The Nerd Farmer Podcast: Finding My Voice, Literally

If you know me or have followed me for awhile here or elsewhere you realize my interests are varied. Obviously education is dear to me. I also love travel. I’m a political junky. I’ll talk soccer anytime, anyplace, with anyone. I view much of the world through the economic lens I developed in college (incentives, trade-offs, utility, etc). I think Americans would rather have a root canal sans anesthesia than reckon with matters of race. I’m also fascinated by the overlapping Venn Diagrams among those respective worlds: education, travel, politics, sports, economics, and race. I’ve touched on all of them in this space but have never waded as deep into the weeds as I’d like to.

Somewhere in my mom’s house is a Foss High School Yearbook where in 1997, I was named "Most likely to host their own radio talk show." My classmates were clairvoyant.

Over the next month I will be guest hosting the Move to Tacoma Podcast. Move to Tacoma is a website run my dear friend (also activist, realtor, connector-in-chief) Marguerite. I love the story of her website. She started it with good intentions: to help people looking to move to the city find info about the neighborhoods and community. However, she quickly found herself being pilloried for contributing to gentrification. Instead of getting defensive, she has made her website and show a place for tough and honest community conversations. It’s not even a show about real estate or housing anymore. It’s about a very real and very imperfect city and the people who live and work here.

I was a guest on her show late last year and enjoyed the experience. We had a spirited conversation about education, policing, race, and real estate, and we've been co-conspirators around these same matters ever since. In January, she asked me to guest-host her show for a run of episodes. I decided to do it and we’ll be pushing out episodes throughout the month of March. The first episode is up; my guests will include:

Melissa Santos, legislative reporter for the Tacoma News Tribune, talking about the current legislative session, the ongoing school funding lawsuit, and the state of local newspapers and local politics. It’s a very wonky conversation, but one that is important for our schools and community.

Dorian Waller, local political consultant and font of knowledge. We’ll talk about the upcoming municipal elections. Tacoma has four city council seats, two school board seats, and a mayor to decide on this fall, along with hiring a city manager. A lot of the usual names and faces are running, and Dorian has (flamethrower) hot takes on all of it.

Kenny Coble, a local book seller at King’s Books, burgeoning soccer fan, and soon-to-be author. Kenny is one of the most thoughtful folks I know. He’s active in the city arts scene and as a person of color, who can often pass for white, Kenny has very interesting thoughts on matters of race.

The Nerd Farmer Podcast is a go! At the end of my run hosting Move to Tacoma I'll be launching my own show. Nerd Farming is how I describe my teaching raison d'etre. As a humanities teacher, I am planting seeds of globally-aware and civically-engaged young people who will be my future neighbors, co-workers, and entrepreneurs. The podcast will be sponsored by Move to Tacoma and will be an interview show where I sit down with folks (who I think are smarter than me) and chop it up about their work and matters of justice. So far on deck we have:

 The logo for the new podcast was created by a student.

The logo for the new podcast was created by a student.


Vanessa Hernandez, a dynamic lawyer from the ACLU. She and I will talk about civil liberties, issues involving law enforcement, immigration law, and where we could be heading under the new president. She spoke at the Teacher Town Hall we hosted last month, and I am insanely excited to kick-off the show off with her.

Claudia Rowe, an investigative reporter and education writer with the Seattle Times. She has written some of the most important investigative stories about education here in the Puget Sound over the last few years, including her blockbuster piece about racial bias in school discipline. She also recently published a book called The Spider and the Fly.

Pierce County Councilman Derek Young, a nerd among nerds, will discuss the importance of local politics and why you should stop worrying about Trump and start worrying about who is running for the state legislature. We’ll also touch on the upcoming mid-term elections and probably a bit about Clint Dempsey and the Sounders.

I’m also looking to nail down some folks to talk about the environmental issues and housing segregation. I will share about some upcoming work I may be doing in China and want to do an occasional roundtable with some of my favorite members of the local media. My goal is to use a local lens and local experts to talk about national issues. The examples may be Cascadia-centric, but the themes will be universal.

This is my next big project. After a twenty-four month whirlwind in which I represented my school and state, met with the President and Vice President, was interviewed by Bill Gates, and hosted the President of China in my classroom, I’m ready to build something. I’m ready to have some real conversations with great folks, and I invite you to join me.

My Mom Had to Lie to Get Me Into a Good School

NoteThis post originally appeared on Education Post. After its publication I was contacted by several of my old teachers from Stanley, the elementary school my mom got me into. I am insanely thankful to Mrs. Anderson, Mrs. Winterhouse, Mrs. Bullock and all the staff from Stanley who taught me then and support and follow my work today. I was also contacted by classmates from Tacoma Montessori, which is how I got my hands on that dope class of '86 photo (Thanks Kati).  

