Transcription of the episode “Shared visions: Creating an abolitionist school culture”

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. Today we welcome back Grace Alli Brandstein. This is the second of a two part interview. Ms. Brandstein is a school improvement and instructional coach for the New York City Department of Education, supporting high schools in the Bronx. Prior to her work as a coach, she was a high school English teacher and director of a small learning community in Queens. Note that her comments today represent her own views. She’s not speaking as a representative of the Department of Education. Today, we’ll look at the coaching that Grace is doing, and some of the strategies that are working in high schools in the Bronx. Welcome back, Grace!

Grace B: [00:00:57] Thank you for having me.

Jon M: [00:00:58] Whom do you coach? 

Grace B: [00:01:01] So currently, this year, and during the pandemic, I have been working with high schools in the Bronx, particularly teachers, teacher teams, and some principals and APs, to coach them on practices for either their classroom, for teacher teamwork, inquiry work, for curriculum design, or  in larger spaces, thinking about school improvement practices.

Amy H-L: [00:01:30] What is the theory of action behind the coaching you do?

Grace B: [00:01:34] So one of the main principles in terms of our coaching theory of action is really around this idea of participatory coaching. Traditionally in education, you may have someone come and observe your class or your teacher team meeting, or come and do a walkthrough of your school, and then, after that debrief and give you feedback, and then they’ll see you in a couple of weeks for another round to follow up and see if you’ve taken their recommendations. With participatory coaching, it’s really about rolling up your sleeves as a coach and doing the work side by side with teachers and principals and assistant principals in schools.

So on a regular day for me, I would be in a classroom, and instead of sitting in the back of the classroom with a laptop or a notebook taking notes, I would be circulating a classroom as if I was a teacher, working with students, being a part of a lesson with the teacher. And then, of course, we would have our debrief session, but I might help plan the next lesson with them. I might stick around for another lesson, because no two classes are alike, to see how that lesson lands. So in that process of being really embedded within a school, you really get to learn the culture of the school. You get to learn the students and the school, and it really improves your coaching practice because every school and every teacher and every student has a story. And in order to best serve them, it’s really about getting to know them. 

Amy H-L: [00:03:02] Grace, how do teachers feel about being coached?

Grace B: [00:03:06] So as a coach, I have worked with individuals who are at first very resistant to coaching and some that welcome it with open arms. And really the idea of coaching, and as we talk about it with teachers, we try to ensure that they understand that it’s not a negative stigma to have a coach, right. Some of the most elite athletes in the world, they all have coaches. They all have professionals that support them in their craft. And so the same way that someone from the Nets, we have Steve Nash, who’s coaching all of the amazing players on the Nets. As an educator, your craft is your craft and you need a coach as well. And so it’s really about taking a positive approach to coaching and not thinking about it in a deficit model as a way to just improve your practice.

Amy H-L: [00:03:59] And what are the key elements for successful school improvement?

Grace B: [00:04:04] That is a long question. That’s a question that requires a long answer, for sure. I believe like there are volumes and volumes that one could write on that particular topic. But what I’ll say is that I think that the three really big tenets  of school improvement really revolve around this idea of starting with the culture at a school, getting to know what is the school culture, and is it a positive one? Do we have student work up on the walls in our school? Does every student at your school feel known or seen? Is there an adult that knows every student in that school? What  does suspension look like in your school? What infractions require that? How are students disciplined in your school? What is the discipline approach in that school? How do teachers work together and how do the principal and the teachers work together? And what are those relationships? Is there trust in a school? So I think the first key to school improvement is really thinking about culture and thinking about what aspects you need to improve on. Oftentimes with school improvement, we go directly to the academics and test scores, but we forget that that culture piece is so necessary to move a school because if students don’t feel safe, if educators don’t feel supported, then any practice that you put in place is going to fall short.

