Sometimes the establishment is the solution

There’s no shortage of elected officials who spend enough time in and around public education to recognize the many barriers to student success. For 13 years I’ve watched them take office with good intentions and fail to deliver, because realizing what it takes to legitimately improve student outcomes takes much longer than they thought. That’s why local school boards need leaders like Steve Unruhe.

Steve’s been driving positive change in Durham’s schools for over thirty years. He taught some of the district’s first computer science classes at Northern High School in the late eighties. Then he moved to Riverside when it opened in 1991 to teach math and build a student newspaper, The Pirates’ Hook, from scratch. For the next 25 years his journalism classes provided a platform for student writing, photography and video production that helped kids inform and entertain their school and community, win state and national awards, earn college scholarships and rewrite the district’s student expression rights. 

I saw him in action every day for six months in 2015. Steve was retiring at the end of the year, and I spent the spring semester learning how to run Riverside’s newspaper program. Putting a math and English teacher together to lead a single class creates a scheduling nightmare, but Steve met several times with Riverside’s administration to explain why I needed to be in his room during newspaper class every day to learn about the deadlines, budget, fundraising, parent communication and students, who also needed to know that the program would survive after he retired at the end of the year. 

Newspaper students ran a tribute to Mr. Unruhe in his final issue

That spring I learned what it means to lead from behind – to create opportunities and hold kids accountable while also empowering them to choose their own stories, take photos, design pages and deliver 2,000 copies of their work to classmates, staff and the community. Steve had his students’ best interests in mind, anticipated the support I’d need, and worked with school leaders to create a schedule that worked for everyone. And as a result, The Pirates’ Hook continues to thrive. 

He remained an invaluable mentor as I plodded through my first semester of running the paper on my own that fall as he ran for an at-large seat on the school board. Then, in January 2016, Riverside senior Wildin Acosta was arrested by immigration officials, detained and set to be deported. Four journalism students advocated for his release and right to graduate. In addition to covering the story in The Hook they wrote columns for The News & Observer, spoke at city and county government meetings and organized rallies. Their efforts, combined with countless other teachers, community members and organizations, helped halt his deportaton in March, but he remained in detention indefinitely. 

 A few weeks later the kids received an invitation to travel to Washington, DC and brief congress, speak to national media outlets and meet with US Secretary of Education John King about Wildin’s right to graduate, regardless of his immigration status. But field trips during the month of May were prohibited, and the dates conflicted with students’ AP exams. As time was running out, Steve worked with school and district leaders find a way to let the students both take their tests and make the trip to Washington. Wildin was finally released in August. He returned to Riverside and graduated in 2017.

Enthusiasm, acronyms and calls for change can drive an election campaign, but effective leadership requires a deep understanding of systems, stakeholders and student experiences. As DPS considers redistricting, I want a board member who helped the county and city schools merge in 1992. As schools implement restorative practices and culturally responsive pedagogy, I want a former teacher who not only supports the practices but also anticipates educators’ needs – beginning with timely and effective teacher training – to bring it to life in every classroom. As we look for new ways to support Durham’s growing number of Spanish-speaking students and families, I want someone who recognized that need years ago and turned The Pirates’ Hook into North Carolina’s only bilingual student newspaper. And as federal immigration policies and ICE arrests threaten students’ right to an education, I want an elected official who knows how to amplify the voices of students and teachers who are already doing the work our community needs. 

Identifying the obstacles students face is pretty easy. But Improving outcomes within the parameters of our current education system is hard, especially during a four-year term in a state that underfunds its public schools. The “establishment” has plenty of work to do, but that doesn’t mean its members aren’t part of the solution. Throughout his career, Steve Unruhe’s done more than just call for change. He’s delivered. And I’m voting for him again next month. 

Thinking about hungry students during the holiday break

One of the hardest parts of my job to “leave at work” when I get home at night is food insecurity. As my family cooks our Thanksgiving meal I’m thinking about ways to spot and support hungry students.

Watershed moments usually make me feel proud, but this one was horrible.

One morning last October one of my students was having a bad day. We were in the computer lab, and he wouldn’t stop talking. Even my most disruptive students will pause for at least a few seconds when I ask them to refocus, but he ignored me completely. When his own friends asked him to be quiet, I told him to talk to me outside the classroom.

“You’re not acting like yourself today,” I said. “What’s going on?”

“Trouble at home,’ he replied. “I’m having trouble at home.”

“I’m sorry to hear that. Can you tell me more?”

“I’m having trouble at home. My mom said I’m not doing my work, but I am. I did my work last week, and I’m doing my work now. The other kids won’t stop talking to me. She called my daddy and told him I can’t…”

“Are you hungry?” I asked, cutting him off. He paused.