I, like all Black Americans, am keenly aware of the gobsmacking contradictions that come with being Black in America.

Both of my parents fled the South in the 1960s to Washington State, roughly 20 years before I was born. I went through public school during the decline and eventual destruction of federally mandated school desegregation. For six years I proudly served in the U.S. Air Force Reserves, before leaving in 2003 in protest of the Iraq War. For a time, I was vice president of my college Republicans club. I hugged and lifted my teary-eyed mother off the ground, while my friends beat pots and pans in a spontaneous neighborhood parade on election night in 2008. I dabble from time-to-time in respectability politics, but believe vehemently that #BlackLivesMatter.

I am a 37-year-old Black male who teaches American government and politics at a school that is 80 percent students of color in a state that is roughly 80 percent White.

In my classroom, we spend a significant amount of time talking about the gaps between the values we espouse as a nation: liberty, justice, individualism, meritocracy and the reality that we witness on a daily basis: segregated schools, segregated housing, disproportionate law enforcement and sentencing, inequitable school funding, reduced life expectancy and other indicators of systemic racism.

This is the American dilemma: there is no other nation in the world where people who look like me do as well, yet no other nation has such a dogged and continued history of marginalizing and abusing those same folks. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the realm of education.

As a young child, I was blessed to attend a phenomenal, private Montessori school for the early stages of my education. I have clear memories of sign language and Spanish lessons, hands-on science experiments about the physiology of a sunflower, and the shocking experience of seeing the chemical reaction when vinegar and baking soda are mixed for the first time.

I had a predictable routine. Every morning, my mother would drop me off at school on her way to work and every evening my grandmother would come and pick me up. Grandma and I would ride the #27 bus down MLK, past the bank and the local pool, back to her house where she would help me with my letters and numbers…then reading…then, as I aged, homework until my mother could pick me up and take me home for dinner.

This was my routine: mom, Montessori, slippers, learning, copious snacks, grandma, learning, mom, dinner, TV or reading (usually not TV), bed. Wash, rinse and repeat.

At the school, I also recall being one, along with my friend Sterling, of only two Black children. This was a harbinger of what was to come. As my neighborhood, Tacoma’s Hilltop, descended into drug-fueled gang violence in the 1980s, my school closed up shop and moved to whiter pastures, in a nearby suburb. The building remained vacant for years and at one point in my early adulthood, it was turned into a funeral home—a poignant reminder each time I passed by it.

My mother put me in the Montessori because she lacked faith in my neighborhood school. With my Montessori’s closure, my mother, ever resourceful, ever the advocate, went around the system. She lied. She used her church friend, Sister Crawford’s address, to get me enrolled at a school focused on the arts and sciences. I do not believe I would be the man I am—the teacher I am—without her lie.

But, in a nation as wealthy as America, no parent should have to lie about their address to get their child into a high-quality school. Sadly, I have heard this same tale from many, many other Black families. She did the same when it was time for me to go to high school. For my sake, she lied.

I think about this often when I stand before my own classroom today. What would Black parents say about my teaching and the way I treat their children? How do I best make my classroom a place where parents know their children are valued? How do I make my classroom a place where students feel safe and loved? How do I make my classroom instruction relevant to their lives and needs? These are the preconditions for effective teaching and learning. These are questions every educator should ask themselves every day.

As Washington State’s 2016 Teacher of the Year, I visited numerous schools and talked with hundreds of teachers across our state. My lone, lingering frustration from that experience is my anger at walking the halls of a school filled predominately with Brown students and happening on an International Baccalaureate (IB) history class that was Whiter than the Trump cabinet.

It is infuriating, but also painfully common. Students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) and IB classes are challenged to do college level work, while in high school, are statistically more likely to go onto college, and more likely be successful there. Denying children of color access to these classes—particularly at majority Brown schools—is an act of callous racial injustice, but also common practice across the country.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Throughout most of my life, the school where I teach was the lowest-performing high school in our district. That’s not the case anymore. We now graduate over 80 percent our students on time, over 45 percent of our kids are enrolled in an AP class. We are at capacity and have a waiting list to get into the school, despite the recent opening of a charter school nearby.

My AP classes are as diverse as the building itself and the neighborhood surrounding it. Last year nine starters from our football team, five of them Black males, passed the AP government exam—all of them are now in college. We’re living, breathing proof of what’s possible when we put our focus on the students.

District leadership has provided additional staffing and funding to our highest need schools. In my school we have a family support specialist—in others there are partnerships focused on keeping families in stable housing. I recently asked my mother, “Would you send me to McCarver [my old neighborhood school] today?” She replied, “Yes, yes I would.” This is a measure of progress we have made.

The fights in education shouldn’t be about models of schooling, but instead about the quality of the educational experience for the students. Kids of color and low-income students deserve great teachers, great schools, access to challenging courses and they shouldn’t have to lie to get them.


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.