Honoring Parentless Students

*video filmed by ACPA – College Student Educators International, via ACPA Social Media

I attended a conference last week where I had the privilege to present a PechaKucha (powered by ACPA) on a topic I care about deeply.

“Honoring Parentless Students”

PechaKucha is, as as you discovered in the introduction to the video, a presentation where an individual talks alongside 20 images and slides, each turning automatically every 20 seconds. 20×20. According to PechaKucha, this presentation format was created by two architects, and initially as a result of the belief that architects talk too much! As a person with an undergraduate degree in communication, I would agree that most people talk too much when given an unrestricted set of PowerPoint slides.

And so, PechaKucha.

Aside from a space to tell a few stories (though, if given the time, I have dozens more related to this topic), I also took the opportunity to share some very personal reflections I have regarding the changing reality of how parents and families show up in education – and specifically, how the concept of parents and families show up in my own life. The landscape is changing.

And this should be no surprise. Over the past twenty years (arguably more), the landscape of families & non-families has changed significantly, and we should all be pausing to consider how parenting structures appear or don’t appear as it relates to children and college-age students. We should all consider adjusting our practice.

For example, “Mom’s Day,” or, “Dad’s Weekend,” The Office of Parent Programs, parent orientation, better funded opportunities for stateside families without including international students, letters home to, “Mr/s.,” or the plural of parent (“To the parents of…”) – these all come to mind, and knowing the list goes on and on.

So, what do we do, you might be wondering?

Furthermore, how do we support students who may not have the family or parenting structure that many of our programs assume? What about those triggered by these programs, or those left out by the simple mission of these traditions? How do we simply pause and honor someone’s actual, lived experience on their campus?

Aside from my hope and plan to research this very topic someday, for starters, you can evaluate your current practices and programs. Challenge exclusive norms, engage your alumni, program around the changing reality of families and students, and include those chosen-family friends and community members who may be supporting an individual just as much, if not more, than any relative could provide. Examine your school’s statistics and build bridges to colleagues across campus. Empower authenticity.

Next, be insistent. Pull students in to help you change the culture of your exclusive programs and traditions. Ask students frequently, “Who are we leaving behind?” “How can we edit or enhance the way we support all students?” “In what ways does [this program] exist as an exclusive body of opportunity for some more than others?”

Help students garner courage as they navigate these ongoing murky waters. Jump in those waters with them. And as you swim (or float or tread or splash) in those waters, invite others to jump in, too. What is not changing on our campuses is that students are showing up – how they show up, and with or without  whom, is, however, truly evolving.

And in honor of this evolution, I hope this will inform your practice.

Pausing,

Michael

DSC01252.JPG*photo provided by Idriss Njike (UCLA), co-host of PechaKucha, powered by ACPA

Retired Extrovert Does Conference Season

I’m going to lean into vulnerability for just a moment.

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Earlier today, I boarded a plane and took a deep breath. I knew that, as soon as I landed in Montréal, I would be hit by a wave of insecurities, anxiety, and fear. You should know, despite initially coming off as comfortable and confident in conference and large-group settings, I am actually typically living in a constant state of fear.

The anxiety is real. The fear of unpredictability is raw.

It wasn’t until I ran into an old friend from a job I held before graduate school that I realized this feeling was actually something others experience as well. In a sea of thousands of people, it’s not abnormal to experience this dissonance.

I received some needed peace in that quick conversation.

Night One of this current conference experience: I find myself nervous that everyone else came with someone else, and that capacity is limited. Even with thousands of attendees, conferences can be some of the loneliest spaces for young/professionals. Even with thousands of attendees, conferences can be scary oceans with every type of fish imaginable – feeling like the tiniest and most fragile fish in the sea is a heavy burden. As a reformed-extrovert living in a nervous state-of-mind, I’m forcing myself to swim. Swim fast. Swim intentionally. Just swim.

Tomorrow is a new day, and today is not yet over. Here’s to schedules and programs, here’s to structure. Here’s to confidence.

Swimming,

Michael

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#ACPA16 in Canada – excited for the learning ahead! 

“We proudly brew Starbucks coffee,” and Other Arguments for Enhancing Equity

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I went to a movie a few weeks ago, and when it came time to empty my wallet on refreshments, I saw a sign to the left of the concession stand that read, “We Proudly Serve [Starbucks logo].” Of course, my tolerance for late night movies has decreased significantly, and in that moment, coffee seemed like the best option to aid me in getting through any post-8:00PM obligation.

I purchased said-Starbucks coffee, mixed in my coffee fixins, and took a sip before leaving the concession area. Before I could swallow the mouthful of lukewarm coffee, with a disgusted look, I glared at the concessions attendant as he gave me a, “My bad,” shrug.

