Let me begin by letting you know this blog post, and the interview for it, were crafted well before the tragic death of George Floyd or the events that have followed. While this post remains a work the entire Two Writing Teachers team and Cornelius Minor all still stand behind, let me first unequivocally affirm all of our support for Black Lives Matter. To quote Cornelius, “While ‘hope’, ‘positivity’, and ‘enthusiasm’ are essential qualities, they stand as ineffective strategies for combating inequity. Everything about my work is about systemic awareness and sustainable action. People often get stuck on the ‘hope’ part. And history has taught us that hope alone is insufficient.”
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I first met Cornelius Minor in 2012 when I went to work for the Teachers College Reading & Writing Project at Columbia University in New York City. Although the entire Project Team was filled with dozens of incredibly knowledgeable and talented staff developers, Cornelius quickly differentiated himself as one of the most positive and enthusiastic people I had ever met. Those of you who know him or have heard him speak know this to be true. The passion Cornelius brings to the mission of educating young children is both palpable and infectious. While presenting to an overcrowded room at the NCTE Annual Convention in 2019, Cornelius proclaimed himself to be “radically kid-centered,” a powerful and apt term that likely contributed to his image landing on the cover of the wonderful middle school resource edition of the If-Then Curriculum book. (If you are not familiar, this book is designed to support teachers in meeting kids where they are and providing individualized writing instruction and coaching). This kid-centric way of being is, indeed, the true essence of Cornelius Minor.
Last year, Cornelius wrote and published a powerful book entitled, We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, a book I recommend as required reading for any educator. We Got This offers a fresh vision for teaching; one that, as the subtitle suggests, helps to bring equity and access where it belongs: to the forefront of our minds.
When the COVID-19 crisis hit, probably like many of us, I sought out voices of hope. For me personally, I knew one of those voices would be Cornelius. I knew him to be the kind of teacher with the capacity to help us all see things in a new way during this unfamiliar period of virtual teaching. Fortunately, I was able to reach him by text. We sat down recently on a Zoom call to discuss his views on teaching remotely, his book, and a way forward.
I began by asking Cornelius for his top-line reaction to the COVID-19 crisis?
Immediately, Cornelius began to speak to many of the things the pandemic has uncovered. “COVID has rendered visible what’s been invisible for a long time,” he began. “People blind to inequity are now talking about equity; people blind to the needs of special education students are now talking about ways we can create access.” Cornelius went on, talking about our poor communities, our immigrant communities, our indigenous communities, and the needs of our LGTBQ kids. “The systems that served so many of us so well serve many of us so poorly.”
Cornelius’ vision for the way forward includes more voices, which will require us to be more creative in our thinking and more nimble in our decision-making. “We need to center [our] ideas and solutions and move forward in ways that are flexible,” he stated.
Notably, Cornelius made reference to the many who look forward to a return to what we once knew as the “normal” days and ways of educating our students. He holds a different perspective. “The ‘normal’ we knew seven weeks ago left far too many people in the margins. People talk as if that was a ‘Golden Age.’ It wasn’t. I do not want to return to ‘normal’; I want to return to ‘better.’”
He continued by explaining that “what works” for a lot of people doesn’t actually apply universally. Inviting us to think specifically about the verb ‘work’, Cornelius asserted that it should not be considered a monolithic word. “A thing can work in several different ways. Things that ‘work’ for one might not ‘work’ for another. We need to resist binary thinking rooted in the past. We don’t have to think ‘this or that’; this AND that can co-exist.”
View Cornelius’ reaction to COVID-19 crisis here
One of the major themes in the book We Got This is listening to kids. I asked Cornelius about listening: Can we listen in a way that really matters or really makes a difference?
“Absolutely! If the only way we know how to hear kids is sitting next to them in a classroom, then we’re not actually kid-centered,” began Cornelius. He explained the need to both seek out and recognize opportunities we have as teachers to listen to kids in this current moment. Are we willing to engage and “pivot into” those opportunities? Are we willing to engage with kids both synchronously and asynchronously? Are we willing to just sometimes simply ask kids, “How do you best receive learning?” In the view of Cornelius, the educators willing to do those things will have a lot to hear because those are the ways we can listen now; those are the ways kids are interacting with us. “We just need to be willing to hear the different ways kids are speaking,” he maintains.
View Cornelius’ endorsement for close listening here
I asked Cornelius, “You value responding to kids and providing choice. What do you say to those teachers who share that value and want to teach this way in a virtual learning environment?”
“How creative are we?” asked Cornelius. He asserted that as teachers, we cannot be the kinds of teachers who wait around for others to tell us what to do. Teachers are “insanely creative” people. And now is a moment in history that requires us to lean on that creativity; or as Cornelius put it, “…walk back into the creativity [we] came into this profession with…” This means inventing multiple opportunities for kids to “show up.” For example, Cornelius points out that asking students to meet on Zoom calls or download an assignment and then turn it in on the teacher-sponsored due date cannot be the only ways we ask kids to demonstrate learning and express themselves. Rather, Cornelius encourages us to think about all the different ways kids can show up, and about how all of those different ways can co-exist. “It doesn’t have to be this one-size-fits-all thing,” he states. But it requires an understanding of who our kids are, where they come from, what their capabilities are in these moments.
View Cornelius’ endorsement for creativity here
In We Got This, Cornelius emphasizes the importance for teachers to clarify for students how they can be successful in our classes. Yet sometimes we unintentionally erect barriers to that success. I asked him, “How can we apply that wisdom to remote learning?”
