Transcript of the episode “Creating antiracist classrooms: Listening and other essential skills”

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 guest today is Steven Cohen, Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Education in the Department of Education, Tufts School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Cohen taught high school history for two decades. He’s been at Tufts since 1995, has written anthologies to accompany public TV documentaries, including Eyes on the Prize, and was a program associate for many years at Facing History and Ourselves. Welcome Steve. 

Steve C: [00:00:46] Thanks Amy. Glad to be here. Hi, Jon.

Jon M: [00:00:50] When you started at Tufts, there was no undergraduate major or minor in education, right? Why did you think it was important to have an undergraduate degree in education at Tufts? 

Steve C: [00:00:59] I actually didn’t think that it was. And in fact, I think for the about the first dozen years I was here, I taught the only undergraduate ed courses. I inherited them. I inherited one and I doubled it to two, which was a marvelous feat, but actually it was Tufts undergrads who pushed for it. So the Tufts undergrads, through the Tufts Student Senate, petitioned for a minor in education. And so we were able to do that easily.

And then a couple of years later, they actually, and this was within five or six years ago, they petitioned for a major. And that had to go, of course, to the administration, which was willing to have a major, as long as there were no budget ramifications. In other words, we’re not hiring anybody. So we sort of crafted a major that made it through the curriculum committee. And then when we made it through the curriculum committee, I changed it to make it much looser, and it’s really been very effective there. Education has to be a second major, so the students have to major in something else as well as education. And you know, my general advice to them is if you’re going to take about three or four education courses, then take the fifth and be a minor. And if you’re going to take seven or eight, well, then go to 10 and be a major. And if you don’t want to take that many, then don’t. There’s nothing that’s going to help you in later life because you are an ed major or ed minor, except if you’re interested,.

Amy H-L: [00:02:39] Steve, you supervise prospective teachers at Tufts who do their student teaching in schools in the Boston area, often in working class communities. What race and class differences do they experience in the schools? 

Steve C: [00:02:53] It’s changed over time. In the late nineties, when my colleague Linda Beardsley came to Tufts, she had been working for the state, and she really helped push us to start working in other than the suburban schools, where Tufts had been very comfortable for the time before I got here and certainly before Linda got here. And Linda and I sort of worked extensively to talk with principals in the Boston public schools, as well as in Somerville and Medford and Malden, about the possibility of bringing our student teachers there. And as your question implies, Amy, the principals very wisely said to us, well, you know, why would we want your students? Who are they? What do they look like? And what’s their background? So at that time, we really pushed Tufts to diversify by class and by race, our MAT program. So that the late nineties, early two thousands, certainly around the time that Jon’s son Lev was in our program, we had a very diverse program.

And a lot of the students had come in through a program called IRT, the Institute for Recruiting Teachers, which was run out of Phillips Andover Academy. A farsighted teacher named Kelly Wise had set that up. So at that time, we had such a diverse crew of teachers, we could have Black and white teachers going together and pretty good cohorts into schools like Fenway High School in Boston and Malden High School, the Boston Arts Academy, Somerville High. And in many ways the students taught each other what they needed to know about class and race. And then we carried on and we tried to do things in our seminars that would really make them think about their class background, think about their racial privilege. In fact, Jon, you mentioned my work with Facing History. For a number of years, we did Facing History workshops with our students to really push them to sort of think about issues of identity, issues of racism. And I think that really helped our students work together.

Unfortunately, we don’t look like that any longer. Since the crash of 2009, money’s been very tight. And I think all MAT programs, certainly in the Boston area, but I’m pretty sure nationally, have suffered from pretty small enrollments, and small enrollments have generally meant people  who mostly come from middle class and upper middle class backgrounds.

Amy H-L: [00:05:37] How do you help these students, mostly white and mostly middle-class, navigate these differences?

