Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

Welcome, advocates, to another episode of the Leading Equity Podcast, a podcast that focuses on supporting educators with the tools and resources necessary to ensure equity at their schools. Today's special guest is Lindsay Lyons. And without further ado, Lindsay, thank you so much for joining us.

Lindsay Lyons:

Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Eakins. I appreciate it.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

You can call me Sheldon. Sheldon's totally fine.

Lindsay Lyons:

Okay.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

It's a pleasure to have you. Before we get started in today's topic, could you share a little bit about yourself and what you currently do?

Lindsay Lyons:

Absolutely. So my name is Lindsay. My pronouns are she and her, and just to acknowledge the land that I occupy, I live on the Indigenous lands of the Massachusetts, the Nipmuck, and the Pawtucket. I would summarize what I do in this one sentence of helping brave school leaders and teachers transform schools into anti-racist, anti-oppressive spaces that cultivate student leadership and really enable all the students, all the families of those students, and all staff to thrive.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

I love it. So what I want to talk about today is social justice in education. And I think sometimes even with the work that you do and the work that I do, a lot of teachers who are especially new to this whole concept, they're thinking that this is more to their plate. "I want to do this work, but man, I already have to do these standards. I already have these things that I have to deal with, and accountability and standardized tests and all that jazz. Now you want me to provide social justice in education on top of all of that?" What response do you typically get when you get asked those kinds of questions?

Lindsay Lyons:

Yeah, so I think there's so much tied up in that. One, seeing it as an add-on. Two, seeing it as a scary thing that I either feel not quite yet fully equipped to do, or I feel like I'm supposed to remain neutral or touch on all perspectives. All of the language that comes up there is really interesting. So I'll touch on maybe both of those ideas. I think the mindset shift first that we need to make before we can even encounter what teaching for justice really looks like, there are three beliefs that I think I hold and people who do this work hold. One is that being neutral about injustice is really just silence, and therefore oppression. And so we have to actively teach for justice and lead for justice.

               The next is that every unit and every lesson should center justice. And so justice should be at the heart of everything we do. And this way, current events aren't interruptions. They're not things that are departures from a curriculum, but they're concrete, modern examples of those themes that we teach all year long. And because we're having those conversations year after year or lesson after lesson, unit after unit, we're actually practicing talking about challenging conversations. We're talking about injustice, and so it's not something we have to do all of a sudden in response to a current event, but we're well versed in that. And we've already established those concrete agreements that are lending themselves to the conversation.

               I also think kids are just way more engaged when we do things that are engaging to them, we talk about things that are engaging to them, and so rushing to cover content like I did in my first few years of teaching where I was handed this overwhelming curriculum map and I'm like, "Oh, I got to get you at all. Let me just shove a bunch of facts into this lesson." Students were leaving my class and never coming back. It was very embarrassing. And so the last belief I think is just one that speaks to the work I've done with Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick in racial discourse, and that's talking about racial and intersectional justice is necessary for our healing. And doing that well requires some internal work and some external pressures.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

Internal and external, I agree with that. So, okay, the question that I have is, how do you frame the definition of justice? Because I think it's one of those terms that folks get confused, even with equity, folks get confused with what equity is, how do you define justice?

Lindsay Lyons:

Yeah. So I think justice encompasses so many things and also it manifests in so many ways. And so I take Kimberly Crenshaw's notion of intersectionality into this work, thinking about all the different pieces of identity that we hold and how justice and injustice play out in our experiences and our proximity to power in the various identities that we hold make the way that we show up in the world and the way that we're able to have access to institutions and rights and dignity and safety and belonging. I think safety, belonging, and dignity are the three things that I'm really using to shape my definition of what justice really looks like. And that comes from Stacy Haynes' book. And I think that's a really important piece is, what does it look like when we get rid of the injustice? We understand the principles of intersectionality, we center the safety, belonging, and dignity of all people.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

I love that. Okay, I think that's very important. First of all, I love that you started with, we need to center justice in our education in general. That's part of it. So does that stem just from current events or do we also need to go back in history as well? I mean, what are your thoughts on that?

