#AmericaToMe : Part 2

Right off the bat, my two take-aways are (briefly):

  1. White people really don’t understand what blacks (or other minorities) are going through
  2. What do I do about this? (And coming up with an answer is not a further obligatory responsibility to weigh down the black person with)

 

I watched episodes 3 (“There is no pain that compares to the struggle”) and 4 (“There’s nothing funny about Race!”).

 

Episode 3 is titled after a line in then-senior Kendale McCoy’s poem; a personal story about how his life could have taken a much different turn as he grew up with troubled parents, but his life now is “dope”, raised by his mother’s aunt and uncle. I think that line was chosen to highlight the daily struggles (pain) black folks go through as they journey in a white dominant majority environment. Later in episode 4, Ke’Shawn laughingly jokes about how he got in trouble “walking while black”, a reference to any number of racial profiling examples with perhaps the most infamous one being “driving while black.” That a teenager can make a devastatingly apropos joke about that tells me how messed up things really are. Another aspect is the attempt by several faculty to bring racial and cultural awareness to a higher level within the administration and they are met with “white male silence.”

Episode 4 might be highlighted by a physic teacher’s (Aaron Podolner) attempt to build rapport with a couple black students, whereby he shares his memoir on racial experiences; the student’s responses are quite polarized, with one (Charles) laughing and saying he has no problem with race, while the other (Jada) pointedly chastises Charles and Aaron.

On some level, I feel I can somewhat relate to Mr. Podolner – here you have a white guy who puts himself in front of the camera and thereby judged by everyone. He thinks he is doing the right thing, and at least he is trying to be different than “other white people.” But I had to cringe during his exchange with co-teacher Jess Stovall in episode 4, when Aaron falls into the pitfall of saying he “understands” the black experience – you can almost hear Jess, who grew up bi-racial in a practically all white Wisconsin town, say “wait, WTF did you just say?” but instead her response is much more gracious and she inquires how he understands.
In episode 3, Glenn E. Singleton, founder of the Pacific Educational Group, said of white liberal people “[their] liberalism only goes so far until it challenges their situation personally.” “And that is what you have at OPRF.” It is obvious that this statement applies to the white males in power within the administration. I am curious, how does it apply to folks like Podolner, or Peter Kahn of the Spoken Word Club, or football coach John Hoerster? How does it apply to me? Is liberalism really that sacrosanct in the first place? (Note I ask because I believe Mr. Singleton is correct, but I have yet to understand how, like an ocean lapping up on a beach, liberalism goes so far until.)

 

What really boggles my mind about these “America to me” stories is how much pressure these kids, their parents, and their teachers are under. I recall Behavior Interventionist Michael Byars, and how it seems like he is one of the better things going on in Ke’Shawn’s educational experience (aside from Jess Stovall), a model of respect and mentoring – and yet Mr. Byars tells us that Ke’Shawn has been told not to talk to him.

 

On a more local level, for those that are familiar with Unit 4, I invite you to participate in a simple experiment. There were two board meetings back in April, one on April 9th and one two weeks later on April 23rd. In both we have a presentation by African-Americans, both basically putting forth ideas (really amazing, neat, fascinating ideas) for ways to address the achievement gap and racial disparities. And yet the environment in which these two presentations were made are radically different. Your task is to comment on the differences:

 

There are some really amazing things happening in Unit 4 right now, especially in regards to cultural awareness and addressing racial issues; from initiatives like Restorative Justice and A.C.T.I.O.N.S, to student-led R.I.S.E and “real talks” (mentioned in comments for the first post), to efforts to hire minorities and women, and further, programs like Operation Hope, Lead for Life, and other excellent partnerships. What is hindering the needle on the achievement gap from moving faster? Why is there still a significant racial disparity in discipline? And I have to ask myself, what is my role in answering those questions?

Finding the good: board meetings

finding_good_2

As with all posts in this “Finding the good” series, it is quite easy to find things that are bad, need improvement, or candidates for complaint. But the point is that there are also good things if one is willing to look a little harder.

 

finding_good_1Take Unit 4 school board meetings for instance. The current board has taken significant steps to listen to stakeholders, constrain their discussion of public matters to public meetings, and reflect openly on their progress. On top of that, there are often times many excellent informational items that broadcast the priorities of the district. Let’s look at a few examples.

Back in early February, the Administration kicked off a series of “Goals and Indicators” for High School, Middle School and Elementary School. Each document spells out the relationship between Curriculum, Instruction and Assessment, fortified with details of the the players involved (and how they work together) as well as specific programs used to reach these goals. For indicators, the presentations focus on how tests are used, how often, what is being measured, etc. Over and above the documents by themselves, the “live” presentation (as one can watch via the Vimeo recordings) were much more charismatic, lively and the presenter often went into much more detail. My point in raising this as an example is that the district is throwing open the doors – there is nothing hidden here. If you want to know how education happens in Unit 4, you can dig into these resources.

Another example are the times when various programs are featured; lots of amazing awesomeness being shared with Operation Hope (and Operation Hope Jr), PBF (Positive Behavior Facilitation), social justice clubs (RISE, “Real Talks”), and recently at the July 11th meeting, Marc Changnon spoke about ‘Education to Career and Professions’ (ECP) and the Summer Youth Employment Program/Summer Trades Apprenticeship. This is just a very small sample of really cool opportunities that our students have. There are also the other partnerships and afterschool programs that we learn about; United Way, Champaign Urbana School Foundation, Tap In Academy, Freedom Schools, etc.

