From very early, Mom taught the importance and impact of gratitude.
Before I could even write and talk, she guided me in how to thank others for the love they showed. She told me stories of how she would guide my hand to write my name on thank you cards. Later, she would put me on the phone or remind me to call people to say “Thank you” whenever I received cards and/or gifts from friends, family and neighbors. To Mom, acknowledging the outreach and outpour of another’s heart was important. Whether it was a tangible gift like a check, present or the cooking of a favorite dish, or intangible like a phone call to wish me “Happy Birthday” or message of congratulation or affirmation for academic or personal achievement.
A person’s volunteered sincere attention to a life accomplishment, big or small, material or immaterial, should never not go without recognition and immediate response. Yet the lesson of conveying thankfulness, then and now, extends beyond the display of good manners.
Overtly reciprocating gratitude for the of love others fostered both my responsiveness to and responsibility with other peoples’ attentiveness and fondness. Yet the lessons underlying the saying of “thank you” and gesturing gratefulness through phone call, letter or card began morphing….into the building of a relationship. Beyond a reflex of obligatory appreciation, the lesson became a stepping stone into learning how to love, love in the sense of reaching for and holding others in my heart long after a simple deed.
What has evolved from gift-generated action and reaction is a habitual conversation between hearts, a commitment to continue corresponding with people who thought enough to celebrate me not only during moments of earlier accomplishment, but since and throughout . I write cards and letters to my former childhood neighbor Bunny; she and her now deceased husband treated me more like a niece, writing cards and even buying me bonds as an investment in my future. Ms. Jessie, my Mom’s former co-worker who sent cards and gifts when I was a teenager, has since become a elder in my life who I call, write, and text message throughout the year. Ms. Connie, a former neighbor who when my Mom passed made it a priority to check in on me (even though at the time of her passing I was an adult), I send cards and pictures and also call. I text, call and email my former midwife Susan, who gave great advice and anecdotes throughout both pregnancies, keeping her abreast of how the boys are doing. And for those that have since passed on, or whom I have lost contact, I include them in my remembrances.
Following tradition, I am beginning to teach my sons lessons about showing gratitude and caring. I trace their hands as their “signature” on thank you cards. I have them call grandma and granddad to say thank you for the annual birthday card. I have them call our friends and family to say thank you after receiving a card or gift.
Yet I am also using such instances of relaying gratitude as springboards for two things. One is facilitating literacy, literacy in the social context of overtly learning to say and do within interactions with friends and family that evinces caring and affection. Saying “thank you” and employing vocabulary and phrases demonstrative of tenderness and fondness. With my oldest son (age 3) now being quite vocal and social, I facilitate real time interactions with friends and family. I have him initiate phone calls with family and friends, practicing him in conversational protocols for interactions such as seeing how someone is doing, wishing them wellness if they are sick, singing the “Happy Birthday Song” as remembrance of his or her special day, etc. Calling Daddy each day at work to check in on him and the progress of his day. Sending a text message or creating a voice message for Uncle Craig and Uncle Chris (childhood friends of my husband) just to say hello. The other is using the teaching of thankfulness as a portal into teaching my sons how to build community, as I had learned to do too.
My oldest son has now “upped the ante.” Keith takes initiative to regularly check in on people. He’ll say, “Mommy, let’s call Mr. Tyrone (a neighbor we would see when taking walks in the park in our old neighborhood). We haven’t talked to him in awhile. Let’s leave a message.” He will remind, “We haven’t talked to Ms. Brenda” (another neighbor we would see when walking in the park). He will request, “Can we call Aunt Stacy, and leave her a message?” He also hints at who he thinks I should call if I have not been in touch recently. Recently saying such things as “Oh, we haven’t talked to Ms. Pam (our former realtor) in a while,” “Let’s call Aunt Betty” (my mentor from graduate school), ” “Let’s check on Uncle Sug” or “We have not talked to Auntie Mary.” Each of these people have at one time or another given the boys a gift or committed an act of kindness. Mr. Tyrone gave the boys Clifford books and cereal snacks. Ms. Brenda would help Keith cross the street while holding his hand, try to make Maceo smile, and also calls periodically to see how we are doing. Aunt Stacy hugs and plays with the boys during our visits, and bought the boys an array of educational gifts last Christmas. Ms. Pam showed Keith how to trace his hand with a crayon to occupy him while the home inspection was taking place. I’ve told Keith of the impact Dr. Shadrick (to him, Aunt Betty) had on me, and in adopting my honor and sentiments leaves voice messages along with mine. Uncle Sug regularly calls to see how we are doing. Auntie Mary showered them with love and attention during our last visit, and sent the boys books the following Christmas. Yet I am impressed that Keith remembers the gestures of so many others, big and small. Related by blood or by love. Who have bought him gifts or called to see how our family is doing. Who simply love us and show it.
