Friday, December 12, 2014

Entitlement: Knowing Your Place

               In The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol wrote about the apartheid conditions of America’s public schools and begged educators and policy makers to do something about it. That was in 2006 and not much has changed. Earlier this year, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan declared education ‘the civil rights issue of our generation’ however sub-standard education conditions continue to be the norm for low-income children of color, particularly for blacks and Latinos. Half of all black and Latino children grow up in or near poverty. Half of all black and Latino boys fail to graduate from high school. Fully two thirds of black men without a high school degree will serve time in prison as some point in their lives.[1] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 50.3 percent of students identify as black, Hispanic, Asian or another nonwhite ethnicity. White students no longer make up the majority of students in California and Texas.  In New York City, nonwhites make up somewhere between 58 and 65 percent (depending on whether Latinos identify themselves as white) and if we step back and consider the population of the globe, you will find that whites make up only 16 percent of the total population with Asians being the majority. With numbers like these, it becomes clear we need to consider our use of language in this country especially when it comes to the term minority. Putting a false label like minority on the majority acts as a pernicious mental barrier that blocks us from really unpacking the systemic and structural elements of white privilege and apartheid-like conditions of our schools.
                The truth is if you are a Latino in New York City, for example (or a member of any of the ‘non-white’ ethnic groups) you can and should stop identifying yourself as a minority and should refuse to be labeled as such.  Furthermore, you should consider it an act of protest just a powerful if not more than laying down in Grand Central station with a placard on your chest. Changing the language we use in conversations around race, equity and human rights can and will get us closer to seeing the true nature of who we are as a society. Misleading labels perpetuate false notions of entitlement for some and second-class citizenry for others and tearing them down can heighten our perception of how we identify ourself and others as we struggle for sustainable change.
                In response to the Eric Garner case in New York City, many whites across the nation communicated that it was the first time they felt an overwhelming sense of injustice. According to them, unlike other incidents of police brutality this was different because there was clearly no evidence to dispute the criminal nature of the killing. In the midst of outrage and protests that took hold of our city (in great part due to the connection with Ferguson events), I was confronted with mixed feelings about how to engage in constructive conversations around social justice and race particularly with educators. I thought a lot about Rebecca Klein and her article in the Huffington Post entitled A Majority of Students Entering School are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White.  I realized that although I was in New York City and represented the majority in numbers, I was still perceived as a minority. How does this perception inhibit or strengthen my voice when I talk about injustice and equity?
                The incongruence of being labeled a minority is magnified when my work with educators often takes place in all brown communities. I’ve noticed an overwhelming reticence to allow people of color to take ownership of an event and how it is shaped publicly even when the event has direct implications for communities of color and especially if the conversation can leverage a movement for equity. Freire calls this phenomena false generosity. False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation.[2]  Unless we see the relationship between power and language in society and examine who are positioned constantly in positions of leadership aka the ‘executors of transformation’— we are never going to make a change.  It is time we ask ourselves: What does equity “look” like rather than sound like?
                There is a plethora of research behind the notion of power in language.  Using a term like minority to identify a person is a tool of power. There is also power in the notion of pedagogical authority— that is who we by default turn to for decision making. Who do we associate with critical thinking and strategic planning in our society? Who is the expert?
                Refusing to use the label minority is about understanding  your  place. It is about entitlement and staking a claim in a situation with full confidence, determination and leadership. Entitlement is the precursor to agency. Without a feeling of entitlement, one cannot take action. Language and labels such as our antiquated use of the term minority can make those who are central to a situation feel marginalized and less equipped to act.
                At a time when we are struggling to make sense of recent current events that remove blinders from our eyes and for educators in particular who work in schools that are microcosms of society— we need to consider different, long lasting forms of protest that will change how we see the world.  Reject false labels and challenge the language of status in society. Refuse to label yourself or others a minority or try seeing yourself as a minority if you are white and live in a city like New York.  Dare to change the conversation by engaging in the real practice of equity.

[1] Warren, M (2014) Transforming Public Education: The Need for an Educational Justice Movement. New England Journal of Public Policy: Vol.26: Iss1, Article 11.
[2] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Critical Friendships for Diverse Leadership in Education

"If I am not for myself who is for me? And being for my own self, what am 'I'? And if not now, when?" Hillel

