Sunday, October 18, 2015

Poverty and The Miracle Workers: We All Bear the Burden

A miracle is defined as an effect or extraordinary event in the physical world that surpasses all known human or natural powers and is ascribed to a supernatural cause (according to I may be way off, but sometimes when I think about education and the achievement gap, I feel that as educators we are the miracle workers. That's not because we are solely responsible for the success or the lack there of for our students. And it's certainly not because we are actually working miracles on a daily basis. I mean, sometimes we are foolish enough to believe we have supernatural powers-but most of us know that we don't.  Mostly, it's just because we are more in tune with the struggles of poverty that our students face on a daily basis, yet we are working our hearts out (quite literally) to help them defy the odds. 

Essentially, we are trying to work miracles. I'm certainly not saying that it can't be done. If I didn't believe what we did makes a difference, I wouldn't still show up everyday-seventeen years later after I started. We work hard everyday. We tell children that the odds are in their favor, even when we know they have so many stacked against them.  We persist and ask them to do the same, even when things are hard. We build hope every minute of every day. We don't let test scores, school report card grades, or school to school unfair comparisons discourage and define us. We march forward in spite of it all, sometimes pretending to be oblivious to what is really being asked of us and what our students are really facing outside of the school day. However, it's high time all of us (educators, policy makers, community members, and everyone else) take a deeper look at poverty and its' layered and complex impact on public education.

Last weekend, I read an article on the implications of poverty on children and their school achievement. The Early Catastrophe, (You can read more on this study here:  describes a research study by Hart and Riley in which they studied 42 children beginning at birth. They specifically sought to find the difference in language and vocabulary acquisition and expression at various income levels. What they found, astonished me. By age three, there was nearly a 30 million word gap between children of affluent families and their impoverished peers. Some have criticized their study noting that the methodology was flawed while others have cited it as clear evidence that the achievement gap begins in the womb. While research is an important piece of information that assist educators in our decision making in schools, the personal narrative of teachers, principals, and students cannot be ignored. So often we hear the importance of triangulated data, yet as schools we are judged on one quantitative measure. The personal narratives matter too.
This morning I read an article that nearly brought me to tears. The article, in today's Washington Post, Graduate, but to What?, paints the bleak picture of a high school senior's journey to graduation and his quest for life afterwards trying to find a job. It seems life dealt him a bad hand from the moment he entered the world. He left the hospital with his grandmother from birth. Never receiving the nurturing and love all kids need from their mother, for its' the natural order of species on earth. The article goes on to cite roadblock after roadblock, some caused by poverty, some by poor decision making that he faced. Summarily, it gives the reader an inside view to how intergenerational poverty and where you grow up poor, has far deeper implications on the future of children as opposed to circumstantial poverty. This quote from the article, moved me so deeply: "Here in the Deep South, poverty perpetuates from generation to generation like in no other region of the country, data shows, and the obstacles that hold back new high school graduates shine a light on a vast economic struggle that differs in its expansiveness from the concentrated problems seen in urban hubs." It's an article worth reading:

I have worked as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, and principal with students in the deep south, many of them from poverty. Perhaps it is the personal narratives that came rushing back to me from students whose hope I am working to restore or build or maintain, because no matter how positive I am, trauma, poverty, violence, and mere chaos surrounds them every minute that they are not in school. Poverty matters and so does a quality education. Over my seventeen years in education, I've heard many say, "Look at you. Being poor is not an excuse." They are right. Poverty is not an excuse, but it is an explanation. While it may not be the only explanation, to dismiss it as an excuse and not give any credence as to the role it plays in the lives of our students is abysmal. It matters, just as high quality teaching, great leadership, and focused efforts matter. It matters too.
It is an explanation for why obtaining a high quality education is so much more challenging for students of poverty than for others. It is an explanation for why paying attention in class is difficult when you are hungry, or cannot see, and do not have the glasses you need. It is an explanation for why your papers are not signed by a parent, because they are working multiple jobs and are only home to sleep. It is an explanation for why studying is difficult when there are not lights in the house because some other priority (food, shelter, transportation) took precedence over the electric bill, and the person who should help you can't because they do not know how to help, not because they do not want to do so. It is an explanation for why bringing in your project proves to be not worth the trouble of explaining to your teacher why you did not follow all the criteria on their list because you used what you could find to complete it rather than having all the requirements that the other kids parents did for them anyway. It is an explanation for why some students are quick to anger, cry, or have trouble placing the trauma they face from home (abuse, neglect, drug addiction, domestic violence, alcoholism, unemployment) on "the shelf" for seven hours so they can focus on their education to get out of the situation they are currently in right now. It is an explanation for why I graduated from Clemson University, with several thousand dollars in student loans, and used a great portion of my income to further my education for all three of my graduate degrees. It takes money to borrow money. Some people just don't get that. I'm proudly Dr. Latoya Dixon, but that title has a $30,000.00 price tag along with the hardest academic work I've ever done. 
So I agree. Poverty is not an excuse. There were no excuses made for my sisters and me. My mother would tell us, "an excuse is whatever you want it to be". However, poverty was an explanation of why my mother begged the used car dealer to give her the loan on a 1987 Ford Tarus in 1991, even though her credit did not warrant such, and even after he said no, so she would have dependable transportation to get my sister to college and back home. Sad part of this is that the car broke down on us taking my sister back to college after Christmas of her freshman year. And so the cycle of fixing the car continued taking priority over other things that we needed. It is an explanation of why I began working at McDonald's at age 15 and saved as much money as possible until the summer of my sophomore year in college, because I knew to become a teacher, I would have to do student teaching and catching a ride was old. People get tired of taking you and they overcharge for gas money because they can. It is an explanation for why my sisters and I sharpened pencils with butter knives, and made glue with flour and water, and used shoeboxes and coat hangers to do our projects for school, instead of the beautiful three section backboards that were often required in our projects-taking a lower grade for not following directions when we did the best we could. In a recent conversation with one of my sisters, I said to her, "Thank God we grew up poor where we did." As I continue to read more research about economic mobility and intergenerational poverty, the more I believe that if my mother had raised us in a different geographic area of the country, our story's ending might not be quite the same. 
So no, poverty is not an excuse for why students are not performing as others say they should be or to the standard required by state policy makers. It is, however, most certainly an explanation for why their performance so greatly differs from others who are not experiencing the trauma and crisis that often comes with being poor. To simply dismiss it as an excuse is wrong (in my humble opinion). It's like dismissing addiction because we know that cigarettes, drugs, and alcohol aren't good for the body or mind. While we realize that smoking can cause lung cancer, we don't bother to help those who desire to quit and can't because they are addicted, because addiction is no excuse for continuing to smoke, or drink, or do drugs for that matter. Make sense? It doesn't to me either.
WE are the miracle workers in education. We don't just talk about the issues. We work to make things happen. We are on the ground level day in and day out helping our children in a world where it might seem impossible to them that they can make it out of their situations. We are the miracle workers who come in early, stay late, give of our personal selves and resources, to make the educational experience the best it can be for all of our students. And yes, it is our job and professional responsibility, but some days it seems the moral obligation of such belongs only to us. 
In a discussion on twitter with my co-principal and a fellow administrator in a different state, we began discussing our reactions to The Early Catastrophe. When my co-principal posed the idea of universal early childhood education, the other colleague asked, "Should tax payers bear the burden?" I don't think I ever answered him, but here's my honest answer:
We all bear the burden. We build schools and give our best effort to build productive, contributing, and productive citizens in spite of all they face. When we create a more educated society everyone benefits. Personally, I'd rather bear the burden of building a preschool instead of a prison. While I don't have all the answers for how we combat such an overwhelming problem with sobering statistics, I certainly know that I've had the opportunity to serve with some of the most committed, dedicated, and hardest working people who are trying to work miracles, in spite of the accountability rhetoric that names our schools as failing, and our children as numbers in a data set. Behind every number there is a story...and WE are the miracle workers.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder,


Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Our Pain is Our Power.

Today I listened to a great keynote speaker at the Responsive Classroom Leadership Conference. The speaker was Ceasar Cruz. He was awesome and inspiring. What I liked most about what he shared is that he was honest. Sometimes his honesty was painful. He crammed so much information into an hour and fifteen minutes and I have a new list of books I want to read. But mostly, he helped me to reach the realization that often it is our pain that gives us our power.

I, too, like him have spent time sharing the story of my childhood and how I grew up and into who I am with multiple audiences. People are inspired when they hear how my sisters and I trudged our way through a life of poverty to accomplish a great deal. I go through all my barriers-single parent home, absent father, rebellious child, basketball playing curious girl who wasn't a bad rapper, growing up in the projects in South Carolina. I've often looked at so many of my obstacles as pain, but Cesar Cruz helped me realize that my pain is now my power.

