Coffee Break with Cornelius Minor - Part Two

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Part Two

Cornelius Minor is an avid proponent of change, a disrupter for good in my view, and an energetic educator-driven by students rights for access to learning.  If you haven’t heard him speak, then I would strongly encourage you to do so.  This is Part Two of our Coffee Break, continuing our fascinating discussion...  

What do you believe is especially important for educators to understand about being an advocate for equality in education or literacy educator? How would you frame yourself?

I think the terms are indistinguishable once you become a literacy teacher.

Those who study human evolution and the history of language, they think about what language is and does.  Some people say cave paintings were some of the first forms of language, and we think about why those forms exist.  Out there in the wilderness was a saber-tooth tiger or mammoth, and it’s going to kill you. So I’m going to draw a picture on this wall so you don’t go out there where that mammoth is.  So the first guy goes out and gets chomped to death by a saber-tooth tiger.  The second guy draws it on a wall to not go over to that area.  So language as a communicator saves your life.


That’s what language is for; to save your life, and that is its base function.

To say that I’m an anti-oppressive English teacher is redundant.

English teacher means you’re anti-oppressive.

English teacher means you’re out to save lives.

I am an English teacher.

I think the greatest trick the devil ever played was having us all believe that being an English teacher was all about Shakespeare.  

Again, it’s about saving lives.  I teach language, so kids have tools to express themselves and save themselves.

The biggest thing to know as an anti-oppressive educator is that the way things have always been done has gotten us where we are now, and that’s not okay.

That reminds me of what my husband told me recently. He was in line at a bank in Florida, and a middle-aged black man was depositing his check. He overheard him ask the teller for help in filling out the deposit check because he said he couldn't read or write.  As an educator that was deeply sad for me as our education system and our society let this man down. How can an adult not read in today’s America?

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We know.  It’s not an accident; it’s by design.  These things are not accidental and that many of the students who leave our schools and don’t read, or many of the students' dropout or don’t find value in our schools.  One of the things I always say is that if there were a thing at school that resulted in a mass failure of all the kids with blue eyes. We would examine schools and redefine it so that it could serve kids with blue eyes better.  But we don’t do that for all kids.

It’s sad.

Well, it’s not sad, it’s intentional.  I try to remind myself that it is not a sad thing that happened by chance, as it’s a thing people designed in order to privilege some over others.

If I keep saying its sad then it’s not changing anything, then I’m contributing to the problem?

If it was an accident it would be sad, but it is not.  It’s by design and the way we change it is we disrupt the systems that got us there.  Think about how our school districts were gerrymandered to have all white kids in certain schools.  School districts are not naturally occurring and we can redraw lines to give kids access to things they need.  But we don’t.  Those are choices made by school boards, parents, and community members.  I want to help people understand that these are not accidents, and these are community members that look like us and sit at our dinner tables and have negotiated for our children.

How or what do you do to ensure all students are learning?

One of the first things I consider is the term access, and if we provide equitable access, then that’s the first step.  Schools are not designed to grant them access as it’s not built-in.  Many kids with physical or cognitive disabilities, or kids who are multilingual, simply can’t get access to learning within the curriculum.  

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I have a nephew who is disabled who needs certain things so he can get what he needs to get out of school.  If those things aren’t in place he’s denied access. We need to ask, “What do these kids need in order to access a lesson properly?”  And that’s a civil right. Access is huge.

Another thing I do that falls under the access umbrella is Universal Design for Learning (UDL).  (UDL is a framework that uses cognitive neuroscience for teaching and learning to provide equal opportunities for all students.)   When I craft lessons, I think of the neurological networks, such as the recognition and strategic networks in the brain that govern learning and give kids access to learning.


If you hosted a dinner party, for literary heroes (authors or educators, dead or alive), who would you invite and why?  Tell me, who’s on your guest list? 

So many people.  I can’t have a dinner party without James Baldwin.  James Baldwin is my first love.  The first person that I ever met that used words as tools for liberation.  I read The Fire Next Time in 9th grade and it changed my life.  I would not be sitting here right now if it wasn’t for his book.  The Fire Next Time is his seminal work, and it is so important.  It wasn’t written for educators, but it’s a must read for educators.