I think the second piece to think about in terms of school improvement are the organizational systems and structures that are in your school. So do you have a school leadership team? Do you have a group of teachers that act as leaders in their departments that work with the principals? Is there a collaborative environment? Are there systems for that? How do teachers meet and collaborate? Do we use teacher team meetings? Do we effectively and efficiently use that time? Because every time of day in a school is so precious. And so are we having meetings just to have meetings or how are we we’re using that time? Are there assistance and structures for communication from the students to the teachers and administrators to find out how students feel about what’s going on in the school? And then these systems and structures have to be mechanized. And a routine has to be established in order to ensure that this is not just like a one and done thing, but this is a regular meeting that we have to hear from our teachers, from our families, from our students, in order to make things progress.

I think the third thing, and anyone who knows me or works with me knows that I have a strong belief in collective efficacy and in the belief in helping teachers and schools understand that they have the power to change a school and have progress happen and be successful. But creating collective efficacy is a very difficult thing. It’s not just saying like, Oh, you can do it. It’s about creating systems and structures, so team meetings where teachers can come together and work on a problem of practice together, can use inquiry to track student progress and feel success and see success with their work, and know that their every day getting up and working on lessons and servicing these students are not in vain, and that they can see that happening.

 I think the other two, the last two real big pieces. And again, I think you could write volumes on any one of these pieces, is having schools have shared practices, a shared approach, and common belief in how students learn best. What are the protocols that are in place at a school so that students understand them, that they’re transparent, and that they see consistency across classrooms, both in your discipline policy, culture policy, but also instructionally, right? When a student can move from class to class and see the same discussion protocol or a similar way of annotating a document, and when they learn that these protocols exist, the cognitive load for students becomes less because now they’re not focusing on, “Oh, what’s the new thing that I have to do in this classroom.” They can really focus on the content. And so that shared belief in how students learn best, I think, is really key.

And the last thing, I think, that’s super important is this idea of inquiry, and taking an inquiry approach to anything that is occurring in your school. And what I mean by inquiry is really using data to make decisions about what we’re doing in our schools. So many times I’ve heard in the past, well, these kids can’t or these students can’t, and it’s usually a trigger word for me when anyone says “these students,” because I’m like, well, who are “these students”? And what do you mean by “they can’t”? Yeah. What evidence do you have of that? Oftentimes, like there’s a general statement of, well, these students can’t read well. What do you mean? Did we give them a reading assessment? Did what, what is it, a decoding issue? Is it a fluency issue? There’s a lot of different things that should be taken into consideration.

And so when you take an inquiry stance, you’re really trying to ground all of the statements that you make in data. And then you’re trying to systematically think about, well, not only what is going on with the student and the student practice, but what’s going on with teacher and leadership’s practices as well, so that those two things can both change together. Student practice and student improvement is not going to change if teacher practice doesn’t change. And so those two things go hand in hand and being able to monitor those systems and structures. And those practices over time is so important.

Jon M: [00:09:56] You referred to adult learning. What’s involved in a commitment to adult learning?

Grace B: [00:10:02] Adult learning, I think, requires first and foremost, the conditions for success, which are, is there time allotted in your day, in your school day, for teachers to meet, that is specifically sacred to adult learning, giving teachers the space and time to read professional articles, to discuss what’s going on in their classroom, in a safe environment? If that time does not exist, adult learning doesn’t exist. And it really does have to be sacred. That time can’t be, “Oh, well, sometimes we have 30 minutes on a Tuesday to talk about it in the teacher’s lounge.” It has to be formalized and given the respect and space that they need.

 I think also with adult learning, a condition for success is giving teachers the training that they need to be able to lead one another. So who is leading this meeting? What are the objectives, clear and specific objectives, of what are we doing? Why are we doing it? And where is it leading? Those are three questions my mentor and former superintendent of high schools always used to ask in schools. And they’re three amazing questions that really apply to everything that you can possibly think about. Like whether it is a classroom and what you’re teaching students. What are we learning today? Why are we learning it? And where is it leading? Whether it’s adult learning. Why are we in this meeting right now? What’s the purpose? What are we concretely trying to talk about? Why are we even talking about it? And what’s the desired outcome from these meetings? So I think those organized systems and structures are really key to ensuring that adult learning becomes something that is routine in your school.

