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Learning at its Best


While on the subway from P.S. 28 in Brooklyn to Zuccotti Park (of Occupy Wallstreet fame), Kirsten asked me, “So, what lens are looking at all of this from?”

From November 2nd through November 4th, 2011, The Institute for Democratic Education organized an education innovation tour of four schools/youth programs based in New York.  I am extremely glad Kirsten asked me the lens question; otherwise, I would not have known how exactly to consolidate and organize all of the amazing information that I have learned during this trip.

We visited the NYC iSchool with its focus on technology-infused instruction to prepare students for the 21st century.  We visited P.S. 28 Warren Prep Academy in Brooklyn where Principal Sadie Silver advocates for not only serving her students, but their families and communities and above all else, loving the students unconditionally.  After a break to learn about the Occupy Wallstreet movement, the next day, we headed towards Urban Academy—one of very few schools to successfully fight the demand for all students to take state-mandated exams.  Finally, we explored to The Point, a youth-empowerment program for young people and their surrounding communities in the Bronx.

While visiting each of these sites, I realized I was analyzing and evaluating these programs and schools through two lenses: engagement and rigor; I was looking for a place which demands both uncompromisingly.  Jonah, an organizer for the tour, posited that engagement can be found “in the eyes…Are the eyes in  the room or out of the room?”   He also noted that seeing smiles and students grasping witty humor are indicators of rigor and engagement.  I agreed with him and stressed for myself the need for both in equal balance in my classroom and organizing work–as Sinatra crooned, “You can’t have one without the other.”

This is my thinking: If I find tons of rigor (great curriculum) but little to no student engagement, it’s like pouring liquid gold into a glass with a hole at the bottom.  Alternatively, finding engagement without rigor means we’re not expecting much from our youth.  To see both rigor and engagement means we’re challenging our young people to work at the edge of their competency.  Additionally, their engagement is proof that we’ve earned their trust, love and respect because why else would they allow us to put them through the uncomfortable position of learning what they know and what they have yet to learn (and let others witness the gawky, graceless bridging of this cognitive gap)?

Without delving into an evaluation of every school, I’ll note here that what I found is that success looks different in different contexts (*rolls eyes and says “duh”).  For an elementary school, it may be allowing students to struggle through spelling a difficult word.  In a high school classroom, it may be allowing students to learn how to create a very technical global map and then an allegorical map of their heart.  In a youth empowerment program, it may be a ten-year process of cleaning a community river and still knowing you’ve got some years before you reach your “swimming standard.”  The work could be draining and frustrating one day and invigorating the next.  A teacher may find himself fighting constant battles with the students he’s trying to serve and in the next period, unable to call on all the hands raised to participate in a discussion on urban development.

In all the variances, there were trends or critical principles for the transformative work we need our schools to engage in:

Principle Takeaways for Transformative Youth Work

  1. Happiness matters:
    • There were schools that had a lot of amazing things happening but there was a palatable sense of stress and fatigue that overwhelmed many of the classrooms and trickled into the hallway.  In PS 28, a loving school battling community issues (the administrator noted about a 60% student-turnover rate, yearly), there were classrooms where students were fully engaged with learning how to tie a modern cravat (tie) or define what a man is; alternatively, down the hall, another teacher sighed at the state of affairs in her classroom and yelled at least twice during our three minute visit.  In the classrooms where there was hope and work, there was also order and smiles.
    • In Urban Academy, personal photos of students with their families lined the hallways.  Equally important is the frequency of smiles and culture of ease with teachers and adults in a building.  One teacher at the iSchool interjected himself into the principal’s presentation to explain how not until he came to this school did he realize how angry he was at his other teaching positions—by comparison, he was smiling and beaming about his work now at the iSchool.
  2. Egalitarianism:
    • In Urban Academy, our tour-guide stated, “There’s no place the students aren’t allowed to go” in the building.  Staff and students work and eat together—willingly.
    • At The Point, one of the program coordinators found herself the focus of a conversation about her work by two of her mentees—they wanted to check in with her about her work and health.
    • At PS 28, Principal Silver goes into the classroom as an instructor, records herself and then asks her staff to critique her work.  She, along with Ann of Urban Academy, believes that everyone should be an educator in a school.
    • At the iSchool, students get to suggest, rate and then select their 11-week module courses where they get down and dirty with a Big Question dealing with real-world issues.  So it’s not the state demanding what they have to take and when they have to take it–their curriculum is co-developed with everyone in the school.
  3. Authentic Challenges:
    • This is how one builds individual and collective capacity for change.  One student at the iSchool, when I asked him about getting frustrated with a paper-mache globe that kept collapsing, he said, “I finally got it–mine didn’t collapse….That challenge, when I’m in another class and things are tough, I remember how hard I worked here and I think, ‘If I can do that, then I can do this.'”
    • At The Point, I asked the two youth mentees how they push through struggle–or help their peers push through struggles.  They explained that they know they are extremely supported by everyone at The Point and that they push one another knowing that this is critical for the type of transformative work they have to do for their communities.

