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 25

Teaching as Hope

Last night, the American system of justice let our country down.

Michael Brown’s death deserved a public reckoning in our judicial system. I wrote this last night on Facebook as part of a conversation on my page:

An indictment would have meant that there would have been a trial, in full public display, so that the public could hear testimony. An indictment – even of excessive force – would have made it clear that the responsibility we place in our police is one of the most serious and solemn trusts we have.

“We ask that you keep us safe.” That’s what we ask our police. And, yes, we ask them to go into dangerous situations every day and do things that I, frankly, could not do. But with that solemn trust comes incredible responsibility. And an indictment tonight would have sent a message that when police violate that trust – regardless of the race of the police officer and regardless of the race of the victim – there needs to be a full investigation in full light of day.

Michael Brown’s parents — and we as Americans — were denied that right tonight. 

I, along with many others across our country, woke up this morning angry and frustrated. For me, I admit, I was feeling more than a little defeated too.

And then I went to school. At this point, there didn’t need to be an email to all the teachers to tell them it was o.k. — and important — to talk about Ferguson in classes. Sadly, after Trayvon Martin… after Jordan Davis… after too many tragedies… SLA teachers know that we are a school where we talk about what needs to be talked about. Teachers were checking in with each other, making sure that kids had the chance to talk about Ferguson. Kids were seeking out their advisors to talk about it one on one when classroom discussions weren’t what was needed. Kids even sought out their principal.

We talked today. We talked about how we felt. We all did a lot of listening. We cried. We hugged. Some folks debated respectfully. Other folks just needed to say how they felt. And some people just needed to be a student today – and that was o.k. too. We were, in the best ways, deeply human today.

And we talked a lot about what it meant to have a space like SLA where we could come together. It is, for so many of us there, our safe space. It is the place we come together to make sense of the world together. It is the place that gives me hope.

We talked about that idea a lot today. We talked a lot about what to do next… about how we can, as a society, make a better world. I told every student who talked to me about that today that SLA was my best answer to the question of how to make a better, kinder, more just world. And I told them all that now, all of them — and my own two boys as well — were my best hope for a better world. We talked about how, if SLA matters to them, then they have the responsibility to spread the mindset that the teachers and students come to school with every day where ever they go in the world.

I woke up today feeling hopeless and defeated. I spent the day around 500 young people and 30 adults who give me hope every day. I’m going to finish this post and go to bed, knowing that tomorrow I will be with them again. And we will struggle to make sense of the world around us. And we will push each other to be the best versions of ourselves. And we will – together – work to make the world just a little bit better because we happen to live in it together.

And that gives me hope.

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.

Feb 16

Again.

Jordan Davis – a 17-year-old young black man – was shot and killed by Michael Dunn – a 47-year-old white man.

This is not in dispute.

Jordan Davis was shot and killed by Michael Dunn.

And while Michael Dunn was convicted several of the charges against him, he was not convicted of the murder of Jordan Davis.

It happened again.

I think of the many young black men I teach and have taught who could have been Jordan Davis… who could have been Trayvon Martin… and those are the cases that made the New York Times, and be sure, there are too many that did not penetrate mainstream consciousness.

I think of the many conversations I have had with students of color who have talked to me about “Walking While Black” and the many struggles my students face on a daily basis.

I want to write about how Tuesday we will go back to work at SLA at trying to do the work of listening to each other, of trying to make our corner of the world better, of talking explicitly about issues of race and how they affect us all.

I admit that right now it is hard to do that. Right now, I simply feel for Jordan Davis and his family. I simply worry about my kids — the ones I teach and the ones who are mine — who grow up in a world where this can happen.

But that is right now.

Tuesday, I will redouble my efforts to teach the world we live in.

This verdict must serve to remind us that there is no such thing (to quote SLA teacher Pia Martin) as passive anti-racism. This verdict must remind us that institutional racism is the norm in this country and therefore we have to actively work to do better. This verdict 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.

 

Oct 10

Dear Gov. Corbett – How Many Kids Must Die?

