• June 22

Look Who’s Talking!: Building a ‘Brave Space’ in Class

  • Taylor Martin

   “To teach in a manner that respects and cares for the souls of our students is essential if we are to provide the necessary conditions where learning can most deeply and intimately begin.” -bell hooks

My teenage years included trips to the movie theater where I was mesmerized by 3D movies. I loved watching all the action pop through the screen and come alive with my cardboard red and blue (technically red and “cyan”) 3D glasses! As the movie started, I would alternate closing one eye, then the other, just to see what the images looked like through each individual lens before being swept away by the story, excitedly settling into the 3D layers from both lenses. After all, life is multidimensional, so let’s see it that way.

When observing effective teachers, it’s inspiring to see the class come to life, particularly when students are engaging in rigorous discourse. In this moment, the engagement of the teacher and students is multidimensional, much like a 3D movie. But a student’s ability to learn is not only a factor of the content with which they’re presented, it’s also a factor of what the student is bringing into the class: their identity, their emotional state, their past experiences with the topic. When a teacher embeds both of these lenses into instruction–academic rigor and student-centeredness) –they work together to place students’ brains in an executive functioning state, thus creating conditions for deep learning.

Enriching Class Conversation

Last May, my colleagues David Deatherage and Brendan Campbell shared our approach to facilitating effective discourse, including our key learning from Viola Davis that “our preparation frees us to listen.” David and Brendan reminded us that discourse is a critical point in a lesson because it’s often when students engage in high levels of productive struggle, stretching their understanding. To elevate academic rigor during discourse, they reminded us to ask ourselves “What am I hearing from students?” In other words, “What key understandings, academic vocabulary, etc. are students articulating, and what are they still missing?” 

This academic lens is critical, but the inspiring effect or ‘feel’ of a class that has truly come to life during discussion requires one additional layer. As most experienced educators can attest, discourse is when social dynamics between students frequently come into play, when students need to take a leap of faith that their ideas will be heard and considered. So what else are highly effective teachers doing during discourse, beyond academics, to support students socially and emotionally?

Elevating our Classroom Lens

In addition to asking themselves, “What am I hearing from students?” our most effective teachers also ask: “How many different students–and who–am I hearing from?, What might be the social-emotional reasons some students aren’t speaking up?, How can I build psychological safety or confidence for students to share their thinking?”

These questions, especially around student emotions, can be daunting if we jump straight into ‘fix-it’ mode. It’s impossible for a teacher to uncover and ‘fix’ the range of personal or emotional struggles each student might carry into the classroom with them during a given day. But by being intentionally curious about how a student’s identity, emotions, and experiences factor into learning–we can uncover concrete strategies to elevate learning and wellbeing together. 

As an example of what this can look like in-action, see the videos below from two extraordinary teachers. The first features the first grade classroom of Kim Perez at Leadership Prep Canarsie. The second features the high school Latin American History classroom of Ginette Amezquita at Uncommon Leadership Charter High School. As you watch, try to notice teacher actions from both lenses of your figurative 3D glasses! Consider:

  • What do Kim and Ginette say and do to elevate academic understanding and the socio-emotional wellbeing of students?

Like us, you may have noticed overlap between teacher actions that elevate academic understanding and those that center learners. Many actions support both! Here are a few key strategies during discourse that we’ve uncovered from highly effective teachers like Perez and Amezquita:

  • Brave Space: Rollout and reinforce clear norms for sharing and listening in discussion.
  • Diversity of Voice: Vary engagement techniques (e.g. turn-and-talk, warm-call/pre-call, cold-call) and who is being called on to increase the number and range of student voices being heard.
  • Affirmation & Accountability: Affirm/validate the thinking skills and qualities behind student responses, not just the correctness of what’s shared. And balance affirmation with holding students to high expectations (academic expectations and class culture expectations, such as ‘Brave Space’ norms). 

We’ve codified a Building Brave Spaces framework, which can be particularly useful when students are engaging in discussion of more personal topics. And because we know that the 3D power of academic discourse requires teachers to facilitate with both rigorous academics and a socio-emotional learning lens in mind, we’re excited to share that we’ve embedded these strategies within our updated K-12 Universal Discourse one pager!

At Uncommon, we talk about “uncovering” or “codifying” socio-emotional strategies, not “creating” or “adding” them… because these strategies aren’t new! What we’ve found is that our most effective teachers have always used them to support students. But by explicitly naming these strategies, and using a common language to describe them across our schools, we’re better able to equip and train all teachers to share in this wealth. After all, learning is multidimensional, so let’s approach it that way!

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Director of Content Development

Taylor Martin

Taylor Martin is the Director of Content Development for Uncommon Schools. As an org-wide leader in professional development and working groups, he drives innovation, codification, and training of instructional practices, guiding teachers and leaders along the cutting edge of what’s possible in schools. As part of this work, he’s spent the past two years spearheading Uncommon’s approach to social-emotional learning, working to embed SEL practices alongside diversity, equity, & inclusion within rigorous academic learning. Taylor first joined Uncommon Schools in 2011 as a founding teacher at North Star Academy Vailsburg Middle School. He is an alum of Teach for America–Greater Newark Corps, Relay Graduate School of Education (M.A. Teaching), and Washington University in St. Louis (B.A. Psychology).