S2 E1: We (still) Got This: What It Takes to Be Radically Pro-Kid with Cornelius Minor

September 12, 2022 Olivia Wahl Season 2 Episode 1
S2 E1: We (still) Got This: What It Takes to Be Radically Pro-Kid with Cornelius Minor
Show Notes Transcript

Dynamic changemaker and author Cornelius Minor unpacks timely big ideas for listeners from his book; We Got This. Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be.  Cornelius offers strategies to authentically listen and hear what children are communicating, then think and adjust instruction to meet their needs. He encourages us to disrupt the status quo to guarantee access for those who benefit less from the way things are. Cornelius shares how to make our curricula work for all students and illuminates why we must shift from being compliant employees to proficient educators.

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Schoolutions - S2 E1: We (still) Got This: What It Takes to Be Radically Pro-Kid with Cornelius Minor
[00:00:00] Olivia Wahl: I am Olivia Wahl, and I am humbled to welcome my guest today, one of the most dynamic changemakers I've crossed paths with, Cornelius Minor.

[00:00:10] Olivia Wahl: I was first inspired by Cornelius's wisdom when I read his book, We Got This. Equity, Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be hot off the press in 2018. Fast forward to the National Council of Teachers of English Conference in November of 2019. The night before the conference launched, I sat at the hotel desk in Baltimore, Maryland, and poured over the NCTE session manual with a highlighter in hand.

[00:00:36] Olivia Wahl: I intended to soak in as many sessions as I could facilitated by Mr. Minor. Luckily, there are many, but listeners, you have to picture and understand the gravity of what it takes to get a seat in one of his sessions. Cornelius's sessions are filled to capacity within minutes, often standing room only at best.

[00:00:57] Olivia Wahl: This is a testament to his compassion and magnetism. His practices serve as a charge to ensure that our children's education access and opportunities are not limited by their social conditions. Over the course of those three days, Cornelius's sessions illuminated for me how to use inquiry as a tool to activism and empowerment.

[00:01:18] Olivia Wahl: How to use games like Minecraft, Fortnite, and Roblox to foster imagination, inquiry, and practice risk-taking. How to unearth intersectionality and school systems, finding and fostering connections that take place between systems and individuals to create inclusive, brave spaces within the institution of school.

[00:01:39] Olivia Wahl: And how to listen radically; taking an inquiry stance in the reading and writing workshop. I have hoped to have Cornelius as a guest since launching the Schoolutions podcast. We can all benefit from his tools and strategies to help better hone our own listening superpowers. Now let me share a bit with you about Cornelius's story.

[00:02:01] Olivia Wahl: Cornelius Minor is a Brooklyn-based educator. He works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support equitable literacy reform in cities and sometimes villages across the globe. His latest book, We Got This., explores how the work of creating more equitable school spaces is embedded in our everyday choices, specifically in the choice to really listen to kids.

[00:02:27] Olivia Wahl: He has been featured in Education Week, Brooklyn Magazine, and Teaching Tolerance magazine. He has partnered with the Teacher's College Reading and Writing Project, the New York City Department of Education, the International Literacy Association, and the Lesley University Center for Reading Recovery and Literacy Collaborative.

[00:02:46] Olivia Wahl: Out of Print, a documentary featuring Cornelius, made its way around the film festival circuit, and he has been a featured speaker at conferences all over the world. Along with his partner and wife, Kass Minor, he has established The Minor Collective, a community-based movement designed to foster sustainable change in schools. Whether working with educators and kids in Los Angeles, Seattle, or New York City, Cornelius uses his love for technology, hip-hop, and social media to bring communities together.

[00:03:18] Olivia Wahl: As a teacher, Cornelius draws not only on his years of teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with young people. You can connect with him at his website,, or on Twitter @MisterMinor. Welcome, welcome, welcome, Cornelius.

[00:03:41] Cornelius Minor: Olivia, I am so excited to be here with you. Oh my gosh. What an opportunity. Thank you for inviting me. Your listeners are always so engaged. I follow your work, so I'm a fan of yours, so to be here is a bit of a dream come true for me. So thanks so much.

[00:03:56] Olivia Wahl: Well, I'm pinching myself, and I have been since you agreed to come on. 

[00:04:03] Olivia Wahl: Something I ask every single guest because we are inspired by many around us is to share (I'm sure there are many), but share one educator that has rocked your world - really inspired you to be who you are. 

[00:04:18] Cornelius Minor: Wow. Now, like, I've kind of gotta cheat because it can never just be one. I think of folks who are our ancestors and then folks who are our contemporaries and who are working with us now.

[00:04:29] Cornelius Minor: And there are two ancestors whose work continues to speak to me. Fannie Lou Hamer, the great Civil Rights icon. She wasn't a career educator, but so much of her leadership and her activism was teaching. She taught people how to be bold. She taught people how to stand up. She taught people how to organize. She taught people how to make contributions, however small, that would carry movements forward.

[00:04:52] Cornelius Minor: And so Fannie Lou Hamer, who often goes unheralded or unmentioned when we talk about, you know, Civil Rights in these yet-to-be United States of America. But then I also think about the great Carter G. Woodson. So much of who I am as an educator comes from what I have learned from Carter G. Woodson. He's most famous for inventing African American History Week, which became Black History Month.

[00:05:15] Cornelius Minor: But of course, he wrote the, for me, the seminal text, The Mis-Education of the Negro, which really outlined so much of what education was and wasn't for formerly enslaved people. And, and it still speaks to today's conditions for so many children, not just across the country but across the globe. 

[00:05:34] Olivia Wahl: Yeah. 

[00:05:34] Cornelius Minor: And so Carter G. Woodson is often described as a fugitive pedagogue, and I just love that designation, and so I, I call myself that.

