The Jose Vilson | Teacher - Author - Activist - Father
Jose Vilson is a math educator, activist, father, and author of This Is Not A Test. This blog community consists of educators, activists, and intelligent allies from all walks of life. They respect the points of view of others, and try to find progress and positivity in a major way.
On this Independence Day, I've been thinking about the nexus of "dreams" and "ideals" in the context of this epicenter we call America. Our classrooms teach us as much about America as the flag-waving, anthem-singing pageantry we engage in for its own sake. Observe:
As someone who was once “them,” you’ll never understand how much harder you’ve made it to get full educational rights because you refuse to see me and my people as human beings.
But alas, the students are victorious. Their diplomas will land harder than the punches once designated for you before you creeped off into the after-bell. Their smiles dazzle. Their intellect astounds. Their excellence humbles. The talking points that rock you to sleep at night will not faze them. The names you’ve hurled at them under and over your breath in the classroom has diminishing returns against the names they’re building for themselves. They will take the funds set aside for walls and make them into pocket mirrors to reflect the ugliness back upon you.
On June 19th, Riverside Church is holding a special Juneteenth event available to the public [RSVP here]. In addition to the celebration, the event will honor luminaries such as Harry and Gina Belafonte, Dr. Gail Christopher, Cristina Jiménez, and the #NeverAgain Youth Leaders. Below is an interview between me and Dr. James Forbes, senior minister at the world-famous Riverside Church in New York City. In the conversation, which was edited for brevity and clarity, he imparts wisdom on the importance of Juneteenth to students, educators, and the country.
Vilson: How do you see Riverside Church in this current climate? What’s been your vision in terms of moving the church forward in terms of what’s happening in the world of our country?
Forbes: In the history of Riverside Church, there’s this constant call to be champions. It is in Riverside [Church’s] DNA to be the place of celebration of liberation. For an example, in the early days, when Mandela was freed from prison, it was Riverside Church that he chose, saying “This church has always stood with us in the midst of struggle.” When Dr. King got ready to give his speech in , the clergy and laity concerned about the War in Vietnam chose Riverside. It was at Riverside that the speech was given a time to break silence in which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. says, “There comes a point in which silence becomes betrayal,” and he challenges our nation from that place. The Dalai Lama brought representatives from 12 different faith traditions to say “It is no longer appropriate for us to think that each of us is the only one giving the word of truth,” and so, he promoted an event where all of the major religions said, “We are united in God’s truth and the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have done unto you,” and so it is in the walls of Riverside Church to be the welcoming place for that which tends towards freedom and justice for all.
V: Wow, that’s excellent.
F: I might add that I was the first African-American pastor to lead the church and there were those who thought “That’s impossible!” But because it was Riverside, the ministers felt it necessary to say “We’ve been preaching justice and now that we got a chance to choose a pastor, we can’t let race get in the way.” Freedom and justice has always been in the DNA of that place!”
V: If a young student (editor's note: I explained from Pre-K through 12th grade) asked you “What does Juneteenth mean to you,” what would you tell them?
F: Juneteenth is one of the most important, but almost forgotten, holidays in the United States of America. Juneteenth actually was the first celebration where all Americans were free. On July 4th, 1776, we were free from the crown and with the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, but that does not include black people. We were only three-fifths of a person according to the Constitution and it is true that even when the settlers came from Europe, from England, women didn’t have the vote. They weren’t free. Every so often, we discovered that every group that comes to America has to go through the same process where they are not granted full freedom: the Irish, the Italians, Jews, Catholics. They weren’t free, and clearly the Native Americans weren’t free. So, in 1865, on June the 19th, a general was dispatched to Galveston, TX to announce that although [January 1st] 1863 was the Emancipation Proclamation, only the slaves in the separated states were set free. The slaves in the North were not set free. It was not until two and a half years later that every person in the United States was free.
