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In this episode, we discuss We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be with author Cornelius Minor. Cornelius, a former middle school Language Arts educator from Brooklyn, is a leader in equitable literacy reform across the world. We Got This is an incredible work that blends critical pedagogy, equitable community practice, and connections between relationships and research in an easy-to-read and implement fashion.
Chris McNutt: Hello, and welcome to Season 3, Episode 9 of Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. My name is Chris, and I'm a digital art and media educator in Springfield, Ohio. Before we dive in, I'd like to give a shout-out to three of our Patreon supporters, Paul Wan, Lisa Byber, and Jenny Lucas. Thank you for your support. If you want to learn more about the Human Restoration Project, as well as view our free resources and research compilation, please visit us at humanrestorationproject.org, and follow us on Twitter, at @HumResPro. Today we're with Cornelius Minor. Cornelius is author of We Got This, Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, and he works as a leader in supporting equitable literacy reform across the world. Prior to this work, Cornelius was a middle school language arts instructor in Brooklyn, and we've recommended We Got This as our July book of the month, and I'm really excited to talk about all the important ideas presented in this work. Let's just dive right into the questions, and we'll just see where our conversation takes us. What was the inspiration behind writing this book?
Cornelius Minor: Wow, well, there were several, actually, you know, and I think I've got to give just like big love to my editor, Holly, who is perhaps one of the most brilliant people on the planet, but the inspiration really, for me, came out of an intense desire to see, like, good things happening for kids, you know, that I've got one of the best jobs in the world. My job is to support teachers all over the country and all over the world. And one of the things that I started seeing as I went from school to school is I started seeing that the same kind of kids suffer no matter what community we're in. So if you are born black or a girl or gay or, you know, to poor parents, it seems like, you know, you always catch the worst end of school no matter what community I went to. And so that started to kind of give me this real kind of professional discomfort. And I would get angry as I would go from school to school to school and I'm like, yep, the same kids are in the basement or the same kids are in, you know, a specific track or the same kids are not getting a chance to do enrichment or the same kids are always in intervention. And so I just started asking those questions and wanting to approach those in a really constructive way. I think that when we have these conversations, sometimes they are fueled with intense, not even anger, but rage. And I get that. And there are, you know, that our profession, we're teachers and that means that we're mostly white women. And, you know, one of the things I'm finding is that white women don't really respond well to my rage. And so, like, how do I communicate these things in ways that feel like really, really productive? And so the book is a conversation I've been having with myself for a really long time that I wanted to have with the rest of the educational world.
Chris: Yeah, that's really interesting. And I appreciate the fact that you shared those measures in this book and I really like the way it's written, both from like an author standpoint, but also just the way it looks. Like it looks pretty cool. I like the comic book aesthetic. I like the oversized, colorful pages. It's way more exciting to read than, let's say, like Paulo Freire or something. It's cool.
Cornelius: Exactly. And that's what I was going for. You know, I've got these ideas and again, that's the second inspiration. So how do I communicate these really heavy things in ways that people can receive? And you know, and comic books have been my first love for a long, long time. You know, when I think about my own connection to literacy, you know, I'm a language arts teacher. But when I think about my own connection to literacy, much of it is rooted in comic books. One of the very first books that I read from cover to cover was Dwayne McDuffie's Hardware Number One in 1992. And that book has stuck with me. So no matter what I've done in terms of graduate school or my own publishing, that that book always resurfaces. And so Dwayne McDuffie, what he set out to do with his milestone comics imprint is a huge part of my literary DNA. And so when I wanted to craft this book, I really turned to what I learned from reading hardware many years ago.
Chris: Yeah. And let's talk a little bit about how this fits into the classroom and what this looks like. So you talk a lot in the book about the fact that this is a very oppressive system and the work that we're doing as educators is inherently political. So how do you then balance between knowing that you're trying to push this anti-oppressive dogma or narrative when you're still working within the system itself?
