Elephant Jewelry and Brilliance

Gateway High School > Academics > Elephant Jewelry and Brilliance

The copper elephant bracelet sat at the end of the art hallway, in the front of a display case, surrounded by a number of thinner, flatter bracelets students crafted in jewelry class. It stood out by virtue of its liveliness. Though the bracelet was still in the case, the metallic elephants marched in a circle, each trunk looped through a tail. Each tail reaching back for a trunk. They trodded in tight formation in a steady pace on tree trunk legs. Their ears, small and angular, lay relaxed against their rounded shoulders.

As a piece of student work, it gave Colleen Boucher, Nicole Burdick and I pause. We had been on a learning walk, visiting classrooms and discussing what we observed, when Art teacher Linda Schmale showed it to us. A student crafted the bracelet when the torches they ordinarily used hadn’t been working, she explained, which left the students to cut and shape the metal with simpler tools. Her explanation made the piece even more impressive. The care of the student jeweler was apparent in every crease in the copper trunks and the angles of the thick hooves. We took collective joy at the bracelet crafted under adverse conditions.

The teachers huddled around the elephant bracelet devoted their planning time to visiting classrooms outside their departments. We discussed how the classrooms we observed could be sites of discovery for us as we seek to grow our practice.

In the book, Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom, Adeyemi Stembridge (2020, pg 10) writes about brilliant teachers as a key component in creating equitable schools. “(Teachers) evolve because they are constantly looking to grow their practice… To pursue brilliance is to consider that there may be better ways to support all kiddos.”

While none of the teachers who visited classrooms with me on that day would claim to be brilliant, as Linda drew our attention to the elephant parade we experienced some collective brilliance. We saw brilliance in the interlocking tails and trunks of the elephants on their synchronized march at the same time we pursued brilliance in the way Stembridge describes, through classroom visits and discussions about teaching and learning aimed at finding better ways to support Gateway students.

After 14 years of teaching Literacy in Aurora and after collaborating with educators in countless hours of professional learning, I was three quarters through my first year working with students and teachers at Gateway when all our lives were abruptly shifted by the coronavirus pandemic and the shuttering of schools. The seniors in my Humanities class who have greeted me each morning since August, and my Creative Writing students who meet with me to discuss their poems, songs and stories, have all shared their hopes for the future, as well as their impatience  for graduation to get here already. For my part, I have implored them to come every day, to take risks, and to work, share, read and write always just that much more. Now, with the end of the year in sight, we have been ordered for the safety of our community to stay home, and to learn there. The closeness we have worked to build will be tested and surely strained while we try our hands at distance learning.

The daily news of the spread of the coronavirus saddens me. I’m saddened- especially for Gateway seniors- that we must unceremoniously cancel dances, musicals, ball games and track meets- often the most memorable parts of students’ lives and learning. I’m sad that our collective learning will now happen with us sheltered in place. Instead of fist bumping students and sharing reports about last night’s game or the weekend’s drama, we’ll be endlessly washing our hands until further notice. Maybe more than ever, we’ll be wondering about our welfare, and the welfare of those we love.

Amidst the sadness, contingency planning, and isolation-as-community service, I believe there remains a great deal of hope, and opportunity for brilliance in teaching and learning. Even before we return to school, I answer emails from students about what’s to come, and what they must do to graduate. Their interest in what will come next, and their resilient hope for their own futures, remind me that this, too, is a chance to consider that there may be better ways to support all kiddos. There is certainly still work to do, though that work takes an unfamiliar shape.

Readying myself for distance learning and the chance to connect with my students digitally, I’m reminded again of Stembridge’s book. He writes, “But I am clear that the single most radical commitment that a teacher can make in the interest of Equity is to be brilliant with our kiddos every day” (2020, pg 10).  As I turn pages in this new book with my pruned, sterile fingers, I want to make that kind of radical commitment to the work in front of me. I’m inspired by handcrafted student jewelry. Copper elephants with trunks twined through tails, ears back, march together in an undeniable brilliance.

Written by Joe Dillon, Admin/TOSA at Gateway High School


Stembridge, Adeyemi. Culturally Responsive Education in the Classroom: an Equity Framework for Pedagogy. Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2020.

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