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History reveals a long-standing tradition of student activism in education. Young people, often high school students, mobilizing and organizing their peers to create change. Courageous youth leaders demanding that those most affected by education policy and politics have their voices heard and respected. My interest in student activism predates my latest piece in The Atlantic. With a wave of protests rolling across college campuses, however, it’s timely to revisit the other student activists spearheading movements.

More than 50 years later movements for racial and educational justice are once again building momentum. A surge of student activism has swept across academia in recent weeks as black students and their allies forcefully call attention to racist climates on American college campuses. And even as some college-student leaders cite the Black Lives Matter social-justice movement as their inspiration, what’s happening in higher education is being matched by younger peers. High-school youth are flexing their collective muscles for equity: fighting budget cuts and out-of-school suspensions as they take on racial issues and academic offerings.

2012 paper on youth and social movements, a collaboration between Lady Gaga’s Born this Way Foundation and Harvard University’s Berkman Center, found young people to be powerful agents for social change, crediting undocumented-youth sit-ins for convincing President Obama to grant DREAMers a reprieve from deportation in 2012. The paper’s author writes of youth activists primed to “call out or identify systems of oppression, speak up, and mobilize their peers.”

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(Photo: Liz Hafalia, San Francisco Chronicle)

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In many ways public schools are failing to support, strengthen, and uplift Black children. This is magnified when it comes to LGBTQ youth of color. It’s vital that we understand and address how race intersects with gender – and how some educators marginalize and stigmatize difference – so the story of two boys in Oxnard, California, is never repeated.

The victim was black, living in foster care, questioning his sexuality, and experimenting with cross-dressing. The accused was white; raised in a violent, dysfunctional home; and dabbling in white-supremacist propaganda. The murder gained national attention and garnered magazine covers—a child killing another child is particularly tragic and horrific—as it revealed an undercurrent of race, class, and sexuality. Like pulling a Band-Aid off a festering wound, all of these aspects were crudely exposed in McInerney’s 2011 trial for first-degree murder.

Ken Corbett, a clinical psychologist in New York City who has studied and written on gender identity and boyhood, was immediately drawn to the details of the case and traveled to California to attend the trial; he wanted to examine the many facets of King’s and McInerney’s lives that intersected and led to a gruesome end. His new book, A Murder Over a Girl: Justice, Gender, Junior High, is a story told through the prism of parents, friends, teachers, lawyers, and those like Corbett enveloped by this tragedy. He recently spoke to me about his search for answers.

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As bilingualism becomes a coveted commodity, the popularity of dual-language immersion continues to grow. Native English speakers are building their linguistic skills in a wide variety of programs teaching highly sought after languages. But what is the upshot for English learners in two-way immersion? It has the potential to become a resource that benefits English-dominant students as it further marginalizes language minority students. Making social justice central to these programs is key to averting this unintended consequence.

In a break with tradition, more schools are adopting language-immersion programs, in which English and another language are integrated into the curriculum and instruction. The Center for Applied Linguistics, a D.C.-based nonprofit, found an exponential growth in foreign-language immersion in a comprehensive survey of public schools and some private schools. Over a 40-year span language-immersion schools grew steadily, with the largest increase in the decade that started in 2001. Spanish remains the most popular for immersion programs at 45 percent, followed by French (22 percent) and Mandarin (13 percent), with a wide array of languages rounding out the list of 22 selections—from Hawaiian and Cantonese to Japanese and Arabic.

As two-way immersion grows, the variety of language options now available marks a turning point in the evolution of bilingual education. Once the mainstay of immigrant children, bilingual instruction has a new band of converts: English-speaking parents, lawmakers, and advocacy groups. Research shows that students gain cognitive and academic benefits from bilingualism. Yet an overarching reason for the heightened interest is giving U.S. students a jump on the competition in a global workforce. And some activists find even with this flurry of attention, equal access to dual-immersion remains a thorny issue and persistent challenge.

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(Photo: John Gastaldo / San Diego Union-Tribune) 

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November is Native American Heritage Month, a time to honor the culture, traditions and history of America’s indigenous people. One aspect of building a brighter future for tribal communities is the preservation and revitalization of Native languages, the focus of my latest piece that looks at efforts to teach students in dual-language programs — which are gaining traction and growing fast.

