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Reflections From an African-American Deeper Learning Graduate

By Contributing Blogger — March 12, 2018 7 min read
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This post is by Edward Brown, an alumnus of the Springfield Renaissance School and Brown University.

Last summer, I took the stage to deliver a speech to hundreds of graduates and their families at a ceremony for black students at Brown University. Standing before my peers beaming with pride, I was well aware that fewer than 40 percent of African-American men who enter college graduate in six years. That stark reality prompted me to reflect on the experiences, skills, and dispositions that have enabled a student like me to get accepted to an Ivy in the first place, and to succeed in college and in life.

The answer goes all the way back to my early schooling. My middle and high-school experiences in a deeper learning school put growth mindset and student ownership of learning in the service of social justice and equity. I went to Brown having already experienced the powerful combination of personal learning and political purpose; that one-two punch gave me the skills and the motivation to learn and to never stop seeking more knowledge and perspective. In that endeavor, there are four key lessons I learned at the Springfield Renaissance School, an EL Education network school in Springfield, Massachusetts, that laid the foundation for my success at Brown and beyond.

1. Have a Voice in Your Own Education

Watching me on the podium at Brown’s graduation, you wouldn’t have guessed that I had previously nervously stammered through a presentation to a panel of only five people. But that’s exactly what happened during my first of many student-led family conferences at the Springfield Renaissance School. Most people will never have the chance to defend a dissertation to a panel of scholars, or even experience and interpret feedback from an employee review before they obtain their first jobs. But, even in my first year at Renaissance, my fellow sixth graders and I were tasked with publicly defending our performance to our family members, teachers, and other students.

At 12, I had to reflect on areas of excellence and opportunities for improvement, which positive character traits I was embodying successfully, and which deserved more of my focus. Once I had presented my case, my audience shared their assessment and feedback. I would have to repeat this process on a grander stage many times along my journey at Renaissance: for my eighth-grade passage portfolio, tenth-grade passage portfolio, and senior talk presentations, each with a wider audience and higher stakes.

For my senior talk, I was called on to deliver a 10-minute speech defending my entire body of work to that point, my progress as a human being, my life goals and why I deserved to achieve them. That day, more than 30 people attended, including the principal. I was completely exposed and vulnerable, yet I successfully answered every question from the audience and defended myself and my work. It was taxing, but so is any path to success. Taking responsibility for my own learning and having to present it to people I cared about and who cared about me set me up for success not only at Brown but in job interviews and other professional settings where I’ll need to be able to voice what I know, how I know it, and how it impacts a broader organization or project. That’s career readiness in a nutshell.

2. Do It Wrong, Do It Again, Practice, Practice, Practice

At deeper learning schools, students are in charge of many aspects of their own education, not because we are ready on day one, but because we learn through practice. We’re allowed to make mistakes, and we’re trusted with the responsibility to take ownership of standards and turn them into high expectations for ourselves.

At Renaissance, I made plenty of mistakes. In 10th grade we conducted an energy audit for a few schools in the city of Springfield as part of our science expedition on energy use. The city’s energy auditor from the local power company taught us the basics of how to take readings on the school’s boilers and other equipment. I was made one of the supervisors of my peers for one school, Brunton Elementary. It was my job to check the numbers, in terms of how much new boilers, new windows, insulations, and other amenities would cost. The goal was to save the school money by comparing the cost of investing in new equipment to the cost of energy that would be conserved over time. However, I forgot to carry over a few numbers when doing the calculations. When my mistakes were discovered, I had to own them in front of my classmates and teachers. I also forgot to inspect one boiler. Ultimately, I had to go back to the school and redo my numbers. I didn’t cook the numbers or blame anyone else for their inaccuracies. I just told them what happened and went back to fix it.

I knew that as long as I was honest and learned from my mistakes, as well as actually correcting my errors, I could salvage the project and continue to hold myself to the high standard provided by my peers and teachers. In the real world, you don’t just get a poor grade when you make a mistake, you have to do it again. And usually that involves some level of “fessing up” and asking for help. Knowing that I had a crew of fellow students and teachers who would hold me accountable and support me as I practiced and improved made it possible for me to aim high, then and now.

3. Use Your Education as a Tool for Social Justice

At Renaissance, I was also entrusted with the care of other students’ learning, and for the well-being of our entire community. As a sixth grader, Renaissance honored me with the responsibility to sign the school’s founding document, where I was one of only a few student representatives who formally affirmed the school’s commitment to developing great scholars and active citizens. Etching my name in that founding document, I understood how our country’s founding fathers might have felt signing the documents that define our country and our lives to this very day. I had a responsibility to my fellow students and those who would follow in our footsteps, a responsibility to establish and protect a just and great learning community.

Many people don’t achieve a civic awareness until well past the voting age, if ever. They may never learn through personal experience how to influence the world to make it a better place, or how our democracy depends on us for the hundreds of small ethical decisions that make equity possible. My education at a deeper learning school helped me learn those lessons first hand.

At Renaissance, we learned the histories of people who were never allowed to sign our country’s founding declaration, who weren’t asked about the Constitution that still governs their ancestors’ lives. I had what I call my “Black Identity Realization” in 10th grade history, coming to terms with the fact that there is so much more to be done to level the playing field.

Many of my peers at Brown only recently came to connect their identities to the past and present political situations, and even then, often feel helpless to change their world. I won’t deny that it has seemed hopeless at times, but I had the chance to practice identifying and combating oppression through my learning from the earliest moments at Renaissance. Oppression wasn’t a distant history that only existed for the characters in our textbooks. It was something we were called on to face in our daily lives: speaking out when someone was bullied, mediating conflict when someone was being harassed or profiled, stepping in and keeping myself safe at the same time. Calling on positive character traits became second nature, as familiar as times tables or vocabulary words.

4. Make Your Life Matter

I take my responsibility as a founding student at Renaissance seriously. Every time I’d come home from Brown for a break, I visited my alma mater to speak to everyone it was possible to advise. From the sixth graders to the seniors, I would talk to them about college, about important social issues, about their ambitions.

Recently, one young black boy reminded me of a younger version of myself. His name was Johnny, and he wanted to be a writer like me. The greatest advice I could give him is that we can be authors of a new kind of future, one that makes way for others to experience equal opportunity. To rewrite history, you have to start early--not when you graduate, but when you lead your first family conference at the end of the semester in sixth grade. That’s when you start to develop the courage to take responsibility for your own learning, and soon to take responsibility for your school’s growth, and later, even the health of your community.

Today I’m pursuing work on a fiction series, writing my own new world that represents people from all walks of life, ready to make an even greater impact on our society. Being tasked with writing about people of different backgrounds is a great responsibility, and I have a lot to learn, but thanks to Renaissance and deeper learning, I’ve had plenty of practice, and I’m ready to put my learning to work where it counts the most.

Photo Credit: Daisy Leon

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