Steve C: [00:05:44] Well, we do two things. I think one, if they do want to work in urban schools, we make sure they’re there from the first day of classes in the fall. And they’re working in internships, so they’re really spending the bulk of their time in their school with their cooperating teacher. I think the Massachusetts term is supervising practitioner. One thing, you know, is the state can think up more and more fancy terms for the same job. So there are now supervising practitioners who work with our teachers from the beginning of the school year. And we try to do things curricularly that’ll do the same. So for instance, the MATs in social studies, who are the ones that I work with extensively, those in social studies and in English language arts, in the fall, we’ll work together for three weeks on a program in which they will read a couple of books and then put together curricular units that they might use with middle or high school kids.

You know, we’re very conscious of our selection. So for the last couple of years, for instance, the two books I’ve had them read are Carol Anderson’s White Rage, which I think is a terrific history, short, of sort of African-American and white interactions in the United States, pretty much from the Civil War on. And they read that at the same time that they’ve read All Souls by Michael McDonald, which is his memoir of growing up in South Boston in the seventies and eighties. And you get two very different perspectives of race. You get a lot of class issues and my hope is for the students and it certainly works that way, that by working together on how they would teach this, what from this, these books, are so important that kids need to know, that it really makes those issues of class and race come to the surface. They can’t ignore them. And I find that those are issues we’re dealing with every week in class.

Jon M: [00:07:46] How could education schools like Tufts diversify their student bodies?

Steve C: [00:07:51] Well, I think in a number of ways, but I should put in just to be clear, we’re actually not a school. We’re just the Department of Education within liberal arts. And that’s always pointed out to us. I make sure to say that. Certainly money has a lot to do with things. This is a big surprise in the United States of 2021. But when we were able to be as diverse as we were, we had great support from President Larry Bacow. And most importantly, from Provost Jamshed Bharucha, who absolutely was committed to helping us bring in students of color, first gen students, usually tuition free, and then they were able to get stipends, both white students and students of color who were working in as interns, because they were working as interns. They’re really providing a lot of people power to those schools and he was able to recognize that. So that was important. 

We also worked to make relationships with Morehouse and Spelman and other historically Black colleges. And for a couple of years, we had a nice pipeline from there. Morehouse had a program called the Benjamin Mays scholars. I’m not even sure it’s working still, but we got a lot of just absolutely outstanding people through them who came here to teach. Many of them we tried to keep in the Boston area and have. Others escaped from us and went elsewhere to do good work. So we bowed our heads and let them go. But we were very pleased to be able to have so many of them stay with us for so long.

I think that the trick was hard work and being able to financially support them. We haven’t been able to do that. Now. I actually have made many recommendations for changing the way MAT students have to pay at Tufts.  None have been accepted yet.

Jon M: [00:09:42] Could you talk about those? You’d mentioned them when we were talking earlier and they sounded very interesting.

Steve C: [00:09:47] Yeah. Okay. Well, I made a proposal that I’ve made many times now, that the MAT program be free. And I made that proposal to the Dean of the grad school with the argument that one of the jobs of a university like Tufts would be to help provide teachers for the public schools. And that if the MATprogram were free, we could then continue to offer stipends for those who do internships. And that my expectation would be that students who then went through our program, decided to teach, and got a job, and we have a very, very high placement rate, would then pay $5,000 out of their first and second year salaries. That was a completely arbitrary number that I pulled out of the air because it was even, and that 5,000 and 5,000 would be 10,000. Who could complain about that? And then I’m sure that they would repay it. And that, that would be a great boon for us. And most importantly, for the schools. The Dean read that with, uh, well, with excitement. He said it was the most exciting proposal that had come across his desk and that we couldn’t do it. So, you know, I’ll try it again. And perhaps, there’s actually a new dean coming. Maybe the new dean would be more interested in it.

Jon M: [00:11:07] When you were talking to me before, you said that he didn’t want to do it because he didn’t want to be a collection agency.

Steve C: [00:11:13] Yeah. That was the exact phrase. You don’t have to be a collection agency, right. I said to him I thought he was already. It didn’t really change the tenor of the conversation. I mean, he was very nice about it. He just said no.

Amy H-L: [00:11:28] Anti-bias training programs for teachers are now widespread and often controversial. How do you prepare teachers to create anti-racist classrooms in schools? 