Cornelius: You know, and that's a really huge, huge thing that I think about all the time that the United States is Empire when you think about it in many ways. And that the function of education in Empire is actually not to liberate, but it's to homogenize. It is to indoctrinate you into the ways of the Empire. And so when we think about Rome, like school is where you learn how to be a productive member contributing to Empire. And we know that empire works when a few people hold many of the resources. And so one of the things that school does is it puts you in your place, that when you think about capitalism, capitalism needs a loser. That you cannot have the uber rich if you do not create a class of the paycheck to paycheck. And so really looking at the function of school historically in the United States has been really important for me. Even when we think about, we use the term education, but one question that I often ask is education for who? Because if you were indigenous at the erection of a US school system, education was designed to literally divorce you from your culture. If you were born a girl, education was not for you. If your parents owed money, education was not for you. And so when we think of it, we like to say education for all, but we say it in this ahistorical way where we're blind to the history that we have inherited from our forebears. And so when you look at what school does in a contemporary sense, much of what we call a school or a set of customs and habits and traditions that we inherited from our days where school wasn't designed for people like me. So I think one of the things that I realize is that when you are in a system, you can either choose to operate as expected in that system or you can choose to not. And so I use the kind of metaphor of a cog, that if you've got a machine that continues to work in one way, and I recognize that, yeah, in many ways I am a cog in this machine, but I can refuse to turn. And if I refuse to turn, the whole machine breaks. And now one of the things that we know that happens is when the machine breaks, they're going to call a repairman and that repairman is going to shine a flashlight on me. And so what's up with this cog that refuses to turn? And so to be in the machine and to know one's role in one's place, but then refuse to perform it, I think is a really, it's a bold thing and that's what I want this book to do in many ways. I want this book to help people to design ways to refuse to turn. And again, we know that the repair person is going to show up and the repair person is going to have this flashlight shine on you. And I wanted to write the book that says, when that repair person shines that flashlight on you for refusing to be the cog that turns, one of the things that happens is that repair person wants to replace the cog. They want to take the cog out, this cog isn't turning, and I want to replace it with another cog. And so as a teacher, one of the things I think about all the time is I've got to make myself irreplaceable. So if that repair person comes to remove the cog that won't turn, I've got to be so great at what I do that I can't be replaced and the whole machine has to redefine itself. And so I just kind of asked the question and I was just like, wow, what if I could encourage lots of teachers to do this? And so lots of little machines would have to redefine themselves in response to the people that we can reach through this book.
Chris: I really liked that a lot. It reminds me of Jonathan Kozol's work with building a coalition and having the parent community backing and that no one can mess with you. It feels like it's heavily inspired by the work of community activism.
Cornelius: Exactly. I mean, I've been an activist all my life, so this book is simply an extension of that. And I read Kozol 20 years ago and just like that idea that, yeah, here's a thing that we can do. And I think it's no accident that, you know, that I've leaned on all of these people who have been doing the work, my own family, my own community, my own ancestors, in addition to all of the ideological ancestors that I have through the literature.
ChrisL Let's talk a little bit about then what that work is, and obviously someone would need to buy the book in order to dive into all the different portions, but I want to focus in on a few specific things. So at a point during the book, you talk about this distinction between monologue and dialogue, as in students have the answers and were there basically to understand them and inspire them to do other things or deeper things. Could you go into more detail about what that looks like and why that's important?
Cornelius: Absolutely. You know, so much of what I call Hallmark branded teaching, you know, that there's kind of the real gritty work of teaching and then there's what they show you on the Hallmark channel or what they show you, you know, in Michelle Pfeiffer movies or, you know, Hilary Swank movies. And I think that we, as a profession, have really subscribed to this Hallmark brand teaching where we say things like, oh, I believe the children of the future and, you know, love the kids. And all those things are really, really beautiful statements of ideal. But I think they undermine our work. And so we say things like we believe the children of the future, but then we engage in teaching that is all monologue. So I've got an adult at the front of the room pontificating, you know, and if we truly believe the kids of the future, then we believe that they have the answers and it's our job to help them to really like amplify those. And so one of the things that I've been thinking about is my pedagogy itself, that how much of the teaching and learning that happens in the classroom is my voice and how much of it is kid voice. And one of the things that we know that is often said in education is the person doing the most talking is doing the most learning. And so one of the things that I've been thinking lots about in a very simple way is how do I design pedagogy classroom practice that puts the intellectual labor in the hands of the children, that if I'm standing in the front of the room doing all the intellectual labor and people are passively listening to me, then no learning is occurring. That's indoctrination. But I think, you know, when we hand power to kids in this way, one of the things that that means that for me is I've got to de-center myself, that so much of teaching has become this kind of cultural personality about the teacher. And really, it has to be about the community of kids that I'm serving. And so I'm really interested in, again, to answer the question in really specific ways of moving from this like teacher monologue to authentic dialogue where we are engaging with children about crafting sustainable futures for them.
