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78. Creating Communities Where Every Child Feels a Sense of Belonging with Michelle Goldshlag

by Lindsay Lyons
June 28th 2022

School culture is affected by anyone who is connected to your school, this means administrators, teachers, students, other faculty, and families. ⁠

If you want a culture that reflects... More

I am so excited to introduce you to Michelle Goldschlager today. Michelle and I have been in a mastermind together for several months, probably going on a year by the time that you listen to this and she is absolutely amazing. I've loved watching her and her business grow and thrive. So I can't wait for you to hear from Michelle, just a little bit of back story. She is the co founder and Ceo of Cultured Kids, a non profit organization that believes a student's sense of belonging is the primary catalyst for their success in her six years at the helm. Cultured Kids has partnered with schools and community organizations in northern Virginia and the metro boston area as well as provided consulting services for international museums and global organizations like the holistic foundation in brazil. Now for reference, this conversation with Michelle was recorded on October 12, 2021, Let's get to the episode. Hi, I'm lindsey Lyons and I love helping school communities envision bold possibilities, take brave action to make those dreams a reality and sustain an inclusive, anti racist culture where all students thrive, I'm a former teacher, leader turned instructional coach, educational consultant and leadership scholar.

If you're a leader in the education world, whether you're a principal superintendent, instructional coach or a classroom teacher excited about school wide change like I was, you are a leader and if you enjoy nerd ng out about the latest educational books and podcasts. If you're committed to a lifelong journey of learning and growth and being the best version of yourself, you're going to love the time for teacher ship podcast, let's dive in. Mhm Michelle, welcome to the time for Teacher ship podcast. Hi Lindsay excited to be here. I'm so excited for me. Yes, I'm so excited. You're on, this is really exciting. And so I just read your amazing bio and so I'd love to hear if there's anything you want to add. I think a lot of times, you know, bios are very professional sounding and so if there's anything else you want to say to introduce yourself to our listeners about who you are, what it is that you do or represent, feel free. Absolutely. Um I would say, and I don't know that this is true for most couples out there, but my husband is the exact opposite of me, very practical thinker, where I'm a visionary and kind of dreamer, um I lovingly call him my dream crusher because I'll have these fantastic, great ideas and plans and he'll be like, look at everything that's going to be required to accomplish it.

Um but in all reality raising kids with him and starting culture kids, which we consider another child has been a godsend because he completes the parts of me that are just like not there and helps me to shape Where we're going and it's also always been like 50, 50 with the kids, you know, bath time babies, food, reading books before bed and they're 13 and 10 now, but we are, they're still letting us read to them at night. So I hope I hope that continues. But yeah, so I think just having him and my kids are awesome. Oh that's fantastic. That is a wonderful intro. Alright go your husband, this is great! that 5050 split is so important to my goodness, I gotta have it. So in the education space and actually you talked about dream crushing. So like these dreams that we have I think are are so much of who we are. Um and so for the education space for youth development, this kind of thing, I am so curious to know what you you know what it is that you hope for for the field of education.

And I'm really inspired by Dr Bettina loves quote about freedom dreaming where she says really these are dreams grounded in the critique of injustice. So with that in mind, what is that big dream that you have? Okay, so in short Unity. Um but what that actually means, you know, and I think that it's important to explain definitions for things. So like unity can mean just oneness, but you can you can act as one around anything, right? And I think that um what is considering all of the challenges that schools are facing today, what is most common is that school leaders are trying to rally their teams and their communities around a shared mission or a shared vision or a shared motto. Um and that's absolutely beneficial and can support um you know, developing the kind of culture you want to into school, but for cultured kids, unity means really creating a community where every child feels that authentic sense of belonging. Um and just in light of definitions to belonging for us means that Children can well that they know their authentic selves and that they feel comfortable sharing that authentic self with others.

