decentering whiteness may require us to focus on whiteness

Author of the widely popular book, Culturally Relevant Teaching and the Brain, Zaretta Hammond once shared that a common question asked of her is, “How should I best teach Black students?”

Knowing that the question, in and of itself, is problematic in its over simplified reduction and continued othering of black students, she offers that at the very minimum a first step can be to

stop teaching as if all students learn the same; specifically, stop teaching first and solely to normalize and to align with dominant or white culture learning styles.  

2020 has been a perfect storm of a year that offers us the opportunity to not do school as usual.  The shared harm of COVID-19 along with the uprising against systemic racism and harm specifically to our black community has led to schools and entire districts adopting a focus on anti-racist teaching and healing.  This must be commended.  Period.  And… at the same time, such a commitment will be difficult as it requires more than just the rhetoric.  Even now, I constantly am defending that decentering whiteness does not mean the same thing as disserving white students.  

As with most difficult work, we must prepare for resistance.  Some resistance comes from individuals – a few (and too many) who do not wish to commit to racial justice, equity or interrupting white supremacy, and more who automatically resist (even with “good intentions”) that which they find difficult, scary or vulnerable.  Some resistance comes from what NYC Chancellor Richard Carranza calls the “elasticity of the status quo”; this is the impact of our need to go back to our original systemic design when we are unsure of what to do. 

If we are unsure of our original design, keep in mind that in “1779, Thomas Jefferson proposed a two-track educational system, with different tracks in his words for ‘the laboring and the learned.” Scholarship would allow a very few of the laboring class to advance, Jefferson says, by “raking a few geniuses from the rubbish.’”   Furthermore, if we are unsure of how our history of colonization plays out… and for whom, schools were designed to benefit white people at the expense of people of color and today this intent persists.  Even with our commitments to equity and anti-racist teaching, our very design – or school as usual – is for the purpose of preparing those in and who benefit from dominant culture to profit from those who do not. 

So, if we want to consider NOT doing school as usual, we will need to commit to studying and learning about the role whiteness, white culture and white supremacy has on our schools and classrooms today, for if we are educators, we are agents of this system so many of us so desperately seek to disrupt.  Even if whiteness is not our identity, it is most likely the identity of the system that provides many of us our paychecks.  

Already, we are hearing the pushback.  With a focus on antiracist teaching, we are hearing comfort in talking about antiracism which can be studied, academically, through a window… but discomfort talking about antiracist TEACHING, which requires us to look into our mirrors.  When pushed, we are hearing white-ally teachers exclaim, “I am not a racist.”  

It is not a new idea that the, “am I am a racist” question should be retired.  We know enough now – the question we need to ask ourselves is “am I actively being antiracist? And if yes, how?”  To this question – not one of us should have an answer with finality.  Again, we now know enough – the work requires us always to be in progress.  Yes, there are right answers.  

It is important to know where our work begins. 

Do we collate the base language of white, white culture, white supremacy and white people?  Do we interchange the terms race, racism, racist, A racist?  Perhaps we need to start with some basic study or readings.  Perhaps we need to determine which terms mean which things for the discourse we need to have.

Do we have basic knowledge of the academic terminology but lack the connectivity to our own and others’ stories?  Then perhaps we need to commit time for story sharing.  We can start with hearing stories of those not within our circle through text. Then we can share our own stories while discussing the texts.  Perhaps we are ready or needed to benefit from making meaning of our racial reality in racial affinity.  Affinity groups can be powerful places for healing and mentorships – and to prepare us to better work across racial difference.  

Do we know and value teaching about anti-racism but do not know how that looks in our own pedagogies?  More importantly, do we continue to see racial discrepancies in the experiences of our students?  Do we have the will and capacity, but do not yet have the experience?  Do we not lack the cultural humility by following those who know better (including the students and communities themselves)?  There are many, many resources that help us to rectify this.  Many resources over many, many years (from Howard Gardner, to Geneva Gay, to Gloria Ladson-Billings, to Zaretta Hammond, to…)  

When we, especially those of us living in white skin privilege, have not yet demonstrated success, what keeps us from following those who know more?  Each us who is failing students predictably by demographics has firsthand access to experts who can help: the very students we are failing predictably by demographics.  

Now, in 2020 when everything is on the table and we say we are committed to NOT doing school as usual, let’s really commit to anti-racist teaching.  Whether our antiracist teaching takes the form of project based learning, or restorative practices, or collaborative learning, or community circles, or intentional scaffolding, or academic discourse, or peer mentoring, or ill-structured problems, or subject integration, or authentic assessment, or personalization/ advisory, or… we have work to do. Done with integrity, that work can lead to the results we have espoused to want for generations.  So, let’s work.  

Let’s commit to the work each and every single one of us needs to do to actively be working to be an anti-racist.  Let’s – each and every single one of us – commit to the constant study, practice and reflection for continuous improvement in our classrooms, schools, districts and boardrooms to demonstrate and model actual antiracist teaching pedagogies.  Let’s elevate the voice and history and excellence of the students and communities we are accountable to serve.    

Filipino American History Month (October 2018 #3)

Adding to this month’s theme of identity awareness, guest blogger Nicole Magtoto reflects on the skin she is in – in the context of her relationship with the San Francisco Unified School District.  In addition to graduating from and currently working in SFUSD, Nicole is SF-CESS’ Board President and, as she puts it, “an SF-CESS Kid”.


October is Filipino American History Month. As it closes, I’ve been reflecting on my complicated relationship with being a Filipina educator and product of San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD).

I am an almost model minority. This is a refrain I often use when sharing my own experience as a student from the late 1980s through 2001. As a third generation, native San Franciscan of mixed-race background, I experienced nearly every type of schooling one could that our public school system has to offer – alternative dual-spanish immersion, traditional public and public charter.

But, I also entered those experiences with the added bonus of carrying generational expectations as someone who was Filipina, Chicana and to a lesser degree Irish and Afro-Portuguese. Lesser, because in our larger context I could not pass as either, lesser because I did not experience the privileges of being white or white-passing, nor did I encounter the systemic racism of being black or passing for black.

“Almost model minority,” because my parents never fully enforced stereotypical Asian American values on me, all the while speaking Spanish and being visually read as Latina. This meant that I simultaneously lived up to societal expectations when I got straight A’s but also, consciously avoided getting involved in our systemically built sorting systems for brown folk like the gang affiliations that caught up some of my Latinx peers – San Francisco in the early 90s was an interesting time to say the least.

“Almost,” because even as a teenager, I had a complicated relationship with being Filipino – not quite Asian, not quite Pacific Islander, certainly not like other Latinx diasporas but still colonized by the Spanish. All things that I’ve spent years reckoning with.

