Empowering Students in the Wake of Michael Brown's Death

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I have my dream job: small class sizes; bright, lively, curious students; lots of affection; professional autonomy; and all the supplies we need. People, peace, love, and stuff. In the first days of school, my 60 7th and 8th grade students memorized the first stanza of Emily Dickinson's poem "Hope Is the Thing With Feathers" and worked in teams to build a free-standing structure out of string, tape, dry spaghetti, and a marshmallow.

I teach in Normandy, Mo., about a mile from Ferguson. Provisionally accredited for years, Normandy was unaccredited in early 2013, which triggered the application of Missouri's school transfer law. In the fall of 2013, 25 percent of our 4,000 students left for schools in higher-scoring districts, with Normandy obliged to pay tuition and busing costs to at least one of those districts. Less than a year later, Normandy High School graduate Michael Brown was shot in Ferguson.

Last year in this publication, I wrote about teaching in a community where educational dysfunction intersects with racially charged public outrage. In the late summer of 2014, I had no idea how much worse things would get. A teacher down the hall quit midweek after a student hurled a textbook at the back of her head. Pressured to deliver higher attendance rates and test scores, we teachers had no time to ameliorate our school climate and adjust to the precipitous exodus of colleagues, who found our working conditions intolerable. Outsiders were sent in to observe our data-team meetings, where we discussed student performance on isolated standards like identifying main idea or inferencing when we should have been rethinking foundational assumptions about literacy learning in the district.

Meanwhile, I taught students I loved. We read, wrote, listened, reflected, and talked. As best I could, I incorporated content from other classrooms and made time for uninterrupted, sustained silent reading. Pedagogically speaking, however, I was bushwhacking. My students did not even recognize that I was actually teaching them language arts.

At the end of the year, students ill-prepared for 9th grade were promoted to high school despite teachers' clearly communicated assessments of where these students stood academically. At the 8th grade promotion ceremony, a candid member of the Missouri state board of education apologized to the students for the failures of the state. This was encouraging. But if failure is necessary for learning, so is a valid assessment of context and history.

“Wherever public schools go wrong, we ought to be talking about failures that span institutions.”

The Normandy school district hit rock bottom because of bad things happening for a while at every level of the system. We can't blame local boards and administrators without also blaming misguided education policy. And we can't blame bad policy without blaming inequitably and imprudently distributed resources. We can't blame teachers without blaming unenlightened, mandated curriculum; student transience; the unmet social-emotional needs of students; and the lack of student accountability.

Essentially, we can't blame public education practices without weighing the realities that have affected and continue to affect the residents of Normandy: segregative residential redlining, subprime lending, the loss of manufacturing jobs, the middle-class flight to the suburbs, poverty, substandard access to health care, housing insecurity and mobility, racially biased policing, a racially biased juvenile-justice system, and racially biased municipal court practices, among other factors.

Wherever public schools go wrong, we ought to be talking about failures that span institutions. But viewing public education sociologically, comprehensively, and structurally frightens most people. And blaming does no good, especially when it's heard as excuse making. And looking at the problem holistically certainly doesn't appeal to people who profit from addressing parts here and there—the sellers of education's version of Band-Aids and tourniquets.

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There's not a single root cause for the troubles that undermine districts like Normandy that are predominantly African-American, low-income, high-poverty, with a high percentage of students who struggle academically. There is rather a root-ball cause, tangled tight inside interconnected systems that subordinate and harm a specific group of people. People like the children I teach.

And so by June 2015, I had no idea whether to get out or stay in. I came home from the last day of school and went to sleep for two weeks. I woke up knowing how I wanted to teach, what I wanted to teach, where I wanted to teach, and why I wanted to teach. Rested and reinvigorated, I would return to Normandy, propose an innovative program, and hope for a yes.

Today, I'm running the Normandy Project Lab, a project-based, experiential, interdisciplinary learning space for 7th and 8th graders. The Normandy district provided some of my supplies, but I've had to raise the money—$11,000 to date—to pay for classroom materials, field trips, technology, subscriptions, and other resources.

The program rests on three guiding principles:

• Our classroom is a place of interdependence and trust.

• As the teacher, I recognize, value, and build lessons upon my students' collective strengths, competencies, and talents.

• With input from students and in collaboration with my colleagues, I design curriculum that will benefit students and their families. A year ago, as white authorities were claiming to serve and protect the citizenry, my students were out on the street witnessing tanks, guns, and flares trained on their community—the night air filled with flying bottles, tear gas, and rubber bullets. Nobody should be surprised that some of these children by day hurled pencils, paper, and even books at white strangers in positions of authority, claiming they were there to teach them.

Now that students consider me to be trustworthy, I'm free to curate an environment for deep learning. I can read aloud from a novel while they color complex mandalas. I can set up six chessboards and watch their tactical skills develop as we listen to cool jazz. In addition to writing editorials, essays, news articles, and book and movie reviews, my students will be creating poetry, fiction, and performance art that expresses to a larger community the emotional texture of their daily lives. Lives that matter.

Looking beyond this first month of school, my goal is to take the Project Lab's guiding principles and develop a place-based, student-centered curriculum that empowers and responds to my students and their community in real time. Through a problem-based approach to standards-based instruction, how might the Project Lab respond to structural social biases that affect school funding; criminal-justice policy; social-emotional and physical well-being; housing and food security; and even income?

These are huge questions, and believe me, I'm keeping track. My students will be, too. We have four main projects that will serve as platforms for learning this school year: the student newspaper; a literary magazine; an interscholastic, student-led peace initiative; and performance-art events. The Project Lab will integrate practices and knowledge across the curriculum: English/language arts, art, social studies, computation, algebraic and statistical concepts, and even biology, genetics, and environmental science. My students and I are co-creating an experiential, interdisciplinary learning field. Not that the label matters; I'm focused on what we do, why we do it, how we do it, and what students learn along the way. I, too, have a lot to learn.

Right now, what I can say for sure is that the first weeks of school have been seriously fun.

Vol. 35, Issue 04, Pages 30, 32

Published in Print: September 16, 2015, as 'Hoping for a Yes' in a Troubled District
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