Fostering Global Leadership

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.

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.

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

Grappling with Women’s Rights in Sierra Leone

Humanizing the World through the Creative Arts: The WORDshop and an Argument for Art’s Sake



by Jody Lynn Nye, from
Many years ago, I had the good fortune to meet and work with poet and legend Nikki Giovanni.  It was just after 9/11, and I remember driving her around Denver in my old Subaru and her talking to me like she’d known me for years.  In particular, she lamented the fact that we were turning to poetry for consolation only after tragedy has struck, when really we should realize that it offers preventative medicine and could keep us out of conflict to begin with.  If only we could use our creativity to help us connect across boundaries and share our most authentic experience and perspective with each other, from our joys to the grit under our fingernails, maybe we could start to understand each other and recognize how interconnected our lives really are.Audre Lorde put it best: “…poetry is not a luxury. It is a vital necessity of our existence. It forms the quality of the light within which we predicate our hopes and dreams toward survival and change, first made into language, then into idea, then into more tangible action. Poetry is the way we help give name to the nameless so it can be thought. The farthest horizons of our hopes and fears are cobbled by our poems, carved from the rock experiences of our daily lives.”I have to be honest–I’ve gotten really tired of having workshops on humanizing the world through the creative arts turned down by conferences which consider themselves innovative.  I’m tired of how hard it is to convince anyone anymore that artistic expression matters for its own sake, not just when embedded into the latest STEAM initiative.  My heart is still that of a creative writing teacher, the daughter and granddaughter of musicians and artists, someone who wants to bring out the best in students’ ability to express themselves, who wants to bring something to life for students, through writing, that is about living with a deeper sense of connection to our common human experience, that is about communicating across the boundaries which separate us, and being our most authentic selves with each other.My colleague Erin Sanchez and I have developed a new project we would love to bring into your schools,“The WORDshop.”  We want to create a safe and transformative space which helps your students connect with themselves, the world, and their own best words to describe their experiences.  We want students to connect with their best, weirdest, most important visions of the world and learn to evoke them for others.  Please scroll down in the flier below for more information.Below the flier, please find a few of my favorite poetry videos.  Let them help you connect with something deeply human, let them draw you to the pen, the brush, the chisel, the camera, the piano, the cello, whatever it is that you speak through best. Remember what it means to be alive, and then share your favorites with your students and other people you love.  Make creativity matter again, even just by valuing art for art’s sake.

Still one of my all-time favorites, “Yellowbird” is Andrea Gibson’s swan song in support of arts and creativity.
“To This Day” is an exceptional spoken word and digital production by Canadian poet Shane Koyczan.
Anis Mojgani’s “For Those Who Can Still Ride in Airplanes” offers a modern take on the same themes as W. B. Yeats’ “Stolen Child.”
This is Sonya Renee Taylor’s favorite performance of her poem “Beautiful,” and the revelations are mind blowing.
This nearly wordless film is a poem. “With a Piece of Chalk” reminds me of the
gifts beneath every rough surface and hard experience, and it makes me wish
every classroom could be as safe as that empty warehouse,
a space where the gifts of every child can flourish.


Favorite #GlobalEd Resources this Week


Excellent resources for globally-minded educators cross my desk fairly often these days, so I’m going to make an effort to share my favorites every few weeks.  This week, I’d like to share three new favorites.Picture #1:  Barefoot World Atlas is an incredible application for elementary-age students to explore the world.  While it is only available for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, it provides an incredibly interactive and compelling way of exploring the world.  Incorporating music, culture, animals, history, geography and MUCH more, this is a must-try for any iPad classrooms or homes trying to go global.  I certainly know that my nieces can’t put it down once they get started exploring the world!

Picture#2:  If It Were My Home is an awesome tool which allows students to compare countries and understand economic and social differences.  This very kid-friendly site offers endless classroom applications for many grade levels, and can really help our students understand how much the “accident of birth” impacts our experiences.

#3:  We Found Love is a compelling, moving glimpse of the way music allows us to connect across cultures in authentic and powerful ways.  As a child of the arts myself, I find these kinds of resources not only serve to give kids an authentic sense of people and places around the world, but will also stir their hearts, connecting them emotionally to the larger human experience.