Chris: I hope you're enjoying the podcast thus far. I sincerely appreciate you listening in. And if you enjoy the work, please head over to humanrestorationproject.org to find our free resources and wealth of writings. And then if you think we should keep going, take a gander at our Patreon page. For a dollar a month, you'll receive a professional, print-ready, electronic magazine of our work every two months. But as always, all of that work is available free online. I really like this idea of talking about like banal statements in education. Like I've spoken about in the past on this podcast as well, like through blogging, just talking about the idea at a conference or something or in a teacher workroom. After there's like even like a hint of disagreement amongst people, there's this idea like, oh, well, we're all doing what's best for kids because we all love and care about kids. But that's not really true. I mean, there are plenty of teachers that think they're maybe doing the right thing. Or maybe they're not at all. I mean, I think that these kind of conversations are important that we get a little bit uncomfortable every now and then and really examining our own practice. Because obviously, there are a lot of serious problems in education that are going unaddressed. And kind of building off that exact point, I want to talk about, because this is a kind of a happening topic right now with all the different like ed conferences going on, as well as kind of how education is shifting towards a certain type of PD model. Basically, what worries do you have about the current education market? So hinting at basically, you know, maybe a few pirates or something of that nature.
Cornelius: Yeah. And I love the idea that you use the term market, you know, I think it's exactly that that's the problem. You know, one of the things that I like to separate in my work is there is education in the profession, and there's education in the industry. And the profession is what I know and what I love. And it's the people that stay up late with me to craft lesson plans. It's the people that get up early with me to like, go to soccer practice with the kids at 7am. You know, that's education in the profession, you know, but then there's education in the industry. And education in the industry is disaster capitalism. It's like, how do we create problems, and then ensure that those problems never go away so that we can profit from, you know, from attempting to solve them? You know, so it's, it's this idea that when we create standardized tests that are culturally biased and ill-suited to measuring a kid's true worth as a human, when we create these tests, we are creating a class of people who will fail them. And when we create a class of people who will fail them, we get to profit off of all the materials. And so, so it goes back to this idea that there's, there's, you know, the money is never in the cure. The money is in treatment, you know, that we, we know how to teach literacy. And we know how to teach literacy well, and we know that teaching literacy well is relational. You know, I studied on graves so that we know that you got to sit next to kids, and you got to care about kids, and you got to be like tuned into their communities, into their needs, into their voices. We know that, you know, and, and we can do that for every kid. You know, we put people on the moon, so, so, so we can deliver solid literacy to every kid, but it behooves the industry to not do so, because now I can sell you intervention plans, and now I can sell you workbooks, and now I can sell you conferences that promise to be cure-alls. And so, so absolutely I am in love with education, and I have serious, serious, serious misgivings about education in the industry.
Chris: Going right off of that too, my favorite line probably in the entire book is when you start talking about this idea of classroom cool. It reminds me of, I wish I, I'll probably link it in the show notes, but there was a blog I read that was someone who's a teacher talking about how the number one feedback that they get from kids was the fact that they were quote unquote laid back or like a cool teacher. And I like how you lay it out in the book on what exactly that means, as in it's not this performative person that goes up and is super zany and weird and like captures all this attention, but it's more about the relationships that you build. So how do you go about kind of shifting the focus from classroom control or putting on a show to making more connective moments with your students?
