“Stay Woke” as a phrase is the new watermelon. Most of us have heard about the demonization of Black people by the media and society during the Jim Crow era. According to the Atlantic.com digital magazine, before the Jim Crow era, the watermelon “…symbolized black self-sufficiency…” (Black, 2014) According to National Geographic, the watermelon originated in Africa thousands of years ago. (Strauss, 2015) The Insider.com states that this wonderful fruit was brought over from African and transported with Africans across the transatlantic during the slave trade. (Cheyenne, 2022)
The following is an excerpt from the Insider.com article that demonstrates how Black people became disenfranchised due to media attacks on Black culture and ways of being:
“…Throughout the Jim Crow era, smear campaigns involving African Americans eating watermelon began to be spread, partially as a form of bigotry, but also as an attempt to squash African American businesses. Ads and ephemera used images of African Americans “stealing, fighting over, or sitting in streets eating watermelon,” in an effort to “shame Black watermelon merchants,” according to the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Degrading African Americans by way of watermelon also acted as a ploy to derail Black people from gaining and sustaining positions of power…” (Cheyenne, 2022)
And just as the colonizers and enslavers of Africans from Europe and the Americas imposed their will and promoted a myriad of false beliefs of Africans, the same tactics exist today. This white supremacist tactic of demonizing Black people or their coveted items was used to deprive Black people of self-love and self-pride by replacing these values with right wing media depictions of Black people as lazy and animal-like while they were eating watermelons.
In fact, the watermelon was a source of income and pride for the enslaved during slavery and especially for the newly freed people after the Emancipation Proclamation. (Cheyenne, 2022) But a Jim Crow nation cannot let Black folks gain independence and heaven forbid if these Black people want self-efficacy. Plessy v. Ferguson had already set a precedent by establishing separate and unequal legal and social status laws that reinforced the second-class citizenship of African Amercians. (Zucchino, Wilmington’s Lie : The Murderous Coup Of 1898 And The Rise Of White Supremacy, 2020)
The quote, “Stay Woke” is now the new watermelon. ‘Woke’ was originally used in 1923 by Marcus Garvey according to the Legal Defense Fund. (Robinson, https://www.naacpldf.org/woke-black-bad/, 2022) Marcus Garvey encouraged Black people to wake up and understand the social and legal issues that affected them. The Legal Defense Fund also shares how this word has been used by Black authors and artists alike. In every context, it is used as a source of Black pride and Black awareness just like the watermelon used to be.
In many instances throughout history people have used this phrase “Stay Woke”, “Wake up”, or variations to warn against injustices in society. Many times the injustices are racial or social justice issues.
It is human nature for one to protect him or herself. As a youth I was a martial artist and earned my black belt during college. My Sensei was a Black Grandmaster from Lexington, Kentucky and he taught us that the first rule of self-defense is to protect yourself at ALL TIMES. This is the true meaning of “Stay Woke” which is that Black Folks and others should protect themselves at all times. An educated person does not believe everything she or he is told and awareness is very important to survival. How can one be aware if he or she is sleeping physically or mentally?
So just like the fate of the watermelon, right wing politicians like DeSantis in Florida and Republican legislators in Kentucky use the words “Stay Woke” to demonize Black political agendas by creating false narratives of what the words mean. None of them appear to have any idea what the phrase “Stay Woke” means but they redefine this phrase as an educational attack on white children and white professionals. This parallels how the watermelon was deviously used to convey that Black people were animalistic in the depictions that displayed us as lazy savages who eat watermelons and plan attacks on white people.
It is a shame that a phrase that is used to promote Black awareness and Black representation in our democracy is being bastardized by a political party of people. So now as a Black person I am demonized if I eat watermelon or if I am woke. It is ironic how eating watermelon and being “woke” or aware are both healthy options. So I will emphatically declare that I will choose to have good health both physically (eat fresh foods like watermelon) and mentally (stay woke by feeding my mind as much information about the world around me as possible) as a priority despite the racist rhetoric I am constantly being fed by politicians. This is exactly the reason we must “Stay Woke”!
I remember when I first started teaching, I would hear adults in the building constantly tell kids to “Stop playing.” I found that phrase heartbreaking. Kids are supposed to play; that’s part of childhood! I know that our teachers and admin were referring to horseplay, but as a younger, maybe more naive, English teacher, I wasn’t ready for the word “play” to have those negative associations for children. Now, years later, I have to keep myself from correcting students in the exact same way.
Teachers see it every day, especially at all-boys schools like the past two schools I’ve worked at. Kids might start off with an arm around each other in the hallway, then it devolves into a sort of joking quasi-wrestle, and then someone will go too far and a student will turn angry in a flash. A tense moment happens. Sometimes one boy will grab another’s tie or collar. I move in between them and he’ll let go and say “I’m just playing.” Sometimes they immediately start smiling and laughing afterwards. Other times they stay serious. You never can tell, and that’s a problem. Teachers sometimes see versions of these exchanges a dozen times a day as kids navigate their friendships and relationships. The vast majority of the time, it is friendly greetings and warm embraces. But the rough-housing happens enough that you will hear adults ban any kind of “playing” or “touching” or anything that could lead to trouble down the line. One school I worked at even wrote referrals for horseplay, which could result in in-school suspension. A consequence that comes from the fear of a lack of control – because there’s just not enough staff to tell down the hall if things could escalate in a split second.
We know policies like this are bad for students, especially boys, who crave love, affection, and intimacy, like everyone on this planet, and seem to only know how to get human contact by putting their fellow classmates in a faux headlock between classes. Zero-tolerance policies happen because schools are skeleton crews that are too understaffed to handle all of the myriads of issues that students face. And so, just like the line between playing and horseplaying, school staff are hard-pressed to decipher the contours between conflict, bullying, and fighting — except we know in these cases the consequences can be more dangerous.
