Podcast: The Right Book for Reluctant Readers with Qorsho Hassan

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Photo: Qorsho Hassan was named the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year.

Welcome back to the Teachers in America podcast. Today we speak with second grade teacher and 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, Qorsho Hassan, who currently teaches at the Independent School District 196 Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan in Minnesota. You can follow Qorsho on Twitter and Instagram.

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

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

Lish Mitchell: Welcome to Teachers in America, a production of HMH, hosted by our Senior Director of Community Engagement, Noelle Morris. I'm Lish Mitchell.

Today we welcome Qorsho Hassan, fourth grade teacher from the Independent School District 196 Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan in Minnesota. A bilingual educator and community organizer, Qorsho is the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year and the first Somali and youngest woman to win the distinction in the state. She uses her platform to promote educational equity and student agency.

Qorsho is the artist and co-author behind the exhibit and book “Community In-Between,” which presents color portraits, first-person video stories, and written narratives of Somali Americans from Columbus, Ohio. She also serves on the board of creative writing and tutoring nonprofit 826 MSP.

By creating a comfortable environment for free reading and allowing her students to explore what makes them curious, Qorsho builds a strong community in her classroom.

Now, here are Qorsho and Noelle.

Noelle Morris: This episode was recorded in March of 2021. Hi, Qorsho. I'm Noelle Morris, and I'm the host of Teachers in America. So glad that you're here and that we're going to have this chance to have a conversation. How are you? How has your day been? What's happening?

Qorsho Hassan: It's been a relaxing day. I'm on spring break. This morning, I had my doctor's appointment, and then I took my mom to get her first shot of the COVID vaccine. So it's been a good day.

Noelle: My mother's completely vaccinated now, and I know that it's been a big relief for me. I'm 51, so I'm now eligible, and I'm waiting for my appointment. I'm so happy she's vaccinated, and now I'm just like, "Okay, I'm ready for mine."

Qorsho: I'm fully vaccinated, so I'm very grateful. Teachers were prioritized in Minnesota, but my mom just turned 55 and became eligible. I breathed a huge sigh of relief. So I feel really good.

Noelle: I'm having this surreal moment that I'm talking about my mom. You're talking about your mom. I'm only three, four years younger than your mom, and we're both educators. My mind is blown for a second. Let me process. I'm coming back. Okay. Well, congratulations on being Minnesota State Teacher of the Year. What does that feel like coming out of the year of teaching during a pandemic?

Qorsho: It felt really validating. I think there are definitely more moments that I questioned my teaching during those last few months. So, the 2019–2020 school year. Being named felt like just a huge honor, but it also just felt like what I was doing, both the equity work and the teaching work, was impactful.

Qorsho Hassan Inline Graphic 4
Representation matters, and Qorsho strives incorporate healthy identity teaching into her classes.

Noelle: Now, I'm thinking of your students recognizing you. I'm sure they're so proud of their teacher. How have your students responded to you becoming and being named Teacher of the Year?

Qorsho: So I had a lot of students reach out to me, email me, text me. I have a Google phone number. Also, many of them found me on social media because my social media exploded when I was named, or some of them actually followed me before because they just know. And it was just really powerful to continue to just hear their testimonies and to continue to hear parents' testimonies about my impact as a teacher. I think for me personally, this title meant more than just an individual accomplishment. I was the first Somali-American to be named in the state and also the youngest female. I really made my community very proud, and I think that I got to share that with them. I think I will always hold on to those memories of celebrating with my community, and in particular, my students. During a pandemic.

Noelle: It'll be interesting because one of the things I've learned from talking to several Teachers of the Year is the network that's formed and how you will be able to think about you're the next class that's coming in, that you'll have more opportunity to probably be out, where everyone else, I'm sure, was having to have a virtual platform. When you think about the curiosity of your students because you teach fourth and fifth grade?

Qorsho: Correct. I taught fifth grade last year, but I'm currently teaching fourth.

Noelle: How do you approach them being curious about who you are? Do you just share that openly, or do you wait for conversation and questions from them?

Qorsho: So I typically start off the school year with a lot of community building. And within that, we dabble in identity, healthy identity teaching. I explicitly teach them about my identity, who I am, and then model that for them so that they're able to think about their own identity and really be proud of their skin color, or their culture, or their faith. And I think that really sets a tone for the classroom, not only of positivity and acceptance but also appreciating our differences. We don't have to be the same in order to get along, in order to learn from one another. In fact, our differences make us stronger. And through that, I am then able to be open with them.

