Tuesday, September 30, 2008

It's really about the STUDENTS

Let not young souls be smothered out before they do quaint deeds and fully flaunt their pride.*

I was going to say 'kids' but that's somewhat adultist...children doesn't usually bring up the image of older teenagers and young adults, so it's students, for now.
It really is about them. You families (adults, parents, older care-takers, legal guardians) just happen to be the ones who will most care and be in the strongest position to defend, encourage, believe in, and hope the best for the students.
I state this because the blog is titled Parent Leadership in Education. I'm not really a parent advocate, per se, but from a practical organizing point of view, have to go with the line of least resistance.
Families are not perfect, but then neither are children. I'm a child advocate because that is the specific group I have made my vocation and my work. It could have been workers or the environment or any other cause that I consider important and vital to a healthy society. I just decided.
As I support parents in having and creating the best possible neighborhood public schools for their children, I'm not romanticizing or idealizing families. None are perfect and few are candidates for sainthood by RC Vatican standards, but they are the ones I will defend and support.Too much is said against them. Even as Cosby and others support a logical and rational taking on of responsibility, I still see institutions, specifically schools, thinking and saying bad things about groups of families and children.
"It is the world's one crime its babes grow dull, its poor are limp, ox-like and leaden-eyed."*
So, to help swing the pendulum toward the other side, to balance out the overwhelming blaming of 'those' families and children, I'll raise the banner high and scream (though it might sound like a strange croak coming from an old geezer) Let's value parents...er...families, who'll be the loudest cheerleaders shouting
"Hooray for the children" er...students.

*Vachel Lindsay's "The Leaden Eyed". One of my favorite poems in the first Junior English textbook I used in San Felipe High School in the mid 60s.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

You talk, I listen. Parent Leadership 101

My definition of a parent leader in education includes two basic characteristics: one who listens and one who can bring others to a meeting or event.
I constantly have to explain, even to colleagues I work with, that I don't see leadership as something that happens after we have done basic parenting classes, and reviewed the responsibilities of parents etc. I'm really not interested in providing a full array of workshops on how to be a good parent. Families must lead and partner with schools to provide a great education for all children.
Leadership is integrated into every aspect of our work. It is fluid, organic and relational. Rather than search for and support an assertive and public spokesperson we want to nurture a community of families that are mutually supportive and that collectively act to have the best possible neighborhood for all children.

Example: An early activity in our series of meetings is Peer Listening. Paired off participants interview each other:

1. What do you think about the quality of your children’s education?
¿Qué piensa sobre la calidad de la educación que estan recibiendo sus hijos?

2. What do you think needs to be done to improve the schools?
¿Qué son las cosas que usted piensa se necesitan mejorar en las escuelas?

3. What do you expect from your children’s teachers?
¿Qué espera de los maestros de sus hijos?

4. What positive things is your school doing to support parent participation? ¿Qué cosas positivas esta haciendo sus escuelas para apoyar la participación de los padres?

5. What more should schools be doing to have more parent participation?
¿Qué mas deben hacer las escuelas para tener mas participación de los padres?

6. What else would you like to tell us about your schools, the education your children are receiving or about parent participation?
¿Qué otra cosa nos quiere decir sobre las escuelas, la educación que estan recibiendo sus hijos, o la participación de los padres?
Their homework is to interview other families and report their findings at the next session.

Emerging parent leaders become careful listeners, which also increases their ability to invite and bring other parents to meetings. Being listened to is a very powerful way to build assets within the community and greatly increases the chances that the one listened to will accept an invitation and actually show up at a meeting.

Our family leaders in education listen to other parents and can get two or more people to attend a meeting.

The first class session in parent leadership in education, 101, has just ended.
Go, interview and invite.

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

In education, if shift happens, it's a rare event

I almost wish the phrase "paradigm shift" hadn't come into use.
How often can a human being change, shift, move away from, her/his view of the world? And then if it does happen,is it something that can be replicated in a process?
OK, my dears, line up for the peak experience of your life: guaranteed to change how you explain and organize what you call 'reality'. And if you believe me, I've also got a bridge I want to sell you, it's one of several between Laredo and Nuevo Laredo...

