Jan 23

The Night Before

I’m going to bed as soon as I hit publish on this post.

I’m going to bed because in about 10 hours, hundreds of educators from all over the continent are going to be showing up at SLA for EduCon. EduCon is a special conference where educators from many different roles within the education world come together to dream big about what education can be. It is, as Ben Herold of EdWeek noted today a vendor-free space to talk about pedagogy.

It’s also a ton of work. EduCon is planned and run by SLA students, parents, teachers and me. The planning starts in August and ended tonight when we proof-read the program one… last… time. And this is our eighth year hosting the conference.

There are moments every year when I think to myself, “We can’t keep doing this.” But we do. And there are some really good reasons for it. So many attendees have told us that EduCon is one of their favorite professional learning of their year. And we at SLA learn a ton as well. It’s kind of wonderful to have an amazing PD experience with brilliant educators from all over the country right in your school. And yes, the conference raises important money for us every year that serves as the start of my fundraising every year as we try to stave off the Philadelphia budget cuts.

But the best reason for us to keep doing EduCon every year is watching the kids see themselves and their school as important voices in the national discussion about the future of education. This evening, as I was answering emails from attendees about the weather forecast, potential dinner spots, travel plans and what have you, dozens of SLA students were setting up classrooms, prepping coffee stations, running last-minute checks on the video feed and prepping their sessions. And I was listening as they talked about being proud of their school and the role it plays.

And that’s why we do it. Because our kids look at all of you who have come to learn with and from them and they realize that they really can help to change the world. EduCon is that moment for many of our students when they prove to themselves that they can be active, authentic agents in the world beyond their school.

As powerful as the learning all the educators will do over the next three days can be, for me, that lesson may be the powerful thing that any of us learn all weekend.

Thank you to all of the hundreds of students, teachers and parents who have worked tireless to prep for EduCon. Thank you to everyone who got in a car, train or plane to come learn with us this weekend. And thank you my co-chairs, Meenoo Rami, Amal Giknis, Julian Makarechi, Alisha Rothwell, Jasmin Gilliam and Zee Driggers for all the time you’ve spent. Thank you to the amazing Diana Laufenberg who came in this week and troubleshot everything so that the weekend would be awesome.

Welcome to EduCon everyone. Welcome to our school.

 

Dec 27

The Larger Problem

In all probability, approximately 300 African-Americans will be killed by the police in 2015. If recent events tell us anything, these deaths will be polarizing, revealing a deep divide in this country about trust in the police in our country. There will be those who will look to explain away each shooting, but to do so is to miss the larger picture of the experience that many people of color – specifically African-Americans – have with the police.

Two weeks ago, an African-American SLA alum had a really scary experience with the police. Not that it should matter, but the young man in question is roughly my height and build, and he is about as un-threatening looking as anyone I know. He’s also a senior in college majoring in pre-med. In short, for anyone who might try to look for a reason to dismiss the following words, there is none save a willingness to see a black face and make ugly assumptions.

His words:

Early this morning on the way home from a friend’s house I was racially profiled. As I was waiting for the bus I begin to see a police car riding pass me, as I continue to wait I notice that this one cop car becomes three cop cars then eventually seven. To avoid an encounter with these officers I begin to walk to the other bus stop. Three cops car then pull up on me with their guns drawn. As the officer approaches me I tell him I’m just waiting for the bus to get home, and he begins to ask me why I’m in this neighborhood and if I lived around there. They begin to ask me questions, and I ask if I am being detained. The officer says no and then proceeds to tell me that I fit the description of someone who committed a crime. When I asked him what the description was he could not answer and simply said that I had to wait because I seemed out of place and to make sure I didn’t commit the crime they suspected me of. As I told the officer that I knew my rights and that if I wasn’t being detained I would like to be on my way, I begin to walk away and he tries to grab me. I told the officer not to touch and he begin to say that I had to stay in front due to probable cause and then when I stated the statue of Pennsylvania which entitles me not to be detained without being charged of a crime I begin to walk away. Literally petrified I begin to record and called a friend to call my parents as more police begin to show up. I ask the police in the light of the recent events in our country that im afraid and on edge for my life. I told them that they should protect me not harass me as I only wanted to get home. The Sergeant is then called and then begins to laugh in my face and become very sarcastic as he says do you really even know the statues. After stating that I knew my rights yet again I walked away and the Sergeant then orders his officers to follow me as he says he just looks like he’s up to something. The police followed me for five blocks, harassing me and talking out there windows until the bus came, and because I do not come from a position of privilege I was subjugated to this type of treatment. What makes it worse is that although I did nothing I felt afraid for my life, I hear my friend’s voice on the phone and I hear that she is calling out my name as she is also scarred because she believed that they would hurt me. This hurts more than you could ever imagine but I refuse to take injustice standing down, I refuse to be treated differently because my skin color doesn’t fit that of the predominantly white neighborhood, while I refuse to succumb to increased force and fear tactics used because they label my appearance as thuggish.

