Educators can give students hope for a better future and access to resources they need to be ready for learning. ASCD 2016 kicked off today in Atlanta, Ga., and the general sessions were inspiring and, at times, heart wrenching.
In this blog post, elementary teacher and ASCD emerging leader Jennifer Orr reports on the day’s event for SmartBlog on Education. Read on to learn more about the general sessions.
The opening general session at ASCD’s annual conference in Atlanta, Ga,m featured Manny Scott, one of the original Freedom Writers. He was funny, inspirational, and heartbreaking — often within the same minute.
He shared his personal story, including the many challenges he faced throughout his childhood. He talked about his father being in jail for the majority of his lifetime, watching his stepfather abuse his mother and her early death and living in 26 places throughout his childhood (not counting sleeping on friend’s couches, in cars, on beaches or in hotels).
Manny shared a specific story from his sixth-grade year of his teacher singling him out to talk, in front of the entire class, about why he didn’t know an answer or have his homework completed. She told him his clothes stank and he needed to get his act together, or he’d end up just like his dad.
“Poverty is not just the lack of money but the lack of access to the kinds of people who can help you make something out of your life,” he said.
Manny dropped out of high school during his freshman year. There were many reasons for this, but the final catalyst was the brutal murder of his best friend. He did not see a future for himself at school, but a chance encounter with an older man — a drug addict — changed his path.
This man told Manny that he could have a better future, that he did not need to end up losing everything as this man had done. He returned to school and begged the assistant principal to take him back. He convinced her, going on to earn good grades.
Then he got Ms. G. for a teacher. He described her as this “little white woman” who was a cheerleader in high school. He and his classmates didn’t have high expectations. He said she would try something and it wouldn’t work. She’d come back and try something else and it wouldn’t work. She’d come back.
“Can I encourage you to keep showing up? Become a student of your students. Think, is there anything in me that is building a barrier between me and my students? If there is, work on that first,” he challenged educators in the audience.
Ms. G became a student of her students. She used Tupac Shakur to model iambic pentameter. She encouraged her students to tell their stories. As Manny said, she didn’t lower her expectations; she changed her methods to help her students meet those high expectations.
He ended his session by reminding the audience, “Even on your worst day you can be someone’s best hope.”
Equity in education
The second general session of the day connected beautifully with the Manny Scott’s. Pedro Noguero and Alan Blankstein spoke passionately and thoughtfully about excellence through equity. Noguera started things off by reminding us that children learn through relationships. Blankstein continued by sharing that last year was the first year that more than half of our students are poor and the fastest growing segment of our student population is homeless children. More than 1.2 million students were homeless in 2012-2013 (the most recent year for data).
Manny talked about Ms. G. trying new ideas and having them fail and trying something else. Noguera stated that one of the greatest challenges in education today is the gap between the skills our teachers have and the needs our kids have.
We have to bridge that gap in order to meet our kids where they are and support their continued growth. In another link to Manny Scott, Noguera said that homework is an equity issue. If we assume all of our students have time, space and support for homework we are ignoring reality.
Finally, Blankstein wrapped up the day by saying that teachers touch eternity and that we can never know where our influence ends. He and Manny Scott both said that they are where they are today thanks to people like those in the audience, teachers and administrators and coaches who believed in them and supported them.
Jennifer Orr is an elementary-school teacher in Fairfax County, Va. She was selected as a 2013 ASCD Emerging Leader and was a panelist at ASCD’s fall 2014 Whole Child Symposium on teacher leadership. Connect with her on Twitter at @jenorr.