“It’s, Starbucks-ish,” he laughed.

The shrug continued as I walked away, enduring the movie with my Starbucks-ish.

“We proudly serve *Starbucks coffee.”
*Starbucks-ish

We do this a lot.

We accept the, “-ish.”

In many ways, this is an, “espoused versus enacted,” moment. This is about congruence (are you doing what you say you’ll be doing, and all of that).

I worked professionally with fraternities and sororities for several years, and continue to do so as a consultant and facilitator. This idea of congruence is a big piece of the conversation, and continues to disrupt what we believe about values and values alignment. In fact, many of The North-American Interfraternity Conference programs coin this concept as, “Values are what you do.

For the most part, I agree.

And while this post goes beyond fraternities and sororities, it’s important to understand this simple philosophy. The philosophy of doing.

Let’s go back to the concession stand moment I experienced a few weeks ago. The theater had a Starbucks sign. Cups. Social capital. In theory, this was a perfect combination of what I think I needed (wanted) from the sign that beautifully read, “We Proudly Serve [logo].” Ish. We do this a lot. We accept the, “-ish.”

And specifically, we accept the, “-ish,” as it relates to equity.

Pieces were missing from my movie Starbucks. I experienced Starbucks-adjacent. And when I think about equity within companies, schools, organizations, etc., I see a lot of equity-adjacent outcomes. Equity as a value must be what you do.

And it goes beyond a quick fix. 

“We’ll have a speaker.”

“We’ll have a program.”

“We’ll have a unity barbecue.”

“We’ll hire a Diversity Director.”

“We’ll giggle when someone says, ‘Bye, Felicia!'”

Some, indeed, have the right resources: the books, the materials, the buy-in, the marketable labels. However, if you’re not brewing the real stuff (see what I did there?), and if you’re not actually living and doing in a space of integrating these values, it will play out as values-adjacent rather than values-enacted.

Folks, hiring a diversity officer may help reach more students, however it alone will not address your diversity, equity, and justice problems.

Do you value equity (+diversity, social justice, inclusion) as a lived part of your organization, school, or company, or do you simply honor it as a box to check?

Often, schools and companies will hire a person to, “lead diversity initiatives,” without actually infusing diversity and equity into the very DNA of their organization. This edit is essential, and will make for a better and more inclusive inclusion strategy. You may have the sign, the cup, and the belief, but do you have the action to support the spirit of what these pieces can create together?

Do you have an inclusion strategy?

Are you talking about equity?

Is equity more than one line-item in your budget?

How do you frame hiring or admissions as they relate to equity?

Do all departments value diversity and multiculturalism as important?

And finally, are you more than just a Starbucks sign?

You have a unique opportunity to influence those around you (humans and corporations), to stretch your and other’s minds, and to achieve real and authentic impact. I hope you’ll consider the possibilities.

Seeking congruence,

Michael

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I am not defined by a test.

I took the GRE last week.

I should also note, I almost didn’t. I signed up about a month ago, and after, “Register for the GRE,” collected dust on my summer To Do list.

It was the following “ah-ha” moment that aided in my eventual registration:

I am not defined by a test.

Specifically, my worth is not found within the confines of a 100-question and 2-essay exam. This ah-ha hit me hard, and it hit me raw. My fear of taking the test had nothing to do with preparedness. Instead, it had everything to do with a complete fear of being measured by an exam. I was terrified to take the GRE because I was scared of what it might tell me about myself. Because, while I may not be defined by the test, I am certainly still compared to and evaluated as a result of it.

Powerful note

And thus, the debate around worth and standardization continues.

I have a limited memory of my own childhood woes around testing. Mostly, I remember the stress, and next, I remember a constant inquiry of whether or not the test-makers would actually put four “D” answers in a row (or, what one would get on the test if they just filled-in, “A, B, C, D, E, D, C, B, A,” from start to finish).

Institutions for higher education are evaluating their admissions processes, and many schools are slowly moving toward an admissions process that does not include the ACT or SAT. Outside of the undergraduate requirements, when I was applying to master’s programs several years ago, I had friends and colleagues who only applied to graduate schools that did not require a GRE score. “It does not measure your capacity to serve students, nor does it reflect your ability to be compassionate, or empathetic, or trustworthy as a professional,” one school said to me while researching which graduate program I wanted to attend. And I tend to agree. 

Ultimately, I pursued a graduate program that did require the GRE, and my GRE experience of 2009 contained a matched level of anxiety as my current predicament.

