Since last summer I’ve participated in the WABS/STEM Fellowship program (Washington Alliance for Better Schools).
On May 22 the cohorts presented their Problem-based learning units, and we enjoyed delicious food and riveting speakers. My cohort consisted of one other man, Steve, from my district, a sixth-grade teacher (who’s amazing), a teacher, Gaylynn, from Northshore (also–amazing), a young University of Washington professor (who couldn’t attend the event) and a man, Jim, from Boeing. Steve and I invited our principals, but they didn’t make it. I wish they had because if there was ever an evening to see how much representation matters, this was it.
Through working with this team for a few hours every month, we have definitely bonded, and I knew what we were doing is important work. But what I didn’t know until that night how much of a big deal this all really was. It gave me so much hope for our students, and then on Thursday this past week, I shared some important words of hope I haven’t felt in a long time. In fact, I shared with them how much I’ve been struggling to stay positive in our current political and economic climate–how I could help them reframe their definition of the American Dream.
Wow, that got heavy fast.
But promise: there is hope.
Our keynote speaker was Dr. Lonnie Johnson, known as the inventor of the Supersoaker. But as we all learned, that was just a means of funding his other passions, primarily finding ways to get ourselves powered up. Sitting there listening to his story, I wished with all my heart that my students were there in the audience, too. That speaking to a room of adults is all well and good, but my middle school students needed to hear him. (I learned later he went to speak at one of the district’s high schools, and that’s great, but dang…middle school kids!!) He was introduced by Damien Pattenaude, the Superintendent for the Renton School District. Dr. Johnson’s story of making a robot from spare junkyard parts and winning his high school science fair made a huge impact on me: what we, educators, have to rebrand as “makerspaces” in order for our administrations and districts to allow us to do and justify, the world is leaving us behind because we’re trying to catch up with the past.
I can’t recall the Boeing representative’s name, but I do remember his message: there will be jobs. There will be jobs for all types of people–from skilled machinists to artists, coders, designers, engineers– everyone.
Our unit is on multitasking. Gaylynn’s students already understand that they can’t multitask. My and Steve’s students didn’t. The difference? Socio-economic backgrounds. (But that’s an exploration for another day–just something I noticed.) But I do know that representation matters. It matters a lot. We’ve had some amazing speakers at my school, but many of them have been white the past few years. Prior to this administration, we had speakers of color. And it matters. This year, one of my favorite colleagues who changes the world by walking in a room, had a panel of speakers, from our superintendent to one of our beloved PE teachers, speak at our Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. The contrast between the students’ behavior when the (white) speaker presented at another assembly and this one was marked. The students were respectful, engaged, and in awe — and not of our superintendent, but of our PE teacher. (She is pretty awesome.)
I shared with my students all of what I saw and heard, and that I did this for them. And that I understand hearing it second hand from me is not the same. But they did listen. Later, walking to the back of the room to check on something I noticed several students had Google’d Lonnie Johnson’s name and were reading about him.
And I’ll be exploring these ideas next:
As Dr. Jackie Gerstein recently wrote, Failure is for the Privileged, we must caution our expectations and falling toward glibness when it comes to risk-taking, and move toward fostering defining success:
Not everyone “gets” to fail. If you are a student of color you have to be perfect. Think about the standardized test that plays an over-sized role in determining an accelerated or remedial course. You better not fail. Think about the rates of suspension and expulsion. You better not fail. Think about use of force incidents on campuses. You better not fail. Think about using a word the teacher doesn’t know. You better not fail. Think about hiding the fact your parents are undocumented. You better not fail. (Failing is a Privilege)