Category Archives: About SBSD

School Winds Down, Sarah Winds Up


This, the final week but certainly not the final frontier, is a significant marker. Just as our cohort begins to jel and as we gain a familiarity with this new frame as doctoral students, our intensive summer comes to an abrupt end.

Sure, we will all be glad to return to what has been the primary focus of our lives: our jobs and families. Yet, we have started something here, and like all committed and passionate folks, it’s hard to leave midstream. Yes, we will be back together at the end of September, and yes, we have a vast array of assignments to complete for this summer and for the upcoming fall semester. There is plenty to read, research, write, contemplate. I have just fully appreciated this space to learn, reflect, synthesize, and develop as an educator and human being. We are among such dedicated, intelligent, and diverse folks here at Teachers College and in our Urban Education Leaders Program.
After five weeks of intense scrutiny and reflection, I find that I am further along the path but still my sights remain squarely set on equity, race, opportunity, language, leadership, and advocacy. No one issue has emerged as MY issue, but I’m deeply committed to addressing the root causes of inequity and continuing to seek out solutions to the very real consequences of our current dropout crisis and school-to-prison pipeline in American urban school systems. I would like to find a way to link this uniquely American experience to a more globalized movement to fight oppression and the resulting poverty and marginalization through youth activism and media experimentation. I have some initial ideas on this kind of project, but first and foremost, I need to focus myself where I truly know the most: American inequity.
In some ways, I would like to stay in this stasis of summer–pondering and experimenting intellectually and indefinitely. I have to admit though I’m looking forward to the next steps of action, of some sort of job, and of more fully putting theory into practice.

Turtle Metaphor

I wonder on days like today just how much capacity human beings have. I think we see ourselves, our abilities, and our output as substantially fixed. Afterall, we all have seen our own limits. We need a certain number of hours sleep, companionship, food, the newspaper, some form of media and entertainment to sustain us as we move forward in this life. In our relationships and in our work, we push boundaries, but ultimately we accept that there are boundaries up against which we continue to push.

Consider these human limits and perceived (and tangible) boundaries as the turtle’s shell. The shell confines almost the entirety of the turtle’s body. For the most part, the turtle is defined by this physical shell and by the perceived and tangible dangers outside the shell. This is natural.
This morning as I was passing through Morningside Park on my walk to school, I noticed this turtle sitting triumphantly on this pond rock boldly sunning himself in the middle of the city. All extremities exposed to the world, the turtle confidently and easily sat atop this city rock in this city park. I had to stop and take notice. This was out of the ordinary. In fact I took a picture to capture the moment.
This afternoon during our final sessions in our School Law Institute, I was so emotionally overwhelmed by the words of one of our speakers that I had to leave my seat. In fact I left the building. A complete stranger came up to me on the street and asked if I was alright and was so concerned she was very reluctant to leave me in such a state to return to her life. I was struck by the intensity of a series of moments where a professor who had dedicated his life’s work to the fight for equity in schools fought through the physical tremors of Parkinson’s to communicate to a group of 70 Teachers College students that it was our moment to take up this work. He could no longer continue. He spoke with humor and through a quivering, weak voice that betrayed the wit and sharpness of his intellect and richness of his experience. He struggled there before us, perched on the uncertain and steep decline of the human condition, and he was so utterly present in that moment, in each of 60 moments that he shared his wisdom and wit with us. He struggled with every inch of his body to reach us, and the intensity of that vulnerability and the tenderness of sharing that with 70 strangers reached deep inside of me. In a month of transformation and intense learning, he took this experience to an entirely new depth.
No one in that room left the same. I am sure of this. I am still struggling to understand the capacity of someone so willing and able to live so much in the present moment even as the simplest functions retreat from the brain’s command. How do you persist and persist with grace and good humor and with purpose even as you reach your most vulnerable state of life? I admire the willingness, the presence of mind, the sense of purpose, and the unyielding commitment to actualizing justice and equity for the most marginalized of people living among us. It is the fight for what is right alongside the fight for the simplest functions of life. I would be so lucky to live as much in this life the amount this professor lived in the 60 minutes he spent with us this

afternoon.
As I walked home tonight through Morningside park, I saw the turtle again. He was out on the same rock. He was there in the sun, hundreds of people about in the park: playing ball, sitting on benches, skateboarding, walking, running, walking dogs. He was still out, head and legs and tail all stretched outside the confines of his shell. I couldn’t help but think of Tom, and think about the audacity to live beyond the confines of the human experience. The shell protects, defines, humanizes the turtle, but the insistence on basking in the sun outside that shell speaks to the kind of human being I hope to become. I can only hope to live so fully.

