When College and Poverty Intersect

Cambridge. King's College Library (Interior)

If I were in a school or classroom right now, I’d throw out whatever lesson plan I had ahead of me and pull in Lower Income, Higher Ed a documentary in the Breaking Ground series from WAMU’s Kavitha Cardoza.

Throughout the doc, Cardoza talks with DC high school grads who are most, if not all, the first in their families to have headed to college after growing up in poverty. The stories are poignant, moving, and illustrative of the cultural, economic, and emotional issues facing students making the transition from poverty to higher ed. I want to use this doc with a few audiences.


Any teacher who has ever prepared a student for college or university life needs to hear the stories Cardoza has captured. They shine a light on what happens after so many high school students leave our care and cross the threshold toward which we’ve been helping them move. Most importantly, these stories help to remind us that high school graduation is only one milestone of educational attainment. Yes, it inceases the likelihood of economic success, but it does not ensure the social capital so necessary to help first-generation college students navigate post-secondary life.


Cardoza’s work here captures the stories of students torn between “survivor’s guilt” and the opportunities they’ve worked to secure for themselves. She chronicles worries and concerns these students face, which they likely never described to the parents. And she talks about the importance of support structures back home when students struggle with the college transitions. When a student becomes a first-generation college student, their parents become first-generation college parents, and that brings with it a whole other set of needs.

Students in Poverty

Perhaps the most obvious audience for the doc are those students following in the footsteps of those Cardoza features in her reporting. If it does nothing else (and I think it can do so much more), Lower Income, Higher Ed can give much-needed permission for these students to seek outside help, to contact community groups, and to realize they aren’t in it alone.

Students not in Poverty

Maybe the least likely to be among the intended audience of this piece, students who grew up outside of poverty stand to gain a great deal from listening to stories likely wound up in the lives of those students sitting next to them in class. Many of the students Cardoza interviews for the doc are also students of color recounting their time on predominantly white campuses. I found myself wishing she would talk to the white students in these largely midwestern schools and say, “What could you do to better understand those who might enter this space with less comfort than you?”

This is my one frustration with the documentary. While she does a fine job of helping her listeners understand the needs of and supports available to these students, I wish Cardoza had shined more light on the institutional shifts that would help shift the burrden from students coming out of poverty and onto colleges and their faculty. While the work of support organizations featured in the program is to be appreciated, perhaps universities could do more to be welcoming places of learning in addition to their financial support. Poverty, as it turns out, is about more than money.

Question, don’t Copy


When doing the work to transform learning in a system, simply copying what other people are doing won’t get you what you need in the long run – not with the consistency another approach might provide.

That other approach? Find out what questions the other folks asked, and then ask those same questions within the system in which you find yourself.

Lifting the work of others, specifically highly-effective work deeply seated within a specific community (and these are the projects that most are most often ripe for replication) guarantees unsustainable or less-effective results.

An example?

Let’s say a principle and leadership team from a rural high school makes a trip to visit several highly-touted urban high schools within a few hours drive. While touring, they note that one of the schools has an internship program for its students that allows them to partner with local companies, non-profits, and service organizations for academic credit.
Talking with the leadership and participating students in the urban school, the rural school team hears strong testimony about the success of the program in helping students to discover and develop nascent interests and build networks of social capital they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to without the internship program.

“Yes,” the members of the rural team agree on their drive home, “This is a program we need to start when we get home.” And they do. The next school year, they start the program, placing 11th- and 12th-grade students with similar partners in larger neighboring communities.

Midway through the school year, despite the best intentions and hard work by a dedicated faculty and staff, the program is failing spectacularly.

Students often beg off the drive to partner organizations, citing travel times as unfair burdens and complaining about the added schedule demands on homework and extra curricular participation. Those without access to transportation find themselves relegated to a less diverse selection of partner organizations and are understandably jealous of their better-resourced partners.

By the end of the year, the rural leadership team decides the program more arduous than worthwhile given its diminishing returns. “The urban school,” they agree, “is better resourced to offer such dynamic experiences to it’s students.”

If only they’d asked questions instead of building someone else’s solution.

