May 10, 2021 | Abby Liu
This is a part of a new video interview series so that you can get to know our Middle School faculty. We hope that you enjoy learning more about them!
Abby Liu: Hello, I’m Abby Liu, the Director of Marketing and Communications at Mustard Seed School, and today I have Brent Harris with me. Welcome Mr. Harris!
Brent Harris: Thank you!
Abby Liu: Why don’t you tell us what you teach at the school?
Brent Harris: I teach seventh and eighth grade language arts, I suppose that would be my title. I also do homeroom stuff. Usually, under normal circumstances I teach sixth grade language arts as well but that has not happened this year. In the past it has and hopefully it will again in the future.
But language arts teacher, middle school language arts teacher is my official title, although I do many other things as well.
Abby Liu: Yes, of course, there’s always more to do right?
Brent Harris: Always more to do. Yes, I love it.
Abby Liu: Why don’t you tell us what you studied in college?
Brent Harris: Well, when I was in college I studied a number of things, and eventually I figured out what I wanted to do. It only took two and a half years, which of course is totally normal.
After thinking about maybe doing music, which didn’t work out super well, and then maybe social work, I eventually came to the conclusion that I would become a teacher. I was very adamant about not being a teacher because both my parents are, and I thought it was too easy. Well, not teaching itself, but it was too easy of a concept to get into because it felt like it was too natural, and I was very rebellious at the time so I went into social work, which is a very rebellious idea.
Eventually I decided that I just would do it because I knew I kind of wanted to the whole time. So I studied English (secondary education, teaching English), and when I student taught, my goal was always to teach high school. For some reason, that was the idea in my head. And when I was placed for a student teaching position, I landed in an eighth grade classroom. At the time I was a little disappointed because I thought that I wanted to be a high school teacher, but I found eighth grade to be awesome. It was so much fun. And because of that, I’ve been teaching in middle school ever since. So that is what I studied in college.
Abby Liu: That’s great. What content do you enjoy teaching the most?
Brent Harris: You mean, in the language arts realm?
Abby Liu: Yes, what gets you excited?
Brent Harris: Oh man, a lot of things. I love science fiction and I love creative writing. Those two things I really, really like.
I haven’t done a lot of science fiction books with students, because it’s sometimes difficult to relate science fiction texts to modern social and political issues. I just really like the creativity of science fiction. So I do like to teach that if I can.
I do a lot of short stories that tend to be more sci-fi oriented, but generally creative writing is one of my favorite things to teach, and I’ve noticed that Mustard Seed School students just have,–I don’t want to say a knack–because at some point along the way they, they become really good at [creative writing], and then they show up in my seventh grade class and are already really good, so I love to invest in that in that skill.
But also I just love reading books as a class. So doing class reads, I find that so fun. We just did To Kill a Mockingbird, which was, I mean it’s been a timely book since it came out, but I felt in the context of this year that it was even more appropriate to read as a class.
Abby Liu: So do you like actually reading aloud as a group?
Brent Harris: Yeah, I love reading aloud as a group. I know that that’s not always the best way, and we didn’t do that the whole time for To Kill a Mockingbird, because it is a bit of a longer book to read as a whole class. But we found some time to read most of it together, and I think that’s a valuable experience to just go through the plot of the story together instead of… When I was in middle school if my teacher asked me to read a chapter at home I would have probably skimmed it or maybe not done at all. Which is not to say that’s what students here do, it’s just nice to know for certain that everybody listened to it and understood it, and knows what’s going on. And we can also talk about things as they come up in the text instead of the next day. So we do read a decent amount in class, but it wasn’t the whole book.
Abby Liu: I think you also hear things a little bit differently sometimes when it’s read out loud than when you’re reading it in your head.
Brent Harris: Yeah, and it crowdsources the ideas, right? You get to interpret it through many people’s lenses instead of just your own, and that I think that’s helpful too.
Abby Liu: Yeah, that’s great.
Can you describe a moment when a student was challenged beyond what was expected in class? What did their work look like, and what was exciting for you as a teacher?
