Sunday, March 27, 2016

Easy diplomas, high expectations, and equity

Too many of these kids are struggling, and it's not their fault. They are the victims of systems and histories that make it all but impossible for them to stay above the waves. But knowing this, what can an educator do?

This question's been swirling around in my head since reading Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, but finally an answer to these questions is starting to coalesce in my mind--a solution that I think is truly equitable.

If you've been following this blog, you know we've been working on raising the bar for our students while, at the same time, increasing supports. But you also know that we've been realizing our limitations, and that, to some of our students, support has meant helping them find a school environment that works better for them. And for some, raising the bar could mean they don't make it in time for a diploma in June.

And then there's Between the World and Me, challenging me to take a hard look at what I am doing and whether I really am a support or just another hound at the heels of these kids, just more wind in their face, as Coates' put it.

Am I wrong in not wanting to just give the kids a diploma--in wanting to hold them accountable, push them to improve, and have them leave here ready for what's next?

Which is more just or fair: to deny a student a diploma because you have high expectations, or to give him a diploma no matter what, so he is not further disadvantaged by lacking that piece of paper?

According to Paul Gorski, author of Reaching and teaching Students in Poverty, high expectations is one of the things these kids need most, but they also need that slip of paper, don't they?

How do I balance their need for a diploma with their need for high expectations, solid skills, and college/career readiness?


So I turned to a mentor for advice, one with experience working with disadvantaged kids and teaching administrators how to work with them. He encouraged me to take a two-pronged approach: One in the short term "here and now," and another for "the long game."

In the short term, he said, I need to try to support the students in my care as much as possible, including advocating for their removal to a program that works better for them, if necessary. At the same time, I need to continue to work on building a program that will work better for more kids in the long term. (And that's a huge undertaking, so take it a step at a time, and be patient.)

And as far as diplomas and justice, here's my take-away from our conversation:

No. I'm not wrong for not wanting to just hand out diplomas. This is one of the inequities of the American educational system: it "launders" diplomas instead of providing kids with the support and preparation they need. But at the same time, it's better to graduate a student despite a lack of readiness than to kick him out, as long as it's an ability issue and not an attitude issue. If the problem is their attitude--if they're not trying, then granting them a diploma they haven't earned is just going to reinforce their central problem. But if they're trying, and their lack of ability is keeping them from meeting the standards, then the equitable thing to do is to personalize the standards. You can have high standards without them all being the same.

And I think that's the key. High standards for all, increased support for all, but equity doesn't mean uniformity.

The goal is that every student will leave ready for what's next, but if we can't do this, at least we can keep from harming them further. In some cases, that may mean granting a diploma, in others, withholding it.

And hopefully soon, when we all, as a society, awaken from the dream that we are an equitable one, we'll really start doing whatever it takes to reach them all.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Awakening from the dream of race


"I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world."

-Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me

I feel like my eyes have been slowly opening over a period of years.

But it's like they're opening in stages, like big shifts of the landscape that open to wider and clearer vistas, and reading Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me is the latest instalment in this series of shifts.

This particular shift started a couple of years ago when I first read The Children in Rm. E4, and was blown away by the damage that has been done (and continues to be done) here in my home state of Connecticut by subtly racist laws, rules, policies, and social norms.

The Children in Rm. E4 was a tipping point in my increasing awareness of the true nature of our society and economy. It shattered my belief that the injustices ended in the sixties and shattered my faith in the ability of freer markets to fix the problem. The problem is clearly so deep, so ingrained, so systemic, that it can only be solved at the system level. Collective action is required, because the system is just a reflection of the will of the masses. We created a system of plunder, and as Coates puts it, "Plunder has matured into habit and addiction."

The Children made that clear. Coates drives it home with a vengeance, and to me, his book is a call to action, a call to awaken from what he calls "the dream."

Between the World and Me is his memoir, a heartfelt letter to his son about being black in a world that is living in a dream. It's a letter to his son about growing up in a world where "You have been cast into a race in which the wind is always at your face and the hounds are always at your heels..." while the people "who believe that they are white" are caught up in a dream.

The dream is the delusion that our green lawns, memorial day barbecues, double-wide strollers and suburbs are legitimate--that they are not resting on the backs of human beings. It's the delusion that we live in a meritocracy, where I have earned what I enjoy, when in reality, we "have forgotten the scale of theft that enriched [us] in slavery, the terror that allowed [us] for a century to pilfer the votes, the segregationist policy that gave [us] [our] suburbs."

