For me, the implementation of deeper learning has allowed me to create spaces where my teaching, and the projects I create, not only provide an opportunity for my students to sharpen their voices, but also find healing for themselves, their families, and their community through this work.
This is High Tech High Unboxed. I’m Alec Patton and I’m coming to you from the 2022 Deeper Learning Conference back live and in person after two virtual years. It feels so good to be back. This week. We’re sharing keynotes and den talks with you right after they happen, and we’re starting with the opening keynote. Four stories of Deeper Learning from German Gallardo, Sommer Jones, Christian Martinez, and Haben Ghebregergish. You’ll hear from each speaker in the order I just said, and in between you’ll hear the voice of Dr. Michelle Sadrena Pledger introducing them. The first person you’ll hear from is Herman Gallardo.
Can y’all hear me? Hey, welcome, and in the spirit of being our complete selves, I’ve heard a lot of people talk about loss, and I want to take a moment to bring that in. My elders teach me that starting with your ancestors first, and people that you have, that you’ve lost in transition, is a really powerful thing, so if y’all could indulge me for a second. I want everybody here to think about someone they lost, an ancestor that drives them, that gives them inspiration that they loved, whenever they lost. Just take a second, close your eyes, if you will, and think of that person. Now, here’s the hard part. Whenever you do that, and whenever you bring their names into this space, it makes it more powerful. It makes it a healing space, so I’m going to invite you, and there’s a lot of us, so it should be loud.
I want y’all to say the name of that person that you thought of in that second. Is everybody ready? Take one second. On the count of three, say that person’s name. 1, 2, 3. Oh. How’d that feel? Right? Yo, this is the first part that I want to understand, that whenever we come into a classroom, us as educators, we can turn every space we’re in into a healing space. That’s real good because that was the best part, the rest of this stuff is way not rehearsed. My name is Herman and I’m a formerly undocumented, formerly incarcerated person, but I was born to be an educator. I only got 10 minutes yo, give me a second. Teaching is my vocation, it’s my purpose and it’s my source of healing. As a child, I learned that the police, school staff and any other adult with authority, was a threat to my safety and that of my family and my community.
Every interaction I had with authority had the promise of violence, losing my family or my life. With all this mistrust to authority, my purpose was clear. I needed to become a teacher to create the one thing I never had in my life, a space to heal. My journey towards this healing started with a revelation and a call to action. The revelation came as I was a sixth grader, a few of my friends and I, as sixth graders do, plotted to make my teacher angry. He was an older white man, and we thought it was hilarious to turn him from red to purple, when he was mad, and this particular day we were successful, he was bright purple, but rather than just sit there that day, he decided that he wanted to address us, rather scream at us, and he screamed at us that we were all lazy Mexicans, and that we wouldn’t amount to anything. I was a sixth grader and I was angry. I wanted to tell him so much.
I wanted to tell him that we had power, that we weren’t lazy, that we were meaningful, and no one, no one had the right to take that away from us, but I was a sixth grader, and I didn’t have the language. So I used every bad word that I knew and I labeled it at him. I don’t know if you’ve ever been so mad that you just say bad words that don’t make sense. That was me that day and he had no idea what I was saying, but I was saying that. As I was waiting in the principal’s office, I was informed that I had to translate for my mom because nobody else there could speak Spanish, so I sat there and told my mom everything I said, every word, and with every word that I translated, my mom’s eyes got bigger and bigger and bigger. After about 45 minutes, the teacher told me that I had a choice.
I can choose to say I’m sorry to the teacher and I could go back to class today, or I could choose a one-week suspension. I chose the one-week suspension because I didn’t think I was wrong. My mother has always supported me in that decision, and as we walked home, I was excited. I was walking tall, like I was the king of the world, but my mom started crying. I couldn’t understand that because in my mind, I’d won. Like we won. We’re here. They gave us what we wanted, but my mom was scared. She was crying out of fear and her fear was that we were undocumented, and if I got in enough trouble, they would call Child Protective Services and then we would all be deported, and so my mom told me that in this country I had to understand that I had to hold my tongue, that I had to be quiet, and I knew that was wrong.