Brent Harris: That’s a really good question. Since starting a Mustard Seed, when I looked at the curriculum, and what was expected of a Mustard Seed School seventh and eighth grade language arts student, I wasn’t overwhelmed myself, I was overwhelmed on behalf of the students because I expected it to be way too much to manage. You know, read a whole book a week, and then write a response on it every week. That seems like such a burden, and it’d be hard to enjoy reading if that’s the case. And the literature exhibition, all of these things are pretty massive expectations. But as the year began my first year, which was two school years ago now, I realized that these expectations were set in place, and students continually met them.
And as time went on I realized that I can probably up the expectations a little bit, depending on how students are doing.
So, I have been incorporating a lot of little extra credit things over the years. Presenting other optional things. And students have pretty regularly done them.
Two years ago, I think the first one I did, I had students who wanted to watch the movie Arrival, which is a really great movie that came out five or six years ago, and then look at it through the lens of language, and the power of language. So there were a number of students that watched that movie and wrote an essay on it, and I really appreciated the students’ thoughts about language and how powerful it is. And in the movie (it is a sci-fi movie, so there was a way for me to shoehorn sci-fi in a little bit), it’s a sci-fi movie about this alien species. There are two or three creatures that come to earth and it’s basically the human response to it, like what do the humans do. And eventually, they tried to destroy the aliens, even though the aliens were trying to use their language to be inviting and teach the humans about things. So the students grapple with the concept of language and how it’s really powerful but also when it’s used incorrectly, it’s powerful but very destructive too.
So that was the first extra credit I did, and that sort of set the standard. I’ve been doing a lot of extra credit since then, to push students a little bit further in their interpreting of the English language, and sort of pushing themselves also as writers. I’ve done a bunch of extra credit where they have to either do poetry or write an essay about a certain concept or topic that’s going on currently, or something that is pretty well known in the current social and political climate. It’s been very exciting for me as a teacher to see students intentionally flourish and push themselves, because these are optional things. It’s really exciting when they take ownership of their work.
Abby Liu: Yeah, it’s such a life skill.
Then, as you know, we’ve been thinking about belonging, as we study Universal Design for Learning and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. What’s an idea that you’ve tried as a result of the work that we’ve been doing here at Mustard Seed to implement Universal Design for Learning?
Brent Harris: Yeah, I actually have one that overlaps with UDL and DEI, both acronyms!
Abby Liu: Excellent!
Brent Harris: For To Kill a Mockingbird, I was thinking about what to do for a final. I didn’t know if I wanted to do a final test, because tests, surrounding books, I find them to be memorize all the characters and then there are a bunch of bullets or multiple choice. I don’t know, I just have never found it to be very useful. So what we did instead was, we did a verbal assessment. So students met with me one-on-one, for five to seven minutes slots, and we had a conversation. The first big question was what is one of the main themes and To Kill a Mockingbird, and why do you think that’s a theme? Students could only bring their book with them, they could put post-it notes in their book if they wanted to.
And then the second question (that first question lasted about five minutes) was random. They could choose from three different tiers of questions. There was tier one, tier two and tier three for difficulty levels, and students could choose which difficulty level they wanted and I would choose one of the questions in that category. It was a pretty short conversation, but I had it as a verbal thing, so that students… we do a lot of writing and language arts, obviously.
And this was maybe a little more stressful, but students got to show me their thinking in a more personal way, but also without writing involved. It’s a little bit easier sometimes to talk about a concept than it is to write about a concept, because sometimes students overthink what they write, and this was more of a natural way to explain their thoughts. The theme that almost all students chose had to do with the concept of racism, which is very prevalent To Kill a Mockingbird, obviously.
So that book itself was a great window for us to look at DEI and also some current issues with racism and so that was that was a really big one, but I think that worked really well. Students generally reacted pretty positively even though they were quite anxious about the concept of talking one on one with me but I think that was a highlight and that was very recently too.
Abby Liu: Again, another really great skill, being able to converse, and conversing with an adult. It’s a great skill to be able to engage with your teacher. So when you’re going on to high school and college, you’re comfortable with that.
Brent Harris: Exactly. Exactly.
Abby Liu: Great. What motivates and inspires you as a teacher?