A wonderful book that talks about some of these routines and strategies is called “Meeting Wise: Making the Most of Collaborative Time for Educators,” and it comes out of Harvard, in conjunction with their program that they worked on the Data Wise school improvement process. And it talks about having clear agendas, times, next steps, how to effectively run a meeting. And these are small things that we take for granted, but provide big results for schools because it becomes a routinized practice within that school.

And I think the other part of adult learning is really having a shared vision of what it is that you want to tackle. So oftentimes what we talk about with school improvement is really thinking about, and this goes back to the inquiry work supported by Data Wise, is having a focus area. What’s our focus for this year? What’s the issue that we’re trying to tackle? What’s our question that we want to investigate about this? And having the teachers have a say in developing that question, because then it becomes an authentic experience where the adults in the school are actively investigating and trying to figure out that question through the inquiry process. I think the key component of professional development is this idea of culturally responsive education.

Amy H-L: [00:13:12] Some teachers are resistant to the idea of PD programs that focus on their own implicit biases. Is self-reflection integral to culturally responsive teaching?

Grace B: [00:13:26] I believe that in the work that has been done in the City around culturally responsive education, it is really important to start there in terms of adult learning, to understand your position in which you are coming to the table. How you are showing up is very important to the work of culturally responsive education in New York City. Because while we have such a huge diverse population of students, we have a diverse body of teachers and educators who come from different backgrounds. And so the pre-work of culturally responsive education has to begin with the adults in the room and knowing why are we doing this. I think that the implicit bias training and the work of Glenn Singleton, “Courageous Conversations,” those are the appropriate ways to start. What often happens, however, is that sometimes educators don’t see where it’s leading, right. So we get stuck in the implicit bias training, the courageous conversations that we’re having, the self- reflection, and oftentimes it’s not explicitly made known why are we doing this and how is this going to help my students? And I think that that is really important to note, because we all know that in this improvement of self, the whole idea of being a self-reflective person is to improve. But to what end, like, why are we doing this? And so I think that it’s really important with adult learning to start with the self-reflection, but it can’t end there. It has to, it has to progress.

Jon M: [00:15:04] What does culturally responsive education look like in practice?

Grace B: [00:15:10] That is also a question where lots of writing can be written about this, volumes and volumes, of what it looks like. But what I would say is that it looks really different in different places if you’re doing it well. There are certain principles that I think are important to hold tight to, but there is no cookie cutter approach to, if you do this, you are culturally responsive. And I think that that’s something that educators need to know and understand. There have been things written and there’s a danger in falling into kind of stereotypical or routine practices that just, you know, you plug and play into a classroom. So for instance, you know, something like call and response, which is a culturally responsive practice, right, where the teacher says something and they expect a response to the students, this idea of verbal activation of knowledge. And it is a great practice and it is culturally responsive, but you have to understand the why and to what end are you doing that. And so I think that when you talk about what culturally responsive education looks like in the classroom, there are a bunch of sources that the Department of Ed has turned to to speak about that.

 You have the official kind of framework from the DOE, which is the Culturally Responsive and Sustaining Education Framework. And they talk about four principles. They’re ensuring that you have a welcoming and affirming environment, having high expectations and rigorous instruction, including inclusive curriculum and assessment and then ongoing professional learning. And so that’s one way of kind of conceptualizing that.

I think that as you dig deeper and in thinking about what does that actually mean in practice, in instruction in your classroom, you really have to start thinking about, well, what choices am I making as an educator? One of the texts that I’ve been seeing come up in a lot of schools to kind of answer that question is a text by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad called “Cultivating Genius.” And in her texts, Dr. Muhammad talks about these five principles for thinking about how to create a culturally responsive curriculum. And I think that it really does a great job of kind of outlining what are the aspects of making this come alive in our classrooms. So she talks about these five principles in what she calls the historical responsive literacy model or the HRL model.

