Reading “Same As It Never Was” by Gregory Michie

img_20191031_192223

Dear Gregory,

I had been on the lookout for your book to land in my mailbox and when it finally arrived on Halloween it felt like a real gift! I, of course, dug in immediately.

I started yesterday evening and finished this morning. I read with pencil in hand, underlining as I went, nodding in so many spots, feeling your pain while at the same time acknowledging my distance from the conditions and circumstances you describe. Like you, I read a lot, and teacher narratives that grab me the way yours did are few and far between in my experience. You are fully real on every single page and I didn’t know how much I needed that.

Early on you talk about offering your students mirrors and windows in their reading diet and also how you encouraged them to begin using this frame by first analyzing images. Perhaps it was the way you walked me, as a reader and teacher of a very different subject, through your process, but something in your presentation got me closer to thinking about mirrors and windows for myself. So once I finished and began looking at my notes in the margins I drew up this list:

IMG_20191101_172131

Of course there are several points where you provide me a mirror, yet the most captivating aspects in reading Same As It Never Was lay in the windows you provided: the many exchanges with students and colleagues, the truth telling about systems, the careful sharing of your students’ perspectives – for these I feel deeply grateful. I’ve never taught in (or attended) a public school, my teaching career has been spent primarily in a well appointed international school among a largely European and white North American faculty and student body. That said, I am the daughter of a public school educator and a Black woman. I live in the distance and my history is bound up in the inequities of a racialized American society.

You tell one story of an 8th grader who poses a remarkable question: “How does hope unfold?” Like you I am struck by the power and depth of the query itself, the way it turns hope into a process rather than a mythical object we can hope to attain. It made me think of how often authors of color are asked to reveal where they find or seek hope, only to find themselves in that familiar trap of appeasing a mostly white audience with a kind of balm or actually telling the truth. The notion of hope as something in which we as individuals and communities have agency, can build and sustain, emerges as a welcome perspective shift. In several instances you allow the brilliance and generosity of your students to take center stage, to shine and warm. As a reader and fellow educator, I dream of adding to that unfolding of hope, even when; especially when it seems a very hard endeavor.

There are several instances when you voice disappointments and faults in things you did or said. You are deeply critical of yourself and do not shy away from naming your mistakes. Even if we as educators can usually afford to grant ourselves a little more grace, I benefited from your mistakes mainly because you showed us your work. You put on paper what you learned and did (or will do) differently. We see that despite the years of experience, doubt still exists, reservations are never entirely absent. That seems important in a stirring teacher narrative. We encounter you as entirely human, as someone capable of misjudgment, reflection and who also corrects himself. Publicly, in front of students.

I really want teachers to read your story and see how much potential there is for change, growth, recovery and also joy in this field we’ve chosen. Our kids deserve so much better than what we are delivering. The “OK, boomer” sentiment makes perfect sense to me. Our young people are not wrong. They are getting the short end of every stick we extend to them. Being with them and for them in these years of crumbling democratic institutions is among the most important work we can do.

I am humbled by your example and believe we all have so much to learn from you, your students and colleagues. Thank you for putting your community’s stories in my path. I am changed for having read them.

In gratitude,

Sherri

 

Gregory Michie, Same As It Never Was: Notes on a Teacher’s Return to the Classroom, New York, Teachers College Press 2019.

 

 

Coming Clean With Equity

Reading widely is a fine way to expand our vocabulary. I still find all kinds of words that I thought I knew and have to look up and realize I had no idea or actually the wrong idea (or better yet, the completely wrong pronunciation like segue (segway? really?!)).  Today, I’m thinking hard about equity. Yes, equity. As in, “the quality of being fair and impartial” not “the value of shares issued by a company.”

street-sweepers-3279633_1920.jpg

In education circles we talk and hear a lot about equity – in our districts, schools, and classrooms. There are popular posters distinguishing equity from equality, clarifying that equality means that everyone receives the same treatment, access, materials regardless of specific needs, while equity requires that each person receives treatment, access, materials according to their specific needs. Sounds reasonable, right?

