education

A Student Steps Up: Creative Impatience and the Willingness to Act

Stepping Up

As a High School Civics teacher, I am often and absolutely embarrassed by my own lack of civic activism. While I am encouraging and requiring and rewarding my students for getting involved in something – ANYTHING! – that they care about to protect or improve their communities, I nearly never practice what I preach.

And it’s not simply that as a young, charter school teacher, my time and energy seem to disappear into an unending vortex of planning/grading/updating/bureaucracizing.
OR the fact that as a perpetual presenter of the fair and balanced, I am daily forced to equivocate, moderate and pause for a more thorough examination.

I think there’s something deeper. Some way in which I have redefined myself as a person who no longer acts. I have reclassified myself as a bystander – shudder – although admittedly a vociferous one. Still, no more than an armchair analyst – not even the passive activist I once swore never to become.

As such, I find myself curious about what it is that motivates the folks who find the activation energy to make change. The folks who answer the call of – “Someone should do something!” With “I’ll do it.” And, high school senior, Caesar Loving-Manley offers the perfect case study.

Loving-Manley has not yet attained the larger than life status of the untouchable figureheads we so often imagine leading movements – the predestined messiahs of our time. For now, he’s just a regular High School student who, when faced with the injustices of the world, used some pretty accessible tools to create something larger than himself: his impatience, his creativity, and the willingness to simply step forward and DO something.

Impatience
Caesar Loving-Manley is impatient.
Through his participation in the Racial Reconciliation and Healing Project run by the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center, Loving-Manley attended a workshop on public health disparities in his home town of Boston and was outraged.

The fact is that in Boston, Black and Latino kids under age 5 are four times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma than White kids. Facilitators Abigail Ortiz and Cecilia Flores quickly dismissed the idea that those statistics are tragic byproducts of cyclic crime, irresponsible parenting or some broken window hogwash.

Low rates of asthma are linked to parks and green spaces – disproportionately absent in areas of Boston like Roxbury and Dorchester with large populations of Blacks and Latinos. High rates of asthma are linked to junkyards and bus depots – disproportionately present in Roxbury and Dorchester. And that’s just asthma! – to say nothing of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, cancer, or infant mortality.

Loving-Manley paired his training through the SJPHC with a Ta-Nahesi Coates interview that he watched in 11th grade history and concluded that racism was literally killing Blacks in Boston – not race but racism.

Moving quickly from his initial reaction of: “Really? This is systemic lynching!” to: “Why? Do people know this?”, Loving-Manley felt compelled to act. Someone needed to “make people open up their eyes” and “pay closer attention” and, for Loving-Manley, there was no time to think about who it was going to be.

He explains that while others were spinning their wheels saying “what if what if what if”, he knew that our school (and, incidentally, his core support network at the school) needed “to scream it rather than just to whisper it”. He needed to shake things up.

Creativity
One of the things that has led to Caesar Loving-Manley’s success has been his natural attraction – and maybe the purely human drive – to innovate, to improve, and to be creative.

After the non-indictment of Darren Wilson in November of 2014, there were a wave of Black Lives Matter protests in Boston, including walk outs by students from Boston Public Schools. When Loving-Manley saw these school protests, he immediately recognized their importance but he was not impressed.

“It’s one thing to attend but it’s another thing to want to inform others. We miss educating people.”

As such, Loving-Manley decided that at our high school, the Academy of the Pacific Rim, he would not just organize a walk out, but a teach in.

“One of the major goals of the walk in was to educate people as to what’s going on to make clear the severity of the situation.”

Still, even with his well designed and attended teach-in in December of 2014, Loving-Manley worried that people weren’t being educated. They were just leaving class. Worse, some students saw the walk outs as counterproductive or pointless. Loving-Manley actually saw the walk outs turning some people off of the Movement.

The challenge as he saw it, was to “take something that grabs people’s interest and tie it into something that educates them”.

This is where his idea for a Black History Month Fashion Show came from. He knew he could draw his audience in with fashion and music and that he could use these tools to make them feel a fierce pride in Black Culture. So he started planning for January of 2016.

Once other students realized what he was trying to do, the momentum became contagious. People understood the importance and the power of what he was doing and they were excited about it. Loving-Manley fed off that energy.

He selected three eras of Black Resistance he thought embodied the message he was trying to portray and named his acts: Selma; Black Panthers; and Black Lives Matter. For each act, he selected a song he felt laid the backbeat of the era; researched the fashion of the era and what those fashions represented; and selected a mood and pose for models to embody on the runway.

Act II: Black Panthers

Three Acts: Black History Month Fashion Show

At the end of the third act, the spotlights switched to flashing reds and blues and the music was interrupted by police sirens. Students ran to the stage where most died on the floor and four were left standing above them holding Black Lives Matter placards over their heads. The result was a collective loss of breath – a visceral communication of the message that “we can’t breathe” with the twist of four determined students still standing and still fighting.

His best friend, co-producer, and captain of the Stomp team, Janaya Burke-Smith, choreographed a step routine about Black Women in the movement to begin the show. To embody the indomitable pheonix of the Black spirit, the show ended with a dance celebrating pan African Black Culture, leaving students and staff not with just the raw sorrow of “dislodge[d] brains, block[ed] airways, rip[ped] muscle, extract[ed] organs, crack[ed] bones, and [broken] teeth” but with a fierce pride in the resiliency of Black Culture despite this terrifying and pressing reality.

The result was spell-binding, mind-blowing, and – absolutely – revolutionary.

Make it Happen
To be honest, Loving-Manley is incredibly charismatic . . . but I really don’t think that that is all there is to it.

