Feedback can sneak up on you in the most unlikely of places. For Cornelius Minor, it came from a former student at a laundromat. In our continuing series of conversations with Cornelius Minor we're talking about the importance of feedback and love in the classroom.
Cornelius is a frequent keynote speaker and Lead Staff Developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project in New York where he works with teachers, school leaders, and communities to support literacy reform in cities. In his work, Cornelius not only draws on his years teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with kids. He’s also currently writing his first book for Heinemann.
On a recent Saturday morning, Cornelius bumped into a former student while doing his laundry. As Cornelius explains, the meeting quickly became a lesson on feedback and love.
Full transcript below:
Cornelius: I ran into this kid, Nate, in the laundromat. If you know anything about Brooklyn, none of us have washer/dryer in our apartments. All of Brooklyn goes to the laundromat on Saturday morning, and you're just hanging out.
Nate comes in, and Nate, he's like, "Yo. It's Minor." He ran over to me, and he said in his excited, Nate way, he was like … by the way, Nate's in his 20s, so it's been a while. He comes in, and he's like, "You know, man … I just want to tell you, man. I love you and I love what you did in the class."
I'm thinking to myself … if you can imagine, this kid is tattooed up, he's tough guy, and Nate wasn't the kind of kid then that talked about love, and he certainly didn't look like the kind of kid now that would be in a laundromat talking about love, and so it really struck me when he used the work love.
I'm like, "Well, thanks. I'm here waiting on my socks, so if you want to hang out, we can hang out, because I got 42 minutes left on the dryer." He's like, "Let me tell you what I loved about your class." He's just like, "What I loved about your class is when I came in, you were teaching something, and you were teaching this way where you would name the things, and you would have us try the things, and when I came in and it didn't work for me, you changed it."
That got me thinking. I was like, "Woah." Nate, the way he read love wasn't emotional. The way that Nate felt love was … "This guy needed to do a thing for me, and he did it." That just got me thinking, I was like, "So, how am I loving the kids I'm with now? How am I loving the teachers that I'm with now? What does love look like? Especially if I only got 42 minutes."
I was like, "Well, I don't know the answer to that question, but maybe Nate knows." I asked him to keep talking, and Nate got real specific with the things that I did 10 years ago made him feel loved. Going back to that one thing, he was just like, "Yeah. That you were always willing to change the class if it would help me to learn better."
He's like, "We saw you doing that, and sometimes it was crazy, and sometimes we didn't know why you changed it, but after a while, I knew that you must have changed it for some kid, or for one of us." I think the first way that we communicate love in any classroom space is that kids need to know that if what I'm doing aint working, that I'm willing to change it.
That idea of flexibility, that this curriculum is not written in stone, it's malleable like clay. This curriculum will take the shape of the container that I put it in, is really, really important.
Nate went on to talk about … he was just like, "You know, you were really funny. You used to tell jokes, but then you knew when it was time to get serious. You also knew when it was time to listen to us." As he kept talking, I realized that the second thing that really qualified love for Nate was that love is not just in the what I teach, and the passion that I bring to it, but it's in my positionality and the rapport that I build with students.
That's something that we know, but then to hear a kid say that, "Yeah. The way that you talked to us, the way that you helped us to see you and see the content, I knew that you loved me." That's a cool thing. One of the things that I'm always thinking about now that I work with teachers, is what specifically does a teacher have to do to achieve that kind of rapport?
This is all Nate. This is not me. Again, I'm sitting waiting on my socks, and so I'm just asking this dude to tell me. One of the things that he said was that "you always asked us how we were doing, or you always asked us about our lives, and then you would bring it back up later on-
Brett: Oh, wow.
Cornelius: … or if a lesson had a certain part to it, you would talk about how 'Oh. This part of the lesson, it's Nate's part of the lesson.' You would name parts of the lesson after us if you knew that we would be good at that part. Or you would name parts of the strategy after us."