You ask me why Juneteenth is important?! Because it tells a very important truth: that there have always been people who tried to delay the freedom and justice of others, but, in spite of their efforts, with the help of the Good Lord and those who were actually abolitionists and those who really believed in justice, that finally, and of course, it was Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation, finally, Juneteenth is the first day where all Americans were free! That is an extraordinary thing to remember! Remember that there are always those who delay justice but that justice finally breaks through, that freedom finally comes! So that’s why it’s a very special day for me.
It’s also special because it’s the time to celebrate the fact that not only were black folks free, the Latina/o population was free down in that southern border above Mexico, the fact that abolitionists, freedom-loving people, celebrated, no matter what their orientation or their ideology, the fact that Juneteenth is the first day we can celebrate that we are all free together. It’s the day where we rededicate ourselves to working, that all God’s children are free around the world, that justice is restored after the destabilization that we are experiencing during the color of crisis in our nation.
In New York, every ethnicity has its own day, but somebody said “We need a day where we can celebrate freedom and justice for all of us!” That would be Juneteenth! In Texas, there’s a big celebration, and there’s a commission in New York City for Juneteenth, and it’s celebrated sparsely here and there, but Juneteenth should be a day in which we celebrate with praise and legislated conversation and determination to set people free. It should be the day that clemency is granted to people not threatening to society. It should be a day when we actually symbolize becoming a post-racial society.
We’re not there yet, but Juneteenth is the day of anticipation where all God’s children should be free, and my determination started four years ago to help bring this great day out of the shadows and bring it to the forefront of America’s consciousness and let it begin to be developed as a great day of celebration of a post-racial society.
V: What do you envision as an educator’s role in the “Fierce Urgency for Justice” and the work moving forward?
F: The educator’s role is to be engaged in sophisticated pedagogy. By that I mean, a good educator knows that we will not respectably address racial bigotry and economic exploitation without looking at the ugly paths of efforts to deny and to delay such justice as we are thinking about. An educator knows the power of ugly example, the power of demonic delay, and the educator would like to have an agenda that does not gloss over the past but looks it squarely in the face to the extent that we tell the truth about the history of Juneteenth! Freedom-loving people all over the world would like to say “NO MORE, NO MORE, NO MORE!”
The educator knows that sometimes the best way to start people on the journey towards a progressive agenda of freedom and justice for all is to look out at the stormy past, over the bitter roads of which we have passed, to look at the example of folks who have made money long enough to cause them to deny human beings their fundamental rights. Educators will know that Juneteenth is one of those dates that dramatizes the horror of the past BUT it is, at the same time for an educator, a moment of exhilaration that freedom finally came! It is a moment in which both black and white can celebrate together, that we are headed to the promised land of freedom and justice for all! You can’t find a better, transformative symbolism than something that makes us look squarely in the face at the horrors of the past and causes us to drink from the fountains of freedom as we anticipate a new breath of freedom around the world.
Man, it should be an educator's field day to have the students research.
“What was the delay about?”
“Why did this take so long?”
“Why did this not happen before?”
[Have students] research the different theories as to why the delay occurred and give different theories as to who fought to make this possible. [Have students] give different theories as to why Lincoln made this day possible, the different theories as to what the real reason was for the development of slavery, what the ideological reason was and what were the economic and political consequences that gave rise to the development out of slavery that gave rise to white supremacist ideology!
I mean, we should have a whole course in the curriculum in major universities entitled “Juneteenth: With and Where To?”
Educators will say it is not enough to engage in the dissemination of information, that transformation also requires celebration. That’s why we’re gonna celebrate it! People will discover that these kinds of celebrations can be cathartic. They actually can help people work through some of the delayed emotional entanglements with the evils of the past! People can come to an event like this and decide which side they want to be on in regards to current issues of immigration, police brutality, the dehumanization related to gentrification.
It is in the context of these wonderful celebrations that people get religion about being justly, that they can energize their commitments to serving just causes.
Recently, you invited me into your space to discuss what it means to be an educator of color doing this work.