[00:05:41] Cornelius Minor: So those are my two ancestors. My two contemporaries, you know, my co-teacher of many years is an educator now in California. She moved away from New York, so the kids called her Miss Yiaueki is my possibly my favorite teacher on the planet. You know, we shared a classroom for almost a decade, and I just love her, love her, love her.

[00:06:00] Cornelius Minor: And I always go back to our time together. You know that whenever I'm in a tough spot, whenever I am facing difficulty, I think about Ainate. What would she have done in this moment? Or what part of the workshop would she have illuminated here? Or how would she have intervened in this? Um, and so even though we don't teach in the same classroom anymore, I carry her with me everywhere.

[00:06:21] Cornelius Minor: And then I think lots about, you know, I know this is silly, but I think lots about my own first-grade teacher, a woman named Miss Champion in Spalding County, Georgia. And that's where she is now. And um, yeah, she just kind of made school everything amazing. And so I'm always chasing her as an icon. Yeah. 

[00:06:43] Olivia Wahl: Uh, and so I hope that all of our children get to have teachers that make everything amazing. 

[00:06:49] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. 

[00:06:50] Olivia Wahl: And I something that I have spent a lot of time over the summer in particular, before kicking off season two, I went back, and I reread a lot of my favorite books, professional books on my bookshelf. One of those books that still strikes such a chord is your book.

[00:07:08] Olivia Wahl: We Got This. And I continue to think to myself that an ever-present issue in education is learning not being accessible to ALL children. And I say ALL in caps. 

[00:07:22] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. Absolutely.

[00:07:22] Olivia Wahl: And you offer brilliant tools and strategies to really hear each student through that process.

[00:07:31] Olivia Wahl: Quoting from your book: “…is to augment our listening to truly hear each student. Sparking action and allowing us to make powerful moves toward equity by broadening access to learning for all children.” 

[00:07:44] Olivia Wahl: That's where it's at. 

[00:07:45] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely.

[00:07:45] Olivia Wahl: What a beautiful way to kick off this school year for teachers to ask, you know: How do we listen? How do we hear our children? Something I heard you say years ago was that we have to be radically pro-kid. So, Cornelius, I've gotta know from you, do you think we still got this in 2022? 

[00:08:07] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely. I mean, of course the road is more treacherous in 2022. You know, we have really yet to survive a pandemic. The political and economic backlash to the movement for equity has been real and articulated and organized.

[00:08:22] Cornelius Minor: So for every one of us who seeks to extend rights to every corner of this planet, there are those who seek to abridge them. 

[00:08:31] Olivia Wahl: Yes.

[00:08:31] Cornelius Minor: Our work is even more urgent now than when I wrote the book. You know, I think all the time about being radically pro-kid, and people always say, well, Cornelius, your work is political.

[00:08:41] Cornelius Minor: You know, where are you? Are you left? Are you right? And I always tell people I am on the side of children. You know and, and it is our work in very real terms to create opportunity for children. That's our calling. Right? 

[00:08:53] Olivia Wahl: It is.

[00:08:53] Cornelius Minor: You know, to create opportunity with respect to our planet and our environment and to the myriad communities of people that we share it with.

[00:08:53] Cornelius Minor: Right? That, that is our work to create opportunity for kids. And so anything that seeks to limit opportunity for any child stands in the way of our work and is in opposition to who we are. Right? And so widespread hunger stands in the way of our work because that limits opportunity for kids. Access to medical care limits opportunity for kids.

[00:09:22] Cornelius Minor: So that stands in the way of our work. Limitations on what kids can read in classrooms stands in the way of our work. And so our work is absolutely political because we are pro-kid and anything that limits opportunity for a kid is work that we've got to overcome.

[00:09:37] Olivia Wahl: And that's one of the hardest aspects of this because some of the obstacles you just mentioned feel out of our control in some ways.

[00:09:45] Cornelius Minor: Yeah, yeah.

[00:09:46] Olivia Wahl: I think something that is absolutely within our control, within our reach, is how we listen. 

[00:09:56] Cornelius Minor: Yes!

[00:9:56] Olivia Wahl: And what I'd love to do is frame our conversation, still reaching back into the bigger pieces of your book yet couch and frame everything in where we are now.

 [00:10:09] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely!

[00:10:10] Olivia Wahl: Right? Present day. So one thing I'd love for you to speak to is how do we authentically listen to hear what students are communicating? 

[00:10:17] Cornelius Minor: Well, you know, listening happens in so many ways. And I think when we hear a word like listening, we, we tend to limit the act, right? And so I think of listening as, as a passionate act. And listening doesn't always happen because someone is speaking to me.

[00:10:32] Cornelius Minor: Sometimes listening is like watching how someone walks into the room and noticing that their head is down today. Sometimes listening is noticing that a kid has their hoodie up and seems to be hiding from the world this morning. Sometimes listening is watching people interact with each other at the lunch table and noticing that someone is left out of the group.

[00:10:48] Cornelius Minor: You know? So listening involves all of our information gathering. It's what Yetta Goodman called kid-watching so many years ago. Right? It's really seeing everything about kids and who they are or seeing as much as I can. So sometimes listening is watching kids on the play yard as they exit the building.

[00:11:06] Cornelius Minor: Sometimes listening is running into a kid at the grocery store, or listening is seeing a kid at the park and watching how they play a game. That all of that is data that I collect about who students are so that it informs my instruction. And that's really, really big. I think listening is critical, principally because and, and I love how you mentioned, you know, the things that we can change and the things that we cannot change.

[00:11:29] Cornelius Minor: I often think about my realm of concern in the world, right? Like all of the things that I'm concerned about. I'm concerned about us having a planet two generations from now. I'm concerned about our economy. I’m concerned about like employment. You know, there are all these huge things that I'm concerned about that are within my realm of concern.