Growing up the way I did taught me many things: Efficiency. Determination. Resiliencey. Courage. Focused. Delayed Gratification. So much can be learned from the absence of what we believe makes a well rounded childhood. And I'm not sure the presence of what we believe to be the necessary components of a stable and productive childhood are a garauntee for success either. What I am sure of, is that growing up in my circumstances gave me a sense of power that others don't always have and can't produce.

When things go awry, I often remind myself, "This is nothing," because usually it is no comparison to the things my sisters and I faced and overcome. Not having my father around taught me one thing-Do it anyway. No matter the circumstance you face-Do it anyway. No matter the situation-Do it anyway. So what if people don't believe in you or aren't sure you can accomplish the goals you have set for yourself. Do it anyway. Figure out what you want and go for it!

Not having money taught me something else-Figure it out. I am a creative problem solver. I know how to "make do" as my mother would say in a way I would not otherwise know and I recognize that it is not the end of the world. There is a way around almost everything. If you are faced with a situation that requires your creativity, you instantly become a lot more creative.

Growing up in the projects gave me something else-A sense of intuition that I have a hard time verbalizing. I read people well and I sense things around me and in others that are not spoken aloud.  Developing an appreciation for Tupac's linguistic abilities and attempting to imitate him in my own raps that I started writing in 5th grade taught me that I can be an intellectual who loves rap. I do not have to choose to be one or the other. I can be both-and my students appreciate that although I am not sure others understand it or even desire to see the complexity of layers within my personality.

For a long time in my life, I saw my obstacles as pain, but I have learned to use them as power. I recognize that I have developed a tenacity that cannot be inspired in someone, but only earned through experience. I have a determination that I have developed over time by facing obstacle after obstacle and overcoming each one. So my pain is my power. Now, all I have to do is figure out is how to get my students to see their pain as their power. Ideas anyone?

Until next time-be you, be true, be a hope builder,

Monday, October 5, 2015

Tradition-The Enemy to Great Schools? Part 2 #imaginary schools

The more I think about this topic, the more ideas I have. To rethink how we operate within the educational institution, would mean totally scrapping everything we know about how teaching and learning should occur. This is a grand task. In a conversation with my co-principal, we recalled that between that we've each had 34 first days of school. After experiencing school in it's traditional fashion for over 30 years now, I've decided that what we need is a real shake up. Not an innovative way to do things that we've traditionally done, but a true way to do the opposite of all we've ever known. I continue to look at the traditions that keep us from being truly innovative.

Tradition #4 Personalized Learning with Generalized Accountability
Why is it that we have spent so much time on the whole child and personalizing the learning experiences that we provide for students, yet generalizing their academic success or lack there of? I find it quite interesting that although we know students do not begin their academic journeys in the same place, we make no adjustments to the finish line. Proficiency has no personalization. The emphasis on standardized testing and student achievement create this oxymoron.  But in my imaginary school, taking into account the needs and styles of a variety of learners won't end at the learning experience. We'll extend that to personalized academic goals. Mastery will be our focus and we'll accept that mastery may happen at different times for different students at no consequence if the "end of year" test arrives and students just aren't there YET.

Tradition #5 Academic Priority before Social, Emotional, and Leadership Learning
Why is it we squeeze out time to provide students with direct instruction on self regulation, making and maintaining eye contact, tracking the speaker, and other pro-social and pro-learning behaviors? We've become so hyper focused on test scores and data, that in some ways, we've sacrificed these important skills. Also, why aren't we teaching students what it means to be a leader and what leadership looks like? Oh, wait, we don't have time! We're so busy being sure we are teaching content in time for the assessment! But in my imaginary school, we'll start our day with this kind of teaching and embed it though out the day. Learning behaviors that help students succeed will be more important than the academic content itself because we know the second cannot happen without the first. Our work won't be driven by test scores in my #imaginaryschool.

As I continue to think about how we might reinvent school, I get more excited about thinking about breaking all the rules. I keep sharing the #imaginaryschool, and I've already got some folks who have tweeted that they'd love to join the movement. I wonder what we might come up with if we can just keep thinking about what we'd like for our imaginary school to be for ourselves and our students. I'm guessing we could blow ourselves away. Tweet your ideas with the hashtag #imaginaryschool. I can't wait to read them.

Until next time-be you, be true, and be a hope builder!