When we think about engagement we almost immediately focus on the student who won’t talk or just doesn't engage. But what about the student who is over engaged? On today’s podcast we’re continuing our series of conversations with Cornelius Minor. Today we’re talking about a student he has nicknamed “Prez” short for president of the class.
Mr. Minor 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.
Cornelius says we need to use our teacher superpowers of engagement even with students like Prez, who Cornelius says, tends to take all of the space in the room. Here’s Cornelius with more on Prez.
See below for a full transcript:
Cornelius: Oh my gosh, Prez. Just to kind of talk about Prez, I gotta rewind a little bit and talk about why his name is, Prez is short for President. I had to make him the president of the class, just 'cuz, so many things. But Prez's name is actually David, and one thing you gotta know about Brooklyn, New York, is that Brooklyn, New York, tough guy persona is like a thing. Kids spend a lot of time grooming their inner tough guy. For a kid like David, the name David just doesn't sell tough Brooklyn kid. So I've watched him over these last two years, trying to invent his tough guy persona, but it always comes back to David.
So one of the things that has happened with him, he's the kinda kid, he's all in. So many people they talk to me, they ask me, like, "Oh, I've got this kid who won't talk, or I've got this kid who won't do homework." But David is not that kid. When you talk to me about David, people are like, "How do we get David to calm down and give other people some oxygen?" And that, to me, that's a question of engagement. You know, you use your kind of teacher super power of engagement to bring out the quiet kids, but then you use your power of engagement to kind of democratize the space for those kids who are like all in, like Prez.
My mind goes to this one moment where I was doing this thing on inference, and it's always inference. I feel like inference is the teacher Achilles' heel. I was doing this thing on inference, and it was all about making wild guesses, you know. I was trying to encourage the kids to not hold back on their guesses. You know, you want to make these cool theories, and you want to test out your theories in your book. And man, when I said, "wild guess," he was like, "I got this."
So we were reading, and it was this innocuous story, like Paper Bag Princess. It's the one every workshop classroom does Paper Bag Princess. I'm like, how can this fail? Prez will find a way. So he's making these ridiculous guesses, and I'm like, "Prez, you're guessing about like, dinosaurs and spaceships. We're in medieval times, dude." He's like, "Yeah, you told me no theory could be wrong. Just allow me to test it out."
One of the things is, Prez got going, and people started laughing at his guesses, and right away again, I knew that okay, this is a space that he's beginning to occupy fully. And he shares this space with 31 other kids, so I've gotta be able to give it to other kids. So I spent a lot of time thinking, wow, what can I do for a kid like Prez? What can I do for the kids like Prez in every classroom, who seem to monopolize the air time in that space?
For me, again it comes down to engagement. And there are ways that I can turn the volume up on certain kids in the classroom, and I've been thinking, we haven't talked much as teachers about ways that we turn the volume down. So I've been thinking a lot about turning the volume down. One big thing that comes to mind, and I've been using this over and over with Prez, is one way to turn the volume down but still respect his enthusiasm, you know-
Brett: Because you still want to honor his voice.
Cornelius: Yeah, and his voice is really, really important. But I also want to make sure that voice sits alongside the 31 other voices in the classroom.
Brett: Yeah. How do you do that without then making, going the complete opposite direction, and making him unengaged.
Cornelius: That's the thing, because in communities like mine, and I'm sure as I travel across America, one of the things that we never want to do is, we never want to silence kids. When you think about, and we've been doing a lot of thinking these recent weeks about marginalized people, or oppressed groups of people. Often people will say, "Oh, you know, African Americans," or "Oh, you know, Latinos or Asians or gay kids." Actually as I look across America, for me, the group of people that's most silenced is children.
Cornelius: So I always want to be amplifying their voices. So for a kid like Prez, I want to give those kids like jobs or roles. When we think about the voices that speak the loudest in our society, those voices all belong to people with very specific and clearly defined roles. So I've been thinking, one engagement tool in the classroom is that, and we're well versed at giving kids, "Oh, you're the line leader or you're the this." So I've been thinking, what are the rhetorical roles that are gonna exist in the classroom? And what are the community building roles that are gonna exist in the classroom?
So that's actually how he became Prez. He's the president. His job, as president, you gotta protect your people, man. So there's 31 other kids in this class, and they're your people. I'm going to be talking to your people for 7 minutes a day during my mini lesson, and there are gonna be people in your country, Prez, that don't understand me. So it's gonna be your job to make sure that they do understand me. So if I'm ever saying a thing or doing a thing that doesn't resonate with your people, you gotta let me know.
So that's kind of an invitation to Prez, that he gets to jump in at any time and be like, "Yo, your lesson right now, is missing all my friends over here."
Cornelius: So he can still be his active self, and in a really public way, he's giving me feedback.
Cornelius: And one of the things I'm always thinking about is, I'm a workshop teacher, so this idea of demonstration is not new to me, that you demonstrate. But then I also think about the idea of modeling.
Cornelius: I don't just show you the writing, but I model the person, the character, the kind of man I want you to be, the kind of person I want you to be. So that's really exciting that kids get to see me taking feedback from Prez. It's really actually exciting, because again like everything, he takes that role very seriously. First time he gave me feedback, he like wrote it on a Post-it note and handed it to me, and kind of like slid it over to me. And I'm like, "No, you can say it." He's like, "Well, every time the principal has something bad to say to you, he writes it on a Post-it note." I'm like, "How did you know that?!" You know?