Cornelius: It's really that idea, it starts with shifting the conversation again. So that the traditional notions of classroom cool means that I need a shtick or a gimmick that I got to show up and put on a show, which we can all do. But to really think about cool in the sense of kids trust me, kids believe in me. And one of the things that we know about basic relationship building is you trust people who listen to you and you trust people who act on what they hear. And so if I make a demonstrative effort to hear kids and then to craft the kinds of classroom experiences that reflect what I've heard, kids trust me more. And so if you tell me, I had a conversation with a kid the other day, actually I was talking to him about like how he's going to spend his summer and he happened to mention that he was going to be traveling to a Pokemon tournament to play Pokemon cards. And I thought that was a really cool way to spend your summer, so I asked him a few questions about it. And then the next day I was wrapping up some things in science and when I used the term evolution, I just kind of happened to drop in the positive phrase like Pokemon. And that kid sat up straight because, and so I'm talking about evolution, I make a reference to Pokemon just because he told me the day before and in that moment in his eyes, what I could see is like, this guy hears me. And so do I have to know how to name all 150 original Pokemon? No. Do I have to know how to play the card game? No. But do I have to listen to a kid when they talk about what's important to them and what they value? Absolutely. And then when I find little ways to connect what I'm doing every day to what they value, that's the win.
Chris: Yeah. And you talk in the book too about building spaces to make that happen as well. Absolutely. Like you talk about, it doesn't have to be formal, it could be informal. Could you talk a little bit about this idea of the classroom meeting?
Cornelius: Certainly. I'm always meeting with kids in the way that, I learned this from, I had a physician that would, she would talk to me, I'd go to see her about every year for my annual checkup. And she would come get me in the waiting room and we would chat. She was like, oh, what are you doing there? I see you're wearing a soccer jersey. Have you played any good games lately? And she would talk to me about like my shoes and like just small talk, I thought, but then we would go back to the exam room and she would say things like, okay, so you played three soccer games in the last week. And I'm like, how did you know that? And she was like, well, when you talked about your jersey, you happened to mention that you ran a game on Thursday. And so she would have these ways of like getting information from me, but in these really kind of, to use the term, laid back in cool ways where I had no idea she was assessing my physical health by making small talk. And I remember being so envious of how much information she was able to collect about me in a short amount of time. And so I stole that from her and I was like, I want to be able to do that with kids in my classroom. Like I want to be able to make small talk that teaches me about kids and their lives and that I could use and I could act on it that I received. She's probably the best physician I've ever had in my life because everything I said like mattered to her and she used it to her advantage in terms of my physical care. And so I would just really want to ask the question, how could I be that as a teacher? How could I listen to them in a way where everything they say like becomes part of how I take good intellectual care of them? And so meetings, the classroom meetings are just a really informal way to do that, that I'll bring up topics just because I want to hear kids' responses to them. And I want to hear kind of their disposition and I want to see if they get excited when they talk about that thing or I want to see if they get scared or angry when they talk about that thing because that informs like what I can bring into the classroom that informs how I can teach.
Chris: I really like all the ideas because most of them are, I mean, a lot of this stuff is common sense to an extent, but it's laid out in a way where it feels very scientific. So what I mean by that is like you have like a lot of like flowcharts and like things where it's just you're organizing your thoughts in a way that makes sense without necessarily reinventing the wheel.
Cornelius: Yeah. And you know, it is scientific. You know, people have studied relationships. You know, I draw a lot from, you know, the neuroscientist David Rock and I draw a lot from, you know, what we know about behavioral science, you know, Piaget and, you know, development, you know, so I draw a lot from, you know, people's thinking about this. But you're right. It is common sense that if you listen to people, they respond. And so then how can I be really strategic in my listening is what I wanted the book to do. You know, if I, you know, show people that I heard them through my teaching and through my being, then they're more likely to work hard for me. So how can I demonstrate this in the book, you know? So those are really big questions for me. And one of the things, again, to resist this idea of market, I wanted to do things in the book that were free. You know, so many books are setups for you to buy more stuff. And so I'm going to write about this thing in the book, but then you're going to have to buy like the companion workbook and then you're going to have to pay for the, you know, other thing. And so it was really important to me that all the resources in the book be free. And so if you go online, like all the stuff associated with this book is free from podcasts to videos to like printable materials, because like, you're right. This is the wisdom that our grandparents handed us, like this doesn't belong to anyone. It's what we've always known about children. And so in many ways for me, it's a return to who we once were as educators in a more inclusive way.
