Recap of Travis Bristol, “Policy Levers for Increasing the Ethnoracial Diversity of Teachers in Urban Public Schools”

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Our Brown Education Department Spring 2018 Speaker Series kicked off in February with Dr. Travis Bristol, Peter Paul Assistant Professor at the Boston University School of Education, presenting “Policy Levers for Increasing the Ethnoracial Diversity of Teachers in Urban Public Schools.” Bristol’s combination of research, policy and practice, particularly on the intersection of race and gender in schools, was topical for Brown’s UEP and MAT graduate students.

Bristol had become inspired to be a teacher as a student at Washington Irving High School in New York, where he’d begin his day passing through grim metal detectors, wondering if there was an effect on how people learned when they were made to feel as if they were policed. Bristol later created an afterschool program in response to a disproportionate amount of suspensions for Black male students. In the program, these overly policed students met with men of color, fostering relationships with people who looked like them, encouraged them, and stayed in touch with them. The result: students became more engaged in class.

But there’s a glaring student-teacher ethnoracial mismatch in U.S. public schools, Bristol reported. In 2014, less than 2% of U.S. teachers were Black males, even after U.S. Secretary Arne Duncan’s 2011 “Calling Black Men to the Blackboard” initiative. More recruitment attempts have targeted Black male teachers in recent years, such as Boston Public Schools’ 2014 launch of the Male Educators of Color Executive Coaching Seminar Series, but Black male teachers also leave their positions at a higher rate than their counterparts. Why?

Bristol3Bristol researched this issue in part by interviewing 27 Black male teachers across 14 schools in Boston. His data aligned with other findings: that workers in the majority create conditions that challenge minorities. Role encapsulation (tasks that appear to be assigned based on a social identity, such as placing Black males in the role of behavior managers rather than teachers) and  administrative perception that Black males are intellectually inferior, leading to a lack of respect for their opinions and a distance from inviting them into other spaces, affect how Black male teachers feel and are viewed, making their work more challenging than for their colleagues. Black male teachers feel called to teaching because kids lack Black male role models, but they also feel more feared and less supported than their non-Black or non-male counterparts — especially when they are the only Black male teachers in their schools. Some reported feeling expected by leaders to run schools like prisons, making it difficult to keep the work meaningful and engaging. Hiring discrimination prevents some Black male teachers from even getting into schools. Those who do tend to lack differentiated professional development and a safe space to talk candidly about preparation. How can we retain and support Black male teachers?

Research shows that socio-emotional teaching does matter, Bristol stated; creating a positive environment increases learning and long-term outcomes. There is added value when students of color are taught by teachers of color. Research shows that Black students who had at least one Black teacher were significantly less likely to drop out of school and more likely to aspire to attend college, as well as showing improved performance on standardized tests.

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Bristol, a former high school English teacher and clinical teacher educator with the Boston Teacher Residency program, employed a popular classroom technique, “turn and talk,” to immerse Brown University audience members in discussing whether we’re in a situation where we need Latino teachers teaching Latino students or White teachers teaching White students. When reporting out on their conversations, audience members listed disparities in resources among schools and districts, the importance of diversity in and outside of classrooms, and the importance of engaging, rather than punishing, students of color. In response to an audience member’s question about what states outside of Massachusetts and New York are doing about this issue, Bristol stated that nine U.S. states have signed up on an initiative aiming to match teachers of color to students of color by 2060.

Bristol briefly presented on other hopeful initiatives, including NYC Men Teach, which aims to recruit an additional 1,000 Black male teachers into New York schools; the Relay Graduate School of Education, an alternative school leader program that helps design professional development for Black male teachers; LA Unified, whose district work includes teacher of color recruitment, support, and retention campaigns; the Organization for Economic and Cooperative Development, which documents school-based experiences for ethnic minority teachers across 35 member countries; and Pathways to Teaching, a longer-term investment that gives high schoolers teaching experience in exchange for college credit.