            There is hope and indications of a new era of education politics in New York City, starting with Carmen Fariña the new chancellor who courageously speaks about trust as being one of the pillars for change. Cited as one of her six tenets—rigorous instruction, a supportive environment, collaborative teachers, effective leadership, strong family & community ties— building a culture of continuous learning and trust[1] seems to be the most pressing and the most complicated to achieve.
            Several years ago as a consultant working with a school in the South Bronx, I found the lack of trust alarming.  Teachers were nervous and afraid to openly discuss their professional development needs and deep concerns about the school. As an instructional mentor working from a socio-cultural and critical pedagogical lens, I was acutely aware of the need to build trust in order to get the information that would allow me to appropriately assess the situation and develop realistic goals, particularly critical for harried teachers charged with teaching poor, Latino and Black students. Furthermore, I needed to build trust with the administration in order to help them build capacity around this important work. No one can argue— trust is critical. The perception of trust and the practice of trust starts at the very top of an administration and will inevitably trickle down to the school, the teacher, the students and the greater community. How can we build and sustain trust in a diverse, economically polarized context riddled with complex political undercurrents, high stakes testing and standards transformation linked to teacher evaluations? What does trust look like and feel like for a critical Latina educator when Latino students are victim to the systemic across-the-board decline in educational achievement within our public education system and also suffer from English language hurdles, assimilation concerns, reduced expectations, and denied access to educational opportunities that exist for children of greater economic means?[2]
            Paulo Freire suggests that educators must constantly reflect on their pedagogy. There is growing interest in research on the obstacles to critical pedagogy in education, in particular. Critical pedagogy is the practice of looking at education as a tool to liberate oneself and others from social injustice & oppressive conditions. Freire calls one obstacle false generosity.[3] False generosity is when a group of people who are historically seen as pedagogical authorities and hold leadership positions in the field who for all intents and purposes want to transform the unjust order but “because of their background they believe that they must be the executors of the transformation. They talk about the people, but they do not trust them; and trusting people is the indispensable precondition for revolutionary change.[4]
            Dr. Frank Bonilla, an educator and scholar who founded the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College, wrote in 1964 “It is also vital and legitimate to fight poverty not only by spending public funds on the poor but by dedicating part of such funds to work among the non-poor employers, landlords, educators, government officials, politicians, labor leaders, and others whom the poor accept as leaders. Because the poor have the capacity to help themselves through the exercise of organizational, political, and social skills, they are to be mobilized and actively incorporated into the planning and execution of programs for self-help.”[5] 
            Prioritizing diverse leadership in the field of education is central to building trust when we consider the dearth of educators and teacher educators of color. In the department of education’s latest school staffing survey, 82% identified themselves as white compared to 50.3% of students who identify as Black, Hispanic, Asian or other non-white ethnicity.[6]  These numbers are alarming, but why stress diverse leadership and not just push for a more diverse teacher force? And, what is the role of critical friendships in building trust?
            Dr. Xaé Alicia Reyes, Professor of Education and Puerto Rican and Latino Studies writes “In the current climate in the U.S. accountability and high stakes testing are the driving forces for funding at the k-12 level and in higher education. There is universal acceptance for the belief that equal access to education is a human right, but the enforcement of these rights is often disregarded in political debates. Funding for curriculum development, for academic support for students and for professional development for staff is contingent on competitive grants whose continuity is based on performance outcomes. In order to carry out their missions, schools of education at universities and colleges must secure funding. These dynamics translate into an ethos of incentives and rewards for [those] who are most skillful in obtaining funding and producing scholarship creating a challenge for underprivileged communities in k-12 context and university faculty from underrepresented groups, namely Blacks and Latinos.”[7] 
            Structural and pedagogical change is required if we are to build trust around the vision of equity in education. If our aim is to address the growing achievement gap and to ameliorate our service to all students, a shift in praxis at every level of the organization must take precedence. Talking about diversity, equity, social justice, access, and language acquisition cannot be just talking points or content items in a curriculum created by those who are considered pedagogical authorities but don’t represent the community.  Whole systems, from top to bottom must reflect the real world we live in so that students of color can begin to identify themselves with scholarship, professionalism and the teaching profession in particular.  Diverse leadership will not only begin to change the conversation, it will provide higher level salaries for people of color who are more often than not straddled with economic hardships. Furthermore, diversity in leadership will over time change our perception of who we believe to be achievers in society and who is not.
            An expanded meaning of a Critical Friendship across race, class, ethnicity, religion and gender is crucial as we consider diverse leadership in education. A critical friend is a powerful idea. A critical friend comes closest to a true friend friendship because it’s a successful marrying of unconditional support and unconditional critique.[8] The role of the critical friend in the broader sense is to be a trusted person who will ask provocative questions and offer helpful critiques.[9] Critical Friendship with diversity and equity in mind includes behaviors that Francis Kendall defines as an ally. An ally is making a commitment to the critical friendship across race, class, religion or gender with the intent of advocating for and operationalizing a commitment to equity and social justice. Allies, according to Kendall publicly and privately align themselves with underrepresented and/or targeted groups and respond to their needs. They are also equally committed to exploring through ongoing dialogue what it means to have privilege or not in our society. Allies advocate for this person and for organizational change in collaboration and individually amongst their own peers of equal status. Allies make a commitment to open doors that have historically been closed to people of color, poor people or those who have been marginalized in the field.[10]
            In order to access leadership opportunities, those who are in positions of power need to expand their understanding of how to recruit and retain diverse leadership talent. Diverse leadership talent will come in unexpected ways because diverse leaders will often come with unconventional resumes and demeanors that might have been developed over time to withstand socio-political obstacles or might be attached to their particular culture, religion or background. These leaders may come off as hardened, independent or too ‘critical’ of systems thinking. They might be bold and passionate about equity from the start because, who knows more about poverty or oppressive conditions than those who have experienced it themselves? Diverse leaders will often speak from the heart and struggle to control emotionalism because they are not talking about the future of other people’s children but the future of their own children.  Since these are the very things we want to leverage from these leaders in order to navigate the complex terrain of transformational shifts in education—passion, innovation, independence, and out of the box thinking—critical friendships with a diversity and equity lens is necessary. 
            Critical Friends are the folks on the ‘inside’ who advocate and support new diverse leaders while they begin to develop trusting relationships on their own. Critical Friends offer trust first and at the very start of the relationship because the risk involved coming into a status quo system as a change agent is much greater than for the ally.  Critical Friends make sure new diverse leaders are given appropriate titles and compensation and not be expected to ‘demonstrate’ their worth if they have already demonstrated scholarship, experience and/or credentials in other related domains. It is important we honor the level of professionalism in the field and not expect people to continuously start over each time there is a transition. Imagine a doctor with ten years’ experience returning to a resident status at a new hospital?  This point is particularly poignant for people of color because people of color and those who belong to marginalized groups are historically given non-leadership positions until they ‘prove’ themselves and build trust while their white/privileged counterparts get positions of leadership at the start because of association with professional and/or personal networks. Even so, new diverse leaders will need time to grow and acclimate themselves within the position and learn the ropes without the fear of losing the job.  Consequently, critical friends with equity and diversity in mind are part of the process of empowering and advocating for the person and the role they play within the organization for an extended period of time, if not indefinitely.
            Many organizations focus on attracting a diverse group of employees, but then struggle with retaining the right talent. Organizations with a highly diverse workforce that do not pay attention to an inclusive environment are likely to be more dysfunctional than organizations without a diverse staff. Research suggests that the answer lies not so much in policies and procedures as in the mindset of leaders in creating a culture that is inclusive.[11] If we are honest with ourselves the model of leadership has been largely based on white protestant males. Therefore, as people from different backgrounds break through barriers, we must consider if they are being asked to play within the traditional frame or being given the full chance to effect change as leaders.[12] Critical friends play an integral role in developing and retaining diverse leaders in order for substantial change in practice and mindsets to take place.
            The National Urban Fellows (NUF) convened a series of national and regional leadership diversity summits during its 40th anniversary year, with the goal of shifting the national leadership paradigm to include leadership models found in diverse communities, to embrace collective approaches and to define a new institutional diversity standard. The Research Center for Leadership in Action at NYU Wagner is working closely with NUF to develop knowledge and research on diverse leadership. The following are seven relevant findings[13] that summarize their work and underscore the need to develop critical friendships in the field of education that advocate for and support diverse leadership:
·         We need more empirical work to unpack how diversity impacts the organization and its members
·         There is no one size that fits all approach so diversity requires more leadership rather than management solutions
·         Scholars agree that there needs to be more commitment from leadership and with more holistic approaches
·         There is a need to equip people and organizations. Nurturing people without looking at the organization is not enough.
·         Diversity is not about race but is a testament to adaptability and other competencies required in a more complex, changing environment
·         Most gains or progress in diversity are in the workforce, not in leadership
·         There is much less research and evidence about leaders of color in the not-for-profit sector than in the public and private sector
            This is an exciting time for educators across the country as we feel a growing sense of urgency around equity in education and especially in New York City. As we move ahead we need to take the time to think deeply about how we can build trust in the education community and advocate for structures and behaviors that will support the development of diverse leadership. If we look at recent trends, we will see an emphasis on preventative measures to address the persistent inequalities in education such as the need to invest in early education. Similarly, we should take a critical look at the other end of the spectrum where we find talented educational leaders from diverse and marginalize backgrounds that are equally at risk.  We need to recruit, retain and support these professionals if we are going to address equity in education at the structural and pedagogical level.