In that moment, I knew that I wanted to become an educator, to teach my students that they never had to be silent, that never had to hold their tongue, and my revelation was clear in that moment, but the call to action came when I was a sophomore in high school. I had another horrible argument with a teacher, and of course he kicked me out of class. This time I was tired. I was tired of always having to fight, so rather than just walk to the principal’s office, I decided to walk away and drop out of school. I knew I couldn’t go home because if I went home, my parents would’ve killed me for trying to drop out, so my decision was to go and spend a day with my friend who had just dropped out of high school about a month before. As soon as I got to his house, my friend and his father who were there, began lecturing me angrily about how I couldn’t drop out of school.
So much so that his father threatened to kill me. I didn’t think he would, but the man was intimidating. I didn’t want to take any chances, so I was like, I’m going back to school. It’s cool, and as I was going back to school, my friend came with me because he didn’t trust me. He called me a liar, said I wouldn’t go back to school, so he walked me, and as we were walking to school, he kept telling me things I didn’t want to hear and I wasn’t ready to hear. He told me that out of all of our friends, I would be the only one to get out, that I would be the only one to make it, that I had to keep my word that I had since I was 12, and be the teacher I wanted to be, and I didn’t want to hear him.
And in that moment, his voice was interrupted by gunshots. My friend was a gang member, and he was at home in the middle of the day because he was hiding for people that were looking for him. The gang found him and opened fire. He tried to protect me and push me out of the way. He saved my life. When the gunshots stopped, my friend lay in my arms dying, and rather than to worry about himself, he asked me to keep my word. He asked me to go back, and almost in panic, I agreed. Those words were my call to action. That promise was my call to action, and has driven everything I’ve done as an educator. Everything I’ve done as a human implementing deeper learning to me has been something that has helped me heal the deep scars, and the survivor’s guilt that I’ve had ever since that moment.
For me, the implementation of deeper learning has allowed me to create spaces where my teaching and the projects I create not only provide an opportunity for my students to sharpen their voices, but also find healing for themselves, their families, and their community through this work. As a US History teacher, I created projects that allow my students to create something that would teach their communities how great history was, or rather how hurtful it could be, and how hopeful we can be about that. A student of mine named Marcel created a mix-tape with the 14 most important speeches given by African-American in American history. He paired these with hiphop beats that he made himself, and then wrote two pages for each one. He didn’t want to write a three-page paper, ya, and he wrote two pages for each one of these things. It was powerful.
A second student named Maria created a series of lotería cards that she hand painted for the most important women in American history. That’s 52 cards, and she wrote an explanation for each one. The paper ended up being something like 60 something pages. They then got together with the class, and created a huge community forum for them to be able to teach these things to their people. It was powerful, it was beautiful, but it wasn’t the healing that I wanted, the healing that I needed. That healing would take about 10 more years of my development to be able to create in a class. As a gender studies teacher, I was able to talk to my students about gender inequality, systemic oppression, gendered violence, and in that moment, my class took a turn. My students wanted to create a project that was different than what I had in mind, and we co-created a project that was much deeper than anything I can imagine.
They created the rubrics, the deliverables, and the structure of the project that was super open and I had really no control over, they controlled everything, but this had some of the most powerful healing work that I could ever imagine. A student named Canary, decided to create a project that was addressing femicide in North America. Her project was her research and everything there, and she also created these paintings. These paintings were closeups of a woman who had been severely beaten. The most shocking part of that, is that woman was her mother, and through the project we were able to connect her mother, and her, to a women’s center that provided them with financial help, counseling, and the ability to get out of the situation they were in. This one project transformed the family, that student, the mother, and allowed for generational healing to happen. The next project that touched me was a group of students created a video essay.
