Are You Designing Systems for People to Comply or Innovate?
These past experiences in school often reinforce beliefs and expectations about the teacher as the holder of the information and the need to be in control, yet this may be in conflict with today’s learners’ needs, opportunities, and skills necessary to thrive in a changing world. The tradition of school is so deeply ingrained and as many educators have been successful in the traditional model it can be hard to imagine doing it differently. But like Kodak experienced, we can’t hold on to our traditions just because they were successful then, we need to align our learning experiences in schools to meet the needs of learners today.
-Katie Martin @KatieMTLC
I used to own a Kodak Polaroid Camera and even learned how to develop film. I loved hearing the click of the red button, the “poof” of the flash bulb, and the whirring sound of the rollers as the photo came up. Of course you also had to shake the picture for a few seconds and could not adjust magnification or add effects. The Kodak company did not seek out new technology, clung to its traditions and eventually became obsolete. As a history teacher, I held on tightly to teaching my favorite subjects of Mesopotamia, creative destruction, indigenous histories and their mythologies using Cornell Notes, outlines and lectures, because the content and my limited teaching repertoire gave me the illusion of control over my classroom and my students. I even rationalized my students poor performance on assessments and classroom tasks as their lack of focus and gaps in their learning and not my limited teaching skills. The shift in my practice occurred when I sought feedback from my students, engaged community partners in designing authentic learning experiences for my students, and opened my practice to be critiqued by colleagues near and far. Unlike Kodak, I let go of my illusion of control and past experiences to develop a pedagogy that better aligned to my students needs and their strengths. I sought opportunities to innovate and possessed the mindset to refine my craft and not comply with mandates and policies that limited my students as learners or my growth as an educator.
I approach the redesign of PREP Academy with that same vision and mindset. We have to seize opportunities to innovate and not be fearful of failing, fearful of LEAP evaluations and fearful of change. If we continue to allow traditions of our recent history or the prevailing narrative of a ‘last chance” school to block innovation, then we have failed our students. As we continue to shift the culture at PREP, we must move away from our traditional practices and embrace innovations that support a radical pedagogy to create transformative learning experiences for each learner.
Academic Teaching Doesn’t Help Kids Excel in Life
“School should be a place where kids can discover what they love. They should be able to ask the questions that matter to them and pursue the answers. They should discover what they are passionate about, what truly sets their hearts and souls on fire. They should discover they can make a difference now. Above all, they should leave school knowing what they are good at. Today, I think most kids graduate only knowing if they’re good at school or not. Often our students have many talents; they just don’t fit in our current curriculum because their talents are likely not considered “real knowledge.”
– Shelley Wright, MindShiftEDQ
I flunked out of college in my Freshman year because I graduated from high school only knowing how to “do school”, but not knowing how to learn. I was versed in Cornell Notes, annotating text, analyzing rigorous text, writing essays and calculating y = mx/b, but not prepared to navigate life. Five years later, I graduated from college skeptical about the aims and outcomes of the American public education system based on my experiences and the data, then and now, that showed the declining performance of American students on standardized tests when compared to their peers in other countries and entered the classroom in 2003 at Loyola Academy of St. Louis to change the system. I taught 6th and 7th grade Reading and Social Studies and failed miserably. I was passionate about working with students and teaching, but I had only been taught teacher-led strategies which meant my craft was limited to 60 minute lecture-discussions, note-taking strategies, craft projects, turn and talks, quizzes and tests. My failure and my students lack of academic success pushed me to reflect upon my craft and change, but first I had to unlearn my previous programming.
My ‘unlearning’ process led me to question why I wanted to teach, what I would teach (content), how I and my students learned (pedagogy) and how I and my students could demonstrate our learning (assessment). I gradually implemented more student-led practices and modeled trust by asking for feedback from my students when my experiments succeeded and especially when they failed. Initially, my students pleaded with me to just tell them what to do or just give them notes to review. I had to learn how to support all my students through the ‘unlearning’ and guide them in discovering how they learned best for themselves. We were collaboratively building a learning community where trust, learning from failure, fun, and rigorous work was valued by all.
