You must see your school as a home of opportunity

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“Looking forward to Christmas is middle class privilege.” I thought back to this quote the other day when Cleveland principal Eric Juli tweeted about what it’s like in a school when kids don’t look forward to Christmas — can’t look forward to Christmas.

Actually, the whole quote was this: Walking into her office in early December in her tiny very very “high poverty” rural elementary school, sinking into her chair, principal Alison Dwier-Selden sighed and said, “I have learned that looking forward to Christmas is middle class privilege.”

Truth.

There are undeniable facts about poverty in America, and Alison’s quote is one. Hunger is another. A lack of safety is a third. Health risks, limitations on certain experiences, exposure to violence, are others. Undeniable.

But here’s the thing. There are other facts out there. One is that children in poverty don’t come to school knowing less, they know different. Another is that kids in poverty learn just as fast as any other kid. A third is that kids in poverty are every bit as curious as any child. And a fourth is that kids in poverty often demonstrate more advanced judgment than their suburban counterparts. A fifth is that — given the chance — kids in poverty will describe their world with vivid imagery, in art, in music, in writing, that can be far superior to anything a suburban middle class kid can do.

Given the chance.

I talk to a lot of school leaders in my job and I have learned one essential thing: a school’s ability to help “at risk” children succeed is directly tied to how that leadership, and that faculty, see their kids.

Schools that fail have adults who talk relentlessly about how at risk their kids are. They have all the statistics at their fingertips. They focus on the perceived limitations… on vocabulary shortfalls, on lack of pre-school and parent involvement, on issues of attendance and language.

Schools that succeed have adults who talk about what their kids can do. They talk about the stories kids tell, the things kids make, the problems they solve, the way the collaborate, communicate, connect to the world. And when they’re really good you never hear the words “at risk,” or “title,” or “deficit,” when they plan.

A home of opportunity.

A school struggling with the ravages of American poverty has to first be a home — the kind of home the children may not have at home. A place that is relentlessly safe, that is both calming and exciting, that offers unconditional love, and that offers boundless opportunity.

That ‘home’ must be supportive and accepting, loving and encouraging, and it must provide the biggest possible window on to the world, on to the universe.

A home of opportunity.

What does opportunity look like? First, it looks like trust. It looks like freedom. And it looks like choice.

A visiting superintendent watched four kids, third and fourth graders heading through a classroom’s outside door. “Do you know where they’re going?” he asked a teacher. “No,” the teacher said, “but I’m pretty sure they do.”

You can’t offer much to kids if you don’t trust them and they don’t trust you. And if you don’t trust them, they know that and will never trust you. Now trust looks like many things. Trust means kids make real choices, about what and how to learn, about schedule and technologies, about space and comfort.

If you leave any of that out, the trust is shattered. The freedom doesn’t exist. And that means there isn’t unconditional love.

So if I see a space and every child is doing the same thing the same way, or sitting on one kind of seating, or even if no one is standing up or on the floor, or if every kid is, say, using the same web browser the same way — well, there’s no choice, and thus there isn’t trust.

A home of opportunity.

What does opportunity look like? It looks like the world. It means kids are exposed to everything you can possibly think of… Skyping with anyone you can connect with in distant places, and with classrooms around your region, your nation, or wherever time zones allow. Linking to videos whenever available, from nature groups to city tours to the International Space Station. And if nothing else is on, turn on your projector and put on a webcam from somewhere… just showing snow on the Michigan State University campus is enough to open conversations with kids in Virginia, but what does Central London look like? Or Paris, or Lagos, or Cape Town? The ocean will amaze kids in Kansas. Kansas fields will amaze kids in New York. Every thing they see expands their world, expands the questions they ask, expands their vocabulary and base knowledge, but most importantly, expands their dreams.

Then connect your class to Twitter and crowdsource their questions (note: 2009). Find experts, and bring them to your kids via Skype.

You think phonics and fluency matter? Those are meaningless unless you are giving kids a passionate reason to read by fueling their curiosity.

A home of opportunity.

What does opportunity look like? It looks like understanding that relationships and social and emotional support mean more than traditional academics. It means that adults don’t fuel bullying through hierarchies — whether with honor rolls, ability grouping, or sports worship.

It looks like Universal Design for Learning, with kids learning to use the tools of a lifetime. It looks like a place where kids can hide when they need to and jump when they want to. It looks like a place where play is considered a high level learning path.

“He really wanted to sleep in,” one of our high school teachers said about one boy, “so he’s building an Arduino run hen house so it’ll be automated. He had most of the building skills, but he’s had to learn all the programming.”

It looks like a place that respects kids’ needs and treats their lives as legitimately complex and difficult.

A home of opportunity.

What does opportunity look like? It looks like a place that responds to students, not where students respond to adults. It looks like a place that’s constantly positive, but positive in a real world way. It looks like a place where love and support is always there.

And when a school is a home of opportunity it can change the world. One child at a time.

  • Ira Socol
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