Sisters & Brothers,
Bearing witness to the public killing of George Floyd brought back memories of my own father being publicly beaten within an inch of his life, being set on fire and then tossed out the back of a restaurant, near the dumpsters by White patrons. I must admit, as a former US Marine, it is hard to love a country that, from the very moment that you're born into it, despises you, disparages you, dishonors your people and your history, and denies, denies, denies and then turns a deaf ear to your calls for justice. What’s even more injurious, is not the acts of the wicked alone, but the spinelessness of the silent who demonstrate a willful ignorance and spectacular indifference to our suffering.
Just like Emmet Till’s mother, the George Floyd family stood strong, carrying the weight of centuries of systemic racism, anguish, death and despair, and they called for justice and solidarity--instead of vengeance. The American Empire stole something from us in slavery, but NOT our spirit because badass abolitionists like David Walker, Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth and Frederick Douglass rose up, spoke up, organized and took action. The American Empire threw Convict Leasing, Sharecropping, Jim Crow, and White Terrorism at us next and spirited folks like Fannie Lou Hamer, Zora Neale Hurston, Ida B. Wells, Josephine Baker, Rosa Parks, Dorothy Counts, Ella Baker, Shirley Chisholm, Mahalia Jackson, Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Nina Simone, Maya Angelou rose up, spoke up, organized and took action. This America has always been about “keeping the nigger in his/(her) place,” as Baldwin reminds us, under the knee of white supremacy--in symbol and substance.
These folks, and countless unnamed others, taught us so much about the nature of love (soul power) in the face of brute force, blatant lies/deception, untold adversity, and insult weaponized by this country. It reminds me personally of the regal disposition of Dorothy Counts who was tasked with making the long walk to “integrate schools” in North Carolina. White folks blocked her parent’s car from pulling up too close to the school, so she was forced to walk and her dad said, “Hold your head up high,” and Dorothy met the reception with unwavering courage, nobility and grace--under fire.
I can’t help but wonder: “How does one like a young Dorothy Counts summon such deep spiritual maturity and grace? Where does that come from? How does she look upon this social tempest and not get shook?” Folks mocking her, spitting on her, calling her all sorts of foulness...
Dorothy Counts (1957), badass Black Woman, the walking embodiment of decency, integrity, and virtue as she walks the walk, integrating schools on Day 1 in Charlotte, North Carolina.
America tried to drown our dignity in the muddy waters of Jim Crow, but we gave birth to dope brothers like Langston Hughes, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Malcolm X, Martin King, Jr., James Baldwin, Medgar Evers, Louis Armstrong, Marvin Gaye, Muhammad Ali, Alex Haley, Jackie Robinson, Miles Davis, BB King, Thurgood Marshall, Sam Cooke, Booker T. Washington, and the most prodigious intellectual of our time WEB Du Bois. So, when the Floyd family, while standing in the depths of their despair--pleading for the public to engage in positive, proactive activity--we witness the heirs of an extraordinary aristocracy in this American context.
It is not lost on me, especially once chattel slavery ended (including Texas...eventually: about 2.5 years after the Emancipation Proclamation), that the whole of the American Empire waged a cold war against our people and they’re hell bent on killing us--which is NOT unlikely ask our red Native sisters and brothers. America was a BUSINESS before it ever became a DEMOCRACY, so those savvy wordsmiths skillfully wove their white supremacist, patriarchal values right into every institution, starting with the Constitution. Racial injustice is in America's groundwater and it seeps into every body of water that makes up our institutions. We are literally swimming in it.
BUT WE AIN'T GOING NOWHERE! We Gonna Be Alright!!--in the words of K.Lamar. We who are dark BUILT this country, my ancestors’ blood is in this soil and their hopes are in the air we breathe everyday, Fam. We shall not let them down. Douglass reminds us about the nobility of struggle, sacrifice, and resistance:
“This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress. In the light of these ideas, Negroes will be hunted at the North and held and flogged at the South so long as they submit to those devilish outrages and make no resistance, either moral or physical. Men may not get all they pay for in this world, but they must certainly pay for all they get. If we ever get free from the oppressions and wrongs heaped upon us, we must pay for their removal. We must do this by labor, by suffering, by sacrifice, and if needs be, by our lives and the lives of others”
-Frederick Douglass, ‘57 (1857)
We are all children in this American house (some of us, clearly more despised than others), but each of us has a lifetime of work to do, Fam. This includes loving our enemy, as Dr. King suggests in the 1963 classic Strength to Love (Ch5), but the US Marine & gangsta in me has a...slightly different disposition. (Pray for me.) Exploitative capitalism, sexism and patriarchy, internalized racism is also part of my own self-work, but the hardest thing, yo, is watching the light dim in the eyes of my boys, Thomas (15) and Noah (12). They realize they’re the ones being hunted in this country, but I have to teach them the language and lenses of oppression and liberation. I don’t have a choice, THEY don’t have a choice--We have to talk about it: the deep inner work, relational and situational, the institutional and systemic nature of our racist, genocidal, anti-black, anti-brown, capitalistic avarice at any cost--past and present. I cannot raise illiterate children incapable of reading this world.