That is a beautiful definition of of unity and belonging. And I think looking, I'm getting more and more into this research on belonging and like looking at the trends, it is terrifying that like, it's just like a downward spiral for internationally for people and students particularly who feel a sense of belonging in communities like school, and it's so depressing because that data is like actually pre pandemic, and so when we look at like, you know what the pandemic has done, I'm sure it's even worse. So it's so important, I love that you're focused on that. Absolutely, and so I think sometimes it is hard to wrap our mind as educators around, you know, with with all the things happening in schools and educational communities more broadly, There's so much to focus on. And so what are the mindset shifts that are required for people to really strive for unity to strive and center? Um you know, belonging in terms of like this is the really important thing we're doing, it's not, you know, getting through this curriculum or whatever else is on our plates. Um, but but what is necessary for people to do the work that, that you're asking teachers and supporting teachers to do?

Yeah. Um I think that the number one mind shift for us is transitioning from a mindset of knowing to a mindset of questioning and I think this comes at all levels. So for administrators, um there provided a lot of information and they gain knowledge and I don't want to say like knowledge, knowledge is fantastic, we need knowledge, but actually that belief of knowing, um you know, they may think they know what they're educators need, they may think they know what their kids need, but we instead need to transition to this questioning mode where they're like, what is it my educators need, let me connect with them on a more personal level and evaluate, you know, what individual needs are shared throughout my team, you know? And then educators similarly, um what is it that I'm being asked to teach kids? You know, what curriculum am I being provided for them? Is this the right curriculum for my community? So I just, and and the kids even like if you model that in your school as leaders and as teachers and you focus on that questioning, then kids are going to start sharing in that questioning, you know, like why am I learning this?

Um, you know, what, what is this custom, this other child in that class is celebrating, Why is that important to them? So I just think that in general and I and I if you take this a step further, I mean we assess knowledge all the time, right? So knowing is important and that's what's systemic in our in our education system. So, and I'm not saying assessments are bad, but I do think that we need to transition more to that questioning and the exploration in school rather than focusing on the knowing so well said, and it makes me think of just like what we measure matters, right? And so like the fact that we're measuring the knowing, but we're not measuring the curiosity or the questioning and like, right? Like what could come out of that if that was the goal, if that was the thing that we measured somehow, you know, that would be really transformative. We're trying to figure that out right now. We have a team of people trying to like figure okay, we want to evaluate curiosity and whether or not it's developing in these areas. So we're we're working on developing an assessment for one of our programs.

But yes, it's challenging. But that's what we care about. We want kids to be, you know developed, have more questions and be curious and as soon as you develop that, please let me know because I think a lot of people would love something like that to be able to assess in that way, That's amazing. So in terms of how we get to this place of questioning and prioritizing that over knowing of unity of the dream that you describe being one of belonging as well, Like what can leaders do or even, you know, parents or teachers, you know, whoever is is supporting a child, what is really something that they can do? That's an action step that gets them closer to that dream he describes. That's a tough one. Um I think that, you know, we all want a recipe, but um I think that like just considering the pandemic and recent challenges that we've been facing, we've had, you know, urgent responses in the school system and some of those responses have been good in that. Um we've eliminated some of the requirements for standardized testing because the way that schools provided to kids is a bit different.

We've prioritized their social emotional learning, we've had to rely on parents in ways that, you know, that we haven't maybe before. Um and I don't think the stress of it all um makes it challenging, but what if it weren't urgent, you know, what if we were just actually actually collectively working towards this goal? Um So I mean, I don't I guess I don't have specific brave actions, but um just kind of taking steps to transition the way that we do school to one that is more focused on developing that like helping kids to identify their own sense of identity and helping them to really integrate and share their authentic selves with others, you know, and what that looks like and how to accomplish that. Um I mean, I suppose like some of our programs that we're developing that that's what we're doing. But um you know, I think that regardless of of what teachers or staff are doing um they also these these staff members need to feel that sense of belonging at their school and need to have that culture within their group of people in order for it to trickle down and to be bottled for the kids.

