Knowing What Resonates

Although I have always been an enthusiastic reader, the variety, pace and range of reading that I do now astounds me. After one year of full intellectual contact with online media, I see distinct patterns emerging that determine which content will likely earn a favorite star or be retweeted to my co-learners/explorers.  Five distinct characteristics stand out:

1. I value authors who show their humanity in a palatable and potentially endearing way. No strip tease or outrageous confessions, just individuals who can describe their struggles and victories with a degree of humility, grace and often humor. Pernille Ripp does this extremely well whether she’s writing about her classroom or her living room, it’s all very real and reflective without being creepy. John Spencer (@edrethink) also has knack for thoughtful sharing that is personal and often professionally relevant.

2. System skeptics will inherit the earth even though it’s not really what they wanted in the first place. My heart beats for these perpetual disrupters; the folks who shake their heads, fists or both at the prevailing order and write, write, write, making others uncomfortable with their unforgiving questioning.  Divergent thinking, floating alternatives, and leaving nothing sacred are the hallmarks of this unquiet riot. One of my favorite education system skeptics is Terry Heick. His posts at TeachThought often require 2 or 3 read-throughs in order for me to take in the full depth of his arguments. Raising questions like “What is quality?” or “What’s Best for Kids?” demands a capacity for big picture thinking coupled with an appreciation for the supporting details that make it all go. Grant Lichtman is another agitator for change who has mapped out some very real options for alternative routes in his book, EdJourney.

3. The polemicists.  These authors take debatable positions and in doing so invite discussion with and among readers.  Although I am not a fan of formal debate, when I read an article or blog post that touches a nerve, then I also read a number of comments to get a sense of how others have responded. This practice has truly invigorated my reading in unexpected ways. Having a window into other people’s thinking about the same text has touched off some tremendous learning on my part. And it has allowed me to discover my own comment voice. Tom Whitby of edu fame tends to take strong positions especially with regard to educators and their need to get connected in order to remain relevant.  I agree with him on many points and  I have also disagreed with an idea or two. What is new is that I now take the liberty of speaking up, either in the comment section or even in a separate blog post.  And that experience of daring to hold and also publicly share a dissenting opinion has been both liberating and empowering. Learning to disagree without becoming disagreeable has broadened and sharpened my thinking.  Also check out Jose Vilson for his powerful arguments and the way he addresses opposing views; business and art in the same post.

4. Clarity of purpose and encouragement as a professional mission will get me every time. Two experts who emulate this  are Elena Aguilar and Angela Watson. Both are authors in the educational realm and  each offers unique means to help educators find their inner resources to sustain and grow their practice.  Todd Nesloney (@techninjatodd) also does an amazing job of appreciating and acknowledging his school community even as he spreads that positive
impact around the world. He is clear about his purpose and it shows. I think he must have one of the highest good news quotients on twitter. Worth following.  And sometimes I just stop by cult of pedagogy because Jennifer Gonzales is so remarkably  gracious and personable in all her communications even as she offers tons of resources to make the teaching life better and better.

5. Beauty
When I catch beautiful writing in its tracks, I try to admire it for longer but it always slips away. That’s why it’s such an intense encounter when it happens, like a sudden kiss. Beauty can be funny, come-as-you-are, full of surprise, wearing a hint of mystery – the point is, I never know where beauty will appear – in which post, on which platform, from which author. A short story like this can change my day with the laughter it unleashes.  Sometimes, it’s a picture or a short video, just something that reminds me how amazing this whole “inhabiting the planet earth” narrative is day after day, hour by hour.

Finally Looking Under the Hood

Oh boy.
Stephanie Rivera tweeted some thoughts the other day which caught my attention via @theJLV because THEY WERE ALL IN CAPS. In my understanding, all caps in electronic communication is the equivalent of shouting. What was she shouting about?

Then she went on to write this powerful post: Advocacy in the Age of Colorblindness.. (Please read her blog post FIRST before reading on.) While I have certainly read my fair share on race in American society, and more specifically in education, this post and the comments it provoked landed like few others. Altogether they hit me at my core, pitched me into my past and lifted up the blinds on my present. Just like that – the exposure of widely held thinking among some white educators, the struggle to maintain decorum in the face of an emotionally charged set of triggers, and certainly the dedication to student voice throughout – Stephanie Rivera touched a piece of my own vulnerability in matters of race, identity, culture and education.
In the comment section Adam Beckham points out from his vantage point as a white male:

I can have an innovative curriculum and be tech-forward and all the good stuff we’re demanding from teachers, but I’m not going to get into their hearts like a black teacher can. They know I don’t go home to their neighborhood. We can both listen to some Houston rap and talk about it, but they know we are from different worlds and share different destinies. And they can know that while they know I love them and work for them every single day.