What questions? How about:

  •  What is the problem we are trying to solve?
  • What resources – physical and virtual – are at our disposal to help us solve that problem?
  • What is it about the urban program that we would like our students to experience in our own community?
  • What are the differences between our setting and the urban school and how do those differences present advantages and disadvantages?
  • What questions did the urban school ask as they developed their program?

Coming at the issue from a questioning rather than copying standpoint would likely have allowed our rural school to head off many, if not all, of the problems it experienced in implementation.

Perhaps the school would realize the lack of immediately local partners was an opportunity for students to identify local needs for community organizing and coordination. Perhaps the school would recognize that students could build these partnerships for the betterment of their town and leverage online access to experts and information to help build student capacity where deficits existed.

Questioning, not copying, would likely have resulted in a product that looks little like the urban program on the surface, but a product that provides the rural students with the same kinds of learning experiences that excited the rural team in the first place.

In the same way we don’t borrow from another puzzle when we realize we are missing a few pieces from the jigsaw we’re currently working, we cannot expect copying from other systems will provide the fit we need to serve the people in our care.

On Whose Shoulders: Barn Raising


Today’s shoulders provided more than key ideas for inclusion in Building School 2.0, they were also key for the how of building Building School 2.0.

The barn raising in question is that described by Don McCormick and Michael Kahn in their article “Barn Raising: Collaborative group process in seminars.”

McCormick and Kahn present a possibility for running class discussions and seminars that run contrary to Person A making a point, Person B poking holes, and Person C poking holes in those holes, and so on ad nauseam. Instead, McCormick and Kahn write:

We would like to suggest:

  1. The classroom battle is not a good way to teach thinking.

  2. Even if it were, it makes idea-conversation so unpleasant that students do their best to avoid it, in college and afterwards.

  3. It is a significant contribution to the building of a society of contention and enmity.

  4. And, as an alternative, there is another way to talk about ideas which obviates those difficulties.

That alternative, barn raising. Finding an idea and agreeing as a community to do whatever we can to build on that ideas as a community. In classrooms, in faculty meetings, in any room where ideas are discussed – barn raising can change the game by changing the unexamined rules.

As Chris and I were writing, barn raising occurred time and again as an idea we wanted to situate in the context of the larger messages of the book and as a guiding principle for marrying my ideas to his and his to mine. We would not have gotten anywhere if we’d positioned ourselves as partners whose objectives were to tear down whatever wall of the text the other had just completed.

Here’s the other thing about barn raising – once you know about it, you can’t not see its place in conversations. Every meeting I’m in where we’re supposed to be coming up with ideas or working together to build something, I can’t help imagine how things might have gone if we were all amenable to building something. Instead – and you’ll see it – so many meetings operate on a theory of pulling down whatever ideas propped up next to yours. Nothing of merit tends to get built that way.

On Whose Shoulders: @GLSEN

Just when you thought this month’s series of posts was going to focus on singular writers, their individual texts, and how they influenced the writing of Building School 2.0 – bam, the unexpected.

In all seriousness, the good people of GLSEN work tirelessly to compile one of the most helpful, if not stark and sobering, data sets available on the lived experiences of our LQBTQ students.

GLSEN’s National School Climate Survey is one of the most complete accountings how our country and states are progressing in helping students walk through their compulsory school days without hearing being mocked for differences – real or perceived.

Beyond the Survey, though, GLSEN is also acting on its findings. From resources to start and support school-based Gay Straight Alliances to the Day of Silence and Ally Week, GLSEN is building tools and resources for LGBTQ students, teachers, and their allies to foster understanding, conversations, and change within schools so that everyone might have the chance to feel more comfortable in their own humanity.

While the book may only call out GLSEN’s work directly one or two times, the organization’s work toward its mission “…to assure that each member of every school community is valued and respected regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity/expression” embodies the Ethic of Care.

'13 School Climate Survey Infographic

On Whose Shoulders: Lisa Delpit’s _Other People’s Children_

cover of Other People's Children

A quick keyword search for Lisa Delpit on the blog will show I’ve thought and written about her work pretty deeply over the years as I’ve thought about what it means to be the other in my classroom (both as a teacher relating to my students, and for my students relating to me).

As I continue this series of posts about those thinkers, practitioners, and researchers who directly influenced what you’ll find in Building School 2.0 in the run-up to its Sept. 8 release, I cannot say enough about Delpit’s work and this title in particular.

