Transcription of the episode “

Jon M: [00:00:15] Hi. I’m Jon Moscow.

Amy H-L: [00:00:16] And I’m Amy Halpern-Laff.

Welcome to ethical schools. Our guests today are 8th grade social studies teacher Debbie Holecko, literary arts teacher Claudia Bestor, both at North Olmlstead Middle School, and their former student, now 10th grader, Rafel Alshakergi. North Olmsted is a suburb about 10 miles  west of Cleveland.

Welcome Debbie, Claudia, and Rafel. 

Jon M: [00:00:42] In 2018 -19, your class conducted student-led original research that got national attention. What was the original assignment, and did you have any idea of where the students might take it? 

Debbie H: [00:00:54] Well, originally it was a co-assignment along with Claudia Bestor’s language arts class. And from my end, from the social studies end, I told the students that I wanted them to find out something about our local community, North Olmstead, that could not be found by just Googling it. I wanted them to dig deeper and find out something other than who the first mayor was or something like that. And they really took it places that we never had any idea they would.

Claudia B: [00:01:30] That was kind of the wonderful part of it is we didn’t know what to expect because it was directed by their impulses, their curiosity, their search. So that was kind of part of the fun of it is that it was so very student-led.

Rafel A: [00:01:47] This is going to sound kind of bad, but I wasn’t expecting a lot of things actually, when they introduced the project because it’s just really bizarre to me that there are things that are still not known about your community. I mean, it’s been around for so long, obviously. So how, like how could you not know? So when they introduced it, I was like, you guys are just trying to make time pass by because it’s a big project and it’s timeworthy, but I don’t think anything of it.

Amy H-L: [00:02:23] So aside from the project that received national attention, what were some of the projects that students took on?

Debbie H: [00:02:30] Well, they, they had choices of various topics and among the topics were women of North Olmsted, Native Americans, African-Americans – some went with the underground railroad connection, veterans, government, even the geography of North Olmstead. So they were able to choose from those different topics. And we had a couple of pretty cool things. We had one group that researched a Vietnam vet that was a graduate of North Olmstead High School, went to Vietnam shortly after graduation and was killed in action there about a year and a half after he was there.

And they did all kinds of things to try to get some extra information about this North Olmstead graduate. They wrote letters to anyone in the area that had a name that matched his name. His name was Thomas Graph. They looked on the internet, they sent emails and they kept getting dead ends. And eventually they found a site where veterans could leave messages to those who had been killed and they found a message on there that sounded like it said something like “rest easy, good buddy.” And it sounded like this person knew him. So they looked for information about the person who left a message, which I believe was left like 14 years earlier or something like that. And, and they sent out all kinds of emails and things with people that had that last name or that full name and eventually got some information back and they were ecstatic. They were jumping up and down. They were crying. We all were crying because it was a very personal letter that told so much about this young man that they never could have found any other way. So they found out he was a practical joker. They found out that this person married his ex-girlfriend and that they had been good friends and just all kinds of things about him. And when our class took a trip, the eighth grade trip to Washington, DC, they were able to visit his grave at Arlington cemetery. And so that was very, very cool. Very cool experience for them to find out something they never could have found any other way.

Jon M: [00:04:59] And you had a one student who thought that they’d found a letter that somebody from North Olmstead wrote to George Washington.

Debbie H: [00:05:08] There’s someone buried in our historical cemetery, which is about a mile from our school, called Butternut Cemetery, and the person’s name is Samuel Porter and he was a Revolutionary War veteran. And this young man was researching Samuel Porter and combing through military records and found a letter from Samuel Porter to George Washington. And he was so excited about this. And then upon further examination realized it wasn’t that Samuel Porter. So he was sort of dejected for awhile. But we told him, no, no, this is what actually happens with historians. They run into roadblocks. They go one way, they find something else. So he kept going, but it was kind of a really good life lesson that, yep,  this is what happens when you’re doing real research, real authentic research.

Claudia B: [00:06:02] We had another group of young women that were looking at a member of the community whose name was Helen Briggs, and her house has been preserved by the Olmstead Historical Society down in the Frostville Museum, which is kind of a village of these preserved homes and buildings from historical North Olmstead. And she was one of the nurses that accompanied Dr. Crile, who’s the founder of the Cleveland Clinic, you know, one of the premier health providers in the world. Dr. Crile, of course, he invented the blood transfusion and she was one of the nurses that was on his team. She was a North Olmstead resident. And our girls kind of got wondering, well, what if she had lived today? Would she have been a nurse? Might she have been a doctor, a surgeon, instead? And you know, none of these medical endeavors would have been possible without this team of nurses that came right from the Cleveland area, one of them being a North Olmstead resident. So that was kind of exciting too.