Throughout the book, Coates paints a poetically painful picture of life in inner city Baltimore in the 80s, where every day, his life was literally on the line, his body threatened, either by rival gangs or the police. He contrasts this life of fear with the secure world of "the dreamers:"
"Some days I would take the train into Manhattan. There was so much money everywhere. Money, flowing out of bistros and caf├ęs... Money, out on West Broadway, where white people spilled out of wine bars with sloshing glasses, and without police. I would see these people at the club, drunken, laughing... They were utterly fearless. I did not understand that until I looked out on the street. That was where I saw white parents pushing double-wide strollers down gentrifying Harlem boulevards in t-shirts and jogging shorts, or I saw them lost in conversations with each other, mother and father, while their sons commanded entire side-walks with their tricycles. The galaxy belonged to them, and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs."
Mastery. "In the dream," writes Coates, we dreamers are "Buck Rogers, Prince Aragorn, an entire race of Skywalkers." But in reality, we are plunderers: "To awaken them is to reveal that they are an empire of humans, and like all empires of humans, are built on the destruction of the body. It is to stain their nobility, to make them vulnerable, fallible, breakable humans."

According to Oppenheimer's classic account of the rise of governments, The State, the "noble" class is always made up of the descendants of a conquering tribe or nation, and they always create some religious or moral justification of their superiority and right to rule. But there is no such right. We're all just humans. So why is there still empire?

It didn't end with the civil war, and it's not just in the South. Ta-Nehisi tells the story of an incident in the subway, when a white woman pushed his son, a white man came to her aid, he sensed their sense of superiority, and all of the hurt and history of a childhood of northern oppression welled up inside him and exploded like a volcano. I won't quote it here, because it's worth the price of the book--it's such a lucid and emotionally raw demonstration of the continuing existence of empire.

That anyone would feel as he did is an indictment of us all, yet the dream is powerfully seductive. It seduces us to to turn away from the injustice of Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, from the moral disaster of the projects, and the Children of Room E4, in what Coates calls "silent acquiescence." Waking up would force us to admit our guilt and would threaten our own security. If we stop denying that this is empire, if we acknowledge the continuing injustices of the system that keep us privileged in our picnics and suburbs, if we disassemble the apparatus that maintains it, what will happen? Will history turn on us as it did them? Will we lose our security and prosperity?

So what?


The dream is an intoxication. It protects us from the rawness and pain, but also from the justice and authenticity of reality. As Carl Sagan put it, "For me, it is far better to grasp the Universe as it really is than to persist in delusion, however satisfying and reassuring." If my security comes at others' expense, I'd rather have uncertainty.

It is high time the world came face to face with the oppressive modus operandi of the modern human race. I'm convinced its not in our DNA. Violence and oppression is not a gene, just a meme, and if we want security, there are far better sources than conquest and empire.

There's cooperation and community.

There's recognizing our intertwined lives--we are all connected.

Instead of clinging to boundaries of family, place, and nation, we can embrace the reality that we are all family, one human race, and one world community. Instead of believing in race--whiteness and blackness, we can believe in humanness.

Instead of building walls, we can tear them down.

Instead of turning away, denying and pretending, we can wake up.


But what will that look like? What would it look like if I did that?

I can admit that I am the recipient of privilege and benefits that have come down to me from empire, but what can one man do against an empire? As Coates wrote to his son:
"I do not believe that we can stop them, Samari, because they must ultimately stop themselves, and still I urge you to struggle. Struggle for the memory of your ancestors, struggle for wisdom.. but do not struggle for the dreamers. Hope for them, pray for them if you are so moved, but do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves, to understand that the field for their dream, the stage where they have painted themselves white is the deathbed for us all."
But I can't help being an optimist. I can't help but think that I can do something--that we can do something. I can't help but think that it has to start somewhere--with me and you, with justice in our own little spheres.

For me, that means starting with education that doesn't oppress, but empowers and equalizes.

Now, the only question is, how?

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Me, Gramps, Brooklyn, and the boundaries of family and place

One of the things I learned, living in Mississippi during the late 90s, was the importance of a sense of place. As humans, we need to belong. But to what do we belong--a family, tribe, nationality, race, or something bigger?

When a native Mississippian asked, "Where are you from?," he didn't mean "Where have you most recently lived?" He didn't even mean, "Where were you born?" He meant, "What town are your ancestors from?"