I do remember. There would be certain charts in the room and it would be Nate's chart, or Sam's chart. He's like, "Why'd you do that?" I'm like, "Well, cause I knew that would be a strategy that worked for you, so I'd put your name on it."
He's just like, just that idea of ownership. Another thing that teachers can do really specifically to really get at that rapport, that positionality, is to ask the community to invest in the classroom. He was just like, "You always used to ask us what we wanted in the classroom." He brought back up … I didn't even remember I had this … I'm a huge music fan, all the kids, of course, love music and I have snobbish taste in hip-hop. The kids, they like whatever's on the radio, but my tastes are more refined.
He was just like, "But you would put up the posters that we wanted." He was like, "I remember you had all your grown up hip-hop groups, but then you put up …" There was this idea that they got to bring parts of themselves to the community in a very physical way, that the poster of the group that I like is gonna go next to the chart that I'm gonna use for writing. He's like, "Yeah. That's really, really important."
Those little things … there's so much we could be talking about, building rapport forever, but he's like, "Yeah. Those little things really spoke to me." What's interesting is that he had so much to say about love. He talked about teaching, and it's funny to hear a non-teacher who had you as a teacher talk about teaching. He tried his best. He was like, "You used to talk like this," or "You used to say things like this."
We're all in the laundromat, and of course, now everybody's looking, and I'm trying to discreetly take my underwear out of the dryer without Nate seeing it. All of this is happening around us, but as he's talking about teaching, he was just like, "Your teaching is really clear." He cited some specific lessons, but he was like, "I always felt like I knew what you were trying to say, and it never felt like you were trying to kill me with your words, or kill me with [inaudible 00:05:35]."
This idea that yeah, I may be talking about a complicated thing like theme, or I might be talking about a thing like symbolism, but how do I talk about it in a way where it doesn't feel to kids like I'm trying to kill them with my words?
Cornelius: We've been talking … one of the things that keeps coming up is this idea that it's not necessarily what we say that kids take away, but it's how we make them feel… that they take away. I can't imagine a kid sitting in a classroom and feeling like, "The teacher's trying to kill me with their words." Just that reference to language as possible violence really scared me. I was really happy to hear Nate say that, "Yeah. Your words were always simple, and clear, and I understood them, and you would help me to understand."
Then I go back to, "Well, what does clarity mean for a teacher every day?" if I'm trying to do that, and I think, for me, clarity means showing. That I can't just say a thing, that I got to show it. Anytime I am teaching a kid something, I want to make sure that I'm demonstrating that thing in front of them, where I'm going to make sure that I'm holding it, and I give them an opportunity to hold whatever it is, or I'm giving them an opportunity to try the concept.
Then that kind of clarity also leads me to Wiggins' idea of transference … that again, I've got to make sure that whatever I teach sticks to the kid. I can teach a thing and watch a kid do a thing, and then change the context, and then watch a kid do the thing again in a different context, just to ensure that that transference happens. That little extra teacher step that like, "Yeah. I love you because I'm clear, and because I want to make sure that what I have taught you, you can do it in multiple contexts.
I think, and I don't know if Nate would ever say this, but I think one of the things that happens is that kids lose trust in our teaching, because when they try it in different contexts that are not the classroom, it doesn't work.
It's one thing to teach in a sanitized environment like a classroom, but then when I got to take this writing strategy on the road, or when I got to take this reading strategy on the road, if it fails me, that erodes the trust I have in my teacher. Then I've got to be able to say, in the classroom, while we're in this safe, sanitized environment, I'm going to teach you how to do this thing safely, and then I'm gonna mess around with the context and introduce some trouble, and see if you can do it again while there's trouble present.
It's really speaking to kids in those clear ways. I think that can go miles in a classroom. The last thing that really stuck with me from what Nate said, and this is the thing that I continue to think about right now … I'm actually about to start a new unit with a group of teachers and some students, and Nate talked about the idea of feedback. He didn't name it as feedback, but he's like, "Man, you used to talk to us. Remember when you used to come to the desk and talk to us?" I'm like, "Yeah. I remember when I used to do that."