I recently finished reading Dr. R. L’Heureux Lewis-McCoy’s Inequality In The Promised Land in which he describes disparities between Black and white families’ experiences in a suburban school system. One piece of his analysis really made me stop in my tracks, though. He specifically examines the way the achievement gap between Black and white students remained even when they sat in the same classrooms. Even if I can fathom this based on student discipline statistics that demonstrate how Black boys and girls are suspended and disciplined at disproportionately higher rates than their white peers, and knowing that with an overwhelming majority of white teachers, implicit bias presents further hurdles for Black students in the classroom, this still surprised me. Even having a rough understanding of those factors, I was not fully prepared for the case that Lewis-McCoy makes with his observations.

This chapter has demonstrated that racial and economic minorities in RAPS [Rolling Acres Public Schools] experienced school differently. The different assessments and treatments of academic performance (teacher feedback), behavior (student discipline), and culture (perceived family background) cumulatively contributed to the marginalization of the minority students… Mr. Marks, Ms. Reno, and Ms. Jackson thought of themselves as culturally sensitive teachers who created diverse classrooms for quality education. In fact, their classrooms created unequal experiences for black and white students. (p. 136)

The teachers believed they were doing their level best to offer equal opportunities for all of their students to excel. Lewis-McCoy further explains that

RAPS teachers and school staff were attuned to issues of social inequality, but they seldom incorporated their social scientific knowledge when discussing their own classrooms. Instead teachers saw educational inequality as a function of individual student issues or family issues. (p.137)

In our educator hearts I think there’s a real tendency to want to deny that this could/would happen to us. We use our best intentions as flattering headlights that guide our practice with children. We know we need to do better – to truly examine where our blind spots are, determine which forms of bias we may be operating under without consciously realizing it. Yet, we struggle to make necessary changes. Our old habits don’t die hard, they just don’t die.

In an article chronicling similar disparities in academic performance between white and black students in an affluent suburban high school in Evanston, Illinois, we find a typical system-oriented response.

The analysis showed that District 65 provided a much better education to white students than black students, no matter their income…

The board has hired a consultant to assess each school’s practices, is committing to hiring more teachers of color and making lessons more culturally relevant, and is encouraging staff to attend workshops to help expose unconscious racial bias.

It’s a common package of proposed changes that several schools and districts take on to shift the entrenched dynamic. What stands out for me is thinking about how we in our individual classrooms learn to practice equity with a capital E. We’re no longer talking in the abstract about systems and policies, we’re talking about our classrooms and the students we have in front of us, whoever they might be. Shana White has a powerful post on educational equity that is an excellent resource for action steps. How are we working to meet the needs of specific students? To whom are we likely to give the benefit of the doubt in conflict situations? How do we respond to children who challenge our authority? Which children are most likely to be excluded as a behavior consequence?

If I look at my own situation: it’s boys, often very athletic boys, sometimes with attention issues but not always. They are the ones most likely to be caught in some sort of temporary discipline bind. If I’m as committed to equity as I say I am, then I need to consider what I might do differently to interrupt those patterns. Having an instant activity helps. Using a whiteboard agenda to minimize the need for oral instructions during class helps. Pulling an individual aside rather than confronting him in front of the whole class can help. These are not wildly innovative. But for individual students and the atmosphere of the class, they can make a significant difference.

My point is that in my own little instructional world I can practice equity every day (or not). I can study my own habits to find out where my blind spots lie. I can ask my students for honest feedback. I can also look at my personal history to consider which lenses I may be applying when I encounter a little blonde boy who seems to behave as if he already owns the world. How might I be interpreting his behavior in light of my personal history? A consultant who comes into my school and delivers a workshop might ask me to consider such steps. The choice to take the steps, to share my progress (and setbacks) with others will not be a given nor necessarily easy.

A while back I was asked to create a video in response to the provocation:

How would I design a learning environment if I wanted to marginalize certain populations?

