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8 Pieces of Advice to Improve Public Education

Editor's Note: Have you ever attended an education conference and returned so inspired you just had to share what you learned with your peers? That is what happened recently to Chris Gleasonmusic educator at Patrick Marsh Middle School in Wisconsin after attending the NEA Foundation's Keeping the Promise of Public Education Symposium.

 By Guest Blogger Chris Gleason

The instructions for living a life, according to great American poet Mary Oliver, are: 

Pay attention. 

Be astonished.  

Tell about it.

Recently, I had an opportunity to put Mary Oliver's declaration in action when I attended the NEA Foundation's Keeping the Promise of Public Education Symposium. Many speakers shared their stories of hope, promise, and the future of public education. What struck me is that each speaker conveyed a profound truth about education. The talks, told with passion, authenticity, and grace, were informative and moving. Here are a few of my biggest takeaways:

Be a Warrior of Hope

Business leader Elander Lewis shared the phrase, "Be more curious than afraid," to describe his ability to overcome fear and to ask questions.  

In challenging teachers to apply this concept, 2015 National Teacher of the Year Shanna Peeples stated, "To me, when you become more curious than afraid, you become something I like to call a 'warrior of hope.' A warrior of hope doesn't go into battle against other people; they go into battle with all of the forces that are arrayed against public education."

Kindness Is a Skill

Educator Linda Ryden noticed that her elementary school students would forget their conflict-resolution skills when they got into arguments with each other. Through her research, she learned that when under attack, the section of the brain called the amygdala shuts down the ability to think and remember. To re-engage these areas of the brain, students need to have mindfulness strategies to calm the amygdala. 

One such approach is called "take-five breathing." In this strategy, Ryden tells us to "Trace your hand. When you trace up, you breathe in, and when you trace down, you breathe out. By the time you finish tracing your hand, you will have taken five deep breaths, you've probably calmed your amygdala, and you are ready to respond wisely." As Ryden stated, "Our school culture changed dramatically all because of these little tools. I believe that kindness is a skill that can be taught."

Honoring Our Promises

"Promises are the declarative statement that you either make in your heart, scream in your soul, or state through your actions. It is the mark that you leave in this world and standard by which people judge who you are," stated Josh Parker, the director of engagement and programs at UnboundEd. Josh urged us to restore three promises to our black and brown students: 

  1. Commit in your heart to be anti-racist. Josh stated, "When you commit to being anti-racist, you're not just talking about what you're for, you're talking about what you're against. The great author James Baldwin said, 'For they are all our children—we will either profit by or pay for what they become.' "
  2. Anchor our soul in reflection. "A great philosopher once said, 'An unexamined life is not worth living.' I believe the unexamined lesson plan is not worth teaching. We can't say we had colorblind intentions but still see color-coded results."
  3. "Always act in the interest of kids no matter what. Their future is on us."

Poetry by Paine and Aniyah

One of the most profound moments of the day came when two young poets took the stage to express the challenges they both face. Paine developed his talent for telling stories through poetry during his eight-year incarceration. Now he serves as a poet, teaching artist, and youth mentor. Aniyah is a 17-year-old activist and the third-ever D.C. Youth Poet Laureate.

"Put down your razor. Don't spill blood, spill ink. But if the pen is mightier than the sword, then it is mightier than any mental illness that has tried to kill you. So tonight, don't you write me a suicide note. Put a period where there should be a comma. Write me a survivor story, and I promise ... I'll see you tomorrow."—Aniyah 

"We used to go to the church and ask the pastor why have joy when we've never had it? The only thing we've ever had was overcrowded classes with teachers who could never imagine us passin.' The whole world looking down on us. Feelin' so stuck. Feelin' messed up. Could you imagine being from a place where you could see where you're going to be before you even grow up?"Paine 

Disability Is Not a Single Story

Disability-justice advocate, lawyer, instructor, and mother Rachna Sizemore Heizer described the challenges facing her autistic son, Jake, as they try to navigate a system that doesn't balance his disability and ability. "Too often we see the stories of children with a disability as a story of their most single, limiting characteristic," she stated. "We do not see their stories of strength. We design their education around what they can't do at the expense of developing what they can do." Jake, who has performed for celebrities such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, then took the stage to perform "Here Comes The Sun" by the Beatles. Amazing!

Love and Happiness: Keeping the Promise of Public Education

"Regardless of race or ethnicity, we are 99.6 percent the same" declared John Jackson, the president and CEO of the Schott Foundation for Public Education. Jackson continued, "In fact, there are more genes to explain the variance in our eye color than our racial or ethnic differences. Any variance we see in educational performance is not caused by the racial or ethnic differences but the social policies and social practices which create those differences."

When talking about the systems in place in our country, Jackson stated, "The work we are doing today is not head work, but heart work. It is about closing the opportunity gaps. It is about building relationships." However, the quote that struck me the most was when Jackson quoted Dr. Gail Christopher: "Racism is nothing more than institutionalized lovelessness." 

Jackson urged us to look at education systems in our cities to assess whether students have a fair opportunity to learn. And then to make sure the needed resources are available to meet the needs of care, stability, capacity, and commitment. Jackson said, "The only people I hear say resources don't matter are those who have the resources! If you walk past a river and see a duck laughing and a fish barking, don't ask what is wrong with the duck or the fish, ask what is wrong with the river. We have to assess our systems."

Building Bridges of Empathy

leaders.pngDaniel Lubetzky, a Mexican-American entrepreneur, author, activist, and founder and CEO of Kind LLC, talked about his background and mission to connect classrooms around the world through meaningful interactions that help kids explore their similarities and differences all in the name of empathy. As  Lubetzky explained from the stage, he is alive today due to "the kindness of an evil person, who somehow in the darkest of moments, found the courage to spare his family." You see, his family is Jewish, and his grandparents and parents were spared from extermination by a German officer. As Lubetzky said, "This has fueled my commitment to building bridges between people." 

Truth Over Comfort 

The final speaker was the fantastic African writer and storyteller Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who profoundly stated, "Students are not employees. Schools are not corporations. Our job is to maximize human potential. Choose truth over comfort." 

The stories shared from this one afternoon were impactful not just for the richness of the messages but also from the diversity of the perspectives, proving that it takes many voices to express and keep the promise of public education. I believe that there are many leaders among us speaking truth and wisdom. It is up to us to pay attention, be astonished, and take action! 

Connect with Chris, Heather, and the Center for Global Education on Twitter. 

Image created on Pablo.

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