And the first aspect of this model is thinking about your curriculum in terms of literacy as identity. So how is your lesson or unit connecting with your students’ identity? Now, of course, before you can get to that, you need to get to know your students and know what their identities are. And I think oftentimes as educators, you know, we start the school year with our getting to know you kind of icebreakers and things like that. But getting to know your students is a daily practice. Every day is an opportunity to learn something new about your students, through questions, just about what they think and what they believe and what are their opinion and what’s their ideas, and kind of getting to know them in that way. I think that’s absolutely key, that identity piece, to kind of make those connections for students. And that’s going to look different in every classroom across New York City because we have all of these different, wonderful identities of our students that kind of make that up.

Dr. Mohammad’s second principle that she talks about is literacy as skills, which are basically your content skills. So as you’re thinking about whatever lesson or unit plan that you are engaged in, what is the skill that you want students to understand and know so that they can replicate that again and again?

Her third principle is literacy as intellect. So how do we pursue this idea of intellectualism in our classrooms? What do you want students to leave your class being smarter about? And that’s really a moving thing, because when you think about classrooms and curriculum design, well you’ll say like, well, wait, kids are going to learn a lot of things today in class, but what is it that’s going to stick with them? What is something that’s going to trigger something in them that they didn’t think about before, they didn’t know? And so that what are students getting smarter, I think is a really key piece to think about as you’re designing curriculum and lessons for students, because it requires you as an educator to be a scholar of your subject. What made you excited about being an English teacher, a math teacher, a science teacher? It requires you to be able to bring that joy to that work.

And then the fourth principle that she talks about is criticality. How has your lesson or unit, how are either of those things getting kids to think about power, equity, disproportionality, oppression, perspective, points of views, and getting kids to ask those questions, think about what is the source of what I’m reading, where did this come from? Are there alternative ways of looking at this idea and cultivating that within our students, allowing them to know that just because it’s been written in a textbook doesn’t mean that that’s the only way that something can be perceived, and that there’s always room to think about things in different ways.

And then the last pursuit, which I think is really important, especially in these times with the pandemic, is joy. How can you bring joy to your students? And what ways can you ensure that despite all the things that you have to do, you can do this in a way that inspires kids to be happy and want to show up to your class every day?

So I think she does a great job of kind of outlining this idea of culturally responsive education and what are some underpinning ideas in terms of ensuring that you think about school and the classes that you teach and the lessons that you’re working on in a holistic way.

Amy H-L: [00:21:30] Grace, could you give us an example?

Grace B: [00:21:33] Before I give this example, I think that oftentimes with CRSE education, the burden of thinking about like, “Oh, where does this live?” lands in ELA literacy classes and history classes, because it’s kind of like, “Oh, you guys get to talk about all of that stuff historically and read and do all of that work,” but it also lives in math and science classes.

And so recently, I was doing a walkthrough at a school where we were looking at culturally responsive practices and we were in a ninth grade living environment class where the teacher is doing, what you would think is a pretty standard lesson in living environment. They were talking about the male reproductive system and testosterone and what is testosterone. And the culturally responsive part really came in where she, you know, at first talked about, kind of gauged students’ knowledge of like, do they know what testosterone is, do they have any idea about that? Which was fine, kind of accessing previous knowledge. She went into a pretty routine kind of mini lesson, talking about the process, but then instead of just kind of leaving it there, she had found an article about the levels of testosterone that was found in a study of Black and Brown prison inmates. And how that, what they noticed was that there were elevated levels of testosterone, above normal levels, in some of the people that were in this prison. And so she posed the question to the students after they had talked about like, what are some effects of testosterone and all of that? Like, do you think that that had an impact, or do you think that elevated testosterone levels might’ve contributed to some of the reasons why people that were in the prison who perhaps committed these crimes? And it was such an interesting conversation where students were really debating and kind of talking about how increased testosterone is a medical issue and should be something that we should consider the same way that we would think about mental health. And so when somebody was, you know, sentenced for a possible violent crime, that we should take this into consideration. She was able to take something that may have been abstract for students, something that is part of the curriculum and will be tested on a Living Environment Regents, and she was able to bring it to the forefront of something that was realistic and timely.

