Growing Roses in Concrete: thoughts about the Nov 29th Social Justice meeting

The title is borrowed from Jeff Duncan-Andrade (13 minute TED talk – a VERY worthwhile listen), who was inspired by Tupac Shakur’s “The Rose That Grew from Concrete” (wiki entry for book). This topic served as the basis for much of our discussion. And I would say that the conversations, both around the tables and at large, were excellent opportunities to learn from each other, explore the environment we live in and how that affects others.


So right up front let me say that I am torn about the Social Justice Committee. As I reflect upon this, I realized I could use the working analogy of concrete and roses with damaged petals to shape my thoughts.


The concrete

For lack of a more creative way to say this, Unit 4 does things a certain way. It’s the “way it has always been done” kind of thing. Unit 4 committees are typically heavily populated by Unit 4 staff and typically held at the Mellon Center. For the most part, these committees and board meetings struggle to gain any sort of publicity outside themselves; they are not visible on the website, you don’t see anyone blogging about them, nothing on twitter or even around the coffee pot. They are a part of the invisible machinations of the “machine” of Unit 4 district administration. I also get the sense that their goals (purpose, mission statement, etc) are too often looking inward; how to form policy, how to shape administration.

To make a more specific example of last night’s social justice meeting, I found it extremely hard to engage in the conversation at first because the first task made no sense to me. We were given two vignettes of fictional students whose performance started off greatly but had taken a nosedive. Based on an incomplete picture of the situation, we were told to discuss ways in which pieces of the existing system “engaged” certain areas. Like what does “Instruction” do, currently, to address these two downward sliding students? What about “Facilities”? “Curriculum”? It was too abstract for me. I have no clue how the buildings affect the fictional students. Granted, others at the table came up with ideas, but they all felt very “Unit 4ish” to me. Like, very vague and barely relevant ideas, nothing to me that could be made specifically applicable to these students in mind.


The Roses

Given the hard adversity of these tradition-bound forms, good things still happen. There are really fascinating facts buried in the EEE and PMPK meeting reports. More recently, the Social Justice and Parent Advocacy committees are having these little examples of excellent conversations, awesome intent and lots of potential. There are some really hard-working, liberal-thinking and risk-taking individuals in the meetings. I love that!

I would also say an emerging ‘rose’ is that of the new administration’s attempt to grow trust, to be transparent and to engage the community.

Going back to last night again as a specific example, one lady at a table reported out on her table’s brainstorming on ways to improve the current system, and WOW, they had some awesome ideas! I very much hope to see that list put up on the website. And since I saw two of you readers sitting at that table, I hope you can say more as well. 🙂


The damaged petals

As a result of the concrete, it is my observation that most community folks are disengaged. My perspective is that it seems most people view the whole of Unit 4 as an antiquated system, most likely due to practices from the past decades that have eroded trust. There is a general sense that these committees are not doing much. And here is where I am torn. For all these great conversations that we are having, what actually gets done? How are students helped? How is the community helped? This is very hard to measure. I think there is a lot of personal satisfaction by those who attend (and also dissatisfaction in many cases), but how does that translate outwards?


For me, I was reminded that there is beauty all around us. I am extremely grateful that Ellen Dahlke and Jaime Roundtree led us through the examples of Tupac’s vivid and gripping universe.

Social Justice in the schools

This afternoon I received an email from an Urbana High School teacher who gave me permission to post an invitation to the class’s presentation on Social Justice:

For those of you who don’t know me, please allow me to introduce myself.  My name is Ellen Dahlke, and I am an English teacher at Urbana High School.  I also co-chair the Social Justice Committee, and this semester, I have had the privilege of teaching Social Justice, an elective course available to all students, grades nine through twelve.

My students and I would like to share with you what we’ve learned about discipline, punishment, and justice at UHS through a qualitative research project we’ve conducted this semester as well as the recommendations we have for positively contributing to our schools’ culture in terms of social justice.

We’d like to present Tuesday morning, May 15th, during our 1st hour class, 8:00 to 8:50 in the UHS Lecture Hall.  Please let me know if you’ll be able to make it.

Thanks for your time.

As stated by Ms. Dahlke, please let her know if you intend to participate. Her email is

Urbana School District 116: Social Justice

To date, I have pretty much not said anything about Urbana. To be honest, this has nothing to do with my perception of this fine School District – the issue is that I simply focus my radar on a few things. I mean, there is a ton of stuff going on in Unit 4 I never touch, either.

Today, my radar skimmed over the geographical boundaries and landed upon the Urbana High School. Or more specifcally, the UHS Social Justice Committee. I would link the site here, but the only thing on the page at the moment is a video (a fairly good one at that). So I’ll include the link later on with a bunch of others.

Ms. Ellen Dahlke, a UHS English teacher, has been the more public of the co-chairs of this committee. I have been rather impressed by their involvement so far. I mean, let’s start with the video. It is titled “Think Before you Speak” and covers how certain words set off a chain of emotions and reactions in various people groups. When used in vain, these carelessly tossed hand grenades might set people off. So, think about it first. Ms. Dahlke also convinced two students to join her on a Steve Shoemaker WILL radio show, and they covered many aspects of the Committee (“not a Club”). It is awesome, in my opinion, how they are getting 15-30 folks to show up at Committee Meetings; a group comprised of students, staff (from Urbana and even the University), professionals, parents and community members at large. The lack of intimidation and level of acceptance of these “safe environments” bring my mind back to Dr. Aber’s oft repeated recommendation that Unit 4 create similar “safe environments”.

The Social Justice Committee has been involved in several community service projects such as the Disability Expo held at Lincoln Square, A Woman’s Fund, and Center for Women in Transition, and the Champaign County Nursing Home. In November, the Social Justice Committee was closely involved in planning the East Central Illinois Safe Schools Alliance forum held at Parkland College.

I love this stuff. And now I want to be a part of it. 🙂


Related links: