I'm too sincere for sarcasm, but I like to laugh too much for sincerity.
“There is no playbook for teaching. If you’re looking for a playbook, leave now. In fact, leave the field of education right now.” Jeff Duncan Andrade threw down the gauntlet. His workshops were the peak of amazing two amazing days last week.
On Friday and Saturday, I rode on the coattails of a team from Smith Middle School for a two day trip to learn from the experience of the KIPP schools in NYC. Smith’s Assistant Principal Esther Hahm had been a teacher at KIPP Academy in the Bronx, and I thank her for including me in the trip because it was a tremendous professional development experience.
We kicked things off in a middle school where I didn’t see a disengaged student the whole day. Well, one had his head down, but even he was reading along. KIPP Infinity Middle School is one of three KIPP schools in one building in Harlem. I’d heard a lot of things about KIPP schools, but never visited one. I’d rank KIPP Infinity as the third best school I’ve ever visited, behind Martin Behrman Charter Elementary and Eagle Rock School. The common thread between the three? Outstanding teaching that engaged students in deep, meaningful learning. You can find out about KIPP’s framework here.
I really wanted to see whether KIPP lived up to Paul Tough’s recently much-publicized exploration of their approach to the intersection of character and academics. From what I heard, the KIPP teachers and administrators aren’t sure that they’ve figured out how all of the character stuff should work yet. But the character traits they emphasize are everywhere (see my photos), and they definitely talk about them openly with the students. Because of Tough’s recent book, it seems like educators everywhere are interested in how to teach character traits like “grit”, “curiosity”, and “social intelligence” that impact student learning. I believe that Chapel Hill schools could learn a lot from the incorporation of this character approach.
We sat through a fifth grade meeting where the school principal and a teacher tried to emphasize the importance of buying into KIPP’s belief system, including the character traits. For 45 minutes, a group of more than 40 ten and eleven year-olds sat on the floor, cross-legged with their hands on their lap. The first thing I observed during the session was the frequent control statements teacher around the room issued to the students - “take your hands off your face” “track the speaker with your eyes” “turn your shoulders towards your partner”. The kids needed some reinforcement, but they were all able to do it. The teachers used some of KIPP’s well-known call-and-response chants to drive home their points, and the kids were able to spit them back at full volume. But what really seemed to sink in with the students were simple pair-share conversations about why it’s important to put in your maximum effort every day so that you can go to college.
But is it brainwashing? As we left that class meeting, I had a conversation with one of the teachers in our group that made me think about why KIPP’s strategies might not work in Chapel Hill.
“I can’t stand it! It’s brainwashing!” she said. “They’re forcing all of them to act the same in the name of going to college.”
A common critique leveled at KIPP is that their command-and-control methodology is paternalistic brainwashing. But I dug it. Having grown up as an inner-city kid, I could see how the KIPP strategies would help. In my view, all they were doing was making elements of dominant culture explicit.
My teacher colleague and I had a conversation where we found common ground in how we were also brainwashed into going to college - by our parents! So maybe brainwashing for college isn’t so bad. I have no idea if the KIPP kids are being taught the same lessons at home or not, but that’s not what matters here. What matters is what works about it for the students, and why it might not work in other settings.
In my view, teaching culture often needs to be explicit. During the trip, one person not from our group suggested that elite private schools don’t use such controlling prompts, but my experience in a boys college-prep school was that we were being told all the time how to sit, stand, dress, talk, etc… all in the name of being ready for college. In diverse schools like we have in Chapel Hill, students not from the dominant white culture are shut out of learning because teachers fail to help them learn the hidden rules of school and society.
I believe the reason that most KIPP strategies won’t be widely adopted in Chapel Hill is that most teachers in our schools won’t see their necessity nor their utility. Our schools work on a model of teaching that implicitly reinforces dominant white culture. That laissez faire approach probably doesn’t serve any of our students very well, but it certainly privileges our white students. For teachers who have never had to cross the cultural divide in the U.S., the KIPP methods seem like brainwashing (and some of our families probably would find them too demanding). I’ve seen educators use some of this methodology effectively in AVID classes and in some of our BRMA work, but the average classroom teacher just doesn’t go there.
Returning to Jeff Duncan Andrade, I think he helps us consider the cultural chasm in our schools when he asked these fundamental questions of educators in our session at KIPP’s What Works in Urban Schools conference. “What do you believe about society? What do you believe about the community you serve? What do you believe about education and the role of the teacher? Why do you believe these things? Who or what influence your world view? Do these influences show up in your practice? What if your beliefs conflict with your practice?” My argument is that many teachers don’t believe teaching college-going culture explicitly is necessary, so they don’t even try to figure out how to do it.
Andrade is a 20+ year veteran high school teacher. He lives and works in one of Oakland’s toughest neighborhoods. But that’s only half his day. He’s also a professor at San Francisco State and in-demand speaker. I love his take-no-prisoners approach to speaking, but what we have in common is the approach he uses with his students in the Roses in Concrete program and what we do at BRMA.
(There was a lot more that happened at the conference and you can find my Storify about the day here, including my responses to other speakers. But I’m going to focus on Andrade’s workshops in this space. If you’ve never seen Andrade speak, here’s a good starter video.)
I spent three hours with Andrade in two consecutive workshops. He was rockin it as he laid out his approach to education in a workshop based on his book What a Coach Can Teach a Teacher (with ample discussion of what he learned from Pat Summit and John Wooden) and later in a smaller Q&A. My favorite sections were related to our work on culturally proficient practices (specifically the Students’ Six). Andrade argued that national standards are usually vague, and the key is to find examples from your students’ culture and community and then integrate them into your teaching. “If you’re teaching from the perspective of your students culture and community, you’re gonna be rigorous by default.”
He went on to talk about helping students to make connections to their future selves. “Kids are always thinking ‘For What?! So I can be like you… Nah…” He continued, “Preparing kids for college and careers has to be culture and community embedded or else you’re telling a lie.” It made me think about the importance BRMA puts on using allies to build a counternarrative in the work BRMA does to promote positive racial identity development and academic success. In short, kids have to see how what you’re teaching them shows them a way forward, not where it got you. Reflecting on the Students’ Six, I thought about our students’ quotes about the lack of credibility they place in teachers who can’t address the role race (positive) and racism (negative) play in their lives.
Discipline is also a topic that has been coming up recently in Chapel Hill, and here too Andrade had some great resources. I like this citation he gave for an article where one of his colleagues from Oakland wrote about the difference between discipline and punishment. With a handful of examples from a master teacher’s repertory, he challenged us, saying “Don’t make your class a reformatory; make it an apprenticeship.”
Continuing, he suggested “If you let your kids get out of pocket, you must either believe one of two things: Either that kid is ghetto, dysfunctional or culturally deficient. Or that something else is going on which you’ve got to figure out. Which would you believe about your own daughter?”
In one story he recalled telling the student “They way you can tell I love you is that when you make mistakes I’m not going to throw you away. When I make mistakes, I will apologize. You did that so that I could teach you this. Tomorrow will be all love, but today I want you to reflect on that.”
My wife says I have an educator crush on Andrade. Probably so. I love people who are willing to disrupt the status quo in the name of kids, and who do it with skill and strategy. As he said “Great artists master the rules before they break the rules.”
So, what do I think we can apply in Chapel Hill?
-We’re going to dive into the character stuff through the District Equity Leadership Team, but I’m not sure how. And probably not until next year. Send me your ideas of how we can take this on district wide.
-The Smith team spent a lot of time talking about the need to change the middle school schedule for more instructional time. KIPP teachers were aghast that our schools only have 46 minutes per period. I can get behind an effort to shake this up in CHCCS.
-Andrade talked about a professional development model he has researched. I dug it, and might modify our equity study groups to use the approach. We currently have 2 year study groups, but he said 3 years is what it takes for a peer learning community to get to the place where it impacts a teacher’s practice. He also emphasized that because we work in an emotionally demanding job, groups should meet off site to build personal, supportive relationships. “This shit is hard. Teachers should have someone to talk with besides a bottle of Jack.”
-I want to take the BRMA staff on this trip next year. While we’re there, I want to visit the KIPP through College office so that we can compare notes. I’d better raise some money for travel. Send your donations here.
