Podcast S2. Ep 15: Helping Students Build Community In The Classroom - Molly Winters Diallo - CS Scholarship Winner

Character Strong · October 9, 2019

Molly Winters Diallo has spent the last 23 years in education, a career that has spanned three different schools. She currently teaches at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High in Miami, Florida. Molly serves as department chair for social sciences and her subjects include AP Human Geography, AP Psychology, and Honors U.S. History. She is also part of the school's Social Emotional Learning leadership team. In 2019, Molly was named Teacher of the Year for Miami-Dade County Public Schools and a top-five finalist for Florida Teacher of the Year. Molly and two of her seniors were recently awarded a $1,000 grant from CharacterStrong to implement a program that will bring students from different backgrounds together for monthly luncheons.

We talk with Molly about different ways that teachers can deepen their understanding of where their students are from, she gives examples of how she helps her students build community in the classroom, and shares about the scholarship winning project that she and her students are working on.


“I feel like the importance of relationships is where it's at. That is something I've learned in my experience as an educator that relationships must be cultivated before the content and skills can be the focus of a classroom. For me, each year, I dedicate a significant amount of time to learning about my students' cultural backgrounds, family dynamics, their outside interests, their goals and their aspirations.”

— Molly Winters Diallo

Episode Transcript:

  • John: Hey CharacterStrong commuters, before we begin, I wanted to ask two favors. One, if you know of someone who is doing amazing work to strengthen the climate and culture of their school and or classroom, we would love to talk with them and have them on our show. Who knows? Maybe that person is even you. Email us at [email protected] to share who we need to talk to and how we can connect with them.
  • John: Second, if you haven't yet, we would love to hear from you. By going on to iTunes and rating and reviewing our CharacterStrong podcast, it helps us to grow and share with more educators and schools. Now, let's get to today's episode.
  • John: Welcome to the CharacterStrong podcast where we have conversations on school culture and leadership. Today, we're talking with Molly Winters Diallo. Molly has spent the last 23 years in education, a career that has spanned three different schools. She currently teaches at Alonzo and Tracy Mourning Senior High School in Miami, Florida. Molly serves as the department chair for social sciences, and her subjects include AP Human Geography, AP Psychology, and Honors U.S. History.
  • John: She is also part of the school's social emotional learning leadership team. In 2019, Molly was named teacher of the year from Miami Dade County Public Schools, and a top five finalists for Florida Teacher of the Year. Molly and two of her seniors were recently awarded a $1,000 grant from CharacterStrong to implement a program that will bring students from different backgrounds together for monthly luncheons.
  • John: Are you ready? Let's get CharacterStrong with Molly Winters Diallo.
  • John: It is an honor, and I am super excited to have Molly Winters Diallo with us today on the CharacterStrong podcast. Welcome Molly, how are you today?
  • Molly: Thank you so much. I'm great. How are you?
  • John: I am wonderful. Are you in Miami Dade County right now?
  • Molly: I am in Miami Dade County. I'm an educator for Miami Dade County public schools, which is our nation's fourth largest school district.
  • John: Wow.
  • Molly: I'm excited to share what I'm doing in my classroom. I was thinking about what to speak about on the podcast. I feel like the importance of relationships is where it's at. That is something I've learned in my experience as an educator that relationships must be cultivated before the content and skills can be the focus of a classroom. For me, each year, I dedicate a significant amount of time to learning about my students' cultural backgrounds, family dynamics, their outside interests, their goals and their aspirations.