Lindsay Lyons:

Yeah, definitely. So right now I'm teaching a gender, race, and society class as an adjunct at Merrimack College, so at the university level, and what I'm doing there is, on Mondays, so the class is Monday, Wednesday, on Monday is the first day, we have the whole reading list and we do a lot of reading of the past, effectively, and a lot of the theory and things like that. Wednesdays, I just pick a current event that's relevant for that week or that semester more broadly and we start thinking about those connections. And so being able to not just make connections to the course texts, which I've selected and have cultivated over the semester, also student input, which is another thing, being able to learn from students and take resources from students has been a big part of my journey and just learning as a teacher being a learner as well in the space, and then inviting students to really say something new to make the connections that aren't just a regurgitation of what they're hearing either at home or from their friends or on the news.

               But how do we weave all this stuff together? The course texts, other stuff you're reading, posts from social media, and how do you make your own original idea? And I draw from Michael Kay's book, They're Not Light, But Fire, which is an amazing book, and he talks about that principle. And as I was reading it, I was like, "Yeah, I'm doing a lot of the stuff he's talking about in the book, but, wow, I don't invite students to just say something new as often as I should." And I think that's a huge takeaway for me, especially when we're talking about things that have become, because of the way that they've been politicized, dignity has been politicized in this country, in the United States, and so we often have these dialogues that are polarized as opposed to let's move the needle forward. Let's advance justice. Let's invite conversation. And let's allow students to be the movers of that needle. Let's let them be, as you say, advocates, of their own journey.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

When I was talking to Principal [Kafale 00:07:19], he mentioned, when people come up to him, especially around George Floyd, during that time, and he was like, folks will come up to him and say, "What do I need to do? I don't know where to go." And he was pushing the importance of, you have to know history, you have to understand history. If you're saying Black Lives Matter, then let's go back. What books have you read about the history of how Black people have been treated in this country? And before you can really understand why just this moment is so important, because it's not like George Floyd was the first person of color, first Black man to be murdered. But this is a cycle. This is something that has perpetuated years and years and years, and we've been saying these things are happening yet folks weren't understanding, or maybe their eyes were closed. I don't know. But for some reason, it just started to trigger during this time. And he's like, "You have to understand history before you can really move forward and make that progress."

Lindsay Lyons:

Yeah, absolutely. And I think another piece of that too is the understanding where I deal with this every time we have a workshop and we set the agreements, some people call them rules, some people call them norms. I like agreements, because we want to agree to them. But one of the agreements that often comes up is, when I'm challenged, when I say something that is, fill in the blank here, racist, sexist, ableist, whatever, I want to be challenged in a kind way. And it's like, okay, well we have to take a quick time out and really unpack that, because what that's saying is that, "I can't see beyond this exact moment." I can't bring in that history that this person, who's likely telling me this because they've experienced this injustice time and time and time again, probably like 100 times in that one day, that's where that's coming from. That's where that anger is coming from. That's where whatever you see that you think isn't in this beautiful package of calm that you want to see is in there.

               And so when we make those class agreements for our classrooms and for our staff circles and this stuff, I think that's a really important thing to consider is, what are our agreements enabling us to do? And do they allow us to see the history or the experiences that are coming into the conversation and not treat a discussion as this, just in the moment, this is all that exists thing.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

You are exactly right. But the sad thing about it is folks don't understand. It's like, okay, if you are "jumping on board" in 2021, 2020, or whenever it is that you just say, "You know what? I need to make some changes with my education and my practice as a teacher, as a leader. I recognize that I need to make some." There's always room for growth, and including myself. I believe that there's always room for growth. But again, you have to understand the background context in order to really move forward. I want to ask you some questions, because I know I have some advocates out there that are teachers that are, okay, they're interested and they're like, "Okay, how do I embed justice in education and everything that I do?" What are your thoughts?

Lindsay Lyons:

Yeah. So I would first say that you need a core set of class agreements from day one and you need to revisit them again and again. So in terms of what that might look like, I like the courageous conversations list. You can always use those. So stay engaged, experience discomfort, speak your truth, expect and accept non-closure. And then I also like the book Dignity by Dr. Donna Hicks, which talks about the 10 elements of dignity. And so I've worked those into class agreements as a starting point for conversation as well, because I think it is about centering dignity and really making dignity non-negotiable. So we can debate about something like, if I'm teaching history, I can talk about the debate of tax and government in a government class, what tax protocol we need. And that's a very, very different conversation from a person's human rights and their human dignity.