As I reflect however, as we recently lost a pioneer in Filipino American studies, Bay Area native and local professor Dr. Dawn Bohulano Mabalon – I can’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a young Pinay (Filipina) in our schools now, in 2018.

I’m not the only Filipino who has a complicated history with being Filipino. Yes, being mixed certainly adds to it, but we as a people have had an ancestry that involves a lot of negotiation. Our history is one that’s been dotted with migration and influence from all over the world – our indigenous traditions poking through Malay and Chinese influences, Japanese and Spanish wars and U.S. military installation.

But here, in the Bay Area, we have found a second home. Since World War II brought so many of our grandfathers, uncles and family members to San Francisco (and the west coast of the U.S. in general) our families have easily (and not so easily) settled in the area and we have staked our claim. Like many other diasporic communities, we spent years trying to assimilate and simultaneously hold on to whatever cultural traditions we brought here with us.

In SFUSD, this manifested in the opening of the Filipino Education Center in accordance with the Lau Action plan in 1977 and a push to recruit and hire Filipino teachers, something that though diversity and inclusion have continued to be important, there has not been a specific focus on recruiting Filipinos.

I was in late middle school/early high school during the late 1990s when we saw a shift in how local Filipinos both saw ourselves and wanted to be seen by others. A push to recognize that there was no F in our native tongues (of which there are at least 185 languages) and a movement to spell Filipino with a P began in local higher education circles. We started to embrace the terms Pinoy/Pinay to describe ourselves – a term that could be likened to Mexican Americans calling themselves Chicano/a.

In the academic world – and in the spaces where young college students supported youth empowerment of Filipino young people (my own entree into the community beyond my family) there was also important dialogue about Filipino’s relationship to Asian America. Were we Asian? No. We did not experience the privileges that our brethren from mainland Asia did. We were darker, had complex histories as a colonized people, had indigenous roots that more similarly reflected the Pacific Islanders we were around. But, we still didn’t quite fit there. Our indigenous background had been – in comparison to our cousins in Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia – watered down or hidden publically by years of territorial rule. For a time, it made sense that we were potentially grouped with them, or alongside them.

I don’t believe 2018 is much different, and I have cause to think that maybe, for Filipino young folks it might be just as complex if not more so.

We’ve set a priority in SFUSD, to focus on closing the achievement gap for African American students, which, regardless of being an SFUSD employee and alum, is something I fundamentally believe will change ALL of our students futures. If we can find ways to do right by our African American students, all students will benefit.

But, the reality is that while that’s a district priority, and we are still wrestling with what that looks like, the experiences of other students are rising to the surface and people are calling for action.

Earlier this spring, the SFUSD Board of Education passed a resolution in support of better serving Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (NHPI) students. Though this group may be statistically small in our landscape of SFUSD, they are deeply underserved – their community is concentrated in the same areas of the city as our Black families and students, and though there is no basis for direct comparison, these students and families are disproportionately impacted by academic neglect, health issues and unemployment like their neighbors. Though the resolution was initiated by a collaborative between different City and County stakeholders in San Francisco, from a variety of backgrounds, the efforts are specifically targeting students whose lineages trace to Polynesia, Micronesia and Melanesia – which when considering that the resolution aims to increase graduation rates and post-secondary success, commit to collaborative partnerships with community-based NHPI Organizations that support our young people and hire more NHPI staff – this request is necessary it is also innocuous to our district priority of closing the achievement gap for African American students.

It is impossible, in that sense to not get behind this initiative. Yet I have a sticky feeling about it. I have a slight unease. There’s a nuance to the experiences of our most marginalized communities, that requires that we not begin to play some twisted version of the oppression olympics, that by calling out what communities need, we cannot also create a hierarchy of trauma – at least not when we are trying to serve entire communities of young people who inherited that trauma from all of us adults.

Statistically speaking, Filipinos are doing fine academically – fine relative to their other POC peers. Statistically speaking, the chronic health issues our community may experience are not disproportionate to our population size. Except for one thing that’s become more and more transparent. The 2017 survey results from the Youth Risk Behavior Survey have indicated that  Filipino middle school aged students in San Francisco Unified may be experiencing disproportionate rates of suicide ideation. While 19.4% of the 1,627 middle school aged students who took the survey overall indicated they experienced feelings of suicide ideation, 32.4% of the Filipino students had seriously thought about it. In a time when anxiety across the board is clearly at an all time high for people living and breathing in the United States, this particular data point has stuck out with community members in San Francisco and many are partnering to destigmatize mental health supports and dialogue in the Filipino community. Does that mean then, that this issue should somehow qualify them for their own inclusion in NHPI supports, should it somehow be compared to the needs of our island kapit-bahay (translation: neighbors)? Absolutely not. It’s merely worth noting.

So, when I consider my own experiences navigating among my kababayan (translation: countrymen), the stances, beliefs and customs I have inherited and, at times, distanced myself from – I can’t help but wonder, what world do we now have to create to better support these young folks? How do we create spaces where young people, of any background can inherit the truly best parts of our communities and arrive authentically in their own skin? Can we disinherit them from the trauma, the racial hierarchies we’ve created, and give them a space to know themselves and support each other?

As the movements for Black Lives have expanded over the last few years, there has been a small and quiet contingent of Asian/Pacific Islanders for Black Lives. To me, what this has demonstrated was that there is a possibility – in 2018 America where breathing as a young person of color is a risk factor- to dismantle the either/or paradigms which we are so enmeshed in.  There is a space for both/and, and it’s imperative we cultivate it for, and with our young people.

This is how I begin every day, in the work and in life – arriving everywhere as authentically as I can, carrying with me the layered experiences of being in the skin I am in – Filipina, Chicana, Irish, Cape Verdean, Native San Franciscan, Woman, Spanish speaker. Though I graduated from our school system 17 years ago, I recognize that our young people today, are similarly intersectional, similarly complex and know that it’s my duty to investigate and create educational spaces and conditions that allow them to discover their authentic selves.  Perhaps I can reach to this goal today by posing the following to you:

  • In the skin you are in, when have you experienced the complexities of conflicting identity politics?
  • In the skin you are in, how are you cultivating conditions for young people to authentically be who they are?
  • In the skin you are in, how are you showing up for those across difference, who may be experiencing disproportionate challenges, even when your own community’s needs are heightened?


