Education, From Inside and Outside: Building Relationships With Students


As a beginning English teacher, I was somewhat surprised to discover that not all my students loved to read and write. Once I realized that each of my students brought their own experiences to the table and that each of their personal experiences was just as valid as mine, I improved my ability to teach. I discovered that I could make it safe for them to acknowledge their enjoyment of or distaste for reading and writing by accepting their attitudes without judgment. They began to trust my promise to help each of them learn what they wanted to learn about literacy, either to enhance their enjoyment or to make reading and writing less painful activities for them. This approach to teaching now seems intuitively obvious to me, but after observing many teachers through the years, in my capacity as supervisor, and reflecting on my initial discoveries as a teacher, it seems clear that not all teachers equally appreciate the importance of learning about their own inner lives or the inner lives of their students.

The initial activities of the LivingSideBySide® program open the door for teachers to examine their personal attitudes about both the academic subject and the students they teach. Increased personal awareness leads to both a finer appreciation of the fact that each student has their own perspective and a heightened ability to appreciate others’ unique perspectives and experiences. For teachers who have not previously examined their own inner lives, this is a first important step on the road to connecting with students. When teachers are in tune with their own attitudes and are aware that others’ attitudes may be different and equally real, they are better able to build trusting relationships with their students that will lead to more effective teaching and learning.

Should high schools require students to read the “classics”?

James River Day School Sep 2011

A friend recently sent me a link to an article that suggested we should stop assigning some of the works of literature traditionally assigned to high school students in English class and replace “classic” titles with more contemporary ones that would be more relevant to today’s youth.

She wanted to know “what I think?” – I started thinking and haven’t been able to stop. I thought I could write a short response, but the more I wrote, the more I found I had to say. This is probably the result of being an English teacher for 30 years and an avid reader for almost 60 years. For me, the act of reading can be one of the most creative, imaginative activities I have found. I firmly believe that reading “classics” gives one a perspective about what it means to be human that is hard to achieve otherwise. I also believe that requiring students to read books they cannot understand or appreciate is a quick road to extinguishing the fire of literacy.

So what is an English teacher to do? First of all, when developing a literature curriculum and a reading list, one must be clear on the purpose of that curriculum. Is the high school literature class hoping to create avid readers? Culturally literate adults? Literary critics who will thrive as university professors? Depending on the purpose, the curriculum and reading list will be different. Works of literature chosen for required high school reading lists may be chosen to introduce a particularly famous title or author, or to provide information on a particular era or topic. Some works may be chosen because they are beautifully written, others because they have been widely cited. Some works may be chosen simply because they are a short work by a famous author.

A traditional reading list of the “classics” (like the list cited in mediabookbub, which is one sample of a much larger list of literary works considered “classic”) may not have been created primarily to encourage a love of reading, but rather to give students a sample of “the best” of literature. Reading books that were written long ago but are still admired by educated people is partly how students learn the history of literature and important ideas. Students who have read “classics” are better prepared for college literature classes, because they will have background knowledge of works that other writers refer to; without that background knowledge, a student’s reading comprehension is compromised. Unfortunately, if you don’t already love to read and haven’t already developed strong reading skills, it can be difficult to tackle literature from other eras and cultures. Asking students to read books that they are unable to understand because of unfamiliar vocabulary, syntax, or underlying culture will almost surely ensure that they either won’t read the books or that they won’t learn what was intended by those who chose them.

In this age of declining literacy, a primary function of school should be first to ignite an appreciation for reading. Once students love to read, they will be more likely and able to give a work of literature from another time, place and culture a try. The replacement titles in the mediabookbub list were most likely chosen because students will find them more relevant and easier to read. They may help interest students in reading, but they cannot replace great works of literature. Still, they may help to create readers, which is the first goal to reach. So how can we create readers? Start with our love of story. Humans love stories. We like to tell them, we like to watch them, and we like to hear them. If we are fortunate, we like to read them, too! We know that the more you read, the more words you know, the more stories you know, the more names you know, the more you know, period. As you read more, you become a more skilled reader, one who is more likely to understand and appreciate works written in other times and places.

