come be a genius with us

Today begins the Genius Institute, a program of the CSU Writing Project, that focuses this year on “Teaching with Tensions.”

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Over the next few days, you’ll meet our small group of CSUWP fellows–Collin Shields, Tara Rigby, Elliott Johnston, Jenny St. Romain, and me–as we tackle questions related to tackling issues of privilege, power, difference, controversy, and so forth in our classrooms and the profession.

At the end of each day, one of us will invite the rest of the group to post some fruits of our collective thought labor. We want one thing to be clear up front: we don’t know the answers. There are no definitive answers. But we’re up for struggling together through questions we think ought to matter to all of us since we believe that part of our mission as educators is to work toward a more socially just and peaceful world.

Today, I’ve been tasked with providing a prompt to which all of us will respond below. We’ll rotate this responsibility over the next few days as a way of reflecting on our learning and inviting anyone’s who reading in on the conversation. Today, we’ve generated a pretty expansive list of questions (copied below), so this is the prompt I’m posing:

What’s an important question that has stuck with you today? (It can be from the list below, but it doesn’t have to be.) How is this question stretching your thinking? What do you think you know at this point? What do you want to keep thinking about?


  • What battles are worth fighting?
  • When do I need to make a statement?
  • When do I need to say something (a bigoted view, for instance) is wrong?
  • How do we honor student voices?
  • How do we help students talk about things they are uncomfortable with?
  • How do we help students have conversations where they open up to someone they disagree with? Sometimes they may leave discussions only becoming more hardened in their views.
  • What are kids more comfortable talking about?
  • What do you do when you carefully set the class up to deal with social justice issues in class and things fall apart? How do you work through these issues with different groups?
  • How do we help students (and really our society) work through difficult issues and consider the logic of perspectives they don’t agree with?
  • What do we do about Ruby Payne and her ideas about students in poverty? (cf CPR series on students in poverty)
  • How do we confront issues of race/class/gender/etc. in our classroom settings and professional conversations so that people can hear what everyone is saying?
  • How do we push back? How do we deal with pushback from students, colleagues, and parents?
  • What if we teach in a homogeneous setting? What if we don’t, but as white and privileged teachers aren’t sure what to say without exposing our ignorance or making things worse?
  • How do we present/introduce minority perspectives without essentializing an entire group? How do we invite minority students to share an alternative point of view without making them feel as if they have to act as spokespersons for an entire group of people?
  • Who gets to talk about race? Who gets to decide that ______ is an non-issue?
  • When/how can we get into nuanced questions about race, etc., esp. within the time frame of a constrained curriculum? When do you skim the surface, and when do you dive deep (Is that a rabbit hole?)? If I don’t do the latter, am I perpetuating/reinforcing the system of privilege?
  • When do traditional models get disrupted for students?
  • How do we stay hopeful?
  • How do we disrupt our own assumptions?
  • Which axes should we be grinding?
  • How do you deal with complex issues in age-appropriate ways?
  • How do you recognize the inequities of students’ circumstances without making them feel powerless or victimized?
  • Who has the privilege not to think that “something is a big deal”? What privileges do you possess that are invisible to you?

9 thoughts on “come be a genius with us

  1. Collin says:

    A question that I’ve been thinking about is what would advocacy and action look like with respect to teaching social justice, since action and advocacy are part of the social justice framework. Cindy and I were talking about how sometimes students go in different directions then what we had hoped or intended when they are turned loose, but I still think that that is ok. There ARE appropriate ways to think about and talk about race, gender, sexuality, disability and those should be taught and corrected for misconceptions, persisting biases, etc, but I’m not sure there is a correct way to teach action and advocacy. We can steer students toward more productive forms of action, but social justice action is always more complicated then the theory and understanding behind it.
    An action might have unintended and unforeseen consequences. I think back to my Peace Corps days and the programs and projects that were initiated by volunteers. Not many of the programs or projects were resounding successes, neither many of them sustainable once the volunteer left. And to judge Peace Corps on the success or lack of success of these programs would missing the point (not to mention it would show the program as ineffective).
    What is more important and I believe the whole point of social justice education is the change in thinking. While action and advocacy are also essential components they should not be used as measurements of success. A better measure of success is 1) evidence of a social justice mind frame/paradigm developed by the students and 2) recognition and motivation on the part of the students to do something about the problem.