Many say that Ta-Nehisi Coates carries that torch now.  He would sit at the table - he’s huge! I love his work in comic books, I love his work in essay, I love his longform nonfiction.  Another comic book writer essential to the party is the late Dwayne McDuffie.  He started a line of comic books called Milestone Comics.  My favorite comic he wrote ran for four years, called “Hardware”.  It’s about a tech genius kid who became a hero.

Dwayne McDuffie had so much to say about race, class, gender and ability. He spoke directly to young people through the medium of comic books in the early 90’s.  I think that was essential work.  He was the first sociologist that I read at the time, although I didn’t know it, as I thought I was just reading another comic book.  I actually consider him my literary godfather.  A lot of the research and writing I do, is owed to Dwayne McDuffie.

Toni Morrison, I’m in love with her, if she walked into this room right now, I would faint.  Toni Morrison ideas around the kind of work we can create as black people in this country, what it means to have people gaze upon your work, and how that can be oppressive - this is really important.  

I would sit Toni Morrison next to Alice Walker, and just to listen in on their conversation.  One of my favorite books in life is, The Temple of My Familiar.  It gave me a strong direction about the kind of person I needed to be, specifically the kind of man I needed to be.  And Man, as a social construct, with all the problems that come with being a man.

I’d love to sit by Zora Neale Hurston and watch Alice and her talk.

Gosh, I’m going to try to do one only more.  Right now, I’m enamored with Roxane Gay.  I think she’s so important; she and I can sit together and talk to Claudia Rankine.

Don Graves is the grandfather of my teaching, and a lot of my teaching  comes from him.  If Don Graves is my grandfather, then my mother is Lucy Calkins, so she has to be there too.  Also, Marva Allen, the owner of the Hue-Man bookstore.  Yes, that’s my dinner party.

It seems that literature has affected you in many different ways. Did you come from a home of readers?

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My parents were aggressively literate, to the point my mom had a top shelf of books that I wasn’t allowed to touch, but I would read them anyway.  That’s how I met Alice Walker; I read a book of her essay’s when I was probably in 10th grade, even though I was way too young to understand.  That’s how I met Assata Shakur, and so many of my literary giants came from my aggressively literate parents.

My first job was in a bookstore owned by Marva Allen, Hue-Man Bookstore, in Harlem, New York.  I worked for her at the start of my career; as an overnight stock clerk.  I was right out of school and had no money.  To this day, Hue-Man Bookstore, is the largest African American online bookstore in the world.  They have a huge presence.

This bookstore was the center of Harlem, where everybody came to promote their work, from people in the Harlem Intelligencia or on the national scene.  I met Muhammad Ali, Bill Clinton, Ice-T, Kool Herc, the guy who invented Hip Hop, and Terry McMillian.   As the overnight store clerk, I was lucky to have had hours with these impressive people in the backroom, while they were waiting to speak and interact with the customers.   

A lot of my life has been influenced because I worked in this bookstore and got paid to stock books all night.  But then, I would be there when these pivotal moments would happen, for example, when Obama declared his presidency and he stopped by the bookstore on his way to the Apollo for a campaign fundraiser.  It was great because the who’s-who would come by and I was just a stock clerk at the time.  They would say, “Hey kid.” I would talk to these amazing people.  I remember when Muhammad Ali came into the store - he was this huge man, Parkinson’s had already set in, but he was telling jokes and performing magic tricks.  And I was there!

Not only were my parents aggressively literate, but there have been people on my path who have really shaped me.  

Marva Allen is probably the most influential in my life.  When you’re working overnight as a book clerk, you inevitably read a lot.  Every night I would go home with a book that she would give me, which is how I build my library. Marva would say to me, “ Oh, that thing you’re reading... you should read this instead.”  Literally, every night, for years of my life I would go home with a book.  I would work late at night and usually go in at five and leave whenever I was done.  I would take the late night subway with a brand new book… every night!

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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