So however we can, you know, start at the top, get administrators involved with creating that culture and sense of belonging for their educators and then really trying to just encourage them to produce the same culture in their classrooms. Yeah, absolutely. I think so much of SCL is, is turned into like this is the curriculum that we we teach students and it's completely divorced from like, let me reflect and see if I would, I am doing these things like am I doing these things in my own life and my own practice my modeling and so I love that you just named that like this is this is for everybody. And so this is important. Yeah, I think that to just one other note is is that and I am experiencing discomfort which I'll talk about later in my job right now. Um and I am a white woman who grew up in a white middle class, suburban neighborhood with hardly any, like, you know, the majority of my, my schooling elementary and high school white community. Um, so the idea of approaching conversations about race or anti racism, homelessness, um, you know, just any of those challenges can be scary for teachers, they can be scary for parents.

Um, and I it's awful, but you have to lean into the discomfort to grow and you have to model what that looks like for our kids if we want them to do the same thing. And so I just think that teachers need to be brave in their actions and it's okay to mess up and depending on the age group that you're working with, there may be a student who is this awesome facilitator and he's gifted in empathy and could provide like a service you know, to help facilitate conversations. Um, but I think we naturally want to avoid that discomfort. Um I actually took a course through connect teach, which would be a great option for any educators. Um, but you, you are just, you're put into a, you know, a group zoom group digital. And the whole point is to like, hey, let's talk about systemic racism in our country, you know, and you have mixed groups, there are people from all backgrounds and cultures and it just provides a safe space to start talking and then hopefully you gain some experience and some comfort and can bring that into your classroom.

Such an important point about comfort. Right? Like, Yeah, so that idea of discomfort being the place where we, we really need to model and where sometimes even again, like you said, it depends on the age, but sometimes we have kids coming in who are not uncomfortable with these conversations at first and it's only through interacting with adults who have like palpable discomfort that they learn to be uncomfortable. And so there's so many reasons, it's important, I think, to model that. And so I just, I love that you name that and I also wanna kind of go back to what you were saying too about the culture. Kids programs are really supporting the development of that curiosity we're talking about and and those actions are really a part of what you offer and your organization offers. So do you mind talking just a little bit about what those programs are and what that is that the teachers do within the programs? Yeah, no problem. So we have a couple different programs. One of them that is probably our, okay, sorry, my husband just came in to shut the door.

Great listeners. We have an after school book club called the art and storytelling Book club. It's multidisciplinary. Um, and the whole point is to really try and create the sense of belonging with kids. Now we don't don't feel like we are like, okay, let's create belonging and go ahead and do it, but we feel like there's a really specific progression to getting there. And so the initial place to start for us is on identity development for kids and with a book club, you know, and with a group or a cohort of kids that don't know each other the most. Um I guess the easiest way to really get them talking and dialoguing about these types of themes is to provide them an external character. Right? So, first rule of of Punk by Celia Perez, um we created this after school book club and curriculum around this for our pilot and the progression of the book which goes through the main character malos, identity development.

And then you learn about how kids are are either using the empathy skill or not using the empathy skill to then create this greater sense of belonging. And our program just follows along with the book. So there's this just awesome aligned progression and students are engaged in dialogue and discussion about identity and they can relate or connect with the book character if they're uncomfortable connecting with, appear, you know? Um and at the same time gallup Has an assessment called the strength explorer for kids 10-14 and if you have Children that are growing up in multicultural homes or have been living globally, they can be really challenged with fractured identities and not feel like a whole self, they may put on a specific cultural, you know, persona at school and then have a completely different one at home. So I think this idea of um identity being fixed and not fluid is a challenge for kids too, and being able to see, read about, hear about and discuss a book characters journey really helps them to grow in that way.