 

As an exercise, responding to the question proved extremely helpful in getting me to think about all the ways we set up barriers to learning whether we intend to or not. The same goes for creating classrooms that are genuinely equitable. I’m convinced it means listening to students more. As we hold up standards as the new cure-all for what ails academic achievement, I believe it also means developing hundreds of ways for students to demonstrate their attainment of a given standard, not just one or two. That’s what we would do if we were truly committed to equity. You know, stretch ourselves to meet the specific needs of all of our learners. May seem like a big expensive ask for a whole school system.

In my classroom, however, I hold the most powerful levers – relationships, professional expertise, resources. I can put them to work for equity daily. And I’ll need practice, help and critical feedback. My students are counting on me.

The Integrity Diet

The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?
The calendar I never kept. Lipstick? Really?

Throughout this year I have spent a fair amount of time wondering about what it is I am actually supposed to be doing. For about 8 more weeks I will still be working, living and learning entirely on my own dime. Time away from the classroom has brought an astounding degree of freedom and plenty of thinking and dreaming space. As this designated phase draws to a close, I am looking for the list of achievements I can hang my hat on; evidence of my productive use of this precious time. I keep asking myself: so where is the evidence? What have you actually done with yourself this year?

A valid question, yet not the ideal. Rather, to ask about what I gained, how I grew and which capacities I strengthened – these are the questions that bring me closer to understanding the value of this time better than lists of what I did and made. And on closer inspection, I see that above all – I changed my diet. I paid closer attention to what I was taking in, how it affected me and this in turn changed what came out. I didn’t realize it while it was happening but now I see that this year had everything to do with my integrity – how I live my life as my whole self and how I express and share that whole self with the outside world. I treated myself to an integrity diet.

I recently shared one of my biggest revelations on Twitter:

I joined social media, specifically Twitter, to “hang out” in a sense but instead got “caught up” as I described in a recent post. The deeper and wider my education-related conversations became, the greater my interest and focus on the very things that school and education, in and of themselves, can hardly fix or solve. In fact, the more I engaged with educators, journalists, activists and academics around these topics, the more keenly aware I became of the potential for school systems and political systems to harm students, exacerbate disparities and claim ignorance about how such circumstances (i.e., school-to-prison pipeline, excessive police brutality against black and brown people, also in schools) could come to pass. Internally, I note a shift in myself from accommodating to critical. While I love the idea of speaking to a broad audience,  it has become more important for me as a person, as a writer and as an educator to speak out and speak up and accept that not everyone will feel included, or comfortable, or agree with what I have to say. I am now willing to run that risk. My ego may take a hit but my integrity finds sustenance.

While I feed my integrity, where does the time go?

It seems to me that I read for hours on end each day: books, articles, blog posts, e-mail. I read and I seek to become wiser, better informed. I read in search of nuance and depth. I read in search of examples of healthy daily coping. I follow my friends’ recommendations. I develop opinions and then read on to have those same opinions challenged. When I find nuance and depth, I am grateful and compelled to share. One think piece that struck me in particular was Why Women Talk Less because the author did not leave well enough alone. Rather, she  examined research and arguments from various angles refusing to sum up her findings in tidy tweetable bullet points. She let the reader grapple along with her as she laid out the complexity and stickiness of the options that women appear to have in choosing to speak out and up. This type of reading is like a good workout. It leaves you a little tired and mentally sweaty but satisfied. And stronger; ready for the next solid think piece to come along and start something. And there goes the time. I read,  feel edified, and wonder where all this reading may be leading me.

Where?

Into the arms of writing, it would seem. The other chunk of time when I am not reading, I am seated at my laptop, pecking my thoughts out onto white screens with hyper-interactive sidebars. I used to write in journals, on paper. I do less of that now and tend to go straight to the screen. Since June 2014 I have published 65 posts on this blog and about a dozen on Medium.  At the outset I was fairly sure that I would be writing about coaching and teaching. But the most passionate pieces are best characterized as responses. Something I read or saw or thought about struck a chord and affected me. Like when a post by Audrey Watters nearly sent me over the edge (in a good and slightly revivalist way). Or when I  needed to dissect the reactions I was seeing on Twitter and elsewhere to a NYT piece on Success Charter Schools. Or most recently when I felt a little out of my depth venturing to take higher education to task but I did it anyway and am glad  that I did. In all of these pieces there was an emotional boiling point which made writing imperative and allowed me to push past the weighty apprehension I typically feel before I click “Publish.” Writing this year has meant jumping over my own shadow. Repeatedly. And with bigger and bigger leaps.