Chris: Yeah. So let's talk, let's kind of shift conversation then to talking more about the system itself and how you go about changing things within said system beyond just your classroom or beyond yourself as just as an individual. And there's a segment in the book where you talk about colonialism and how oppressors tend to fall into that role after failing to fight oppression for a lot of time drawing from like Freire or like Bava or something. So could you talk a little bit about the connection that, you know, there's veterans that say, veteran teachers that say something like, well, I'm set in my ways, which is usually not the thing that you want to hear because that's followed by something that's really bad. Like they're not open to changing in any way. What advice then do you have for bringing those potentially jaded educators back into that radical change that they might have felt before?
Cornelius: Yeah. You know, one of the things, and again, this goes back to my physician, I should probably credit her in much of my research. There was a, like I'm a skateboarder and I banged my knee up pretty bad one year and I had to go have a procedure and it was a pretty intense procedure. They had to go in with a laser and get something. And I don't know if you've ever had a knee procedure, but you're awake during the whole thing. So they put like this blanket on you and so you can see the whole thing happening. Like you're numb from the waist down, but you can see everything they're doing. And I'm a nerd. And so before the procedure, like two nights before the procedure, I went online and I watched every video of that procedure that I could find. And so I watched the procedure being done on the left knee, on the right knee. I watched the procedure in old people and younger people. And so I just wanted to know what they were going to do to me. And so by the time I showed up for my surgery, I had probably seen the procedure 30 times performed already. So I knew what I was in for. And so they kind of like numb me, they start their work on my knee. And about two minutes into the procedure, I stopped my physician and I was like, wait, I've seen this procedure and you're not doing what they did in the video. Like what's up? And she kind of looked at me and she put her tools down and really calmly she said to me, she's like, Cornelius, the video that you watched was eight months old. Like we have much better medical technology now than we had eight months ago. So if I were doing what you saw in that video from eight months ago, that would be malpractice today. And it was just such this clear statement of purpose and understanding. She was just like, yep, everything you saw in the video was correct eight months ago. But like I know more now and you would sue me if I did that procedure right now to you. And I think about my teaching in the same way. It really caused me to reflect on my teaching that the thing I did eight months or eight years ago, like we know a lot more about kids and we know a lot more about reading and math and science. And so that we're still teaching like we taught eight years ago, that we're still teaching like we taught 80 years ago is highly problematic to me. And that if we truly, and I think so much of teaching, we say we want the best for kids with our mouths, but then we do what's best for us with our efforts. And so the teacher who says that they're set in their ways ain't here for kids. And I've been really clear about that in public, that when people ask me about my politics all the time, I say that I'm radically pro-kid, that it is our job to create opportunities for children. I think that no teacher would argue that, that we are ultimately teachers because we want to create opportunities for kids and really because we want to eventually teach them how to create opportunities for themselves and for others in their community. And so that being said, anything that abridges opportunity for a child is my enemy. Like that, and so if my belief in yesterday's teaching is limiting a kid's opportunity, I got to stop that, and I think that that's been really important. And so when we're talking to those teachers, one of the things that often happens in community discourse is we make it about the person. So we're like, oh, that person is a bad person because they want to do this thing. It's not about the person, it's about the work. And so often when I talk to those people, yeah, like you're here because you love kids, but let's work in smarter or more efficient ways.
Chris: And I guess actually this builds into the final question. I'm really curious about your thoughts on this because it's something that, it's like a really awkward thing to talk about because teachers don't usually like getting too political. But at the same time, if we're going to be radically pro-kid, I mean, there's no denying that there is systemic racism, systemic classism, serious issues where kids come into our rooms that it's very difficult to give them a satisfactory education because they don't have food or they don't have basic human needs. So is there a place for teachers to be banding together for political organization in order to change these systems of inequity that are occurring?