And yet, even if we don't use the phrase cavalierly or simplistically, those of us who want schools to change (meaning a fundamental transformation)are really asking for the principals,teachers and all the other adults on the campus to have a peak experience...to be knocked off the horse. It's comparable to Paolo Freire asking Brazilian language instructors to shift to the 'dialogical' when he contrasted teaching that oppressed to that which liberated.

Picture a typical inner-city or barrio school and imagine the setting, the context and the environment. Principals and teachers view the students as unteachable; hopeless...academically dumb. The students collude with the deficit point of view and consider themselves bad students and school to be boring. So as change agent try getting into their heads and re-organize the synapses; or become a miraculous opthomologist and remove the thick lens implanted in their eyes.

Draconian or miraculous measures are called for.

Hope springs occasional (not eternal)when it seems that planned events result in some major change. When the IAF group in San Antonio called C.O.P.S. www.firstuusanantonio.org/metro-uu.php , perhaps the nation’s most powerful community organization, organized the common folk in the barrios to demand, and get, what was coming to them, some of us thought that we were in a new age of democratic participation and influence by the majority of the poor and working class citizens. But after a while the power returned to the few,as if it had ever really left, and the populist energy was dissipated.
The Greeks really knew something about human penchant for changing the almost impossible ...pushing the boulder of our democratic dreams up the mountain...having it roll down on our dizzy heads...and maybe one dreamer gets a MacArthur genius grant...and a Mandela survives prison and then enjoys a little bit of hard-earned privilege.

So, attempting to transform our schools, advocating for the equity and excellence that all children merit and deserve is a Sisyphean task. Those of us committed to the cause will continue to do it with great hope and little evidence. Leaps of faith with slim proof of impact. I have colleagues that have theories of organizational change that change when you quote or remind them of their previously stated theory. It's almost as if they don't want to be pinned down...and with good reason. Any construct presented can be proven untrue in the next iteration. Not necessarily because the idea presented for school change was wrong, but perhaps because progressives are wedded to playing devil's advocate and are skeptics at heart.

It's very hard to change the people in the schools. Yet, sometimes, we do get the boulder to the top of the mountain. A principal who cares and is adept at managing a campus; teachers that are effective in teaching all children; a campus that is family friendly; and students who are learning and enjoying school. Yet looking down from the promontory of the excellent school, we see acres of boulders and endless vistas of mountains to attack.
So, shift happens in schools, but not very often. Some of us just aren't going to give up on the dream.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

What Price Bilinguals? How much is the Statue of Liberty valued at?

Call it code-switching, using English and Spanish interchangeably, or language flip-flop, it’s a bear to carry out and made more difficult in the face of vociferous critics.
Those of us who use both languages in parent meetings have had to face serious obstacles. Some educators criticize the use of both languages, confusing bilingual methods used in classrooms with children where the goal is teaching English. The main goal of a parent meeting should be two-way communication…regardless of the languages needed. A methodology for a bilingual classroom is not applicable to a meeting where we want English and Spanish speaking families to come together and connect.

A different but equally stressful reaction is the judgment made on the facilitator when some of the participants in the audience have highly developed language skills in their native language and the presenter is a U.S. reared speaker of the language that uses ‘incorrect grammar’, slang and anglicisms in the presentation. Those of us who grew up bilingually but did not receive much formal instruction in the home language are stronger in our English language skills and would actually prefer to present in English. We will obviously sound more correct, more educated and feel better about ourselves.
Case in point: Once, while conducting a bilingual training-of-trainers, a note was handed to me at the end of the day “For your professional self-improvement” with a listing of all the ‘incorrect” usages in Spanish. The critic was a highly degreed professional from Central America whose English left much to be desired. A less-determined presenter would have given up on the spot. I recalled all the times my Mexican cousins called me a 'pocho': one who speaks an inferior form of Mexican Spanish, and therefore is undeducated and low-class.
Us U.S. bilinguals, born and/or bred here, must take the ego risks involved if we are to bring families together and build connections among families across language and class in support of good education and good schools for all children. I’ve been told that my Spanish is very close to a native-speaker’s. While that might be true and it makes me feel good, the greater pride for me is that I continue to take the risk. My advice to all bilinguals is to take the risk and provide an ongoing translation and keep everyone at the table figuring out what each one is saying. Even when there is translating equipment and individual earphones are providing an ongoing translation to the non-English speakers, there is a separation of the individuals and a focus on the speech of one expert. I’m looking for dialogue, interaction and connection…the lifeblood of democracy.

