Community Engagement at Christmas

In a school gymnasium in São Paulo, I find myself in the middle of a capoeira circle twisting into unique inversions. Capoeira is a popular Brazilian form of dance fighting with roots in Africa. My teacher is eight-years-old, bright-eyed, and clearly has bones made of rubber.  I always learn something new when I visit schools and Colégio Magno, a private school in the middle of the city, is home to all matter of creative classes. Today isn’t an ordinary day at Colégio Magno though. If fact my friend Luiza who coordinates the High School and Middle School programs has invited our team to join them for a special community engagement project.

An enthusiastic group of children are pining for sausage and boiled egg.  Their middle school “pizza tutors” look at me and laugh as children crawl over my lap to get to the cheese and other toppings. A tiny boy of maybe four, tugs my arm and asks “Posso comer um ovo?” (May I eat some egg?) Having no authority in this space, I tell him, “Sure!” Within two minutes all of the egg in the bowl has evaporated. As a foster-adoptive mother and as a former inner-city school teacher, I know about working with hungry kids.

Children’s Rights are Human Rights

Globally over 900 million people experience food insecurity. A majority of these people are children. For the 154 children visiting today from Reviver Recica, security, food or otherwise, has often been tumultuous.  Colégio Magno has had a long standing partnership with Reviver Recica, an NGO that started in 2005. Their website says, “Com muito amor e dedicação, proporcionamos às crianças da comunidade a oportunidade de um futuro longe das drogas e do crime. Fazemos transformações na vida desses futuros adultos através do processo de aprendizado…”(“With much love and dedication, we provide children of our community with future opportunities away from drugs and crime. We are transforming these futures through a process of learning.”) Some of the children at Reviver Recica are orphans, some are homeless, some have families that can’t provide care right now, or can’t provide care before or after school.

Her name is E—–. Just like my daughter she wears bright-colored glasses and has the kind of hair that won’t stay in a ponytail. Also like my daughter she asks a million questions and is seven-years-old.  The families at Colégio Magno have collected and stuffed backpacks full of gifts for each child from Reviver Recica. E—– asks me to open her backpack with her. The enthusiasm and joy on her face is unforgettable. Almost all the children receive new shoes (which they put on immediately), art/school supplies, and a toy. E—– and I organize all of her new markers, crayons and paints no less than 7 times. We trade glasses for a few moments, laughing as she models my huge reflective sunglasses and I her tiny bright red frames. She grabs my phone and asks me to take the photo reposted here with permission.

Big Ideas and Bigger Hearts

Reviver Recica was founded and continues to be run by Vanessa, a woman with a great idea and an even bigger heart. I had the joy of meeting her at this special event.

And although I know this, I am struck again by the power of hope, love, and creativity. These forces can truly change the world for others.

Reviver Recica does not receive any government funding and is completely run by volunteers and donations. Their goal is to transform the local community through love. They currently serve 250 children ages 1-14. In talking about the organization, a teacher tells me, “Oftentimes children just show up.” All the children receive three meals a day, plus a snack. They also receive homework help and additional lessons in art, culture, sports, literacy, languages, music, dance, capoeira, and theater. There is no cost to the children or their families. Most importantly these children are loved with a kind of love that says I see you, I want to keep you safe, and believe you can have a different future.

A Kind of Noel

The word noel comes from the Latin natalis meaning “relating to birth.” It has obvious connections to Christmas in the Christian tradition and is now most frequently used simply to refer to a Christmas carol. During the event, we sit in a classroom with children and adults singing the Hallelujah chorus. One child plays the violin and another a half-sized cello. Our voices join in an awkward beauty that makes me pause and appreciate the fact that I am experiencing something so true and special with others.

I think today was a kind of noel for all of us. On the drive back we share personal stories. Each of us has our own story to tell from the day: stories of the children we met, our own connections to poverty, or caring for those in crisis. We brainstorm how we can support and stay connected with Reviver Recica, we feel grateful for Vanessa and the volunteers, and we appreciate the ongoing relationship that Colégio Magno has with this organization. Their relationship is built on reciprocity; students and staff from Colégio Magno visit the children at Reviver Recica and the children from Reviver Recica also come to Colégio Magno for events like the Christmas party today.

Standing with Love

Can the world be transformed through partnerships such as these? While I consider this question, I think of E—–‘s enthusiasm, the middle school students’ laughter, the strength of community, the beauty of voices raised in song, the invitation to blur boundaries across socio-economic status and circumstance, and of course the power of love.

This holiday season and always, may we all look for ways to stand with love and action on the side of children.

With hope, Dr. KFW

If you are interested in donating to Reviver Recica, please follow this link to their organization.

