Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Losing Your Former Student: R.I.P Eric

My former student, Eric, tragically lost his life on Sunday. I received a message on Facebook from another former student that Eric had died in a car crash. Eric was a student in my advisory as my very first year in teaching in Detroit. He was perhaps one of the most brilliant, yet, challenging students that I ever had the honor of teaching. In many ways, his brilliance and intelligence were a blessing and a curse. Eric was witty and had no shortage of confidence. I never met his father and apparently had not been a part of Eric's life and upbringing. His mother was the one raising Eric and tried her best to raise a young man in the city. I was always impressed at his ability to reason with fervor on a variety of topics and although he often had trouble empathizing for others, he had some semblance of morality. Eric had obtained an internship with Detroit City Council and left a positive impression with the staff but like many of his experiences he never was really challenged. His exhibitions were flashy demonstrations of his natural speaking skills not of problems or sincere challenges he wanted to improve on. When asked about his passions, a cornerstone of our curriculum, Eric would simply reply, "my passion is to make money." I often had to work with his math and science teachers as Eric was cited as being consistently disruptive, left obscene messages in classrooms, and about half way into the year I really started to question, as did his mother whether or not our high school was the best fit for him. He believed he was a star basketball player who could go to Renaissance, one of the cities selective high schools in the city. His ego was both intriguing and somewhat incompatible with how I knew him (see attached lyrics he wrote). I often offered Eric alternatives for more positive approaches to his education to no avail. He was a kid for all intents and purposes whom had a great smile with little guidance for how to use his brilliance for good. By the time we reached the end of the year, everyone, and probably the advisory
were ready for Eric to go - which 
he did. I did not stay in contact with Eric after he left our school. I may have seen him once or twice at a school event. I hope that in some way I contributed to his life in a positive way and that his soul goodness remains both here on Earth and in the heavens. Rest in peace, Eric. 

Saturday, September 12, 2015

In The End It's All About Your Critical Friends

The National School Reform Faculty (NSRF) is an organization that I have been informally involved with since I began teaching. The non profit organization focuses on promoting more equitable practices through the use of engaging protocols and the development of critical friends groups. The idea here is that if we can ensure that everyone, including, parents, students, teachers, school leaders and community folks all have a voice and are able to fully reach his/her potential the school can better position itself for student success. This work is not easy. My first attempt at using the Tuning Protocol in the classroom was met with some what mixed results. Although I was eventually using the protocol in one of my first professional development sessions with our middle school colleagues and then eventually at a national conference (the first time that I presented on such a platform), I was not fully trained in the use of such protocols which sometimes led to people not being protected - a contradiction for why NSRF developed this work. So ever since that revelation, I really felt the need to become a certified facilitator with NSRF and better understand how the protocols were to be used and organized. After a few failed attempts at trying to get my employer to fund the work, I eventually took the deep dive and paid for my very first professional development session. The conference took place in Los Angeles, CA (and didn't get to visit my one of my favorite museums ever)  and required an entire week of working from day until late afternoon learning, building, deconstructing and honing my skills or rather our skills in the use of the protocols. It was a great use of both my time and money. Not only did I come away with new skills and a deeper understanding of how and when to use which protocols and for whom, I also learned about the importance of pre conferencing and carefully preparing everyone for the experiences of the protocols. The way the week was structured was brilliant. We all had to facilitate and then participate in one of the protocols. In this way, we got plenty of practice and also feedback from one another. I'm also thankful that I got a chance to build new friendships with people from all around the country. If you get a chance, please check out all of their free protocols and feel free to give me a shout with any questions on how to best use them and avoid some of the mistakes that I made - all whom you serve will certainly appreciate it. 

Thursday, August 27, 2015

Its Not What You Say....