Our team at PREP is going through that ‘unlearning’ process now in every classroom and our whole school, and the struggle is real. We are a team that is learning how to unlearn habits and practices, while trying to do the same for our students. I received feedback from the team asking me to ‘model’ and ‘teach’ what I expected from every teacher in terms of teaching and learning. There is no one roadmap in becoming a reflective practitioner, but there is a starting point that I learned from reading Understanding by Design. I ask that every teacher begin each year, and hexter asking the following of their students:
I offer the above questions as a suggested starting point to my fellow educators and life-long learners as we continue to work to change the system for the benefit of every student we teach now and those students to follow.
“”Wise feedback”—interactions that show teachers have high standards for students and believe in their potential—can increase their trust, they found in a smaller, simultaneous experiment. Their findings, published in the journal Child Development, fit into a growing body of research that emphasizes the positive effects of building trusting relationships between students and their teachers and ensuring supportive and fair treatment in discipline and other areas. “When we’re creating school policies, we’re not just maintaining order, we’re teaching teenagers about how society works, and they use those lessons—those teachable moments—going forward,” said David Yeager, an assistant professor of developmental psychology at University of Texas at Austin, who led the study.”
My very first, formal teaching experience was at The Baraka School, a residential Middle School for Baltimore City boys in Kenya, East Africa. Since that experience in Kenya, I always referred to myself and others in the education profession as educators, because we do more than teach. I was a teacher, House Dad, mentor, Chess Coach, Storyteller, Youth Worker, Counselor, Librarian, and Life Sherpa to 21 7th grade boys traveling abroad for the first time in their lives. Those 7th graders are now grown men in their early 30s and I am always filled with pride to witness their successes, marriages, children, graduations, new careers, community organizing and mentoring through FB. A few years ago, Chris, one of my former students, posted the following on my timeline,
“Mr. Rowe, do you remember that time I asked you why you walk like that. You said, because I walk with confidence and never let anyone tell you to walk with your head down. Thank You.”
I did not remember ‘that time’ at all, but I do remember the connections we made and relationships we built in that year and so does Chris who reached out to his former teacher to say thank you for the lesson. At PREP, we are in the first year of our journey to be a ‘learning community that sparks the minds of all learners to strategically use their voice and insight to navigate the pathways of life as empathetic, global citizens.’ That work requires each adult at PREP to create a culture built on positive relationships and trust with students who have been marginalized and treated unfairly by our society and the discipline policies of our school system. My challenge to the PREP team is that you find the will and words to connect, teach and encourage all of our students to meet the high expectations of our vision and mission.
“I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
“When they get out of school, that’s where the rubber hits the road,” Harris said. “Too many programs are structured where a duty is giving to the young person; it’s a one-way relationship. Thread using that concept of a family … is something we’ve not seen across the country.” But more impressive than Thread’s statistics, observers say, is its ability to weave a new social fabric in Baltimore, creating families that are not connected by blood and forming communities that are not found on maps.”
– Erica L. Green – Contact Reporter, The Baltimore Sun
Like THREAD, we also use the concept of family at PREP to place our learner’s needs and assets at the forefront of our work. Our team of educators, because they do more than teach, have assisted students and families in transition in securing housing, provided tutoring to students after school, paid for textbooks and fees for our learners who are in college, and done so out of love and commitment to our learners. I am proud to lead this team and school, but I realize that despite our best efforts it is not enough to overcome the systemic barriers that have and continue to deter the learners we serve from succeeding in life. 2 out of the 15 PREP graduates of the class of 2016 matriculated to a 2 year or 4 year college/university while their peers gained entry level employment at ‘big box’ stores or fast food chains. I am not advocating that the only pathway to success is college, but I am arguing that we must do a better job of helping all learners identify their passions and provide authentic opportunities for them to apply their skills and knowledge.