Amy H-L: [00:07:01] I assume students at North Olmstead are accustomed to reading about history, not discovering it themselves. So how long did it take for students to get comfortable with the concept of original research?

Claudia B: [00:07:15] I don’t think it took too long. Do you, Debbie? I think we put the stuff out in front of them and… Maybe Rafel would be better at answering this question, but I think it didn’t take too long.

Rafel A: [00:07:27] I think we were kind of hesitant at first because like when you’re given such like a broad choice and you’re asked to discover history, there isn’t really a starting point. You kind of just have to pick up something and really study it and see if that’s what you want to go into. So I don’t know if it had like a time where we got comfortable or where we weren’t comfortable. It was kind of just, this is our task and now we have to pick up something and do what we’re asked.

Jon M: [00:08:08] And Rafel, what was the project that you and your teammates were working on? And what did you discover and what did you decide to do about it?

Rafel A: [00:08:18] Okay. I was at the time kind of doing two separate things. They were both based on the African-American history of North Olmstead, but I was helping my group and then when I didn’t see like as much hope, I thought maybe we should start looking like somewhere else. So I was kind of just sitting with them, like flipping through pages, trying to help and see if we can find something else and then also, still work on what we were obviously doing at the time, and ran across  this map of Butternut Ridge Cemetery. It was insane at the time, because it was just a section and it was “colored people occupied,” and we didn’t exactly know what it was. So we went up to Mrs. Holecko and we’re like, does this have like any meaning, like what is going on here? Is it, is this an actual thing? Is it just an old map? What is going on? And she goes, actually, you guys might have to go check that out for yourself because even I don’t know.

So me and Cameron Swanson, who was also also a huge contributor to this project, we went down to the cemetery on our bikes after school, and we had the map. Except we didn’t see anything because there was nothing there. So we didn’t want to like have a mislead. So we asked the teachers to come and look some other time  because maybe we didn’t see it, but they will, and there was truly nothing there. And that’s when it kind of like hit us, it was like, no way, did we just find something so big that’s just been overlooked over and over and over again. And me and my group, like we weren’t going to let this down without getting the peace that these people needed, because I mean, they needed their recognition, whether people know them or not. You would want to be recognized if you passed away. It’s just, you know, it’s the way you rest in peace. You’re now recognized. And now you don’t have to worry about, you know, yourself because we get to carry your souls on our shoulders now, and you can just set free. So, yeah,  we really got into working and we talked to the mayor and he wanted a lot of contribution to the project as well, because he thought it was just as bizarre. And we ended up getting a stone and the rest is kind of just nationwide recognition over this project.

Jon M: [00:11:19] Were you able to find out the time period of when the section of the cemetery was simply marked “colored graves”? 

Rafel A: [00:11:28] I don’t think there was a time period or even specific names. It was just two last names, which was Cousins and Peake, but that was it really. So we kind of grouped them. Cause since you can’t like individually recognize the person, we kind of just grouped like the last names.

Jon M: [00:11:52] So what happened after the mayor came? You said that he wanted to be involved as well.

Rafel A: [00:11:57] Originally we were just supposed to have like a sign there and, you know, he was going to let out a post and say, this is what we’ve been doing. If you want to visit, that’s great. But this is what’s happening. And we were fine with the sign. We were jumping up and down. It was like, this is what we wanted. So when we were offered a stone, I wasn’t even here. I was literally across seas. And when they called me, it was like, it was like 4:00 a..m. there, so it was just, it was insane. I don’t know, but the mayor, he definitely wanted to do something. He definitely had the strive that me and my classmates had to really find recognition for these people.

Amy H-L: [00:12:49] And where did the stone came from?

Rafel A: [00:12:54] A company it starts, you know what, that’s not a question for me. I don’t remember.

Debbie H: [00:13:01] It’s the Johns Caravelli company, a local monument company, offered the stone.

Rafel A: [00:13:07] I knew it started with John, but I didn’t want to say John and it not be John and then ruin that completely.

Amy H-L: [00:13:16] And what does it say? 

Rafel A: [00:13:18] It says “In Memory of Some of the First African-Americans to Settle in This Area. No Longer Forgotten. May They Rest in Peace.” That’s very nice. 

Amy H-L: [00:13:29] Did the students participate in creating that?

Claudia B: [00:13:33] They did. A couple of designs were worked up by the company and company wanted to hear from Rafel and Cameron and, um, yeah, they, they ultimately chose the design that was engraved on the stone.

Amy H-L: [00:13:47] And from your point of view as their teachers, what impact did the project seem to have on the students?