Sadly, his story is nowhere near uncommon. I’ve heard versions of this stories from young men and women of color for years. And it is the stories like this that sit just beneath the surface of the #BlackLivesMatter and #ICantBreathe protests. If the fact that a young black man is 28 times more likely to die at the hands of a police officer is not enough to push this discussion, it is the frightening effects that experiences like the one above have on millions of black men and women. It is that an Ivy League educated, former professional athlete, now ESPN commentator, can be racially profiled in his own driveway, or that, years ago, when I was among a diverse group of friends, I had to have a friend explain to me what getting pulled over for DWB was… and that when it was explained to me, every non-white head nodded in agreement, or that the willingness by the mayor of New York City to suggest that there is a problem results in hundreds of police officers turning their backs when he speaks at a police funeral that should tell us that we must face this problem head on as a nation.

There are steps we must take to decrease the number of times police officers use lethal force, as the evidence suggests that lethal force is used more often when the suspect is a person of color. To me, that conversation must happen. However, there is another, perhaps even more important, conversation that has to happen around policing in our nation, and that is the unequal methods of policing that happens in this nation.

Much has been made of the difference between races in a recent Gallup poll about confidence in the police nationally, where 61% of whites and 34% of blacks expressed confidence in the police. And while that gap is significant and speaks to the very different realities that exist in America, to me the larger point of that poll is that, overall, only 57% of Americans have confidence in the police. That speaks to a growing problem that we, as a nation, no longer have faith in a fundamental institution of our society.

It is often said that America is a nation of laws. For our nation to thrive, there must be a common belief that the system by which those laws are enforced is, on the whole, fair, otherwise, we have a sickness as a nation that will slowly — if not quickly — poison our national identity. If we, as a nation, are to move to a place where we do have faith in our system of laws, we must address the problem that those laws are enforced unequally, and that there are those who are charged with enforcing those laws who do so in a way that springs from the worst of what we are and have been as a nation, not from the best of what we are and can be as a nation.

We must, as a nation, recognize that the anger and protests around #BlackLivesMatter are about the many African-American deaths at the hands of police that we have seen, but it is about more than that – it is, fundamentally, about whether or not America can – at long last – recognize that it has long been an unjust and racist nation, and that maybe, at long last, we are ready to face our history and our present, so that we can, in the future, be the nation we have long sought to be.

To miss this opportunity would mean we, as a nation, are unwilling to see the larger problem.

Dec 05

Connect the Dots

Too many people, it seems, want to look at the many tragic events of the past year as isolated incidents, but it strikes me that, as teachers and as citizens, if we are to make sense of who we are as a nation right now, we must step back and see these events not as isolated, but as part of a larger system.

In short, if we are to be honest with ourselves, we must connect the dots.

And so…

When a young black man is killed by a self-appointed neighborhood vigilante and the killer is not convicted…

When a white police officer shoots an unarmed black teenager six times and is not even indicted for use of excessive force…

When a white police officer chokes an unarmed black man, causing his death, and is not indicted on any charges…

When a twelve-year-old African-American boy holding a toy gun is shot by a white police officer within two seconds of arriving on the scene…

When the unemployment rate for African-Americans is double that of white Americans…

When African-Americans are arrested for marijuana possession at three times the rate of white Americans despite having nearly the same usage rate as white Americans…

When the governor of Pennsylvania can cut hundreds of millions of dollars from the budget of the School District of Philadelphia, disproportionately affecting over one hundred of thousand of children of color and exacerbating the per pupil spending gap between Philadelphia and the majority white suburbs…

When those cuts can leave Philadelphia schools without nurses, causing the death of a young African-American girl...