Steve C: [00:11:38] You don’t do it through a one-shot lecture. That’s for sure. And you don’t do it through simplistic professional development. I think teachers really, you know, the strongest teachers we know are the teachers who are learners, who continue to learn. I know I’m continuing to learn. So I expect the same for my students. I don’t expect them to have all the answers when they start. I’m near the end and I don’t have all the answers, for sure. You know, I think that what anti bias training means to me is that we continually have teachers think about who it is who’s in front of them, who isn’t in front of them. How did they get there? How do we help them learn and understand? One of the best ways we have is to read books. One of the best ways we have is to listen and watch the media that kids are watching so they have an understanding of who the kids are. It sort of always brings me back, Amy, to the sort of the image we have of teachers that we get all the time, particularly in media, that teachers talk and students listen. And it always seems to me that the better teachers I’ve seen are those who listen. And once they listen, then they can start to talk. That listening is really important for a teacher and very often talking is very helpful for a student to learn. Not because the student has all the answers, either. But it’s breaking down that expectation that the teacher is the fountain of knowledge and the student is this empty vessel. That’s clearly not what, what we’re dealing with here.

Jon M: [00:13:12] What are some ethical issues that your master’s level students find themselves grappling with in their day-to-day practice, or once they become full fledged teachers and you are talking to them, what are some of the things that are on their minds?

Steve C: [00:13:27] Jon, that’s such a great question. And I think that what they begin to realize is that everything can come down in certain ways to ethical issues, even questions about punishment. You know, one of the things we know about teachers is that most teachers were pretty good students and most teachers for the most part didn’t get in trouble in class. Most teachers didn’t see the kids who were sent to the office because they were in their own track classes. And those kids don’t tend to get sent to the office. So here, when you start teaching and you suddenly have someone who actually doesn’t listen to you or questions you or doubts the wisdom of what you are bringing, oh my gosh. Often their first reaction is complete denial, anger. Why don’t they listen to me? And sort of helping students unpack this question of, you know, why don’t students behave? Why don’t students do their homework? What kind of homework are we asking them to do? And all of those, in certain ways, I think come down to sort of ethical decisions about what’s worth doing, what’s worth knowing. And how do we help students do that? I was talking to Jon before we started about this ideal high school project that I have my undergrads work on. Well, one of the interesting things, and I’m just reading the paper so that’s why they’re on my mind, is they had all worked on curriculum. And I was really stunned to see how many of them, when they were asked to think about curriculum and didn’t have to worry about state guidelines and Regents exams and MCAS in Massachusetts, thought about ways to try to help students learn what they were interested in, learn what they wanted to learn, with the argument that kids are actually very curious about all kinds of things. It might not be l’hôpital’s rule – that’s some sort of  pre-calculus thing – but it may be something else. And that part of the job of the teacher is to be able to plug into that. It doesn’t mean where they used to argue that if you gave kids the choice. all they’d learn about was sex, drugs and rock and roll. I think actually the point is that so much of what kids are interested in plug into the old questions of history, of English language arts, of science. How do we know things? What is it that we know? And that’s part of my job as a teacher. If I’m teaching about ancient Rome, I’m also teaching about the United States in 2021, and it’s really important to be able to make those links. So that may be sort of a long-winded way of getting at your question, but I think it’s important that teachers, in a sense, be on their toes and not be just bound by curriculum frameworks, which tell them they have to deal with the revolutions of 1848. 1848 is fascinating. And I think to deal with 1848 in a way in which kids can see the connections to 2021 is absolutely incumbent upon every history teacher.

Jon M: [00:16:49] Going back to what you said at the very beginning of, of your last comment, where you were talking about discipline, for example, or, or what happens if a kid just isn’t listening to you and has no interest or gets in your face, right? What have you seen in terms of effective support systems for teachers to become better at deescalating situations, not responding. I mean, we’ve interviewed people for example, about TCIS–Therapeutic  crisis intervention in schools, and,  you know, some of the efforts around restorative practices. What are you seeing in terms of how schools are responding in the schools that your students are going to and how your teachers to be, or once they become teachers, what, what seems to help so they don’t, people don’t just, you know, keep getting in your face and screaming at you and you don’t, don’t start screaming back like a 12 year old, right?