               And so that just can't be something that we debate or discuss. That has to be something that is just non-negotiable. And then I would also say, we can practice in the staff meetings, in our families, in our friend circles, so that the students aren't the first ones where we're just like, "And we're going to talk about race," or, "We're going to talk about something that just happened." And I haven't processed that with anyone else. I haven't talked about it, practiced that. Dr. Cherie Bridges Patrick talks about the four racial discourse capacities that she found in her research. She says one is a readiness and willingness. Are we willing to do the work? Are we willing to move through the discomfort? Another one is adaptability. So adaptive leadership is at the heart of a lot of the work that I do and that she does.

               And so are we willing to be adaptive? Are we willing to check our beliefs, those underlying beliefs, that are really holding us back from transformation because we've been indoctrinated into this system of White supremacy? Are we willing to challenge that stuff and to be vulnerable and to create a liberating dialogical environment where dignity is centered? So that's another thing. I would also recommend reading Cultivating Genius by Dr. Gholdy Muhammad. That is one of my favorite books of the year. It is amazing, I guess it was last year. Wow, it's 2021 now. But in 2020, she published this book, and what I've taken from it, she has the four pursuits of her historical responsive literacy framework, and the two that I think are most under utilized and also incredibly important, and so it's tragic that they're not learned more by teachers in teacher prep programs, it's the identity and the criticality one.

               So I think about the questions, if you're planning a unit or a lesson as a teacher, you can ask yourself, what is something that students are going to learn about themselves or about other people's identities in this lesson or unit? And also, how can I help students think about power and equity and disrupting oppression in this unit? And so you don't need to know what all of the unit looks like right away. I think another thing that I mentioned earlier is co-construct with students. Ask them what they're interested in. Have them bring in some really interesting texts. Michael Fielding talks about this idea of radical collegiality. So seeing students as partners that you can learn from, and then you can create with in partnership. And I think that's such a cool idea when we talk about this.

               And finally, I think this idea of Michael Kay's saying something new idea, so having students create something, not just in discussion, but also create in a project that serves a larger audience that goes beyond the teacher and serves a purpose beyond just the grade in the grade book. So, I mean, I could share examples of my students' projects, but I always try to think about, what actually would advance justice in our communities and doesn't just stay as this academic intellectual exercise?

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

All right. And I got to get Gholdy, Dr. Gholdy Muhammad, on the show at some point. I keep telling myself, "You need to reach out. You need to reach out." And when I get a chance, I definitely want to reach out to her and see if I can get her on the show, because I believe her work is amazing. So I'm glad that you brought her up as well. I had a question regarding social justice and how do we frame it in a way that our folks of color, our students of color, aren't always seemed as in the oppressive state? Sometimes when we, and even Dr. James A. Bank's talks about how we present cultural responsive or multicultural education, if the only way that we're providing this information is from a state of marginalization or state of trying to get civil rights or equal rights, how do we avoid that being the only way that we're presenting social justice to our students?

Lindsay Lyons:

Yeah, and this is a question that I am still grappling with myself. I teach feminism, and through an intersectional lens, so I'm always talking about race and gender from the aspects of oppression, because I'm like, "We need to learn about all of this oppression," and I'm like, "There needs to be a better balance." I'm a big believer in backwards planning and so what I did is I put my outcomes for my course out for public consumption at one of my workshops. And I was like, "Give me some feedback. Give me some critique here." And my co-presenter, Dr. Bridges Patrick, who I mentioned earlier, she was like, "Okay, here's the critique." And that was exactly it. She was like, "You have all of these outcomes that are about understanding oppression and understanding power and privilege and advantage, but where is the positive aspects of a person's identity?"

