Category Archives: Urban Education

Let’s Talk About Race

by Clare Berke May 20, 2014 10:00 AM

If you grew up in rural Nebraska in the 1990s, like I did, you would have experienced few productive opportunities to talk about skin color.  Nearly everyone in our town of 3500, including myself, was white.  Educational conversations about race were generally relegated to an elementary school unit on Martin Luther King, Jr., and a high school unit on the era of reconstruction following the Civil War.  There seemed to be a tacit belief that the Civil Rights Movement had passed and the country was generally better for it, but not a belief that race, culture and identity were contemporary topics to explore in school.  The 40th and 50th anniversaries of the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision to outlaw segregation in public schools passed me in 1994 and again in 2004 without leaving a lasting memory.

Last week marked the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.  Perhaps because I’m older, or perhaps because I live and teach in D.C., this is an anniversary year I won’t forget.  As First Lady Michelle Obama, DCPS Chancellor Kaya Henderson, and multiple news outlets have poignantly expressed, the nation needs to build on the steps taken in 1954 and continue forward on our quest for race-based equality and school integration.

At a high school graduation ceremony in Topeka, Kansas, on May 16, Obama recognized: “many young people in America are going to school largely with kids who look just like them.”   Henderson, in an email to DCPS staff, wrote that “many of [our] children remain segregated in high-poverty, struggling schools.”  ProPublica, an independent news organization, investigated Central High School in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, which had been forcibly integrated in the late 1970s and later released from court oversight of their desegregation compliance.  Today, Central High School is 99% black.

So how do we as teachers “work together to figure out a different way to solve this problem,” as Henderson asked? How do communities “‘break through’ barriers to talking honestly about race,” as Obama challenged her audience in Topeka?  I don’t have the answers, but I will proffer what has been an entry point for me: reading texts that beg discussion and reflection, texts from a diverse pool of writers, texts that challenge and stretch the mind.

This month, my AP Language students read a blog post by Junot Diaz, author of Drown and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao.  Diaz wrote about his MFA program at Cornell University in the 1990s, and how difficult it was for him and the other students of color to survive the “unbearable whiteness” of their writing workshop.  My students, emerging masters of identifying an author’s voice, purpose, and audience, correctly noted that Diaz’s informality, humor and raw honesty meant he was speaking to young writers like them, begging them to keep writing, imploring them to tell their stories.  Diaz writes:  “We need your work.  Desperately.”

Like Diaz, I want to encourage my students to write what they know.  All of my students have seen the author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Ted Talk about the “danger of a single story.”  She speaks about the stereotypes that form when people hear only one perspective, and she high-lights the depth of understanding and human connections that occur when multiple voices are brought together.

Who has power in society?  I ask my students.  Whose voices are heard the loudest?  What might we be missing because of what is NOT heard?  These aren’t just stock critical thinking questions; these are questions for a society that has slid backward in time.

Sixty years after Brown vs. the Board, we must revive the nationwide movement to ensure that a multitude of perspectives are brought together in our schools and in our larger communities. Teachers have a unique opportunity to heed the First Lady’s call to “ask the hard questions and have the honest conversations” about school integration, race, and our nation’s progress toward equality.

Why DCPS?

By Rabiah Harris May 7th, 2014 3:00 PM

“But why, Ms. Harris, why?” one student pleaded. I can still remember the day I told my chemistry students that I was preparing to leave Wilson High School to move to New Orleans.  It was a gut-wrenching day, as this was the first time since student teaching where I was leaving a group of students before they graduated high school. At the time, I couldn’t have imagined that five years later, I would return to DCPS as a middle school teacher. However, I couldn’t be more excited about my decision.

My reasons for coming back to DCPS this school year were clear, but I will note that it was not an easy decision. I was a leader and hard working teacher at a DC charter middle school, and I had developed great relationships with the families of students I taught. Yet, there were still some things I felt were missing. In spite of the year’s challenges, I am happy with my decision and still see it as an opportunity to grow.

As one of only three science teachers at my past school and five total in the charter network, I sought to be a part of a larger network of teachers who taught similar subject areas and grade levels to my own.  I have found that in DCPS.  From New Teacher Orientation to district-wide professional development, I thoroughly enjoy networking with other science teachers in the District. I was also recently picked to be a part of the STEM Master Teacher Corps, where I get to connect with other teachers in DCPS on a the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) alignment for the District.  All of these opportunities provide professional growth that is incomparable to what is available at a small school with a smaller network.

I receive specialized coaching around leadership development for my school’s science vertical teamThis resource, provided through a partnership with TeachPlus, enables me to receive weekly coaching personalized to my growth. For instance, I needed to get a group of teachers (including myself) aligned around the work of science and scientific inquiry.  At my school, science teachers were allowed to work in silos when it came to the day-to-day work and my coach assisted me with tools and techniques to work at bringing my team together on a common goal. While my former schools were whole-heartedly invested in my growth, they just didn’t have a large enough staff to make that a reality. I still have a long way to go before I feel like I am a phenomenal leader, but I am happy to continue working towards that goal. Through this experience, I know I have made more growth with the assistance of a coach than without.