Bristol6Brown University is redesigning its teacher education program, Bristol was informed. What should that redesign include to keep the content rigorous and yet address the diversity pipeline? That pipeline starts in K-12, Bristol responded, and people of color get lost in it much earlier than when they apply to an MAT program. When schools discipline first and teach second, when students of color are expelled, those students are lost before they can ever decide to teach. For those who do pursue teacher education, Bristol suggested, the best thing Brown can do is to recognize that cost for teacher education programs matter. Find the finances to help more people of color afford to pursue teacher education.

A last question asked about additional barriers to the pipeline, and Bristol noted that biases in tests such as the MCAS and the Praxis exams can affect the self-esteem of exam takers. Passing a test can’t guarantee an ability to increase learning for students. Rhode Island’s Commissions of Education, Ken Wagner, spoke up from the audience, stating that he’d been present at meetings in which national leaders are trying to break down barriers and examine other performance measurements beyond tests, such as cultural competency. The edTPA (formerly the Teacher Performance Assessment) provides a multiple-measure assessment system aligned to state and national standards that can guide the development of curriculum and practice around the common goal of making sure new teachers can teach effectively and improve student achievement.

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L to R: David Rangel, Travis Bristol, Kenneth Wong, and Andrea Flores

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A Day in the Life of a UEP Student: Meet Katie

“My name is Katie Rieser, and I come to UEP after ten years in education — 7 as a teacher and 3 as a Director of Curriculum at a school. So far, it’s been a thrill to dive back into UEP after many years spent outside of higher education, so I’m pleased to share a day in my life with you.

“Every day in UEP is slightly different, as the program prepares us for work analyzing data, writing policy papers, working in education reform organizations, and, of course, going to class.

“Since the days in my week are so different, I’ll use a typical Wednesday to share with you. On any given Wednesday, I wake up around 6:30 in the morning, make myself a glass of tea, and quickly scan my email for anything important that may have popped up overnight. Then, I jump into my car and drive to Central Falls, RI, for my internship at The Learning Community Charter Schools. My office in the charter school is deep in the weeds of starting a new graduate school of education in Rhode Island, the first to be affiliated with a full time working elementary school. At The Learning Community, I analyze data, conduct research on best practices in teacher education, and contribute where I can in meetings.

“At around noon, I jump back in my car and drive home, where I usually pack a quick lunch and snacks for my afternoon classes. I then hop on my bicycle (if the weather is nice) and head down Hope St. to Brown. I take two classes on Wednesdays: a theoretical sociology class about race and ethnicity, and a required UEP statistics course. Both classes are helping me to shape the way I think about my internship, and my work beyond UEP. After so many years ‘in the field’, my courses have been a welcome chance for me to think deeply about the daily work that I do and fill out my understanding of my work with more concrete knowledge and sources. Although my professors are quite different, they are similar in their openness to students; they’ve been so encouraging and supportive of my work.

“Typically, my classes on Wednesdays end around 6:30 PM, making for a long and eventful day (and a typical one in the education sector). I then hop back on my bike and head home, where I have dinner with my wife, read or watch some TV, and head to bed.  

“On other days of the week, you can find me studying in the graduate student section of the library, collaborating on group projects with members of my cohort, chatting with my professors in office hours, at home writing papers, or working at my part-time job in Boston as a Lecturer of English Methods for new teachers at Harvard Graduate School of Education. I can honestly say that, as a mid-career professional, the UEP masters program has been a really wonderful chance to explore and expand my current thinking and skillsets. Feel free to reach out to me with any questions–UEP ambassadors can put you in touch!”

A Day in the Life of a UEP Student: Meet Melitzi

“Happy Friday, everyone! My name is Melitzi Torres and I am a current UEP graduate student at Brown. I was asked to share what a day in my life is like as a UEP student. Before I dive into that, I want to share a little about who I am and what brought me to this master’s program.