Any building that houses so many young people in close proximity will naturally have conflict. And some teachers do take a sort of zero-tolerance policy towards conflict in their classroom — which mostly means a refusal to hear out any conflict in their presence. But conflict will find a way regardless, in a less supervised hallway or bathroom, in a substitute teachers’ room, or over Snapchat or Tiktok. They are frequent, sometimes petty or small-seeming, but every single one brought to an adult requires a judgment call. Do we mediate? Quickly, in this hallway? At length, with a counselor? Does this need parental or assistant principal intervention? Or are both students saying they’re okay now and we let it go to keep from creating a bigger situation from nothing?
I wish I could say that I’ve always gotten these judgment calls right. They are the sort of thing that has kept me up at night. Rarely are situations ever cut-and-dry and typically with students, there are hurt feelings on all sides. Sometimes they just want to be heard, but other times they need action and feel like it isn’t being taken. Sometimes, it feels like a clear-cut case of bullying that you try to mediate with a counselor and it doesn’t seem to get better after mediation. Sometimes it’s clear that one student really needs additional mental health support, but cannot get it for some bureaucratic reason or another.
Sometimes you bring the issue to the security guard, assistant principal, principal, whomever, to prevent a fight and it’s ignored or minimized; you find out those students fought later that day. Sometimes you raise the issue positive that these students will fight and it turns out there really was no danger; they were just playing! Sometimes you raise the issue and those students are convinced not to fight at school and then they fight just far enough from the bus stop that it is no longer considered a JCPS problem anymore.
It always seems so obvious in hindsight. I will tell you the amount of guilt I feel even secondhand when someone says that a problem has been going on for weeks ignored. That means every time a student mentioned it or the problem reared its head, it seemed small enough at the time not to make us take notice. There are lots of reasons for that. Sometimes it is just because a bigger catastrophe was going on somewhere else. Sometimes the early warning signs just weren’t obvious enough. Teachers are often expected to make 20 judgment calls every 90 seconds. The vast majority might be benign, but it feels like a real weight is repeatedly put on the shoulders of school staff. When it feels like you have to rely on your intuition to predict when a student is nearing the brink, it doesn’t feel like you get to make mistakes. And that’s what keeps me up at night.
But what can we do other than lose sleep over it? Teachers and school staff are on the frontlines of these issues, but our schools are skeleton crews during the best of times. For years, we have begged for additional staffing for adequate supervision and to lower the student to teacher ratio, and it is high time we get the funding to cover those positions. We need more people who can provide mental health supports, supervise hallways, and generally give the love and attention that make for happy and healthy students. If there were more of us, each of our plates would be less full. Each of us could bear less of the cognitive load and deal with less decision fatigue too.
Of course, there are other ways to lessen the burden of teachers during this shortage so they can focus on their students. Undoubtedly if you know a career teacher, they have told you how things have changed over the past decade: a heightened focus on standardized testing and so-called accountability that has mostly translated into more meetings and more paperwork. All of this against the backdrop of incredibly traumatic times for this generation, including two of the deadliest school shootings of all time. Why wouldn’t we want to remove every other distraction and let teachers teach?
Since the 80s, education in the US has focused on bolstering America’s position in the global economy. We doubled down on the century old factory education model that placed the teacher at the center of student learning, imposed rewards and punishments for schools based on student outcomes on standardized tests, and developed new standards for what students should learn and do, all so that we could compare ourselves to other countries and maintain our self-awarded place as best among all other nations in everything. But that system hasn’t worked as intended: in spite of all of the collective blood, sweat, and tears we as educators have invested trying to meet its demands, our students are still no better off than their parents or their grandparents were before them, and our nation continues to face economic and national security challenges which our current education system does not adequately prepare our students to meet. It’s time to rethink how we teach our children so they will be able to create a society that will allow them and their children to thrive.
Why We Need Change
America adopted the factory education model in the Industrial Age. This model, developed by the National Education Association’s Committee of Ten in 1894, treated students as a product that teachers equipped with a fixed set of knowledge, skills, and behavior norms. Upon graduating, these students were then prepared to enter the workforce and take their place fulfilling a prescribed role performing a specific task for their employer, like cogs in a wheel. By design, education for every student was standardized and uniform regardless of what the student’s post-educational intentions or aspirations might be.
The modern workplace has changed dramatically. Technology has largely allowed low-function tasks to be automated. Work that used to require unskilled laborers can now largely be performed by machines, freeing up opportunities for workers to assume creative roles in their jobs. In addition, today’s employers are looking for workers who have a range of soft skills that will make them better employees overall: skills like innovative problem solving, communication, and the ability to be adaptable when they encounter complexity and ambiguity. We owe it to students to help them prepare for this future by teaching them to be agile, imaginative, and innovative critical thinkers.
But it’s not just our economic future that is at stake: The last several years have seen a rapid decline in how Americans relate to each other. As people grew more isolated during the pandemic, innate tendencies towards racism, sexism, transphobia, xenophobia, and other biases which many people used to harbor silently became blatantly and overtly weaponized against others online and in their day to day personal interactions. This “othering” has created a crisis in our ability to get along and function together as a society. It is our responsibility as educators to help students learn how to build community, collaborate, and communicate with other individuals so that they will grow up having the skills they need to develop a healthy society.
Reimagining Our Roles
The most important shift in student-centered learning is in reimagining the roles of students and educators. The student-centered classroom is an environment where students and teachers are part of a learning community together. Students come to us with individual passions and strengths and a natural curiosity and desire to learn. When they have autonomy and agency over their own learning, students will grow, flourish, and thrive. We owe it to them to create learning environments where that can happen. Our role as teachers should be to design rich and engaging learning experiences that help students develop their passions and strengths. Students should be allowed and encouraged to become agents of their own learning, making decisions and designing their own products and demonstrations of learning that are relevant to them and that engage their interests. As a learning community, students and teachers must connect with each other on a human level, supporting each other, and learning from and with each other.