When the net worth of the average white family is six times higher than a non-white family…

When marketing of sub-prime loans are targeted toward black families, continuing decades of systemic denial of the acquisition of property — and thus wealth — for black families…

When the percentage of black Americans living in poverty is more than twice the rate of white Americans living in poverty…

When every national economical, social and educational crisis I can think of disproportionately hurts African-Americans comparatively to white Americans, then the anger and frustration we are seeing in the protests is put into a context far greater than a single precipitating event. When we step back and understand that the rate of racial progress in this county has been haltingly slow at best, we understand why many people are demanding to be heard when they — when we — say that America must face that we nowhere even close to being a post-racial society, that the structural racial inequities and injustices of our nation are far from over.

And when we think of the responsibility we have as educators to help our students critical analyze our nation and our world, we must not be afraid to, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, “reckon with our compounding moral debts,” so that our children can build a better world than the one we have left them.

And when we examine structure after structure, statistics after statistic, we must understand why it is imperative that we say, over and over again, that #BlackLivesMatter.

We simply have to connect the dots.

Nov 20

Curriculum Design – Putting the Horse Before the Cart

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how we at SLA and SLA@Beeber can keep improving on the way we teach. I am lucky enough to work with people who are incredibly reflective and thoughtful practitioners who are truly working toward being masters of their craft. Part of my job, then, is to help them get there together, which involves trying to set up structures that make it easier to engage in reflective practice together. It perhaps feels even more urgent right now as we have one campus that has been growing together for nine years and a second campus that is still in its infancy, and I’d like to think that the nine years of work we have done at Center City campus could and would accelerate the learning curve at Beeber campus.

So, as I reflect on our work, I am so incredibly awed by the amazingly thoughtful project-based work that I see in our classes, and to a person, every teacher really does powerful work around designing meaningful projects for our kids to engage in. But I still see moments where the day-to-day work could embody the core values and the ideas of student voice and student choice more deeply. But how do we get there?
We’re going to spend some time looking at daily lesson plans.

As a staff – and as the leader of SLA – we and I have focused more on unit design than lesson design. For me, the ideas of backward design, infused with our core values and a common rubric for all projects, has been the focus. And in my own life as a teacher, I’ve been deeply skeptical of those folks who focus on “tricks” for the daily lesson plan because I didn’t see it as being in service of a larger vision. But SLA has that larger vision, and we have full buy-in and amazing work done on that larger vision, so we’re in a really interesting moment to be able to now refocus on lesson planning with a specific end in mind – a deepening of our inquiry-driven, project-based culture of learning.

So in December, we’re going to launch a week of lesson planning work (Thursday to Wednesday, to coincide with our faculty workshops) where we all craft lesson plans for every day, answering prompts designed to get us to unpack the decisions we make every day. A few of us are working on the prompts, but they’ll include things like:

  • How is the work of the day relevant and powerful to the lives our kids lead now?
  • How are our five core values in play today?
  • Are there moments where the grade-wide essential questions can be accessed by the students?
  • How are you enabling the most number of students to take an active role in the class today?
  • Where is there space for all student’s voices today? What mechanisms are in place to enable all students to engage meaningfully with the work?
  • How are you creating meaningful opportunities for student choice today?

The goal will then be to unpack our answers to these questions together on a Wednesday afternoon so that we can look at the techniques we use to further our craft. It’s my hope that we can learn from each other different techniques and strategies that allow us to further deepen the best ideals we hold as a school.

I admit – as an educator, I have favored working on the big concepts and vision and, as such, unit planning and curriculum design always felt like where our energies were best spent. Moreover, too much of what I see out there about teaching strategies felt like tricks to get the kids to learn and often didn’t feel like they were in service of a specific and meaningful pedagogical vision. It felt, in short, like putting the cart before the horse.

But I’m interested to see where we go with this experiment. I think we’ve got our horse squarely in front. We at SLA know what we believe, and we know what we are working toward every day. I’m curious to see what we learn if we, as a faculty, atomize down to the daily lesson plan and, together, unpack our practice and learn together.

