Meet Two Teachers Learning to Center Their Students' Identities Without Losing Sight of Their Own

Apr 13, 2021 12:00:00 AM


Lindsay Singer and Ashley McCall are both third grade teachers at Cesar Chavez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago. Lindsay teaches mathematics and inquiry. And Ashley is an English language arts bilingual teacher. We sat down to chat about cultural and social-emotional responsive teaching and how race plays into their co-teaching relationship. According to the most recent state report card, Chavez is made up of 90% low-income students and nearly half of students are English language learners.

You can listen to the full audio of the interview below.

brightbeam · Meet Two Teachers Learning to Center Their Students' Identities Without Losing Sight of Their Own

What is your motivation behind teaching? 

Lindsay:  What I realized very early on is that teachers are actually policymakers. So we have the ability to not only change things in our own classrooms, but change things in our districts, change things in our state, and change things for our students. And so I teach because I know that good, qualified teachers who are passionate about what they do, and who are thinking about anti-racism and social justice are going to make big impacts in the classroom.

Ashley: I come from an education background. My mom was a teacher and principal for 20 years, like my two grandmothers. In thinking about [how to make] big change, I often came back to education as just a major lever in people's lives. And it has been such a key in my own life in terms of how my education experiences have given me access to spaces and to people and to experiences that have completely changed my trajectory. 

How do you cultivate this culture where you are driving success for your students, in all of its facets, right, like not just academic success, but we know that students need more than that too, right? 

Lindsay: I think that something that Ashley and I both do and find really important is that we're super responsive to our students. So depending on the students that are in front of us, what we need to do to create a safe learning space is going to look a little different. For example, this year, Ashley and I both realized that our kids were dealing with a lot of stress and anxiety. There's a lot of changes at home, they're dealing with grief and loss. And then they're also dealing with remote learning, this new thing that we're asking them just to hop into. And so we saw that and we named it and we decided to be flexible. And so we both created units that were focused on processing, strong emotions, like anxiety and stress, and also processing grief and loss. 

So from an academic standpoint, we are always thinking about meeting students where they are and creating equitable spaces where students feel like they can make mistakes, where students feel like they can ask good questions where students know that their voice matters. And I feel like when you walk into our classroom, you can kind of almost feel it, you can feel that students feel like this is my space. And this is a space where I know I can learn and grow in whatever way is good is good for me.

There's been a lot of research about how students tend to be more successful in the classroom when they have teachers that are from the same makeup and background as them. Have you found that to be a challenge in the classroom, and ensuring the success of your students?

Lindsay: So first of all, I think that's 100% true. We want students to see people that look like them, that speak the same first language as them, [and] that have the same experiences as them. Additionally, we want students to be exposed to new things, right? And so I think that as someone who identifies as white, I have to do a lot of self work to kind of think about my positionality in the classroom. And so one thing that's really important to me, and I know it's important to Ashley as well is thinking about our classroom libraries. And also thinking about the books that we teach with.

Students should see themselves in our books first in ways of joy, in ways of excitement and ways that they can relate. We want to make sure that they are connecting with the stories, but then we also want to make sure that they're seeing a diverse set of characters and a diverse set of experiences. 

Ashley: I'm very aware that I do not share the same identity with the majority of my students. And that's something I have to be mindful of, in order to be an effective teacher. We can't walk around with this outdated and debunked idea of colorblindness because that doesn't allow me to be my full self as a teacher. And it certainly doesn't create a safe and productive space for students to be themselves or even for families to enter into our classrooms, and feel seen and celebrated and prioritized.

I will say that, just because it's a challenge doesn't mean it's a deficit. So I accept the challenge, because the work we do is challenging, but I think that each of us brings our own unique experiences. And that from a professional development space, we're also actively working to, again, center our students experiences, center their perspectives, create space for them to tell us who they are, while still being who we are, and making sure that we capitalize on what unique experiences we bring, that will help them get where they want to go.

So definitely, there have been challenging moments, but you know, it's literally our job. Hopefully, I'm getting better at recognizing [the] blind spots and starting to maybe not fully eliminate them but hopefully, year by year, they're decreasing. 