Keith also upped the ante by now wanting to give gifts to others. I have been recording Keith reading aloud for almost two years as a means to both chronicle his reading progress and also because he LOVES being recorded. Now he wants to use his reading aloud and recording of his favorite books as a means to show his remembrance and his love. An avid reader, he asks to read his favorite books to people he thinks about. Sharing aloud his favorite books has become his means of keeping in contact with people he holds in high esteem. It has become his tool through which to initiate and maintain correspondence with those he loves. It is his gift to others of saying “Thank you” for treating him as part of their extended families.
Last year he gave a Hallmark recordable book to his grandparents. Recently I called my mentor and dissertation chair Judith, just to check in and see how she was doing. Unable to leave a voice message, Keith suggests, “Can I read to Auntie Judith one of my favorite books?” Keith read aloud to Auntie Karen (a friend and colleague from NCTE who is like a big sister to me) one of his favorite books from the Mo Willems Don’t Let the Pidgeon… series as a birthday gift. What follows below is the read aloud Keith did for Auntie Karen on February 2015.
The showing of love through reading aloud as a gift seems to benefit Keith in several ways. They provide him an authentic reason and purpose for practicing reading. Albeit Keith is a voracious reader, reading aloud for others gives him the means and opportunity to do something for someone else. He is learning that a gift does not have to be material, a trinket or expensive investment. He is also learning the responsibility of maintaining relationships, to take the initiative to reach out to others and let them know they are on his mind and in his heart. He is taking initiative to build, maintain and love others within a community he is growing book by book. Heart by heart.
As I look back, I realize Mom was instilling within me the practice, and importance, of acknowledging the kind words and gestures of others. Not in hopes of gaining more and bigger material things, but to reciprocate the love they showed me throughout my growing up and adult life. The majority of these people were not my kindred genetically, but friends of my parents and neighbors who were, then and now, adopted as aunts, uncles, big brothers and sisters and elders. Their investment in me has yielded a larger impact…the growing of a community. Through phone calls, emails, handwritten notes and cards, I show others I am thankful for giving me space in their heart and life. This lesson has drilled itself into my bones, becoming my marrow.
At ages 3 and 2, Keith and Maceo, respectively, have little patience for workbooks and sitting down for long lengths of time as a means to “practice” literacy skills. So at this stage, to grow their vocabulary, build skill in strategic thinking, and support their practice of various ways of learning, speaking, thinking and doing in situ for successful interactions (what I am defining as literacy as contextualized action), I try to do so while “on our feet.” Because Keith and Maceo like to hang out with me whenever I am in the kitchen, I have begun thinking of ways to use that space as a “real life classroom.” Rather than work through a list of words, or decontextualized workbook drills, I try to situate my sons’ skill acquisitions and the building of them contextualized in shared spaces, experiences and familial routines.
Ironically, an effective and impactful way has been through cooking and doing chores together. Here are a few practices that are proving fruitful.