  • Molly: I feel that when I can understand or have a deep sense of who they are, it strengthens my effectiveness as an educator. Building these positive relationships has played an integral role in shaping the positive outcomes in my classroom.
  • John: That's great. You even talk a little bit about... I love that, and I think there's going to be a lot of educators that go, "That's awesome." Take me through a little bit about that process. When you say, "I take the time to really dig into the different culture that's represented in my classroom, the different backgrounds," what's that process look like for you? What are some of the things you do to make that happen?
  • Molly: Sure. I've had a lot of experience teaching. I've been teaching for 23 years, and through that time, I mean, I've always valued this as an educator, but discovering a lot of different ways to show that I value my students' identities. For example, my classroom has an array of artwork and artifacts that represent their cultural backgrounds. As a social sciences educator, I ensure that my curriculum reflects the diverse fabric of our nation and world, and devote a lot of attention to sharing the contributions and accomplishments of historically underrepresented groups.
  • Molly: Outside the classroom, I also try to embrace opportunities to attend students' cultural celebrations, whether it's a flamenco concert or a Shabbat dinner. I've gone to Greek festival before, so taking part in those activities that my students cherish or their traditions, it reinforces how much I value them as individuals. That's just a little bit of a background. On a larger scale, I think that it's vital for educators to deepen their understanding of the communities where their students reside.
  • Molly: One of the things that I wanted to share with you was I still remember when I did my teacher internship in Boston. Our cohort, sorry, took part in a student-led neighborhood walking tour, which was I thought such an amazing way to experience the community that many of our students called home. I mean, this was back in 2003. I still remember how proud this young man was to show us his neighborhood. We got to eat lunch at his favorite restaurant, and saw many powerful street art murals.
  • Molly: We stopped by his home to meet his family. It was just a nice way of learning about who our students, sorry, were as individuals. I enjoyed that, but I mean, I think all of us recognize that students want to feel respected and valued, and we have to have classroom norms if an atmosphere of acceptance and trust is desired. I work to consciously create lessons that provide opportunities for meaningful dialogue so that my students can learn from each other's perspectives and experiences, and deepen their connections with their classmates.
  • Molly: My current school is really unique. We have students from 62 different countries, many of whom were born outside the United States. This diversity extends. It's not just ethnic, but also racial, religious and socioeconomic. Given some of the sensitive content that we explore in social studies, I want to ensure that my students can really hear from one another and hear each other's stories prior to diving into the content.
  • Molly: In my own classroom, every year, I start with activities that focus on building community. This year, I chose to do a theme for my U.S. History classes. I chose to do the theme This Is Us. For an opening assignment, I paired the students together and gave them 30 minutes to answer a series of questions that ranged from, "If you could choose anyone to go to dinner with you, who would it be to share a personal challenge and ask your partner's advice on how he or she might handle it?"

