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Don't Cut Students Off From Their School's History

One of my favorite places in my parents' house is the staircase. Along the walls my folks have placed pictures of members of our family, some of the four of us (my mom, dad, older brother, and I) and others of extended family. It's always a joy to walk up the stairs and smile alongside pictures of my nephews, grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles.

My one-year-old nephew also loves this spot.

Well, to be fair I'm not sure whether he loves the pictures or the thrill of rushing up and down the wooden stairs. Either way, he and I had a fun experience in that stairwell a couple of months ago that reminded me of an important—if overlooked—component of an education policy issue.

At one point after my nephew had bolted up the stairs I got him corralled in my arms where he began to utter what I'm told are two of his favorite words. "Dis?" he said pointing to a my grandmother when she was a child. "This?" I replied, "this is Gran, she's your Daddy's and my grandmother, Nana's mom."IMG_1502.JPG

"Dah?" this time pointing to a picture of my uncle Ben when he was a young adult. "That? That is Daddy's and my uncle Ben. He was Pappi's brother and he lived for a while in New York, near where I teach now."

And so it went, we "dis"-ed and "dah"-ed up and down the stairs and throughout about a hundred years of our family's history.

My nephew is a pretty lucky little guy.

He has parents and lots of other adults in his life who love him and will help him along the road of life (as well as one particular adult who loves him and will provide all the free math tutoring he could ever want!).

The little game of "dis and dah" reminded me that he is also lucky to have family who he will never meet, but whose lessons—passed down from generation to generation—will help him as well.

He will grow up hearing about Gran, Ben, and the other people who came before him in our family. Their successes. Their failures. He may not even realize it, but their stories will surround him just as their pictures surround us in the stairwell.

The same week I visited with my family, I attended a delegate assembly where the delegates of our union addressed a group of students who won't be so lucky. JHS 145 and four other schools in our city were scheduled to be closed by a vote from our city's Panel for Educational Policy in late March.

As with many hot-button issues, I see some reasonable positions on both sides of the school closure debate. A school's job is to promote student learning. Those that are consistently ineffective in meeting that mission ought to experience some intervention by public accountability systems in an effort to ensure good stewardship over public dollars. Yet it is also true that our neediest schools need more resources, not fewer.

My experience working with a diverse group of students indicates that, on average, students with disabilities, English-language learning students, and students who have had their educations interrupted due to the trauma of immigration and/or poverty require more resources than others of their peers. I don't know the details of school budgets in question in the latest round of NYC school closings, but I think it's pretty obvious that a school of almost 300 students where "Nearly half the students are English learners" ought to have more than "just one bilingual teacher and one ESL teacher on staff."

The Trump/DeVos budget made it clear that, at least at the federal level, the market-driven ideologies that lay beneath the school choice and school closure movements will persist. These policies will doubtless leave in their wake a group of students who are cut off from the history of their schools and education.

What kinds of stories will students like the ones who would have attended JHS 145 tell and be told? How will they place themselves within the context of schools and school history in our city? At what pictures will they point to ask about and try to make sense of where they came from and where they will go?

At the small and young high school where I teach, we try to institute traditions that help students connect with those who have come before. Right before winter break we had a group of alumni come back to speak to current students in 9th and 10th grades. At an end of year celebration on last week, we had an "hola y adios" ceremony where students shared experiences and memories from their current grade with students rising into that grade next year.

I hope that our school will be around long enough for future students to look at 100 years worth of pictures in our hallway, but it won't unless we instill value for this kind of knowledge in our students and our leaders.

What are the ways that you build on the rich educational history of your community to empower the students with whom you work? Please share ideas in the comments and on Twitter.


Photo of the stairwell at my parents' house by Anna Troutman

 

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