It's an old cliche; stop and think about your voice and the impact it has on others. I'm not suggesting that you sound phony but be authentic and use a voice that is good for you to deliver and for others to hear. What is it about the sound of someone's voice that keeps us coming back for more? The research suggests that music has a profound impact on babies pre-natal. How do we use our voice to create and empower rather than to destroy and break? I'm becoming more acutely aware of my own voice and how I use it. I'm discovering my own emotional state as well as my intent as I'm speaking. Think of all the speaking we as educators do but we do not get voice lessons (as Grant Wiggins mother suggests, "How in the world can you engage young kids and make the teaching clear without having a trained voice?" nor are we made to be aware of the effects of using different tones in our voices (just as strings on a guitar) to give different vibrations. Wouldn't that be an interesting study to see how teachers voice determines student outcomes? Our voice must come from a pure place and a knowledge of who we are as a person. Notice the pitch, tone, and feeling behind your voice when you can. It's all about how you're saying what you're saying that makes a difference. 

Monday, June 29, 2015

Curriculum Representing the Contributions of All People

I was so hungry to learn about my so-called blackness that by the time that I entered my sophomore year, I had stolen the single copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X by Alex Haley at my predominately white high school 15 minutes north of  Detroit, Michigan. I justified the stealing (in my adolescent mind by saying that no one else was going to read it) and began to read and learn more about African American history that year. Last year, during our professional development session, I was asked about teaching a 4th grade Unit on California Explorers. Here were some central questions that I posed to the teacher (while she stared at me wide eyed): 
  • Does the curriculum represent the contributions of all people (women and people of color, for example)?
  • Who is telling the story of exploration? What would this story be like if it were told by the natives? How would that change how we viewed the events taking place? What would the story be like if it were told through the eyes of the Earth? What would she say? 
  • How are you teaching for transfer? What kinds of meaning do you want kids to make from this? 
  • What adjustments and modifications are you making for your English Language Learners? How are you including all students in creating a collective story about explorers? 
  • What is exploitation? Who was exploited and for what cause? How did explorers view the land as compared to original peoples? 
  • What was the land (i.e., California) called before the explorers captured it? Should we honor the previous name? Why or why not? 
  • What was the primary motivation for peoples moving west? How did those motivations continue to shape the geography of the state? 
  • Who are the "winners" and "losers" of this time in history? 
  • Is there one "true" narrative when it comes to this period in history? 
  • Should we "celebrate" the explorers? How did they interact with natives? How did natives interact with explorers? Who is telling the story here? 
  • What was the impact of "treaties" in the absolution of land? 
By the time I ended my rant, I'm sure that the teacher had dismissed most of what I had said, which caused me to really reflect on my approach on coaching teachers on incorporating diverse perspectives into historical narrative. To be honest, that's a challenge because I am so passionate about this notion about including all peoples stories into the narrative of our past. I also referred her to the Zinn Education Project  and Rethinking Schools . Ultimately, this type of perspective tends to fall into the category of multiculturalism and yet, we our young people are more focused on relying on the STEM  myth to eliminate inequities in education rather that encouraging a rich, diverse perspective and understanding on our past. However, just as I had that hunger to learn more about my past and teaching to diverse perspectives its urgent that we also encourage our schools to embrace a deeper understanding of who is telling the story in American history. 

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

What Do Car Wrecks and Schools Have in Common: How Will We Treat Each Other, a training?

I try to avoid having crucial conversations. If there's a conflict, especially if its revealing deep facts about my character or someone's character, I'm the first one to run for the door. The impact of such an approach at an organization, working in a group or more specifically, at a school has devastating effects. In the book Crucial Conversations, four times NY Times best-selling author Kerry Patterson argues that at the heart of every conflict there is a conversation that we could be holding to better enhance our working relationships and ultimately, improve the organizations and people that we serve, in this specific case, schools. I had the wonderful opportunity to facilitate a series of Crucial Conversations workshop recently and the group was particularly small, yet contentious. At first glance, staff entered the room just as any other participants would enter, however, it was not before long that I began to see noticeable differences in this group than in others.