Debbie H: [00:13:57] They were, well, as Rafel said, they were in awe. They were so proud and happy that they were able to help some former members of their own community be remembered. And I think the day that they found that, they were stunned that things that they’d been learning in history class, that this happened here, too, that, wow, look at this. It says, “no stones, colored people buried here.” When they made this connection, that all of this stuff that we’ve been learning about, uh, from Civil War period and post Civil War period, that this happened in North Olmstead as well. And the effect that it had was to just really make them feel like, “oh my gosh, we can do something to make a difference.” And having the mayor come to school, having them be invited to the Landmarks Commission meeting, which never took place because by then the company offered to donate the stone, to just see how all of that happened. And to understand that kids that are 13 and 14 years old could do something to make a lasting impact on their community was a pretty cool thing.

Claudia B: [00:15:12] I think also it was not typical school. Like it was, it was a different experience of learning kind of like Rafel had mentioned, she was talking about. There was not really a lot of structure to the project. And I think schools, you know, we’re used to the directions that come from the teacher. First, you start here, then you start here, but this was learning that they had to structure for themselves. And I think that that’s going to be memorable for them is that it was, it was learning that was atypical, but far more meaningful and far more relevant than most of what they do in school.

Debbie H: [00:15:55] I want to just add to that, Claudia. I know we asked them at the beginning of this project to choose from one of the different categories and some kids, as they began to investigate whatever category they had chosen, they found out they weren’t that interested in it. And I remember kids coming and saying, well, you know, I thought I was going to do Native Americans, but I don’t want to now. I want to work on the Underground Railroad or something. Is that okay? And I’m like, sure. That’s okay. And some of them were like, really that’s okay? And it was just part of that whole inquiry process. We wanted them to be invested, so we let them choose.

Rafel A: [00:16:30] I liked that there wasn’t structure, because I think students are really misguided in school because intentionally you’re supposed to be taught to be responsible and like, you know, start really taking care of yourself. And you have to know these things, the things that you are taught in school are just guides to your life because you won’t necessarily have your parents holding your hands and doing it for you anymore. So when you’re given something with no structure, it really gives you an insight to what your job in the future may be. Really like, because I aspire to be a lawyer and there isn’t a lot of structure with that. You’re kind of given a case and you have to find resources along that case. And then you have to find a solution. And I liked that I was given an assignment in school with no structure because a part of being a lawyer is so much discovery. So knowing that I could, you know, dig deep into something, I truly know that my job is, or my aspiring job is really the perfect choice for me. 

Jon M: [00:17:44] Rafel, did the project affect your understanding of your town of North Olmstaed and of its history?

Rafel A: [00:17:52] I don’t know if I like completely understand the question and I don’t want to answer it wrong. So, 

Jon M: [00:17:58] There is no  wrong answer, but what I meant by the question is when you just sort of wander around town, when you just go doing daily chores or things like that, do you see anything differently now, having done this research into what was happening in the town, you know, a couple of hundred years ago?

Rafel A: [00:18:19] I don’t think that it was like the people that live here now. I don’t think it’s the town that we’ve built after this time. So when I walk around my community, it’s not really affective to what I see because, I mean, these people, I like to believe, that they were put there a very long time ago. So I don’t necessarily blame the community today. Maybe just a little bit for like the people who have been given these jobs over the years for not really looking into it and like, because the map is right there and there’s still a lot of open area. So I assume that there are still people being buried there and there were like brand new stones all around it. So in a way I kind of blame the cemetery for not taking a closer look because I mean, my biggest fear was that they were going to put someone there and then they dig up the spot because it was just green. And there was no way of telling that there was someone there. So they dig up the spot and they find like 12 people there or skeletons. But that was my biggest fear. So I don’t think necessarily anything with the community when I look at it, but more of like an overlook of this happened where I live and that’s insane.

Amy H-L: [00:19:50] Rafel, you didn’t just discover the graves. You actually did something about it. Did the project impact your, your sense of your own ability to make changes?

Rafel A: [00:20:02] Oh my gosh. So much, so, so much, because like I said this before, when I started off, I was like, there was no way, there was no way we were going to find anything. Because like, how would we, 13, 14 year olds have any power to make that kind of change, to find something so big that adults can’t even find? And this is actually quoted, uh, I said, if a 14 year old can do it, then you can do it too, because. Now I kind of look at something and if someone says I can’t do it, cause my sisters have a tendency to do that a lot or even my little sister, if she’s sitting in her kindergarten class and she’s saying, I can’t do it, it’s kind of like, but you don’t know what you can do yet. So you can’t just give it up yet. So now when I look at something, I don’t necessarily decide that I can’t do it. I realize that there’s a way around it. And I realize that if I use my resources, then I can have a solution the way we had with the project.

Jon M: [00:21:18] Did the project influence your reactions to the death of George Floyd and the demonstrations that followed?

Rafel A: [00:21:25] Um, I think it was just the big picture. I mean, African-Americans have been trying to really get their recognition for years and years and years.

