Jan 222017

Women’s March in Philadelphia!

A photo posted by MB (@mbteach) on

After spending all morning at the Women’s March on the Benjamin Franklin Parkway with two toddlers, my friends and I decided to grab some lunch on our way home. While sitting and enjoying some much needed food, we spent some time time reflecting on the day. At one point, the topic of safe spaces surfaced, and I recalled my experience in college with a roommate (maybe she will read this post–it would be great if she does) who moved out of our house senior year.

My roommate, an African American woman, had, I believe, been having a powerful experience that year exploring her identity with her Black peers. At the time, she was living in our house with all white women, and, I believe, it became harder and harder for her to live in the house. At the time, when she moved out, I don’t think I really took the opportunity to discuss it deeply with her, and I regret this deeply. I know that my hair, which I had let turn into dreadlocks after the braids my Senegalese adoptive family put in my hair during my semester abroad began to fall out, offended her. Another one of our roommates cut her dreads off because of the situation.

I remember being shocked and being hurt that I had somehow unknowingly offended her. I wished that she had explained things more, and I felt that I really wasn’t trying to offend anyone and I couldn’t understand what I had done wrong. At the time I think I almost felt like I had become a victim of her journey into self-realization. I now know how small my thinking was and I have a newly found respect for my roommate, who did not stay silent and made a change for herself. I didn’t at the time, realize that, by no fault of my own, I had privilege; that I had a membership card to a part of society that not everyone has access to.

This was 2001/2002 (I can’t remember the year, but it was post-9/11 and pre-graduation) and Oberlin College, my alma mater had been at the forefront of safe spaces and social justice for a long time. We had non-gendered bathrooms for trans students, a college-sponsored Drag Ball, a Kosher Co-op, Afrikan Heritage House, Asia House, Baldwin Collective for female and trans students, as well as a number of other houses centered around various heritages. There were times, honestly, when I was intimidated by some of these communities. I felt that something powerful was going on there and that I was not a part of it and, honestly, I didn’t always feel welcome. I was never upset or offended, I just felt like an “other” and kept to the perimeter. This was, of course, my own psychological wall, but I can remember feeling it from time to time.

Fast forward to lunch in 2017 and I find myself telling the story of my roommate and how safe spaces can sometimes feel exclusionary and cause people to recede to their spaces and mistrust or avoid others.

As I reflected tonight on this thought and the perception that I had, I think I may have “woke” a bit to my own shortcomings.

Exhibit A: It was not my roommate’s job to explain herself to me. It was my job to find out what was going on. Of course, now I have a better understanding of the importance of hair to Black women and the frustration with white women with dreadlocks who wear them because it is trendy without understanding the battle that black women fight over such a simple thing as hair.

Exhibit B: That feeling of “other” that I had, that exclusivity of communities centered around a culture that was not my own, well, I got a taste of what it was like to be anyone marginalized by society. It was my loss that I rarely went outside of my comfort zone to learn more aside from a few conversations or attending an event.

Exhibit C: I had my own “safe space” in the co-op I lived in. I’m sure, to many, my space was intimidating and unwelcoming.

Still, however, I am grappling with this idea of safe spaces.

First of all, the need for them suggests that the larger society is not a safe place to be.

Second, they serve an important role, but we cannot hide in them.

Third, how can we create spaces that are safe and open to everyone? It feels like that is getting harder and harder to do.

So now what? What do I do now that I have reflected on my own shortcomings and their implications as well as the implications of my own experiences?

In this uncertain time for our country, here is what I can do:

  • Understand my privilege and use it to help others*
  • Model inclusivity and kindness
  • Support and give the best education I can to all of my students
  • Raise my son to be kind
  • Speak out when I witness injustice
  • Listen, even if I don’t agree
  • See others for how we are similar, instead of how we differ
  • Vote
  • Show up

I regret that it took me over 15 years to get to this point, but I hope that my story will help others reflect on their own experiences and think about them in new light. I also hope that we, as neighbors, friends, relatives, co-workers and co-inhabitants of this planet can find a way to create spaces where we all feel safe. How can we get to a place where it’s OK to disagree because it leads to a deeper understanding of each other, and, in the end, a deeper understanding of ourselves?

*I want to clarify the difference between understanding our privilege and “white guilt.” I do not feel guilty for being born who I am, but I understand the implications of being born who I am and the status that it gives me in society.

Jul 082016

tornadoAs I watched the video of the murder of Alton Sterling by police officers in Baton Rouge, LA and the video of the murder of Philando Castile  in Falcon Heights, MN and then watched videos of protests and then social media posts of the shooting of police from a rooftop at a Dallas protest, I got the tugging feeling that the world, as we know it, is slowly falling apart. These murders follow the bombings of multiple cities around the Muslim world, and the attack at a night club in Orlando. This doesn’t even take into account the continuing Syrian civil war, the absolute horror going on in Fallujah, Iraq, the fact that the UK just voted to leave the EU out of what appears to be some level of fear of immigrants and the refugee crisis in Europe, or the fact that we have, potentially, two of the most unpopular presidential candidates in recent history running against each other here in the US.

Sometimes it feels like sitting in the path of a tornado, watching as it tears apart everything its path.

