Culture in the Classroom: Replacing Misrepresentation with Authenticity

“Culture exists in community, and community exists in context.”
–Taiye Selasi


Pine Ridge, SD, Lakota Nation (Sioux). Photo by Aaron Huey. Click image for a NYTimes article on the photographer’s work and the experiences of the Sioux (2013). Huey is a rare example of deep understanding of and connection to a culture not his own, and even after many years living among the Sioux, he knows he remains an outsider (see his excellent TED Talk at https://www.ted.com/talks/aaron_huey)

For Anne and Andre

On an elementary school walk-through last fall, a colleague and I encountered a bulletin board ostensibly demonstrating students’ learning through crude drawings of European pilgrims and Native Americans.  Each drawing included a short narrative about the experiences of that group during Westward Expansion.  I saw my colleague, who is Osage, stop dead in her tracks.  Pointing at a Disney-like image of a Native American, she could barely get the words out: “This isn’t culturally appropriate,” she told our guide.  “The students are drawing a stereotype,” she stuttered.  “We shouldn’t do this.”

My colleague looked over at me as though searching for better words, and I stepped in.  I’m usually very careful not to speak other people’s truths for them, but I could see she had more to say and was too angry to articulate it.  “It’s dehumanizing to portray another culture this way,” I told our guide.  “Think of the difference between using real photographs of real people in a meaningful way, as compared to drawing a caricature of who they are.  There are thousands of different indigenous nations in the world; this is just the Disney cartoon version of an indigenous person.  Instead of making a living culture more real and human to students, it’s doing the exact opposite.”

I’d love to claim that these mistakes are rare, especially in schools with an intentionally global focus, but they’re all too common.  These approaches serve to exacerbate stereotypes rather than bringing living cultures alive in authentic and nuanced ways for students.  I’ve seen cultural festivals where students dress up to look like the stereotype, and it’s like assuming the Disney princess version of Mulan captures the original Chinese folktale from the Ming Dynasty, which actually carries layers of cultural nuance—and is significantly different than the Disney interpretation.  I’ve seen well-meaning teachers play dress up, too, portraying only ancient or stereotypical images of a given culture rather than trying to help students see how alive and nuanced it still is today.

I don’t blame teachers and I believe our intentions are usually good; after all, if we’ve never engaged with a culture we’re trying to teach about, how can we capture it accurately for students?  I hear this concern from teachers all the time—what happens when we reach the end of our authentic knowledge and can’t help students see that bigger, more humanizing picture of others’ experiences?  Students have grown up with the stereotypes, too, with the pervasive message that most cultures can be reduced to a caricature, and many spend their childhood singing along to songs which further reduce cultures, such as those from Aladdin which suggest that the Arab world is “barbaric” even after criticism forced Disney to change the lyrics.  If we want to help our students overcome those misrepresentations, we have to understand ourselves where realities end and stereotypes begin.

Following are a few suggestions that can help you avoid the slippery slope of mirepresentation and build authentic projects grounded in intercultural understanding.

  1. Make sure students’ experiences are authentic and immersive.  Use photography and video to help students see cultures as real, human and community-based, being sure that the sources you use don’t exoticize or diminish the nuances of difference across a given culture or region.  Remember that good anthropology is about being proximate with real people rather than observing them from 30,000 feet, what my alumna Katie Horvath recently called “the deep hanging out” in an interview for my book.  For example, use photography from a global array of online “Week in Photos” sources, or short documentaries from organizations like Global OnenessNational Geographic and UNICEF, to help students connect with other cultures in authentic and meaningful ways.  Use technologies like 360Cities and Google Earth to help students enter the places they’re studying (virtual reality technologies will make this increasingly easy to do).  Always try to focus on voices from the culture being investigated; for example, read literature by people from the culture being represented, rather than by foreigners who think they can capture local experience through a few weeks abroad.  Even if a few nuances are lost in translation, exposing students to ideas and perspectives through a native author will always be more authentic than an outsider trying to capture the voice and experience of a culture not their own.
  2. Humanize the cultures you’re learning about.  Connect live or online with real people living today in the cultures your students are studying.  Whenever possible, connect your students with their global counterparts, with young people from the cultures you’re learning about, through partnerships founded in equity of purpose, benefit and power.  The goal of these experiences should be for students to see other cultures as peopled with real, whole human beings who have their own challenges and strengths, joys and sorrows, just like they do; as well as to understand their traditions and rituals, their values and ways of life, and their perspectives on the challenges we have in common.  For more on how to build equitable global partnerships, see my blog on the topic and my forthcoming book from Solution Tree Press, The Global Education Guidebook.
  3. Whenever possible, tie history to current day.  This helps students see ancient cultures as living and relevant today, and can often help them understand history better by allowing them to see the past alive in the present.  For example, if students are learning about ancient civilizations in Egypt and Greece, go deeper than the Hollywood imagery of pharoahs and philosophers to museum collections of real artifacts online.  Use 360Cities to look for the vestiges of history found in the streets of Cairo and Athens, helping students connect the past to current day. Get students thinking about how the past informs the present, and even consider teaching history backwards, so that students understand these societies today and then dig into history to understand why they developed as they did.
  4. Remember that language matters, and base students’ inquiry on an asset mindset.  Avoid using words like “explore” and “observe,” replacing them instead with words like “engage” and “understand.”  Words like “exploration” come from a long tradition of colonization and suggest an observational and even superior mindset rather than deep, immersive engagement.  Help students see the people they encounter as real and complete human beings, and avoid reducing another culture with words that suggest different circumstances automatically mean less intelligence or capacity for a complete life.  In her exceptional TED talk, Taiye Selasi says that our cultural identity is defined by the Rituals, RelationshipsandRestrictions that make up our day-to-day life, and good intercultural education can help students dig into those “Three Rs” in powerful ways.
  5. Be very careful about how you construct museum projects, especially if the culture is still alive and well.  While the creation of a museum is a common structure in many classrooms and can often lead to an interesting demonstration of learning, keep in mind that students often perceive museums to be filled with the past, with what is dead and gone.  I have seen far more “Dead Indian Museums” than I care to remember, filled with the subtext that no native cultures exist currently rather than offering a close look at the real experiences of indigenous cultures today.  There are certainly exceptions to this, like the National Museum of African American History & Culture, and the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, which help bring both history and current experience to life in powerful ways.  If you do a museum project with students, be sure that it brings living cultures to life rather than suggesting they are only a thing of the past.
  6. If your curriculum is focused on a given culture, immerse yourself in that culture.  There are incredible professional development experiences available for teachers that include such travel and intercultural immersion, not just a 30,000 foot tour but a deep dive into daily life through homestays and community-based partnerships.  And while many are expensive, many are scholarship based and accessible for teachers with the passion to travel and make use of their learning in the classroom.  For excellent teacher travel programs, see Edutopia’s yearly post and proposal advice.
  7. Remember that these are good rules for local and global cultures.  Sometimes we forget that global education runs parallel to and can easily complement intercultural and inclusive practices in schools.  In the best schools I know, the two work in tandem.  Use resources from current movements like the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance program and Choices Curriculum on the Black Lives Matter movement when learning about Civil Rights, so that students understand and engage deeply in the ongoing struggle toward full and equal rights.  Get your students thinking about local water or land rights of indigenous peoples in your region when studying their history, or understanding the differences among the varied Latin American and/or Asian cultures present in your school.  Connect students with speakers from relevant local cultures who can speak to their experiences and goals.  In other words, help students see beyond the stereotypes and engage with the nuances, learning to ask the kinds of questions that unearth the real distinctions between regions and within one given culture.

