Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Shifting gears, moving forward

The other day I exchanged emails with a couple of the people I met at ISKME's Big Ideas Fest 2013 ( Our exchanges led to rather sudden new developments in my thinking about what I'm trying to do, and how best to do it. Over the weeks since BIF, I've had time to consider the connections I made, the energy of the conference, the moments of illumination that I felt could turn into concrete aspects of my project, and the sense of being overwhelmed by the scope of the presentations and conversations. I came home thinking that overhauling K-20 education in the U.S. is a compelling but possibly unworkable project, a feeling reinforced by my return to daily conversations with defeated and struggling students. But continuing to work down my list of ideas, many inspired by BIF, and after these recent interactions, I'm able to conceive of new approaches to the problem, and to appreciate again what BIF offers: a set of interactions and processes that have measurably shifted my perceptions and perspective.

Everything I know from my own work with low-income teens and young adults supports the most pessimistic view of how we fail them in our educational system, which they internalize as personal failure. It seems that socioeconomic disparity cannot be solved in the educational arena, and poverty continues to be the most persistent barrier faced by the youth I work with in achieving their educational goals, and moving into adulthood with a sense of agency and confidence.

When I say "their educational goals," the emphasis is on "their." My sense is that students very often do not feel like actors in their own education. Many students tell me that they feel like their days are governed by a set of expectations imposed by an opaque system, and by adults who have some bigger picture in mind, one many students can't see, or aren't shown. But in our work together, as they examine their strengths, interests, and challenges, they begin to articulate their own ideas about what education means to them, and what they think they can achieve through it. This is part of developing a sense of agency, which will serve them, and society, as they move into adulthood.

Many of the young people I work with have already taken on the responsibilities of parenting and work. They engage actively with the tasks in front of them, have dreams for their children's futures, and imagine a time when they will begin to work in a field that excites them, as opposed to doing whatever job they can get to pay the bills. But in their day-to-day realities, most of them say, they don't feel that their views or experiences matter. As time goes by and they are unable to find messages to the contrary, or pathways toward their goals, their own plans, hopes, and expectations—of themselves, and of society—wear down.

I often hear that the educational system cannot solve poverty, and that access and success rates will only improve when poverty rates are reduced.* But school is the common, I would say formative experience for children in our society, with few exceptions. And as a formative experience, it contributes to very basic aspects of self-perception and identity, including the sense of success, of failure, of belonging, of exclusion, of being cared for, of being able to plan for a future that includes the identification and achievement of goals. Lack of education is the biggest barrier I see impacting access to employment, civic engagement, and the tools necessary to navigate the social, economic, and legal entities critical to well-being and success. Whether or not we eradicate poverty, we can impact the messages students get in school: that they belong there, that education belongs to them, and that it is worthwhile.

All of us are affected by the project of improving education. How best to do it is a problem that is still to be solved, but in the meantime, students need to hear that learning matters for all kinds of reasons, to have things explained in ways they can comprehend and that take their own thinking further, and to be offered the resources their own families may lack to help them move in the directions they want to go. Big Ideas Fest as a process, and the people I met there, answered many of my questions about education related to the challenge of meeting every student where they are, raised more questions, and motivated me to take some chances and seek new solutions, which is what the best educations offer us.

* For a useful discussion about the connections between SES and education, see

Friday, December 20, 2013

Big Ideas Fest 2013 Opens Minds and Makes Connections

Third Shift is a project in rural New York State focused on access to education for low-income youth and young adults. Some are still in high school or college and trying to move forward; others left school as early as ninth grade and are eager to re-engage with education, but face considerable barriers.

Trying to find pathways for students amid the clamor surrounding Common Core, higher education access and completion, and whether or not college even matters is a challenge. Working with students on educational access outside of the formal education system illuminates not only barriers but also opportunities in education. These opportunities are often obscured by too many divisions in the delivery of education, and too few connections among key players, so that issues that interact in impacting student well-being are often not seen as being connected at all.  

It is both possible and necessary to make these connections explicit, and a leader in doing so is ISKME's Big Ideas Fest (, which I recently attended for the first time. BIF was the most idea-packed, participatory, engaging conference I have ever been to. The sheen hasn't even begun to wear off. Working together with inspiring teachers and superintendents, community college teachers and continuing education administrators, adventurous high school students, poets, and those from the non-profit sector, as well as ISKME's excellent staff, has informed my work and led to important conversations back home, especially with those most affected by our work: the students.

The short, sharp presentations of real-world trial-and-error innovations at BIF were powerful in their suggestion that it's worth trying, tinkering, throwing it out there, redefining, and trying again. Conferences always offer the opportunity for connections, but BIF went beyond chance encounters with very effective working groups known as Action Collabs. In multiple sessions over several days of the conference, I had the privilege of collaborating with a group of open-minded, experienced individuals who brought diverse perspectives and real commitment to educational issues. The process was much more engaging, and much more demanding, than I could have imagined beforehand. It was a chance to listen to people I need to hear from, and to absorb and consider new approaches and information. Our day-to-day work at home is so consuming, and positions often so polarized, that these sorts of encounters are too rare.

In some ways, no matter how heartbreaking and unjust individual student situations can be, it is easier to solve problems one student at a time than to effect systemic change. But the fact that youth inside and outside of educational systems are looking for a way through, and that they express goals that we, as a society, say we value for our youth, but don't make accessible to all of them, means that a broader approach is necessary as well. BIF provides a framework and tools for supporting our work with individual students while building that broader framework.

Everyone I talked with at Big Ideas Fest cared about the critical conversation that is education today. Big Ideas Fest demonstrates that imaginative and productive conversations among all of us who care about students and education are possible.