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The Equity Diet: Building Capacity Through Daily Habits

Editor's Note: Today's blog entry will be written by a great friend and colleague of mine—Ken Patterson of Baltimore County Public Schools. Ken is a 2016 NNSTOY/NEA Outstanding Black Male Educator Fellow, the Magnet Coordinator for International Studies in Global Communications and Science at Woodmoor Elementary School and a dynamic champion of children of color.

The Equity Diet: Building Capacity through Daily Habits

Ken Patterson, M. Ed.

"I'm not hungry, I ate yesterday."—Me, 10 years old in a dinnertime conversation

Growing up, my mom was a big Oprah Winfrey fan and would often work to immediately apply the discussions on the show to our daily lives as a family. As you can imagine, this produced a constant state of surprise whenever I would return home from school. Show topics such as "Simplify Your Lifestyle," "The Hidden Benefits of Wheat Bread," and "TV Detox" meant I could come home at any time to a bare house, sandwiches on wheat, or a TV unplugged and sitting in the bottom of my closet. The most horrific of these experiences involved me coming home to gourmet liver for dinner and her explaining all of the benefits it provided. Lots of vitamins, minerals, and proteins all packed in this dish...it's about "healthy lifestyles." My response was simple: "I'm not hungry, I ate yesterday."

Equity in education is a lot like the gourmet liver dish—rich in nutrients that our classrooms and school communities desperately need, but not very tasty. Sure some love it, but for most educators used to other menu items, it is an acquired taste. I was used to a certain menu of items, and although they were tasty, there were nutrients still absent in my diet from the donuts, fruit drinks, and candy I consumed. In education we are accustomed to a certain menu of items that we grew up on and the process of changing that menu for the improvement of educational outcomes for black and brown children can be challenging. "Not another equity conference...we went to one last year."

Equity is not measured in how many conferences we attend, books we read or posters we display in our classrooms; it must be measured by its reflection in our practice. I do not feel the immediate benefits of eating fruits and vegetables, drinking lots of water, or some other dietary health initiative I undertake, but people who know me may notice differences in the clearance of my skin, my energy, or perhaps some other feature I myself might not readily recognize. Those most committed to equity are spreading the message yes, but more importantly, it has to be something that is reflected in their daily practice as a result of their commitment to a daily diet of equity. It must ooze out of their pores and into their practice.

What are some ways we can begin displaying this sort of equity? Engaging in a daily, collective diet of equity until it is as natural to our school organizations as breathing.  In thinking of equity as a daily diet we can put into practice, perhaps the following steps are helpful:

Equity for Breakfast: "I did then what I knew how to do, now that I know better I do better." —Maya Angelou

As we rise and head into our buildings to help inspire the potential of young people, many thoughts can often run through our heads. Perhaps there is an e-mail that we have to respond to, a challenging student we are preparing our hearts for, or a lesson-plan that is not quite finished—or even started. Take a moment to think about how the interactions you engage in today will provide equitable opportunities for your students. Teachers are the crucial frontline in the promotion of equity. No one can impact a student more than the teacher in the classroom. It is on us to visualize what success looks like for all students under our care.

Think about constant and creative ways you can build up a culture of equity without calling it "equity." In my experience, I find that schools that mention equity the most have often so compartmentalized it, either with banners, titles or tweets that often the actual proof of equity in these environments leaves much to be desired. This is not to say those things aren't important--they should definitely exist as on-ramps for those new to the discussion, however, the ultimate goal is that throughout the building the practice is inseparable from identity. As a staff member, this is rising each morning with a goal to take one more step in building this culture in your classroom or school building. It may be an interaction you are looking forward to having with a staff member, a tweak to a lesson you are executing for your kids, exhibiting a bit more patience with a child that is often misunderstood--the opportunities are endless. The idea is that you should walk into the building in the morning with equity on your mind.

Equity for Lunch: "The most valuable resource that all teachers have is each other. Without collaboration, our growth is limited to our own perspectives." —Robert John Meehan

Lunch is the mid-day meal. For educators, it is an opportunity to reflect, share with, and encourage colleagues around ideas of equity in education. This is not to encourage mid-day formal PDs on equity every day, but how are we both encouraging each other as teachers and holding each other accountable in service to our kids. These dietary nuggets can be as simple as sharing information we know about a kid that may be helpful, sharing best practices or vertical collaboration to find out what worked with "that kid" last year (or to go further, what about our school makes 'that kid' unsuccessful). The mid-day reflection gives you an incredible opportunity for examining your own practices and thoughts toward your expectations of your students and how you deliver instruction. 

The lunchtime equity reflection is a very unique opportunity because you can reflect in the moment--when actions, and the feelings associated with them, are still fresh in your  mind. This reflection is for all educators. African-American educators are not automatically exempt from the internalized racism of lowered academic expectations in their classrooms. We have to all be in on this work and practice it as often as we can. It is this practice of immediate reflection that brings hope on even the most challenging days we face as educators because it reminds us that there is always an opportunity for improvement...always an opportunity to make the next hour better than the last, and to make every effort to leave the school building that day with a key success; providing energy for the ride home.

Equity for Dinner: "Don't eat too much too late, you could have bad dreams." —Mom

Mr. Chase, my elementary school principal, would always ask us...especially the young black boys, "what are you reading?" We always had to have an immediate answer and he somehow kept track of all of our responses and even knew if we were being less than truthful. He taught me even in the 4th grade that the key to unlocking the world for me as a growing young black man was going to be a love for literacy. He took it a step further—if we wrote an essay on what we read, we were allowed to have lunch with him to read our essays to him and discuss our books. There was nothing that made us more proud amongst our friends than walking out of the lunch room with our lunch trays, past our assigned class lunch table and answering "where are you going" with "to have lunch with Mr. Chase!" This was a clear indication to all of your friends that you were an avid reader and were sharing in a special lunch with the principal.

What are you reading? There are movies that are required viewings in the black community such as "Coming To America", "The Color Purple", and most recently...although debatable..."The Black Panther." Although more debatable, the definitive list of required readings for educators that help us understand more, empathize more, and serve with new insights is too plentiful to ignore. We cannot truly practice equity without taking the uncomfortable dive into the lives and realities of our most marginalized students. All educators should be reading books such as "The New Jim Crow" by Michelle Alexander, "The Hate U Give" by Angie Thomas, "Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America" by Ibram X. Kendi, "So You Want to Talk About Race" by Ijeoma Oluo, and "For White Folks who Teach in the Hood" by Christopher Emdin to name a few. Put them on your equity dinner menu. The books you read a few pages of each night before retreating to bed have the power to help you serve students better. The habits of visualization, collaboration and study are the nutrients that make up a diet rich in equity. These nutrients form the food for thought that we must digest in order to produce the schools we need for the children we love.

Food is too critical to not eat daily. Equity is too critical not to practice daily. Last year's equity conference will not produce any results if last night's thoughts are not helping us dive deeper into daily practice. Eat the liver, love it, and share it—you may be the biggest spark to these nutrients within the life of your school community. 

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