“I am a first-generation Latina college student, I go by the pronouns she/her/hers, and I love spending time with people I love. I grew up in Rhode Island, graduated from Brown (undergrad) in 2015, taught second grade for two years, and came back to Brown this past summer as a full-time graduate student. As a product of a public school system, as a first-gen Latina, as a former teacher, and as an advocate for educational equity, I knew I needed to be working in policy to make the difference I wanted to make. In undergrad, I had the opportunity to intern for a policy research and advocacy group, Rhode Island’s  senate policy office, and a community partnership organization. These internships, along with my experience as a teacher, really fueled my drive to head into policy. After bouncing back and forth between three other master’s programs and the UEP program, I knew Brown was where my heart is. There’s truly no other place like Brown. #evertrue

“So much has changed from my life as a teacher. Part of the UEP experience is taking on an internship that would help prepare you for a future job placement. I am currently interning as a data analyst for the Gil and Jacki Cisneros Foundation in Los Angeles, CA. Through working remotely, I have learned that time management and clear communication are key to success in a position like mine. On any given weekday, I’ll wake up, drink my coffee #frenchpress while catching up on social media, and then I dive into work for a couple of hours before class. UEP classes are in the afternoon so I have the mornings to get work done for my internship and classes. Depending on how much work I have, I usually like to relax after class and explore Providence with friends.

I hope this has been helpful to you as you decide on a master’s program. Please feel free to reach out with any questions–I’m one of the program’s ambassadors so I’m actually here to help in any way I can! You can reach me at: melitzi_torres@brown.edu or on any social media platform @melitzitorres”

PPSD Superintendent Addresses UEP XII Cohort

On Wednesday, June 28, our 12th Brown University Urban Education Policy cohort gathered at the Providence Biltmore for a UEP dinner featuring keynote remarks by Providence Public School District Superintendent Chris Maher.

lovely view from the UEP dinner at Providence Biltmore

UEP Program Director Kenneth Wong

Superintendent Maher provided a candid overview of the state of Providence public schools Continue reading

2017 Brown Urban Education Policy Conference

On May 16, 2017, the Brown University Urban Education Policy Master’s Program held its annual conference, featuring presentations of the work of the internships of 23 UEP students (a 24th in spirit from the maternity ward!) related to creating, supporting, and sustaining an equitable education system. UEP-Conference1

The day began with opening remarks by Dr. Kenneth Wong, Walter and Leonore Annenberg Professor of Education Policy and Chair of the Department of Education.

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Panel 1 (“Involving Diverse Stakeholders To Build Student Agency and Civic Capacity”) was moderated by Professor Andrea Flores and featured UEP student panelists Melanie Bowdish, Maureen Dizon, Rebecca Lessard, Jeanine Mason, Sabrina Uribe-Ruggiero, and Kunal Vasudev. Teach for America Alumna Kristine Frech served as the panel discussant.

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Panel 2 (“Assessing and Monitoring Conditions for Student Success”) was moderated by Professor John Papay and featured UEP student panelists Sam Ashley, Dalma Diaz, Martin Quirk, Michael Ricci, Kelly Rosiles-Villagomez, and Chun Wu. Mateus Baptista from the office of the Mayor of Newark, New Jersey served as the panel discussant.

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Tom Flanagan, Chief Academic Officer of the Providence Public School District, provided an engaging keynote speech during the lunch portion of the conference, providing his own perspective on education equity.

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Panel 3 (“Ensuring Equitable Opportunities to Improve Outcomes for All Learners”) was moderated by Professor Michael Grady and featured UEP student panelists Madalyn Ciampi, Briana Jimenez, Evert Justice Finger, Emily Lysaght, Karina Rodriguez, and Harkaran Uppal. Brown UEP alumna and Harvard Ed.D. candidate Heather Johnson served as the panel discussant.