Brett: He's really observant!
Cornelius: He's like, "I know that, because you get a lot of Post-it notes." I'm like, "Oh my God." And so, yeah. But he's gotten really good at doing that. What's funny is, it's doing the work that I wanted it to do, because not just with me now, but he's going around the classroom giving people feedback. He's really grown into that role. Where kids are doing things in the corner, and goes over and he's like, "Let me slide you a Post-it." So just kinda watching him slide Post-its around the room, again, has done something really cool to kinda democratize his voice, and kinda put it in a lane, so that other voices can exist. But then it's also amplified his leadership. It's amplified his personality. That really excites me.
So you have this kid, David, who wants to be a tough guy, and we can use engagement techniques to turn him into Prez. I think that especially in today's political climate, that a kid gets used to being called a president, is really important to me, too.
Brett: So if a teacher hears this, and maybe they're thinking about a student that is very much like Prez in their classroom. But their perception of that student might be different. They might see that student as disruptive. How would you speak to that teacher to say, "Here's what you can do to take that and turn it into a more positive experience, but also work with it? How could we turn that around?
Cornelius: I'm a huge lover of art. I live in New York City, so I spend a lot of time in museums looking at art. One of the things that strikes me is this idea of perspective. That if you stand on one side of the gallery, Starry Night looks one way, but if you stand on the different side of the gallery, it looks completely different. So I always want to ask teachers, just stand on the other side of the gallery.
That you see a kid like Prez and he's disruptive, and he's always interrupting you, and he's always saying stuff. My first urge is to silence. So one of the things that I've been practicing is something that I learned in sports, this idea that you want to calm yourself, center yourself before you make an attempt at a thing. So just, my advice to teachers would be almost three steps.
Whenever Prez is being Prez, because he's gonna do that, the first thing is I calm myself, center myself, and I recognize that it's not about me. He's not attacking me. That's just what he does, man. He talks and he interrupts. So calm myself, center myself.
The second thing is then, try to stand on a different side of the gallery. So what I saw as an interruption, what might he be trying to do? He's trying to contribute. He's trying to clarify. He's trying to question. He's trying to support. And those are all high level critical thinking skills that we want to teach kids.
Cornelius: What's funny is the kids who are doing the most critical thinking, often do it in ways that feel abusive toward us.
Cornelius: Because they're not good at it yet.
Cornelius: It's kind of like, I know this is silly. Old Disney movies, I spend a lot of time watching old Disney movies, because I can't think after so much lesson planning. I don't know if you remember, but that old movie, the one with the fox who was Robin Hood, and he goes around giving all the animals presents, and he gave one of the little animals in one scene, he gave one of these little animals a bow and arrow. And I'm like, "You just gave a little kid a weapon." And in many ways, when we teach critical thinking, that's what it is. We just gave a little kid a weapon. When we think about the progress we want to make as a society. When we think about all the things that we want to fix in the world. Critical thinking is a weapon, and when you give a kid a weapon, you gotta teach them how to use it responsibly.
Cornelius: I think for kids like Prez who learn how to question, what happens is he shows up to class, and he starts using the weapon, and it hurts because I'm the teacher. So he's interrupting me. I'm like, "Okay, he's using the weapon that I taught him to use. Now I just gotta teach him to use it responsibly." So it's that idea of yeah, standing on the different side of the gallery means recognizing he's actually being the kid that I taught him to be, or that I am teaching him to be. He just can't quite use it responsibly yet.
Brett: So how do you then take that work with Prez, and get the other students to sort of join him in that engagement?
Cornelius: Several things. I think one thing is first of all, making it visible. So always thinking that every time Prez corrects me or every time Prez helps me to understand that certain students in the classroom aren't understanding me, then one of the things that I want to do is, I don't always want to call out Prez, but I want to thank him. "Thanks, I needed to know that." Then I want to make it visible how I am changing in front of them, to accommodate his request.
Because what happens is, kids see the power in that, and they start doing it. They're like that. A kid asked my teacher a question in this way, and my teacher changed as a result.
Brett: That's powerful.
Cornelius: When I think about why kids act out, they act out because their conditions are uncomfortable. That's why we all act out. If my couch is uncomfortable, I'm gonna act weird. That's why we all act out. So all kids are trying to do when they act out, is they're trying to create more comfortable conditions. Sometimes when I think about for example, kids like the entropy of the playground. That's comforting for some kids. So if my classroom where I'm teaching verbs today, is uncomfortable, what they're gonna try to do is, they're gonna try to disrupt it. Because that disruptive thing that they do on the playground, that's comfortable, that's familiar. Verbs are not familiar right now, so I'm gonna do the thing that is familiar, so that I'm comfortable.
Getting kids to see that if a classmate did it in this way, and it was effective, I can do it in this way, and it will be effective. So I think the big thing for teachers is how we respond. So not necessarily what we say, because I think so many times we're apt to say, "Oh, don't do that, or don't talk to me that way."
Cornelius: So I want to in a very clearly way, model an appropriate response, and have kids see that if I do a thing this way, he'll not only hear me, but he will change his behavior accordingly. Again, this idea that a classroom is give and take. I think a lot about emotional intelligence, and this idea that we often ask kids to regulate their emotions. But in a shared society, or in a shared ecosystem like a classroom, there's no such thing as singular emotional regulation. It's more emotional co-regulation, where we're all kind of doing this together. So wanting to be able to do that really well with kids.