What did I do with myself this year?

I grew and I learned. I have found that my interests extend far beyond where I thought my borders were. In my reading and writing, in fact, I’ve gone abroad. I have ventured into unfamiliar and often uncomfortable territory. I have gained a new appreciation for this wonderful brown skin I am living in.  I have come to better understand and value the ways in which it interacts and intersects with all the other aspects of who I am and how I identify.  I have explored aspects of my otherness while finding commonalities in likely and unlikely places. Opportunities to get down on the ground and truly wrestle with my most stubborn biases and blind spots have been multiple and recurring. I have made many friends and so far, very few enemies. I have come to value questions and responses over supposed answers and solutions. I have found a deeper desire to connect not simply with people but to their ideas and  connect those ideas to other people who may not be seeing the same things.

At the end of this year I have no product to market, no book to pitch, no course of study to offer. What I do have is the well nourished integrity of my intellectual, social and artistic pursuits. Perhaps I have never been as fully myself as I am right now. My integrity has never been in better shape.

A Programmable Future

CC pixabay.com
CC pixabay.com

I experienced a rare moment this week. I read a post and quite simply it changed me.

The post helped me see what I was not seeing.

To recognize what I have been avoiding.

To be brave when my fear is the only audible voice I can hear.

The post  I read was  “The Future of Education: Programmed or Programmable “ by Audrey Watters. It is in fact the transcript of a talk she recently gave at Pepperdine University. I encourage you to read the full text to appreciate the strength and wisdom of her arguments.

The first point that got under my skin was this:

Whether it’s in a textbook or in a video-taped lecture, it’s long been the content that matters most in school. The content is central. It’s what you go to school to be exposed to. Content. The student must study it, comprehend it, and demonstrate that in turn for the teacher. That is what we expect an education to do, to be: the acquisition of content which becomes transmogrified into knowledge…

…despite all the potential to do things differently with computers and with the Internet and with ubiquitous digital information, school still puts content in the center. Content, once delivered by or mediated through a teacher or a textbook, now is delivered via various computer technologies.

YES! Content is always at the center, of course.  And what have I been working so hard to cultivate in the learning episodes that I design for others? Experience.  I want my clients, participants, students, athletes to experience something, to feel something and thereby come to know “the thing” and what it may mean for them. Content has been a vehicle but my real desire has always been to generate feelings, emotions, connection – the stuff that makes you feel alive. How very counter-cultural I now understand.

Audrey Watters goes on to talk about shifting away from the content-centered approach of the “programmed web” and towards the more open and co-constructed “programmable web:”

The readable, writable, programmable Web is so significant because, in part, it allows us to break from programmed instruction. That is, we needn’t all simply be on the receiving end of some computer-mediated instruction, some teacher-engineering. We can construct and create and connect for ourselves. And that means that — ideally — we can move beyond the technologies that deliver content more efficiently, more widely. It means too we can rethink “content” and “information” and “knowledge” — what it means to deliver or consume those things, alongside what it makes to build and control those things.

This is about where things started to heat up for me. The next sentence laid my purpose out for me like the Tarot card you knew was coming before you even approached the table:

One of the most powerful things that you can do on the Web is to be a node in a network of learners, and to do so most fully and radically, I dare say, you must own your own domain.

WHAT?

As I read on, two things were happening: my emotions had gotten hold of the stage and were running with it. At the same time, my rational mind tore further into the text looking for something to save me fast.

Authority, expertise, participation, voice — these can be so different on the programmable web; not so with programmed instruction.

The Domain of One’s Own initiative at University of Mary Washington purposefully invokes Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own: “A woman must have money, and a room of her own, if she is to write fiction.” That is, one needs a space — a safe space that one controls — in order to do be intellectually productive.

