My Resolution to Talk Like I Teach

Photo from Flip the Media

Photo from Flip the Media

I think New Year’s Resolutions are dumb. I thought about joining a gym for about 15 seconds on January 1, but quickly came to my senses. That said, one of the major “learnings” I am taking from 2016 is about the power of the language we use in teaching, politics, and policy. The terms we use, or allow others to use, establish the realm of possibility and the space for policy negotiation.

In my class, I decline to use the loaded political terms like “pro-life” and “pro-choice”. The people who support the death penalty, oppose even modest gun control laws, refuse to condemn excessive use of force by law enforcement, and cheerlead calls to bomb half the nations in South West Asia (I also teach them not to use the Euro-centric nomenclature Middle East) do not deserve to be called “pro-life”. Instead, we use the more accurate and neutral terms "supporters of abortion access” or “supporters of abortion restrictions”.

I think about this often when reading the news. Much of our political discourse happens in terms created by and to benefit those with power and wealth. We unblinkingly use the term “right-to-work” to describe laws designed specifically to weaken unions and their power to collectively bargain. These laws have led to the hollowing out of the middle class and have directly contributed to lower standards of living and wages among “economically anxious” workers in the Rust Belt--the same Rust Belt that Donald Trump swept in the election.

Arguably, the biggest failing of the Obama Administration was conceding to the GOP’s use of the term Obamacare, rather than the Affordable Care Act or ACA. The administration called it Obamacare, the media called in Obamacare, Democratic strategists called it Obamacare, and public approval for the program consistently hovered around 47%. A recent poll showed that approval for Kentucky’s implementation of the ACA is thirty points more popular than “Obamacare” among Kentuckians, even though they’re the exact same thing.

President Obama (unwittingly) allowed a program that provides healthcare to 20 million Americans to become a referendum on him. Now, GOP zeal about repealing the ACA is largely about handing him one final humiliating “L”. All this, even though the individual mandate was originally a Republican policy, even though the program is modeled largely on Massachusetts’ health care program, created by Republican Mitt Romney. They hate Obama, so they hate Obamacare… even if they’re on it. The administration should have seen that coming.

We have to get smarter about the words we choose and how we engage those we seek to persuade. When coastal, college educated, know-it-alls (points finger at self) traffic excessively in jargon we are talking over the heads of folks we need on our side and who share our interests and aspirations.

There are lessons to be learned from the classroom here, dear reader. One of the reasons I am an effective humanities teacher is because I convey complicated ideas in an easily digestible manner; I constantly introduce gestures, create analogies, explain metaphors from pop culture, and on a rare occasion break out a rap. Once understanding is established, I codeswitch to introduce the academic vocabulary for the concept. I teach freshmen about the different types of migration (chain, forced, asylum and labor) by giving historical examples and then assigning each a gesture. Simple language first, then the technical follows.

I plan to keep my classroom in mind this year when talking about education and tax policy. For example, Washington State has the most regressive tax system of any state in the nation. According to The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, the poorest 20% of Washingtonians pay 16.8% of their annual income in taxes; for the wealthiest one percent of Washingtonians the number is 2.4%. This creates an unfair burden that harms already struggling low to moderate income families.

Every single person working in the Governor’s office and every member of the Washington State Legislature knows this is true, but for a host of reasons--overly wonky communication by advocates, a slew of corporate campaign spending by opponents, partisan opposition to "all things tax" by one party in the legislature--the sensible solution, one embraced at the federal level, and by 43 states--a progressive income tax is off the table and our schools suffer as a result.

This is at the core of the school funding issues we face in Washington State. But saying our taxes are “overly regressive” is just economic jargon to most. This needs to be put plainly: “If Washington State had Idaho’s tax system (and rates) our schools, mental health and transportation infrastructure would be much better funded.” Y’all, Idaho. This is my begrudging resolution this year--to plain-talk to folks about matters of education, justice and economics that impact my students and my community.

I thought about joining the gym this year, but I think this suits me better.

Trump: My Glass is Half-Empty


If your Twitter handle begins with “Deplorable” this post probably isn’t for you. If you believe that Confederate iconography represents some mythical, noble, lost-cause heritage, rather than a treasonous, white-supremacist misadventure, you should press Ctrl+W. If you are willing to explain away the rise in racial and religious attacks, especially those targeting students, in the post-election period, please, for both of us, move along.

My parents came from Jim Crow Mississippi and Arkansas. I know the tales of their youth. I am reminded of these stories as I read the news today. The president-elect of the United States has stated his desire to deport the relatives of many of my students. In the post-election period, his supporters have suggested, because of their religion, registering many of my students in a national database. Before the election, the president-elect said that half of my students deserve to have their bodies violated, if it suits a powerful man’s whim. During a debate, the president-elect said to a quarter of my students, that the path to racial reconciliation in America was through “stop & frisk” and more aggressive law enforcement in black communities. This is opposite of progress.

This isn’t a partisan take. I have voted Republican before. I voted for two Republicans this fall. The Trump administration, his proposed policies, his juvenile temperament, all represent an existential threat to the America that I love—and that I served for six years.

I spent the last two weeks trying to get my head around election night. It fits the historical pattern, but it’s still disconcerting. Every major period of racial progress in America has begat a reactionary retrenchment: Reconstruction saw the rise of the Klan in the South; Johnson’s War on Poverty, Civil Rights Act, and Voting Rights Act preceded Nixon’s landslide victory via the Southern Strategy and dog whistles; now, the first black President, first black First Lady and first two black Attorneys General will be replaced by Donald, Melania, and Jeff Sessions respectively.

The nomination of Jeff Sessions is especially emblematic of the regression that the Trump Administration represents. In 1986, Sessions was nominated for the federal bench by President Reagan, but he was deemed too racist then to be confirmed by the Senate. In the interim, the voters of Alabama have elected him to the US Senate (several times) and he is now a confirmation vote away from becoming the chief law enforcement officer of the nation. I thought we were better than this.

I used my role as 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year to talk about uncomfortable truths and realities for students of color and students in poverty all over my state. The election hits even closer to home. Many of my students are deeply concerned: Will he deport my mother? My brother has ongoing health issues; will we lose our health care? Will he deny me the right to marry another woman? Will he make me register, since I am a Muslim? These are a few of the questions I have fielded over the last two weeks. Will he? Will he? Will he?

In my government class, we often talk about how the most consequential presidencies are the result of one party rule. Republican rule, Lincoln through Grant, led to three Constitutional Amendments (13-15). Democratic rule gave us The New Deal, Glass-Steagall, AFDC (welfare), and Social Security. Again, Democratic rule, under Johnson brought us the Civil Rights Era. We have handed to Donald J. Trump—the only person ever elected to the presidency without prior governing or military experience—unified government, a Supreme Court nomination, and nearly enough state legislatures under control of his party to amend the US Constitution and cement his policies into our most revered document for generations. We have slept walked into a full blown renegotiation of the social contract—a New New Deal or the Old Deal—if you will.