I saw “The Queen of Katwe” on a plane recently, and it left me feeling a little better about Disney.  Though it’s probably more imperfect in its representation than I can recognize, since I’ve never been to Uganda, the film is based on the true story of a chess champion who grew up in poverty.  Instead of portraying her story through cartoons or foreign actors portraying a culture not their own from inside a Hollywood production studio, it was cast with Ugandans and filmed on site in Africa.  At the end of the film, each actor is shown with the person he or she portrayed, with an overlaid narrative about what that real person has done since the era depicted by the film.  In one case, the actress even kneels to pay tribute to the woman she portrayed and, in a deeply human moment, the woman pulls the actress back to her feet.

This simple technique brought the stories to life as those of real people, people we got to see and understand through an actor’s portrayal but whose experiences go well beyond the screen or final credits.  When we move away from fictional stereotypes and toward realities, we help students see the communities and contexts that give birth to cultures, and by doing so help students foster their ability to engage with those cultures authentically and constructively.

Writing the Narrative Ourselves: Final Reflections on the 2016 People of Color Conference



“Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”
― Chinua Achebe
I find it interesting how often we heard the word “narrative” at the People of Color Conference this year and were invited to reverse it, shift it, and claim a new narrative in our schools.  In our pre-conference workshop on Wednesday, Kapono Ciotti and I shared and elicited the stories of students, harnessing the power of student voice to shift educational practice.  We invited participants to plan with specific students of color in mind, particularly those they aren’t seeing thrive in their schools.  The trend continued with Bryan Stevenson, who encouraged us to shift the narrative when it comes to the school-to-prison pipeline and ensure all young people have the right to a childhood; with Richard Blanco, whose work encouraged us to “contribute a chapter” to the narrative of our nation; and with Zak Ebrahim, who made the choice to reject his father’s narrative for a more peaceful one.  And we ended on what may have been the most stirring narrative shift of all, with Brittany Packnett sharing how she turned her wounds into power and conviction.
Every session I went to included elements of narrative and story, from Rosetta Lee’s stories about her life as a Korean American to David J. Johns’ insistence that we ask students about their stories and needs so we can best support their growth.  On Saturday, I attended a session by Princess Sirleaf Bomba of the Wheeler School, who shared her experiences as an African in America, so different from the experiences of African-Americans.  Tensions arose in this session—exactly the tensions the session was trying to address—over the disparate stories of blacks in the United States (African-Americans having a history of slavery, white supremacy and limited opportunity; while more recent immigrants from African nations come from varied socio-economic and educational backgrounds and may or may not be fleeing from oppressive circumstances).  The clash of narratives is always difficult, those moments when one person’s truth counters another’s.  There is so much to be learned, however, when we can lean into discomfort and try to keep talking.
We saw this kind of discord at the end of Zak Ebrahim’s session as well. Stories are power; narratives live deep inside our hearts and memories, and while stories can lift us up or help us connect, they can also make connecting painful when our stories and truths don’t align.  It is hard to make room for all of the narratives, even among adults, to live in the kind of space Rosetta Lee described, where we recognize our need for each other in order to see the whole truth.  I think one of the most important things we can do as educators is navigate that uncomfortable place when equally valid narratives clash, and it’s a skill our students need for an increasingly complex world.  For me, the discord we experienced underscored the importance of starting from questions, and of starting by acknowedging that we can only move forward if we let ourselves hear and honor a variety of answers.  Sometimes, just modeling a willingness to live in the struggle and “live the questions themselves,” as Rainer Maria Rilke put it, provides a good starting place for our students, too, especially if we are willing to be vulnerable with them.
We ended the PoCC this year with two extraordinary experiences, both of which included the power of narrative.  We got to meet three leaders who have dedicated their lives to the struggle for civil rights: baseball giant and civil rights champion Hank Aaron; Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who was a Freedom Rider and has spent his entire career as a civil rights advocate; and Martin Luther King’s only surviving sibling, his sister Christine King Farris, who taught at Spelman College for many decades.  It was like staring into the face of history to hear them speak, and each provided thoughts on how we need to move forward in the advancement of human and civil rights.  Hank Aaron told students to follow their gifts, whatever they are, and to be the best at whatever they choose, pointing out that there are no shortcuts.  John Lewis suggested that we need to get in trouble—good trouble, necessary trouble—in order to create change, telling students and teachers to “stand up and speak out” when we see an injustice.  And Christine King Farris reminded us of her brother’s dream of a “beloved community,” encouraging us to build beloved communities in our schools and beyond, to work toward communities where love, justice and non-violence prevail.
But the voice still ringing in my head and heart as I left the PoCC on Saturday was that of Brittany Packnett, Teach for America’s VP for National Community Alliances.  Her honest, direct style and oratory power made her riveting, and her history as a student of color in an NAIS school made her narrative even more important and relevant.  She shared her wounds with us, in particular telling us of the white boy who spit on her in high school–and who was never held responsible.  She talked to us about breaking down inequitable systems and building more equitable ones, of how easy it would have been for her to become the kind of person who didn’t take her seat at the table.  But Brittany was raised to speak her mind and not shrink for others, and she told the story of dinner with President of the United States Barack Obama as a moment in which she truly took her seat at the table.  “I am the lion,” she told the students, echoing Chinua Achebe; “The hunter will not tell my story; I will.”
I have a friend in education who likes to point out that humans were not meant to live in separation, that we began our existence sharing our stories around campfires in community.  The People of Color Conference and the Student Diversity Leadership Conference are such campfires, beloved communities where we have the chance to share our stories and commit to the hard work of shifting the narrative in our schools.  I hope that the SDLC experience helps to catalyze a sense of purpose for our students, that they take their place within a long tradition of peaceful change makers and feel their connection to the common purpose held by all of the exceptional people who shared their stories.  As our SDLC leaders put it in the closing ceremonies, the next Aaron, Lewis and King Farris are already in the room, preparing to take their places at the table and ready to rise.  And I hope the PoCC experience galvanizes the resolve of all adults of good conscience, helping give us the energy needed to do the hard work of equity and belonging in our schools.
We are the lion, after all, and it’s time we tell the story ourselves.

The Search for Home: Day Two at the People of Color Conference



I’ve been thinking all week about the distinction between inclusivity and belonging.  As Kapono Ciotti put it in our pre-conference workshop on Wednesday, we’ve shifted our thinking significantly over the last few decades, and our language has had to shift as well.  We started with tolerance–a word I personally hate because it suggests we only tolerate each other–then moved to diversity, then to inclusivity.  But belonging is a very different thing, a deeper and more emotional concept than inclusivity.  Rinku Sen referenced the weaknesses of the term inclusivity as well on Day One; inclusivity, she told us, suggests that one person or group has built a world they’ll allow others to come into, and that’s not the same as creating community together.  Belonging is that feeling of home, that feeling of knowing that you are an inseparable part of something, connected deeply to the people around you.

This morning, we had the incredible experience of hearing from Poet Laureate Richard Blanco, and his search for home was at the heart of what he shared.  As he put it in his keynote, he was produced (conceived) in Cuba, manufactured (born) in Spain, and imported (moved) to the United States.  He described growing up Cuban in Miami, of the ways his family tried to “be American” by incorporating elements of a US lifestyle into their home.  He made us laugh at his stories of “San Giving,” his family’s version of Thanksgiving, in which the turkey was always dry, pork was served as well, and pork drippings helped to make the turkey palatable.  They drank rum and danced salsa on Thanksgiving–and childhood looked nothing like the Brady Bunch.  He told us of his parents’ nostalgia for Cuba, for a life he never knew, and of their attempt to find home in the United States while also preserving a sense of home they might return to one day in Cuba.  Blanco evoked humor but also a deep urge for belonging as he described his search for home and his parents’ yearning as well, particularly his mother’s: “To love a country as if you’ve lost one…  It isn’t where you’re born that matters, it’s where you choose to die–that’s your country” (from “Mother Country”).