The term "work" is almost as ubiquitous as the word "equity," and in both instances fraught with ambiguity. When I tell people I'm up at the crack of dawn daily, lessons in mind, students strategically placed, necessary conversations placed in my frontal lobe, coffee in hand, I mean that I'm ready to educate students with all the energies bestowed upon me that day. The bell may sound twice and I might look scurried, but I'm never scared. There was a time when I thought 90 students in three classes felt daunting, but now it's 140 middle schoolers pouring in and out of my doors in 45-minute intervals throughout the day. After that wave, I still carve time to share wisdom with subscribers, develop visions with collectives, pontificate on the merits and demerits of our current slate of education initiatives, and continually work on my own definition of home with my partner and my son. Other words are done sub rosa, but all important steps towards my and hopefully our work towards justice.
Oh, and mentor folks like you, of which we have so many, of which we will have so few.
The current initiatives to diversify the profession have deeper incentives and meanings, mostly noble. We want a staff that racially and experientially reflects the student body in front of them. We've discussed ad nauseam the ways that whiteness permeates our teaching staff, not just as a reflection of the phenotypic make-up of the adults our students work every day, but also the institutional barriers and levers our education system enacts on our students. These practices, so deeply ingrained in our system-based edifices that our imaginations collapse in defeat, cannot be uprooted by simply changing the faces of the people in front of our children. We can discuss the aggressions these adults of color face, truly a microcosm of society as a whole. The simple solution, if it's any real solution, is to provide anti-bias trainings, restorative justice programs, syllabi for teacher education programs, and grants with mentorship to bolster these burgeoning adults so they may stick with us a little longer.
The harder, more relevant, and sustainable work for America would be to understand what parts of our humanity are admissible to this nebula we call the teaching profession.
What good does it do to recruit and retain educators of color if we strip away the consciences, experiences, and alternate histories that would give our students a more holistic understanding of their positions on this Earth? Who commissions 3.6 million people to transmit its values to the children of a country on stolen lands with stolen peoples and pilfering policies that create conditions for immigrants to risk our smoke and mirror? The progeny of such a journey would hopefully nudge our policies and practice to see you and me as keys to building a better, more uplifting America. Instead, we're assumed negligent and irreparable upon entry.
And we have the nerve to be teachers.
Our "struggles" are generally not our fault, but we've assumed responsibility. These checklists determine little more than compliance, but that compliance is also tied to letters in our file and our livelihoods, our hopes that we might make it out of generational debt. These data may serve as security blankets for the administrators and politicians who "are happy that progress has been made, but there's more to go," but it does little to resolve the underbelly of a culture explicit on setting children to irrational numbers. Ask people who yell to the rafters about doing an initiative "for children" if they have had a transformational conversation with a student in recent memory.
Never mind. Don't. There's enough shame to be passed around.
You asked me about my struggle, and I promised I'd tell you. I struggle with writing pretty lesson plans because I'm worried about any number of elements with the students. I struggle with paperwork that doesn't connect with me because I rather be thinking about my own practices. I struggle with my own demeanor in class because "highly effective" and "gets kids to respect him without disrespecting their voices" mean different things for different people. I struggle with advocating for my fellow educators in this imperial city while seeing so many of them, us, advocating for the subjugation of our most under-served youth. I struggle with not getting swept in this specific respectability, this specific conservatism. I struggle with writing these pieces for over a decade with readers from the highest positions in the city, state, and nation and still letting these struggles subsume me. My social media following, my testimonials in your favorite outlets, my emergence as a beacon in this profession does little to dissuade people far and close to me from diluting the relevance of this work.
Let others tell it, I never take agency in my professional growth, even as I grow the profession's boundaries. Akin to a horse race, they would prefer to put blinders on us and keep us in clearly bordered stables and race tracks. For some of us, the minute we've decided we've grown weary of the race is the minute the prods and whips in the form of letters and slips come. Because our work is rooted different, it moves different, it relates different, it means we're more likely to face the wrath our institution has for us. I remain convinced that the diversity conversation means nothing without accounting for the minds and hearts that come with.
I acknowledge that, even as I'm trying to recruit you into greatness and glory, I often feel like a case study for our disappearance.