And it was just the strengths Explorer points out, you know, three strengths for each child and regardless of the cultural environment they see themselves in, these kids can kind of just use that as a foundational piece. Like I am, I have a gift of presence, so I am you know, naturally going to want to lead, you know, and that's going to be in the home or in the school and this is how I can use that gift, um but we are not at all affiliated with gallup just to say that, but their their strength Explorer Assessment is a tool that we use in that Book Club program. Um and I think that, you know, in regard to curiosity, it's required for every step, because we want kids to not just know who they are, we want them to question who they are and throughout their lives, you know, we don't want them to know what empathy is, we want them to question and how to do it and how to grow in it because it is a skill that we need to grow in. Um and the same with belonging and and I mean that's just sort of the progression we take to get to that authentic unity that we're striving for.

That sounds like such a cool program and I get to hear because we're in an awesome mastermind together each week, but I get to hear all the cool developments as cultured kids and I know you're having something coming up on the horizon um that is really exciting as well to kind of amplify the impact of your programs and just so many new things happening. Do you mind telling our listeners what is going on now at cultured Kids? So what developments you have? Sure. Um we need your help, I think like with any business leader, nonprofit or for profit, you end up creating the type of organization um that sort of aligns with your personality and so whatever strengths or gifts you have, they shine in your organization. So I am just, I mean I would call myself a creative expert above anything else, I love creating and creating programs and designing curriculum, that's multidisciplinary and also trying to bring kids together and unite communities like this is all kind of my bag, but when it comes to being the ceo of a nonprofit organization and fundraising that is not, I am such an introvert, I am very challenged with raising money, but it's like my failure like this is like I am in year six, We have annually brought in about 30 grand and there was one small organization in the boston area actually who the worst recliner foundation who supported us by providing a $20,000 large gift donation two years for us in a row when we are transitioning from boston to Virginia And I mean without them, I don't think we would have made it past our three year mark.

You know, it's like 90% of businesses failed by the time, you know, they're three years old. So we have survived and we are in year six and it's just now that I am like in a position to just jump into that discomfort once again. Um, and put on that kind of fundraising hat, the revenue building hats. So we have this awesome donor program that we designed because we love creating. Um, but yeah, we are looking for donors to help us grow our impact. We are working with one elementary school in Fairfax County, which is one of the largest schools in the district. We need the team and the capacity to impact more schools. We have, you know, the, that connections and sort of have built trust with that school. We've been able to get feedback. We've been able to collect some, you know, data in regard to belonging, but we need, we need more. Um, and we need to be able to share this with others. So we're, we're definitely looking to grow our, you know, our foundation really, the donors are going to be our foundation. We were not gonna be able to do anything without them.

So that is amazing and something to, for like, you know, if if educators aren't sure they're able to contribute on their own, like the parents and things that you're connected to, the community members you're connected to in your communities would be a great place to, to share the news about this donor program. Us while Absolutely yeah. I think that too. I mean if you consider the, even the corporations or businesses that step up to support education, um, and even some, I mean, especially those companies that are global and that are moving families on a regular basis. And uh, those, those, those employees that they're moving have Children, you know, they're the ones that are being challenged to adjust to new cultures and build that resilience all the time. So, um, I believe we will get there. Just gotta find our way. That's such a good point. I never even thought about those global corporations right to be able to support your employees in this other way. Like this is brilliant. Oh my gosh, okay, cool. Is Fairfax County just out of curiosity, the one that you are doing closing circle with? Yes. Oh my gosh, Do you want, I don't know if you want to talk about that, but that just sounds like really exciting.

If you want to give a quick overview as to like what you're doing with that. I think listeners would be interested. Sure. Absolutely. Uh, so it was our newly, this is like our newest program designed for the entire school, 15 minutes three days a week. So depending on how much time educators are provided for closing circle. And this is another thing because the school that's actually piloting and right now there are a lot of challenges with having that 15 minutes, three days a week. So I think that you really have to like commit to the time if you want to execute the closing circle. Um, but the, there's just a progression. We're, we're broken up themes quarterly. So we again, first quarters identity, second empathy. Third belonging. And then the fourth, we actually added global citizenship because we want kids to like look outside their immediate community into the world because they should feel empowered to do things now, you know? Um, but so we provide content that can be presented to the students that they can then evaluate and question.