I can’t look my students in the eye, lie to them and say it’s all going to be okay. I don’t know that it will. We live in dangerous times, particularly for communities of color and those on the economic margins of our nation. In his book “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” Chris Hedges described the descent into ethnic cleansing and genocide in post-Soviet Yugoslavia. Data from exit polling shows us we have entered an unprecedented era of tribal voting. Trump won the white vote by larger margins than Ronald Reagan—Ronald-effing-Reagan. The president-elect has a white-nationalist leader working as his senior adviser. Brietbart and Fox News could serve as Eastern Bloc style quasi-state news agencies. Neo-Nazis and leaders of the Klan have heralded his election. The attacks and violence we have seen across the nation echo the early pages of Hedges’ book. I’m not suggesting we are headed down that path to Milosevic, but it is now a non-zero probability.

I have no time for your pleas to “wait and see.” You can keep your false equivalence arguments. I have no interest in any of it. We have entered an age of uncertainty. The sole check on Trump’s authority are the Federal Courts and Congressional Republicans. That thought should send a shiver down your spine.

Throughout US history, teachers (especially black teachers) led struggles for justice: guiding freedman in the transition from the agrarian to the industrial after Emancipation, leading and modeling democratic citizenship in protests during the civil rights movement. My teaching license literally says “Humanities Teacher.” I will not sit idly by while the very humanity of my students is questioned and renegotiated. This is the work ahead.

We must lead.

30 Americans: Having Difficult Conversations through Art

Duck, Duck, Noose

Duck, Duck, Noose

The lowest grade I earned in college was in an art appreciation class. Don’t laugh. It was an evening class; I was a working student. I loved the class, but one evening when the lights went out for the slideshow, my lights went out too. Three weeks later, I bombed the final because I apparently slept through a lecture on Cubism and was helpless on the essay I was supposed to write on Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. I’m still bitter.

As an adult, I’ve grown to  love art and the museum experience. I worked at the Museum of Glass in graduate school. When my spouse I travel we always hit the local museum. I see art as a worthwhile distraction and museums as a sanctum--places to pause and to ponder.

Context matters. Recently, after getting strong recs from several friends, I went to the Tacoma Art Museum to see their 30 Americans Exhibit. In 2015, TAM (rightfully) caught holy hell from the black and progressive communities in Tacoma. TAM curated and hosted a reflection on the history of HIV/AIDS in the US that largely excluded the voices and the experiences of black Americans and artists. Like many social, economic, and health issues communities of color are disproportionately impacted by HIV/AIDS. Their exclusion drew loud, sustained, public (and IMO justified) protests.

There was “die-in” protest, charges the museum was "erasing black people," and several articles in local media outlets called out the museum’s curatorial practices. Christopher Paul Jordan, a local artist and one of my favorite minds in our community was blistering in his criticism. He told the News Tribune “AIDS has absolutely affected art history within black communities. This is beyond negligent. They’re not concerned with (black) stories. … This is not individual racism. It’s about a system within the museum that’s developed a white normativity. It’s a reflection not just of the museum but of Tacoma itself.”

This apparently provoked some introspection at TAM and one result of that introspection is the public programming around 30 Americans. 30 Americans is an exhibition of 30 black artists. To accompany it, TAM is hosting moderated panel discussions, a documentary film screening, a poetry slam, and several “free days” where people can experience the exhibit. The exhibit also has an interactive area where community members can leave their thoughts on pieces or review the feedback of others.

For this exhibit, TAM also reached out to the “old-guard civil rights community” (a conversation for a different day) and created an advisory committee to help with community promotion and engagement. This is a step in the right direction. When I worked at the Museum of Glass in the early aughts, I was often the only person of color--and rarely ever saw another black face--at museum events. A decade & change later, when I walk into the MoG and TAM, it feels much the same way.  Though this exhibit suggests progress, it’s clear that TAM (and the Tacoma museum community writ-large) have a ways to go.

The exhibit itself. I am not an art critic and I’m not going to play one here. That said, here are some pieces that gave me pause or provoked an especially strong emotional response.

Duck, Duck, Noose is the centerpiece of the exhibition and the first thing you see when cresting the ramp from the main lobby. It’s a lot to take in... especially, when seen in juxtaposition to Glenn Ligon’s America, whose glowing presence on the north wall looms ominously over it.

I enjoyed both of these pieces, but appreciate even more what they are saying in concert. America’s racial history is complicated. My mother is from Arkansas; my father was from Mississippi. Their stories and why they left are in my bones. Most people, black and white, would rather not discuss it. But the historical influence of the Klan, particularly here in the Northwest is undeniable. Oregon was founded as a whites-only "racial utopia," the Klan marched through the streets of Bellingham well into the twentieth century, and don’t get me started on the white supremacist movement in Northern Idaho. This is our history. This is our inheritance. This is who we are.

Branded Head speaks to my Olympia, anti-corporate, No Logos, twenty-five year-old self, and I think I would use it as my point of entry in introducing my students to the exhibit. Brand loyalty has always perplexed me, particularly the devotion to shoe companies among the non-athletic. Branded Head is muted and understated. But, it also stayed with me throughout my time in the gallery. This is the reproduction in the section in the gallery set aside for community engagement. You can see my scribbles.

Sleep. When I visited his exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum, earlier this year, Kehinde Wiley immediately became my favorite living painter. Period. His specialty is reframing classic and classically styled paintings by replacing the subjects with black youth. He works on a massive scale. Sleep measures 132” x 300.” Wiley’s work represents a pointed critique of our absence from the art world--the core of last year’s protests--I rarely see people who look me in museums, unless we're working. Wiley’s work is jarring in how bluntly he points out the marginalization of blackness, while simultaneously mocking the odd composition and poses of many classic portraits. Sleep isn’t my favorite Wiley piece, but I think it is very representative of his work and aesthetic.

I have my issues with 30 Americans and you likely will as well. But, that’s talk for tea or cocktails. Its public programming is TAM’s attempt to respond to critics and engage the community. I’m listening, not satisfied, but I'm listening.

Check out the exhibit now through January 15, 2017. If you’ve visited already, I welcome your thoughts and comments below.


What We Owe the Next Generation of Teachers

My classroom, midday on a recent Saturday

My classroom, midday on a recent Saturday

I was a fairly mediocre teacher when I first started. Sometimes I look back on my first few years and wonder why my students didn’t walk out on me. My old slides look atrocious; my handouts were too wordy; my instruction was completely teacher centered: me talking, me explaining, me doing some weird dance.

There were some long, sad, doubt-filled nights my first few years of teaching. I thought frequently about moving into law. For the first several years of my career, every spring, I would thumb through an LSAT prep book and browse law school catalogues. It wasn’t until my seventh year that I didn’t get that “ritual spring itch.” That’s when I knew I had hit my stride.

I am now eleven years in and I think I have things kind of figured out. In my classroom my students do most of the talking and a fair amount of the teaching. They tweet articles from the National Review and the Atlantic to me and to each other in the evenings. I have waves of students in college and they almost always report they felt prepared. I have sharpened my craft. I have grown and progressed.