But fret not. Hope isn't an aside; it's a challenge. Our students deserve the best and brightest, not just of us, but in us. Find solace in the chaos and irregularity of the students in front of you, each containing multitudes, each of those worthy of your time and attention. Wade in the comfort of subverting at several levels the rigid and meandering demands of folks nervous to be or return to the shoes you're in. Believe deeply in reflection. Second and third guess yourself, and self-soothe once you've come to a more comprehensive version of yourself and your vision for others around you. Be not afraid of vulnerability and love; modeling is the praxis.
The last time I read this poem was at the US Department of Education's National Summit on Teacher Diversity on May 6th, 2016. I was given five minutes to say my piece. I didn't have a title for it until this weekend, when I read it for the second time at the Rhode Island Coalition for Educators of Color (RICEC) conference. Enjoy.
On a random Monday morning,
One of my students asked me why I do this
I didn't know what he meant, so I said "What is this?"
He said, "Teaching?"
Curious, I asked him to expound
And he waved his hand at the
Mile-high notebook stack in front of me,
He snickers like, "You really want to be doing that for the rest of your life?"
Looking at me like "He musta made a mistake,
like I really want to deal with what he makes
and structured pee breaks?"
Quiet as its kept,
before I stood in front of over 1000+ plus students in a 13 year career
I stand on the shoulders of thousands more educators of color
Forebears to the heirs of ancestral knowledge, struggle,
and trails of the unforgivable
These seats my students occupy came courtesy of
wresting them without apology
Legions of Robin Hoods as politicians were robbing hoods
Educators like me were investments in children like he
Bringing parity in an otherwise unfair system
So when I drop that first comparison on my student,
please believe my rationale is all in proportion
By the time this line drops,
I've got my students calculating its rate of change
By the time this next line drops,
I've already connected their segmented learning to centuries ago
By the time this next line drops,
I've worked with 5 periods of classes, 140 students,
with enough collective grit to dispel your wayward myths
My "I heard gunshots for the first time in my life last night" kids
My "I don't have the keys to my house cuz my parents work late nights" kids
My "I know I don't smell great because my shower's broke, but
please, please, please let me into class" kids
My "I had to drive from my grandma's house because my family's going through things" kids
My "I ain't even gonna lie, I needed that bacon, egg, and cheese" kids
My "Don't judge me but add me on Snapchat" kids
My "I'm not ready to tell you what's going on with me yet" kids
My "This class is the only class that sees me for me" kids
My "I had surgery on my heart yesterday, but I still came because I need to graduate and get up out of here" kids
My "You're pushing me because you believe in me and I've never heard a teacher actually say that about us" kids
My kids who might become another mural,
a set of candles,
a suicide note before I wrote this dope lesson plan
And not regretting it
Because I'm just listening for a higher being's wisdom, God, Allah, inshallah,
Looking up at the stars,
Looking into my heart,
Looking at my legacy in them,
Hoping these adolescents can take it real far
And insofar as I can mark them in attendance,
ima give them my presence, my all
While I can still instill these feelings,
I've observed keenly from the precipice while trying to do God's will
To think for a minute,
13 years prior,
My teacher trainer told me that I was too idealistic for this
As if the only people who make it through the rigorous process are realists
13 years later, I'm the only teacher teaching the very kids I went through this with
So as far as I'm concerned,
I'm the realest,
in fact, I'm a realistic idealist
I hope my kids feel this, child advocate, education activist, educator of kids of color
And there'll be many more after,
And I'm not saying white teachers can't impart jewels too
Or that teachers of color can't rob jewels from the youth
I'm saying that, for the few and the chosen for what we do
We are the embodiment of perseverance and self-determination,
reparations come true
We look past their atitud and unlock the gates to the next altitude
Whereas some folks want to make America great again,
We built it on our backs,
on our hands, on our minds, in divine plans
Pursuant to these children as people who won't ever never leave us,
please believe us
The reason teachers of color are more likely to see children of color as talented, as gifted
Is because, even when we're not paid in the murkiest led-contaminated waters,
We wrap these words, letting these governors know we deliver the gifts, 30 boxes per show
Hoping every receiver opens it
And I looked back at the kid who started this and told him, "love."