Blanco also described the challenges of growing up queer in his Cuban family, of being accepted for who he is–in particular by his grandmother.  One of my favorite poems was “Queer Theory: According to my Grandmother.”  The poem included endless admonishments for less-than-machista behavior from her grandson: “Don’t pee sitting down,” she told him.  “Don’t stare at the Million Dollar Man; I’ve seen you.”  Her ideas about masculinity, standards that didn’t match who he was, also impacted Blanco’s sense of home and belonging.  It wasn’t until he wrote and then read his work at on Inauguration Day that he realized the United States can be home for all, a place where everyone belongs.  “We can all write this new narrative,” he told us, “we can all contribute a chapter.  There’s a new constellation waiting for us to map it, waiting for us to name it–together” (from “One Today“).

Our students need a sense of home and belonging as well, and I spent the morning in David J. Johns‘ master class exploring how students might contribute to co-constructing their education, particularly African-American youth, both LGBTQI+ and straight.  His focus on student voice kept reminding me of belonging as well, of how often students feel school is a world constructed by the adults that they have to find their place in.  Instead, David Johns’ workshop suggested that students should be involved in the creation of that world, of a space in which they feel right and safe and whole.  Too often, he pointed out, adults assume they know what students need–which I explored in my blog on Day One.  But when we ask students what they need from us, when we involve them in the conversation about what their education should look like, they can shift from being included (often only marginally) to a real sense of belonging.  As someone working hard to incorporate student voice into everything that happens in the schools I support, I found his ideas deeply resonant.  I found myself thinking about the power of learning from students rather than making assumptions or teaching at them, of the incredible transformations I’ve seen in schools where students have been at the table and have had the opportunity to turn their communities into communities that feel more like home.  “We need to disrupt an educational system that determines opportunities based on zip codes and genetic codes,” Johns told us, so that all students thrive and feel a sense of belonging and wellbeing, both in our schools and the world they inhabit after they leave us.

For Zak Ebrahim, the search for home was different.  As the son of a terrorist, Zak has moved 30 times in the course of his life.  In school, he was bullied constantly–which he acknowledged has created a deep empathy for outsiders.  He chose a life of peace building and constructive action, rejecting his father’s ideas about the United States and forcing change through violence.  What moved me most was the element of choice, that idea that we can choose an identity different what’s expected or assumed, even when that identity is different than a parent or the community around us.  “Isolation,” he told us, “is the key ingredient for radicalization; separation never leads to understanding.” As my friend and colleague Homa Sabet Tavangar pointed out, this was a perfect bookend to Bryan Stevenson‘s urging on Day One that we “get proximate” because only by getting in close can we really understand the lives of others.  When our students feel a sense of belonging and home, it comes from that very proximity–and from seeing our own reflection in others, something we can only begin to do when we make real connections and build deep relationships.

I grew up searching for home as well, trying to make sense of my Semitic (Jewish) identity, clashing with the politics of Israel, trying to understand my place in the mostly non-Jewish communities I’ve inhabited.  Once I stopped self-identifying as religiously or politically Jewish, it got even more complicated; I lived outside the United States for significant portions of my teens and 20s, always searching for a sense of belonging.  Ever since I can remember, I’ve dreamed of trying to arrive at a home I never quite make it to; the dreams started when I was 9 or 10 and I still have them several times a year.  I can see some city off in the distance each time, viewed from planes and trains and ships, but I never quite arrive.

I felt that way in school as well, as I shared in my pre-conference welcome blog.  While I found ways to be included, I can’t say I felt I belonged.  And this is probably at the heart of why the People of Color Conference has become so important to me over the years.  When I step into the International Affinity group, I know I’m home; we are an incredibly diverse group, filled with people of every color from every continent, yet we share a connection to worlds beyond the United States and the experience of feeling like outsiders in places others call home.  As the only US-born international most years, who feels more at home outside the United States than in, I don’t have to explain myself with this family.  They know and understand me; I’m not just included, I belong.  And as we prepared to meet with our student counterparts on Saturday morning, we affirmed how much our students need this, too: the power of being understood and seen by teachers and peers, and the sense of belonging that comes from it.

I wonder if we might channel our childhood wounds and educate from exactly what we needed as children ourselves; the effect would surely be transformative.  Ultimately, the search for a country we can call home is the same as our students’ search for belonging in our communities.  A school can be a country, too, I keep thinking–a place where all belong and contribute and know they are home.


My PoCC family, the International Affinity Group


Unpacking the Why: Day One at the People of Color Conference



In our pre-conference session yesterday, Kapono Ciotti and I shared an interview I did with a young woman I mentored starting at the end of her 5th grade year, when she was given a scholarship to the independent school where I taught.  A Mexican-American raised by a single mother from the state of Durango, she experienced so much “othering” by teachers and tutors that she ultimately dropped out of her NAIS school and went to her neighborhood parish school.  Back among students who looked like her, and among teachers who honored exactly who she was, she thrived.

This young woman’s story is not unique, unfortunately, and her powerful words–as well as the outraged reactions of our workshop participants–have been in my heart and mind all day at the People of Color Conference.  How often do we misperceive our students’ capacities or drive, assume we understand why a student acts as they do, rather than asking the questions that might help us see the world from their perspective?  When we come to the People of Color Conference each year, we come back into a community that gets the importance of students’ sense of power and identity, of their wellbeing in their own skin and their empowerment as learners.  How might we ensure that this happens for all learners in all schools?  How we might ensure that educators engage all students with an asset mindset and try to understand their why?

Our morning keynote Bryan Stevenson explored similar ideas by suggesting that we need to look more closely at the racial divides and challenges around us.  Don’t avoid “bad neighborhoods,” he told us; get closer and try to understand why they exist.  Get proximate to the people, to their day-to-day lives, so you can understand and honor the whybehind what you see.  His stories humanized everyone, from death row inmates to the prison guard whose truck was covered in confederate flags and racist bumperstickers.  He told us of a condemned man who sang of higher ground, fueling Stevenson’s sense of purpose as a result, of how the school-to-prison pipeline exists because of the assumption that some children aren’t children.  “We have to change the narrative,” he told us repeatedly; we have to combat the fear and anger that lie at the heart of oppression so we can see every child as fully human and deserving of a real childhood.  “We have to stay hopeful,” he told us, so that when someone says “these kids can’t…” there’s always someone pushing back to insist that they can.  I found myself thinking again of my student, of how often her teachers assumed they knew her why (she wasn’t trying hard enough, didn’t have the right skills, probably had challenges in her family life), rather than starting from the kinds of questions that might have unearthed what was really going on (she had a very supportive home life but insecurity over who she was and how she fit in, the sense no one honored her as a learner and she needed to get better at everything, and intense discomfort because she knew even the teachers saw her as different).

Rosetta Lee’s sessions on racial and ethnic identity touched on similar themes; in the morning, we did an “Up-Down Exercise” to affirm our own identities, and with each set of identities she unpacked the nuances involved.  In the afternoon, she told us about her own “lunchbox moment” on her first day of school in the United States, when her peers thought her Korean food was gross and she first felt “other.”  She provided us with a sense of the stages we might see students go through as they make sense of their marginalized or privileged identities.  She reminded us that we have to do our own identity work before we can do it with students; otherwise, we run the risk of projecting our baggage onto them.  She talked, too, about the balance we have to set, especially with young children of color, between helping them understand the challenges they may encounter, what she called “protective socialization,” and making them overly scared of a hostile world.  She said that our job is to tell our students how much we love and believe in them as exactly the people they are, but that we can’t promise their identities will always be honored by the society around them.  She unpacked why so many students feel limited by the perceptions of others, particularly by adults in a position of power, and she urged us to try to understand the reasons behind the behaviors we might see in the schoolhouse.  If a student isn’t turning in homework, for example, it might be important to understand why it feels easier to avoid caring at all, rather than caring, trying, and running the risk of failing.