Putting Student-Centered Learning into Practice
Here are some key practices we can focus on as we make the shift to student-centered learning:
Focus on 21st Century Skills: Traditional classrooms focus on teaching students to master content and meet standards for academic subjects. Student-centered learning offers students opportunities to learn soft skills that will help them be successful in life: skills like resilience, grit, creative thinking, communication, collaboration, compassion, critical thinking, self-reflection, and learning how to learn.
Address Students’ Social-Emotional Learning Needs: Traditional education focuses on helping students move towards mastery of an academic subject. Students come to us with many physical and emotional needs that need to be met before they’re able to learn effectively. In addition, teaching students how to process and work through their emotions in healthy ways and how to build community with others will help them become self-actualized and healthy, and will make them better prepared to learn, grow, and thrive.
Create Growth Mindset and Learner Agency: In a traditional classroom, students are expected to receive knowledge from the teacher and internalize it, then demonstrate the degree to which they have mastered that information on a written assessment for which they will receive a score that shows what percentage of that content they have mastered. After the assessment, the learning of that content is done, and the class moves on to the next concept. Shifting to a growth mindset with learner agency means that students enter into a cycle of learning where they will explore a concept with guidance from the teacher, but also by seeking out real world sources and experiences that will help them learn deeply. Students demonstrate their learning through an exhibition (project, presentation, product, or performance. The learning cycle includes multiple opportunities for students to seek out feedback from the teacher or other learners, reflect on that feedback and refine their exhibition of learning before they present it publicly. In this model, students have agency over how they learn (the process of choosing real world sources and experiences to enhance their learning) and how they present or exhibit their learning. The cycle of learning, feedback, reflection, and refinement helps students develop a growth mindset and teaches them how to become adaptive life-long learners.
Prioritize Content to Allow for Student-Centered Pacing: In the traditional learning model, learning focuses on mastering a set of prescribed standards, often in a sequential order. As mentioned above, the learning is structured in such a way that the entire class moves on together, which often leaves students with varying levels of mastery. In a student-centered model, students spend as much time as they need to fully master the standards. Pacing for learning becomes a finish line instead of a deadline when all students are allowed to work and learn at their own pace. The practice of prioritizing and grouping standards together lends itself to project-based learning and allows students to work towards mastery of more than one standard at a time.
Design Learning Experiences That Allow for Student Voice and Choice: Students in a traditional classroom have little voice in determining how and what they will learn, and limited choices in how they will demonstrate mastery of their learning. When students have opportunities to participate in decisions around what and how they will learn, they become more engaged and deeply invested in their learning.
Rethink How We Group Students: In traditional classrooms, students are grouped by subject, by age, by prior knowledge, and by ability. They may also be grouped by other factors such as class sizes, facilities space, and transportation needs. A student-centered learning environment should group students by interest and factors that are relevant to the student.
Make Learning Authentic through Mastery Grading and Student Reflections: Rather than the traditional practice of scoring student work on a points scale and keeping a running tally that then becomes their grade for the course, mastery grading offers a more student-centered approach to assessing students’ competencies. When students are assessed in a mastery grading system, the expectation is that each and every student will demonstrate mastery. Making student reflections a part of our assessment practice is an authentic way to help students understand how they learn and develop their strengths.
The Change We Want to See
To build a vibrant and sustainable future society, it is imperative that we build an education system that will grow students who are able to identify problems and innovate to solve them,
build community, have compassion and empathy towards others, advocate for themselves, and promote a democratic society. These traits are capacities that aren’t explicitly taught and not readily assessed in the traditional teacher-centered learning model. In order to help our students develop these vital capacities, we must shift our practice to a student-centered learning model.
It’s been a long and difficult year of NTI. Now that there is finally an end in sight and we’re looking forward to a projected return to in-person learning, it’s important for us to look back at this experience, evaluate our successes and failures, and see what is worthy of carrying forward into the future. Here are some of my thoughts as a high school teacher looking back over the past ten months of distance learning.
Pandemic Learning and NTI took the focus off of achievement culture and placed it on the well-being and growth of our children.
The difficulties were many and the stress levels were high for us all, but NTI has helped many of us educators focus on the essentials and has put teaching the standards versus pursuing the growth and well-being of our students into perspective. As a high school teacher and as the parent of a high schooler, I watched early on as students became overwhelmed with their work while their teachers struggled to adjust to the realization that they wouldn’t be able to teach NTI the same way they did in-person. Gradually teachers began to find the sweet spot that exists between too many assignments and not enough. We slowed down and we learned to “unpack our standards” in a way that we hadn’t ever done before, prioritizing what’s most essential and finding new and creative ways to make it relevant, accessible, and engaging for our students. For many, that meant focusing on some things and letting other things go, but thanks to the grace of the Department of Education in providing relief from school accountability last year, that was okay. It gave us the space to focus on our students and their well-being.
Pandemic learning taught us how we should be supporting students.
For many of us, NTI confirmed what we already knew about our students: Many of them live in very challenging situations and require multiple levels of support in order just to survive, let alone to grow or thrive. Some of them are fortunate enough to have parents who are able to support them and ensure that they follow through on their learning, but others do not. Finding ways to help those who need help has been frustrating and challenging for all of us, and sadly we haven’t always been able to reach the ones who need us the most. Nevertheless, NTI has demonstrated that schools have the capacity to develop deep support networks that we had never imagined before. We’ve delivered food and supplies, we’ve clothed children, we’ve helped housing insecure families find shelter, we’ve connected families with medical resources, and we’ve provided grief support and emotional support when nothing else could protect our students from the effects of sickness and violence. Schools found ways to reprioritize and reallocate their staff to make sure that every child in need had the attention of several adults beyond their classroom teachers. If it takes a village to raise a child, we learned that every member of our staff has a role to play in reaching and supporting that child.