Learn and practice vocabulary in applicable situations. Keith and Maceo have a fascination with the dishwasher. Maceo is engrossed with the mechanics and inner workings of the machine, pulling the drawers and objects in and out. Keith has appointed himself as Mommy’s helper, interested in helping me load and unload it. So when it is time to use the dishwasher, I use the moment to foster and facilitate their acquiring of relevant vocabulary. As Keith is helping me, I ask him to name the different things we are loading into the machine, spell out the name of an object, or explain how a particular object (plate, pot, spoon, etc.) is used. With Maceo, as he now at the stage of learning and practicing sounds, I name the objects both in the dishwasher and throughout the kitchen, then practice with him repeating their names. In another chore-based scenario, Keith LOVES helping unpack groceries, which I use as an opportunity to build vocabulary. As he removes objects from the bags, I ask him to name what it is he is removing from the bag (canned peaches, frozen spinach, chicken, etc.), and “help” Mommy by telling me where it goes (in cabinet, in fridge, in freezer, etc.). As a caveat, I don’t do this with them EVERY time I run the dishwasher, or extend to EVERY task and chore we do, as that would probably burden the fun and at some point burn out the kids and their interests.
But when interests and curiosity intersect, I pounce.
Simulate chores and then deconstruct step by step the procedures to fulfill them. We bought our sons their own play kitchen, prompted by observing Keith during a recent dental visit. He was so engrossed with the one in the office we spent an additional half hour after his appointment just to let him play. Seeing how much he engaged with the kitchen—simulating cooking, putting dishes in the sink, opening and closing the microwave and fridge—gave me an idea to situate learning procedures and vocabulary within the context of family rituals. Keith (who is quite verbal) typically asks questions while I am cooking about what I am preparing and how. I’ll share details about the food I am preparing, describing step by step what I am doing, explaining what is happening to the food as it is cooking and why, illustrating the overall process. He usually brings a stool to stand next to me and observe. I am deliberate in telling him what I am doing step-by-step and how I am doing it because I am trying to model the use of procedures. At times I use vocabulary such as “first,” “second,” “next,” and “then” to cue him in how I progress through a task to familiarize him with the procedural language I use throughout that experience. Maceo’s interests lies now with opening and closing cabinet and refrigerator doors. But given this interest, his emerging skill in reciting sounds, and his autonomous play with the play kitchen, I am thinking of ways to support and scaffold similar growth.
Use familial and familiar experiences as launching pad to explore new concepts. Cooking in the kitchen has also begun to make Keith curious about time. I use time as a means to measure how long to cook something, and in scheduling how to cook multiple things at once. Noting how and why I use time in this way, Keith has begun emulating me. Whenever I begin cooking, Keith asks me the time, which then leads me to explaining to him how to represent the time on his own play clock. This interaction has given me entrance and access to teaching the vocabulary of time (11:25, 4:50, big hand, little hand, half past, ten minutes to…), as well as how to represent time visually on his play kitchen clock (big hand on the twelve, little hand on the 3, for example). In addition, I watch several news stations, and Keith has noticed numbers and symbols across the television screen. I explain them as the current time and temperature (a current fascination of his), leading many times to him pointing to and reciting them. Now that we have an intersection of interest, platform, and opportunity to build time-telling skills, I have brought in a few ancillary resources. One is a poster from the local dollar store illustrating how to tell time. Two others are books, one showing different times of day and the rituals people perform at those times, and another detailing how to tell time both visually and digitally, inclusive of new vocabulary associated with telling time. I also bought a clock that tells time physically, digitally and audibly, which we use to further explore his interest in time and skill to tell it. The books we read as a reference when needed during daily reading time. The poster is a visual reference we use whenever Keith asks questions about how to tell time.
Keith is transferring these experiences of us in the kitchen, autonomously employing procedures and procedural vocabulary within tasks we do together or him separately. When helping me clean in the house, particularly when doing his favorite chore of cleaning the floors, he tells me that first he will spray the cleaner, then I will mop, and then he will take over. I smile. In another example, he has begun pacing himself when he is play cooking in his own kitchen, speaking out loud what he will do each step of the way. When looking for toys he verbalizes his steps, marking “First, I will…,” and “Then, I will….” Both of the boys have taken interest in the new toy clock, winding the big and little hands to represent different times, then awaiting the clock to announce out loud the time represented on its face.
These are small steps taken in the big journey literacy learning. One chore at a time.
An inquiry board helps our son to formulate and formalize creating questions and seeking answers. It’s also become a means through which we build a community invested in investigating both our interests and world.
