First Person

Remembering Manning Marable

The scholarly world was shocked earlier this month by the death of Manning Marable, a mere three days before his life’s work was to finally come out. Others have done a far better job than I ever could of explaining Dr. Marable’s importance as a scholar, activist, and teacher. My hope here is to recount just a little bit of the effect he had on me as my teacher and mentor. More of these stories can be read here.

There have been a number of times in my life where I felt like a fraud. Quite frequently, I wonder if everything that feels like success in my classroom are mere surface victories, hiding more fatal failures beneath them. But never have I felt like more of a fraud than when I began my master’s degree studies at IRAAS: the Institute for Research in African American Studies at Columbia University.

There were maybe seven of us starting the program together in the fall of 2005 when all the professors came out to greet us at our first meeting. Each was introduced in turn by Dr. Steven Gregory, the graduate student adviser. The final introduction was of the man sitting in the corner. All the other students seemed star-struck by him, and I looked forward to finding out who he was. But Dr. Gregory merely pointed to him and said, “And of course, he needs no introduction.” Too embarrassed to ask, I had to wait until I got home that night to find out that the man was Manning Marable, and that I had no idea who he was.

Throughout the year, I would learn that I had been welcomed into the presence of one of the most important historians of the black experience in the United States, and undoubtedly one of the top three black historians in the country. But moreover, Dr. Marable was a man deeply rooted in the community and its history, counting amongst his friends not only scholars like Cornell West and Eric Foner, but also activists like Amiri Baraka and Myrlie Evers-Williams, the widow of Medgar Evers. I knew I was lucky to have ended up at IRAAS (and it would turn out to be one of the most important experiences in my life). But as a white boy from Ohio entering a Black Studies program in Harlem, I felt a tad out of place at first, and the fact that I didn’t even know the giant of the field made me feel completely unworthy.

None of that ever mattered to Dr. Marable though. He quickly took an interest in me, my work, and the research project I wanted to undertake, especially after I discovered two archives in Charleston, S.C., that had never been used by historians. He became my thesis adviser, and saved countless hours for me in his office, to discuss the challenges of writing the history of people who left behind few documents. Dr. Marable had spent his life proving one of his professor’s wrong when he was told as a student that “Africa has no history” because it lacked a written record. He helped me assemble the story from a wide variety of sources of two remarkable teachers, Septima Clark and Bernice Robinson, who created a system of adult literacy Citizenship Schools throughout the south in the 1950s and 60s that would eventually prove to be the backbone of the Civil Rights Movement. I am honored that he saw fit to include part of this story in what will be the final book that he edited, “The New Black History,” coming out later this year.

When I started the program, I thought my time teaching history was behind me and that my future would be in English classrooms. After my experiences teaching in Virginia, I questioned the importance of teaching history, particularly for students with low reading and writing skills. Dr. Marable made me realize the value of teaching history though, particularly for students of color in the United States. His view of a Living Black History, both as a narrative and a historiographical approach, fundamentally affirms the daily lived experiences of a people whose history is perhaps the foundational story of America, though is rarely seen or taught that way. Dr. Marable’s work showed that black history is not merely something to be recognized one month out of the year, but rather as the core thread of the American experience. More importantly, along with a generation of scholars, he developed a methodology that allowed stories that were often “forgotten” to be reclaimed and shared with wider audiences. He fundamentally changed the value I thought history had for my students, and gave me the reason, vision, and purpose I needed to return to the history classroom. He taught me how to think historically, and I hope I have been able to share those lessons with the five years of students I have taught since.

On Friday evening, IRAAS held a “family” gathering for Dr. Marable’s current and former students and colleagues. The stories people shared were all fundamentally the same: Dr. Marable had made every single one of us feel unique and special when he shined the light of his attention on us. He made us see the best version of ourselves as scholars and activists, and for many, helped us realize not only what we were capable of, but that we weren’t the frauds many of us feared we were. Although the world will remember Dr. Marable as a historian and scholar, for those of us gathered on Friday, he was first and foremost our teacher. As a teacher myself, I can only dream and pray that I will have one percent of the impact on my students that Dr. Marable had on his.