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

Laporshia Massey died on September 25th after having an asthma attack at school. According to the article in City Paper, it was close to the end of the day, the school called home for advice, and dad told his daughter that they’d deal with it when she got home. She got home, and Dad realized how serious the problem was, and rushed her to the hospital. It wasn’t enough, and Laporshia died later that day.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

Bryant Elementary doesn’t have a full-time nurse, and the 25th wasn’t one of the days their nurse was staffed at their school. The school called home, a teacher drove her home at the end of the day, so it is not as if the school did nothing. And in case anyone thinks they could have / should have seen this tragedy coming, you should know how hard it is as a lay-person to make the call to call 911.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this. But you should be outraged by it.

I read the article and thought about the many times we’ve had kids in crisis, and I have had to make the judgement call to call 911 or not because we don’t have a full-time nurse for our school of 490 kids. In many of the cases where it hasn’t been obvious to call, I did what the school did, I called the parents. I tried to explain to the best of my ability what I was seeing with their child, and then I tried to work with the parents to make an informed decision about what to do. After one of those times, I was reviewing the case the next day my school nurse was in, and ever since then, I’ve included calling her for a consult as part of my procedure, but I didn’t think of that until she told me. But even if part of the procedure was that every principal had a nurse at another school on speed dial, that wouldn’t change how important it is to have a school nurse every day.

I’ve been a coach for many years. I’m CPR and First Aid certified. I’m a parent myself. I have a pretty good head on my shoulders. And yet, I am scared to death that I will make the wrong call one day. At the height of the School District budget, we had a nurse three days a week. With the cuts we have endured over the past several years, we are down to two days a week. We have medically fragile children. We have dozens of kids with asthma. And three days a week, I – with my First Aid and CPR certification and my Masters Degree in English Education – am the person responsible for making the decision if a child needs to go to the Emergency Room.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

And while the nursing services have gotten worse in the current budget crisis, this is a long-standing problem for Philadelphia District schools for a long time. Our city schools have been under-resourced for years, which makes the current crisis all the more painful.


View Larger Map

The arterial road you see in that map is City Line Avenue. It is, quite literally, the city line of Philadelphia. Above Philadelphia is Lower Merion School District. One of its two high schools is Harriton HS. Harriton HS has 1188 kids and four full-time nurses. Science Leadership Academy has 490 kids, and we have a nurse two days a week. This year, the average per pupil expenditure in Philadelphia hovers just under $10,000 per child while Lower Merion is able to spend over $25,000 per child. The way we fund schools in this state is criminal, and it has to change.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this.

The way we fund schools in Pennsylvania quite possibly cost Laporshia Massey her life, and yet Governor Corbett is holding up $45 million dollars of state money until he gets the work rule concessions he wants from the teachers’ union. $45 million dollars translates into 400 more professional employees (teachers, counselors and nurses) to work with our kids. When schools have no counselors, when schools don’t have full-time nurses, that is the equivalent of blackmail.

And it has cost at least one young woman – Laporshia Massey – her life. I wonder if Governor Corbett even knows that she died.

You aren’t allowed to be surprised by this. But you better be outraged by it.

Aug 01

Trayvon, Creating ‘The Other’ and the Cover of the Rolling Stone

[It has taken me a while to find the mindspace to write coherently about this. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this, and while I don’t think my thoughts are anywhere near fully evolved on this yet, I think I need to take some time to write about it, if I am going to be able to push my own thinking. Thanks to Jose Vilson and Bob Dillon for being early readers of this, and thanks to the summer tech girls at SLA for talking through some of these ideas with me.]

I, like many of us, been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin lately. One of the quotes that resonated more deeply than any other was the priest who said, “I want to live in a world where George Zimmerman offered Trayvon Martin a ride home.”

That’s the world I want to live in too. To do that, Zimmerman would have had to have seen Trayvon as a young man out in the rain, not as a threat. He would have had to seen his humanity first and foremost. He would have had to have been willing to see the young black man in a hoodie as something different than a threat… something different than “the other.” He clearly didn’t, and in my opinion, George Zimmerman’s unwillingness to see the shared humanity between two people – regardless of race – set in  motion the tragic — and yes, in my mind, criminal — events that unfolded that night.