Steve C: [00:17:45] Exactly. You don’t dig in and just escalate it. You know, I always think about this particular incident I had very early in my career, working with student teachers. And it was at a Fenway High School, which at that time, Fenway is a small school within the Boston public schools that had started on the 10th floor of the old English High School. And it was made up of students who came to school every day for no particular reason. They liked school. They didn’t do any work, but they liked school. And the teachers in the small Fenway program kept the kids on the 10th floor and they set up a social issues curriculum. So they were really studying things that the kids could become interested in. I started teaching there because I was working at Facing History and we used the Facing History curriculum, but then we actually piloted an AIDS curriculum, and this was in the eighties. And it was probably one of the first AIDS curricula discussed in school. Well, through a couple of regenerations of the school, it had moved to the campus of Bunker Hill Community College. And I had a young student teacher, very smart, who had actually taught for a year before coming to get her MAT. And she taught in a Catholic school in Chicago, where she had learned the art of discipline. And she had a student who came to class every day angry first period. And she came late and she came rude and I was sitting there watching. And just as you described, Jon, I could see them both getting loggerheads at each other and it was escalating. So after class I talked to Mariana and I said, you know, at Fenway High, one of the ways they deal with disciplinary issues is they have their student support people. They’re not seen as assistant principals, but they’re seen as people who help you mediate and discuss things one-on-one with students. I know from my experience that when I get into it with a student, I also often want to have a colleague there just to help me learn how to talk and to listen because I am not listening when I’m angry. So I said, why don’t you talk to Joyce? Because I had worked with Joyce incidentally at Facing History. Well, she was really resistant. I can see it. You know, she had come from this Catholic school and she knew that you’ve gotta be tough and you couldn’t back down and all this. So I didn’t push her, but I watched, and for two weeks it was still happening. After the third week, I said, you know, Mary, why don’t we give this a try? So she sat down with Joyce and with the student. And Joyce just started the conversation by asking the student to say what was going on with her in the morning. And, you know, you can probably guess. She had to bring her two younger siblings to schools. They were both at different schools. She didn’t eat breakfast. Then she had to take the T all the way up to Charlestown for Roxbury. So by the time she got to school, she was pissed off and she was hungry. Well, Marianne had no idea. I had no idea because she had never thought that there was anything, but get there on time. So we were fortunate that we were on the community college campus in Charlestown and Bunker Hill and they had a cafeteria.

So the deal was not, didn’t take brain surgeons to figure this out, that the student would go get something to eat before she came to class. Well, that changed things dramatically. And in a made for TV movie, they became best friends and walked together in the sunset? Well, you know, that probably didn’t happen, but they survived. They worked together. The sort of morning frustrations ended. So that’s just one story. And I think restorative justice sort of builds on that sort of thing, but I am always pushing my students to make sure they sit down and talk to students. And not talk at students, right. Because often the teacher’s first instinct is to just tell the student all the things the student’s doing wrong, because we see it. But what we often don’t see is what the student is saying or what the student is feeling. So trying to get my student teachers to listen first and to listen, even when the students often will not be very forthcoming at the beginning. They don’t trust the situation. They don’t trust this teacher. All they’ve been doing is fighting with each other. Why should they do that? That’s why often having the mediator, having the student support whom the student knows, can be really helpful in that regard. I’ve been teaching a long time, 40 something years now. I don’t have the magic pill that takes care of every situation, but I’m pretty sure that we can surmount the lot of the obstacles that are between us when we can sit down and listen to us. And if that isn’t the truth, then it’s time for me to go.

Amy H-L: [00:23:01] Another issue that your student teachers are going to have to grapple with right off the bat is grading. So, how do you think teachers should decide how to grade students fairly, given that, like the student you were just talking about, they often have very different resources and preparation.