Brent Harris: Oh man. Well, the primary thing is the students (I actually just told the eighth grade class today that I think they’re awesome), and the students that I have worked with at Mustard Seed School have brought me a lot of joy, but also a lot of confidence in the future. Knowing that these seventh and eighth graders that I teach now are the next up and coming generation makes me feel a lot more confidently about the direction we’re headed as a nation and as a planet. There are a lot of things to be overwhelmed and frustrated by, and I take solace knowing that the seventh and eighth graders that are going to be the people that are making decisions in five or 10 years, even now.
So I would say I’m motivated by them, as they show me that the expectations that we set for them, they can reach them. I am motivated to push them as well, seeing what they’re capable of, knowing the level that they can work to. I’m motivated to push them and get them to the next step.
Abby Liu: Taking hold of those Change Makers, pushing them further on, that’s great. Is there anything else that you would like our families to know about you?
Brent Harris: This might be kind of cheesy, but I really love and admire the students. I guess, over the years I’ve noticed that I’ve been drawn to middle schoolers because, at least for me and historically for a lot of people looking back at their middle school years, it’s a hard time to love yourself. And I think it’s important that when it’s difficult to love yourself you have people around you that love you either way, so even if you’re having a tough time loving yourself, that’s what we’re here for.
So I guess I want parents and the general community to know that that is something that I value. Loving students, despite what they think about themselves.
Abby Liu: That’s a big part of our mission, right? To know and care. That’s great. All right, we got two quick questions. How long have you worked at Mustard Seed?
Brent Harris: This is my third year at Mustard Seed. So I guess 2.75 years.
Abby Harris: You’re almost there, you’re almost at three! What’s the last book you read?
Brent Harris: The last book I read, A History of Canada in Ten Maps!
Abby Liu: I guess I should say, you’re Canadian right?
Brent Harris: I am! I’m actually wearing a Canadian shirt.
It’s ten maps that were created by early explorers, as they like pushed further and further west, and their maps are usually not even close to what the actual landscape was. But it’s a Canadian author who wrote about the progression of Canada, and how it’s become what it is now, and how those maps have been part of that, it’s pretty cool. I don’t usually read nonfiction so it’s a bit of a change.
Abby Liu: That’s cool! What’s a show that you’re watching right now or recently enjoyed?
Brent Harris: Lauren and I are watching Twin Peaks. It is so weird, and we love it. We’re on season two of two seasons, and then they reintroduced in 2017 or something. But we’re watching the late 80s version, it’s great.
Abby Liu: So retro!
Brent Harris: Very retro. Very cool.
Abby Liu: What’s the first thing you’re going to do when the pandemic is over, or at least the major restrictions lifted?
Brent Harris: Visit my family! I haven’t seen them since last summer. Usually we would see them every few weeks, and it’s been really hard not seeing them, because they live in another country, or many of them do. And there are many more rules in Canada than there are here, so it’s even harder, the concept of going there. The summer is still up in the air. It’s really sad, and Lauren and I are trying not to think but too much, but we do zoom with them a lot! It’s not the same but it’s, you know, as close as we can get.
Abby Liu: That’s good, at least we have the technology! Okay, favorite dessert?
Brent Harris: There is a coffee ice cream at Angel’s Crepes.
Abby Liu: Oh, on Central Ave. [In Jersey City]
Brent Harris: And it is so good. I could eat several pints of that in one go. And it has real caffeine, so it’s hard to eat after dinner because then I can’t go to sleep but it’s worth it.
Abby Liu: So you actually need your breakfast ice cream!
Brent Harris: Yes! Maybe I should have it every morning.
Abby Liu: Name a band or artist that you enjoy listening to.
Brent Harris: My favorite band is Lord Huron. They’re releasing a new album in a couple of weeks, pretty excited about that. I’ve seen them in concert nine times, so I would say they’re my go to.
Abby Liu: And what’s one item that will always be in your fridge?
Brent Harris: Ketchup, always gotta have ketchup. I eat it on a lot of things, more things than I need to eat it on.
Abby Liu: Eggs?
Brent Harris: Yeah, eggs.
Abby Liu: Excellent. All right, well thank you so much for joining me today and for letting us get to know you just a little bit better.
Brent Harris: You are welcome! It’s been a pleasure.