Nationally, bilingual education has been rechristened “dual-language programs” and is gaining fresh appeal. The templates of dual-language instruction vary—some programs transition students into English-only after several years while others emphasize ongoing two-language immersion at different ratios—but the common strand is an attempt to build literacy and proficiency in more than one language. The approach is found to outperform traditional ESL, where lessons are typically taught entirely in English. Research shows two-language instruction is linked to numerous positive and long-term benefits, including stronger literacy skills, narrowing of achievement gaps, and higher graduation rates. And the academic advantages of two-language programs even carry over to an unexpected group: children who only speak English at home. A Michigan State University study of Texas elementary students in 2013 found “a substantial spillover effect”—higher math and reading scores—for children from English-only homes who were enrolled in schools with bilingual education programs.

Beyond the politics are parents seeking a quality education for their children and the real-life costs of English-only education. The goals of dual-language are closely related and intertwined—better teaching models for non-English speakers, fostering cross-cultural understanding, and in special settings reclaiming disappearing Native American languages—and the approach is earning praise.

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I took Latin in high school. This basically qualifies me to read prescription abbreviations. In retrospect I wish I had studied French or Spanish. I don’t take excessive pride in the fact that I only speak English – I find it limiting and somewhat stifling. In a country as diverse as the U.S., being bilingual is something to treasure rather than discard or reject. And when the push for children to learn English in schools supplants their first language, culture and heritage, we have to ask whether something critical is lost.

Even as states struggle to reach a common definition of what it means to be an English language learner, the proportion of these students continues to rise—and with it, the temperature of debate surrounding the purpose and goals of bilingual education. It remains an unsettled issue that continues to challenge America’s self-image as welcoming and inclusive: The value of linguistic assimilation is pitted against the values of a culturally diverse nation of immigrants, leaving education systems and its students caught in political crosshairs. The divide is exacerbated by financially strapped schools with skyrocketing numbers of English learners—meeting all of the mandates for their education can be expensive—and the national discourse on immigration, which saw the 2016 presidential contender Donald Trump advise his competitor Jeb Bush to “really set the example by speaking English while in the United States.”

Today, schools are still twisting in the wind of politics, with 31 states passing laws naming English the official language over the last two centuries and voters in CaliforniaArizona, and Massachusetts approving ballot measures in recent decades that replace bilingual education with English-only policies. Meanwhile, a growing contingent of educators are promoting the cultivation of bilingualism to support the social and emotional needs of English language learners.

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Linus van Pelt, the philosopher of the Peanuts gang, has a poignant line in the comic strip’s animated Halloween special:

I’ve learned never to discuss with people: religion, politics, and the Great Pumpkin.”

That practice carries over into schools, where discussing religion specifically is often shunned or increasingly the cause of an uproar. A new book, Faith Ed, explores how teaching world religions can soften the divisions between children living and growing up in America, which is a country of many faiths and beliefs. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the author, who offered some insights and observations.

Melinda D. Anderson: “Teach, not preach” was a common refrain as a guiding principle for how schools should introduce the teaching of religion. Talk about the inherent tension between teaching students about religion and the credible fear expressed by parents especially of proselytizing.

Linda K. Wertheimer: Some parents feared that if their children learned about another religion, they might fall out of love with their own faith. Or if a child came from an atheist or agnostic family, maybe he or she might suddenly want to embrace a religion. However, I wouldn’t describe that fear as credible when referring to world-history courses that wrap in instruction about different religions. The courses I observed teach students basic information about three or more religions to help them understand the geography, history, politics, and culture of a country or region of the world. Teachers were not asking students to pray or perform religious rituals.

If anything, schools are in a better place than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was commonplace for teachers to lead children in prayer and recite Bible verses as part of the morning routine. The 1963 court ruling prohibiting teacher-led prayer gradually led to bigger efforts to educate children about many religions. But there is a real fear of proselytizing when it comes to classes about the Bible as literature or history. Parents should be the most concerned about those types of courses. Those classes can be taught objectively, and in fact, I found such an example at Lumberton High School, the target of so much fuss over a teacher’s lessons on Islam.

The biggest fear about world religion courses is how teachers are teaching about Islam and whether they are sugar-coating radical Islam. Some critics have questioned whether teachers are indoctrinating children in Islam. The irony is that most teachers in this country reflect the nation’s demographics. Most of them are white and female, and many of them are Christian. It’s unlikely they would try to convert children to Islam. The key to preventing classes from turning into preaching is training the teachers.