Steve C: [00:23:22] Grading is such a blunt instrument for what should be a finely tuned decision. It seems to me, and here I am at the end of the semester and I’m grading again and I’m thinking to myself, what is the difference between a B plus or an A minus here? I know essentially it’s meaningless for my students, so I don’t lose my chair and I can’t afford to, anyway, over the issue. But I think for my student teachers, grading is a gigantic issue. And it’s one that they worry about all the time. And when you think about it, Amy, you know, the grade is actually asking you to do so many things. It’s asking you to evaluate what a student has accomplished and it’s asking you often to evaluate how far a student has come, which aren’t often the same thing. It’s asking you, In part, to talk about a student’s degree of cooperation, not just with you, but with classmates. So we’re asking this one little letter or in some places, a number, you know, what is an 82 mean? It seems to me a very blunt instrument that is often not helpful.

So I know we live within this grading system, so I am not utopian enough to suspect they’re disappearing, but one of the things I’ve always really pushed my student teachers to do, and I do myself, is sort of two things. When I evaluate anything my students do, whether it’s an oral report or an essay or a test, is that I spend the time to explain what this grade means and how I’m seeing this. So writing comments that are worth reading that students have to look at and think of that. And sometimes I’ll have them sit down and look at the grade with me so that I know they’re seeing it. I know they’re hearing why I did it. I don’t profess to be even close to very good at this, but I know that when I’ve sat down and talked with students about what, how I’ve evaluated, what they’ve done, what I see is their strengths, as well as what I see they can still work on, it’s changed things dramatically. So sometimes I’ve had students write something, we’ve looked at it, gone over it. And I say, you’re free to write this again and I’ll read it again. And if it’s better, we can work at that. So what I want a grade to be is to be an incentivizer, rather than something that is supposedly expressing their value, their value as a person or their value as a piece of written work.

You know, one of the things I learned when I moved from teaching in the burbs to teaching in the city, I was stunned at how badly I was doing as a teacher, I thought each day was fine. But I didn’t think the kids were showing me on paper what they were learning. When we were discussing things in class, I could see how smart they were. I could see that they were making connections. They were raising comparisons to the present day. I taught history, so that was important. They were asking fantastic questions. And then I couldn’t get any written work. And I thought. No, what what’s this about? Why aren’t I? So I made a kid come to see me, aren’t you writing this down? And they sort of hemmed and hawed and they were silent. And I said, you know, I can wait, but I really want you to tell me because how am I going to figure out how to help you? And finally, very haltingly and not completely. I was able to understand from this student that that student had already evaluated his writing skills as terrible. And rather than show me how terrible his writing skills were, he was much more willing to hand nothing in and be thought lazy because it was much better to be thought lazy than to be thought incompetent. So then I thought, all right, so now let’s do the writing. I’m going to have them do writing in class and I’m going to go around while they’re working at it. I’m not going to give them answers, but I’m going to help them express what’s in their heads. Now, this may not have been according to the Marquee of Queensbury Rules for doing essays, but I think what it helped them do was begin to take those steps, to be willing to expose their weaknesses as long as I could help them improve their deficiencies and get better at it. 

So I was using grades in all sorts of different ways, and sometimes I used  letter grades and sometimes I used stars, drew stars, and I’m a terrible artist, so they could laugh about the stars. And sometimes I would give checks and check minuses. I did every possible way of expressing strengths and weaknesses, because I wanted that grade, not to just be a, a judgment on a kid. I wanted them to see that grade as something that could change, could improve. I guess now someone would say I was working for a growth mindset. Well, I didn’t know what that term was, but it was so something I sort of recognized as a teacher and it wasn’t just, you know,  wrong to just say it as a suburban, urban split.

