Back-to-School Series: Minisode 1 with Toney Jackson in NJ on Teachers in America

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Photo: Fourth-grade teacher Toney Jackson

Welcome back to Teachers in America, where we celebrate teachers and their lasting impact on students' learning journeys and lives.

In this 20-minute minisode, we are joined once again by Toney Jackson, a fourth-grade teacher in Hackensack, New Jersey. Toney serves as an HMH Teacher Ambassador and has lent his rhymes—and voice—to HMH's Waggle program.

A full transcript of the episode appears below; it has been edited for clarity.

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Noelle Morris: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, where we celebrate teachers and recognize their triumphs, challenges, sacrifices, and dedication to students. I am the Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris.

School is almost back in session! So, we’re starting off the school year with bite-sized episodes that feature back-to-school tips from your favorite former guests.

Today we’re joined once again by my dear friend Toney Jackson, a fourth-grade teacher in Hackensack, New Jersey. From poetry to puppetry—Toney loves to bring his passion for the arts into his teaching practice. And as a self-proclaimed Teacher MC, he makes the classroom an engaging space for all.

In this minisode, Toney will share how you can become a master of ceremonies in your own classroom, so you can hype up your class and empower students by sharing the stage. Now, let’s get to the episode!

Noelle Morris: Hey, Teachers in America audience. I'm so excited to welcome back my friend, Toney Jackson, to this special Back-to-School episode. What's been happening, Toney?

Toney Jackson: Noelle, what's up? I'm so happy to be back in so many ways. I have been doing my thing. I have been resting and relaxing, but also learning and growing because that's something I got to do consistently to be the best me for all of my students. So, that's what I've been up to.

Noelle: We have to say as we're coming back to school, and one of the things I can already hear, potentially knowing your skillset as a teacher MC, that you'd be using those words. And so, define teacher MC to our audience in case they weren't able to listen to our last episode.

Toney: Absolutely. So as an MC, I love hip hop and hip hop culture. I like to rap, and I also bring that into the classroom as an educator. So as an MC, it hits in so many different ways. The actual term MC is master of ceremony, and so you're kind of in charge of the show, but we're also the mic controller. So, it's us making sure that our voice is heard, but also that that mic is being passed around to our students as well. We're master cultivators. We're moving the culture and the content. So, MC can be combined in so many different ways, but that's what it is. It's who we are and knowing that it is not us putting on a show, but it's us cultivating that culture and environment for our students.

Noelle: And a master of ceremonies, an MC, as Dr. Chris Emdin has talked to both me and you about.

Toney: Yes, yes.

Noelle: Starts with that knowledge of self, and, also, the vision of where you want to move that crowd, right?

Toney: Yes.

Noelle: So, you have 180 days with your new crowd, which is your class. You know where you want to be at the end of the school year, and you just get to envision that each day and bring the spice, bring the voice. But I love what you're saying about making sure you share the mic.

Toney: Oh, that's a necessity. That's a necessity. Because when we say, “move the crowd,” we want our students to be moved. And I am so moved and so fortunate to have benefited from the wisdom of Dr. Emdin and so many others. That is something that I never forget about. We want to move the crowd, but like you said, we have to make sure that we're not the only ones holding that mic because, when we move students, we want them to be able to move culture. So, we move them so that they can make bigger moves beyond us and it doesn't just stay in the classroom.

Noelle: Totally! Get the message out, keep spreading it.

Toney: Yes.

Noelle: And a great MC has a hype man, right?

Toney: Oh, yes!

Noelle: A hype person. How do you find where your hype is in that first week of school?

Toney: Okay, so you got to go from the KOS, the knowledge of self, to the other KOS, the knowledge of students. The stronger your connections to each student, the more you're going to learn about them and how they can be that hype person, because it's not going to look the same from everybody. I had one student who used to leave me a post-it and it would say, "That joke you told was really funny," and that's how she hyped me up. But there's other students that, in the moment, will clap or they'll call out something that amplifies something that you said or that gets everybody going. So, having that knowledge of your students is essential.

Noelle: Totally. And your hype man can be the student that helps bring in other students who aren't engaged, right?

Toney: Yes.

Noelle: Because they might have a relationship with that student that you're still developing. Let your hype man bring them in.

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In Toney's class, students are empowered to lead their learning and encouraged to cheer on their peers.

Toney: Oh, a hundred percent. This is speaking to the teacher MCs. They're not there just to hype you up. They're there to hype up the content, to hype up the culture, to hype up the class. It's not just for you. I don't need a student to tell me that I'm doing something great. If they do, then I appreciate that, but I want to make sure that that hype is not just wasted on me. I want them to hype up the whole environment.

Noelle: So, Toney, we think about also not comparing ourselves, because there's so many different MCs out there.

