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.

Feb 18

Chase the Right Goals

One of the most basic concepts in curriculum design – and one we use extensively at SLA – is the idea of “backward mapping.” At its most basic, backward mapping means that you must have some idea of where  you want to go before you plan to get there. It is one of those common sense ideas that, when applied to a unit plan, makes things go much more smoothly.

The funny thing is I don’t think we do a great job of backward mapping when it comes to the notion of what we hope kids to get from school itself.

What is the purpose of school? What do we value, and what do we want for our kids?

If one were to look at the metrics that we measure, one would think that we value showing up (attendance,) reading and math (test scores,) doing what you’re told (grades) and finishing up (graduation rates.)  And on some level, that is what is valued in school today. But is that really what we value? And are learning those things really the best purpose of school?

At the parental level, parents want school to help their children to be able to succeed. Many CEOs would like schools – especially the public ones – to produce a steady supply of competent workers. And when we has the larger questions of what society needs from the children in school, the answer is everything from the idealistic – we need to citizens who can better our world – to the cynical – needs students were educated enough to become workers, but not so educated as to upset the status quo.

So school itself isn’t it that easy to backward map. When one unpacks the many pressure points on school, we find that the “end” that we have in mind for our students is not so clear-cut.

So what should we consider to be the goal of the modern school?

First, we must admit that which we do not know. We have to admit that we do not and cannot claim to know what the world our students will inherit will look like. So the notion that we can prepare kids for the 21st century workforce is both an act of hubris and a far too narrow goal. We have to admit that we are handing our children challenges, both environmental and social, that will require them to be far more  resourceful than we have had to be.

And so we must help them to become the citizens our world will need them to be. In many respects, the skills we want our students to be able to develop are no different than the best of what we have always wanted for our students, only now I do not believe we have the luxury of merely hoping for them without naming them.

If we are to embrace the notion that the purpose of school is to help students to become critically aware, fully realized citizens, then let us understand the skills that must then follow, and let us then rethink our schools and our curriculum and our assessments in an attempt to build the systems and structures that will help our students achieve those goals.

Let us help our students develop an agility of mind because we can already see that the world is changing more and more rapidly.

Let us help our students develop their creativity, not just as artists, but as artisans as well, because we want our students to be able to be creators across whatever milieu are necessary.

Let us help our students become more thoughtful – truly full of thoughts, because we want them to be able to understand the complexity of the world around them and take deliberate action, aware of and willing to own the consequences of their actions.

Let us help our students develop wisdom because the world will need them to be far more wise than we have been. Let us help them to see that action without reflection, that invention without forethought has not led us to a sustainable world, and that they will have to be wise beyond their years to solve the problems they face.

Let us help our students develop their passions. Let us help them to see that care begets care, and that by being willing to fully engage in the world instead of ironically holding it at arm’s-length, they will live an enriching life and they will enrich the lives of those who come in contact with them.

And let us help them to be kind. Our students will live in a time where their community will be more broadly defined – more global, more diverse and more inclusive than any other time in human history. If our students learn empathy and kindness, they will have the opportunity to collaborate with and learn from more people than we could have ever dreamed.

The challenge is to backward map the schools that chase those goals. But it is a challenge worth taking.

Feb 10

Embrace Your Best Teacher Self

"Me" Muppet!

If only he could answer emails…

I started teaching when I was twenty-five years old. I taught in a school where teachers made the decision about whether to use their first name or their last name. Some of the teachers I learned from pushed me to go by “Chris,” not “Mr. Lehmann.” But I was young enough to worry about the lack of distance between me and the eighteen year-olds I was teaching that I wanted the daily reminder that I was the teacher in the room.

The “Mr. Lehmann” was and is often shortened to “Lehmann” or even “Lehms” or for some kids “Coach” but that person became who I am – or at least who I aspire to be. And the important thing is that is who the kids need me to be.

If students are willing to see us as the kind of teachers that students believe in, that students want to be around, want to learn from, then don’t we have an obligation to strive to be that person? If the students believe that “Mr. Lehmann” is far smarter, far more patient, far more humble, far more thoughtful than I really am, maybe I can get closer to being that person because of their vision.

