People in conversation

Dialogic Classroom Testimonial: Catherine Anderson (Oklahoma)

“This is the teaching tool that's going to help me prepare them to become successful adults to have those hard conversations with parents, loved ones, friends, coworkers, people they disagree with or, you know, people they just want to form closer relationships with.”

Catherine (Cat) Anderson teaches 11th and 12th grade English at Boulevard Academy, an alternative school for at-risk students in Edmond, Oklahoma. Cat first connect with Essential Partners through the pilot program of the 3Cs Classroom curriculum, a collaboration between EP and the Starts With Us foundation. Inspired by what she saw in the 3Cs Curriculum, Cat wanted a more in-depth training, and subsequently joined a Dialogic Classroom training.

We had the chance to talk with Cat about the needs of her students, who face an array of challenges, as well as the Dialogic Classroom's alignment with social-emotional learning goals, its ability to equip students with fundamental life skills, and the ways it has transformed student engagement in her classroom.

In her own words…

These students have fallen through the gaps, and they're missing the social and emotional skills. [The Dialogic Classroom] is the teaching tool that's going to help me prepare them to become successful adults to have those hard conversations with parents, loved ones, friends, coworkers, people they disagree with or, you know, people they just want to form closer relationships with. It's incredible to really see the evolution and the change of these students, once they're given the tools, and EP has really helped me do that. 

I am Cat Anderson. I am from West Virginia, but I currently live in Oklahoma. At Boulevard Academy, I teach English 11, 12, and then a lot of electives. Boulevard Academy is an alternative high school. Basically, if a student doesn't succeed in  one of our Edmond public school high schools, then they're referred to Boulevard Academy. This could be for substance abuse, medical issues, behavioral issues, mental health. We have a lot of students who just don't have home support or maybe they're even homeless. 

I looked at what Essential Partners was offering and I said, Oh, this is what's missing in classrooms. Especially working in a school that focuses on at-risk students, one of the big things that we teach here is social and emotional skills. And what the dialogic classroom and all of Essential Partners' focus really hones in on is social and emotional skills. But in a really concrete way that is teachable. You know, how do you teach someone to be kind? How do you teach someone to be understanding, or compassionate? 

The 2016 and the 2020 election were spark points. Being a teacher, being a leader and a mentor to young adults. They're asking you, What do we do? What is this? What is happening? It drives me to find what is going to be best for our students in the most realistic life-applicable way. And Essential Partners, as soon as I saw this curriculum, I was like, Oh, this is it. This is what I've been looking for. Because it's not content—it is an application of how to teach. It's been a world of difference ever since.

I was teaching the introduction to creating a dialogic container to my students. I just remember talking about questions of persuasion versus questions of understanding. How, even if they're well-meaning questions of persuasion are not helpful when you're trying to get to the root of why someone may feel the way they do, or hold an opinion that they hold. And then if you ask questions of understanding, someone can feel a lot safer and less defensive. One of my students that kind of doesn't speak up very often, all of the sudden, burst out from the back of the room and goes, Can I take one of these home? Because my mom doesn't use questions of understanding and she could really learn a thing or two from this. 

I mean the whole glass laughed. But at the same time, I think it really shows how applicable this is. Not only for those hard conversations when they're adults, when they're talking to people who have different beliefs than they do, but also right at home right now. It was just kind of Remarkable that a teenager could come to that conclusion in such a very mature way.

People move at the speed of trust. Conversations and honestly learning or any kind of change are not going to happen until people feel safe. And it's not just if they are safe, right. It matters that you have felt safety.

Working with at-risk students, you have kids with a lot of trauma, we have kids with a lot of reasons why they don't want to open up. Oftentimes I would have students at first who they don't want to say a word. They just want to blend into my wallpaper. They don't even want us to know that they're in the room. Focusing on those social, emotional skills. Focusing on, you know, that connection. It allows them to build that sense of felt safety enough that they can contribute. 

Two or three weeks in, they'll be part of a conversation. I'll give their parent a call and their parent will be like, wait a second. My students talking in class. No, I'm, I'm sorry. You must've called the wrong kid's parent. Like they're at Boulevard because they were failing because they wouldn't come to class, let alone talk in class. 

All of that is due to what the Dialogic Classroom really brings. 

It is not a waste of time to build that connection first. That that is really make or break. It matters. I've seen that really paid off organically, not just during my teaching.

One of my students, they had this moment where one student said something that was unintentionally offensive and in a racial way. One of the kids was black, one of the kids was white. It became heated. Real quick as it does. And I watched—on pins and needles a little bit, because I was really worried—but I wanted to see if they could figure it out. And a conversation about, Hey, you can't say that, became a conversation about how two students were raised very differently. 

I thought that was incredible. Being able to identify that that's a difference and that those experiences caused them to behave differently. And then the one student apologized and was like, you know what, I'm sorry. I didn't realize that that would hurt you. 

To watch that dialogue happen, and watch questions of understanding play a huge role in them piecing out what was really behind that, meant a lot to me. That was really cool. 

Yeah, I cried after that class. Because like, it's working!

I really think, more than ever, we have to make time for conversation. We'll always have a running to-do list. There will always be more work. But we have to make the time—not find the time, but make the time—to have conversations and to have connection. Because that's the only way that we're going to have a life that is fulfilling, that we're going to practice this really important social and emotional skills and build those relationships, that support network that makes life worth living. You have to make time for conversation and connection. 

Once you really apply a lot of these skills that you learn in the Essential Partners training, you start to realize like, Oh, I don't have to like, fight about that. And I'm not saying it makes every fight disappear. It's not magic. But it is definitely a lot more tools in my toolbox—not just as a teacher, but as a person, as a friend, as a wife, and that has been great.