Cornelius Minor: Identifying Won’t Learn and Can’t Learn

Cornelius Image podcastingWhat do you do about the student in your class who doesn't like you? On today’s podcast, we’re continuing our series of conversations with Cornelius Minor. In his classroom, he’s facing the question: how do I recognize what the difference is between “can’t learn” and “won’t learn” ? 

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.  

As Cornelius says, we all have students who consume our thoughts and keep us up at night. For Cornelius, this student, who we’ll call “Daniel,” is that worry. And the reason they're at odds seems so simple, but goes much deeper. Cornelius explains more here:

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Cornelius:    One of the things that's so powerful about being a teacher, or I guess, so universal, about being a teacher is we all have these students that we think about and can't stop thinking about. Every teacher, I think, if I asked them, they have that one kid that keeps them up late at night, and for me it's Daniel. I've been really grappling with him all week. Daniel's this really interesting kid. I don't know him that well. I see him twice weekly for reading intervention and one interesting thing about Daniel is he's the kid that has just decided that he's not going to learn from me.
    And I know how to spot those kids. I've been seeing those kids my entire career, but the thing that makes Daniel different is his opposition to me isn't violent.

Brett:  So, this isn't opposition to what you're teaching or to other classes. You have learned that this is opposition directed specifically at you.

Cornelius:    Oh yeah, it's personal It's personal. I can kind of laugh about it now, but it's an uncomfortable laughter because you don't want to feel like there's a kid that doesn't like you. So, it's really forced me to confront it and I've had to be braver than I've ever been. I've had to talk to him about it because again, Daniel isn't the kind of kid that's going to break rules. He's not the kind of kid that's going to leave class or cut class altogether. So, there he sits every day twice a week, not doing what I want him to do.

Brett:    How do you enter a conversation like that?

Cornelius:    There's really no graceful way to enter it. You just kinda of have to slide into the door when you catch an opening, and that's how it was with Daniel. I got a chance to sit with him this week and one of the things that I had mentioned to him, I was like, "Daniel, you know, you're totally capable of doing this stuff. I see you in all your other classes. I see you in after-school. Why is it that you shut down here?" And of course my first three attempts to talk to him were met with silence. And it wasn't-
Brett:    So, he wouldn't even respond to you?

Cornelius:    He wouldn't even respond. Again, never disrespectful, but just like,"I'm not talking to you dude." And it would be really interesting, because I'd catch him in conversation with another kid, and I'd slide into the door hoping that, "Okay, he's already talking to another kid, maybe he'll talk to me." Silence. I didn't have an "in" until the fourth conversation. I think Daniel just noticed that I wasn't going away. So, I guess to answer your question, "How does one start that conversation?" — with persistence, and where it just felt like I was getting turned down for a date over and over and over and over again. But finally, on the fourth attempt when I talked to Daniel, one of the things that he told me, and he didn't answer my questions directly, he just started storytelling.
    He was just like, "Well, Mr. Minor, I don't have a lot of time. I've got three younger brothers. All of them are in elementary school." Daniel's a seventh-grader, all of them are in elementary school. "As soon as school's over, I got to run to school, pick up one brother, get him home and get the other brother after school, make sure the other brother has something to eat." So, he's juggling three kids and I'm thinking like, "I am a teacher and I'm struggling to juggle two kids; my own two children." Here's a 13-year-old who's juggling three kids until 6 o'clock every night, and as we talked there was this clear devotion to his family. I could hear it. It was palatable. I just kept thinking about, "Okay, so a kid this responsible, why is this choosing to not learn from me?
    I've done everything I can to be a good teacher. I've read all the books, I've been to all the PD, so why is it that this responsible kid who clearly wants to do well in life, has chosen to not learn from me?" I just listened to him talk. I thought about my class and I thought about the rules and the structure of my class. Daniel said one word that caused me to think. He said, "homework," and then it struck me. At some point early this year, I gave the talk that all teachers give, and I had said to the class that, "You know class, if you're not doing your homework after school, your priorities are in the wrong place." And in that moment, I realized that I had built this vision of success for the classroom, and in that vision of success I had excluded Daniel. Where here's a kid who totally wants to do well, but His priorities are in another place after school. I was like, "Oh my gosh." He didn't help me to come to that understanding but it hit me in that moment and I had to do something about it. I think the scary thing about teaching is we want the best for kids. We want the best for all kids, but sometimes through our innocuous actions we're exclusive. I had said this statement out of pure, good intentions for kids-

Brett:    Right. You weren't trying to hurt his feelings.

Cornelius:    Exactly. Exactly. So, I asked him … I was just like, "I noticed that you do a lot after school with your brothers and I realized that I said something that might've upset you a few weeks ago. Is it that?" He didn't even answer "Yes," he just nodded.

Brett:    Oh wow.

Cornelius:    So, we had this moment where he's saying, "Yeah, you totally offended me," and so, I completely understand why he had chosen not to learn from me and why he had shut down; because here I am, this teacher with great intentions, and I disrespected his lifestyle in a most personal way. Here's a kid who loves his three brothers, who takes his responsibility seriously of getting them to and from school, making their snack, doing their after school, and I told him that, "If you're not doing your homework your priorities are in the wrong place." So, my vision of success was in direct competition with his love for his brothers.

Brett:    When you have that moment, where you realize there's this element of trust that you have to rebuild with him, where do you go from there? How do you build that back?