    • blogessor says:

      Collin, I really like this idea of making whatever you’re teaching problem-based. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been a part of the YSCI Project. YSCI stands for “Youth Scientific Civic Inquiry,” and it’s a partnership between CSUWP and the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery that’s funded by NWP and NSF to address the intersections between science and literacy learning in informal contexts.

      As those of us on the project were planning it, our original intent was (is) to help students develop science-related questions of their choice connected to a local problem in Fort Collins. After MANY weeks of trying to plan in this open-ended way, we ultimately decided that we needed a common topic to frame their questions. We decided on water use and protection. We wanted their questions to be related to equity in some way, but we didn’t explicitly communicate that to the kids and were then disappointed that more of them didn’t craft questions related to that stance. One did, but the others wanted to focus more on “science-y” topics like water quality, nets (one little guy was obsessed with nets), sandbags to prevent flooding, litter prevention in public waterways, etc.

      While I / a couple of us were really pleased by the complexity of the students’ work over the 2 weeks, I/we also felt like we’d failed to realize the intent of the project. Was it okay that students weren’t thinking about equity-oriented questions? Would there have been a way to steer them in that direction, or would this have been “inauthentic”? When should student choice/interest trump the stretching their perspectives?

      In other words, we discovered that if we did want students to explore the intersections among science problems and equity-related issues, we’re going to need more intentionally about our framing of the entire experience. We’re going to need to create opportunities for learning that are more closely connected to these issues, and so forth.

      I still don’t know how to answer the questions above, but you’re making me think hard about how our actions as teachers “might have unintended and unforeseen consequences.” You’re making me wonder about what the “measurements of success” in social justice education ought to be.

  2. Elliott Johnston says:

    One thing I am really working on and thinking about this week is how to enhance the meaningfulness of my classroom curriculum for about two thirds of my students – students who struggle with English skills, students with disabilities, students with low work ethic and engagement with school. As a third year teacher who teaches 9th grade Honors, Intermediate, and Basic English at a rural and diverse Title One High School, I have specifically struggled my first two years with finding ways to engage my students who aren’t as enthusiastic about school or who struggle with school. Often and unsurprisingly, these have been the classes with the biggest behavior problems. While during the year, behavior problems are seen as the student’s choice and responsibility (and mine as much as I can negotiate their troubles with me or the class), this time of reflection is an important opportunity to for me to to take the responsibility to build more joy and justice into the curriculum that will foster more engagement – taking the me vs. unruly and struggling student (this is how it can feel sometimes during the grind) to a we-are-exploring-learning-together environment.

    Any suggestions for engaging projects or topics for 9th Graders who struggle with engagement and content are welcome!

    • blogessor says:

      No suggestions here yet, but I’m really excited about how you’re thinking about “the responsibility to build more joy and justice into the curriculum.” I have a bad habit of foregrounding the later in favor of the former, but thanks for reminding that can/should go hand in hand. I’ve been thinking about how this work has to be hopeful and reminding myself that Freire emphasized that critical pedagogy was ultimately about love.

      What do you (and anyone else who’s reading) think about achieving this balance? How can we do that? Any examples?

  3. blogessor says:

    (I realize that it might be a little weird that I’m responding to my own prompt, but there you go.)

    I’m interested in a couple of questions–which of course spawn more:

    – How do we confront issues of race/class/gender/etc. in our classroom settings and professional conversations so that people can hear what everyone is saying?

    – What if we teach in a homogeneous setting?

    We just convened a video hangout with Janelle Bence, an NWP teacher from Texas who’s taught in a couple of starkly contrasting contexts. In her first school, her students were primarily ELLs who were on free-and-reduced lunch. In her current setting, she works with mostly white, affluent students in a project-based learning school with lots of resources in the way of technology. (All kids get a MacBook Air that’s fully loaded with the creative suite.)