We teach students, not standards.
So how should we carry what we’ve learned forward into post-NTI learning? For the past ten months, we’ve had an up-close window into the struggles that our students face in their daily lives. For some students we’ve had to try to help them overcome deep needs at home, for others we’ve had to help them conquer apathy, and for some we’ve had the opportunity to help them use this time and space to develop their own talents and passions. For every one we’ve seen what it’s like to prioritize their well-being over their academic successes and failures. Throughout this pandemic, students and educators alike have grown in grit, in resilience, and in compassion for one another. We’ve learned to develop community and to find our place in it, that we have a responsibility to care for and lift up each other, and that we are in fact our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers. When we return to in-person learning, it is important for us to continue prioritizing compassion and relationships with our students and their families over
“covering the standards.” Students need us to nurture them as whole human beings with social-emotional needs that are at least as important as the content knowledge that we are tasked with teaching them. As teachers, nurturing students, caring for them, and helping them thrive is our passion. Sure content standards are an important tool to help them prepare for life after P-12 education, but they are only a small part of helping students grow into healthy and self-actualized adults. We want to make a lasting difference in their lives.
If we are truly going to help our students grow and thrive going forward, we need support and agency to help us prioritize finding ways to continue meeting students’ physical and social-emotional needs, building relationships with them, and finding new ways to inspire and engage them. The revenue increase passed by the JCPS Board of Education last spring offers new opportunities to invest in our students. Let’s keep giving our students the support and learning experience that they deserve. To learn more about the schools our students deserve, read A Better Way Forward for JCPS.
For the foreseeable future, school will be different. Online learning and partial reopenings pose challenges that demand our immediate attention, especially in regards to equity. Yet such challenges also bring into sharp relief a school system that already needed transformation. So, with one eye on the present, we must have the other on the future. We have a moment now where we can intentionally plan for a different approach to school, one that is more deeply dedicated to equity and justice.
For almost two years, Racial Equity has been one of the Three Pillars for Jefferson County Public Schools. It is a bold and important move resulting in a district-wide Racial Equity Plan as well as a unique Racial Equity Plan (REP) developed by each school. REPs have the potential to lay out ideas and actions to dismantle the systemic and individual racism we know exists in our schools.
Yet after looking over the REPs for our comprehensive high schools, I can’t help feeling underwhelmed and discouraged. Of course, the REPs vary greatly: some are sparse and narrowly focused. Others sprawl with Pollak-esq splatterings of edu-jargon. Some seem filled out with dutiful compliance; some feel like a school taking a risk to try something new; some read like a regurgitation of things already in place.
If they have one thing in common it is this: they simply aren’t enough. They speak neither with the enormity nor urgency that is needed. REPs also overlap a great deal in the Areas of Focus and the Solutions that they identify. These commonalities show high school REPs striving with good intention, yet in ways that are insufficient, and sometimes problematic, for addressing the racist structures that are deeply embedded in our schools.
Common Areas of Focus
Many REPs target disparities in behavior data, particularly suspensions. At a district level, Black students make up about 66% of suspensions but only about 30% of the population. Such disparity not only affects the students who are suspended, but also the students who see the disproportionate punishment of students who look like them. Without a doubt, suspension disparities must be addressed.
Yet, consider two facts together: 1) REPs do not include suspension disparities as one in a long list of focus areas — REPs that focus on suspensions typically only identify one other area of focus, if that; and 2) the vast majority of Black students are never suspended. So while addressing suspension disparities is essential work, that work does not directly impact the majority of Black students. The potential reach of the REP severely limited when suspension reduction is its primary, or only, work.
Moreover, when disparities are defined by a single number (i.e. suspension rate), there is a tendency to focus on manipulating the indicator without addressing the real issues. Adequately addressing suspension disparities requires a much larger interrogation, not just of the behavioral systems at the school and district level, but also of our curriculum and how we define the primary purpose and fundamental structures of school. Yet, recent reports provide evidence that current behavior efforts may be more about gaming a statistic than about truly transformative work to support Black students.
Perhaps more concerning, the focus on improving test scores in many REPs reinforces rather than deconstructs racist concepts of teaching and learning. Educators have almost universally and persistently questioned the value of test scores. What does it say about our plans to support Black students if they are centered around something we actually value very little? More critically, Ibram X. Kendi writes in Why the Achievement Gap is a Racist Idea,
“The testing movement does not value multiculturalism. The testing movement does not value the antiracist equality of difference. The testing movement values the racist hierarchy of difference, and its bastard 100-year-old child: the academic achievement gap.“
Test scores aren’t just a product of a racist system, they are a producer of it. An anti-racist approach would end the use of test scores as a means to sort, rank, and label students rather than attempting to refine a tool that has been used for racist ends since its inception. Some colleges and universities are already making this move — more than 700 have decided not to require ACT or SAT scores, including recently the University of California.
At best, REPs that focus on improving test scores seek to improve skills that are relatively meaningless while perpetuating the White mirage of meritocracy. At worst, they strengthen a racist system that deinfrancheises students and distorts our view of them and of what school could be.
More positively, many REPs focus on improving a ‘sense of belonging’. This goal is more universal than suspension disparities and further away from the racist ideologies of testing. But, of course, belonging should also only be the start. REPs could go further in naming the need for Black students to also feel a sense of ownership and leadership. Additionally, especially for addressing a factor that can feel abstract like ‘sense of belonging’, REPs need systemically oriented, concrete, and revolutionary solutions.