[3] Duncan-Andrade & Morrell (2008) The Art of Critical Pedagogy: Possibilities for Moving from Theory to Practice in Urban Schools.
[4] Freire, P (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed (p.94-95)
[5] Bonilla, R. (1964) Rational for a Culturally Based Program of Action for Against Poverty Among New York Puerto Ricans
[6] Klein, R. (2014) A Majority of Students Entering School This Year are Minorities While Most Teachers are Still White. Huffington Post.
[7] Reyes, X.A. (2010) Educational Equity and Access as Universal Human Rights: Effects on Teacher Education in the U.S., International Online Journal of Educational Sciences 2 (1), 1-20
[8] MacBeth, J. (2002)The Role and Value of a Critical Friend. No Quick Fixes: Perspectives on School in Difficulty, Chapter 9
[9] Costa, A. & Kallick, B. (1993) Through the Lens of a Critical Friend. Educational Leadership 51 (2)
[10] Kendall, F. (2003) How to Be an Alley if You Are a Person of Privilege.
[11] Janakiraman, M (2011) Inclusive Leadership: Critical for a Competitive Advantage. Berlitz Cultural Insights Series
[12] Banks, K.H. (2010) Race Matters: Deconstructing Race and Identity. Diversity Leadership in Psychology Today
[13] (2011) Leadership, Diversity and Inclusions: Insights from Scholarship. Research Center for Leadership in Action

Sunday, November 02, 2014

Discovery of Self in Poor Theory

“Poor theory is less a theory than a way of proceeding.” (Excerpts taken from Poor Theory: Notes Toward a Manifesto, Critical Theory Institute)

An intellectual sits on the train searching. Pulled down by the pure exhaustion of the daily commute any hope for creativity unravels. Look around. See loaded devices and ear plugs with hanging wires that shoot music into young people’s bouncing skulls. It’s the young urbanite’s attempt to wipe out the harsh reality of scraping metal, a crying baby, the monotone voice of a conductor announcing stops that cut across the city like a connect the dots puzzle. Each stop moves us further away from wealth and elements of whiteness decrease. The space is transformed each time a person exits the train and another boards.

A dark skinned man in a grey hat wearing an inconspicuous trench coat leans over a book that talks about poor theory. Everything freezes like a movie screen shot.  Zoom in slowly and a critical moment emerges from the chaos and anonymity. Zoom in further and hover over the book. Peer into the text and see the writing take on a life before you. It is right there – the answer. The writing is about the poor. It says the poor have another way of seeing the world and this perspective has intellectual value.

What power is there in seeing that the cup is half empty? What does one find in nothingness? Is there a transcendental purpose within the experience of poverty? What do we learn from the poor that completes us, makes us understand the holistic nature of our human experience, the necessity for relational thinking?

Discovery of power in oneself, validating one’s life’s experience, finding abundance in one’s poor identity transforms. Discovery of power in the other, validating the other’s life experience, finding abundance in the other’s poor identity transforms.