Monthly Musing (October 2018 #2)

Back in 2013, I wrote a Monthly Musing calling into question the use of others’ cultures in the name of Halloween costumes.  The reflection was filtered through my professional lens as a teacher, administrator and coach.  In the past five years, a lot has changed – professionally, socially and personally. As a result, I am revisiting this topic through a slightly wider lens.  A little over a year ago, my partner and I expanded our family with a beautiful, 7-year old son across race from foster care who we hope to adopt this coming year.  For those keeping track, that is a family with one Mexican dad (Gary), one white dad (me) and one black son (D), (and a one Pekinese dog, Mimi). While my stance on the appropriateness of appropriating others’ cultures – in general and in particular on Halloween – has not changed (don’t do it), D has pushed us to think even more deeply and critically at our reasons why and how those reasons are relative to the skin we are in.  

A few months ago, while the family was swimming, D looked at my pale legs and said, “I wish I had white skin”.  Even our breaking hearts could not delay our responses to reinforce his incredible and unique and incomparable beauty and value – in the skin he is in.  We also sought to understand, so we questioned him, “Why would you want white skin?” He calmly responded with a tone of obviousness and seeming simplicity, “because its better.”  The conversation that followed included a call to our black family members who have committed to being a force of black excellence in D’s life.

As this conversation has evolved, D’s vocalized desire for white skin only surfaced one more time – a few weeks ago when we asked, “What do you want to be for Halloween?”  

Without a thought, D responded, “A white person!”  

The ensuing conversation clarified that this time D was not wishing to be white, but rather saw the opportunity to be white perhaps similarly to others who wish to appropriate cultural artifacts of others to perpetuate distorted caricatures of our most biased stereotypes.  Our first thought was to question what artifacts did this 7-year old associate with being white?!? (What came to mind for you just now?)  Was his idea rooted in aspiring whiteness, stereotyping whites or just telling his truth?   The whole situation reminds me of two recent stories.

A Tulare, CA high school, required by the state to change its mascot from “The Redskins” renamed their new mascot “The Tribe” (I’ll wait), continued and still continue to use images of Native Americans and Native American Costumes in their promotions and sports events arguing that the Redskin mascot is part of their tradition.  Around this same time, Frederick Joseph, an African American business owner in New York City, in trying to expose the hypocrisy of a similar conflict at the national level with the NFL’s Washington Redskins, wore a “Caucasians” mascot t-shirt.  The response from white people was quick and clear with one person calling him disrespectful even though she felt differently about the Redskins image because it was the team’s logo… it was owned by the team. Additionally, many on social media responded to Joseph aggressively including making multiple death threats.  Clearly It was difficult for those in positional and systemic power to understand that making a people the mascot for other people was dehumanizing – until it happened to them.

Whether it be simply donning the cultural garb (from sombreros to saris to kimonos to serapes to Native American headdresses amongst many) or actually using kits to take on physical and stereotypical features of specific cultures (i.e. Chinese, Jewish or even gay), there is no shortage of consumables in our Halloween or popular online stores.  After our conversation with D, a quick search at local and national sellers resulted in no comparable outfits or kits for those who might want to dress as a white person. While they may exist, searching for them does not come with the same ease or in the same saturation of results. But, why would it? Whose culture is for sale – and who has the right to benefit from others’ cultures is based on systemic power… and therefore, race.  

So obviously, our conversation with D was complicated by the tension between the brilliance in his vision for flipping the script and the risk in actualizing it in the skin he is in.  

This time, we decided to spare the 7-year old of the conversation WE wanted to have.  Instead we explored other costume ideas. And D, this little black boy in 2018 U.S. decided he wanted to be… a cop.  Ever since D joined our family, his love of the police has been explicit and intense. We don’t want to squash that – we push him to talk to and say hi to peace officers whenever he sees them.  We also know we have a responsibility to educate him on the reality of the relationship between the police and black males in this country. As part of that education, we decided to take a slight left turn this time.  We agreed to D being a police officer – and the family members, including Mimi, would go as the rest of the Village People. (See that?) Oh, and none of us will be going as the Native American member.

And yet, the story expands.  This weekend, visiting friends asked D what he was going to be for Halloween.  He replied, “A white police officer!”  As Gary and I did a double take, he continued to tell the story of how he wants to see others’ reactions when a white police officer tells them they are under arrest.  The next day, before we could revisit the conversation with D, his social worker came for her regular visit and asked D what he wants to be for Halloween. He replies, “A white supremacist police officer.”  My own mind exploded with questions.   

Where did he pick up the language? Us? School?  How is his image of the police changing? How is that safe?  How is it limiting? What does he now think about white people in general?  What does he think about the white people in his life? What does he think about me in his life?

We asked D to expand his thinking.  We learned that D does not have an exact definition for white supremacy or white supremacists but believes they are white “like ghosts” and as a result can go and be anywhere, “scaring off people like ghosts… Boo!  Boo!!!” We still are interrogating where and how D is learning these concepts (we don’t object, just wish to be informed supporters). But as importantly, D is pushing us to inquire, interrogate and expand our beliefs about appropriation – especially in today’s context.  

I cannot escape that my reactions and feelings when D said he wanted to dress as a white person, while still intense, were very different than my feelings when a white person wants to dress as a person of color.  (What are your feelings and reactions in either of these situations?)

On the one hand, interactions with D push me to recognize that we all want to be seen and heard as valued and valuable beings – not to be dehumanized.  On the other hand, I cannot forget that there are realities – and emotions – associated with these different experiences based on our histories and the power structures attached to them.  I do think it is different when a person from an historically, marginalized community seeks to objectify the identity of those who systemically oppress them. I am not saying it is right (or wrong), just different than when those who are backed by the longevity of systemic and unearned power and privilege seek to objectify the identity of those whose identity they are pathologizing for the sake of maintaining unearned power and privilege. For example, what it must feel like for our Mexican and Mexican American (or Muslim or LGBYTQ or Jewish or female or….) brothers and sisters to experience the daily deluge of false and invalidating statements, images and attacks on their identity only to witness some of those same people using their very same identity to profit either monetarily or experientially?  Seriously.

I move into this Halloween season, challenged by the innate wisdom of a 7-year old to make connections AND to differentiate.  I am reminded to hold with complexity the paradox that we all want to be treated with humanity… and how given our histories, dehumanizing acts are not experienced equally.  

In seeking humanity for all, those of us with historically and systemically unearned privilege and power have unequal responsibility to embrace and understand our own narratives while not weaponizing them to invalidate the narratives of those who are not like us.


  • In the skin you are in, what are your feelings about the appropriateness of appropriation?
  • In the skin you are in, how do your feelings differ depending on who is appropriating whose culture?  
  • In the skin you are in, when have you taken from others’ cultures?  For what purpose? How do you feel when others take from yours – in the skin you are in?  