School meetings, educational gatherings and other school and education related sessions must have good communication and two-way interaction. If there are families present who don’t understand English, it is critical that every effort be made to communicate with them, both to give them information and also listen to them. Any bilingual person present, whether it be the facilitator, a teacher, a student or another parent should be invited to provide ongoing translation of the interactions. The overall goal must be to have families that are informed, listened to and connected to the school community.

Us bilinguals are worth our weight in ‘Statue of Liberty’ marble.

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Saturday, September 13, 2008

A childless, single guy... a parent advocate! ???

My history with parents and schools goes back to the late 60s.
I had been a high school English teacher who then took on becoming a VISTA supervisor and trainer. It was a special program, Vista Minority Mobilization Project, and it put me in contact with families and students all over south Texas that were very dissatisfied with their public schools. Families were experiencing racism in schools and were demanding that there be more Mexican American teachers, that students not be punished for speaking Spanish…that students be prepared for college and be considered college material. Families initiated school walkouts to put pressure on schools. I went from goody-student council sponsor-popular-teacher to angry-community-organizer.
YES: my life work had to be around advocacy for children in public schools... public education is to me the crucible and hothouse (competing but apt metaphors) for democratic principles and for leadership development and the institution that will provide poor and working class families the avenue for betterment and a brighter future.
I surprized myself with this realization because I had been a literature buff and English major in college and had expected to go for my masters in literature and become a writer or college prof. My four years as a high school English teacher really changed my dreams and personal vision. Education, public education, is my vocation, my vice and my path. Advocating for civil rights, social justice and liberation provided the fuel to energize my actions. I was angry at myself for belatedly realizing that racism and bigotry was all around, and also, that it was not just a black/white confrontation. I spent a few years marching around with raised fist shouting "Chicano Power". (That was 30 years ago, and doesn't reflect what I do and say these days). I am still deeply concerned with the economic, social and educational attainment of the Latino community, but that is not my sole concern, nor do I see that cause as separate or exclusive to all the other social needs and concerns.

After several years of starting alternative systems, co-creating community organizations and roving around south Texas as an organizer, in 1975 I settled into an advocacy organization that met all my criteria for an ideal locus of activity: The Intercultural Development Research Association(IDRA) brain-child of Dr. Jose A. Cardenas.
>Public School advocacy, support and research;
>Teacher training, curriculum development and public policy work;
>A Latino education think-tank with more Latino and African American Ph. D.s than most university schools of education;
>Academia and rigor coupled with field work and advocacy.
I was let loose in the candy store...the sweets were the bright, creative, intelligent and progressive educators committed to equity and excellence in our public schools. Brains and brawn -- courage and compassion.

I became the lead, the point-person for parent involvement as well as the lead trainer in-house. Because I had been an organizer, I was considered a natural to work with families. In the early 80s we had a project funded by the Office of Bilingual Affairs to work with parents whose children were in bilingual programs. We conducted bilingual training of trainers for those families.
Our Family Leadership in Education model, our organizational sense of what we needed to do to help parents support and excellent education, evolved from those and other experiences. We at IDRA advocate for excellent schools for all children...And the most important and natural allies in that cause are parents/families.
Ergo, thusly, and that is why,our focus in parent/family involvement is leadership. Parenting programs abound. Some good and many mediocre models, training, packages, magazines, consultants and organizations focus on how to be a better parent.

We see a vacuum in the leadership arena...and yet know that if parents ever really take leadership and organize/network and create the neighborhood schools their children merit, watch out! The promise of this democracy will no longer be a dream.

And back to me, single and childless, and with a wide catholicity of interests, causes, and possibilities that surround me. Some weeks I read voraciously: current pulitzer-prize fiction, tomes of modern poetry or re-read some american literary classics...nothing directly related to my professional work. Some months I hang out in museums and attend artsy-fartsy plays and contemporary theater. I will sometimes binge on collages, creating but some interesting but not very well executed pieces (I'm red-green color blind).
I do keep up with different liberation movements, and feel agreement and spiritual brotherhood with friends of the earth, feminists, gay liberationists, and various grass roots political movements all over the world. But what I act upon every week, what I'm committed to as an act of faith way beyond reason, is to create public schools that work brilliantly for all children.

