Personalization (January 2014 #2)

While visiting with some friends, the questions to catch up inevitably came to Zari, the youngest, a sophomore in high school: “How is school going this year?”

OK.  Good.?”  The last word was spoken as a statement with a subtle hint of question as she spoke the second half of the one-syllable word.  The look on her face was even more telling.

What is it?” we pushed further.

I like all my classes; it’s just that I don’t feel any personal connection to my teachers.  Last year, I felt like my teachers knew me – and I knew them, but this year, I don’t know it’s just not there.”

I was curious.  “What did it look like last year – and how does it look different this year?”

The biggest thing is that they changed our support class from right after lunch to the end of the day.”

Zari went on to describe what the support class was – and what it was becoming.  Last year, it seems, the school scheduled a support class right after lunch.  All students were encouraged to seek out additional support in the class of their choice, and students who had “D”s were required to seek support for those classes.

This year, the support period was moved to the last period of the day.  When I asked if students ditched school instead of going to the support class, Zari affirmed – but also suggested that the students felt like this was by design.

When I tried to see one of my teachers at the beginning of the year, I was told, ‘You’re a good student; you don’t belong here.’   So, I left.  Now I don’t even try; I just leave and go home every dayMy friends heard the same thing so they don’t go anymore either.”

She also noted that the new plan was not working for the students who were required to attend.  One of her friends who had a “D” in one class was assigned to attend the classroom of a teacher whose class the student was passing.  In essence, a time for students and teachers to connect around work was reduced to additional seat time for some of the students and early release for the remainder of students.

Last year,” she added, “I would just go sit in the room of one of my teachers to do my work – even if I did not need help.  When it wasn’t busy, that was when we would interact and get to know each other.  Last year, I felt like my teachers cared about me.”

When I suggested that this solution may have been created to address more adult issues than students’, Zari agreed.  I asked her what she thought the principal might say if this dilemma were brought to her attention.  Almost in unison with her parents, Zari drolly chimed, “She knows.”  Zari later added, “Some students brought the concern to the principal and she says the new design is working fine.”

Zari ended the conversation stating a goal she had set for herself, “My goal is to have never met my principal by the time I graduate/”

Working Fine – For Whom?

Zari is a brilliant and confident young woman.  She is a great student and is active in school – she is a percussionist for the band.  Her plans are to earn her undergraduate degree closer to home and to attend medical school on the east coast.  She lives in a suburban Californian city and her school is considered successful – enough.  Zari is going to be fine – she is going to be better than fine.  Her family is extremely involved and provides any of the messaging and support she may miss from lost relationships or connections with her teachers.

Still, I wonder; if such a straightforward decision – such a simple change in school design could play out so quickly and so viscerally for one with the support of Zari, then for whom did that same decision impact more seriously?  And if the design is “working fine”, when it actually is not, then how would anyone know?

SF-CESS is a strong advocate for Advisory class – a class in which one teacher is assigned to the same students over multiple years in order to get to know the student – and her family well.  An underlying assumption is that if school can be a place where students are known well, then those within the school will be able to make the necessary adaptations to make learning meaningful for each student.  Additionally, if a student knows that she is visible – humanized at school, then not only does she know she can seek advocacy from at least one adult, but also school can become a place where she can address or at least put aside some of the stresses experienced by youth and clear a path to more effective teaching and learning.

How are you connected to your students?

What do you do intentionally to create opportunities to make or deepen connections? 

What does your school do to assure that student connections are not random or happenstance, but rather assured for each student?

When I was Principal, I was proud of the year we established as part of our annual professional develop plan, time for graduating students to complete their brag sheets and then to be evenly divided into groups for each staff member.  Each staff member then met with and interviewed each of their assigned students in order to write a letter of recommendation – to be used for their college application as well as for a job they may seek.  It was an exciting time for students to know that the they did not have to be the most popular to walk away with at least their fair share of this simple resource that – for some was not always assured.

A colleague of mine fondly recalls her master teacher telling her that she goes into each year consciously and intentionally set to share specific information about herself.  That year it was going to be her love of chocolate and her divorce (I hope just as an update). While it came naturally for me, I like the idea of being intentional.  This year, I choose to make connections by sharing about my love for the homemade Lebanese food I had growing up, the lessons I learned about customer service from working at McDonalds during high school (it was a different time for sure), and as always I make my family with my husband public – but not get to share about our new addition – Mimi (our rescue Pekinese).

What would be the two – or three facts about yourself are you willing to share with your students in order to invite a more personalized connection?  What are you willing to do to learn more about them?

Restorative Justice (January 2014 #1)

If we were consistently guided by the goals of restorative justice, how different would our results, our graduates, and our society look?

I know this comes late, but I have been unable to stop thinking about the case of the kid with affluenza since I first heard the story.