[00:11:45] Cornelius Minor: But if I stay in that realm of concern, it can overwhelm me. And so often in our work, Olivia, I think about our realm of actual influence. What are the things that I can influence and change? And so in all of the things that we do together, Olivia, I'm always thinking, okay, we have this big concern, but then here are the things that I can influence as a literacy coach in Brooklyn, New York.

[00:12:08] Cornelius Minor: And so for me, that's the experience that kids have in classrooms, right? That's the books that they have access to. That's the way that they treat each other and the way that they engage with their communities. And I think it's important to name that as we have both grown as professionals, our influence has grown alongside us.

[00:12:26] Cornelius Minor: And so for educators, I really feel 0listening is the fuel that allows you to grow your influence in a school community. 

[00:12:33] Olivia Wahl: Beautiful, yeah.

[00:12:34] Cornelius Minor: The more you know about kids, the more you can act. That anything that we do on behalf of children or in the name of children without listening to them is colonial. 

[00:12:44] Olivia Wahl: I agree.

[00:12:45] Cornelius Minor: Right? You can't act for the people if you haven't heard the people, if you are not among the people. So listening matters to me profoundly. The word that I've been using recently is heavy presence, light touch. That, that, that folks won't articulate in traditional ways what they need often. But if I'm around, if my presence is heavy and my touch is light, I can be among students.

[00:13:07] Cornelius Minor: I can be among communities of parents and caregivers, and I can learn and intuit what people need. And so again, sometimes listening isn't a conversation, but sometimes it's an act of being. 

[00:13:18] Olivia Wahl: I am so into what you're saying, and I'm also thinking of it as a mom and raising a teenager, and the whole notion - I've been struggling because there are moments in passing, it's the time is so fleeting with our teenagers.

[00:13:36] Cornelius Minor: Yeah.

[00:13:37] Olivia Wahl: Not just in middle and high schools, but in my own house. And I'm noticing how critical those morning drives or walks are to school, just being in the moment and taking in the little whispers, taking in the nuggets of when there are opportunities that he wants to share or talk. And I think we have to be ready for that with our students.

[00:14:00] Olivia Wahl: It's not on our clock. 

[00:14:03] Cornelius Minor: I have been practicing.

[00:14:04] Olivia Wahl: Right? And I think as grownups, we lose sight of that. It could be at midnight in my house when my older son is ready to have a conversation. It's not going to be at 8:00am when we're racing out of the house and everything is frenetic. I transfer that same notion of time to our school classrooms.


[00:14:25] Olivia Wahl: We feel like we're on this…

[00:14:26] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely.

[00:14:27] Olivia Wahl: …crazy hamster wheel of getting through the day. You're so present in every moment when I have the privilege of being in a session, learning from you or when you're teaching children. How do you make sure that you are present and can push aside that ticking clock? 

[00:14:46] Cornelius Minor: I have been practicing.

[00:14:47] Cornelius Minor: I'm West African, so I'm Liberian, and there is a way of being in my culture where my grandmother used to always say to me, Cornelius, it is not as important to be on time as it is important to be in time

[00:15:02] Olivia Wahl: Wow.

[00:15:02] Cornelius Minor: And so I am always practicing being fully present in time, and it even connects to the Western tradition.

[00:15:09] Cornelius Minor: Tolstoy has this idea where he asks the question, who's the most important person on the planet? And the answer is the person that you're currently with. And so I always think about if I'm standing next to Olivia, then she's the most important person on the planet right now. And I pour all of my energy, all of my love, all of my listening into our interaction.

[00:15:28] Cornelius Minor: And then Olivia's going to leave the room and go to fourth period. And then someone else is going to come into the room and I do the same thing. And that act has been written about a lot. It's called presencing, right? That before leaders can make any real impact. You've gotta not just be present in small moments, but you have to have been present in accumulated moments, so that informs your leadership.

[00:15:47] Cornelius Minor: And I think about teaching in the same way that in any classroom, in any school community, I spend lots of time presencing just being present so that I can learn. Because all of that learning informs what I do. And you're absolutely right, sometimes it happens at midnight.

[00:16:05] Cornelius Minor: You know, my best conversations with children are when we're walking to the cafeteria, cuz that's when they're whispering to each other. That's when they're like hiding their toys in their backpack. You know, that's when they've got their cell phones out, sending secret messages, but you learn so much about them. So I could easily just lead the line and walk to lunch.

[00:16:22] Cornelius Minor: But to be on the line and fully present with children, observing, watching, learning is a really, really powerful act because it informs everything that happens, not just that day, but for the rest of the year.

[00:16:35] Olivia Wahl: I have the gift of working with Toni Cameron and Lucy West at times, and we've talked often about the concept of painting a portrait of each child that we get to learn from and spend time with.

[00:16:49] Olivia Wahl: And I've been talking a lot this summer with kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers before they hit the middle school run, about really painting a portrait of two or three children a day - following them and conferring with them through every content area. And so at the end of the day, you really, really know inside and out who those few children are.

[00:17:13] Olivia Wahl:  Be present with them. I'm talking, go see who they eat lunch with. 

[00:17:17] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely.

[00:17:17] Olivia Wahl: See who they play with on the playground. Like hang with them. The next day, choose three other children that you really want to hone in on, and by the end of two weeks, you'll know your children inside and out in a way. 

[00:17:30] Olivia Wahl: Again, that's kindergarten through fifth grade, but it's the same notion of celebrating the tiny moments to the bigger moments. I'm going to shift our conversation. These are scary times right now. I have friends that teach and they've been told they are not allowed to participate in Scholastic Book Fairs because of content of books that may be present and what they're teaching. Um, you speak a lot to disrupting the status quo, and that is the way we're going to guarantee access for those who benefit less from the way things are.