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Panel 4 (“Supporting Positive School Culture”) was moderated by Professor Matthew Kraft and featured UEP student panelists Megan Baker, Donald Kost, Ariel Neumann, Erica Prenda, Rebecca Salzman- Fiske, and John Sharrott. Kirtley Fisher, Performance Management Executive at the Rhode Island Department of Education, served as the panel discussant.

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Site supervisors, colleagues, and friends of the 23 presenters learned about fascinating internship projects, many that will continue to be pursued in months and years to come, by Brown UEP students at sites in Rhode Island, Massachusetts, New Jersey, California, Illinois, Washington, D.C., ,and India.

The Brown Department of Education congratulates all of our Urban Education Policy master’s program students for their wonderful work and presentations!

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Q&A with Professors Flores and Rangel

While working on this year’s UEP newsletters, our UEP student ambassadors had an opportunity to pose questions to our two newest faculty members about their research and teaching. Meet Assistant Professor of Education Andrea Flores and Assistant Professor of Education David Rangel!

 

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Andrea Flores

SAs: “How does your work inform the efforts to reshape public education?”

 

AF: “Broadly, ethnographic educational research is a window into how the reshaping of public education affects the lives of students, teachers, and families. My research–focused on Latino youth who participate in a nonprofit college access program and their transitions out of high school  in Nashville, Tennessee–demonstrates how youth experience this process, their motivation to persist in school, and the challenges they face in both their low-performing schools and in this successful intervention. Thus, my research informs policy and school reform by documenting the everyday experience of the public educational system, its failings, and its opportunities to aid students. Theoretically, I examine how third sector outsourcing of school-based services creates a tiered and privatized system of college access. Additionally, my work explores the roadblocks facing undocumented students’ college access, e.g  the inability to apply for federal and state-based financial aid and these students’ exclusion from certain public higher educational institutions.”

SAs: “What is the biggest takeaway you want students to have from your courses?”

AF: “Of course, each class I teach has different thematic and content-based takeaways. Universally, I hope students leave my classes with an appreciation for qualitative and ethnographic research’s contribution to our understanding of the individual lives affected by policy and its intended and unintended consequences.”

Continue reading

UEP Professors and Alumna Rank #1 in Best Quality Teacher Research of 2016

nctq-trophy-award-icon_bestof2016_654432Brown University Department of Education professors John Papay and John Tyler teamed up with Brown UEP alumna Mary Laski, along with Harvard Graduate School of Education Assistant Professor of Economics and Education Eric Taylor, on their publication, “Learning Job Skills from Colleagues at Work: Evidence from a Field Experiment Using Teacher Performance Data.”

The publication has topped the National Council on Teacher Quality‘s 2016 list of outstanding papers by teacher education researchers. Congratulations to Mary, John and John!

Recap of Education Department Fall 2016 Speaker Series Lecture: Hilary Levey Friedman

friedman1On Nov. 10, 2016, dozens of Brown students, faculty and staff gathered in the Barus Building to hear Hilary Levey Friedman, Visiting Assistant Professor in American Studies at Brown University, present “Playing to Win: Raising Children in a Competitive Culture” in the fourth installment of the Brown Education Department Fall 2016 Speaker Series.

Dr. Levey Friedman, whose presentation shared the title of a book she authored a book, has done extensive research on competitiveness among American children. She noted that in 1980, children had a roughly 90% likelihood of earning the same salary as their parents. By 2010, that number had plummeted to just 50%. People are responding pathologically to a fear of inequality, worried that their children won’t be as successful as they were. Thus, Levey Friedman has studied how “winning” has become central to many American children’s lives.