In Other People’s Childrenc, Delpit is challenging, fair, thoughtful, and caring in laying out – over the course of several essays – some key considerations and understandings teachers (particularly teachers who are white) need to take up so that they might be better versions of themselves when working with students who come lived experiences wholly different from their own.

More than anything, I hope you pick up Other People’s Children, select a chapter, and start a lunch-time reading group with faculty friends. The conversations won’t be comfortable or easy, and they shouldn’t be. Most important conversations, most acts of changing your mind, are difficult. That’s good.

I hope, in some small way, Chris and I honor Delpit’s ideas and weave them with those of others.

On Whose Shoulders: Dan Lortie’s _Schoolteacher_

cover of Dan Lortie's SchoolteacherIn exactly one month, Chris and my book Building School 2.0 will be out for your reading pleasure. As excited as that makes me, it feels most appropriate over the next month to point those who are interested to the shoulders on which we stood when playing with the ideas we hope will be helpful to you and anyone else who decides to pick up the book.

First off, in the battle against education and teaching’s frustrating ahistoricism, I point you to Dan Lortie’s Schoolteacher: A Sociological Study.

Most people’s understanding of the history of teaching began with their kindergarten years and ended with a collected throng of teachers in senior year. This is helpful for a personal narrative, but not excellent for knowing the history of our profession.

Lortie goes well beyond an individual’s experience in public education and places schoolteachers within the larger historical context and should be required reading for anyone who has been ever ventured a sentence on the status of teachers and their role in supporting the formation of informed public.

Even more, for those fighting the good fight today to put teaching in its rightful position as a profession worthy of esteem and honor, Lortie’s book helps put in perspective the many battles (large and small) that have taken us from living the back of one-room school houses to those on the cutting edge of helping our students be the architects of tomorrow.

For Chris and me, Lortie’s Schoolteacher provided not only a set of shoulders on which we stood, but a reminder of all the voices throughout history who did quiet, thankless work of showing up each day to figure out what it meant to build public education in America.



It’s citizenship. No qualifier. Citizenship in the singular.

It’s not that we’ve gotten to a place where the phrase “digital citizenship” has gotten overused and we need to find some sort of new buzzword to help folks think they’re talking about something new.

On the contrary. It’s that the actual practices and spaces have collapsed on themselves and it’s time to help people realize they are talking about something very old. de Tocqueville old.

It’s not that removing the digital simplifies citizenship, it’s that it re-complicates it. It highlights the appropriate piece of the term and allows us to have a conversation about whom we want to be in our communities.

In the beginning, “digital citizenship” was a useful term. It helped us to conceptualize the ways we should and should not act in digital spaces. They were new rules for new spaces. We no more knew the ways we were supposed to act and keep ourselves in check in online spaces than we knew how long these spaces would exist – I’m looking at you Prodigy chat rooms.

Now, though, in many of the same ways 13 colonies showed, “Nope we’re sticking around for the long haul and we’d like to codify our existence,” the digital is proving just as much a destination as any physical space.

So, citizenship – period, hard stop.

In the same conversations where we talk about what it means to interact with people in places like parks, museums, libraries, and corner stores; it’s time we start to talk about how we behave in comment sections, chat conversations, blogs (the mico and the old school), and whatever is on the horizon.

Because, somewhere along the way, we started having more conversations about digital citizenship than citizenship and that’s surely a count against us.

It’s not that separating the digital from the physical in the citizenship conversation makes them seem like they’re driven by separate sets of rules. It’s that it implies they are the only spaces separated by different roles.

I act differently on the improv stage than I do in my office. My citizenship or community participation are similar and different in these spaces. My citizenship in this blog and my citizenship on Facebook are different. I decide the tone, how much I share, whom I hang around with, what I look like; and I decide it all in different ways. I do it all the same way I ask, “Is it okay for me to wear pajama pants to walk my dog?” and know it’s not okay to wear those pajama pants to the office.

It’s not that removing the digital simplifies citizenship, it’s that it re-complicates it. It highlights the appropriate piece of the term and allows us to have a conversation about whom we want to be in our communities.

At its very best, it asks who we want to be and throws away ridiculous consumerist terminology like “personal branding,” “identity management,” and the like.