How many opportunities do we get to cultivate the classrooms where the problem solvers of tomorrow grow?
Today, they'll cross the street, then the hallways, then the classrooms,
Followed by the graduation stage, hopefully over and over, shoulder to shoulder
Looking back at the adults who called them thugs and say, "Told ya."
But the student just nodded, got it, and went back to his work
Which is exactly what seeds and students do, isn't it?
I barely have dreams, mostly illusions. This is probably a function of my estranged relationship with deep sleep. But Thursday night already felt different. On Friday, April 13th, I woke up in a warm sweat sometime around 5:10am, 20 minutes before my alarm clock usually goes off. The week needed to be over and the energies around me didn't feel right. My suspicions aligned with my intuition a few hours later when I opened my e-mail shortly before lunch to find that I lost my arbitration case against DOE, a rebuke against their formula that got me a "Developing" for reasons other than my actual job performance. My track record couldn't save me. My titles couldn't save me. Neither my connections nor my investments in the work couldn't save me. I carried the resentment and pain after a year-long battle into the American Education Research Association conference in midtown NYC where I got to see, among others, my OG Bob Moses of the Algebra Project after thirteen years of looking up to his work.
The conference's theme was "The Dreams, Possibilities, and Necessity of Public Education," conceived by the planning team of Drs. Deborah Ball, Carla O'Connor, Suzanne Wilson, and Felice Levine. For me, it also recalled Meek Mill's "Of Dreams and Nightmares." As with most education conferences my people attend, the ways we inspire people to action are also the ways we deconstruct and critique the system that's oppressed so many people like us.
The easy thing to tell you is that AERA felt like success to me. This current classroom teacher got to be the only teacher panelist among a roster of notable scholars on a Saturday morning. 15 minutes later, the same classroom teacher brought a squad of current (and recently former) classroom teachers to talk about resistance and service to the students. The same classroom teacher did a keynote / presidential session to a packed room to discuss teacher evaluations and the future of education. Throughout the conference, the same current classroom teacher recognized scholars he considers comrades in arms to this work and some who've made his work more difficult. I get to offer a voice not just for teachers, but any number of subgroups of which I'm part: teachers of color, black teachers, Latinx teachers, activist teachers, math teachers, male teachers, teachers tired of not being represented in their own profession so they go somewhere else to get the respect they deserve.
It was happening to me, to us, an enormous privilege even with all the layers of power laid out in front of me. If being at AERA was an evaluation of my work, then the "Teacher Improvement Plan" assigned to me frustrated me even more so. When I first started teaching, I used to pray for times like this, to write like this, so I had to grind like that to shine like this. Now I live it.
The reality of working with our futures drives my angst home even more. The students tell me I'm their favorite teacher, but there are days where my own consciousness can't see it. Others tell me there need to be more teachers like me, but the system says otherwise. The Danielson framework and the National Board of Professional Teaching Standards suggest I was a great teacher at some point in this work, but forces around me suggest my pedagogy is too "loosey goosey," so projects and creative works went out the door in the service of keeping me in the classroom.
The research couldn't save me because there's other research to ostensibly the research we trust. Even as the system keeps making me a valid case study.
In less than two weeks, my students will take an exam on everything the math department and I covered throughout the 2017-18 school year. I'll get some sleep knowing their scores don't determine their worth as human beings, no matter how many times they're called "1's and 2's." I'll lose that sleep knowing their eventual high schools will judge their future students, superintendents and administrators will insist on the legitimacy of these tests as a marker for teacher quality, and teachers will gnash their teeth as to how these perceptions will ultimately affect their relationships with students. I'll fluctuate between grief, disappointment, and hurt.
None of this shows up on a rubric.
In my pre-coffee lethargy, I will have visions where the best of our research, practice, and policy will converge on ideas that illuminate the best in all of our young ones. I will speak to hopes and victories large and small, where schools foster those dreams and mitigate the nightmares. I must work with the people right in front of me, the ones we call students, who've all come from dreams and nightmares in their past, present, and time immemorial.
As long as I can wake up, I'll be waking that dream 'til my feet match my vision. As should we.
