Book Review: We Got This: Equity Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be by Cornelius Minor
Written by Gwen Dandrea, Kristen Mascitelli, and Morgan Schwalbe
Cornelius Minor’s, We Got This: Equity Access, and the Quest to Be Who Our Students Need Us to Be, is an empowering resource that emphasizes the importance of effectively listening to your students, changing the way you teach to best support learning, and working towards more inclusive practices. Minor identifies tools, traits, and strategies that help teachers craft effective and meaningful instruction to reach the diverse learning styles in our classrooms today. One of his most valuable messages is the importance of listening to your students. Much of his book is devoted to learning how to truly listen in order to meet the needs of all your students. Minor (2019) begins with this powerful quote that summarizes his beliefs, “Our journey starts with an understanding that no great good can be done for a people if we do not listen to them first. Powerful teaching is rooted in powerful listening” (p. xi).
The book is broken into 2 parts: Part 1 – This Ain’t Everybody’s Hero Story – It’s Yours and Part 2 – Taking Your Dreams off Deferment. The first part focuses primarily on the idea that teachers have important powers and responsibilities. Teachers must not only understand our students, but also act on that understanding. It is also our responsibility to recognize the need for change and effectively find ways to better serve our students. The second part focuses on the circumstances that teachers are presented with every day and how to create a space where kids feel safe. Lastly, Minor urges educators to truly reflect on curriculum and the way we teach in order to be the best employee/teacher we can be. “Any curriculum or program that we buy, adopt, or create is incomplete until it includes our students and until it includes us” (p. 104). The power is ours to have and it is imperative that we act upon it. “We got this!”
Chapter 1 – Begin by Listening
“We lose lots of human capital each year because people bearing essential insights and experiences are wearing labels that we’ve been conditioned to ignore” (p. 11). In chapter one, Cornelius Minor explains that testing and mandates are problems, but they are underbosses to the real enemy; business as usual attitudes, binary thinking, and inflexibility. He tells us that each time we accept a label for ourselves; we are not covering our whole humanity. If we continue to do things as they have always been done our students become data points.
Minor does an excellent job of hooking teachers in with relatable examples. For instance, some teacher labels are new teacher, veteran, admin, rural, suburban, and urban. Wherever you are in your teaching career, you are one or more of those labels. By making the reader think of herself as a label, Minor triggers feelings of empathy for students.
“The antidote to all of this – our teacher superpower – is not some mythical teacher goodness or hyperbolic self-sacrifice” (p. 11). Our superpower is listening. There are three components: the act of listening, naming what we think we heard and planning a response, and making active and long-term adjustments. One of the things he encourages us to do is to build a bridge between what we do in class and our students’ lives right now. Teaching is dialogue and it is important to be clear about why an experience is happening in our classroom. Although listening will not make teaching easier, it will give us our children back.
In summary, we need to listen to what students are really communicating and teach them how to use their voices. We must allow children to have choices so they will not feel the need to fight the teacher as an authority figure. When this happens, you become a better teacher. It is not always easy to stand up for children, but by listening, that is exactly what the teacher can do.
Chapter 2 – You Can Disrupt the Status Quo in Your Class
“When our vision for kids and for classrooms is guided by a community’s vision for their own children, our work becomes real to children and to parents” (p. 28). In chapter two, Minor discusses the need to disrupt the status quo in the classroom. He shares a story about a student named Jeff. In this story, Minor does not stop to think about Jeff’s need for routine. Rather he thinks of his own need to have his students finish a project. At the end, he realizes that he understands Jeff, but that he did not act on that understanding. He goes on to tell us that racism, sexism, ableism, and classism are systems.
“The hard part of knowing that oppression lives in systems too is understanding that systems don’t change just because we identify them; they change because we disrupt them” (p. 31). Minor explains the importance of understanding that identifying these systems will not change them. He offers some actions that can influence how to identify what can be changed “right now” in order disrupt the status quo. By changing the status quo, students are able to be included. Being included does not mean that you are simply present. It means that you are in a place where you are able to thrive. Education has ensured that power has not shifted due to our established systems. Minor argues that we need to make a shift in that power. “When considering if I am doing the right thing, I’ve got to define what the right thing is. To me, the right thing is any practice that gives children greater access to literacy, to math, to the arts, to science. To power.” (p. 44).
