Global Partnerships

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

12/11/2016

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“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

12/9/2016

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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.

 


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My PoCC family, the International Affinity Group

 

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

12/8/2016

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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.

Student Products: Engaging to Stop Ebola in Sierra Leone

12/14/2014
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.

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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.

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

4/16/2014

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/.

Grappling with Women’s Rights in Sierra Leone

Global Partnerships: Strategies for Connecting your Classroom with the World

1/5/2014

PictureFrom National Geographic’s 2013 Year in Review

“…it is quite enough if [educational exchange] contributes to the feeling of a common humanity, to an emotional awareness that other countries are populated not by doctrines that we fear but by people with the same capacity for pleasure and pain, for cruelty and kindness, as the people we were brought up with in our own countries.”  –Senator J. William Fulbright

Teachers trying to globalize their practice often ask me how to develop a successful, socially responsible collaboration with a teacher, classroom or sister school elsewhere in the world.  To be honest, I’ve been frustrated by how many potentially excellent partnerships I’ve seen tank over the last few years, so I no longer promise anything beyond making introductions and sharing strategies.  There is no magic wand in this work–there is a lot of trial and error, a lot of struggling and risk, and a lot of work involved in building a successful global educational partnership.

But there’s also no question that students are moved by real human connections more than anything else we do in our increasingly global classrooms, so it’s worth trying to bring authentic partnerships into that mix.  In this article, I’ll explore a few strategies which I hope might help educators build their own partnerships successfully, though I hesitate to suggest that I’ve figured out the perfect formula–I hope readers will share their insights in the comments as well.

Look first to existing networks, relationships and organizations for your ideal global partner.  Finding a good partner teacher, classroom and even sister school community can be much more of a crap shoot than most global educators would like to admit.  Even wonderful, established organizations like iEARN and TakingITGlobal–and well-developed programs for partnership like Flat ClassroomChallenge 20/20 and Global Partners Junior–have plenty of train wrecks in their track record.  The bottom line is that it’s hard to develop a deep and collaborative relationship with colleagues in our own buildings, much less with unknown strangers across the planet.

I’ve found that the best partnerships come from existing connections in the teacher’s life and extended community.  Have any of your former colleagues moved to work in schools in other parts of the world?  Did any college friends end up doing unusual work globally?  Have current colleagues taught abroad or do they know people who are doing so now?  These questions can lead to much more personal, individualized connections–and are more likely to succeed because they will more likely spring from the vested interest of both educators.

I also know plenty of educators who have found good partners by advertising under the #globaled and #globalclassroom hash tags on Twitter, however–my point is just that deep collaboration requires full investment on both sides, and this isn’t easy to find.  In terms of finding like-minded educators, I love the yearly online Global Education Conference, and its year-round community network hosted by Lucy Gray and Steve Hargadon.  The conference community functions as a Professional Learning Network, offering a forum throughout the year for seeking global partners and sharing project ideas, and the conference itself often leads to new connections and collaborations (recordings of previous years’ sessions are available on the community pages).  Similarly, international webinars and e-courses such as the one I teach for TakingITGlobal for Educators can be an ideal forum for developing projects, getting feedback on project ideas, and finding a global partner with similar interests.

Establish your partnership based on socially responsible and culturally responsive foundations.  One of my biggest concerns about global education is the tendency of educators in the developed world to see the rest of the world as something to be explored for the sake of their own curriculum.  There’s a level of exploitation suggested in this common paradigm, if not intended, which leaves one partner classroom working for the benefit of the other.  Mutual benefit and opportunity is key to a socially responsible and culturally responsive partnership, and this requires that both educators come to the table with an empty plate.  What I mean is that educators need to approach their partners as equals, with a willingness to start the conversation without too much of their own personal agenda, with a curiosity about the needs and interests of the other teacher.  The best partnerships grow out of collaborative, equal dialogue between educators–and students.  Furthermore, mutually beneficial projects, such as having both communities work on a problem they share, can go a long way to helping our students see that global education isn’t about saving or even helping others so much as collaborating toward a better world for everyone through the gifts each person brings to the table.

Educational consultant and friend Tim Kubik and I wrote on the topic of avoiding exploitative, even imperialistic forms of global partnering in a simultaneous blog posting in Fall 2012.  We agreed that the biggest danger of global education is the emerging paradigm of developed schools exploiting less-developed communities for their educational advantage in a way which dehumanizes the less developed by suggesting they don’t have as much to offer a global collaboration (see Tim’s “Global Education as THE Dialogue Among Civilizations” and my “Our Messy World: Learning From and With, Not About”).  If we want students to stop “othering” and start seeing the world’s cultures as possessing a richness and history we can learn from and engage with, we have to start by making the global relationships themselves more important than any educational or curricular agenda.