All of her data, Levey Friedman explained, is on elementary school children in the 5th grade or younger, and all on organized sports and activities run by adults. On a spectrum between “just for fun” and “training for the Olympics,” the groups in her data fell very slightly to the right of center; the parents didn’t want their kids to be professional players, but they did want them to succeed and win. Everyone was already involved in the activities when Levey Friedman began her field work.

friedman2In 2013, 7.7 million U.S. children were on high school sports teams. In soccer alone, there were 3 million kids between the ages of 5 and 19. Sports have become a part of middle class and upper middle class culture. 100 years ago, competitive sports would have been considered a staple of poor and immigrant families, while wealthier American children practiced non-competitive sports and activities such as dance and music.

Mandatory schooling laws during the 19th century planted seeds of competition, Levey Friedman stated, which brought about a social shift for kids. Sports leagues evolved, eventually coming into the spotlight. By 1910, many states featured sports clubs (although many closed during or immediately after the Depression). Then the YMCA shifted to a fee-based model, which spread across the country and remains today. In 1929, Pop Warner football was founded; in 1939, Little League was founded. Just ten years later, Little Leaguers played their first World Series, which shows how quickly the movement to competitiveness happened in the U.S. By 1959, there were 5,000 sports leagues, a model which became the norm for today’s Americans.

In the 1970s, California became the base for a self-esteem movement in schools that spread across the nation over the next decade. Physical education teachers helped push organized activities out of schools, which resulted in tying sports into the private sector. Pay-to-play sports became popular. By 2005, the number of national championships had grown from 100 to 250. The ages that a player could be a champion had also lowered across the nation, creating competitiveness at younger and younger ages.

friedman3College readiness also became a factor, as the more elite sports and activities were tied into admission practices. College admissions in the U.S., Levey Friedman noted, have had an interesting history. She cited Jerome Karabel’s book The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton on how “the big three” kept out undesirable students, mainly the poor and the immigrant. The “all-around man” rose in admissions interviews, and it became important to be an athlete and to belong to clubs in order to attain quality higher education.

The three activities Levey Friedman focused on represented academic activities (chess, an individual activity, mainly populated by boys); artistic activities (dance, a solo or group sport, mainly populated by boys); and athletic activities (soccer, a team sport, played equally by boys and girls).

Competitive Kid Capital – Levey Friedman collected various quotes from kids and parents about their experiences with sports and analyzed the sports’ impact. She found that sports:

  1. Internalize the importance of winning
  2. Allow kids to bounce back from a loss to win again in the future (but, Friedman noted, also represent higher stakes, as scores and stats are usually public information)
  3. Help kids learn how to perform in and adapt to stressful situations, and time pressure
  4. Allow kids to perform under the public gaze of others

Gender Scripts in Sports

friedman4When asked how they chose these activities, parents differed in what they sought for their kids. Soccer parents wanted their girls to be more assertive and aggressive; dance parents wanted their girls to be more feminine and graceful. The dance environment was kinder and more supportive, with indirect competition and relational skills. Soccer taught kids to be forceful; it discouraged “girly girls.” Women who chase balls and score on a soccer field are metaphorically being trained to chasing and scoring other things in life. Chess is similar to soccer for girls; the girls learn to be aggressive when playing.

Skills learned by kids in sports and activities translate into job acquisition skills, Levey Friedman noted. Lauren Riviera’s Pedigree: How Elite Students Get Elite Jobs exposes how employers draw ideas about candidates’ talents based on their activities, sports, and social status. Levey Friedman shared a slide on how the parents she studied are grooming their children. For example, 52% of children who played chess had two parents who had earned graduate degrees; only 8% of children taking dance had two parents with graduate degrees. Chess parents thought of the game as a path towards success in higher education, while dance parents thought dancing well would help their daughters attract a mate and find success in marriage. Parents were feeling stress to help their kids succeed on a potentially unequal playing field and were enrolling them in activities on a path to attaining things they felt were important to them.

friedman5The Education Department thanks Dr. Levey Friedman and all the other presenters of the Fall 2016 Speaker Series for taking the time to present their research to the Brown community.