This is part of our labor, and yet we do this work joyfully, in a spirit of imaginative, rebellious, LOVING appreciation for the no longer and the not yet, as Subcomandante Marcos puts it. We know the moral arc is bent toward love and justice, in our direction. Jimmy Baldwin, in The Fire Next Time (1962, p.95) wrote:
“...Love is so desperately sought and so cunningly avoided. Love takes off the mask that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace--not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”
We do this work for our ancestors, folks we love across race, gender, class and time, and for our children’s children so we will continue to BUILD this America because we own this (MF) too! I am all about engaging in dialogue and discourse, because it matters, but I am less about hand-holding, explaining, justifying, seeking approval from White folks (and others) who are still trying to understand. (Please do your own work.) I am much more about BUILDING WITH FOLKS, BUILDING WITH COMMUNITIES--dope ass (i.e, anti-racist, liberatory, abolitionist--to borrow a term from my sister Bettina Love) schools, centering and elevating the voices of dark peoples and poor peoples. It is our duty.
We’ve had the whole world against us and we who are dark are still here. We will keep BUILDING because that’s what we do. We are creators, dreamers, singers, authors, stylists, provocateurs, truth tellers, philosophers, scientists, artists, community organizers, humanists, feminists. Nikki Giovanni reminds us:
“Style has a profound meaning to Black Americans. If we can’t drive, we will invent walks and the world will envy the dexterity of our feet. IF we can’t have ham, we will boil chitterlings; if we are given rotten peaches, we will make cobblers; if given scraps, we will make quilts; take away our drums, and we will clap our hands. We prove the human spirit will prevail. We will take what we have to make what we need. We need confidence in our knowledge of who we are”
IN THAT SPIRIT
With all deliberateness and no haste, we Black and Brown folks affirmatively shake off the internalized racist shackles of negative self-image, violence, denial, victim identity, fear, assimilation, and subordination and call in the strength of our ancestors to fortify us and guide us back into our indigenous dopeness. We will continue, on the eve of Juneteenth, to plot, plan, strategize, organize and mobilize to abolish racial injustice across our country, but especially in our nation’s schools--specifically in pedagogy, policy, procedure, and practice (not just personal feelings). We need a complete reorientation of our educational principles grounded in the cultivation of LOVE + JUSTICE. More on this later... But, going back to "normal" ain't it!
This country has NEVER done anything in good faith or out of moral compulsion for Black & Brown & Red peoples. In fact it's been just the opposite and more like: How much can we get over on them--without them noticing AND with just enough plausible deniability? Anything that doesn’t help folks of color should be ABOLISHED. We’re tired of asking, singing, pleading, cajoling and convincing, and burying our dead, burying our dreams and living in this nightmare. House guests ask permission, but we built this house and the time for asking is over. See “The Bigger Picture” by Lil Baby to hear and feel the pain, focus, determination of our young people. YOU CAN SEE IT IN THEiR EYES!! If we SEE them, HEAR them, and INVOLVE them (not tokenize, not patronize, not tell them what they think), we may be able to find our way. Mi hermano Carlos (Moreno) recently reminded us about an old African adage: "The child who is not embraced by the village will burn it down to feel its warmth" Our young people see old things in new ways and, humbly and in earnest, with their help we can create something better.
We are here despite America, despite the oppression, despite the jeers, despite overlooking our genius, despite the indifference, despite the silences, despite the denials and disdain. The Floyds, the Taylors, the Aubrys, the Tills remind us of something bigger than our own self interests that speaks to collective responsibility, self-determination, human dignity, speaking truth to power, higher purposes, creative rebellion, banging on the system, and calling people into reflection and just action with us. My father, once he woke from being battered and burned, realized that NO ONE was coming to help him, except his homeboys. That's it. We all got work to do, so now find your homies and bang on the system. We are the ones.
In the angry sentiment of Baldwin, “How much time do you need for your progress?”
In loving solidarity,
It was the semester's midpoint @hightechhigh and as I walked the halls during this particular week, I noticed something. Tables were pulled out of the classrooms with teacher teams and individual students sitting around them. I kept walking and there were more tables with teachers and students chatting and pointing at things on paper & screens. I stopped to find out what was happening, of course--because I am fabulously(!!) nosy.