In conclusion, it is okay to make mistakes. As long as you are thinking about and striving for the maximum number of students to have productive access to classwork, you will be attempting to disrupt the status quo. The ultimate goal is to work toward more inclusive practices for the whole community.
Chapter 3 – Do You Homework and Then Go for It
“Sometimes the things that we have to do become tradition, and as tradition ages sometimes those practices do not serve all children. Sometimes we have to change an established way of doing things in order to better serve our kids. Most times, changes that enrich the student experience are sought and welcomed, but sometimes the need for change surprises or eludes us altogether” (p. 49). As educators, we often become so accustomed to our teaching practices that we fail to recognize the need for change. Other times we conform or comply in silence in order to not rock the boat or upset the establishment.
In chapter three, Minor calls for the urgency in teachers to recognize a need for change to ensure that we are reaching all students. He first emphasizes that this will take time and involves true self-reflection. “After all, it takes time to be a hero” (p. 49). A blank template is provided with questions that help recognize the need for change. These questions focus on what is not working for our students and other teachers, ways to be more effective, and why the need for change.
Once you have decided the change that needs to be made, it is vital to focus on how that change would most benefit your students. This requires research and time spent following “your hunch” to find the best answer or approach to implement your vision. An informal research template is shared to aid in this inquiry.
Next, Minor urges you to decide what to do and make a plan for the change. He encourages you to reach out to colleagues, coaches or mentors to assist in this process so that others can support your vision and prepare you for the journey ahead. In order to attempt change in this way, it is also important to be prepared to “make it happen”. Be sure to realize that this change should be small in scale and not yet ready to take on the entire system. The following suggestions are offered when making your plan
- Imagine how this change might happen.
- Select a small population of students to study.
- Make a five-day plan for how you will implement the changes you have chosen.
- Choose how you will measure the impact that your work is having on students.
- Decide how you will share your findings.
Now, it is time to set that plan in action. Minor reminds the reader to be prepared that it may not go as planned. It is important to continually revise your plan as you begin to implement the change. People will support you if your plan is well researched, thought out, and based on data produced from your classroom. Keep in mind your reason for change and ultimately have your students’ best interests at heart.
Finally, and maybe most importantly “find a productive way to say no”. It is vital to recognize that not all change is good, the need for change may vary, and that things may not go well from the beginning. There are many variables that affect what we value in our classrooms. Minor emphasizes how our values and the students we teach impact our decisions to make a change.
In conclusion, chapter three provides a structure for identifying and changing things that are not effective in the classroom. Minor’ rules of conduct for change advises that you do some reflection, conduct research, make a plan for implementation, determine the impact of the change, and finally communicate your findings with administration. “This work is not about saying no just because we do not like a thing. This is about carefully considering the needs of our students and using our no power to ensure they get what they need” (p. 70).
Chapter 4 – Show Kids That You Hear Them
As educators, how quickly do we take our students and turn them into enemies (p. 80)? This powerful chapter urges teachers to ask ourselves this profound question and truly reflect on how we view our children. Are we quick to judge students with disabilities? Do we characterize them based on their behavior? For whatever reasons, our unspoken actions and reactions often do not allow us to look deeper into our students’ beliefs and perceptions. “The kids are not the enemy. They are simply responding to the things in their world in the best ways they know how” (p. 80). It is up to us as educators to simply listen to them.
The idea in this chapter is to show kids that you hear them. As a classroom teacher, we have the power to create a space where “kids feel safe” and will in turn become active listeners holding the same power as you. One suggestion is to plan for and hold regular classroom meetings. Minor believes that these simple meetings will build rapport with your students and work towards maintaining a successful classroom community. Meetings can address many topics and can take place in many unlikely places throughout the day. “These meetings do more than feed you information. They give your students the experience of being heard” (p. 83). The relationship building that occurs during this time is so valuable in allowing your children’s voices to be heard. Providing the time and structure of a classroom meeting will greatly impact your classroom practices.
It is also important to hear your students through designated feedback. Giving students the opportunity to be heard shows that you value them and their opinion. It also allows students to work on self-improvement and positive communication. Minor asks for feedback in these three areas: use of time, the clarity of his demonstrations, and how well assignments and assessments are constructed. These areas help to build trust, student engagement, and a positive classroom community. He believes that after time with these types of feedback will in turn “condition” them to begin to discuss your teaching practices and how to better suit their individual needs.