But I wonder what might have been for me and for others in the career field? Roughly half of the teachers who started this fall will be gone from the career field in five years. Nearly ten percent will bounce before the year is up. For many of them, that’s for the best. Teaching isn’t for them or they aren’t especially good at communicating complex ideas or building relationships with students and their colleagues. But also in that 50% are some phenomenal educators who will never get a chance to hit their stride.

Teaching is hard. The early parts of our career are harder. Being a new teacher in a high-need school, without the appropriate supports is the hardest. It breaks strong, smart people, but it’s the most important work imaginable.

We know from research and I tell audiences every opportunity that I get that the number one in-school factor impacting student achievement is the effectiveness of the teacher in the classroom. The constant turnover of teachers, particularly at high-poverty schools, creates a revolving door that robs our neediest students. Year after year, they have earnest, good hearted, but green teachers who are still sorting things out. Our neediest students deserve our best; instead far too often they get whoever is available.

For the sake of their students, we owe new teachers meaningful supports:

  • We owe our teacher candidates intentional placements with effective mentor teachers.
  • We owe our new teachers effective, successful mentors who can support them in their professional growth.
  • We owe our new teachers meaningful and timely feedback that gives them specific areas for improvement and growth.
  • We owe our new teachers a salary commensurate with the gravity of their work.
  • We owe our new teachers assignments that set them up for success—rather than failure.

I’m the teacher I am today largely because I stuck it out and learned from my early career failures and missteps. Too many who enter our ranks depart too soon. We owe them better, better preparation, better mentors, and better support.

This post originally appeared on the US Department of Education Homeroom Blog.

Why I Kneel: Freedom of Expression Includes the Right to Protest

My silent protest at Century Link Field on September 17, 2016. Photo by @zag08.

My silent protest at Century Link Field on September 17, 2016. Photo by @zag08.

Like many Americans, military service is a tradition in my family. My mother, father, step-father, older brother and both of my uncles all served in the US military. My parents served in wartime. My father in Korea, my step-father in Vietnam and my mother served in Saudi Arabia during Desert Shield and Storm.

I am a veteran, but I am not a hero. I served in the US Air Force Reserves from 1997 until 2003. I joined during peacetime for the college money, served with distinction, earning several commendations, but left the service in 2003 because I liked the idea of finishing college more than I liked the idea of going to fight in a war that I didn’t believe in.

I love my country, but I went to the James Baldwin School of Patriotism. Baldwin wrote, I love America more than any other country in this world, and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.” I am a patriot, not a nationalist. I love my country, but I see her flaws.

On Saturday, before the Seattle Sounders play the Whitecaps, I will be kneeling during the US National Anthem in Section 122. This is not a political act. This is a cry for help.

Every year I stand before my government class and we read and discuss the Founding documents of our nation: Jefferson’s Declaration, Madison’s Constitution, and Marshall’s early verdicts. Over the last few years the gap between the freedoms and equality enshrined in those documents and the reality my students face--particularly my students of color--has become increasingly apparent.

I understand why many people are upset about the protests, but I do not think there are “right” and “wrong” times to protest injustice. I believe and I teach my students that society isn’t improved by stifling dissent, but by engaging dissenters in dialogue. We’ve seen time after time in US history that periods where national unity is called for often mask harm to marginalized communities: the Alien Act of 1918 and the Sedition Act during World War I, the Japanese Internment during World War II and the Jim Crow South afterwards, and the fivefold rise in anti-Muslim hate crimes after 9/11.

What middle class white America does not grasp is the absolute dread that people of color, particularly those in poverty, have of law enforcement.

So far this year US police have killed 816 people (as of 9/14/16). In 2015, the number was 1,207. Many of these people were armed or “resisting arrest." But the penalty for resisting arrest is not summary execution by an agent of the state. Some of these incidents were captured on video and viewed by millions. But the vast, vast majority happened with little to no coverage from social media and the national press.

This is what these protests are about.

The protests started by Kaepernick, continued by Rapinoe and coming soon to GA, are an attempt to gain the attention of the apolitical, unaffected and unconcerned. Aside from the President, the most visible Blacks in America are professional athletes. Kaepernick is not fighting for himself--he is fighting for the voiceless. As a society, we have allowed the normalization of use of force by officers of the law upon some of the most vulnerable members of our population. These protests are an attempt to get the nation’s attention on the biggest possible stage.

Herculez Gomez was recently asked about the protests in the Seattle Times. He responded that “If you were to have asked me this 10 years ago, it would have been very different. I would’ve told you about me getting pulled over at 16, being asked to show my license and registration, reaching in the glove compartment for it and all of a sudden getting a handgun in my face — because the cop was scared I was reaching for something else.” This resonates with me. Herc and I are roughly the same age. I have family in law enforcement. My most terrifying encounters with law enforcement are now decades old. I imagine, if I didn’t have frequent contact with young people, I might feel as he does. But as a teacher in a low income, urban school these issues have an immediacy for me. Everyday at Lincoln, I teach sixteen year-old Hercs and Colins and after listening to them day-after-day, year-after-year, I can’t remain neutral. I won’t.

When Muhammad Ali passed away in June, I wrote a piece criticizing athletes of the “$10 million endorsement era,” particularly Michael Jordan, for their silence on issues of justice. Many of the same people who praised Ali in his twilight years and after his death have contempt for Kaepernick and Rapinoe; the cognitive dissonance is stupefying. I applaud Kaepernick, someone I have reviled for half a decade, for taking a stand. I commend Rapinoe for joining him and keeping the conversation going. I will be kneeling during the anthem in the Brougham End and at Husky Stadium this weekend. If you want me to stand up during the anthem, stand with me.

Stand with me in advocating for reforms to policing like those proposed by Campaign Zero.

Stand with me in favor of body cameras.

Stand with me against militarization of police.

Stand with me against stop and frisk.

Stand with me against use of force laws that prevent officers who kill unarmed citizens from facing charges.

Stand with me against civil asset forfeiture.

Stand with me against mass incarceration of nonviolent drug offenders.

If you want me to stand up, stand with me.


This post was originally published on the Seattle Sounders fan blog, Sounder at Heart


A Teacher Travelogue: On What Travel Reminds Me

Me, having a very spiritual moment with a baguette in Paris

Me, having a very spiritual moment with a baguette in Paris

As teachers we never really stop teaching and learning. Sometimes the venue changes, but we are constantly thinking about how we can apply what we’re seeing and experiencing to our practice. This is true, especially during the summer.

Travel has become an essential part of my life and my travel contributes to my ever evolving worldview. In early spring 2007, halfway through my first year of teaching, my grad school roommate Pete (now a fourth grade teacher in Yakima, WA) and I hatched a plan to go abroad. As first-year teachers, our sole criteria for deciding our destination was cheap airfare. We found a sub-$700 flight to Bogota, on a now defunct travel site. At age 27, I secured my first passport and took my first (non-military) trip abroad. We spent four weeks traveling through Bogota, Santa Marta, Cartagena and the Caribbean Coast. I used my college Spanish for the first time. I sailed for the first time. I hitchhiked for the first time. I went SCUBA diving for the first time. I bathed in volcanic mud. I ate a fish so fresh out of the water, the fisherman was still unloading the rest of his haul when I began eating it.  