The School Leadership Compass

Recently our school launched a new middle school leadership program. This meant we had to reflect on (1) what leadership is and (2) what values we want to nurture in our student leaders. Because great leadership requires the same skill set at all levels in school organization, thinking through how to teach leadership taught me some important lessons about how I want to practice leadership.

Leaders manage deadlines, problem-solve, and work collaboratively with teams of people, some of whom “push their buttons.” Given these demands, how can we make sure our leadership decisions are serving our school community?

The Leadership Compass

We need a well-calibrated leadership compass to point us in the right direction. Electronic compasses are calibrated using location data. This means we have to know where we are to make sense of where we are going. The same is true in leadership. What maps and data do we use to determine where we are?  And how do we chart our progress on going to where we want to go?

What do you base your leadership decisions on? Do you use test data, budget reality, or educational legislation? While standardized scores, funding, and state and federal mandates certainly matter in schools, they shouldn’t be the drivers of our decision-making. What if there was another way to calibrate your leadership compass, one that led to stronger communities, more creative solutions and didn’t compromise on achievement? What if the secret to success in our quantitative measures comes from first valuing qualitative factors?

Before we had digital compasses, our compasses were calibrated by the earth’s magnetic field. I think of this as our steady core values.

Calibrating Your Leadership Compass

A mentor once told me “There are two ways to lead. You can lead with fear or you can lead with love. Both work in the short-term, but only love works long-term.” While I recognized the wisdom in this idea, it wasn’t until I became a principal that I truly understood what she meant.

In thinking about how to calibrate your school leadership compass, love is a good place to start. From there, we can use our core values to give us more specific direction.

The following reflective questions can help us identify those values.

  • What qualities do you want to foster in your school or classroom?
  • What are your long-term goals as a school or class?
  • What are your school or class community’s greatest strengths?
  • What are the most important messages you want to communicate?

Your answers to these questions set your priorities. You can use them to choose the path that honors those qualities you want to foster, that helps your school continue in the direction of your goals, that plays to your communities’ strengths, and that communicates the values you hold. When faced with a tough decision, the leadership compass has yet to let me down. In fact, this model has positively altered how I think about student support, teacher autonomy, student-led initiatives, and second chances.

This all sounds pretty soft

I’ve been thinking about the theoretical tension between soft and hard approaches to leadership. The connotation seems to be that soft is calibrated with a concern for feelings, hard is calibrated with a concern for results, and these two are mutually exclusive. I disagree.  Leaders can be concerned with both feelings and achievement. It comes back to what we value and how we set our priorities.

By using the leadership compass, do I sometimes lean further to the side of generosity, connection, and community? Enthusiastically! Yet because I am basing my decisions on clear values I feel confident in most of the decisions I make. And typically our results bear this out. Our students are engaged in service, learning, and creating amazing work; our teachers are engaged in instruction, learning, and creative support models. Together, we are all rethinking leadership from a values-based approach.

To finish the metaphor, we are finding our way through a complex forest of demands, enthusiastically geocaching toward stronger and more effective learning communities.

 

Encouragingly, Dr. KFW

Wired for Inclusion

Lessons from our early-elementary classrooms

I recently spent a morning working with and learning from first, second, and third graders at my daughter’s elementary school. As a high school and middle school principal, it’s been awhile since I’ve asked someone to sit criss cross applesauce or posed a question and watched as every hand in the room shot up. There’s nothing quite like that enthusiasm.

I also believe that young children are wired for inclusion. Throughout my career in education, I have been constantly inspired by the ways young children are quick to make friends with peers who are different from them.

This doesn’t mean they don’t see differences, it just means that these differences seldom impact whom they choose to color with, kick the ball with, or build a huge tower out of multicolored blocks with. It also doesn’t impact who they choose to give a hug to or receive a hug from.

I am working on a new project (announcement soon!!!) on supporting families whose children learn differently and so I have been thinking a lot about inclusion for our students with disabilities.

My first teaching position was in an early elementary classroom for students with disabilities. This position taught me everything I know about teaching. When we launched our program, I was teaching in what is called a “self-contained” classroom. The idea was that all of my students’ learning would “be contained” inside this classroom.

I had other ideas.

Learning should never be contained to the four walls of a classroom. I also didn’t want our class to be isolated from the broader school community. Therefore, I sought out every opportunity to make sure my students were included with their peers in the general education first-grade program and that those first graders were reciprocally included in our classroom.

Thanks to some critical colleagues who partnered with me on this endeavor, we adopted new collaborative approaches to managing our class rosters, we said yes to huge integrated projects like painting a mural or recording a CD together, and we took numerous field trips to learn outside of the classroom. These experiences made us better educators, and with hope, they made us better human beings too.

Do you want to learn more about inclusion? Spend time with a diverse group of young children, preferably during free play or art.