Kids ask a lot of questions. From the abstract to concrete, their mind is always turning and churning new ideas about their circumstances, experiences, and environment. My oldest toddler son, turning three, is always peppering me with questions. I try to answer as many as I can, but I also realize that what I know is finite. I am not the only or absolute source for answers. Knowing my limitations, I have begun thinking of ways to affirm Keith’s inquisitive mindset, while also figuring out ways to equip him with mental tools and physical resources that help him investigate answers to his questions.
To begin, I introduced Keith to a book called What is a Scientist? by Barbara Lehn. An informative and accessible book, it breaks down the scientific method in kid friendly language and application, with pictures illustrating the different parts of the process (“a scientist is a person who asks questions and tries different ways to answer them,” “A scientist learns from her senses,” for example). Knowing he won’t grasp the concept of inquiry or the scientific method as a means to an answer in their entirety just by reading about them, nor wanting to just leave the support of his understanding at the “just read about it” level, I have begun exploring ways to affirm his questions, and to make his inquiry tactile, interactive, and responsive. To this end, I created an inquiry board.
I got the idea of an inquiry board from observing Keith’s particular interest in cartoons that are based in problem-solving. From very early, Keith loved the Word World series, in which characters solve problems through identifying what words best fit as a solution, and Super Why, where a team of friends explore answers to personal problems through examining the characters in famous books facing similar situations. Other problem-solving characters that intrigue him include Luna from Earth to Luna, Peg from Peg + Cat, Sid from Sid the Science Kid, and Steve and Joe from Blue’s Clues. Each character identifies a problem, applying particularized ways and innovative means to solve them. Luna imagines herself in particular situations and reenacts them. Peg employs such things as mathematics, geometry and pattern recognition. Sid uses facets of the scientific method and employs his familial community of parents, friends, teacher and classmates. Steve and Joe use investigative strategies, visuals and writing to figure out problems. Keith admires them, constantly talking about the questions they explore, even emulating how they pursue solutions. Witnessing this, I thought an inquiry board might be a great way (and buy-in) to get him invested and involved in not only asking questions but becoming an agent and participant in answering them.
The inquiry board comprised of a 2’ by 3’ whiteboard, decorated with various characters mentioned above, placed there so Keith could see his “fellow inquirers.” Attached are several large post-it notes where we record his questions for the week. Each week I listen for different questions he asks, and ask if he would like to include them on his board.
Recent questions include the following:
Why do we play?
What is a highlighter?
Why do we have to brush our teeth?
Why does Daddy go to work?
Why does paper rip?
Why do Leap, Lily, and Tad stay on Leap Frog? And Professor Quibly and Dad?
How come Scout doesn’t work?
How come our Sippy cups don’t have juice?
Several questions that piqued his own inquiry originate from the Earth to Luna show, with some examples including the following:
Why does yellow and blue make green?
Why do butterflies rub their feet?
Why do things sink?
Just a few weeks in, the inquiry board is a hit. Keith has bought into the idea full heartedly. We have moved from just me directly asking if he has any questions he wants to put on the board. He takes initiative, taking ownership of identifying, recording and exploring his questions. Periodically he will be in thought and then excitedly request, “Can we put that question on my board?” In fact, while writing this post (5:30 am), I went to change Keith, and while doing so, he asked, “Why are your hands so cold, Mommy? Hey, let’s put that question on the board!” Keith extends his community of inquiry to include his dad, who he will ask if they can put questions on the board together. A recent question they wrote together is “Why do we have to let waste go?” Keith also has taken initiative in wanting to write his questions. Gravitating away from asking either me or his dad to write them, he will ask one of us to guide his hand in writing his question, or try to write it all on his own (which, as a by-product, feeds his pursuit of learning to write his letters and numbers). Daily Keith goes to his board, interacting with it, whether through reading questions aloud, or selecting a specific post-it and using it as fodder for us to have a conversation.
While I don’t have specific measurable learning outcomes to report, I can say that thus far that the board and the social experiences we have around it are impactful. It is a tool that I find useful in helping Keith formulate and formalize how to seek out answers to questions. It has also become a means where we as a community invest in and value inquiry. As a parent, I feel this tool and the experiences it has created situates me less as having to be a “know it all” and more of a facilitator of methods and possibilities.
