The following is part of an email I received from a student I taught during remost learning last year: 

…I just wanted to say that I really appreciated the voice message you sent us. Although I don’t fully understand the situation and context you are coming from, I know that it’s so so important to give ourselves grace and space to process. I’m really glad that you were able to take time to think and hopefully process the change you’re experiencing now. Thank you for being so honest with us—I respect you for many things, but I especially respect your authenticity.

Grade 11 student

I share this with you for two reasons:

  1. This student is using language I used with her class throughout our remote learning time: giving ourselves grace and space to process. And this phrase made my heart smile pretty big.
  2. This student is connecting to what this post is about at its core: the benefits—and necessity—of being our authentic selves and making connections with the little humans we teach each day.

The final speaker of the #Mosaic2020 slow conference was Dr. David Kirkland. Not only is he the Executive Director at NYU Metro Centre, but he is also a professor AND an intersectional equity advocate (his personal site can be found here). Dr. Kirkland asked the question: “How do you teach someone you don’t know?”

Really think about this question for a minute. Think about all of the planning that teachers do before they meet their students…all of the texts that are chosen before the exact demographics of a class is known…all of the topics picked out before the pulse of the class is taken.

What was Dr. Kirkland’s answer: We must get a sense of them…of their experience…of their wisdom. They will show us how to teach them. We must listen.

If teaching and learning is going to be effective, then it must be meaningful and relevant to what each particular group of students needs for each particular context. We must connect.

And the current context we find ourselves in needs educators to take a step back and be very thoughtful as to who we have in front of us and what it is they need to read, watch, contemplate, argue… We must pause.

Sarah Zerwin (author of Point-Less) speaks to this need for listening, connection, and slowing down in a recent blog post:

I’ll use every moment to connect with my students, learn who they are as readers, writers, and humans, invite them to form connections with each other, and help them to feel valued for who they each are.

In order to nurture a space where students feel comfortable connecting, then we need to increase the sense of trust. Because without trust, you will be forever rowing your boat upstream. And what breeds this trust? Authenticity.

Brené Brown discusses how we are hardwired for connection, that we all want to feel like we belong. Students need to know that we are there for them, that we want to understand them, that we want to work with them. When we spend time creating a space where we are our authentic selves it gives students permission to be their authentic selves. This cycle increases both connections with the students and between the students, but it also increases the buy-in to the learning process.

This buy-in though…it takes time and it takes effort.

If we expect students to become more well-rounded citizens, more open-minded, understanding, more aware…then we have to model these traits for them. We need to show them that it is important by modeling it. And not a pre-packaged example, we need to actually do the work. Do the work every year anew.

Three ways doing the authentic/connecting work shows up in my classroom:

1. Visual Reading Ladder

I feel that reading is the most important thing that I can nurture in my students throughout the year. If a student leaves my class with a new habit of reading, I consider that the biggest WIN! And so, I show them that I am a reader. I do this by keeping a visual reading ladder at the front of my room and every time I finish a book, I print off the cover and tape it to my wall. Not only do I rank it from 1-10 based on a combination of emotional connection/enjoyment and difficulty, but I talk to them about WHY I gave it that ranking. And when they finish a book, I offer them the opportunity to share their ranking with either me, a friend, or the class. In this way, books get shared around to class members and more conversations and connections are made.

I read 31 books in this year and they ranked from a 4 to a 10.

2. Writer’s Notebook

Giving students time and a risk-free space to engage in both free and quick write activities develops their writing endurance, creativity, confidence, and speed of brainstorming. There are many students who may be resistant in the beginning to write every day…especially when they are not assessed on it. However, over time, as we continue to offer them this opportunity, when we give them time to share their ideas with a friend, AND when we show them it is important by writing alongside them, by doing the work with them…they will eventually buy-in to this activity—although some quicker than others. And the benefits throughout the year are so very worth it. Linda Reif has a great resource for quick write ideas!

3. Think Alouds

When I think about authenticity it makes me think about vulnerability. And I relate this to reading a text for the first time—showing students what it looks like to try and decipher the text…the struggle, the revelations, the questions, the annotations. When we know a text too well, we can miss this necessary process of discovery. This also leads nicely into small group or class discussions where the social construction of knowledge takes place and where students come up with their “own something to say” about the text—that there isn’t just one way to look at a word, phrase, symbol, etc…


Brené Brown

When we think back to Dr. Kirkland’s question: “How do you teach someone you don’t know?” We have to first think about creating a space where students want to be. A space where they feel they belong. And a space where they trust in the process. This means that if we expect them to be authentic and vulnerable, then we have to be that way, too.


Let’s reflect:

A. How much planning happens before you meet your students? How much time do you spend getting to know them before you start teaching curriculum? How much does their context come into play when you are planning what to teach?

B. How does vulnerability and authenticity show up in your classroom? Where is there room for more? How comfortable are you with being uncomfortable?

2 thoughts

  1. This post is a wonderful reminder of what’s possible as teachers prepare for this strange year ahead. A few straightforward practices in the classroom can be the anchor that keeps us all grounded.

    The reading ladder is my favourite! Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. You continue to amaze me with your insights! Last year when I had my 11G (BTEC) class, I knew that I had to make some kind of impact somehow in their lives before they leave school. I wanted them to feel that they achieved something other than bringing home a folder full of misdemeanour reports. I talked with them, worked with them and came to a mutual agreement – we decided we will work on stage performance. It was wonderful! Not only they were able to deliver a whole act in ENGLISH! They wowed the school with their flawless performance. Teachers and students couldn’t believe that these were the same faces who caused daily headaches in school. If only everyone gives everybody the same chances, good things can happen.

    As for the Reading Ladder, I really never have thought of sharing my readings AND rankings with my students. I keep a journal of books I’ve read, I write down my thoughts of the book and I give them star ranks too! It never occurred to me to share this with my students or anyone else.

    This gives me a new perspective. Hope I’ll have the courage to share. Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

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