Many Racial Equity Plans rely heavily on a strategy of Professional Development. Plans run the spectrum from specifying only three hours of training to stating that within a single year staff will be trained on all of the following: Culturally Responsive Pedagogy, Implicit Bias, Social Emotional Learning, Trauma Informed Care, and continued implementation of PBIS. Ironically, both ends of the spectrum paint an all too familiar picture of Professional Learning as a one-time delivery of information rather than an on-going process of transformation — deep, personal, and time-consuming work.
Certainly, personal and collective growth must be at the heart of equity efforts. But, Professional Learning as a solution to racial inequity can feel like the inaction Tre Johnson writes about in “When black people are in pain, white people just join book clubs”. Training and Professional Development are most often passive and easily ignored by many. How many colleagues would tune out such PD because they do not believe themselves to be racist? So while transformative professional growth is an essential step, REPs do not explicitly frame the work in this way.
From the systemic perspective, many plans defer work to the Professional Learning Communities. If PLCs are the hub of planning and collaboration, then they must be engaged in equity work. But, that work must be more than an additional check-box on a lengthy minutes form. Without more information, it is difficult to know if schools are asking PLCs to make equity the central focus of their work or it is merely a short appendix to an already written book.
In many ways, much of the predominant PLC system remains rooted in the racist conception of the achievement gap. It has become a highly-prescribed and narrow way of thinking about teaching and learning. Again, consider questions from Dr. Kendi’s essay, “What if, all along, our well-meaning efforts at closing the achievement gap has been opening the door to racist ideas?…What if our educational system focused on opening minds instead of filling minds and testing how full they are?”
If PLCs are truly driving anti-racist work, they must be able to interrogate the PLC system itself — to ask whether it orients teachers more towards opening minds or towards filling and testing them, to ask whether it values difference. PLC systems tend to focus on funneling students towards a standard outcome with external, predetermined indicators of success. In contrast, researcher Yong Zhao has long advised that we “start with the individual child, instead of what others think [that child] should become.” For PLCs to be part of anti-racist work, they must be allowed (and even encouraged) to develop truly student-centered and personalized approaches instead of ones more adherent to standardization and testing.
Regrettably, REP strategies also reinforce racist conceptions of the achievement gap through the creation of academic intervention courses and the use of data (usually test scores) to adjust how students are assigned to tracked courses. The practice of tracking most certainly rests on the ‘racist hierarchy of difference’ and has been referred to as ‘modern day segregation’. Tinkering with the gatekeepers still leaves intact a system fundamentally built on inequity.
Intervention efforts stem from such well-intended desires to help. Yet, especially at the secondary level, intervention is still primarily founded in the racist conception of the achievement gap. Intervention asks us to notice first perceived deficits rather than to protrize developing the strengths and passions of our students. Moreover, at the secondary level interventions tend to focus not on deep, conceptual development, but rather ephemeral drill and repetition of skills.
Intervention time often comes at the sacrifice of electives or other student interests. Intervention can come with stigma and feed negative self-identity. Certainly, we need to support students, and some type of intervention may be a part of that. But, REPs have not grappled with the racist and transactional underpinnings of the dominant understanding of intervention that has been casually adopted by most high schools in recent years.
Interventions also often represent an ‘auxiliary’ approach to equity. Intervention often positions the needs of students, and thus the students themselves, as external to the core structure of class. Rather than significantly challenging the structure of course or approach to school, intervention preserves a system that values inequity and discourages difference. It still prioritizes the students for whom those systems were built.
Similarly, some REPs also establish electives, clubs, and mentor groups. To be clear, schools need clubs, electives, and mentor groups, especially those designed for and by Black students. They can be valuable resources to the students who can access them, but they still constitute an auxiliary approach to equity. Acknowledging race on the perfieray does not necessarily challenge the racists constructs of the larger system, nor does it engage the whole school in anti-racist work. Such ‘auxiliary’ approaches typify the tension between necessary yet insufficient ideas seen in REPs.
One of the only whole school strategies found in high school REPs is the use of Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS). PBIS can be difficult to discuss as implementation can vary widely. Positively, PBIS can increase clarity and reduce discretionary punishment that is more often directed at Black students. Some schools also use PBIS to detect and address systemic issues. Yet, such benefits do not outweigh the consequences of adopting the ideology of PBIS, especially when those benefits can be gained by other means.
Systems like PBIS are built on outdated, behaviorist thinking that is anthetical to anti-racist values. Researchers like Alfie Kohn have implied that such programs are akin to treating students like lab rats, manipulating and coercing behavior through rewards and punishment. Such approaches are built on faulty assumptions about how humans work (for more read Daniel Pink’s Drive or Alfie Kohn’s Punished by Rewards), and so tend to treat students as less than human. Moreover, the ‘ideal’ behavior sought in PBIS programs can be heavily culturally biased. On the whole, such programs are neither humanizing nor liberatory.
Alternatively, Restorative Justice approaches tend to be founded on a completely different view of people and behavior. They value humanity, difference, and reconciliation over mechnicization, sameness, and compliance. Unfortunately, only three of the high school REPs included Restorative Justice as a strategy.
The tension between the necessity of the work and its insufficient, or problematic, conception in current REPs points to our need for deeper praxis — the on-going dialogue between action and theory. The current set of high school REPs layout a set of actions that develop an ideological approach racial equity. The assumptions and beliefs of that theory must be examined to inform future action. Some of those conceptual critiques are outlined above, but there are other, broader concerns.
For instance, on the whole, high school REPs take a deficit perspective toward racial inequity — they treat Black students as a problem to be solved. They ask why Black students aren’t meeting certain indicators, neglecting to interrogate whether the indicators themselves are founded in racist thought.