Educational DNA (October 2018 #1)

What Is Your Educational DNA?

With a new school year underway, I am thinking about new beginnings.  It is not unusual for our educators, students and families to consider this time as an opportunity for fresh starts – a reasonable and hope-filled thought of wiping a slate clean of past incidents, behaviors or patterns.  With this thinking also comes a risk of over simplification that erases the impact of our history. I believe history should be respected – even painful or challenging history. Specific to our work as educators, I contend it is impossible to consider how schools reproduce biases and inequities for our current youth without considering how the institution that is school has played out in our own lives.  Psychologist Carl Jung suggests, “until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”

Specifically, as we consider our histories, I push us to consider our educational history – or more complexly, our educational DNA or the educational values, beliefs and expectations espoused and modeled by our families, tribes and cultures (informed by their own educational experiences) and the educational messages and practices we actually have experienced in our own schooling.  The work of exploring our educational DNA is constant and continuous identity work that pushes us to explore and interrogate our individual and collective histories to better understand our schemas and cultures, values and biases as they show up with and around us each day – consciously and unconsciously. Towards the goal of making the unconscious conscious (or the invisible visible), we at SF-CESS ask our partners to name “the skin they are in” as well as to unpack their equity and leadership stance in any given situation.  As participant facilitators, we constantly ask the same of ourselves.

So, this “new year” I wish to make transparent my own reflection of my educational DNA and equity stance – in the skin I am in.  I offer this – not only to challenge you to do the same, but also (hopefully_ to Illustrate how constant and continuous personal identity work (as it relates to our professional work) requires imperfection, incompletion and vulnerability – conditions that continue to be counterintuitive in our school and leadership models.  While this reflection comes on top of years of exploration and interrogation, it looked very different when I first started and is sure to look different in the future after additional the mistakes, successes and reflection I have yet to have.


On My Educational DNA… An Incomplete and Ongoing Reflection

I am a product of public schools.  As a product of public schools, I both have been overtly a benefactor of the racism and sexism historically and systemically embedded within our educational system’s design, and simultaneously a target of its inherent, complex and regenerative classism and homophobia.  My experiences growing up as a working poor, gay, Lebanese/ Italian student in white male skin has served to construct and instruct my perspective of the work in which I now find myself.

White and male, I heard explicit and implicit messages that conveyed expectations for me to succeed in school (e.g. “You’ll make a great doctor,” lawyer, etc.).  Yet gay and closeted (and despite well-established statistical evidence that suggests at least one LBGT student can be assumed to be in any class of 30 students), I heard the consistent message in classrooms, cafeterias, schoolyards, and halls that school was not a safe place for people like me – and therefore, not a place for me.  My “dual” identity gave me the privilege of being in the room, unknowingly undercover, as those around me discussed their intentional hatred for and fear of a group of people that included me.

My parents wanted me to excel in school even though they struggled to find their own access to my formal education in a system that had not always served them.  My mother earned her GED, and thanks to the GI Bill, my father attended night school for his Associates Degree – but never left his role as a factory worker.

I attended a college-prep high school that predominantly served wealthier students from the East Side of Providence, RI.  The assumption and expectation was that my family, from the west side, would be the primary support for my journey to college. I was to be the first in my family to attend a four-year college right from high school.  

After repeatedly trying to meet with my counselor to begin my college application process, I finally caught her in passing.  She told me she did not have time for me; “Besides,” she reasoned, “your family cannot afford college.” That year, I had scored in the top 10-20% of standardized tests.  

Finally, after years of hearing and rebelling against the message that school was not for me, I listened.  I cut 80 days of school in my Senior year. No one seemed to know. No one checked on me. No one called my family. No one failed me.  Invisible, ignored and de-humanized, I heard that my education did not matter; I learned that I did not matter.

My family’s message about the importance of education was consistent.  Their messages about school were different, as they saw education coming from not only school, but also home.  While they recognized that the two did not always align (school was for book knowledge and home was for life lessons), they did expect us to be respectful and obedient in both places.

As my education advanced and my social skills matured, assumptions about my background perpetuated.  Simply by looking at my skin color and hearing me talk, those around tended to be quick to assume my history – including the assumption that I came from a family more affluent and formally educated than was true.  It was less frequent that these assumptions were checked, and as a result, I once again found myself amidst people who discussed my life (welfare/ food stamps, working class values, multiple-language families, worthiness to have certain privileges such as recreation, transportation and food) without actually realizing I was in the room.  

So much of our Educational DNA is determined by the skin we live in.  In America, the skin we live in is defined first and foremost by race; it also is so much more.  It has been my experience that unexamined, the skin I am in can be baggage weighing me down; examined, the skin I am in serves as a source of great pride and strength – of liberation.   Exploring the skin I am in both excites and frightens me. That is the first thing I need to remember.

The skin I am in is so much more than the skin you see, and yet the skin you see is so much of who I am.  Even in all my complexity, the institution that is public education automatically and inequitably favors me as a white man.  Furthermore, I purport, that regardless of my espoused and sincere values and beliefs, I always have the option to discount my less visible target status by embracing and taking advantage of my skin privilege. Absent intentionality, I ultimately will.  Thus, I must commit to the continuous self-examination and consistent work towards serving as an ally, agent and accomplice across difference.

My professional stance has evolved from a culmination of experiences – my own, my family’s and those of the people with and for whom I work.  Beyond my own formative years as a child and student, my professional identity is challenged and transformed by the stories of my students, colleagues, and families.  These experiences influence my decisions, results and reflections. I carry them with me whenever I walk in a room.

What I know today is that I am committed to the equitable education of youth – specifically and first for the benefit of those who are not provided equitable access & opportunity (most often our black, brown & poor students). Growing up in a working poor family taught me the value of humility as an essential leadership trait. AND ALSO, given the repetitive & predictive data in our schools & communities across difference, I believe I need to build on and from my actual experience & knowledge gained over nearly 30 years of service, study and results.

Thus I, in the skin I am in as a queer, white man, bring to my work a tension of recognizing that I always will know less than I need to know – particularly in service of communities to which I do not belong – especially across race, language & gender, AND ALSO that, I feel urgency to use what I do know to vigorously & unapologetically interrupt & transform inequities when they are in front of me and constantly work with and for others to create conditions for them to do the same. 

So, what is your educational DNA?



Awareness (March 2014)

In what ways does your community deepen its collective and individual awareness?
How do you intentional build community and trust in your school? How do you intentional build community and trust in your classroom?  What is common or different? 
To what extent and purpose is your adult community committed to adult instruction and reflection?  What does that look like? 