[00:18:06] Olivia Wahl: How in the world do we continue to encourage teachers to disrupt the status quo with all of the consequences for their actions? 

[00:18:15] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely. Well, you know, and, and Olivia, I really want to start with the reality that you named that times feel dangerous right now for a lot of people, but times have always been dangerous if you're a queer person.

[00:18:27] Cornelius Minor: Times have always been dangerous if you're black or an immigrant or multilingual or poor. Times have always been dangerous if you're disabled. I really want to resist the notion that things all of a sudden just got hard because if you ask our friends in the queer community, things have been hard for a long time.

[00:18:41] Cornelius Minor: Or if you ask our friends in the disability community, things have been hard for a long time. And so things are hard now for white people. Things are hard now for wealthy people. 

[00:18:48] Olivia Wahl: Indeed, yes!

[00:18:48] Cornelius Minor: Things are hard now, you know, and I think that's important to point out. And so I want to make sure that listeners note that, and because we've been thinking about that, I often ask myself, who are the communities of people who have been resisting this whole time?

[00:19:01] Cornelius Minor: And how do I learn from them? 

[00: 19:02] Olivia Wahl: Ah, okay.

[00:19:02] Cornelius Minor: Right? Because these aren't new lessons that we have to learn. There are people who have been sustaining themselves, nourishing their communities in the face of opposition for generations, right? And so we already have blueprints. We don't need to run around inventing new ones.

[00:19:17] Cornelius Minor: I think all the time, who are the black women who have been sustaining communities, and how do we amplify and learn from them? Who are, you know, our disabled activists who have been sustaining communities, and how do we amplify and learn from them? And so that has really been a lot of my work recently. As things get harder for more people, it's really turning my attention to the people who have been leading.

[00:19:42] Cornelius Minor: I've spent lots of time again, being present in small communities of folks. Being present, you know, in church basements. Being present in barbershops. Being present in laundromats. Really paying attention to the people who have been disrupting because their survival has depended on it forever. So that's huge.

[00:19:59] Cornelius Minor: And so when I think about disruption, it happens in very big and small ways. And I think one of the things that we as an education community can learn from those who have been disrupting for a long time is, I think, and I'm speaking broadly here, and we know that when we speak broadly, that's always problematic, but, um, folks who tend to be educators become so largely because they are rule followers.

[00: 20:02] Olivia Wahl: Yes.

[00:20:23] Cornelius Minor: A lot of good educators don't want to break rules. If this is the rule or if this is the box that you painted, I'm going to stay in it. Right? And, and I think this moment for many and every moment for some, have required folks to break rules. Because the rules weren't made for whole communities of people. 

[00: 20:43] Olivia Wahl: Yes.

[00:20:43] Cornelius Minor: Right? The rules were not always made for black and brown people. The rules were not always made for Indigenous folks. The rules were not always made for queer folks. And so some people's livelihood, some people's day-to-day existence requires them to break rules. So this whole notion that so many well-intentioned teachers say, well, I want to do good. I just don't want to break rules is a bit naive and shortsighted.

[00: 21:03] Olivia Wahl: Yes, yes.

[00:21:04] Cornelius Minor: Right? That I even think, you know, and to give it a really concrete example. One of the things that we know, for example, is that there are so many approaches to teaching that do not see all students. 

[00: 21:13] Olivia Wahl: 100%.  Yes.

[00:21:14] Cornelius Minor: We know this. Almost every teacher has acknowledged this. We know this, right? But so many times, we adhere to those things anyway because it's tradition. Or because it's what the district said or because it would be too difficult to embed something new right now. And so we adhere to these things that we know don't work for kids. And so we go into our classrooms and we perpetuate these practices.

[00:21:35] Cornelius Minor: We engage in these curricula that don't always see all kids. And then here's what kids do in response. Like we know that that's not okay. Right? But we proceed anyway because tradition or because it's the rule or because it's what the superintendent said and kids know that it's not okay. 

[00: 21:47] Olivia Wahl: Yeah.

[00:21:48] Cornelius Minor: Now, here's the thing. Most kids are not going to write me a well-worded email and say, Dear Mr. Minor, the way that you've constructed this learning experience does not meet my needs as a learner. Right? I'm never going to get that email from a kid. Rather, I see it in their behavior. 

[00: 22:03] Olivia Wahl: Yes! Yes!

[00:22:03] Cornelius Minor: Rather, I see it in their engagement or their lack thereof. Rather I see it in their growth or their lack thereof. You know, the great Carla Shalaby says that in-school behavior is a form of communication. And so we see all of these things in how kids are, but then here's what happens in school. Instead of looking at our practices and asking how might we remix or reimagine school-based experiences to meet the needs of kids, we begin to pathologize children.

[00:22:29] Cornelius Minor: Right? So we label them, you know, defiant, disobedient, disengaged, and then kids carry those labels sometimes for a lifetime. Instead of changing ourselves, we label children. And one of the things that happens is this commitment to tradition over the commitment to children. Or this commitment to policy over the commitment to children ends up harming children in real ways.

[00:22:59] Cornelius Minor: Right? In measurable ways. And of course, what I'm describing here happens disproportionately to multilingual children, to children with learning disabilities, to black and brown children, to poor children. Um, and so the work required in all of our classrooms, especially as so many of us go back to school, the work required is that we examine the systems in our classrooms.

[00:23:19] Cornelius Minor: What have we been asked to do? And do those things actually work for kids? And how do we know…what's the evidence, right? And then we can take that evidence, that data and reimagine those things so that they work better for kids. Right? But reimagination requires an understanding of what the rules, parameters, policies, and expectations are and a willingness to step outside of them.

[00:23:39] Cornelius Minor: Every movement that we have ever valued and treasured on this planet has happened because people dared to break rules and disrupt things. And so that has to be our recipe for moving forward. Not irresponsibly, not recklessly, but really attentively and in a data-driven and research-based way. 