I was hooked.

For the last ten years, at the end of the school year, I have packed the same red & black backpack and headed abroad. My travel partner has changed, but the ritual remains the same. This summer I spent four weeks with my wife Hope, an English teacher, traveling through Western Europe: Germany, France, Spain and Portugal. Travel is essential to me. We have to forgo some “wants” during the year to afford it, but it’s worth it. My wife jokes about "Travel Nate," an alternate version of me, who is less harried, less tense, and more at ease. When I travel I get headspace to reflect on my practice. I get time to read all the books I wanted to read during the school year. I feel like a yoke of grading and obligation is removed from my neck. I feel peace: something that is far too rare for people in the US, especially people of color, people in poverty and even NFL quarterbacks.

A mural along the Rhine in Mainz, Germany

A mural along the Rhine in Mainz, Germany

Early in our trip, after I posted a photo online, a colleague and mentor in the profession, asked “what does it feel like to be black in Germany?”

I responded: I always feel “more free” when we travel… But knowing what's happening back home, right now even more so… It's hard to put into words... I feel black + carefree and I haven't felt that way in a long, long time.

When I travel, my brain works differently. I see things here differently. My understanding of America is sharpened by even a brief absence from it. I believe that if you want to be truly awake, you have to leave home. I think most importantly, travel provides me with distance to consider my life back home, what I prioritize, my habits, my consumption and my aspirations. Travel reminds me that there are better, smarter ways.

Travel reminds that US media coverage is problematic and I need to seek and encourage my students to pursue alternative sources. I spent this summer watching France 24 (their English language network), Deutsche Welle (Germany) and CNN International. I was struck by the expansive and nuanced nature of CNN International’s coverage of events in the US and abroad. Over the last year, in the US, CNN has “distinguished” itself with problematic coverage, commentary and HR choices. But this summer reminded me that CNN hasn’t forgotten how to “do news.” They choose to fill their US coverage with the likes of Wolf Blitzer, former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski, and (jive) Don Lemon. CNN gives their international audiences investigative reporting, searing documentaries and in-depth analysis of events with historical context. We get clownish coverage: gigantic countdown clocks to trivial events, talking heads who are ideologues rather than experts and massive chyrons that fill ⅓ of the screen, but don’t actually tell you anything. We get louder, inferior, less informative coverage, because that’s what sells.

The view of Old Town in Porto, Portugal from the Cathedral

The view of Old Town in Porto, Portugal from the Cathedral

Travel reminds me of the proper role of law enforcement in a civil society. Police killings are a uniquely American problem—something I remind my students of while discussing civil liberties in government class. While we were abroad, at least 95 people were killed by US law enforcement. Victims 630 through 725 of this year. Travel reminds me that issues of race, justice and policing should be at the forefront of many of our classes this year.

Just before I left for Europe, Minneapolis school cafeteria worker Philando Castile and Alton Sterling were killed by police. Both were killed at the end of what should have been routine encounters with law enforcement. These encounters were routine alright—part of a routine that allows the normalized killing of unarmed Americans by people otherwise sworn to protect and serve them. This fall students will show up to school in Minneapolis wondering “where Mr. Castile went? This September, Castile and Sterling’s children will be in our schools. These children—fatherless because of the actions of other agents of the state—will be in our classrooms. What will we say to them? How will we comfort them?

Travel reminds me there is a better way. Traffic stops should not end in murder. People should not be incarcerated for profit. Other industrialized nations don’t fund local government programs through revenue from red light cameras, placed largely in their poorest neighborhoods. They do not allow civil asset forfeiture [the practice of police seizing private property (or funds) they allege have been used in criminal activity for department use and budgets]. These are our problems alone.

Travel reminds me I have nothing to fear from “the Other.” We arrived in Europe four days after the attack in Nice. We expected to find anxiety and fear. We found none. Despite a very real threat from international terrorism, they do not live in constant fear. I want my students to inherit a world where they don’t have to be afraid.

Our view atop the Arc de Triomphe

Our view atop the Arc de Triomphe

Travel reminds me of the importance of our work. As an educator I get to teach my students a series of lessons, academic or otherwise about government, geography, character and life. As we prepare to return to school, my travel has reminded me that we have an obligation to prepare our students to be active participants in civil society. We must model for them how to thoughtfully question authority. We must implore them to question the underlying and unstated premises of arguments they’re presented with. We must push them to listen to understand, rather than listening to refute. We must teach them to believe more in discourse and less in debate. We must teach them to love to read and to read to grow.

This is the work of teaching. We get to help set students on their paths. We get to leave our cognitive fingerprints and habits of inquiry on the next generation. We get to plant seeds. Helping kids become curious about the world isn’t on my evaluation, but it's probably the most important thing I do. This work can’t be tested or assessed by the SBAC—it’s too important for that. It doesn’t fit neatly into an ELA standard, but it’s why we do what we do.

Travel reminds me of that.

We have the answer, we choose to ignore it

A child, as a pawn in a very old game.

A child, as a pawn in a very old game.

There is a version of American history that I was taught in school. You were probably taught it too: America was founded, there were Indians, we had slavery--slavery was bad. Andrew Jackson screwed the Indians and they vanished. We had a Civil War and then Lincoln freed the slaves. After the war black people were still subjugated, but only in the South. Then there were two World Wars, with a Great Depression in between, and then Martin Luther King led some protests, had a Dream, died, and now we are all equal.

This version of history yadda-yaddas through decades of struggle and intentionally obscures decades of laws and policies that helped construct and codify segregation in local, state and federal law. Segregation is not an accident of American history. It is the story of American history.

We have the power and tools to dismantle segregated schools. To do so, we must disabuse ourselves of the notion that somehow, organically, in every major urban area in our nation, a uniform pattern of segregated housing, segregated schools, and disproportionate policing practices simultaneously arose. That is, at best, magical thinking. Segregation was constructed by the government, at the behest of the people (for more on that construction see here, here and especially here). It something we chose to build; it is no different than the transcontinental railroad or the Washington Monument.

We make a choice, we make it everyday. When young, white professionals, live in a working class, mixed race neighborhood as long as they must, but flee to whiter wealthier confines, as soon as they can or when it’s time to have children, they serve as the foot-soldiers of neighborhood and school segregation. Most urban segregation is the result of the absence of white families--white flight. Put differently, people of color do not choose to live in segregation. Segregation is created by white families when they make the choice, conscious or otherwise, to leave communities, en masse. This framing is essential in understanding and solving the problem.

The hallways of my school tell this tale all too clearly. Abraham Lincoln High School was built in 1913 and we have portraits of every graduating class from 1914 through the near present. These are amazing historical markers. I often walk my students through the pictures. I point out famous grads, we discuss how the senior classes in 1942-45 were smaller because so many males enlisted. We note the appearance of the first afros. Every year the same question comes up… “What happened to all the white students?”