This video essay was about sexual abuse. They interviewed their mothers, their sisters, and themselves, all for the first time coming out as survivors of sexual abuse. This meant that we had to create a space where before this was even shown, the families had some counseling. We were able to connect them to women’s center, and had them create that healing. This was the healing I was looking for in a school. Transformative projects are always there, but they’re deeper. They can create an improvement in student learning. They can create the ability for them to see themselves as change agents, and the powerful piece is that they can transform their community. That’s the power all of us here have when we do this work. We have the power to transform and heal ourselves, have the students transform and heal themselves, their communities and their families, generational healing. To help us heal from a system that intentionally oppresses people who do not fit.
We can transform that as here. This is hard work. You will make mistakes, you will fail, you will fumble, but as long as you can reflect and keep working and learn to trust the students, this healing happens, and as we start, as we started with our ancestors, remember that all of us in this room are going to go back and meet, push back where we go, but know that you’re not alone. Look at this room, look at each other. There is a lot of us who want to do this work. Reach out to somebody and heal. Thank you.
Dr. Michelle Sadrena Pledger:
All right, thank you so much German. Please welcome from Hopewell, Virginia, Dean of Student Experience for K-12 Crew Academy, Sommer Jones.
I am a black woman, a daughter, sister, aunt, educator, and I am here because in these unprecedented times, the work of true liberation and healing for ourselves, and the students, and teachers we serve and hope well requires us to lean on the strength of the past, heal from the pain of the present, and work together to change the trajectory of our future. We all stand on the powerful shoulders of the brave souls of past generations, who have waited through the deep, troubled waters of fear and uncertainty, climbed the steep mountains of resistance and walked through the dark pally of brokenness. I personally come from a family lineage of men and women who have dedicated their entire lives to serving the young people in their families’, schools, and communities. My great, great, great-grandmother, mom Nancy, was born a slave in Pennsylvania County in 1858.
At the tender age of eight, she experienced her first taste of freedom when the Civil War ended, she became the community’s revered midwife and safely delivered hundreds of white babies throughout the county. Even though she knew that the same babies would likely grow up and be taught by the world to devalue her worth, and the worth of her own children because of the color of her skin, she still offered up her hands in selfless sacrifice to the white family she served day and night. Eventually she saved enough money to purchase her own land and became the first black in her community to own a vehicle and have running water in her house. I would sit at the feet of my grandfather, Alfred L Jones II, whom we finally called Papa.
He retold priceless stories of how he had worked as an industrial arts teacher in the Lynchburg City public school system for over 38 years, and in a time where schools were segregated, he believed that every one of his black students was brilliant. With the highest of expectations, my grandfather challenged them to use their minds to think like a scientist, and their hands to design and build like the innovators. He had the faith to believe that they would one day become, but although schools were segregated, many white people were still threatened as they began to see the progression of blacks because with the expansion of their minds also came new possibilities to provide better housing for their families. My father shared that when he was in eighth grade, they moved into an all white neighborhood, and black people had to pay a white lawyer to buy nicer homes or risk physical harm back then.
A few days later, the entire family woke up early one morning to find billows of smoldering black smoke rising from a burning cross the KKK had placed in their front yard while they were sleeping, but papa knew that ignorance and intimidation would not keep them out of their house or their school buildings, and his deep commitment to educational excellence and innovation remained unwavering until the day he retired. At the age of 23, my own father married my mom and moved them both to Appomattox, Virginia, a small civil war town where it was common to see confederate flags on the back of pickup trucks, and front porches of our neighbors. My mom dedicated her mission, life mission to staying home to raise us in supporting my dad with his radical vision of reaching all of the underserved youth within a 30-mile radius of our community.
But with little money and only cinder blocks to lay the foundation, he was met with much resistance, including from the local banks who believed it was a waste of his time to reach young people who were stuck in generational cycles of drugs, violence and incarceration, and whose parents were uneducated in living on welfare, but through the deep sacrifice and determination, the walls did go up, and years later, a state-of-the-art family life center equipped multiple classrooms in a gymnasium was built next to it. For 40 years, my parents poured their heart and soul into the work before retiring, and because of their sacrifices and faithfulness, Faith, Leanne and I were all blessed to pursue our dreams of becoming a doctor, entrepreneur, and educator.