And it’s when you go through something so devastating. It’s like, well, even with our generation, this is still something that’s overlooked. I mean, it’s been going on for so long. So it’s just the overlook of the generations and how we all together have enough power to make that change, but choose not to because of what we’re told, because of what parents like tend to teach their children because of our political views, because of who America is being represented by, because of really what you’re taught, because of what you see on social media. It all plays into effect of the whole contribution to the Black Lives Matter. And I think after the George Floyd death, this is when people really started to understand the issue, but even then there will always be those who are just completely against it and just see them as the alien of people. And that’s completely bizarre to me because we’re all, I mean, flesh and skin. So we’re really the same. It’s humankind.

Amy H-L: [00:23:01] Did the process of carrying out these projects impact relationships among teachers and between teachers and students, and also among the students themselves.

Claudia B: [00:23:14] I think there was an affinity, a new affinity with the students who were involved in it. I think they kind of saw each others as partners in learning. I mean, certainly Rafel and Maya and Cameron, some of the other students who worked on that project, they kind of will always sort of have this link now, you know, going forward. And I think, you know, the way they kind of saw each other as co-learners and as capable. They didn’t really get grades on this. So it wasn’t like, what did you get on your project? I mean, they all succeeded, right. They all, it was not that typical, more competitive kind of setting of learning. It was definitely cooperative and definitely collaborative. And I think it was much more of a colleagues, equals and I saw that with the students and I, I know our relationship with the students,  Debbie and, and my relationship with students was, I think, in a different place than maybe with other teachers who kind of had more traditional learning environments, that this was not a traditional learning environment. And so we became guides and supports and facilitators instead of kind of the teacher with the answer, there’s one right answer and you either get it or you don’t. I mean, this was, we were co-learners. 

Debbie H: [00:24:25] I agree. And I think the relationship with the students changed in a way that they talked about it. And so our incoming students, the following year, they wanted to know, are we doing that project? Are we going to do that? When are we going to start? And I had a couple of kids say, we want to get on TV too. And I said, well, you know, that’s not really what it’s about. They were motivated. They had heard about it and they were excited. And never, all my years of teaching had a situation where kids came in and early on, were like, when are we going to do this project that we heard about you did last year? So that was very, very exciting, as a teacher to have incoming kids who are, can’t wait to do the research.

Jon M: [00:25:14] How does it feel to teach a class in which you’re learning the history alongside your students

Claudia B: [00:25:21] it’s wonderful.

Debbie H: [00:25:24] Absolutely loved it. When Claudia and I were going to our local archives and just scanning primary documents that had been collected there over the years first, we were so excited. “Oh, look at this” ” Oh my gosh. Did you see this?” ” Look at the  first street car. And so we were learning then, and we’re scanning the stuff to bring to the students. And it got to the point where there was so much information we weren’t even reading it anymore. We were just scanning it so that we could bring it to them and give them the raw data. And it was exciting. And each time they found something, like when they came across that map, although we had scanned it, one of us had scanned it, we had scanned it and then we had printed out things and just put it all out there. And we hadn’t even really noticed. So they brought it to our attention and that was super exciting that we were learning this together, that we were sharing this moment, like, “Oh my gosh,”  because I remember them saying, “Is this real? Is it, what is it, what?” And I said, “What do you want to do about it?” And that’s when they jumped on their bikes and went down there to investigate on their own. And one thing led to another.

Rafel A: [00:26:36] I think it was really interesting, like to the classmates and I, that there was a lot of material that even your teachers don’t know. Because I think with school you’re always used to the kind of “you’re wrong. I’m right.” “But you have to listen to me because I’m going to teach you how to do it right.” And with this kind of project, you have a lot of wiggle room to be your own source of right, other than just listening to one person kind of teach you everything. You’re teaching yourself and you’re teaching your teachers, which is super cool, because I think that plays a lot of effect into even the confidence of a student because ongoing, I’ve always been the kind of person to speak my mind, but now I know that I truly can speak my mind and that sure, there’s a time for it and a time where I probably shouldn’t, but I know that speaking my mind can play a lot of effect because now I know that students can pick up details that even teachers can’t.

Amy H-L: [00:27:47] The projects integrated language arts and social studies. What did that look like in practice?

Claudia B: [00:27:54] We had certain days of the week that we set aside as project days. So, you know, they kind of, it was pretty fluid that they would come from my class to Debbie’s or from Debbie’s to mine. And we would just sort of continue the project. We had a cart that had all the resources on it and we would wheel it back and forth. And unfortunately not all of the students Debbie had also had me, so some of them only had the opportunity to chase down their research during social studies. But those that I had also, we were also just extending that time into language arts. So really just sort of became, it was that project-based learning, and we just provided the time. And since it kind of met the standards for both classes,  we didn’t feel uncomfortable at all about giving the students time to do all of the things that they would normally do in language arts and history class, except these were things that they really chose to do and really were very passionate about doing. 