“Poor theory invites us to jettison the economic rationalities that reduce our theories to use values and wise investments and other naturalized vestiges of a system of surplus accumulation that profits from waste and catastrophe.”

An intellectual sits on the train searching. Each stop takes us further, from one place to the next we travel, together we learn different ways of seeing and telling. Capture this discovery. Feel free to identify yourself in new ways, to recognize the merit in one’s personal heritage, to let go of borrowed perspectives on what or who we should value in life, to transcend, to embrace.

Discoveries of Self within Poor Theory:

·       Poor me finds ways of making the most of limited resources

·       Poor me works around intransigent problems even when the means at my disposal are limited

·       Poor me recognizes that situations are riddled with error

·       Poor me elevates fascination and urgency over mastery

·       Poor me is armed with an awareness of limits but tinkers and works against and around them

·       Poor me sees abundance in what is commonly labeled as poor

·       Poor me recognizes merit in what is generally considered meretricious

·       Poor me is concerned with the everyday and the social

·       Poor me is concerned with the “not quite” and with disappointment

·       Poor me is interdisciplinary

·       Poor me thinks historically

·       Poor me is alert to novel ways in which different forms of life come to matter



Tuesday, October 07, 2014

Renaissance of Courage: On Public School Responsibility

          Who is Dr. Cornel West referring to when he says, “We need a renaissance of courage and a willingness to sacrifice?” This is what he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now! during a discussion on his new book Black Prophetic Fire about the legacy of leading African American voices including Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. DuBois, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Ella Baker, Malcolm X and Ida B. Wells. He was referring to blacks themselves like when he confessed his fear that we may be witnessing the death of black prophetic fire in our time. Black prophetic fire, according to Cornell West can be summed up as a deep love for justice, love of the poor and working people and a love for black people. He tells us this can best be understood if we consider the four essential questions W.E.B. DuBois wrestled with in his lifetime: How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? And how does virtue meet brute force? This fire Cornell West refers to is the very notion of agency and social responsibility and it begs the question- What is the ethical culture driving our conversation about public schools today and what is your personal responsibility in making a difference?

          This past weekend The New School and The Nation magazine hosted a talk entitled Saving Public Schools. It was moderated by Chris Hayes and included a handful of well-known education pundits—Dana Goldstein, Pedro Noguera and Randi Weingarten along with one community-based equity activist, Zakiya Ansari. Opening the dialogue was The Nation’s Besty Reed followed by New York City School chancellor Carmen Fariña, who I knew about but still had not heard speak. When I looked at the panel and around the New School auditorium it first appeared to be a pretty diverse group although in retrospect, I’d have to admit I remembered very few Latino and Asian faces in the room and I’d venture to say there were fewer attendees who would identify themselves as poor. Later when Chris Hayes asked how many of us were familiar with the Common Core Standards over ninety percent of us raised our hands. Chris had to laugh calling us outliers, who else would come out on a Sunday evening to hear a panel talk on public education? My mind flashed to a scene in a dystopian novel I’m reading called The Traveler by John Twelve Hawks that talks about people who are informed:

                “Well, of course I’m a citizen,” he said. “I was born and raised in Britain.”
                “It’s just a label that my father uses. Ninety-nine percent of the population are either citizens or drones.”
                Dr. Bennett took off his gold rimmed spectacles and polished his lenses with a green flannel cloth. “Would you mind explaining this?”
                “Citizens are people who think they understand what’s going on in the world.”
                “I don’t understand everything, Judith. I never said that. But, I’m well informed about current events. I watch the news every morning while I’m on my treadmill.”
                Maya hesitated, and then decided to tell him the truth. “The facts you know are mostly an illusion. The real struggle of history is going on beneath the surface.”
                Dr. Bennett gave her a condescending smile. “Tell me about the drones.”
                “Drones are people who are so overwhelmed by the challenge of surviving that they’re unaware of anything outside their day-to-day lives.”
                “You mean poor people?”
                “They can be poor or trapped in the Third World, but they’re still capable of transforming themselves. Father used to say, ‘Citizens ignore the truth. Drones are just too tired.”

