Photo of a public school in Minneapolis by Ed Kohler
July has been hot in the United States, peppered by unnerving violence in Baton Rouge, Dallas and Falcon Heights, Minnesota, where racially charged police killings have given way to attacks on the police. “What to Read Now” booklists have popped up to guide us through this trauma, with books written primarily by people of color.
But seeing Jamaican-born poet Claudia Rankine’s picture in the newspaper recently as a recommended author is a bitter pill to swallow.
Rankine’s most recent book, Citizen: An American Lyric, centers on the experience of being Black in this country. Her appearance on a list of the authors we should read in the wake of the latest violence against black bodies brings to mind the time when the Minneapolis Public Schools supported, and then squashed, the Minneapolis Teachers Institute, an inspired professional development program to bring greater trust, relationships and reconciliation to the classroom.
In 2015, I attended one of the Institute's sessions, where Rankine and her fellow Jamaican-born author, Marlon James, read from their latest books about art, race, teaching. It was a far cry from the standard "cultural competency" checkbox. Attending that session inspired me to write my first piece for the Progressive magazine, "Love Pedagogy: The Future of Education Reform.” Here’s how I described the program:
Interested teachers apply to be MTI fellows, and then embark on a year-long, project-based study of their work. This includes monthly seminars and workshop sessions, with visiting scholars and experts from the arts and sciences, and a $1,000 fellowship upon completion of the program. Last year, featured guests included writer Ta-Nehisi Coates and social cognitive neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman. Why? Because, Arrastia says, “teachers have to be artists and scientists simultaneously.”
The program was founded by longtime educator Lisa Arrastia, whose goal was to “treat teachers as the intellectual workers they are.”
But in June, 2015, the Minneapolis Public Schools chose to defund the four-year old MTI, as part of a district shake up. It allowed the MTI to collapse, despite the pleas of teachers who had gone through it. Here is what one of them had to say, in an attempt to save the MTI from the bureaucratic chopping block:
The stresses, pressures, and violence that students and teachers face on a daily basis are profound and cannot be ignored. The Minneapolis Teachers Institute is the only real professional development that I have come across during my tenure in the profession. MTI is the only professional development that has stopped me from seeking a new career, but more importantly, the only program that has rejuvenated my spirit and grounded me so I could reconnect with my passion and energy for this work. I know many people are concerned about getting rid of the “bad” teachers in our district. I understand and appreciate this concern. But I think we need to be just as mindful, if not more, about keeping our great ones.
I beg of you to reconsider this decision and learn more about MTI and bring it back to our school district. We (teachers, students, administrators, families) need it!
The plaintive begging didn't work. Neither did this results-oriented testimony from another high school teacher:
…(MTI) asked us to partner/adopt a student for the year. We had guided questions and documented our discussions for the year by journaling, recording, and asking deeper questions about life. My student’s name is Ja’Meyah…and she has made some of the greatest gains towards graduation in our program. As of September no one believed she was going to graduate and as of right now she is at the very least going to walk and most likely graduate, which in her own words is a miracle. I believe this is not only because of the…program at Edison but also the relationships that were built within the process of MTI.
In response, Minneapolis administrators advised school board members and others to reply with a form letter, according to this internal email:
Below is a response that can be used for any inquiry into the status of the district’s professional development plans around cultural responsive teaching.
“Because the current model for the Minneapolis Teacher Institute is not cost effective, the district has decided to provide culturally responsive professional development in house so that more teachers can be trained faster.”
Cheaper, faster culturally responsive training might help reach more Minneapolis teachers than the MTI, but with what success? (It is not clear what, exactly, has replaced the MTI, although teachers report getting some exposure to race and equity based training.)
Today, the MTI is gone, and the district appears stuck in a dystopian-like Groundhog Day, under the shadow of a seemingly impossible-to-close “achievement gap.” A 2016 report by the Minneapolis Star Tribune, for example, noted that, based on 2015 results, the Minneapolis schools had not met “most of its goals aimed at closing gaps on math and reading tests, including for students of color and those living in poverty.”
Minneapolis would also need to boost its “graduation rate by more than 31 percent” in order to meet the numbers laid out in its own strategic plan, Acceleration 2020. If there is a quick way to better results, the district does not seem to have found it.
Maybe the answers lie more in the vision Arrastia laid out in her “love pedagogy” approach to school reform, where the focus is less on test scores and discipline, and more on “relationships and love.”
Why? Because students today, Arrastia would say, are “desperate to connect.”
Claudia Rankine's picture should be in the newspaper. Citizen: An American Lyric should be read by everyone grappling with the position we find ourselves in, reeling from one graphic content video to the next, watching blood spread across t-shirts, bodies, streets--making vivid our collective disconnection.
But reading to cope with the aftershock of violence seems small comfort when it could instead be learning how to prevent it in the first place.
Occasionally it is interesting to think about the outburst if you would just cry out--
To know what you'll sound like is worth noting--
--from Claudia Rankine's Citizen: American Lyric
Sarah Lahm is a Minneapolis-based writer and former English instructor. She blogs about education at brightlightsmallcity.com.