Building Relationship Bridges with Words


Stephanie Smekens

8th grade

Social Studies and Team Lead

Denver Center for International Studies at Montbello

Improve student engagement using discourse/word wall (code switching) and cosmopolitan classroom tactics


Foundational Practices: Relationships and Culture


Stephanie Smekens is an eighth grade teacher leader and teaches US History at DCIS Montbello Middle School (DCISM). She has been teaching a little over four years, and she has been at DCISM for a little over two and a half years. Soon after starting at DCIS, her principal approached her with the opportunity to be involved in Growth Through Connections (GTC), thinking it was a great opportunity for Stephanie. She was initially hesitant about being involved in a program that would require missing some school due to trainings and labs, but she immediately started using the strategies she’s learned in Growth Through Connections in not only her teaching practice but to enhance the teaching practice of the teachers she leads. 

Stephanie’s teaching philosophy has always been about building relationships with students first, which she says came from her experience in athletic coaching before she was a teacher. She believes teaching should be more than content knowledge,  curriculum and skills. She values relationships and being “real” with her students.

The Growth Through Connections Program was designed to help teachers reflect on their beliefs and biases so that they may build strong connections with students and provide learning experiences that are joyful, rigorous, and personalized. Research has proven that in order for students to realize their full potential, two factors must be present.  First, students must have strong relationships with their teachers that are based on respect, trust and an understanding of what makes each person -- the student and teacher -- tick. Second, students must see their learning as relevant and meaningful; students must authentically relate to their experiences throughout a school day.

Each Growth Through Connections participant chose a practice from Dr. Emdin’s book to implement in their classroom.  Stephanie chose Dr. Emdin’s Cosmopolitan Classroom and Code Switching.

What is a Cosmopolitan Classroom and Code-Switching and How Do They Work?

In a Cosmopolitan Classroom, a teacher identifies jobs that students can perform to deepen the sense of community in the classroom.  “The teacher’s task is to let students know how important they are and how essential their jobs and roles are to the functioning of the classroom.  This process involves making students aware of how each of them (through performing their tasks) becomes responsible for ensuring that the class runs well. A  cosmopolitanism classroom, focuses on developing deep connections among students across differences such as race, ethnicity, gender and academic ability as they work to ensure that they move collectively toward being socially, emotionally, and physically present and committed to the classroom they share.”  
-- Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Ya'll Too.

Code switching is defined as alternating or mixed use of two or more languages, especially within the same discourse. Dr. Emdin asserts, “one of the most powerful code-switching exercises I have used in classroom was developed by Bryan Brown...with what Brown calls the whole discourse approach, the teacher recognizes how certain words/terms/expressions convey meaning or describe concepts differently depending on where one comes from….the whole discourse approach provides an opportunity for conventional language to be valued while introducing youth to new words that may be outside of their lexicon but have the same meaning. This process involves creating a classroom chart that includes words used in both informal and formal settings. Youth then learn how to navigate between the two.” -- Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Ya'll Too

When Dr. Emdin visited Stephanie’s classroom and saw her vocabulary wall, he suggested she turn it into a discourse wall. Through this practice he believes students will “leave the classroom feeling like their culture is worthy of being considered academic or intelligent. For others, this may mean that the classroom provides some affirmation of their beliefs about themselves and their intelligence....The one thing that we do know is that it can only be triggered in a place that values the codes that students bring to the classroom”- Christopher Emdin, For White Folks Who Teach in the Hood and the Rest of Ya'll Too

What is so valuable about this type of chart is that it recognizes that there are different worlds, each with their own language codes, that students need to navigate across and between.

- Dr. Christopher Emdin

Discourse Wall Examples

This is an example of a discourse wall. Notice the three different types of language present? This was done intentionally to show students how language they are familiar with in their everyday life has context in academics.


This is the discourse wall Stephanie created in her classroom for her students. 


Initial implementation of a Cosmopolitan Classroom

Stephanie started her GTC work in February 2017. Within her first few months, she implemented some of the practices from Dr.  Emdin's book. Stephanie was excited and passionate about these new pedagogical shifts. During her first few months in the program, she was trepidatious about adding new practices to her classes because it was mid-school year and her students were hesitant in breaking their routines to make this shift. However, her students ultimately learned more by using the discourse wall than her word wall and this spurred her to think differently about the way in which she asks students to demonstrate their knowledge. 

How do you implement the discourse wall?

Stephanie explains how she uses the discourse wall with her students an how it helps students connect with academic language.

2nd year implementation of a Cosmopolitan Classroom

Stephanie speaks about the prescribed roles she chose for her students this year, and how unlike last year her students weren’t engaged in this practice, which she attributes to her blocked schedule (she sees students every other day). Instead, she activates students as classroom helpers when the classroom is in need of cleaning or arranging.

If you want to try this...

Teachers and School Administration

  • Need to be okay with trying something new and make room for failure and iteration.
  • Must allow students to choose their roles and be part of the process of building a Cosmopolitan Classroom. If students don’t choose their role, this work becomes “another thing the teacher made them do.”  
  • For a teacher to build relationships with students, the school must prioritize that and make space for it in the classroom and in the culture of the school.

Students and Parents

  • Students should be open to giving feedback to teacher on what’s working and what’s not.
  • Parents should encourage their students to embrace their role as a leader in the classroom.



Coach Reflections

Amy Burns, GTC Program Manager, trainer and coach said, "Last year after a few Growth Through Connections sessions, Stephanie reflected on her practice  and made some changes. When we first started this work Stephanie was engaged and attended every GTC session and was eager to shift her practice." Shortly after Dr. Emdin’s classroom visit last year, she implemented the discourse wall and allowed students to choose classroom roles. This year, Stephanie has been leading the 8th grade team.   She has been using this role to share what's she's learned in GTC.  Stephanie continues to form meaningful relationships with her students.  This is reflected in her welcoming, home-like classroom environment, which includes classroom albums and a wall of photographs of her students hard at work.  Photos of what each person aspires to become serves as a spring board for conversation and grounding on difficult days.  

Stephanie has faced numerous challenges as a new leader.  She has not been able to provide as much training about GTC as she had hoped because her team has additional professional development needs and limited planning time.  It is also requiring her to be away from her students too often.  This has prompted the Imaginarium to rethink how we deliver our program and how we can reach more teachers without them needing to be out of the classroom so often. 

Stephanie has been iterative with her practice as well as reflective.  This year she has continued a cosmopolitan classroom on a smaller scale due to the scheduling of classes.  She is going to continue to expand upon this work because the technique was so effective in motivating her students last year.  She is also not using the discourse wall as often because the district has been more prescriptive about her curriculum.  One of her GTC goals is to learn how to mitigate these challenges and stick to what she believes is so important to students and to herself - solid relationships.




We greatly appreciate and thank Stephanie Smekens, DCIS Montbello and the Janus Henderson Foundation for engaging in this challenging work to close our persistent achievement gap and to help every student succeed.