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June 27, 2018

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Listening to Parents: Outside the Box in a Cookie Cutter School

March 12, 2018

This is a response to Angela’s post Listening to Teachers: Sorting vs. Seeing Our Students



The first time I encountered “sorting vs. seeing” in action was when my child was in kindergarten. That was 20 years ago. Initially I sent him to what we thought was a nurturing private school on a safe campus with a wide variety of after school programs he could participate in while waiting for me to pick him up after work.


By January he refused to get out of the car when I dropped him off in the morning. He was not being nurtured. He did not feel safe. He was not being seen.


Living, Learning, and Parenting Outside the Box


Here was a bright, enthusiastic child who loved to learn and play, who was repeatedly being sent to the principal’s office for taking too long to choose an implement for writing the letter “a” in D’Nealian cursive, and refusing to dismantle the pirate ship or pretend city he had just spent the past hour building with one of his classmates.


Oh, how I wish I had known Angela -- the master of integrating maker education with writing workshops -- back then when my child was being labeled a behavior problem, a resistant writer and reader, and meant to feel like he was “less than” the other kids in every way. She would have helped me understand that he was learning through the process of building. And if the teacher had considered that perhaps his fine motor skills were not as developed as other students, she might have facilitated an easier transition from his comfort zone of playing with blocks and Legos to writing letters with a pencil.  


Instead, my child was punished for being different, and I was flooded with self-doubt and lack of support:


“Didn’t you know? That school wants cookie cutter kids,” other parents told me. “Your kid is outside the box.”


I remember hearing these phrases over and over, not only when he was in kindergarten, but throughout his school years. And I always wondered:


“What shape is the cookie cutter supposed to be?” I thought. “And who is designing these cookie cutters? What about the cookies that are not the right shape? What box are we talking about? And how big is that box? What happens in the space outside that box?”


For the rest of our son’s school career, my husband and I spent much of our time helping our child navigate the space outside that amorphous box, within the boundaries of his cookie cutter education. Thankfully, along the we encountered compassionate teachers and administrators who took the time to get to know him for who he was - where he felt seen and not sorted. Those were the positive educational experiences where he thrived and felt safe. But those were few and far between.


Parents and Teachers Who Make a Difference


Our primary job as a parents of our “outside the box” child was centered around helping him identify and focus on his strengths -- his zest for learning, his creativity, his leadership qualities, and his ability to immerse himself in a project he was interested in or passionate about. And we modeled the process of self-advocacy with his teachers and administrators, which he was able to take on himself in later grades and even through college.


I’m encouraged that there is a greater consciousness about diversity and inclusiveness in schools today.  But from my perspective, I also see that there are so many ways that kids are still sorted. They’re labeled and grouped by academic achievement and perceived potential, by physical ability, by social group, gender, background, socioeconomic status and privilege.


As a parent, I didn’t expect teachers and school administrators to take the time to get to know our child in all of his complexity. No parent does. But I did appreciate when they took a human-centered approach and became curious about his interests and passions, and the character strengths that make up who he is. It’s a truly compassionate teacher who really listens to a student, and seeks to better understand them by practicing empathy through careful observation.


I also appreciate when teachers create an emotionally safe environment where every student’s vulnerabilities and shared humanness are normalized. Often the tone is set by teachers who dare to open themselves up to their students and give them permission to be human.


My friend, high school teacher Larry Schwarz, is a great example of a teacher who shows his students he’s vulnerable to potentially false assumptions about him. On the first day of class, he tells his students that who they see now is not who they will see tomorrow, in a week, in a month, or at the end of the semester. “Right now who you see is an overweight, older man, and you may be thinking things and making certain assumptions about me that you will find out are not true as you learn more about me better and spend more time in this class.”


Because students know that Larry is a teacher who practices empathy and seeks to see his students for who they are, the Alliance Club students whom he advises initiated an effort to help teachers, parents, and their fellow classmates to understand better what it’s like to identify as LGBTQ. Larry invited me to be part of the panel of presenters at each of three forums: one for students, one for parents, and the other for teachers.    


For teachers, we were asked to address school and district policies; local, state and national laws; and social emotional issues related to LGBTQ and other gender identifying students. In addition to the information that the other panelists offered that was specific to that community, I decided to take a different tack. Because LGBTQ students are often marginalized due to people sorting them based on their gender identification, I decided to present teachers with a perspective they could use to see all of their students, no matter how they identified, as human beings with shared character strengths. They were very receptive to this approach, and excited about learning more about how to use the VIA Character Strengths as a shared human language.


Tools That Can Help You Parent and Teach Outside of the Box


In one of my previous blog posts, I discussed the usefulness of using the VIA Character Strengths to help all students feel seen, as we all share 24 character strengths to varying degrees. Angela also talks about how you can "strength spot" with your students in one of her previous posts.


In the classroom, Angela has used Empathy Mapping to help students and teachers put themselves in each other’s shoes in order to better understand what others feel, see, hear, say, and do in certain contexts.


Angela has also used exercises like Human Affinity Mapping to help students and teachers understand one another better and to see what we all have in common.


Whatever tools and protocols teachers use to see rather than sort their students, it is important that we practice compassion. That is why Angela and I are using design thinking as the basis for designing compassionate classrooms. Because it all begins with empathy.


What do you do in your classrooms to see rather than sort your students?


We would love to hear from you. Join the conversation on Facebook, Tweet us @EllenFeigGray and @AngelaStockman, or drop us a line.


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