I have tons more thoughts scribbled in my notebook, transcribed from audio recordings, and learnings still freely bouncing in my head, but I’ll spare you the ill-formed details.  This, for you and for me, is just the beginning.



10 thoughts on “IDEA Tours NYC

  1. Really great thoughts Ammerah! Thank you so much for sharing them. My favorite part is that Happiness is sitting right there up top–as it always has been with you. Looking back on my school experience, I can’t even imagine how things would’ve been different if happiness was a priority–I *bore* school as best as I could until I finally could escape it, kind of like the guy in your example up there. Never really realizing that things can be different, it’s hard to work for changes! But once you realize things *can* be different, it’s hard NOT to!!!

    Posted by dcommunicator | November 7, 2011, 10:38 pm
  2. Love the video!

    Posted by dloitz | November 7, 2011, 11:20 pm
  3. I’m always sorry to miss an iTour – I have to commit to one.

    Ammerah, could you say more about “rigor?” Do you equate it with curriculum set by adults? Is the purpose of school the decanting of teachers’ liquid gold into students’ glass heads?

    Given all the trust, happiness, and egalitarianism you witnessed, do you think those things are best employed in getting kids to learn what adults set out for them? If so, how would you tell the difference between a school with 100% compliance and one with 100% engagement?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | November 8, 2011, 7:02 am
    • Hi C–

      Great questions–and ones that really have my brain on overdrive. So, as a teacher, I do have an agenda when I get into the classroom. Rigor to me in a transformative classroom is one that empowers students to fulfill my agenda through mediums and means that speak to their individual selves.

      Let me unpack my use of the phrase “my agenda” before you beat me there 😛 My agenda is to create citizens who will pursue social justice for all no matter what they decide to do within their lives–ethical, critical thinking citizens who are capable of facilitating or supporting social transformation. I articulate my purpose and agenda time and time again in my classroom and ALWAYS demand students to ask questions and challenge anything that I posit to the class–with both respect and evidence of their own.

      So for example, instead of just having students test a river for poor water quality, The Point rigorously challenged youth to help learn about their water quality and clean it up–been at it for years. This is an authentic challenge that is rigorous and engaging the youth.

      Once students start to see their potential for change (in themselves and their communities), then they start to self-direct their learning in my classroom and this is what I saw in some of the phenomenal sites we visited–students self-directed and self-imposing rigorous challenges for themselves.

      If any of this is unclear let me know–and feel free to keep pushing back. Forces me to really be transparent and authentic.

      Posted by ammerahsaidi | November 8, 2011, 5:57 pm
  4. Ammerah, This is a wonderful reprise from your lens, and I agree with DCommunicator about the importance of happiness being on top.

    Our many conversations on the tour also prompted me to realize my lens: many of the things you mention–but also a whole-systems view, not classroom to classroom or even school to school, but across an entire system. How could we make “hospitality” (to me, about welcoming the stranger within ourselves and without ourselves)–perhaps another word for happiness–and deep invitational challenge a part of thousands of schools, across the country?

    We spoke about the fragility of the heroic leadership model, how unsustainable it is to depend on a visionary few. How tired these extraordinary leaders become, how poorly the sector replicates or even recognizes brilliance and success. (Because through time, we have myriad examples of extraordinary schools that have done exceptional things, and then they simply go away, and people remember them fondly and doctoral students write dissertations on them.)

    These are critical questions. The beautiful examples of doing it very well. How to enlarge and embolden their lessons, so that more kids and parents demand this kind of education?

    In solidarity,


    Posted by Kirsten Olson | November 8, 2011, 9:53 am
    • PREACH, SISTAH! One colleague once told me, “Martyrdom is not a sustainable career.”

      My theory of action is one that empowers my students to become agitators and advocates within their communities. As demonstrated at Urban Academy, it took a consortium and a community of students and parents to fight one part of education we all disdain to go away–the standardized test. To gain that much momentum makes me think it won’t just disappear or go quietly. I’m always teaching with the mindset that I could be gone tomorrow and so I want to make myself as progressively irrelevant as possible:

      “Ideal teachers are those who use themselves as bridges over which they invite their students to cross, then having facilitated their crossing, joyfully collapse, encouraging them to create bridges of their own.”
      ~Nikos Kazantzakis

      This is definitely not an answer, but an explanation of how I’ve been operating. On a school level, it seemed Ann had this idea owned in her building. I felt any teacher or co-director could step into her position or even a student in the future (very near future). Also, working in Detroit, I’ve met people who try to teach people about alternative economies–what we see isn’t all we’ve got.

      So much more I could say on this but I’m liking this state of confusion I’m in right now. I’ll pause here and really think about all this. Thanks for the instigation.

      Posted by ammerahsaidi | November 8, 2011, 6:06 pm


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