One last thing. Citizenship is more difficult work than digital citizenship, requiring we move beyond locking down privacy, avoiding sharing, and absolute control and editing of what we put into the world.

Citizenship asks us to think about the fact that we are present in communities, whether we like it or not, and calls on us to be the types of citizens we’d like to see living next door.

The Forever Teacher

A regulation MLB baseball sits on my desk in a plexiglass cube. It is accompanied by a ticket stub from the game of its provinence – May 12, 2001 Reds vs. Astros, Cinergy Field, Aisle 105, Row 10, Seat 2.

I wasn’t at the game. I didn’t catch the ball, nor was it tossed to me by one of the players during batting practice.

The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

The ball has a signature on it. I don’t know how many times I’ve looked at it – Scooter Gennett #11. The S in Scooter is fashioned to look like a lightning bolt. The rest of the text is in the cursive of a young hand.

Scooter was 11 at the time. He’s 25 now and playing pro ball for the Milwaukee Brewers. When he handed me the cube at the end of my first year of teaching, he was just finishing 8th grade. The ball means something to me because it meant something to him and he handed it to me, I’ve always believed, to fill the space between us when our year as teacher and student ended and he headed off to his last four years before being a professional baseball player.

This ball has made 5 moves across as many states, and it lives near the box of things I’ll grab on my way out of the house in the event of a fire.

Scooter, or Ryan as I insisted on calling him, gives me the tremendous gift of knowing where he is and what he’s up to by way of being in the public spotlight.

This past weekend, I got to share a couple of meals with former students while I was in Philadelphia for ISTE. A recent education grad, an employee of the city, another college grad on his way to a pottery studio to make his art, a film-turned-communication major, and a neurobiology major who might want to be an engineer or a dentist.

We sat at these meals and I shared as briefly as possible what I’ve been up to since we’d last met. Then, I got to find out who they’d become in these newest versions of themselves. They are beautiful. They are tremendous. They give me hope for the People we will become – together.

I don’t know what it was like to teach students with whom I couldn’t connect after they’d left my classroom. I find it difficult to imagine a world where I don’t get to see status updates of their growings and mistakes, their discoveries and setbacks. Simply saying goodbye at the end of 180 days is a foreign idea.

I’d be able to find Ryan, sorry – Scooter – with a google search no matter what. To be able to shoot out a message when I’m coming to town and be able to sit down and hear about their lives first-hand, though, that is an affordance of the modern world.

What’s more, it speaks to the communities I hope schools will be. More than once, I’ve said to parting students, “Let me know what you need, and I’ll do my best to help you out. It doesn’t matter how long it’s been.” I’ve meant it every time.

Perhaps that’s a part of the new contract that’s written between teachers and students rather than districts and unions. The best of us realize the value of connectedness beyond the days when these young people are in our charge.

That’s a world I want to live in, and it’s what I want to model. I want my students to know I’ll be here. I want them to see that as a way of caring for those around them.

Yes, to those who read these words and worry about boundaries, perhaps this approach invites difficult conversations about what I can’t do to help students. It’s true. When I think about those students I’ve lost or the world has lost after I’m no longer their teacher, though, I’d much rather have the difficult conversation than grieve a life that might have been.

Much is made of the importance of lifelong learners. This weekend, and this baseball sitting on my desk, make me wonder if we’re not missing a chance to think about lifelong teachers.

#WorthReading: What I saw in ‘The Bluest Eye’

I don’t take as much time as I’d like to read. When I do, it is helpful for me to know someone I know thinks the book I’m about to open was worth their time. This summer, I’ll be posting each Tuesday about a book I’ve read recently that is #WorthReading over your summer. 

I’m midway through my first reading of Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. This revelation usually garners a response of “Really?” or “What?” or some derivation thereof. I’ll give you a moment to shame me for my cultural incompetence before moving on to one of the effects this book is having on me.

For anyone who’s read the book, you know there’s a scene where the character Pecola enters the house of a boy she meets for the first time on a playground. Morrison alerts her reader to the fact that whatever is about to happen in this scene will be unpleasant.

If you, like me, have never read Bluest Eye, I won’t go into detail about what happens. That’s not what prompts this writing. Instead, this post is inspired by what didn’t happen and what I was sure I was about to read.

