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Reform Your Perceptions of Geography and “Salvation”

When I shared that I was having trouble thinking about something to write for today’s National Day of Blogging for Real Education Reform, a friend of mine named Monika Hardy told me the topic should be something I care deeply about: my students at in inner city school in St. Louis.

That led me to extrapolate on what I’ve told my students is my “sentence” (a succinct description of how a person is remembered, as recommended by motivation author Daniel Pink).  My “sentence” reads:

Mr. Hill changed the way students at Confluence Academy – Walnut Park learned.

In and of itself, it’s really not much of a goal.  Changed doesn’t necessarily mean better…right?

But this is precisely the reason why I think it’s important to rethink the way learning happens in the city.  If we set our goals to be mastery of specific things, we might just master these specific things.  But if we set our goal as helping our kids share their intellectual development with the world, they might just do something better than “achieve”.

I disclose this with the utmost respect, but one thing that has always secretly irked me about the fabulous teachers I follow on twitter who teach at wealthier schools is that their “crisis” is a very different one than the “crisis” that I experience everyday.  “Crisis” means something very different in the suburbs than it does in the city.

Urban schools are undoubtedly in peril.  I should know, I teach at one.  Many have offered an onslaught of proposed solutions to this crisis.  I’ve seen most of these as lacking once implemented. When people speak about “reforming” urban schools, they typically mean wanting to bring kids up to grade level in reading and math, wanting to graduate a much higher percentage of high school students, and wanting to prepare a much higher percentage of those graduates for university.

These seem to be worthy goals, but they aren’t enough.  They’re uninspired.  We can do better.

City schools can’t be scared by the fact so many kids are dropping out of school, or that so few students read on grade level.  Or that there are an overwhelming amount of needs our students have that stem from where they live.  We need to be able to take the same types of risks many of my trailblazing peers are taking in the county.  We can’t confuse crisis with shock.  We don’t have to do one thing before the other.  We can provide the same (or better) learning students at some of our most privileged schools experience before catching our schools up to where many of these privileged schools were 10 years ago.

Judging from what I read, suburban and private schools are also in peril, albeit a different type of one.  Where urban schools aren’t meeting the most basic expectations of the industrial-age school, educators lament the fact that suburban schools aren’t preparing our students for the future they will inhabit.

Urban reformers want their schools to be better schools, many forward-thinking suburban reformers don’t want schools at all, or at least substantially different-looking places.

When people speak about “reforming” suburban schools, they typically mean making school look more like real life.  On demand and relevant learning, connection to networks, creative thinking as a focal point of the school experience, and more collaboration–locally and globally.

Not many would admit to this dichotomy, but I’m very sensitive to it.  I’ve seen it played out on both ends, and I see the distance in which these types of schools are pulling apart. It’s more pernicious than the so-called “achievement-gap”, because it reflects the true systemic nature of these schools’ differences.

A goal then, would be that I wouldn’t always feel the need to mark myself as an “inner-city” teacher.  Or that I wouldn’t feel the need to know where the author of a blog or a tweet teaches.  The reason I’m so devoted to teachers like John T. Spencer (@johntspencer), Brian Crosby (@bcrosby), or Andrew Goodin (@desertdiver) is that I know their context, which makes their inspiring work all the more impressive.

I want to live in a world where those distinctions don’t matter.

So there is one uniting factor that overcomes these distinctions: students.  Let’s hook our students together, either virtually or in real life, so that they can start to solve most of these problems themselves.

And what’s most needed to make this change happen?  The answer isn’t money.

Stop seeing students in the city as victims needing to be “saved”, but rather as sleeping giants ready to be awoken.  Just because they don’t look, act, or perform on state tests like their wealthier peers do, doesn’t mean they don’t have things they can impress you with right now–even while reading 5 levels below their grade level.  We don’t have to erase their bad habits, but rather stoke the flames of their existing passions.  We don’t have to fill their heads with knowledge, but rather lead them towards finding the reasons to continue to fill their own heads with complex thoughts for the rest of their lives, wherever that takes them.

They are not charity cases, and they know more than you about what it will take to change all this around.  They don’ t have to be told their poor, or that their neighborhoods are produced by unfair forces beyond their control.  They don’t have to be told that they didn’t eat yesterday, or that some of their teachers aren’t very good.  They don’t have to be told that they don’t know how to read as well as they should.  If anything, they’re experts in social justice in education without having to get a degree in Education.

They do need your help, but probably not as much as you need theirs.

Monika told me to write about something I cared deeply about.  So I did.  My kids are the ones who I think the shoulders of these changes truly rest on.  They are the ones who will carry us towards the future we hope for.  Let them lead us.

So listen up, you just might learn something from the very people you’re trying to save.

And if you want to come work in a challenging and creative atmosphere?  A setting that will challenge the skills you have as a teacher?  Come work with us at schools in neighborhoods you wouldn’t live in, let alone travel to.  We’re going to be here shaking things up for awhile, why not come join us?

If you can’t do that, we don’t judge you.  Just give us a call, send us a letter, a tweet, or whatever.  We’d love to have an audience.

Good luck everyone, thanks for working so hard to make real reform a reality.


About mrsenorhill

Director of Innovation, Special Projects @collegeboundstl, Co-Founder and CEO @thedisruptdept, hustling for creation literacy for all; want to cook better.


7 thoughts on “Reform Your Perceptions of Geography and “Salvation”

  1. nice Gregory.

    this is so key:
    They do need your help, but probably not as much as you need theirs.

    for whatever situation we are in… wouldn’t that take us on a paradigm shift right there?
    that mindset.

    great insight into your world. thank you.
    i couldn’t help but think of E Zuckerman’s global voices.. are we listening.. immersing ourselves in other cultures… or just hanging with our own..

    Posted by monika hardy | November 22, 2010, 2:03 am
  2. And we need to stop asking those who are already awake to go back to bed.

    Thanks, Greg –

    Always listening,

    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 22, 2010, 6:39 am
  3. One of the battles I face in an urban, inner-city school is imperialism. Education reformers swoop down and try and colonize the minds of my children, when in fact they know nothing of their lives. To me, that’s the real tragedy.

    Posted by John Spencer | November 22, 2010, 8:31 am
  4. I think one of the reasons you and I connect so well is that our teaching experiences are so similar in terms of context. I despise ed-reformers who take an imperialistic approach and that’s often what I see in the glossy false reform movements.

    Posted by John Spencer | November 22, 2010, 8:32 am


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