Monthly Archives: May 2017

The most important thing

Clint Smith, a writer and teacher, uses poetry to help students understand that digging into uncertainty can be just as important as finding solutions — an unfamiliar concept for many young people.

We asked Smith, a Harvard Graduate School of Education Ph.D. candidate, to read one of his poems with us — a selection from his debut collection Counting Descent. We also asked him to talk about how he approaches poetry in the classroom and as a writer. Watch the video here, and read excerpts from our longer interview below.

“Poetry doesn’t mean you need to have the answers.”
“I think that so often kids can feel paralyzed by writing because it feels like they have to know something, that there has to be some level of sanctimony, and that they have to have solutions or ideas to offer the world or their teacher or their peers. But poetry doesn’t mean you need to have the answers. It simply allows you to wrestle with the questions.”

“One of the first things I seek to do . . .”
“There can sometimes be this tacit, even unconscious presumption that spoken word is lower on the literary hierarchy than that of other more ‘traditional’ poetry. One of the first things I seek to do when I come into the classroom is seek to disabuse students of that notion. It wasn’t until the advent of the printing press in the mid-15th century in the west that poetry was even considered something to be written down, or something to be received in that sort of aesthetic.

“You are already a poet.”
“I tell kids, ‘So much of what you consume now, whether it’s hip hop or whether it’s other forms of oral performative storytelling, comes out of the oral tradition of poetry at its root. You are already a poet in many ways.’ And I think once that cage that they have in their minds around how they define poetry is unlocked, it opens up room for them to think of themselves as writers and as poets. It gives them an access point. They realize poetry isn’t something that is done by this type of caricatured white man sitting by a fire in the 15th century. It is instead something that is living and breathing and exists all around them already.”

“An antiquated and largely false notion . . .”
“I think there’s an antiquated and largely false notion that people have that every poem should be about the trees and the flowers. And that’s fine — I think there’s lots to write about trees and flowers — but I think writing about those things simply because you think you shouldn’t be writing about other things in your life is a problem.”

“Honest and urgent and deeply committed.”
“The work of the artist has never been more urgent than it is in our new political era. We are entering a phase in our history which demands that artists and thinkers and writers and teachers respond to the world as we see it — the world as it’s going to evolve over the next four to eight years in a profoundly different way, and I think people have to be honest and urgent and deeply committed to truth.”

Accentuate the Positive

With an unsettling year drawing to a close, many educators are increasingly aware of race: how it impacts student achievement and how it obstructs connections between people. But as we hope for a new year filled with equity and kindness in schools and beyond, research offers some encouraging insights.

Confronting racial tensions, biases, and microaggressions can have powerful effects. But schools may also benefit from widening the lens. Behavioral psychologist Todd Pittinsky has found that when white teachers encourage and model overtly welcominginteractions between students of different races, ethnicities, genders, and abilities, student achievement increases.

These “microaffirmations,” as Pittinsky calls them, can be transformative — not only for academic work, but for broader school climate and even for life outcomes.


In a recent study, Pittinsky, who teaches at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, tested whether positive attitudes of predominantly white teachers could augment the learning outcomes of mostly minority students. The results suggest that simply being welcoming and inclusive can help students not only feel comfortable in school, but also grow academically.

The study looked at more than 1,200 teachers in predominantly minority schools in 14 states across the country. Of them, 80 percent were white and the rest nearly all Latino or African American.

It examined two characteristics of welcoming interactions: what Pittinsky calls “empathic joy,” or the happiness that comes from taking the perspective of another person, and “allophilia,” a term he coined as an antonym to prejudice, meaning “love or like of the other.”

To determine teachers’ levels of empathy and allophilia, the researchers asked them to rate their agreement to statements such as “When my students celebrate things, I am happy for them” and “In general, I have positive attitudes about my students.” The researchers then measured these scores alongside assessments of the teachers’ positive engagement with their students, and against end-of-year tests measuring students’ academic growth.

The results? A chain of good effects.

Teachers’ empathic joy was associated with allophilia. Allophilia, in turn, was associated with positive engagements between students and teachers, which were then associated with greater student learning. The research suggests that these positive interactions can make students more optimistic at school and more committed to continuing their education.


Many teachers already recognize and promote positive interactions — microaffirmations — in their classrooms, though perhaps without fully realizing its measurable impact. In a recent Phi Delta Kappan article, Pittinsky gives several examples:

  • Nodding and making eye contact with students while they’re talking
  • Making sure to call on students of different races and genders equally
  • Referring to every student by his or her name
  • Using inclusive language — for instance, talk about “families” instead of “parents”
  • Openly giving praise for a wide-range of actions, from answering a question right to sitting still during a lesson
  • Staying enthusiastic when interacting with students

“Focusing on microaffirmations can create a virtuous cycle,” writes Pittinsky. “Over time, they can redefine the normative behavior in a classroom — or in a school — not only to avoid exclusion and insult, but also to embrace inclusion and affirmation.”