Right? So day one there sort of questioning, okay, you know, for example, we have this awesome art piece and I'm not going to remember the artist's name. Um, but he, he walks around, um, and he asks just strangers if he can use his paints to um, create their skin color and then he creates a panel that's that skin color. But he does this all the time. Right? So he ends up with our piece. They look very minimalistic, but they're just the same size pieces all put together and they're all these different colors and you'd be amazed at how many and how beautiful it is, right? But so like for example, kids would be presented this art piece and they wouldn't be told anything about it, but then they would be able to ask questions about it. Um, and so then the second day is more of an opportunity and the idea is to give everyone a chance to have a voice, right? So everybody can ask a question about it. Everybody does not have to. Um and we do have a talking piece that's passed around, but the second day is more of an opportunity to really kind of um discuss or evaluate some of the questions that were presented.

And then the third day similarly with the same piece of content, but it's an opportunity to make a connection. So how that student may have connected to any part of closing circle that week and it could be a connection with the content. It could be a connection within their child, anything like that. But but yeah, I think, you know, we are still like, I know I messaged you the other day, like it was an awful day yesterday because when you are vulnerable and you share a new program with people and you offer it up and and they're like trusting you and you're, you know, working at it and covid, like everything is still very challenging for schools right now. Um, and when you want more for teachers and you don't want to create more work for teachers. Um it can be defeating when things don't go smoothly and things that you create just don't go smoothly. Like you need to work through those bumps, you know, and keep pushing. So yesterday was really challenging day, but we are working through it. So that's awesome. Thanks son. My husband just brought me a latte.

I love how awesome he is like being showcased like in all his awesomeness throughout this podcast is so great. Um um wow, okay, so that is so cool. Thank you so much for speaking to the closing circle piece because I think it's such a cool program. I love that you spoke to the challenges of creating it. I think everyone listening can attest to the challenges for creating a new curriculum or a new procedure or you know, implementing that. And I also think it sounds, just to me at least it sounds doable compared to like here's this year long, multi hour per day thing initiative. You know, when it's like there's so much to do, 15 minutes, three days a week. Like here are some really concrete things that you could immediately just go do and you have a bunch of stuff. I don't want to talk about this too long with you, but you know, I know you have a bunch of resources to for educators in terms of like you said the curriculum um for each of those four quarters like, you know, books and things that people could use to generate those conversations, but even if you were just hanging up the podcast today and like, okay, immediately, you know, next week I'm just gonna, you know, find a piece of content and ask students to ask questions about it and then the next day we're going to go back.

I mean this is something that people could do immediately um in their classrooms, which is so fantastic. Yes, absolutely, and they should do because I mean I just, I think about all of the global problems that we have, the fact that things change so rapidly and we don't know what jobs will look like 10 years from now when these kids are out, you know, out and and working um that our greatest, I think resource is this curiosity and ability to question and that that's going to help um bring people together and solve, you know, global problems and I love how you would name to, you know, we want to make sure that kids feel like they can do that now, instead of oftentimes, what we do is we talk about kids in the future like, oh you're going to be a leader in the future once you graduate, once you grow up and I love that you're really naming, like we can have and should have kids do that now, like today while they're in school. Yeah and I think that I mean I know that you're gonna share ways to connect with me later, but for example just something simple and small is that gallup assessment which is only $10 and if you had the means to add that to your school supply list, for example, for those age groups, um you know, I wouldn't engage in this at all if you're not actually planning to use the information you're provided, but If you are provided that information and you wanted our help in order to design some ways to use it in order to really um route kids in those strengths that they have and help them to use them in the school community.