But what do we do when our strength turns into deep pain, and brokenness, and the solid ground we once stood on crumbles beneath us. I myself was reeling from my own dark despair during the pandemic. My mom, my confidant, my best friend, and guiding light had taken her last breath on December 14th, 2020, and my heart, and mind, and soul felt completely shattered, with the wind knocked out of me. I fell hard and fast and all I could do was sit in my brokenness and brace myself for the overwhelming waves of despair that was washing over me daily, and at the same time, our students in Hopewell were also beginning to come back into our school buildings, and they were reeling from their own grief and loss as well. Many of them were lashing out in anger and fighting and disengaged in their learning.
It was a cry for help, and when so many others were focused on learning loss, we began creating the emotionally brave and courageous spaces for our students to engage in the process of what Dr. Pleasure calls, “Clean versus dirty pain”, unpacking their own lived experiences and lifting up the beautiful stories of their loved ones, and in the same spaces we gave our students the permission to grapple with their lived experiences around racial violence, social injustices, and cultural identity crisis. During the Capitol riots, Ajaney shared her raw and painful truth on what it means to be black in America.
Being black in America is: I’m a 17-year-old queer black woman who lives in Virginia. A smooth girl who tries to speak my truth with charisma. A girl who doesn’t know the weight of being black in America. Being black in America is scared to voice my opinion when oppressors are in my school system, worried my fellow black peers won’t stand with me but will stand with them. Being black in America is systemic racism, being a regular routine, black kings and queens, not knowing where they come from, but hyping up a look they can never achieve. Being black in America is being afraid. It takes a meeting, an investigation to fire a racist teacher, but a single note to silence my voice so no one can reach her. This needs to change. Being black in America is aiding the school to prison pipeline to justify black boys being incarcerated before they were born.
Being black in America is feeling frustrated, always being labeled as the angry black woman for speaking against inequality, laughed at in the face of the oppressed, as if this were a comedy. I want to feel heard. I’m counting the black bodies in the hallways, wondering if I’ll never see them again. Bloodshed. I want to be a kid. Being black in America is wanting to speak out. Being black in America is having so much you want to say, but not knowing how to convey the feelings that you have. Being black in America is being silent. Being black in America is not wanting to be reduced to being just a slave. Being black in America is realizing that not every black boy can be saved. Being black in America is beautifully broken. Being black in America is…
And Chris shared how he plans to stand in the gap for his future son and not only disrupt the cycle of physically absent fathers, but also change the narrative and make himself emotionally available to show the affection and love he lacked as a child in his peace. I will kiss my son.
With this poem is called, “I will kiss my Son.” I will kiss my son, I will hold my son. I will tell my son, I love you. See, most men call this being weak, but me, I call this being a father. In the world where young black men get kissed by bullets, and held in caskets, and only told I love you while they lay on their deathbed because dads cease to exist in black households. Where mothers are fathers that work two jobs, trying to provide food while keeping the lights on. Yet she always seems to feel like she failed.
Yet she doesn’t understand that she passes every test, an exam, and why, because even she knows that she can’t tell you how to be a man, but she still studies for an exam she shouldn’t have to take to teach a man she has not alone help make, and expect for him to survive in a world at his own say. See, my son would never wonder why his dad didn’t love him or wonder why his dad was never there. My son will only run with the meth gangs, and speak in intelligence slangs, you know, pin doss, exponents, multiply the vibe, those type of things. I will raise my son like the son in the east and I will pick him up if he falls in the west. See, I will teach my son that because he’s black, he’ll be called a nigger. I’m going to also teach my son how to make triple the figure. See me, I will kiss my son before the bullets. I will hold my son before the caskets, and I will tell my son I love him before he meets his deathbed, I will raise my son.