Who can explain magic, miraculous art, love, faith, spirituality and obsession? The reason why this single, childless, old guy advocates for children in public schools and their families as the strongest force for advocacy in the defense of their children is...just because.

Friday, September 5, 2008

No sir, you don't understand, I'm really dumb!

Hector and I were working with a neat teenage group, self named Youth Education Tekies. These mostly high-schoolers, living in some of the poorest colonias (unicorporated communities) of the lower Rio Grande Valley of south Texas, had taken upon themselves the task of setting up and maintaining a computer lab in a community center that is not much more than a wood-frame house typical of those in the neighborhood.
Evenings, adults and older relatives would congregate to learn how to use the computers. Many of the adults were minimally literate in Spanish and with no keyboarding skills. M. a highschool junior 'tekie' was a wonderful tutor and mentor with the adults. M. was skilled and proficient in using the computer, surfing the net, and finding appropriate sites. She was also pacient and sensitive as she coached and guided the adults just barely learning to find the letters on the keyboard. One lady, call her Doña Chencha, was elated because she was able to type her name. M. helped her put it it in a Power Point frame, with a fancy font and in very large type. Both Hector and I lauded M. She kept ignoring our very specific praises. "You are such a good teacher." "You are so proficient on the computer" "You are very pacient and don't mind repeating instructions to the ladies you are guiding".
She would keep contradicting us and claiming lack of intelligence. She reminded us that she was repeating Junior year and flunking was a pattern that went back many years.
"But we see you as brilliant" and we would proceed to enumerate all the specific instances, seen by us and others, of her intelligence.
She finally confronted both of us.

No sir, you don't understand. I'm really dumb. You say those things because you like me, but I am very bad in school. I'm probably not going to finish high school.

To me, these were obviously old recordings. Someone, someones, had consistently and persistently told her she couldn't learn. Who had taken so much time and effort to say these things with such persistence? Could it have been teachers? Loved ones?
Who can say that words didn't hurt M.?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Worse than sticks & stones

Wrongs unredressed, or insults unavenged -- Wordsworth

Prejudice squints when it looks, and lies when it talks. -- Unknown

While visiting an elementary school in East LA and standing in the hallway with the principal, two young boys were walking towards us from opposite directions. They had large wood paddles with restroom keys and as they came up to each other it was obvious they knew each other but had not seen each other recently. One boy asks the other, "Are you LEP like me?" "No" responded the other."I'm At Risk!"
These pre-teens had self-defined -- being of limited-English-proficiency and in danger of not completing school.

Our educational labels are stigmatizing -- and of little positive benefit to students. No matter how we adults sort out and classify students, the label becomes a prophesy fulfilled, a prediction school really pays attention to and, for the deficit branded student, an academic futility tattoo.
The challenge is not only to replace the words, but to shift the attitudes. We've shifted 'drop out prevention' to 'school holding power' so that the locus of change is the school. But when the phrase is used and not understood by the school person we have to say 'dropout prevention'.

The public conversation is complicated by the overt political use of language for political propaganda. "Tax Relief" is used to combat and re-focus the public interest in funding schools and encouragement of a general will to contribute proportionately to have excellent public schools. We, my side, speak of 'full funding' for public schools. We appeal to the social contract we have made with all of our children to have access to an excellent education. Our phrases include 'Graduation Guaranteed' and 'Graduation for All'. The words are a means of having a conversation about the possibilities.
But the challenge remains to convert individuals from the feeling that they are beleaguered taxpayers being bled for no-good-reason to a different notion: that of responsible adults providing for the children and for our economic future.

My opening salvo was about words that hurt and harm. The closing is about words that encourage narrow-minded selfishness. In either case, to loosely quote Sancho Panza, it doesn't matter if the pitcher hits the stone or the stone hits the pitcher, it still will be bad for the pitcher. Educational labels and phrases can hurt our children much worse than rocks and clubs.