[00:23:58] Olivia Wahl: So I am coming off last week of a curriculum camp, we called it, of sorts…

[00:24:04] Cornelius Minor: Yes.

[00:24:04] Olivia Wahl: …with middle and high school teachers, and there were significant behavior issues last year of students acting out, communicating that they were not okay for many, many reasons. 

[00:24:16] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. 

[00:24:16] Olivia Wahl: And we had a long conversation as, uh, middle and high school cohort with the ELA teachers around, you know, what are we going to do to meet the needs of our students because this is a call for help. And we shifted. I have the gift also of working with Cris Tovani and Sam Bennett this year, and they’ve rocked my world in many ways.

[00:24:39] Olivia Wahl: But the notion of relevancy and multiple perspectives, really studying text-sets. And so this group of middle and high school teachers for every day, last week over the summer, came in, showed up. The certified librarian was there, who is an integral part of any community.

[00:25:05] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. Absolutely.


[00:25:05] Olivia Wahl: They’ve got the goods. They know the most recent texts and literature out there. And this group of teachers redesigned their entire curricula. Please…five days…that's nothing. So we just scratched the surface. 

[00:25:18] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. 

[00:25:18] Olivia Wahl: But they went from teaching a book to reframing these books as anchor texts and shifting their whole perspective around bigger ideas about life and connecting history. 

[00:25:33] Olivia Wahl: We’re pushing for humanities classes so ELA can be co-taught with global studies. This work is so messy. It's so hard. But we continue to push back on each other because it was safe. And we continued to say: So what? You, you think this question's a great question? How is that actually going to hook a 10th grader, an 11th grader? I don't want to hear about The Great Gatsby.

[00:26:01] Olivia Wahl: I want to talk about the dark side of the American dream, and is it even possible for everyone? So it was this moment in time, every day showing up last week with these teachers that were willing to change. And we talked about how will we know - how will we know that the shift is a positive one for our students?

[00:26:23] Olivia Wahl: Something I said is there'll be a lot less kids showing up in the office cuz they'll be engaged in a different way. 

[00:26:32] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely!

[00:26:29] Olivia Wahl: That would be helpful, you know? So it was, inspiring last week to have these teachers show up and be willing to be messy and to make drastic changes to what they know. So that was huge.

[00:26:43] Cornelius Minor: Yeah.

[00:26:43] Olivia Wahl: And something you speak to in the book is making curriculum work for students. How do we do that in your perspective? 

[00:26:49] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. Well, it's exactly what you described, Olivia. It's so beautiful to think about your group. You know it is observing and listening, which is what they did. 

[00:26:59] Cornelius Minor: When they observed and listened, they said, we have all of these challenging behaviors that are happening in classrooms, and we know that when students present challenging behaviors, what often ends up happening in school is they get criminalized. 

[00:26:12] Olivia Wahl: Yes!

[00:27:12] Cornelius Minor: So it's this whole business of - you're going to the office, you're dealing with perhaps your school-based police, which is already problematic.

[00:27:21] Cornelius Minor: You know, all of these things, right? You know, and, and institutions develop labels to apply to kids. All this stuff happens. And so they watch these challenging behaviors. They try to understand them, and they ask the question, what can we do? To change ourselves, right? So that these behaviors don't persist.

[00:27:42] Cornelius Minor: And I think the question always is, what's wrong with children? And here's the thing, ain't nothing wrong with kids. 

[00:26:50] Olivia Wahl: No.

[00:27:50] Cornelius Minor: Right? But there's everything wrong with how our institutions attempt to engage them. And one of the things that I think about that something has been wrong for a long time, but especially in these last two years, so of course kids are presenting challenging behaviors when there's widespread job insecurity.

[00:28:08] Olivia Wahl: Yes.

[00:28:09] Cornelius Minor: Of course kids are presenting challenging behaviors when there are real shortages in some communities of food and access to medical care. Of course, kids are presenting challenging behaviors when they spent, you know, some of them a year and a half in their homes while their parents struggled to deal with this pandemic. School does not happen in a vacuum.

[00:28:27] Cornelius Minor: We don't leave all of that in the community and come to school to do reading and writing. 

[00:28:32] Olivia Wahl: No.

[00:28:32] Cornelius Minor: We bring all of those things with us and so that reading classrooms, that writing classrooms are a space where those things can come too. Where I can bring my pain as well as my intellect. Where I can bring my fear as well as my creativity.

[00:28:47] Cornelius Minor: Where I can bring my sadness as well as my ingenuity. That we say to children, oh, your creativity is welcome here, but your fear is not. That is not okay. These are complete humans that we're working with. And so what your teachers did was they listened and paid attention, and they asked that question: How do we change ourselves?

[00:29:06] Cornelius Minor: And so one of the ways that we change ourselves is we think about texts like you mentioned, right? So if kids are bringing their fear and their insecurity, I need texts that can house that. 

[00:29:16] Olivia Wahl: Yeah.

[00:29:17] Cornelius Minor: If kids are bringing their aspirations, I need texts that can house that. And so we love F. Scott Fitzgerald, but maybe The Great Gatsby isn't the best text to house today's insecurities. 

[00:29:28] Olivia Wahl: Yes.

[00:29:28] Cornelius Minor: So maybe I can pair that with something else, or maybe I can leave that book on the shelf entirely so that we can really explore insecurity and how to turn it or pair it with our creativity and our love and our excitement for learning. Right? And so those things matter. And so that first step of listening, that second step of asking the question: How do I change myself?

[00:29:48] Cornelius Minor: But then that third step of actually doing the work, right? 

[00:29:50] Olivia Wahl: Yes.