School reform is complex. It is more than any one “right” curriculum, standardized assessment or legislation can solve.  Furthermore, given the history of power and privilege in America and American institutions such as our education system, even the most effective curriculum, assessment and instruction must be supported by dynamic conditions in support of constant inquiry, interruption and improvement – transformation.

A wise, local funder supporting a family engagement project of ours told us, “Don’t tell me that this family engagement plan will improve math scores.”  She had done enough of her own homework not only to recognize that many conditions and systems are needed to impact any such improvement – and authentic family partnership was a one such condition, not a direct cause for accelerating success and improvement for students.

With a mission to interrupt and transform our current reality in public schools, SF-CESS’ work intends to name, model and help create these conditions.  In the next weeks, Monday Musings will review the four stages (Awareness, Interruptive & Catalytic Experiences, Meaning Making, Action & Assessment) and related conditions we consider necessary for teacher – and school transformation.  This week, the focus is Awareness.

“True knowledge exists in knowing that you know nothing” – Socrates



Before we can transform who we are or what we do in any intentional way, we must know not only where it is we wish to go, but also from where we started.  We must be aware not only of our current reality but also of our own stance and schema of this reality – in the skin we are in.

Schools spend tremendous time and resources assessing the current reality for their students and exploring prescriptive efforts to change those results – yet the patterns of who is served and not served in our schools persists across every corner of this country. Understanding our current reality requires an understanding of our history and how it impacts (intentionally and unintentionally) our present situation.  Educators and families and the larger community (including legislators) must learn about and discuss the history and design or public education in relation to our current results.  And as long as our equity gaps are inseparable from racial demographics, we need to speak openly and courageously about the legacy of slavery and the reality of race and power in America (and our schools) as well.

Given that the experience gap between so many of our educators and their least reached students includes an educators success within the very system they are challenged to change, schools also must be places where individuals can engage in ongoing inquiry and learning about their own histories – in the skin they are in – that inform their schemas (believes, mindsets, values, stances, etc.), which play out in their daily interactions and decisions.

This type of inquiry and learning is frequently de-prioritized or dismissed as “touchy-feely activities”.   When done well, this characterization could not be further from the truth.

When done well, this work does invite us to engage our affective domain – an essential component to work in today’s educational system.  Why should we not create space to do affective work given that the current reality – if looked at with honesty – should cause outrage, sadness and fear?   Still, such work is a leap from business as usual for many schools, so time and attention need to be committed to creating the conditions for the honest exploration of our histories and current realities – individually and collectively.

We have learned that some conditions and their related strategies support and develop individual and shared awareness. While not exhaustive, these include Intentional Community and Trust Building as well as Instruction and Reflection.

Intentional Community and Trust Building
To move a school culture from the limited paradigm of head and hands work only to that of including the work of our hearts and histories requires a deeper level of honesty and risk taking.  This requires an investment in developing community and trust between individuals and as a collective. There is a litany of resources for developing trust and community, the least of which include:


  • Calibrating and using a common purpose for the community – this work occurs at many levels, from the organizational mission and vision to objectives and goals for collective meetings and work.

  • Developing, agreeing on and actively using community and discourse norms and expectations – perhaps more important is also agreeing on and actively using responses when norms or expectations are not met.

  • Agreeing on definitions for the community’s common language – it is especially important to share understanding of power language such as accountability, collaboration, culture, engagement, equity, leadership, respect, etc.

  • Engaging in meaningful and intentional and meaningful trust building work – this needs to occur regularly in a manner and should model the community and trust development needed with our students and families.

  • Providing ample time and reflective prompts for regular and meaningful storytelling about our experiences, values and beliefs – these could include simple think-pair-shares, panel and fishbowl presentations, or larger group discussions such as Socratic Seminars.

  • Developing and using transparent decision-making and conflict-resolution practices – decisions and challenges arise normally in-group dynamics and conflicts frequently arise because of how we respond.


Instruction and Reflection

We can no longer reinforce cultures in which it is unacceptable to say, “I don’t know”.  Our learning must include data discussions and direct instruction in the areas where community knowledge is limited or isolated and reflection of our history/ histories – as a system and as individuals. Effective efforts include but are not limited to:


  • Engaging in regular equity-centered data based inquiry – one of the few benefits to NCLB is that our schools and districts have gotten very good at collecting, disaggregating and doing quick analyses on its data.  What still lacks is collective and courageous community discourse about the results and their root causes.  These conversations require time, care and strong facilitation.

  • Including the expertise of others – while it is true that public education’s systems do not naturally foster the trust and empowerment needed for educators to develop answers to their dilemmas, it also is important to recognize that as educators, we don’t always know what we don’t know. Just as important as it is to support peer-led professional inquiry and learning communities, we must create communities in which outsiders and outside expertise are welcomed to provide direct instruction and diverse perspectives – especially when our insiders have not demonstrated sufficient knowledge or representation to serve students unlike themselves.

  • Naming and reflecting on the skin we are in – simultaneous to deepening our awareness of our current reality and systemic design, we must reflect on our own experiences in this system and our resulting operant theory or schema for how we navigate within it – from our values and beliefs to expectations and biases.

  • Expecting and fostering humility – given the vast representation of dominant culture within our schools, many are challenged to adopt the humility necessary to fully embrace the multiple and divergent experiences, perspectives and truths about school and the conflicts these may surface between our espoused and operant theories of action.  Towards more equitable schools, humility is not a sign of uncertainty or weakness, but rather a necessary leadership quality that should be modeled and supported and evidenced in how a school looks at core systems from hiring to collaboration to supervision.


Leadership (February 2014 #3)

In a society that values leadership, how much humility do you need to be a follower?

Who are you willing (or not) to follow?  When do our least-reached students need you to lead vs. follow? 

Who do our least-reached students need you to follow? 

Presidents’ Day does not make me think about specific presidents, but rather about leadership… and responsibility.   Years after Uncle Ben told Peter Parker that “with great power comes great responsibility”, Julian Weissglass specifically defined leadership as “taking responsibility for what matters most…”.

As a principal for a school named Leadership High School, we adopted Weissglass’ definition and had a mission to empower each of our graduates to be able to lead.  Fulfilling this promise was built on a number of subtle assumptions:

  1. Underlying any effort to develop leadership, a belief that everyone could and should be a leader;

  2. The obvious indicator that one could only be a leader if s/he could have others follow her or him, and

  3. The recognition that if we all could and should lead, then each of us also needs and must be able to follow at times.

It is this third assumption that sits in my mind and heart today – and that will be the focus of this Monday Musing.