“Did you eat breakfast today?” I asked. Another pause, then he shook his head.

“Do you want a snack?” I asked.

He nodded, so we went downstairs to my classroom. He ate a snack, returned to the lab and settled down.

I couldn’t always spot a hungry student so quickly. For years I needed to know he or she was homeless, arriving late and missing breakfast or struggling to make ends meet. Early in my career I never spotted it at all. But experience has been a humbling teacher, and I’ve learned several tips from my kids.

Know your students.

Hungry children have many faces. Some are energetic and always asking for a snack, others are tired and withdrawn or even sunken and angry. Students can be both obese and starving, too. A student of mine once lived in his mother’s car. They bought all their food from a gas station, so he consumed excessive yet nutritionally empty calories. He joined a foster family later that year, started eating three decent meals a day and lost a lot of weight.

Cliche as it may be, getting to know your students is still crucial. What does a good day look like compared to a bad day? Are their heads down because they’re sleepy, or is it something more? The more you learn about who they are, the more you can help them learn the material you teach.

Feed them now.

Kids can’t learn if they’re hungry. Students must feel physically well before they can even consider classwork. Psychologist Eugene Maslow created a five-tier hierarchy of needs more than 60 years ago, and it’s still required reading in education and psychology programs today. Maslow grouped hunger with other basic physiological needs like air, water and shelter, well ahead of any form of learning. 

To win the day, have a snack nearby. Offer food discretely to avoid embarrassing a student. The snacks will buy you some instructional time in the short-term. It will also show the child that you care about more than just your class or assignment.

Yes, you’ll have to buy the food yourself. Do it anyway. Granola bars and trail mix keep forever and work well as classroom snacks.

Feed them later.

I’m fortunate to work in a district that provides free breakfast to any child that wants it. But even if kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, they can go hungry at night, over the weekend and during long breaks from school.

Talk to your principal about creating a pantry for food-insecure students at your school. Reach out to local churches or community organizations — they are often willing to donate supplies. Chances are your community has the resources, but they may not know that your students need them.

Don’t go it alone.

A food insecure student will need a support team that’s bigger than one person. Share what you know with guidance counselors, social workers, administrators and medical staff. It will help other adults in the building understand students’ behaviors; and, if you find a way to support one, they can help scale the model to help others, too.

Supporting students’ basic needs is physically, mentally and emotionally exhausting, but a snack or meal can do more for a child in need than any pep talk or lesson plan. Know the signs of hunger, have a quick fix ready and work with colleagues in your building to create long-term solutions.

It saddens me to know kids still don’t have access to the food they need. I wish I didn’t have to spot hungry children in my classrooms, but there are ways to provide the meals they need to keep learning. Helping food-insecure students involves more than free lunch, but doing the extra work gives at-risk kids a chance to excel and create a more stable future of their own.

This article was originally published by SmartBrief.

photo credit: Pixabay

Now and later

October can be a long stretch for teachers and students. 

Maybe it’s because the school year isn’t new anymore. Teachers know who their students are. We did ice breakers and team-building exercises to get to know one another at the beginning of the year. We assess their work to figure out what they need and how to support their learning.

Inevitably, the end of the first quarter brings with it deadlines, piles of grading and extra meetings. Teachers are busy, and students’ stress levels increase as report cards loom.

It’s tempting to abandon resolutions we set over the summer, revert to old habits and stick to what we’ve done in the past. But the busiest periods are when we need them the most.

I needed mine when a student started FaceTiming during class. The class was reading quietly, and she asked to step outside to take a phone call. I was happy to let her step away, as that’s the norm my student teacher and I have worked to establish. But she returned to the room before the call was over and carried on while the other students tried to work quietly.

It seemed ridiculous. I didn’t understand how a ninth-grader would decide this was the best way to handle the call.  Just before throwing my arms in the air, I reminded myself that I set a goal in August to be less reactive when my most challenging students misbehave during class, that dialogue is an essential component of the restorative practices my school’s implementing and, as someone who writes about building positive relationships with all students, it was an opportunity to put those articles and blog posts into action.

But I still didn’t know what to say.

When in doubt, I follow the advice of a long-time mentor who watched me mishandle similar issues when I shared his classroom during my first year of teaching. 

“Remember,” he told me over and over again, “they don’t act out to disrespect you. When you have a conversation, deflect their attention away from the negative behavior and you might figure out why they’re doing it.”

So I asked the student to return to the hallway, commended her for stepping out to take the call and asked her if everything’s okay. 

