Professional Development For Teachers

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



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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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



Living in a Shared World: The People of Color Conference



This is the world I want to live in. The shared world…
This can still happen anywhere.
Not everything is lost.–Naomi Shihab Nye

Each December, I beg, borrow and coerce my way back into the People of Color Conference, no matter what the personal cost.  While most conferences feed the brain, the PoCC, run by the National Association of Independent Schools, feeds the soul.  It gives me three days each year when I get to live in the world I work so hard to create the other 362 days of the year, the world I often fear is impossible to build and struggle so hard to envision: the shared world.

Inside the PoCC, people connect across boundaries of race, ethnicity, geography and every other facet of identity.  Inside the PoCC, people smile and laugh together on a journey we’ve chosen to share.  In this space, we ask hard questions and lean into our discomfort instead of avoiding the most important conversations.  When we go back into our real lives, it’s like the worst international re-entry we’ve ever experienced.  But for these three days each December, we get to reconnect with our common mission to support the needs of students and educators of color in independent schools, to recharge our common belief in a shared world beyond the walls of the PoCC, and to unite in our collective efforts to make our schools and broader communities just as open, authentic and unapologetic.

I always attend the international affinity group at the PoCC, and a common theme emerges every year: only in United States have any of my international colleagues ever felt “othered.”  The message is consistent–they never thought of themselves as “people of color” before this country gave them that message and told them which bubble to fill in on visa applications and green cards.  While conflict exists the world over, the level of division, confusion and discomfort caused by identity politics is oddly and uniquely American.

As a citizen of the world born in the United States, I experienced this outside the U.S. more than inside, but growing up as a visible minority gave me layers of empathy and understanding long before I moved to Central America in my mid 20s (see my blog, “Portrait of an Outsider: Lamentations on Growing Up Jewish in the American Melting Pot,” for a satirical glimpse into my childhood).  When we sit together at the PoCC, my colleagues and I don’t see ourselves as a myriad of races; we are a tapestry of cultures and nationalities, defined more by where we come from than the color of our skin.  We ask important questions, connect across our differences, and always discover more that connects us than separates us.  I am grateful for the time I spend in the presence of such wonderful educators, as it recharges my batteries each December and gives me the fuel I need to continue this difficult work.

The highlights at the PoCC this year were many.  Pulitzer Prize winning author Junot Diaz stirred us up by challenging the current accreditation model of education in the U.S., encouraging us to strive instead for a transformative educational mindset.  He admitted his nerd-dom and talked about the scene where Gandalf falls into the chasm in Lord of the Rings, telling us we need to “fight the whole way down” in the work of improving education, dialogue and inclusivity in our schools.  He told us that what makes art important isn’t that it gives creative thinkers a career path, but that it allows them to engage with the world.  He cussed like a madman and brought us honest, authentic nuggets of gold–and once he was finished with his fabulous rant, he offered us a five-minute reading from his new collection of stories, “This is How You Lose Her.”

In what was unquestionably the dirtiest, most raw and authentic reading I’ve seen since Kathy Acker in grad school, poet Staceyann Chinmay may have reshaped the PoCC permanently–and I hope no one gets fired for having the audacity to bring her to the event.  Whether standing mid-aisle reading childhood love letters, or up on a chair recreating a pastor’s sermon and the moment, at 9 years old, when she first discovered her own body, squatted over a pit toilet in her childhood home of Jamaica, Staceyann’s reading from the memoir “The Other Side of Paradise” was one of the funniest and most freeing experiences I’ve ever had at the PoCC.  We laughed, we squirmed with discomfort, and we fell to pieces together when one brave woman shouted an unapologetic “Amen!” to the image of Staceyann’s first urge to touch herself–right before she slipped and fell into the pit toilet.  And I’ll always remember her remark about motherhood, which resonates so much for educators, that we grow up feeling our hearts are in our chests, and then suddenly they’re wandering into traffic inside our children.

The highlights are so many I could go on for pages–I hope that colleagues, students and friends from the PoCC and Student Diversity Leadership Conference (the student strand of this event) will add favorite moments as comments below.  Only at the PoCC would we see heads of color embracing each other with tears in public support of a colleague’s first headship; only at the PoCC would we weep together over the death of Nelson Mandela with so much love and appreciation in our collective heart.  Only at the PoCC would every single tweet have so much insight and solidarity behind it (search by #pocc13 and #pocc2013).

In Buddhist practice, we grapple with how to bring our meditative calm “off the mat and into the real world.”  While Buddhist monks and nuns can easily maintain their peaceful state inside the monastery, the majority of Buddhists have to find ways to maintain that state within the chaos of their daily lives.  Like Buddhists, those of us who are transformed by the PoCC have to find ways to bring our learning and sense of connectedness back to our classrooms, schools, communities and families.  Like international travelers, we have to find ways to express our experiences to the people around us, so that we can create ripples of insight and change in our broader communities.

As transgender activist Marisa Richmond pointed out, we need to support legislative bills which strive to ensure the rights and safety of every single child, turning inclusivity into a matter of U.S. policy.  And as National Public Radio’s Michele Martin told us in the closing, we have to talk most with those who disagree with us, learn to listen to the opposition, distinguish between opinions (which vary) and facts (which don’t), and stay in the conversation no matter how uncomfortable it becomes.  We have lived briefly in Naomi Shihab Nye’s shared world, and that privilege comes with the responsibility to make it real every day for every student–and for ourselves.

This can still happen anywhere.  Not everything is lost.