[00:29:51] Cornelius Minor: That everybody has this aspirational thing where they're like, oh, I want to be great for kids. But then they run back and do the same thing that folks have been doing for generations. I want to be great for kids, so I gotta try something new. 

[00:30:03] Cornelius Minor: Now, when we try the new thing, I think it's important to note on this podcast, that the new thing isn't always going to feel as seamless as the old. 

[00:30:11] Olivia Wahl: Indeed.

[00:30:11] Cornelius Minor: It's not always going to feel as easy as the old thing. We're not always going to feel as accomplished as we do when we do the old thing, and that's okay. I'm never going to do it perfectly the first time, right?

[00:30:21] Cornelius Minor: That there is this kind of sickness in our profession where people expect that the first time they do a thing, it's going to be perfect. It's never going to be that. And so one of the things that I expect when I ask myself that question:  What do I need to do differently? And I do it, it's not going to feel great all the time.

[00:30:37] Cornelius Minor: And so I have to pay attention to my data. Like you said. Are there fewer kids in the office? Are there more kids smiling? Are there more kids reading? All of that is data. 

[00:30:47] Olivia Wahl: Yes.

[00:30:47] Cornelius Minor: Right? The data isn't just what kids put on a test. The data isn't a proper noun and is owned by the testing companies. Data is like real stuff that we see in our classrooms.

[00:30:57] Cornelius Minor: I did a study in a seventh-grade classroom where we would read different texts with kids and we would count the number of kids that were smiling when they exited the room. And, and we found that more kids were smiling when they exited the room, when we read texts that connected to them and to their communities.

[00:31:13] Cornelius Minor: And so it was a really simple study, but that idea of a smile as data. That I don't have to wait for a reading assessment to collect data on kids. And so that 30% more kids smile during class when we read certain texts is data enough to justify that inquiry. 

[00:31:29] Olivia Wahl: Absolutely.

[00:31:29] Cornelius Minor: And so it sounds like your teachers were doing that, so it's like, again, that idea of listening, asking the question: What can I change?

[00:31:36] Cornelius Minor: Deciding to change it and then reflecting on the change by looking at the data that the change produces. 

[00:31:41] Olivia Wahl: Yeah. Two pieces to that. Last year I spent the year with this cohort and what we decided - the students weren't reading and they didn't carry books with them, and we decided to make a tiny change that actually ended up being huge; of every grownup that worked within the school district, having a poster outside of their classroom where (it was on the buses) of what they were currently reading. And when we first talked about it, it seemed so small. When we first talked about it, some of the middle and high school teachers said, well, I don't really read.

[00:32:16] Olivia Wahl: And I said, well wait, you, you have babies at home. You don't read Sandra Boynton. You don't read? Like, what are you reading to your kids? And he was like, oh yeah, I read, I read to my children. I said, then put that book on the poster.

[00:32:28] Cornelius Minor: Yeah.

[00:32:28] Olivia Wahl: Because that's a conversation waiting to happen with a student to say… 

[00:32:32] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely.

[00:32:32] Olivia Wahl: …wait a second, you're reading this, you, you teach 11th grade. What? What is this? And so what we immediately saw (data). These students started going to the library in the building that they had never entered before. And the media specialist called me and she's like, Livi, they're, they're coming in these…they're, they've never, I haven't seen these kids.

[00:32:54] Olivia Wahl: They were juniors that had never walked into the school library. That's nuts. And then it, what a gorgeous opportunity. So they're continuing that this year. But we knew we really had to shake it up. And one bigger piece that I think we need to always consider as adults - you taught me this a long time ago.

[00:33:14] Olivia Wahl: Everything we do as adults should be able to be mimicked by our students. 

[00:33:21] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely.

[00:33:22] Olivia Wahl: And so last week, over and over, every moment, these teachers were vulnerable. Every moment they were willing to change and get messy, or every moment they felt scared and overwhelmed, we paused. 

[00:33:35] Olivia Wahl: And we said, so, this is new. How are you feeling? Your students are going to feel the same way. It was gorgeous. So I think that's critical too.

[00:33:44] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. And Olivia, you're illuminating something that's so important. One of the things that I've always, or I'm growing to understand even more as I mature as an educator, is that when I say that the kids are struggling with a thing like reading or struggling with a thing like carrying books, what that really means is that I'm struggling with that thing.

[00:34:04] Cornelius Minor: Because we know that young folks are more likely to do what we show them as opposed to doing what we tell them.

[00:34:11] Olivia Wahl: Indeed. Yeah.

[00:34:11] Cornelius Minor: Right? And so, so when kids are exhibiting certain behaviors, I really have to look at myself, and I'm like, all right, well, what is this saying about my leadership in this classroom space? 

[00:34:20] Cornelius Minor: And so that's been really, really important. So when kids aren't analyzing, I'm like, oh, well, I'm not analyzing in front of them. So I need to think more about how I analyze, you know, last night's WNBA game.

[00:34:31] Olivia Wahl: Yeah.

[00:34:31] Cornelius Minor: Or how I analyze, you know, this morning's podcast, you know? And so a lot of that has been really, really important to me.

[00:34:37] Cornelius Minor: You know, I've really been thinking a lot about expanding the definition of what it means to, to do schoolwork or what it means to be smart in a school space. You know, last year we experienced the same thing where book circulation was way down, and librarians and teachers alike were really afraid of kids’ reading lives.

[00:34:56] Cornelius Minor: And I remember I used the Loom app on my phone, and every night I would read the first page of whatever book I was reading into the app, and I would send it to children. I would just send it to kids. And so, so teenagers every night would get a message from me reading the first page of whatever book I was reading.

[00:35:14] Olivia Wahl: That’s amazing!