On June 15, 2013, after stealing beer from the local Walmart, Ethan Couch, 16, drove his seven passengers in his Ford F-350 pickup truck at 70 mph in a 40 mph zone.  Couch was under the influence of both valium and alcohol – he had a blood alcohol level of 0.24 – three times that of the legal limit for an adult.  He slammed into several vehicles – including one broken down SUV, rolled his truck and struck a tree.  He killed all four pedestrians at the site of the broken down SUV, and severely injured two of his own passengers, leaving one paralyzed and unable to speak due to brain damage.

Besides being affluent, Ethan Couch is white and while some would argue he does not represent the majority of people in America, he is a member of the dominant power and culture from which much of our societal norms and assumptions are based.

6 months later, even though prosecutors asked for 20 years in juvenile hall with parole available after two years, the teen, who admitted to the offenses, was sentenced to 10 years probation but no jail time, and mandatory treatment for which Couch’s lawyers are recommending a $450,000-a-year rehabilitation facility in Newport Beach, CA.  Defense lawyers, supported by one psychologist, claimed that Couch was a product of “affluenza” – a victim who was the product of wealthy, privileged parents who never set limits for the boy and gave him everything he wanted.

The judge, Jean Boyd, who accepted this diagnosis, believed prison would not provide the treatment needed.


Besides feeling the outrage – that I hope and believe most of America felt with this illogical verdict, I also felt the injustice of inequity and inconsistency in this way of thinking.  I fantasize about this rationale being a consistent one in our society.  In particular, a few thoughts stand out…


  • If we truly were to attribute the cause of one’s actions so fully to one’s environment, how different might our justice system – and prison population look given the historical and institutionalized context of racism and poverty for so many of our prisoners?

  • If we truly believed that prison would not help “treat” offenders who are the victims of their environmental context, then what would social services look like – not only as a prevention but also as treatment of those who cause harm to others – be it vehicular manslaughter, or other offenses?

  • I also cannot help to wonder, if Judge Boyd believed the rationale behind her verdict was one that should be extended to other contexts besides the affluent, how might that have influenced her final decision?


Closer to home for me, I cannot help but to think about how even today, many argue that the current design of public education has proven effective for so many before (dominant culture) and therefore the problem in poor results may lie in those for whom it is not working (i.e. blaming students and parents or holding lower expectations for those with societal barriers).  If we agree that public education is, in part, meant to prepare our students for citizenship, then maybe Judge Boyd’s precedent-setting decision will open the doorway to establish our less affluent students’ cultural schema as the new standard bearer more than their affluent counterparts and should therefore inform, with less resistance, the design of what teaching and assessing should look like.

While it is unlikely that these fantasies of mine reflect what our larger system will come to be, this may be for the good as they, along with the actual reality of the case of the boy with affluenza seem to leave out one major variable – those who were harmed by the “victims” of affluenza (in this case the four who were killed and their survivors).

Over the past few years, many of our schools have adopted Restorative Practices (RP) or Restorative Justice as ways to address harm in our communities.  The goals of RP are to


  • Use open communication to build understanding of how individuals’ harmful actions have impacted others (including the community).

  • Have individuals take responsibility and be accountable with support to repair the harm that was done.

  • Develop a plan to ensure that the harm doesn’t happen again and to begin to reconnect and build relationships and to restore community.


Perhaps Judge Boyd should have extended her commitment to treating the harmed to the victims of the case before her.  Perhaps these RP goals could have helped her remember this focus.  While this tragic incident reminded me of these RP goals, it also reminded me that even our best strategies for justice are only as effective as their just application.  As usual, my wonderings lead me to more wonderings – WHAT IF… our justice system were consistently guided by these goals?  How different would prison and treatment for offenders look?  WHAT IF… our education system (not just some classes, schools or even districts) were consistently guided by these goals?  How different would results and graduates… and society look?

Love (December 2013 #4)

“Love is as love does. Love is an act of will – namely, both an intention and an action. Will also implies choice. We do not have to love. We choose to love.” – M. Scott Peck

Happy New Year.  I am not one for traditional resolutions; rather, I try to reflect on the year before, consider the current context and envision the year ahead to inform specific and intentional actions that otherwise not become a daily priority.  My resolution this year is the same as last… it may very well be my resolution every year to come: to love more.

bell hooks describes love as “a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust.” She says, “To know love we have to invest time and commitment…’dreaming that love will save us, solve all our problems or provide a steady state of bliss or security only keeps us stuck in wishful fantasy, undermining the real power of the love — which is to transform us.’.”

Her definition helps me to accept that real love is not limited to the less difficult (yet still difficult) task of loving what and whom I like.  No, my challenge is to approach with love even that and those I do not like – with as “a combination of care, commitment, knowledge, responsibility, respect and trust”.  This love will require ongoing and continuous work.