Toney: Yeah.

Noelle: And, I was saying, you have 180 days, so even if you had a rough moment on day two of the first week, it’s not going to crush the spirit of the whole day or the whole year. So, in your advice, when you think about your expectations, when you’re giving advice to other teachers about the first week, the first day, the first two weeks, it’s all about the first. How, over your 17 years of teaching, going into your 18, have you learned to let go of something that didn't work because you have another moment tomorrow?

Toney: I think that's super important. One way that it works for me is, again, as an MC and as a writer, I think about it the way that I write a verse. I have 16 lines, and this is poetry. This is me trying to pack as much as I can into a verse or into a song. And if I only focus and say it's a success if it went exactly the way I wanted, that's impossible. It's not going to be for everybody. But if I look at, "Oh, wait. Okay, this line was crazy. This metaphor was amazing. The chorus on that was dope." And we do that with songs that we love too. So, I think that when I'm looking at myself as a teacher and my practice, I'm trying to find those wins. I'm trying to find the things that really came across. Maybe it was one line at a four that my kids really latched onto. Maybe it was a really great project that we did, but the following lesson the next day didn't really hit. Then I still have something to shoot for. I'm like, "Okay, well, let me go back and see how I can make this even better." And I have something to look at that tells me I know I can bring amazing things into this room. So, don't lose the amazing stuff for the misses. Those are just chances to make it even better.

Noelle: When we think about it in the school year, you start as a fresh slate and you're going to bring your craft into who this class is, who this crowd is. How do you start the new year without any preconditions that could potentially not let you have the optimum experience with those students?

Toney: Okay, so because you're talking to an MC, you're getting a lot of metaphors here. But, yes, I absolutely think of it as a clean slate. And I think about it with what I listen to. If I were the same MC today that I was the first year I started teaching, I would be bored. And everything that I do would potentially be boring because I'm not growing and changing. I'm not looking at what I can experience and what I can learn and what I can grow from the year before, and then take that to do something different. And then sometimes throughout the year, there will be those amazing surprises, something that hits me that I'm like, "Wow, I wasn't even expecting that." But that opens up a new perspective for me. That gives me a new goal to shoot for. And sometimes that happens when you listen to music and you're like, "Oh, this isn't normally something that I would've looked for, but this is hitting. There's something here that I can take and I can use." So, I try to remain really open.

Noelle: Love that. Embrace who you are, show who you are, be ready, but also be open. You teach fourth grade.

Toney: Yes.

Noelle: Fourth grade is a pivotal year, right? They are nine.

Toney: Yeah. Yep.

Noelle: They're not double digits, or they're going to be close to double digits. If I'm a first year fourth grade teacher, what do I need to understand about the fourth grader that I may not have learned in a textbook?

Toney: Oh, that's a fun question. I would say fourth grade, I think, is a really perfect balance because from my experience, again, kids are different. Some kids may be ten and have a completely different attitude than what I've experienced with the nine- and ten-year-olds that I work with. But I've found that my kids are really open to having cool, new, fun experiences. And, so, not everything that I do is going to be a hit right off the bat. But I can take their feedback. And that's one thing that I found: they will be honest with me when it comes to something that is working for them or something that they think is cool. I can always take that feedback and then I can run back and I can try to make it better. But, yeah, I find that fourth graders are really open to things.

I use puppets in the classroom, and my kids will still ask me to do specific puppets and specific voices. I still love read-alouds where I can change my voice and inhabit every character, and they're right there with me. And then I just make sure that I give them the chance to do the same thing too. So, I would say don't look at fourth graders as if they're thinking they're too cool because they're going to go to middle school soon. But, also, don't look at them as if they're too young and you need to baby them. They're kind of like at this really cool sweet spot so open it up and have fun.

Noelle: Do you have a favorite read-aloud, or how do you approach the read-aloud that you do first?

Toney: Oh my gosh, these are my favorite things to talk about!

Noelle: I love back-to-school. Back-to-school is one of my favorite times of year.

Toney: Yes. One of my favorite read-alouds is by Christopher Myers. And it's a book called Wings. Do you know Wings?

Noelle: Totally know Wings.

Toney: Oh, I love it. I love it.

Noelle: I'm totally picturing the illustrations in that book.

Toney: Yes. Right. It's a short read, but it speaks to a kid who's new at school. So, it's great for back-to-school. We use it when we're coming up with our class commitments where we talk about what values we want to see and want to practice in class. And we look at how the characters are behaving here, we even look at the way that the teacher behaves toward the student, and it gives students a chance to think, "Oh, that's not how I would want my teacher to behave towards me." The narrator in the book becomes a pivotal character, and it's like, how would you speak up for someone else? So, that is one of my all-time favorites.

