The Empowering Impact of Love

I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. -Dr. Maya Angelou

A few things I believe, at this point in my life:

  1. No one listens to what you say, not for very long anyway.
  2. No one really notices what you do, perhaps for a split second, but that’s fleeting, really.
  3. Feelings, however, have something really big to do with being able to create the conditions within which change in others, truly deeply felt the change, occurs in folks’ hearts, minds, and actions.

These are my hunches, for now, anyway…

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we have such power, as human beings, to influence the way those around us feel. Not necessarily what those around us should feel or certainly not why, but how they are made to feel by our presence in their life. It seems nuanced, but it’s really not. As an adult, cisgender, white, educated woman in a society that privileges most all of the identities that I hold, I have much power in nearly all of the spaces I occupy in my life. I’ve been keenly aware lately of how my examination of this power and privilege I hold is essential in mitigating its effects on those around me. I’ve also come to understand, through much reading, studying, talking to people around me, living and just personal introspection, how dangerous this unchecked power and privilege can truly be.

A professor, who I consider an influential mentor, recently stated on a Twitter chat, “…we need to carefully teach folx how to ‘lift’ + ‘empower’ in ways that de-center priv. no more ‘white savior’ w this work” -Dr. Dana M. Stachowiak. First, this statement froze me in my tracks. It’s true, right, we don’t lift others or empower others. We can only create the conditions within which others feel lifted or empowered, so that they are truly the ones doing the lifting or empowering of themselves. Second, de-centering privilege is key here: to think so much of ourselves that we are the saviors who anoint others lifted, empowered, given a voice, and so on is quite arrogant of us. This goes back to my first point: we can only create conditions where people feel lifted, empowered, heard. Dr. Nicol R. Howard, a professor at the University of Redlands, recently commented, “I know you’ve heard this before: ‘Give students back their voice.’ Resist the idea of ‘giving back’ something that never belonged to you.” Isn’t that the truth? Another’s voice, especially that of a child, has never belonged to adults; that’s essentially adult privilege speaking. Third, when you think about how Dr. Stachowiak urges us to “carefully teach folx” how to do this work, I really want to emphasis her use of the word ‘carefully.’ I believe there is a careful balance of providing adults with the opportunity to outgrow their best selves with new learning, but the careful part comes when they’ve direct influence over children’s lives, as an educator or a guardian/parent/family member/coach/etc. I can’t stress enough how much I agree with her use of the word ‘carefully’ here.

So, let me bring this together for you in a more coherent way, as I may be creating a bit of a tangent. My big idea for this thought piece is this: adults hold much power over children. Unchecked power and privilege are dangerous in our society. If adults hold unchecked power over children, it is just plain dangerous. No one can empower another person. With care, however, one can begin to create the conditions within which others, especially children, feel empowered and gain the tools to empower themselves from an oppressive system that privileges adult perspective, adult voice, and adult presence over that of children. This is my story of how one amazing activist teacher did just such a thing, that both Dr. Stachowiak and Dr. Howard wrote of. I invite you to journey along with me as I unpack how this all came about and attempt to privilege the voice of children by creating space for you to experience this journey through their voices, their eyes.

Have you ever felt like this and asked yourself this question: Is everyone doing this thing and I didn’t get the memo on it? Like, did every have access to this secret knowledge that I someone was absent for, missed the book recommendation for, or (had I been on Twitter when I had the honor of having my own classroom) missed that Tweet about this ultimate amazing teacher thing? (Oh yeah, I forgot to mention to you: I’m an educator on a quest to research exemplar educators across this nation to find out what it is they are doing so artfully to create conditions of inclusivity in their classrooms so all children, including my visible elementary-aged trans child and his peers, feel seen, heard, and privileged within the context of the school and classroom landscape. It’s my eternal drive to make sure my kid and his trans peers across this nation not only survive the systemically oppressive schooling system that has historically defined the nation within which I was born, taught in, and now attempt to actively shift to become more equitable and just for all children, but that they thrive due to the courageously compassionate minds, hearts, and actions of amazing educators, whom I believe to be the most noble of professions in our society today. Phew, so I’ll jump down from my soapbox and attempt to refocus my writing for you…).

