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He was a man
Sharieff Clayton is more than the name of a victim who was “fatally shot” or “killed” or is “dead” as a result of a shooting in Brooklyn last night*.
He was a man, a colleague, a friend who dedicated the last decade of his life to working with, learning with, laughing with, teaching with, creating with, imagining with, exploring the world with the young men and women whom he met as a member of the staff at an alternative to detention program.
He was a man who loved his family fiercely, who glowed with pride when he talked about his wife and children, sharing stories of their accomplishments and giggling when describing his children’s antics; he beamed even more brightly when they occasionally joined him at his workplace.
He was a man who wrote a book while he was incarcerated, which was published after he returned home and that continues to be read by thousands; it was supposed to be the first of many.
He was a man who had just completed his second book, written in stolen hours of the morning, on the subway, while walking to and from work, much of it thumbed into his phone so he wouldn’t lose the freshness of any thought that occurred to him; he was so proud of what had taken him over six years to write; he was writing as much for his audience as for himself.
He was a man who, every day, kept his promise to the young men and women at the program where he worked to live the words he would share with them: Honor. Honesty. Family. Commitment. Conviction. Education. Self-respect. A legacy of greatness.
He was a man who had very recently decided to focus full time on his writing and to embrace his identity as an author; he began imagining conversations around his new book that would bring together diverse groups of people in a Socratic seminar style.
He was a man who didn’t comprehend the concept of giving up on someone, who brought young people back into the fold of the program where he worked even after they were no longer participants; and they returned, to have a place to be and be seen and belong, if only temporarily.
He was a man who carried his past experiences with gun violence and incarceration with him and shared it openly in service of his greater educational mission to invite people to interrupt what seems unchangeable, to imagine things as they might be, to continually dwell in the possibility of the “not yet.”
He was a man whose words stayed with the young men and women he taught, often making an appearance in their minds at unexpected but crucial moments.
He was a man for whom friendship permeated his ways of working with colleagues and who deeply valued these relationships as vital to him personally and in service of his commitment to be the change, see the change, and nurture those who can change the world.
He was a man who approached the world as a teacher and a learner, for whom every encounter held the potential to educate.
He was a man about whom stories of justice and commitment and caring will be told, should be told.
He was a man whom it was a privilege to have known.
He was a man who should be here today. And tomorrow. And the next day. And…
He was a man.
*Monday, April 27th
Don’t you love it when searching for an article leads you instead to another article even more thought provoking than the one you were looking for? That happened to me as I was trying to finish up a paper on the under-representation of minorities in gifted education programs. In The Hechinger Report, a Teachers College publication, I found an article entitled “Where is the Outrage about the Pipeline to Prison for Gifted Students?” which makes the argument that gifted students who don’t receive proper services may also end up at risk for a less than a societally friendly future. This is especially the case for potentially gifted students who grow up in low-income communities in which gifted programs aren’t so readily available. For example, in New York, District 7, which comprises the South Bronx, lacks a single gifted education program. Florina Rodov and Sabrina Truong, the authors of the article, who are former teachers at the High School for Media and Communication in Washington Heights, compare the trajectory of two of their students who were gifted, one of them being doubly exceptional in that he also has a disability. Both students were in an inclusion class intended for both general education and special education students. Rodov and Truong admit that they didn’t know a great deal about how to teach gifted students at the time, though they did their best. One of the two students went on to a prestigious college and excelled, while the other dropped out of school completely. Rodov and Truong conclude,
“High ability students from low-income backgrounds, as compared to their more advantaged peers, are twice as likely to drop out of school. Dropping out triples the likelihood of incarceration later in life.”
From my limited experience with court-involved youth, I noticed that a handful of them were actually quite gifted writers, performers, artists, etc. I wondered how many of them had been misdiagnosed for special education services instead of for gifted services. The article references a statistic in Marylou Kelly Streznewski’s Gifted Grown Ups: The Mixed Blessings of Extraordinary Potential in stating that 20 percent of the youth who end up in the country’s prison systems may very well fall into the gifted category. Inspired by this statistic I created a virtual gifted education program for incarcerated youth as part of a project for one of my TC classes. Too many potentially gifted students, especially from low-income backgrounds, find themselves disenfranchised because they aren’t being educated to their full potential. These same students too often get caught up in illicit activities as a result of all of the disconnects in their lives. I firmly agree with Rodov and Truong when they write that more needs to be done about reaching this population and about the educational services provided for gifted prisoners.
Clicking on the “Annie Casey Foundation” link from the first paragraph of the original newsletter, led me to a site where foster kids tell their stories. Reading about one young girl, Megan Hill’s, journey though a myriad of schools, Hill eventually, “went to the Community College of Philadelphia for a month but could not keep up with her classes while living on her own and working”. It’s a story that hits close to home, in my family of eight kids , only two of whom went to college. Though foster care kids are specifically mentioned in this article I think the underlying reality of an unstable and inconsistent household is certainly implied. With that said, opening the discussion to inquiring about about how an unstable living situation, with frequent moves and changes, can be so detrimental to education, I thought of the question – How can we, as an educated person or an educator, impart to our students , how vital an education is when attempting to navigate our journeys of life in this country?