You know, we have this authentic relationship where I am goofy, and I'm honest, and I'm vulnerable, and they feel comfortable to ask me questions about both who I am as an educator, and then outside of school, like "What does Ms. Qorsho do on her free time?" They think outside of the box, and they have deep questions about the world, and I think the most important thing as a teacher is to really model that I don't have all the answers. So we spend some time brainstorming like, "What are some things that you're concerned about? What are some things that you want to know more about?" That also is something that comes from this community-building unit too.

Qorsho Hassan Quote Cards 1

Noelle: Nice. So I mean, just having a classroom and approaching everything from curiosity, what projects have stemmed or what connections have you made by saying, "Well, you know what? I don't know but let me reach out to someone who might." What has blossomed, or what project was unexpectedly created based on your curiosity and your students?

Qorsho: An example would be for Black History Month, we focused on African American inventors. In particular, unsung heroes. And my students learned about George Washington Carver. Then one of my students mentioned that we're learning a lot about George Washington Carver, but [he wanted] to look into this inventor. And so he brought up a name of another inventor that he was looking into. And then, all of a sudden, I was like, "You know what? Let's all decide on an inventor to do a deep dive into and research about, and you can choose the medium in which you will share your information, whether it's a Seesaw activity, whether it's a poster, whether it's a video." And that all just stemmed from a student thinking about wanting to know more about the African American inventors that had existed. To me, when I pause and say to myself, "Do I need to follow my lesson plans? Or do I let my students lead; lead with their curiosity and their thoughts so that they can be excited about their learning and then it makes meaning for them too?"

Noelle: I can imagine that you were a young student post 9/11. So you're either a Millennial or you're in the upper Gen Z. Which generation do you see yourself in?

Qorsho: I definitely identify with millennials. Yeah. I remember 9/11 vividly. I think that is when I knew that I was different from my peers because we lived in Atlanta. My family and I lived in Atlanta for a bit, and then when we moved to Ohio a few months after 9/11 occurred. And I knew that I physically looked different from my peers, but that moment really othered me in the school environments. I felt I was almost this target for harassment and Islamophobia. There were many moments where I felt like I maybe don't belong in America, even though I was born and raised here, and I don't know much else. That was a really rough time for me.

Noelle: Now that you'll also have as being Teacher of the Year for Minnesota, how will you leverage talking and supporting conversations around the need for more work towards equity?

Qorsho: I'm really grateful for this platform, being the state Teacher of the Year, because I have this opportunity to share my story and to create these nuances that oftentimes my people, my community, isn't afforded. And I never want to be the victim, right? I'm very critical about sharing my traumatic experiences but also sharing the fact that I have learned and or have processed, and then I'm now action based. I'm doing something about it. And so oftentimes, I'm put into spaces where I'm talking to aspiring educators, and it's really exciting because these are educators that are hungry for knowledge. They want to soak up everything. And they're also really open to being introspective.

I think the biggest part of teaching is that we have this huge responsibility of nurturing young minds and really like replenishing their souls, and we need to be for them. Like we need to show up for them, 100%. The thing that I wanted the most was a teacher like me growing up, and the fact that I can live through that now and then also kind of share that process and share what I do in the classroom with other educators is really impactful. I think it just, once again, validates my purpose as an educator and specifically as a Black Muslim educator.

Qorsho Hassan Quote Card 4

Noelle: With the platform of Teacher of the Year, will you have the opportunity [through] talking to other schools, talking to future educators of America, to bring that representation to children who may not be thinking of education as their career choice? But the more that they see representation and that need, maybe they'll pursue?

Qorsho: Yeah. I think that's a tricky question because teachers of color retention in my state isn't the greatest. We have about 4.3% representation and about 34–35% students of color in the state of Minnesota. But if we want to value students of color, if we want to let them know that they have this ability to be change makers and to impact the future, we have to make sure that we take care of the system. And by taking care, I mean, like deconstructing it and making sure that it reckons with how it has set up students of color for failure.

Noelle: But I mean, the retention rate is alarming. Are people leaving your state? Young generation, are they leaving your state?

Qorsho: I'm not sure; I'll be honest. I'm new to this state, but I'm going into my fourth year of living here. I just know that there is—and I have a lived experience of being laid off—there's just a large percentage of teachers that are released every year due to budget cuts, and a good portion of those teachers happen to be teachers of color because they are tier one, tier two, or they're not tenured. Because of that, that just causes this need for more teachers of color. But the system isn't designed to retain them.