Well, one snowy Manhattan morning just a few months ago, I felt this exact thing in a beautiful classroom I visited as a guest researcher: I hadn’t done enough as a classroom teacher, I didn’t know enough then. If only I’d know what I know now. Alas, there is only the past and the eternal present, so although I’d love to go back in time and jump in with both feet to recreate, in my own way, the brilliance I experienced in this activist educator’s classroom, I can only paint you a beautiful picture so you may see yourself in her work and try it out yourself with the children you spend time with regularly, in whatever capacity it is you find yourself in the space of children. My intent for this writing tonight is to center children, but I must also advocate for this amazing educator, as I realize the need for the world to live in this activist educator’s classroom, as I did, and certainly hope to again, one day soon. Ms. T embodies what Bernice A. King, daughter of Dr. Martin Luther, Jr., speaks of when she says, “LOVE is the most fierce proactive and reactive force. Love is aggressive, intentional, wise, courageous.” I have come to know Ms. T, both as a person and an activist educator, as intentional, courageous, and oh so wise. Here’s why I hold these truths for her. Believe me, once you’re to the end of this thought piece tonight, you’ll either (1) want to be her (2) want your children to be in her class or (3) want to live in her classroom, too, as I do. For this writing, I call her Ms. T, as I honor her request for a bit of anonymity, but she did mention I could share her Twitter handle with you, so if you’re on Twitter, you must absolutely pause from reading this to follow her (@tianasilvas). Okay, you’re back. Let’s continue.

I’m going to sneak in one more belief I hold, and this one is a non-negotiable for me: Adults need to get over their need to control the world. Yep, I said it. I’ll say it again: we need to get out of our own way, and that of children, too, if we are to truly make our belief, that we seek to see the children around us feel empowered a reality. Stick with me, I promise you’ll see why soon. Although I make this statement with the sincerest of intent, I get it, I was once there in my need for control over the world, especially in my classroom with the glorious students that I had the pleasure of teaching. But you knew what, I’ve begun the process of outgrowing that me. I’m not thereby a mile, mind you, but the process of shedding that me that seeks to control the world is happening. I’m consciously working hard to de-center my privilege as an adult around children, and that includes the need for control over their lives, their thinking, their actions, their ability to independently navigate through the world, both as a mom and an educator.

Let me make this more concrete for you: if you’re an educator, for example, think about the context of an interactive read aloud. If you’re a parent/guardian/family member, think about a bedtime story where you’ve read the book to yourself ahead of time and have a sense of how you might want to read the story to the child in your life, perhaps where you plan to emphasize particular parts. You with me? Beautiful. Now, let’s think more deeply about the planning of the read aloud. Essentially, the planning is solely controlled by us, by adults. We control the text selection, how the text is read, when we want to stop and think aloud, when we want to illicit interaction: either through questions to a child or students, and in the classroom context, moments for turn and talks and stop and jot or act out or sketch. As adults, and I know I did, we pride ourselves on the planning of these interactive read aloud of texts. Perhaps we stop for student reactions on the spot, of course noticing reactions from the children around us and responding to these moments as opportunities to tap into the innate human reaction. But at the end of the day, aren’t the read alouds we plan, especially in the context of a classroom setting, mostly controlled by adults, our perspectives, our privilege on what we want students to gain from the text, from our power to control how the text is unpacked for children, from our power to even choose which texts to read aloud? You disagree? Okay, you’ve that right. But, some of what I say must resonate with you. Perhaps you agree and you’ve already been attempting or considering attempting ways around this idea of adult privilege controlling texts. Exciting…I’d love to know more!

So, here’s what I’d like to explore with you for the rest of this thought piece: What would happen if we decentralized our adult power and handed over the responsibility of planning and facilitating an interactive read aloud to children? If we created what Dr. Stachowiah and Dr. Bettez call emancipatory spaces, “spaces in our classroom where there are multiple opportunities to learn about, examine, discuss, and challenge privilege, power, and oppression.” Okay, forgive me, but I must tangent a bit more here to explain why these emancipatory spaces are so vital in this work and then I promise we’ll venture back into the glory of Ms. T’s classroom. If you are interested in learning more about empancipatory spaces, you can follow this link here to their webinar session for The Educator Collaborative’s Spring 2017 Gathering entitled Literacy Classrooms as Emancipatory Spaces: Enacting Radical Love in Times of Hate. It is brilliant, revolutionary, and something that any social justice educator must watch (it’s about 45-minutes, so if you want to go view it and come right back, I’m cool with that. It’s very much worth it and I’m super patient, I’m a mama and an educator, so of course, we must have patience in spades). Dr. Stachowiak speaks of Radical Love, a concept that has stuck with me for eight months after first hearing her speak of it at a national literacy conference. She defines Radical Love as “love amplified. Not just telling someone you love them a lot, when we operate through radical love we are operating through this place of making a conscientious choice to have critical conversations about privilege, power, and oppression in a loving way with other people.” As I’m a steadfast believer in the power of love, her perspective and work move me, influence my work immensely, and guide what I hope educators lead with in every interaction with children: love.

