Inside the Ryman Auditorium. Photo credit: RecoilRick.

Last weekend was a great weekend. My husband and I celebrated his 40th birthday, and one of the things we did was attend a Nickel Creek concert at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. And, surprisingly enough, it was at this concert that the why of our diversity work was further clarified for me.

After a really incredible—and yet in some ways challenging—few days spent participating in staff-wide diversity conversations, I had wondered to myself about the nature of this work. It is hard. The analogy I am most often reminded of is when I try to clean a room in my house: as I empty the drawers, pulling out items tucked and hidden away over the years, the room tends to look far messier before it gets clean. Often, in that moment of cleaning when I’m surrounded by clothes, middle school yearbooks, and random bills, I wonder, why am I even doing this? I must admit sometimes that is my tension as we tackle our diversity work, too.

But as I looked around in the Ryman on Friday night, I was reminded why our work of thinking about race, class, nationality, gender, privilege, and history has to be part of our work. Nickel Creek is an amazingly talented group, and Nashville is a diverse city. Yet in the Ryman’s 2,300+ person auditorium, I saw only a few other folks who weren’t white. As I sat there, I began realizing why this task of thinking and working honestly—to be not only anti-racist but fully appreciative and inclusive of diversity—is so important and so challenging. We tend to live in homogeneous silos, and our lives can so easily be separate experiences even in a city as diverse as Nashville.

In a ruling that reignited the Affirmative Action debate, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s ban on considering race in admissions decisions at the state's public colleges and universities. Disappointed by the decision, Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor released a public dissent expressing what she believes is fundamentally wrong with the decision.

While the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Michigan case rattled Affirmative Action supporters, it was not the first major strike against Affirmative Action. In this New York Times piece, data show minority students' college attendance rates before and after Affirmative Action bans in California, Texas, Florida, and Michigan.

During my spring break this year, I traveled to Mexico to collaborate with first-year corps members in Enseña por México, one of the newest additions to the expanding Teach For All network. I saw firsthand that there exists more than one oportunidad to improve Mexico’s educational standards. Just like in Teach For America, corps members, or PEMs (Profesionales en Enseña por México), are among the top university graduates, all enthusiastic and impassioned to fight against the social and economic injustice of education inequality in their country.

One of the most rewarding parts of the exchange was hearing the stories of others who are devoted to the Teach For All cause. My host, Luis Miguel Reyes Loyola, became aware of the importance of education at the late age of 18. Luis Miguel decided to dedicate himself to his studies, a decision that paid off when he was admitted into UNAM, Mexico’s premier institution of post-secondary education. Led by these transformational experiences, he began teaching and became a member of the first cohort in Enseña por México. Like many of us, Luis Miguel moved away from his urban home to rural Puebla to become a corps member.

Emily Southerton

"This whole idea of place and identity and what's home and what's not home, [is] such an American question that we've been asking since [Walt] Whitman, trying to put that finger on America.”

-Inaugural Poet Richard Blanco in a 2013 interview with NPR

 

“Nothing can stop me from living here

In Westwood,

Not the money

Or the drugs

Or even the guns.

This is my home.

The one I grew up in.”

-Lilia Duran-Cabral, Colorado Poet Warrior, excerpt from “Westwood”

Whether it’s the story of a secret space, our collective spaces, ours homes, our streets, or our borders—stories of place are as unique to the writer as they are universal to us all. Across the country students are writing about their place, and within these stories, we see the story of our nation as a whole. Students grapple with the questions that have gripped our nation since its founding—what is home? What is my place? What effect does this place have on me? And what effect do I have on this place?

Teach For America

As we reflect upon today’s Supreme Court decision, we are mindful that too often, students of color must overcome difficulties as they pursue their education. Out of these hardships, strong, smart, and socially-conscious young people emerge; by sharing their unique perspectives, they broaden the awareness of everyone around them.

Yesterday, the world lost one of its greatest literary minds – Gabriel García Márquez. Márquez, whose powerful novels One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera are a staple in many American classrooms, was an esteemed writer who lent his voice to the struggles of Latin America. Known affectionately as Gabo, the 1982 Nobel Prize winner is often lauded as the best Latin American writer ever.

Farrow and his students.

Let me let you in on a little secret: education takes more than classroom management. Education doesn’t stop with 100% proficiency on end-of-course exams. Education requires empowering your students to invest in their community so that we can make it the place they want it to be.

Considering this broader purpose pushed me to think beyond the confines of my classroom to the project that has helped give my students voice and agency.

On the first week of school, I asked my 55 students about their assessment of Memphis. I would guess that only about five students admitted to liking Memphis. I found this quite alarming. I’ve always prided myself on being an active member of my community, and I took this statistic personally. I decided that I want to change the way my students thought about their community by giving them the chance to pursue their passions while also improving Memphis. I decided to name this project, “Let’s Innovate Through Education.”

Brakke on the day before her first day of teaching in 1999.

Dear Mr. Adcock & Mr. Ramey,

It is with a very heavy heart (and after a lot of long hours full of tears) that I am writing to you to resign as an 8th grade Language Arts teacher at Henderson Middle School.

I sent this letter on July 25th, 2001. The recipients were my superintendent and principal, both of whom were more gracious and kind to this new teacher—a newcomer in nearly every definition of the word—than I likely deserved. I know the exact date because I’ve kept a copy of this letter at hand for nearly thirteen years now, so that I can keep close to my head and my heart what I felt on that summer day. Sadness. Guilt. Commitment. Gratitude.

Recently, I wrote about the importance of teacher recruitment, but noted it was just part of the equation of ensuring that our public schools thrive and adapt to the needs of students today. Another part: keeping talented educators in classrooms and schools for the long term.

Admittedly, as you just read in my resignation letter, I’m speaking as someone who left the classroom after a few short years of teaching. For me, the reasons to leave were profoundly personal and likely right at the time—yet it is truthfully the decision I question most from my past. What would be different in my life today had I stayed? How would it have felt to see my eighth graders all the way through to high school graduation five days a week rather than flying in a few times a year for homecomings, short visits, and finally, justly, to watch them walk across the stage?

Emily Southerton

“Now I will do nothing but listen

to accrue what I hear into this song

to let sounds contribute toward it.”

-Walt Whitman, from “Song of Myself”

Walt Whitman taught us that the story of a stranger is as much a part of ourselves as our own story. He argued that we better know our own identity when we understand another’s, and for that reason, Whitman listened to others’ songs of themselves, and then in reply, vulnerably offered his own,

“I celebrate myself and sing myself

And what I assume you shall assume

For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.”

This National Poetry Month, TFA’s students are writing the stories of themselves, which in turn reveals the story of us.

Rachel Brody

Rachel Brody with her cousin and friend Gabriella, who inspired her to become a teacher and partner with kids to value their own unique potential.

“I cannot emphasize enough the importance of a good teacher.” 

- Temple Grandin, doctor of animal science, professor at Colorado State University, best-selling author, and autistic activist

Good teachers are essential for all students to reach their full potential – including the 67 million people living with autism worldwide.  April’s Autism Awareness Month provides an opportunity for all of us – special educators, general educators, and everyone who believes that all students can achieve at high levels – to reflect on our knowledge, skills, and mindsets around working with the 1 in 68 children who have autism. 

How are we learning from, and with, our kids with learning differences?  How are we recognizing the unique potential in all of our learners?  How are we setting a high bar for all students?

In the below reflections, two Teach For America corps members share the unique realities, opportunities, and celebrations of working with students with autism.

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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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