Boom!

We have an amazing opportunity here. We need to recognize and reconcile that, for starters, in the content that programmed instruction — as with all instruction — delivers, there is a hidden curriculum nestled in there as well. Education — formal institutions of schooling — are very much about power, prestige, and control. [emphasis mine]

and then this:

Despite all the talk about “leveling the playing field” and disrupting old, powerful institutions, the Web replicates many pre-existing inequalities; it exacerbates others; it creates new ones. I think we have to work much harder to make the Web live up to the rhetoric of freedom and equality. That’s a political effort, not simply a technological one.

That’s when the tears came rolling in. Between the deep desire to be that “node in a network of learners” and the self-unhelpful stance of “I could never do that.” (in this case  to have, run and maintain my own domain.), a larger truth was revealed:  I am at liberty to make use of my own superpowers. I am a learner of outrageous potential. There is no reason to believe that I cannot do what no one expects.  That’s when all the forces, internal and external, technological and philosophical which have  kept the volume of my fears turned all the way up seemed suddenly muted.

I’ve been sitting with this experience for a few days now. I wrote to Audrey almost immediately to say Thank you and at the same time nearly wanting to ask for the antidote.  Because it is a fundamentally scary experience to be exposed to your own potential and grant it some credibility. And when you belong to a marginalized group, that exposure can be all the more astounding and confounding. Empowerment can feel like work because it is not for free. Empowerment always challenges us to imagine, to create, to put into practice what once appeared impossible.

 

What am I doing here?

Much to my own astonishment I will soon have sent over 1000 tweets.  In a the space of about 15 months I have dramatically expanded my twitter activity and reach. While the numbers are still modest in terms of the Twiterverse at large, for me the reality of over one hundred followers and just under 100 people I follow – is slow to sink in.  Imagine meeting up with all of your followers in person at one time – what kind of space would you need?  A classroom, small lecture hall, an auditorium, a high school stadium?

About 4 years ago when my tech-savvy teenage son was still living at home, I asked him, “What’s Twitter?”  He chuckled and said it’s like “shouting random messages into cyberspace.”  Then he added, “it’s pretty pointless.”  That was good enough for me. It saved me from having to delve any further.

Once I joined Twitter in the summer of 2013 I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was not at all as pointless as my son had estimated. As an educator, I was thrilled to find the richness of the conversations in progress – on everything from #edreform to #SEL (social and emotional learning) to the #futureof school.  And the more I read,  greater became my own desire to contribute.  I started by responding to a few blog posts, then writing more on my own blog. It became a cycle: catch a great link – retweet – write a blog response – tweet that – read more and so on.

Now nearing the 1000 tweet mark, I ask myself: What am I doing here?

When I started I was all about drinking it in: lurking, consuming, stockpiling.  And now?

  • I have made writing a priority. This post may become #93. The number of people who read what I’ve written varies tremendously but I do know this: Every time I post, at least one other person reads it besides me. And that is reason enough. Through followers of the blog and on Twitter, almost 200 people receive notice that I’ve put something out there. In the event of a powerful retweet, then the possible audience can grow into the thousands.  But that’s not the point. Daring to write, to say what I want to say and to offer it to whoever’s game – that is the priority that matters.
  • I pay attention to people and ideas.  I feel strongly about some things: student-centered education, social justice, and every intersection of those themes. Most of the people I actively follow are generally tied to one or all of those themes.  There may be others who offer perspectives slightly outside those distinct realms and add to my understanding of topics which influence my primary areas of interest, such as: tech industry happenings and political trends.
  • I am here to connect the dots.  The Twitterverse and internet are chock full of billions of disparate dots. From my little corner, I see but a miniscule fraction of those dots, by choice.  At the same time, those dots within my view may produce unusual and beautiful patterns. My joy lies in drawing connections from people to ideas, and ideas to ideas.  I’m a big fan of cross-pollination.
  • The excellent people I meet and the wealth of their contributions are why I stay.    About a month ago I conducted a sort of self-assessment of myself a s a coach and in that process I identified the type of people I appreciate and seek out as partners for collaboration. They “dare to diverge, show a degree of mental, emotional and physical fitness, have HUMOR, have a growth and change agenda, and demonstrate brave intentionality.”  It may or may not surprise you, but I have met more people who fit this description within the last year than in the previous 10 years. Some I have met through social media and others locally. The key is that “what I appreciate appreciates” and in terms of remarkable acquaintances, this maxim has delivered handsomely.

