My Personal Reflections as of Late…

Another recent reflection - Half Dome of Yosemite on Mirror Lake - Inspirational!

Another recent reflection of mine...Mirror Lake at Yosemite National Park. Inspirational!

It has been a busy couple of months for me. I have been in circles of people that are my academic superheroes, and if you will allow me to – I would love to drop a few names before reflecting about my learning in this post.

Linda Darling-Hammond spoke at a PTA event that I attended, where she talked about her book, The Flat World and Education: How America’s Commitment to Equity Will Determine Our Future"". An incredible evening where she spoke about what she knows about the US and how our education is being impacted by the high stakes assessment and funding streams that exist, which create not only an achievement gap as we typically would define it, but an experiences gap that affects kids around the country. In places like Palo Alto, California, where I heard her speak and she is a local, the difference in per pupil spending dwarfs that of neighboring schools in nearby San Jose. Her data was hard to hear about how this affects the kids in schools, and how many places throughout the US experience much the same gap.

I followed that by listening to Camille Charles, from the University of Pennsylvania, who spoke about her research around racial identity and how it impacts children of color. How and what we are doing in schools that creates opportunities or barriers for kids of color was timely and practical thinking about how schools can look, and the implications it has on individual students over time.

Claude Steele, the Dean of Education at Stanford, also spoke recently and I was able to attend and hear him talk about “stereotype threat”, which he defines and describes in his book, Whistling Vivaldi: How Stereotypes Affect Us and What We Can Do (Issues of Our Time). “Stereotype threat comes when a person knows at some level they could be judged or treated in terms of a negative stereotype,” he said. As for remedies, Steele said, “We should do as much as we can to reduce the cues and contingencies tied to important situations, like a school classroom…there should be a self-conscious effort to examine a classroom for those cues (that could suggest people will be judged based on stereotypes).” This lecture was filled with thoughts about how we can create a new individual narrative for kids, no matter what their identity or their background is, or those parts of their lives which impacts their day to day learning and thoughts of who they are as a person.

During this lecture, I was able to meet Eric Cooper and Yvette Jackson, from the National Urban Alliance. They were visiting from New York, and spoke about how they are doing work with schools to focus on the positives that kids bring to school settings. They described how it is that they have changed the paradigm that exists in schools they work with in New York, of testing kids for what they can’t do for the first part of the school year – and instead have coached schools to look at what kids can do for the first report card. Changing the personal narrative of individual kids so that they can highlight things they are good at before tackling the rest of the year.

On the heels of all of this learning, I was able to attend a two day conference, led by Edgar Schein. We spent the time learning about and practicing what he has written in his book Helping: How to Offer, Give, and Receive Help. This span of time was spent thinking in the ways that he describes – of being a process consultant, a humble inquirer, and aware of what needs a “client” has before acting in any situation. It was amazing. First of all – Edgar is an unbelievable talent. I feel honored to have spent the time with him, watching him lead discussion, and learning from his lifetime of experiences. No question that was asked by the group daunted him. He was unflappable, and extremely present with each conversation. As I marveled at the depth of his understanding, and the ability he had to take us to new places in our thinking with just a few examples and stories of his lifetime of thinking and learning – I was inspired beyond words to do my work differently and with increased self-awareness.

This was no small thing, as the intimate room of people that he was teaching and leading through these conversations was filled with about 45 people, many of whom I have diligently studied the work of for the past 15 years. Sitting among these people for two days, listening to them wrestle with the new ideas that Schein suggested along with their own understanding of their work, hearing them having difficulty finding words to express their thoughts in the moment – was absolutely incredible. People like Art Costa, Bruce Wellman and Laura Lipton, Bob Garmston, Jennifer York-Barr, Bill Sommers, Joellen Killion, Lucy West, and many, many more – all were left with questions and thoughts they couldn’t quite put words to during the course of our two days together. While in a group of this caliber, being led in my thinking by a master, the personal learning that took place was enormous. I feel extremely fortunate to have been a part, extremely humbled by the time spent together, and extremely inspired by what it can and will mean for me in my work going forward with schools and the people within them.

As I sit here and try to put all of these people and their experiences that they have shared with me one way or another together in one post – I am at a loss for words. I have been in situations lately where the learning is enormous, and I am anxious to apply what I now know. I am very excited at the opportunities that exist for me, the individual kids that will benefit from this time spent over the past month with my academic superheroes.

What I have realized about myself in the past few months is my love of connecting the big picture ideas with the individual level of practice. Getting groups of teachers, administrators and parents to see the big picture, while asking questions the whole way about how it can look for individual kids is something that jazzes me to a degree I didn’t know possible.

Listening to Linda Darling-Hammond talk about the dire needs that exist, a question from the group was asked about how to tackle these problems that schools are facing in a meaningful way. They feel so big, so untouchable. She simply (complexly?) suggested one step forward is through “enlightening the populace”. I feel very much like I am a person that holds that position. I am a person that keeps having conversations with people in schools that asks questions that go deeper, humbly inquiring (as Schein suggests), until groups find their own answers that make sense for kids in their contexts.