Is this how kids feel within our preK-12 systems? Does testing support a healthy self-efficacy? Are tests really the most equitable way to measure a person’s ability? What is the area of triangle ABC, and how is x+3 divided by z-y?

These questions haunt me more than most.

“Just remember that this test and your scores do not equal your value or predict your future. It’s just a test. It cannot be won. It can just be taken.”
– My very wonderful friend, Diana

I have wise friends, right?

While I’m not proud of my score, I am also not proud of a system that puts so much emphasis on testing as a prime indicator of a person’s capability. “It cannot be won. It can just be taken.” When I think about work involving child, student, and human development, I am most hopeful that layers of empathy, understanding, and compassion are more true than a wonderful score on a test.

Of course, times are changing. The way we educate and how we are educated are both changing. Education is evolving. We are evolving. I certainly understand the foundation of the (perceived) importance of test taking, but more so, I understand the reality of testing’s ability to leave people behind (cue, “the sociology of education,” here). From a preK-12 perspective, even my own former school district has the possibility for evolution, which was apparent just this past week.

A good friend of mine from high school and college now works in the school district where I spent most of my preK-12 experience (previously referenced last year, “My high school was ‘pretty Black’“). While attending the back-to-school welcome for district faculty and staff, she captured a pretty powerful statement from the new Superintendent of Schools.

“Never say never…every child can be successful!” “You have to love the kids more than the rules, more than the test scores, more than a win/loss record!”
– New Mid-Del Schools Superintendent, Dr. Rick Cobb

This is what matters. This is how we actually and thoughtfully teach and inspire. This is how we adequately educate children and adults. Teaching is so much more than a prescribed version of ‘success.’ Success is scarily subjective – truthfully, subjective.

More than what I may or may not have learned prior to or during my own testing experience this past week/summer, I mostly learned that I was loved. I had two coworkers who gave me a gift or card almost every day leading up to the test. My significant other beautifully and patiently challenged me to pause and be kind to myself. I had friends and colleagues reach out with affirming arguments of, “…it doesn’t define whether you’re smart or worthy,” and, “…just a test in your life, not a definition of your brains and talents.” Of course, I did consider that perhaps all my friends and colleagues realized I was an awful test-taker, or just that I couldn’t use, “mercurial,” or, “obsequious,” in a sentence – either way and regardless of motivation, people showed up, and with love and support deeper than I could have bargained.

To amend my initial ah-ha (“I am not defined by a test”), I would now argue, “My worth is not found in my GRE score.” And neither is yours.

One of my very good friends put it beautifully:

“I care about you doing well, but I care most that post-test you still remember how wonderful you are. Regardless of the results…”
-My super sweet pal, Renae

I think we can all benefit from this understanding – our self (selves), our students, our colleagues, our friends.

Be kind to yourself.

I may not have achieved a perfect GRE score last week. And that’s okay. And, perhaps, my understanding of the role of an educator is skewed by my passionate belief that empathy and compassion are much more important than exam results. That’s okay, too. There’s even a chance that, if I did take the test again – which I do not intend to do – I still wouldn’t do well. And even in that second score and attempt, I am still okay.

There are two points happening here: one about the giant question mark that exists around standardized testing, and the other regarding my own experience with the GRE. And in both spaces, regardless of outcome, we are worthy, we are capable, and we are surely, certainly, undoubtedly not defined by a test score.

New wind,

Michael

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*Bless all those who contend, “I love standardized tests.” You’re all robots.

Learning lessons from living with two elementary school teachers…

If you have not been following Humans of New York these days, please do so immediately. Aside from the general do-good’ed’ness that typically comes out of HONY, the last few weeks have been spent with educators and students from Mott Hall Bridges Academy. Please, invest in this movement – go see the powerful moments which are unfolding on social media right before our eyes. I am constantly inspired by this story and the coverage occurring nationwide, thus leading me to my own sea of reflection related to my education background. Let’s pause here for a moment.

I woke up this morning to the smell of coffee, and by 7:30AM, at least one cup had already been poured. This coffee was different. While most Americans (including myself) may have poured one cup by times even as earlier than 7:30AM, this coffee was potentially more valuable and valued than that of my fellow coffee-drinking comrades. Specifically, most individuals are not teaching 4-9 year olds every single day for seven hours per day. The coffee I smelled was teacher’s coffee. And, I rest my case. Valuable. Needed. Appreciated. The end.

I am currently living with two teachers, and specifically, two elementary school teachers. While in this transition, I have been truly lucky to have one of my dearest friends open up her home to me and allow me to stay with her until I figure out my next steps (seriously, this is probably one of the kindest things anyone has done for me, and if ever given the chance to pay it forward, I will do so without hesitation). These two individuals are passionate, creative, and committed to their work, as well as dedicated to the students they serve. Over the past month, I have watched, what seems like, thousands of papers be graded, projects be created, and hundreds of extra hours be poured into the development of a class of tiny human learners (among many other areas of solid, hard work).