Schools that want to ignite a love of reading set aside time every day during school for independent reading, with so many choices of text in print available that everyone can find something of personal interest. A daily read aloud by a strong, expressive oral reader who reads wonderful texts in a safe and intimate setting is also essential. The study of classical literature texts, like the list mediabookbub says we should replace but which may be one of the best ways to understand what it means to be human, can be encouraged by reading excerpts aloud, followed by civilized conversation. Some students will choose to read the entire work after being introduced, but many will learn as much from the excerpt as they need to know about that author and that work for that moment in their lives, and they may return to the work later in life.

Now that humans have developed video, many think that it is destroying literacy, because it is easier to watch and listen than to read and imagine. There’s no sense in fretting about this. We aren’t in control of the popularity of video. I am a participant in watching film, and it is an amazing medium, which requires tremendous collaboration to create and which can have a more immediate and powerful impact than the written word. It cannot, however, replace the intimate and vibrant inner world created when a reader and a great book connect. What I hope schools will continue to do is to create  avid readers who are willing to take time to savor stories and great ideas. Anyone who has ever been “lost in a book” knows it is one of the greatest pleasures of human invention!


Education, From Inside and Outside

Nikitha GraceTwo years ago, while I was Head of School at James River Day School, I paid a visit to a Montessori school out in Bedford County, Virginia. While I was visiting the school, I learned about an international non-profit organization that provides many educational and leadership trainings globally, including one of its key programs called LivingSideBySide®. I was intrigued to learn about their successful pilot program in Kyrgyzstan, an area struggling with interethnic tension. As I learned more about the program, I was struck by how appropriate it would be for American teachers and students. It trains teachers in communication, dialogue, self-awareness, and community engagement skills; the teachers then train their students. The program builds capacity in the entire school community!

As a school administrator, I was enthusiastic to learn about a professional development program designed to strengthen skills for both teachers and students. As I reviewed the curriculum, I got very excited. As a teacher and administrator with 30 years’ experience, I had never seen such a thoughtful program. Now that I have retired from James River Day School, I am volunteering for Legacy International, the nonprofit organization that developed and offers the LivingSideBySide® training. The events in Charlottesville, Virginia in August of 2017 make it clear that the United States needs peace building programs! I am dedicated to helping American teens learn effective social and emotional skills, and LSBS offers excellent training to develop these skills, extending and expanding them into leadership and community engagement activities.

My intention is to write a monthly blog this year, based on my knowledge of the specific needs in schools at certain times of the year, where the LSBS training would provide immediate and effective support for teachers and their students. Look for the next installment of Education, From Inside and Outside, in October on how LSBS can help teachers build strong relationships with students and parents!

What does it mean to be well-educated?

8th Leadership 020A number of possible answers flood my brain, but one that I come back to over and over again is, “Know thyself.” If we are asleep to ourselves, we cannot offer our best selves to the world. Education must offer us the opportunity to learn our deepest strengths, fears, short-comings, talents and passions.

Being well-educated used to mean that you had read a lot of books and you knew a lot of facts. Today those activities remain important to education, but they are not sufficient to be considered truly well educated. Today a well-educated person knows how to manage information, how to know what is true and what is false, how to work with people who don’t look, talk or act like you, how to solve novel problems and how to balance work with health and family. A well-educated person knows enough history to be a thoughtful citizen and enough science to be a wise consumer. A well-educated person knows that manners are what keep us civilized.

Education depends on teachers. How do we know them?

Teachers are those who can build connections with others as they travel this path of learning.

Teachers are those who support others when they falter at a challenge and need someone to hold their elbow to steady them.

Teachers are those who celebrate others’ greatest accomplishments – the winning shot, the hard-earned mastery of an equation, the first shoelace tied, a challenging book read and understood, a paper revised until it shines, the ability to tackle a problem with confidence, or the moment of standing on stage and delivering a memorized line.

Teachers are those who know that learning is for all of us, forever and ever.

Teachers may be parents, friends, books, ourselves, events witnessed, grandparents, and, especially, those adults who commit to going to school every day to create a safe community for children where they can learn how to use their minds, their hands and their hearts to build, to invent, to imagine, to reflect, to solve, to read, to care, to remember and to practice empathy and respect.