          The talk lasted for about two hours at which point I left the New School auditorium in a semi-apathetic haze. I’m not sure if it was the after effects of the cold medicine I had taken or if it was the actual talk but I couldn’t help think we haven’t even begun the difficult work that lies ahead of us as we face the failure of perennial reform compounded with a decade’s worth of policies that have strangulated the public education system. The numbness I felt reminded me of a NYPR program I had accidentally tuned into just a few weeks earlier called ‘Staring Into The Abyss’ in which Brook Gladstone spent an hour discussing the poignant question: Why is nihilism so trendy and is this really a new phenomenon? I know apathy is not nihilism, but they are definitely close relatives especially when one considers the impact the war on public education has had on teachers and teacher educators.
          Digging into the abyss, I was able to pull up one surviving frustration of mine, however mangled and in somewhat critical condition. It had to do with responsibility and agency and Dana Goldstein’s comment about the promise of the Millennials (which contradicted to some extent LaMotte’s argument in her article, Forget the Millennials. Gen Xers are the Future of Work published in TIME magazine online on October 2nd). It had to do with the notion of race and class and does change happen from the inside or from the outside, from those struggling to survive or those who are privileged? Goldstein proposed that with the advent of Millennials investing in urban centers, public schools can be revived. Millennials are educated, have money (equaling choice) and purportedly believe in the promise of diversity and democracy. Chris Hayes and Pedro Noguera conspired around this prospect by sharing a story about a school in Brooklyn in which parents have been actively trying to encourage an equal mix of middle and upper class white kids with poor and blue collar black and brown kids. Zakiya Ansari looked annoyed and asked, “Why do we need white kids to make a school work properly?” At that moment, the white woman sitting next to me mumbled something to the effect of, “Once Millennials arrive on the scene, poor folks can’t afford to stay so how is that going to help?”
          Funny, how race and class were interchangeable in this conversation. White is equated with middle/upper class and black and brown folks with poverty. I wonder if New Yorkers can see these two identities as being separate these days.  If not, what does that mean for the children being educated in segregated schools and what does that mean for their educators? Who is driving the conversation? And who is responsible for making a change?  
          In response to Ansari’s question, I’d say, it’s not that we need white kids for schools to be good. However, if the professional “successful” world outside school is integrated (as depicted in the media, the movies and TV) children need to see the same demographics in the classroom if we want them to identify themselves as a part of this reality. Otherwise, it’s natural for children to question their place and value in the world, which is what it means to be ‘marginalized’ in society. The question of segregated schools is much less about the quality of education in contemporary society (although this certainly is important and dates back to the pivotal case separate but equal)—but more about how schools need to reflect the type of society we want to live in. Do we want our children to grow up in a divided, racialized and segregated world? How are children going to learn about citizenship, democracy and agency in a segregated setting?
          When I was growing up, I had the fortune of attending public schools that were rich in diversity. Today, many of us recognize we were lucky to have a quality public school education with this experience. Just by exposure alone, it was evident to us that American society is a fabric threaded of different colors, ethnicities, languages and religions. That is not to say we had a utopian system back then. My mother, like many others, had to fight to get me into a good junior high school that was just outside my ‘zone’ but was easily accessible to our neighbors with non-Latino last names. The point is, fellowship with children and families from different backgrounds provided us with a broadened perspective of the world, taught us how people coexist and helped us learn important skills about how to negotiate in society—skills that continue to shape how I see and interact with the world today. Regardless of the quality of education, children who have segregated educational experiences are missing out on critical social, emotional and cognitive skills required in a global community. Teachers in segregated schools are very aware of this. It comes out in the academic performance of their students. In my doctoral research entitled, The Impact of Teaching Literacy for Social Justice on Student Achievement (2007), I documented how a teacher was concerned that although the African American students (in a segregated, African American school) were easily engaged and could critically examine and respond to literary experiences that spoke to the African American experience about slavery, oppression and persecution; they couldn’t transfer this knowledge when learning about the Jewish American experience and the holocaust. The challenges of learning multiple perspectives in a segregated school setting as presented by Kozol (2005) are real.
          After the event, walking down Sixth Avenue looking for a place to eat, I began to think about how powerful it would be if everyone who attended the talk sent their own kids to the public schools. What would that look like, a school comprised of these folks, the ‘intellectual class,’ or at least purporting to be?  That's when it occurred to me that that’s exactly what a private or selective school looks like. The fact that most education pundits, policy makers, well paid administrators, university professors and white collar professionals opt to send their own children to private or highly selective public/charter schools is a topic rarely brought up in these settings. It’s not that these educators don’t care for ‘other people’s children,' it’s just that like Pedro Noguera said, “educated folks with means regardless of their color will never send their kids to bad (or questionable) schools.” Bad schools where perennial reforms exist can only happen to poor folks struggling to survive. Is it because poor people (now joined by a growing number of ‘falling’ middle classers) don’t have a voice or is it because they really don’t have a choice?  Or is it because they are too tired to even light the fire?
          Is there a possibility that we may have created a choice-less “choice” system that in actuality perpetuates quality education for the privileged? How can we expect the down trodden to be responsible for their own uplifting? What are the different levels of courage required to stand up and fight for what you believe in depending on your position in society? What kind of sacrifice can we ask of people who are struggling for their survival? Who is driving the conversation around public education and what is the ethical responsibility of the intellectual community? What is the social and moral responsibility of the private school sector with regards to the public school sector knowing that these are the decision makers and drive public policy? Can we require private schools to collaborate and share resources and social networks with public schools?  How do private schools churn out a citizenry that recycles the same inequitable conditions in society?
          Education reform has historically and consistently been about experimenting, examining and dissecting public school kids and mostly poor public schools. Perhaps we need to pay closer attention to how we educate children of privilege and unpack notions of entitlement, elitism, competition and Darwinism. Dana Goldstein stated early in the talk that one of the original purposes behind public education was moral. How can we consider the moral purpose of public schools without considering the ethical culture of our private schools simultaneously? I wonder if it’s possible to reposition education reform. Consider school reform not as a business of fixing the poor but as a holistic endeavor in which we are all implicated in the need to change how we do things for all kids, and that includes all kids, the rich kids too, and the sons and daughters of all the reformers and the intellectuals, too, who sit and talk about wonderful, really big ideas like equitable funding in our country. My guess is that we’d have a very different kind of conversation, one that gets at the true nature of our people, willing or unwilling to sacrifice the benefits of privilege.