My temporary roommates, Miss Holley and Miss Shropshire, are just two of many phenomenal professionals, though I would argue their skill and passion to be among some of the best in the country. Before I go any further, let’s pause again, while you meet Elementary School Michael:

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At first glance, I may seem like a total sassy mess, however I will assure you, there is much more than what met the initial eye. Sure, I definitely was a sassy mess, but I was also a total learner. I loved school, my friends, reading, and always, my teachers. I was a total chatter-box, and assumably asked more questions than my teachers had patience or answers for – this, perhaps, has not changed. And while I may have appeared to be resistant to the confines of school, I was actually a kid who really loved to get up each day and learn. Learning was fun for me, and even to this day, I remember the very teachers who impacted that learning by paving a way for me to thrive and excel as early as elementary school.

Ms. Neal, Ms. Schuman, Ms. Freeman, Ms. Sweeney, Ms. Anthony, and Mr. Holt: thank you. Seriously, thank you. Before I could refine myself as a student in middle and high school, you all taught me the fundamentals, the basics. And regardless of how much I actually remember during those times, I am lucky enough to be able to read, add, process, and reflect, and in so many ways, I owe that learning and development to you all, the earliest educators in my life.

As much as I believe learning outside of the classroom to be more important that that knowledge one receives inside of the classroom (student affairs, extracurriculars, co-curriculars, before/after school programs, etc., the list goes on and on), I have many moments similar to the one I am having today, and throw this belief out the window. Furthermore, I have to remember some of my closest friends who are teachers, and acknowledge that the children under their umbrella of learning are truly lucky souls. Just like the children learning from Miss Holley and Miss Shropshire, there are kids across the United States who are benefiting from late night grading sessions, extra hours of tutoring, mentoring, and loads of personal money coming from their own pockets (i.e., a lot of what is being gleaned from the HONY bits).

Last week I attended a fundraising night at a local restaurant with my two temporary teacher-roommates. If you’ve ever been in public with an elementary school teacher who runs into her or his students, you will agree that it is quite magical. Miss Holley and Miss Shropshire were greeted with hugs and cheers, and from both students and parents. And hugs and cheers are not uncommon. It’s a thankless job, however the reward is high. For example, Miss Holley spends at least one night per week tutoring a sweet first grader, as she lives as a sponge to the fundamentals of reading. Literally, before her eyes and as a result of her instruction, she is helping a tiny human understand a skill which many take advantage of possessing. Reading is a gift, and there is a huge part of this country who have not been given this knowledge.

As I think deeper about this specific moment of educating, I have to wonder, when did I pick up this skill, this life essential? Specifically, when did I learn to read? Was it hard for me? What words did I trip up on? What was my reading level? Was I good at reading? Did I have ADHD like my doctors all alluded? How did I make meaning of education’s, “Three R’s?”

Of course, I don’t know if I can answer any these questions, other than via anecdotal stories my parents might have saved up for me if ever I decide to have children of my own. Though, I would further argue, most of us who have the privilege of knowing how to read also don’t remember this point in our lives. I certainly don’t remember the initial stages of reading, writing, and arithmetic, and today, am really pausing on the reality of just how lucky I am to have this skill and ability.

For those of us who do know how to read and write, we are truly lucky. And, in most ways, owe this development to our teachers. If you have a friend who is a teacher or a child who benefits from the elementary school learning process, please take time to thank them. Appreciate them. Love on them. Just as I noted above, this job is often thankless, and the hours can be, at times, more than most benefactors understand. “Thank you,” goes a long way.

To all the Miss Holleys and Miss Shropshires out there, feel the love, feel the vibes, feel the power. Thank you.

Forever indebted,

Michael

*Another huge thank you to my 1st-6th grade teachers, Ms. Neal, Ms. Schuman, Ms. Freeman, Ms. Sweeney, Ms. Anthony, and Mr. Holt. And also, to my parents, who understood that learning also occurs at home, and spent hours reading with/to me, doing math problems with me, and challenging me to be the best learner I could and would be – they prepared me every single day for school, and I am thankful to have had that circumstance during my earliest years of education. 

**Additionally, I’m obsessed with Humans of New York, and the work being done right now has also been a huge pause of appreciation for me. Please take a look, and find a way to connect and give back – really powerful stories are being told, and more so, education realities being highlighted. Once you know, you can’t say that you don’t. 

***My thoughts on education, in general.

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