Cornelius: First of all, and I think it's really important to name that teaching is political, that the greatest lie that hegemony ever told was that our work is apolitical, that our salaries are decided in some communities by vote. That's political, that school districts are made and gerrymandered by city councils. These are political, that budgets are made. And so literally the food that I put in my mouth that I draw from a paycheck that I get from New York City, that's political. And so the belief that teaching is apolitical, we're lying to ourselves, that the city councilman that I elect dictates how much money I take home every month. And the city council people that I elect dictate the curriculum that we adopt, the textbooks that we buy, the resources that we're allowed to share. And so teaching is inherently political. But I borrow a lot from, I have a great mentor, Bob Probst. And one of the things that he has pointed out to me time and time again is when we, kids come to school in kindergarten and we teach them kindness, right? And so the first lesson you learn, I've got a five-year-old daughter who started kindergarten this fall. And the first lesson that you learn in kindergarten is that you are kind to others. And if we teach kids to value kindness, we are implicitly condemning those who promote cruelty and indifference. And so that I'm teaching kids in class to be kind, that's an implicit condemnation of politicians who are unkind. That if I teach kids to judge individuals on their merits, that's an implicit condemnation on those who judge based on stereotypes. And so even my teaching is political. So like, yeah, kids come to kindergarten and I'm like, yeah, be nice to others. And yep, so that is a statement on those politicians who use their office to not be kind to others. And I think when we really look at what we're teaching, everything is political. You know, that I'm a reading teacher, I teach kids to value information. And one of the things that Bob Probst has taught me is that when I teach kids to value information, that's an implicit condemnation of those who create misinformation. And so I'm teaching you to value evidence in my classroom and we've got certain politicians who do not value evidence. My lesson that teaches you to value evidence is a condemnation of those people, it's implicit. And so everything that we do is political.
Chris: I mean, it's obvious that educators have a lot of work to do, especially in certain segments of the country. Given the fact that I mean, there's literally concentration camps going on right now. So I mean, there's a lot of work to do.
Cornelius: Exactly. You know, and that's, yeah, you know, and that's been, you know, it's when we think about oppressive systems, and this is why school like, this is why I choose to work in school that, that, that, for the most part, most of the kids that we encounter will, you know, hopefully never be in a, in a camp, a state sanctioned camp, you know, most of the kids we encountered will not be murdered by the police. Most of the kids that we encounter will not be, you know, you know, victims of some, you know, voter, you know, disenfranchisement, but all of the kids that we meet will encounter a teacher. And so when I think about state sanctioned violence, much of the state sanctioned violence that is suffered by children happens at the hands of school and teachers who work in them. And when I talk about violence, I'm not, you know, I don't mean like putting your hands on kids. But when I think about, you know, there are many scholars who have noted that when somebody as powerful as a teacher constructs a world through books and texts and media and experiences, and they construct a world that, and I'm not in it, that's an act of violence. And so, so if I'm a teacher, and I've got books that don't reflect the true diversity of the community that I serve, and kids don't see themselves, or there are vast silences in the curriculum, kids go home feeling less than human. And that's an act of violence. You know, if I'm a teacher, and I fail to see the full humanity of my children with disabilities, that's an act of violence. You know, if I'm a teacher, and I fail to teach in ways that honor how kids learn, that's an act of violence. And so again, you know, we live in a world where not every kid is going to encounter a bad cop, or not every kid is going to encounter a state sanctioned camp, but every kid encounters a teacher. And if that we're perpetuating these implicit and silent acts of violence, then it's just as bad as the other things, you know, and, um, you know, that when we think about just like the human condition, one of the things that we know from PJ is that people are born with like, infinite capacity to learn and to grow and to care about things and to be curious. But through school and schooling, people become less curious over time. That's violence. And that's a direct result of the kind of institutionalization that we do to people when they enter our doors. And so I really wanted to use We Got This as an opportunity to undo that kind of violence, you know, because if we can undo that really benign violence that happens in classrooms, that will give us the practice to undo the more vicious forms of violence that we're seeing in our headlines today.
Chris: Thank you again for listening to Things Fall Apart from the Human Restoration Project. I hope this conversation leaves you inspired and ready to push the progressive envelope of education. If you have time, I'd love for you to leave us a review on iTunes and social media or anywhere that you see fit. I mentioned iTunes specifically because the more ratings we have there, the higher we rank on the education podcast list and the more listeners we have, the better we're going to do. We can't do this without you and I'm humbled by the opportunity to help broadcast this message to as many people as we possibly can. We've grown so much our average unique podcast listener number has jumped from maybe two to three hundred an episode to over two thousand in the last year and our website traffic is up ten thousand percent in the last three months and our Patreon supporters continue to climb. So let's push forward together and restore humanity.