Rafel A: [00:28:52] With our new learning facility, it was really easy to work together and hands-on because there was a wall divider that you can kind of just move. And then it was both classes connected and that like really came in handy when Mrs. Bestor and Mrs. Holecko chose their classrooms to be right next to each other. So yeah, it was kind of really easy to be hands-on and working together just because we’re provided with such a great learning space and because all the students were really working together because we were given a task and we wanted to make something out of it.

Jon M: [00:29:35] So I want to ask a couple of questions about following up on the idea of implementing literacy across the curriculum because obviously this is something that a lot of schools are interested in doing. So the first question is as literacy teacher, as an English Language Arts teacher, what were some of the ways that you conceived how this would help meet the standards for English Language Arts?

Claudia B: [00:30:01] Well it’s research, right. And so research involves critical reading, right. Finding resources, evaluating the validity of a source, reading it, finding in that source the information that you need. I mean, because we kind of started with the inquiry based model. We started with that question, what’s the question that we’re going to investigate? How do we find sources to find an answer to the question? And then there was a writing component.  They had to synthesize everything that they researched. And the research also included contacts in the community, talking to people out in the community, gathering information from those primary sources, which is more of a kind of social studies thing. But again, it’s sort of part of evaluating resources, finding resources. And they had to communicate in writing what they discovered. And then some of them did presentations, actual presentations, which is also in the Language Arts standards of speaking and listening.

And we ultimately, we kind of, the project was called “One community, six words.” And so there’s this genre of writing called the “six word memo.” So every project also was kind of presented through this lens of here are six words that can capture who this person was or who these people were to the community and what you mean by those six words. So this was kind of a traditionally Ernest, this was a Hemingway idea. He challenged anyone to be able to tell their life story in six words. And his was “For sale. Baby shoes. Never used.” And a man named Larry Smith picked up on this. And there’s a whole magazine now and a number of volumes of six word memoirs that have been published for adults, for young adults. It’s, it’s kind of a genre, that’s a niche genre, but it certainly has a place. Larry Smith has a TED talk. He has done a lot of work in prisons with this storytelling method of six words. And so that’s kind of where, that’s where we started, with this for one community. How can you tell the story of someone from this community in six words? And it became so much more.

Jon M: [00:32:06] So this involved, obviously the two of you working together as teachers, and people talk a lot about collaborative teaching, but it obviously involves skills in and of itself. Are there strategies that you would suggest for other teachers who are working together, that make things work smoothly and effectively?

Debbie H: [00:32:27] Well, I think one of the reasons that Claudia and I were able to get along so well with this is we both have sort of the same philosophies about teaching and learning and the world as a whole. We were okay having something very open-ended. We didn’t need to have it all spelled out and we were okay to just roll with it and make changes as we go. A couple of our colleagues were not  as interested to get involved because they wanted more structure. They wanted to know exactly what everyone was going to do and what their role would be. And we  didn’t really have it all spelled out because we didn’t know the answers. We didn’t know what direction it would go. And we were okay with that. So it worked out well for us because neither of us needed that cut and dry structure that some people want.

I think in the field of education, you’re kind of always looking for outcomes. What are the outcomes going to be, right? And we knew the outcome would be learning and we knew it would be meaningful learning, but we couldn’t say what the certain outcomes were in terms of actual skills. You can’t really necessarily break it down. Well, they will learn, you know, like we do in education, percentages, and we just knew the outcome would be learning. We knew it would be enthusiasm and engagement, right. And I think maybe that’s one of the things that you need in a collaborative setting. I think the focus has to not be on test scores. It has to be on engaging students. And, you know, I think kind of whatever else is a philosophy, whatever else it is, you’ve got to find people who are first and foremost interested in engaging students in meaningful learning and then working together to get there. So what is that going to take? And I call Debbie kind of like my teaching soulmate, you know. And in my 30 plus years of teaching, I’ve had a few of those and you find people like that, and there’s just the symbiosis there. And you’re better because, because they’re there and they’re better because you are there. And I think that’s kind of. You know, it’s, I feel, I feel lucky to have found that, but you can look for that. And again, I think it starts with this, this basis of, I want more than anything to engage my students in meaningful learning. And if I can find someone else who feels that way, then all the other stuff we can figure out.

