Q & A With Justin Minkel, Part 1

Not long ago teacher leader Justin Minkel proposed that we have a conversation through our blogs. In the first round, I sent him some questions, the answers to which you’ll find below and in my next post. He’ll publish my answers to his questions later this month.

My first two questions were about teachers’ pedagogical belief systems and political associations.

Consider, Justin: The Cognitive Coaching Foundational Seminar Learning Guide discusses different belief systems that teachers adopt: 1) Transmitting knowledge, 2) Nurturing students, 3) Diagnosing needs and offering solutions, 4) Developing thinking skills, and 5) Creating an awareness of social and environmental issues to ensure the survival of society.

1) Given that there is a lot of overlap, which one do you most connect with?

Number 2 – Nurturing students. I think our job as teachers comes down to making our students’ lives better—happier, safer, more meaningful, and more fun. As an elementary teacher, I get to spend more of my students’ waking hours with them Monday through Friday than their parents get to. As a result, I witness how critical the focus on “the whole child” is.

If I’m going to help my 2nd graders become better thinkers, readers, writers, scientists, and mathematicians, I first need to build trust and create a classroom where mutual respect is foundational. Every morning, I give my students a fist bump, and every day when they head home, I give them a hug or a high-five. We also have one-on-one moments built into the day when a student reads to me or we have a conference during Writers’ Workshop. Those moments accumulate, gradual but substantial as snowfall. It usually hits me around December how much I have come to care about these 25 human beings in my class, and the feeling is usually mutual.

2) Do you think the belief systems are age or experience dependent (both the teacher’s and student’s?)  

For most new teachers, just imparting academic content while keeping order can be mentally and emotionally consuming. Once you get your feet under you, I think you can start “zooming out” to consider your students’ lives outside your classroom in a little more depth.

A few years ago I started a home library project because I realized most of my students had very few books at home. The project had a tremendous impact on family literacy, my students’ reading growth, and their love of books. My first few years of teaching, I was too preoccupied figuring out basics like how to do guided reading and running records to take on a family literacy project like this one.

As a new teacher, it’s easy to see everything in your students’ lives only through the prism of your classroom. When you become more experienced, you realize that what you do in class only matters to the extent that it makes students’ lives richer outside the classroom walls, too. I now teach my 2nd graders to play chess. It relates to some math standards like geometry, but the biggest benefit I see is that once they learn the game, they have a fun activity to do each night, weekend, and throughout the summer that builds critical thinking, spatial reasoning, and visualization in a way that watching TV doesn’t.

3) Do you think that any on the list aren’t really necessary?

I think they’re all necessary, but Number 1 (Transmitting knowledge) has waned dramatically in importance compared to a generation or even a decade ago. In the 1800’s, a blacksmith could pass on the tools of his trade to his apprentice and be reasonably sure they’d still be relevant a generation later. That’s no longer true.

I don’t know what the world will look like when my students graduate college in 2028. What jobs will exist? What technological tools will be essential to everyday life? Content matters far less, given that computers the size of marbles can store more data than human beings can memorize. What matters, and what will still be relevant in 2028, is teaching all those abilities that computers can’t yet do, like ingenuity, collaboration, and critical thinking.

4) Do you think any are missing from the list?

I don’t see explicit mention of non-cognitive skills like perseverance, problem-solving, and conflict resolution. Richard Roberts presented some compelling research last summer that shows how important these non-cognitive skills are to academic success. 

I wrote about Roberts’ research in an early blog post, True Grit, including his takeaway that:

“Devoting class time to non-cognitive skills is a more effective way to increase academic achievement than spending all your time on the academic content itself. Even if you saw no value in teaching an ability like perseverance for its own sake, building in time for that focus ultimately accelerates academic growth in conventional subjects like reading and math.”

Consider: In my Stories from School Arizona blog I wrote, in Should I Join The Union?, that one often hears we need a profession that looks like America – a reference to gender and race. But, in general, the teaching profession, and unions in particular, don’t think like America – in terms of voting, gun control, abortion, immigration, and the like.  In my experience, conservative teachers quietly tolerate a lot of quasi-institutionalized disparagement, hostility, intolerance – not of themselves individually, necessarily, but of their values and opinions.

1) What’s your take on the Liberal/Conservative imbalance in education?

I don’t see such a liberal bent in our schools. I think if you surveyed the majority of elementary classrooms and school libraries, you would find not a single book portraying either gay and lesbian students or families with same-sex parents.  I also see heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. being stripped of their more contentious positions (like MLK’s opposition to war) and more controversial heroes like Malcolm X being largely omitted from the curriculum. Texas, because of its size, has a big impact on commercially produced materials for other states. That’s troubling, when you consider viewpoints that Texas Board of Education members have taken in opposition to the teaching of evolution or even the idea that critical thinking should be nurtured in our students.

2) What are the effects of the Union taking a stand on issues like gun control, immigration, and abortion? 

If we acknowledge that students are human beings whose entire selves matter, we can’t ignore the effects of gun violence at Sandy Hook, or the kick in the teeth to immigrants that has been enshrined in Alabama’s law requiring schools to inform on non-documented families for possible deportation.

We need to respect all students’ families, but that doesn’t mean catering to all their beliefs. I occasionally have students whose parents hold racist or homophobic views, or who believe that a fistfight is a good way to resolve a playground conflict with another child. I can’t tell these parents what to think or say at home, but I can create classroom policies that do not permit physical violence or hate speech.

I think Unions have the right, and maybe even the obligation to the students they indirectly represent, to take similar stands.

Thank you Justin, for challenging me to think deeper on these two questions that weigh so much on my mind.

______

In Part Two, Justin comments on why so many sincere efforts to solve problems go astray, a little book that made a big difference in his practice and shares his most embarassing and proudest moments.

In the meantime why not share your thoughts on these questions?

 

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