Lastly, I am a product of public schools across the country (I lived in 7 places by the time I was 18). I wholeheartedly believe in neighborhood schools and that every school in the city should be great. I have returned to DCPS because I want to be a part of the growth of schools and the work of so many other talented educators.  I also want to do my part in making sure that every student gets great educators- and that those great educators help to ensure that students, regardless of whether they attend a neighborhood school, get a great education.

40/40 Led Me to 20/20

By Destinee Hodge May 5th, 2014 5:00 PM

Almost three years ago, I stepped through the doors of Kelly Miller Middle School having little idea what to expect. I had heard the good, the bad, and the ugly during my training about individual teacher’s experiences working in one of DC’s lowest 40 performing schools. Going into an environment with many underperforming students and wanting to see them succeed was a very daunting task. I remember wanting to approach my students and new school community with an optimistic yet realistic mentality. How could I have high expectations while not being naïve toward possible student behaviors and mindsets? It seemed like an impossible balance to strike. Whether or not I acknowledged it then, I had pre-conceived notions about how this journey would go.  These mind-sets were based on my past education experiences and what other people told me to expect.

If I had the chance to go back three years and give myself some advice, I’d share what I understand now more than ever— at the end of the day, my students and I are both human beings. That mutual humanity is what brings me back each morning. Are there days where students are disrespectful? Yes. Have I ever witnessed inappropriate behavior from students? Yes. Have my students thrown me a surprise birthday party? Yes. Have they shown an incredible enthusiasm and tenacity for learning a new language? Absolutely.

This duality is my daily experience. As many frustrations as I may have about student behaviors and administrative expectations, I have enough positive experiences by virtue of student relationships to create a harmonious balance in my life. The bond I have with my current eighth graders is an excellent example of how both the positive and negative elements in a low-performing school environment can balance out. Over time, the relationships I’ve built with my students have contributed to a better classroom environment. There is a shared understanding that my classroom is not just Srta. Hodge’s room, but rather a place where foreign language instruction lives in the minds and voices of every student I teach.

I now see it as my duty to pass this perspective to people who are considering working in one of the District’s 40/40 schools or those who are already on their way there. No single story, experience or viewpoint should shape your mindset going into this position. In your classroom, there will be difficulty and there will be beauty— focus on the latter and you will have a positive experience overall.

#IamDCPS

By Tanesha Dixon March 13th, 2014 11:10 AM

In 2013, less that half of the nation’s SAT takers meet the 1550 benchmark set for college and career readiness.  The numbers are markedly lower for Black (15.6%) and Latino students (23.5) (source: SAT Benchmarks: Development of a College Readiness Benchmark and its Relationship to Secondary and Postsecondary School Performance by Jeffrey Wyatt, Jennifer Kobrin, Andrew Wiley, Wayne J. Camara, and Nina Proestler).

So what happens to those students who, despite taking the SAT, do not reach this benchmark? Similarly, what happens to the seniors who did not take the SAT or worse, the students who did not for whatever circumstances make it to their senior year?  As an educator, I think these numbers are appalling and dare I say criminal.  In one of the most industrialized counties on this planet, we fail to provide equal access to an education that would lend itself to high school and college completion.

In DC Public Schools, we’re making an investment in our lowest performing schools and setting ambitious goals around improving academic achievement. In our 40 lowest performing schools, which serve large populations of students that need extra support, we’re committed to improving proficiency rates by 40 percentage points before the end of 2017.

I am a DCPS educator at Wheatley Education Campus, one of our district’s 40 schools lowest performing schools (also referred to as the Targeted 40). I firmly believe that it is my professional duty and moral obligation to provide my students with an education that will not only make them competitively college and career ready, but equip them with the social and emotional skills they will need to navigate the complex world that awaits them.  Some may think these are lofty goals or impossible.  To me, they are the self-fulfilling prophecies that encouraged, supported and propelled me to success. I want to pay it forward and be all that and more for my students.

I teach to ignite the fire, passion, and drive it takes to persevere and overcome insurmountable odds. However some days, I feel challenged beyond measure by those seemingly insurmountable odds.  There’s no teacher preparation course or manual that adequately prepares you to confront the ills and isms that threaten to derail the academic, social and emotional growth of students.  I also feel the pressure to quickly accelerate achievement.  In the Targeted 40, there is no time for incremental growth if we are going to reach our ambitious goal.  There is a sense of critical urgency that drives both teaching and learning. And while I sometimes feel challenged or pressured, I also feel hopeful that the work that I am doing matters because I am supported by my school leadership to design and implement innovative programs with student achievement and engagement metrics.  I feel extremely lucky to teach on a team with Superman [1], vertically plan with a published author, and engage with a host of equally talented and dedicated professionals that stop at nothing short of ensuring their students get their absolute.

Are you deeply committed to cultivating the dreams and talents of youth that will one day bestow beautiful gifts to their communities and the world?  Do you want to close (and permanently seal) the achievement gap? I do, and #IamDCPS.

Tanesha Dixon is a 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher and technology integration coach at Wheatley Education Campus. Follow Ms. Dixon on Twitter @i143ss.


[1] Mr. Taylor was highlighted in the critically acclaimed Waiting for Superman documentary.