It is easy to say that I need to work on loving person who annoys me.  It even is easy to say I need to approach with love the person who is against what I am for. I recall when a student had a homophobic outburst in my last year of teaching.  I was surprised when the principal gave me, as a gay teacher, the option to remove him from my class permanently.  I believe I had enough care, commitment, and knowledge to recognize that I had a responsibility to educate even our homophobes – just not at the expense of those they feared.  While I lacked respect and trust, working to attain these was a difficult but reasonable challenge to accept.  When I think back, I wonder – if I was willing to teach this student who overtly expressed is disapproval of my very self, who were the students I was less or unwilling to teach (even unconsciously) and what could cause this vast difference?

Another black, young man died at one of my schools this month.  A ninth grader, he was the victim of gang related violence – and therefore the victim of the long reaching and iterative arm of racism in America.  He lay in a coma for nearly a week before passing. His teachers and administrators were very responsive to the needs of the community during this challenging time.  The communication and response when the student passed were caring and thoughtful.  The day before he died, I sat with one of the vice principals, a white woman who seeks to do whatever it takes to best serve each of her students.  She was sharing how much responsibility the teachers felt for the outcomes of their students.  I asked a hard question for this day, “Acknowledging that his life conditions are complicated, do they feel responsibility for the outcome of this student who lay in the hospital?  Do they believe their interactions with him – even if they did not cause this situation, may not have helped interrupt it?”
Absolutely!” she shared emphatically.

I opened her door to the adjoining room, which was the school’s “time out” room for students who are sent out of class.  It was less than 5 minutes into the class period.  There were 11 students in the room.  100% of them were African American.  About 25% of the school is African American.

This same month, a panel of “at-risk” students presented to the administrators of SFUSD.  When asked what they wanted of their teachers, besides good teaching they said they wanted to feel “loved”.  I believe the vice principal believes her teachers feel some responsibility for their students.  Yet according to hooks, responsibility alone may not let students know they are loved.  Some teachers might argue that removing a student who is acting different than what is expected may be “responsible”.  Do those African American students sitting in the time out room feel cared for?  Do they feel a commitment to their success?  Do they feel well known, respected, trusted?  What do they feel, think or believe when they look around and see only other African American students in the same room?

Now flip the script – think of YOUR least-reached, most challenging student:


  • How much do you care for her/him?  Whatever the answer is, does s/he know?  How do they know?  How would s/he answer this question?

  • How committed are you to her/ his success?  What are the limits to your commitment?  What are the caveats for your commitment?  Are these answers the same for each of your students?

  • What do you know about this student and her/his family and community?  How do you know what you know about her/him?  What don’t you know?  How does this matter to her/his success in your classroom/ school?

  • Regarding this student, to whom or what do you feel the most responsibility?  The student?  Her/his family?  The other students?  Your own job requirements?  When and how do these contradict each other?  How do you respond?

  • Do you respect this student?  Why/ why not?  Do you respect her/his culture?  What does that look like?  Does s/he respect you?  Why/ why not?

  • What do you trust about this student?  What does s/he trust about you?  What should s/he trust about you?  What have you done to develop a trusting relationship given all these conditions?


My colleague, Kim Feicke once shared that every action comes from one of two emotional drivers – love or fear.  Perhaps the first step to loving each of our students is to understand who and what we fear within our least-reached students – for without facing our fears, we may remain in the unconscious realm of fear – regardless of our best intentions and resolutions.

Take The Time (December 2013 #3)

As educators, one of our most valuable resources is time. What can we do with the time we have during extended breaks to respect and honor ourselves

In the midst of this week’s Monday Musing, my partner requested that I consider something on the lighter side as many are preparing to spend extended time with “family”, away from school – feeling both the joy and stress of various holidays.  (Perhaps I should put a bow on that idea, as I will count its fulfillment as one of his gifts this year.)

So, how do we spend our extended time away from our normal, daily rituals?  I realize that some within our communities don’t have the luxury of thinking about this as the answer is defined by prerequisites of childcare, travel to and from family, and multiple jobs.  For those of us who have some choice, this can be a great time to dedicate some advance thought and intentionality towards reaching goals that sometimes fall between the cracks of busy lives.

How do you prioritize your lists?  Do you think of the tasks to do for ourselves first?  Others close to us?  Our jobs?  Do you consider what must be done vs. should be done… vs. would be nice to do?  Why?

As I think about the importance of being intentional about my own time, it makes me wonder what my expectations and beliefs are about my students’ time.   Where do these come from?  How do I check these assumptions, and how do I communicate them through my stated expectations?  I frequently consider how, when I was in the classroom, I frequently communicated to students how break was the perfect time for students to ramp up and do a lot of extra work – while I was expecting that for me it was the perfect time to shut down and take a restorative break from work (neither ever played out.)

What is possible beyond the normal rituals of this season? Before we let the rush of the season take us over, how much would it take for each of us to answer for ourselves, “What do I need to do… what do I want to do with the time I have?”  After asking around, some of my favorites are listed here:


  • What is the book that you need for your own professional growth?  Read it… after the  one you have been wanting to read to escape the pressures of responsibility.

