Rebel With a Cause (November 2018 #1)

“A rebel needs to say something.  An activist needs something to be heard.”

As a principal, my office was in the middle of the school.  Whenever a student left or was pushed out of one of our classes, s/he had to walk by my office, and it was not unusual for a student to make an unplanned stop to let me know what s/he thought about the incident that preceded their referral. One interaction I had with a particular student, still irate at being treated with less than the respect that he believed he deserved, stands out to me:

“Mr. Peters!”

“Yes?”

“This is Leadership High School, right?!”

“Yes.”

“And we are supposed to be learning to leaders, right?”

“Still, yes.”

“Then why, when I am just sharing my opinion, do I get kicked out?”

“I’m not sure – let’s go through exactly what happened.”

“Well, the class was boring and I shared that with the teacher.”

“How exactly did you share it; what were your words?”

“Well, I kinda said out loud, ‘This class sucks!’”

“Ahh. I think I see the problem.”  

On that day, a mantra was born.  While, the exact accurateness of it may be up for question, it has taken me a long way in the days and years since.  I shared with this emerging leader that “a rebel needs to say something; while an activist needs something to be heard.”  We talked about how there are times when one may be more appropriate than the other, but given the reality of power dynamics, his choice may not have been the most effective given how upset he was that the teacher did not hear and respect his opinion.  

How do we offer feedback so that it can be heard?  

I remember learning about feedback principles, years ago from a longtime Coalition of Essential Schools Educator Joe Macdonald.  His research suggested we should offer a balance of warm, cool and hard feedback.  

Warm feedback offers information about something that is effective and working well.  Warm feedback is offered in a supportive and appreciative manner and is authentic, meaningful, tangible.  Here is an example of warm feedback we might offer a teacher we just observed:

“It was great to see your classroom expectations and agenda posted before class began.  This really seemed to help students stay focused when you were taking attendance – every single student was on task!   When the one late student wanted to use her out-of-class pass, all you had to do was point to the classroom expectations.”

Cool feedback offers someone a different way of thinking about a situation.  Cool feedback is a little more distant and may raise questions about the situation but still is readily actionable.  When invited, cool feedback may sometimes include realistic suggestions without a lot of judgment. Here is an example of cool feedback for that same classroom observation:

“Answering students homework questions at the start seemed to help students move into the class work.  I noticed that all the homework questions came from the same 6 students – who sat at two tables in the front.  How do students determine where to sit – or how did you design your seating chart? I wonder if using a call and response structure would change the pattern of whose questions and answers you hear?”

Some time ago, we decided to change MacDonald’s “hard feedback” to that of “hot feedback”.  Besides completing the metaphor, “hot” also more represents the radical discourse we have come to recognize as essential if we are going to seek and attain educational equity in the face of the systemic racism and other forms of oppression well established in our school systems.  Hot feedback is intended to get to the heart of a matter – the root issues behind situation that may be more at the surface. In giving hot feedback we seek to challenge one’s thinking behind an issue and help them look in a mirror to consider how they may be situated within their own dilemmas.  Again, when invited, we may use hot feedback to raise concerns. One thing that we have learned about pushing people with hot Feedback is that it is best heard when the receiver of the feedback feels some ownership and thus, hot feedback often is heard best when put in the form of authentic questions.  Finally, here is an example of hot feedback:

“When TJ blurted out a question about the lesson, you reminded him that you already warned him not to interrupt the class – again referencing your class expectations.  You sent TJ out with a referral. Later, Mary interrupted your lesson with less volume. You stopped your instruction to clarify her concerns. Was the different response due to repeated behavior by TJ?  I am wondering to what extent are we more alert to some students’ interruptions because of their cultural norms for communicating. To what extent might this result in inequitable behavior management and or access to information?“

Balancing these principles have served those in our schools quite well, and now I wonder, how might these principles serve us outside our classrooms?  Given the nature of discourse in our society right now, and given the temptation to distance ourselves from those who disagree with us at a time when we need to find more ways to come together and have radical discourse across difference – including difference of opinion, what is it for which you are being a rebel and spouting your perspective regardless how it is heard?  In the spirit of activism – for whatever you seek to be an activist – how might you better engage in radical discourse with those across difference of opinion… so that you may actually be heard?

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