The “positivity project” spreads the power of appreciation

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There is nothing more powerful in the world than gratitude and positive mental attitude. Students at Oak Park High School in Kansas City recently were targets of the power when their teachers hatched a plan to deepen the teacher-student bond.

They created the “Positivity Project,” a personal challenge to identify individual students who inspires them and makes them want to come to work. Armed with personal statements, these teachers found students in the halls and surprised them with kind words of appreciation.

It will set your heart on fire to see the reactions when teachers told these students why they were important and appreciated.

The stakes are very high for first generation college students

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Today is Proof Point Day: a celebration of first-generation college students with the goal of igniting an important conversation about the serious financial burdens and lack of support they often encounter. In the following post Tequilla Banks, Executive Vice President at TNTP, shares her experience of being the first in her family to go to college and reflect on the pressing challenges facing today’s first-generation students.

When I first walked onto Yale’s campus as an undergraduate years ago, I was anxious about my academic and social readiness. After all, the students around me attended some of the most elite secondary institutions in the country. I grew up in a rural Arkansas town with a population of 700. Until age 12, I lived in a house without indoor plumbing. As the first in my family to attend college, I didn’t have access to the people, money, and networks my peers had.

Many first-generation college students face similar concerns­—especially students who enter college with a family legacy of intergenerational poverty.

But when I got to Yale, it turned out I wasn’t alone. There was a pre-orientation program that connected me with students on campus who looked and spoke like me, and shared some of my life experiences. The program introduced me to the African-American Cultural Center, key administrative personnel, and financial aid officers who helped me navigate difficult—and very foreign—responsibilities for first-generation college students: things like applying for and receiving financial aid, finding campus housing, securing on-campus employment, and gaining access to academic resources and tutoring.

By the time classes rolled around, I was on the right path and there were people in place to make sure I stayed on it. This, no doubt, is a major reason why I was successful at Yale.

This isn’t the case for far too many first-generation students. Fewer than 15 percent of first-generation students graduate within six years. This number, astonishing as it is, may actually be even lower when you consider many colleges still do not report targeted first-generation graduation rates.

Part of this is about adequate academic preparation for college-level work: Only about 30 percent of public school students graduate from high school truly ready for college, and sixty percent of African American and Latino students need remedial classes upon entering college. Making sure students have equal opportunities to get a great K-12 (and increasingly, pre-K) education that prepares them for college and the workplace is critically important.

But we don’t spend enough time thinking about what happens when students actually enter college. More and more data shows simply being “prepared” isn’t enough—especially for low-income students who might be the very first in their families to ever attend college.

As I did at Yale, students need to know where to go to have their questions answered; in many cases, they need trusted allies who can tell them what questions to ask in the first place—who can support them in advocating for themselves and their needs. Affinity groups like the one I was introduced to can make a huge difference in helping students feel connected to others who share their experiences. And research shows that for first-generation students, shifting mindsets and giving students a greater sense of belonging matters as much, if not more, than providing academic support.

The stakes are too high to ignore this problem. Cuts to higher education funding, coupled with just modest increases in federal grant aid, mean African-American, Latino, and low-income students shoulder huge sums of debt to attend college—debt that sticks with them for many years.

When we push students to attend college but don’t prepare them academically for the coursework, they acquire additional debt—often thousands of dollars’ worth—in remedial courses. And when students don’t ultimately graduate with a degree, they are arguably worse off than they would be if they’d gone straight into the workforce.

It isn’t enough to get our low-income and first-generation students into college and then pat ourselves on the back. And adequate support systems cannot be limited to only highly selective universities like Yale (which often also have the funding to provide both additional resources and more substantial need-based aid). First-generation college students should have both the academic preparation to be successful at the right post-secondary institution for them, and the support in place to thrive once they get there.

This Proof Point Day, let’s not just celebrate the achievements of first-generation scholars like myself, but also open up a much-needed conversation about how we can support more of our peers to reach their potential, too.