“It was my friend,” she said. “He’s in the hospital. I was taking care of him this weekend but now he’s by himself. I didn’t want to miss class because I’m already absent so much, but he needs me and I don’t know how I’m going to get there after school.” 

After a brief pause she apologized for talking in class. I was again speechless, so we returned to class and got back to work.

Letting her speak first accomplished two things that I couldn’t have initiated myself. First, she did have a good reason for her behavior and shared personal information that helped inform my planning and instruction for weeks to come. I already knew her life outside of school was complicated, and she did only make it to class a couple days each week. But now I have some context.

Additionally, it turned a negative experience into a positive. She returned to class knowing that I care about her, but also that she needs to bring her grade up in order to pass the class.

Sometimes the right approach with students is to say less instead of more. I was lucky to guess right this time and hope to find more (and less obvious) opportunities to have similar conversations with other students more often. 

Hurricanes, communities and classrooms

Hurricane Florence mostly spared Durham. The eye of the storm veered south and weakened as it moved inland. We still experienced heavy wind and rain, flooding and power outages, but it was much worse in other parts of the state.

A few days ago, as I reflected on my first few weeks of school, I thought about my Silent Sam article, mentoring my student teacher and learning my students. I was ready to write about the end of the “honeymoon” – those first few days before students reveal their true colors – and current events like Aretha Franklin’s death, migrant farmers and their children’s education and Colin Kaepernick, all of which I turned into Articles of the Week.

But Florence put my mind in a very different place. Now I’m thinking about how the relationships and community I’ve worked to build with students during the first three weeks of school could stretch beyond the classroom and support families who lose far more than two days of school.

It seems trivial to call a natural disaster a “teachable moment,” but it will certainly influence what happens in class this  week.  First, students basic needs (food, water, shelter) have to be covered before we can worry about learning. After that, we’ll need to acknowledge the challenges students and their families experienced and help them feel help them feel safe again. Only then can we reasonably expect them to take risks and grow.

Teachers don’t have to bring natural disasters into their classrooms. The events that affect our students lives outside of aren’t listed in our curriculum standards and won’t show up on standardized tests. However, as my friend Justin Parmenter wrote last week, these experiences bring to life the lessons we deliver in school.

In so many ways, moments like these are where the rubber meets the road. Hurricane Florence and its aftermath will require students to process their feelings, make decisions and lead others. They’ll use the skills they learned in school and communicate their experiences through social media, text messages and conversations. If I’m committed to integrating current events into my instruction, addressing students’ social emotional needs and implementing the restorative practices, I can’t return to school this week and not discuss the storm.

artwork by Kelly Heffley

Click here for more information about Durham’s shelters. To assist with hurricane relief efforts, consider making a donation to the Red Cross. 

When Confederate monuments fall, move them to your classroom

The toppling of monuments is a tricky subject to bring into a classroom. But it’s also a powerful opportunity to analyze institutional racism, the First Amendment, and American history.

Last week, protesters at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill pulled down “Silent Sam.” The statue of the Confederate soldier was erected in 1913 with donations from the Daughters of the Confederacy to commemorate “the sons of the university who died for their beloved Southland 1861-65,” according to the university’s website.

The monument sparked controversy for decades, but protests against the statue intensified following last year’s violence in Charlottesville, Va. As Silent Sam’s fall made national headlines, counterprotesters, advocating for the statue to be reinstalled, joined protesters on campus. Police donned riot gear and made arrests. I worried about students’ safety, but also thought about ways to incorporate the events into my own lessons.

I brought the topic of Confederate monuments into my freshman high school English class for the first time last year. After protesters toppled a Confederate statue in downtown Durham, my students and I considered its symbolism. We had just finished Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.” In the play’s final scene, after learning of the two lovers’ sad demise, the Montague and Capulet families agree to build statues of each other’s children. Their monuments would mark the end of the families’ long-running feud and be symbols of peace in the city of Verona.

“Build trust with your students before tackling social issues.”

The play gave us an opportunity to consider symbolism and monuments in our own community. We began with easily recognizable images that represented both itself and something else, like an American Flag, a halo, and Nike’s Jordan “Jumpman” logo. But when an image of the Confederate flag appeared on my projector, the conversation stopped.

“Racist!” one student called out, but no one followed his lead. I sensed discomfort, so I backed up.

“Like our first example,” I said, “this is a flag. What country did it represent?”

A couple more students volunteered historical facts about the Civil War. They noted that it was a war between the northern and southern United States. The Confederate flag was a symbol for the South, but because the North wanted to end slavery and the South wanted to keep it, the flag was a symbol of slavery, too.