When I asked him to describe himself, Loving-Manley laughed and admitted “I’m loud.”
But when I pushed him, asking: why him? Why was he the one to make this happen at our school, he replied:

“I wanted it to involve the input of all the students who wanted to participate but it needed to HAPPEN and I knew it wouldn’t happen unless I was the one to leave class first and spread the word to others. It’s easier to think: I’ll do it later, it’s not that serious, but I felt like I had the leadership qualities to get the ball rolling”

Fists RaisedI think it comes down to this. Loving-Manley is incredible. He is brilliant and passionate and unstoppable but the same impatience, creativity, and ability to get the ball rolling exist in all of us. And in truth, he’s right. When an issue of injustice arises, there is no reason not to take action and to use our imaginations to pull others into action with us. Someone has to do it. And that someone may as well be me. Or you. Or both of us in different ways.

As Loving-Manley explains:

“If I have the ability to start a conversation with someone about something . . . and then they get the lightbulb in their mind, it’s like woah – maybe I have the ability or the resources to fix this. If everyone was informed, there would be more action. It starts with a conversation; you don’t know where it’s going to go from there.”

Valedictorian Speaks Out Against a Standardized Citizenry

This speech suggests our students are no more satisfied than we are with the regime of standardized testing. In the classroom, I once discussed this kind of success with my 8th graders. The reports had come in and we had done “outstanding” on the History test. Best in the district and as high as anyone else in the state. The Principal came to congratulate us and we enjoyed our success that afternoon.

The next day, however, we discussed how many questions students had to answer correctly to achieve this success. Less than 50%. They wanted to know why so little was expected of them. This is my concern… if we don’t find a way to resist the most virulent pieces of the testing regime, we’re robbing our students of knowing true success. Erica Goldson, Valedictorian at Coxxackie-Athens High School, knows this ugly truth too.

Her full remarks are available at America via Erica Blogspot. Here’s just an excerpt to show what she thinks of the success she achieved:

Some of you may be thinking, “Well, if you pass a test, or become valedictorian, didn’t you learn something? Well, yes, you learned something, but not all that you could have. Perhaps, you only learned how to memorize names, places, and dates to later on forget in order to clear your mind for the next test. School is not all that it can be. Right now, it is a place for most people to determine that their goal is to get out as soon as possible.

I am now accomplishing that goal. I am graduating. I should look at this as a positive experience, especially being at the top of my class. However, in retrospect, I cannot say that I am any more intelligent than my peers. I can attest that I am only the best at doing what I am told and working the system. Yet, here I stand, and I am supposed to be proud that I have completed this period of indoctrination. I will leave in the fall to go on to the next phase expected of me, in order to receive a paper document that certifies that I am capable of work. But I contest that I am a human being, a thinker, an adventurer – not a worker. A worker is someone who is trapped within repetition – a slave of the system set up before him. But now, I have successfully shown that I was the best slave. I did what I was told to the extreme. While others sat in class and doodled to later become great artists, I sat in class to take notes and become a great test-taker.

And, in the effort to partner criticism with constructive ideas, watch this short video from Professor Eric Mazur, a physics professor at Harvard. He saw the dark shadow of memorization of facts with little understanding of concepts in his classroom and decided to do things differently. One of my favorite pieces in the clip shows students talking to one another about torque to identify the right answer to Professor Mazur’s questions. A young man asks., “how do you know that?” Our students need to know the answer to that question as well as to have the drive to ask it of themselves.

Without that question, what we know is shrinking each day and it’s happening in our classrooms too.

A school based on Constitutional Citizenship

Those of you at the second week of James Madison and Constitutional Citizenship at Montpelier may have heard about my school and our work with Professor Harris. Our charter high school was created by a group of parents in 1998 with a mission to teach citizenship. From the beginning we tried to fulfill this mission by incorportaing lots of civic education and community service into our curriculum as well as trying to think about the skills and dispositions of a good citizen that we wanted to foster in our students. However, our efforts felt disparate and we felt as if we lacked the philisophical grounding for what we were doing as a school.

Then, I attended a weekend seminar at Montpelier and was introduced to Res Publica: An International Framework for Education in a Democracy. Found online at http://www.civiced.org/index.php?page=res_publica

My faculty studied portions of this document. Then we met at a retreat at Montpelier, heard from Professor Harris, and finally with all of that in mind, we got to work. We sat small groups of folks in different departments and tried to discover the commonalities in our approaches to teaching, to working with students, and to our disciplines. What we found was that there were clear principles guiding what we did as a school. Some of the principles we felt we lived up to, others we aspired to, but these principles (which we formed into a kind of Constitution) guided our school and were the philisophical basis for Constitutional citizenship mission.

So, here is our Constitution

Citizenship Preamble and Principles

We, of RCHS, intend to cultivate the understanding and practices that sustain individual self-determination and community self-government.  We have adopted the following principles in order to ensure that all who pass through our halls can imagine, create, and govern a more perfect world.

 

We believe:

 

That a foundation of knowledge and ethics must precede all intellectual inquiry;

 

That if we

encourage self-awareness

build and maintain local communities

develop an awareness of our membership in ever larger communities

engage in common enterprises with people who are different

accommodate and address conflict and change

facilitate problem solving

foster balance and moderation in life

and take ownership and responsibility for learning

 

We will become good citizens.

We continue to work to use this document as a guide for our school and our programs. Lately, that has meant thinking about how to communicate these ideas to new faculty, to our students, and to our parents. In addition we struggled with developing a principle that communicated the ideas of educating makers and not just users. We ultimately felt as if that idea was just below the surface in many of these principles, but still aren’t sure how to make that idea come alive in just a phrase (especially for an audience unfamilier with Professor Harris’ ideas about constitutional citizenship).

I would love to hear your thoughts about our work and its applicability to your schools.

-Shayne