The teacher teams had a list of all their students, project timelines, and project deliverables at each table. While students worked independently in the classroom, the teacher teams made personal check ins with each student. They were curious about how each student was making progress on the project's deliverables (smaller building blocks, prototypes, etc. that are intended to be scaffolds to completing the larger project). Students came to the table prepared to talk about their progress and the teachers provided guidance like consultants.
Project work is team work. Teacher teams design collaborative, interdisciplinary projects that are super badass, complex, and wicked! They pour their hearts and souls into their work and it shows!
If you're getting your PBL on, what might be some ways to build scaffolds to support learning, growth, and progress for students? How might we do the same thing for teachers as learning designers? Going a bit further: how might we design super badass learning experiences for adults? How are we personalizing their learning journey?
Once upon a time a tribe from far, far away went to design bootcamp in Seattle. Everyday, day-after-day, the tribe walked miles in the freezing, blistering Seattle rain. One day, they were challenged to create a meaningful experience for another person. They tribe ventured back into the hard, dreary rains and they talked to and observed young people, waiting people, wet people and annoyed people. When they returned to design camp, they unpacked those conversations and observations, searching for patterns, differences and insights.
Then, there was an interruption, an outsider from a local clan, appeared and called the Improviser. He played the SILLIEST games like the Name Game, Dr. Know-it-All, & the strangest game of all "Yes, and." When the Improviser spoke the tribe listened and the last thing he said was: "IMPROV is about listening fully, listening with humility, building onto others' ideas, and making your partner look GREAT." Just as quickly as the Improvisor appeared, he was gone.
In his place, two more outsiders arrived from a clan of local ideators. The Ideators went to work immediately with ruthless precision and delicate care. No fun and games with this pair! They were about process, process, process AND getting every single idea out of the tribe's heads and onto sticky notes. The tribe brainstormed individually, group brainstormed, re-brainstormed, and leap-frogged brain-stormed. By the end of the session, the tribe was...spent. The Ideators grouped and placed the fragile ideas along a horizon from "easily attainable" to "pie in the sky." The Ideators were in, out and gone in the blink of an eye. But before they left, their parting words were clear: "The best way to have a good idea is to have a bunch of ideas." The tribe walked back to the tents in the rain, drained from the day and soaked from the Typhoon.
The next day, the tribe braved the rains again and when they returned to bootcamp, they were surprised to find a Master Builder. The Master Builder shared prototypes never seen before--from low resolution prototypes created with pen and paper to high-resolution prototypes with fully-functional digital interfaces. The tribe knew he was truly a Master Builder. He told countless stories of failure, failure and even more failure. He shared how he learned from early failures to improve design features. Then the clouds parted and the tribe heard him say, "Build it as early as possible. Break it then fix it. PROTOTYPE to THINK." With that, the tribe was off to build, prototype and test their designs with the Master Builder alongside them.
Since then, the tribe returned to sunnier skies in their home lands and they have never been quite the same. One of the tribe members said, "I am a better collaborator, contributor, designer and person today then before I went to bootcamp. I have greater confidence." I believe in ordinary people who want to do extraordinary work.
Our tribe was organized into three study groups: Empathy to Insights, Ideation, and Rapid Prototyping. I believe culture is not just about wearing the same shirts on Friday (which is totally cool!) or celebrating birthdays (which is also super cool!!). I believe another way to view culture is through the lens of HOW we work together: how we listen to each other, develop shared points of view, cultivate and test new ideas, and our willingness to wade through messinesses to make something beautiful and radically useful.
Day 3 together--with me as their new director.
On Day 1, our school talked about how "culture eats strategy for breakfast" and we began to explore our shared purpose together at High Tech High. On Day 2, we talked about and started designing EPIC projects. Back to Day 3, forty of us gathered in the room after a light breakfast to return to the topic of our shared purpose.
The plan was to guide/facilitate the group dialogue and creation of ONE powerful purpose statement. SCRATCH THAT PLAN!! I stepped back instead and said, "You have 45 minutes to create ONE powerful purpose statement. Use whatever you need....And (I added) it cannot be more than 12 words." (PAUSE)
I stepped back and they all stepped up. Teachers got materials organized. Other teachers began proposing a process, organizing people, and then the natural back and forth began. Teachers made sure newer teachers had a voice, generally quiet people had a voice and veteran teachers chimed in too. (I watched--mouth shut.)