Train-your-mind-to-see-the-good-in-every-situationI will wrap up with the approach this current board has taken to governance. There have been changes, some small, some more noticeable; a new BOE blog maintained by board member Kathy Richards; the Board President now reads through and sometimes asks for details in the Consent Agenda; there is a metacognitive exercise in the form of the question “Whom did we affect and whom did we tell?” at the end of most meetings; communications to the board, in the context of the referendum and facility planning, have all been published on the district website, as well as any responses. In fact, did you know that a majority of the board members were always in attendance at every Tier Two committee meeting? I found that to be quite impressive. Last week, at the July 11th BOE meeting, the board took some extra time to talk in open session about their thoughts and opinions on the work and recommendation of the Tier Two committee. As Dee Shonkwiler was spotlighted as the only member in the audience, the rest of us can watch the video. I point out that the board took time to discuss in open session because, in my experience, this kind of lengthy dialog between board members while in open session is somewhat rare. Why should you care? Because you elected these people to make decisions, and here they are reflecting on all the feedback they have received and telling you what they think about it. We need to do our part and urge others to make their voice known as well – without your participation, there is no democracy. This board is listening to you.

Finding the good: the many names of social justice

I found this post hard to write because there is so much awesome wrapped up in the broad label of “social justice” that it is hard to convey a sense of scope while trying to provide some details as well. And perhaps most vexing is how to convey why exactly I think “social justice” should be viewed by the community as an extremely high priority.

 

I’ll cut right to the chase – each of these efforts give an example of what a child-centered approach looks like. In my opinion, if public education is not child-centered, it has no place being funded by the public. Or in other words, you and I are are throwing our money out the window if it does not benefit the whole child, every child. I’ll come back to that.

 

In a Feb 19th U4 Board Corner post, Kathy Richards shed a little light on the social justice efforts going on within Unit 4, specifically focusing on the English learners of very diverse backgrounds. Ms. Richards closed by talking about the Social Justice Initiative; let me quote from the webpage:

During the 2012-2013 school year the social justice committee focused on learning about social justice by studying relevant literature and engaging in collaborative learning sessions. The committee generated a definition of social justice and a social justice framework for our district. Having met the two goals of creating the definition and framework, the planning group now provides professional development and project opportunities via social justice seminars and topic specific task forces.

At the February 8th BOE meeting, Dr. Wiegand and Dr. Taylor presented on the state of the high school curriculum; starting with page (slide) 35, they cover other social justice initiatives and partnerships (like “Culturally Responsive Education”, aka CRE), followed by this list of “action groups” on page 37:

  • Special Education Action Group
  • English Language Learners Action Group
  • LGBTQ Action Group
  • Homeless Action Group
  • Social Justice Educators’ Collaborative
  • RISE – Racial Identity Student Experience
  • Choose Kindness and Real Talks

 

We have some really amazing staff involved in these efforts. I have had the honor and privilege of meeting some of them and sitting in classrooms – I hope to spend more time learning about these action groups. Since many of these groups are student-organized and student-led, they don’t just allow any stranger (or blogger for that matter) to sit in, so it might be a while. *grin* I love it that students are taking these responsibilities seriously, and that the staff sees the vital importance of student voice and provide for these spaces to happen. That just blows my mind.

 

I’ll let another little secret out as well. Those that are following along with CTRL-Shift (notice the nice NSF grant they recently won?), it might be easy to get distracted by the focus in technology. I might be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think computers were ever the main focus of this group; instead, they strive to empower learners, regardless of finances or ability, by giving them the computational skills to tackle problems. I believe the “shift” is away from teachers monologuing to students, and instead providing a path where teachers transition to facilitators and create environments of student inquiry.

 

Which is a very common theme when I talk to teachers involved in social justice as well. Each of these adults realizes the importance of truly listening to the kids, of trying to learn from the child. I paid a visit to a local Montessori school, and was pleasantly surprised to learn that this is essentially the magic sauce behind what makes Montessori so attractive (there are other details the flow out of this methodology).

 

At this point in time, I feel strongly that as we look to hiring a new superintendent in 2017, one key priority of this new superintendent should be to maintain (the current efforts) and enhance (where we are lacking) a district-wide atmosphere of student-cenetered learning. And unfortunately for the folks at Pearson, this means we should turn away from standardized testing in bulk as a means of assessment; too much of what we currently do is adult-centered, and it is making me sick.

 

It doesn’t matter if you use words like “social justice”, the bottom line is that we are talking about people, not numbers. And young people at that. People with lives, backgrounds, personalities and gifts. We have a moral obligation to ensure that these young people (every single one of them, not just the privieleged) have an nurturing environment that promotes success at life. It comes down to relationships, of getting to know other people, and other people’s children, enough that you can care about them.

 

It’s easy to not care. But it is expensive.

 

UPDATE:

“Tell me the truth! If you cannot tell me the truth, we cannot trust each other. If we cannot trust each other, we cannot have a relationship. If we do not have a relationship, we have nothing.”

— Dr. Joy DeGruy “Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome

 

PS

Some things that have influenced my thinking:

  • Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner “Most likely to succeed”
  • Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish “How to listen so kids will talk and talk so kids will listen”
  • Nikhil Goyal “One size does not fit all”
  • Jose Vilton “This is not a test”
  • Edna Olive “Positive Behavior Facilitation”
  • Trevor Eissler “Montessori Madness”