Noelle: I want to have this conversation, and I also want to have it in a respectful way, whereas I'm not comparing myself to you. When you think of the pursuit of really trying to bring teachers of color to the profession, then you have across-the-board retention. And I'm not going to say I can relate in the way of being a person of color, but knowing every year, the fear I had that I was going to be laid off because first-year teacher, second-year teacher, even though I'm a teacher in a high-risk school, I was always pink-slipped. And then that stress and fear, and "What's my job?" I always had to have a second job. And when would I ever reach seniority? I can relate in the sense of knowing that concern and frustration, and then the work that everyone's doing to strive to bring equity and bring more representation and teachers of color to the profession. That's just a vicious cycle that how can you ever bridge the gap?

Qorsho: Yeah, it is. And I will be more intentional in saying that, whereas white teachers generally boost the academic performance of white students, teachers of color are able to boost the academic performance of all students, and specifically of students of color. I think that is why specifically in Minnesota, where we are ranked one of the lowest, if not the lowest, for students of color performance, and in our academic performance, I think there's a great need to make sure that they're being served equitably. And at this point, they're not.

Noelle: What is your favorite discipline to teach?

Qorsho: Definitely reading or literacy, just because I think Rudine Sims Bishop, who's a mother of multicultural literature, says it best that students need multicultural literature to have those windows and mirrors in their literacy experiences. So like the window would be something that reflects them, or sorry, something that they can look out into and get a different perspective. And then that mirror is literature or content that reflects them, that they can see themselves in.

So, the beauty about being a Black educator is that I really know the importance of bringing in really rich, multicultural texts and content for my students to delve deep into and to get them excited about reading. I sometimes have reluctant readers, and a big part of that is that they just haven't found a book that they're passionate about. They haven't found a book that resonates with them or that they can see themselves. And I think while as a Black educator, I am literally like a window and a mirror for my students, reading time or literacy time is when we just get lost in storytelling and we write really powerful personal narratives. It just takes on this revolutionary process, and I just really love it.

Qorsho Hassan Quote Card 5

Noelle: What are you reading right now? Do you do a read aloud or shared reading?

Qorsho: So we are doing an author study. My district has units of study that we look into, and the unit of study for this particular unit was supposed to delve into Patricia Polacco, who was a phenomenal author, but my students have been exposed to her work plenty of times. So, I've decided to go with Kadir Nelson's books, either books that he's illustrated or his debut book, We Are the Ship. We've been deep diving into his books and just having rich conversations about who he illustrates, who he writes about, and the importance of representation and literature.

Noelle: Now, he is the illustrator that worked with Kwame Alexander on Undefeated?

Qorsho: Correct. Yeah, I read that book.

Noelle: I adore Kwame. We became friends over the last couple of years. I don't know if you've read Lamar Giles?

Qorsho: I haven't.

Noelle: Okay. He's actually an author that was part of creating the organization We Deserve Diverse Books. He's still a part of the organization. And what I appreciate about Lamar is he writes across ages. But he wrote a book that I read a couple of summers ago called The Last, Last Day of Summer. And as I was reading and getting so pulled into the characters and the cousins, I was like, "This book has got to become a series." The second one came out in, I believe October, called The Last Mirror [on the Left]. But what I love about it is, it's action, mystery, science fiction-y. I'm going to recommend that a book that you read going into the summer, so your students could pick up the second one and read it.

But all of the characters in there, including grandma, are just so perfect that everyone will have a favorite. But I guarantee you y'all will be wanting to dress up like some of the characters and have conversations and maybe have a meal as characters. But that's so important. Do you find yourself needing to bring the books and titles to your students, or are your students bringing new titles?

Qorsho: Sometimes my students bring me titles, but oftentimes, it's me exposing them to titles and different authors. I think for those reluctant readers, it's all about just creating like that magic, like that ambiance of wanting to read. So I create this space where we have the virtual fireplace and tell them to bring some comfy, cozy clothes, find a corner that is appropriate for them to relax. And so we really get into this mindset "We have to get ready to read." Almost as if you need to get ready to do math. It's just the same way, and they just get sunk into it. We create this reading community where we reflect on how we read. We ask each other questions about the books that we are reading. It's like this rich dynamic and just more community building.

Noelle: I bet. But just sitting around a virtual fireplace, that is super cool. Do you ever find yourself reading, and you can't help yourself saying, "Goodness. I wish I would have had this book when I was their age."