Alternatively, an asset based approach to REPs would focus more on identifying and developing gifts and talents, finding areas of genius and success (even if they are outside the school walls) and bringing them into the classroom. Such REPs would be framed in terms of how our systems prevent and discourage students, specifically BIPOC students, from expressing their natural brilliance (instead of being framed as how the students aren’t succeeding in the system). A solely deficit-based lens can severely warp our individual psychology and our systemic approach to anti-racist work. It can lead to paternalism, White Savoir-ism, and the reinforcing of racist systems.
Paradoxically, the plans also feel devoid of race. Their framing of disparities in behavior and testing data could easily apply to any group with disparities. In many REPs, race could be replaced by gender, socio-economic status, or language learner status without necessitating other changes in the plan. In other words, REPs have not thought specifically and critically about race.
One risk in writing this is that it is read too sharply. As insufficient as I find our REPs to be, I’m also intensely proud of our district for taking this first step. We have put pen to paper. Now we have time for the red ink and big exs and exclamation points. We’ll revise and rewrite, and then again and again. The work is never finished.
It also must be acknowledged that a REP does not represent the totality of anti-racist work done at school. Individuals and groups of educators surely go well beyond the work specified in REPs. And, REPs should not be required to document the totality of this work lest they become burdensome, bureaucratic documents that actually discourage the work. We cannot allow REPs to become merely an act of compliance (though some already appear to be).
Rewriting REPs are as much a part of the work as executing the plan. We cannot just assess our progress in implementing the current REPs, we must continually interrogate the goals and paths they define, digging deeper each time. If we do not take the time now to re-invigorate them with ideas that are truly revolutionary and transformative, we will continue down a path that is already well-worn with ideas that ultimately hurt our students, especially our BIPOC students. They deserve a better way, and I am confident we can help make it.
“If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches, there’s no progress. If you pull it all the way out that’s not progress. Progress is healing the wound that the blow made”. Malcolm X said this over 50 years ago. We shouldn’t still need to reference this quote today. It’s supposed to be different. We’re supposed to have progressed so much more than this. But here we are.
If you’re like me, you’re mad as hell for reasons that are hard to untangle. And if you’re not, you should be. If you’re like me, you aren’t able to stand next to your friends and family in the protests. Maybe you’re 5 months pregnant and a little protective of your abnormally large midsection. Maybe you’re immuno-compromised. Maybe you don’t have transportation. Maybe you don’t have childcare. Whatever the reason, there are ways we can catalyze progress without physically protesting.
It kills me that I can’t stand next to my colleagues and shout, and demand change. And it’s made me think differently, and probably more deeply, about what I see around me. It’s made me wonder what kind of world this will be for my child if things don’t change, and fast. Maybe more importantly, it made me shudder to think how black mothers and fathers must feel. It’s made me want to fight even harder. So I have been thinking about what those of us who can’t join the movement downtown can do to help. We can still be allies.
I am not black. I won’t even feign understanding at what the black experience has been before this, or what it is now, or what it will be after. But I can seek to understand. I can ask honest, genuine questions, and then shut my mouth and listen. White people need to do a better job shutting up and listening to black people. If you show more outrage about broken windows than broken bodies, then you aren’t listening.
Let’s be honest white friends-many of us have chosen to be blind. This blindness means we have gaps in our understanding. Do your civic duty. Learn about our elected decision-makers. If they don’t stand against the injustices we’re seeing in the justice system, education, housing, etc., they have to go. Full stop. Look up their voting history. Read their websites. Connect with civic organizations who gather that information (e.g., Kentuckians for the Commonwealth). Knowledge is your best weapon when we go to battle in the election booth.
We can’t seek to understand what we don’t know. We can’t seek change if we don’t see the problem. And let’s be honest white friends-many of us have chosen to be blind. It’s time to learn about the experiences of our black brothers and sisters. These sites and organizations are good places to start.
Silence is complicity. We MUST vote out the elected decision makers who make the problem worse by ignoring or minimizing. We MUST vote out the elected decision-makers who are silent and complicit. After you do your research on the candidates who WILL fight against racial injustice, give them your time. They literally can’t win elections without you. Volunteer your time to stuff envelopes with campaign material, make phone calls to voters, or if and when we can resume normal in-person activities, volunteer to knock on doors.
There are ways to donate time outside of elections too. Writing blogs (like this one) to share perspective and resources, or volunteering with civic organizations focused on community building are great places to start. Here are some starting points.
If you’ve got the means, choose candidates that will fight tooth and nail against racial injustice, and fuel their campaigns to help them get elected. Give them your money. Your donations are particularly powerful for local elections.
You can help correct the injustices waged against the black community by helping to build it. Patronize black owned businesses. This takes intentionality, research, and planning. Here are some great businesses to get you started.
Similarly, celebrate the black story. There isn’t enough black history in schools. We’re doing better, but we have far to go. Black history month isn’t enough. One class in African American history isn’t enough-especially when histories are presented through the eyes of the oppressor. Donate to places that are celebrating black stories and the black experience. Many are non-profits, and live on donations. Here are some good ones.
WIELD YOUR PEN AND YOUR SWORD: AT THE VOTING BOOTH
I saved this one for last on purpose. Long-lasting, systemic, sweeping change happens in legislation and in the courts.
Call/text/email your representatives! If you are reading this, you have the time and money to contact your elected representatives (it’s free). Put them on speed dial. Ask your networks to call them too. Show them you are paying attention and are holding them accountable for their decisions.
