I still remember my first day of work as a fourth grade teacher. My classroom had a green chalkboard, an overhead projector, one large wooden teacher desk and rows of student seats. I entered ready to present my lesson and engage with students. But within the first few minutes I recognized I was prepared to give a lesson but outside of that really had no idea what I was doing. It would be an understatement to say I struggled my first day as a new teacher.
This is not a book review. It is a celebration. Officially released in December 2019, Cultivating Genius caught fire in the pandemic era, becoming a widely popular resource for ensuring equitable classroom learning experiences. Two years later, this masterwork by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad via Scholastic Publishing deserves its spotlight – better yet, birthday candles – for a few key reasons.
Teaching is a tireless act of love. Good teachers often pour their hearts into their work. It’s exhausting, and rewarding, but also, at times, painful. The 2018-2019 school year was particularly painful for me. I was teaching 7th grade science—a class where directions like “do NOT drink the hydrochloric acid” need to be frequently, and urgently repeated—and I was mourning the passing of my last grandparent.
Ask anyone who has studied Bloom’s Taxonomy and they’ll tell you that just because students learn something once does not mean they have internalized that learning, can connect it to something else they know, or apply it to new situations. By “learning,” we refer to anything that children learn, like how to tie their shoes, multiply fractions, or recognize and label their emotions.
Educators across the nation are now faced with the unique challenge of distance learning, all while living through a global pandemic. Are my students healthy? How is their mental health? How do I do this distance learning thing? How do I support my colleagues or staff? Why am I washing dishes again?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, many district leaders are grappling with the new challenges of social emotional learning, among other things, in a virtual learning environment. Particularly when teachers, administrators, and counselors are not accustomed to remote learning, several questions emerge on exactly how to continue cultivating relationships and environments that support social-emotional skills and mindsets.
At the beginning of the year, I asked my students - a group of 7th and 8th graders - to write about their bilingualism. Given that I teach English as a Second Language, I was expecting all of my students to dive easily into the activity. My students, however, sat in silence. After a few moments, one student shyly raised his hand and said, “Miss, I am not bilingual.” I asked him to tell me more. He replied, “I can’t read in Spanish and English is my worst subject…I am not bilingual.” Other students in the room nodded in agreement. The students who most vehemently agreed were those who were born in the United States.
A few months ago, scrolling through Twitter, I saw a post from former Minnesota Teacher of the Year (and great Twitter follow), Tom Rademacher, highlighting a Facebook post (it’s always a Facebook post!) in which an educator was advocating for a routine for connecting with “difficult” students - that routine is to commit with that student for a 60-second hug.
I drove down the end of my street a few weeks ago, and I looked ahead to see a bunch of lanky, awkward middle school students waiting for their bus. As I slowly got closer and closer to the group of students, I began reminiscing on my own bus stop experience. The merger of the bus stop brought so many different kids together who wouldn’t always mix by choice, so it was always a time that was a bit uncomfortable for me growing up, particularly because I was forced to congregate with one particular kid who would be legally classified as a bully in today’s world. Although he never bullied me specifically, I remember the brutal uncomfortable moments in which all of us at the bus stop had to navigate those cruel words often directed at the younger kid who didn’t quite fit in or know how to defend himself.
Growing up, I was the epitome of a cookie-cutter kid. I excelled in school, getting straight A´s throughout the entirety of my elementary and junior high career. I played soccer and basketball, participated in track and field, and did triathlons. I became obsessed with trying to be perfect. For all of my time in junior high, I became preoccupied with a trophy that was given out to students with a cumulative GPA of 4.0. I stopped at nothing to get that award and at the time it seemed like it mattered more to me than anything else. Now, that trophy is sitting under my bed collecting dust. Don’t get me wrong -- I am proud of how hard I worked to accomplish what I did. However, after taking a huge leap of faith, my entire view of what success looks and feels like drastically changed.