Pecola is not raped in this scene.

I’m struggling with the fact I was mentally prepared for that to be the outcome. As Morrison described the boy with whom Pecola is interacting and their brief conversations, I was sure she was giving me the literary equivalent of a trigger warning.

What transpires between the two is nowhere near kindness. The events elicited deep sadness.

Having some time to digest it, though, the thing that hurts my heart the most is my ready assumption that I should be steeling myself against sexual violence. I have turned this thought over since the reading, trying to understand why I assumed that the bad thing that was about to happen to this character would be the worst thing I could imagine.

It’s likely the intersection of several factors.

The last book I finished was Gillian Flynn’s Dark Places. If you’ve seen or read any Flynn, you know she writes for the jugular. Any character, sympathetic or not, is going to be put through hell. It’s possible that Dark Places primed my brain for this “kill and torture your darlings” philosophy as the default for whatever Morrison or any other fiction writer had in store.

This is possible, and I worry that Flynn doesn’t actually bear the weight of my expectations.

I worry that it’s a million threads weaving together that led me to expect that this young, female, African American, impoverished character who is described as “ugly” several times leading up to the exchange will be raped.

And I worry I thought this as I yelled at her to “Turn around!” when she and this boy started talking in the book. And I worry that I thought this when he closed the door as they entered his house and my eyes started to well with tears.

Mostly, though, I worry what it implies that the actual events that transpired in this scene still led me to think, “I’m so glad he did not rape her.”

Do you get this? Because it’s been heavy on me since the reading.

The absence of rape with the presence of other embarrassments I wouldn’t wish on any other person was a relief.

Race, class, gender, power, prescribed concepts of beauty – this is how some part of my brain has come to expect them to intersect when presented as Morrison presents them here.

I cannot explain how deeply it hurts to realize this is what I was assuming would happen.
It is the same feeling I have when I assume a queer character in a mainstream fiction will either be coming out or be emotionally and/or physically abused for being different.

It’s also where I find hope in the world outside literature. In the same way I know the LGBTQ experience is fuller, richer than the coming out process or the events of Boys Don’t Cry, I know that all of the cultural identifiers Pecola carries with her do not mean the hurt and torment visited upon her are certain in the real world as they are each time someone discovers The Bluest Eye.

Perhaps thats why I turn to literature. In it I can see what is possible if I work to make the world a more perfect reflection of what I hope to be possible and a portent of things I must work against in case our demons overpower the angels of our better natures.

Asking Who I Want to Be


A few weeks ago. An email from a friend, “I just took this job, and I got an offer for this other job. What should I do?”

My response, “Who do you want to be in this situation?”

End of conversation.

That was the guidance necessary, not an answer, but a question to which I did not know the answer.

This is often the case.

At SLA, Chris will often say his hopes for the students are that they will leave the school thoughtful, wise, passionate, and kind.

I want those things too, but it’s not my answer. My answer with anyone is that I hope I can in some way help them on their way to being the better version of themselves.

It’s my answer for myself too.

Today, in a conversation at work, I found myself faced with a colleague whose approach was to point out the problems we were facing and then stare at me. The eyes I saw across the table said, “Problems everywhere. Probably more problems on the horizon. Might as well pack it in.”

If you’ve spent any time with me, it’s clear I’m not keen on dwelling for long on the difficulties problems present. Sitting across the table, I could feel the little stress ball starting somewhere between my stomach and my chest.

In that moment, I asked myself, “Who do I want to be right now?” The act of asking moved me from loudly inquiring, “How did you let these problems happen in the first place?” and moved me to, “What are do you suggest we do next?”

To be sure, I was still frustrated. I still am. The difference was asking who I wanted to be when I found myself sitting in frustration. In the second it took me to think of my answer, I was able to change tack. As I’m recounting this story here, I realize I’m closer to proud of that version of me than I would have been if I’d let loose what I was feeling in the moment.

It’s a question I’ve had to ask myself quite a bit in the last week as I’ve watched the aftermath of Charleston, people’s response to today’s health insurance decision, and either way the gavel falls on marriage equity in the next few days.

“Who am I?” is important.

“Who do I want to be?” is equally so.