When I first reflect on “followship”, I think about who it is that I have followed in my own life. Three types of leaders surface as those types of leaders I have followed at different times and for different purposes: the “sexy” leader, the mentor and the expert across difference.

The “sexy” leaders, those who wow me with their passion and knowledge, usually had what some call the “it factor” (charm, bells, whistles, and a fan base).  In general, “sexy” leaders frequently received my espoused followhip before I could examine or engage in the depth or integrity of their actual knowledge or practice.  While many evolved to become mentors and experts across difference in my life, I learned others were inconsistent or had messages that grew stale.  Those in this latter group also were important and influential to my development, but their leadership was less for me to follow, and more for me to be critical of.  (The word critical does not only have a negative intent).

As my own work and responsibilities deepened, I found the importance of following those who had done similar work and to learn from their experiences – not only their successes, but also their failures.  The more I sought out mentors, the more I realized that context mattered.  It was not enough to seek mentorship from other teachers, principals or coaches who were considered successful.  Rather, it mattered where they were successful as well as with and for whom they were successful.  Did they work with similar schools and adults?  Were they committed to similar students and families?  Did our values and beliefs align?  And because context matters, were their own experiences of life similar enough to my own – did we share enough experiences in the skin we are in to suggest that there was enough affinity for mentorship?  Frequently my mentors not only have had success in their work with and for students, but also in their work with themselves as members of dominant culture.

With the context of my work ever-becoming increasingly diverse, having mentors or leaders with whom I share affinity serves as a limitation for what is possible regardless of who is leading.  Counter to my training to excel in dominant culture, I must have the humility to learn and accept what I don’t know – and NOT to think that everything is for me to know as much or more than anyone else.  This is especially true when knowledge and skills are uniquely experiential based on the skin we are in.  Given who we are charged to serve in public education, sometimes the best I can do is to follow the lead of those who know better – or more – than I do.  I constantly must remind myself to remain open to following others lead much more than my dominant culture upbringing has prepared me to do.

When I am blessed, this work with experts across difference is cultivated within my work environment, but an absence of such a culture does not serve as an excuse not to do the work.  Even though following experts across difference through collaboration is an amazing and powerful tool of change and development, there is endless research and literature available that offers counters to my own experiences, beliefs and perspectives.  I can develop as an ally and follower in many different ways towards the service of my least-reached students and students least like me.

On this Presidents’ Day, reflecting on Weissglass’ definition of leadership as “taking responsibility for what matters most…” has now brought me to consider that not only is humility an essential trait of any leader, but so is the very humble act of conscious and purposeful followship.


Doing Our Own Work (February 2014 #2)

What work do we need to do by ourselves and with our own people in the name of racial justice?

Happy Black Heritage Month… well “happy” may be a relative term in this case.  While I hope that many, many of our brothers and sisters who identify as black and African American are experiencing happiness, I am reminded regularly that we have days and months of remembrance not only to remind ourselves of and to allow healing for our history but also to educate and advance ourselves continuously so as not to repeat it.

Last week, a school in Concord CA (the largest city in the same county as Oakland, CA), chose to commemorate effort to Black History Month with a menu of Fried Chicken, Corn Bread and Watermelon.

Yes. They did.

For any of you asking yourselves, “What is wrong with that?” (some have asked), it is with minimal judgment (see last week’s Monday Musing) that I offer this direct feedback: do some work.  Do some homework and research and read on your own – or with your own – as to why this is a problem.  Furthermore, do some self-work; reflect on why it is that you may not know what is wrong with this situation – today.

This story was tweeted last Thursday; I actually questioned whether or not to give it attention in this blog.  On Friday, I got a call from a distraught community member and remembered – once again – why it is so important to point out the countless subtle and not-so-subtle racist occurrences, as they serve as steppingstones to the very overt and harmful.  This community member, an African American woman called seeking critical friendship for how to handle a matter that involved one of her children, a middle school student.  The child was in class being taught by a white male teacher.  As is frequently the case, the conversation moved to a tangential topic – this time it was about differently-abled people.  In one of her statements, the child referred to the specific disability being discussed using politically incorrect terminology that was used 20 years ago, but no longer.  The student was not trying to be funny or insulting; the student also did not know that one of the teacher’s parents was within the demographic of the discussed disability.

As it was reported to me, the teacher brought the student to the hall where he asked her, “How would you like it if I called your mother a **gg**?”  I want to be clear, the man did not say, quote – the n-word – unquote.  He said the word.

After the girl returned home and shared this information with her mother, it is not a surprise that a call was made to the school.

Sadly, as it turns out, the administrator who followed up with the man also was a Black female.  In their conversation, the man felt the need to use the same word – four times – in order to share his side of the story.

Pause – anyone who is trying to rationalize how this chain of events might have occurred reasonably, please see paragraph four above.

As I listened to the story, so much came up for me.  I felt tremendous anger at the misuse of power (multiple times) and the potential long-term harm that a moment may make.  I felt sadness for the loss of a teachable moment to help a young person learn about a disability and why certain language matters.  I felt my own challenge to approach every situation with love – while, in no way excusing the situation itself.  But most of all, I felt the recurring urgent need for my people – people who look like me – white people – to do a lot of work together and on our own, and how this work we must do should start with few, if any, assumptions of what is or is not shared understanding.

Given that, I want to share something that I wish was shared understanding – and for my colleagues of color, I apologize in advance. This message is not for you as I have heard from many colleagues across difference that they are tired of being in the presence of white people doing work at their expense.  Thus, if you choose not to continue reading, I fully understand.

To my people, the message actually is quite simple:

Never – ever use the N-word.  Never.  That simple.  Right now, if you are asking, “But what if…” or, “But what about when…” or, “”But why can…” – then stop.  The answer is simple: Never.  Ever.  If you don’t know why, that is ok (actually not completely) – but it is ok because you don’t need to remain in ignorance.  You can and should read writings from or talk to other white people who have begun this work for themselves (it never is finished).  You also should read about the experiences of those not from dominant culture (it is a great way to get other perspectives without having to involve people who may not wish to engage in this conversation – yet again); there is a litany of work out there.  If you don’t know where to start – consider a google search on “The N-Word”.

Most of all, it also is ok if you don’t understand why it is NEVER appropriate to use the N-word because you now know the rule: Just Don’t Do It. Ever.

Norms (February 2014 #1)

Who are we protecting – and silencing – when we suggest that a community can thrive without judgment?