Their sense of place blew me away, but it also resonated with me. I grew up in the woods and hills of a small town called Brooklyn, Connecticut, tucked into the northeast corner of the tiny state, right in the heart of "Swamp Yankee" country. As far as I knew, that was my nationality--Swamp Yankee, because that's what my grandpa Green always said when we asked him what nationality we were.

He had grown up in Canterbury, a town just south of us, and moved to Brooklyn as a young newly-wed. He cleared the pines on this hill in big valley of the Quinebaug River, and started raising dairy cows on its sandy glacial soil. His love of the land was so much a part of him that he spent most of his free time, after he retired from a career in politics, working it, clearing it, and tending it. He dug a big pond out back, the one that Long Brook runs through and locals fish in.

But back then it was a rough start for he and my grandmother. Stories tell of the two of them driving a car without a wind shield and sawing wood in their living room in order to make ends meet in the early days. I have often imagined grandma in her kitchen, after her morning milking duties, serving up what she called "flap jacks" to a crew of a dozen or more children, farm hands, and foster kids. It's easy to imagine, because she did the same for us, my dozen or so cousins, brother, sisters and me, later on.

Grandma and Grandpa came from a very different time. A great aunt on Grandpa's side, who hunted and cut wood well into her 70s, told me stories of growing up on that Canterbury farm. She told me how my ancestors made  apple liquor called "rot gut," in their still, steam billowing out the door of the shed. They hid the bottles behind the seat of the car in order to deliver it to a local funeral home, where it was sold in secret during the days of the Prohibition.

This is where I'm from, and it became a part of me as I grew up and worked weekends and afternoons for the family business. The dairy had morphed into a construction business that thrived for decades, and I spent my childhood digging trenches, sweeping floors, spreading loam, planting grass, and washing trucks. I can still here my grandfather saying, "If you're gonna do something, do it right," and I can still see him inspecting his car after I washed it, in his old, worn shoes and work shirt. I have him and my dad and uncles to thank for the work ethic that is rooted so deeply into my bones.

This place and these people became a part of me as I spent holidays with so many aunts, uncles, and cousins I have trouble counting them, shooting dart guns at each other, playing tag, sledding, riding snowmobiles, Big Wheels and bikes.

It became ingrained in my soul as I walked in the woods every day, setting crude animal traps, building shelters, making pine tea, camping, dipping my hands into sand springs and soaking up the earth and life around me.

It all became such a part of me that I could never separate myself from it for long. I identified so strongly with it that it always pulled me back. After spending 5 years away in graduate school, I felt that magnetism again and returned for good in 1998, dragging my patient wife back here with me. I'm glad she hasn't felt as strong a pull as I have toward her place in central Illinois and her memories of walking beans, raising sheep, and helping with the corn harvest.

Our kids were young when I was at college in Illinois and Mississippi, and my daughter's cute little southern accent didn't last long after we returned north. Now, I think, this place is almost as much a part of them as it is of me. It's been such a privilege to be able to raise them with this kind of stability.

I wonder what it would be like not to have this sense of place--this physical identity with the land and people. It seems very primal and natural--a close-knit people tied to a place with it's plants, soils and geology. I'm grateful for it, and that I could raise my kids with it.

But I know I'm lucky. I know there are millions born into millions of little Hells-on-earth, and I was lucky enough to be born into a little Eden. I just started listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me. My childhood was far from perfect and painless, but it was heaven compared with his, and there are millions who make his look like a paradise. For them, their sense of place, the culture of their childhood is more a source of pain and poison than security and strength.

And then I wonder what will happen as more and more people are displaced, living increasingly mobile lives, increasingly removed from family and homeland. Can we replace physical places with digital ones and biological families with virtual ones?

Or will it just mean adjusting to the reality that we are all family, and that the whole earth is our home? Because, after all, that's the truth. Being human means belonging to something bigger than yourself--the whole human race and the whole earth. I love what Neil deGrasse Tyson said in an interview a little while ago:
"We are all genetically related, every human being. Any two humans on Earth have a common ancestor if you go back far enough in the family tree. So the fact that you draw a circle this big around family and say 'That's my family and outside the circle it's not'--that's an arbitrary circle. That's biologically arbitrary. You've decided for yourself that inside the circle's my family, outside it's not, when we have genetic links among all human beings."
I wonder what the world would be like if we could all draw our circles larger? What if I could develop the same attachment, the same sense of identity with the whole Earth and human race that I have with my family and place here in Brooklyn?