The Bilingual Learner’s Journey

Asil Yassine, who taught English-language learners (ELLs) in Detroit before enrolling in the Harvard Graduate School of Education, was herself an ELL student as a child. Drawing on her experiences as learner, teacher, and researcher, she offers guidance about the crucial support that ELL teachers can provide. In a short video (below), she remembers her own school days — and how hard it can be to be “different.”

Lead the charge and encourage your entire school to make this meaningful vocabulary switch: Instead of ELLs, call them “bilingual learners.”

I grew up in a district that had very few ELLs at the time, so I have distinct memories of being incredibly self-conscious of the fact that I was the only one getting pulled out for services or the only one who had a special helper during reading time. That sense of “I’m different” can manifest itself into a variety of esteem issues, so I am grateful my teachers recognized the enormous importance of community. I remember how warm each classroom felt, how loving the teachers were, and how much camaraderie I found amongst my classmates. I don’t, however, remember too many occasions where I was invited to explore my identity or my classmates’ identities to unpack this notion of “I’m different.” It was not until college where I was able to really dissect my identity as a Lebanese-Palestinian, Muslim-American speaking Arabic growing up in Texas and all the ways it shaped my relationship with learning. I wish I had been able to start exploring that earlier in elementary school.

What we need to recognize is the importance of affirming our students’ identities. This is a step away from the annual “multicultural day” or general displays of diversity. It is the practice of bringing identity to the forefront of learning, because through understanding identity, we can understand the power that unfortunately defines so much of our students’ experiences.

Take a look at your curriculum and create opportunities for your students to share their backgrounds, journeys, families, and culture in the context of your content area.

For our bilingual learners, much of this has to do with language. Lisa Delpit says language is “the skin that we speak,” meaning that language is a massive part of anyone’s identity. So one of the very first things I would encourage teachers to do is to shift their mindset about ELLs. Paola Uccelli suggests that instead of calling these students ELLs, we call them “bilingual learners.” Lead the charge and encourage your entire school to make this vocabulary switch too.

Then, take a look at your curriculum and create opportunities for your students to share information about their backgrounds, journeys, families, and culture in the context of your content area. Encouraging students, particularly newcomers, to share their wealth of experiences sends a strong message that their identity is important and that it is affirmed. As students dig for words to share their stories, it can foster community in the classroom and can spur the growth of academic vocabulary. Further, allow students to speak in their home language as they brainstorm, draft assignments, or work in groups. There is good research to back up this idea, as it allows students to fully participate in rigorous, critical thinking in a language they are comfortable in. They may not be able to do that in English yet, but we shouldn’t rob them of the opportunity to do highly analytical thinking in their home language.

Supporting Undocumented Students

For undocumented students, close relationships with teachers and guidance counselors can make a world of difference, says education and immigration expert Roberto Gonzales. Educators can not only provide much-needed emotional support; they can also be the resource these students and their families need to stay safe and participate fully in their communities.

If a student discloses his or her status and asks for advice, you don’t have to have all the answers right away, says Gonzales, who spent 12 years chronicling the experiences of undocumented young people for his book Lives in Limbo. More important is acknowledging the student’s concerns and telling the student that you’ll figure it out together — and then talk to colleagues, visit local community centers, or find answers online. Tell the student, “I can find ways to better help you.”

Watch the video, and see below for best practices for supporting undocumented learners in a K-12 setting (excerpted from a previously published story).


Help families and children understand their rights. Schools are legally forbidden from asking about immigration status, and some students may not disclose (or may not know) their status. Districts and schools with immigrant populations should communicate proactively with all families, with messages of inclusion and to encourage DACA enrollment and renewal, as modeled by this resource from the Boston Public Schools and by a new BPS website called We Dream Together, designed for students. From early on, they should spread the message to students that everyone can aspire to go to college and pursue interests and career goals. That message should include the fact that undocumented students can legally attend college in the U.S.

Here is a comprehensive resource on the rights of immigrant and refugee children, assembled by Teaching Tolerance for educators and school staff.

Ensure that staff members know about the resources available to undocumented students, as well as the limitations. Variation at the state-level — involving tuition rates, state scholarships, and licensure requirements, among other things — makes it important for school counselors, teachers, and other academic advisors to be aware of the opportunities and restrictions available to DACA-enrolled young people in their localities.

Create a strong mentoring system. Gonzales identified a single characteristic shared by each of the high-achieving undocumented students he followed: “To the person, they could name three or four adult mentors in their lives,” he says. “These were teachers, counselors, adults within the school community who really helped forge a pathway for them.”

Look to colleges as a model for student services. At the postsecondary level, some colleges have taken the lead by creating resource centers for undocumented students, and these have been effective at providing the specific support these students need, Gonzales says. These resource centers include an identified staff person who acts as a liaison to students in navigating the bureaucracy of higher education. They also provide trainings for staff and faculty, and they convene support groups and clubs for undocumented students.

Stay aware of the challenges of adolescence. Navigating adolescence is challenging for all children, but it’s uniquely so for undocumented children, who may contend with stigma, exclusion, or self-seclusion or secrecy that families often feel compelled to impose. With DACA, “there are more supports to prevent kids from falling off,” Gonzales says. “There are new opportunities for guidance, allowing these young people and their families some breathing room — some chance to maintain their aspirations.”