Rafel A: [00:34:44] I think a lot of the teachers like hear it in and then they were like, “Oh, I think I’m going to stay away from that.” Just because I think collectively, they also didn’t think that this was going to have, you know, such an upbringing. And so, I think, with having teachers like Mrs Bestor and Mrs. Holecko, they’re like twin flames. The way they work together was completely insane to all of the students because you can really look at them and tell that they’re a lot more than colleagues because theydon’t only work off of each other, but it’s like their ideas are just like telepathically going through both of their brains and they don’t even have to speak it. They just think of the same thing. And it was really cool to see that a teacher was putting the students’ desire of really teaching themselves and really understanding the idea of teaching than basing our knowledge off of test scores. Because I know from personally, I know that when I don’t score very well, I give myself a hard time for it. My parents give me a hard time for it. Um, I think that my teachers kind o,f in a way, find it like degrading to the student that they’re not picking up on what they should be learning. And so I think if you’re basing your students’ knowledge off of a test score, it’s completely bizarre because you’re asking them to remember knowledge, but you’re not asking them to really, you know, teach themselves. You’re kind of just giving them the knowledge and saying, this is your quiz, and this is your test. And you have to know it by this time. If you don’t then, well, you failed that section of the class, and that’s not the right way of teaching.

Amy H-L: [00:36:40] Does inquiry-based learning like this fit into the prevailing approach, say, in Ohio?

Claudia B: [00:36:49] So everyone talks about it, you know, as being the way to go. And again, research supports all of these endeavors, you know, student-led inquiry, project-based learning, relevance, engagement. I mean, everything we know about learning is supported by all of that research. Unfortunately, in Ohio, my evaluation as a teacher is close to half of my evaluation is based on my students’ test scores. And I think that’s kind of where the tension is. You know, how do you provide meaningful, relevant, engaging, learning experiences while also preparing students for a test that will have, you know, it’s high stakes for them and it’s high stakes for me because my evaluation is based on their achievements.  So I think that’s where the tension is, you know, in Ohio and probably everywhere.

Jon M: [00:37:51] But I think you’ve mentioned that in Ohio, the teachers don’t have tenure?

Claudia B: [00:37:55] Tenure’s gone in Ohio. It is now based on evaluations, what’s called OTES, the Ohio Teacher Evaluation System. So yes, it’s no longer, um, no longer as a teacher, safe to even try some of these things. You know, some teachers see this as very risky and you can see why, you know, considering the stakes for teachers, I saw a great analogy about evaluating teachers this way. Like if you evaluated doctors, the way you evaluate teachers, would anyone ever want to be an oncologist? Because if X number of your patients are going to die, does that mean you’re not a good doctor? And so I thought that was just a really good way of looking at it because you’re judging a teacher’s performance as a teacher based on how the students do on one test, one day.

Amy H-L: [00:38:56] Are there strategies for conducting project-based learning while also helping students to do well on the tests?

Claudia B: [00:39:03] Oh, I think so, certainly. I think if you can kind of build the standards in, right, to the project. So, you know, you’re carefully looking at, in my field, I’m looking at reading informational text standards, right. And so you can be intentional about teaching the standards through the project. It’s kind of the measurement part in the assessment part that you, you know, you have to be a lot more intentional about. So if I were, if I build the standards into the, the project itself, how am I going to measure the learning? And, and this has been for Debbie and for me, we’re still kind of watching this evolve. We’re not at a place where we feel like, okay, we’ve got a handle on this. So that would kind of maybe be a next level for this might be really starting to build in some kind of, you know, short assessments. Although you hate to, again, hate to impede this passion. What was wonderful about this project is we have students who are on IEPs as well as students who are gifted and they’re working on this as equals, as members of the same team, right. And so that was never a consideration. How are we going to modify, to make sure we’re enriching or make sure that we are, you know, making information accessible? It just kind of happened because of the level of engagement, but yes, there are certainly ways of building standards in and assessing learning by the standards in the project.

Rafel A: [00:40:32] In Mrs. Bestor’s class, we definitely read a lot of books. It was sometimes a book of our choice that we kind of got to make groups of. And sometimes it was collectively as a class and we were all reading the same thing and we would have this thing called a Socratic seminar and you kind of sit there and you really share your ideas and what you truly think of the book or of the chapter or what you understand. And then we would all go back as a class and Mrs. Bestor would sit with us and then really truly describe to us the intentional meaning of that chapter of the book, but she never really necessarily told us that what we thought of it was wrong. She was just doing her job as a teacher and telling us what it was actually trying to tell us. And so when we were given like state tests, my classmates and I didn’t see it as a big deal because we were always given assignments where we had wiggle room, where we were able to really intensify our ideas. So when we’re given a test, it’s really just, oh, this, this happens every so often. Let’s just do good and let’s move on and go back to what our class is really about.

And if you’re really taking it as is this teacher doing a good job? Well, she is, because now the students have like the capability of sharing their ideas, having their own understanding to the book and then contributing what the teacher’s understanding of the book is. And now you have shared ideas among everyone, and that’s truly how you learn.