Although we have no perfect answers for this tremendous work, and we fell for it every day, our hope is to help our students become the authors of their own personal narratives, and keep asking the simple question, “What is the one thing you think students need right now in Hopewell?” The last time we asked this question, responses poured in from elementary and secondary students and they all came back to this one simple yet powerful concept. Finding the one. The one who will love you unconditionally and whose shoulders you can stand on, who will meet you in your brokenness and who will learn with you and help you grow, and most importantly, the one who will help you become the best version of yourself.
And I was really blessed in my own brokenness to have these wonderful, amazing people in my life and some of them are in this room and I lift you up and honor you today, and in closing, if we all come together, if we lean on our strength of the past, and we sit in our pain and heal in the present, we can learn to lift up the next generation so that one day we can all see the glory, and freedom, and liberation, and heal as an entire nation for future generations to come. Thank you.
Dr. Michelle Sadrena Pledger:
Although Sommer learned about clean and dirty pain in a class that I taught, it comes from Reesmaa Menakem’s, “My grandmother’s hands.” We just want to make sure we’re giving credit where it comes from. Okay? Please welcome to the stage from Latitude High School, located in Oakland, California, Dean of Culture, Christian Martinez.
I’m super grateful to be here. Super excited. The speakers just brought me away with their stories. Yeah, it is been a minute since I’ve been out there with so many people during this pandemic, so it feels good to reconnect. I want to appreciate everybody back home. Shout out to my mom, and I also want to ground ourself on the work of Bell Hooks. I going to be the person who I am today without reading all about love and the will to change. I’m going to share a little bit of my story. I’m going to pass in the middle. I haven’t shared my story this deep in quite a while, so I’m going to go ahead and start. Thank you. Hello everyone. My government name is Christian Martinez, but I go by Boyda Galactio, because I come from out of space. Most of my time, I was called Alien.
I’m the co-founder and dean of Students of Latitude High. I’ve been educator for 11 years now, but really I’m a poet and a brown dude from the hood, who’s changing the narrative for people who have similar stories like me, I come from the mud. When I grew up in Uruapan, Michoacan, Mexico, I was super shy and always nervous. According to my mom, I cried every day during the first year of kindergarten and some mornings I would hold onto the street pole because I didn’t want to go to school. My family was, and until this day, is very caring and big believers in the impossible, it’s possible, a mantra I carried to this day. I arrived to Deep East Oakland on September 17th, 1999, searching for a better future, the so-called American Dream. I was 10 at the time. I grew up in survivor mode and undocumented. When I turned 25, I had the privilege to become a permanent resident to the US. I turned 33 just a few weeks ago. Yes, and I didn’t plan this far ahead.
My schools were a place of fear, mainly because attending elementary school in Michoacan, Mexico, a lot of my classmates would go missing due to cartels and I would never see them again. When I arrived to the US educational system as an English learner, I thought things would be different. Mainly because growing up back home I would watch movies like Home Alone, the Breakfast Club, thinking that was the idea of living in the US and attending schools, but it wasn’t for me. Now we’re going to dive into my actual educational story a little bit deeper. I hope you swim good. During my freshman year in high school, I discovered I was undocumented, and what that meant for me moving forward around access, privilege, and high education at the time. In my sophomore year, I was a victim of gun violence. I got shot two blocks away from my high school. I was on the road to becoming a professional dancer. I really wanted to join a group called Jabbawockeez.
Six months later, my dad passed away due to an illness called muscle dystrophy. Right after that, I went to a deep, dark depression, full of self-doubt, no therapy. I spent the majority of my high school years in physical and emotional pain. I’ve dropped out of high school three times. That’s when I realized the system wasn’t ready for what I was facing. It wasn’t built for a brown boy like me. When I stopped going to school, not a single school member came looking for me. I knew I was alone. I’m sure for them I was just another dropout, that filled my belly with fire and my will with so much energy, to go and prove not just the school system, but to prove myself that I had a narrative to share. In 2007, I graduated high school, never walked a stage, attended prom homecomings, got a captain gown doing the graduation ceremony, my life essay won the highest scholarship award given by that school that night, but I wasn’t there. I was cleaning offices with my mom.