The photos are nearly uniformly white until the late 60s (there are a few Japanese students in the late 30s photos, but they vanish after the internment). And then poof somewhere between 1968 and 1972 everything changed. Lincoln is now 75% students of color; it is situated in a city that is 65% white, in state that is 77% white--nearly the perfect inverse. These figures are neither organic nor an accident. 

School segregation is the result of intentional policy choices and governmental interventions. It was constructed, and to end it we must deconstruct it through further interventions. We also must acknowledge that segregation was created at the behest of middle class white voters and business leaders and it can only be undone at their behest.

Frankly, I am not hopeful about that happening, longtime readers may recall my response to the Fusco letter--I think his views are more mainstream than we care to admit. When Seattle began busing, 3,000 white students vanished from the district. Today 30% of the students in Seattle attend private schools. Those Venn Diagrams overlap. 

These are all choices. We choose to live and teach our children this way, but we don’t have to. There is a better way.

A note to grads about graduation, on graduation day

Don't throw your caps, you'll poke your eye out.

Don't throw your caps, you'll poke your eye out.

Today is the big day y’all. To quote the great urban philosopher Christopher Wallace, aka Notorious BIG, “we did it Brooklyn: we did it!” We’re to the finish line. I am proud of you, and even if you weren’t in my government class, you are an Abe; you are family.

Before tonight’s ceremony, I want to reiterate the point that Mr. Erwin made this morning. In life there are celebrations (which are for you) and there are ceremonies (which are for the people who love you); this is the latter. Graduation is a ceremony in which we honor all the graduates. The needs of the ceremony are more important than the needs of the individuals in it. I know that sounds harsh—like I am raining on your big day—but it is reality.

It’s about the class: that’s why you all wear the same black robes; that’s why you all wear mortar boards (that’s the name for the weird square hat, in case you didn’t know) with tassels on the same side; that’s why we walk in lines and sit and rise together. It’s a ceremony, like a wedding or meeting the President—no one acts a fool when it’s time to meet the POTUS (well, some people do, but the Secret Service bum rushes them and they go to jail for it).  

The ceremony tonight is going to be a blur. And when you’re my age (if our species survives the Trump Presidency) it will be both a blur and distant, but fond memory. I graduated in 1997, the year you were born. I can’t name the four people I walked with when I entered the Dome. I have no memory of who spoke or what they said. I know I walked, I know I wore a robe, I know my parents got some blurry pics of me. I remember thinking afterwards, that it was over in an instant.

What I remember is what came next—the celebration. I remember hugging family outside the Dome as you will today. I remember seeing my cousins from out of town, who I didn’t know were coming. I remember Deacon Morris from church giving me a card with a crisp $100 bill in it (that was like infinite $$$ back in the day). I remember having the greatest cookout in the history of all of the Hilltop. There were four grills going and folks I hadn’t seen in ten years were rolling in to dap me up (and get a plate).

I am excited for you all tonight. This has been the best and toughest of my ten year career, but we did it together. We overcame obstacles, rejected excuses and tonight you will cross the stage. Remember what I said on Tuesday, graduation isn’t the end of anything—it’s the beginning of everything. You all are just beginning a lifelong journey. Every one of you is a better student than I was in high school (no really, it’s true). This isn’t a period in the sentence of your lives, it is a comma, with much more to be written.

I offer you my customary closing for the last time. “I love you all, some more than others. Chairs in and good day.”

Ali: Más Grande de Todos los Tiempos

Friday night I sat at the foot of my bed, cellphone in hand, staring at Twitter, crying like a child over the death of one of my heroes. My wife repeatedly checked in with me, but I couldn’t explain why I was so upset. I get it now: the death of Muhammad Ali represents the end of an era for much of black America.

To black men of certain age, the age of my father and my uncles, Ali was the pinnacle: he was elegant and eloquent; he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee; he was unapologetically pro-black; he was the best in the ring (back when boxing mattered); he was unafraid to speak his mind to condescending, incredulous TV personalities and audiences; and he was willing to sacrifice personal fame and fortune for his anti-war and anti-racist principles.

I am not old enough to have watched Ali in his prime, but I was raised on his legend. My father, born in Laurel, Mississippi, in 1930 and my uncles born in the mid-30s in Arkansas, loved Ali, and they taught me to, as well. I, like many brothers of my vintage, was raised on a healthy diet of Ali, Jim Brown, Kareem and Maya Angelou. Sadly, only two of them remain with us. 2016 has been a hard year of deaths. It seems that everyone I knew when I was young is old. Everyone who was old, is now dead.

Ali’s death is especially poignant because we need truth-tellers right now. In the era of $100 million endorsement deals and social media consultants, athletes have become PR trained automatons. No athlete today would or could take the stands he did. If they dared, they’d be crucified by the alleged journalists, like the clowns on First Take. Watching YouTube interviews of Ali (as I have much of today) I am reminded of Orwell: “In times of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act.” Muhammad Ali’s truths about the Vietnam War, about racial injustice in America, about the colonization of Africa, were revolutionary, for his time and for ours.

I believe if you have a platform, dammit use it. In this moment, when a nativist, dog-whistle blowing, reactionary right, is ascendant in American politics, we need Alis in sports and in the black community.

I think it’s why I love Michael Bennett from the Seahawks so much.

I think it’s why I have grown to love Bey; we need more “Formation.”

I know it’s why I love Kendrick, but can’t mess with Kanye. Kendrick Lamar uses his platform to talk about police brutality, critique consumerism and to discuss economic inequality. Kanye usually uses his platform to talk about Kanye.

It's why I have zero time for apolitical figures like MJ. Michael Jordan is a counter-revolutionary. I have never owned and will never buy a pair of Jordans. Kareem nailed it in 2015, in an interview with NPR: Jordan has consistently chosen “commerce over conscience” and refused speak out on matters of justice, racial or otherwise, because “Republicans buy sneakers too.”

Ali used his platform. Few ever spoke so much truth to so much entrenched power.

It kills me, my oldest students were born in 1997. They were born a year after Ali lit the Olympic Torch in the Atlanta Summer Games. By that time, Ali had battled Parkinson’s for twelve years. I may have missed Ali’s prime, but they have only seen him in a diminished state. I imagine it’d be like only knowing MJ as a sneaker-pimp or from the Crying Jordan memes, or only knowing Curtis Mayfield after the accident that paralyzed him. You know of, but you don't really know.

At some point God just stopped making men like Muhammad Ali. Today I mourn the Greatest, but I also mourn for anyone who has grown up only knowing him as a shell of his former self.

Bomaye Ali.

State Teacher of the Year Washington Week or the Life and Times of a Gov Nerd in “the other Washington.”

My view from the front porch of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

My view from the front porch of 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

Last week I joined my fellow State Teachers of the Year in DC for Washington Week: we met the leader of the free world, 44th President of the United States, and pretty darn handsome man, Barack Obama. We also met six-term senator, one of my favorite living rhetoricians, Vice President of the United States, “Uncle” Joe Biden and his (possibly more impressive) wife Dr. Jill Biden. We also met the Human Reset Button, the walking embodiment of bureaucratic tone change, Secretary of Education, Dr. John King.