UEP Alumna Branta Lockett ’16 in BEST Program

Branta Lockett

Branta Lockett

The Brown Education Department would like to share an interview given to the Brown Graduate School by Branta Lockett, AM ’16, about her experience in the Brown Executive Scholars Training (BEST) program. BEST, established in 2010, is designed to expose doctoral and advanced master’s degree students to careers in higher education administration. Every fall, eight to 10 graduate students are chosen to participate in this 12-week mentored, education and training program, which is sponsored by the Graduate School and the Office of Institutional Diversity.

 

How did you hear about the BEST program? What made you want to apply?
I initially heard about the BEST program while attending Admit Day in March 2016. During this event Dr. Wong, Chair of the Education department, mentioned that several of the Urban Education Policy students participated in the BEST program and had great experiences. I decided to apply to the BEST program because I wanted to learn more about higher education administration. In particular, I wanted to learn how administrators can use their positions to help create environments that support the success of marginalized students at a university.

How has or how will this program help you in your career or studies after Brown?
This program will help me in my career because it exposed me to different leadership styles. I learned practical skills that I can use in professional settings.

Did you already have a career plan in mind? Has this program influenced you in any way to change/alter it?
Before participating in the BEST program, I considered a career in higher education administration. The BEST program convinced me to continue pursuing my interests in higher education administration and to even start looking for jobs that combine higher education administration with education policy, which is what I studied at Brown.

Who was your administrative sponsor and what did you learn or enjoy about working with him or her?
Dr. Gail Cohee was my administrative sponsor. I enjoyed speaking with her about her position [as Director of the Sarah Doyle Women’s Center and Associate Dean of the College] and how she uses her administrative role to help improve the experiences of students at Brown University. I also enjoyed learning about her career path to becoming a senior administrator.

What piece of advice provided by the speakers resonated most with you?
Dr. Liza Cariaga-Lo, Vice President for Academic Development, Diversity and Inclusion, gave us great advice for how to manage encounters with students and faculty who are upset or distressed about a given situation. She explained to us that the person is most likely upset because they are really passionate about the situation. Therefore, it is important to not only listen to their concerns but to really try to understand their perspectives and consider those perspectives as you try to help them resolve their concerns. Administrative work is demanding but it is important to honor how others feel and let them know that you care while also remembering not to take their criticisms personally. This is practical advice that is useful for working with people in any setting. 

Recap of Education Department Fall 2016 Speaker Series Presentation of “A Night with Clint Smith”

image5“Writing,” Clint Smith announced to a packed auditorium in Barus and Holley on Tuesday, Oct. 26, “is a means of wrestling with questions I don’t have answers to.” Smith – a writer, teacher, TED Talks speaker, Harvard University Ph.D. candidate, and 2014 National Poetry Slam champion – was presenting “Art and Critical Pedagogy: Using Poetry to Challenge Dominant Narratives” at the Education Department’s third Fall 2016 Speaker Series event.

Homer, Smith told the crowd, had an epic poem that was passed down from mouth to mouth. Writing only for the page is a false notion; poetry’s roots are as an oral art form. He then launched into a dynamic, thoughtful, and oftentimes hilarious presentation that had the rapt attention of more than 200 audience members, instructing his listeners on etiquette with a quick “snap during, clap after” request. During the rest of this talk, fingers snapped around the room at various times when his poems and statements resonated with audience members, quiet in sound but thunderous in reaction to and appreciation of his words.