Eventually that scholarship became food money because my mom and I were homeless for about a year. I was supposed to attend community college and pursue a degree in psychology, but when I enrolled, I was tagged without a country [inaudible 00:32:24] due to my legal status in this country. I did it for about a semester, but eventually I couldn’t afford it. I’m here because of my story. I’m here because of my work ethic. I’m here without degrees or labels that give me access. I’m here to redefine what success looks like. There’s a lot of people finding success on the outskirts and silence or what a typical journey to that place looks like. I’m here to change the narrative. Thank you. The first time I heard the phrase deeper learning was back in 2017 when I met Lillian Sue and John Bossman.
We in the building. They spoke about new ways learning, creating a different type of environment where young adults can create projects, give back to their community, and build a sense of agency with them themselves. I remember going back home that night and searching all about that via Google, YouTube articles. It was a crash course. In 2018, as the first year at Latitude started to unfold, I witnessed firsthand deeper learning gay students’ voice and access. They were able to reimagine their future lives, think beyond themselves, and how their work was impacting the community. I saw the interview change-makers all around the city, create their own podcast, build a tiny home for in-house youth in Oakland, California, two blocks away from my own home. I started to see how deeper learning can connect the dots between what’s happening in the community, what it needs, how the school can help, and be a disruptor for change. How deeper learning can also span their sense of possibilities, but that’s when I realized that deeper learning was not new to me. It was just branding in a fancy way.
It has to be part of my teenage journey. See, when I was back in high school, I already was doing deeper learning without even knowing it. I was making websites for small businesses in my community. I was doing documentaries of the impact of gentrification in my city. I was a translator for my homies on the block. I was the bug, fixing computers, cars, supporting with legal documents all around my community. We were doing murals on street corners about social justice, demanding change in our communities, while we also learned our own history. I was an entrepreneur with my very own business selling high end calls from the trunk of my Cadillac at that time. Beautiful. I grew up learning about Malcolm X, Check [inaudible 00:34:50], Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, [foreign language 00:34:55] the Inca Warrior, as well as the best rapper to ever live, Tupac Shakur. Not from educational institutions, but from the community members via storytelling and live events.
I’ve been doing deeper learning without even knowing it. What I have noticed about implementing deeper learning in my context is that students will test you. They will question you to see if you’re preaching what you’re teaching. For example, if you’re teaching about poverty, homelessness in your city, a student will see if you are actually aiming to create change, not just within that project, but outside the school gates. Once they realize that you are passionate about it, their engagement grows. They want to see that you are not selling hope. Currently, outside from being the dean of students, school recruitment, lead family liaison, I teach a class social entrepreneurship on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, where we learn about the stock market, ticker simples, generational wealth, and read the movement of what’s happening in the world, the impact that companies and the power that they have all throughout the world.
In that same class, we talk about fashion and side hustles. I have a clothing brand, it’s called Swim Good. The meaning of that brand is no matter what you add in this ocean called life, you’re going to be okay, if you just swim good. I’m teaching a class where students are creating their own brands with meanings, create a alternative income. Next month, we will have a pop-up event, about 20 brands, all aiming to empower their communities and raise money for their graduation festivities. I’m going to end with this. A lot of times in education, we aim to innovate, which is a beautiful thing, but sometimes, a lot of times, those ideas already exist in some form in my communities, especially in marginalized communities where we always find a way to survive.
As we move forward to reimagine education, what it should look like, what it should feel like, I challenge you to take the less travel role, do deeper learning with community members, and let them be the drivers. Integrate the homie with less access into your projects. Interview family members, local artists, activists. Create space where students can learn from the struggle and the beauty within. Highlight the stories of the heroes from the same community you serve. Demystify what success looks like while also creating a sense of community, because that’s when we all win. Elevate.
Dr. Michelle Sadrena Pledger:
Yes. Thank you. All right. Thank you. Christian. Please welcome from Eagan, Minnesota math educator and lead facilitator Haben Ghebregergish.
