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Ready, Set, Grow: Setting Up Your Next Year Right Now

"We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit." Aristotle

If you are classroom teacher or administrator and you are reading this entry, it is probably between munches of a sweet treat, sips of a "grown-up" beverage or winks of an elusive mid-afternoon nap. As I write this, I am in the quiet room of my local library and overlooking one of my favorite restaurants (Eggspectation - I know, I talk about restuarants a lot) and watching the morning sun splash light over relaxed commuters, buildings and dog-walkers while listening to Kamasi Washington's album "Harmony of Difference." Congratulations - we have made it to summer!

Now, let's get ready for next year.

(I know, too soon). I am not sure of many things, but I am fairly certain that although the previous sentence may be stressful to read, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you understand that equity never sleeps because injustice is an ever stalking series of micro-decisions born in comfort and solidified in negligence.

For too many schools, inequity and gaps have already been scheduled and assigned for next year. Most times it is the result of small yet impactful decisions that we make to keep things 'running smoothly.' Other times, we pre-emptively foreclose the learning of future students because the sheer demand of teaching puts a premium on our relaxation time. Still, the action that saps too many educators of the power to effectively make greatness the standard for black and brown students is a summer without deep and efficacious learning. In the end, what has to save teaching is teaching (and learning). 

I am increasingly beginning to believe that the 10-month school year is won or lost in the two-month summer. From my experience being on many leadership teams, planning for the next year begins even before the vaunted July 1st school system new year. Many of the teaching assignments, course selections, enrollment figures and administrator assignments are decided well before the summer even officially starts.

Then come the mandatory trainings.

Safe Schools training. Equity training (if you have an Office of Equity). Curriculum training. All of these trainings, though important, seem to focus on acculturating all of the leaders of a school system into the new status quo of the organization rather than deepen the toolkit that teachers need to move the needle of achievement for black and brown kids. This reality shows up in our classrooms and schools when August rolls around. And it does. Every year.

Therefore, if the same schools continue to underserve their students for years (and decades), it is reasonable to assume that the 2 month gap of deep learning in the summer can be directly tied to the 10 month gaps that keep showing up. We have to change something. So, what can we do? 

1. Read. Read. Read. Pick up an audio, paper or digital book that challenges your internal bias or gives you context for the racism that is in America. The books and articles that you read should push you into a deeper awareness of the 'you' that shows up in a classroom full of black and brown children who may or may not look like you. My first year as a teacher was so daunting. I came to understand that the middle class, assimilationist perspective that I brought to my instruction either alienated the students in my class or only mattered for the high achieving few. This book changed my whole perspective. It taught me how to truly teach to the whole child - especially adolescent black males. In addition to reading about, as a colleague and friend of mine says - "the difference that difference makes in teaching and learning," take some time to read texts that refine your content-specific knowledge as well as your general praxis. Take notes as you read and zero in on a couple of teacher moves you want to commit to for the next year.

2. Have a Talk with someone. I used to tell my students that reading is inhaling, but conversing is exhaling. It is the complementary process that concretizes any reading we have done. So, provoke a conversation about race and practice with a colleague. A friend. A family member. If these ideas just reside in your mind, then the epiphanies that could be had would die. Your first step could be engaging with the authors of your books on Twitter or even following a hashtag (#educolor, #equity, #knowbetterdobetter) to facilitate capacity-building conversations. Our reading grounds us, but our conversations give us wings. 

3. Reflect on your role in your students' underperformance. In order to create new habits, we have to reflect on the cue-routine-reward cycle that shows up in our classrooms. In our principal's offices. In our school systems. As Kate Gerson says frequently, "we are the system now." We have to own that and begin to understand how we perpetuate the status quo by not disrupting the everyday, every year, every decade decisions that we make for our students. If you are a Social Studies teacher, their understanding of Social Studies today is a reflection of the 90 or 180 days they have spent with you. If we cannot own our contribution to students' underperformance, we cannot change our agency in providing better outcomes for the students waiting for us in September. A dear colleague of mine was recently named Superintendent of a school district. One of the more poignant statements she said to me over our congratulatory conversation was that she had to 'own the part she played in creating the system that students learn in.' We are the system now. 

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The final step you take may have to re-conceptualize our work entirely. What if our work on the achievement gap is fundamentally flawed? One of the central premises of the achievement gap posits that black and brown students are not achieving at the same rates as their white counterparts probably due to cultural deficiencies. What if we viewed that gap not through the lens of what these students come into our classrooms without, but rather what is lacking in the instruction and systems that are designed to support their learning? What if the problem is in the habits that we as educators and leaders practice day in and day out in the service of what we think we should be doing for our children?

What if leveled readers weren't the solution?

What if phonics instruction should be more central in the elementary grades?

What if independent reading should continue through high school?

What if there is literally nothing wrong with the black and brown students in your classroom?

The misbehaving ones. The tardy ones. The IEP ones. The reading at a 5th grade level in 11th grade ones. The single-mother ones.

Nothing wrong at all. 

What if they were no different than any other child who has experienced routine and systematic discrimination from systems that should be advancing their minds? What conclusions would you then draw from the data?

If nothing is wrong with them, then we may be nearer to the solution and the people responsible for the solution than ever before. Let this summer be our moment to seize control of our learning so that we can enlarge our capacity to be the change agents that so many of our children need. It may take more than a generation to fundamentally change the system. But, a year from now, when we have begun another summer vacation, won't the sunrises be sweeter if we would have definitively made our classrooms and schools places where excellence is not exceptional, but habitual?

"For they are all our children. We will either profit by or pay for what they become." James Baldwin

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