 And then, getting back to what we were talking about with the principles for Dr. Mohammad’s work, ask them a question to consider in terms of perspective and criticality about it and got kids to really debate this. And the conversation was so lively. This was in a remote classroom. Cameras were on. Students were, had so many opinions about this topic. And when we think about like, what did kids get smarter about? Like, there were a bunch of students that were like, I had no idea that testosterone could possibly influence the way that we behave and the way that we act. And that was an amazing thing to see in a ninth grade class. And I think that those are the kinds of gems that we look for when we think about how CRSE can be progressed and used in the classroom. She didn’t just have to like stop her lesson and stop her curriculum, but she found places to insert that criticality.

Jon M: [00:24:59] Are there other examples that you can give?

Grace B: [00:25:01] I would say another great example that I have seen has been with a couple of curriculum that teachers have been using. One that I absolutely love is called Project Soapbox, and it’s presented by the Mikva Challenge and Civics for All curriculum in the New York City Department of Education, its partnership with Civics for All.

And what Project Soapbox does is it empowers students to think about speech writing as a persuasive mode to think about social change. And so when we think about the run of the mill kind of argument standards that we see in the Common Core standards or Next Gen standards around argumentation, while that’s great, to what end, right? And so this unit really focused getting students to look at how persuasive speeches in history have created and motivated change, but then it asks students to turn inwards and think about what is a societal or community issue that they would like to change. And having students actually write speeches, perform, provide those speeches and deliver those speeches out loud to their classmates. There is even  a City-wide competitions. They’re in different cities across the United States where kids get together and they deliver these speeches to kind of promote social change in their neighborhoods.

Jon M: [00:26:27] So you’re saying, for example, that students might listen to say, Frederick Douglass giving a speech or Martin Luther King giving a speech and then be asked to sort of use that as a model for something that really matters to them today? Is that what you’re saying?

Grace B: [00:26:42] Yeah. Correct. And what’s really great is the curriculum provides examples as Frederick Douglass and MLK, but also contemporary examples of speeches as well, the children and the activists from the Parkland shooting, students who have been so vocal about the work that they’ve been doing as young people in this work. And so it’s not just looking at historical figures, it’s also looking at what can you do? And so that goes back again to this idea of identity. Like you’re talking about what kids want to learn and what’s important to them, the skills of engaging in rhetorical, speech writing, intellect, they’re learning about their communities. They’re learning about the issues. Why does it matter and what do they want to change about it? And they’re thinking about it in terms of a critical lens of these ideas of power, inequity oppression, and how they can change that. And the joy. In seeing some of the speeches that students did last year when they engaged in this unit, it was amazing to see the inspiration that comes about.

I would say that for educators, you know, this work around CRSE is hard. And it is something that we have to work at, but it’s not something that we have to do from scratch. They are really great models out there of curriculum that we can turn to and look to spark those ideas about how we’re thinking about things.

So Facing History is another resource that I think is amazing for educators. They have open source free curriculum online on a variety of subjects. Recently, a few schools that I work with did their unit called Facing Ferguson, and it focused on social media and studying how social media and the news cycle really influences the way in which we see stories breaking across the country, particularly in the Michael Brown case. And it was so timely and relevant in light of all of  the recent movements that we had around Black Lives Matter and how that’s being portrayed in the media. New Visions also has open source curriculum that has a lot of great resources to support in terms of thinking about culturally responsive education.

The 1619 project is also an excellent resource and The New York Times has a writing curriculum for middle school and high school students that also gets at these aspects of really making this work responsive to what our students are thinking, feeling, needing. To really express, and now in these times of the pandemic, I think it’s more important than ever that we really, really focused on culturally responsive education. This is the way that we’re going to re-engage our students when we get them back into classrooms. And if we have to stay remote, it’s the way that we’re going to keep them engaged in this way.