So perhaps our teacher-selves should be the best versions of who we are. On some level, our teacher-selves should be the ideal that we strive for every day, even when we know that most days, we will fall far short of that ideal. And that ideal of the teacher-self is the thing that should keep us growing and learning as teachers, because knowing that most days, we fall short of the best version of ourselves is the thing that should keep us profoundly humble. But we should always remember that tomorrow is another day, another chance to be the person that the students need us to be.

There’s no question that, as teachers, knowing who are students are, knowing what they need, is an inquiry project that will keep us learning every day of our teaching lives, but the ancillary benefit is that knowing who we need to be in the classroom will keep us growing every day too.

Kurt Vonnegut once wrote, “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” If we pretend to be more thoughtful, more wise, more passionate and more kind than we actually are, and the kids help us to become those things, isn’t that a good thing?

Seventeen years ago, I started pretending to be “Mr. Lehmann.” Every day, I give what I have that day to live up to his ever-changing ideal.

Aug 21

The Golden Rule Applies – Sort Of

[This post is influenced by all the start of the school year memos and blog posts I've seen and some of the conversations I've been having lately... just some of my thoughts about how to think about the classroom as we start the school year.]

“Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

It is, according to Wikipedia, a concept that is mentioned in one way or another in every major religion of the world. And as we go back to school we consider how we will work in our classrooms, is worth revisiting as a strategy for classroom management.

On the whole, it’s not a bad way to think about working with kids. After all, we should always consider how we would feel any classroom run by our rules. One of the reasons I tended to be more tolerance of lateness when I was in the classroom was because I wanted people to be tolerant of my own lateness as well.  I let kids drink coffee in my classroom because I wanted to drink coffee in my classroom. And certainly I had a list of things that I would never do to children because they had been done to me when I was a student.

But I worry that this idea gets perverted a bit from time to time too. I’ve seen teachers punish kids because it was what they wanted the teacher to do to a student when they were students. Many teachers, not all, were the “good kids” in school, and I think it is possible to fall back on the feelings of frustration that we may have felt when other kids didn’t do what we wanted them to do back when we were in school. That is, I fear, part of what is going on subconsciously when a teacher justifies a punishment or reaction to a student by saying something along the lines of, “What would the other kids in class have thought if I didn’t…”

And it can be hard to apply the Golden Rule when, as a teacher, we encounter behaviors that were so alien to our own patterns as students. We can think, “If I did this, of course I would want to be punished,” because we don’t fully understand what is going on inside a child’s mind when the engage in whatever that behavior may be. For example, it wasn’t until several years into my teaching career that a student explained to me in a way that I  finally could hear that her plagiarism was not committed out of laziness or defiance or even an attempt to get over on me, but rather was born of fear and panic over what I thought was this wonderfully open-ended assignment – one I would’ve loved as a student, but one that had completely flummoxed my student who needed more guidance than I gave. Did there still need to be ramifications for plagiarism? Of course. But I had to work on my empathy to understand the behavior and make sure that my presumption of a motive did not unduly influence the consequences of her actions. And I needed to listen to her and understand and deal with the person she was, rather than worry about how the kids who were more “like me” in the classroom would react if I didn’t do something drastic.

I suppose on some level, the Golden Rule is shorthand for empathic thinking and empathic actions. But let us remember our own biases when we apply the rule. If we are to use the Golden Rule in our classrooms, let us do so this way – when a student gives you his or her motivation for an action, imagine it was you sitting there. Imagine it was true. Imagine that you were sitting there with a teacher, and the teacher looked at you and you knew the teacher didn’t believe what you said. Better yet, imagine if the teacher never even asked you why. Then ask yourself how you would feel about whatever consequences the teacher imposed upon your actions.

There is a way to find out how we should act towards other people as teachers in classrooms. We can ask. We can listen. We can feel empathy and care, even when kids fall short of our – and quite probably their own – expectations. And we can therefore take action that honors all of the members of the classroom.