Thank you to so much to the other keynote speakers. You guys have really inspired me. I’m really glad I got to hear what you had to say before I gave mine. I think it gives a lot more meaning to what I’m about to say. My name is Haben Ghebregergish, and I am a math educator at the high school for recording arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. I went to public schools in St. Paul from kindergarten to middle school, but my story starts thousands of miles from there. I was born in Eritrea, an East African country with a population of 6 million, and immigrated to the United States at five years old, along with my parents and my younger brother. My parents grew up during a violent civil war that would go on until the year I was born. My dad, who grew up in a tiny village, stopped going to school in eighth grade as a result of the fighting.
My mother, a city girl, was lucky enough to finish high school, but never got to pursue her dream of becoming a nurse. My parents’ educational pursuits were cut short, but they had greater hopes for their children. As I grew up, my parents instilled in me that we came to the United States for educational and economic opportunities, as well as political freedom, not because we didn’t want to be Eritrean anymore. They taught me to love my Eritrean culture, my unblemished cocoa skin that did so well in the sun, my metamorphic hair capable of taking on any hairstyle, my distinct ability to learn new things quickly, and all my other unique qualities. I’m grateful because my self-love and self adoration would be challenged living in America.
As a child of immigrants, I learned how to do a lot of things at an early age in order to help my parents. I completed government forms, helped them study for their citizenship test so that I could become a citizen, and translated during phone calls to ask some company why they kept raising our bills, and I still do it now. Like so many emerging bilingual learners, I had a symbiotic relationship with my parents. I needed them for food, shelter, and protection, but they also needed me. I showed deference to adults, but in so many ways, I was fiercely independent and an amazing critical thinker, but as a black nerdy girl, I struggled to fit in even at my racially and ethnically homogenous or diverse elementary school. The kids used to call me Oreo. Black on the outside, white on the inside. Ever heard that one before?
So because only white people can be smart and articulate, I guess, that was the point. So building my self-love and self-confidence was even harder when my parents moved us out to the mainly white city of Eagan, Minnesota, where I was the only black kid in almost every room I entered. Feeling disconnected socially, I threw myself into my studies. As much as my parents wanted to help, I don’t think they understood what it meant to grow up black in America, and how hard it was to form a healthy relationship with oneself in this context. I think every black child struggles with this, even those doing well academically in school, and that’s something I did. For me, school was a place where I could challenge my intellect. In high school, I excelled. I took advanced placement classes, traveled all over the country with my debate team, and performed as a flutist in my wind ensemble.
I’m grateful for every teacher I had, but looking back, I realized that I learned a lot of bad ideas, about who matters most and whose stories should be centered. School challenged my intellect, but I never got to learn about myself. The experiences and perspectives of people who look like me were rarely on display. So when I was accepted into the University of Chicago, one of the most prestigious colleges in the country, I was astounded. I never heard of anyone that looked like myself, a child of immigrants who didn’t even speak English when she started kindergarten, getting that opportunity, and I was petrified. I spent the entire summer before freshman year of college reading as many books as I could to keep up with my future classmates, who I envisioned as all being far more intelligent than I was. These insecurities in fact, had no basis in reality, and I in fact, continued to prove myself wrong. At the end of my first year, my advisor sat me down and told me I was one of only seven freshman girls to finish the year with a 4.0 in a class of 1500.
So for the next three years, I was still full of self-doubt, because I wasn’t exposed to black excellence in school, it was hard to acknowledge my own, and I’m still healing from that. I’m a teacher because I believe schools have a duty to help students, particularly our bipoc students to build self-love, self-confidence, and self-worth as much, if not more than they need to prepare them in the academic areas, and I’ve realized that the way we teach the latter, impacts the former. What I’ve noticed about implementing deeper learning in my context is that in order for teachers to connect the academic and the social emotional, they must be familiar with their students’ contexts and recognize that students are learning all the time.
