Jul 07

For White Teachers in the Time of #BlackLivesMatter

This is a post for white teachers – it doesn’t matter if you teach at predominantly white schools or schools with a majority of students of color. I don’t pretend to have big “A” Answers, but what I hope this post does is help you make sense of the role you play as our nation grapples with one of the most challenging issues of our time – police violence and how that is magnified against African-Americans.

In the past two days, we’ve seen two videos of Black men dying after having been shot by police officers. The videos are almost impossibly hard to watch. We’ve seen the partners and children of these men react to their death – and those videos are nearly as hard to watch as the deaths themselves. These killings are the most recent example of how many people die at the hands of police officers in America — and importantly — how there is deep racial inequity about who dies at the hands of the police. In 2015, 7.27 African-Americans per million were killed by police while 2.93 white Americans per million were killed by police. (http://theguardian.com/thecounted) American police officers kill more people per capita than most other places in the world. And American police kill African-Americans more than they kill anyone else.

And while this racial inequity in US policing is not new at all, the probability that our students have experienced watching the video of seeing people die — possibly not by choice if they have auto-play turned on on Facebook — is a modern phenomenon.

These issues come into our classrooms, whether we acknowledge them or not. And as Pia Martin (among others) reminds us, there is no such thing as passive anti-racism. We, as white teachers, do not have the luxury of pretending the world doesn’t impact our classroom and our students. Whether we choose to directly deal with the issue in our classrooms or not, we have a moral obligation to be caring and thoughtful in our classrooms – especially to those who may be experiencing trauma due to these events. With that, some thoughts on how to be a caring white teacher in these times:

  • I was lucky enough to be a part of a group of amazing educators who came together to write about teaching about issues of state-sanctioned violence after the trial for Jordan Davis’ murder. While some of what we wrote was specific to that case, there is still a great deal there that would be applicable now.
  • Educate yourself. You can look at the hard data — and the stories behind the data — at The Counted – where the Guardian is cataloguing all of the people killed by US police. You can look at a comprehensive proposal for police reform at Campaign Zero. Those are but two of the many sites out there.
  • This is a moment where remembering that we teach students before we teach subjects is incredibly important. If we had school today, you might have students in your class who watched two people die yesterday, who had to have another version of “The Talk” or who had to be reminded of their own experiences with racial profiling and racial violence by police. Be aware of this and be understanding that your lesson on Hamlet, the quadratic equation, Ancient Rome or the past perfect tense of -ar verbs may not be where students are focusing.
  • We don’t have to “be the expert.” In fact, we can’t be. If there was ever a moment to not to be didactic, it’s now. This is a time to listen far more than lecture.
  • Let students know you care about this issue — and that you care about them. Silence really does imply consent in moments like this. You may be at a loss at what to say – many of us are – but saying nothing can be even more chilling.
  • Don’t put the burden of dealing with this on the African-American teachers in your school. All over America today, African-Americans are struggling with these two killings. Asking Black teachers to then also carry this burden in our schools is not only unreasonable, but it’s cruel.
  • Don’t make this only about Black students. This is an American problem that affects all of us. The onus is on all of us to make a better world. In the same way that we should not put the burden on Black teachers, be very aware of any burden we might inadvertently place on Black students.
  • Do not make this about us. It’s not about us. Do not center this issue on how you feel. Use empathy. Share thoughts. Make common cause, but listen deeply and be thoughtful in your responses. There is deep pain here. We must honor that first and foremost.
  • And to that end — Respect boundaries. No one has to talk about these issues. No one has to mine their pain as a classroom experience. If someone trusts us enough to talk about these issues, we must respect that trust, and realize that for many of our students, this is not a dispassionate academic issue. This is something that cuts far too close to home for many students, and we have to respect that and understand how painful this issue can be.
  • And finally, do not say “All Lives Matter” or “Black on Black Crime.” I’ve linked articles explaining why  those words are toxic to this conversation. Please, if this doesn’t automatically ring true, take time to read both.

This isn’t a comprehensive list. This can’t be a step-by-step guide. There is no way to just lesson plan our way through this. But we have to be part of the solution. We cannot assume that others will deal with this, or think that this isn’t an issue that affects our schools. And we cannot leave this issue for African-Americans to try to survive their way through. White teachers, it is time for us to carry our weight and do our part to make sure that all our students understand how important this issue is — and that our Black students feel from us that one societal institution – our schools – are for them, even as the images they’ve seen in these past few days have made many feel that another societal institution – the police – is not.