  • Take out a map and consider the communities within driving distance that you have not experienced – go for lunch with the goal of talking to a set number of strangers.

  • Write a letter – a real letter with a pen or pencil!  Mail it with a stamp.

  • Play a board game while sipping warm beverages.

  • Talk to an old friend at the kitchen table.

  • Think back to your childhood and a favorite memory for this season – how can you re-create it with someone you love?

  • If you are one who finds yourself cramming on tax day, maybe this is a good time to get some home business in order – while sitting at an outdoor café.  (It doesn’t have to be taxes, you can organize photos or mend socks or do whatever helps you to relax and feel a level of accomplishment).

  • What is the dish you love to make (or eat) that your normal schedule rarely allows you to make?  Bon appétit!  (Mine is 12-Hour Vegetarian Chili.)

  • Remember all those people you love who you always say, “I can’t believe how long it has been.  We have to make the time to get together!”  Reduce that list by one.

  • Repot a new houseplant to freshen the air in your home.

  • Take at least three unscheduled naps.

  • Listen to the song that always makes you dance – but they don’t play on the radio anymore.

  • Go to the local museum/ galleries you know least about.  Bring a sketchbook.

  • In one day – write one poem and take one great picture.  (I actually do that one on my birthday.)

  • Make a list of all you have to be thankful for – and every morning, commit to holding one in your mind, your heart and your hands.

  • Pay it forward.  Find some way to give back (service, resource, etc.) during this time.

  • Think about the student you do – or should – have a personal relationship with.  Reach out and connect with her/him… just because.


Happy Holidays.  Happy Winter.

Healing Harm (December 2013 #2)

“The time for the healing of the wounds has come.” – Nelson Mandela

I join the world in grieving the loss of a man who reached hero status for those who value justice and freedom.  I first got news from a New York Times tweet.  I remember feeling both sadness of the loss and celebration of his life and the unifying impact he had on our world.  Living in Oakland, I have heard from many who remember fondly the opportunity to hear him speak in our city some 23 years ago.  I was not there.  Yet, I too have been fortunate enough to feel the influence of his life work.

In 2005, SF-CESS had just formed and I was growing the organization slowly while I remained at Leadership HS as its co-principal. I received a call from the Oprah Winfrey Foundation, which was in the midst of planning its new school for girls in South Africa and upon researching schools, wished to learn more about Leadership. After a few planning meetings, it was decided that I and a group of my teachers would fly to Boston and join the school’s design team to conduct two days of training about some of our core programs (leadership, Advisory, professional development, etc.)

As is the case with our work, it took only a little time of collaboration between the richly diverse South Africans before invisible influences and squelched squalls surfaced. On day two, I decided to pause the work and to facilitate a conversation instead. While any attempt to codify what happened would oversimplify it, what I can say is that the discussion that followed was amazing. In hindsight, I believe I may have been experiencing one of the most mature race-based conversations I had ever witnessed – not because the group dynamics had evolved beyond the pain of apartheid, but rather because the group had embraced and accepted its reality.

It is no surprise that discussion of important school design decisions that would either interrupt or perpetuate historic oppression evoked emotions. Yet, these emotions were neither feared nor dismissed. Furthermore, the managing of these emotions did not seem to break down strictly along race. Rather, there was a collaboration amongst the members of the team (obviously not to the person) in which black South Africans spoke – AND WERE HEARD – with authority and respect, and also some white South Africans served as allies across differences to bridge the work between divergent perspectives.

When debriefed and questioned later, the South Africans spoke passionately of all the arduous work that followed the end of Apartheid. Specifically the Truth and Reconciliation Commission provided opportunities for mass and symbolic truth telling and healing. Many said that the resulting catharsis allowed for the collaboration that we were witnessing.

I sat in awe. We were asked to join this team to provide “training” around some technical components of schooling that could and should be liberating, and in turn they modeled what true liberation could look, sound, and feel like! (I could not help but wonder what America might be had we committed to similar nation-wide work immediately after our civil rights movement.)

To this day, my work values – even more than it did before this experience – the importance of healing, collective meaning making and alliance building for liberation. As educators, if we truly believe education equals freedom, then our schools must include this work! I frequently hear critique from those less comfortable with the affective work of healing and relationship building: “We don’t need touchy-feely work,” or “Show me how this work will improve test scores.” No one in that Boston hotel room would have suggested that the work of the commission alone led to all the results they were experiencing as a nation (nor would they say they were close to finished); but what I heard from them that day was that their progress was at least in part due to the Commission’s necessary work.

As educators, administrators and decision makers – in what ways do we explicitly and intentionally create opportunities for students to heal and learn from the pain and damage systemically caused by schools and society?Schools and districts must be places where our most disenfranchised and least reached can be heard – not in general, but by those who cause harm. Consider how any of the following do or should occur:


  • In classrooms and schools, where discipline practices are designed to be disproportionately punitive to and to retain and regain control over our black and brown students – are we willing to introduce and use restorative practices to allow for healing to these same individuals and their communities?