We when co-create the conditions within which students have space to be heard, to bounced ideas off of one another, and to learn from the kid perspective, we all find out what children find important in the text, what they find critical to craft thoughtful dialogue around, and gain the tools to feel empowered and act on this empowerment in big ways throughout their life. This is my hope anyway. Oh, and by the way, the choice of text matters. It matters a great deal. When tackling topics draw directly from what’s happening in the world around children, in their families, in their neighborhoods, their cities, their nation, it matters. Ms. T not only co-created a space where her students felt empowered to plan and facilitate student-led read alouds, but they did it with beautifully inclusive text, one that even included thinking around the LGBTQ community. In her article entitled Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times, Maxine Greene asserts that “Teachers concerned about illumination and possibility know well that there is some profound sense in which a curriculum in the making is very much a part of a community in the making. Many are aware of the call on the part of hitherto marginal groups—ethnic minorities, women, gays and lesbians—for an inclusion of their own traditions in what is sometimes thought of as the “core” of intellectual and artistic life…There are, of course, thousands of silenced voices still; there are thousands of beings striving for visibility.” And to be transparent, all of the current event articles Ms. T’s student facilitators planned and read aloud were those that touched on topics from the world around us, that I’m sure Maxine Greene, Dr. Stachowiak, and Dr. Bettez would consider under that umbrella of dark times in our present and past history. “That, in part, suggests what is meant by teaching as possibility in dark and constraining times. It is a matter of awakening and empowering today’s young people to name, to reflect, to imagine, and to act with more and more concrete responsibility in an increasingly multifarious world” -Maxine Greene. Dr. Stachowiak and Dr. Bettez also advocate for teaching with radical love in classrooms in times of hate within the world around us, these dark times and constraining times with which Maxine Greene reflects upon. More on the exploration of inclusive text shortly.

So, I promised we’d return to the brilliance of Ms. T. She did this. Yep, ALL of this. She lived radical love in the way Dr. Stachowiak and Dr. Bettez spoke of in their webinar, one snowy day. Forgive me ahead of time, but my words and analysis are far less valuable than the actual words of children. If you know me well, and I hope that you’re coming to do so, you know I take copious notes of student interactions, conversations, and talk. So, I hope the following highly descriptive events enables you to jump into Ms. T’s fourth-grade classroom, in the middle of NYC, to experience the beauty of what transpired that morning.

Student-Led Read Aloud Purpose: Empowerment, Perspective, Ownership

The amazingly talented activist teacher Ms. T had been working with her fourth graders to co-create space for them to become the leading voice in critically analyzing text. She met with a small cohort of student facilitators at lunch to support them in planning a student-led interactive read aloud of current events articles. If you think about it, aren’t interactive read alouds really just a Balanced Literacy component with a supported methodology to enable readers to dig deeper into text, experience listening to text read fluently aloud, to promote reading comprehension skills, conversational strategies, and reflective thinking? They can be more than this, yes, but I’d assert these are essential pieces of the purpose of an interactive read aloud. For the morning I visited her class, Ms. T set up the context of the experience for her readers, one which they’d had some experience with this school year. She reminded them that student-led read alouds were about empowerment, perspective, and ownership. She then reviewed the roles of the group members: the facilitator would be reading the text and questions to consider and the audience would be listening with intent. She also referred to the chart below to help these small groups consider types of questions that often lead to critically questioning perspectives in the text.

Chart of Questions that Lead to More Thinking

The small group of five children, including the student facilitator, a young boy who planned the student-led interactive read aloud, and his four classmates who were ready to jump into the current event’s text, gathered in a tight circle in a space near the front of the classroom. I, naturally curious and admittedly so super excited to experience not only the empowering nature of the student-led interactive read aloud, which was absolutely student-planned, driven, facilitated, and managed, but to see how the fourth graders tackled a text about civil rights involving the LGBTQ community, I was literally ready to jump for joy with anticipation. I cozied on the rug near the group, so as to watch the experience unfold, but to honor their autonomy and space to explore without my adult presence interfering with the process. Essentially, I attempted to be a fly on the wall.

The student facilitator began the interactive read aloud with a moment to linger on the title of the current events article as well as the image. He planned for his audience (the four students in his group) to “jot down what you think civil rights are today.” He asked this question of his audience, “What are civil rights? Turn and talk.” What a way to begin this student-led read aloud, right? Lingering on the title builds context for readers and this student facilitator knew this important technique.

His audience had these various responses, including “Civil rights are like race, gender, democracy.” The student facilitator also noted on his planning page to have his audience linger on this photograph in the article and consider “What is going on.”

