Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Alaska Schools: A Reflection




I saw the request written on a note, gently pushed on the conference table towards my laptop late during our meeting and at first I have to admit I didn't think it was real. "APTT emergency" it read. "Can you go to Alaska next week?" I looked at my supervisor and gave a puzzled look then said "Are you for real?" It was real. All of our other consultants were going to be in the field and someone from our team needed to head to the Last Frontier and lead our parent-school engagement work in Anchorage, Alaska.

After six hours of flight time, and some panoramic views of gigantic mountains and sweeping rock formations, I slowly arrived to the conclusion that I was entering into a very special place on the Earth. As our flight descended, I noticed intense cracks in the earth drift into the wide endless ocean signs of ice and cold slowly melting away. Immediately, I felt a shift in my soul. Looking out my small plane window, I notice the feeling might have much to do with the magnificent mountains that covered us all here. 

I went right to work. I arrived at Lake Otis Elementary which was surrounded by huge skies and massive mountains, met with several teachers, the principal and our district partner who kindly shepherd me the into the first class room I was to observe. I'll need to write more about my thoughts and experiences in the schools but for now let me depart for a moment. 

Let me please make a disclaimer. I was a person who has some poor biases sometimes and Alaska was a place that I envisioned complete with packed dogs, igloos and Eskimos. Nonetheless, Alaska humbled me, threw my biases' out into the Bay of Alaska, and reframed my thinking and experiences in life in a much more concerted and concentrated way. More on this later, but for now...

Alaska Fun Facts: 

* Diverse is First: A middle aged brown skinned mother stood up during our ice-breaker and declared with proud authority, "My daughter and I are ALASKAN women." This sentence is still plastered in my mind like snow capped Mount Denali.  

* Funky Dividends: Every single man, women and child receives an annual check from the government from the dividends yield from the sale and distribution from the Alaskan Pipeline. This effected parent attendance at our meetings because, as I found out from other teachers, many marginalized, disenfranchised parents were out "shopping, eating" and celebrating. 

* Students Attend Meetings WITH Parents: This was a big departure from our practice however, having students in attendance with their parents encouraged greater ownership of the take-home activities, goal-setting and the like.  

* Lots of Alaskans Not From Alaska:" Most folks that I spoke with came from all different parts of the "Lower 48" to come to Alaska.

* "Being Polite Only Takes a Minute:" A parent told me this as he offered a chair to me. I really like this quote.

* Anchorage School District - Most Languages, Most Diverse: Over 80 percent of students speak English in the school district. The remaining 20 percent? These students speak over 99 different languages making it the most diverse in the country.

My biases exposed. My gratitude for the people, geography and particularly the energy of Alaska.



Saturday, August 9, 2014

Making Our Schools More Human

Detroit Future Schools, an organization whose work is deeply embedded in using digital media to create more just learning spaces for teachers and students recently got me thinking about this idea to "make our schools more human." How do we do this when our students often arrive in our communities with such dire needs and pressures from policy makers cry the need for greater accountability through PARCC and SBAC assessments? Are the two mutually exclusive? I beg to argue that they are not but just require us organizing our schools and communities into places where shared leadership is not an idea but a living and breathing organism. Its where we as a collective of teachers, school administrators and support staff, all take responsibility in developing professional learning communities and dividing the work to accomplish the amazing and be the people we are waiting for. Our culture, the collective conscious and communicated, norms, values and actions of people, reflect this elevated energy; in fact we might begin to see the following emerge: 

* No one person being burden with everything 
* Everyone has voice 
* Accountability for both students and community 
* People feel validated 
* Systemic improvement 
* People begin to feel belonging from the beginning 
* Students can feel that teachers and staff are united towards a common cause 

This culture is conducive to not only realizing the collective power and energy of the school, but also can organize, design, draft, revise and implement powerful, highly engaging and challenging curriculum that aligns to the rigors of these new, untested, assessments. It's only by working together, as a collective, can powerful curriculum provide exemplary student achievement. For so long, much of my beliefs centered around designing  powerful curriculum for optimal results; but as I facilitate and learn, I'm discovering no one can achieve these results unless there is collective, transformative power, sustainable and cultivating in nature, that pulls on strengths, identifies potential gaps (as well as determine what type of gap we are dealing with and provide necessary training) and then make goals and appropriate plans to change. It is in this spirit that I am inspired and fully engaged with the work in the communities I dedicate myself to. Peace* 

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Who Are We? Defining ourselves telling our own story

