Cosmopolitan Classroom: Kindergarteners Co-Teach and Take Charge of the Classroom


Justine McWhorter

Kindergarten Teacher and Teacher Leader

Whole Child

McMeen Elementary School

Build learners’ sense of responsibility for learning and to each other, deepen their engagement and foster successful student achievement. 

Foundational Practices: Relationships and Culture



Justine has been teaching for 8 years.  She started her career outside of Washington, D.C. in Loudoun County Virginia.  Loudoun County is 49% White and only 18% of their population receives free or reduced-price lunch (an indicator of poverty).  Once arriving in Denver, Justine felt unprepared by the economic and racial diversity she was thrust into as a new teacher in Denver Public Schools (DPS is 55% Latino and over 67% of students receive free or a reduced-price lunch).  Justine was invited to participate in Growth Through Connections as senior team lead so she could share the training and philosophy with the educators she coaches within her school.  The biggest thing she wants her students to learn this year is to consider challenges from differnet perspectives and to solve problems and explain their thinking in multiple ways.

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.  Justine chose Dr. Emdin’s Cosmopolitan Classroom.

What is a Cosmopolitan Classroom and How Does it 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.  Co-teaching involves the expansion of the role of the student to include that of the teacher, cosmopolitanism, 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.

  • Each student's role is highly integral to the classroom functionality, their duties are tied to learning, as well as the social, emotional and physical functioning of the classroom.
  • Roles could include: Super Scientists (co-teach science lessons), Homework Hero (ensures everyone knows their assignments), Funky Facility Folks (room cleaners), DJ High Tops (music master), Tech Master, and so on.  Notice the names meant to be fun and elicit excitement.
  • The student is responsible for her job -- other students do not pick up the slack if she is not in the classroom -- this helps to form the cosmopolitan bond.  This is similar to adults' jobs, when they are out, others do not perform their work, their work waits for them due the fact that the person is needed.
  • The students and teachers work together and perform as a highly effective team.
  • By transferring the responsibility to students to ensure that the classroom runs smoothly, the teacher can focus on the academics and see more of the classroom activities that are occurring.

“I was thinking it was my job to engage each kid, and when they didn’t engage, it was a power struggle.  Now, I think kids have the ability to engage each other and invite each other to join in.”

- Justine


Does this work improve student engagement?

Some of Justine’s most reserved students came alive when given the opportunity to lead in the classroom.  Justine created jobs for students with potentially disruptive behaviors that relate to their need for either movement or desire to be on the computer.  These students are now vital to the classroom culture. 

How did you implement what you learned?

In the beginning of the year Justine modeled how to give feedback to one another.  She collaborated with her partner teacher to ensure the language and protocols the Kindergarteners experienced were consistent throughout their day.  Then, they gradually released control to the students, starting during independent work times.  This method was key in building her very young students' understanding about how to collaborate and of their roles in making the classroom run smoothly.  

What were the biggest challenges to this work?

Justine’s biggest challenge is getting people to believe her students could do this work.  Due to their age level (and in some instances, preconceived ideas about the student population) many people do not believe students can co-teach or have important tasks in a classroom. 

The second biggest hurdle she faced is managing the number of students she has.  Creating jobs and tracking progress for so many students can at times be overwhelming; however, once the groundwork is laid, it is effortless and the classroom runs more smoothly .


The Growth Through Connections Program Manager reflected on Justine's growth during her first 12 months in the program.  The biggest shift that Justine made was in developing student agency and creating a strong classroom culture.  When she first came to Growth Through Connections, she essentially did everything in the classroom:  she passed out the papers, she taught the kids, she directed their actions.   As she started giving students more and more responsiblity, she no longer reminded them of what they needed to do.  The students made their classroom run smoothly and helped ensure that every student was learning.  Even though she has shifted to a younger grade this year, she kept implementing these practices because she found that students were more engaged and eager to learn.

Another shift she made was to help learners co-teach and to collaborate.  She is no longer the “sage on the stage,” and she reports that students have deepened their understanding of what they're learning and the quality of their work has improved.  

What is Growth Through Connections?

The Imaginarium partnered with the Janus Henderson Foundation to create GTC, which is designed to increase student engagement and academic achievement by training and supporting teachers in developing culturally competent, strong, and healthy relationships with the students they teach.  Our initial findings:

  • Teachers reported using higher-level thinking strategies more frequently from the beginning to the end of the program.
  • Educators not only made shifts in their pedagogy, they also found greater personal value for their practice.
  • Program participants are building stronger relationships with their students, giving students more freedom and choices, and incorporating specific practices to build a culturally-competent classroom culture.
  • Participants reported that student engagement, quality of work, and classroom culture all increased.



Special  thank you to the Janus Henderson Foundation for supporting this and other initiatives that improve the educational experience and learning potential of children.