Jon M: [00:29:36] You’ve talked about Bettina Love’s book,  “We want To Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom.” Why is that book important?

Grace B: [00:29:42] I think that book is super important because, as I was saying before, when we think about the what are we doing of this work with CRSE and the why are we doing it, I think it really gets at the why, why are we engaged? Why are we having a conversation at this moment in time? It’s about culturally responsive education. And as the title of the book suggests, it is because we want to ensure that our Black and Brown students in New York City do more than just survive and get through high school with a diploma at the end of their public school experience, we want them to thrive. We want them to matter. We want them to be seen. In Bettina Love’s book, she talks about this idea of spirit murdering. And when I saw Bettina Love speak a couple of years ago at the Schomburg when this book first came out, she talked about spirit murdering in schools as the moment when a student is in a classroom and something happens, an interaction with a teacher, an interaction with a classmate, and they feel as if they don’t matter anymore and their voice is taken from them.

And there are small, small things that can cause this to happen. And as a result of this, a student might ultimately disengage from school. So she gave an example of something as simple as giving critical feedback of the way that a student may have expressed their ideas. So in a conversation, a student may have gotten like very excited and is now not, and is speaking in a way that may have some curse words and colorful language in it. But it’s really expressing a really great idea about what they think and what they feel, but because the teacher’s first response was to say, whoa, you got to change that language. Instead of acknowledging the content of what the student was saying, that’s an act where their voice is kind of taken, like you didn’t hear anything that I just said, you just latched on to the colorful language in it.

And obviously, you know, we don’t want our students cussing up a storm in our class. But at the same time, it’s these small moves that we don’t necessarily realize that have a huge impact. And then there are large scale things that happen in schools all the time, with suspensions and fights and the way discipline is handled in school, that can also lead to this idea of spirit murdering. And I think that in that book what Bettina Love is really talking about is this movement that we have to have away from just simply thinking about reforming schools, but really thinking about how are we revolutionizing, dismantling and reimagining schools as they are. And so this work with culturally responsive education is in an attempt to do exactly that, to take down what we historically know has been a system that has oppressed Black and Brown children and give them a voice and give them a space where they can be heard and see alternate perspectives. And conversely, thinking about students who are White in our schools and giving them the opportunity to see things from different perspectives.

That’s why, going back a little bit to Dr. Gholdy Muhammad’s work, I really appreciate those five tenets because those five tenets don’t just apply to Black and Brown students. They apply to all students thinking about their identity, thinking about their skills, thinking about intellect, thinking about criticality, thinking about joy. These are things that, regardless of your race, we should be considering as educators. And obviously the focus has to be on our Black and Brown children, how we can engage them in schools, because their voices have been historically left out of the conversation. But when we think about this, this is quality education at its core.

Jon M: [00:34:00] Is there anything else that you’d like to discuss that we haven’t talked about today?

Grace B: [00:34:08] It’s just really important to understand that with this work, with culturally responsive education, it really relies on three things kind of happening. We talked about the adult learning piece, which is so key, and the spaces for teachers to get together, to have conversations about this work, to read these texts and then discuss it, to have the ability to talk about what are the assumptions in this text. Do they agree or disagree with what’s going on this text? The work of the implicit bias training and kind of self-reflection is necessary. The teacher, classroom level work, which we just talked about a little bit, that concrete work, it has to follow. If it does not follow that work, then we aren’t going to see movement with our students and with our schools.

But also we have to think about systematic change on the larger level. So yeah, the work of detracking schools, the school admission process, standardized testing. Those are all larger systemic issues that also need to be in place for this to happen. And so in order to, I think, really make this come alive in our classrooms, in our schools, and to really be revolutionary in our work, we can’t just stop at one of these, and that these three things are really interconnected in a way that if we don’t address them all, then we’re not going to get to a place that we want to.

Amy H-L: [00:35:35] Thank you, Grace Alli Brandstein. And thank you, listeners. If you missed it, we urge you to listen to Part One of the interview, that we posted last week.

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