A People Revitalized From Within
This post is by Sacha Garcia-Mailloux, Assistant Principal of the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, Massachusetts.
As our students enter the doors of our school on November 9, 2016, to unpack decisions made by our nation, tweets and news comments from an array of citizens murmur a mix of fear, disbelief, exhaustion, detachment, and hopelessness.
The texts among staff members continue from the night before. How do we respond knowing that our community reflects a diverse political population? What are our next steps?
We gather as a staff and do an early morning check-in, a common structure in our community that allows for expression and reflection and encourages active listening and effective problem-solving. A tissue box is passed as we listen to each other. We recognize that we must act so that our students and families are seen, heard, and supported. The question is how?
We divide ourselves into groups of two to three staff members and visit every classroom within the first hour of the day. We reach into our seven community commitments--courage, self-discipline, responsibility, perseverance, cultural sensitivity, friendship, and respect--to guide our conversations. The message is clear: We are here to support all students and are willing and ready to provide a space for processing, through one-on-one conversations or small groups. Why? Because we love our students.
The Springfield Renaissance School is a public school located in Springfield, the second-largest school district in Massachusetts, with 25,633 students. Renaissance is home to 707 urban students in grades 6 through 12. Over 60 staff, including paraprofessionals, clerks, nurses, and lead teachers, work together with families from various racial and economic backgrounds. Recognized for our positive school culture (in the top 10 percent in the nation of schools that participate in the Organizational Health Index survey) and strong teacher/student relationships, Renaissance exemplifies a community that strives to engage our students in difficult conversations, thus pushing deeper to complete our mission:
"Our mission is to provide a rigorous academic program for college-bound students in a small, personalized setting that impels and supports students to use their minds well, to care for themselves and others, and to rise to the challenges and duties of citizenship."
I grew up in Holyoke, an Irish-established paper mill city that houses a Latino population of close to 50 percent. I too was an urban student in the public schools. Although in the top 10 percent of my class, no counselor ever spoke to me about college plans. It took a government-funded program for first-generation college-bound students from low-income families, the Upward Bound program, to assist us with this overwhelming process. I attended Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and traveled to France, Spain, Italy, Sardinia, and Mexico. As the student speaker for the Bates graduating class of 1996, I spoke about my trip to Senegal, West Africa, and to the city of Dakar and the Island of Gorée. I was now a student of the world, but knew I needed to "carry the torch" and return to my community to give back. So I began my journey back to the public schools in Springfield, starting as a teacher and now an assistant principal at Renaissance.
Renaissance is a community where we take our mission seriously. With support, 100 percent of our graduates have been accepted to college. Now it's time to focus on what it means to "rise to the challenges and duties of citizenship" for our students and our staff.
The author (right) with students from Springfield Renaissance School.
Starting with the Story of Self
On November 8, 2016, the day of the presidential election, Darnisa Amante, CEO of Disruptive Equity Education project and a Harvard Teaching Assistant, conducts a workshop with our staff around the idea of the Story of Self. She introduces the difference between a technical versus an adaptive challenge and helps us apply this concept to racism. To change a mindset about values, beliefs, and perspectives is an adaptive challenge and it requires people to change their minds about something already perceived. Darnisa explains that people do not fear change but they do fear loss. She challenges us to think about what triggers us. She gives us time to write and share our story of self while being explicit about the challenge, choice, and outcome of the experience.
Staff sharing sessions give us the opportunity to team-build and to get to know each other in a way that requires vulnerability. In groups of 10 to 12 we read our stories and our colleagues write their thoughts and words of encouragement on post-it notes that are later given to each speaker.
Meanwhile, our eleventh-grade English teacher digs deep into the "N" word and students actively participate in a Socratic seminar. History classes unpack the election. We close 2016 in week-long "intensives" with our students, following our personal and intellectual passions.
Holiday vacation is over. Darnisa is present again and gives us 10 minutes to continue working on our stories. She then divides us into groups of five and tells us that each speaker will have two minutes to speak and that each member will give feedback. She encourages us to "show up in true form" and "lean in" to our conversations. In my group sits my close friend, Deidre, and as she shares the story of her mother unable to love her and of a teacher who saved her, my heart saddens and it is then that I know her even deeper still. At this point I feel more strongly than ever that our work to show up in our true form as educators positively impacts our students on their journey to know themselves and their place in this changing world.
Although this isn't the poem I wrote that day, I was inspired to continue writing after an inaugural weekend of action and motivation.
This poem I dedicate to my colleague...my friend...my sister...Deidre.
Pre- and Post- Assessment of our Nation
The melting pot is freezing.
My toes are numb.
The tips of my fingers hurt at the touch of warm water.
My nose is the color of Rudolph's.
My teeth chatter a Morse code asking for help...for warmth...
asking for protection.
How could this be? I'm scared...for my dad...for my friend...for me.
I need a rebirth...Renaissance...La Familia...
We listen and then speak. They speak and we listen.
Action not reaction.
We reach out and within
We pass around a tissue box.
We hug to remind each other...we are a community...we are family...
We reassure undocumented students,
"no...your dad will not be deported back to Mexico".
You are safe...with us...here...
A message of love for the unaffected
Those without opinion, without investment
Martin Luther King, Jr., awakes from his 1963 dream to the cries of the oppressed
writing a new speech where BIG black boys and girls join hands with BIG white boys and girls
We are still not satisfied...
We open doors and doors are opened
We embrace our crew even in times of dysfunction.
We love our students in a way that only our community knows how
Avoiding secondary means and connecting with primary sources
Pushing ourselves to work hard, be nice and get smart and "rise to the duties and challenges of citizenship"
A shared library...diverse educators...water bottles and edamame beans...savoring a small piece of chocolate
From their secret...
Secret stash of emotions...
Feelings of anxiety creep up at sharing
The story of me...the story of you...the story of us.
The impact, the decision, the lesson-
Our life at a crossroads
Stories of sadness, growth, disappointment
We ask ourselves...
Inclusion? Immersion? Acceptance?
For my students?
I don't know who they are... I don't know who I am...
The American dream...what is it?
I needed your hands to guide me Down These Mean Streets of inequality and rejection.
And you gave me strength, endurance and resistance.
I needed your feet to take me where my ancestors ruled the world before "discoveries."
And you took me to Los Angeles, Boston, and Washington, DC
I needed your eyes to see what we had done...I had done...we had done to our children's world...
It was a matter of survival...
And you showed me compassion, empathy and kindness...
Because you loved me...
And you taught me to see...
The melting pot is feeling warmer...
Pink hats unite
on womyn, children and men
Signs of oneness...
The voices of mothers and daughters...sisters and brothers...families speaking equality
Pandora's box is revitalized
Nadya is here
Hope is alive...
Photo by Sasha Garcia-Mailloux