I am not just giving a man a fish for the day, but how to fish to feed himself for a lifetime.
Update, February 2015. Here is a snapshot of recent questions Keith asked:
Why do we have to brush our teeth? Why does soapy water make bubbles? Why do baby teeth fall out?…
Why do planes fly?
Why is there snow?
Why is there dust on the floor?
Why did the TV fall down? Why does the TV not work? (Sadly, the flat screen TV, like Humpty Dumpty, had a bad fall).
Have a variety of books and materials that are immediately accessible for children to touch. Use them as a means to ignite inquiry and spark dialogue.
Kids are tactile. Having an array of resources within hands’ reach sparks their curiosity and instigates exploration, spawning the beginnings of inquiry and dialogue. So I have devoted time to creating a room full of books, an in home library, housing hundreds of books we collected over the span of our lives (see recent blogpost “Building a Home Library: An Autobiographical and Intergenerational Bridge” at http://wp.me/p1lNcW-ir, for details). Across topics and genres, our collections includes books about screenplay writing and the movie industry, curriculum and lesson planning, cookbooks, poetry, philosophy, religious texts, manuals, even photo albums and high school yearbooks. The boys also have a whole bookcase dedicated to their books, puzzles, and library loans.
Like Spider Man, our oldest son Keith scales the bookcases, exploring their contents, sometimes pulling out a cookbook; other times an old photo album. The availability of so many books intrigues him, catalyzing between us a dialogue about various things. Pulling out an old photo album recently spawned a conversation about the history of his maternal grandparents and what it was like for me growing up with them. Seeing and hearing me read the Bible piqued his interest, resulting in him pulling and perusing different Bibles from the bookcase, then asking me to read portions aloud to him. Scanning his dad’s Entertainment Weekly collection has him now asking questions about the pictures in it (“Why is the baby crying?” based on an ad), and self-testing his letter recognition (“That’s a T!” referring to the T-Mobile logo). Exotic covers capture his eye in particular. He likes pulling out old issues of Poetry journal, and is particularly drawn to the several books I have by two of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. After pulling them and spreading them on the floor, he typically asks, “Will you read this to me?” I then read aloud a short excerpt. He may not understand the vocabulary, content, or context, but I do this to endorse his inquisitiveness.
The tangibility of various texts fosters a dialogic space. Dialogues emanate just because of a book he pulled out. These books and the conversational shared space encourage and stimulate our talking about an array of topics, nurturing the relationship evolving between us. One where inquiry, exploration, and dialogue are fostered and legitimized. These conversations are the hallmark and beginning of him (1) exploring texts, (2) creating and examining ideas, and (3) accessing and assessing new worlds within himself and outside.
And me learning how best to scaffold and support his interpretative and interpersonal possibilities.
What conversations have you had as a result of a child picking up a text and sharing it with you? What has been the impact on you both?
A fondness for reading, properly directed, must be an education in itself. –Jane Austen
Readers have been a part of my life since birth. I cannot remember a time when I was not around someone reading a newspaper, analyzing the Bible and taking notes, or curling up with a good book simply for pleasure. From these experiences, books have become for me tools for excavation, solace in a stormy world, and a portal into possibilities. Family and friends have impacted my experience to become the lover of reading and books that I am today.
And why I am passionate about creating a library and leaving a similar legacy to my two sons.
When I was growing up, my parents made it a point to surround us with books. Dad amassed religious texts, books about the Bible and Biblical figures, as well as those related to his job as a supervisor for the NYCMTA. These included tomes of manuals and large “maps” illustrating circuit systems. When I got older, he gave me several books; Billy Graham’s book Angels (which I still have today), books about astronomy, and an encyclopedia. Dad collected books and texts from numerous sources, spanning from the Strand Bookstore, a particular favorite, to dumpster diving, once salvaging a well-kept composition notebook with copious notes about solving equations (which I found real helpful in middle school). Tuesdays were an important day in our household, because that is when the Science section of The New York Times was published. Dad and I would comb through it, cutting out articles (particularly about astronomy, my favorite subject) and pasting them in my scrapbook.