-I think it would be good for other schools and district leaders to attend this conference too. We’ll see…
P.S. The conference ended with the best student musical performance I’ve ever seen. The KIPP Academy String and Rhythm Orchestra is amazing. Everyone in their middle school HAS to be in the orchestra, and on the full stage I didn’t see one kid who didn’t seem to be into it. I was singing along as they played Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody (Who Loves Me)”. You can see them perform with John Legend here. If you made it to the end of this long post, reward yourself by watching them for a minute! I wish I could bring some of that back to Chapel Hill…
I was very fortunate to receive an invitation to visit the White House last Thursday. I was among a delegation of 40 community leaders from across the state of North Carolina who were asked to join in a conversation with the White House Office of Community Engagement about the impending fiscal cliff.
Now the fiscal cliff isn’t exactly my top issue, but I figured that there was no good reason to turn down an invitation to The White House. So while President Obama was having lunch with Mitt Romney and Joe Biden was at a local Costco (see that link for some amusing pictures), we were talking about why it’s important for our country to find a balanced approach to solve this fiscal crisis.
The Obama administration has wisely chosen to keep their base involved with governing challenges after the election. Looking back on the bulk of the first term, the President’s agenda suffered when his approach to negotiation was limited to meetings inside the Beltway and behind closed doors. As evidenced by the success of this year’s battle over student loan rates (not to mention the election itself), they’ve figured out that the President is more likely to defeat obstructionist Republicans when the public is engaged and speaking out. To that end, they are busy convening meetings like ours with community leaders from all over the country. Maybe you’ve seen some of the other things they’re doing on social media and around the country.
Rather than parading a bunch of talking head policy wonks in front of us, the White House staff actually engaged us in some dialogue. Here were my major observations:
-Many members of our delegation pressed the White House staff on their rhetoric around the middle class, accurately pointing out that the country’s poor (1.6 million living in poverty in NC alone, with 600,000 of those being children) are likely to suffer the most from government spending cuts that would come with the cliff.
-That said, the White House’s main talking points are that the GOP plan is patently unfair, asking middle class families to sacrifice in order to keep tax rates low for millionaires and billionaires. They believe that the 2012 election was the first one in years where the theme of the election was about “fairness” and raising taxes was even an issue that could be discussed. They want to keep that frame on “fairness” while making it clear that they only want to raise taxes on the top 2% of income earners.
-We were reassured multiple times that the President will not back down on his campaign pledge to raise taxes on the top 2% of income earners.
-While they didn’t say this openly, I definitely got the impression that they are willing to go over the cliff. It’ll be interesting to see if the GOP folds before that happens. If not, I think Obama will call their bluff. The key is that for this to work he has to make the case that the American people are behind him and it was the GOP who wouldn’t cut a deal.
Then we got to work. We were asked to create plans for actions that North Carolinians could take to support the President’s agenda. Much of the grassroots work is being organized through a national coalition called The Action. If you want to help, go ahead and sign up here:
One group worked on coalition building. Another started working on traditional media and has already written three op-eds (let me know if you want to see them). I jumped into a group that wanted to work on social media, and I started filming a video on my iPhone. By midnight, I had the three-minute video edited and up online. It’s amazing what you can do these days. So here’s a look at what people from our delegation had to say about this issue:
The White House staff committed to continuing to engage the public on future challenges. To the pleasure of our crowd, they cited both immigration reform and gay marriage as two issues to come ahead. But what interested me the most was the groundwork they were laying for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) in 2014. In a six-month time span, 30 million uninsured Americans will need to register with a health care exchange. The last time we asked 30 million people to do anything in this country was World War II. To accomplish this massive mobilization, we will need the entire Obama campaign infrastructure to roll out and register people for health care. After all, as Dr. Martin Luther King pointed out, “Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” So get ready for that!
On the other hand, the White House staff did not answer one question which many people have asked me. They did not say whether the massive infrastructure developed by Obama for America will be turned into any other form of political organization, nor whether the OFA database will become available to local political organizations for their own organizing benefit. To cut them a little slack, that’s probably a decision that OFA staff will make rather than White House staff. But still, if they want us to continue to mobilize, it would sure help if they’d collaborate with local coalitions.
