Teacher To Teacher: Classroom Reform Starts With “The Talk”

Our guest author today is Melissa Halpern, a high school English teacher and Ed.M candidate at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. For the past 9 years, she's been dedicated to making schooling a happier, more engaging experience for a diverse range of students in Palm Beach County, FL.

We teachers often complain, justifiably, that policy makers and even school administrators are too disconnected from the classroom to understand how students learn best. Research is one thing, we claim, but experience is another. As the only adults in the school setting who have ongoing, sustained experience with students, we’re in the best position to understand them—but do we really? Do we understand our students’ educational priorities, turn-ons, anxieties, and bones-to-pick in our classrooms and in the school at large?

The truth is that no amount of research or experience makes us experts on the experiences and perspectives of the unique individuals who inhabit our classrooms. If we want to know what’s going on in their minds, we have to ask. We have to have “the school talk.”

What have students learned that is important to them, and what do they wish they could learn? What makes them feel happy and empowered at school? What makes them feel bored, stressed, or dehumanized?

For the teacher who thinks his job is to deliver content, these questions are irrelevant. For the teacher who is interested in helping students build meaningful relationships with content, they are essential. A recent study, Caring Leadership in Schools, identifies “attentiveness”— paying attention to and understanding people as individuals—as an essential element of caring, which leads to “personal wellbeing and academic success” (Louis, Murphy, & Smylie 2015).

It makes total sense; if we understand our students and their needs, we have a better chance of meeting those needs.

But “the talk” can be scary. It will likely unveil a swarm of problems, some of them local, others systemic, and few, if any solutions. When I started having these candid conversations with my students, they said a lot of things I didn’t want to hear: “In school I feel like I’m nothing more than a number;” “Nothing I’m learning here is going to help me in life;” “I feel like I’m in prison;” “It’s hard to focus on learning when I’m stressed out about grades;” “I hate ____ (fill in the title of whatever required reading I had enthusiastically selected).”

Initially, hearing these things made me feel helpless. As a teacher, my realm of influence is mostly limited to the classroom, and even there, I work under conditions that are to a large degree beyond my control. But the more I ask and listen, the more I understand the underlying needs revealed by my students’ comments, even if what they say is not always true at face value.

When I ask my students what they have learned that’s important to them, many of them don’t know what to say. (Some, of course, enthusiastically reply, “Nothing!”) The ones who do share usually talk about experiences in music, drama, or journalism, in which the work had been both fun and challenging. They talk about teamwork and the satisfaction of creating an end product, something that required them to leave their comfort zones and figure things out on their own.

When I ask my students what they wish they could learn in school, again, many aren’t sure how to answer. Some wish simply that they could learn how to make things that interest them—everything from jewelry to cars, clothing to cuisine. A common theme that arises is wanting to acquire skills and knowledge required in the “real world,” but they are not sure what those skills are. They want to know how to get a good job, but they haven’t explored what “a good job” means for them, or what career paths might get them there.

What I hear in my students’ responses, and frequently in theirhesitance to respond to these questions, is that they, as individuals with interests, talents, and aspirations, feel largely disconnected from school. They need more time to reflect on who they are and what they want for themselves. They need the freedom and responsibility that comes with having to make real choices. They need to make things and do things that intersect with the “real world.”

I have developed many of my best practices, such as journaling, community inquiry projects, and inspiration assignments, as a result of "the talk." But my best practice, by far, is still "the talk" itself. Even when I don’t know how to respond, the fact that I’m listening lets my students know that I care about them as people, and that we’re in this together.

The talk keeps me in tune. It reminds me that teaching is an interaction based on communication and understanding. If “standards” hold me accountable to teaching content, “the talk” holds me accountable to teaching human beings.

Issues Areas

It raises pertinent questions which if unaddressed can lead to an ever-widening gap between the educators' objectives of raising individuals who live fulfilling lives or those who may never discover the richness of having lived fully.


Would you be willing to share any more information on the journaling, community inquiry, and inspiration assignments you wrote about? I teach sixth grade and have started the talk, and would love ideas for more real-world connection for my sixth grade language arts students.

Hi, Jenny. Thanks for your comment!
I define "journaling" as any informal, semi/un-structured writing assignment whose central purpose is self-reflection. It can be based on text or other content, but it requires the student to reflect on personal experience, perspective, reaction, etc. My students have written stress journals, independent reading journals, and news journals, for example. For me, the important distinction between journal writing and any other academic writing is that there is room for voice and conjecture; students can say what they want, how they want to, and they can go out on a limb, if they wish.
Community inquiry is about sending kids out into the community to investigate a question (ideally their own). Students have a lot of questions about life that school doesn’t always address. They can learn a lot about topics of interests by interviewing people, connecting with community businesses and organizations, and even simply observing and documenting phenomena they notice. Pushing them to pursue questions in a personal, maybe not-so-linear way can also help them develop interpersonal skills, creativity, and resourcefulness.
Inspiration assignments are ongoing in my classroom. I ask my students to think about what inspires them—to work hard, to improve themselves, to defy the odds and push their limits. At the beginning of the year I ask them to create and present a visual representation of their source of inspiration; these are displayed prominently in the classroom so that students can see them all year. Students continue to look for inspiration (in their real lives, in the media, etc.), and have an open invitation to present throughout the year.
I hope this answers some of your questions. Feel free to ask more!

I would like to second Jenny's comment. I teach high school language arts and would also love to hear more about the journaling, community inquiry, and inspiration assignments you referred to.

Thank you for your post. "The talk" seems to be a great example of culturally responsive and student-centered teaching.