Qorsho: Absolutely. Absolutely. If I'm not meeting with a guided reading group, I will grab a book and just get into a comfy, cozy spot, and I get lost, and I lose track of time, and I'm like, "Oh no, like 35 minutes have passed. We are over our threshold for reading. It felt really nice, but yeah."

Noelle: I totally know, where you're just then the rest of the day, "How am I going to make up for the time that we went over?" But still, they're rich conversations that you'll make up that time. You can't make up the opportunity just to be in a moment of escape and just reading to read.

Qorsho: And I also think it's really important for them to see me as a reader, just like it is important for them to see me as a writer or a mathematician. So, when they see me with a book, those students who might be distracted or might need a reminder of what they should be doing, they just look over, and they're like, "Oh, Ms. Qorsho has a book in her hand. She's reading the Nickel Boys," and they get back into their books. So that's exciting.

Qorsho Hassan Quote Cards 2

Noelle: If someone was illustrating you in teacher life, [your] teacher persona, what colors are they going to have on the palette? What sort of images or emojis? How are you going to be illustrated on a page?

Qorsho: That's such a good question. I imagine calm colors because I usually play very calming music, like classical music in the background of my classroom. So maybe some blues, some yellows, but also some powerful spots of maybe red to symbolize justice. Then I would imagine that I would love for my students to be somehow represented with their little bodies. I think in terms of where I would be placed, I would rather be somewhere in between them. You know, I don't want my students to ever think that there is a hierarchy in the classroom, but they respect me. They care for me. They appreciate me. They call me by my first name, but it's mutual, and it's mutual love and respect. And when I do need a redirect plan, when I do need to check a student, it's painless because they know that I'm coming from a place of love.

They know my intentions, and I remind myself that I don't want my students to face the injustices that I faced. So I own my mistakes. I apologize if I've been short with a student or if I was wrong. And oftentimes, my former administrator would always tell me, "Qorsho, when I walk into your classroom, I can barely find you. I have to move around, and you're usually hunched on the floor or lying next to a student or doing something." And I love that because while there are many moments in the day that I do direct instruction, and I see the value in it, facilitating and helping students problem solve and allowing them to lead the learning has been something that I've continued to learn as a teacher.

Noelle: That's adorable. Your principal's like, "Where are you?"

Qorsho: Yeah.

Noelle: What do you think when you realize what your students' fears are? Because we're always teaching and propelling for them to be able to have the best possible life for themselves. Like whatever they want is their optimum potential. That's what we strive for. But I remember when my students would open up and share with me their fears. There's sometimes a moment of like, "Well, how can I push through that and not circumvent?" Do you ever hear [your fourth graders] talk about their worries or their fears of the future?

Qorsho: Yeah. There are a few. I think, given the times, one of the biggest fears is that we won't get out of this pandemic. That COVID will continue to rage on. And because I think we've normalized mask-wearing, and face shields, and the social distancing, they've internalized that this is the new normal. And they're really uncomfortable with it. I actually detest when people say that children are resilient because, yeah, they can be, but they don't need to be. This is a really challenging and trying time, and I think giving kids the space to share their fears and simultaneously to share their hopes is really important.

Living in Minnesota, with the uprising last year and George Floyd's murder, very chronic fear is of police, of law enforcement. I have students that are constantly asking questions about how police get away with murder and why does this keep happening? That's a really big step for children to take in schools and outside of schools, to be more aware of how racism is pervasive in our society and what to do to combat it. I think it's really important to have these conversations. I really love this question because kids have fears, and it's not just telling them that everything will be okay and being dismissive of it. You have to give them this space to share and to validate their concerns as well.

Noelle: And to recognize this is not right.

Qorsho: Right. Exactly.

Noelle: I do not agree with this.

Qorsho: Correct.

Noelle: I remember I've had these conversations with Tyrone Howard. We were raised in the generation where you were seen but not heard.

Qorsho: Right.

Noelle: Now raising a child of my own, who's Gen Z, and her not afraid to say, "Mom, I think we shouldn't buy this. Look at how much packaging. This is a lot of wasted packaging" or "Mom, we definitely need to recycle." And I remember, last week, she was just like, "We don't have anything to recycle. That's a little bit odd." And she looks at me, and she says, "Mom, we have to do our part. I and my friends and everyone, we deserve this and this." I know for a fact that at 15, I would not have been asking and demanding and knowing how I could figure this out myself. I came from the compliance, and to me, this generation is like, "We're done with compliance."