Mom too kept books and texts circulating throughout the house. She housed philosophical collections by Gibran, Greek tragedies by Sophocles, famous texts by African American writers (Ellison’s Invisible Man and Haley’s Autobiography of Malcolm X and Roots, which I still have), as well as texts about Black consciousness. Mom was an avid reader of newspapers, scouring the current events sections to keep abreast of new developments. She read different local newspapers (Daily News and New York Post) to gain different perspectives. As a member and past Grand Matron in the Order of the Eastern Star, several books were part of the bookcase she and dad had in their bedroom. Although a mystery to me as a kid, I would see her reading from these sacred books, practicing the delivery of their texts and her positioning as she read them, with dad observing and helping her practice (him being a Mason).
My childhood friend Carla grew up around masses of books. Her dad was a voracious reader, historical scholar and herbal enthusiast. I was always impressed by his learnedness about so many things, with facts and data literally at the touch of his hands and tip of his tongue. Creating an environment of scholarship and insight has profound implications. If you meet Carla, a prolific protégé of his intellectual investment, she is a walking library. She is facile with relaying information that in ways pertinent and personable. His commitment to surrounding his two daughters with a plethora of information, and their facility in relaying and applying it, leaves an indelible impression to this day.
I want my children to be like his.
My husband is also an avid reader. A lover of political history, screenplay writing, film and film scores, and “old school” music aficionado, he has amassed volumes of books. Books to guide his revisiting and revision of drafts (now his fifth screenplay), topical texts to help him bring depth to a character (one such book titled Movies and Mental Illness), the history of favorite movies (The Making of the Empire Strikes Backand Bond on Bond: Reflections on 50 Years of James Bond Movies), and books about the history of music (The New Blue Music). To name a few. He also keeps abreast of the entertainment industry via periodicals too.
Sharing these bibliographic biographies of how text surround and inform the lives of people I care about is to illustrate the impact of the word on their lives and mine. It is why we as parents are investing in creating for library for our two sons. A place where we can expose them to myriad topics, agitate their curiosity and instigate investigation.
Our evolving library is divided into different sections. One whole bookcase is devoted to the boys’ books, texts specific to their evolving interests and responsive to their emerging questions. Keith, my oldest, is a fan of the rhythm and musicality underlying words (such as in books Jazz AZB and Chica Chica Boom Boom), abstract ideas represented visually (Perfect Square and One), humor (any book by Sandra Boynton, his favorites being But Not the Hippopotamus and Hippos Go Berserk), picture dictionaries, phonics (Preschool Prep Series), and books that show him how to explore creating a question and finding its answer (What is a Scientist? and Telling Time). The youngest, Maceo, burrows in a corner between the bookcase and closet, pulling down several different books, burrowing in, then studying their pages. Books he gravitates toward the most are flip books, books with rhyme (a book of Sesame Street songs as well as Martin and Carle’s Polar Bear, Polar Bear, What do You Hear? ), and with other favorites about shapes, letters, and numbers (particularly the Metropolitan Museum of Art Series). As the boys show interest in different topics and genres, we add them.
Our library is also being built by the loving investment of others. Diane, upon Keith’s birth, sent a huge box of children’s’ books that have been some of our kids’ favorites (so much so, like Catalina Magdalena Hoopensteiner Wallendinger Hogan Logan Bogan Was Her Name, disintegrated). Linda bought a picture book without words, which makes a great experience for us to co-create a narrative with the kids. Melissa, with children older than ours, has generously given several of her kids’ books they have outgrown. They are full of great ideas (exploring the world through the senses), morals and lessons (saying sorry is a hug given through words), and books about the precious relationship between a mother and her children. Victoria and Virginia sent several books for the boys, books that delightfully travel the spectrum from interactive to comical to familial to educational. Our library has become a project with familial investors extending the confines of our walls and personal experiences.
A curious thing has begun to happen. Periodically Keith gravitates to one shelf of the library, where I have housed my two favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. He takes down the whole group of books by each author, spraying them across the floor. Saying nothing, he leaves them there. I am impressed how he unknowingly knows two authors who have informed my writing and life.