    In both contexts, however, she’s intentionally woven issues of social justice, privilege, access, equity, religion, tolerance, race, etc., into her teaching. She talked about some really compelling assignments and practical methods she’s used to do this, but what our conversation with her made clear to me is that


    That place may be one more racially, socioeconomically, politically, religiously, or ideologically homogenous (at least on the surface), one where you think the parents wouldn’t stand for this or see this teaching approach as a way to indoctrinate their kids. Or it may be a place where you worry that your students won’t have the language, social, or thinking skills or the life experiences do deal with complex topics in complex ways. Or it may be a place where you feel the curriculum is so constrained with required texts and assignments that you see no room for innovation in this vein.

    Janelle, however, talked about the importance of doing this work as well as offering some really practical methods and assignments for making it actionable. The students in her first school, for instance, studied the Declaration of Independence (required) and the Declaration of Human Rights, after which she had them write a Declaration of Rights to Education that they subsequently shared with the principal who was incredibly impressed with the kids’ views and how they expressed them. In her current school, where she is required to teach texts like Romeo and Juliet, she used driving questions related to the fine line that exists between love and hate to link those required texts with current issues that have more explicit implications related to how/why hate crimes are committed (if I recall).

    Anyway, my point is that Janelle and her colleagues have figured how to craft carefully worded driving questions that function as lenses for helping her students view and create texts critically. Those questions and the methods she and her students use to address them (e.g., using technology to create texts) leave little room for objection. Is it important, for instance, that we as humans work to develop skills of empathy and tolerance? As she points out, it’s hard for a parent or students to say, “Well, those things aren’t important.”

    All of this is in turn making me think about finding various areas that a range of stakeholders value and using these as entry points to do complex, controversial, and crucial work with students that has real-world impact–questions like:
    * What do students value?
    * What do parents value? (e.g., helping their kids develop high-level technology skills)
    * What does the curriculum/standards value?
    * What do administrators value?
    Whatever the answers to the question, if we can demonstrate that our teaching approach results in advantages to students, I think we have entry points to do work that might at first glance appear impossible in our teaching. This work will look different depending on our teaching contexts, but…


  4. Tara says:

    I keep coming back to the question “How do we help students become aware of the opportunities that privilege provides?” The idea that some privilege is a result of social circumstances rather than personal effort and hard work alone is new to many students and not widely accepted within American society. Without having students shut down or be made to feel guilty, I want to help erase the invisibility of privileged social categories and the advantages they offer. I have often found that diverse and open classrooms help to bring greater awareness to this issue, particularly as students begin to share their own unique lived experiences.

    This brings me to the second important question of “How do we invite minority students to share an alternative point of view without making them feel as if they have to act as spokespersons for an entire group of people?” This is particularly tricky when teaching in a setting where there is little diversity. The richness of learning that comes from peers who voice experiences from different backgrounds is undeniable, yet tension may arise when drawing attention to opportunities that all but a few in the classroom share.

    • blogessor says:

      I want to keep thinking about your first comment, too. I want to look back at Allan Johnson’s work around not letting yourself off the hook (as a person with privilege) and then also using your power for good, as you said in discussion today. How can we help students/colleagues become aware of systemic inequalities without personalizing them by saying/thinking things like, “Yes, I realize that the world is unfair, but I’m a good person, so why should I be made to feel guilty about my privilege?”?

  5. msstromain says:

    In my AP Literature course I begin the year encouraging my students to embrace the ambiguity with the texts we study. One of the questions that came up today got me thinking about how I might push my students to do this deeply and with relevance to the world around them. Considering that question–“How do we help students (and really our society) work through difficult issues and consider the logic of perspectives they don’t agree with?”–I’m compelled to push myself as teacher to welcome the challenge of trying to answer this question in my classroom. Collin reminded us of one of Aristotle’s philosophies on thinking/conversing: “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” My students (and I) need to be reminded of this–often. Listen to news radio, watch network/cable news, open your Twitter feed, read a comment on YouTube, listen to conversations in the halls at school– and you’ll sometimes hear uncivil discussions rooted in differences in opinion. So, a goal for next year will be to discover how I can introduce/re-introduce tools to students to facilitate discussions that involve differing perspectives.

    • blogessor says:

      Do you have ideas about how to assemble reputable resources/texts that explore a range of issues on a topic? (By “reputable,” I mean not just internet blasts like you’d find in anonymous comments.) I’m also sucked into the “show-both-sides-of-an-issue” binary when most of the times it’s not that simple and there are a range of perspectives on a complex topic. You’re making me want to challenge myself to show that range.

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