Partner your classroom for the sake of authentic connection over “exotic” cultural differences or distance.  It’s important to notice–and avoid–an “exoticism” mentality if it starts to emerge.  I often work with educators, for example, who insist on finding a global partner from the most distant and/or culturally different country possible, usually in the developing world–not because it’s relevant to their curriculum but because it feels more exotic or “gritty” than partnering with a Canadian school, for example.  However, this mentality can often exacerbate social inequalities rather than combatting ideas about “the West and the Rest,” and in doing so can end in projects which go directly against the equal partnership goals of responsible global education.

Global educators can’t be blamed for wanting to develop something unique and far reaching for their students, but it’s also important that students learn about poverty and difficulty in our own societies.  The “glocal” education movement asks us to consider important global questions on a local level:  Could your students learn as much about collaborating to end poverty by partnering with a food bank in your own city?  Could they connect to ancient cultures and reach the same level of inter-cultural skills and relationships through a trip to the American Southwest as much as a trip to Peru?  Most of our challenges are shared, borderless challenges, and understanding that helps students stop abstracting issues like poverty and conflict into something which only happens outside of North America–and in doing so opens new avenues of action and engagement in global change at home.

Don’t expect immediate success–deep, constructive global relationships require a marathon, not a sprint.  The challenges of global partnerships are many, and teachers have to develop the same inter-cultural skills as they hope to foster in their students in order to be successful.  The learning curve can be long–and that means global partnerships are rarely efficient, easy to organize, or completely successful the first time around.  The worst thing you can do, however, is jump from partner to partner in search of the “perfect” pairing–the best partnerships are rarely perfect to begin with.  The moral of the story is to work at it, to think of the partnership as a long-term relationship which will improve with time and effort, and to expect things to be messy for the first year or two.  Whether it’s navigating time zone differences (east to west), school year differences (north to south), trouble-shooting differences in technological access, or just trying to communicate regularly and well, you can expect this relationship to take effort–and to get richer and deeper as you put in that effort.

It’s essential to accept the limitations of technology and work within its potential, but it’s also important to think beyond technology as well.  Global communication and relationships reach their deepest level through in-person experiences–and no matter how much technology has done for the global educational field, it will never replace the value of international travel for teachers and students with relationship-oriented organizations such as World Leadership School.  Whether this is a teacher traveling to connect personally with their partner teacher(s) or students traveling to connect their communities, there is no question that deep relationships–especially on the level of sister schools–require more than email and Skype calls.

Keep your expectations realistic in year one–consider small successes significant successes, and build something bigger from there.  It’s reasonable to say that most teachers go into global partnerships expecting too much their first time around, largely because the prospect of a global collaboration is so exciting and we have trouble controlling ourselves.  Much of the time, however, when teachers try to accomplish too much too quickly, they leave the topics students find most relevant.  By creating a space for less content- or standards-driven dialogue about favorite movies or day-to-day life, we can help build the foundations for much deeper dialogue later by helping kids see what they have in common. Bigger successes and deeper virtual events on global issues and perspectives might come later, but small successes count in the meantime.

Just knowing how to connect Skype doesn’t mean there will be a deep and meaningful dialogue between classrooms; in fact, navigating the awkward silences and discomfort of the first few Skype sessions is often what turns new teachers away from global education. I’ve seen huge, high-tech global events go to heck in a hand basket on million dollar equipment, and I’ve seen a no-budget Facetime call change students’ lives.  Remember that deep global experiences aren’t about fancy technologies and big events–they’re usually about small accidental moments which occurred because the teachers created the right context for dialogue and didn’t push the kids too far too fast.  I’ve had many experiences where a simple, seemingly innocuous question in a video conference drew out something meaningful and helped students connect with the world authentically; if you’re hungry for examples, see “Creating the Conditions for Accidental Learning: Dialogue with Syrians, Palestinians, Canadians… and Wookies.”

Consider building smaller experiences and “one-offs” with individuals to fill the gaps while deeper partnerships develop. Sometimes it makes best sense to supplement the developing partnership with a few Skype sessions with relevant individuals who can help to take the conversation deeper.  People all over the world are involved in creating change in their homes, schools, communities and beyond, and most are so passionate that they’re thrilled to engage with classrooms and inspire the next generation to become leaders in their fields.  Especially in the first few years of developing a deeper partnership with a classroom or school, these one-off experiences can really help globalize the dialogue in your classroom immediately, and speakers can be found in non-profits, non-governmental organizations, and even your alumni directory.

