Like many of our Teach For America colleagues, we were watching television and following social media as St. Louis County prosecutor Bob McCulloch announced the grand jury’s decision not to indict Officer Darren Wilson for the killing of Michael Brown.

The entire situation in Ferguson that led up to Michael Brown’s untimely death and the face-offs between protesters and police in recent months have been tragic, and watching the reactions to the announcement last night brought that into stark relief. It also shined a powerful spotlight on the ways in which we are deeply divided as a nation.

At Teach For America, we work alongside our many partners to grow and strengthen the movement to end educational inequity, and we believe deeply in the power of people coming together from all walks of life to contribute to building the society that we hope for. We know the power that people who share the racial and economic background of our students can bring to this effort, as role models for students and as leaders in the effort leveraging the perspectives and credibility that grow out of their life experiences. We also know that people who have benefited from racial and economic privilege are critical to the effort. Because we need everyone, we have to be a community where people can work effectively with each other despite differences in background and perspective.

Growing up, I visited the reservation almost every weekend, stayed during summer break, and ate tonoo’ (seaweed) and taa'oo' (acorn mush). My dad and I often had talks about what it was like for him in the world and the history of my family and our people. Our conversations always seemed to lead to discussions about being Pomo—something that has molded my self-identity. To some, I don’t look like a stereotypical Native. As a child, and even today, I often hear, “Oh wow, you don’t look American Indian” or “But you’re not a real Native.”

School was a different and interesting experience as I was the only Native in my classroom. At times, it was great. Once per year my mom would bring my grandmother’s baskets to my class and tell stories about my tribe. But, there were also times when it felt really horrible. I was often confused as to why the history my dad taught me didn’t align with the lessons I was taught in school about Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, and U.S. history. Hearing my classmates recite phrases like, “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue,” often left me feeling conflicted and angry.

For children who grow up in rural poverty, success is often synonymous with “getting out.” In Appalachia, we do not ascribe to this narrow vision of achievement. We want our students to receive a 21st century education that prepares them to drive innovation within their home communities. We are committed to a homegrown approach, working alongside teachers, parents, and local leaders to invest in Appalachia’s greatest natural resource: its young minds.  

Fueling a pipeline of homegrown leaders requires ongoing collaboration with a diverse set of education advocates, like Holy Cross professor Dr. Jack Schneider. Because of our focus on engaging thought-partners on our homegrown approach, I’ve spent time reflecting on Dr. Schneider’s recent Education Week piece titled “Reinventing Teach For America.” Even though his commentary included some inaccuracies (which have been addressed on our On The Record page), Dr. Schneider’s thoughtful suggestion that Teach For America (TFA) focus on recruiting “its teachers from the alumni rolls of the elementary and high schools where it places teachers” is one that resonates with our work.

“I’m not Choctaw; I’m Japanese,” my four-year-old son Rhys cried. I had just given him his tribal membership card, something that I thought he’d be proud of.

The strange thing is my son isn’t actually Japanese. Sure, he goes to Japanese schools and is fluent in the language, but neither my wife nor I have any Japanese ancestors. In his mind, he speaks Japanese; therefore, he is Japanese. Inheritance and genetics do not matter to him. When he found out that his hair and eye color were different from everyone else in his class, he didn’t see that as a problem. Instead, he confidently told us, and everyone, that he was a blonde-haired, blued-eyed Japanese boy. He knew he wasn’t Choctaw because he didn’t speak the language. It was okay for Dad to be Choctaw because Dad could speak a little Choctaw, but that didn’t mean he was.

As I think about my son’s development of self-identity and celebrate the heritage, culture, and contributions of American Indians during Native Heritage Month, I am reminded of the importance of identity in education. My ancestors came from many places, but my grandmother’s Choctaw culture and history were always the most important to me. Perhaps this has something to do with Choctaw culture itself, where the maternal family is the one where inheritance is passed on, or maybe it’s due to the historical continuity my family has had with our tribe. Whatever the reason, being Choctaw was always very important to me.

Amber Woodbury

I grew up in south-central Wisconsin in the city of Madison—and off of the reservation. The Sokaogon Chippewa Community resided just north of me, but I had to cultivate my own identity as an American Indian in a town with very few people who identified as Native. As I learned how to relate to my culture and identity without being assimilated to life on the reservation, I also began to learn more about how Natives have been impacted in the education system.

The President's announcement of expanded eligibility of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to more young adults was top of mind here at Pass the Chalk today. Obama’s landmark immigration plan has direct implications for the United States education system. Check out the other stories that got us talking this week.

As we celebrate our veterans this week – and every week - I’m so grateful to the men and women who have and do serve in our armed forces. I’m also grateful to their families. I know the personal struggle and sacrifice that military families face, and while I’m fortunate to know my husband is relatively safe, Facetime just doesn’t replace having him home with us.

We moved to Jacksonville, Florida three years ago when my husband Omar, or Aviation Ordnanceman Airman Omar Palmer (so proud of him - this year he was recognized as Airman of the Year in Patrol Squadron (VP) 10!), was transferred here from D.C.  Omar is now on his third deployment in as many years. In that time I’ve been so fortunate to not just find a job and home in our new city, but to also find a community and an extended family.

Yesterday, we had the chance to sit down with five college students, along with a staff member for United Students Against Sweatshops. Those of you who follow this blog closely know we’ve been engaging with this group for a few months now, and may have read about it here and here. The conversation offered a welcome chance to connect face to face, and to share more about the difficult, inspiring, essential work of our corps members, alumni, their students, and communities.

We first heard from USAS last spring, when they issued a press release to announce their “TFA Truth Tour” – an effort to dissuade students at their colleges from joining our work. This fall, it re-emerged with an administrator-facing twist, making the case to college and university presidents that cutting ties with our organization would do the most good for low-income students in underserved schools. As our 10,000+ corps members and 11,000 alumni teachers went back to school, the campaign stood in strange contrast to their tremendous grit, humility, diversity, and commitment to equity. And so, we were eager to talk.

Last night, we got to spend some time together to try to bridge this gap. Our conversation confirmed that our two organizations have a lot of common beliefs. All of us feel that as long as skin color and family income continue to determine a child’s access to a high quality public education, our nation isn’t living into its promise. We agree that the burdens of poverty make the work of public education much, much more difficult. We share the conviction that standing up for what you believe in matters a great deal.

Jason Mangone and MacKenzie Moritz

From 1919 to 1953, November 11th was known as Armistice Day; so this week marks the sixtieth anniversary of what we now know as Veterans Day. When President Eisenhower issued a proclamation announcing the change to “Veterans Day” in October 1954, it was more than a nominal one: he called for a remembrance, but he also issued a challenge:

 “On that day let us solemnly remember the sacrifices of all those who fought so valiantly....and let us reconsecrate ourselves to the task of promoting an enduring peace...In order to insure proper and widespread observance of this anniversary, all veterans, all veterans’ organizations, and the entire citizenry will wish to join hands in the common purpose.”

So, Veterans Day is really about three things: it is about solemn remembrance for all of our soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines; it is about actively creating a world where peace might endure; and it is about common purpose as citizens.

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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