One thing I've always maintained in this life: I'm either an early adopter or super-late, past the wave of spoilers and hot takes our culture's embraced. So, even though I barked at colonizers like M'Baku and crossed my arms like T'Challa and Shuri for weeks, I hadn't seen Black Panther until this past weekend. A few of my friends and colleagues gave me the harshest side eyes, but parenting, schooling, and life got in the way of carving out a couple of hours for the film. The lamentable element of waiting so long is that, with a movie this hot, I saw half the movie without having watched it.
But once I watched it, I got it. I completely got it.
A radical imagination is at the core of dreaming of a better world. In the midst of resisting against, we have to chime in for what we propose. It's bigger than a solutions orientation. It's using a thoughtful framework that accounts for the individual and collective humanity of time eternal. At worst, the mindset creates a new set of problems. At best, it benefits and uplifts all, especially those who espouse inhumane beliefs.
Nowhere is this energy more imperative than in our schools. The plight of black children has been well-documented for centuries as the bedrock of education and all its inequities. Educators who take a glimpse into the Afro-futuristic world of Wakanda might wonder what a land so abundant in resources and unrestricted by institutional racism and oppression would look like, and its implications for our students. The idea that "throwing money at the problem won't solve inequity" elides the history of stripping and capping resources for schools that serve black children. With a foundational principle of "all we got is us," it seems like Wakanda would assure their students from early education through university the opportunity (and structural support) to do well for themselves.
Or that's the hope. I can see how the fervor for a mythical land of prosperity entices so many of us.
However, this also means that we'd have to create a society that openly embraces the ideas we supposedly espouse. What I witness too often is that we want to create these lands with no redistribution. That’s why, for example, too many celebrities want to build up their own schools instead of upending the current school systems and the laws that keep them inequitable. Or why “school choice” boils down to how much a parent can customize their child’s education. Or why too many of the people who readily advocated for Black Panther still insulate power of various forms for themselves and anyone they consider equally or more powerful. It's this idea that we must pocket resources to only a handful of people we know, even though a fiscal and conscientious redistribution would transform the lives of many.
There’s this weird paradox where we’re tussling with the idea of creating a space where we can just be and a way to bring that to more people than just the talented, exceptional few. The early conversation was too much about whether Killmonger was right. There wasn’t enough interrogation about how we can reflect either of them or Shuri, M’Baku, Nakia, T'Chaka or Okoye. We can call spread ideas about opportunity and success, but to what extent are we willing to dehumanize our most marginalized children to make opportunity ostensible? What or who are we loyal to in this work? What does it mean to be a colonizer to the work versus an ally or co-conspirator?
Are we going to allow ourselves the space to imagine better?
As we speak, there's a subset of folks who pounce on anyone who uses key words like "integration" and "charter schools" so they can play defense for their funders. Elements like these pull us back from having thoughtful and factual debate about this work. In the wrong hands, technology has a deleterious effect on its users and its targets. We keep wishing for the "right hands" to come work at our schools.
Until we've built a society that treats everyone as valued citizens, we'll turn to each other and find the vibranium within us. It's our most undervalued resource.
Truly, I would love this model to win from an individual and collective perspective. It's tiring watching the same set of people who aren't "on the ground" get opportunities to speak, travel, and present their ideas. It's equally exhausting hearing representatives of our school systems say we lack morale and conviction about our daily work while stunting our growth as professionals for reasonable or petty reasons. But, if we're talking about "what's best for kids," we'd be remiss to not continually explore our failures to live up to the classroom intrigue we've developed.
A part of me is always curious about educators’ stories that show little to no flaws in their literature. That’s suspect given the immense new work we must take on in the 21st century of transforming our school system to lean on racial and social justice as a core tenet of schooling. Until then, teachers who call themselves leaders will always have to negotiate written and unwritten rules about the responsibilities they’ve taken on, the systems they have to fight, the adults they have to parlay with, and the young people whose gravitational pull gets more abstract the further we step away.