“Education must not simply teach work – it must teach Life.” – W. E. B. Du Bois
The question that I am sitting with is, “How might we redesign PREP Academy to better prepare our learners to overcome the systemic barriers of racism and sexism?” An answer to that question could be extending our commitment to learners 6 years beyond their graduation, to and through college and into adulthood. This would mean providing a personalized support network for each learner so they can “strategically use their voice and insight to navigate the pathways of life as empathetic, global citizens”. This vision is our North Star and it will require each of us to commit to motivating all of our learners to live and lead purposefully and authentically.
Green, E. L. (2015, December 11). Thread, a Baltimore nonprofit, weaves students’ lives together. Retrieved February 12, 2017, from http://www.baltimoresun.com/news/maryland/baltimore-city/bs-md-ci-thread-profile-20150419-story.html
Young, Gifted and Black
“It’s generally been my role to see past the cultural differences in the ways that students demonstrate their knowledge.” Vilson says that, in his experience, some teachers may associate giftedness with a certain type of vocabulary, a “docile” attitude, even a certain style of penmanship. The bias is often there “on the part of the student,” too, Vilson says. “They don’t believe in themselves. They don’t see themselves as capable because they have a set of behaviors that don’t align with the gifted norm.”
– Anya Kamenetz, “To Be Young, ‘Gifted’ and Black, It Helps to Have a Black Teacher”
I received my call to teach surrounded by the brilliance and magic of 21 boys from Baltimore. Those boys, my students, made me a better teacher by showing me how to be vulnerable, showing me how to teach (I made many mistakes) and showing me that I was an true educator, because I also coached, mentored, and advised. What I learned from the Jesuits that teaching is both an art and science, but it is also a call to use your gifts to serve others. I want to thank my former students, who now walk this world using their gifts as fathers and mentors just as I did for them. Sawubona!
Kamenetz, A. (2016, January 20). To Be Young, ‘Gifted’ And Black, It Helps To Have A Black Teacher. Retrieved February 05, 2017, from http://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/01/20/463190789/to-be-young-gifted-and-black-it-helps-to-have-a-black-teacher
Open Letter to Teachers – Ramon Griffin
“Each day, I could have up to 10 students in my office, affectionately dubbed the T.O.C., (time out center) by the end of the first period. Students continued to come throughout the day as teachers would simply not allow students to come back to their classroom. Most of the teachers guilty of this behavior were (TFA) Teach for America cohort members who were great hearted individuals, but could not control their classrooms. Most had no sense of cultural competence and frankly felt as if they did not need to know the kids to teach them. When a few teachers attempted to develop relationships with Black students and parents, it seemed disingenuous and painful. Many times, they avoided parent phone calls and conferences because they felt like a confrontation would occur. Students would enter my office daily and say “she put me out for nothing,” “I just got up to sharpen my pencil and she said go to Mr. Griffin, that lady don’t like me.” Teachers regularly abused the mark system we implemented at the school as well.”
-Ramon Griffin, “Colonizing the Black Natives: Reflections from a Former NOLA Charter School Dean of Students
In my 20 plus years as a Black, male educator, my constant struggle and frustration is the need to navigate the gender and racial dynamics within public, private and charter school cultures that are traditionally white and female. As an Assistant Principal within public school settings, I was usually assigned the role of disciplinarian by my supervisors and assigned the stereotypical role of “big, black [scary] man” to scare black students into compliance by teachers, many of whom were white. In some schools, I supervised morning check-ins where students were required to remove their shoes, belts and empty their backpacks before stepping through the metal detectors, like prisoners instead of students. I would often be more concerned with the color of a hoodie, sagging skinny jeans, dyed or natural hairstyles, or hanging bandanas than the mental and emotional state of my students as they walked past me in the hallways. I used suspensions or the threat of suspensions to force students to comply with school policies and in doing so, perpetuated the inherent inequities within school discipline policies and deprived my students of their right to a quality education. I was more overseer on a plantation, than leader and educator in a school. I feel Ramon Griffin’s pain when he describes his experiences of negotiating the power dynamics of being Black while disciplining students in a “no excuses” charter school.
As Principal of PREP Academy, I choose to lead as my authentic self through works and words steeped in social justice and love. What that looks like is modeling and supporting behavior management systems and rituals that are culturally responsive, and providing learning opportunities that show respect for and inclusion of the histories, cultures, and experiences of diverse groups. It is early in our school redesign process, but PREP no longer resembles a “no excuses” school that punishes students for minor offences, and most of our teachers are learning to model and teach rituals and routines that tighten our connections as a community. This change is directly aligned to our mission to ‘dismantle systems of power and privilege within our school and the community’ and requires everyone at PREP, educators, stakeholders and students alike, to examine the alignment of their actions and words to our mission.
This work is not easy and the struggle for social justice is interwoven in my journey as a Black, male educator. I cannot ignore or distance myself from the struggles and obstacles all our students face, because their struggles are my struggles as well. This post is not intended to shame or offend anyone, but rather to push any who read this post to reflect on their biases and engage in the worthy work of social justice and education reform in order to save a generation of youth who need our knowledge, who need to hear our stories of failure and success and our love. Ubuntu
“At Christian Fenger Academy High School in south Chicago, for example, when a student was chased down and threatened with physical harm for kissing the wrestling-team captain’s girlfriend, a conference yielded an agreement between the students’ parents to contact one another if the hostility escalated. And the wrestling captain and the competitor for his girlfriend’s heart, a student with disabilities who was a loner, ended up eating lunch together every day after that, said Robert Spicer, the dean overseeing restorative-justice efforts at the public school.
The alternative, Mr. Spicer said, was that the students “would have all been suspended and their wrestling season shut down.” Developing a school culture that defaults to healing takes work and buy-in from the whole school, Mr. Spicer and other restorative-practices proponents acknowledge.”
We are in the midst of change at PREP Academy. When PREP first opened, students were required to be wanded and searched before entering the building. Fights during lunch and passing periods were commonplace on a daily basis and PREP Academy only served students placed through DPS’ expulsion hearings for a minimum of 6 weeks. The school culture changed under the leadership of Jamie Lofaro and she ended the practice of searching students, allowed students to earn academic credits toward graduation from PREP, and introduced the DISCOVERY program, a behavioral program to teach social and emotional skills to all students. The prevailing perception of PREP among students, parents, and our colleagues in DPS is that we are an intensive, Pathway School that serves “expelled” or “the bad kids”.
We reject that definition of our students and our school. We are in the midst of developing a school culture that defaults to healing and repairing harm instead of suspensions and punishments. We have to change and redefine who we are as a learning community, because DPS is moving away from suspensions and expulsions, which will impact our student enrollment and budget. Padres & Jóvenes Unidos released it’s discipline report card for DPS and found the following:
“In 2010-11, the first year Padres & Jóvenes Unidos issued its report card, 7,766 students were given an in-school suspension, 8,892 were given an out-of-school suspension, and 105 students were expelled. By 2014-15, all three figures were significantly lower, even though Denver Public Schools enrolled more students: 3,776 students were suspended in school, 5,356 were suspended out of school, and 55 were expelled.”
For the 2016-17 school year, we are seeing a decline in the number of students placed at PREP through expulsion hearings and an increase in the number of students and families who choose to enroll at PREP because of our small, learning environment and the opportunities to earn additional credits. During our most recent enrollment for Hexter 4, 18 out of 20 students entering the DISCOVERY program were ‘choice’ students and not under an expulsion or suspension. Our students deserve and are entitled to the same opportunities as students at East High School, TJ, or Merrill MS receive, which means we need to truly rethink and redesign our instructional model, roles within the school and provide space for student voice and leadership within PREP.
“But in pigtails, a gingham yellow dress, sitting under the bright studio lights, you could not have convinced me that I was poor! I was happy, healthy, and adored. You can imagine my surprise when a few days later I overheard one of my teachers say, “Does anything good come out of that community?” The essence of her words, shared with another teacher in the back coat room, questioned the legitimacy of an initiative that reached out to children like me. My teacher’s words, spoken aloud then, are not much different from the secret thoughts we may still harbor in our hearts today about students whose culture and ethnicity we do not understand.”