               And so now that has become an outcome, and I've rewritten my syllabus because I realized, once I made that outcome, I couldn't just stop there. I couldn't just say that was the goal. Because then I looked through the entire curriculum with that lens to say, "Ooh, where does this group of people have," and I went through for all of the different axes of identity, "where does this group of people have a lesson this week to advance the positive aspects of their identity?" and so on and so on, and I'm still collecting resources and still growing in that way. But, for me, that was really helpful to get that initial feedback and then backwards plan from there and go through the whole thing with that lens, because otherwise it would have just continued to be that oppressive lens, which is not helpful.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

Yeah. And I agree with that, sometimes it can be a challenge when we're pushing social justice. And like you said, if we're centering our curriculum with social justice, we do have to be able to find a balance to where, I mean, I share this a lot with my groups, "Okay, you brought up Dr. King," and let's say you brought it up in January, or this is Black History Month and you're talking about it only in February, and we know that Black history is every day, however, sometimes our teachers will wait till these special, recognized times to utilize these opportunities to provide Black history, and it's nothing highlighting that shows the civilizations. It doesn't show anything of the greatness and historical, I don't like saying contributions, but historical pieces that have been embedded and has shaped the United States or the world from a Black perspective.

               Sometimes I see these things centered with Whiteness, with oppression being, "Okay, so this is what the Black folks were doing," or, "This is what our Brown folks were doing to try to get to the same level or level the playing field." And I think if we're not careful, then our students in the classroom, we're doing them a disservice, if that's the only way that they're receiving information.

Lindsay Lyons:

Absolutely. I completely agree.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

So I want to ask you another question, because when it comes to teaching social justice, when it comes to providing these lessons, I have teachers that will say, "Well, that's fine and dandy for English literature folks. That's fine and dandy for our history and our social studies liberal arts. However, I'm a science teacher," or, "I'm a math teacher. How do I provide a social justice lens embedded within my curriculum and I teach math," or science or some other subjects, "that maybe, to me, it's not as easy for me to do?"

Lindsay Lyons:

Absolutely. And I think it makes sense that it's not that easy to do from a traditional teacher prep standpoint, because we're not taught and we haven't been taught ourselves as students often from a justice lens in those subjects. But it's absolutely possible. There are some organizations. There are some schools that are doing great work in this area. I would recommend Rethinking Schools. They have books specifically about math and science and teaching for justice there. I also often look at schools that I just love. Urban Academy, which is part of the Julia Richmond Educational Complex in New York City, which is the building I used to work in, they are an alternative school and every year for inspiration I just go onto their website and I look at their course catalog and they have some amazing courses. And so just being able to identify where this stuff is actually happening and looking at what is possible really opens up the creative thinking I think to be able to say, "Okay, how can I be able to center math in this way?"

               One of the questions I was just playing with, and I am not a math teacher, I was not a math teacher, so this may not make mathematical sense, but we were talking through in a workshop, what does teaching for justice look like when we center justice in our driving questions for a unit or a project-based unit? And so taking something from PBL Works, a blog posts that their organizational leader had put together, he had said, "It's not very interesting to ask the question, how is math used in basketball?" That's not very interesting. But if I ask, is LeBron James the best basketball player of all time? That's engaging. And so I was like, "Well, how do we add justice into a question like that?" And then it's like, well, maybe it's about, what makes the best athlete of all time?

               And then could we pull in, does an athlete like Tom Brady, who has expressed interest in voting for Trump years ago, and then been able to allow it to fade into the background and become apolitical, because of his Whiteness versus Colin Kaepernick, who has centered justice in who he is and refused to divorce that from his identity as an athlete, and said, "This is me," and then was pushed out of the NFL? We did that as a case study in one of my last classes last week. Was the Super Bowl actually anti-racist? Did it actually do that? Or was it some performative allyship that really didn't advance anything? And so being able to critique these questions I think can open up a conversation where you could use something like math to answer that question, so we could look at some statistics and then we could also look at the amount of money people make in their respective fields.