Jot down what you think civil rights are today

What is going on

The student facilitator read the first line of the article, “All Americans have the same rights. This was decided when the United States was formed.” He had his audience use a note-taking technique of ADD (add, detail, detail) to turn and talk and then jot in their notebook. He posed this question, “Is this true: did we have equal rights when the country was formed? From what you know? Turn and talk with a partner.” What a poignant question, right? In her twenty-year-old article, Teaching as Possibility: A Light in Dark Times, which I’d assert is still incredibly timely today, Maxine Greene states that “without a sense of agency, young people are unlikely to pose significant questions, the existentially rooted questions in which learning beings.” This student facilitator’s question, which pushed his peers to critique the text and decide whether or not they believed that people had equal rights from this country’s inception, was the kind of significant question within which deep learning does begin. As the audience pairs shared ideas with one another, the student facilitator actually coached into their conversations, “Make it a statement, not ‘I think,’ you might want to restate the question before you say ‘no’.” No joke, the student facilitator was coaching into the talk of his classmates. It was breathtaking. Let’s continue! The student facilitator then had the partners switch to add on to one another’s thinking further. As the students shared their thinking, some of the ideas they presented were:

  • “Not all are free, like with their race and gender differences, they didn’t have equal rights.”
  • “Muslims and Jewish people didn’t have equal rights.”

The student facilitator then continued reading the text: “The United States became its own country in 1776. The leaders decided that everyone should be treated the same. It does not matter how people look. It does not matter what people believe. We are all Americans. All Americans have the same rights. This is the law. Sometimes it is not always true. This was the case both today and a long time ago. In the late 1700s, the U.S. government was new. It worked to form the country’s first laws. The laws explained the rights of citizens, the people who are Americans. These laws also did not treat all Americans fairly. They discriminated against Native Americans, African-Americans, women, and others.”

The student facilitator posed this question for his audience to consider with a partner, “What is the definition of discrimination?” A few student responses to their partners were:

  • “It means a little different, they don’t have equal rights.”
  • “They are discriminated on color and gender.”

You’ll notice in the image above that the student facilitator made a few notes on the margins: “What is about” and “Who has power, T T (turn and talk).” He did not explore these with his group at this time, before moving on to page two of the article to continue reading aloud. You know something, often when I plan an interactive read aloud, I plan for stopping points to elicit thinking from children, but I don’t always end up using each place I intended on stopping. This student facilitator didn’t either. It seemed he was responding to his group’s needs and moved along.

The student facilitator continued reading on to the next section of the article, “Different Racial Groups Treated Unfairly. The country soon began to grow to the West. The country now had even more races. For example, a deal in the year 1848 promised Mexicans in the United States the same rights as Americans. In the end, they were not treated fairly. Chinese people were important workers in mines and on railroads in the West. A law in 1882 would not allow them to become Americans. Another law in 1857 took away rights for African-Americans. These laws left African-Americans, Chinese-Americans, Mexican-Americans, and Native-Americans segregated. This means they were separated from whites. By the late 1800s, many of these groups could legally become Americans. Native Americans were not allowed to become citizens until 1924.”

A group member jumped in with this reflection as the student facilitator finished reading that section of the article, “That’s not a long time ago, then.”

“I know!” reacted another group member, in shock.

“Exactly!” reflected another classmate.

The student facilitator then suggested each group member take a moment to process the section in the article, “So, why don’t you, um, summarize this in your notebook.” Each of the four group members spent a few minutes summarizing that section. They then exchanged notebooks, read their partner’s thoughts, and commented in their partner’s notebook. The student facilitator then had his audience share out their thinking. The group agreed this section was about segregation and people not having equal rights.

The student facilitator then read aloud the final part of the article: “Many Who Became Citizens Had to Fight For Their Rights. By the late 1880s, Jim Crow laws separated blacks and whites. For example, black people had to use their own drinking fountains. Blacks and whites sat in separate areas in restaurants or on buses. Most people who finally became citizens found their rights ignored. Certain groups had to fight for the rights they had been given as Americans. They did not really have these rights in their daily lives. Over time, the discriminated groups of Americans has grown. Today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual [transgender is the preferred terminology] people often have to fight for rights. Other groups are disabled people [people with disabilities is more people first inclusive language] and others. The struggle was once about fair treatment for all races. Now, it is about the fair treatment for all groups.”

The student facilitator then asked his group: “Does anyone have any questions about that part?

The kids responded, “No, I’m not asking any question” “Not really, it’s just clear.”