Jul 06

A Deadly Combination

I’m writing this post from my community pool. That’s significant because I can look out upon this little space and see something all too rare in America. Our little West Philly pool is a truly diverse space, and in my line of sight are multi-racial groups of kids and families playing together. It’s something I probably take for granted too often for how special it is in this country, but in the wake of the death of Alton Sterling, it stands out to me today.

I didn’t know what to say at first. I felt, like others have, frustrated, angry, sad at yet another unnecessary death of a black man at the hands – and guns – of the police. There is, as others have said, an urge to say little. But Damon Young of Very Smart Brothas wrote brilliantly today and urged us again to “So cry new tears. Write new words. Craft new prayers. Attend new marches. Channel new anger. Feel it all again. Every bit of it.” And so I write.

The promise of this country is everywhere. The possibilities and progress is here to be had. But we are a country drunk on racism and drunk on guns.

And together, those two things are a toxicity that will erode the best, most noble ideals of what America can be.

In my line of sight right now are a group of boys of about middle-school age. They are a diverse group of kids playing together in the pool, laughing and enjoying summer as only kids can do. It is easy to lose yourself in that moment and see only the promise, only the good. But outside the walls of this community pool, the rules are much different for the white boys than the boys of color – especially the black boys.

There is a far greater chance that the interactions the black boys will have with the police will end in tragedy than for the white boys.

There is a far greater chance that this nation will tell the black boys what they cannot do than tell the white boys that.

There is a far greater chance that the world will teach the black boys what it means to be hated and feared because of the color of their skin than the white boys.

There is a far greater chance that young black boys will have their lives deeply impacted by gun violence than the white boys.

Alton Sterling died early Tuesday morning at the hands of the Baton Rouge police. The video of his death is beyond difficult to watch. But we don’t need to watch it to know that another black man died at the hands of the police.

We are a nation drunk on guns and drunk on racism. For too many African-American men and women, that has become a deadly combination.

Jun 30

Council of Elders

I’m on the plane back from ISTE 2016, after four days of more powerful conversations that I had a right to expect.

This was my tenth ISTE. There is something incredible about going back, year after year, to a community that has watched me grow up professionally and has watched SLA go from a scrappy little start-up to now three schools and a non-profit working to spread inquiry-based education to a wider array of schools. And this year, what struck me is how many people in this world have become a big part my council of elders over time.

And that’s the idea I want to play with tonight.

A council of elders isn’t necessary the folks who are older than you, but they are the folks whose perspective and wisdom can push your thinking in important ways. They are also the folks who you trust enough not to tell you what you want to hear or allow their words to be colored by their own interests in what you are doing. They are the folks whose lived experiences have given them a window into your life and your challenges that allow you to see yourself through a different lens.  And often, I think, some of the folks on your list have to be the people who aren’t there every day, so they can give you that “step back” perspective that might not be as easy to see to the folks who are in your life day-to-day.

And, most of all, they are the folks who listen well – and know you well.

I think every leader needs her council of elders. They are the folks who keep you honest. They are the folks who can show you a roadmap when you can’t see one. And they are the folks who can get you out of your head long enough to see solutions other than whatever solution you are currently grinding your gears over.

The trick is knowing you have them – and knowing you need them. In the end, having your council of elders is nothing more or less than the collaborative part of reflection. It’s about carving the time to reflect and remembering to have the humility to know that sometimes, we need others to hold the mirrors up to ourselves for us.

It’s too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day to forget all of that. It’s too easy to think that our challenges are so uniquely ours as to not ask for other perspectives. It’s too easy to think that people don’t really mean it when they say, “Call me if you need me.” But none of that is true.

I was reminded this week of how powerful my council of elders is, and how important they are to me. Thanks ISTE for bringing together so many amazing folks. And I’ve got new marching orders for this coming year to remember to check in more often with so many folks.

And, of course, I’ve got to remember to pay it forward, and remind the folks to whom I’ve said, “Call me if you need me,” that I meant it too.

Jul 07

Old Hat, New Hat

[This is a note I just sent to the families of SLA. I present it here – with a more whimsical title that references one of my favorite Dr. Seuss books – to let everyone know what I’ll be up to next school year.]

To the families of Science Leadership Academy,

Science Leadership Academy was founded as a research and development school for the School District. For the past nine years, students and teachers from SLA have worked with hundreds of teachers and principals from the School District and beyond on how to change their practice to be more inquiry-driven and caring educators. Under Dr. Hite’s leadership, the School District of Philadelphia is starting the Innovative Schools Network – a hub for powerful new ideas for schools. As part of this network, dedicated to nurturing new models of education, SLA is well positioned to continue its work as a national leader for creating empowering educational experiences.

