From the Other Side
Staying Committed to Equity and Breaking the Cycle: Dismantling Demographic Predictability
by Rahman A. Culver, Diversity and Inclusion Instructional Coordinator
For many us, looking back on the year 2020 will be exhausting, traumatic, and inspiring all at once. The pandemic has exposed many pre-existing flaws in our educational system. At the same time, our deeper engagement with long-standing barriers to racial and social justice, sparked by the uprisings over the summer, will stand as a major inflection point for American society when these events are recorded in our history books. As we approach the close of this momentous year, many of us now grapple with the question: How do we sustain this momentum and remain committed to fundamental changes in how we approach our lives and instructional practices moving forward?
Countless educational advocates have fought for decades to address systemic racism and institutional barriers to equitable opportunities. Even when I attended Blair, the predictability of access to rigorous academic experiences hung like a thick fog during my years as a student. I recall receiving an invitation my senior year to participate in the inaugural class of Youth Leadership Montgomery, and simultaneously feeling ecstatic at the idea of the opportunity, and forlorn knowing that I would in all likelihood be the only student who looked like me among the group of "future leaders". With disappointing predictability, I was indeed the only Black male to participate.
My experience mirrored that of too many of my peers. As a student, I was often confronted with the undue emotional labor of questioning, "Are Black males really not cut out for these environments, or is something else going on?" It is an incredibly toxic experience, for White and students of color alike, to continually move through public spaces that are supposedly reserved for the most "gifted and talented" and fail to see all communities fully included.
Of course, this predictability was (and still is) rooted in personal bias, systemic barriers, and lack of institutional supports. Youth Leadership Montgomery, a wonderful opportunity to strengthen student civic engagement and local political leadership, still operates roughly 25 years later. Why hasn't the demographic predictability for programs and opportunities like this within Montgomery County fundamentally changed? The pandemic has only further demonstrated the inherent urgency of fixing these systemic, fundamental barriers.
To break this cycle, we need to disrupt the practices, structures, and attitudes that have constituted business as usual in the county (and the nation) for too long. Blair, as a school community, is no different. Such change will at times be challenging and uncomfortable, but such interventions are required for success. In the coming months, you will find that as a community we will evolve in the way we approach broader community engagement with our application programs; the manner is which student scheduling is conducted; the processes we use to elicit student participation and leadership in extracurricular activities; the strategies we employ to foster culturally responsive and anti-bias instruction in the classroom, and many other facets of academic life at Blair.
The pandemic has presented us all with a wake-up call. It has forced us to stop and operate outside of our well-ingrained routines. This window presents us with an opportunity to re-imagine what American education should look like and how we approach our roles as educators. The holistic, innovative practices we develop now can benefit our students long after COVID is a distant memory. If 2020 has inspired you to reflect on how you want to contribute to meaningful growth at Blair, and to our society as a whole, I hope you will support the multiple efforts under way. Together, we can build toward the fateful day when demographic predictability is something we only read about in the history books.
Every edition of “From the Other Side” includes a blog post that features a personal artifact from my school-aged years, providing commentary on my experiences as a student compared to my reflections as an educator.
Faculty Spotlight: Grace Contreras & Edward Kirk
Montgomery Blair teachers Grace Contreras and Edward Kirk have teamed up on YouTube to push their students beyond the calculus of mathematics. In a time when the nation faces an academic crisis fueled by COVID-19, students struggle to keep up with virtual instruction — especially those with limited English proficiency or learning differences. The social-emotional component of school also has taken a hit: Most teachers have never met their students and many students struggle with self-advocacy.
“We wanted a way for the kids to get to know us,” explain Contreras and Kirk. Beyond the math lesson at hand, both teachers invite other members of the Blair community to participate, so the students can see some of the various supporting adults available to them. Also during each video, Contreras and Kirk model what it's like to have courageous conversations with others. In one sketch, for example, Contreras shares with Kirk that she doesn't like one of his behaviors.
"Mr. Kirk, I think it would be good if we take a moment to confront some of the things that I've noticed in some of the videos that we've been doing," begins Contreras, articulating how she feels that Kirk's habit of talking over her invalidates what she has to offer during the lessons. She also expresses that she wants to continue to work together in a productive way.
"Thank you for pointing that out," Kirk replies, in his apology. In the dialogue that follows, the two share constructive suggestions that will help change to unintended — yet invalidating — behavior. From there, it's on to life with inverse functions.
As it became apparent that distance learning would last for some time, Contreras and Kirk planned out these asynchronous YouTube lessons over the summer. Why YouTube? Both teachers get to collaborate in a way that their schedules would not allow for during live classes. Also, in the spirit of equity and universally designed lessons, students can rewatch lessons, slow down the rate of speech, launch the transcript, and absorb the material at their own pace.
"The speed with which you learn math is not an indicator of how smart you are," say Contreras and Kirk.
The duo have also initiated another mini project to help students broaden their horizons in a way that's still comfortable and accessible for their age. Both teachers require students to write journal entries about their experiences with math. Topics range from how they feel in class to learning about diverse mathematicians to studying Mayan, Aztec, Hindu, and Arabic mathematical advancements. As Contreras and Kirk point out, some responses through this activity "are very passionate."
In addition to working with Kirk, Contreras collaborates with ESOL Physics to help support her math students. Regardless of department or specialty program, "we're all on the same team," she admits. "We all just want kids to do the best they can."
Ms. Contreras's and Mr. Kirk's YouTube presentations are available online at https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCw5ibxe8zXKorbTU5DWk_wQ. They can be reached by e-mail at Grace_R_Contreras@mcpsmd.org and Edward_J_Kirk2@mcpsmd.org.