  • Are adults, who frequently represent dominant culture, off limits to accountability or are there systems to allow for mediation and healing when an adult hurts another (adult or child)?

  • When districts make decisions that will have long-standing impact on our underrepresented communities and their children, how are these communities informed and involved? Do they provide input?  Are they included in the decision?  Are they responsible for the decision?

  • Finally, if we are accepting of the fact that damage already has been done – and continues to be compounded for many in our community based on their demographics, what are we willing to do – or not do; what power are we willing to relinquish, and what diverse leadership are we willing to follow in order to make amends and ultimately prosper as a whole?


“Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela

Thank you President Mandela.  May your spirit and influence live on.


Tis The Season To Be Inclusive (December 2013 #1)

How should we celebrate a season as inclusive when capitalism and dominance promote exclhat can our schools learn from the legacy of Nelson Mandela?

Even though our family was considered “working poor”, we never went without the absolute essentials.  We had food; we had shelter; we had clean clothes. Yet, as I experienced other families and societal messages, my sense of want increased – and my self-image and confidence skewed.  I am a grown man now.  I have a good job.  I have my doctorate.  I have a house.  I have a lot of stuff – property.  I am not that young man anymore – and yet he is still me.  At time when the poverty rates in America (and in our schools) is at their highest since the mid-1960’s, I wonder how our working poor and poor students navigate in a world that has become increasingly more commercial – where status (and sadly humanness) are defined by our property rather than our person.

Oddly, when I think about status – I sometimes think about backpacks.  Backpacks were not always a staple for students.  It was in high school that I first realized more students now owned them than not.  I was still carrying my books under my arm – or when there were too many, in a re-used plastic shopping bag.  The first time I remember thinking that I could – or should – have a better quality resource was one day when I was walking home.  On one not-so-unusual day I did not have enough bus fare; I started my two-mile hike home, and the bag ripped.  Something about the awkwardness of the book covers digging into my forearm made them heavier – and made me a little resentful.  Resentment can serve as a back door to entitlement, and I found myself asking why I did not have it as easy as other kids – or easier.  As a young person – these feelings were never more visceral than in December.

It was my first year of teaching that I learned December was a time when students – and adults – frequently feel depression.  This occurs not despite the fact that December is a time of many holidays – but in part due to it.  On top of a significant change in daylight, December marks a time when young and old are bombarded with mass images of resource-rich, nuclear families (usually from dominant culture) happily gathered in perfect homes, around lavish meals, and engaged in civil activities.  While I hope – and believe – each family can and should experience love and functionality, few if any families experience the perfect picture life together as the striven norm of these images.  Even though, most of us are well aware of the exaggerated nature of these messages, how many of us explicitly work to create an environment that does not perpetuate their message – especially for those students who are experiencing their own lives so vastly differently?

As an educator, I have considered, “What are the messages and norms we reinforce – without even trying?”  Specifically during this time of year,


  • Do we encourage or host gift swaps?  If so, what structures are built in the activity so that even a student who does not have enough money for breakfast could participate without incurring additional, unnecessary cost?  (i.e. You could encourage students to come after school and make gifts.)

  • Do you host potluck celebrations?  If so, how can students who cannot bring food still participate – without shame or unnecessary identification?  (i.e. You ask for volunteers to come early and help cook at the school or help decorate for their participation.)

  • Are you aware of and make transparent the cultural connections (or lack thereof) to any given holiday?  My partner worked in a school of students who primarily were from immigrant families.  Thanksgiving was not a holiday for them – but he still valued the time for them to reflect on that for which they were thankful.  Each year he and I would cook a full thanksgiving dinner for his classes at which they shared out loud the gifts and blessings in their lives.  Many said it was the first time they had a traditional Thanksgiving.

  • What are the “normed” rituals of society… and your classroom?  Is Christmas normed?  Is “no-holiday” normed?  One year, at an all-school celebration, the Activities Director asked for student volunteers for a competition.  Once on stage, he announced that the students would compete to name each of many Christmas carols playing. I stood in awe as I watched the one Jewish student (who could have come from any other number of backgrounds) as she stood there respectfully, but blankly.   Upon meeting with the student government reps later, I was proud that they heard the message so easily (more easily than the Activities Director).  They were ready to reclaim and redefine their own rituals to be more inclusive – and not at all exclusive.


The work to intentionally focus on equity is not easy – at least not as easy as maintaining the status quo; but, it can be exciting and rewarding.  Given the opportunity, we can redefine the rituals and messages of this season to be reflective of some of the more common values of community, love and hope.  Each of us, as educators has that opportunity.  What can you do?  What will you do?

Thanksgiving (November, 2013)

When considering our successes as educators, to whom should we be thankful?