Today, Dr. Hite is announcing that my role in the School District of Philadelphia is expanding to oversee the Innovative Schools Network. Beginning August 1, I will serve the students of Philadelphia in a dual capacity – both principal of Science Leadership Academy and Assistant Superintendent of the Innovative Schools Network. And, because there are just so many hours in the day, I am delighted to announce that Aaron Gerwer will join us full-time at SLA as co-principal. Many of you will know Aaron as our principal fellow this past year. It has been a pleasure to see him grow into this new role, and I look forward to partnering with him this coming year.

Working with the students and teachers and families of the Science Leadership Academy continues to be the most rewarding experience of my professional career. The work your children do every day is what inspired the School District of Philadelphia to authorize the foundation of Science Leadership Academy @ Beeber and our upcoming effort, the Science Leadership Academy Middle School.

The work we will now do as part of the Innovative Schools Network is a continuation of the belief in the agency and ability of the students and families of Philadelphia. It is my pleasure to be able to continue to serve as principal of SLA and to now help other school communities serve their students in powerful, modern ways.

Mr. Lehmann

Jun 18

Charleston and Teaching Children

I’ve run out of ways to write about this.

I don’t think I’m going write anything I haven’t said before.

I’m certain that I’m not going to write anything that other people haven’t already said – and said better.

Maybe that doesn’t matter. Maybe the important thing is, simply, that I write.

Last night, a white 21-year-old man walked into a historic African-American church, sat and listened to Bible study for an hour before opening fire – apparently with a gun his father bought him for his birthday – and killing nine members of the congregation including the pastor.

It doesn’t matter if no organized hate group takes “credit” for this heinous action – this was domestic terrorism.

We can not afford, as a nation, to treat the continued hatred, prejudice, and violence against those who do not neatly fit into the dominant paradigm – racially, sexually, religiously – in this country as isolated incidents. To do so is to perpetuate the myth that there’s nothing anyone can do to stop the violence and make a better, more just, world.

As teachers, we have an obligation to teach our children to examine the systems of thought that perpetuate hate and prejudice so that our students can work to change them.

As teachers, we have an obligation to teach all our children that equity and justice are not just the cause of those who face oppression, but the cause of all people who believe in the promise of a better world.

As teachers, we have an obligation to teach all our children that it is not enough to passively hope for change, rather we must speak to the world we wish to create, work for the world we want to see.

Today, I have tried to use social media to speak to the hurt and anger I feel, not because I think I have much to add, but simply because I want all SLA students and families — especially our African-American students — to know that I stand with them. In a moment of tragedy, I would never want any student — especially our African-American students — to have to question for a moment where I stood or if I cared. And I am writing this now in the hope that students know that I never think it is enough for me to exhort them to action, rather that they understand I, too, will use my voice to demand a world where being black no longer means fearing for your safety anywhere you go — even in sanctuary – in church.

Last week, I told our graduates that the world could not wait for their voice, their action, because the problems we face are far too great. Last night, I was reminded how true that really is. Today, I hope that all of us who are lucky enough to teach children remember that we must teach our children to critically analyze the world around them and then have the voice, skill, and courage to be the change our world needs them to be. And today, I hope all of us who would claim the mantle of teacher realize that it is imperative that we model that voice, skill, and courage for them as well.

May 16

On Kindness

“There’s only one rule that I know of, babies—God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

— Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater

Tonight, a bunch of people I know, like and respect shared yet another video on Facebook of someone accidentally making a fool of themselves. The people who shared it were other educators, some SLA students, folks I know from other parts of my life… folks from across the myriad pathways of my life. I can only imagine how many times that video has been seen across the world by now.

For whatever reason, tonight, that made me really sad. I wondered what those people would think if that was their student, their parent, their child, their sibling. We’ve become callous to the people in those videos, to the people behind the screen, and maybe too many of us are callous to the people we see in person every day.

Certainly, Schadenfreude is nothing new. People have long gotten pleasure in the suffering of others. But that doesn’t make it right.

More than anything else in this world, I value kindness – real kindness where we extend ourselves to others simply because we can.

Kindness is more than being nice. Kindness requires empathy. It requires listening. It actually requires asking people what they need – not giving them what we think they need, but listening to their needs and acting upon them.