Cornelius:    I think that's the eternal question that we ask ourselves as teachers. One question that I've been grappling with, to kind of extend that one, is this idea of what is the difference between can't learn and won't learn? 'Cause here's a kid, Daniel, who if you were to casually glance across the classroom and see him not engage with me and not engage with my content, you would assume that Daniel can't learn. But actually Daniel's not learning, in the context of my classroom, was a conscious choice and that was a choice that he made in self-defense. So, actually, that was the most smart thing; that someone is attacking the way that you live your life and so you decide to not learn from that person or you decide to not ally with that person. In a world of smarts and self-preservation, Daniel had done the most honorable thing.
    But then, in a world that values academics, we only know how to see that as refusal to learn or he can't learn. So, I've really been trying to draw a line between, do I as a pedagogue, know the difference between a kid that can't learn and a kid that just refuses to learn? Because the two are not the same and I think that the kid who refuses to learn, is actually exercising a great degree of intelligence. For me, it started with an apology, and I think the hard realization in that is that I had done something that attacked Daniel at his most fundamental level — his love for his brothers. So, my apology really is the beginning of a journey; like that. That's the uncomfortable part about even doing this podcast; that I'm still not in a place with him where it's all perfect yet.

Brett:    This is still very fresh. You've just had this conversation with him, and you're in a place where you've had that initial apology but now, what's next?

Cornelius:    Now I've got to do the work. And I think that that's the beautiful thing about being a teacher; we've got many, many days in the school year and so, every day I show up has to be a day where I not only talk about my loyalty to Daniel but that I demonstrate it. Both in words and in actions.

Brett:    What do those actions look like?

Cornelius:    I think for me, I've had to really explore first what are the reasons that might cause a kid like Daniel to shut down. That's been really hard for me to think about, but then I've kind of … I think in my mind, got it down to a few things. I think I'm … Of course Daniel shut down because he felt personally attacked. So, when I think about the kids in my classroom who would choose to not learn, I ask myself, "Have I done anything? Has this institution done anything that causes kids to feel personally attacked?" Also, I feel like kids might shut down or might choose to shut down whenever they feel some kind of institutional discomfort. 
    That discomfort might be from me and my colleagues, that discomfort might be from peers, but I have to ask, "Is there a source in the school of some kind of institutional discomfort?" Then, once I figure those two things out, then I get to decide what I'm going to do about it. In the case of Daniel, and I think in the case of most students, I've got to, of course, own the personal attack and work to remedy it. So, in my innocuous way, talking about homework really is not okay in the world of a kid like Daniel. So, how do I be more inclusive? I think that that apology has to start with a level of demonstrated inclusivity, and then I have to actively be removing institutional barriers for kids.
    Once I find wherever that institutional discomfort is, if it's in my homework policy or if it's in the way that kids sit together and the way that I group them, then I've got to remove those barriers immediately. And the removal of those barriers has to be public and intentional. The kids have to know that. "Hey, this thing exists in this classroom, and in my case, this homework policy exists in this classroom, and for some of you that homework policy is not okay so I'm changing it." A kid like Daniel has to hear my apology but then see me publicly changing the thing that impacts him adversely. 
    I think that's not … I'm not going to win him over tomorrow, and I think that that's the thing. I think a lot of times I go to teacher PD or I read teacher books and I feel like, "Okay, if I do this thing, I'm going to win Daniel tomorrow." I think the reality of it is that, you can do one thing to lose it but then you got to build it back up. So, in many ways it is a relationship. That's like when you mess up in a relationship, you apologize but then you work. But we as teachers are in a lucky position because we have opportunities every day to do the work, which is really beautiful.

Brett:    Well, and you were curious, as you always are.

Cornelius:    Yes, yes.

Brett:    So, you're putting the invite out there. You're saying if anybody's listening to this, if another teacher's listening to this and maybe has a piece of advice, you would encourage them to tweet you with some ideas?

Cornelius:    That would be amazing. I think this is a thing that we as teachers can suffer through in silence; that no one really wants to talk about the kid in your class that doesn't like you. Or, we always make it about the kid. We're like, "Well, that kid cut class," or, "That kid showed up five minutes early or five minutes late," but we never want to make it about us; "Here's what I did that might have set that kid off. "Help me work through this." I think one of the things that I'm really on about right now is, really thinking about that, because those are the kids who end up getting less from our classes.

Brett:    What is the takeaway that we can learn from this? That we could look into ourselves … 'Cause it's not easy to look at ourselves and identify that. So, what did you go through that led you to the place that you went, "No, this is me. This isn't anything else. This is on me"?

Cornelius:    I think that as teachers we're lucky because we're humans first. All of us are in relationships outside of school and I think that teachers are a really beautiful kind of people, a really beautiful breed of people, because in our relationships in life we know how to take ownership. We know how to apologize. We know how to work through difficulty, but sometimes our teaching … where we're most vulnerable. That's where it gets hard. So, for me, it's been an active, aggressive transfer.
    Grant Wiggins talks a lot about transfer, like … "How do I take this skill that I know in one area of my life and apply to this other area of my life?" So, in teacher terms, I've really … One thing I believe is that, as teachers we already have the answers. It's just a matter of creative transfer. So, I've really been thinking about, "Yeah, where are the areas in my life where I've totally messed it up?" I really apply what I've learned from those situations to the work I'm doing with kids like Daniel.


Cornelius is genuine in his request for feedback from you. He’d love to know your thoughts. You can follow Cornelius on Twitter as @MisterMinor and continue this conversation. Be sure to follow our other podcasts with him as well here.

One thought on “Cornelius Minor: Identifying Won’t Learn and Can’t Learn

  1. Irene Pierides

    I loved this! It's easy to put it on the child when we're not reaching him/her. It takes 'teacher bravery' to ask the child, really listen, and then look within.  First podcast for me…new @MisterMinor fan! @irene_pierides

    Reply

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