Dear November, I know we have always been polite to one another, but I feel I need to come clean and let you know that to me, we have never really been friends. You seem to enjoy starting the month in a sugar filled haze powered by both leftover Halloween candy and an early embrace of holiday pumpkin spiced treats. Then, you push us right into elections. No matter how these turn out, they are a reminder of how differently we see things when we envision both the core history and the future of America. For those of us in education, the high tension dialogue about what defines the American enterprise hits differently, because both our personal missions and our employment are interwoven with how different people in our community imagine and pursue democracy.
Normally, Novembers seem to say, “Let's go!” It is time to shift into our highest gear of executive function. Sense, organize, and respond to as many year or semester end tasks as we can, in service of as many people as we can, and with whatever speed we can manage until we collapse sometime around December 22 when winter break begins with the warm knowledge that for those with whom we work, the year is closing with a feeling that we sorted some things out and after a little break we will all be ready to roll again.
But this November is different. This November is trying to better understand and respond to systemic racism, and seeing the terrible second spike in COVID rates that the doctors told us would come but we hoped to avoid. This November isn’t just divided in its opinion of who we hope will become president in January, it is also arguing over the legality of different states' mail in ballot procedures with each side believing that in the end it is obvious that the legal system will see it their way. Looking deep into the eyes of this November, I’m not so sure whether each of us plowing ahead and blazing through our end of year checklist is the right move.
At C!E, we have had the privilege of distance from the most difficult decisions and processes of schooling this fall. We are aware that this privilege offers us a chance to keep our heads above the turbulent waters and observe across contexts, but we are also aware that such distance may interfere with really seeing and understanding. To address the risks of this distance, while trying to help from the vantage point we have, we have followed through with the commitment we made in our statement earlier this year. We have taken the time to observe and listen closely over time to partners who are working directly with learners, families, and educators. We have also helped steward a number of local efforts to engage families and students in learning communities with educators. We have had opportunities to invite, examine, name, amplify, follow, and question to better understand. And what is beginning to emerge might be a reason to fall in love with November 2020.
Building on the invitation to state teams that Gene, Linda, Paul and Jenny put out last week, we think scared, lonely, and tired November 2020 might actually be just what we need to find our way forward from a well intended but paternalistic approach to schooling that upholds racial inequity and onto schooling as a way to enact anti-racist democracy while feeling more connected, more useful and more appreciated as educators.
During this November, more easily than any other November, local education leaders can...
Acknowledge that this situation is too complex for any one field of expertise, let alone one person or one leadership team, to solve alone.
Acknowledge, without too much vulnerability, that families have always had essential expertise about their children and, now that they have been supporting learners as much or more than teachers, they have even deeper insights that are essential to finding a way forward.
Point out that COVID has revealed disparities in opportunity with starker contrast and that we must all feel compelled to learn about and address these inequities.
Introduce the idea of targeted universalism, that by creating solutions for the problems of those farthest from opportunity we can also create strategies that are great for a lot of students and families.
With that frame, local education leaders can invite a group of families, students, and teachers to work together to determine what to do next. This expanded learning community can enact democracy by attending to HOW they work as they engage in an inclusive co-design process in which each person’s expertise is valued, each person’s view of what the real problems are is believed and each person’s view impacts the design of the solution.
As the C!E team said in the most recent invitation to state teams in which we explored the particular potential for local inquiries to lead to innovations in accountability and assessment:
“Districts can invite conversations and build partnerships with diverse stakeholders in their communities, including representatives from groups least often involved in education transformation and decision-making. When districts are leading in this manner, it is they who are best positioned to lead collaborative efforts to prototype new accountability metrics that better align with outcomes most meaningful to the community, and to innovate different ways of collecting evidence of progress towards those outcomes. Similarly, when reciprocal trust is established with primary stakeholders, districts are best situated to recognize whether innovations are or are not having desired effects on learning and why or why not, and to work with their partners to make adjustments.”
When we open ourselves up to collaboration and co-creation, we can be more effective leaders and we can find greater trust and joy in our relationships with the community. How differently would it feel to let go of the expectation we place on ourselves to know all the right answers? What if this November, instead of driving ourselves to the edge of ruin tying up all of the end of year loose ends, we established a clear priority and let other things go to be sure we spent consistent and focused time inviting in, listening to and collaborating with students and families? What if we asked them to work with us, to help us see what we cannot, and to help us decide what to try next?
In good times, it feels good to be part of something good. And, maybe the most fun is when we can be part of good trouble, as John Lewis asked us to do. In dark times, being part of something good or even getting up to some good trouble, is how we survive. In this dark time, in this November, we think coming together into spaces of learning, empathy, creativity and collaboration with learners and families is the way forward. It is available to each of us. If we open up and invite folks into communities of learning we can all become more connected, we can all find joy in working toward progress, and we can all work to make our shared endeavor a model of a more democratic approach to schooling.
Over the next few blogs, we will say more about how we came to this conclusion - that democratic learning communities that include families and learners are where it is at. It is going to get nerdy, which we hope stirs the same kind of excited flutter in your chest as it causes in ours. Also, to be transparent, what is coming isn’t a nerdy celebration of C!E’s great ideas. It is the synthesized sense we are making by:
Listening to thought leaders including adrienne maree brown, and her book “Emergent Strategy”, and Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze, particularly their text “Walk Out Walk On”
Learning with a cohort of peers in the Equity by Design course led by Caroline Hill at 228 Accelerator. Together, we were guided to think deeply about the origins of systemic racism.
Practicing stewardship of a number of local learning communities seeking to be both inclusive and democratic with educators, families and students around the same table. Over the last six month, we have had great partners in this work in North Dakota, Colorado and Georgia.