Will young children ask questions about why their friends are different? Of course. They ask questions about everything. Maybe they haven’t yet had a friend with physical disabilities or a friend who uses assistive technology. However, their curiosity is usually satiated with a simple, straightforward answer. This helps me talk; these help me walk; this helps my weaker eye grow stronger. A few words saying this is who I am and what I need is usually all it takes for children to get back to the important business of playing, learning, and making friends.

That we could we all be so wise.

With hope, Dr. KFW

Cultivating Home in our Classrooms

They were getting ready to leave for college. They were nervous, excited, and full of questions. What would it feel like to leave home? What would it mean to come back home? Would their new college campuses ever feel like home? These were the questions my students asked me in the summer of 2015. I had been with this particular student group for all four years of high school.

The summer before they left, we met at Shakespeare’s, Lakota, and Yogoluv— places that felt like home. I listened and told them that over time, home would seem like less of a location and more of an emotion. Yes, I conceded, you won’t return to this exact same constellation of people, emotions, and circumstances. However, it’s been my experience that home doesn’t shrink, it expands. My students found this notion curious as they packed their cars with posters, books, gym clothes, going-out clothes, mementos from high school that they would rarely look at, childhood blankets, new pillows, and chocolate chip granola bars.

They drove off to their new campuses, and I kept thinking about our conversations. Shortly after, two significant things happened that contributed to my interest in exploring home in the context of schools. First, I took my current position as the Academic Director for Mizzou K-12, an international middle and high school program. Second, I finished a study on the conditions for healthy affective development in schools. Both of these experiences pointed me to new more complicated ideas of what it meant to be at home and why feeling at home is essential to culturally responsive teaching.

During this past month (July 2018) I had the terrific opportunity to explore these ideas more deeply with a team of twenty international educators. These educators and their students were visiting the University of Missouri for Mizzou International Experience (MIE). Our professional group included teachers and coordinators from three countries (U.S.A, Brazil, and Vietnam). Together, we explored the following questions:

  • What does it mean to create a sense of home in our schools and classrooms?
  • How does the way we understand home change over time?
  • What are the conditions that make someone feel at home? How can we foster these conditions in schools?

We shared stories from our childhoods. Some were funny; some were painful; many were both. We shared stories from our classrooms. We laughed. We cried. We saw ourselves in our colleagues’ stories.  Our project operated under three guiding assumptions: (1) home is less about place/space and more about emotion/experience; (2) cultivating a sense of home leads to positive learning environments; and (3) understandings of home are highly contextualized.

We pulled out momentos and pictures from our childhoods that we hadn’t looked at in a long time. We studied Sandra Cisneros’  novella The House on Mango Street and talked about the ways race, class, gender, culture, and language influenced how we and our students experience home. Through these conversations and this project we formed a professional community of trust and warmth. In this community we we felt at home, which was precisely the point. We paused to consider, how does this feeling happen and how we can cultivate it in schools? Below are four ideas for teachers and other community leaders.

Cultivating a Sense of Home in our Classrooms

Give space to share personal stories, including exploring where those stories started.
Create together. Use the arts as a sense-making and storytelling tool.
Laugh and play, not as auxiliary practices to the “main work” but as integrated practices to community-building and being.
Honor culture. Explore and share the traditions, languages, food, music, dance, beliefs, and customs that make each of us unique.

Our project culminated in a creative showcase held at The Bridge (a “brave space” for inclusivity and equity efforts at the University of Missouri’s College of Education and beyond).  Each of the educators on our team shared a creative arts piece exploring the theme of home. Many of the canvases were decorated with family and school photographs. Additionally, each educator read a personal vignette, poem, or letter they had written in the spirit of Cisneros. The texts were courageous and often followed by both tears and applause.

At the showcase, I looked around this room full of brave educators and was struck by how collectively we call so many different places home and also how we all agreed that home is more than a place. Home matters. Home is where we can feel fully ourselves, where we can take risks, where we become who we want to be. Home is where many of our stories start.

This is an important conversation for schools and a new way to frame student support. Last Friday, MIE 2018 came to a close and the students and educators who had been with us for the past few weeks traveled “home.”  We said this wasn’t “goodbye” — it simply was a “see you soon.” We could return to each other here or there, and we all agreed to stay in touch via technology. Yet I knew, just as I had told my students years ago, that we would never return to this exact constellation of people, emotions, and circumstances.

Some things are fixed in space and place by a swirl of variables we can’t perfectly replicate. Our classrooms fall into this category. Through this project, we affirmed that home doesn’t shrink, it expands. On the dawn of a new school year, I am excited to think of all of the teachers locally and globally who are setting up their classrooms as spaces where students will feel affirmed, valued, and at home.

Warmly, Dr. KFW

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This article first appeared in The Columbia Missourian