[00:35:15] Cornelius Minor: Um, and, and the next morning they, there would always be two or three kids would be like, oh, I want that book. Right? Like, you know, and I would just read the first page of whatever, you know, I completely stole that idea from LeVar Burton. And so, if I was reading a biography of The Notorious B.I.G., I read the first page of that.

[00:35:27] Cornelius Minor: If I was reading a cookbook that night, I read the first page of that. If I am reading an article about literacy instruction, I'd read the first page of that. So literally, whatever I was reading, I would just read the first page of it. It would be like a 90-second thing, and I would send it to kids so they would hear my audio.

[00:35:43] Cornelius Minor: And so even for the kids who weren't picking up books on their own, they were hearing 90 seconds of me at least. You know, of course that's not enough reading, but they were hearing 90 seconds of me and beginning to do some thinking. And that always opened up our mornings. Cuz I would show up in the morning and be like, yeah, so I finished that book that I introduced to you all last night, or I finished that chapter that I introduced to you all last night, and here's what I'm thinking about it.

[00:36:05] Cornelius Minor: Right? And so that gave me an opportunity to model thinking for kids and to model how I move through the world, allowing books to influence my being and my thinking, right? And so all of those things are just like super, super important. 

[00:36:17] Olivia Wahl: Yeah. And I, I had the privilege to interview K.C. Boyd in the spring.

[00:36:22] Olivia Wahl: I could have talked to her for hours. I was so excited to get an interview with her. Talk about an activist. And I remember she's so matter of fact, and I asked her, you know, how do you get, how do you know what kids are interested in? She looked at me like I was an idiot. She's like, Livi, you just ask!

[00:36:39] Olivia Wahl: Yes. Like that's not rocket science. And, and I said, oh yeah, that makes sense. But. Such a, like, it was a moment in time where I'm like, I can't believe I get to hang with this person that is so in touch with children and just and is brave and an advocate for what is right in the world. And I just, yeah.

[00:37:01] Cornelius Minor: Well, Livi, you're all those things, like, that's you!

[00:37:05] Olivia Wahl: Thank you, thank you. So I guess the other thing that is scary, but you've pointed it out, it's just scary to certain now and it's been scary for a very long time. You speak to the notion of being a good teacher versus being a good employee. What do you mean by that?

[00:37:22] Cornelius Minor: You know, um, one of the things that I'm teaching myself to ask is: Cornelius, what are your commitments? What are the things that you are committed to? So when you engage in this action, what does that say about you and what does that say about your commitments? And there was a moment in my career, and, and I'm sure this is true for many of us, where I would do things because the principal asked me to do them, and I would never question them even if they weren't so great for kids.

[00:37:50] Cornelius Minor: Even if I saw it, right? So I would be asked to read certain books or I'd be asked to do certain activities and I would do them and I would kind of look and I'd be like, ah, this really isn't quite working out. But I would do them anyway because the principal said so, and I love him, right? Or I would do them anyway because this is the district policy, or I would do them anyway because this is the curriculum that we're using right now.

[00:38:11] Cornelius Minor: And so when I asked myself that question, when I finally got the bravery to ask myself that question: Cornelius, what are your commitments? My commitment was to pleasing the principal. My commitment was to following the rules of the district. My commitment wasn't always to children. So then I had to ask myself, Cornelius, you're a great employee.

[00:38:32] Cornelius Minor: What would it look like to make the kinds of commitments to be a great teacher? Right? 

[00:38:37] Olivia Wahl: Yeah. 

[00:38:37] Cornelius Minor: What does that mean? What does that look like? Right? And one of the things that I'm learning about institutions and school is an institution that institutions often value compliance over proficiency. 

[00:38:47] Olivia Wahl: Yes. 

[00:38:47] Cornelius Minor: In both the adults that work there and in the children that attend. Right? I was a very compliant employee, but a proficient employee would look around the room and say, well, this thing isn't working for kids. Right? A proficient educator would say, let me change these two aspects of this curriculum so that it works better for kids. That ain't always compliant, but it's proficient.

[00:39:11] Olivia Wahl: It is. It is.

[00:39:12] Cornelius Minor: Right? Because I'm using what I learned from kids in assessment, and I am reimagining how a learning experience can go based on how I've assessed kids. And then I'm collecting data to see how it goes. Right? That's teacher proficiency. But often when superintendents and principals walk through the building, what I might be doing might not meet the checklist, right?

[00:39:31] Olivia Wahl: Yeah.

[00:39:31] Cornelius Minor: And so there's this big tension for me between being a powerful employee and being a powerful teacher, right? That those two in an ideal world are the same thing. But in the world that we currently occupy, not always.

[00:39:44] Olivia Wahl: Not always, not always. I had something happen a few years ago. I made an error in professional judgment that sacrificed all my work for a year.

[00:39:55] Olivia Wahl: I'm usually booked pretty far in advance. I'm blessed that way, and I saw something that was happening in a school district. It was budget cut time and preschool was going to be cut completely. I value early childhood education. 

[00:40:10] Olivia Wahl: And I made the mistake of making a comment on Facebook that I still believe because I think that early childhood education is the foundation for our children. Yet what I wish I would've done differently instead of a social media comment, I wish I would've called that superintendent. Uh, because I lost trust. When you aren't brave enough…

[00:40:32] Cornelius Minor: Absolutely.

[00:40:32] Olivia Wahl: …to go have difficult conversations to someone's face, there are consequences. And I learned it the hard way. I had one leader that stood by me.

[00:40:41] Olivia Wahl: I had nine that said, nope, she's lost our trust. We have to stand together. And it took about three years to build traction and trust again to know that comment doesn't represent me and who I am. But I was trying to communicate how important it is, how I felt about that, and I just, I think we have to be really kind and careful to our footprint of what we put out there in the world and be willing to have face-to-face difficult conversations instead of hiding behind social media.