As I framed the work for the day, much like I have in this blog post, citing the importance of holding conversations, and sharing what results when we do not hold these conversations can sometimes be deadly. I cited the 1980's Challenger deadly explosion that left seven astronauts dead and that upon further investigation, discovered that the faulty "O-Rings" indeed did not handle cold temperatures, some information that was withheld by engineers afraid to share with their supervisors. One participant argued vehemently that it was not simply a result of people afraid not to talk one another but rather simply, "poor decision making." He was angry and rightfully so as there was not a sincere interest to be there. There are two choices that people make when they fail to communicate, either silence, the act of not speaking at all, walking out on someone or violence, which can include sarcasm, deflecting, and bullying just to name a few. I went ahead and did some role-playing where one of my colleagues took my car and crashed it over the weekend. During the role play, my partner completely deflecting and actually ended up accusing me of being a poor friend. It was definitely an act of violence but ironically, the crowd agreed with my so-called friend who, in this role-play crashed my car without telling me. One participant, who hadn't spoken at all during the entire training confidently sided with my role-playing, drunk-driving friend by declaring, after I asked about friendship: "Heck yeah, I definitely still be his friend. Good friends are good to come by." No matter that this friend lied, attacked me and accused me of being a poor friend. Nope it was all my fault. Anyway, if you find yourself stuck in conversations, review these guidelines to approach conversations where emotions are high and the person you are speaking with has a completely different opinion than you:

  • State the facts: Share what you are feeling and your perspective of the situation without any judgement statements 
  • Tell you story: include the story of the situation as you see it 
  • Ask for others opinion: ask the person to share their side of the story 
  • Talk tentatively: begin to seek understanding of the situation from both vantage points and ask additional questions as need to gain insights and common ground 
  • Encourage testing: this is where both parties begin to identify solutions to prevent future problems and restore the relationship 
As I've stated before, I'm not the best communicator, but most definitely see the framework as one in which, if used over time, can be a real tool to help personal and professional relationships thrive when values, trust, love, and hope is broken. The failure to hold these conversations severely hinders our ability to achieve greatness in our schools and one another. Otherwise, our inactions can lead to car wrecks or worse the death of the things we love and work for.  

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Grant Wiggins: Education and Human Hero, Part I

Grant Wiggins has passed; the heavens cheer as the world weeps. I'm so thankful that I had the opportunity to work, learn and grow with Grant. He was perhaps one of the, if not the most brilliant minds in education that I have ever had the absolute pleasure of working with. Coupled with brilliance, Grant was amazingly kind, thoughtful and very down to earth. I had known Grant only for a few months working in New York City and he and his wife graciously invited me and a few colleagues into his parents breathtaking, brownstone in East Village. It was one of my first times in East Village and only a handful of times in New York City, and here I was, an educator from Detroit, sitting and planning with a man that was one of the deepest, most accomplished minds in education. I'll share more with a second posting but I just want to send this note off and recognize the passing of a brilliant mind, a compassionate kind human being, a tireless and amazing educator, and now an ancestor who perhaps left us all too soon. Rest in peace, Grant. 

Friday, March 20, 2015

Work and Build: Work With What You Got

"That's real creativity. Making something out of nothing." - Bill C.

I'll be honest. I'm a skeptic when it comes to school reform and I need to stop. Even if I believe that the tool or program or service I'm providing is problematic, I am making a public commitment right here and now, to be creative, artistic and make it work in a way that ensure equity and progress for the communities I work for. In many ways, it's simply my ego and not wanting to depart from the experiences I've had working with youth and schools. The Danielson Framework for Teaching is an example as is so the Common Core Standards. Let's adjust these frameworks and modify them to make them work for us. Disadvantaged (not sure what other word to use) communities often feel the target of such reforms but what people tend to do is to not realize their own power or as I've done simply dismiss because it's not part of my personal philosophy on what's best for kids. I'll talk more about how to make reforms work for you rather than against in future posts. As Grant Wiggins has often stated, "All reform is local'" and real creativity can emerge when communities appropriately adapt and own the tools to work for youth served.