I’ll keep you posted.

Nov 18

Don’t Make Presentation Day the Worst Day

When I was in the classroom as a project-oriented, I always struggled with Presentation Days. You know those days… it’s at the end of a long cycle of project-making when the students get up in front of the class, one after the other, and present their projects.

And, let’s face it, it often bores the living snot out of the kids — and the teachers.

And the frustrating thing is that can happen even when the projects the kids created are really cool. But too often, Presentation Days consist of 8 to 10 (or more) groups coming up and giving very similar styled presentations about their projects, each about 5-10 minutes long, and before you know it, your class and you have sat through a period or two of being talked at from the front of the classroom. As a teacher, I did this to the kids more times than I’d care to admit.

And the funny thing is, I’d never make my students listen to lecture for that long from me.

Presentation is a skill — and it’s not one that schools teach all that often explicitly. And before we subject our students to another day of half-listening to their peer’s projects, we should think about how we frame the act of presentation, the art of listening, and thoughtful presentation design that minimizes boredom.

Some thoughts on creating meaningful end of project cycle experiences, then…

Class structure:

There are ways to have students get the full effect of other students’ work without a parade of PowerPoint presentations at the front of the room –

Read-arounds – where each group/person has to read the work of two other groups/people and write a response. Using a learning management system can make this process transparent for everyone as well.

Teach-in stations – where students go from station to station and at each station, students are presenting work and doing a poster-session style presentation. Do this in thirds where there are three rounds of poster session and each group presents once and walks around twice. You can have students fill out exit tickets of things they learned from other students’ presentations – again, if that’s done online, it can then create a shared compendium of student learning and reflection.

Critique / Gallery Walk- take a page from the art world, and have the work either digitally or physically available to all members, and have them go from piece to piece and give feedback. (Even digitally, this can be fun to do in physical space so that students can get up and move around.)

There are ways to make the front of the room more exciting too – and there will be times when you want every student / group to do a presentation to the entire class:

Ignite-style: A sense of urgency is an awesome thing, and the Ignite style presentation (20 slides that auto-advance every 15 seconds) makes for a fast-paced, fun presentation that communicates ideas powerfully with a sense of energy and purpose.

Multiple manifestation of presentations: Give students the options of how they want to present – skits, simulations, videos, even PowerPoint, poster – there are many ways to communicate ideas to a crowd, and students should have the opportunity to experiment with multiple modalities. Often, SLA teachers still have students hand in a more comprehensive paper with the presentation so students can go into more depth as well.

Mini-lessons: If one of the purposes of having students present their projects is to teach their classmates, then why not have students actually create a lesson plan on how to teach their material? Students can create more progressive lesson plans for how to teach their students about what they have learned, complete with creating learning activities for their fellow students.

These are just some of the many ways to make the presentations of student work far more powerful as learning moments than having students lecture their classmates. I’ve seen SLA teachers and students create incredible learning experiences for each other using these techniques and many more. Much like every other part of project-design and inquiry-driven curriculum-design, thoughtful planning of Presentation Day on the front end will make for far more powerful learning when the day arrives.

Nov 16

How Does Your School Deal with Student Trauma?

[Just a reminder… EduCon is in a few short months! We’ve got an incredible line-up of sessions! Register today!]

I’m writing this from a hotel room in Philadelphia because my family can’t stay in my house right now due to a rather massive plumbing issue. It is, for our family, a really annoying disruption that has thrown all our routines — including those of Jakob and Theo’s homework — out of whack. And I am a creature of habit, used to working at night in the chair in my office. It’s one of the ways I make my life make sense – routine – and all of them feel very disrupted right now.

Now, all of that being said, we’re fine. We’ll be back in our house in a couple of days, and the damage done will be fixed a few days after that. We have the resources – financial, social, etc… – to make this only annoying. But even with all of the resources to deal with it, it has me feeling really off my game. I’m behind on my to-do list, I’ve had nowhere near my usual level of focus on SLA, and I’m frustrated.

We have kids in our classrooms who deal with far worse every day – and do we create the space for them to thrive at school, even when little about the rest of their lives are stable, safe or easy?