Lindsay and Ashley

So I want to shift the conversation a little bit. Some might consider your ability to work together in a classroom, kind of like a unique gem. How has race played a factor in your teaching relationship? 

Ashley: I think we both are who we are. And from the moment that I met Lindsay in an interview I think it was clear that she brought her full self to Chavez as a person and as a teacher. And I think I do this same, like at no point do I ever pretend or water down the fact that I'm a Black woman, like I talked about it, it's an everything that I do. 

I'm so grateful, again, that we can have these open, honest conversations, because again, how can we expect students to be able to do that, if we as the grownups in front of them aren't able to do that? 

Lindsay: It would be completely crazy to pretend like it didn't matter that I was a white woman in this space, or that it didn't matter that Ashley was a black woman in her space. And so I think that again, that's why relationships are so important. Ashley and I have spent a lot of time and a lot of space on our relationship, and what that looks like and what we need as professionals. 

It also means that I have the duty to continue my own kind of self reflection, and searching out opportunities, where I can continue to work on myself as an ally, myself as an anti-racist person, and myself as an anti racist teacher, that work is forever, I will never come to a point where I don't have to continue doing that work every single day. And that doesn't mean I don't make mistakes. And I don't mess up because I do, but it's important that I name it.

Ashley: Also, I have seen [how] that even impacts how we can show up for the rest of our staff, opportunity to co lead professional development or just, you know, be social with people. And it is my opinion that the work that we've done together as friends, as collaborating teachers, is very apparent when we collaborate and we show up in professional spaces with our colleagues. 

And to Lindsay's point about that work being constant. I think we model that. At least I hope we do. I don't think it's perfect, because I just don't think there's a such thing as perfect.

Lindsay: Ashley and I are both part of the anti-racist committee at our school. And so one of the major things that we do is just hold talking circles, because we know that there's a lot happening in our adult lives, not only with COVID-19, but also with police brutality, with racial justice, with immigration, all things that we as teachers need to be able to process before we bring that into our classroom.

I love those responses so much, because I think it applies in any space too. And the thing that really jumped out to me is the continuous part, like, Lindsey, how you mentioned, the work is never done. [These are things] you have to do, especially when you're showing up in front of people yet alone students. And so both of your answers just like really resonated with me even in the work that I do here at brightbeam.

So we have a couple minutes left, I wanted to give you both a chance to share anything that might be relevant to this conversation that I didn't give you the space to share. I can start with you, Lindsey, if there's anything else you want to share.

Lindsay: You know, I would just end on the fact that I think that what makes Ashley and my work so powerful is this idea that we do come from such different spaces. And we do come with such different experiences. But we're both able to kind of name our strengths and name places where we need to grow and kind of use each other for those things. Ashley and I sometimes finish each other's sentences, which is weird. But if you actually get to know us, Ashley and I are very, very different people, what's made this relationship so strong, is that we were able to say, yeah, we're different people with different strengths. Let's use that to really guide our work in the classroom.

Ashley: I would totally agree. And I think it's easy to forget that. We're not even close to the same person. But we have a similar vision. And at the end of the day, that vision is students first. And so I truly believe we can get anything done because we know why we're doing it. And we know how to leverage our respective experiences and strength to get that done. 

Activism At Every Age

Join Lindsay and Ashley this Friday, April 16th, 2021 from 1:00 pm-3:00 pm CT for a professional learning opportunity where attendees will explore the role of opportunities for activism in the elementary classroom.

Driven by the belief that our youngest students are already developing beliefs about social issues and are directly impacted by policy, facilitators will present a cross-curricular framework for introducing and facilitating student activism.

Attendees will review recent third grade activism projects, explore book lists, identify relevant local resources, and design a grade-level appropriate activism unit draft.

This interactive session will provide individual teachers/teaching teams with the tools to facilitate an activism unit this year!

Photos courtesy of Lindsay Singer and Ashley McCall.

Ikhlas Saleem

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