I may have been born into a family of Swamp Yankees in the Quinebaug Valley, but I could just as easily have been born in the ghetto or worse. And more than that, this circle of family really is arbitrary, as are these boundaries of town and state and country. I really am related to everyone, and I really don't belong to this piece of land any more than any other.


I picked up pieces of Illinois and Mississipi along the way, and 15 years as a teacher in Mansfield has changed me more than I could have imagined. I am a work in progress, an amalgam of every person and place I've spent significant time with, worked with, related to. Our lives are intertwined.

It's exciting to think of the potential for absorbing pieces of other places and peoples, broadening our "circles." That's what I liked so much about Ramez Naam's awesome book, Nexus, in which he envisioned a drug that could connect people's minds, breaking down the ultimate barrier between people.

As important as family and village and tribe are, we need to somehow move those boundaries and circles out until they encompass it all. Though I am thankful for all my ancestors and homeland instilled in me, I am a citizen of Earth and a member of the human family.

That's also where I'm from.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

What happens when you set students free to learn?

Three times per year, our students present what they've been learning to a panel of parents, peers, and teachers, and I get to sit in on every one. They are called Exhibitions, and they are a huge time requirement for me, but it I love them. They allow me to keep my finger on the pulse of the school and have a focused input into the lives of my students.

Lately, I've spent a lot of time in this blog talking about our struggling students, so I thought I'd highlight a few who are taking full advantage of the independence we offer. The Big Picture model of education is centered on internships and plenty of time for students to pursue independent learning, and at exhibitions, it's that independent learning that really shines.


First, one of our seniors. Here he is, playing a song he wrote. He is studying music theory. In his exhibition, he described the bridge he built for a local park and the mushroom growing project he has been leading with other students. (The mushrooms are in the lower part of the picture.) He recently met with some younger students to talk about using Dungeons and Dragons as the basis for their independent learning projects. It's a unique idea--an example of this young man's desire to help struggling classmates, and it could be a powerful venue for helping them master social skills and other competencies


And then there's this sophomore. He's only been with us one month and already he's a leader-by-example. He's researching artificial intelligence (how cool is that?!) and creative writing techniques. He's an active part of our kitchen crew, which cooks breakfast for the whole school on Friday mornings, and I am super psyched to see what the next two years hold for him!


This senior is a gymnast who has a love for children that just beams out of her. Last year, she did an experiment at her internship in which she tested the effect of active play on the ability of her students to pay attention to lessons afterwards. (I love to see students doing real science!) This fall, she took a course in athletic training at a local community college. In this picture, she is asking us to analyze a photo from Humans of New York. In her advisory, they've been learning about stereotypes and the difference between objective observations and subjective interpretations. She's excited about her advisory's "Humans of UCONN" project coming later this spring. Kudos to her advisor, Shannon, for such a cool idea!


And here's another junior who loves kids. She's been doing great things at her internship at a day care center, running her own little classes and helping to schedule activities. But she has her heart set on a career health care, and she is also pursuing her interest in photography. She also designed the first "Depotwear" this year, and I love the tree logo on the sweatshirt.


And speaking of photography, this sophomore is well on his way. This self-described "audiophile" is into sight as much he is into sound. He interns at a unique photographic studio, where he does everything from framing to developing and enlarging, and on his own time he produces unique portraits of classmates and others.


And this senior is another design-oriented student. She is auditing a set design class at UCONN this spring, and she showed us this cool project she's working on--you can see the black scale model on the table, there.  It's a set for a play that can be viewed from all angles, so the audience could sit anywhere around the stage. She interns at a local school, where she is designing a series of map-based lessons to teach her students to appreciate their diversity. She has a personal interest in minimalist living--especially tiny houses--and her senior paper was about how to go about minimizing waste in your life.

It's great to see students developing their love for learning and discovering their interests, but the main reason I love watching these exhibitions is that it gives me a chance to speak into their lives about their strengths and potential. I can tell them what I see in them--their creativity, their powerful minds, their compassion and passions, maturity, professionalism, and leadership potential.

I try to do this for every student, even those who are struggling or whose exhibitions don't display the same level of independence and drive. I do it in the hope that, with the right supports, they will get there and come into their own as the powerful learners and creators they can be.

And even with the students who already demonstrate a strong desire to learn, our work is not done. There's plenty of room for them to grow in productivity and depth and breadth of knowledge. What they've demonstrated is just the beginning.