Last week I attended a mini conference for districts that were partnering “less successful” and “more successful” schools with the intent of forming mentoring relationships.  As a former principal, and later center director in such a relationship as part of the National Coalition of Essential Schools’ Mentor School project, I was excited to attend and see what progress this mentoring model has made since CES’ original program nearly 10 years ago.

Good people attended with the intentions of doing good work, so it was a good two days.  The formal learning however, left me wanting more.  Not only was minimally shared about forming formal mentor relationships, but also the facilitation modeled practices that I had long ago learned did not foster the necessary conditions for these desired relationships.  I am a facilitation snob.  I know that.  But in our work, I have long learned some basics that have the potential to either make or break a transformative relationship.  One of the more subtle, nuanced facilitative moments comes when developing group norms.  For this group, no such work occurred.  We just moved into the agenda with the assumptions that we knew and agreed on how to work together and what to do when conflict occurred.  Even though people were playing nice, neither was true as evidenced by side conversations used to debrief and release minute tensions.  Perhaps the most serious was when an African American colleague shared that she – as one of only 6 black educators in a room of nearly 200 – did not think that she belonged in the room.  She explained her feelings were based on the reactions she received when she shared her experience of school.  Others, as she noted, “were put off” and the tension was never addressed.

I know that rolling out an arbitrary list of expected behaviors does not assure those behaviors.  But in my experience, not naming and agreeing to expected behaviors almost always assures greater difficulty achieving these behaviors in an intentional way.  Furthermore, a lot more work must be done besides “naming” a set of norms – communities must agree to and must make meaning of behaviors together – up front and ongoing.  Additionally, communities must determine how are (and develop skills for) individuals to respond to a breach of norms – before such a breach occurs so that the community is not experienced as reactive and retaliating.

When the norms of a community (or relationship) are not explicit, transparent, shared, who benefits – at whose cost?

So? Norms were not named up front, and we could have used some language to navigate tensions that arose.  We were all adults.  We should be able to deal.   But dealing is not our goal – transformation is.  Te very purpose of the mini-conference rose out of our limited success with students from outside of dominant culture.  So much of their limited success is based on being in schools that don’t level the playing field by making expectations and access to them transparent and equitable. Just because we don’t name our norms – does not mean we don’t have norms. Every community has norms.  All too frequently, when not named explicitly, the norms of a community are reproductive of dominant culture – thus serving many, but not all.

Even when we do take the time, I am surprised how many times the norms being introduced include standards such as, “be respectful”, “be on time”, “do your homework”.  I consider these job expectations, not norms.   In some professions, being disrespectful, arriving late or not doing your work leads to disciplinary action.  While I am not advocating for increasing disciplinary action, I also believe our students deserve their professionals to leave such basic understandings as unstated.  To me, norms should be the behaviors for which a community and its members need to stretch in order to reach.  Especially in public education, working and discourse norms should put us into dissonance – not comfort.

When we don’t take the time to name and make meaning of normalizing behaviors that challenge us to grow, we leave room for us to normalize behaviors that seem correct… politically correct, that may unintentionally or intentionally, and unconsciously or consciously, subtly or blatantly retain the status quo.  These positive-sounding but innuendo-laden terms include, “trust/assume best intentions” or “cause/ do no harm”.  Another one that was introduced and slipped into the directions before schools were supposed to discuss their work was, “No Judgment.”

A quick online search reveals “judgment” to be defined by Merriam-Webster as “an opinion or decision that is based on careful thought.”  Why is it that we want to norm NOT having opinion or decisions based on careful thought?  While I understand the unfriendly environment for teachers has put the profession on the defensive, I also believe we need to distinguish between being safe from unwarranted attack and being in the discourse necessary to develop as professionals.

As noted above, we need to be clear about our purpose in our work. We have to examine and be honest about our stance.  Are we seeking comfort or dissonance?  If we say we are committed to equity, we have to reflect on the extent to which interruption and transformation are possible without judgment – and commit to work on the conditions – and norms necessary for this work.

Once we have some understanding about the stance we have about the conditions we need, I challenge each of us to compare that stance to the one we take for the students in our care. Does our theory of change play out consistently with them?  In other words, for those of us who require a norm of “no judgment”, to what extent do we exempt our students and their families from any form of judgment?

Is that what our students need – to NOT having opinion or decisions based on careful thought?  Is that what we really need?  I truly believe most educators don’t believe this when espousing such politically correct language as “no judgment”.  I also think we are past this negotiation for a standard of behavior and may need to think about how such language may actually encourage and reinforce the limited participation patterns we espouse to interrupt.

SF-CESS has adopted and built on the norms suggested in “Courageous Conversations About Race”, (Singleton, G. and Linton, C, 2005).   In the book, the authors encourage individuals to consider how they best can (1) Stay Engaged, (2) Speak Their Truth, (3) Experience Discomfort, and (4) Expect and Accept Non-Closure when challenged by difficult work and interactions.  In addition, SF-CESS encourages that groups identify “process observers” who can help a community (A) Pay Attention to Patterns of Participation, (B) Maintain Contextual Confidentiality, and (C) Go to the Source when conflict arises.

Google Child (January 2014 #4)

What does it take to educate equitably, as Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children” when it means making visible and diminishing the privilege (and edge) of our own children?

This past weekend, my colleague Micia and I facilitated a professional development session with one of our middle schools.  The purpose of this mid-year retreat was for the staff to engage in reflective and collaborative practices that would allow them to more honestly and urgently take up the inequities facing their students.  For this school, for this year, they identified their least-reached students as their English Language Learners.  The guiding Essential Question for the day was, “What do our ELL students need us to know, do and be in order to most equitably educate them?”

Less than a decade ago, this middle school was the worst performing school in the entire school district.  After three years of consistent leadership and very focused transformation efforts, the school is now considered a good school… a good option for all diverse families of San Francisco.  Fortunately, the school has not eased up and strives to be an excellent and equitable school.

Historically in San Francisco, school improvement opens up new possibilities and new situations that bring both benefits and challenges.  In particular, one situational shift for improving schools is that they become more attractive to families who have been privileged enough to choose alternatives school wasn’t so good.  There is the potential for greatness from a richly diverse student population – especially when a school can build from the strengths of its various cultures and educate students to collaborate and excel within and because of their diversity.  Unexamined however, radical shifts in a community’s demographics also can lead to unintended, unanticipated and undesired results.

The school we worked with on Saturday currently faces these challenges.  As a school that has made tremendous progress in serving its predominantly brown, black and poor students, closing the racial achievement gap has become a major part of its identity… and program.  And because their success is now inviting white families and upper middle class families back to their community, they are feeling the pressure of dominant culture seeking to minimize the efforts that serve other students over their own, and to prioritize decisions and design that will better serve their own children.  Experience suggests that focusing on what our most privileged children need in isolation – or even committing equal resources to these new and welcomed students – will come at the expense of the students now being better-served than in the past.