It's just funny that he remembers my conferences in that way. "Remember when you used to come to the desk and talk to us?" The idea that … so many times, we conflate feedback and grading, and those two are not the same.
Brett: That's true.
Cornelius: That me, marking with my pen at the top of your notebook, or at the top of your page, doesn't mean that I've given you feedback. That the work we ask kids to do requires so much public sacrifice, that my feedback has to match that emotional effort. It can't just be a number scrawled across the top of a page.
I've been thinking a lot about how I put feedback in conversations, and then I figure out how to record those conversations, either through conferring notes or use of technology. I think if a teacher is to communicate love in 42 minutes, one of the ways that we gotta do that is by embracing feedback. Embracing feedback that feels social, and connected to the kid, and specific, and timely.
I'm thinking about … "Nate, the way that you did this thing right here, where you added all of these cool noticings about the character's emotional state, you just noticed when he switched feelings after his mom left. That attention to detail really makes you a strong reader, but beyond that, I now know why people love you so much, because it probably makes you a strong friend."
Brett: Do you think that feedback … we need to work on that as teachers, amongst each other first, so we can get ourselves to a good place where we're doing better with our own feedback, so that we can do better giving it to our students?
Cornelius: Sure. One of the things that every time people think about should we do this thing as teachers before, an immediate before. I think sometimes we get caught up in the preparation as teachers, where I am certainly a member of the cult of preparation, where it's much easier to prepare for a thing than to actually do the thing. I want to make sure that if we prepare, we practice feedback, that we do it two minutes before class starts, and then we go do it, we go try it.
I don't want to ever sit in a staff meeting, or in professional development, where I'm practicing feedback that I never deliver. If I'm in professional development, I'm practicing feedback, I want to be able to give the feedback next period. Or if I'm in professional development, and I'm practicing feedback after school, I want to be able to give the feedback tomorrow morning so that the turnaround is really quick.
I often think about … I'm getting, trying to get good at so much stuff right now. I think as I grow older, I see more. I'm realizing that my teaching has to shift as a result of what I see. That I practice a thing, and then sometimes I invite other people to come see me. Not even in a formal kind of way, but like, "Hey, Brett. You're in the building today, can you just come through? I just need you for five minutes. I want you to watch me do this thing. I think it might be cool."
Just having that kind of rapport, that's really helped me to build my love skillset, I guess. When I'm thinking about the things that communicate love, according to Nate, it's this understanding that we can build classroom experiences around children. This idea that we can do really deliberate relationship building, the notion that we might engage in really clear and transferrable teaching, and then finally that idea of feedback.
If I were to take those four things, that could be a totally cool agenda for practice. That I might take those four things, and I might study them in PD really fast, and then go do it, or I might invite a few friends over, and then do it in a classroom.
One of the things I've been doing with my iPhone is … I know this is crazy, but I've just been videotaping myself. I go right into selfie mode and I do a thing, and then I videotape myself, and I just watch it. I let kids know what I'm doing. I think kids really respect when their teacher is trying to get better.
There was one day where I had a staff developer come in and watch me teach, and she was giving me live feedback, and I was really embarrassed at first, cause I was like, "Oh, man. The kids are gonna see that I'm getting feedback from my friend, and they're gonna think less of me."
As soon as she left, they were like, "You're trying to get better for us?" I thought that that was a really cool way to see it, that they all were like honored… that I was trying to get better for them, and that's exactly what we want to do. Yeah, loving people is messy. It's messy outside of school, it's messy in 42 minutes, but I think those four things, or at least Nate thinks that those four things are the things that really stuck.
Brett: I think Nate might have a future as a teacher.
Cornelius: Possibly. I'll tell him next Saturday. Yeah.