Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Learning Together - Our Weekend with The MET

"History does not refer merely, or even principally, to the past. On the contrary, the great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do." - James Baldwin
This past weekend we had the chance to work and learn together with some amazing students visiting us from out of town. The students and their advisor visited us from The MET School in Providence, Rhode Island. The MET School was founded by Dennis Littky and Elliot Washer as the first of a growing network of The Big Picture Company's amazing examples of alternative learner-centered schools across the country that take the approach of "one student at a time". The MET School has also been a long time mentor school to the Coalition of Essential School's national network of schools.

With the students from The MET, we were able to share our experiences and knowledge of New Orleans and the struggles our cities young people and communities face in recovery from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the failure of the city's levee system and the continued failures of the city's other essential systems.

On Friday we visited Kids Rethink New Orleans Schools and spent some time learning about the relationship between oil industry, food systems, water, and the local New Orleans economy and toured the Rethink Garden. If it weren't for the rain and thunderstorms, we would have been able to get our hands dirty in the garden too. Thank you Qasim, Brennan and Micah!

On Saturday we started out the day touring the Lower 9th Ward and St. Bernard Parish discussing local levee systems, educational systems, environmental systems, economic systems, juvenile (in)justice systems, and more. For lunch we made a stop at the Sankofa Farmer's Market and had some great conversation with some of our neighbors including Mr. Ronald Lewis of the House of Dance and Feathers, a neighborhood museum dedicated to the culture of Mardi Gras Indians, social and pleasure clubs, and musicians of the neighborhood before Hurricane Katrina.

After lunch made our way across the canal (and rising waters of the Mississippi) to visit the spot of the arrest of Homer Plessy in 1892 for trying to board a railway car designated for whites, and resulted in the landmark Supreme Court case of Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld the doctrine of "seperate but equal".  We discussed the role of civil disobedience, boycotts, and other strategies for making change through non-violence and the roots of New Orleans civil rights history.

Next we were off to soak up some more of New Orleans history in Faubourg Tremé, arguably the oldest black neighborhood in America, the birthplace of the Civil Rights movement in the South and the home of jazz.  Long ago during slavery, Faubourg Tremé was home to the largest community of free black people in the Deep South and was a hotbed of political ferment.  Here black and white, free and enslaved, rich and poor co-habitated, collaborated, and clashed to create much of what defines New Orleans culture up to the present day.

After some time at the Community Book Center and some amazing New Orleans Snowballs to cool us down we headed back to the Lower 9th Ward Village where we'd started the day to debrief the tour together and play some basketball before their long drive back to Providence.

From The MET students we learned so much too!!! We were further inspired to create an educational environment for children and youth of New Orleans (and particularly the Lower 9th Ward) that derives from their interests and passions and works to achieve democracy and equity in an environment of decency of trust where tests aren't the only measure of what students know and are able to do. The inspiring accounts from The MET students of individual experimentation, learning and growth assured us that we are on the right path with the development of New Orleans Liberation Academy.

We learned a little about The MET's recruitment, enrollment and orientation process, and we are eager to learn more because we continue to get phone calls and emails from families and youth who want to Enroll with New Orleans Liberation Academy this Fall. From The MET, we're wondering: How do you orient your students to a radically different educational environment than what they have experienced all their lives in order for them to be successful?

As we begin to have discussions with students and families intersted in attending New Orleans Liberation Academy, we are asking ourselves questions about how to best engage our students families in the education of thier children. From The MET, we want to know: What role do families play in the school? How do you go about engaging those that wouldn't ordinarily get involved? What strategies have been successful for your school?

We also learned about The MET's advisory, independent study, and internship programs. Many of the students also spoke of their senior exhibitions and the work they have been doing to prepare.  Again, we want to learn more: What are the various components of senior exhibitions and how is the skeleton that creates The MET's unique learning environment used to scaffold these over student's time at the school? What type of ongoing formative assessment is used to measure student's progress?

One thing that stood out to all of us is that each of the students who visited us, all seniors, had really solid plans for life after high school that covered the broad range of options available to young people that included college and much more. This indicated to us that these students have been provided the opportunity and support to explore all of their options and make the best decision for themselves based on their goals and interests. We are curious: What do you do to help students prepare for life after The MET?