“True,” I said, “But the Civil War ended over 100 years ago. Slavery’s been gone for a long time. Why, then, is this symbol still such a big deal?”

Students acknowledged that the flag also symbolized Southern heritage and pride and not all who displayed it on their hats, clothes, and cars were racist. We were getting somewhere, but many students were still reluctant to talk about it.

The next day I showed them images of famous monuments like Mount Rushmore in South Dakota and the Martin Luther King Memorial in Washington. We talked about why countries and communities build them and what they symbolize. Then, we read about monuments around the world that protesters had pulled down.

Finally, I put up an image of Durham’s fallen Confederate statue. I asked them what the city should do about its statue. Should it go back up, go away completely, or move to another location? Should a new monument replace it? If so, who or what should it be?

I gave students two ways to express their conclusions. Some designed a new monument, complete with a nameplate and brief description of what it symbolized. Others wrote letters to members of the county commission who really did have to decide what to do next. Many believed the statue symbolized values that our community no longer held. Two weeks later, a student representative even spoke at a county commission meeting and shared recommendations from our class.

As I consider how to build Silent Sam and other cultural controversies into my instruction this fall, I’ll keep a few principles in mind:

1. Consider the timing. Although the Silent Sam statue fell in August, I will wait a few weeks to understand my students, establish a safe classroom environment, and have them practice speaking and listening. Students know that it’s my job to teach them reading and writing, not American history and institutional racism. Build trust with your students before tackling social issues.

2. Keep the conversation closely tied to the curriculum. Without a close connection to the course content, students won’t understand why they’re studying it. Scaffolding instruction to make it clear why and how students are studying a particular issue will help them contextualize it. In an English/language arts setting, the topic could be an extension of a literary unit, an opportunity to demonstrate their writing skills, or a speaking and listening activity focused on rhetoric skills.

3. Keep it student-centered. Do not aim to reach consensus–it’s about deepening the discussion, not winning an argument. Provide accurate information that will, in turn, inform students’ decisions about what should happen next. Adding real-world consequence to their decisions, such as offering them the opportunity to share their ideas with audiences outside of the classroom, enhances their experience even more. But always remember that the experience is about them.

4. Reflect on how it goes. It may feel sloppy at times, and not everyone will feel passionately about the topic. Last year my students’ writing and illustrations were excellent, but our discussions never took off. I should have shown examples of other monuments earlier and let them bring up Durham’s Confederate monument themselves. Perhaps a more organic transition would have inspired more students to contribute.

Looking back, the aftermath of Charlottesville was a scary time, and I was uncomfortable approaching the topic in class. But the opportunity to learn, reflect, and take action was too good to pass up. School is one of few places where students can hear different viewpoints. If teachers develop a process that invites a variety of perspectives, models appropriate reactions, empowers students to make a decision, and later consider its impact, they can make any current event or controversy a teachable moment.

This article was originally published by EdWeek.

Another life to come

Hope springs eternal in the human breast;

Man never is, but always to be blessed:

The soul, uneasy and confined from home,

Rests and expatiates in a life to come.

– Alexander Pope, “An essay on man”


I’m ready for the kids to come back.

I spent the summer traveling, swimming and catching crawfish with my kids. I woke up late, watched the Tour de France, wrote a lot and published very little of it.

When the calendar turned to August I reviewed the long to-do list I wrote in June, picked an essential few items and checked them off before teacher workdays began.

Monday’s Groundwater Presentation by the Racial Equity Institute framed my thinking around racial inequity across multiple systems and getting more comfortable with cultural differences in my classroom.

I’m teaching freshman English and newspaper again this fall. Instead of reinventing the lesson plans I’ve used before, I’ve created new, overarching goals for each class that will change the way I approach each unit.

My English students will learn to harness the power of story through the study of of art, literature and film and use their own stories to build identity, raise awareness, solve problems and create change. My newspaper students will more effectively engage their audience by diversifying our story forms, increasing the frequency of our digital coverage and growing our social media presence.

If it all goes according to plan, English students will complete new project-based assessments at the end of each literary unity and newspaper students will have data from our website traffic and social media impressions that tell us if our audience is paying attention.

I’m trying to realistic goals for my own growth as a classroom teacher because there are many other sticks in the fire, too, like mentoring a student teacher, presenting at the National Council of Teachers of English and Journalism Education Association’s national conferences in November, and delivering professional learning to Hope Street’s North Carolina Teacher Fellows.

I hope to focus my own writing and stick to topics related to supporting low-income students through policy (like before) as well as sharing my own practice more directly through the blog.