Angela Nikki Romans works relentlessly in actualizing the promise and possibilities of historically underserved young people. She invests in proliferating pathways of success traveling from cradle to classroom to college. Dismantling policies and disrupting practices that inhibit access, opportunity and resources, she is a catalyst for change on multiple fronts, spanning classrooms, school districts, municipal agencies and non-profit organizations.
Change as Groundswell
Angela’s commitment to educational reform evolved from over two decades working in myriad educational and political settings, first as a high school math and science teacher, then university admissions officer, school network manager, senior education advisor for the mayor’s office in Providence, Rhode Island, and her current position as principal associate. Each experience has made her ask of herself progressively tougher questions about her advocacy work. “Where do you start at the individual teacher level, the structural and policy level, to make sure that kids have the right opportunities to be able to succeed, and with the right support to be able to succeed?”
As a principal associate at The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University, Angela’s work centers on national policy research and reform initiatives to improve public education. Under the umbrella of school district redesign and leadership, Angela’s energies centralize around understanding “How districts shape themselves,” then involving diverse stakeholders willing to collaborate in creating “the right policies, supports and structures for students to have equitable opportunities and equitable outcomes.” To Angela, partnerships provide “the strongest and most sustainable way to support school districts” because “school districts can’t do it alone.” They need a web of “community-based organizations, higher education institutions, public agencies, all [working] together to support student outcomes of success.”
Angela’s current projects are a nationwide study of college readiness involving several urban school districts, improving disciplinary practices within and across schools, and increasing the number of college graduates. She is the Annenberg Institute lead on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s College Readiness Indicators Systems (CRIS) Project, a multi-year collaborative project with four major urban school districts and an educational management organization aimed to generate and systematize indicators of college readiness. Its goal is to identify indicators of and replicate effective practices and policies in measuring college readiness at the student, school, and system levels, culminating in “the right policies and practices and support for individual students.” Another national project is building learning networks between school districts and CBOs (community based organizations) “to look at school district disparities constructively and look at alternatives to harmful school discipline practices.” In partnership with the Providence Children and Youth Cabinet (CYC), Angela is working to increase the number of local college graduates. Recently the CYC obtained a significant grant from Lumina Foundation (under the auspice of the Community Partnership for Attainment) to assist efforts in helping adults achieve high-quality post-secondary degrees.
Prior to her position as principal associate, Angela was the senior education advisor for the Mayor of Providence, RI, Angel Taveras. Working as a cabinet member of the mayor’s office afforded Angela an advantageous position to cultivate systemic change. “I took the job because with a mayor who has that type of governmental influence over schools [the mayor’s office appoints the school board and hires the school superintendent with approval from city council], there is a real opportunity for change-making…opportunities that are under-utilized and under-tapped.” As senior education advisor, Angela’s work gravitated around “being involved in and shaping a larger citywide conversation and notion of community accountability around education.” Her primary focus was on creating sustainable support systems for young people, doing so through assembling and aligning willing partners.
To initiate this change, Angela implemented a collective impact model (CMI), “a social change movement that is focused on community-wide, cross-sector engagement,” to generate “collective common goals that everyone agrees on, common metrics, and the notion of shared accountability.” Under Angela’s leadership, the existing Children’s and Youth Cabinet (CYC) was restructured, populating it with stakeholders representing diverse perspectives and resources. With over 120 individuals and 70 organizations brought together, she convened parents, residents, businesses, non-profit organizations, municipal and state agencies to champion their local schools. Angela deems CMI as an effective framework because it moves us “away from the notion that just the superintendent is accountable, or just the schools are accountable, or just the mayor is accountable. It is collective accountability across all the different stakeholders.”
During her first summer of employment in the mayor’s office, Angela convened a small workgroup from the CYC charged with collecting and examining previous reports and data, generating a set of citywide goals to move forward. For Angela, this collaborative approach to effecting change is “great work because it is changing the way we think about whose responsibility it is to improve outcomes for children and youth, helping organizations and institutions move away from a ‘siloed’ way of thinking to a collaborative way of thinking that is really trying to align our resources in ways that haven’t been done before.” This concerted approach to change “is an intentional and difficult shift, but one I believe we have to fundamentally make to move the needle considering we are failing thousands, millions of young people every year.” Further restructuring included creating small workgroups, an executive committee, and hiring a director.