Smith, who was born and raised in New Orleans, gave some background information on his relationships with his parents (urging audience members, when he spoke of his father’s experience obtaining an organ transplant, to sign up to be organ donors to help offset the transplant waiting lists that tend to be longer for people of color and people in poverty). Smith learned from his father at an early age – too early to fully understand at the time – that the implications of his decisions might result in different outcomes than for Smith’s non-black friends. Smith referred to Tamir Rice, the 12-year-old shot dead by police two years ago for holding a toy gun. Smith’s father’s fears had been real. When he recited one of his poems following that introduction, two lines in particular drove home what Clint had just spoken of: “Someone’s idea of implicit bias might be the reason you might not wake up in the morning,” and “I want to live in a world where my son isn’t presumed guilty from the moment he is born.”

image7Smith thanked Christina Villarreal, Brown’s director of secondary history education, for helping to reconceptualize the notion of history. History, Smith noted, doesn’t always address what isn’t convenient to the narrative. Thomas Jefferson is celebrated as a president and historical figure, but many stories ignore the fact that he was a racist and a slaveholder. Jefferson didn’t try to hide this but in fact spoke his thoughts openly and published them. In his mind, black people didn’t have the capacity to create art; if they did put words on a page, it couldn’t be called poetry. Blacks, Jefferson believed, didn’t have the capacity to love. The dominant American narrative, Smith explained, was a state-sanctioned policy to marginalize and dehumanize a race. When we think of the civil rights movement, we think of Martin Luther King, Jr. as a celebrated figure – but at the time, ⅔ of Americans disapproved of King, just as many Americans today mischaracterize or judge the Black People Matter movement. In our collective American social memory, we don’t talk about these things. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal is celebrated in history books, but the New Deal was written to deny black citizens access to the very benefits it promised Americans – Social Security, GI bill, mortgages, minimum wage, and more. The New Deal may have created the middle class, but it skipped a huge section of the country, and politicians legally enacted law barring blacks from social benefits – yet people today point fingers at black citizens, asking why blacks are more likely to live in poverty than others.

Look at our history, Smith implored. The first blacks were brought to America as slaves in 1619. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t pass until 1863. Voting and civil rights weren’t passed until 1964 and 1965 – only 50 years ago – and there are still issues of inequality today. America, Smith stressed, enjoyed 350 years of history in which it was legal to dehumanize blacks. We need to talk about this in our classrooms, and most of us don’t. In response to that propagation of myth, Clint read from his poem, “Letter to Five of the Eight Presidents Who Owned Slaves While in Office.” When talking about getting both sides of the story, the poem stated, “At some point, you have to question who the writer is.”

smith5We live in a world, Smith said, where blacks can be stopped, can be frisked, can have assumptions made about their personalities at first sight. There is duality in our history; Jefferson was a good president, AND he was a racist and a slave holder. Both sides exist; both sides should be acknowledged. Smith then read five poems, each one on what an inanimate object – an ocean, a cicada, a fire hydrant, a window, and a cathedral – would say to black boys. The audience was spellbound at these unusual but powerful narrative views.

Only moments later, versatile speaker Smith had the audience laughing at his descriptions of his failures as a basketball player. Smith had always been chosen among the first for teams – resulting in disaster, as described in one line from the next poem: “My jump shot be all elbow and no wrist.” Counting Descent, Smith acknowledged, was about speaking the truth – the whole truth.

Mike Brown was killed the same week that Smith started grad school, and Smith has been writing the book these past two years in a post-Ferguson context. Smith wanted to humanize death of and violence toward blacks; the feelings he is grappling with are real and visceral. We’re not defined, Smith stated, by the things that kill us or seek to render us obsolete. There is a U.S. history of violence against blacks, but it is also amazing how fundamental black culture is to U.S. history. Blacks helped build this country, and they are woven into its fabric.

My life has not been entirely defined by violence and fear, Smith continued. He has attempted to capture black resilience and joy amid the greater, sadder black American landscape. Both sides are important to understanding the black experience. He told of the sweetness (and, to his young self, embarrassment) of his parents dancing together in the kitchen to “Before I Let You Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze, which later inspired him to capture that moment in a poem he read to the audience.