Secret Service check heading into the Biden Residence.

Secret Service check heading into the Biden Residence.

On side trips, my wife and I visited the Ford Theater, where the namesake of my school, Abraham Lincoln, was shot by treasonous Confederate (those terms are admittedly redundant), John Wilkes Booth and Arlington National Cemetery. And last week at the invitation of CCSSO, I gave a policy talk on recruiting and retaining effective teachers of color, to members of the Whitehouse Staff and employees from the Department of Education.

In short fam, we had a helluva week in DC.

Policy Briefing to Whitehouse staff and employees of the Department of Education.

Policy Briefing to Whitehouse staff and employees of the Department of Education.

A Bit of a Whirlwind: Each year the 56... 55 (North Dakota just had a baby) State and territorial (DOD, Guam, Marianas Islands, Virgin Islands American Samoa and DC) teachers of the year gather in DC for Washington Week. It is intended to be a celebration of the profession. But recently, it has morphed into something more. The event is turning into a forum, where policymakers and ed groups seek input from practitioners from around the nation (and its territories).

This year we were provided an opportunity to give (often very frank) feedback to several ed organizations (NWEA, Pearson, ETS, Microsoft Education) on their policy platforms and upcoming initiatives in sessions called “Educator Perspective Breakouts.” I often talk about the need to include effective teacher voice in education policy formulation, I applaud those orgs specifically for listening to our collective points-of-view around PD, evaluation and assessment and seeking to create an ongoing dialogue around their work and ours. I don’t think we shifted the trajectory of their already laid plans, but we were invited to a conversation (a start) and we will see where that leads in the longterm.

In the East Room with 2016 Alaska Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners.

In the East Room with 2016 Alaska Teacher of the Year, Amy Jo Meiners.

While we were in DC some of the SToYs talked about how they’ve received pushback from colleagues when they’ve raised issues of teacher quality and effectiveness. But, I think Shawn Sheehan, fellow NToY Finalist, and candidate for Oklahoma State Senate, nailed it, and for the sake of my kids I unapologetically co-sign: “those who can’t, definitely shouldn’t teach.” It really is that simple. The work is too important to believe otherwise.

Back to Home and My Reality: Upon returning to the real Washington, I felt physically exhausted, but pedagogically inspired. Within 12 hours of landing, I was back at Lincoln leading our final AP Exam review session to a standing-room crowd of Abes, in preparation for today’s AP Government & Politics exam.

Somewhere over flyover country, masquerading as Jupiter.

Somewhere over flyover country, masquerading as Jupiter.

Within 24 hour hours, Audrey, Massachusetts Teacher of the Year, was proposing a collaborative story telling project to the SToYs. In the same timeframe, Talya from Maine was writing about her experiences in DC. Within 36 hours, I had started house hunting on Redfin, looking to recruit frustrated SToYs from states where they don’t feel as supported to work, teach and live in Tacoma.

DC was surreal at times, but it reminded me of the immediacy of the work we do here at Lincoln and in the South Sound with Teachers United. This work matters: Teachers are loved. Teachers aren’t appreciated. This work is draining. This work is energizing. This work often seems impossible. This work is always essential.

These are the contradictions we live with. 

A Strong Sense of Peace and a Bit of Relief

Photo: 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year Ceremony, OPSI

Photo: 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year Ceremony, OPSI

Today my friend Jahana Hayes of Connecticut was named the 2016 National Teacher of the Year. If you’re disappointed on my behalf, you shouldn’t be. I am happy for her and think she will be an ideal ambassador for the profession. From the moment I met her and the other two finalists in San Antonio, Daniel and Shawn, I’ve had peace about the process. I knew that no matter who was selected, the profession would be well represented. They’re amazing pedagogues and even better people.

I have been so blessed this past year. I’ve had at least ten once in a lifetime opportunities and my amazingly supportive wife has been side-by-side with me, every step along the way. I mean come on….

Went to Women’s World Cup in Vancouver

Took my dad to the US Open

Traveled in Hong Kong and taught in Chengdu, China

Hosted the President of China in my classroom

Named 2016 Washington State Teacher of the Year

Addressed the Washington State House and State Board of Education on teacher quality and the impact of chronic under-funding

Traveled to Oakland, Denver, New Orleans and Washington DC to speak and advocate about ed policy issues

Wrote a blog post, discussing the cruel reality of education inequity, that earned 1,000,000 clicks and was republished in several major news outlets

Threw out the first pitch at a Mariner's game

Invited to speak at Harvard Graduate School of Education

….And next week I will shake hands with the first black President of the United States, in the Oval Office, in the final year of his presidency

I feel guilty even typing all that. I am not sad; I am not disappointed and you shouldn’t be sad for me either. I am reminded of an old gospel song, called I Won’t Complain. When I was young, Reverend Banks would belt it out whenever the opportunity arose. It is permanently in my head. When I close my eyes, I can see him getting choked up and reaching for his handkerchief to wipe his brow and tears:

God's been so good to me
The Lord has been so good to me
More than this old world
Or you could ever be
The Lord has been so good to me
And He dried my tears away
And He turn all my midnights into days
So I'll say thank you Lord
I just say thank you Lord
I'll just say thank you Lord
I won't complain

Next year I am going to be right where I belong and I couldn't be happier. I love standing in front of a class and seeing them start to drift and then switching up the lesson with an anecdote or a provocative question that sets the room ablaze. I love everything about the job (except the pay, meetings and grading) and will continue to be a blunt advocate for my students and the profession, in Washington State and beyond.

The National Teacher of the Year is released from their classroom for a full year and tours the country, speaking at various events to "stakeholders." Honestly, that idea has made me queasy from the moment it was explained to me.

I am good where I am at.

My place is on the Eastside of Tacoma. My place is at Lincoln High School. My place is in room #306. My place is wearing a cardigan, rapping with my kids about Iron Triangles, federalism and the enumerated powers of Congress. My place is helping kids fill out FAFSAs and challenging them to be better people and work harder. 


A Syllabus for Students When Dealing with Law Enforcement

Pool Party Gone Wrong

I have a complicated relationship with law enforcement...

When I was a kid, growing up in Tacoma, I was often stopped and harassed by law enforcement while riding bikes with my friends. It got to the point where I started to carry the receipt for the bike my parents gave me, because police stopped me and accused me of stealing it so often.

In my sophomore year, I was riding with a white female friend. We were driving through Fircrest, a suburban town that abuts Tacoma. An officer pulled my friend over and whispered “are you okay?” as if I had kidnapped her and her mom’s VW Vanagon. She flipped TF out, on my behalf. It was my first conscious experience with ally-ship.

When I was 15 years-old, while standing on the bus stop by myself, after watching that terrible George Clooney  Batman Movie. I was rushed, thrown to the ground, and had a gun pointed in my face by an officer because, like countless other black men "I matched the description..."

To this day, as a now 36 year-old, I get pulled over multiple times per year.