"I don’t think I’m special. In fact, I think I’m the norm. Like my colleagues and friends, I do what it takes to reach the children I serve. Educators like us make daily sacrifices to do our jobs, because we love the work and we care deeply about our students. Each and every one of us has asked ourselves the same question my distracted student asked me on Wednesday morning: What heroism might one day be demanded of us because we’ve chosen to be schoolteachers in America?"
"The question we should ask now, as we should have in 2016, 2001, 1968, 1865, and 1776, is: do our schools reflect our country’s ostensible vision to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Furthermore, to whom does democracy belong and how does one attain the ability to govern for the common good? And how are adults in buildings?—?parents, teachers, administrators, and other people within a school building?—?going to teach democracy if it’s not something they’ve experienced themselves?"
Across the country, we're seeing bold and courageous activism from our students. From organized walkouts and rallies to groups like United We Dream and Urban Youth Collective, students have rolled up their sleeves in ways that adults have not. The least we can do as concerned citizens is to become informed and responsive to students hoping to make our world better. We can vote, but we must also do the things in between elections that help us stay informed of the world around us.
For example, in light of recent massacres, NRA-funded politicians have encouraged school districts to arm teachers. The same people who almost eliminated tax exemptions for school supplies would encourage the funds for guns and firearms training? That's dubious and duplicitous. We're openly advocating for more schools, culturally relevant pedagogy and curricula, and nurturing, democratic environments. We have to hold steadfast against policies that steer us away from being better for our students.
On Friday, the cafe con leche needed to be just right. The room needed to feel warm, but not blazing hot. The papers needed to work with the directions the students would be given. The prep time I had needed to feel uninterrupted and unbothered. The moon, the stars, and the energies needed to align accordingly.
On Friday, they didn't.
While my coffee tasted great, and my planning periods went according to plan, I spent a full three periods wondering what I did that didn't clique with the students. The task was for them to take the feedback they received and re-do their performance tasks. I had a usual flood of questions: should I have taught a lesson then given them time to revise their performance tasks? Should I have clamped down on seating arrangements? Should I have trusted the process less? Why am I so tired? What energies am I giving off that this doesn't feel right?
For a moment, I want to ask questions of students collectively and individually. For a moment, I want to admonish them for their arguments with one another, their inattentiveness, their lack of urgency, and their lack of cooperation. After the moment is gone, I stop. I take responsibility for failures without fail. As I am wont to do.
During lunch, I went through a few minutes of self-loathing. I hadn't looked at myself in the mirror, but I know my face. It must have looked dejected and disappointed. Before I ran out for lunch, a few students said on their way out that I wasn't to be trifled with at the moment. I ordered a chicken cutlet sandwich and grabbed a banana. I ran back upstairs to my classroom to re-strategize for the remaining two periods. I would take a little longer to set the expectation for the period. I would hold off on keeping myself busy until the students were settled in their own work. The materials they needed would have monitors so I could spend more time sitting with struggling students. I would point the early finishers to new work after they've finished revisions.
Fall down thrice, get up four.
At the end of last period, I felt like learning happened. It didn't need to happen as I dictated, but it gave me insight as to how I could improve the revision process. Before this blog gets published, no one but me will have learned that lesson. The expectation outside of my classroom is perfection. The priorities for everyone else still undercut my own. What does it look like for human beings to work in systems that ultimately dehumanize them, and all the mini-traumas we impart on one another? Why is the bottom of the barrel so seductive to adults who should know better? How much more do we need to negotiate our beliefs about the work of children before we've negotiated ourselves?
Whose world is this?
On days like Friday, educators with like minds and hearts see their own flaws and wonder whether to reveal them. They're doing what effective practitioners do: owning their practice, opening their doors, staying a few hours to grade and plan, reaching out to parents, and devoting their time to students even when they're not there. In a quest to rid schools of "bad" teachers, our operations also seek to wear down everyone's resolve. The flaws keep mounting. The dreams and nightmares fluctuate daily, nightly, thoroughly.
We keep rising, though, because this passion of ours tells us so. And on Monday, these sleeves will roll. We will learn. The world is ours, the world is ours.