I had the pleasure of spending two days in Oakland with super smart and passionate people. One of our tasks in the small group I worked with was to answer this question from an organizational standpoint: Who are we? Now, my first thought was that this is a highly intellectual and philosophical question. Who are we? Who am I? Why are we here? The longest un-answered question ever right? So what a great opportunity and honor to be able to answer this question for purposes of our work. We had over 200 responses from others and our task was to synthesize in order to present to the leadership team and peers. We began to discuss the commonalities and listed them out on chart paper; however, it soon became clear that the responses begged to be organized into a series of values (i.e., empathy, trust, flexibility, etc.) rather than some other set. Since we didn't want to loose the flavor of the philosophical nature of the question, the presentation begged that we simulate a Slam Poetry format to use rhymes and flow as a way to share. I'm currently reading a book by yoga teacher Baron Baptiste entitled "Being of Power" and he suggests that "we don't actually 'figure out' who we are," and suggests that such is "a quest for finite answers." He suggests that the way we come to understanding who we are is by giving up what we are NOT. Maybe this is too deeply esoteric but is there something that might apply to our work in communities serving mostly people of color in the U.S.? Might we peel back the layers like an onion to reveal our true selves (which doesn't always have to be a return to Africa?). So asking ourselves this question must not be something we answer but a poem that we continue to write and draft over time. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Attempting to Prevent the School-to-Prison Pipeline, Kinda

The United States incarcerates more people per capita than any other country in the world. There are now more black and brown men in prison than in college. The White House has announced a new initiative aimed at curbing this trend. We now have approximately two million people of color on lock down in this country. It's no wonder that there is a renewed interest in investing in education to properly empower all young people with the skills and knowledge necessary to life a healthy and happy life. Furthermore, we know that a high school education is not enough. A recent article, in the New York Times, title, "Is College Worth It?" shows the income gap between those who have a four-year bachelor degree versus those who simply have a secondary diploma. However, with many schools challenged with supporting students social and emotional needs, our communities are often not equipped to deal with students lure for street life and dysfunctional home lives. How do we support students who do not want to do school? Those who simply are deviant and refuse to listen to anyone in the school and they are empowered by their parents to fight those who simply lay their hands on them? Furthermore, many youth believe that quick fame and fortune will come through sports or quick money of the streets. Today for me was an eye-opening experience. Here was a young man that was most definitely headed in the direction of incarceration. As I spoke to him about why he got suspended, he displayed little remorse and as I continued the conversation, he simply said to me, "You're wasting your time, I don't really care." He went onto to say that he didn't care who laid his hands on him (this included the principal, other teachers, etc.) that he would fight them. 

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Holla' If Ya' Here Me: Black Male Teachers Now!

Ask any youth what they want to be when they grow up and the answer is unlikely to be: "a teacher." It's even less likely for a brown or black youth to also want to do so. So its no wonder that less than two (2) percent of the teaching population is people of color. There are certainly more well paying positions that are available. Perhaps, it's not just about the money here. 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

White Privilege, Race, Power and the Bigotry of Low Expectations

Over the past week, I've had the pleasure of being on a panel as a guest speaker at the University of Detroit and at the Detroit Food Policy Council's Race to Good Food Summit both in the World's Greatest City. In preparing for my guest speaker conversation, I had a revelation: many of my experiences around race have been repressed and pushed out my memory. As I began to unpack my own experiences, being told I was "sun-tan" by my white mother as a child or being nearly arrested while sitting in the passengers seat because "I fit the description" of someone the police were looking for I thought deeply about the ways in which I was forced into notions of race, privilege and identity. I asked myself "Who else has pushed such memories aside and what can we learn from each other?" There were great questions from our UDM brothers and sisters such as "Isn't race more entrenched in ideas of power?" and "How much of race has to do with conditioning?" I was honored to share space with two Ph.D's who were well versed in the topic but I've had some lived experiences that sometimes trumps academic credentials. I shared I never necessarily chose to enter into notions of race and class and growing up I frequently had to answer the question, "What exactly are you?" Those questions birthed my life-long quest to answer questions and identify my passion for serving people in so-called marginalized communities. How does this notion of race and power effect our schools and our students? How do these notions effect our food system? I'm only beginning to understand how I might begin to answer each of these questions; as our food and schooling systems depend upon our work to create equity and justice. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Black History Year: A Tribute to Tray'von and Jordan

"The more things change, the more things stay the same." This post is a tribute to two young brothers who lost their lives way too soon for no reason other than the color of their skin: Tray'von Martin and Jordan Davis. How does our K-12 educational system either support or remove these acts of racist violence occurring in our country? How are we preparing today's educators to confront notions of race and to break down stereotypes that have been prevalent since blackface and the minstrel show? We need to attack and de-mystify the images that we the people believe to be true. I propose that our schools become places to educate and eliminate these ideas. One year I was fortunate to teach a summer course with a group of young black men from our high school. It was amazing how much power and hope and love that group of young men had. Our courses in school can't just be about how every one is equal which is certainly a notable and honorable way of introducing primary year students into this notion. However, how are we getting young people active in eliminating these barriers while many still worship this thug lifestyle and outlook which so often gets associated with black people. I will share more thoughts on this later but right now lets all take a moment to honor these two young promising and honorable young men that left us too soon....