At the Eighth Annual Boston EdTalks on May 9, the display of teachers’ latest practices dazzled and moved the audience, who could tell that their influence would ripple through the lives of students for years to come.
Being impressive has become expected of Boston EdTalks, an annual convening where educators share presentations about innovations making a difference in their classrooms and schools. Each year the Boston Foundation hosts the event during Teacher Appreciation Week, believing the best way to appreciate teachers is to recognize and celebrate their expertise. For the first year, the event was held at WBUR’s CitySpace. For the second year, teachers—after being selected from a pool of terrific applicants—were coached extensively on the delivery of their content. With no notes, few visuals, a stage and microphone, the nine presentations were TEDTalks worthy.
Twelve educators representing 11 schools across the pre-K–12 spectrum shared unique practices, new ideas or bold approaches they had implemented, in realms from first grade science to high school libraries, learning beyond the classroom to retaining teachers of color. They brought humanity, humility and humor to their presentations, and throughout the evening themes emerged that reveal the reality of teaching—and living—in our time and place.
Chief among those is the ongoing need to push for equity in our schools. That goes beyond budget or access issues, and applies to teachers as well as students. To dismantle habitual roles and paradigms, all presenters suggested, we must keep asking questions. Questions lead to connections—between teachers and families, students and staff, learners and content. Questions can be uncomfortable, certainly, but they can also define the road to growth.
Myisha Rodrigues of KIPP-MA gave the first talk and served as MC. In her own remarks, she urged incorporating socioemotional content with academics and implementing practices that teach the whole student. “In safe, supportive and loving environments, we can learn and apply what we learn,” she said. Brooke Charter School’s Christina Jusino made a similar case, but for teachers. “Building relationships allows vulnerability and creates the opportunity for connections.” She champions staff exercises that go beyond “icebreakers” and share deeply to create an environment of trust.
A trio of presenters— Genelle Faulkner (Helen Y. Davis Leadership Academy), June Handy (Oliver Wendell Holmes Elementary) and David Jones (Boston Day and Evening Academy)—also spoke about teachers’ sense of connection, and the lack of connection that teachers of color often experience. They made the point that the white cultural hegemony found in most schools—even where the majority of students are not white—can demoralize and discourage teachers, whose presence may be life-changing for students who share their background. To retain these valuable teachers, institutions need to reduce their isolation and analyze how practices and assumptions may perpetuate a white supremacy culture. They recognized that raising hard issues will not feel polite.
Amanda Finizio of Christa McAuliffe Regional Charter School took this up from another angle. White people like herself, she said, need to give up their biggest privilege: the option not to think about race. She added that, despite being socialized not to talk about it, to acknowledge race is not impolite, nor inherently racist. In fact there is a steep cost to ignoring cultural differences—paid mostly by students challenged by years of institutional racism. “White educators,” said Finizio, “must bravely examine our own identities, blind spots and biases. We must ask many questions—look, listen and talk. We must break the silence. You can’t solve a problem you can’t name.”
Further, “You can’t be an expert in someone else’s culture,” said Katy Winning of Shattuck Child Care Center. She learned this by reaching out to the families of her multicultural pre-K classroom as she planned ways to start the school day. How would they say hello in their home language? Through the year, she and her students learned nuanced greetings in seven languages, along the way empowering students as leaders and engaging families as experts. “It was the most impactful experience I ever had in class,” she said. And it started with a question.
Questions are key to tackling social problems, but also the day-to-day matter of pedagogy. Edith C. Baker School’s Laura Richardson tackled one of the biggest fears elementary teachers have: Science. She did it with crickets, about which she knew nothing when she began. How? Living by F.A.B. guidelines. Face your fears. Ask real questions. Be okay with things going wrong. “Questions lead to more questions,” she said, “and the journey leads to authentic learning.”
For Richardson, focusing on scientific practices rather than content with her first graders saved the day. That same dynamic of process over content shaped three more talks.
Fenway High School teacher Kate Fussner and librarian Bonnie McBride have made readers of students throughout their school, simply by making the process fun again. By highlighting the joys of reading and creating time for students’ discretionary reading without scholarly demands, they’ve seen academic accomplishments rise across the board.
Pamela Doiley of John W. McCormack Middle School has devised a way to get 7th graders past the classic question: What’s the point of learning this? “The key to memorable learning is connection,” she said. “And there is nothing more powerful to middle schoolers than the pronoun ME.” By having students select an inquiry of their own to pursue (e.g., what is gaming addiction?), and having them ask questions and collaborate to teach others, she found that their writing became clearer and their thinking more coherent.
Christopher Madson saw similar results by giving his Edward M. Kennedy Academy for Health Careers students ownership of subject matter and dispensing with the “scaffolding” of worksheets. “Teachers have been trained to over-scaffold,” he said, “and we have taught students to play student.” He suggested that this does a disservice, especially to students on low end of the achievement gap. “We may be inadvertently perpetuating inequity by removing thinking.” His method was co-creation instead of fill-in-the-blanks; his sources were things students cared about—whether rap lyrics or Project Runway. Students rose to the learning challenge and proved to him what he suspected: When they have ownership of their own destiny they will put in the effort. He acknowledged the anxiety in putting risk back in the equation, but as presenter June Handy had said in her talk, “Discomfort is the root of all learning and growth.”