Thank you to all of you who subscribed to this brand new newsletter! I woke up this New Year’s morning filled with something expectant, like hope. Hope for change in the world. Hope for change in schools. Hope that by gathering a few like-minded souls, we can unite our efforts towards change, collaborate, share ideas, inspire each other, and work towards good for all kids out there. Schools can be a refuge, or they can be hell for some kids, but for far too many, they are boring, inequitable places where students churn out meaningless work and teachers are trapped by low pay, lack of autonomy, overwork, and intense pressure around test scores.
I know there are schools that are not like this. And classrooms where teachers are doing amazing things. I visited many during my pre-pandemic tour of great schools along the east coast of the U.S. But most kids don’t get access to these dynamic schools, and even for those that do, they may still not get access to the good things offered by that school due to the color of their skin, or behavioral issues, or learning disabilities. U.S. schools still struggle with racism and a standardized, factory-model approach to instruction, and not all students get the same opportunity to learn.
I saw this first-hand in one progressive school in New York City. The elementary classrooms at this school had activity centers and exciting lessons, but not all students got to experience this. As I walked the halls, I came across a Black third grader playing with a staple on a bulletin board, looking like he was about to cry. “Hey, what’s up?” I asked him. He told me he often gets sent out of the classroom and that he hated this school. Now I have no idea what the student did or didn’t do, but sending a third grade to sit alone, unsupervised in the hallway, repeatedly, is not helping him learn anything other than that there is something different about him or that he cannot learn. This event was not an aberration: Black students are far more likely to be on the receiving end of school disciplinary actions that exclude them from classrooms and the learning they need (https://www.pnas.org/content/116/17/8255).
Innovation and equity—I have come to believe both are essential for moving forward with school transformation, and so both are the focus for this newsletter. There’s so much exciting work going on in the area of school innovation, from school architecture, to a better understanding of the power of school culture, to paradigm shifts in understanding the role and purpose of schools. And this work continues at the classroom level with research on developmentally appropriate practices and breakthroughs in cognitive psychology and neuroscience. Similarly, the U.S. has begun to have the difficult conversations around racism and equity that are needed to make schools places where all students can thrive. These are the topics that I will tackle in these upcoming newsletters, and I hope to spark conversation and even possible collaborations. So, please comment, and share your thoughts, even (especially) when you disagree. (But, please be kind. There’s already too much unkindness in the world. I don’t want to foster any more.)
Before I close, I want to share something from a book I just read. With the holidays here, I’ve had some more time to read, so I dug into my backlog of books on Kindle and began reading The Boy Between: A Mother and Son’s Journey from a World Gone Grey. The book is written in a back-and-forth style between a mother and her young adult son (Josh) as they explore his depression and suicide attempt from their unique perspectives. It turns out that Josh’s first experiences of self-hatred came through school, where his dyslexia was not addressed, and he was made to feel like a failure. As he recalls,
Even now if I am forced to sit in a confined or crowded space or when boredom creeps in, the desire to bolt is strong. And this was never more the case than when in school. An environment that didn’t suit me. I would gaze at the window like a prisoner longing for the outside world, mentally counting down the minutes.
And I can’t help but wonder that if Josh had found a way to build on his strengths and learn in a less oppressive environment, then maybe he wouldn’t have plunged so deeply into depression by the end of his high school years. Maybe this is naive. But (book spoiler) it’s when Josh finally gives himself permission to quit the university and formal schooling altogether that his depression starts lifting, enough so that he can start functioning in the world again, with a bit of that hope at the edges of his vision.
Schools are powerful places. For good or for ill. What is in our power to change? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts. So grateful to be on this journey with you.