When I was teaching in the suburbs, I had kids who couldn’t write very well either, who always got bad grades. And I realized, you know, if, if this student drew me a map explaining how the US grew over time in westward expansion, why is this drawing this map any worse than writing an essay on the Mexican Cession? If she can draw this map and explain it, she’s doing what is the point of my exercise, which is that she’s learned something and be able to explain American history in a certain way. So I guess I don’t see the grade as this sort of platonic vision of success, but as I want to use it as a way of helping students get better at whatever skills they’re showing, because I know it’s these skills they’re going to carry on, not the memory of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, right. Isn’t that really impressive that I know that. And I only know that because I taught that crap for 20 years. I haven’t taught it for 20 more years and it’s still stuck in my head, right. But so many teachers make the mistake of thinking students are going to remember that. No, they’re not. Teachers are going to remember that because we use it.

And what I want my students to be able to do is use their knowledge, and to use their knowledge they have to be skillful. They have to be skillful in talking out loud. They have to be skillful in writing. They have to be skillful in working together to present something. So I’m not ever worried that my grade chart looks like a bell curve. I’m not concerned in the slightest. What I’m hoping is in fact, the grades are expressions of what the kids did and if they did all the work, even if it’s not perfect work, if they did the work and did the work better at the end than they did at the beginning and more consistently, and they showed a stronger grasp of the material, I’m not afraid to give them a grade that they can be proud of.

Jon M: [00:31:56] So I have a question. It sort of touches on some of the things you’ve just said was a little bit different also. And you, and I were talking  about this earlier. I know for a lot of teachers, when students are doing group work, how do you handle it? Or how, what do you recommend the teachers do to handle it if it turns out that one of the students is doing a lot of work and the other students basically aren’t, but the structure is that they’re all going to get the same grade. And how do you approach that?

Steve C: [00:32:28] Well, unless God ordained that everyone gets the same grade, it seems to me, we have wiggle room here. So for instance, in this last project, I gave my Tufts students, they all, they got a group grade on the school they produced and they also write individual papers. And the individual papers are based on the aspect of the school they cared about the most. So I’d be very surprised if they both cared about the same thing, the same way and wrote the same thing, which they never do. So, you know, it does seem to me that that, yeah, it’s an internal issue, right. It’s sort of different at the Tufts level in the sense that the kids at Tufts are the kids who were the ones who always did all the group projects in school. That’s actually why most kids that I’ve found, certainly most graduate students, when I describe that curricular project that I did about White Rage and All Souls,.when we announce that assignment, they hate it. They hate the idea because they think they’re going to have to do all the work again. Now they suddenly realize they’re in a situation where everyone wants to become a teacher, so they all want their ideas expressed in this thing, so they’re all willing to work at now.

That probably is not the case in high school and middle school. I grant that. So I think my job as a teacher is to sort of incentivize students to do work on it by changing that structure. So it’s not that it’s all just one piece of work where everyone’s getting the same grade, but then everyone has a piece of it. And so there are lots of ways they can have individual papers to write. They could have particular sections they were responsible for, they could present individual sections of the school and if you are the, whatever the project is, and if they’ve just been along for the ride. If suddenly they had to get up there and explain what the National Liberation Front was hoping for if there had been a peace conference in 1968 in Vietnam, they were not going to pull that out of the air. They have to have done something. So, you know, I think if I’m skillfully setting it up, so that there’s a reason to work along and not just to let the best student or the hardest working student do all the work.

But that also means that in the preliminaries to the presentation, that I’m going around to all the different groups that I’m seeing what’s happening, right. I mean, sometimes people look at group projects as oh, teachers give group projects so they get time off and the kids just work. In fact, a good group project can be harder work. There’s nothing easier for a teacher than sitting up in front of the class to talk, God knows. We can kill the air. But it seems to be going around and checking in with each kid. Where are your notes? What have you been doing when this group says to you in a debate, such and such, how are you going to respond? Show me a document you’re looking at. Here’s one I have for you. Take a look at this. I’m going to come back in 10 minutes. Tell me what it means. I mean, I think it takes a lot of work, but I’m not afraid of that.

Amy H-L: [00:35:54] Steve, how can a high school social studies or history teacher address really complicated topics like capitalism, socialism, communism when their students lack the basic knowledge or context?