This past school year, I had a brief conversation with two of my students, one who grew up just blocks away from me in Philadelphia, about money, success, police, drugs and the neighborhood. The conversation stemmed from a comment he made about making lots of money (it was partially a quote from a song he was singing) to which I made a comment about money not buying happiness. He told me that he would like to live comfortably and have the freedom to do whatever he wanted to do. I told him that he could still do that without needing a lot of money. However, afterwards, I thought about the idea of money not buying happiness, but buying freedom. I also wish that I had asked him how he would define freedom. Wouldn’t I love to be free from student loans, or a mortgage? Wouldn’t I love to be able to go anywhere and do anything I wanted without worrying how much it would cost? Maybe that’s not happiness, but it’s something.

I think of these two ideals–freedom and happiness–and I want them desperately for my students. I want them desperately for my own son. I want my students to have the freedom to live as adults in a world that does not fear them because of their skin color or hate them because of the person they choose to love or the gender with which they identify. I want my students to be free to be successful and happy, no matter what their name is or what religion they practice. I want my female students to be able to achieve greatness in whatever career field they pursue and for them to be able to have and raise a family without being penalized for it by their employer. I want my young black male students to have the freedom to hang out at the bus stop without being perceived as a “gang,” and for their mothers and fathers to be able to send them happily out into the world without the fear that they will never come home.

I can imagine that the world is a pretty scary place for young people today no matter where in the world they live, and I am hopeful that they can face this storm head on and stick together, work together, weather it together and rebuild from the devastation as a community. I am hopeful that the adults in their lives can guide them on that path. As I watch adults name call, yell, and retreat to their own corners on every issue that rears its head, I worry about that guidance. I am emotionally exhausted from reading social media posts, from trying to wrap my head around what is going on here. There is so much anger, so much fear. It feels as though everyone is shouting past each other. There is so much “other” in the posts and conversations I read. People talking at each other rather than talking with each other (unless of course, you agree with someone). I hope that young people can open their minds and hearts enough to at least listen to the other side.

So I guess my thoughts are strewn about, but I sit here watching the storm and wish that I could make some call to action, that I could yell loudly and be angry. And while I am angry, I’m also hopeful and despondent all at the same time, which is kind of paralyzing.

We need all kinds of voices right now. We need angry voices, we need protests, we need people calling their senators and signing petitions and working toward change in their neighborhoods, towns and cities. We also need bridge builders. We need quiet champions of change. We need to figure out how we will pick up these pieces when the storm finally passes, and we can’t do that alone or hiding in our silos or by yelling each other down. Our children are watching us closely, and our children are adding their voices to the choir. It’s our children’s future that is at stake here and we have the responsibility to guide them there. It’s a heavy load to bear, and I’m still figuring out how to carry it.

Jan 292012

As I settle down to sleep after a long day of conversation, reunions and inspiration at Educon, there is a recurring theme: Big Ideas. While sitting at dinner with friends, it was brought up that many teachers attend conferences to get practical information. They want the 5 tips or the handouts that they can then go back to their classroom and use.

We wondered: would the average teacher find value in Educon?

One of the things I love about the conversations that I had today is that I was able to step back and look at the big picture and discuss vision, mindset, and philosophy. Did these conversations move to more practical applications, sure? But mostly as illustrations of big ideas in practice.

In my morning session I had powerful discussions about valuing teacher time for collaboration, of democratic leadership and distributed leadership that helps build a positive and strong school culture.

In the mid-day session about self-guided professional development through social media we discussed the fact that many educators are not well versed in educational research for a variety of reasons. The presenters offered to help facilitate an action research project with educators all over the Internet. At a time when the teaching profession is often under attack, this was really exciting for me. As teachers, we should be looking at big ideas and applying them to our practice. In addition, we should be creating our own big ideas as we reflect on our practice. Thinking deeply about what we do and making that process transparent is a powerful way to show the public that we are intelligent, informed professionals.

At the end of the day was a passionate and inspiring conversation about what discipline looks like in a culture of caring. The question was asked: should our educational philosophy match our discipline practices? An important question and something I have always struggled with since there has always been a disconnect between my educational philosophy and the discipline policy of the school I work in.

Another recurring theme, especially during the lunch time Encienda session, was professional development. Teachers are obviously craving something new and different in their learning opportunities and the time is ripe for big changes in how teachers learn and the opportunities provided to them.

While I did not necessarily take any tools or processes away from today that I will use in my classroom on Monday, what I did take away was thoughtfulness about structures within schools, philosophies, value systems and attitudes that guide pedagogy.

Are we giving teachers the chance to engage in big ideas? What would happen if big ideas were a standard part of conversations in our schools?

The Purpose

 reflection, teaching  Comments Off on The Purpose
Dec 232008
A hole in the wall at school.

A hole in the wall at school.

So, I decided to start this blog after 4 long years of teaching in a school that is literally crumbling apart every day. From days when it was 60 degrees in my classroom, to days when my outlet falls out of the wall and I have to (no joke) tape it to the wall, to days when the radiator leaves a steaming puddle of water all over the hallway.

I am outraged and saddened by the way my school building has been neglected. Moreover, I am outraged and saddened by the fact that this neglect reflects a larger picture. My students are neglected.

How can a student take pride in his or her school and feel comfortable and proud to come to school everyday when he or she might as well go to school in a broken down factory from 1950? I remember Jonathan Kozol speaking to this effect (though I can’t remember if it was Savage Inequalities or Death at an Early Age). My students deserve better.

More on this later….