In the summer of 2020, after the horrific police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota, I understood that we were all learning, even though school was not in session. Whether they saw George’s murder on social media or refused to be a witness. Whether they actively protested to ensure that the police responsible were held accountable or watched it on Facebook Live. Whether they saw burned images or images of burned buildings on their phone or out of the window of their homes. All of our students learned that summer. As a teacher, the murder of George Floyd and all the countless police killings that have proceeded and followed, should make teachers wonder what their purpose is as an educator, what their duty is and what they’re offering to their students that will be relevant and empowering at this moment, and in the future.
I always hear this notion of respect in schools, treat others like you want to be treated, but that assumes that students believe they’re worthy of being treated in the highest esteem, and I wonder, what are schools doing to teach them that? So where do we start? The answer, I believe, starts by recognizing and honoring the experiences that students have outside the four walls of a classroom. Teachers can promote self-love and self-esteem by showing students that they care about them. Young people do not expect their teachers to know everything, but they want to know that their teachers will listen, and listening is where a culturally relevant pedagogy begins. One of the first questions I ask as a new student is, “What are you passionate and curious about?”
And sometimes I don’t get a straight answer if the trust isn’t there, but I can ask, “Where are you from? How was it like growing up there? What do you like to do for fun? How was your day?” These questions are not time fillers, they’re Unit zero activities. They’re essential to how you can effectively design your courses so that they serve your students. In classrooms at the high school for recording arts, students experiences, passions, and learning styles determine what and how we learn. The students have the opportunity to make the level of choices that almost mirror what an executive team for a company might make. They help shape learning targets and how we get there. They regularly help determine what success looks like through rubrics and self-assessments, and this way completely undoes the traditional student teacher dynamic, and it is necessary because in order for education to be relevant to students and transformative, students should be at the table from the beginning, not after the pacing guides, the standards and the lesson plans have already been written.
Thank you. It is imperative because we must end the myth that only the teacher owns the knowledge. When it comes to the creation and execution of policy surrounding issues like policing and economic development, we started going to go back to the question of, “Who was at the table in the first place?” Educators who want to be part of the fight for social justice should ask themselves the same question in their field. In these tumultuous times, teachers cannot be what many would call neutral. As educational philosopher Paulo Freire once said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless, means decide with the powerful, not to be neutral.” So it is time to be bold. Teachers cannot be afraid of being too political because frankly, everything is political. In these times, neutrality is a myth. Teachers must be willing to make spaces for students for them to discuss issues of power and inequity.
They must create a safe space for students to share their own experiences and ask questions that may put our systems, including our educational system on trial. In my mathematics classroom, our learning is often centered around critical issues like the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement, growing wealth disparities, and the disproportionate impact of climate change on the poor and non-white. So I hope that as a deeper learning community, we can focus on building the capacity of our young people, to solve the problems that they have inherited from previous generations. Racism, widening wealth gaps, climate change, and so much more. We’ve learned over recent years that they have the will and the energy to take on these challenges, and we got to pass the baton. I’m grateful for my education, but I wish that I had had the opportunity to dissect and challenge the systems that often made life harder for my family, and made me feel inadequate and unworthy to take up space.
I wish I had had a chance to learn about the countless change-makers like African American mathematician, Dorothy Yvonne, who was the director of a segregated computer programming department at NASA and Georgiana R. Simpson, the first black woman to earn a PhD at the University of Chicago, and was only one of three black women to earn a doctorate in 1921. Women like them were slowly dismantling the unjust status quo by pursuing their greatness, and I believe they were hyper aware of that, and because I now know about these change-makers, I’m hyper aware of my role, and that fills me with pride. All of our students deserve this level of self-actualization as well. Thank you.
Dr. Michelle Sadrena Pledger:
Oh my goodness. Yes. Thank you. So special thanks to German, Sommer, Christian Haben, and now…
High Tech High Unboxed is hosted and edited by me, Alec Patton. Our theme music is by Brother Herschel. To find out more about the Deeper Learning Conference, visit the website deeper-learning.org. That’s deeper-learning.org. Thanks for listening.