Not unlike Eric Cooper and Yvette Jackson’s work – where the focus is on positives first, I have been asking teams to think about what kids can do for years. How do we re-write the personal narratives of the kids in our schools in the way that Claude Steele suggests, despite stereotypes that exist? How do we help them see their strengths, as Eric and Yvette suggest? As instrumental people in the lives of kids that can make these conversations happen in all the ways that we individually can – we have to keep enlightening the populace. We need to keep asking questions that matter, allowing kids and adults in schools to find their own way, and answer their own tough questions.

I was recently on the radio, talking about inclusive IEPs, and what they can look like. I feel like there are many specific things that I could have shared if we had the time, and thankfully, I can and will post about what those specific things are as a follow up to my conversation. What strikes me most about the interview, however, is the feedback that I have gotten since. My suggestion was to focus on the positives, what kids can do, and how that impacts both the team and the individual. I also suggested that we give voice to the parents in a genuine way, that we honor what they bring to the table, authentically engage them in the process, and ask questions of what their experiences are with their son or daughter. Lastly, I suggested that we keep trying new things and expanding our world of understanding together as a team that comes together around an individual student. The feedback I have received from parents and teachers thus far by just suggesting those pieces has been that of an enlightened populace. Parents feel they have been empowered by the thinking, teachers feel open to new ways of practice and exploration together. All because it was suggested that they can think in different ways…people are able to change their own narrative and reality.

After sitting through the conference, and the various lectures that I have attended – that is the one take away point that I can find common throughout. The answer in schools is within all of us. It is within the relationships that we forge together. If we can be honest about our assumptions; if we can ask questions that are hard, but humble; if we can open ourselves up to the notion that we need to find out more about each other before we can move ahead together – we can change the future of education.

We can continue to have these conversations not only in the meetings that we hold, not only in the lectures or conferences that we share, but every day in common situations as well. We can talk to people and ask important questions while waiting in line at the grocery store, while drinking coffee at the close of our church services, while picking up our kids from school, while attending field trips or dinner parties with one another. The conversations start in many places, they continue in the school settings and meetings that we attend together.

Enlightening the populace…creating space in our conversations that we have day in and day out…based on questions we have, things we have experienced and things we want to look differently for our kids. These kinds of conversations don’t cost schools a lot of money. These conversations can’t be ones where we know all of the answers. These conversations are the ones where we say what we think we understand, and then listen to others explain what they understand.

We listen. We ask. We let others tell their stories so that we can know them better, and then know how to help. Then we listen some more.

It has been a busy month of learning for me. Whether I am having conversations with my sons’ teachers or with parents and teachers of other people’s children – I am a new learner all over again. The hope that exists, in our schools that are riddled with deficits and gaps for children, is found within our conversations and relationships. Ask questions, listen to the answers. It is that simple…

2 thoughts on “My Personal Reflections as of Late…

  1. David B. Cohen

    There’s a lot to sift through in your post. Once you start seeing those connections, it’s exciting and overwhelming at the same time, I find. Then, putting it all together in a way that you can communicate to others in a concise way that will be persuasive or lead to action… well, more power to you! I was at the Linda Darling-Hammond talk in Palo Alto, by the way, and like you, found some portions simultaneously simple and complex. If it were just a matter of fixing a school, I think you could take the key points of her talk, raise some money to improve training, professional development and ongoing collaboration, upgrade the curriculum. Not unlike a small to medium sized business – it’s not so hard to identify what we need. But, to get we need requires working with dollar amounts in the billions and building a political consensus among people who, however much they have in common, are often willing to be defined by their differences.

  2. Jennifer Sommerness Post author

    Thank you, David, for the read and the comment. I agree with you that the size of this conversation is enormous, and that the dollar amounts and politics behind it are overwhelming. That being said – I feel that my position is oftentimes to bring the conversation back to a scale that can be used by the teams of teachers that I am collaborating with, and at least start the work at hand.

    Strands throughout all of these different people I have shared space with in meaningful ways in the past few months, as well as years of practice before this, make me believe in what we can do on the small scale to impact larger issues. We can’t just throw our hands up in the air and say we can’t start. We need to get active in ways that we know how, connected in ways that are new to us and stretch our understanding, and put ourselves “out there” for both critique and learning from one another.

    In my new environment, here in California, I have noticed that I am actively trying to get connected with things at a state level, all the way down to the local and individual level in meaningful ways. It happens quickly, and I can feel the movement occur even with just a few months of purposeful conversation.

    Connecting with you, for example, has been very meaningful – and we haven’t even met yet! I look forward to your posts and thoughts – insightful and inspiring, challenging and critical. I am also looking forward to deeper conversation and connection with those that you are so related to and have been working successfully with for so many years. Kudos to you, for your work and your understanding of this educational system that we must tackle!

    I am excited about the learning and movement we can create together! Thanks again, for the comment. You are a superhero as well!


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