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Equity & Diversity

Harvard Ed. School Grad’s Viral Poem Implores Teachers to ‘Lift Your Voices’

By Madeline Will — May 27, 2016 2 min read

Updated with link to the text of poem and Livingston’s future plans

There’s no better way to head into Memorial Day weekend than with some inspiration from a passionate speech on education.

Earlier this week, Donovan Livingston, who graduated with his master’s degree in education, performed spoken-word poetry at the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Convocation Exercises. The poem, titled “Lift Off,” immediately went viral, with more than 5 million views on Facebook.

The poem powerfully tells the struggles and obstacles black students have experienced in education (“For some, the only difference between a classroom and a plantation is time,” Livingston says. “How many times must we be made to feel like quotas?”). He also calls on educators to foster equity among their students:

As educators, rather than raising your voices Over the rustling of our chains, Take them off. Un-cuff us. Unencumbered by the lumbering weight Of poverty and privilege, Policy and ignorance."

Livingston credits his own understanding of the power of his voice to his 7th grade teacher, Ms. Parker (“She gave me a stage. A platform,” he recites in the poem. “She told me that our stories are ladders that make it easier for us to touch the stars.”) The poem praises the impact teachers have on their students’ lives and potential:

To educate requires Galileo-like patience. Today, when I look my students in the eyes, all I see are constellations. If you take the time to connect the dots, You can plot the true shape of their genius -- Shining in their darkest hour."

Livingston also makes some criticisms of education policies (“Beneath their masks and mischief, exists an authentic frustration; an enslavement to your standardized assessments,” he says, following it with: “At our core, none of us were meant to be common,” a pun that sparked some cheers in the audience). Educators, he said, need to help students reach their potential while not forgetting the obstacles they still face.

An injustice is telling them they are stars Without acknowledging night that surrounds them. Injustice is telling them education is the key While you continue to change the locks."

He ends the poem with a call to teachers: “Lift your voices until you’ve patched every hole in a child’s broken sky. Wake up every child so they know of their celestial potential.”

The full speech is worth a read. The poem has been reprinted by Education Week, read it here. Or watch:

Many Educators took to social media to praise the speech, with many saying it brought them to tears.

And the speech inspired a lot of non-educators too —including Justin Timberlake!


Livingston will next begin a Ph.D. program in educational leadership and cultural foundations at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Image via Harvard Graduate School of Education Facebook page


Related Reading on Race in the Classroom:

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.