Category Archives: Ethic of Care

Helping students identify their school wounds.

Last year I had the good fortune to read Kirsten Olson’s book Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing up to Old School Culture. So many of the ideas raWounded-by-School-9780807749555ng true, I immediately began brainstorming ways to share them with my students.

The activity I developed was for my senior advisees at the time, with the notion that, now that their secondary schooling was drawing to a close, unpacking it would be a useful task in preparation for getting through college.

Of course, why not do it earlier, and then reap the benefits yourself? My wake-up call about what students think of learning in my classroom has me itching to do this activity with my freshmen advisees. And possibly with all of this year’s freshmen.

Phase One: Identification

In this first phase, I read them a few passages from the book — the fact that she had been at EduCon that year didn’t hurt with the buy-in — and then students were presented with a series of statements pulled from the chapter “Kinds of Wounds.” The statements for each category were clustered on a table, and students had to tour the room and eventually pick a the group of statements that best reflected them. (The “categories” of wound were not included — I’m just putting those here for clarity’s sake.)

Wounds of Numbness

  • I feel detached from learning and zone out a lot in school.
  • I have lost interest in learning experiences I once enjoyed.

Wounds of Creativity

  • I feel like my original ideas lack value or are too strange.
  • I feel like everything I have do to has to “add up to something.”
  • I often I feel like I won’t be good at new things.

Wounds of Compliance

  • I worry that something will go wrong if I don’t follow the instructions or the rules.
  • I try not to stick out.
  • I do things because they will look good for college or my resume, not because I actualy want to.

Wounds of Underestimation

  • People don’t really know who I am in school — they just make assumptions.
  • People assume I am capable of less than I actually am


Wounds of the Average

  • I can only achieve so much in school.
  • I don’t feel like I get much attention in school, or that my work is valued.
  • Maybe I could do better, but people just expect me to be average.

Once they picked a group, students had time to casually share out: why did they identify with those statements? What were the typical or stand-out experiences that made it clear that’s how they felt? Had they always felt this way? If not, when did that wound form?

A lot of students picked “numbness” — senioritis was in full swing — and some self-identified overachievers gravitated towards “compliance.” “Underestimation” and “average” got some takers as well. Those last two groups were initially more reticent to share why they felt the way that they did — but once they got going, they had a lot to say. Perspectives I have never heard before.

The conversations were deep enough that this took the majority of an advisory period. I think we asked students to share out their history and current gripes with their wound, and this worked because our advisory family had four years of trust built-in by this point.

Part 2 of the activity — complete with drawing! — coming tomorrow.


EduCon Resources: Creating The Ethic of Care.

Awesome notes courtesy of hellohomeroom.

Awesome notes courtesy of hellohomeroom.

The second session I was involved with involved significant less planning — but also somewhat more heart — than Standards Based Grading and Reporting.

Lehmann, Pia and I — and Mark Bey, and alumnus Mike Dea, and a smattering of SLA freshmen who all chose to be in the room just because — took folks on a meandering but meaningful tour through how care works in our building, and how we “care for” instead of just “caring about.”

Here are the prompts we used for the discussion:

  • What is the difference between care about and care for?
  • How can you (help teachers) make that transformation?
  • What are the challenges of this switch?
  • What are the tensions between caring for the adults and the children in the building?
  • How do you schedule care?
  • How can care be built into every structure and system that you have?

Here are a few general reflections from the session:

This process is not easy, and it’s never finished. SLA Spanish teacher Mark Bey talked about how his understanding of caring for students changed and expanded when he started working at the school — and now he tells his new advisory families that he is that child’s unconditional advocate in the building. They know that there is at least one person in the building who has their child’s best interests in mind.

Contact is key — and for us that includes Facebook, text messages, and hand-written journals passed back and forth, and random visits from graduates.

These procedures need space and time. We have advisory twice a week for 40 minutes, and advisory families stay together from freshman through senior year. We also have weekly planning time for all staff, which we sometimes use to conference in advisory groups, so teachers can plan curriculum, discuss upcoming events, etc.

That said — the shift to caring for can happen in small ways, without having your whole staff on board, and without a major shift in the schedule of the day. Three questions that Lehmann mentioned were key to treating students with care: What do you think? What do you need? And, when kids are in trouble, or upset, or in any kind of difficult situation: What do you need to say now?

We talked about situations where we have sat with a student and waited, patiently, without prodding, to hear what a student had to say about their life and their issues. Sometimes, proverbially speaking, we wait years. Sometimes they don’t even open up or figure things out before graduation. But we have some faith that part of the value is not in the immediate payoff (especially if there is none.) Sometimes, we get a glimpse of a delayed deposit for a student who comes back a few years later and has got it all under control and just wants to say thanks.

If you’re looking for more resources on how to integrate the ethic of care into your regular curriculum, check out my series on how to do test prep with heart.

EduConversation: Creating the Ethic of Care

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This is the second of two EduCon sessions that I am participating in. I joined this one in a happy moment of confluence, when I was toying around with building a session around my posts about standardized testing — and then I found out that our esteemed PE and Health teacher Pia Martin had already planned one with a similar focus. And Lehmann was in on it too, so we had ourselves a party.

This all got sorted out through a series of staff meetings and casual office conversations — a nice reminder of how the easy sharing of ideas at SLA benefits us, and you!

Here’s the official write up from our EduCon page:

At SLA, the Ethic of Care is central to the way we treat our students and each other. But what does that look like in practice? As educators, how do we make sure that the students we teach come first, and not the subject? How do we create and sustain an environment where students are supported and cared for while honoring the structure necessary for a school to function?

This conversation, led by the principal and two teachers, will address the successes and challenges of implementing the Ethic of Care at every level of a school’s operations, from daily classroom interactions to the strategic design of school policies and operations. Participants will be invited to share stories from their own learning environments in order to examine how they too can “care for” instead of “care about.”

For more context about where I’m coming from in this, check out my posts on “love in the face of the system.” Too often, teachers caring for students only happens in the gaps between the curriculum and the rules. I look forward to brainstorming with participants about how that compassion can be embedded in the coursework itself.

I would tell you to register, but the conference is sold out! However, all sessions will be streaming online, so we encourage you to join us from your nearest internet connection.

How to prevent testing fatigue.

It’s simple: don’t test too much.

Seriously though. That doesn’t mean that you don’t prep. It just means that you get creative. I’ve written about lots of these tactics before:

Attack sample questions as a class. Teach them the structure behind the different types of questions. Send them on scavenger hunts in pairs. Have them write questions on their own.Let them be frustrated, and don’t forget to tell them that you love them.

The last thing you want to do is hit them on the head with multiple choice practice tests, day after day after day. It’s the educational equivalent of the assembly line. At some point, people get so bored that they quit. And you don’t want that to happen before the actual testing happens.

When kids start to say, “this is dumb,” I replace that with: “No, this is easy.” This is my adult equivalent of “it’s not that deep.” And I mean it.

Throwing students off the deep end.

My experience as a high school student of English often consisted of being given complicated material, being told it was Very Important or A Part of The Canon, and muddling through it as best I could, with some vague notion that this experience would mean something later.

On the whole, I find this approach silly. It was too much of the now-you-will-sound-cultured-at-cocktail-parties mindset.

However, there were a bunch a moments when, upon entering college or “real life,” that the lightbulb went off in my brain: so that’s what they were talking about. Tough literature seemed less daunting after having slogged through “Absalom, Absalom!” my senior year of high school.

It is with this in mind that I occasionally throw my students something that will take a maximum amount of effort to unpack. For example, take the very first paragraph of James Baldwin’s “If Black English Isn’t a Language, Then Tell Me, What Is?”

The argument concerning the use, or the status, or the reality, of black English is rooted in American history and has absolutely nothing to do with the question the argument supposes itself to be posing. The argument has nothing to do with language itself but with the role of language. Language, incontestably, reveals the speaker. Language, also, far more dubiously, is meant to define the other–and, in this case, the other is refusing to be defined by a language that has never been able to recognize him.

We read it twice. We talk about what the original argument is, and theorize as to what Baldwin’s trouble with it must be. We define “incontestably” and “dubiously,” We discuss the academic meaning of “the other.” We talk about who that other is, and what reasons “he” might have for refusing to be defined by it. This takes a while. It’s not easy work.

As the reading continues, we pull from African American History class in 9th grade, we pull from our geographical knowledge (quick, who knows where Martinique is? Or the where the Basque live?) I ask them if they know why Malcolm Little chose “X” as his last name. Somebody explains that. We get to this line:

To open your mouth in England is (if I may use black English) to “put your business in the street”: You have confessed your parents, your youth, your school, your salary, your self-esteem, and, alas, your future.

Who knows something about British Accents? Who talked to the exchange students from Liverpool when they were here last year? Next time, ask them about how they sound different from Londoners; you’ll get an earful. Maybe we put “ask” on the board, and see whether people pronounce it “ask” or “axe.” We talk about that, too.

We hack our way through the whole thing, and by the end we’ve gone in a dozen different interesting directions regarding language, identity, and power. Great set-up for a benchmark essay. Throwing students off the deep end is okay, as long as you jump in with them.

And then, to cap off the class, I show them the goofiest photo of James Baldwin I can find.


If I don’t know theory, I’m just a cog in the education machine.

When I was in graduate school for teaching, a common gripe from some students in my program was that our coursework was too theoretical, that it didn’t give us enough practical info or concrete methods for working in the classroom.