You can contact your state legislators at 1-800-372-7181. You don’t even need to know who your representative is (though you should). Apps make it even easier. Countable lets you contact representatives with the click of a button.Make sure you and everyone you know are registered to vote. You can do that here. Get your absentee ballot-TODAY. Voting in the primaries will help ensure you know the process for the big one-in November. We must VOTE OUT every single person who is not unapologetically speaking out against the injustices we are witnessing all over the country that harm people of color. I know it’s hard to trust a system that has left so many behind for decades. If we unite, we can change things. It has happened before. It can happen again. Outrage is not enough. Protests are not enough. Your tweets are not enough. We must activate all of the levers of democracy to see change happen. No matter your schedule or monetary means, there are ways you can contribute. Together we are strong. And we can do it.
As we show solidarity with our students, educators, and other people of color, wearing black is just a visible sign that we stand together. While this visible show can make us feel like we are doing something, it is important to put action behind the sentiment. Donating to causes and learning about racial equity in America are important aspects of being an ally.
Below are links for donations and petitions:
The Louisville Community Bail Fund exists to not only bail out folks, but provide post-release support to get them from jail, fed, and to a situation of safety.
[Additional donation links could be added as they become available]
In addition to donating, here are books to read. Dealing with our own implicit biases is hard, but important as we work together to create a reality where our students can live and thrive without fear, inequity, and bigotry.
As an act of solidarity with our students, fellow educators, and people of color, we are asking educators to wear black on Thursday, June 4th. When you wear black on Thursday, post on social media with the hashtags #BreonnaTaylor #GeorgeFloyd #DavidMcAtee #EducatorBlackOut.
The JCTA Public Statement regarding the protests:
The Jefferson County Teachers Association stands in solidarity with people of color and those in our community, and across the nation, who are peacefully protesting in support of justice for the families of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and other people of color who have lost their lives at the hands of those who should be protecting them from harm.
JCTA adds its voice to the call for immediate concrete steps to address structural and institutional racism in our communities, including our law enforcement agencies, our systems of education, neighborhood resources, economic opportunities, and our legal system.
JCTA affirms its belief in the democratic rights of citizens to organize and demonstrate for change and condemns the use of violence on all sides during such demonstrations.
As educators, we know that students cannot learn if they live in a constant state of fear for themselves, their family members, and their friends and neighbors, and we understand that our belief that every student can learn is undermined when young people are forced to live with fear, inequity, and bigotry.
The Jefferson County Public School system is a wholly unique institution in the state of Kentucky. We are without comparison. At nearly 100,000 students, we dwarf our closest peer district by almost 60,000 children. With over 150 schools in operation, we double our sister district, Fayette County Public Schools. While we have more buildings, more children, and a much larger overall staff, there is one area where Fayette County Public Schools exceeds us; property taxes.
As Americans, we are slightly programmed to balk at the mention of taxes and increasing them. Our rebellious founding leaves a distaste for taxes for many of us. The reality is that taxes are a necessity to provide government services that are basic rights. Looking at other districts, it is clear that JCPS is behind the curve when it comes to levying property taxes.
Compared to the districts closest to us and closest to our size, JCPS is not following the trend of our fellow districts. In fact, the second highest property taxes is by our closest neighbor, Anchorage, a district carved out of the middle of our own. While people who oppose the tax increase will make noise that they can just move to Oldham County, the taxes there are even higher than Jefferson County.
Aside from comparing ourselves to other districts’ property taxes, we have to look at some stark realities. Our district is in dire need of renovations. Over thirty of our buildings will reach end of life over the next decade. We don’t know exactly when it will be and it could be overnight as the condemning of Ballard’s football facility was during the 2019 football season. Except next time, it might be the actual school building. While Ballard was able to play their games on other fields, where would we house students if their building suddenly fails? What if more than one goes at once? We also need more buildings. While opponents often remark on the need to end bussing to save money, the reality is that the buildings to house students in the West End do not exist. If we suddenly stopped bussing students west to east in Jefferson County, there would not be seats in the West End to accommodate them. Further, the buildings that exist also need renovations. It’s short-sighted and inequitable to just demand that students from the West End no longer be allowed to attend schools outside of their zip code. We are a district of choice. Our students and families have the choice to choose the school that fits their needs and that also includes bussing students from the East End to magnet programs that fit their needs.
In addition to all of these needs, over 60% of our students qualify for free/reduced lunch. We have over five thousand students who are homeless. Those are just the ones we know about. Our English as a Second Language and English Language Learner population is over ten thousand students and growing. With the societal issues brought to light while dealing with COVID-19, we know our students need smaller classes and more technology now more than ever. We don’t know what the return to school will look like, but we know that there is no way to social distance with the current high school classroom cap size of 31 students per class.
Are there ways our district can save money? Absolutely. And we are working on those. The truth is that we cannot continue to squeeze blood from a turnip and expect to give our students what they deserve. Our students deserve the best our city has to offer them and that means paying slightly more in property taxes. The proposed increase would amount to $70 total for a year on a home that costs $100,000. Isn’t that amount worth it to help children? Isn’t that an amount where you can look at a child and say “you are worth the investment.” We are not asking for an insurmountable amount. We are just asking for an investment in the future of our children and our city.
The conversation about how we return to school has already started and a common refrain is growing: we will not go back to what was. Yet, if we are not intentional, the conversation itself will lead us back to the current way of doing things. In The Politics of the English Language George Orwell cautioned, “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” The phrases and metaphors frequently used to talk about schools may build something new, but not something fundamentally different.