Qorsho: Yes. Especially if it doesn't make sense. I couldn't agree more. I think that's what I really love about the younger generation. I feel like millennials are almost there, but we didn't quite make it. But they're super-conscious, and they refuse to be compliant if it doesn't make sense, if it's not just. They're also really aware of their rights, which I love because children do have rights, and oftentimes they aren't given those rights. They're not aware of them. And I think about my students and how I want them to know their power because they come into my classroom with that. I don't empower them. They are innately powerful, but I also want them to do something with that power. I want them to do something with that conscious thinking and really be contributors to the world.

Noelle: As we begin to wrap up, what skill have you gained since 2019...because you've had more time at home? Is there anything you've learned to do?

Qorsho: I have become more of an avid cook. I didn't like habitually cook. So, the pandemic, obviously with being more restrictive and not being able to go to restaurants and grocery stores as often as I would have liked to, I began to make things from scratch. I've had my really bad failures, such as my banana bread that came out as mush, and then I've had some really great successes. I made an Oreo cheesecake that I took a million photos of because I just couldn't believe that I was successful. I would definitely say cooking and baking have been very calming for me.

Noelle: Awesome. You said you're near your mom. You took her to get her vaccination. So, did you share the cheesecake?

Qorsho: I did. I did not eat it all. I could've. It was delicious. Maybe I should have, but no. I shared it with my family, my sister, and my mom. I had them taste it first. It looked great, but you know, things could be aesthetically pleasing and not taste delicious, such as the banana bread. So I had them taste it first, and I was like, "You know what? Y'all give it a shot." And they were like, "This is delicious." And I was like, "Oh, let me give it a shot." And they were right.

Qorsho Hassan Inline Graphic 3
Qorsho's virtual fireplace adds a cozy atmosphere to free reading time.

Noelle: Okay. It's a big day at school. Whether it's your classroom or you're walking on stage, or you're walking in the cafeteria, you want your presence known. I always believe every teacher needs to know their walk-up song. What song is playing as you walk into the room?

Qorsho: "Survivor," by Destiny's Child.

Noelle: Okay.

Qorsho: Yeah.

Noelle: You need all Destiny's Child. So it's not just Beyonce. You need Kelly. You need, "I'm a Survivor."

Qorsho: All of it.

Noelle: Would the rest of the group be like, "I cannot believe this is her walkup song."? Are you more introverted? Extroverted? Balanced?

Qorsho: Definitely introverted, and I think lately, I've become a little bit more insular as I've gotten older. But yeah. That's one of the things that was really hard about being named because you are essentially in the spotlight kind of 24/7. So I've tried my best to manage my anxiety along with just being grateful for this experience too.

Noelle: I will tell you, I am grateful. I am so grateful to host our podcast, but I'm just grateful every time to bring out teachers' stories and meet such creative, phenomenal individuals who are giving to our profession. We'll always be connected. I'm going to make sure that you get a copy because I do have an extra copy of The Last, Last Day of Summer. I'm going to send it as a gift to your class, and I would love to hear your thoughts and do you agree with me as a teacher and as a reader that it's a great book.

Qorsho: Probably yes. We'll see though.

Noelle: And I want to know who your students' favorite characters are. I'm going to tell y'all mine yet, but this has been such a pleasure.

Qorsho: I appreciate you so much, Noelle. This has been a wonderful conversation.

Noelle: Hey friends, where do you like to read? Is it in front of a fireplace? Is it out sitting next to a pool? Is it pulling out a picnic blanket and sitting in your yard? Is it really any time, anywhere?

I think it's important that, as Qorsho brings up her fireplace readings, how she craves that ambience. That whether we're teaching reading or we're teaching science or we're teaching art, that we have special places for special moments that inspire not just the learning of the content, but seeing yourselves in the learning.

Let's stand in the middle of our classrooms. Let's do a 360. How much of what's in our room represents the students that are sitting in the seats?

Do we need to do anything to update our libraries? Do we need to do anything to change the way we might ask a question?

I hope that you take away from this episode an opportunity to make safe spaces, brave spaces where students see themselves now and see potential of where they want to take their future. And until the next time, your friend, Noelle.

Lish: If you or someone you know would like to be a guest on the Teachers in America podcast, please email us at shaped@hmhco.com. Be the first to hear new episodes of Teachers in America, by subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. If you enjoy today's show, please rate, review, and share it with your network. You can find the transcript of this episode on our Shaped blog by visiting hmhco.com/shaped. The link is in the show notes. Teachers in America is produced by HMH. Thanks again for listening.

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