Steve C: [00:36:09] I love that big stuff. It seems to me those are the questions we should be asking. So for instance, when I’m trying to explain capitalism or communism to 10th graders, I often start by saying, I usually show them the beautiful shirt that I’m wearing and ask them how much they would pay for this shirt. And usually it’s under 30 cents. And then I’d say, well, how much would this shirt be worth if it was the only shirt in the world? Suddenly they had the beginning of the idea of supply and demand. And then we can use this, well who made the shirts? Why did you buy this shirt instead of that shirt? And we suddenly have a factory system emerge. Well, how do I get a buyer like Jon Moscow to buy my shirt instead of buying my brother Jimmy’s shirt? What can I do to get them to buy my shirt? Well, I could design it beautifully. I could appeal to Jon’s snobbery by saying this is done individually, or I could go the other way and say, this shirt is really much, much less expensive. This is cheap. You can buy three shirts of mine. And then maybe one of the kids will hire an ad man or an ad woman. My brother, incidentally, is an ad man, and would have advertised to go into it.

So suddenly they begin to see how capitalism works without me giving them a dictionary definition. Then they can tell me the definition. What did we just see? What were goods and services? What are the means of production and distribution? And then to compare that to another system where there isn’t necessarily profit, where something else stands as the leader. I mean, I know that Jon’s son Lev teaches economics and does economics podcasts. So he probably has other ways that he does this, but for me, it’s almost always been important to get kids involved in trying to understand that. I’ve done the same, for instance, one of my favorite lessons is having kids think about Europe on the eve of World War I. And we just look at the map of Europe and I give them two rules of European politics after 1870. And that is the following: the Franco-Prussian war, Germany hates France. And coincidentally, France hates  Germany. So I make a kid Germany and I say, so how do you protect yourself from France? And I make another kid the president of France. And I say, well, how are you going to protect yourself from Germany? And it takes him about three seconds to say, I gotta get friends. So, what do you mean friends? What do you mean friends? And within 10 minutes we have the system of alliances built up and they’re built up just by the geography, right. It doesn’t mean they do it perfectly. I have to help because somebody, usually Germany, will want to make an alliance with Spain because of its geographic position on the other side of France. And you know, you have to sort of let them know that Spain is not too much help militarily. And when you’re making an alliance, you don’t want to make an alliance with someone weaker because then you’re stuck with them. So anyway, I found that I can do the whole lead up to the war without me giving a single lecture, but by questioning them and having them work together. Now I’m going to fill stuff in and I’m going to have the great pleasure of talking about the assassination of Franz Ferdinand because I wouldn’t want to miss that, because I love to get to the assassination of Franz Ferdinand where I say, so a Serb goes to Bosnia and kills the Austrian archduke in Sarajevo. And so six weeks later, Germany invades France. Got it? And hopefully some students will say, no, what do you mean? What does Germany have to do with it? What does France have to do with it? And then we swing back to the alliances and then suddenly they can see this, that in fact, these entangling alliances worked out that way. Now those alliances were in place in 1912 and they didn’t leave toward and they were in place in 1913 and they didn’t lead to a European war. They’d led their way to smaller wars in the Balkans, but in 1914 it became a world war. So why that happened needs to be explained, but the idea of Europe sort of teetering in these alliance systems is, I think, the point. I think again, the point for me as a teacher is not that I have these brilliant lectures where I can talk about the intellectual roots and  the artistic roots and this and that that’s going on, but enable the students to sort of see how countries act and how people acted and get them sort of thinking along with, because it’s the thinking that matters. And then once we’ve sort of seen it, then we can do the defining. If I start by saying that the capitalism is a system for the distribution and means of production, what does that mean, right? What does that mean until we suddenly think about it in terms of my shirts or shoes? Shoes are good. They like shoes.

Jon M: [00:42:18] What advice would you give to a teacher starting their first year of teaching, who is feeling sort of lost, wants to be thinking about the big reasons why they became a teacher, the ethical reasons of helping the world, and at the same time worrying about Monday morning. How do you help this teacher not just struggle from Day One to Day Two and just think, okay, my goal is to look at my watch and get out of here at 3:15, because Monday morning always comes, right?