The writer/poet label, Smith restated, doesn’t necessitate answers; it’s a means of wrestling with questions. If we ask questions we already have the answers to, we negate that process. We need to rethink concepts and re-imagine who police are and what they do. Look at us now, Smith, who works with prisoners, asked the audience. We are a society that puts people into cages for life. Remember how the French used to cut off heads with a guillotine? For us that’s barbaric; for them it was a normal way of life. Someday we’ll look back at life imprisonment with similar eyes to looking at guillotines. We have 200,000 people in the United States serving life sentences in jails, and we haven’t pushed ourselves towards different solutions to our problems. Don’t just tinker, Smith appealed; tackle.

Smith’s last poem was about the trauma caused by Hurricane Katrina, and the audience reacted with enthusiastic snaps at the haunting line, “Can you claim something as your own if you don’t remember how you found it?”

In response to Smith’s invitation for questions, someone asked about the influence of his father. Smith cautioned teachers to be careful about filling a parent role for students. Many of the prisoners he’d worked with hadn’t had biological fathers, and Smith recognized that and was careful not to position himself as anything but a peer; anything else would be disingenuous. Look at the Moynihan report, Smith said; black family structure is being blamed for problems in black society. Racism is the reason for those problems, not female heads of households or non-nuclear families. Neither he nor anyone else should seek to fill in a family gap; instead, Smith engages with prisoners and learns from them. The classroom isn’t one-way, Smith told the audience full of future teacher leaders. Students bring ideas and knowledge into classrooms, too; it can and should be a shared collective experience. Don’t set out to teach; set out to engage.

smith8Another question addressed the balance between criticism and exposure of history. Smith acknowledged that it’s a difficult balance; we want to show students that the world sees blacks as less than human but let them know they’re not responsible. Students need to be shown both sides: the world is set up for them to fail, but they have the agency to change things. Different decisions can be made. They can wield their power; they can build a different world.

What’s the difference for you, another student asked, between writing for the page versus the stage? Also, regarding Smith’s Ph.D. research at Harvard, how does Smith use poetry with prisoners?

Writing is a process and a practice, Smith responded. Several times, he has made himself do a “30 for 30,” writing a poem every single day for a month. Just as with sports, you have to practice to write; in his case, he had to write 25 bad poems in order to write 5 good ones. You have to do the work to create the work, he advised the audience.

As for the written page, Smith cautioned against positioning the page as more valuable than the stage. They are different genres that feed in different ways, and appearing in a reputable publication isn’t necessarily a bigger indication of success than winning a poetry slam. Smith did acknowledge that he wrote for the page in the case of Counting Descent to break out of a competitive context. He’d been writing poems to fit the 2.5-minute frame for slams, and he wanted to experiment with other lengths, which led to other material and expressions.

In Smith’s Ph.D. program at Harvard, there is a relationship between the social scientist and the artist. Both are part of him. What he internalizes academically often surfaces artistically, and writing is a form of expressing both personal and political values. His next book, Smith revealed, will focus on the relationship between education and incarceration.

In response to a question about using pedagogy to become a better person and the relationship between art and ethics, Smith said he entered grad school committed to avoiding inaccessibility; he’d been seeking the intellectual toolkit to name and understand things. He has the language to argue against misconceptions and misnomers and to challenge ideas like that of “black-on-black crime.” Smith enjoys his work in the prisons because he had wanted to be in a space that reminds him of why he came to this field of study. He doesn’t want to just read books; he wants to ground the knowledge he’s seeking and stay in touch with the reasons why he’s there.

In response to the final question – about whether he writes to challenge and assert himself – Smith stated that people write about poverty to legitimize themselves and their social institutions. Those people use narratives to benefit themselves without helping the people to whom the stories belong. It’s important to illuminate those people. It’s important to think about and account for the fact that this is people’s lives and not just a vehicle for people to gain tenure or publications or a name for themselves.

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Smith thanked the crowd for coming and for asking great questions, and he offered to sign copies of Counting Descent. Thrilled by Smith’s performance, autograph seekers filled the hallway.