Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Why a Blog? Why Now? Why Me?

Over ten years ago students told me what I needed to be doing.  I was teaching African-American Studies at the time and had an overwhelmingly African-American enrollment in the class.  I was thoroughly enjoying my students’ work which was exhibiting wonderful talents and intellectual insights.  It was validating and exciting to see student growth and learning.  But one day I glanced at the senior class rankings and saw that the vast majority of my students ranked at the bottom of their class.  I was perplexed and disturbed.  Why would students who showed me such ability, dedication, curiosity, and talent be doing so poorly at school?  So I asked them.   I asked my student teacher to take notes on the dialogue; I was going off-script.  I explained my observations of them and the realities of their career performance – or lack thereof.  I asked why there seemed to be such a disconnect.  What I thought would be a one-hour discussion went on for four days.  Students gave me an earful.  The explanation ranged from boredom, lack of relevance, lack of empathy from schools, to pressures such as jobs and challenging homes.  I simply listened and tried to validate their experiences.  At the end of it all one student simply said, “Look, you get it.  You hear us.  Now you need to go tell all your teacher friends.”  I had always tried to provoke my students to make a difference, to speak out and speak often.  Now they were telling me to do the same, to step out of my safe classroom and speak up on their behalf and make a difference.  That is what I have been doing ever since. 
I have spent the last decade doing what I can to lead my building, district, and community to explore and address the role of race in the classroom and the achievement gap.  This has involved educating myself with research, books, and conferences.  I’ve interviewed and shared my experiences with students, families, teachers, administrators and community leaders.  I’ve spoken at conferences, conducted workshops with building and district faculties and administrations, and worked with national organizations.  My perspective and message has evolved.  I believe we have to continue to discuss race, but we also need to discuss appropriate and supportive teacher-student relationships, teaching techniques, school structure and many more issues.  We need to be discussing creating school systems that truly meet the needs of the widest number of students possible.  We need to think outside the box.  And I am encouraging you to engage in this process with me – for our students.
Why a blog?  Well, I’d love to write a book, and this may well be the beginning of it.  I’d love to be on the speaking circuit and stir the dialogue in person.  I’d love to lead a district or school through these times.  But I need to keep my day job.  I need to pay the bills. 
But a blog also is immediate and participatory.  I want you, my readers, to comment and participate in the conversation.  I want to provoke you to be part of this.  I don’t pretend to have answers.  But I know I have questions and can provoke more.  Together, we can explore answers and try a few in our own settings.  We can only do it together.   
Why now?  It seems to be the ideal time to jump into, stir, provoke, and continue a dialogue that has been growing.  Where the achievement gap and inequity was once an issue amongst some teachers it has become part of the national dialogue under the Bush and Obama administrations and now the movie, Waiting for Superman.  Education reform comes to the fore with a movie like Race to Nowhere.   The floundering economy, diminishing funding, greater competition and increasing college costs all conspire to force us to seriously look at American education. 
Now is the time.  If not now, when?  If not you and me, who?    

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