On the other hand, I have always loved the idea of police work. My favorite TV genre, by far, is the police procedural. I have an older brother who is an officer in Seattle. When I was in high school one my mentors was our SRO. He saw potential in me that I didn’t see--he constantly gave me life advice and kept tabs on me. To this day, whenever he sees me with my wife, he stops and tells embarrassing stories about how big of a dork I was in high school.

In 2004, I heavily considered applying to the Washington State Patrol, rather than going into teaching. I often think about the similarities between teaching and law enforcement. When I watch videos of law enforcement using force, I often think about the de-escalation skills that are essential in both careers. Teachers who can’t de-escalate conflict, set kids off, have chaotic classrooms and suffer frequent discipline issues. Officers who can’t de-escalate, tend to use force with more frequency and receive the most community complaints. The best teachers I know, value and immerse themselves in the communities they serve--much like how community policing has been one of the most effective reforms within law enforcement over the last 30 years. 

There are good teachers and bad teachers; there are good police and bad police. Students know they have a bad teacher after a few days of class and can change their schedules or otherwise find ways to cope. But they won’t know they’ve encountered a bad officer until it’s far, far too late. Because of this, when teaching civil liberties, I do a workshop for my students on their rights when dealing with law enforcement, particularly the 4th, 5th and 6th Amendments. This workshop is the most important lesson I teach each year. I offer this handout that I created for my students here for your feedback, additions, contributions and if you’re so inclined, sharing.

The stakes are high for my students. Whenever I give a talk about teaching, I talk about the lack of predictability and danger that children of color and those in poverty face, on a daily basis. Never is that lack of predictability more dangerous than when it comes to encounters with those who are sworn to protect them. I know that no amount of “respectability” can keep people of color safe in America; Sandra Bland, Henry Louis Gates and James Blake have taught us so, but my hope is that I can increase the odds for my students and yours.

What We Know: Our students’ ability to achieve is only limited by our own investment in their success

Visiting the fruits of our collective labor at Washington State University.

Visiting the fruits of our collective labor at Washington State University.

Each year in Washington State the Regional Teachers of the Year are asked to contribute a piece of writing that is published in a book called Seed to Apple. What follows is my contribution from this year. It is a story about the work we do at Lincoln High School and what quality educators do at low-income schools all over the nation. I encourage you to check out some of the other entries by my fellow Washington State educators.

There are ten former students of Lincoln High School currently in jail for murder or manslaughter.

This isn’t their story. But their story and that number animate the work we do. It is the fuel that drives our staff. The stakes in a high-poverty schools are life and death. We know this. The kids we don’t reach will be lost to incarceration, unemployment, shortened life expectancy, and a lifetime of poverty. We know this. Vice President Joe Biden once said, “Don't tell me what you value, show me your budget, and I'll tell you what you value.” I can tell you that society doesn’t value our students. We know this. 

They live in segregated housing on tattered and pothole filled roads. We’ve closed their elementary schools, local libraries, and Boys & Girls Club. We’ve cutback service hours and bus routes that serve their neighborhoods. They live in a food desert. My students are invisible. Tacoma, the City of Destiny, is infamous for its “grit” and often is mocked for its ramshackle appearance, but its future rests in the hands of my staff. We are planting seeds. We know this.

Our staff supports our students and our alumni academically, emotionally, and economically. Schools are the barometers of the health of our communities. Throughout my seven years at Lincoln, I have watched as families struggle and fall further behind. As a staff, we fill an ever widening gap between what the state provides and what our families need. We stock our desk and filing cabinet drawers with food. We run food drives to collect food to feed families over winter break. We buy and collect ties and dress clothes for job interviews. 

We pay for SATs when students have exhausted their fee waivers. We pool money to get people’s lights turned on after being shut-off or to prevent evictions. We buy textbooks for alumni at Evergreen. We buy linen for alumni from CWU. We send winter clothes to alumni at UW. We help when the paperwork from the financial aid office appears to be written in Vulgate Latin. We hire alumni on break from college to do yard. We shed tears. We sacrifice time with our own families. We celebrate our students’ successes.

In recent years our graduation rate has risen by 22%. We have sent an increasing number of kids off to higher education. But “sending them off” is not enough. We tell ourselves a lie when we treat the education of a young mind as some sort of transaction that ends at the end of school day, school year, or even graduation. The role of a Lincoln teacher extends into life and adulthood of our students. We continue to fertilize and till. Our students often don’t have uncles or aunts who are college graduates. They have us. 

Last fall during planning with the senior team, a few of us hatched an idea to support our graduates in college and inspire our current students. We batted around the idea of road trip; an Alumni Support Tour. The plan was to visit over two dozen recent grads in colleges east of the mountains. Nearly all these students were first generation college students and the majority were students of color. We had been getting calls and emails from students who were struggling to adjust and debating coming home. In late September, I sat on the phone for nearly an hour telling a homesick alumna that she owed it to herself to stay at Whitworth.

“You will hate yourself if you quit.”

“It doesn’t matter how they look at you, we both know you are smart enough.”

“I know there are no other black students, we talked about this before you left. This is how it will be.”

As I hung up the phone with her the road trip went from an idea to a necessity. 

In October, Mrs. Teague-Bowling, Ms. Bockus, and I piled into my Kia Soul and hit the road to visit the Lincoln Class of 2014 at Central Washington, Washington State University, Gonzaga, and Whitworth College. Along the way we asked why we hadn’t done this before. We wondered how the kids were holding up with the workload. Had we prepared them? We were curious about who might be struggling. But, most importantly, we questioned: why isn’t this kind of support the norm?

We stayed in a Super 8 in Ellensburg and a HoJo in North Spokane. We met our charges at each of their campuses and brought them pizza or burgers. Older Lincoln Alumni showed up as well. “I am so proud of you.” Tears were shed. “We did this, together.” Hugs were exchanged. We visited dining halls, toured campuses, and heard familiar tales of adjustment. They shared their syllabi and dorm rooms with us. We shared our pride and joy with them. They thanked us and talked about how prepared they felt for college and life. 

These were the three best days of my career. We drove over 650 miles, visited four campuses, and broke bread with nearly 30 alumni. Over three days we were able to see our harvest.

Teaching is more like farming than many of the other careers it gets compared to. Lincoln is a massive farm with nearly 1,500 seeds in the ground. Some have nutrient rich soil. Others are in shallow, sandy dirt and require more attention. At Lincoln 80% of our seeds live in poverty. That just means they need more fertilizer, more careful watering, and more attention from us, the farmers.

Too often when we talk about students in poverty, my students, we approach them from a deficit--we awfulize students in poverty--we talk about them as if they are incapable of learning.

They aren’t inferior, they’re poor.

They are literate, but the ways in which they are literate aren’t measurable by our assessments. There’s an academic vocabulary gap, not an intelligence gap. With love and support they’re capable of reaching the same highs as all other students. My students are worth the investment that I make in them as their teacher, and they are worth the investment we ought to make in them as a society.

We know this.