At Mt Vernon Presbyterian School here in Atlanta, one of their community norms is to start from questions.  Today drove home just how important that can be–not just for our students but for our broader society.  When we approach students with assumptions about who they are, we are not engaging with them as fully human–and that can have lasting and traumatic effects on the young people in our care.  Addressing this challenge means unpacking our own baggage, the why behind our own choices and assumptions.  But we also need to remember another MVPS community norm, which is assuming the best intentions.  I would like to believe that most educators want to do right by every child in their care; what they often lack is the training to know how to respond to challenging moments, how to get to the heart of why those challenges have arisen.  Like a gardener, culturally responsive teachers create the conditions for growth and learn to lean into discomfort, to be transparent with their students and model growth.  Each child has gifts and perspectives to offer our classrooms and the world beyond our walls, and educators who approach students with an asset mindset are able to draw those gifts and perspectives to the surface.  Rosetta reminded us today that while different perspectives provide different truths, the most powerful community is one where we recognize that we need each other in order to see the whole truth.

Waiting to Exhale: Coming Home to the People of Color Conference


Sarah Fukami, Wakeme (Partition). “The past is monumentalized through the dissemination of history; he or she who controls the circulation of that history limits the ways in which one can perceive it. During WWII, the War Relocation Authority manipulated how Japanese-American internment was viewed by the public through censoring photography and media depictions of what occurred in the camps. This piece displays idyllic photographs commissioned by the WRA against those from the Associated Press which reveal the reality of the Japanese-American experience. At the same time, their racist agenda is revealed ironically by the blatant display of propagandist rhetoric in the captions that were published in newspapers. By creating this contrast, the viewers are asked to reshape their own histories; and question beyond the information that has been conveniently handed down by the transgressors of the crime. ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.'”

“Walls turned sideways are bridges.”
–Angela Davis

I realized the other day that I’ve barely breathed since 2am on Wednesday, November 9th. That panicked, tight feeling in my chest and stomach hasn’t left since I woke up in a haze and realized what happened. I haven’t taken a deep breath, haven’t cried or exhaled completely since that morning. It’s almost like my body and mind don’t want to let me mourn. Every time I try to write, all that come out are questions: How might we empower our students to keep our schools hate-free? How might we best support marginalized students and colleagues who are living in fear? How might we open civil but meaningful dialogue that makes room for multiple perspectives without veering toward bigotry? How might we combat the “isms” in our communities, even learn to honor indigenous values and varied ways of life around the world? How might we avoid normalizing Standing Rock, hate crimes and other forms of systematic oppression and marginalization? And how might our students be a part of constructive change-making and community-building efforts beyond their school walls?

As the indices of hate crimes began to rise immediately post-election, particularly in K-12 schools, I found myself thinking of every young person who has a reason to feel marginalized and threatened by the increased legitimization of all our worst social “isms.” I thought of my former students, of all those amazing young people who are beyond the schoolhouse walls now, using their gifts to make the world a better place. I thought of my Dreamers, undocumented students from Latin America who gained access to college through the Dream Act and now find themselves dangerously visible. I thought of the children of immigrants who passed through my classroom, many of whom fear deportation or forced registration of the hard-working parents who sacrificed for their sake. I thought of my Muslim-American students, of the stories I keep hearing about Muslim mothers begging their daughters to ignore their faith and stop wearing hijab in public to keep themselves safe. I thought of my African-American students and my constant fear of unwarranted violence against them, of my Japanese-American students whose grandparents experienced internment in this country and who know just how dangerous divisive thinking can be (see the extraordinary artwork of my former student, Sarah Fukami, on this blog). I thought of my differently abled students, my gay students, my transgender students, all of whom fear mockery, violence and legalized exclusion now more than ever. I thought of the struggling public school I just started working with, a school filled with immigrants and refugees where teachers and administrators dream of equity and inclusion–and are working hard to get there.

I thought of myself, too, and what it felt like to grow up Jewish in the United States. Last week, I told my mom for the first time of the little blonde boy in 2nd grade who told me Hitler’s body had never been found, that he could be alive and might come back to kill my family. That early experience with feeling othered and threatened was so intense that I can still picture the scene down to the quality of light in the room when he said it; that little boy placed the first crack in the protective veneer of my childhood, and I have felt “other” ever since. I thought of my trip to Los Angeles on November 10th this fall, of how my inner 2nd grader felt that same vulnerability and threat as I moved through public crowds in airports as an adult. I saw a woman laughing as she watched election results on Fox News in the United Club in Denver, and I couldn’t breathe, much less respond. I am the child of activists; I was raised to always take unapologetic non-violent action to promote social change. I’m the last person to keep my mouth shut in a moment of injustice; I believe in living my values out loud. Yet that week I found myself scared and silenced, walking through crowded airports wondering who wished my family and I would just “go home” to the countries we escaped three generations ago.

PictureSarah Fukami, Kiku (Chrysanthemum). “This piece is part of a portrait series of my Japanese family, which utilize hanakotoba, or, the language of flowers. The western version of this concept is also referred to as floriography, where specific flowers are symbols for various sentiments or communications. While I use the visually beautiful imagery of the flower, I also want to emphasize the flaws in associating others with symbols. This afterthought quickly becomes the rejection of what they are perceived to represent.”

We find ourselves at a crossroads in the United States, in a country divided. As educators, our responsibilities are overwhelming, and many teachers are still trying to figure out how to talk to their students about what comes next. Much as we saw in the weeks following 9/11, many educators feel paralyzed and unsure of how to confront division and discord in a way that honors all perspectives but also encourages dialogue toward inclusion, community, and what Buddhists call “right action.”

At World Leadership School, we decided that our best line of action was to send out resources to support the teachers and administrators in our networks. These curricular resources for post-election classrooms come from an array of excellent educational and social justice organizations, and we hope you find them helpful. World Leadership School renews our intention to support schools as they find ways to challenge bigotry and teach understanding and acceptance. We believe in the power of teaching students to lean into discomfort and connect across all that separates us, and in the importance of working together to build diverse, safe, and thoughtful learning communities.

As I pack my bags and prepare to leave for Atlanta, I find myself grateful beyond words for the PoCC. As I wrote after the conference in 2013, the People of Color Conference community is, for me, the best demonstration of Naomi Shihab Nye’s “shared world” I’ve ever been a part of. I feel honored and blessed to share this common vision and purpose with all of you, with so many extraordinary people who care about the needs of students, teachers, administrators and families. I can’t wait to exhale, to breathe out in community, to let myself mourn with my PoCC family. Our students need these days together, too. Helping to foster community and a pride in who they are is the least we can do, and I hope their experiences this week will have constructive reverberations in our schools and broader communities for the next four years and beyond.

I come home to the PoCC this year ready to laugh and cry and strategize together; ready to craft plans to keep our communities safe, inclusive, and focused on constructive change; and ready to breathe in the power of our collective educational vision for the children in our care.

Sarah Fukami, Modern Mathematics. “As an artist who deals primarily with social injustices against Japanese-Americans during the 1940s, it is vital for me to also speak out against contemporary issues. The message here is clear: our government would rather create a facade of peace than to make real change and give justice to black victims of police violence and combat the inherent racism that permeates the justice system. Beneath this message are the names of the unarmed victims who were killed by police in 2015, and are specifically those in which no officer has been charged. There were 102 lives senselessly lost; if we have learned anything from the injustices of the past, we know that silence is consent.”