I worry that in many schools, there are not systems in place to recognize the challenges of trauma and stress outside of school place on our students. I worry that many schools don’t have the systems in place to a) learn when students are struggling with issues of hunger, homelessness, divorce, abuse to name a few, b) appropriately communicate issues to teachers, and c) create policy that creates school as safety net, rather than being another stress point in a child’s life.

This is another example of what it means to understand the difference between “I teach math,” and “I teach kids math.” Schools need to help students deal with trauma while also helping them to assess the most important work that needs to be done. Teaching kids how to manage stress and trauma is as much a part of being a fully realized citizen and person of the world as anything that appears on the Common Core list of standards.

Schools need to have systems and structures in place to help students through the challenges they face. For us at SLA, it begins with our Advisory system so that every student has an advocate and a safe space. It allows us to create the space for students and teachers to see each other as whole people who can celebrate success and deal with challenges together. Do we learn everything that we should about what kids are dealing with? Probably not. Do we always do as well as we should at figuring out how to mitigate the stress of the work of SLA when kids are in pain from the rest of their lives? Probably not. Do we always remind ourselves to see the student in front of us and remember their lives exist far beyond our walls? We certainly try.

All it took for me to feel out of sorts and off my game as principal was a plumbing emergency that displaced my family for a few days. It made me think about all the kids at SLA who are dealing with so much more. It behooves all of us who teach kids to ask ourselves — how do we ensure that our school has humane systems for helping students who are facing trauma?

Oct 04

The Kids Are As Smart As You

Back when I was in the classroom full-time, a student paid me what I thought was about the best compliment I’d ever been paid as a teacher.

“Mr. Lehmann, other teachers try to prove to us how smart they are. We know you’re really smart, but in your class, you’re always making us feel that we’re as smart as you. Thank you.”

The coolest thing about being an educator is and should be that you get to spend your life with amazing young people every single day. And if you do it right, you get to view the world through their eyes and listen as they explain their views of the world to you and to their classmates.

When we do that, we learn about how many different views on the world there are, and that, no matter how smart you may think you are as a teacher, the kids bring ideas and intelligences and experiences that are every bit as powerful and important — and smart — as your own. And when we listen with an open mind, an open heart, and a true excitement for those ideas and experiences, we model social learning in the best possible way – by learning from our students.

Learning how to listen hard to the kids is a skill we all need to practice every day. From Zac Chase I learned the difference between “What do you mean?” and “Say more….” The second opens the door to more than just explanation, but to a deepening of the ideas, which – I have learned – can be infinitely more powerful.

And when we listen deeply to all our students, we open ourselves up to the powerful intelligence that exists in every classroom. We honor the wisdom and intelligence of the room when we build communities of practice where everyone – students and teachers alike – are better and smarter for the fact that they all have spent the time together.

The power of a classroom should never been that kids walk away thinking about how smart their teacher is… the power of a classroom is best when the students walk away with the confidence of knowing how smart and capable they — and all their classmates — are.

Aug 24

American History — American Story

Matt Baird teachers SLA-ers 11th grade American History. He and I sat down this summer to think about how he could re-frame American History so that we could create an even more direct sense of urgency on why American history can be such a powerful field of study for high school students. Both of us believe that we teach history so that kids can make sense of the world they live in, and therefore, be more informed and active and engaged citizens of that world. That’s not exactly a revolutionary concept, and there are many, many social studies teachers who share that view.

So if that is one of the primary underlying tenets for teaching the class, the question becomes how do you structure the class to engender that sense of urgency? We tossed around this idea, with the idea that the 11th grade theme at SLA is “Change” —

What if we started an American History class with an analysis of the present day? What if we asked students to examine present day society through several intersecting lenses such as the political lens, the demographic lens, the economic lens and the geo-political lens. Kids could start the year reading commentary on the world we live in now from a variety perspectives. That opening unit could serve as frame to now examine our history. Then, as the class dove into our country’s history, there would be a deep context for always examining the events of the past through the lens of questioning how that has shaped the nation we are today. I could even imagine a culminating unit where students had to look forward with a vision of where we are going from here and how and why.