Just in Case Things Weren't Clear

Redlining map Philadelphia, from the Home Owner's Loan Corporation 

Redlining map Philadelphia, from the Home Owner's Loan Corporation 

My recent post on the importance of effective teaching, school segregation and equitable school funding touched a nerve. On this site it received over 250,000 views. Additionally, it was republished in the Seattle Times, Washington Post, Hechinger Report, New York Observer and the Huffington Post.

The vast majority of the feedback, even from dissenters, was thoughtful and brought up points that I hadn’t considered, or angles I had contemplated but (for reasons of brevity) chose to leave out. The responses pushed me to reconsider some of the things I said in the piece. That is the Internet at its best.

However, one piece of feedback, a letter, stuck out to me. It arrived in the mail at my school this week and I want to share it with you. It reinforces much of what I said in the original piece about the contempt that many people in America have for people of color, and especially for black America.  It was dictated by its author, Ralph Fusco (probably to his paralegal), and I present it here to you as is, unedited and unredacted.

In many ways the letter speaks for itself.

The casualness with which Mr. Fusco denigrates the whole of black America is breathtaking.

Although I disagree with almost every single word Mr. Fusco wrote, I appreciate his honesty and willingness to share his point-of-view. I am guessing, if asked, he would claim “I am not a racist.” As Ta-Nehisi Coates has jested previously, there no racists anymore. It’s apparent Fusco has (probably by choice) had very little interaction with actual black people (he is missing out, we are pretty awesome!).

Mr. Fusco isn’t some unhinged, hood wearing or toothless Confederate flag waver, nor is he a white-supremacist, from a compound in the Far West. He is probably an upstanding member of his community and active member of all the usual community organizations: Rotary, Chamber of Commerce, etc.

I do not believe his views are atypical, only his willingness to put them to paper. Many of our current social ills: un(der)employment, segregated housing patterns, mass incarceration, inequitable school funding, and disparate educational outcomes are underpinned by this type of thinking. It must be combated and public education is the best way forward. This is the work. This is the challenge.

I am glad that Mr. Fusco put it all out there.  





The Conversation I'm Tired of Not Having

I want to tell you a secret: America really doesn’t care what happens to poor people and most black people. There I said it.

In my position as a Teacher of the Year and a teacher leader (an ambiguous term at best), I am supposed to be a voice and hold positions on a host of ed policy issues: teaching evaluations, charter schools, test refusal, and (fights over) Common Core come to mind. I am so sick of reading about McCleary (Washington’s ongoing intragovernmental battle for equitable funding for K-12) I don’t know what to do with myself. But, increasingly I find myself tuning out of these conversations. As a nation, we’re nibbling around the edges with accountability measures and other reforms, but we’re ignoring the immutable core issue: much of white and wealthy America is perfectly happy with segregated schools and inequity in funding. We have the schools we have, because people who can afford better get better. And sadly, people who can’t afford better just get less--less experienced teachers, inadequate funding and inferior facilities.

There is simple lack of political will. The situation in education is analogous to the status of gun control. Last June, @DPJHodges tweeted that “In retrospect Sandy Hook marked the end of the US gun control debate. Once America decided killing children was bearable, it was over.” Unless dozens of members of Congress are themselves directly impacted by gun violence, there is no major gun legislation coming anytime soon. We have retreated to our camps; there is no turning back. It is the same with school funding and school segregation.

If you are reading this blog, you've probably seen the images coming out of Detroit Public Schools: buckled floors, toilets without seats, roaches, mold and even mushrooms growing in damp, disgusting, mildewy classrooms. Like the images of American torture and abuse last decade in Abu Ghraib, these images should have shocked the nation. Instead, they elicited a collective national shrug, stretch and yawn.

The View from the Burbs is Sweet. Through white flight and suburbanization, wealthy and middle class families have completely insulated themselves from educational inequality. They send their kids to homogeneous schools and they do what it takes, politically at the local level, to ensure they’re well-funded, well-staffed, with opportunities for enrichment and exploration. Poor families lack competent and engaged administration (see Chicago, Detroit, etc), the levy money (locally, see Highline), capital budgets (see rural Central, WA), and the political capital wealthier families enjoy.

Ask yourself, would suburban schools ever be allowed to decay like what we saw in Detroit? Nope. What's happening in Detroit could never happen in Auburn Hills; what’s happening in Chicago could never happen in Evanston; what’s happening in South Seattle could never happen in Issaquah or Bellevue. Middle class America would never allow the conditions that have become normalized in poor and brown America to stand for their kids.

This past week I attended a convening of the 56 State & Territorial Teachers of the Year in San Antonio. There I spoke to a veteran teacher (17 years in the classroom) from Maryland. Her school is located five miles from the nation’s capitol and in her career, she has never taught a white student. Never. Her county and its schools are completely segregated. We aren’t in this together.

This week, I also encountered a tweet from @mdawriter that stopped me cold in my tracks: “61% of Blacks, 55% of Hispanics support gov't intervention to address school segregation. Vast majority of whites (72%) say nope!” They’re perfectly satisfied with situation as is. Integration? Busing? Redrawing of school or district boundaries? Nope, nope, nope.

So what is to be done? The pessimist in me says nothing can be done. Polite society has walled itself off and policymakers are largely indifferent. Better funding for schools is and will remain elusive, because middle class and wealthy people have been conditioned over the last 35 years to think of themselves as taxpayers, rather than citizens. They consistently oppose higher taxes--especially tax expenditures for programs for “the other.”

I’d offer the answer lies in the teaching profession itself

If you ain't talking about the teacher in the classroom, I ain't listening. Teacher quality matters. Too many in the profession are quick to awfulize students in poverty to rationalize poor results. Better teaching inspires students and gets better results. Better teaching engages students and keeps them in classrooms, rather than the streets. Better teaching is the one thing we never really talk about. Better teaching is the only mechanism we have left.

Our most needy students need our best teachers, yet our highest need schools have the least experienced teachers, the most turnover and are becoming burnout factories for those who remain. All the existing structural incentives for effective educators push them toward work in suburban schools, where they’ll be better supported and the workload is sustainable. Nobody wants to talk about this.

I am done with charter fights and Common Core spats. You won’t hear me caping for (or against) Danielson’s Framework. If you’re looking for me in the near future, you won’t find me at the edu-fundraiser or non-profit luncheon with a parking lot full of Teslas. For my own sake and the sake of my kids, I will be supporting organizations and people putting in work in these areas:

  • Fighting the impacts of systemic racism and white supremacy in our schools and among teachers.
  • Helping, through my speaking opportunities, to recruit passionate people, especially people of color into the profession.
  • Supporting policies aimed at identifying, developing and retaining effective teachers.
  • Advocating for the creation of systems that encourage our most effective and passionate teachers to stay in the profession and supporting them in working with our most needy schools.
  • Encouraging policymakers to make the work of effective teachers rewarding and sustainable by trusting them and not burdening them with new and ever changing mandates.
  • Giving teachers opportunities to lead, within the profession, while remaining in the classroom.

Take what you will from what is and isn’t on that list.

Now that we’ve made it this far, I realize I may have misspoken at the top--I am not done with ed policy discussions--but I am done with ones that don’t have to do with teaching.