Um and even to build connections with peers because one of the one amazing things about it is that we have this cohort of like 20 kids and there were kids in there that wouldn't have never um thought about being friends with one of the other kids, right? But then they realized they share the strength and they're put into group activities where they all have this common strength and like kind of talking about what that means. And so that creates an immediate connection, you know, and I think that in order to to really build that unity, you have to be able to identify those connections um and you can't do that without conversation or you know, you just, I mean, if, you know, if you're in the knowing, then you're going to just know and assume or judge um something about another student without asking. And so um yeah, just providing like applicable ways to kind of create those connections in your school is going to be important, awesome, amazing ideas. So there's so much packed into this episode, there's so many things that you do, so many pieces of advice that you share with people, and so as someone is listening to this podcast and they're ready to go implement something, what is the one thing that you would suggest that they go ahead, get started with just to kind of live in alignment with with all that we've been talking about today.

Um so I think that that my suggestion is more about them and their personal growth and what I would suggest is that they actively pursue conversations or time with others that do not share their same beliefs or ideologies and um there I think through that and and going into it with this this idea of questioning and development rather than knowing, you know, um I think that with that you a become more comfortable leaning into the discomfort and so that you'll be more likely to do that in class or at least help kids to do that. Um and then, you know, I lost my train of thought in regard to be, there was a b I mean, you know, let's just throw in there that you'll become a better person, I mean I just feel like so much time is um and it's it's unfortunate, but like so much time can be spent on your own uh in your own bubble with your own, like, thoughts with your own ideas.

Um and and sadly, you know, social media is challenging and then it just encourages you to follow whatever it is that you're focused on or interested in. So we really have to try harder than before, I think, to pursue conversations or time with others who do not share those same beliefs and I think that it'll just help us to be more well rounded, um more open minded, uh you know, more empathetic, I mean the things that happen and go on in people's lives and we have no idea about, you know, uh so really just challenging that empathy skill in yourself and I think that that will trickle down. Yeah, that's a brilliant suggestion, thank you. And and I love this question for fun at the end of each episode, but you know, what is something you've been talking about? You know, that that growth throughout the episode, what is something that you have been learning about growing in lately? Yes. Um well, I guess being on your show is a prime example yeah, before we started, you know, chatting today, I was talking to Lindsay, but um there are certain things that can be crippling for a person and I'm a huge introvert.

I'm very comfortable being an invisible leader. Um and I think just becoming a visible leader and it's not, I don't want to be right. I, I am uncomfortable kind of talking out, gaining exposure, but um, the cause that I serve is greater than any discomfort I could feel. So, I mean, I'm choosing to do it because I know what it's right, I know that it's right for our mission and for what we're asking and what we're trying to do. Um, and I hope that's that's an example for others to do the same because um in the end, I don't know how long this will take Lindsay, you know, like a couple of months or a year from me, like actually kind of coming on and being interviewed for podcasts and stuff, where I'll start to feel comfortable, but I know I felt the same way when I had to start having board meetings, you know, and you're working with a bunch of professionals that are in areas of expertise that you're not, you know, like there's always stages of discomfort. So I know you have to persevere and through it if you, if you want to grow and if you want to make a difference.

So well said this is amazing advice. So the last thing I'll ask is just, I'm sure people are going to want to connect with you learn more about cultured kids, learn more about you and what you're working on. So where can people do that? Sure. So our website is cultured kids dot org and I am at linkedin Michelle gold flag. Our twitter and instagram handles are at cultured underscore kids and our facebook page is at cultured kids M. A for massachusetts because that's where we found it. Perfect. Thank you so much. Michelle for being on this podcast has been absolutely a pleasure to chat with you and just hear all these brilliant ideas, awesome. Thanks so much lindsey. Thanks for listening. Amazing educators. If you loved this episode, you can share it on social media and tag me at lindsey Beth alliance or labor review of the show. So leaders like you will be more likely to find it to continue the conversation. You can head over to our time for teacher ship facebook group and join our community of educational visionaries. Until next time leaders continue to think big act brave and be your best self

78. Creating Communities Where Every Child Feels a Sense of Belonging with Michelle Goldshlag
78. Creating Communities Where Every Child Feels a Sense of Belonging with Michelle Goldshlag
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