I think – I hope – a class with this frame would deeply communicate the idea of active history for students, and it would solve the classic problem of the American History class that treats American History as stopping sometime between World War II and the Civil Rights Movement. And most importantly, I think the class could – done right – center on the students themselves. A class like this is not about the dusty dates of history, but about their lives – our lives – our country today, seen through the lens of time.

Thoughts?

Aug 23

Community

[This probably isn’t all that different from some things I’ve written before, but right now, I’ve thinking about many edu-things through the lens of what we see going on in Ferguson, and while I am not naive enough to think that school can single-handedly fix what is broken in America right now, I also think that schools can do much more to create spaces that do not exacerbate the problems we are seeing.]

This week, the SLA@Beeber staff was working together as our second cohort of teachers were learning about the philosophies and systems and structures that inform what we do at SLA. We were talking about advisory and how we try to look at student behavior through a therapeutic lens, rather than a punitive. One of our teachers who is coming from a very different school, and she talked about what a different frame of reference that was for her, because at her old school, it felt like students were suspended for every minor infraction. We were talking about what it meant for every student to have an advocate (their advisor) who could work with the student to navigate the often challenging world of high school, and how we all have to work to create the kind of community where everyone takes care of everyone – students, teachers – everyone. We were talking about what it means when everyone is known, where people truly know one another.

And it struck me that was what was one of the things that was missing in Ferguson. Now, I am not Pollyanna enough to think that if we just all held hands and cared about each other, all that went wrong in Ferguson – institutional racism, abuse of power, fear, militarization of the police… just to name a few – suddenly goes away. There are deep societal and policy issues that need to examined and changed to greatly reduce the chances that what we are seeing in Ferguson – from the changing racial demographics that did not result in a change in political power dynamics, to Mike Brown’s death, to the police reaction to the anger and grief of that town, to the national polls that suggest a wider-than-we-want-to-admit divide between how whites and blacks are viewing every aspect of what has happened.

But also missing was a lack of care – a lack of being known. What if Ferguson had a community policing program where Darren Wilson wasn’t in his car, but was on foot in the neighborhood and knew Mike Brown? Would this have played out the same way? What if the police had thought for a moment about the deeply traumatic effect leaving Mike Brown’s body uncovered in the street for hours would have on the community? What if there had been any thought given to the effect of snipers and military tanks rolling through the streets in the name of order? What if anyone thought about what it does to the humanity of all involved to turn a police force into an occupying army?

I don’t have answers to those questions. I can’t imagine many do. But I want to live in a world where those questions are asked before, not after, tragedy.

And then I start to think about school. I think about how in many schools – especially schools where the majority of children are kids of color and are poor – there exists the educational equivalent of “shoot first, ask questions later.” The message that the citizens of Ferguson received both in the killing of Mike Brown and near martial law that was enforced in the days after his death is communicated in so many of the schools like the one our new teacher described.

It is communicated when suspensions are the first response to any problem.

It is communicated when students of color are suspended at rates far higher than white students.

It is communicated when schools house thousands of kids in a building, and there’s no guarantee that a student who connects with a teacher one year will ever do more than pass that teacher in the hall from time to time for the rest of their time.

It is communicated when teachers have teaching loads of over 150 kids, so that the chance of knowing a child beyond being a student in a seat in a cinder block classroom is reduced even further.

It is communicated when teachers pass off disciplinary problems to a dean or an assistant principal or a school police officer who then simply deals with “the problem,” because listening and responding therapeutically is time-consuming and hard and messy, and the pink slip and the suspension form take less time to fill out.

It happens everywhere the policies and procedures and actions of a school send the message to students that the content of the curriculum is more important than the content of the student’s character.

We can change that. That is within our control.

We can all redouble our efforts to make schools humane and human places where students are known and cared for. We can build the systems and structures that enable students and teachers to talk to one another. We can create policies — and carve out the time — that make it possible for teachers to see students for who they are, to understand the flawed, wonderful people they are and can be, and to understand that there are more ways to deal with the mistakes that kids make than suspensions and the criminalization of non-criminal behaviors.

These are things we should do because they are the right things to do. They are not easy, nor are they silver bullets that will magically cure what ails us. But they might help. And they can’t hurt. And as we continue to watch the events of Ferguson unfold, as educators, it is incumbent upon us to think about how we can help the next generation do better than we have done, and help them see the prospects of a better world than the one in which we currently live.