In particular, conversations about “learning loss” and “falling behind” have appeared in a spate of recent pieces in major media outlets. Such language emerges from a foundation that says the primary function of school is the accumulation of knowledge. Paulo Freire referred to this as the Banking Model of education – teachers deposit facts and skills into passive students who are then judged on the balance of their accounts. The langue informs a response: monitoring and filling knowledge accounts of students. The language provokes a sense of emergency and need to preserve the current order. Many articles even include the (perhaps intentionally) fear-inducing term ‘covid slide’. 1
The Banking model shapes our language. That language shapes how we think and thus act. Continuing Orwell, “….by simply throwing your mind open and letting the ready-made phrases come crowding in. They will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself. “
The language of the Banking Model has so saturated our conversation that we accept the nonsensical as logical. We talk about how many months or years students will be behind not as a direct measure of time missed, but as an odd and abstract measure of learning. There is no concrete meaning of ‘three months of math’.
Learning is not measured in units of time. Learning happens spurts and sputters, regressions and false starts, leaps and skipped steps. The process of becoming a passionate and competent reader is not a clearly delineated 13-year progression. But, that is the framework that fits on the Banking foundation. It requires support and veneer of equating learning only with test scores.
When we talk about “falling behind”, the language is immediately there – we must “catch up”. The conversation begins to fill-in. The vocabulary inevitably narrows to reading and math, and what testing is needed, and how time will be made (certainly at the sacrifice to other subjects). There will likely be excitement and creative ideas, just as with a new coat of paint or rearranged room. The Banking foundation of deliver-test-repeat still sits solidly underneath.
Such remodeling is not new to education. Innovative ways are constantly found to make the Banking process both enjoyable for students and justified through ‘rigor’. New methods of assessment, remediation, scaffolding, etc… promise to make students’ accounts meet a minimum threshold (or at least appear to). These artifices give the illusion that education has moved beyond the rows of desk and recitation of facts. But, they still sit squarely on a foundation that says school is primarily about the accumulation of academic facts and skills.
By rebuilding and repairing on the current foundation, we will never end up with a fundamentally different type of school. Which means we have to start by giving up our current language for talking about school. Orwell writes:
Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
What if we had the conversation about what happens next but couldn’t talk about classes? Or grading? Or Standards? Some may find that radical, but this conversation is already happening. Yong Zhao recently wrote that the current crisis is a chance to let go of our current structures of scheduling and time, strictly delineated subjects, and age-based grouping. Even before the current crisis, Education Reimagined published a 13-page vision for a Learner-Centric education that calls for competency-based approaches, contextualized and personalized learning, as well as learning that is socially embedded and open-walled.
In fact, the conversation is fairly old. In the early 20th Century, Maria Montessori was advancing ideas like mixed-age classroom and learner-centered pedagogies. Around the same time, John Dewey advanced the idea of learning as a primarily social process and encouraged an active and experiential learning through integrated disciplines rooted in the child’s interest. In In Search of Deeper Learning (2019) Jal Mehta and Sarah Fine wrote about the power of the apprentice model of learning that has long existed in the workshops and the arts. The foundation we are looking for is not new. Yet these ideas have only flickered on margins of the school system.
The Banking Model persists because of its use to those who already have power and position in society. It is much easier to succeed in a system that rewards the accumulation of knowledge when that knowledge is culturally selected and coded to match your identity and experiences, when your time in school or ability to be present in school has not been impacted by trauma or significant life changes, and when your interest and talent align with the external goals and measures. The Banking Model benefits a select few, and gives the illusion of a fair chance for all.
The current crisis only brings to stark relief for everyone the inequities inherently produced by a Banking foundation. So, we are seeing moments of relief, like states and colleges providing exemptions from standardized testing requirements. There is now some empty space, but doesn’t mean we have changed our plans for it. Many of the pieces concerned about “learning loss” cite a report by NWEA, the organization that also produces and sells MAP testing to schools. If that space continues to be filled with the language of ‘learning loss’, we will likely see a push for more forms of testing to diagnose and help our kids ‘catch up’.
But, what will matter most when we return will be not be assessing what facts and skills students still know. What matters most will be knowing our kids. They will have been through trauma, some much more than others. They will have new questions about how the world works. They will have new fears. They will have developed new passions and talents. Long term school closure certainly hurts students. How we talk about that informs whether we will make the foundational changes that will really help them.
Our current language hinders a discussion that could create schools that are truly student centered. Schools that are primarily about students becoming themselves, where learning experiences derive from the questions and passions of the students. Schools that honor the natural, irregular pace of growth. Schools whose central form and function are to cultivate a sense of well-being, independence, community, empowerment, and agency.
There are few examples to point to of schools truly built on new ground. In conversation especially it’s difficult, if not impossible, to point to a universally recognized model and say, “let’s build that.” The most accessible first step is to change how we talk, to remove the language that constrains our thought to current ideas. Quite literally: before a meeting make a list of words and phrases that describe school as is. Then, plan, talk, and dream without using them (or finding loophole synonyms). It will require creativity and wrestling and failing. It is a conversation that also can’t happen just between educators.
Students must be partners in this conversation. This means going beyond the token student committee member or student advisory group. We must structure schools to have space to become what students want and need. Students must be given more agency over what they learn. That starts with students not being the topic of or providing input to a conversation, but students being equal participants and collaborators in the conversation about schools.
Some students (and educators alike), especially those advantaged by the Banking Model, will have trouble imagining what a new type of school looks like. Many will fear falling behind. They too have been steeped in the language and metaphor of the Banking Model. Just as we let go of our own attachment to the language of current foundation, we must also help them how to do the same. If we can, we will be amazed at the schools we can create with them.
1 The ‘covid slide’ narrative is similar to, and even based on, the “summer slide”. The summer slide narrative also reduces learning to be solely about test scores. It has been criticized on conceptual grounds. But even within a testing framework, current findings cast doubt on the methods and conclusions of popular understanding of summer learning loss. Other work has even found gains in certain domains over the summer. Ultimately, the summer slide provides another example of how the language of the Banking Modeling shapes our thinking and thus our practice with schools.