Particularly among higher-level teachers, I’ve noticed a tendency default to Skyping with semi-famous or major “experts” in a given field, and this makes sense when an expert can answer student-generated questions better than a young person can.  However, I’ve found that sometimes more important connections happen when kids get to meet an individual who’s closer to their age and not yet considered important for their efforts.  For example, I often connect classrooms with Yasser Alaa Mobarak, a young Egyptian photographer who has done a great deal of work with iEARN.  He shares his photography, talks about what he hopes viewers will see, answers questions from the kids, and then invites students to continue the photographic dialogue and sharing in a private group he’s set up on Facebook.  Honestly, no number of experts in Middle Eastern politics could ever impact kids as much as just one of Yasser’s photographs because they’re real, raw, and relevant.  Most importantly, connecting with someone like Yasser demonstrates that young people don’t have to be famous to make a difference through their individual efforts and passions.

Remember that communication will take patience and inter-cultural skills, particularly in cases where teachers don’t share a common language.  While language differences can slow down the initial steps in a global partnership, teachers have an opportunity to develop–and model–the kinds of inter-cultural communication skills needed for culturally-responsive global engagement.  By making use of local expertise–among colleagues, students and parents–we can help spotlight the gift of foreign language proficiency among members of our community, and can help students see the value of learning another language in real terms.  By testing (rather than avoiding) the technological tools available for translation, we can also help students become more discerning about their value and better at identifying accuracies.  My suggestion is usually that teachers communicate in their native language and use resources (people, translators, etc.) to understand what they receive, but there is great value in trying and practicing your partner’s language as well–and there is little more valuable for young language learners than seeing the example of adult learners taking risks with a new language.

Be thoughtful about how you handle inter-cultural and personality differences that pose challenges along the way.  Other nuances of communication can also pose challenges, and differences of tone and communication style can often cause more difficulty than pure language use.  I’ve seen teachers from culturally aggressive countries inadvertently offend teachers from more culturally submissive regions, I’ve seen teachers from “nice” cultures politely agree to things they have no intention of doing, and I’ve seen teachers from argumentative cultures create conflict without meaning to.  The best advice I can give is to be transparent.  To meet in a face-to-face setting like Skype can be a huge help, but more importantly, transparency means letting your partner teacher know when you hit a road bump.  Try to engage in dialogue rather than avoid confrontation if you’re struggling with an element of the project or communication–let your partner know if you’re bad at answering emails around exam times, let them know how you respond to stress.  Just as we want our students to lean into discomfort and learn to collaborate effectively in spite of–perhaps even because of–our differences, we need to do the same ourselves.

Read what’s out there and learn from what others have tried; more progress happens when we stop reinventing the wheel. There are far too many good publications for global educators to list them all, but I’ll name a few I’ve been exploring lately–and liking.  I hope readers will add to the list by commenting about books, articles and other resources worth exploring.

Books:

Blogs:

  • Suzie Boss (Regular Edutopia blogger with expertise in Project-Based Learning who often shares stories of successful global partnerships and projects)
  • Silvina Tolisano’s “Langwitches” (Varied Global and Educational Technology Topics from a Classroom Practitioner, The Graded School, Brazil)
  • Kristen Goggin’s “Stories from the Garage” (Global PBL in Middle School Math from a Classroom Practitioner, Town School for Boys, California)

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

5/20/2013

“COMMONSENSE HAS TRAMPLED DOWN MANY A GENTLE GENIUS WHOSE EYES HAD DELIGHTED IN SOME TOO EARLY MOONBEAM OF SOME TOO EARLY TRUTH… COMMONSENSE AT ITS WORST IS SENSE MADE COMMON, AND SO EVERYTHING IS COMFORTABLY CHEAPENED BY ITS TOUCH.  COMMONSENSE IS SQUARE WHEREAS ALL THE MOST ESSENTIAL VISIONS AND VALUES OF LIFE ARE BEAUTIFULLY ROUND, AS ROUND AS THE UNIVERSE OR THE EYES OF A CHILD AT ITS FIRST CIRCUS SHOW.” –VLADIMIR NABOKOV

Picture
by Jody Lynn Nye, from http://twentytwowords.com/
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.