At a meeting with a principal from one of our urban schools this past month, she mentioned that her school was selected by a local tech company to provide each graduating students a laptop.  She was very excited for her mostly-students-of-color to get the resource, but also was concerned by HOW they might be presented.  The principal questioned and worried the presentation of the computers might be done in a way that reinforced a “pobrecito/a” (“poor little boy/ girl”) syndrome in which well intentioned, usually dominant culture, people expect less from black, brown and poor students.

She struggled with her own emotions as a white woman who was leading the school of these children and calling out other dominant cultured people whom she easily recognized lacked the essential characteristics of humility and cultural competence while in this community.  She also was challenged by the conflict between taking a stand – and just getting some important tools to her students.  When I use words such as “challenge” and “struggle” and “conflict” I am describing what I consider to be very good work on her part.

She pointed out that the tech company had chosen her school because it had demonstrated great progress over the past three years, and as she saw it – when things are going well, everyone wants a part of you.  She knew she would have a little time on stage when the computers were presented and she wondered how she could direct influence if not direct the tone for the meeting; her question was simple, “What should I say?”

Of course it is probably because Thanksgiving is this week, but my answer also was simple, “Say, ‘Thank you!’”  Not to the tech company – we know that will happen, but to the students.  I encouraged her to flip the script… rather than set a tone in which we are asking students to demonstrate extreme deference to the point of reinforcing questions of deserving, what would it look like to model for this community to demonstrate humility and gratitude for a well-deserved reward.

In the end, she decided that she would give the message that the real reward was the results of the school and that these results could not have come without the students’ great work.  The computers were not only something that they earned – but something that they as academics deserved, they were merely tools for each student to further her or his work moving forward.

As Thanksgiving comes ever closer, I wonder what it would look like for each of us to flip the same script without the prompting of a local tech company.  Where have any of us educators found success?  At those times, how much did we attribute our success to our own – or to another adult’s effort?  Well-deserved as this may be, to what extent do we as educators ever correlate or share our successes with the work that our students have done?  Is this what is meant by partnership?  Are we consistent in how we look to ourselves and/or our students as the cause of our failures?

I challenge each of us – this Thanksgiving, when we offer appreciation for that which is good in our lives – think about (and maybe even thank) at least one student without whom our own success (small or big) would not have been possible.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Doing Good (November 2013 #3)

When is doing something good, good enough?

A question of the big picture, individual example and equity. 

If you haven’t heard about Batkid (a.k.a. Miles Scott) saving the day this past Friday in downtown Gotham (a.k.a. San Francisco), perhaps you were being held captive by The Joker – or just under a media rock.  Simply put, Make-a-Wish foundation, with the help of many who found Scott’s story touching, was able to entice thousands of San Franciscans (including our Mayor and police department) to partake in turning San Francisco into a Gotham scene for a short time so that 5 year old Scott (recovering from leukemia) could be granted his wish of being Batman’s sidekick and helping to save the day.  As a friend of mine put it, San Francisco was back to being San Francisco.  And, it would not be San Francisco if we also did not have some outlier voices weigh in on the spectacle.

“One of San Fran’s own supervisors, tweeted, “Waiting for Miles the BatKid & Wondering how many 1000s of SF kids living off SNAP/FoodStamps could have been fed from the $$…”

Another local celebrity who is very attuned to social justice posted on his facebook, “Ok, I’m going to say it. I can’t take it!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (sparks shooting from my ears).  It’s almost like the city used a terminally ill child as a platform for a big ass PR stunt. Even if the gesture was sincere- even if it was beautiful- it still unveils some major dysfunction in our social mind.”

Even someone in my own family questioned, “I wonder how much of the response from the public has to do with the fact that this is a white kid?

I don’t reference these comments to identify this year’s contenders for holiday Scrooges; rather I deeply support the discourse of critical inquiry.  And, what frequently results from such inquiry happened for me – uncertainty – and thus, this week’s Monday Musing.

In full disclosure – I thought the Batkid event was awesome! Besides my own lifelong commitment to supporting young people, I am a huge superhero fan – I even have a framed Batman poster signed by Bob Kane.  When I first heard the comments above, I thought, “Awe, come on.  Let a kid have his wish for god’s sake.”  Then as I thought further, I reconsidered.  While timing may have been less-than-optimal, what is wrong with taking up these questions?  After all, engaging in this discourse does not equate with accepting premises as true, but rather models the act of shared meaning making for important topics.  As I engaged in more discourse, I was reminded that we sometimes situate our world and ourselves into forced “either-or”, “right-wrong” dichotomies.

The truth is that the money that went into funding this effort could have fed many hungry mouths, but then, so would the billions of dollars held in the coffers of Google, Apple, and so many other Bay Area entities.  As I understand, much of the money for this event was donated – and the event was used as a vehicle for additional fund-raising for the foundation.  Does the fact that this event was a charitable one somehow give us the perceived right to say whether or not and how it should occur?  Isn’t this what happens with our public education system every day?  Because it is publically funded – and perhaps because most of us went through the system, there seems to be an overwhelming capacity to dictate what public education should be, and what teachers, parents and students should do – from afar. 