[00:41:16] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. Absolutely. And I'm learning that so much. You know, like I have all but disappeared from social media for that very reason. You know, like just because it is such a fraction of a human’s thinking. 

[00:41:27] Olivia Wahl: Indeed. Yeah. 

[00:41:28] Cornelius Minor: Right? And, and it becomes this, um, spectacle often that, that people don't come to social media for insight.

[00:41:35] Cornelius Minor: They come for spectacle. 

[00:41:37] Olivia Wahl: Yes, yes!

[00:41:37] Cornelius Minor: Right? And so when either trying to provide insight or trying to seek insight, often it gets turned into a show. And so I've been really intentional, especially as I mature in the profession, about doing exactly that, about spending time, asking questions and understanding and communicating long form.

[00:41:57] Olivia Wahl: Yeah.

[00:41:57] Cornelius Minor: You know, all of those things are really, really important. But then it reflects back into our classrooms. That it is reminding me that we cannot take shortcuts when it comes to communicating with kids either. That it's really easy to do a, a quick checklist or a quick question or a quick conference.

[00:42:16] Cornelius Minor: It is harder to sit at the corner of the desk and really lean in and engage long form with a kid. And so I think a lot about what our impulse driven society has done to not just our communication, but to the relationships that grow from our communications.

[00:42:32] Olivia Wahl: Yeah. The, the crazy ripple effects.

[00:42:35] Cornelius Minor: Yeah. Yeah.

[00:42:35] Olivia Wahl: I, I want to wrap our conversation asking you a question. Uh, I always wonder for authors that publish at one point in time in history, if there's anything you would revise or change with, We Got This., at this point. 

[00:42:54] Cornelius Minor: Oh, absolutely. You know, I think writing is a beautiful thing because it is a snapshot of that moment, right? But then you walk away from it, and you experience something, and you're a different person.

[00:43:06] Cornelius Minor: So even to look at my own writing after one week, I like reflecting on the guy that used to exist a week ago. 

[00:42:12] Olivia Wahl: Yeah. 

[00:43:12] Cornelius Minor: And so, yeah, there's so much in We Got This., that I would reimagine if I were writing it right now. I think in the tradition that you've just described, I would spend more time caring for teachers.

[00:43:23] Cornelius Minor: No one could have predicted the intensity of the backlash to the movement for equity. Right? That, that, a lot of us really, really see the world that we want to live in, and we see the world that we want for our children. And even though I grew up in a house with fierce black women who saw the world for what it was.

[00:43:45] Cornelius Minor: Even though I grew up in a house with a sister who understood how high the stakes were for black and brown children, even though I grew up around all of that, there's still this optimism that I carry where I really do believe that things can and will be better. And so it is jarring to watch whole communities decide that they want to stand against children.

[00:44:08] Olivia Wahl: Yeah. 

[00:44:08] Cornelius Minor: Or to stand against certain people or to stand against progress. To watch whole communities decide that we're going to put profit before the environment. To watch whole communities decide that queer children are not welcome here, nor are their queer parents. Right? 

[00:44:22] Cornelius Minor: To watch whole communities decide that with their policy that, that, that we value poor kids less than we value middle class or rich kids. Right? You know, like to watch all of this happening in real-time in front of us is both heartbreaking and infuriating. 

[00:44:37] Olivia Wahl: Yes. 

[00:44:38] Cornelius Minor: And so I would've taken more time, in We Got This., to engage in the kind of care required when you're sending people into treacherous territory.

[00:44:47] Cornelius Minor: Right? That, that, that book is a call to action. And I was asking people to take a step. I did not know I would be asking people to take a step into territory that is so treacherous for many folks, right? Another thing, I think I would've spent a lot more time, and, and it's hard to do this in a book, but I, I'm thinking about this now as I write, you know, and I'm including this in a lot of my writing.

[00:45:09] Cornelius Minor: That, that writing feels a bit strange because it's monologue. 

[00:45:13] Olivia Wahl: Yes. 

[00:45:13] Cornelius Minor: Right? It's me talking at a group of folks. Um, and when I imagine the world that I want to live in, when I imagine the world that I want my children to inherit, um, we don't craft that world in monologue. 

[00:45:28] Olivia Wahl: No. 

[00:45:28] Cornelius Minor: We craft that world in dialogue. And so I've been thinking about what would it look to write a book that felt more like dialogue. So that's my current work, is that I don't want to write a book that's talking at Olivia. I want to write a book where I get to talk with Olivia.

[00:45:45] Olivia Wahl: I love it. 

[00:45:28] Cornelius Minor: So I'm really trying to figure out what it looks like to encourage my reader to think alongside me and to live and breathe and take risks alongside me.

[00:45:54] Cornelius Minor: And I think it can be done. And so that's what I'm working on right now. But yeah, if I could kind of go back and rewrite it, those two things for sure. I mean, lots more, but those two things for sure.

[00:46:03] Olivia Wahl: Fabulous. I'm getting hints that we have a lot to look forward to coming from you, and I think that's the beauty of the podcast notion of it's an interview, it's a conversation.

[00:46:14] Olivia Wahl: It's a connection. 

[00:46:16] Cornelius Minor Yeah. 

[00:46:16] Olivia Wahl: And I cannot thank you enough for being willing to share your brilliance. So thank you, thank you, thank you. And listeners, I cannot recommend We Got This., enough. It's a great starting point to being circled up with people that have a common core belief system that we have to be radically pro-kid in every way.

[00:46:38] Olivia Wahl: So thank you, Cornelius. I appreciate you. 

[00:46:41] Cornelius Minor: Well, Livi, thank you. I mean, your presence in this world is valued and significant and real, and so you talk about footprints, and yours are profound, so thank you.

[00:46:50] Olivia Wahl: Thank you. Alright, take care.