I thought of those folks as I read Doug Lemov’s recent article in the Wall Street Journal. His description of a new teaching school stood out:

My colleague Norman Atkins, founder of the Relay Graduate School of Education in New York, likes to invoke the example of Michael Jordan, whose demanding methods of practice “reset” the habits of the Chicago Bulls and improved the team. Mr. Atkins adds, “Once you have good teachers who as a matter of course like to practice and rehearse and think, it’s the most professional thing you can do. It will raise the expectations of teams in their field as well.”

So his graduate school, in contrast to more theory-heavy programs, preps teachers for what they will do all day on the job. And he finds that they love it.

Back in my year of graduate school, when I was in my field placement all day and going to classes at night, there are moments I would have loved practicing my methods all day. But when people complained that our program was “too theoretical,” it made my skin crawl. These were the same folks who thought reading “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” was a waste of time. Even scarier was how they weren’t interested in encouraging any critical thinking on the part of their students. The kids were too behind on basic skills, they would argue. No time for literary analysis or theory.

And if we had studied at Relay? Here’s what we would have gotten, according to the Washington Post:

Degrees are earned by online video and reading modules, attending discussion groups and by the uncertified teacher’s students’ test scores. If the test scores are not up to snuff, the teacher does not earn her degree. There are no classes in educational theory or history, nor any indication that the candidate must complete a masters thesis requiring research and reflection. It is cookie-cutter training grounded in one vision of instruction — the charter school vision. Each candidate’s pail is filled with the same techniques.

Just think, if I had been educated at Relay, I would be such a great team player. I would be an expert and enacting every new method and initiative handed down by my district or my administration, and I would never ask “why” or have the tools to explore what was behind it.  My students would never get riled up, because I would never incite them to question their world. I wouldn’t even know the phrase “critical pedagogy.” I would never have gotten hired at a place like SLA, joined Teacher Action Group, or started this blog.

If we don’t teach our students to look at the bigger picture, then we condemn them to live with all of the systemic problems that they can’t see. Same goes for teachers.

School Solution: Student Assistant Teachers

Lehmann has written about SLA’s Student Assistant Teacher program before, but as we just had our first meeting for the program today, I thought I would give you a window in — hopefully to convince you and your high school to give it a try.

In brief, the SAT program brings seniors into underclass courses as, well, a teaching assistant. They attend that course full time, and they work with the teacher to provide learning support as fits the class needs, and also their personal interests and inclinations.

Here are just a few examples of what my SATs have been up to since the start of the school year:

  • Observing group dynamics and making seating charts.
  • Giving feedback to student ideas for thesis statements online.
  • Floating around the room and checking in with small groups as they work.
  • Picking out relevant quotes from a text to share while we’re having an all-class discussion.
  • Sharing their own experiences or advice for a particular assignment (they’ve all had me as a teacher before.)
  • Building personal relationships with students who would rather go to this “expert student” for help before they ask me.
  • Cluing me in when there’s some confusion about a task, or a group that’s having trouble getting along, or… really anything else I didn’t notice.

Obviously they didn’t do all of this from day one. However, I’d like to point out that we’re only around day 30, and they already do a lot. Part of this is the general culture of transparency at SLA — we like to talk about teaching and learning, so kids are paying attention to our methods even before they choose to become an SAT. But it’s not automatic.

I have had SATs in my classes for three years now, and at first I struggled to help them find their place. (Turns out saying “do whatever you want!” isn’t very instructive.) Each year they become a richer, more authentic resource in my classroom. With 30+ students in each class, that makes a huge difference.

That’s not the only benefit, though. Their very presence helps me, in a way I didn’t expect at first.

One of the things I really didn’t know about teaching until I was in the thick of is how lonely it can be. You’re surrounded by students all the time, but in many ways you’re totally on your own in your classroom. While our SATs are not professionals — and I would never ask that level of commitment or responsibility of them — they come to inhabit the same mental space as I do. When something kicks butt, they notice. When a lesson flops, or doesn’t make sense, we can figure out why. When something absurd happens, we can laugh about it later. More than once I have told an SAT, “I was glad you were there for that.”

All of this is swirling in my brain after our first general SAT meeting, facilitated by the wonderful Alexa Dunn and Josh Block (who run the program). This meeting is no joke — it involves over half of the senior class, and most of the teachers in the school.

Part of the meeting involved a quick check-in with all of my SATs together. I see the value of the program for them all the time, but today’s meeting really confirmed it. They already know their strengths and weaknesses as students (reflection is one of our core values, after all) but this work allows them to feel out their skills in a real setting. They take pride in growing their own abilities, and are delighted when the students in their class see them as a resource.

So, have I convinced you to bring this to your school yet?