I also have been thinking a lot about the Rolling Stone cover story about the young men who are responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings. More than anything else, what I think is perhaps truly troublesome to me about the story — and about the events of that tragic day — is that this was American terrorism. These two brothers were American kids. They had, in their upbringing, as much — if not more — in common with Timothy McVie as they did with the 9/11 bombers.

What happened to them? Why did a young man who grew up in Cambridge, MA as a seemingly ‘normal’ American teenager become a bomber? What happened such that he turned against the only country he really knew? When did he stop believing in the American Dream for himself and his family? And why? And how could he believe that a radical terrorist act, mere miles from his home, was the right thing to do?

And let me be clear here – the Boston Marathon bombers are no more a victim than George Zimmerman was. Both took a lens on the world that allowed them to see people they did not know as “other” and that allowed them to commit horrible acts. The Boston Marathon bombers made a decision that “American” meant that any runner in that Boston Marathon was guilty of crimes against the Muslim world and therefore deserved anything they got. George Zimmerman believed that “Young, Black Male” meant Trayvon Martin was up to no good, and therefore had to be stopped. Both need to be held accountable for their actions.

Both George Zimmerman and the Boston Marathon bombers felt justified in their actions because they refused to see the fundamental humanity of the people their actions would impact. Both George Zimmerman and the Tsarnaev brothers showed no empathy for people who were different than they were.

Both were powerfully and tragically wrong.

If we, as a nation, do not start to do a better job of bridging the divide between peoples… if we do not do a better job of enfranchising the disenfranchised… if we do not re-invest in ensuring that the American Dream is inclusive rather than “I got mine,” we will see more and more Jahars and we will see more Zimmermans. And while I believe that both Jahar and Zimmerman need to be punished for the actions that they undertook that caused the loss of life, I also believe we need to ask ourselves what kind of society we live in that creates the conditions that allows people to ignore the fundamental humanity of those around them, and instead reach for violence.

For me, that happens when, as a society, we too often react with fear and abandon hope.

And where this really has been resonating with me is this… as a society, are we teaching fear, lack of empathy and loss of hope?

Think of all the young African-American men and women who are learning a powerful lesson from the Trayvon Martin case — that the United States justice system will not serve them, and ask if they are learning the next lesson — that the United States will not take care of them.

Think of the young men and women who have come to this country, brought by parents before the children could choose, and think of the vitriolic rhetoric against the DREAM Act where US Congressmen state that “For every valedictorian, there are 100 drug dealers,” and ask yourself whether those young men and women believe that this country will take care of them.

Think of the young men and women in rural America who have seen their local economies dry up as we have not replaced the working-class jobs that once existed, and think of the political rhetoric that suggests that they must “defend” what they have against those who would take it away, and ask yourself whether those young men and women seeing a nation that is taking care of them.

Think of the many young men and women who are working at a minimum wage that, according to McDonalds, is a living wage as long as you are willing to work 75 hours a week, forego heating, and find health insurance for less than $20 / month.

Think about a generation that is growing up where 80% of the population fears joblessness, and the divide between rich and poor grows wider and wider.

Think of all the kids in our cities who go to under-funded schools, who watch their parents struggle to survive on sub-standard wages… think about how many indignities our children suffer…

And now ask… are we creating the next-generation of home-grown terrorists?

Are we creating a generation of kids who do not believe that America believes in them? And if so, what will some of them do? And how many Trayvon Martins have to die, how many Boston Marathon-style bombings do we have to endure before we ask ourselves what are the systems at work in our society that are creating this kind of fear, hatred and disenfranchisement?

I have been thinking a lot about MLK lately… thinking that we need both sides of his message right now… we need to increase the amount of love *and* the amount of justice in this world… and we need to understand that if we don’t, people from across the wide spectrum of America are going to get their needs met…

By any means necessary.

Mar 23

Ask Better Questions

This week, the Providence Student Union (http://www.providencestudentunion.org/about-psu/) published the results of an experiment they conducted. They gave fifty successful adults a math test that was based on the sample New England Common Assessment Program. Rhode Island uses the NECAP as a high-stakes test where students must achieve at least “Partially Proficient” to graduate high school.