I am troubled by the (history-informed) hypothesis that Batkid’s race played a role in how Joe Public responded both to him and to the event as a whole.  I am troubled because I absolutely believe this is true.  But, I struggle with a response for while I wish a young black child would have received the exact same level of excitement, warmth and response, I also don’t believe that a solution is as simple as not affording this opportunity to this white child.  Those of us who fight for educational equity are well aware that the wrong way to achieve this goal is to lower the bar for everyone.  So, I do struggle – I struggle to consider how to continuously fight for equity – while not losing sight of the individual.  I wonder what it might look like to plan a celebratory event such as this one through a lens of equity – without losing the celebration and without being too political?

Ultimately, Friday represented a good deed being done for a deserving child – and yet, I believe the investment and payoff was much greater.  As I received emails from family and friends across the country sharing how inspired they were, I could only hope that this story would have a “pay-it-forward” effect.  As one onlooker stated to a local reporter,  “This just restores your faith in humanity.”

Fall Forum (November 2013 #2)

Fall Forum 2013 Continues to Develop Community and Reenergize Educators

Many associate November with harvest.  The harvest is considered a time to gather and reap the benefits of our earth’s bounty.  This past weekend, The Coalition of Essential Schools’ Annual Fall Forum concluded here in San Francisco – and it proved to be a harvest as more than 400 amazing educators from across our country – and beyond – gathered and shared the riches of their wisdom and experiences with each other over three days – for the benefit of students and public education across our globe.

The weekend started with a pre-conference day in which more than 100 educators visited 8 bay area schools and participated in various full day workshops.  The school visits continued to be a highlight in which educators were able to realize they were not alone in their ideas and ideals for students and were able to see many of these enacted in other schools and contexts.  Additionally, one of the pre-conference workshops included a student leadership forum in which students from across San Francisco met and mixed with students from across and outside of California to deepen their understanding of advocating for themselves and others.  They then collaborated to develop workshops – facilitated the very next day – to Fall Forum participants in areas they would best serve to advocate for some of our least reached students.  The topics included how to build trusting relationships across diverse experiences. That same evening, Lisa Villareal from the San Francisco Foundation kicked off the formal conference with an amazing and moving message of hope for our students when we re-envision our schools as their previously conceived “community school” design.

On Saturday, our day started with the impassioned witness of San Francisco Superintendent Richard Carranza and the ever-informative presentation of Dr. Linda Darling-Hammond.  The one—two punch they provided became the backdrop of the entire conference and served as an example of how a conference not only can, but also should address both practice and policy in service of transforming our system – and our student experiences.  The tone of their courageous stances carried throughout the weekend as students discussed observing teachers and providing constructive feedback, and as colleagues discussed the difficult work and continuous work it took to develop as allies across racial difference.  The culmination of everyone’s commitment occurred on Sunday when all the participants formed equity-centered professional learning communities in various rooms and provided critical friendship to a brave colleague who volunteered a dilemma or unfinished work from a conference-related learning.

As we closed, members of this year’s forum referenced those within this newly formed community who influenced them.  One brave teacher, quoting Superintendent Carranza, proudly committed a willingness to risk being fired in order to do right by his students.  Another, thanked SF-CESS Coach and Comedian Dr. Micia Mosely, whose humor on Saturday night somehow allowed her to recognize and feel her “whiteness” for the first time in her life.  Yet another made new meaning of her work and charge in recalling Dr. Darling-Hammond’smessage that when given an impossible task, we will sabotage the situation – and thus we must work together to make what is impossible to any one of us, possible because of all of us.

All in all, the participants of this year’s Fall Forum demonstrated and reflected the reason I have chosen to attend for the past 22 years.  I left with a re-energized sense of commitment and a renewed awareness that when we gather together, we collectively can provide a bounty for our youth that is unimaginable when we work alone.  The feelings – the hope of participants mirrored the powerful message of hope that Lisa Villareal started us with – together we must and we can do that which we cannot do alone.

May we all have a bountiful year in service of our youth and of democracy!

Dear School System (November 2013)

What do we hear differently when students tell us what we already know from our own data?

Last month, I was asked by a district to conduct a focus group of African American students who were experiencing challenges in their academic progress.  As is true for so many school districts, this one has identified African American students as one of the sub-groups it is least effectively educating.  With the students’ permission, I did a mash up with the students’ collective quotes and wrote a letter from a composite African American student for that district.

At the end of this week, we will be hosting CES’ annual Fall Forum. This year’s theme is “Making the Invisible Visible: stories and counterstories for educational equity.” The message from the focus group students is one counterstory that makes an invisible perspective quite visible.