Twitter is by no means single-handedly responsible for all this good stuff. Rather, Twitter has provided a easy-to-navigate platform where I can meet and interact with individuals and groups who add value to my learning and understanding.  Now that I am even clearer about my purpose in populating and shaping my sliver of the Twitterverse, I can take even greater ownership of the role I want to play and how I can best serve the interests of these new connections I have welcomed into my life.

 

Special thanks for this post go to Dan Rockwell, Leadership Freak, who kindly asked me way back in August 2013 what I wanted to do with my social media engagement when I requested his sage advice for beginners.

 

 

Connecting the Dots: Privilege, Social Justice and Choice

A few days ago  I read this opinion piece:

Author, Desmond Cole, writing in the wake of the mayoral election in Toronto,  points out: “It is crucial that we distinguish these things – white privilege and racism – and that we learn to talk better about each. ..So let us start here: white privilege is real, and it affects every single Torontian.”

He goes on to explain:

“white privilege is the flipside of racism: if those of us deemed to be “visible minorities” suffer discrimination, white privilege speaks to the corresponding people who, whether or not they realize it, gain advantage from this dynamic. Systemic racism does not just have countless victims, but beneficiaries as well…

White privilege isn’t about what is in the hearts and minds of individuals; it is a set of circumstances in the world, with which we all must contend – but which white people can ignore with impunity while the victims of racism cannot.”

He concludes with the argument that because inequities will not simply fade away, it behooves us as individuals and as a society to take actions which redress them. ” Racism is the bully who shows up at the party without being invited: almost no one wants to associate with him, but few have the courage to show him the door. Those of us affected by systemic racism don’t have the luxury of ignoring that bully.”

Read the full article to take in the weight of his nuanced analysis.

A little later  I ran across this post in pursuit of a different interest:

Here the author, Kevin Hodgson (@dogtrax), is referring to the challenge of creating connected courses under the banner of access, equity and diversity. Essentially he and his colleagues are doing their part  to insure due diligence in developing programs which actually reach and impact  underserved urban and rural communities.  The Western Massachusetts Writing Project is the organization in question and the following quote comes from their vision statement adopted some years ago:

Central to our mission is the development of programs and opportunities that are accessible and relevant to teachers, students, and their families from diverse backgrounds, paying attention to issues of race, gender, language, class and culture and how these are linked to teaching and learning.

The author acknowledges costs in the process of taking this stance which is more clearly grounded in social justice: the loss of some issue-weary members who worry that the primary aim of helping students and teachers with writing has been pushed to the back burner. The author points to the steps they are taking to keep access, equity and diversity near the top of the agenda – an upcoming symposium, past gains in mobilizing membership around advocacy against teacher evaluation based solely on standardized test results. Nevertheless, the tension remains: “when many discussions come filtered through the social justice lens, it can feel as if the “writing” and “teaching” elements get lost in the shuffle, replaced by a political action lens.”

I hear his struggle and applaud his and his organization’s efforts to work against or perhaps through the tide. It certainly isn’t easy.  This is where these two pieces come together for me. The privilege lies in being able to choose to address, redress or ignore the uncomfortable topics of equity and access. Sticking around to put up a fight time and time again on behalf of those who are excluded from this privilege may strike some as tedious, as a lost cause. For those who belong to marginalized groups, there simply is no choice.

Let’s recognize that there is good work being done and that there is much more to do. It is upon all of us to do the work we are able to do wherever we find ourselves – in our families, schools and communities – breaking down barriers, acknowledging privilege here,  dismantling the structures of systemic and institutional bias there.  We all can afford to get better at connecting the necessary dots.