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High on the euphoria of first-time motherhood, I remember the day I brought my newborn to the office. Colleagues surrounded the stroller 15 years ago wanting to hold my son. After dispensing the obligatory hand sanitizer, I placed him in the arms of an older Black woman I’d known for several years. Pulling back the hood on his onesie bodysuit, a look of satisfaction spread across her face as she proudly proclaimed: “He’s going to be handsome. Look at those ears.”

It’s commonly believed in the Black community that you can tell the final skin tone of a baby by the color of the tips of the ears. Whether it’s medically sound or Black folklore is less important than the need to affirm this practice, generation after generation. I was struck by the significance of that long-forgotten episode this weekend as I sat in a room of adolescent teen girls in Baltimore. Far more perceptive than I was at their age, the young ladies engaged in a rich conversation on self-esteem and the historical underpinnings that lead many of us to reject and disparage the skin we’re in.

The Flourishing Blossoms Society For Girls, Inc., a mentoring program addressing the holistic needs of its participants, is the brainchild and product of the energy of Valencia Clay. Clay, a graduate of Morgan State University, started her teaching career at a Freedom School in Baltimore where she cultivated a passion for teaching social justice. For Clay the Blossoms give her life purpose and meaning. Moving back home to New York City this summer couldn’t break the bond – she travels to Baltimore monthly to continue running the program.

Seated on a brightly colored rug in the Southwest Baltimore Charter School library, a tight-knit group of 8th-grade girls chatted excitedly with Clay on Saturday morning. On the agenda: exploring the concept of self-hatred. It was intriguing to watch each girl slowly come to recognize and accept how self-hatred operates and the subtle yet profound, insistent influences that permeate American culture allowing prejudice like colorism to take root.

Reading from the biography of Assata Shakur, Clay shared a passage from Shakur’s childhood involving a young man named Joe. Joe, with an unrequited crush, was cruelly rejected by Shakur on the basis that he was “too Black and ugly” in the estimation of her peers. The moment deeply changed Shakur – her consciousness as well as her perception of self and others. Writing about the scars of internalized racism, she reveals:

For weeks, maybe months, afterward, i was haunted by what happened that day, by the snakes that had crawled out of my mouth. The sneering hatred on his face every time i saw him after that made me know there was nothing i could do but change myself. Not for him, but for me. And i did change. After that i never said ”Black” and “ugly” in the same sentence and never thought it. Of course, i couldn’t undo all the years of self hatred and brainwashing in that short time, but it was a beginning. And although i still cared too much about what other people thought about me, i always tried hard after that to stand on my own two feet, to stand by what i felt and thought and not just be a robot. I didn’t always succeed, but I always tried like hell.

In unison the Blossoms were appalled that Shakur could be so mean to Joe, who had been so nice to her. But Clay deftly brought the topic back to them: “Have you ever had a moment when you projected your self-hatred onto someone else and didn’t know it? Have you ever seen it?”

The spark of realization was instantly apparent in all of their faces. Boys in class who tease each other for being “Black as…” but they’re just as dark-skinned as their targets. A sister who labels others girls as being “so ‘hood” but they’re from the same community. Now understanding how self-hatred presents itself, Clay transitioned into its roots with the documentary “Dark Girls,” a 2012 film examining the origins of colorism, its lineage dating back to slavery and colonialism, and how early it materializes – showing a contemporary version of the black doll experiment from the 1940s.

Skillfully integrating her own family history Clay was able to elicit spontaneous awareness in the group of Black girls about their experiences with skin tone and hair and how self-hatred manifests. In a safe space created through genuine care and trust, the one white girl in the group even shared how she always wanted the texture of Black hair. The weight of her statement resonated throughout the room. Over the course of a few hours – teaching, punctuating, clarifying, affirming, reinforcing – Clay guided the girls to see the damaging and destructive effects of colorism. She closed the day inviting them to explore through poems, itemized lists, and storytelling how they’d grown from what they learned that day.

For me, more aptly described as well-developed foliage than a Blossom, so many memories came flooding back: the times I was silent when I shouldn’t have been, the times I made assumptions I shouldn’t have, the times I subconsciously viewed proximity to whiteness as the measure of a Black woman’s beauty or status.

Maybe I wasn’t the audience, but it left me thinking and reconsidering. Thank you Ms. Clay.

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Few famous figures in American history are as divisive as Christopher Columbus. Many find the Italian voyager’s reputation doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. A growing number of cities and states – Alaska just joined the roster – are shunning a day named for the explorer in favor of “Indigenous Peoples Day.” And schools, which reflect society’s broad cultural and political values, must find ways to navigate this new terrain.