Language Matters in Education: Putting Vigor over Rigor

This will be the first in an ongoing blog series on key language and learning distinctions that really matter when we’re crafting high-quality, student-centered experiences for our students.I’ve been a language nerd since I first started to accumulate a vocabulary in early childhood, and I believe that the words we choose always matter.  In education, what Kath Murdoch calls “invitational language” can make a huge difference with students; open-ended “how might we?” opportunities unlock creativity, innovation and critical thinking about how to make our communities and lives better, helping students develop problem-solving skills for school and life beyond the schoolhouse.  Guy Claxton’s ideas about a language he calls “Learnish” are connected to this as well, to students becoming flexible and fluent in the language needed to articulate their own learning.  Similarly, poor use of language can truncate high quality experiences and stifle creativity, limiting how students view the possibilities and parameters before they even begin to problem solve, even belittling or diminishing students and their varied minds, learning pathways and world views.Rigor vs. Vigor
I’ve heard the word “rigor” used for far too long in education, and it horrifies me.  Rigor comes from late Middle English, from the Latin word regere, which means “to be stiff.”  We refer to a corpse as going through rigor mortis when it becomes stiff shortly after death.  So why on earth would we describe education as rigorous?  Do we really want learning to be stiff and inflexible, or do we want students to enjoy learning and spend their lives doing it?  Educator Shawn McCusker put it perfectly on Twitter this August, when he wrote, “My least favorite word in education is rigor. I feel like we use it to justify grinding the souls of our children.”  I couldn’t agree more.  The word rigor makes me think of angry teachers using rulers to rap students on the backs of their hands or heads for lack of conformity to the rules of traditional education.I am a proud graduate of the Open Schools of Jefferson County, Colorado, where we didn’t use the word rigor.  Instead, founder and educational thought leader Arnie Langberg believed in vigor, in building a culture where learning was vigorous and personalized, not rigorous and inflexible.  The word vigor also comes from Middle English, from the Old French vigour and the Latin vigere, meaning “to be lively.”  A lively educational experience is one that students find engaging and relevant, authentic and meaningful, an experience that makes them think and wonder and take risks for the sake of deeper learning. The word vigor makes me think of students collaborating to solve authentic challenges, of conversations filled with energy and enthusiasm, of classrooms filled with noise and movement and thinking and risk taking.PictureGraphic by Lisa Westman; click image to see full articleConsider thought leader Milton Chen’s claim that we can judge the quality of a classroom by whether students run in more quickly than they run out.  In my experience, students always run into a vigorous learning environment–and generally dream of running out of a rigorous one.  As educator Lisa Westman points out in her blog and graphic, there is a big difference between compliance and learning.  The higher the grade level, the easier it becomes to mistake compliance for engagement–or even to value compliance over learning because, after all, compliance is quieter and less messy than authentic, engaged learning tends to be.Think about how different a learning environment becomes when we focus on vigorous engagement over rigorous drilling.  Think about how much more enjoyment is possible with a word like vigor.  And vigor isn’t mutually exclusive to high test scores, if anyone’s worried, just as fun is not mutually exclusive to learning. In fact, vigorous learning, by which I mean deep, engaging and meaningful learning, will lead to more transferable knowledge and skill, not less.  (Although they use the word rigorous way too often in their work, see results from the first Knowledge in Action research project for quantifiable evidence that students can have fun while simultaneously learning something serious and important.)  I love how my colleague Dayna Laur captured genuine learning–and its unfortunate antithesis–in a recent letter to her daughter’s teachers.  And colleague Jill Akers Clayton blogged recently on the space between knowledge and understanding; a vigorous classroom seeks the kind of deep curiosity and understanding she describes, as well as vigorous learning opportunities that allow young people to explore the world beyond their classroom walls.

As we begin this new school year in the northern hemisphere, and near our last months in the south, I wonder what might happen if we re-envision our school cultures and instructional pedagogies through the lens of vigor.  What might we do differently this year to emphasize vigor over rigor?  How might we help our students to see their own learning as flexible, and foster their ability to learn from failure?  How might we increase the joy in our classrooms, foster students’ enthusiasm and energy for learning?  How might we ensure, in other words, that students run in more quickly than they run out of our classrooms and schoolhouses?Perhaps most importantly, how might we help students reach high expectations not through stiffness and inflexibility but through multiple pathways that capitalize on their individual gifts and passions?  What does it look like to facilitate learning experiences with that level of flexibility and personalization, particularly in light of our standards-driven accountability systems in the United States?  We all know that challenges exist, that even the best of teachers feel they have to teach to the test by February or March.  But while we enjoy the first few months of school, with testing still far off on the horizon, how might we rethink how we meet those standards?  If we put vigor first and trust that learning happens when students are engaged and excited, we might combat the belief that rigor leads to excellence.  Rigor may lead to episodic successes, to what Sarah Lewis calls “an event-based victory” or two, but mastery is a life-long pursuit, one pursued with vigor and enthusiasm and passion by those who are committed to their own growth.Let’s make this the year we put vigor before rigor in how we talk and think about our classrooms, schoolhouses, and students.

Life Inside the Mirror: Reflections on the 2015 People of Color Conference



“We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.”   –Franklin D. Roosevelt

Several of my friends had babies in the last year, and at the People of Color Conference this December I found myself wondering more than ever what sort of world they will grow up into.  I am struggling, as I did just after September 11th, with what it means to raise children in the United States, a question educators are grappling with as much as parents.  I wonder how we’ll make sure our children of color are safe.  I worry for immigrant children and the U.S.-born children of immigrants as they encounter threat and marginalization.  And I worry about whether schools can do enough to impact not just our students’ sense of safety and belonging inside our buildings, but also in the world outside our schoolhouses, where black boys are shot on their way to the store and the children of immigrants are told to go home to countries where their homes have been bombed and their lives are in danger.

Coming together with other concerned, conscientious educators every year is a lifeline for all of us in this work.  As the leaders of the Student Leadership Diversity Conference put it in their welcome message to students this year, the PoCC is like a booster shot for the soul.  The one year I missed the conference for financial reasons, I was downright suicidal by February.  We need this community; I need this community.  It reminds me that the shared world we work for is possible.

But as the challenges grow in our communities, so do my concerns and misgivings, particularly because the people benefiting from all this  fear and hatred don’t go to conferences like the PoCC .  This year, I’d like to share a few of my main take-aways, the mantras I’ll be hearing in the back of my mind as I facilitate the hard work with teachers trying to create change in their classrooms and schools in 2016 and beyond.


1.          We have a responsibility to protect our African-American boys, and to teach them how to keep themselves safe in a society that fears them.  Several speakers this year explored the challenges of teaching black boys to keep themselves safe, things like keeping their hands out of their pockets and their hoods off, keeping their hands on the steering wheel when pulled over, not getting out of the car or speaking back or running away.  But living safely in the U.S. is not as simple as being polite to cops, particularly for people of color.  There’s a deeper problem in our society that requires action, not carefully calculated moves which suggest that our current reality is acceptable.  While we want our children to be careful, and to know that quick moves can get them killed, we don’t want them to give in to systematic racism and oppression.  That’s a hard line to walk; how does a young person grow up with a strong sense of self if he knows he has to act differently than his white counterparts?  How do make sure his safety doesn’t come at the detriment of his identity and sense of self worth?

Listening to Dr. Howard C. Stevenson’s recording of a conversation with his son about a recent police shooting, it was clear he had several goals: to help his son process what had happened, to help him understand that race was a factor, and to help him feel equipped to respond to these forms of oppression while simultaneously protecting himself from similar harm.  These conversations are not just important for African-American youth, either; today, anti-immigrant sentiment and Islamaphobia are increasingly rampant in our society, LGBTQ bullying continues, and gun control challenges mean that the haters have firepower at their disposal.  We need to keep all of our children safe in an increasingly volatile world.  This is not just the job of parents to have these conversations, either; it is a responsibility educators need to share and embrace as well.