Who can argue with making sure that students are at least “Partially Proficient” in math?

Except, apparently you don’t need to be considered partially proficient to be successful, as the results show:

The results were: Four of the 50 adults got a score that would have been “proficient with distinction,”  seven would have scored “proficient,” nine would have scored “partially proficient,” and 30 – or 60 percent – would have scored “substantially below proficient.” Students scoring in the last category are at risk of not graduating from high school. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/03/19/sixty-percent-of-adults-who-took-standardized-test-bombed/)

Now, some folks will say that the adults didn’t have the time to study for the test, but that isn’t the point. The point is that these successful adults were no longer proficient in the math skills on the test because they did not use them in their day-to-day lives. And yet, Rhode Island is going mandate “Partially Proficient” as a graduation requirement for students starting next year.

Why?

If we are to have mandatory graduation exams, let’s base them on the skills that adults need in their world. What would happen if we asked successful adults what the math they used day-to-day was? Do most people use the quadratic equation or do they need more math skills that allow them to create budgets for their business, calculate interest rates on their mortgages, understand polling data in the New York Times?

That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t teach skills beyond what may show up on a graduation exam. What it means is that we have to start asking better questions about what skills are necessary for a high school diploma. And we need to start asking better questions to our students too.

Mar 14

Disrupt Disruption

With the publication of Disrupting Class in 2008, Clayton Christensen and Michael Horn introduced the idea of “disruption” to the education world, and the effects have been… well… disrupting.

The people driving school policy, from the Race to the Top architects at the US Department of Education to the Gates Foundation to the venture capitalists at GSV Advisors are now rushing to disrupt schools, pushing a faster rate of change and an increasingly corporatization of “the education sector.” And in states and districts all over America, the disruption has occurred as funding has dried up, leading to layoffs, school closures, and profound instability in what has been for nearly 100 years, one of the more stable institutions in American culture – the school.

But why were we – the tech-savvy educators – so quick to fall in love with the idea of disruption as Christensen presented it? Behind the idea that technology was going to change our schools – it can, it should, it is – was a market-driven vision of school that opened the door to “disruption” as a positive force in education.

When was the last time any teacher thought that “disruption” was a positive force in a child’s life?

The time has come for us to retake the language of school reform. Words like “Disruption” and “Revolution” create a mind-set among reformers that make it o.k. to cut budgets, lay-off teachers, close schools, and – at root – implement high-speed, high-stakes changes without fully examining the worst consequences of their own ideas. After all, there’s usually a body count in revolutions, and “disruption” always makes people uncomfortable for a little while. And we have to stop thinking that’s o.k.

Moreover, revolutionaries and disrupters have little use for history and context, after all, what they are creating will be totally new, right? Why would a disrupter have to immerse themselves in the history of education when what they are creating is so techno-saavy and new that will be unlike anything we’ve seen before?

The point is this: Those who think that they can come in from the outside of educational systems and “disrupt” schools are engaging in a profound act of hubris, only rarely are the reformers the ones who fall when the reforms prove less than successful.

The kids do. The reformers go back to the world of business or onto their next cause. And they get to throw up their hands and say, “If *we* couldn’t fix our broken schools, it’s not our fault. It just means no one can save them.” And that, of course, only serves to reinforce the notion that we should just blow the whole thing up and start over anyway.

We can aspire to more than that.

What we want in our schools is not disruption, but evolution. Our schools cannot stay static, on this we can agree, but disruption and revolution are the wrong models. We want our schools to evolve. We need to grow, we need to take the best of what we have been and marry those ideas to the new world in which we live. The patterns of the growth of our educational systems should make sense along a logical path with as few “disruptions” as we can manage.

We owe it to all of the people – students, teachers, parents – who bring the best of themselves to the flawed system of school every day to make our systems of school better tomorrow than they are today. But we also owe it to those people to make that evolution as painless as possible so that the upheaval and “disruption” does not mean the loss of dignity and learning and care for the people who inhabit our schools.