               We could look at the amount of followers that they have that have been pursuing justice as a result of learning about these issues through athletes that they admire. We could talk about statistics in a lot of different ways that also center justice.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

Thank you for saying it. Here's the thing that I've seen, and I've talked to math teachers about the same subject, because they'll tell me, "I can't be culture responsive in math," and I say very similar things. Okay, if you are creating word problems, you need to create those word problems. Often, we get these banks of word problems from our textbooks or workbooks and they're not culturally responsive. They're not centered in social justice. I say, "You need to create those questions." And like you said, ask those type of questions and bring in those formulas and bring in those equations so that the kids can really think not just on, "Okay, what do I need to do? Do I need to add or do I need to subtract in this word problem," but then also really spark their interest or their thought process with, "Oh, okay. Not only am I needing to add, but I'm also wanting to respond to something that I find very interesting or I can relate to."

               And I think that piece right there is sometimes missing because if we just rely on the bank of questions that are provided in front of us that's easy for us to access, then to me, I think we're doing our kids a disservice.

Lindsay Lyons:

Absolutely. And I think about my time in math class. I was not a good math student, but then I ended up completing a PhD where I did a mixed methods, mostly quantitative study, and so now I am like fairly well versed in statistics. And I look back at my high school experience or my elementary experience and I'm like, "Wow, really, I wasn't bad at math. I was just completely disengaged because I saw math as just formulas that spit out numbers instead of seeing math as a tool to be able to answer a really engaging question." And so I think that's the mindset shift that a lot of times we just look at worksheet problems versus project based learning or math as a tool to answer these problems. That might be an underlying shift that needs to be made before a teacher can apply that in action.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

Mm-hmm (affirmative). All right, so we talked about math. What are some other areas that you would suggest, again, physical education maybe or music courses, what other ways can we provide social justice within our curriculum?

Lindsay Lyons:

Yeah, definitely. So I am really excited because, on my podcast, Time For Teachership, there is going to be a gas coming up who is part of the Boston Music Project, and he talks about how his teaching artists have gone into schools, well, not physically, because it was during the pandemic, I think most of these examples or some of these examples, where he's going to work with students who have been isolated, who are feeling all sorts of emotions about that, being able to see and interact with the world, and he's enabled them to engage in, one example was Mia Angelou's Caged Bird Project. They actually created an album of readings that created soundscapes around the text and around the emotions of the text. Then they had another project where students were just creating based on their own emotions being able to generate a complete album that's now out in the world.

               He had another example he was sharing about at the Marjorie Stoneman Douglas shootings. Afterwards, he had been teaching some content, musical content, to students and then had to respond in the moment. So said, "How do we bring this in to our class? This happened. We're talking about it." And so students ended up creating based on the musical stuff they were learning an original song that then was used and played in multiple services in respect for or in response to these ceremonies in response to the shooting. A family member of one of the victims actually reached out to them and said, "This was really helpful." And I mean, just to see and hear that feedback that, wow, this is something that meant something to someone, it wasn't just something I did for a class project, this had a real impact in the world, he was just saying was so helpful for not only student engagement, but just feeling like I am an activist. I am responding to this. I am creating some sort of healing in the world with my work.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

Love it, Dr. Lyons, I definitely appreciate your time, and I consider you as providing a voice in leading equity. What is one final word of advice that you can provide to our listeners?

Lindsay Lyons:

I think the big thing is just making teaching for justice doable, and so what that looks like is maybe starting by grounding yourself in a justice centered mindset. Then really start building your units by drafting and engaging justice centered question, and then create what I call a flexible unit arc that allows students to follow their interests, enables you to weave current events into the class as they happen. And I've created a free resource. I don't know if that's helpful to share, but bit.ly/backwardsplantemplate is a great way to get started with just a free template for your teachers.

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

All right. And we'll leave a link in the show notes as well so folks can click on it. If we have some other people that want to reach out and connect with you, what's the best way to reach you online?

Lindsay Lyons:

Yeah. Thank you for asking. So my website is lindsaybethlyons.com, and you can find me on most social media platforms @LindsayBethLyons. If you're interested in that start to finish guide to curriculum design, I also have a link you can check out my digital course called Curriculum Bootcamp. That's bit.ly/curriculumbootcamp. You could also email me at [email protected]

Dr. Sheldon Eakins:

All right. Thank you again. Dr. Lyons is here with us. I appreciate your time. Thank you so much.

Lindsay Lyons:

Thank you so much, Dr. Eakins.

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