Tequilla Banks is Executive Vice President of  The New Teacher Project’s Client Team. Before joining TNTP, Tequilla worked for nine years in Memphis City Schools, where she oversaw the district-wide effort to improve student outcomes by increasing teacher effectiveness. She holds a BA in psychology from Yale University and an MA in social work from the University of Tennessee – Knoxville. This blog was republished from the TNTP blog.

Asperger’s won’t stop my son from attending a rigorous college

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The system is not set up for kids who have both an intellectual disability and a sharp intellect

A few days into the eighth grade my son Corey taught himself the Pythagorean theorem. It’s not typically taught until ninth grade, but he loves baroque language and was drawn to the unit when it popped up on the self-paced math curriculum on his computer. He began by taking the quiz at the end of the lesson and reverse-engineered his way through the parts he didn’t understand.

Corey is 14 and has a voracious thirst for knowledge. His favorite author is H.G. Wells. He loves Japanese calligraphy. Last year he produced a documentary about William Higinbotham, a member of the team that produced the first nuclear bomb and the inventor of the first computer game.

Corey also has Asperger’s. He can’t tolerate the noise a pencil makes on paper, intuit when sarcasm is inappropriate or easily turns his attention from one activity to another. Until this year, the vast majority of the interactions I had with his teachers were essentially discussions about how to make him into a compliant, neuro-typical kid. Infuriatingly, the conversations would often end with a surprised remark about how smart he was.

“There’s no reason to think he couldn’t go to college even,” his special education teacher said last year at the end of an exhausting meeting about what she perceived as his bad attitude toward school. She mentioned a local college with a middling reputation that has a special program for students with autism.


Across the table I fumed; his heart was already set on the highly rated Macalester College. To get there he’ll need help persisting when confronted by rigor. The resulting sense of mastery would be liquid gold in terms of motivation. But the only tool in many schools’ kits for managing these tough moments is to remove the challenge.

In Corey’s case, this meant frequent trips to an isolated room where, under the guise of “social skills,” he played board games. No wonder he hated school.

To parent a highly intelligent child on the autism spectrum is to continually rub up against a harsh truth about special education in most U.S. schools: The system simply is not set up for kids who have both an intellectual disability and a sharp intellect. The system works hard to limit their dreams —which is a message they hear loud and clear.

The work I’ve set down every time I was called down to my boy’s schools over the last decade has been writing about education. And there’s no bigger disconnect between my professional and personal experiences than hearing the adults in education talk about ensuring every child is ready for college at graduation while continually navigating the reality of low expectations.

I wasn’t surprised to learn that kids like mine are among the students with disabilities least likely to go to college. The conversation above took place at the meeting where we were to sign a new Individualized Education Program, the federally mandated document mapping out how his needs in school would be met. He was in the seventh grade, which meant it was time to contemplate “transition services,” to plan for what happens after high school.

The first section of the transition plan was titled, “Post Secondary Education and Training.” The words that followed acknowledged his desire to go to college — a goal he, and not the adults on the team, raised–but said nothing about how he would get there. Instead there were 10 paragraphs outlining his deficits.

“Corey needs to improve his ability to meet classroom expectations by organizing his materials, starting/completing/turning in homework, and doing assignments neatly/thoroughly,” was identified as his “transition need.” No plan for helping him acquire those skills followed.

The form is designed to lay out how a young person with a more profound disability would achieve maximum independence. There are questions about personal hygiene, handling money and using public transit. Finding a college where Corey can dive deep into both genetics and marine life? There’s no box for that.

By contrast, his older brother has been pushed to challenge himself since kindergarten, when he was singled out as bright. It was practically a foregone conclusion to his teachers that he would go into his high school’s rigorous International Baccalaureate track. Their aspirations for him go beyond college-ready, to selective-college ready.

The key words in that paragraph are “since kindergarten.” With college a given, my older son’s educators have ensured at every level that he’s prepared for next steps. This kind of downward pressure doesn’t exist for kids in the middle–those whose plan for independence ought to be getting the college degree that opens the door to a good job.

A decade of reporting on efforts to ensure equity in education has left me with the conviction that this “belief gap” is an obstacle for lots of kids, be it because they are learning English, come from poverty, are of a race that’s desperately underrepresented on college campuses or have quirky brains.