“We need to rethink what it means to ‘participate’,” Cornelius responded. What if we reimagined notions of requiring all kids to join virtual meetings at a specified time and limiting participation to that? Or we rethought the idea that if a kid didn’t turn in his assignment on time he’s ‘not participating?’ Cornelius poses the question, “What can participation mean?” In his view, this moment requires flexibility around participation. For our students, this could mean: (1) downloading materials and submitting them “when [they] can,”; (2) getting in touch with the teacher; (3) participating in the virtual meeting and engaging in the dialogue. Cornelius reminds us that some of our students are literally caring for their own family members, which means they would be unable to participate in virtual meetings. “Allowing for all those different methods of participation to exist, I think, is really important,” he stated.
“There’s this idea,” Cornelius continued, “that everything must be uniform for school to have some meaning. That [all kids] must turn things in the exact same way. We’ve got this illusion of meritocracy, this illusion of ‘fair’.” It is time, as Cornelius put it, to “crash” those ideas. Think, for example, of the many different environments in which kids are now attempting to learn: they can look completely different. Cornelius used the example of comparing two students living in two different homes- one with several siblings attempting to use one computer versus the single child household with one computer. The way these two students show up in school is going to look “radically different.” Thus, allowing for these differences in our classrooms in our virtual learning spaces is crucial. But, as Cornelius pointed out, “That requires creativity, sensitivity, and flexibility- all things teachers walk into the profession with.”
Cornelius also stressed the important need for balancing self-care and the aforementioned educational ingenuity. Teaching during this time means we need to make time for things like mourning, like dealing with our frustrations- in other words, the things that make us human. “There are moments for [our own] incredible humanity, but there’s also these moments where [we] can be really bold and thoughtful and creative. And those two things aren’t mutually exclusive.”
View Cornelius’ encouragement for flexibility here
There is a beautiful quote in We Got This, “Kids’ voices do not belong just in their writing and in their schoolwork. They belong in my thinking and decision-making.” (p. 43). I asked Cornelius, “Can we bring kids’ voices into our own decision-making, now that we are working to teach remotely?”
“Absolutely! Who do we serve?” Cornelius posed. “We serve children. If I’m making decisions without children, without families, without communities, then I’m doing it completely wrong.” He reiterated the fact that many ways exist to think about kids and welcome kids’ voices in, and he reminded us again that sometimes it is just a simple question, “What do you think?” He continued, “I’ve become almost zealot-like in my belief in children and communities. The way forward cannot happen without them.” Cornelius contended that any school that’s making decisions or policy without considering the needs of families, communities, and children is, in his words, “doin’ it backwards.”
View Cornelius’ support for bringing kids’ voices into our decision-making here
Cornelius discusses the Universal-Design-for-Learning Framework in We Got This. I asked him what advice he could provide in regards to the planning of curriculum?
“UDL is just good teaching,” Cornelius asserted. “There are multiple ways people express themselves.” He explained that it is inherently problematic if we communicate to our kids that they must write this specific paper in this specific way in this specific font. “Creating multiple ways for kids to express what they know is especially critical in this moment. Can kids express what they know visually? By talking into a microphone on their webcam? By submitting something written? It’s the idea of multiple means of expression.”
Cornelius went further, saying, “It’s also the idea of multiple means of representation when it comes to teaching a lesson. If teaching only means getting on camera and talking at you, then I’m doing it wrong.” We can be asking kids, ‘What are all the different ways you want to hear me, can hear me, need to hear me so that you can learn this concept?’
Another important point Cornelius made is that we can be rethinking what is ‘worthy of learning.’ He posed the question: “What about the idea that this concept as scripted by this standard is the only thing worthy of learning right now? We are living through a pandemic.” Therefore, he contended that kids, many of whom are living in close quarters with relatives, need to be learning to read one another and the humans around them; this can be called (the standard-based) “character analysis”, yes. “But it can also be called being a really good human to your cousins who share an apartment with you.” He went further to say that it is important for kids to learn ways to ask for help, calling that (the standard-based) ‘rhetorical strategies’, or we can call that being a good human.
“UDL is student-centered. UDL is bringing the understanding that there’s multiple ways to learn and there’s no single best way to do something. And it’s also about knowing that multiple ways can co-exist.”
View Cornelius’ support for UDL here
Multiple times across our interview, Cornelius expressed his incredible optimism and enthusiasm for what he hopes is now possible in teaching. Virus aside, this is an exciting time, a time we can rethink and rework our system to be more inclusive, more flexible, more kid-centered. As teachers, we got this!
Congratulations to Lisa Osterman, winner of a copy of We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor.
Thank you to Heinemann for donating this book, and to all readers who commented.
This giveaway is for a copy of We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be. Thanks to Heinemann for donating a copy for one reader. (You must have a U.S. mailing address to win a print copy of this book.)
For a chance to win this copy of We Got This: Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, please leave a comment about this blog post by Thursday, June 11th at 6 a.m. EDT. I will use a random number generator to pick the winner’s commenter number. His/her name will be announced at the bottom of this blog post no later than Sunday, June 14th.
Please leave a valid e-mail address when you post your comment so I can contact you to obtain your mailing address if you win. From there, our contact at Heinemann will ship the book to you. (NOTE: Your e-mail address will not be published online if you leave it in the e-mail field only.)
- You must have a valid U.S. address to win. Unfortunately, Heinemann is only able to ship to U.S. addresses at this time.
If you are the winner of the book, I will email you with the subject line of TWO WRITING TEACHERS – WE GOT THIS. Please respond to my e-mail with your mailing address within five days of receipt. A new winner will be chosen if a response isn’t received within five days of the giveaway announcement.