“My current school is really unique. We have students from 62 different countries, many of whom were born outside the United States. This diversity extends. It's not just ethnic, but also racial, religious and socioeconomic. Given some of the sensitive content that we explore in social studies, I want to ensure that my students can really hear from one another and hear each other's stories prior to diving into the content.”

— Molly Winters Diallo


  • Molly: I created that exercise with the intention of building a bond between the pairs of students. The following class, I asked those pairs to come up and present one another to the entire higher class so the others in the class could learn about them as well. I brought my camera. I took photos of each pair of students. I developed those. Then the students made picture frames that we hung on the wall outside my classroom. That was actually something I haven't done before, and it worked out really well. I'm already excited to do it again next year.
  • John: Well first, I just want to, I mean, just connecting a couple of things that I think are just powerful. One, when you talked about your student teaching in Boston, is that where you were doing it? Just the vision that that district and or school had for you to do the walk that you mentioned through the different neighborhoods and-
  • Molly: Correct.
  • John: ... how by making time for that critical work to happen, the seed that was planted and or that was there already, but for you now as an educator who is doing incredible work making time also for that which is most important, and where we're learning. Students are getting a chance to learn from each other and the different backgrounds and cultures and all the different things. I mean, 62 different countries. That is incredible.
  • Molly: I know.
  • John: I think that that's just an important part. When we make time for that, which is most important, there is no way that that's not impacting that greater aim in education of like, "How are we also impacting the ABC data of attendance and behavior and coursework?" Well, we need to make time for this important work on that relational side.
  • Molly: Absolutely. I couldn't agree more. I feel that it really is what has led me to such success in my classroom. Well, one of the things I wanted to say, it's important for students to be comfortable speaking to others. In creating that space, I felt like we had a lot of opportunities to get to know one another prior to the culminating assignment, so I wanted to share with you the other things that we did that built up to our last piece of this.
  • Molly: One of the next assignments that I had them do was I asked each student to bring in an item or a picture of an item of sentimental value to them. Everybody went in front of the class, and they presented the item while sharing the story as to why the particular item they chose was so important. I had a young woman who brought in a drum from Kenya, and shared about how her family travels there. They're from Kenya, and that on her first visit, she got this drum, and it just reminds her of her background.
  • Molly: I also had a young woman share that she received a necklace from a stepfather, and after he passed away, how much more it even meant to her, the relationship with him and how she keeps this necklace as a reminder of that. My students also created identity charts that I've gotten from teaching tolerance, and they shared a important parts of their identity with one another. Then our culminating activity was a personal writing assignment where each student was asked to write a This I Believe essay, and that's from NPR, in which they described a core value that guides their daily life.
  • Molly: Then I had each of them come up and present the essay to their classmates if they chose to share, which most of them did, so that others could have a glimpse into their core values or beliefs. They were asked to either create a self portrait or an iMovie, a one-and-a-half minute iMovie of their life so that we could see how they see themselves as well. In the short amount of time that we had together, I was just amazed by how open that they'd been to sharing these important pieces to their life stories and also how encouraging and empathetic they were to one another.
  • John: I love it. I love it. Now, I mean, we could talk for another hour about the power of these different things and different ways that you've infused that. I love almost right there just leaving at that, because there are so many great nuggets. Then how about this? In the last 30 seconds or so of our time together in this shorter podcast, give us a little teaser of how you now you've got that you've been doing in your classroom, and then you are one of our eight CharacterStrong scholarship winners of an idea of how we could put a focus on character, social-emotional learning, this focus.
  • John: You've got this school-wide focus now, and the title of the project was A Place At The Table. Give us a little teaser that we could come back later in the year and then actually do a podcast just on that and how it's gone. Just give us the brief overview of what this is, what this project is.
  • Molly: Sure. Well, we were so excited when we found out that we got this grant. I actually found out on my birthday. I didn't know if you had planned that, but that was very nice to wake up to.
  • John: Absolutely.
  • Molly: Two of my students and I, two of my girls who are now seniors, and I wanted to try for this grant from CharacterStrong for A Place At The Table, because we wanted it to be able to bring students from different backgrounds together each month that we were going to choose randomly, and have them come together to have lunch and also have dialogue with one another. We had for the past three years had been doing a program that I created through a grant from the Bezos Family Foundation called Branch Out, where we brought students together for this particular program to meet and get to know one another.
  • Molly: That grant just ended last spring, so we said, "Hey, this would be a great time to apply for something new that is similar in nature and that will help try to bring people in our community together for something that they would hopefully find enjoyable and build... This is what we're going to be doing. We're super excited. We have our first lunch in two weeks, so we're looking forward to that. We're going to try to do different themes every month and just switch it up and make it fun.
  • Molly: We really appreciate your support because without it, it couldn't happen.
  • John: Well, that is wonderful. One, we're honored to be able to support that. I'd love to bring you back and to talk about that later in the year as well as potentially see what we can do. I think it's such a great model and example for schools. It'd be fun to follow up with you after this podcast about a way that we could help to then even tell that story to show visually what it is that you're doing there and how you've broken it down to make it happen.
  • John: Just grateful for you, Molly, and the work that you're doing. I know that this will not be the last time that our paths cross and or connect, but just know that we're grateful for the example you're setting, and just really digging into the important work that we know is needed to put that focus on relationships in the whole child.
  • Molly: Well, thank you so much. I really appreciate it. I'm glad that we were able to connect.
  • John: Thank you for listening to the CharacterStrong podcast. If you enjoyed this episode, feel free to share on your social media. Please rate, review, and make sure to subscribe for future episodes on iTunes, Spotify, and Google Play. To learn more about CharacterStrong and how we're supporting schools, visit characterstrong.com. Thanks for listening. Make it a great day.

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