May 13, 2019

Instead of Locking Our Classroom Doors to Students, Let’s Give Them the Key

By Kara Cisco

Every year, like clockwork, my colleagues and I debate how to address the issue of student tardies. I have little doubt that every high school in America has its own version of the tardy debate – a perennial, seemingly unsolvable issue that, at least temporarily, divides the staff and complicates friendships. As of this writing, my school is in the thick of this debate, and it’s getting ugly. Active supervision? Bring back detention? Suggest that teachers stay by their doors precious minutes after the bell? Lock classroom doors immediately? Louder bells? No bells?

With so many opinions and philosophies to sort through, I keep coming back to one piece of data: In my “Revisiting Ethnicity and Culture in U.S. History” class of 35 second-semester seniors—a class which meets immediately after lunch, no less—only three students are chronically tardy. This, at a school with a tardy rate that sometimes exceeds 20 percent. In this student-led class, youth engage with relevant, rigorous curriculum and authentic audiences, and they leverage relationships with one another. And, as the data suggests, it works!

To end the great tardy debate, and to increase student engagement writ large, I’m convinced that we teachers should stop locking the door, and instead give our students the key.


Revisiting Ethnicity and Culture in U.S. History, or REC Studies, a senior elective, was initially envisioned by students eager to move beyond the curriculum prevalent in many traditional U.S. History classrooms. Students even developed the name of the course itself in order to offer a counter-narrative to many Ethnic Studies courses which purport to enrich “traditional” coursework. This critical history was always there, they argued; this class would simply “revisit” topics that should be in the dominant historiography.

When my school offered me the opportunity to teach REC Studies, my first task was to design the course to center my students and their voices. As a white woman, the importance of prioritizing the perspectives of my students was paramount, second only to the need for this course to engage real audiences. Importantly, I could not have developed this course in such a manner without the work of Zaretta Hammond, Gloria Ladson-Billings and many others whose examination of Culturally Responsive Teaching explores four critical components: realness, relevance, relationships, and rigor.


In REC Studies, the students teach the course. After covering some basic vocabulary of critical race theory, students learn how to plan a lesson, write a learning target, design an anticipatory set, choose reading materials (our source text is A Different Mirror by Ronald Takaki, although students engage in many other primary and secondary sources), and assess for learning.

In small groups, students plan, implement and grade lessons in Native, African American, LatinX, Asian American, LGBTQIA+, Muslim, and Jewish history—and their lessons are incredible. The work students put forth in to create meaningful, engaging curriculum for their classmates blows me away, and there are few things that give me as much professional joy as the act of stepping back and watching my students take over the classroom with grace, confidence, and professionalism.


Realness and relevance only start with these weekly lessons. In addition, every project and assessment in our course has an audience that is tangible, urgent, and familiar to my students. This year, for example, students wrote, illustrated, and ultimately read children’s books about Black History in Minnesota to elementary classrooms in our district; partnered with a local artist to write and perform spoken word poetry that integrated historical topics from our course with present-day connections relevant to students’ lives; and collaborated with a local community college to design Ethnic Studies lesson plans for middle school teachers across Minnesota.

I have come to believe that authenticity and accountability is the key to rigor: When students know that their work will reach and ultimately enrich audiences who depend on their expertise, the quality of their work skyrockets.


The students are also accountable to, and in relationship with, each other. For starters, they literally teach each other the course. Additionally, they participate in Secret Pen Pals: biweekly pen pal letters that each student writes to an unknown, secret classmate. Students process the class, catch up with their pen pal, and sometimes share private details about their lives—indicating to me a trust that is uncommon among high schools classmates, let alone those who are unknown to each other.

Secret Pen Pals works as a tool to process the class and form relationships because students ultimately understand that they could be writing to anyone in the class; they are all responsible for holding, revering, and ultimately protecting the private reflections of their pen pal, and their pen pal could be anyone out there. I don’t know that I’ve ever engaged in an activity that has united a class so cohesively and intimately.


Any class that engages student-voice requires an enormous level of vulnerability—for my students, and, most importantly, for me. Students regularly push forward changes to the course, point out problems and encourage solutions, and share brutally honest reflections that challenge my perspective. I have learned to understand that a class that is willing to honestly approach me about the details of my course to make it better is a tremendous asset. Any initial feelings of defensiveness on my part immediately wash away when I realize that students trust me to engage with them as partners. What’s more, they’re invested enough in this course to make it the best that it can possibly be. What greater gift could I ever receive?

As the teachers’ lounge thrums with a cacophony of chatter regarding tardies, absences, or whatever else might temporary consume our energy, I remember this: When students are entrusted with the architecture of their education, they will rise. When students are free to progress along unobstructed pathways to learning, they will rise. When students feel accountable to each other and to the community, they will rise. When students are presumed to achieve, they will rise.

They will rise and surpass the highest peaks of our wildest expectations. Right on time.


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