Claudia B: [00:42:12] I think that is important, what Rafel said. One of my goals is always to get kids to identify themselves as readers. You know, “Yeah, I’m a reader,” and I think there’s a certain confidence that comes with that. You identify as a reader, you have confidence in interpreting texts, um, you know, making inferences, synthesizing ideas. And so that is something that I always work towards.

Rafel A: [00:42:34] And I also think that Mrs. Bestor can really identify your personality from your choice of book, because I had her first in seventh grade. And before then, I swear, I have never picked up a book. I did not like reading. And now I kind of have my own library and every single book in that library is read because she really gives you like your genre and it’s not one specific genre. It’s just like Rafel’s genre, but this is what it includes. And it’s really great because now I find a lot of my personality with reading. So yeah.

Claudia B: [00:43:16] Yes. I had spent thousands of dollars on books. My son’s an adult now. And recently he was in my classroom and he looked at all of my books. He said, “Mom, you’ve got like an amazing vacation that you could have gone on here.” No, but this is, this is what I do, you know. And I do, I spend a lot of time trying to match kids with books. If you don’t like to read, you haven’t met the right book yet. Let’s go. We’re gonna make this happen.

Jon M: [00:43:45] John Dewey talked about schools’ roles in preparing students to be citizens in a democracy. How would you like to see schools do this?

Claudia B: [00:43:55] Yeah, that’s, that is one of my goals, I guess. And I think probably that’s where it needs to start is kind of getting teachers in touch with that. You know, “What, why are we here? What’s the purpose of school?” And I think that’s probably not something that gets explored enough in, in staff meetings, in colleges of education. Why are we here? Why are we doing this? And I think it starts with an answer to that question, certainly.

Debbie H: [00:44:23] I would add that I think schools’ roles should be in helping give kids a voice. Um, because if they, if you give kids a voice and they feel like what they have to say is meaningful and relevant and can make a difference, they’re going to be the best citizens because they can do that with their political system or whatever. Whenever they see something that they feel they need to speak up about, they’re going to feel like.They should speak up about it and that what they say can make a difference. And I think making them observers kind of, you know, what do we see around us, what do we see and interpreters of what they see.

And then problem-solvers, I see this, I interpret it this way. “There’s a problem here. How do I get to a solution?” And I guess that’s kind of part of the critical thinking. And again, to go back to the word “engagement,” to be engaged in the society in which they live and, and school should be part of that, should always kind of be part of that.

There’s a skill that you learned in a math class. There’s a skill, skills that you learn in science, but broadly, we’re trying to teach kids to think, to process information and engage in using all of those skills in meaningful ways as citizens. 

Jon M: [00:45:45] Rafel, how would you like to see schools preparing you for life in a democracy, for your life in a democracy?

Rafel A: [00:45:56] Uh, okay. This is kind of like an eerie topic. I think a lot of teachers like to stay away from the whole political view. I think a lot of teachers encourage others like other teachers to stay away from their political views. But I think it’s important because my voice isn’t counted yet because I’m only 15, and I would love to vote, but I can’t. I think if there was like  an open discussion in class about someone’s political views or about us collectively and what we know about our choice of presidents or what we know about our government as it is today, it really sets you up for choices that you will have to make in the future. Because, I’ve said this before, history, we say that it’s not going to be reoccurred, but it is reoccurring as we know it today. And I think if we keep following those steps without educating the kids in your class of what we have for our political speakers today, then when the choice is up to them, when the choice is up to us, we’re basing our choice based off of what you’ve taught us. And with us not being able to speak about our political views, even if we’re 15, 16, 14, I mean, “What do they know? They’re children.”

We know a lot more than you think because we have social media! And when something politically is worldwide happening, us kids, we really dig deep into that because we’re really trying to understand the behind reasoning of why so-and-so did this. So not being able to speak about it in school really kind of turns down the whole learning process of your democracy and of your government, because now we’re only being taught of what happened before, in like the 1800s and 1700s, but we’re not being taught what’s currently happening. And if we’re not taught what’s currently happening, we can’t protect ourselves from having it reoccur if we don’t want it to be reoccurred.

Claudia B: [00:48:29] I think there’s also, just to kind of tag along, that social media presents a lot of information to students, but not all of it is true. Not all of it is information that matters. And so I think, you know, that kind of that critical literacy. The term “fake news” has been tossed around by all sides, but really giving kids the ability to sift through information and find information that’s valid, that’s  worthy of basing choices on and beliefs on and decisions on and policy on, that’s a skill that has a place in schools. And I think it gets tricky because it can get into political stuff. And so there are a lot of people who just go “ugh, I don’t want to deal with that. That’s just a hot potato.”