Saturday, September 20, 2014

Virtual Learning and Social Currency

There’s a scene in the movie The Internship that really hits home for me. It's when Vince Vaughn’s character (middle aged) is anxiously studying tech terms for the following day’s big Google challenge when the undercover head of talent acquisition (who pretends to be a nerdy, anti-social intern) gives him a pep talk to ease his fear of failure. He tells Vince that he has an amazing way with people and is expert at the fine art of building relationships. In contrast, he says, most young people (like himself) can hardly maintain a conversation without texting. In an age when a young person bursts out in tears for being pulled off the line at an Apple store the day they launch iPhone 6 or when progressive educators advocate for 1:1 Learning Environments (which puts a laptop front and center in the learning process), I have to ask: what impact will this new age techno philosophy have on future generations?
In 2003 when I decided to become a pioneer in a new on-line educational leadership Ph.D. program (designed for the most part for military officials who lived in the field), I was ecstatic to find I could engage in learning and independent research from the comforts of my own home; not to mention connect with others who lived hundreds of miles away and obtain a doctoral degree while still raising two small children without having to hire a nanny. The benefits were enormous back then but upon completion of the degree and reentering the real academic world of my peers, I realized I had lost the opportunity to establish critical partnerships with those in my field that later translates into contacts. The traditional social network in academia leads to jobs, further research and ultimately the much needed “social currency” for anyone who wants to teach at the university.
My personal virtual learning experience in addition to my work as a professional development specialist that has given me the opportunity to work with schools nationally has led me to question the total ‘value-added’ of virtual learning and, furthermore, to consider the complexities involved in making virtual learning meaningful at a time when blended learning, the flipped classroom, on-line educational platforms and home schooling vis-à-vis the internet are becoming popular alternatives to the traditional classroom, and greatly, I might add, in response to the challenges inherent in ‘face-to-face’ learning environments—attendance, student engagement, lack of differentiation, access to quality teachers and up to date information, to name a few. What are we gaining and what are giving up when we consider virtual learning? Should it ever be an all or none approach for education?
I recently read Jeremy Stayer’s dissertation on the flipped classroom (which coincidentally was published in 2007 the same year I finished my on-line degree) where the findings indicated that students in the flipped classroom (flipped means students learn new information on-line at home and come to class to engage in discussion and complete assignments with the guidance of the teacher) were less satisfied and experienced unsettledness or a feeling of being “lost,” as compared to the students in the traditional classroom. He does an excellent job in his dissertation teasing out many of the variables that can be associated with this (sense of self-efficacy, comfortability, structural inputs, amount of reflection imbedded in the course on process and so on) all which contributed to my own thoughts about virtual learning. His article propelled me to reflect about myself as a learner and my proclivity for distance learning. I asked myself what I would have needed during the program and after the program for it to have been completely successful and worth the investment.
Virtual learning requires a tolerance for ambiguity for the process and troubleshooting (we know a lot about what works but compared to best practices in traditional teaching and learning, we are still just beginning to scratch the surface). Much of the frustration students and teachers experience with virtual learning is with the actual technology. For example, in my last position working with schools in Providence where technology is outdated and lagging as compared to many districts across the country, I found it unfair that students (and their well-intentioned teachers) were assessed by how they scored on computer based interventions when the computers were unreliable, the infrastructure in the school lacking and technical support non-existent for the most part. I recall visiting many classrooms to find discouraged teachers who fought daily with recalcitrant laptops that took fifteen sometimes twenty minutes to boot up. Many of them resorted to waiting it out for half the period while some disregarded the computer based interventions altogether. Unfortunately, regardless of the case, students’ performance (and teacher evaluations) were linked to these interventions and aligned with the assessments. Problems associated with technology and infrastructure is crucial to understanding the challenges and benefits of virtual learning. The challenges are clear but we can make an argument that students faced with technical difficulties learn skills in problems solving, persistence and resilience. As for my own personal experience going through a very new on-line Ph.D. program, I remember feeling frustrated when the professors struggled with the presentation format (it wasn’t blackboard at that time). We lost valuable teaching time getting everyone together and on the same page rather than discussing content.
Virtual learning requires that teachers provide encouragement, feedback and positive reinforcement in creative ways, continuously. The feeling of being ‘lost’ or ‘unsettled’ might be a natural feeling when engaging in independent research so I wonder how developmentally ready students in middle and high school are to tenaciously sift through inordinate amounts of information easily gotten from the internet. It’s almost like being in a supermarket and seeing twenty to thirty different shampoos each with a different purpose and package. How do you know which one to choose? Are there really that many viable options when you really just want clean hair? And finally, how does one combat the mere exhaustion of having to read the labels of so many bottles before choosing? Even for many adults, research is difficult. It requires critical thinking skills, the ability to classify and synthesize multiple sources (giving credence to some more than others) and being able to stick with a project long-term independently. Too much choice, too much information, too much freedom may create the problem of saturation and a feeling of detachment in young adults. With the amount of information out there and access to social media, students will need targeted reinforcement and guidance that will help them build the skills, the stamina and motivation to be successful.
Personalized learning refers to student centered instruction, that is teaching and learning is differentiated based on a student’s needs, interests, talents, etc.  A student undergoes several types of assessment activities in order for the teacher or school to determine how to best ‘personalize’ instruction. There is a plethora of research that supports student centered instruction as being advantageous for all students at all ages. However, a personalized approach does not negate the need for cooperative or group learning activities. How can we develop a student centered approach within the virtual learning environment? Virtual learning requires that the teacher devise creative ways to get students to interact with one another and with the community at large. Students need cooperative learning activities that provide them with the opportunity to engage in academically meaningful conversations. A good teacher can’t have a ‘hands-off’ approach and rely on the computer or on-line platform. They have to be open to redefine their role, and in the blended classroom—explore ways  to leverage the face-to-face time. For this reason, blended learning approaches are gaining momentum. In an article written by Harvey Singh published in the Educational Technology Journal in 2003, it suggests that blending traditional learning with on-line learning is most effective because it’s student centered and empowers students to take ownership of the learning process through choice but also provides them with social interactivity, relevance and context. Not surprisingly, most educational advancements point to the need to combine multiple instructional approaches for the greatest gains.
There is power in virtual learning. Virtual learning and the internet have transformed my life and everyone’s life around me. Even as I sit here at my computer at home, I look across the room and see my husband and son on their respective computers doing ‘independent’ searches and investigations that are clearly more interesting and engaging than sitting around talking about the weather (I’m exaggerating, but you get the point).  The possibilities of technology are endless and I’m forever grateful for the access to learning and life experiences virtual learning has afforded me. However, there are challenges and dangers involved in virtual learning. One is the tendency to see it as a panacea for society’s struggle with student achievement. I worry that computers will take over human beings not because it’s personalized but rather because putting a kid in front of a computer is easier. Human beings are complex organisms and in contemporary society laden with inequities, intolerance and growing distrust for our ability as a nation to educate “all” children— I fear we might choose to hide behind the computer rather than use it as a tool for authentic learning.
I believe we have the capacity to interact with each other and create learning communities that are personalized, engaging, relevant and rigorous academically. I don’t believe that building meaningful relationships should be replaced by acquiring a certain number of followers and I certainly don’t think academic inquiry should be limited by the number of characters allowed on a social networking platform. Virtual learning like everything else has its place in the evolution of knowledge exchange. However, we  have to consider the implications of our technological advancements in education and ensure that our faith in human beings as the primary source of knowledge does not falter.

