What’s the Heartbeat of Your Classroom?
By Kass Minor
Jennifer Ochoa’s classroom, shared with two other teachers, is full of busy whispers and intentional talk. The learners, sitting in heterogeneous groups split between three tables, are working together thoughtfully, each led by a different educator — Jen at one table, her co-teacher at another table, and the speech therapist at the third table. I quietly scoot my chair next to the learners in Jen’s group. There are roughly nine kids sitting around the table dinner-style, with Jen at the head. Some are dutifully listening to Jen read aloud Pedro Noguera’s essay, Reading Saved My Life. In the essay, Noguera shares how reading shaped his identity while coming of age in the economically distressed neighborhood of Brownsville, Brooklyn.
When I was a boy growing up in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn (a neighborhood better known for producing rap stars like Biggie Smalls and boxers like Mike Tyson than for producing college professors like me), my mother would make us take the bus to the public library after we finished our chores every Saturday morning. (p.82)
Some students are reading along from their own copy, while others are making shuffling noises with their papers, pencils, or their bodies. Jen and the other teachers ignore the behaviors they see.
She stops to talk with her group about the stereotypes Noguera confronted in his life. And then one student, seemingly distracted the whole time and has been scribbling intensely on his paper with a red pen looks up and says:
“People don’t think kids coming from the ‘hood’ will be successful.”
A tiny moment of silence prevails as they begin to consider themes from Pedro Noguera’s essay and make connections to their own lives. All of Jen’s students are children of color from varied racial and cultural backgrounds and live in Washington Heights, NYC. They are in a very full seventh grade ICT (integrated co-teaching) class. By reading an essay and analyzing themes in the text, they are doing the very thing that few expect of them: enacting intellectual success. Jen firmly and quietly tells them to jot down all their smart thinking in the margins of their page.
Within a ten minute time frame, Jen has executed what are sometimes described as “best practices”: she has chosen a text that is relevant to her learners’ lives (culturally relevant teaching), all adults in the room are working with kids in smart ways (use of ICT parallel teaching model and push-in speech services), there’s parity between general educator and special educator (thoughtful collaboration), the kids are not sorted by their IEPS-they are heterogeneously grouped (flexible grouping routines), the expectations are high, the learning strategies are clear. All of those things most certainly fall under the equity-umbrella many educators strive towards.
However, what’s remarkable about Jen’s practice is what I am naming heart work. There are specific, intentional micro-pedagogical interactions that take place between Jen and her students, Jen and her co-teachers, and between her students. It might be easy to dismiss these interactions as insignificant or as distractions from the lesson, but for Jen they are opportunities for heart work — teaching that comes from a place of love. Consider, for example, students’ visible actions, Jen’s responses, and what her responses are saying to her students:
In John C. Erwin’s Classroom of Choice, he states, “Effective teachers create connections by design”, and after talking to Jen and observing her practice, it is clear she does just that.
Jen reaffirms her relationships with her students throughout the lesson. They vacillate between complete engagement and distractibility, but no matter how they behave, Jen tells her students she loves them (literally) and shows them this is true when she patiently helps them grapple through their learning experience. She explains what their brain is doing during the lesson, she teaches and models explicit strategies to refocus and read the text, she establishes and reestablishes her students’ intellect and her connection with them. All of these things create the pulse that is the heartbeat of Jen’s classroom.
So, what does this mean for classroom practitioners? When we introduce texts and various activities that are centered in equity, we must do so in a way that underscores the heartbeat of our classrooms: the need to belong, to feel safe, to be supported, to connect, to matter. When your work becomes about those things, all the content your kids need to learn becomes stronger. Your responsiveness to the way your students learn becomes more fluent, and when you uplift the classroom community into a loveful space, equity holds your students tight.
Kass Minor is an inclusive educator who is deeply involved in local, inquiry-based teacher research and school community development. Alongside partnerships with the Teachers College Inclusive Classrooms Project and the New York City Department of Education, she has worked as a teacher, staff developer, speaker, and documentarian. Kass facilitates critical conversations that lead to improved, engaged, and more powerful teaching practices. Kass has taught in elementary and secondary schools in both ICT and 12:1 service models. Her work is inspired by the communities that surround her and motivated by the idea that every adult can teach, and every student can learn.
Noguera, Pedro, Reading Saved My Life, Open a World of Possible: Real Stories About the Joy and Power of Reading, edited by Lois Bridges, 2014, Scholastic.
Erwin, John C., Classroom of Choice, 2004, ASCD.