I have seen the future of education reform, and its name is the Minneapolis Teachers Institute.
At least, I hope it is the future of education reform.
The Minneapolis Teachers Institute (MTI) is a four-year old professional development program for Minneapolis teachers. It is funded by a grant from the Minneapolis Public Schools’ Office of Equity and Diversity, and coordinated by the University of Minnesota’s Department of African and African-American Studies.
But it is so much more than that.
The MTI is a hidden gem in the pocket of an urban school district that often seems stuck in a gap-filled narrative of failure and dysfunction. It brings public school teachers together for a year-long, project-based study of what it means to be a teacher today. I have seen it in action, and it is a beautiful thing.
The MTI grew out of the passion and experience of Lisa Arrastia, a writing teacher and PhD candidate at the University of Minnesota with an intriguing background and a lovely vision for her work in education:
“In all of her work with schools, Lisa focuses on the development of empathic communities where young people demonstrate the freedom to think, question, and innovate as they wrestle with the tangled complexities of self, other, and difference.”
Arrastia has a lot of experience working with schools, as a former principal and school director, but says her view of education changed when her own daughter started school in St. Paul (Arrastia and her family now live in New York, where she and her husband, poet Mark Nowak, both teach).
As a public school parent, Arrastia was asked to sit on a school committee, and began to get a clearer view of the restraints teachers face on a daily basis, as they work to meet the needs of their students. Efforts to reduce homework or bring innovation into the classroom often seemed to get lost in a sea of mandates and No Child Left Behind, test-driven limitations.
That is when Arrastia started to develop a “passion for what teachers were doing,” and the MTI began to take shape.
In 2011, she heard through the education grapevine that the Minneapolis Public Schools was looking for a different kind of professional development opportunity for district teachers, and she put the MTI in motion, through her other project, the Ed Factory.
So far, Arrastia has managed to get support from MPS each year for the institute, which serves Minneapolis teachers in grades 5-12. 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.”
Beyond this, the MTI’s broader vision and purpose is to treat teachers as the “intellectual workers” they are, according to Arrastia, and to “creatively push back against the limitations of high stakes testing.”
This, I believe, is the asset-based, love-focused, relationship-driven future of education reform. As opposition to restrictive, top-down education reform builds (locally, nationally, and globally). the MTI is busy crafting an alternative vision of reform that “emphasizes the humanity of both teacher and child.” This has seemingly struck a nerve, as Arrastia says another state has expressed interest in the MTI’s work.
But don’t take my word for it: come to the Capri Theater in Minneapolis on Friday, March 6 for a closer look at what the MTI does. There, a manifestation of the institute’s current theme–“Love Pedagogy: Disrupting the Violence Against Young Bodies”–will be on display, as MTI fellows showcase the work they’ve undertaken this year.
Here is a detailed description of the Capri event, from the MTI:
Our seventeen teaching fellows have each chosen one student to get to know as an individual and as a learner. We’ve asked fellows to call this student “my child,” and we have asked them to encourage the student to study them as well. Fellows and their students are studying each other in order to get a sense of their common humanity, something which the institute’s research demonstrates has, unfortunately, deteriorated under the pressure of current education reforms. Applying theories based on the science of social connection, using photographer Dawoud Bey’s Class Pictures and the prose poems “Stop the Presses,” by Patricia Smith, and “Capitalization,” by Mark Nowak, as models, throughout the fellowship term fellows and students have been photographing each other, writing about each other, talking about what they fear and love, what makes them angry, and what they hope for and desire.
I have been a lucky fly on the wall at two MTI events this year, when educator and activist Bill Ayers came, and then, just recently, when poet Claudia Rankine and novelist Marlon James read from their recent books and offered insights on everything from James Baldwin to the importance of recognizing the “danger of a single story.” (Arrastia introduced both Rankine and James, and led with this radical notion: “Our students need relationships and love, not discipline and tests.”)
“I would say that right now there is only one way we can remake public schools; that is, we have to make them welcoming and beautiful places. We have to spend as much money on schooling as we do on the Stealth Bomber. What we have to do is to buy all the resources necessary and give everyone the maximum number of chances to learn in ways in which they choose to learn.“ — Educator Herbert Kohl, one of Arrastia’s inspirations for the MTI
Most MTI sessions are in fact free and open to the public, and well worth attending, in order to see, up close, the good work being done with support from the Minneapolis Public Schools—whose challenges, and critics, often seem endless.
Image: Teachers during a workshop with award-winning writer Claudia Rankine answer the question: "When have you committed a microagression against a child?" Courtesy of MTI.