2.         Children recognize differences and begin to act on social constructs of race and gender much earlier than we think.  To say I was stunned by the research Rosetta Lee shared on early childhood and when young kids develop a sense of race and gender would be an understatement, and the findings make me want to dig much deeper.  I remember noticing this with my older niece, when she announced one Christmas that she wanted a stationary bicycle with an interactive virtual course but couldn’t have one because it was a “toy for boys.”  I think she was about five—and when I dug, it turned out her impressions came from watching tv commercials and only seeing boys on bikes.  It also makes me remember a 2nd grader at Town School for Boys, who approached me to let me know he was black when I was visiting his class at the end of a project on Dr. Martin Luther King as a change maker.  (I gave him a huge appreciative smile and said, “Yes, you are!” He smiled back.)

We are holding such delicate identities in our hands, especially at an early age, and we have an incredible responsibility to do this well, to help our children see themselves in the world and their community, to help them define—and redefine—their identities as they grow.

3.          Poetry can help; communicating matters.  As a writer and former English teacher, I resonated with Sarah Kay’s closing keynote.  She reminded me of the power of poetry to help students process heavy issues of identity, both in and out of the classroom.  I used journals that way in my classroom, and I always allowed students to fold pages that got too personal to be shared with me, so that they knew they had a safe space to process sensitive topics.  That said, I also noticed that many students wanted to share what was most painful, that they even seemed to need an audience who could hear and understand them.  Over 19 years teaching Creative Writing, I was stunned by how often students shared their real, personal struggles under the guise of fiction and poetry, and I was able to help guide students to counselors and other support people once they’d “outed” their real feelings through a piece of creative writing.

The pace of our independent schools makes little room for creative self expression and reflection, yet the arts are where our students most often come to understand themselves and their place in the world.  We need to open up more space in our schedules for such expression, for students to grapple not just with math and history but with who they are and the kinds of people they want to be.

4.         We need to raise our children to stand up to discrimination even when it’s scary.  I remember speaking with a friend years ago, whose first son was born on September 12th, 2001.  I asked how she was feeling, about a month after his birth, about raising a child in 21st Century America.  Her reply was that the world clearly needed a lot more good people, so her charge was to make sure her son was one of them.

A student in my International Affinity Group talked about being afraid to push back when his school community made a poor choice, as it seemed inevitable that doing so would create more tension and conflict.  But the reality is that we can’t get to a better place without that tension and conflict, and leaning into discomfort will take us much further than avoiding the conversation. As Mahzarin Banaji made clear, the biases which put some in danger and others in power are deeply embedded in the human mind, impossible to change until we make them transparent.  It’s not easy work, but it’s some of the most important work we’ll ever do.


5.         The assumption that race aligns with privilege does not always hold true for people with an international identity, however they define that.  I heard rumblings from most of the affinity groups about a graphic shared with all of us this year, called Journeys of Race & Culture: from Racial Inequality to Equity & Inclusion.  While it may have sparked some powerful conversation, it was particularly dissonant for most people in the international affinity group.  We found ourselves drawing distinctions which didn’t follow racial lines so much as ethnic ones; for example, as a semitic American, I resonated more with the lower half of the graphic, the experience defined as that of People of Color, even though my skin is white.  We found ourselves wanting to revise the headings—would we all have responded differently had it been separated into the experiences of “Dominant and Non-Dominant Cultures” instead of “Whites and People of Color?”

None of us intend to diminish what this chart might mean for African Americans, Latin Americans, Asian Americans, or the U.S.-born whites who need to do the work of unpacking their privilege.  I’m guessing the conversations triggered by the graphic were important and meaningful for most participants for whom inequity is an issue of race, and I recognize that this conference exists to serve their needs, not mine.  My comments are not meant to diminish what is unique about those experiences.  But subjugation happens as much on an ethnic level as a racial one, particularly outside of the United States, and issues like socio-economic opportunity and belonging to the dominant culture vs. the non-dominant group resonate more for many of us.

In fact, many educators in the international affinity group went from being part of a privileged, dominant class in their countries of origin, to suddenly being perceived as a minority in the U.S. because of race.  Those who can “pass” because of lighter skin have had it easier than those who can’t, and many of my colleagues talked about passing by keeping their mouths shut so they wouldn’t be “outed” by their accents.  Frankly, the threats to immigrants’ place in America are getting worse every day, particularly if one looks Arab or is a practicing Muslim.  Many of my colleagues expressed fear and a profound sense of exclusion and alienation, particularly over the last year, and several of those individuals are white immigrants, both with and without accents, who are watching as U.S. society turns its back on their endless contributions.

For us, the conversation needed to be about this, the life of the immigrant in the United States, and the graphic triggered a lot for us.  I’ll be the first to admit, however, that it also led to some very powerful conversations many of us needed to have about life as it’s experienced by international and “third-culture” individuals, a life which often vacillates between the lower and upper halves of the graphic, depending on where we are standing and how we are perceived. (For more on Third Culture Identities, see “So Where’s Home,” by Adrian Bautista; and Taiye Selasi’s TED Talk, “Don’t Ask Where I’m From, Ask Where I’m a Local.”)

6.          The Equity Imperative is more urgent now than ever.  The theme of the conference this year was The Equity Imperative, and I can’t begin to express how grateful I am to be part of a community so engaged in such profound dialogue about these topics.  What is even harder than dialogue is bringing our ideas into practice, and each year this conference leaves me with new tools and strategies for helping teachers walk the walk, not just talk the talk.  I am particularly grateful this year to a Mexican-American woman in my international session, who pointed out that she reframes every problem she faces in her community as an opportunity.  As a person who often gets caught up in cynicism and pessimism, I was reminded that optimistic coaching will allow me to reframe the conversation at many schools in more constructive directions.

I hope that every participant this year finds meaningful ways to bring conversations about equity to their communities, and will spark action through that dialogue.  Of all the challenges that face us as a human family, our ability to move from conversation to action is perhaps the most severe, to move past the mirror and let our self reflections turn into tangible solutions to all that ails us.  The urgency to do so grows more compelling every day.  It is our responsibility to teach and protect all children well, and I challenge all educators to find ways to implement our ideologies as good practice in our schoolhouses.

7.         There are still plenty of good people in the world, and we can help balance out the bad ones.  But our kids need to know how to recognize us amid the haters.  Rosetta Lee left me with a lot to think about when someone in her session on Old School Diversity asked how we prepare our children for dealing with the people who don’t understand or value who they are.  Her answer stayed in my mind throughout the conference.  How do we prepare our children for the haters?  We tell them they’ll encounter people who don’t know how to honor and love all that they are, but they’ll also encounter people who see them, appreciate them, and honor every nuance of their identities. Life is about learning to avoid the former and recognize the latter.  It’s about knowing how to build allies and networks with the people who get us and see our whole selves, and trying to educate the people who don’t.  And according to Gyasi Ross, it’s also about remembering that history matters, and that more of a diversity of experience needs to be honored in the retellings our children explore, so that every child sees his/her experiences reflected in the mirror.



Student Products: Engaging to Stop Ebola in Sierra Leone

I am excited to share two new products from students in the United States who have been working closely with Hindogbae and the Bumpe Ngao Chiefdom in Sierra Leone.  Both of these schools work closely with World Leadership School on their global initiatives.  Congratulations to all on these inspiring student-driven products!Town School for Boys (San Francisco, California) has been doing a project on exponentials in their high school Algebra class (8th grade).  Once they realized, through the math, that a donation now has more impact than it will in even a few weeks, they mounted a fundraising campaign to support the grassroots work in Bumpe.  Please see and share their video below.  Teachers: Hilary McArthur and Garrett Frank.
The Madeira School (McLean, Virginia) is doing a project on Ebola eradication in a new course called Contemporary Issues in Science (12th grade).  Their first product, which is embedded below, is a Public Service Announcement for use in Bumpe Ngao Chiefdom, which was created at Hindo’s request–and which features a Mende soundtrack students found on the CDC website. Their second product, a documentary film designed to explain the science and engage a western audience, will be finished in early January, 2015.  Teacher: Ashley Johnson.