Dr. Marable used to tell us the story of the turning point in his life. When he was a teenager in Ohio in 1968, his mother put him on a bus to go to Martin Luther King’s funeral. He talked about that both as the moment when he realized he was part of a people and their history, and that it would be his life’s work to document the history of his people’s struggle for freedom. There will be a public memorial service for Dr. Marable on May 26 at Columbia University’s Alfred Lerner Hall-Roone Arledge Auditorium at 5:30 p.m. I will be bringing some of my students for whom I hope this might be a similar experience, and I would encourage other teachers in the area to do the same with theirs.

First Person

What we’ve learned from leading schools in Denver’s Luminary network — and how we’ve used our financial freedom

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Cole Arts and Science Academy Principal Jennifer Jackson sits with students at a school meeting in November 2015.

First Person is a standing feature where guest contributors write about pressing issues in public education. Want to contribute? More details here

Three years ago, we were among a group of Denver principals who began meeting to tackle an important question: How could we use Colorado’s innovation schools law to take our schools to the next level?

As leaders of innovation schools, we already had the ability to make our own choices around the curriculum, length of school day, and staffing at our campuses. But some of us concluded that by joining forces as an independent network, we could do even more. From those early meetings, the Luminary Learning Network, Denver’s first school innovation zone, was born.

Now, our day-to-day operations are managed by an independent nonprofit, but we’re still ultimately answerable to Denver Public Schools and its board. This arrangement allows us to operate with many of the freedoms of charter schools while remaining within the DPS fold.

Our four-school network is now in its second year trying this new structure. Already, we have learned some valuable lessons.

One is that having more control over our school budget dollars is a powerful way to target our greatest needs. At Cole Arts & Science Academy, we recognized that we could serve our scholars more effectively and thoughtfully if we had more tools for dealing with children experiencing trauma. The budget flexibility provided by the Luminary Learning Network meant we were able to provide staff members with more than 40 hours of specially targeted professional development.

In post-training surveys, 98 percent of our staff members reported the training was effective, and many said it has helped them better manage behavioral issues in the classroom. Since the training, the number of student behavior incidents leading to office referrals has decreased from 545 incidents in 2016 to 54 in 2017.

At Denver Green School, we’ve hired a full-time school psychologist to help meet our students’ social-emotional learning goals. She has proved to be an invaluable resource for our school – a piece we were missing before without even realizing how important it could be. With a full-time person on board, we have been able to employ proactive moves like group and individual counseling, none of which we could do before with only a part-time social worker or school psychologist.

Both of us have also found that having our own executive coaches has helped us grow as school leaders. Having a coach who knows you and your school well allows you to be more open, honest, and vulnerable. This leads to greater professional growth and more effective leadership.

Another lesson: scale matters. As a network, we have developed our own school review process – non-punitive site visits where each school community receives honest, targeted feedback from a team of respected peers. Our teachers participate in a single cross-school teacher council to share common challenges and explore solutions. And because we’re a network of just four schools, both the teacher council and the school reviews are small-scale, educator-driven, and uniquely useful to our schools and our students. (We discuss this more in a recently published case study.)

Finally, the ability to opt out of some district services has freed us from many meetings that used to take us out of our buildings frequently. Having more time to visit classrooms and walk the halls helps us keep our fingers on the pulse of our schools, to support teachers, and to increase student achievement.

We’ve also had to make trade-offs. As part of the district, we still pay for some things (like sports programs) our specific schools don’t use. And since we’re building a new structure, it’s not always clear how all of the pieces fit together best.

But 18 months into the Luminary Learning Network experiment, we are convinced we have devised a strategy that can make a real difference for students, educators, and school leaders.

Watch our results. We are confident that over the next couple of years, they will prove our case.

Jennifer Jackson is the principal of Cole Arts & Science Academy, which serves students from early childhood to grade five with a focus on the arts, science, and literacy. Frank Coyne is a lead partner at Denver Green School, which serves students from early childhood to grade eight with a focus on sustainability.

First Person

Let’s be careful with using ‘grading floors.’ They may lead to lifelong ceilings for our students

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore).

What I am is a mother of two, a high-schooler and middle-schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships, and yes, school.

That does not mean all As or Bs. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation” — is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud.

That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important.

I believe grading floors — the practice (for now, banned in Memphis) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student — are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address.

"If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address."Natalie McKinney
In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only.

Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth.

This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone — community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers, and students — accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty.

An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents, and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program.

Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case — we need different ideas about grades themselves.

We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference.

Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:

  1. In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject — or “personal best” — through monitored and documented additional work.
  2. In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
  3. In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.

I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.

Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.