For many, the challenge of equity is that it requires us to prioritize. The problem of equity and limited resources is that priorities define not only who should get more, but also who should get less. 

Back to the retreat: we challenged teachers to consider their own experiences, beliefs, values and priorities based on their own experiences (or as we say, based on the skin they are in).  We suggest that we need to understand from where we are coming to better influence where and how we hope to change.  We facilitated a piece of work in which we asked teachers to read a series of student profiles (short descriptors for how a student might see herself or how shy might believe she is seen).  Each teacher was to identify the one profile that best represented themselves when they were students.  After grouping by their self-identified profile, they discussed the strengths and challenges for their archetype and recommended to the larger group ways to best educate the student of this profile.  One of the fourteen profiles was written specifically for this school:

“I am a Google child.  Really. My Dad works for Google and he drops me off at school on his way to catching the Google Bus.  My parents questioned whether or not to send me to public school and decided this one was good enough and could save us a lot of money for other things.  We have to make sure the school is constantly giving me the education I deserve – but overall it is worth it and that is why we stay.”

During the session, no adults were able to identify with five of the student profiles and a handful created their own. This simply served as a reminder that these underrepresented students are part of the school and led to the challenge to consider how their voices and needs would be considered. The Google child profile was one of the unselected profiles.

At the end, we debriefed the process. Two members of the community – a white woman and a white man (both who previously had identified courageously their own connections to privilege in relation to their own students) had very strong reactions to reading the Google child profile.  They found it to be judgmental and negative.  The language of the feedback soon came to equate this Google child with white children (sometimes replacing the word “Google” with the word “white” – even though race was never mentioned in the profile.

What does it mean when we automatically associate success (i.e Google child) with whiteness?  How is it actually about white, dominant culture?  But also, how might this be another reproductive way of conveying low expectations for those who do not represent or are not represented by dominant culture?

Even though some of the other thirteen profiles clearly had similarly risky language attached to them (other profiles included an English learner, a queer student, a teacher’s pet, and a student contemplating dropping out), there was not a consistent sense of resistance to how the students were represented – and throughout the day, there was quite a bit of ease talking about these “other” students.  But when dominant culture people felt as though their privilege was being made visible, the rules seemed to change.  This reaction feels like an important issue on which this school – and all of us – should keep some focus.  Some questions that continue to sit with me:


  • While on the one hand, it seems natural that a parent would want only the best for her child, on the other hand one also has to question the role of those families who only participate in a community when it is good.  How should we negotiate this tension in PUBLIC education? 

  • What does it take to educate equitably, as Lisa Delpit puts it, “other people’s children” when it means making visible and diminishing the privilege (and edge) of our own children? 


Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (January 2014 #3)

Do we even know what Dr. King Accomplished?  …And how do we teach that?

I was the first of the children of my family to get an apartment.  Feeling like an adult, I wanted to host a family gathering – not just once, but as a ritual.  At the time, holidays were associated with family gatherings – and each holiday was “taken” as it was, by a different family.  Christmas Eve was rotated amongst my father’s siblings, Christmas was hosted by my mother. My mother’s siblings rotated hosting on Easter (and even Palm Sunday). On Thanksgiving, each family usually stayed with their own.  In hindsight, it was no surprise that no one in my family had claimed the holiday remembering Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Truth be told, many in my family were excited to come to my tiny, Providence apartment on Manton Avenue – mostly because with each family event came a ton of food.  When they showed up on this day, however, there was a surprise – a theme of its own.  On these day’s, besides my vegetable chili, my family also found themselves in front of a television playing civil rights documentaries, listening to music with revolutionary lyrics and always pushed to add the make-shift chalk-talk on the kitchen wall asking a personal question about their beliefs and values about the holiday, it’s purpose and the man for whom it was meant to remember and celebrate.

It would be overly romantic of me to say these events demonstrated the most loving and just side of my white Lebanese and Italian family.  What it did accomplish was to get us talking… talking about and keeping alive the man, his ideas and to some extent, our own awareness.

As this day comes around each year, I miss being around my family – but I also miss the intentionality of remembering Dr. King.  In our work, I frequently see – and use – Dr. King’s quotes as a motivating force for courage and leadership, but such acts usually occur over a few moments, in the context of a larger goal, and usually alongside any other number of inspirational quotes.  Today when I awoke to the rash of texts and emails from my family and friends stating, “Happy Martin Luther King Day”, I wondered, “What are we celebrating… or even what are we remembering?”  The challenge to myself soon became a challenge for how we might choose to educate our youth about this great leader and change agent.

Then as if in direct response to my questioning, a colleague shared blogger Hamden Rice’s very powerful and personal journal answering this question of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did (“Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.”  []

Rice’s reflection – and that of Rice’s father, brings meaning to Dr. King’s life in a way no single quote could. I could not help but to think about how we traditionally teach – or “cover” Dr. King’s life in our schools.  I am reminded of the African American high school student who complained that she learned about Dr. King every year… at the same time of year and with the same curriculum each time.  If, as Rice put it, Dr. King’s work for which he died was to end the terror for African American’s living in the south – and when we consider that so many of our African American brothers and sisters and their children continue to live in an America that can be terrifying based on their race, how is it that we don’t have more to teach our students?  How is it that we “honor” the man for whom this holiday is named, but don’t take up his work every day in our schools that continue to reach least the very students for whom he “marched”?

How much more will it take for us to rethink how and why we teach about Dr. King?  Consider…


  • Continue to teach about Dr. King – and other social justice leaders – throughout the year, not only when the curriculum requires for it, but also when the current events of our times call for it.

  • Include the message and teaching service in any curriculum.  When engaged in service, connect the acts of our students to those of our historical leaders such as Dr. King, Eleanor Roosevelt, Mahatma Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, etc.

  • Don’t limit lessons about our leaders to the rare acts of a few – get to know what is happening in your students’ communities to expand your list of leaders who represent students and their allies to include current and local leaders – including the students and families themselves.


To this last point, don’t just assume leadership is understood by example only.  Teach leadership explicitly.  Teach and reinforce the need for various leadership styles (i.e. Autocratic, Bureaucratic, Charismatic, Democratic or Participative, Laissez-Faire, People or Relations-Oriented, Servant, Situational, Task-Oriented, Transactional, Transformational), and when remembering Dr. King and others ask students to discuss his leadership style – and how it changed at any given time of his life.

What are you already doing?  Please share.