Here are a few reflections from Ben, the Town School student who did the bulk of the film editing for his team:“I really enjoyed this project, and I think that as we have grown to be 8th graders, the projects we do more apply to real world topics. This has pushed me to take more care in my work and create meaningful products for very real dilemmas such as Ebola. I spent most of my Tuesday night finishing our poster and video at school, something I probably wouldn’t have done if the overall goal of the project hadn’t meant what it did. These kinds of projects are also open-ended and allows the students to contribute in their own ways, and in my case, making a video. That is a great segue into my role in this 8th grade project. I joined the video team along with Ethan and Freddie. My decision was based on that fact of an video idea I had before the brainstorm. I knew I couldn’t make as much of a difference on the bake sale, assembly, or the other teams, and that making a video was a way I could help the cause the most. I wanted to start small, advertising for Hindo’s cause in our community. The video is underway now but here is the initial storyboard:Overall this project was a realization of the Ebola epidemic. Being here in the US, I often forget of the problems that don’t involve myself. But after talking to Hindo and hearing about his experiences, I really wanted to do something. To help in anyway I could for the people of West Africa and give to people like Hindo.As for the math part, Exponential equations are also a very real thing. Especially when discussing and predicting things that grow rapidly, they will be a great addition to our math arsenal.

Ebola in Bumpe: Connect Your School to Real Grassroots Action


Hindo and team educate a community about Ebola prevention


“Great social forces are the accumulation of individual actions.  Let the future say of our generation that we sent forth mighty currents of hope, and that we worked together to heal the world.”  —Jeffrey D. Sachs

Whatever your views on the Ebola scare as it’s manifesting itself inside of North America, there’s no question that this is a real, deadly epidemic in West Africa.  Real people are dying at alarming rates.  People I know and care about in Sierra Leone are in real trouble; the schools are closed, the quarantined are starving, the people are afraid to shake hands with their neighbors, and misinformation reigns.

I’ve written about Hindogbae Kposowa before, a young leader in Bumpe, Sierra Leone, who is leading incredible efforts to improve life in his community in partnership with TakingITGlobal and the World Leadership School.  I’ve also written about teachers in Bumpe, and the experiences I’ve had working with them on project-based learning and global partnerships.  Through Hindo, several schools in North America have been able to partner with schools in the Bumpe community, including The Berkeley Carroll School (Brooklyn, NY) and Town School for Boys (San Francisco, CA).  To learn more about one school’s work with Sierra Leone, explore this recent blog from Kristen Goggin at Town School for Boys.

Today, Hindo and his community are all-consumed by efforts to keep the Bumpe Ngao Chiefdom safe from the Ebola virus.  Please don’t wait to get your students and community involved.

Build a Project around the Ebola Crisis in West Africa.  There is nothing more authentic for inquiry and action than a real crisis in progress, and your students can be more than mere spectators, empowered to understand and support grassroots efforts instead of watching helplessly from the sidelines.  Young leaders in Bumpe want to communicate with your kids, and all schools will receive regular updates from local volunteers on the ground.  Consider the following driving questions and project ideas, which could easily be adapted for different grade levels:

1.     How can we understand the causes of Ebola?  Have your kids explore the root causes of Ebola and how it is spread.  They could investigate how different countries are trying to manage the spread, looking at why Ebola was well controlled in places like Nigeria, while it has not been well controlled in Liberia or Sierra Leone.  For younger kids, this could be woven into lessons about personal health and hygiene.  For older students, this could become a powerful project on anything from public health policy to health care systems, and comparisons could include case studies in North America and Europe.

2.     How can we determine which solutions to the Ebola spread are most effective?  Have your kids explore how different health organizations are trying to stop the epidemic, including UNICEF, the World Health Organization, and the Center for Disease Control.  Compare their impact with the strategies and grassroots efforts being used in Bumpe Ngao Chiefdom.  This is also an interesting opportunity to explore the best ways to educate communities–through community meetings, theatre, posters, billboards–and have kids create their own educational campaigns.

3.     How can we use math to understand the Ebola epidemic?  Have your kids do some real world math–on the exponential spread of the disease and the funding needed to stop it, on comparisons to other global epidemics, on the costs involved in the grassroots work being done in Bumpe, and/or the relative successes of bigger and smaller organizations, including their overhead expenses and how much is actually being spent to end the outbreak.

4.     How can we help end the spread of Ebola in Sierra Leone?  Whatever the academic focus of your broader engagement, encourage your kids to plan and run a fundraiser or educational campaign about Ebola and how to get involved in stopping its spread.  Student presentations could include skits like those being used to educate communities in Bumpe, as well as artistic expression, writing, film, or other creative products designed to educate and inspire others to get involved.  Once a classroom or individual has gotten involved in Bumpe’s grassroots prevention work, you will receive regular updates from young leaders in Bumpe, which can be shared with your students and broader community.

5.     What can we learn by connecting with young people in Sierra Leone that we can’t learn from the news?  The Centre for Global Education plans to run a multi-point videoconference with young leaders in Bumpe soon; please contact me for more information (Jennifer@principledlearning.org).  Young leaders are also willing to Skype into classrooms on an individual basis, to answer students’ questions and talk about their efforts.  Please note that there are significant costs involved in having the electricity and internet necessary for such a connection on Bumpe’s end, so we do ask that your classroom make a donation to the project if you want a private Skype call.

Please reach out to me if I can help support your involvement in this important work (Jennifer@principledlearning.org).  Your kids don’t want to be spectators to global disasters–they are emerging change makers who want to be part of the solution.  Please don’t wait to get them involved.

Adventures in Student-Centered Learning: Working with Teachers in Sierra Leone


Picture“So much has been destroyed I have cast my lot with those who, age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world.” 
–Adrienne RichA rusty metal car bumper hung from a tree next to the primary school; each morning, I was woken up between 5:00 and 6:00 am by some diligent community time keeper who rang it repeatedly by hitting it with something.  Instead of my regular routine before a teacher workshop, which includes lousy hotel coffee and a quick, often confusing drive across some unfamiliar city in a rental car, this day began with the ringing of the bumper.  I ate fried Spam and eggs for breakfast and walked the short, dusty road to the school.  It took us 15 minutes to figure out how to get the chalk boards to stand up straight, another 10 to reorganize the desks, which had been placed in rows, into a circle with plastic picnic chairs behind them.  Children gathered in the windows and doorways, greeting me in Mende through the bars: “Boa Jenny-fah!”  They giggled uncontrollably at my poorly pronounced replies.I started the workshop with a driving question for the 16 teachers who were invited to attend from Bumpe High School and the three local elementary schools: How can we best prepare our students to be successful people and innovative leaders in our communities and beyond?  Everyone politely copied down everything I wrote on the board.I told them what I’d discovered through interviewing students in town all week, that the older the students, the less of an answer they had when I asked what they were curious about.  The 1st graders had answers, and so did the 2nd graders; even the kindergarteners had answers once they understood what I was asking.  But the high school kids all stared with confusion when asked what I thought was one of the best questions posed for them by Ashley Miller’s kindergarten students at Town School for Boys in San Francisco.  What had happened between 1st grade and 10th, I asked?  They’d been educated in a system where students sat in rows and copied down what their teachers told them to know, just as every teacher in the room was doing now.

