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"Educating For Change"

Conference brings educators together to help spark social change for students

Angy Folkes (left), who teaches English to Speakers of Other Languages at the International Institute, with several students at the "Educating for Change" conference on Feb. 4. photo by Ameet Rawal (click for larger version)

March 08, 2017
A group of 350 teachers from schools across St. Louis gathered at Maplewood Richmond Heights Elementary School last month to hear keynote speaker Keith Catone address "Courageous Teaching and Civil Rights in the 21st Century."

The talk was part of the "Educating for Change" conference on Feb. 4, sponsored by Educators for Social Justice — an organization in St. Louis connecting educators across districts to focus on social justice curriculum and change.

In addition to hosting the conference, the organization sponsors an annual Courageous Educator Award and provides a $300 grant to support an educator-led initiative with an explicit social justice emphasis. Previous conferences have focused on topics such as peace education, immigrant and refugee rights, and creating spaces for social justice in an era of standardized testing.

He challenged teachers to identify their purpose as educators – voices called out "get free," "develop empathy" – versus the purpose that authority figures pass down to teachers such as "college and career readiness," "passing the test."

He suggested a common purpose of "supporting the growth and development of student leaders," and urged the room to stand in solidarity with youth activists as they form their own responses to the unconventional political climate.

Building Relationships

A few hours later, Rabbi Susan Talve and Rev. Traci Blackmon shared the stage.

Talve is the founding rabbi of Central Reform Congregation, a Jewish congregation in the city of St. Louis emphasizing "radical inclusivity" by developing close relationships with Muslim, African American and LGBTQ communities.

Blackmon was a registered nurse who now serves as senior pastor of Christ the King United Church of Christ in Florissant. The two religious leaders formed a relationship by studying their sacred texts together.

Rev. Traci Blackmon, left, and Rabbi Susan Talve. photo by Ameet Rawal (click for larger version)

"It doesn't matter how diverse your classroom is, if your personal life is not diverse, you're not going to get it," Blackmon said.

Conference attendees had the opportunity to participate in teacher-led workshops. This year's "Courageous Educator Award" recipient, Dr. Tamara Wells, presented on "CHAT: Children Having Academic Talks," about her students' experiences navigating Standard American English and African American English.

Wells, a sixth-grade English teacher for the Hazelwood School District, said her students were scoring low on grammar, so the school instituted a Daily Oral Language practice. Observing her students' complaints, Wells recalled her own hurtful experiences being told that she didn't "speak proper."

She had her students create monologues dramatizing the struggle to balance their two languages, such as the frustration of repeatedly being told by teachers: "You write like you speak." She urged teachers to investigate how they construct language ideologies in their classrooms, affirming students' first language, then asking, "Is there a different way you can say that?"

photo by Ameet Rawal (click for larger version)
In "Advocacy 101: Making Your Voice Heard on the Issues You Care About," Jos Linn of results.org shared the most effective strategies for teachers and students to make their voices heard to government officials. Linn discussed the different ways that students and teachers can influence members of Congress, as well as which strategies are proven to be most effective.

Growing Up Wired

"Growing Up Wired: What Students Learn about Each Other from the Media" focused on the amount of time kids spend in front of screens – seven-and-a-half to nine hours a day. As a result, there is a need for media literacy classes to teach students to make sense of their screens, discerning real news from fake news, understanding that media has embedded values and perspectives, and understanding the role of profit and power in media-making.

"Partnerships That Unite Diverse Students" encouraged teachers to engage their students in games that facilitate cooperation rather than competition.

Teaching Inclusion

Meanwhile, teacher-led table displays allowed teachers across St. Louis to share their research, curricular innovations and school-wide initiatives regarding social justice.

Carolyn Fuller of the University of Missouri-St Louis shared the findings

of her dissertation. Her project exposed six students in an education social justice course to three different texts addressing race and used theoretical frameworks to analyze their responses.

"The use of literature that is racialized in nature is a critical catalyst in the future trajectory of teaching for social justice," Fuller said.

English teacher Anna Sobotka presented the work of Teachers for Inclusion and Cultural Competency, a group of teachers who meet monthly after school to discuss articles that challenge them to deepen their understanding of how race and privilege affect their performance as educators.

Toward the end of the day, a small group conversation took place between Catone and about 15 teachers from across St. Louis. Conference organizer Sarah Miller spoke of her "other life" as an English teacher at Wydown Middle School in the Clayton School District, but stated that she was "born with a bleeding heart" and had participated in activism since she was little.

A woman wearing a head scarf spoke up: "I am from the International Institute of St. Louis," she said in careful, halting English. "I come from Morocco. I have spent one day in the United States."

The group broke into applause, then revisited the notion that fighting for social justice is a matter of following youth, with adults creating a barrier of solidarity.

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