So I looked at the annual pushback to this holiday – and went in search of how teachers talk about Columbus in an authentic way in the classroom.

Today, over 500 years after he sailed the ocean blue, Columbus is equally derided and praised. Starting with Berkeley, California, in 1992, cities started renaming the second Monday in October “Indigenous People’s Day” to shift focus from the conqueror to the conquered. Since August, eight cities have replaced Columbus Day with Indigenous Peoples’ Day, including several in just the last week. This follows both Minneapolis and Seattle, which adopted the new name in 2014, with a bevy of Native American groups and progressive activists applauding the changes.

The picture grows even more complicated when you factor in teachers and schools, which often rely on textbooks, materials, and lesson plans inundated with Anglo-American, mono-cultural viewpoints. In Lies My Teacher Told Me, James W. Loewen, a history professor, reviews the common misstatements and misrepresentations in the retelling of American history—from the first Thanksgiving and reconstruction to the mythology surrounding Columbus. The result is “a whitewashed version of history,” Shannon Speed, the director of Native American and Indigenous Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, wrote in a Huffington Post op-ed last year. “Omission of the truth is, in fact, a form of lying. I would offer that the purpose of teaching history in schools is to create critical thinkers capable of meaningful participation in a democratic society.”

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(Photo: Elaine Thompson / AP)

A Black Boy Growing Up in Baltimore [The Atlantic]

Written on 8 October 2015, 08:15am under As Seen In

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The first of six trials in the Freddie Gray case is set to begin late next month. With all of the analysis, one voice is mostly absent: Baltimore youth.

What is it like to grow up in Baltimore? I wanted to present a youth perspective on the April uprising … show how well teachers and schools help kids manage their trauma and stress … and give readers a glimpse at all of the above through the eyes of a Baltimore teen. A student’s perspective, via a “Day in the Life” profile. 

Meet Scott Thompson II.

In many ways, Scott is a black youth who both lives apart from and among the conditions that have come to define West Baltimore. “If I make it as a big actor, people will know where I came from and will know I’m a black boy from Baltimore,” he said on a recent Saturday afternoon traveling around the city. “I know what’s wrong with my city, but it’s still [mine]. I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.”

For Scott, poetry was a way to grapple with the trauma he endured—a tool that some educators and schools now use to help children heal from exposure to violence. Looking back on that period of life, Scott recalls school—particularly the support he got from his peers and favorite teacher at Southwest Baltimore Charter—being his lifeline.  To transition students from middle to high school, Southwest Baltimore Charter School organizes students into gender-exclusive teams—“crews”—of about a dozen students each who meet daily in grades 6-8. The crew model fosters strong, consistent relationships between students. The closeness of the all-male group gave Scott the security to grieve and surrender to his sadness. “We are honestly like brothers. I always felt safe in my crew room. I knew I could talk about anything, or if I was having a bad day… I could always connect with them.”

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[Photo: Scott Thompson II (far left) and 8th-Grade Crew on School Trip]

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Full-scale police departments are operating on college and university campuses. Empowered to patrol jurisdictions beyond school grounds – and armed with guns, Tasers and in some cases, military-grade equipment – campus police are blurring the lines between campus safety and local law enforcement. And similar to the growth of police in K-12 settings, campus police are generating concerns and complaints.

According to a recent Justice Department report on 2011-12 data, what’s been described as the most comprehensive survey of its kind, the vast majority of public colleges and universities—92 percent—have sworn and armed campus officers. Unsurprisingly, they’re much less prevalent at private colleges: Slightly over a third (38 percent) of them are equipped with their own law enforcement. Since the 2004-05 school year, the percentage of both public and private colleges nationwide using armed officers increased from 68 percent 75 percent.

Yet as the numbers of armed campus police have swelled, presumably in part as an effort to satisfy the Clery Act requirements, the Justice Department data reveals a string of contradictions. The report demonstrates that crime and the presence of law enforcement on campus have an inverse relationship: Increases to the numbers of officers on campuses are paralleled by declining rates of reported crimes at the schools. Yet even despite apparent reduction in crime, the numbers of campus officers have continued to expand—as have their responsibilities. Officers have increasingly gained the ability to arrest and patrol outside jurisdictions, and the growth to law-enforcement hires has outpaced that of student enrollment.

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(Photo: YouTube Screenshot / Occupy U.C. Berkeley Protesters Face Violent Confrontation With Campus Police)