PictureIn the schools of Bumpe, I quickly discovered, Paolo Freire’s notion of “banking education” is the norm.  Students obediently write down everything the teachers say.  When asked what they think, only the most mature offer answers beyond those modeled first by the teachers.  One of the participants in my workshop, a Peace Corps volunteer halfway through his second year teaching English Literature, told me that the students are either misbehaving or learning passively most of the time; it is rare to see them engaged and curious.  The exams they face every year ask for no independent thought and require no skills beyond test taking and rote retention.  It’s no wonder that Freire resonated for so many of the teachers in my workshop–very few had studied his work, but everyone saw parallels to Socrates immediately, whom it seemed all had studied at some point in an educational system originally conceived by British colonists.  Socrates and Freire had similar ideas about educating independent thinkers, suggesting that the best philosophers and educators ask questions, have dialogue, and encourage risk taking in their students–they don’t offer answers but equip students instead to look for answers themselves.Context can’t be underestimated, given Sierra Leone’s painful history.  As recently as the 1990s, rebels were destroying everything they touched in this region of the world, and “Bumpe Town” appears several times in public documents from the Special Court for Sierra Leone.  According to the Special Court, many individuals in the region were captured, tortured, and had limbs amputated.  Community members who resisted were beheaded, and their heads were displayed in the town center to discourage resistance.  According to the stories I heard during my visit, community members were raped and killed; children were executed in front of their parents; entire families were burned alive inside their homes.  I don’t know whether the culture of passive education pre-dates the rebel war, but it’s certainly not surprising that Sierra Leone’s post-conflict educational culture includes so much obedience and so little independent thought, given the consequences they faced when they thought for themselves during the 1990s.

PictureI was welcomed to Bumpe with celebrations and smiles, but there was no way I could forget the past each of these educators had lived through; even if there hadn’t been chickens roosting in our workshop room and we’d been in a North American workshop space with plumbing and electricity, I’d have been constantly and keenly aware of the horrors these teachers had undergone, the experiences that every Sierra Leonean under 20 remembers well enough to be left with layers of pervasive trauma.  Bumpe’s schools and homes were looted and burned to the ground.   I knew that these teachers had fled with their families, that they had tried to keep Bumpe’s schools going even as they’d fled from village to village in search of safety from the rebels.  They’d taught out of remaining schoolhouses in other communities during off hours, moving again and again as the conflict required.  There were teachers in the room who had lost family members, who had been captured and tortured themselves.  Each of the teachers in my workshop had chosen to return to their town, to continue the work of educating their community, in spite of the fact that it was the site of unspeakable horror for every one of them.  I couldn’t help but feel the weight of this history on every teacher in the room; it clung to us like a dusty haze, though no one spoke about the past directly.

PictureI spent the whole day overwhelmingly conscious of the dangers of acting out some dreadful imperialist or colonialist paradigm by suggesting I had anything to teach these educators, individuals who had borne–and survived–so much I couldn’t imagine myself enduring.  They had come back to a ravaged village to rebuild their communities and schools, were doing the best they could with almost no resources.  How could I possibly know what it means to be an educator during and since times of war and atrocity, to work with the children of a generation of deeply scarred and traumatized adults?  How was I going to talk about global enrichment when most of their students would never see the world beyond their direct environment and didn’t have enough to eat?  How could I encourage collaboration with students around the world when the local schools had no electricity or running water, much less computers or internet connectivity?  Many of the teachers in my workshop hadn’t been paid in years, and all of them struggled to put food on the table; who was I to teach them anything?  Who was I to think that a summer teaching poetry in the West Bank qualified me to walk alongside these educators?

PictureBut when we worked together to craft a sense of our ideal global graduate, the challenges and distances between us melted away.  It was the same list I’ve seen generated by teachers in schools across North America, what every educator wants for their students–and their communities–no matter where in the world they might be: that our students feel loved and know how to love others, that they have a sense of purpose and feel the urge to be engaged in creating change, that they be collaborative and creative problem solvers who know how to communicate their vision to others.  It reminded me of the first time I heard Sting’s “The Russians Love their Children Too,” just after I left Israel/Palestine in 1985; it reminded me that wherever we live and whatever we experience, our hopes for our children are the same–and that those hopes have everything to do with our youth thriving and becoming good people, and nothing to do with their succeeding on standardized exams.

PictureSo no, I didn’t have enough time to take my teachers on a deep journey into all of the nuances of Project-Based Learning, but I didn’t need to try–all I needed to do was open a few new ideas about what student-centered teaching looks like, and they got it.  Each teacher explored how the Buck Institute for Education’s Eight Essential Elements of Project-Based Learning might be incorporated into their teaching strategies; each teacher chose at least three elements as goals for growth of practice.  In the developing world, where so many traditional paradigms of rote learning and teacher-centered education prevail–perhaps in part because of poverty and conflict–it is enough to increase student choice, to develop students’ 21st Century Skills, to allow learning to be born from a deeper sense of passion and purpose.  We did the same with global competency matrices from Asia Society and World Savvy, and they loved the idea of Asia Society’s matrix providing a design strategy for classroom experiences–several teachers even came up with interesting ways to focus units on investigating the world, recognizing perspectives, communicating ideas, and taking action.

PictureMy favorite moment came during Building Utopia, a critical-thinking and collaboration activity I developed for World Leadership School, which asks teachers to organize the targets of the Millenium Development Goals into an order of priority, whatever that means to them.  We were walking around after the exercise, listening to each group present what they’d prioritized and why, when an argumentative high school social studies teacher asked if listeners were allowed to disagree with presenters.  In the shouting which followed, one voice rang straight through: Mr. Samba, the oldest teacher in the room, insisted loudly that all answers were correct, and within seconds the rest were echoing his sentiment loudly, wagging index fingers at the one who wanted to argue politics and pushing him back from the table.  I nearly wept, both from laughter and joy, as this incredible group of educators demonstrated that they’d understood and were embodying the heart of student-centered learning in just under four hours.

PictureBumpe isn’t a big place, and every teacher I saw after the workshop told me enthusiastically about the changes they were already making in their classrooms.  They weren’t developing huge projects, but they were already working toward the goals they’d set at the workshop: they were finding small ways to offer more choice, to ask questions more than offer answers, to talk less and listen more, to move away from the “sage on the stage” and toward the “guide on the side” as educators.  Many of them expressed concern over how unsafe their national exams make it for kids to “fail forward” and learn from trial and error, and they were eager to continue the dialogue about how to lower risk aversion inside the classroom and get kids to try new things without fear of connected grades destroying their academic futures.  The teachers were excited to share what they’d learned with colleagues–so excited that they actually fought ferociously over my left-over materials at the end of the workshop.

PictureIt was no accident that I chose to start from Freire; young people in Sierra Leone need to develop their own conscientização–the personal conscience that leads to innovation, liberation and change–and that can only happen through student-centered learning.  Bumpe Town will probably never do a total flip to inquiry-driven, student-centered learning, but a few inspired young leaders will emerge from this beautiful part of the world, as they do wherever young people are encouraged to think for themselves, to collaborate with others, and to find new solutions to their communities’ challenges.  Just as my host Hindogbae Kposowa has been fostered as a community leader through his work with  international organizations like TakingITGlobal and World Leadership School, so all young people deserve to have constructive support as they develop their talents and passions.  I don’t do this work because I think I have the right answers, but because I believe that every community in the world contains young people who might, particularly if their answers are fostered in classrooms which honor their voices and capacity for innovation.If my experience running a workshop with students in Bumpe is any indicator, these emerging leaders will find ways to rebuild and protect the future of their communities and country in ways their teachers and I have yet to even imagine.

My trip was partially funded by World Leadership School, and the Town School for Boys provided funding for both teacher and student workshops.  Materials for the workshop and school were donated by the Buck Institute for EducationTakingITGlobal, and the Marine Biological Center in Woods Hole, MA (donation coordinated by Bill Mebane).   I am grateful to all, as well as to the community of Bumpe for their kindness and generosity during my stay.  For more information about the rebuilding of Bumpe, go to http://bumpefund.org/.