When we engage in true kindness, we must remove the space between us and those around us. We must learn to not treat people as “The Other.” We must enter into what Martin Buber called the “I and Thou” relationship. And it means we must acknowledge that other people are as important as we are.

I want to live in a world where people think about being kind as a reflex. I want to see schools where students, teachers, administrators are willing to see each other, listen to each other, and treat each other with kindness and care.

I truly believe that if we can build schools that operate first and foremost from a place of kindness that our kids can build a world that does as well. Our students will learn what we teach, what we model, what we live. Could there be anything more powerful than seeing our students go out and change the world to a place where people truly cared for one another?

As Mr. Vonnegut said, “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

Apr 05

Ribe Tuckus

The other day, I actually wrote two blog posts in a single day. Brian Crosby gently teased me that it was like five years ago with my writing output. And a quick look at my blog stats suggests that I used to blog more often than I used to. Part of it is, when I look deep in the archives, I used to write much shorter pieces. But that’s not all of it. Some of it is that I’m writing longer pieces, some of it has been a decision that I made not to write about edu-news as much as I used to.

But I miss writing. It feels good to sit and write. It is, in the end, a powerful reflective tool – and it’s one I need to carve out the time to do more often.

One of my old English teacher books had some great writing guides for students. One of the ones that sticks with me is simply this – “Ribe Tuckus.” It’s Yiddish (and you wonder why it sticks with me) for “Sit down.” And the instructions for that particular writing guide were simple. You simply sat down with your journal and a pen with no distractions and gave yourself the space to write for 10-20 minutes. If you didn’t write, you didn’t write, but you couldn’t do anything but write or not write for whatever the time allotted. Sometimes, just sitting and doing nothing made the writing come after a while. Sometimes, what came out was amazing, sometimes it wasn’t.

So I’m making a commitment to ribe tuckus more. For me, it comes with some good writing music – jazz or Van Morrison often works – and it comes with a commitment not to flip to all the other browser windows that are open. But I am curious what will come out. And I am curious to know how often that writing will turn into a blog post. I’m not committing to making everything a blog post, as I imagine that some of what I will end up writing about will fall under the category of “Things you cannot blog about,” and I imagine that some days, I might stare at a laptop screen without many words. And I even imagine that some of it may just be writing for me – there’s a crazy thought. But I also do want more of these writing journeys to become blog posts. Writing out loud still matters, I think. And, for me, continuing to push my thinking where others can see it matters.

So… I hope folks find whatever comes next on the blog to be interesting. I hope I have the discipline and energy to actually do this. Writing this blog entry is a way to publicly hold myself accountable to actually doing it. I hope this desire to write more isn’t just because I’ve had a few days of Spring Break to actually power down enough to have the space to write.

But maybe springtime is the right time to launch this idea, after all. Maybe this is the time to come out of blog-hibernation and just ribe tuckus and write.


Apr 01

A Modest Proposal

I, like many people, am horrified by the passage of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana. And, as such, I am deeply concerned that the NCAA Final Four is going to be held in Indianapolis this weekend. I was heartened to see that three of the four teams and the NCAA itself have expressed concerns about the law.

But expressing concern isn’t enough. The Final Four is a massive money-making enterprise to the tune of over a billion dollars. And while much of the money made is due to television and advertising revenue, there’s certainly a powerful economic boost to the hosts.

So let’s take that away.

I get it… contracts, flights, hotels, etc… but right is right. Let’s move the game.

Let’s move it to South Philadelphia High School. I’ve spoken with the principal, Otis Hackney. No one is using the gym this weekend. Philadelphia has been a leading city in LGBTQ advocacy. Philadelphia is one of the great sports towns in the country. Let’s make this happen.

And the South Philly High gym has 1100 seats. Granted, that’s smaller, but we could make the seats just for students of the schools and families of players and coaches. We could allocate ten VIP seats for each school so that Ashley Judd could still attend if need be. The country will still watch. The TV cameras will still be there. But the NCAA could make the statement that no contract, no revenue is worth sacrificing the safety, dignity and honor of even one athlete, employee or fan who might be discriminated against during the Final Four.

Think of the message it would send. Think of the pride athletes could take in their schools – in the NCAA. Think of the message it would send to legislatures all over the US (I’m looking at you, Arkansas) that bigotry will not stand – will not be tolerated – and that it will hit you in your pocketbooks over and over again.

Think of the message it would send to teenage LGBTQ athletes who are questioning if their teams, their sports, the very states they live in are safe spaces for them.

South Philly High School is ready to host, NCAA. The ball, literally, is in your court.

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.