Most teachers don't just teach at one school. They teach at multiple schools at once. There's the school we work in, the school that happens outside of our classrooms, the school that gets presented to any number of stakeholders for pomp, circumstance, and evaluations, and the school that shows up in the data sets somewhere in a dozen offices and "great schools" websites. These schools often come into conflict because we neither have common schools of thought nor common schools of action. While many schools have missions, visions, and agendas plastered all over their walls, guidebooks, and flyers, few schools have found a way - however imperfect - to articulate it to the point of reasonable integrity.
Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA is one.
The intentionality by which Chris Lehmann, founder and principal, and the team developed the school has given it a leg up in the way of imagining schooling in Philly differently. It has a few advantages over other schools that matter as well. It's a magnet school with some institutional (and, in some ways, financial) backing in a rented building with an energetic white male leader who has the clout to host and receive plaudits from tech billionaires, esteemed scholars, and even a former president of the United States. None of this sits well with critics to the left or right of the edupolitical spectrum, if you actually read the comments in their local paper. Even when we take into account their high percentage of African-American students and special needs students as compared to other magnets, the comments about their schools put outsiders on high alert before they walk into the school building.
But, upon pushing the glass doors of their building, much of those critiques dissipates. Legendary schools genius Deborah Meier, who visited last year, has smiled at her acolyte in prior years. The school feels less like the draconian containment units with rows, aisles, and adults in sharp-edged suits, but an ecosystem where students are expected to own the responsibility of making the school community better. Most administrative doors are left ajar, as are the classroom doors. Students don't seem to seek the approval of teachers nor Lehmann in the way one might feel at other schools with strong academic reputations. Instead, at any moment, the school allows for students to randomly spark conversations with the adults in the building. The power structure feels flatter on some level. The pressure to be the "smartest" in the room is near non-existent. Conversations are both programmed and impromptu, and expertise is in the form of questions, not direct answers. The tone set by the staff, students, and parents there gives little permission for vendors to outwardly promote their wares and bother us on our way to our next conversation.
Which is what makes EduCon, the unconference / fundraiser based on the ideas of the schools, one of the best conferences still going. Is this a trap?
Because the unconference is in a school building and an assemblage of students, parents, and teachers sacrifice their weekends to make the event successful, it strikes me how it has some levels of escapism for many of us, too. Those of us who believe in student choice, student voice, agency, curiosity, project-based learning and curiosity in a public school setting - and there are many - congregate at SLA. The principal seems to give little impression that the school(s) he runs have anything to hide, including its flaws. This contrasts with the seemingly endless bandages and corks so many of us want to throw at problems when we see them.
It's made me reflect about my experiences in the aforementioned schools, and how many of the schools we currently work for conflict with one another. Can students both excel in school and have some modicum of student agency? Yes. Does everyone believe that at once? That remains to be seen. Can teachers both create conditions for deep student learning and still allow for unorthodox lesson plans that innovate and respond to student needs? Yes. Does everyone believe? Still waiting. So many of our school systems allow for antiquated beliefs about schools to resurface in the name of looking coherent. They get to lecture about kids while wholly disconnected from the student experience and voice because some outside and decontextualized research said so.
Attendees of the EduCon conference come from a myriad of schools, some of which have it reasonably together. We intentionally learn that schools can have integrity and heart both on paper and in deeds. We unintentionally learn how our actions (and everyone else's) keep us further from the mutual cares these like-minded educators have. Trust: I don't need us to build more SLAs, though Lehmann and Co. would surely appreciate that. I would love to see more people invested in the intangible aspects of the schools, not as a hand-down task to a third-party vendor or a school counselor, but at the core of the school.
Our organizing largely depends on folks with good conscience, open hearts, and vibrant minds to make schools places that students want to go, not where they feel imprisoned and incapable of learning. Of course, we're supposed to take what we learned and spoke on and change how our schools operate on some level, not just assume someone will rescue us from oppressive systems, especially our students who often have little recourse and redress.
It's on all of us. Imagining is such a big part of this work and I don't dream asleep anymore. Let's do this.