Steve C: [00:42:50] I’m still scared every Sunday night. It’s still there and it, you know, it seems to me, Jon, the first advice I give and I think some schools are really getting pretty good at setting up mentorship programs and having an older teacher be there for a younger teacher and cause one of my first pieces of advice for our teachers as they go out is to find allies in the building, find people you talk to and meet who can be helpful, who know kids, who know the school, who know how things work. And that’s really helpful, you know, schools that do mentorship programs and have an older teacher who is free not only to meet and have coffee, but they’ve actually worked out the schedule so the teacher can watch the young teacher teach and the young teacher can watch the older teacher teach. I mean, that’s sort of an apprenticeship model. That’s great. One of the things that we’ve really hoped is that through the internship model, the kids, and they’re not all kids, but the teachers who become first-year teachers, are actually not just wet behind the ears because they have had not just a three month internship at a school, but they’ve been in a school a whole year. So they’ve really had a chance to see the ebb and flow of the year. And they have a sense of, they’ve watched a teacher start a class from the beginning. They’ve watched the teacher figure out ways to learn who’s sitting in front of them.

One of my first years teaching, the school I was working at hired a guy who I had known in college, and I had no idea he was coming to the school. And for one week this guy was the greatest teacher I’ve ever seen. For one week he was unbelievable. I was in awe. I was next door and I could hear what was going on in the classroom. And I thought, oh my God, he’s so great at connecting. He’s so great at, this is great. And after one week he was out, he didn’t know any history. He was a social studies teacher. He was great on games, but he didn’t know any history. So after he had gone through this initial week, he really wasn’t interested in the content area. So one of the things I think that a teacher needs as well as sort of an ability to connect and that’s first, but you also need to both be interested in your content and be continually learning your content.

I was talking to a student this morning and I said, you know, I don’t, I never thought of myself as very creative as a person, but I think I am pretty creative as a teacher. Because I have the knowledge of the content that I’m teaching. And once I had the knowledge of the content, then I can think about how do I help kids understand this. And in a way for that new teacher who’s just starting, part of the best way to sort of tame that anxiety that first week is sort of a strong sense of what you’re doing in class. And if you know what you’re doing in class and you know why you’re doing what you’re doing, then you’re, I think you’re for the most part, going to get over those obstacles.

Look, the obstacles are always there. It’s never going to be obstacle free, but a teacher has to be a thinker. And among the things they’re thinking about are content, but you know, it’s also the ethical questions that you’ve been bugging me with as well, because those ethical questions are real. They’re not phony. And we have to think about grading and we have to think about, we even have to think about lateness. What are we doing with lateness, right? I’ve been to what, 6,000 faculty meetings in my life. And 5,993 have been about lateness. I’m sick of it!. But I know we have to think about this as a group. What are we doing? And again, part of what helps a class start on time is if the teacher starts on time and is doing something, if the first 10 minutes of class are chit chat and the kids, there’s no reason to be there. There’s no reason to be there. If the beginning of classes, we’re doing something. And if I’m not there on time, I might get stuck being Germany. And I’d much rather be Russia, you know. They’re not going to get there! So that’s part of it. 

Jon M: [00:47:35] Thank you, Steve Cohen of Tufts University. 

Steve C: [00:47:38] Thank you, Jon and Amy. I. These are questions that I think about a lot. And you found all my weak spots.

Jon M: [00:47:49] I didn’t notice any of them. Thank you listeners. If you enjoyed this podcast, please share it with a friend or colleague. Subscribe wherever you get your podcasts and give us a rating or review. This helps other people to find the show. Check out our website,, for more episodes and articles and to subscribe to our monthly emails. We post annotated transcripts of our interviews to make them easy to use in workshops or classes. We work with consultants to offer customized SEL programs, with a focus on ethics, for schools and youth programs in the New York City and San Francisco Bay areas. Contact us at We’re on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter @ethicalschools. Our editor and social media manager is Amanda Denti. Until next week.

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