So the student facilitator probed even further, “Any of the words?” And here’s the genius of the student-led interactive read aloud and why it’s such a powerful methodology of youth empowerment: On his copy of the article, where he had made notes as to where to stop and illicit interactions, next to the part in the text where it stated: “Over time, the discriminated groups of Americans has grown. Today, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transexual [transgender is the preferred terminology] people often have to fight for rights.” The student facilitator had underlined ‘lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual’ and asked a question in the margin: “What is about.” He was unsure about what these terms perhaps meant or perhaps was anticipating his classmates might have questions about the terms. The genius about this is as adults, we can only speculate as to what knowledge children bring with them to our classrooms, to the spaces we occupy collectively. It isn’t truly until we step back and listen to what children actually think, look closely at the notes they take on a text, read the questions they want to pose to classmates to unpack complex concepts or terminology, that can we truly have a window into their prophetic minds.

The student facilitator’s audience members responded to his question about the underlined words, “Not really” “Ah…”

Then the student facilitator jumped in and stated, “I would like you to turn and talk and um, can you connect about discrimination.”

One of the group members asked a clarifying question, “Wait, what do you mean connect, like, about discrimination?” to which the student facilitator clarified what he wanted his group to think about, “Have you faced it before?” Groups members stated that they hadn’t experienced segregation or separation themselves.

How has power changed

The student facilitator then posed a question for his group members to consider and asked them to jot ideas in their notebooks. Here was his powerful question: “How has power change? What is the theme of the text?” After students spent a few minutes jotting their ideas, they shared out ideas.

One student stated, “Segregated people want power, too.”

“This is why I think the teacher had us read the Newsela texts after the Declaration of Independence text. There was that travel ban that Trump did. We read the Declaration about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, but not all have it now.”

When I now read what the student facilitator wrote on his planning page for the article, “How has power changed?” I’m drawn to bouncing this question against Dr. Stachowiak and Dr. Bettez’s work on radical love: “Radical love…is an invitation to say that we are going to commit to really having these critical conversations about what it means to operate in a system that’s driven by privilege, power, and oppression.” I also witnessed this exchange of truly student-centered dialogue, completely facilitated by students. These professors talk about dialectical ability. They borrow a bit from Paolo Freire’s thinking in his 2005 work “Teachers as Cultural Workers.” They assert there are indispensable qualities for teaching  where “you are creating a literacy classroom space where not only are you having this, using this gift of talking to your students through critical topics, but you’re also teaching your students this ability so you can have dialogic spaces where you can have talk collectively about things that matter.” It’s the part about teaching your students this ability that catches my attention here. Remember my assertion that one role of the interactive read aloud is really just a Balanced Literacy component with supported methodology to enable readers to dig deeper into text, experience listening to text read fluently aloud, to promote reading comprehension skills, conversational strategies, and reflective thinking? Well, just like staff developers and literacy coaches can create conditions where teachers gain tools to create effective interactive read alouds and become expert at this methodology, so too can children: they can expertly become planners and facilitators, using techniques and methodology of the interactive read aloud, to create these spaces of student-led, student-centered learning.

Below is another current event text that another of Ms. T’s groups tackled. I wasn’t able to observe them, but I wanted you to peek at additional student thinking:

As Dr. Bettez asserts, a goal should be to create spaces where “people can come together in conversation, from who they are, people from different backgrounds, people who have different power in society, basically have an equitable space to speak with each other and that those perspectives that we bring are respected, and there is space for us to speak to each other, without voices being shut out.” Don’t we strive for that in society, in our community spaces, with those around us in our professional and personal lives? Why not also strive for this in our nation’s classrooms? If we can agree that adults need to get over their need to control the world and instead invest time in decentralizing their powerful position in classrooms across this nation, we can begin to create the space for empancipatory classrooms to exist, where children feel empowered with tools to tackle text critically on their own terms, to express their thinking, bounce ideas off one another, and create what Dr. Bettez means by critical communities, where “people who, through dialogue, active listening, and critical question-posing, assist each other in critically thinking through issues of power, oppression, and privilege.”

I want to revisit the words of one of my favorite writers, poets, actresses, and human beings in history, Dr. Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” Here’s what I believe, and I acknowledge that this is number five and I appreciate your patience with my evolving belief system. I kind of think Ms. T’s students may one day forget exactly what she said to them and did with them day in and day out for 180 days in the fourth grade of their schooling career, but you know what they’ll never forget? How she made them feel: empowered, strong, courageous, capable, wise, trusted, heard, loved. That’s how she made me feel, so I cannot but imagine that’s how her students will always remember her. And I hope for you, my adult reader, that’s how you make the children who surround your life feel: empowered, strong, courageous, capable, wise, trusted, heard, and above all else, loved.


Published with permission from an educator ally and a parent of a trans child in our advocacy network.