This article was reprinted by Truth Out 

Sunday, September 07, 2014

Raising Children to Believe or Not to Believe

I was at Ikea yesterday buying my daughter a desk. Upon our arrival, my husband and I looked at each other and frowned but quickly got into the Ikea “I’m-cute-even-though-I’m-cheap” mode we loved when we were just starting out. I suppose the initial frown was the reality that twenty years later we might have hoped to be shopping somewhere else, where the furniture is made of solid wood, for example or where we wouldn’t have to come home and put it together. I like Ikea, don’t get me wrong. I liked going there and enjoyed putting my daughter’s desk together with her and my husband even more. It was nice to close the windows on a hot and humid day, put on the AC and do something physical. In the evening, I hugged my daughter as we both stared at the desk and hutch and said, “How exciting is this, huh?” She smiled with happy sleepy eyes and I left her room satisfied. But there was a huge lump in my throat.

Let’s go back for a minute to Ikea so you can understand the lump in my throat.

We were in the ‘Work Stations’ section of the store where you can see all the furniture nicely put together and decorated in neat showcase rooms. The four of us had already spent at least thirty minutes going over the handful of desks and table tops. (We had in all fairness already looked at the one we wanted on line but wanted to be sure and save the delivery fee.) At the last minute, my daughter was considering an alternative style so I told her she could choose either one but should sit at the original desk one more time to be certain.

On the way to the desk, I saw a father and son eyeing the same unit. The son must have been sixteen or seventeen years old and at least six foot three. He was about a foot taller than his father. Both had on flip flops with white tube socks underneath. The son looked like an athlete, or in the very least, an athlete wanna-be. The boy’s hair was straight and slightly oily, his father had the same hair only thinner; the father’s stomach protruding over a similar pair of shorts. I could overhear the father telling his son the unit was perfect and what was wrong with it? The son examined what must have seemed to him a doll sized piece of furniture (that really, I wondered if it was even big enough for my five foot two seventy five pound daughter) while his father described it’s greatness. The son’s face remained straight as his father repeated himself over and over again.

To buy time and give them space, I let my daughter hop around from one unit to another excited about buying her desk for her first year in Junior High. We had given her a budget and had shopped for two weeks on line but after going over all the pros and cons of her small room and the ‘temporal’ nature of the purchase—we had settled on Ikea (she demonstrated just enough enthusiasm to placate any remorse in my mind about wanting to buy something better).

Meanwhile, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the towering young man with his aging father who five minutes later was still trying to convince his son that this small unit was just the right one. I have to tell you, I felt unexplainably tied to that moment as if we were strapped together by some imaginary umbilical cord.  My heart lunged. I was frozen with deep compassion for the moment, I couldn’t stop watching and feeling a broad spectrum of emotions.  As usual, I was probably staring. I wanted to go over there and take them by the hand and show them a bigger desk, one that was also affordable but was just a little further ahead in the showroom. But I couldn’t so I waited and watched to see what the son and father would do.

A few minutes later without saying a word and not changing the expressionless expression on his face, the son walked ahead and found a slightly bigger desk. The father followed behind and when the son pointed it out, he looked at the small tag that dangled on the side. Seeing that the price was about the same as the first, he nodded and starting talking again, the son listening, not saying a word. I knew the father was relieved that there was another option. I swallowed and stared, feeling a heave in my chest as they stood side by side and considered it together, the whole time, the son not changing the expressionless look on his face but standing right there with his Dad, considering. He knew his father wanted to buy him a desk he could afford and he’d make the best sales pitch around it. He knew he was being given a choice in the small window of ‘little to no choice’ but he would act as if he had all the choice in the world.