As we work tirelessly to further the development the New Orleans Liberation Academy, we were able to learn so much from the students and adults who visited us from The MET, and we're pretty sure they learned a lot fro us too! We hope that we can continue to learn from each other for a long time to come. Thank you Megan Cresci and her amazing seniors from The MET, Peace Street! We hope you come back and visit us again soon!

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Building Community and Creating Hope

Yesterday was a great day for building community and creating hope. As bell hooks writes in Teaching Community: A Pedagogy of Hope, "educators who have dared to study, and learn, [and practice] new ways of thinking and teaching so that the work we do does not reinforce systems of domination, of imperialism, racism, sexism or class elitism have created a pedagogy of hope."

We started out our Saturday with an amazing breakfast at and great conversation about about education, community and empowerment, programs for youth and our hopes for the future together at the Tekrema Center for Art and Culture.

Next we spent some time talking with friends, neighbors and allies at the Sankofa Farmers Market at the corner of Caffin and St. Claude in the Lower 9th Ward.  It's great having a farmers market with multiple vendors and great people in the Lower 9th Ward that can provide access to fresh, local produce.

We left the market talking about and making plans for how we can work with with our students and other local families to build more gardens, create more vendors for the market, and support youth entrepreneurship.

After the market, we volunteered at the Fourth World Movement's Street Library in the 7th Ward.  It was a great experience to read to and with, create art, and play with children.  Young people could come and go, listen to stories, read alone, with an adult, student volunteers, or with each other. With Mothers Day coming up, we also spent time talking about the importance of the mothers in our lives, and the strength and power women have while making candles and mother's day cards.  Now we're planning for the development of a weekly Lower 9th Ward Street Library.  Seeing young people and adults learning, laughing, playing and creating together in an environment of freedom brings us hope. Read Anthony's reflections on the Street Library HERE.

Speaking of the necessity to cultivate hope Brazilian educator Paulo Freire reminds us: "The struggle for hope means the denunciation, in no uncertain terms of all abuses... As we denounce them we awaken in others the need, and also the taste for hope." Our hopefulness empowers us to continue our work for justice. As teachers we enter all opportunities with our students and the community with hope. Freire contends: "Whatever perspective through which we appreciate authentic educational practice-it's process implies hope."

Friday, May 6, 2011

How to Grow a School - Partnerships for Youth Empowerment

Yesterday, New Orleans Liberation Academy spent the day with Rethink (Kids Rethinking New Orleans Schools) helping them build a beautiful garden.

Qasim Davis, NOLA Teacher, Rethink Gardener and Louisana Delta
Service Corps member (left) and NOLA student Anthony Johnson (right)
The Rethinkers are a group of students in New Orleans who want to rethink and rebuild our schools after Hurricane Katrina. Thier vision is simple: a great education for every kid in our city, no matter the color of their skin, what neighborhood they stay in or how much money their parents make. No one deserves a voice in rebuilding New Orleans schools more than the students who go to these places every single day. We agree!

We learned about how the Rethinkers hope to use the garden as a teaching tool to help youth ad schools recognize that it's time to rethink school lunch. Read the Rethinkers report, Time to Rethink School Lunch to learn how students graded New Orleans public school cafeterias and their recomendations for change.

As we work to grow our new school, gardening gives us the opportunity to think about the how similar the growth requirements are for of both plants and children.

From Chris Mercogliano's How to Grow a School: Starting and Sustaining Schools that Work:

"Both need to be loved and nourished. Both need warmth and sunshine and open space. Both need to be appreciated and admired. Both need to be lefty alone to do their own thing, while at the same time they need to be protected from intruders and toxic influences. Neither need the addition of synthetic chemicals to regulate their development... ...plants [or children] don't require constant attention in order to reach their greatest height and beauty. If the conditions of the garden [or school] are right and everything is well established then there is often not much for the gardener [or teacher] to do -- aside from a little weeding, mulching, and watering -- except observe and be patient... Patience is called for because growth cannot be rushed; it happens in its own time. There is no place in the garden [or school] for anxious managers. They make the plants [or children] feel anxious too, and this only drags them down."
These are important lessons from the garden and we hope our partnership with the Rethinkers will continue to grow as their garden grows - naturally.