Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Remembering the Struggle, Inspiring New Revolutions @FairfieldU with @YohuruWilliams @OfficialDLDay

Bassick High School Senior, Chitunga Chisenga
Yesterday, I was invited to speak alongside Jocelyn Collen, Dr. Elizabeth Hohl, Jesus Nunez, Dr. Yohuru Williams, Arturo Jaras Watts, and Bridgeport student, Chitunga Chisenga, during Fairfield University's Memorial March in partial commemoration of Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Week. I am grateful to Melissa Quann, Frederick Kuo, Ellen Umansky, and the MLK planning committee for allowing me the opportunity to briefly address drop out rates across America and the achievement gaps existing in school districts across the nation.

Dr. Williams initiated our portion of the program with CBS's Where America Stands: High School Dropouts (2010) and asked me to remark on working in urban schools with youth typically portrayed within deficit constructions - the result of a test-only,  numerical game made habitual through research and reporting. Katie Couric's clip digitally helped me to construct remarks, locally, and I pondered the question raised by the young one woman from the video,
“It seems that nobody cared….so why should I?”
Although I will not repeat my remarks here, I do wish to acknowledge the scholarship of Dr. Marcelle Haddix at Syracuse University and the academic work of economist Steven C. Smith. In her words, the lives of urban youth need to be rebuilt and reclaimed. In his words, "Poverty is powerlessness." The inequities facing urban schools are the result of our nation's economic disparities.

When asked to speak, I agreed, but only if I could take such an opportunity to empower a student from Bassick High School. After all, the topic is one he and I have talked about on numerous occasions. With the National Writing Project background in mind, I simply asked him to write a response to the CBS report and to use Fairfield University as and audience....and that he did.
Hello every one, 
My name is Chitunga Chisenga and I’m from the Democratic Republic of Congo. I am a senior at Bassick High School in Bridgeport, Connecticut.
The challenges I face as a student started during my freshman year. I was lost, at first, and quickly fell in the wrong direction. In my household things weren’t going well, either, and in a short amount of time I managed to build a bad reputation. My academics slipped and what I knew were bad ideas turned into good ideas. Violence became how I handled my problems. 
Yet, one day, I self-reflected and remembered my family in Africa, the things my cousins and I experienced in the Congo, and our journey to the United States. For those I left in Africa, I wanted to go back on track to reach my dreams and goals. The trouble was, I fell deep in a hole of negativity and I didn’t know how to dig my way out. I didn’t know how to get back to my old self, either. 
Then a woman named Ms. Alicia Smith arrived. She was the Director of Gear Up at Bassick and quickly became a second mother to me. She knew about my potential and the problems I faced in school, home, and outside of school. Ms. Smith sprinted into action by scaring away the older guys I hung out with, got me involved with academic tutors and mentors, and connected me to positive people who went out of their way to make sure my needs were met. She also checked on me frequently to assure my grades were improving and I said to myself, “this too shall pass.” 
The next thing I knew my grades improved dramatically and my past simply became my past - something I had to learn from. It took a lot of bad decisions, disappointments, and energy to make it to my senior year and I definitely wouldn’t have made it without hope. Just last week, I was accepted into Michigan University where I plan to study aviation management. The goal is to get a private pilot license because I have loved the idea of flying ever since I was young boy. An opportunity to become a pilot is practically impossible to achieve back home. Yet, the impossible happened for me. I made it the U.S. and here, I can chase my dreams. 
Through my experiences and a lot of reflection I decided I didn’t want to be a regular citizen who works a 9-5 job. The United States means a lot to me, personally, and I know that not every person on this planet has the freedom we have. There are threats in the world that a majority of us don’t know and will never know. I feel heroes are those who take care of others and who fight hard so another young person, like me, can have an opportunity to become someone. 
Ms. Alisha Smith fought for me because she believed in me. My goal is to fight in the same tradition for democracy and to invest in this world in similar, positive ways.
Thank you, 
Chitunga Chisenga
The point we hoped to make together is that a first step to closing achievement gaps in the United States is to invest in the individuals who care most. These are the heroes, like Alisha Smith and many of her colleagues at Bassick High School. In fact, at every school I've ever known, the curriculum of caring matters most. This curriculum results from teachers building strong relationships and upholding high standards with ALL students. It arrives from stellar educators who reshape the curriculum to fit the needs of kids, rather than force the kids to meet the needs of curriculum.

Across the United States, today, the movement has been to blame those who work in schools for the reported achievement gaps. Yet, the negative portrayal of urban schools in this vain fails to see the incredible achievements that occur every day that are NOT measured by state and national assessments.  This deficit discourse is pushed onto urban districts (they can't, they won't, they don't) with little attention placed on the other factors that have tremendous influence on the everyday lives of students (they desire, they want, they will). Denying to look at achievement holistically will continue to lead to inequality, because the measurements used to 'label' a school through testing alone will only provide a minimal sketch of the energy, commitment, and success stories occurring, sometimes miraculously, every day.

Yes, teachers should take part of the blame. There are plenty I've known who are the problem. Yes, unions should share responsibility, too, and stop protecting bad teachers not suited for the profession. Another portion of this blame, however, belongs to politicians and policy makers who have turned testing (and our schools) into an industry that has removed human relationships from the equation. The blame, too, needs to be placed on Common Core State Standards - expectations created by interest groups and not professional teachers and researchers. Most educators will agree that higher standards are necessary, yet the standards created by Coleman and his team of reformers are a throwback to New Criticism, modernism, and a world that no longer exists (for movie buffs, they are a return to the black and white days of Pleasantville, where homogeneous thinking failed to see the beauty and richness of diverse, colorful, and heterogeneous schools. This, of course, includes how the reform deliberately ignores the magic of the arts: music, dance, writing, painting, expressing, and creating, etc. CCSS has stripped from American schools what it means to be a human being. Picture the curriculum in Dead Poet's Society before Keating instructed his students to tear the pages out of the book).

In short, we are all to blame. We are all to blame.
"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.” ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
And if I care, which I do, then doing something about it begins with me.

Haddix, Marcelle. "Reclaiming and Rebuilding the Writer Identities of Black Adolescent Males." Reconceptualizing the Literacies in Adolescents' Lives; Bridging the Everyday/Academic Divide, Third Edition. Eds. Alvermann, Donna E. and Kathleen A. Hinchman. New York, New York: Routledge, 2012. 112-31. Print.

Haddix, Marcelle. "Black Boys Can Write: Challenging Dominant Framings of African American Adolescent Males in Literacy Research." Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy 53.4 (2009): 341-43. Print.

Smith, Stephen. "Foreword." The Liberian Civil War. Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 1998. xi - xxv. Print.

Smith, Stephen C. Ending Global Poverty; a Guide to What Works. New York: Pelgrave Macmillan Publishing, 2005. Print.

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