Teachable Moments

2nd Gr Cox 001Teachers pay attention to teachable moments, those moments when conflict arises, someone makes a mistake, someone demonstrates grace under fire, someone recognizes a paradox or spots an opportunity. When you work with children, you spend your day noticing such moments; you seek them out because they are how the world supports your work. Sam trips, and the response of his classmates shows their capacity for and skill at caring. Susan and Sally both want the same seat, and their next actions show their competence with problem solving and compromise. Stan makes a mistake at the board, and the teacher’s response shows her skill at making things safe and clarifying the problem, so Stan can find his mistake and learn from it. Teachers are sensitive to the manifold opportunities for teaching in the moment.

As a school leader, I also seek to discover the teachable moment, with students, of course, but also with teachers and parents. In these moments, we may all grow. When I meet with eighth grade students at Leadership Council (all students are welcome, but each must write a letter to me nominating himself or herself and giving evidence of his or her leadership potential), I listen to their description of their experiences at school. I tell them that I do not live in their daily lives, exactly – they are living in ‘kid world’ – but in my own, parallel adult world, and that I need them to tell me what it is like to be one of them. If they trust me enough, they will tell me where their problems are: when homework is overwhelming, when teacher communication feels unclear or unkind, when a student is trying to gain power by being unkind to others, even when the lunch line isn’t working efficiently. These are all teachable moments, and together, we move from identifying them to figuring out what we can learn from them, what the students can change in the world and what they can change in themselves.

Eighth grade students at James River also have opportunities to serve as tutors and mentors to younger students, simply by wanting to do so and being willing to give up some of their study time before or after school, or during study hall. They go to work with Kindergarten, first, second, third, or fourth graders who might need homework coaching, buddy reading, notebook organization, study skills, and they pass along what they have learned from their teachers and peers. They find teachable moments with the younger children and share their wisdom.

All students in grades five-eight belong to small, multi-age group advisories, which meet every day after lunch for study hall. Older students set the example for younger students in organization, homework completion, studying for tests and quizzes, and time management. They remember what it was like to be younger. They remember struggling to learn how to keep up with something or how challenging it was to learn how to take notes, and they share their experience with the younger children, taking the moment when the child is really ready to change something in his or her behavior, and then guiding him or her toward success.

I believe in school as a learning community, where each of us has myriad opportunities to gain knowledge about ourselves and the world around us, every single day. When I speak with students, teachers and parents, I am listening for their deepest selves: what they fear, what they wish, what satisfies them, and then I am looking for that teachable moment when my listening and reflecting can help them learn how to move forward. The teachable moment can be painful and powerful, but at heart, it is joyous because it is about fulfilling potential in the present.


School/Home Communication in the Digital Age

Start of School 109

Schools are in the midst of radical upheaval due to technological innovation. The bastions of writing neatly on lined paper are facing a “paperless” future. The time-honored tradition of students keeping a hand-written agenda or planner, neatly copying each assignment from the board in the classroom, and then checking off each assignment as it’s completed, no longer reflects a world in which people keep their to-do lists electronically. As teachers begin to use electronic classrooms to create and post assignments, information becomes immediately available to students. As students begin to use electronic calendars and to-do lists to keep track of independent work deadlines, they no longer need to carry an agenda, but only need to keep track of their electronic device.

Some schools are now using software that allows parents to see each teacher’s gradebook — every assignment, as well as every test and quiz grade. I have heard parents say that they like having instant access to their children’s information. They know immediately if their child missed a homework assignment or bombed a quiz. Teachers and students, however, find this to be stressful, as you can imagine. When parents expect immediate feedback on their children’s work and question why their child earned a specific score, that requires teachers to place grading and communicating with parents at the very top of their priority lists, as opposed to planning or reflecting on the day’s lesson. When parents can micromanage their child’s homework and performance, students lose the opportunity to learn from making mistakes and managing their own day-to-day work.

I question the benefit of instantaneous feedback and heavy accountability for both teachers and students. I am concerned that parents having complete, instant knowledge of everything about their child’s school experience puts assessment performance too high on the list of priorities and robs children of independent learning opportunities. I want students in middle school, especially, to learn how to be responsible for their own to-do lists, to be able to make the mistake of not planning ahead, to feel the disappointment of earning a poor grade resulting from insufficient preparation. If parents always know every single thing their children need to prepare, and then ensure that the preparation happens, children will never learn from their mistakes or lack of preparation. I worry that parents’ insatiable need for information about their children’s progress actually hinders that progress.

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