Coffee Break with... Cornelius Minor

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It’s not often you meet someone who is both charismatic and challenges your thinking.  I had that pleasure when I interviewed Cornelius Minor, an activist for social justice and equity in education.

The first time I heard Cornelius Minor speak was in 2017 at the ILA conference in Orlando, FL.  He was inspiring, forthright, energizing and engaging. I recently heard him speak at ILA West 2018 in San Diego, CA.  It’s easy to tell he’s well read, loves working with kids and is supporting teachers.  I believe Cornelius Minor should be on every educator's bucket list of speakers, and you will have your chance to hear him at ILA Austin in July.

He was very generous with his time, so get your coffee and sit down for a great read to challenge your thinking.  But here’s a spoiler alert - so much info and energy were captured together, that this blog is going to be the first of two parts...

What resources, for example, books, researchers, journals, etc., do you find most supportive for your growth as a literacy educator, and why are they important to you in your work in educational equity?

One of the things I think about a lot is access.  It’s important to note that the types of people who have access to publishing in journals aren’t always the people leading the work, so journals can be powerfully limiting.  If I limited myself to journals when I think about equity work, I wouldn’t learn what I need to learn, so I use a lot of social media to follow educators who are actually doing the work.

When I consider people who are actually inspiring me, I think of educators such as José Luis Vilson of EduColor and Rafranz Davis.  Rafanz has produced an immense amount work around technology and how we can use it to include more people in our profession.  Those are two powerful people I follow on social media.

I also think about artists who are in communities and organizing people around art, around expression, around having voice.  These are people who might not be published, but they are galvanizing young people. So I think, how can I take that out-of-school model, and bring it into schools?


A friend of mine in Seattle, James Miles at Arts Corps, is a hip hop artist, so he’s a teaching artist, who contributes to art education in schools. I think a lot about his teaching methodology, and it’s one of the most powerful methodologies to engage kids.  When I am watching James, I’m thinking how can I do what James does in a classroom? People like James inspire me.

I really try to first listen to the people who are closest to the work, as sometimes journals are not the closest - not that I discredit their work, because I belong to NCTE, and I love Voices from the Middle.  I also belong to ILA, and I love Literacy Today, so of course, I do read journals.

I think about how power and privilege and race and class tend to work.  It’s the voices who are closest to the movement that I want to champion, and they often don’t have access to academic journals.  I recognize that as a flaw in the system, so in my position now, I’m always trying to make spaces for people to get into journals.

As a researcher, I want to make sure I honor that idea of research, to search again.  Not just to look at the most apparent or obvious places, but explore places where there is less attention.

None of the young people who started the #BlackLivesMatter movement are in journals, and yet they are doing some of the most cutting-edge social justice work.  The Parkland kids, likewise, are not in journals, but they are engaged in powerful work for change.

A lot of my learning has come from young people.  I did a town hall meeting with 14-year-olds, and took notes on notes on notes, as it was really inspiring.  When I present, I am often crediting teenagers, and people will ask where did you learn that from? I have to say, Mandy, a 14-year-old from South Dakota.

As educators, we have this quote, “Reading books make you a better person.”  I really feel that reading books can make you a better teacher.  So, when I think about wanting to center young people in my practice, I try to listen to kids; I want to go to places where young people are using their voices.  

I read many kid publications and Young Adult (YA) novels, science fiction, fan fiction.  Because the problems that kids personify in books are the problems they want me to work through in classrooms, and when kids write a lot about violence, race or gender, that means that they want teachers to talk and work around these issues.

To stay up to date, I also read a lot of teacher Ed books and pretty much follow all the major education publishers.  For example, I follow the Heinemann blog and podcast, and then I read their authors. I really try to keep my reading diet diverse.  

Tell me more about how you use social media?

Twitter is a source of good information and in direct contact with people doing the work.  I’ve dabbled in Instagram because many young people are using it, I like to watch how young people are chronicling their lives, and I want to stay in touch with those mediums.

At one time, when we moved from handwriting to Gutenberg publishing, people starting chronicling their lives in pamphlets, and to be informed meant that they didn’t just read the books from Europe, they were also reading the pamphlets from the colonies.  What are the contemporary pamphlets from the colonies? It’s Instagram.

What is one piece of advice you would share with other educators in the field?  What is your nugget?

Fail often, fail forward, fail fast. I think we obsess so much about getting it perfect.  But I just want to get it done.

My failure teaches me more.  It such a cliche, but it’s true.  When I try something and it doesn't work out, I think about how to make it better and tweak it.  There is so much learning in those ‘nugget’ moments.


I think as teachers we beat up on ourselves so much if we don’t get it perfect the first time.  It’s important to recognize the conditions and variables that might lead to our work being difficult or hard, so I don’t ever want to put that weight on myself.  So I tell myself, “Cornelius, don’t take all day failing.” If I’m trying something for the first time. I’m not going to try it for three months without examination.  So, I’ll try it for a week or two, examine it, tweak it, and try again.

I want to get to the failure. When I get to the failure, I get to examine it, then I learn from it, and try it again. 

To be continued...

Want to learn more about Cornelius Minor, James Miles, Rafranz Davis and José Luis Vilson or? Click on their names above or follow on twitter:

Cornelius Minor @MisterMinor

James Miles @Fresh_Professor  

Rafranz Davis @RafranzDavis

José Luis Vilson @TheJLV

Bio: Cornelius Minor is a frequent keynote speaker and lead staff developer at the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project.  In that capacity, he works with teachers, school leaders, and leaders of community-based organizations to support deep and wide literacy reform in cities (and sometimes villages) across the globe.  Whether working with teachers and young people in Singapore, Seattle, or New York City, Cornelius always uses his love for technology, hip-hop, and social media to recruit students’ engagement in reading and writing and teachers’ engagement in communities of practice.  As a staff developer, Cornelius draws not only on his years teaching middle school in the Bronx and Brooklyn, but also on time spent skateboarding, shooting hoops, and working with young people. @MisterMinor

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