Standing in front of a group of determined young men of color at the White House, President Obama described his new initiative, “My Brother’s Keeper.” I heard his words, felt his conviction, and strong emotions surged within me – anger and exasperation, deepening my unwavering resolve. The call to end disparities in education and the criminal justice system for boys and young men of color, is a personal, professional, and moral one for me.
As an African American man and father of a two-year-old boy, the predictable outcomes that lie ahead for him – and other boys of varied brown hues – weigh heavily on me. My son has yet to encounter the subtle and sometimes blatant obstacles, but I know he will. This is a painful realization for any father or mother to carry. The cradle to prison pipeline, as well as the economic, educational, and violence statistics for black and brown boys in our country is devastating. And as President Obama said, many people in our country have “become numb to these statistics.”
We as educators must ask ourselves difficult questions to fight this numbness. Why have we grown so comfortable and accustomed to the current state of black and brown boys? How can we not see our failures to engage and authenticate their learning experience? Do we fear a society that has strong, educated, and fearless black men?
We all know the old saying, “An apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.” We use it to reference the similarities between parent and child, but trees are also an apt metaphor for families — as a tree grows tall and sprouts up and out, our family histories, stories, and traditions provide the nutrients a child needs to flourish. Who we are and where we come from matters, and if we look at the tree as the family — the strength, the life-giver — we want to make sure that we are tending the tree and enriching the environment that it grows in.
As educators we spend thirteen years poking, prodding and buffing the apples to be their best. But we can’t just focus on the apple. We have to remember the source: the tree, complete with a trunk, branches, twigs, leaves, and blossoms.
Kevin’s daughters Marlow and Molly
Research tells us that cognitive, social, and emotional development stems from the family. Study after study shows that parental involvement with school age children correlates to the success a child experiences as they move into adulthood. So we must find a way to build a trusting, collaborative, and receptive relationship between schools and families – both of which have much to offer.
What are we, as educators and school leaders, doing to help nourish families? Here are a few tips to make sure our students’ families are supported, productive and feel that we are all working toward our common goal of student success.
Last spring, I looked out my plane window and saw the view of Cuba becoming more detailed as we got closer. With the thud of the wheels touching ground, I had landed over 50 years after Fidel Castro had the courage to address a serious literacy challenge. Excited for the educational exchange that came through the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP), I was ﬁlled with curiosity and motivated by the possibility of new insights. Ready to explore Havana, I hoped that my takeaways would add value to students and schools in the US.
Kevin Bennett in Cuba
A Historic Lesson
In 1961, during a time of strained relations between the US and Cuba, Castro strategically began the National Literacy Campaign. In just one year, the country mobilized its adults and secondary students to teach more than 700,000 people how to read. Sociologist Miren Uriarte describes in “The Right Priorities: Health, Education, and Literacy,” how in just one year, the illiteracy rate dropped from 23% to 4%. And they didn’t stop there — each generation improved until they reached and maintained 100% literacy.
Instructional manuals from the Cuban Museum of Literacy
Now, I know many people have opinions about Castro, Cuba and human rights. But as an educator and an American citizen, I can’t help but focus on the compassion, determination and commitment in these ﬁve simple words: every citizen will be literate. Period. No excuses. No debates. 100%. How did they accomplish this? They mobilized qualiﬁed citizens.
As a principal and a teacher, I have encountered many youth that share my same childhood experience. They, like me, grew up with a single mother — a mother, who faced the daunting challenge of raising her children alone without the emotional and physical support of a father. The reasons fathers are absent are varied: incarceration, divorce, abandonment, or as in my case, death.
My biological father was killed before I could even form an image of him in my memory. Althea Bogany, my mother, found herself thrust into the responsibility of sole guardianship of two boys. With only a high school diploma, she would be in charge of making decisions and choices that would impact her life and the lives of my brother and me. My mother is strong, and her choices, values, beliefs, and thinking have definitely helped sculpt who I am today. When I look into the faces of my students and listen to their stories, I understand the impact their mothers have on them. And when I look around my schools, I see and respect how female teachers nurture, guide, inspire and positively influence our students.
Still, in my role as an educator, I have also witnessed the emotional and psychological stress that both mother and child face when a father is absent and how it plays out in schools. In child study, IEP, and discipline meetings, I have heard and seen the harsh impact on a child’s sense of self and self-worth when a father is not at the table.
How to Engage Fathers
Are policies having a negative impact on students and their literacy rates, graduation rates, and college readiness? Is tenure and seniority the problem? Is it the high concentration of poverty that plagues some of our communities? Do we lack rigor? Are our standards high enough? Do we attract the best and the brightest to education? Which party really supports education: Democrats or Republicans?
The gifts and talents that educators bring into the classroom, coupled with their personal passion to change lives of students one lesson at a time, can sometimes be overshadowed when we hear the divisive debates and opinions about public education. How do we avoid the chatter and keep the focus on our students and their growth? How do you stay positive when public conversation can make you feel worthless? How do we keep our reasons for becoming an educator front and center?
“He’s a white man trapped in a black man’s body.”
Those words were spoken about me by a substitute teacher who worked in my building. In the wake of the Trayvon Martin case and President Obama’s personal comments on what it means to be a black man in the United States, I can’t help but think about the black boys in my school. Like the president, I have my stories and my boys are collecting their own stories every day. In fact, we all have our stories.
Collectively, these stories frame who we are, how we react, and how we perceive the world. The experiences I have had growing up, working as a teacher in a Chicago public school, leading a K-12 school with two sites, and walking each day as a black man, frame who I am as a leader. They help me navigate through all that I see, hear, feel, and teach.
We, as educators, play a major role in the development of a youth’s identity. The curriculum we use connects and develops students, and the relationships we form at school are critical. We must provide opportunities for students to show who they are. We have to listen to what they have to say, and then validate, guide, and encourage their true selves.