They identified common phrases and drafted like 8 possible sentences. There was more back and forth as everyone haggled over words/phrases like: meaningful, purposeful, transformative, etc. Then 8 possible sentences were posted on the wall for all to see and they sounded FINE (typical, legitimate) statements like any other school in America might have. Someone else noticed it too and said, "But what makes it High Tech High though??" Time was ticking away, pressure was mounting.
With 10 minutes to go (and a lot of chatter going on), I said, "There's one more thing: It has to be SEXY." There were audible gasps--then explosions of laughter.
Then someone said, what if the purpose was.... "to be excellent to each other and do badass work?" The group of 40 collectively, quietly said "yeah" and then erupted aloud in agreement. HOWEVER, there were a few folks who expressed some discomfort with that phrasing--although they really liked the spirit, tone--the soul of it all.
Then, on time and on tap, a new teacher who just moved to San Diego (from New York, just 3 weeks ago) paused the group and said, "Wait...I moved here from 3000 miles away to do...badass work."
MIC DROP. We're done!
The question that started the conversation was from my good friend @drchagala who says "Schools Have Souls."
Now, I will probably get fired, but we will do BADASS WORK!!
For a whole week, new High Tech High teachers attend a week-long deep dive into all things related to project-based learning called Odyssey. This year there are approximately 125+ new teachers, veteran teachers and directors. Yesterday, the large group was broken into 5 smaller "project slice" groups of roughly 25 participants. Each project slice is like a condensed version of a project-based learning experience--excepted condensed from several weeks to one week.
After a very good icebreaker, our project group began by writing a response to this prompt:
"If you found out that you had to leave your home and your city (maybe for good), what (could be people, belongings) would you take with you? Why?" I listed: 1) my wife, my boys, my cats and my shih tzu--for companionship and love; 2) my wallet, keys, cellphone, toolbox--for practical purposes, etc. All good right?
Then, we were asked to open a folder located in the center of our group's table. Each folder contained 7 photographic profiles of Syrian refugees with a short vignette about each person and his or her belongings. Suddenly, it was not just a fanciful or pleasant exercise. It was about real people, real conflict, in a real context--super timely. There was an elementary age child, a barber, a mother, a sister, an artist, a soccer player, a person in a wheelchair.
It was only the beginning of this experience, and yet we were all overcome with a noticeable sense of empathy for the people captured in the photos. One of our colleagues posed this question to the group: "What is our responsibility to our global neighbors?"Other insights included the importance of human connection and how hope might emerge out of despair.
What happens when we put people at the center of our studies? What happens to the learner's experience when they explore REAL topics and the impact on REAL people? More, what happens when you engage the hearts and minds of learners?
As we transitioned to the next activity, the the facilitator* pointed out purposefully:
"Passion, curiosity, and inquiry are used to call people to action" in the design of powerful projects.
It is not just about the projects, but rather using projects as a window into humanity and as a vehicle of personal transformation.
I am looking to Day 2!!!! This is why I LOVE PROJECT BASED LEARNING.
Back in May (2016), three High Tech High teachers emailed me to say they wanted to make sure that we scheduled time to design powerful projects for our students in the upcoming school year. I was the newbie, incoming director--and I barely knew their names!! BUT, I knew they were VERY serious about designing powerful projects. In fact they had already prototyped a plan for our first days back together in the fall... (They were very pushy!!! which I LIKE!!)
Together, we created a simple survey with 3 questions like these and sent them out to our peeps:
1) What are the top 3 outcomes that you would like to see as a result of our time together during the August Staff Days?
2) What sort of support do you feel you need with project design and project planning?
A. HABANERO = "I'm on FIRE!! I can get it done and support others."
B. SPICY = "I am more than capable of spreading the flames of PBL"
C. MILD = "I'm cooking and the grill's warming up!"
3) What would be absolutely delightful during our August Staff Days?
We met twice in the summer to review the survey data and to gain insight into each person's needs and the needs of the larger group. Three major themes emerged:
CULTURE, PEOPLE, & PROJECTS
Image: Work Rules! by Lazlo Bock
Culture = who we are, what we believe, and how we work together. People = how we care for each other. Projects = designing transformative learning experiences (EPIC--projects that call people to ACTION).
Those three teachers: Jade, Jeff, and Rowan pushed us and helped us to design powerful learning experiences for the adults. We do NOT have it all figured out, but we have a strong commitment:
"To Be Excellent to Each Other & Do Badass Work." It's more like a journey than a destination and it's a badass journey! (I like saying badass, by the way...it totally agrees with my sensibilities as a jarhead!)
My role is to support their direction and our commitment. I continue to be AMAZED by their love for each other, the passion they possess for designing powerful learning experiences for students, and their love for High Tech High.