This year Corey is at an innovative public charter school organized around entrepreneurship where a number of students like him are excelling. Handed standards, Venture Academy’s students build their own road-maps with adult mentors. Students are empowered to decide how they learn best.

Self-advocacy—which we know is key from the experiences of colleges actively courting students on the spectrum–is built into every step. I think it’s why it’s working.

I was thrilled to read Hechinger reporter Meredith Kolodner’s story about the increase in U.S. colleges and universities offering formal supports for students with autism. The more common moving from special ed to higher ed becomes, the more downward pressure there will be on K-12 schools to aspire for more for young people with disabilities.

Being the keeper of my son’s dreams has been lonely and agonizing. Harder still has been keeping his faith in his gifts alive. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s that just like Corey figured out Pythagoras’ triangular puzzle he deserves the chance to set himself an audacious goal and work to meet it.


Beth Hawkins is a former MinnPost education reporter. She is now a writer-in-residence at Education Post. This piece is republished from Hechinger Report.

The public schools have labeled my grandchild before he’s uttered his first word

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My grandson Amyis was almost a week old when I wrote about the labeling of black children on April 23, 2014. The sad reality is this one fact. The words I wrote two years ago still hold true for being a black boy, in many traditional public schools, in America today.

His whole world from birth to high school graduation will be dependent upon his parents, grandparents, educators, peers and the community supporting his positive development thus ensuring he has equitable access to opportunities and life experiences that keep him safe, nurtured, healthy and LOVED!

Yet, before he utters his first word, the current educational structure is designed to have him believe that he is inferior because he is a black boy!

Before he utters his first word, the current educational structure is designed to put him on a low tier educational track that is a pathway to prison because he is a black boy!

Before he utters his first word, the current educational structure has counted him in their educational funding formula as a child with behavior “problems” and a learning disability not AP classes bound (Advance Placement) because he is a black boy!

Before he utters his first word, the current educational structure has discounted his parents, grandparents and community because of zip-code and the fact that they are black people therefore they must be uneducated (sarcasm)! Only the educators & administrators – you know – “the experts” can save him – because he is a black boy!

I will say this, as his grandmother; NEVER underestimate the LOVE parents have for their children! And if you think parents of color and poor communities will continue to allow this “designed” educational system to DENY OUR kids their RIGHT to access an equitable SAFE education – think again!

Those before us, that were oppressed, answered the civil rights call for Liberation & Justice and they rose to action in the 50’s, and 60’s. Know this, we are rising to a call for immediate action TODAY!

WE MUST FIGHT TO GIVE OUR SONS & DAUGHTERS A CHANCE TO LIVE AND LOVE!

WE MUST REBUILD OUR FAMILIES AND MAKE A STRONG SELF-SUFFICIENT VILLAGE!

“The nation recognizes its social, civic and economic strength is directly linked to the strength of its public schools. But if every child is to have an opportunity for success, every student must have a true Opportunity to Learn.” John H. Jackson, President of Schott Foundation for Public Education


Gwen Samuel is a parent activist living in Connecticut. She blogs at Real Talk Gwen Samuel and The Huffington Post.

How many classrooms do you think are actually good for black boys?

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I’m sick of feeling hopeless.

There’s so much wrong, so much not working, and day after day I go home carrying a little more of it and a little more of it and a little more of it. It is often too much. It is often too broken.

With the amount of time, money, and talent we spent on Education, we should be doing something truly staggering. Even some of the shabbiest school buildings feel like miracles, and there is such good people and we have these kids for so long every day, and it feels impossible that we are not doing better. Too often, it feels like we’re just doing not enough.

It’s not my school, my district, my state. It’s everywhere. It’s not just teachers. It is a system that is too comfortable where it stands, that reacts too strongly to any push, no matter how slight. It’s all broken in so many of the same ways. We are failing the same kids just about everywhere, and so there are successful schools where those kids aren’t and failing schools where those kids are, but it’s the same school. Sometimes, literally, it’s the same school.

I’m sick of it. I’m sick of being sick of it.