I can sit with them and read “Space Traders” by Derrick Bell all day long, but at the end of the day I’m still a white male. That’s not a bad thing, *there’s nothing wrong with being a white person or a male person*, it’s just not the whole meal they need to eat. It’s good to have some of me in the mix, but I can’t be all the options on the menu.

A kid shouldn’t have to go all day without seeing multiple, successful people reflecting their lives and cultures. That’s injustice. We would never accept that for our kids as white people. It’s unimaginable.

That final sentence is what brings the whole topic home to roost for me: Recognizing what would be unimaginable for my white colleagues and friends as an absolute given through most of my education and career.  Also Mia adds nuance to the dialogue by describing her desire as an Asian-American to have had Asian role models during her school experience.  She writes:

I identify as Asian and I would’ve really appreciated an Asian teacher to be a role model of an Asian American to me. Most of my childhood I learned how to be “white” American and to reject my culture not simply because of my white peers but because of the adults in my life that didn’t understand my culture.

These comments drive home the point that this conversation is not only about skin color – it’s about culture and identity which have many facets – although skin color is the most prominent identifier of minority groups.

For that New Orleans student who was brave enough to assert his own view of what might do him and his fellow students more good in school, I hope he continues to voice his opinions whether or not the adults in his environment are able to hear his message or not. While I was in high school, I doubt that I could have acknowledged or articulated what was missing in my education. I just took what was there for granted. In my case, what was there: predominately white private schools with no teachers of color. I just did my part to make sure I fit in.

And fit in I did. So seamlessly did I fit in that I also began to buy into the notion that race and color were not really so important. My academic, social and professional success were testaments to that, right? When I moved to Europe and created my life here, being African-American and a native English speaker seemed to open more doors than close them.

Well here I am, nearly 50, looking back at almost a quarter century involved in education and what have I learned? The divides are multiple and deepening and the inclination to look away, reshuffle our vocabulary and assert “mission accomplished” appears to be growing. I notice this now looking back, for instance, on my professional career and considering the tremendous lack of visible role models and mentors of color. When I was ready to consider pursuing formal roles of leadership, where were my colleagues of color, especially in independent education, who could share their experience and advice? When I attended conferences, when would I encounter a facilitator or keynote speaker of color doing the type of work I aspired to do? Almost never, unless I was attending the NAIS People of Color Conference where that was precisely the point of the exercise.

I may not live in the US anymore, yet it is my home culture. And being black in America has different nuances and implications than in any other culture in the world. I still live in the shadows of my particular racial narrative. And I sure do recognize the struggles of my colleagues, my family, friends and others to overcome these divides (of color, culture, language, gender, sexual orientation) with understanding and through dialogue. For this reason, I felt a special appreciation for Stephanie Rivera’s thoughtful analysis of the dynamics taking place on the BAT facebook page. When we take the time to actually look under the hood, we may find that even if we’re not sure exactly what it is we are seeing and hearing, we can still recognize when something is not right. And get help to discover what really is the matter.

An entirely personal response to #Thisisnotatest

Dear José,
This is not a review.
Rather, reading This is Not a Test has given me much to ponder over the last couple of weeks and I want to say thank you for that. So many topics have cropped up in my reflections: race, privilege, US public education and the ills which seems to plague it…all these themes which give me pause again and again.

And yet, what makes this book, your book, stick in my mind and resist dissolving like a thousand other texts in my fuzzy memory, is the deeply personal nature of the writing. In bringing so much of yourself: your history, relationships, hardships, victories, progress and setbacks to your work and therefore to your writing, you have provoked me to study my own narrative and perhaps for the first time truly see how the dots connect to create meaning.

Here’s the thing: as I read This is Not a Test, I found myself underscoring the differences between your situation and mine (age, gender, subject, grade level, school type, location) and every time being drawn into the narrative more deeply by the kinship of color, teaching, language, love of students and clearly, love of learning. There are parts of the story which make me uncomfortable or which elicit a sense of guilt for not having pursued a particular path. My inner dialogues in response to your story have pushed me to examine the fact that as I stake my reputation on being an outstanding listener, how often am I using that to avoid speaking out? When you described finding your voice as a blogger and activist, I wondered to what degree I already filter and block much of my own content to insure that I don’t offend anyone.

This kind of probing reflection does not come with each new clever title. No, it is specifically you, proud black Latino male teacher, papa, activist, author José. And your impact on me, proud African-American female PE Specialist turned leadership coach living in Austria, is indeed something to write home about. When we dare to write and put ourselves on the page, the words, sentences and paragraphs are but a fraction of the whole package. Yet sometimes that very unique fraction is just enough to budge the needle in the direction of change; in fact, of being changed.

No more excuses, it’s time to make my own fraction count. Thank you for providing the impetus.

Sincerely,
Sherri Spelic
@edifiedlistener

P.S. The print version of your book arrived with Leo Buscaglia’s Love: what life is all about (1972) in the same package. A fine match.