Our Team & Family Reflects (Part II)

Last week was incredibly difficult – for us as individuals, for our communities, and for our country. The videos of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile’s tragic deaths – two more cases of black men killed by police – were shocking, upsetting and distressingly familiar. Then the week ended with the terrible retaliatory violence against police in Dallas. Many of us went into the weekend feeling confusion, pain, fear, anger – and yet deep love for all those who are hurting and all those who are demanding a better way forward.

On Monday, we gathered together in our Network Support offices to process and reflect together. This is the second of two posts sharing just a few of our voices. Read Part I here.

Embracing and Empowering Our Communities

We gathered Monday because of the collective desire to candidly speak on our feelings towards racist and oppressive systems. It’s more important than ever that we continue to create these spaces both formally and informally to reflect on our realities and critically think about the world we live in.

We must remain aware of the fact that our AF family is filled with Black and Brown students and families who are most vulnerable to day to day forms of injustice that result from oppressive systems. Therefore, to stand against one form of injustice inherently means that we must stand for all forms of injustice. We must ensure that the way we operate is nothing less than transformative.

An old mentor explained to me that if you are to help a community, you must become of that community. To become of that community means relinquishing the idea that you know something they don’t.

For all of us - whether we come from the communities we serve, or we come from elsewhere- we should all look to these communities at this time. They have been having these conversations long before AF schools opened their doors. –Mesha Byrd, Team External Relations

Surmounting Institutional Racism

Recent events have brought to mind a disturbing parallel between police-citizen interactions and teacher-student interactions. So many incidents where police and vigilantes have murdered Black people are about power, escalation, and control. The officer stops someone—nominally over a minor offense—and proceeds to escalate the situation in order not to "lose" (the officer in the Sandra Bland video particularly comes to mind). How many times do teacher-student interactions look something like this?

I look back with nausea—no, something worse than that—on my early teaching career. I can think of more than one moment where my interaction with a child escalated from a minor correction into a major power struggle that removed the child from class. A perfectly human reaction that spiraled into a dean's referral. An untucked shirt that led to an argument that turned into hours of detention for the child. How many times did my desire to maintain an authoritative presence in the classroom come before the actual needs of the children in that room? The need to conduct every interaction with children from a place of love rings louder than ever.

Institutional racism can feel insurmountable. Those of us in schools, however, are part of institutions. We can, however, act locally to make sure our own institutions do not suffer from the same sickness that so many other American ones do. We can make our schools spaces that lift our children up when so much else in our society does not. –Michael Russoniello, Team Greenfield

What’s the Best Part of My Week? Helping Students Build Robots

Emile Session lives in Brooklyn and works for Achievement First’s operations team. He has worked as a math teacher, education researcher, and classroom observer, and is a graduate of Cornell University and Columbia University.

Students, like adults, value work that’s challenging and that lets them express their creativity. This is clearest to me when I’m working with the Achievement First University Prep High School Robotics Club.  

Different students in the club build different robots: I have students who are building motorized scooters, students who are building racing robots, and students who are trying to build a dog robot that follows noises. Not all of their projects work out the way they planned, and that’s a bonus because it allows students  to creatively solve a problem or  set a new goal, rather than stopping because they feel like they’re ‘wrong’. As someone who spends a lot of my day job with Achievement First doing the same kind of ‘fail forward’ problem solving to move toward goals for schools, helping high schoolers work through similar kinds of thinking helps me reset and stay engaged with the challenges in my own work.

 My proudest accomplishment with the club was taking them to the FIRST Tech Challenge robotics competition in February. For the first time, not only was the team able to build a robot that passed inspection and worked consistently at the competition—they were also able to do so with a custom design. One student’s mother shared with me afterwards that being able to compete with something he built was helping him stay focused on STEM work in class.  For me personally, the best part was seeing how the team came together to lead themselves and be competitive at the FIRST Tech Challenge. They showed me that I was helping them grow into self-motivated adults, rather than students who only worked at something because they were asked to.

I’m grateful to the school for the opportunity to lead the students and to the Tiger Woods Foundation for their partnership providing all the materials for the club. I grew up attending both underserved public schools and well-resourced private schools, so I appreciate what a big difference having access hands-on STEM work like robotics makes to helping students think about problem-solving and design thinking. It’s a different set of skills than we normally think of as required in an academically rigorous high school; it’s the ability to proactively take advantage of the resources in front of you, and that’s a crucial ability for our students to develop as we support their success in our schools, in college and beyond.