I've used that since I taught second grade a million years ago. And I use it with my fourth graders every year too. And then I do have to shout out one of the novels that I've been including every year, which is The Last Last-Day-of-Summer, Lamar Giles. Just a brilliant, brilliant, brilliant use of literary skills like idioms and the way that he brings idioms to life, the characters that he chooses. He's got two genius sleuth black boys, and it is sci-fi, adventure. It is fantastic. So those are my two go-tos that I start every year with.

Noelle: I love that book. You and I are friends. We have so many things in common, and we also stretch each other and challenge each other.

Toney: Yes, thank you.

Noelle: I always want to think, Toney, that if you and I were teaching in the same building, we totally would be teacher besties.

Toney: Oh my gosh. It'd be a wrap, Noelle.

Noelle: I know.

Toney: It would be crazy.

Noelle: I'll be like, "My room must be right next to his." We have to have a sharing door. But there's people that you know, there's teachers that you know, and I say teacher bestie all the time, and you have to have your crew, to bring it back to MCing.

Toney: Yep.

Noelle: And your crew cannot all be replicas of you. You have to have diversity and thought and experience. So, Toney, as you think about school starting, and first your teachers walking into the building, what's your advice and how do you encourage teachers to find their team?

Toney: That's a really interesting question. I know that some people are placed on teams. I love my fourth grade team. One of the teachers just came on this year, but we have been clicking and it has been awesome. And we get together and we're able to share our ideas, we’re able to share our concerns, and we're able to be honest with each other about things that are working and things that aren't. There are also different ways you can make teams. So, I have teams of people that I work with that maybe we just talk about certain issues that are going on in the community or in the school, and that's another team that's really, really important for me. But I might have different conversations with them and my academic team. So, I would say, again, being open to share with people, being open to being honest and having people be honest with you.

I think that's one of the best ways that you're going to find to really connect. And if you're not ready for that, if you're not ready for some of those connections, then it's understandable. But give yourself that time. If you need a little bit more time to open up, cool. Maybe you found one person to connect with and that's what’s working for you. Also, we're talking about in the physical building, but there's also huge learning communities online and on the different social channels. So, Teacher's Corner, it is live. It is an amazing community, and you'll find folks that may not be next door to you, but they're as close as your phone if you want to jump in the group. So, yeah, I think that it is extremely important.

Noelle: Thanks Toney. I'm smiling because I love that you just gave Teacher's Corner a shout-out. I think it's just, again, part of why I love what I get to do and where I am in education, and I love every teacher conversation I have, and I love back-to-school because it is probably the time of year, I miss having my own classroom the most and the setup and all of that. What is your favorite part of your classroom? Well, I should say, do you have a favorite part of your classroom? And if you do, what is it? Can you describe it to us?

Toney: Okay, so physically, I'm going to say the area, it's kind of like our gathering spot. We have an interactive board there, but it's where we meet as a group. It's where we do our community circles. Whether I'm calling it or the students are, it's where we do read-alouds. It's where they do some turn-and-talk and group work. I love that spot and we work all over the room. But I love being able to come together and have that spot where we're all in the same spot physically. That's my favorite spot.

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Toney's favorite space in his room is right in front of his interactive white board. Here, his class meets for community circles, turn and talks, and read-alouds.

Noelle: Last episode, everybody, if you go back and listen, I asked Toney about his favorite walk-up song. He said, "Ooh, I only get one?" And so, I said, "Oh, okay, you have two." Well, now that you're back on, I get to ask you again. So, what's your back-to-school walk-up song for 2023?

Toney: Oh, okay. That's good. I'm going to use this to big up one of my favorite and biggest inspirations as an artist, and that is Lauryn Hill. Lauryn Hill, "Everything is Everything." That puts me in the right frame of mind. Just that phrase itself. But then you hear the chords come in, "Boom, boom, boom, boom." If you go ahead and you listen to that, it gets you going right away. And then it's just a mantra. So, "Everything is Everything" by Lauryn Hill.

Noelle: If I was still setting up my classroom, Toney, and I just listened and heard that advice, that would be the theme coming into my classroom. I'd want students to know “everything is everything.”

Toney: Yep. What is meant to be, will be.

Noelle: Exactly. Thank you again for another great conversation. Appreciate you.

Toney: Appreciate you. Thank you so much for inviting me. This was the bomb. You're the best, Noelle.


The views expressed in this podcast are those of the guest and do not necessarily represent those of HMH.

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Copyright © Scholastic Press, 2000. Wings by Christopher Myers.

Copyright © Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2019. The Last Last-Day-of-Summer by Lamar Giles.

Copyright © Columbia Records, 1999. “Everything is Everything,” Lauryn Hill.

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