Happy Inspired Birthday to Me–Thank You Chicago Public Schools


I am so inspired by Nancy Slavin who is part of the Chicago Public Schools HR Department. She is so good and doing such amazing work. Watching people make transformative change is so powerful. It makes me believe that change in possible even in hierarchical systems that tend to reward and sustain mediocrity. She described the beginning of her job as feeling like she started as “captain of the titanic,” and yet she still transformed her domain. I like this example. Let me restate that: I love this example. When I’m around leaders like this, I am inspired with every part of my being to actualize my leadership potential. Greatness seems to come from Chicago these days.

I thought my favorite birthday present was going to be the Maureen Dowd column I discovered this morning imagining Sarah Palin’s current dairy. This experience tops that. Happy inspired birthday to me!

Superintendent? UELP’s Self-Fulfilling Prophecy

Today we met the cohort that is two years ahead of us. They seem so far ahead of us, mostly working as district leaders–some already superintendents and even former superintendents. Perhaps they came in more seasoned than we are now, but perhaps two years from now we will have grown into the leaders they clearly are now.

As I sat in the resource management class (focused on HR this week) our two cohorts are jointly taking at TC this summer, I wondered how much all of this is a self-fulfilling prophecy established by the Organization and Leadership department at TC. To what extent are they district leaders now because the program named them as a cohort ready for the challenges of leadership in urban districts? To what extent will they stay with the work because of the cohort model and because of the training UELP is providing? To what extent do I now (as of 4 hours ago) see the path toward becoming a superintendent as possible and perhaps desirable because of the frame of this program?
I actually realized today that under the right leadership, working in a district could be satisfying work that pushes toward wide scale change. At first, I felt out of place sitting in a classroom where the instructor asked us to frame a vision for how we wanted to manage human resources in our district. This is a level of questioning I have never been exposed to, and I knew at some point in this program, we would begin to shift in this direction. The work we have done in the first two weeks immersing ourselves in the research has felt pleasantly familiar, like an old high school or college buddy you see again after 3 years and realize that you still connect. I’m good at being a graduate student and scholar.
Working alongside more established school leaders this past two weeks has pushed me to feel more comfortable calling myself a leader publicly. I have always seen myself as someone with strong leadership skills, experience, and dispositions, but this is the first time in a while I have actually identified with and embraced the title of leader. When I decided to enter to realm of urban education 13 years ago as an outsider who grew up in a rural homogeneous community, I disassociated with the identity of leader. I knew that I had so much learning to do, so much listening, and so much living. I have been consciously building my practice in a field I care passionately about; I have been pushing myself to become competent and established enough to be on firm ground when I assert that we can and should transform urban systems to be more just and equitable. I finally feel ready to assume a formal leadership role in this field.
I have to trust that I belong with these two cohorts of established principals, executives, district leaders, and superintendents. I remain open to a variety of leadership roles, and today I accepted for the first time that included in the list of possible leadership roles is the title superintendent. Where do I go from here? That’s still up to the NYC job market the opportunities I find through TC. I’m curious to see where this path leads me in the near future. The next two years will likely be largely shaped by UELP’s vision, connections, and requirements, and I look forward to be looking back measuring the likely inevitable exponential growth two years in this program will produce.

Literacy for Freedom Schools Initiative

I’ve always been passionate and driven. I’ve always had a clear vision for the direction and arc of my life and a strong set of hypotheses about how to set about making that vision a reality. I believe that there is meaningful, impactful, and urgent work for me to do at the nexus of community and schools. I believe that we can create equitable and just educational systems truer to promise of the ideals that launched the great American democracy experiment. This sense of purpose and vision formed early for me–at sixteen, in a public high school in rural Vermont. My teachers, my classmates, my community, my family all played central roles in forging my identity as an achiever, activist, and educator.

At points in my career, I have struggled to identify the best way forward–this past couple of months of career and life transition being the most recent example. Happily, this past weekend at Teachers College provided enough perspective and opportunity for deep thinking and reflection to allow me to find some clarity and articulate a strong set of hypotheses about the arc of my life and work in education.

Hypothesis 1: University-School Partnerships is the best lens for my academic and professional work going forward.

I have a diverse set of interests and competencies: teaching literacy across the high school curriculum, history curriculum development, school leadership, new teacher development, bilingual education, dropout prevention, equity in classrooms, participatory action research, teacher leadership, building a culture of achievement in low-performing schools, school-community partnerships, family engagement, community service learning, technology in the classroom, professional development, inclusion/special education. These represent what I have done and have been interested in as a practitioner and as a researcher over the past ten years in urban schools. I am stepping in the Urban Education Leaders Program recognizing these as assets and potential areas of further development in my pursuit of my own personal development to become a district leader in urban school reform.

In my work with establishing New Mission’s dropout initiative with professors Theresa Perry, John Diamond, and Terry Meier in Boston, I have experienced the power of university-school partnerships to catalyze change in schools. In reading about examples of schools that have created a culture of achievement for students of color–like the University Park School in Worcester, MA–I have been inspired to explore further just how deep and powerful those university-school partnerships can be. My recent interest in larger-scale urban reform like the Harlem Children’s Zone has pushed me to consider the yet-to-be-realized possibilities for university, school, government, and community organization partnerships to create expansive change in urban districts in terms of increased equity for students and families.