When the reality of one’s life is such that each day may bring an immediate challenge, who could possibly focus on long term goals or plans? To me, the idea of being able to think ahead , past today, past tonight, or next year – is a luxury. It’s not a luxury I always had in my life, and because of this , and because of the freedom I found through education, I want so badly to motivate , mentor and push others towards education, yet I understand how quickly it can become an abstract or unpromising “solution” to how to fix the “right now” issues that in some way or another hold back, restrict, or stand in the way of continuing one’s education.
This concept and ones similar have often had a debilitating affect on me , because of the paramount size of the issues at hand. Today, I want to choose to believe in something Socrates said.
“The secret of change is to focus all of your energy, not on fighting the old, but on building the new.”
Every Monday night, I leave class, like most of us, with a million thoughts. When I applied to participate in the class, I never imagined that memories I had forgotten about, would flood my mind when our class talks about certain things, or when we look at images and hear stories. We talk about making things “visible” for our students and the young people we work with, and I can see that that is happening for me as well.
Also, I thought of all of this today as I was listening to a podcast from “This American Life”, about what children need to succeed in life/school etc. There is an interview with author Paul Tough who wrote “What Children Need to Succeed.” The children he is mostly focusing on is children that live in poverty. A guest comes on the show and elaborates on flight or fight response, referencing executive functioning in similar ways as our guest last night. I think it’s worth listening to. The podcast is an hour but the guest speaks about brain activity relative to what our guest would call “Chronic Trauma” at 17 minutes and 40 seconds in.
What is interesting about this podcast, is that it is not just discussing and offering research percentages. It offers suggestions about what specific skills these kids need in order to fight against the unfortunate reality that they will continuously be exposed to trauma and stress.
In our seminar course we are always brainstorming ways to create a classroom that is more inclusive and geared towards social justice in order to try to prevent the pushing out of our young people. However as teachers we are always walking the line of meeting “standards” and meeting the needs of our students, a difficult balance to master. Here is a resource that I have found useful in my classroom, and I hope it will be helpful in yours—
Early in the fall term, our YMEJ seminar read a brief article by NPR’s Melissa Prax called “The Impact of Foster Care on Students’ Education.” In the article, Prax mentioned the story of Harold Sloke, a teenager who entered South Carolina’s foster care system at the age of 12 and ended up attending a dozen high schools before graduating. The sheer number of schools that Sloke attended is shocking. Moving (even once!) can have a major impact on a student’s ability to feel supported and to believe in his or her ability to progress academically, socially, and emotionally. That said, what sticks out to me even more is how much that progress can be hindered or supported by the educators, caseworkers, and other adults in the student’s life.
Sloke’s explanation that a lot his caseworkers believed he “would never graduate, so they kept passing (him) along, and (he) kept getting into trouble” reminded me of another article I’ve read recently, written by a student and his teacher. The student, Jamie Burke, is in high school and has an autism diagnosis. As his verbal speech is very limited, he communicates with technology known as facilitated communication. He and his teacher, Biklen, relate the concept of presuming competence in students with diagnosed or perceived disabilities, which is as it sounds – the practice of presuming a student’s capabilities, rather than presuming deficits associated with diagnoses or perceived differences. They are careful to note that this does not “require the teacher’s ability to prove the existence or validity (of that competence) in advance; rather it is a stance, an outlook, a framework for educational engagement” (Biklen & Burke, 2006, p. 168).
My personal background and interest in Critical Disability Studies and inclusive education has led me to consider how that stance may be taken up when working with court-involved youth. The notion of presuming competence seems to fit well into the discussion of how educators, caseworkers, caregivers, and other stakeholders may work with students in the foster care and juvenile justice systems. As Sloke’s explanation suggests, the adults around him perhaps presumed failure rather than success. That presumption likely makes it easier to see certain behaviors (whether physical, emotional, or related to school work) for their surface value, rather than probing into the deeper reasons behind those behaviors to work with the student in making a plan to change them.
I’m left considering how a broader educational framework of presuming competence could support students who experience frequent moves, rough transitions, abuse, and neglect. While counselors and advocates are critical to supporting these students and presuming their success and capabilities, how can we move toward an inclusive framework that emboldens all people involved in these students’ lives to contextualize their challenges and presume their progress? What does inclusion look like, and how is it even understood, in the juvenile justice and foster care systems?
This week, Prof. Yolanda Sealey-Ruiz and I will be representing the teaching team and talking about our YMEJ work — including the seminar, the emerging research, and our public pedagogy efforts (including this blog) — as part of the Justice Teaching Roundtable Series. We are thrilled and humbled to be participating in this dialogue with our colleagues from across the university, and as part of our presentation we will be sharing excerpts from the past years of work with the YMEJ graduate seminar, the collaborative mentoring experiences, and we’ll be engaging the audience in some YMEJ-style inquiry through media-making.
If you’re near the Columbia campus, stop by and check it out. We’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.
YOUTH, MEDIA AND EDUCATIONAL JUSTICE: BUILDING COMMUNITY THROUGH COLLABORATIVE INQUIRY
Tuesday November 18th, 2014 – 3–5pm
Teachers College, Russell Hall Rm 305