Doing a better job of caring for one another in schools might be one good place to start.

Aug 13

What Do We Teach When Kids Are Dying? #MichaelBrown

[After the trial where the man who killed Jordan Davis was not found guilty of his murder, a group of amazing educators and education activists (I was lucky to be one of the folks involved) came together to create a teaching guide for talking about Jordan Davis’ killing and the trial that followed. Many of the resources — and equally as important, the frameworks for thinking about creating curriculum — are equally applicable for creating conversations and curriculum around talking about Mike Brown. And we need to talk about Mike Brown.]

When I heard that Mike Brown was shot – unarmed, multiple times – by a police officer, my thoughts immediately went to the many stories I have heard over the years from my students of color about their experiences with the police. Their stories are not monolithic, and I have students of color who are the sons and daughters of police officers who often bring a different lens to these conversations, but overwhelmingly, the conversations I have heard have spoken to a deep level of distrust and fear between students of color and the police.

With the acquittal of George Zimmerman in Trayvon Martin’s death, with Michael Dunn not getting convicted of murder in Jordan Davis’ death and now with Mike Brown’s death, many of SLA’s students of color have come to the understandable conclusion that the systems of American justice – from the police to the courts – are not there for them. Clearly, there are too many statistics that support that conclusion.

And the reaction of the authorities in Ferguson, MO since Mike Brown was shot by a police officer despite being unarmed has looked more like a police state than anything I can remember in America in my lifetime. All over the country, students are on social media asking – what kind of country does this to its own citizens?

For me, both the shooting of Mike Brown the actions of the government to Mike Brown’s killing has made me think of my grandfather. My grandfather escaped Germany in the 1930s, because he saw the writing on the wall and saw that his country was no longer safe for him. When I was young, I remember my grandfather saying to me, “You must remember that you are a Jew before you are an American, because when Jews forget that, Jews die.”  And I think about the many parents and students of color who have talked to me about “the talk” — what to do if a young black man or woman are ever confronted by the police. And I think about how we live in a country where — especially if you cannot pass for white (which I, for example, can most often do) — the rules you live by are different. You are not simply American, you are a Hyphen-American, and for you, the rules are different and not as just. And, much like my grandfather said to me over thirty years ago, if you forget that fact, you can die.

So what do we do as educators? What is our role? For to pretend that this does not enter our classrooms, our schools, is to run the risk of allowing ourselves to be complicit in the system that left Mike Brown’s body in the street for hours. How we teach, how we frame this issue with students is incredibly difficult and complex, and so many of the resources, ideas and suggestions created after Jordan Davis’ killer was not convicted of murder are appropriate again. It is incredibly daunting to think about how we frame this issue in our classrooms, but that cannot be the reason for educators to shy away from it. And, if nothing else, now is a moment where educators need to listen deeply to students who need to express what they are feeling.

And what I have learned in my time at SLA is that when I am struggling with hard questions myself, that those questions are the ones we can ask as a community. Perhaps now is a moment for educators to ask hard questions about our country. Some questions I’ve been asking myself, without great answers lately.

  • What happens to a society that seemingly has one set of rules for one race and another set of rules for everyone else?
  • What happens when too many people lose faith in the government’s ability / will / desire to actually keep people of color safe?
  • What happens when too many people feel that the dream is not accessible to them?
  • What is the role of the police in a civil society?
  • If a society becomes more militarized in the name of “safety” and “security,” is it any wonder that those who were already feeling the effects of disenfranchisement and racism would bear the brunt of the increasing militarization of its police force?
  • How do we get better than this?
  • How do we become a more just society?
  • How do we not lose hope?
  • How do we close the gap between the best ideals of America and the reality that we see around us every day?

I have had to say much the same thing before. I will keep saying it until I don’t have to say it anymore. Mike Brown’s death must serve to remind us that there is no such thing (to quote SLA teacher Pia Martin) as passive anti-racism. His death — and the police state that Ferguson, MO has become since his death — must remind us that institutional racism is the norm in this country and therefore we have to actively work to do better. This must remind us that we are nowhere near being the country we need to be for our citizens of color — and, therefore, for all of us.