On honoring students and their teachers

I read the following statement at the University of Maryland, College Park College of Education Graduate Student Research Conference on April 26, 2010:

What you are going to witness today are the products of a long process that started with a small group of educators who teach in extremely diverse schools in the surrounding area. This teacher group inquired into what constitutes high-quality learning environments. After many long and heated conversations with just us adults, we decided to bring our students into the inquiry process by asking them to create visions of their ideal education. These visions took the form of powerful poems, raps, essays, visual art, and letters to Arne Duncan as you soon will see and hear from the students themselves. So instead of spending the rest of my brief time up here describing what they will show you, I want to request something of you, the audience. And I’m going to use a little story-telling to do it.

About a month ago, a Department of Education representative came to speak to faculty and students here at College Park. After he spoke, I was harsher than I wanted to be when critiquing his claims—for which I remain regretful—but I am not sorry I spoke up, because I want to challenge the message I heard again and again in his presentation, which was that communities and schools are overflowing with inadequate adults. Indeed, these “non-experts,” including parents and teachers, appear to be the source of our educational woes. Unfortunately, this deficit-speak reminded me of far too many conversations I continue to hear about young people, all of whom I know to be full of gifts that we can and will perceive if we take the time to observe carefully how they go about interacting with their surroundings and listen attentively to their lives speak.

Please do not mistake my critique of deficit-oriented thinking as an excuse for the despicable educational conditions that far too many students face on a daily basis, to which many of the students here today can and will speak. We cannot ignore the numerous problems that our local communities, nation, and globe face, and as an educator I aim to honestly examine my surroundings—including the adults and youth who inhabit them—without a lot of artificial sweeteners to disguise what is a savage amount of suffering. In fact, I am nothing short of outraged at the mis-education far too many youth receive in the United States and right here in the backyard of our very wealthy nation’s capital.

But that Department of Education representative was the misdirected target of my ire because we—all of us—are sacred and deserve to be treated with respect and care. We need to learn how to honor that sacredness, which is too rarely embedded in the federal, state, and local educational policies that ultimately become punishments and bribes rather than effective courses of action.

So today I hope to contribute to a transformation of our deficit-laden educational landscape by honoring these wise students and their wise teachers all of whom are the experts in the room on their own lives and experiences with schooling. I ask you to honor them as such and learn from them so that together we can realize their visions for a better tomorrow.

I will close by quoting a wise Oglala Lakota teacher, Will Peters, whom I recently had the privilege to hear speak while spending a week on the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. As Will said,

This world is on loan to us from our children. We have a responsibility to take care of it out of respect for them and their future.