Even Educators Could Use Some Enlightenment Sometimes

10-30Despite the best of intentions, educators do not always understand where students and their families are coming from. I learned of this troubling lack of enlightenment and compassion among some educators at an education studies graduate school function in 2012. As I sat with other students at a meet-and-greet luncheon, we shared stories of how we each became interested in our graduate programs. During my turn, I related my experiences as an AmeriCorps volunteer in Washington, DC and how working with adult students with low academic skills had inspired me to make a career of education reform.

I noted the woefully weak math, reading, and critical thinking skills of most of my students. Indeed, many of them struggled to read aloud in class or recall their times tables. Few had the skills necessary to pass the GED test for which they were preparing. There was little doubt in my mind that a weak education played a significant role in their life struggles.

Much to my surprise, others at the table challenged me on that argument. One asserted, “I really think this stems from the breakdown of the family,” as if there is an ideal, monolithic family unit that ensures student success. (And it’s worth noting that someone at the table had just shared that she was a single mother.) On the subject of students not knowing their times tables, another asked rhetorically, “Why didn’t they teach themselves?” suggesting that a child, not her educators, is culpable if she does not learn. It seemed they felt there is one clear path toward academic success and that the path was open to all who were willing to work for it. My experience, however, has shown me that there are forces at work that make some students’ journeys much more trying than others.

Perhaps my colleagues would have seen things differently if they had worked in the same underserved communities that I had. Many of my students were single parents who had made it through part of high school and had still received a paltry education. Most of them carried emotional scars from years of bad experiences in the education system, often being told that they were lazy or stupid because they did not achieve. If they had received the quality education they deserved as children, they would not have been in my GED class as adults. Their obstacles to success were many, but all of these people were doing their best to make up for lost time.

My students worked hard to learn and grow both in the classroom and beyond. They were working to acquire or keep good jobs, but they also expressed the simple desire to be able to help their children and grandchildren with their homework. They did not want younger generations to struggle as well. In essence, these people were doing whatever they could to break the cycle of poverty for their families.

Educators do students and parents a grave disservice when they dismiss these efforts and the barriers that keep the poor from accessing a great education. Such attitudes blind us to our own privileges, our own faults, and the hardships of others. Just as importantly, we fail to see the good that people do for themselves and their families through education.

Scholars are pushed to examine the biases that influence their research, and institutional review boards meticulously oversee ethics when researchers study students and educators. But how often are we pushed to reflect on how our biases impact our words, actions, and attitudes in education? That self-reflection matters. Even an offhand comment can show just how far we need to go in better understanding the lives of the students and families we serve. We need to work as hard as our students do to move toward improving lives.

Friday 5: High-Tech, Low-Tech, and ‘Oregon Trail’ In-Between

Buzzfeed, the internet king of list-making, offers “15 Things We Did At School That Future Students Will Never Understand.” This is a serious trip down educational memory lane. I have to admit that I really do miss chalk, but I certainly don’t miss overhead projectors. I once accidentally obliterated one in the 6th grade. Don’t ask me. I don’t want to talk about it. However, I’m ALWAYS willing to talk about ‘Oregon Trail,’ Continue reading

What I’ve Learned from Growing My Own Food

potatoesAn old friend and I have a saying: “The world would be a much better place if everyone grew their own potatoes.” It’s a political nerd reference to Thomas Jefferson’s belief that those who are close to the land are close to God, and as an extension have a greater appreciation for the importance of our relationship with what the natural world has to offer. It’s a back-to-basics belief that Continue reading

“Improbable Scholars”: Urban Students Can Get a Great Public Education, Too


A nurturing culture is at the forefront of Union City’s success.

David L. Kirp’s 2013 book, Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America’s Schools, shows us that the average urban school system can be a great one–but that takes a lot of doing. Kirp offers a case study of Union City, NJ, a small but heavily urban district comprised largely of first- and second-generation immigrants from Latin America. While many urban school districts languish, Continue reading

Friday 5: Finland, Swim Class, Sod Schoolhouses

The one-room schoolhouse is the stuff of legend in modern-day North America, and in an era when 4,000-student high schools are not uncommon, it’s easy to forget that one-room schools still exist. In “Lessons to be Learned from a One-Room Schoolhouse” from CBS News, we hear about how in some towns across the country, education is still flourishing the old-fashioned way. Continue reading

The Capitol Dome and Its Two Cities

Capitol DomeFor a year after I graduated from college, I worked as an educator in the shadow of one of the weightiest symbols in the world, the embodiment of all of the ideals that make up the great ideological experiment that is America. The Capitol Dome feels omnipresent when one travels around Washington, DC, and the city planners have made sure of that Continue reading

25 Years After Tiananmen, We’re Still Learning


“Don’t be a vase.”

“In darkness dwells a people which knows its annals not.”

                               –Ulrich B Phillips

So much of what happened at Tiananmen Square in 1989 is still unknown to the Chinese people and the rest of the world as a result of the active information suppression and distortion by the Chinese government.

They don’t want their people to know of the atrocities that the government committed there, but they also don’t want their people to know about the 7 weeks of non-violent, student-led demonstrations that preceded the bloodshed. Continue reading

Identity Impacts Education, and Vice Versa

Education and IdentityThere’s a growing body of scholarship around how students’ social identities impact their educational experiences, but it’s so important to consider how education affects their identities as well. In fact, I think it’s entirely possible that identity and education interact with each other as a cycle, or even a series of them, in which identity and our experiences in education feed into each other in different and overlapping ways. For some students and teachers, that cycle plays out every day and in some unexpected (and challenging) ways. Continue reading

Gordie Howe and the Voyageurs Sparked My Love of History

Michigan MapI really liked school when I was a kid, but in 4th grade, I discovered that history was my first great love. It all started with my Michigan state history class, when I learned that my goofy-shaped home was a pretty great place to live.

The textbooks we used—some of the first that I had encountered in my young educational career—had worn-out brown covers and were Continue reading