I have not been able to stop thinking about this father and son moment. In fact, I’m still reeling from the after effects of emotion and I don’t know why really. Perhaps it’s because it makes me examine my own feelings of grief and gratitude and humility. Examine my beliefs around parenting and poverty consciousness, about how to raise children to believe in the midst of scarcity. About what we do for our children (all parents, all children), about the masks we have to put on, about the games we play in order to pretend we’re moving ahead in spite of not having moved ahead very much at all.
I also can’t stop thinking about how that father couldn’t see the size of his son. I know that feeling-- wanting your child to stay small forever so you can shelter them from the world. We have the instinct to protect them and we want them to believe the world is wonderful and exciting and abundant and, and, and, and…. I know what it’s like to want time to slow down long enough for me to catch up because as the adult you want your children to see the greater half of yourself, you want to show them how to move ahead, not stay the same and definitely not fall behind.
But there it is. The first day of school arrived like a clock whether you were ready for it or not. Supplies and desks must be purchased. How do we raise children to believe in abundance when we’re faced with scarcity? How do we act based on trust and in total faith in the silent partner of the universe?
I know that moment in the store where I connected with that family will resonate in my soul for a long time. I was reminded I am not alone. I am in the company of millions and millions of parents in the world. We are raising children at a very precarious time. We are one. We are the same. That father’s pain is my pain, his hopes and dreams for his son are my hopes and dreams. His son is my son. I want him to have a desk he can sit at so he can learn and grow into a thinking man. 

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Thoughts on Writing: A Blog Hop

After a wonderfully relaxing vacation in Southern Spain, I came home to find an email from Maria Maldonado inviting me to participate in The Writing Blog Tour. As you can imagine, changing the scenery from rustic beaches, majestic mountains spotted with lazy bulls and sunflower valleys to the urban landscape of New York City was not easy. So getting invited to a 'blog hop' was exactly what I needed. I’ve known Maria Maldonado for a life time. Not only is she a clinical associate professor of medicine at the College of Physicians and Surgeons at Columbia University and the program director of the Internal Medicine Residency Program at Stamford Hospital, she is also an integral part of my family. Her work has been published in the Washington Post, the “Narrative Matters” section of Health Affairs, and the Journal of the American Medical Association.  She blogs on medical education, health equity, and other matters pertaining to medicine at You should visit her site. She’s a wonderfully, deep feeling writer.
            The purpose of this blog tour is to talk about writing so we can learn from one another and connect ourselves with other intellectuals who share in this uniquely personal art form. To me, writing has always been a dance with solitude. Although the audience is always out there, the act itself is an intimate and complex tango with all the demons and angels that make up my identity. Yes, I suppose anyone can write. But few have the tenacity and courage to make a life of it. It requires surrender; an acceptance of success and failure as equals and the recognition that in the silence of the moment writing never fails to enlighten.
            So, with this purpose in mind, here are the questions I’ve been asked to ponder:
            What am I working on? I’m currently working on a novel that was born out of a conversation with my son who suggested I write about a new society. I had been stuck on revising old projects for a while and he proposed a completely new, dystopian novel (I believe he said it was absolutely okay to do what other writers are doing) Then he added, “Write something I’d like to read.” Since I consider my son a philosopher with deep thoughts and big questions about life and existence— I felt compelled by his request. I’ve been working on this novel since and as it turns out, I’m enjoying myself tremendously. The developing story is about an independent community charged with fulfilling a young adult’s vision that makes them question the true nature of leadership & our responsibility to others. The novel is my primary project these days although I will continue to post on my blogs.
How does your work differ from others of its genre? I’ve been told my writing speaks to the intellect and the spirit. This makes sense because I’m an educator with a thirst for knowledge and a respect for research. But, I’m also an artist which makes me a rare breed. On the good days, I like to call myself an alchemist of the soul. Years ago when I attended New York University, I wrote a research paper intermingled with poetry. The professor loved it but she didn’t know how to grade it since it was supposed to be academic writing. Fortunately, she figured out a way to give me credit for the piece without having to throw out her tightly defined rubric. This goes to show you that even back then I had a tendency to mix things up a bit. In sum, my writing is infused with questions I hope will inspire people to examine the world we live in and how we can make a difference.
Why do you write what you do? I write about topics that help me build trust with myself, with God, with people and with the world. I write about themes that matter the most, themes that are universal and integral to our existence. I often use my writing as a platform to rant and rave. Life and living are sorely imperfect and writing is an opportunity for me to make peace with the ugly. I write about topics that stimulate the brain, help us transcend the mundane and rethink ourselves out of the box.
How does your writing process work? I’m a spiral writer and just in case I just made that term up, let me explain. I write and then spiral back to the previous page, edit and then continue on, spiral back a bit, edit and continue on. This is for two reasons. First, I need to revisit what I’ve written so I can get back into the zone. Second, I’m a teacher at heart so I find it painful to write without revising at the same time. I’ve read this is the worst thing you can do as a writer—revise while you write, but after many years of doing it compulsively, I’ve accepted this as part of my personal process. Fortunately, it somehow works out in the end. As for the novel I’m working on right now, I’m experimenting with something completely new. I’m writing without a master plan. I’m allowing the novel to unfold like an onion. The truth is, I have no idea where it’s headed. Each day (and I’ve made a commitment to write at least 10 pages a day), the story reveals itself in the moment. It’s not to say I don’t ruminate about it when I’m not writing (that’s impossible!) but I don’t really have it all charted out. This has been extremely liberating to say the least. When I told my daughter (who is a budding writer herself) she said, “Isn’t that so much more fun?” Yup. It is!
It gives me great pleasure to pass on this conversation to a writer and educator who I met a few years ago while grappling with one of my first writing projects. His name is Jude Hollins. Jude lives in Harlem, teaches in the South Bronx and wakes up around 4:30am to write. His current novel project involves a futuristic NYC with diverse characters that reflect the “majority minority” reality that already exists in many American cities. I highly recommend you visit his blog and website where he discusses the YA genre with all of its peculiarities. Jude’s writing is fresh, inventive and quirky. He effortlessly captures the creative lingo of the young people he writes for. Jude will be posting his Writing Blog Tour on August 21. Check him out at and