Which brings me to my final point about the effort at grassroots collaboration. The White House staff members said several times that they were happy to be launching this grassroots coalition. In our group, NC NAACP president Rev. William Barber was happy to lovingly remind them that the people they called together are part of grassroots coalitions which have been working together for as long as 100 years. This was just the first time we’d been invited to talk with people in the White House. They’re late to the party, but we’re glad to join forces with them. It’s a positive sign that they’re looking to really be a government both OF and BY the people.
So, let’s sum this up… The President wants millionaires and billionaires to pay a little more. The GOP want to cut spending and hurt the poor. And you (yes, YOU!) can really make a difference by doing one more thing beyond reading this long email… Contact your Senators and Representative (especially the ones who don’t support the President’s agenda).
With hope for peace and justice,
P.S. One other cool thing about the day was that we were on the very first public tour to see the White House Christmas decorations. I took some crappy photos, so if you want to see the decorations I recommend watching this really cute video with Bo instead. http://youtu.be/lce5gWKgMXI
P.P.S. Did you know that the White House tour guides are Secret Service agents? I figure that makes sense for security reasons. But it left me wondering… Is that a promotion or demotion when you get assigned to that duty?
P.P.P.S. A great bit of presidential trivia I learned… Who was the first president born in the United States? Here’s your answer.
2011 is a year I’m looking forward to leaving behind. But, as usual, I’ll take some music with me. My 2011 music mix can be downloaded in two parts here:
Each link should automatically download a folder that you can unzip to get to the music. The first mix is called “He Said” and the second is called “She Said.” You can add them to iTunes just by creating an empty playlist and then dragging the songs into it. The tracks should show up in the right order, but I’ve included a .pdf file with a track list for each.
I was enthralled with amazing female artists this year. “She Said” is definitely my favorite of these two mixes. The first track “Escape Tonight” is my song of the year. The mix ends with my album of the year. For the second year in a row, my favorite album was by a female rapper. This time it is the French-Chilean rapper Ana Tijoux’s mixtape Elefant. I’ve included the whole 22 minute mixtape, because it was distributed as a single track anyhow. I could listen to that mix every day even though I have no idea what she’s saying.
Last year, my album of the year was the full-length debut from Minnesota rapper and writer, Dessa. This year, she released another amazing album Castor, The Twin with lush live-music reinterpretations of songs from earlier in her career. I highly recommend catching her and the entire talented Doomtree collective when they tour this spring (Feb 12 in Chapel Hill).
One of my favorite female artists of the year didn’t even make the mix. The fascinating album from tUnE-yArDs really holds my attention, but I like watching Merrill Garbus create her songs live even better. Check out this video to see what I mean.
There’s one more video you should check out to accompany my mix. “Oracao” by the Brazilians A Banda Mais Bonita Da Cidade. It’s a transfixing song and a beautifully constructed video. If you get bored with the song, at least skip to the last minute to see the pure joy at the end.
On the “He Said” mix, I’ll highlight River City Extension as my favorite band of the year. I stumbled upon them one Tuesday night at Chapel Hill’s Nightlight club. Jay Parker and I had gone to see Onward, Soldiers (from last year’s mix). There were about 18 of us in the club. When River City Extension took the stage, I realized that about a dozen of the audience were actually in their band. They killed. It was really hard to choose one song from their album, and I can’t wait to see them again. (Plus they’ll have a new album out in early 2012.)
This year, I also became a big fan of The Monti, a local arts organization that arranges storytelling events. I highly recommend their podcast, and I’ll join any of you at a live show whenever you want. I even plan to take the stage with them a couple of times this year. I participated in one StorySlam last year, and got 2nd place! I was tempted, but didn’t put any of their stories on the mix. That said, Sage Francis’ track “The Best of Times” would make a great Monti story.
Enjoy the music. As always, tell me what you like and what you don’t. Send me a mix and I’ll love you forever.
Happy New Year,
Hours before the show aired, Roots drummer Questlove told his Twitter followers to keep their ears pricked during Tuesday morning’s show.
“Aight late night walkon song devotees: you love it when we snark: this next one takes the cake. ask around cause i aint tweeting title,” he tweeted.
…and then Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann strode to the couch smiling and waving to the crowd while The Roots played a Fishbone’s “Lyin’ Ass Bitch.”
The original song is below: