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.