Debbie H: [00:49:16] I was just about to say almost exactly what you said. So maybe this is an example of telepathy that we have between each other. But the other important piece here is teaching them to respectfully disagree. And they did a series of debates in Claudia’s class, where they picked some hot button issues and learned how to disagree with someone without insulting the person. And that’s so necessary in today’s very divided society. And as Claudia said, being able to evaluate sources, we had a program that we were using called Checkology and it does that. It walks them through, how do you tell if the source is real, I mean, is, is valid. And it has all kinds of pretty high interest little activites that they work along the way to evaluate what they’re finding, because there’s so much out there that’s absolutely not true and really affecting the way people behave because of it. So it’s an important thing for kids to learn how to do.

Amy H-L: [00:50:27] Is there anything we haven’t talked about that you’d like to discuss?

Claudia B: [00:50:31] You had mentioned in our pre-interview conversation, um, networking and networks. And I know, I feel like I’m less networked than Debbie is. Um, how can teachers build networks of like-minded people so that isolated situations like ours, where we have this tremendous amount of success with our students in this project, can be replicated or someone’s doing something that we would love to replicate in our school. How do teachers, how can we build networks of like-minded?

Debbie H: [00:51:09] I have a suggestion for new teachers. There’s a lot on social media. Like I am in several Facebook groups of middle school history teachers, US history teachers, these different groups, and people share amazing things through these groups. So I’ve gotten ideas from them. I’ve shared my own ideas in some of these groups. And the other thing for new teachers, the National Endowment for the Humanities offers every summer a series of, they’re called Landmarks workshops, which are one week, where they will pay for you to go to various places in the country to learn to network with other teachers and to learn about these places. And then there’s some of them that are longer. They’re called seminars and they’re two, two to four weeks long. And you get, you get more money with those, obviously, because you’re going to be gone longer. But they reserve a certain number of places in these workshops for teachers in their first five years of teaching, which I wish I had known when I was in my first five years of teaching. But it’s kind of cool ’cause they’re trying to get, they’re very competitive workshops, but when you apply, you have to write an essay and do different things. Like I said, they really do want to share this experience with new teachers and you meet teachers in those, from all over the country. And those are networks that you keep, so it’s worth checking into.

Jon M: [00:52:34] I think in our chat that I’m, I don’t remember whether it was you, Claudia, or Debbie talked about working with Facing History and Ourselves. What was that like? And how did that help?

Claudia B: [00:52:47] It’s a wonderful organization. They have so many resources and it isn’t just resources for history teachers. I think that’s how I saw it when I first encountered them. But I just read a book with my  my students, first year, I’ve used this book called “The Giver” and there’s a whole bunch of resources for that book. So it isn’t just a place for history teachers. It really is a place for teachers who want to engage students in kind of that thinking about the real world and being the citizens of the world that you mentioned in talking about John Dewey.

Debbie H: [00:53:16] Yes. And they have all kinds of free resources and their motto is “People make choices. Choices make history.” and I love that motto because it really applies.

Rafel A: [00:53:29] I think with Mrs. Bestor’s like networking thing, I think to new teachers from a student, you really need to find a connection with your student, because I think a lot of students are misguided and it’s nice kind of, well, I don’t know how to say this, maybe I think a lot of teachers are just too hard on their students. I think they forget that the material that they’re being taught has has never been introduced to them before. So I’m right now in 10th grade and I take every single honor class in that school. And I also take an AP course and my stress level is overboard because I don’t have a break and the teachers are so hardcore on you because they expect you to just know everything right off the top of your head.

And it’s like, you’re not even doing your job. You’re just asking me to, you know, teach myself and then evaluate it myself and then know enough material to be tested on. But if I don’t do good, then that’s it like, “I’m not good enough or worthy of taking your course,” which I’ve said before that, you know, teaching yourself is great and having wiggle room is great. But I also said that the teacher sometimes needs to come back and really teach you that maybe take a different look at this, or maybe like you’re not wrong, but have you thought about it this way? And that’s really teaching because now you have multiple understandings of what you’re being taught. So maybe don’t be so hardcore on your student, really try to understand where they’re coming from and then try to connect to them in different ways. So maybe you’re like the class that they really enjoy going into because it’s kind of their relief class. Like they know that you’ll understand and they know that, um, they know that you’re more than just a teacher to them.

Debbie H: [00:55:31] Rafel is a fairly recent immigrant to our country and not a native English speaker. And it kind of just makes all the things that she’s accomplished and done even more special because she’s come a long way.

Jon M: [00:55:49] Thank you so much, Claudia Bestor. Debbie Holecko, and Rafel Alshakergi of North Olmstead, Middle and High School.

And thank you, listeners, for joining us. We post transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in classes and workshops. If there are topics you’d like to hear more about, email us at We also offer professional development on social emotional learning, with a focus on ethics, for schools and afterschool programs in the New York City area. Check out prior episodes and articles on ethical We’re on Facebook and Twitter @ethicalschools and Instagram. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Till next week.

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