everyone who crosses the threshold to her classroom. Once class began (with a very booming “good morning!”), she set them all on the warm-up task as she walked around, quietly touching base with many students and telling them that she appreciated them being there. When it was time to share answers, a student raised their hand and she said “thank you, Scholar, for raising your hand.” He responded with “thank you for calling on me.” This pattern of dialogue occurred many more times throughout the class, demonstrating that this expectation was set long ago. One student even slipped up once he was called on, and she redirected him to use “academic language”. He self-corrected, and…. The class clapped. The class clapped for several students, on their own, many times in this class period. Celebrations of learning, of mistakes, of ah-ha moments, and leadership occurred so many times that I lost count.

we doThey moved on to the displayed learning target, where a student read-rapped it out in a call-and-response fashion. Soon enough, students were making a beat and the room was filled with the cacophony of pounding, chanting, and academic language. (Not only was volume not an issue for this teacher, but it was used intentionally.)This student continued past the learning target, leading yet another call-and-response session with the class “We do” poster. Students knew which lines they said and which the leader said, yet again demonstrating that this expectation was set long ago. The student finished with a final call-and-response with their class behavior chart, and everyone clapped.

The language of community, love, and appreciation is the obvious bedrock of this classroom. “Scholar, tuck in your shirt on your way to the restroom. Look the part.” The phone rings. “Scholar, please read the pink sheet (phone manners script) when you answer.” And, “Scholars, sit up straight. Show some pride in what you do.” At one point, she overheard some students begin to bicker about something, and she shut it down by telling them that “if we’re not talking on topic, we’re not doing it”. She then reminded the whole class of the “We do” expectations, and moved on with a “thank you”.

As she was wrapping up class and reviewing the learning target (again, in a read-rap style that most students participated in) and checking for understanding, one student answered with “I don’t know!” SCREECH. She stopped everything and said “we don’t play like that in here. We are always thinking, always learning. Whether it is right or wrong, we are always thinking. We try our personal best.” More clapping. And then, seamlessly, the student who began class before led a recitation of the learning target and then laid out expectations for cleaning up.

My big takeaway: It is OKAY to be loud, energetic, animated, and passionate. It is critical to know and meet your students where they are and to design instruction around their styles of interaction. It shows an investment and a joy in teaching and learning, and it is nearly impossible to not mimic that joy and excitement for learning when the teacher who sets the tone is joyful and excited. And most of all, celebrate whenever possible.

Classroom 3: Sabrina Price

In this space, yet another student was chosen to begin class with a choral reading of the “We do” poster, and then that student walked around the room as he led his own spin on the call-and-response of the behavior chart, allowing the students to channel their energy into setting the tone for the beginning of class. The teacher had an altogether different presence in her classroom compared to the second teacher, where her calm demeanor and even tone made it clear that she was going to be consistent for her students. She used memes in her opening slide and continued to use pop culture references in her instruction, while never letting up on high expectations for academic discourse and products. Her walls, too, were loaded with colorful posters, both setting a positive tone for learning and social-emotional well-being.

After walking around and looking at warm-up responses, she said “it is 9:40, and I’ve observed a lot of confusion. Instead of moving forward, I can tell that I need to pause and guide you in a different way”. This small, but meaningful moment of pausing, showed the students that it wasn’t her agenda that she was pushing, it was the student agenda that mattered the most to her, and she was going to use instructional time to meet the needs of those who sat in front of her.

Even during moments of frustration, the teacher held students to high expectations for work and effort through community-driven language. Never once did her frustrations rattle her, as she maintained her calm, even, consistent presence. As class began to wrap up, the student who led the call-and-response at the beginning of class led a reflection of the learning target. Another student was the “exit manager”, and students looked to him to dismiss people after the bell rang.

My big takeaway: Consistency matters. Chaos is easy to give in to, and students are looking for teachers to maintain high expectations in times of disorder or commotion. Also, taking time to slow down and truly assess a situation based on student needs is monumental if we are trying to ensure that every student, no matter where they are in their journeys toward mastery, are valued.

So, I’ll say it again.

It can be done.
It can be done systematically.
It can be done consistently. With love, with high expectations, and with consideration for each student.

You don’t have to change everything all at once, but you do need to be reflective of your practices. If you are spending more time being frustrated than you are celebrating, empowering, and moving forward with students, then something needs to change.

We can be ourselves and command our classrooms. We can celebrate successes and failures. We can be consistent and respond to unexpected moments in the classroom.

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