–Cheryl A. Redfield
I attended Waring Elementary and Classical Junior Academy in St. Louis Public Schools from K-8 and my parents enrolled me in the Voluntary Interdistrict Cooperating Corporation to attend Ladue High School in St. Louis, County. The Voluntary Interdistrict Cooperating Corporation (VICC) program was created
“in response to a 1972 lawsuit, the U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in 1980 that the St. Louis Public School Board of Education and the State of Missouri were responsible for maintaining a segregated school system. In 1981, the Appeals Court directed that a voluntary interdistrict plan be worked out between the city and the county schools. A pilot program with six school districts began. In 1983, a Settlement Agreement was reached with all school districts in the metropolitan area that included multiple components, including the transfer of black city students into primarily white suburban districts and white suburban students into magnet schools in the city. Transportation and tuition costs were fully paid by the State of Missouri. The preliminary goal for suburban districts was to reach Plan Ratio (a 15 percent increase of all African-American students in the district including resident students.) The ultimate goal was for districts to achieve the Plan Goal which was a 25 percent black student population.”
(http://choicecorp.org/HistBack.htm, January 16, 2017)
I remember feeling very much like the author of the article – isolated and invalidated as a student who received reminders large and small that I did not belong at Ladue High School. I remember being scheduled for remedial classes although I attended a gifted/talented school in SLPS, the looks of my White peers when I entered classrooms, daily microaggressions and other slights couched in complimentary terms (e.g., articulate) and lastly, I remember the lack of culturally relevant images or texts that spoke to my culture and perspective as a young, Black man. On the 1 1/2 bus ride to school, my friends and I would often refer to ourselves as slaves riding on yellow slave ships to a new world very different than our North St. Louis City communities.
When I reflect on the experiences of our learners there is a common theme of rejection whether it is from a parent/guardian, teachers, and our society that often defines them simply as stereotypes which ignores who they truly are and their potential to be great. Part of our commitment to our learners as a team should be to dismantle those stereotypes and examining our own biases about those we deem as “other”. That is our challenge as a team this year as we work to live out our mission to “dismantle systems of power and privilege within our school and the wider
You Must See Your School as A Home of Opportunity
“Schools that fail have adults who talk relentlessly about how at risk their kids are. They have all the statistics at their fingertips. They focus on the perceived limitations… on vocabulary shortfalls, on lack of pre-school and parent involvement, on issues of attendance and language. Schools that succeed have adults who talk about what their kids can do. They talk about the stories kids tell, the things kids make, the problems they solve, the way they collaborate, communicate, connect to the world. And when they’re really good you never hear the words “at risk,” or “title,” or “deficit,” when they plan.”
Ira David Socol
In college 24 years ago, I had to complete a group project, which included a detailed plan and panel presentation, to design a new, urban high school that would address issues of educational inequality in some significant way. I do not remember much about the design plan we created, but I do have vivid recollections of our dialogue on racism, relevant educational opportunities, and relationships. The school community we sought to create included Advisory groups or families assigned by grade level, specific classes on African-American and Native American histories and cultures, and adult mentors who would provide guidance to our students as they prepared to move on to college or careers. Our group began to talk about the school and the fictional students we created as if it and they were real. We began to speak of our school as a place of opportunity and hope for our friends and peers who were told, explicitly and implicitly, that they did not fit within the high schools we attended. Our school was a counter-narrative to the perception of urban schools and children in poverty as failures.
What do you see when you think of PREP Academy? What are the words that come to mind? What do you think you would see, hear and feel if you walked our halls? Some people hold the perception that PREP is a school for the ‘bad students’ and opportunities do not live within our walls. That is not who we are and far removed from the community we are creating. We are a school in transition, as evidenced by our engagement in the ‘messy’ and uncertain work of building positive relationships, learning how to trust one another and struggling to use our voices collectively to make one ‘sound’ in order to make our vision and mission a reality. We are becoming a school of opportunity and hope for all.