From the News to You: Remote Learning During the Pandemic
Resources from MCPS and WETA on effectively differentiating instruction during remote learning
The COVID pandemic has laid bare historical inequities in our educational system. Further, students of color, English language learners, and students with disabilities are experiencing the greatest learning deficits. This problem is compounded by the fact that working class and communities of color have experienced disproportionate health and financial impacts in the aftermath of the pandemic. This confluence of circumstances creates a daunting dilemma for many families of color regarding the decision to return their children to school buildings, as reflected in recent county data. Available information suggests that the students with the greatest learning needs will largely choose to continue receiving remote instruction for several months. The featured lesson materials will help equip you to differentiate instruction in your classes, particularly for the learners who need the most support.
- Introduction to Blended and Personalized Learning (MCPS-login required Canvas Self-Guided PD course by Angel Olivero; featured in recent TSI training hosted by Adriana Burgos-Ojeda and Lisa Fox)
- Distance Learning for ELLs: Planning Instruction by Kristina Robertson, WETA
The “From News to You” section features culturally responsive monthly lesson materials on a prevailing issue in the national and/or global media.
Let's Talk About Race
Back to the Building? Or Back to the Computer?
The pandemic has evoked deep, long-seeded passions regarding educational equity in America. With the distress that so many communities are experiencing, simmering tensions have erupted into the public sphere, forcing us to confront ugly truths regarding persistent academic disparities for many communities of color. With debates increasingly emerging around what interventions are best for these students in the midst of the pandemic, there are many factors and complexities to take into account. When having conversations around these pivotal issues, that often involve diverging perspectives and racially sensitive themes, consider these talking points.
"The fact that we haven’t had any of our children in school since March and some of our kids are really at significant risk and doing poorly in terms of academics and just overall health and well-being, being out of school, I think [the school system] needs to step it up a bit. ... Our kids are so in need and families that are higher income and whiter than the families in ... public schools are still getting access to education in schools and our kids aren’t."
— Jessica Bauer Walker, executive director, Community Network for Engagement, Connection and Transformation
"There are so many other things that already put my Black son at risk. ... Black and brown families don’t have the luxury of choosing to put our children's lives at risk."
— Kaliris Salas-Ramirez, neuroscientist, CUNY School
"The fact is, honestly ... we don't know how bad the learning loss has been because the kids who were hardest hit are also the hardest to find right now. But I will say that every expert I've spoken with says this pandemic has absolutely widened learning gaps for low-income kids, homeless students, communities of color and also students with disabilities."
— Cory Turner, NPR
“Because the vast majority of students will be staying home, making all teachers go into the school buildings is actually going to harm the education of more children than it will help ... Because inevitably our attention as instructors will be occupied by the small number of students in our classroom instead of our larger number on our Google Classroom.”
— Jesse Sharkey, Chicago Teachers Union President
“As long as the digital divide remains, it stands as a failure of national will that translates into greater educational inequities. ... COVID-19 has given us a once-in-a-generation opportunity to rethink and re-imagine all parts of the learning experience. ... We have an opportunity to use this moment to address many of the long-standing challenges that have plagued our education system. But taking advantage of this moment requires action and vision...”
— The COVID Collaborative; Arne Duncan, John B. King, Rod Paige, Richard Riley and Margaret Spellings, "Ten Ways to Make Online Learning Work: A Guide to Improving Education in the Time of COVID-19", Published November 23, 2020
“We are still bleeding, so the first thing is to stop the bleeding, and then we’re going to have some healing to do, and it’s going to take years.”
— Nat Malkus, resident scholar, American Enterprise Institute
Commentary and resources on how to equitably approach instruction during the pandemic are available at the Teaching Tolerance Supporting Students Through Coronavirus page.
The “Let’s Talk About Race” section features talking points representing opposing perspectives on a particular issue. The outlined quotes and statements present a simulated dialogue that can serve as inspiration when approaching similar topics with students or colleagues.
Developments in the Field
Ways to serve and support teachers and students in under-resourced communities
A new study published in the Journal of the American Educational Research Association reveals that teachers working in high-poverty schools with economically disadvantaged students are unfairly penalized on their classroom observations. Because Black teachers are more often likely to teach in these classrooms, they make up a disparate proportion of the unfair evaluations. The study found that Black teachers are often tracked into high-poverty classrooms because of bias that can happen in the hiring process. ("Teachers in High-Poverty Schools Penalized Unfairly on Observations, Study Says", Madeline Will, Education Week, Dec. 14, 2020)
A randomized study in Mexico revealed that all school efforts to boost parent involvement are not created equal. Two different experiments, focused on low-income indigenous parents, failed to improve the academic achievement of their children. In one experiment, parents were given extra money and some decision-making power, in addition to the parent engagement information, and students didn’t do better and parents and teachers lost trust in each other. The study indicated that broad parenting skills lectures were ineffective and such engagements require specific, targeted information to each student/family. ("When Parents Got Involved in Schools, Kids did No Better", Jill Barshay, The Hechinger Report, Nov. 30, 2020)
Writer and Teacher Sam Long in a recent issue of TEACH Magazine outlined strategies for employing a gender-inclusive biology curriculum. Long writes, "A unit on evolution is a great time to drive home this celebration of diversity. Variation is an essential part of the modern theory of natural selection. ... When diverse identities come up in the classroom, always ask about what voices are present and what voices are absent in the conversation. Be aware of your own identity and your privileges. Don't speak for transgender people, intersex people, or any other group when you have the option of inviting guest speakers, viewing documentaries, or reading their books." ("Growing a Gender-Inclusive Biology Curriculum", Sam Long, TEACH Magazine, Oct. 16, 2019)
The “Developments in the Field” section features key notes on the latest discourse and resources emerging from DEI educational advocates.
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