I brought this question to happy hour the other day: What is the percentage of teachers who are either actively or passively damaging students?  In other words, what, really, is the percentage of teachers, not exactly bad, but just not good enough, that shouldn’t be teaching?

There were some answers. Whatever. Everyone had their own, and no one really has any idea how we’d start to agree to measure that. But, we all had numbers. So… think of yours.

Then, I thought and drank about it for a couple of minutes, and reframed the question: What is the percentage of classrooms you wouldn’t feel comfortable putting your child in if your child was a black boy?

Got that number too?

We all had different numbers. Some had way different numbers (also, shockingly, at a table full of teachers, we were nearly all white). My numbers were way different from each other (also, my numbers may be way off. It’s quite possible I’m in a bad place, like, mentally, about all this right now). I think I went from 15% of teachers are maybe not so great to somewhere around 70% of classrooms I’d feel worried putting my kid into. But, I mean..  how fucked is that? Somewhere in my brain there are 55% of teachers that aren’t good for black kids, but are still ok to teach? Shit. Nope.

I have no idea what that number really is. It’s a feeling. It’s a reaction. It’s hearing too many conversations between educators that made me scared or sick, it’s thinking of myself in my first many years, thinking of the work I do now to avoid some of those mistakes and how often I still fail, and looking at how many people in schools aren’t even trying to do that work, are trying not to step on toes, not to be noticed, are encouraged not to take risks. Call it the mediocre middle, and know we have a system that creates, supports, and protects it.

Why? Because I (because we) de-prioritize the damage done by racist teaching and racist teachers. Shit, we run away from the term “racist” because it makes people defensive and uncomfortable and hurt. Fuck them. Fuck that.

Not to call anyone racist, but…  Not to say that we aren’t all good teachers, but… Not to say they aren’t trying hard, but…

Whatever your number, whatever your percentage, what should we do with these teachers? Are we just going to fire half the teachers in the state?

Yes, they should be fired. I care about them and their families and about teacher strength, but not more than I care about kids. Get better or get gone.

But.

If we removed every teacher, every person who worked in, wrote about, or created policies for schools who minimized the impact of race to a level that is dangerous, who accept low expectations, who accept not just failure, but fail to embrace and expect and allow for the full potential of all our students, every teacher who isn’t outraged; if we fired every person who fell in that category, we straight up wouldn’t have enough people to fill our classrooms (not to mention our school, district, and DC offices). Also, there’s nothing to suggest we have figured out a way to replace them with anyone better.

So, what? What do we do? What we’ve been doing is talking about a certain amount of allowable damage, an acceptable level of harm that we hope is less sometime, that we hope gets better. We hope that things, that people, get better. We push gently against a system that is pretty comfortable where it is. We hope for good enough.

I’m sick of good enough for now. I’m sick of slowly better. I’m sick of how far it feels like we have to go, and sick at the mass of people and systems that need to be moved to get there. I’m disappointed in what we are doing with what we have.

I want to allow for it all, really. I want to focus on the good things. I want to write another piece that cheer-leads for all the things that teachers do every day, because I do love teachers and I do love teaching. I love the exchange of love that comes through teaching, and for every shocking story of something carelessly or maliciously said about and to students, I have ten stories of amazing things, of sometimes simple and sometimes momentously amazing things happening in schools.

But.

To break cycles, we need to break systems.

Ultimately, I just don’t care where you are on your precious personal little journey. If you don’t believe, truly and deeply believe in the potential of your students right now, you can fuck right off. I don’t care, ultimately, about how far you’ve come. Get to better. Work your ass off till you are.

Look. I’m staring too hard at the bottom. I hope it’s been too long since I’ve been in the right room at the right time. Even when people are telling me about good work, good plans, I’m putting my head in my hands. It’s not enough. It doesn’t seem like enough to work small, but I don’t have any answers that are big enough.

I don’t know where to set my feet with enough leverage to move the whole goddamn system.


Tom Rademacher is an educator with the Minneapolis Public Schools, and 2015 Minnesota Teacher of the Year. He blogs at Mr. Rad’s Neighborhood.