Finally, Minor calls for a shift from a punitive to an instructive mind-set. “We often assume that kids know and have what it takes to succeed in our classroom. This is a dangerous assumption to make, because it leaves so many children without a way to access success” (p. 92). This profound statement challenges educators to again show kids you hear them by providing them the skills and resources to be successful. Being prepared for the challenges that lie ahead allows you to begin that shift in mindset. A blueprint for shifting your mindset is provided to facilitate success each week and finding ways to help each other in the classroom. These approaches will help foster a sense of community, as well as a shift towards student independence.
“My job as a teacher is not to teach the curriculum or even to just teach the students; it is to seek to understand my kids as completely as possible so that I can purposefully bend curriculum to meet them” (p. 101).
Chapter 5 – Make Curriculum Work for Your Kids
“Crafting and sustaining an inclusive approach and pairing that with academic content takes insight and time and research and resources that I don’t always have” (p. 105). Chapter five focuses on learning experiences that are accessible and meaningful to students. In order to create curriculum and lessons that students can access, we need to know our students. By understanding students’ background knowledge and learning styles, we can help students create connections between curriculum and their own experiences.
Minor shared several ideas for teachers to think about when planning from a curriculum that we have been given. He said when we are working with a Universal Design Framework (p. 109), we should think about how individual children seem to respond when we…
- … consider different ways that the information that I present can be represented?
- … create different opportunities for action and expression in the classroom?
- … foster multiple ways to sustain engagement?
By readjusting our instruction to meet the needs of the students in our classroom, we create more opportunities for them to experience success.
Additionally, Minor talked about the importance of teacher collaboration. Whether it is planning or just conversing with a colleague, these conversations about curriculum allow us to determine how to best deliver our instruction and make it accessible for all students. Minor’s chart about dissecting a lesson (p. 116) encourages teachers to look at curriculum through a different lens to focus on purpose, importance, delivery, assessment and reflection.
Finally, Minor addresses a topic that many teachers can relate to test prep. “It has been well documented that standardization, assessment and measurement are not bad things at all. But an unhealthy emphasis on any of these things can be detrimental to a learning community and harmful to children” (p. 119). While test prep is a reality in many schools, he reminds us that test prep is not teaching. It is more of helping students apply what they already know in different situations. Minor’s final reminder is that it is most important to be mindful of how we are presenting information that is effective and meaningful for all of our students.
Chapter 6 – Being a Good Teacher Versus Being a Good Employee
“When we want to be self-determining in terms of our professional growth, the first thing that we can do is believe that things can be different” (p. 129). Minor focused on the importance of teacher mindset. Our attitudes towards any aspects of our career drive our decisions and expectations. It is time for a shift in our thinking when we begin to complain and gossip about things happening in school.
Minor provides a number of tools to engage in mindset work. It is important for us to be open to advice from others. Searching for creative ideas to incorporate into the classroom betters our instructional practice. Setting goals and communicating them with students, colleagues and administration helps to hold us accountable for following through with mindset work.
Keeping a universal design framework in mind, feedback is a key component in this process. “There are three kinds of feedback that I consistently seek in school – mine, kids’, and colleagues’. Most times I seek them in that order” (p. 137). Being reflective as a teacher enables us to determine strengths and areas of growth. Student feedback is important because they are the ones being directly impacted by our instructional decisions. Feedback can be evident in a number of ways, especially in students. We need to focus on the verbal and nonverbal feedback because this can be powerful. Being receptive to feedback from colleagues allows us to grow professionally, too.
As teachers, our ultimate goal is to help students be successful in and out of the classroom. Having a reflective approach towards our teaching allows us to be a great teacher instead of just a good employee. We can inspire positive change within the school system and empower our students to be responsible for their own learning.
We would recommend this book to any educator who is looking for a way to change or improve their classroom practices. It is a quick and easy read to help navigate change, make curriculum relevant, and provide equal opportunities to all students by simply listening to what they have to say. Additionally, a user-friendly book provides a number of graphic organizers to help teachers be more reflective in their own teaching. Minor’s ideas and theories are applicable across grade levels, fields of study and diverse socioeconomic school settings.
In conclusion, this text is a powerful resource for teachers who are seeking individual growth as an educator. By focusing on equity, collaboration and engagement, Minor provides countless opportunities for teachers to reflect on their own instructional practices and make small adjustments that can have a long lasting impact on student achievement. Minor’s ultimate goal is to inspire teachers of all levels to promote change and to be heroes in their own classrooms.