I think my diverse interests (past, present, and future) all can find a home under the research umbrella of university-school partnerships, and I’d like to use this lens to focus my dissertation research and my practice.

Hypothesis 2: In my practice I can have the greatest impact in urban education reform by becoming a principal, launching one or more schools in concert with university partners. Down the road I will seek both district leadership positions and eventually a college/university professor position to the end of improving school leadership and equity.

I know that I have the capacity to be an outstanding school leader, and I would like the opportunity to create a team of educators, university partners, and families to found a 6-12 school centered on Literacy for Freedom–rooted in the traditions and history of African American, Latino/a, and other groups’ struggles to achieve full citizenship, freedom, and liberation in America and around the globe through literacy and education. I see my time at Teachers College as a way to study efforts like the Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science, and Engineering (as well as other examples) in order to gain the knowledge and skills necessary to successfully launch my own school. I can imagine collaborating with professors like Theresa Perry at Simmons and Terry Meier at Wheelock College whom I have already begun working with over this past year to embed the transformative ideas and legacy of freedom for literacy in the curriculum and school culture of one Boston pilot school.

This is an ambitious project, but my work in Boston over the past 10 years and the opportunity to do the Urban Education Leaders Program in New York at Teachers College over the next four years should afford me the contacts, knowledge, and resources to begin implementing this vision.

I propose the Boston Literacy for Freedom Schools Initiative.

Back in the saddle

Okay, so I’m back in the saddle. It just so happens that I’m back in the saddle down in Providence, RI at a four-day institute on modern Iran and how to teach about Iran in my classroom. I joined by 25 educators from around the country and a few teachers from overseas. We are working with scholars and CHOICES program folks at the Watson Institute at Brown University. It’s pretty exciting stuff though the most palpable experience so far has been the ammonia residing in the carpeted dorms we’re staying in for the duration of the institute.

I have some reading to do tonight because I didn’t quite finish the required reading ahead of time, and we’ve received more to read and think about before tomorrow, so I’m excited to dive into it and learn more about Iran. I have to admit that I know shamefully little about Iran’s history beyond the general narrative that World History tells us about the Ottoman Empire, WWI, and the chaos that has ensued since the discover of oil in the Middle East. I feel fortunate to spend time with brilliant scholars and dedicated educators. It promises to be a gratifying and edifying week.

The Wire

The Wire, in my view, is the Invisible Man of our times—a story whose characters both symbolize and actually live at the fraying edges of our awesome and terrible American society. At once fiction, literature, and entertainment, this moving, breathing, speaking novel deftly crafts a Baltimore where the lives of urban residents unfold believably, at once intertwined and individually distinct. Mirroring our American entertainment culture, The Wire does not entrust its social justice mission to one narrator, one character to which we pin our aspirations, our judgments, our own moral authority. We walk in Snoop’s shoes, see know McNulty’s nose, take in Michael’s burdened breaths. As viewers and readers of the American urban experience, we find the human experience in each of The Wire’s characters—though we crave with an unexplainable hunger those moments when The Wire allows us to live Omar’s code, Stringer’s smarts, or D’Angelo’s vulnerability on screen.

The character Bunny Colvin reappeared last night on the 59th episode of the 60-episode arc of The Wire. We see him as a foster parent sitting in the audience of an Urban Debate League competition in Baltimore. He proudly watches the character Namond argue in favor of the resolution that the U.S. should substantially increase health aid to Sub-Saharan Africa. Namond it appears, once a corner boy and school delinquent, is the only one of a group of four (Michael, Dukey, Randy, and Namond) adolescent Baltimore boys to find a place the city and in the city’s schools. We have seen the other places that the other boys find in the city, and none of us would want our sons and students to settle for long in those places.

I was struck last night by the use of the Urban Debate League; I am a coach in the league, and the pride I felt swelled as my own aspirations and judgments aligned with those of Bunny Colvin. I am Boston Public School teacher, a cultural outsider to American cities, a proponent for social justice, a college educated woman, and a current urban dweller: one of many types of fiercely loyal fans this TV show attracts. I am proud of my affinity for the show; I know that it says something about the way I believe the world is and the way the world should be. The character of Bunny Colvin, in my view, is the moral and the story of this TV show. I see in him my desire to reform, to do right by people—regardless of class, race, and the like—to exercise my professional obligation as a public servant. Next to that, I see the cautionary tale to potential system-wide reformers, to people like me. I see Colvin’s fall and forcible, disgraceful ejection from the system he so passionately sought to fix.

I believe in The Wire. I believe in David Simon and Ed Burns, their experiences, their vision. My friends, my colleagues, and my students all eagerly await episode 60. We crave this fresh, intricately woven re-telling of the great American novel.