October 2013

Dear School System,

I am your African American student.
I am your black female student.
I am your mixed student who looks and identifies as a black male.
I am the student who has attended your schools since I first attended school.  And I am the student who has had experiences outside this school system, but now am in your hands.
I have attended your west side schools – and your east side schools – sometimes in the same year.  While the schools are different, my experience has not been.
I am the black student who did not do so well – because I wasn’t understood in my classroom – because I have a strong voice and good vocabulary.  I am the black student that might intimidate you.
I am the student who should have the same privilege as other students in class, but I don’t.

My family and my community expect a lot from me.  As long as I can remember, they have told me to go to school and get my education.  They said I would need it if I wanted to be somebody in life.
My Mom – she wants me to graduate.  She tells me all the time to do my work – not to become a statistic.
But my family and my community know – they told me – it would not be easy.
They taught me, “You are who you are, and you aren’t gonna get treated the same as everyone else.”  They told me straight up, “you probably won’t be liked.”  They even told me to expect people to hit me at school – but they also told me, “if someone hits you – hit back!”  They said,
“Make sure your ass graduates!”
“If you are not getting attention, sit in the front.”
“Do what you gotta do to pass.”

But it ain’t that simple.
I know you don’t like me
I knew in the kindergarten that you didn’t like me.
I knew in the fifth grade that you didn’t like me.
I knew in the eighth grade that you didn’t like me.
I know you don’t like me.
I get it. It’s ok that you don’t like me – but with all the effects of life out of school, I need someone to understand me – better.  I need someone who won’t start with the negative when talking to me.  Even in your black schools – where most of you and most of us are black, when all you say is negative, I hear you; you are telling me I am a lost cause.
Some of you act like you know me off the top – just because I came from a different school or because you looked at a paper about me or because you knew my brother (or someone you thought was my brother). I already know that is what you do – and I hate that.  I know what I need to do; I just need acknowledgment of what I am feeling and experiencing.  Can you talk to me and ask me where I am coming from before you judge me because of what is going on or what I am doing?  If you cannot – the conversation is over.
I think I am treated this way because you think black people act a certain way – not all of us do.
I think you probably have past experiences – and since I am black… I gotta put in effort.  Because I am who I am, I have to do more to get what I am entitled to have
It’s not enough just to do good work.  Even when I come in and am good right from the start, I don’t even get noticed.  But when I am bad, I am deemed as bad because you had a bad student before who was black. 

Ms. F. – Mr.. M. – Mr. O. – Ms. Y – Ms. K. – I know you don’t like me.
I see you when you are having conversation and then when you see me, you stop.  I believe you have something to say – but you won’t say it. You are the same as the woman on the bus who grabs her purse when she sees me.
But you do compare me to other students who are sitting still and not doing anything and tell me that I won’t amount to anything if I don’t act the same. I hear your message – I am not going to pass.  It is the same message even when I do the work or ask for help.
When I do what you ask, you say nothing – until I do something wrong.
When I ask for help – you don’t have time for me; then someone else asks for help and I see them get a lot of help and wonder, “why not me?”
When I don’t do what you ask, I get sat in the back – and then you don’t come back there.  I get sat somewhere you know you won’t come.
I have to sit in the front to get noticed – and still, I see others getting all the help they want with doing so much less.

Listen, I know you don’t like me, but I need credits.
I hear you; you are trying to push all your stuff on me and trying to convert what I am thinking to what you are thinking!
I don’t have patience to sit in your classroom.  So I fight – a lot, or I miss class – a lot.  But I need credits.
You expect me to keep messing up.  How is it that you gave me an F AND an S?
Don’t tell me to read from the book and make me teach myself. How am I supposed to learn if you are not teaching or helping me?
I learn the same way as everybody else does.
Do what you gotta do.
Teach me.

I want to pass.  I am scared.  I always try but the message never changes.
My family was right – I am treated different than other students.
I am publicly shamed – I am told I am lazy – then left not to be bothered with.
Still, I stay – even though I know this is not my place.
No one wants to feel like they are doing nothing, so at the minimum I can say, “I went”… and “see, you are not teaching me.”

I know we are all human.
When I think of you, I think of white people.
When I see you, I see white people.  (Even though it’s not just white people.  Even some black teachers act white.)
White people feel they are more entitled to stuff.
Not all white people – but white people
…think they know where I come from
…they are better and have more stuff….
Even in my own school, when white people walk in MY school – they look at me like I’m hella strange!
They don’t understand who we are and what we have been through – well some white people.
I don’t experience this with the teachers who teach me.

Can I have teachers who don’t come off as racist?  Can I have a teacher who works well with all races – can you check if they really know how to work with all races?
I need black history teachers – not just in February – but throughout the year.  It doesn’t matter what race they are – as long as they know what they are talking about – and won’t change it.  I have been taught about MLK and Rosa Parks and Malcolm X.  I know there are more people who can be role models – I just don’t know about them.  I feel like I am being kept unaware.
I want to be more creative in class – not stuck.  I want to work with teachers who have patience and are willing to understand me – and help me to help myself.
I need teachers who will try to get me to be successful – who will just try. 

Your Student