Changing Possibilities through Changing Paradigms
Angela’s work to reform how historically underserved youth are serviced and supported is shared by her work in redefining them. To Angela, defining young people as “at risk” emphasizes the notion of problems prevailing over their potential, harbors negative social implications, and perpetuates detrimental political repercussions. For Angela, “It’s about what is at the forefront of your mind,” whether “you focus on the challenges young people face, or the assets that young people and communities have and how you build on those assets to make sure that young people reach their promise.” She contends that “What people tend to do when defining ‘at risk’ is to think about what are the factors that make students most likely to fail. To fail in their educational pursuits in being productive members of society in terms of economic outcomes, social outcomes, indicators around marriage and stability…And those are [typically attributed to] race, class, gender, parents’ educational background, contact with the justice system, use of drugs and alcohol…and tons of social behaviors…statistics correlated with students not doing well. If students have these factors, [the argument is] that these students are at risk to fail.”
In place of labeling students “at risk,” Angela articulates “a more proactive approach in saying that all students are ‘at promise.’” If “we really think about the notion of equity and the fact that we want strong opportunities and strong outcomes for all young people, then some young people need more support to get there. Because they have had fewer opportunities or different personalities or are in different environments, that just shows that they need more support to reach their promise. That’s the way I approach my work as an educator. In speaking about research and policy and working with school districts, and working with institutions, as well as individual young people, it’s how I define the dichotomy between ‘at risk’ and ‘at promise.’”
When the Personal Becomes Professional: Subjective Experience as Impetus for Social Change
Angela’s own academic experiences sensitized her to the challenges students “at promise” face, and the transformative difference that can be realized with help from committed stakeholders. Growing up in a single parent household, she credits good math and science teachers, some who were “particularly thoughtful women of color” for recognizing her interests and acuity, inspiring her and pushing her toward excellence. By attending a magnet high school specializing in math and science (in Atlanta, Ga) her senior year, she became a member of a thriving community of scholars of color, studying under “teachers who were pushing kids to do amazing research” in local universities. Angela regards this educational opportunity and setting as impactful. “My classmates were such an inspiration to me because, oh, you’re supposed to be this way. You’re supposed to be smart, accomplished, and competitive in a generative way.”
From an early age, Angela wanted to be an educator. An avid reader and enthusiastic student who was involved in engineering, science and math camps most summers, Angela was excited about learning new things, and the prospects of igniting students’ learning too. However, given the lackluster reception of the idea from her family, she felt the best decision was to channel her alacrity in math and science in pursuit of an engineering degree. “There were not that many engineers of color in the profession and that there were not a lot of women of color.” So “Being a woman of color going into engineering would be something that was a challenge, but also something that would be sought after…[I was told] you should be an engineer.” It was the career path advocated by her family. Fascinated by nature, biology, and physiology, she sought a way to merge these two interests, and decided to pursue a career in biomedical engineering. After talking with a student of color attending Harvard University, she applied and enrolled.
Attending Harvard University proved informative, both as a place to be tooled with means for professional success, and a place where she began her political and social awakening. Being in a competitive engineering program with fewer than thirty students, one of the few women and women of color in particular, and at times having professors of patriarchal orientation, made for a confluence of variables that at times made the pursuit of personal and professional success difficult and challenging.
Yet her experiences at Harvard yielded valuable lessons about paving, preparing and participating within a supportive village. Paying it forward, she worked in the admissions office as a way to continue increasing the number of students of color attending the university. “It’s important to be available to the young folks who are the first, or one of the first of their family, to aspire to a strong education, and get there, and how to get there.” She also learned the value and impact of supporting one another. Facing a dilemma of completing difficult cumulative projects to obtain the professionally advantageous BSc degree, or take an “easier” route and graduate with a BA, Angela had a hard decision to make. Then a classmate, a fellow senior and woman of color, implored her to choose the former when saying, “Angela, don’t leave me.” Her peer’s beseeching did more than influence her to complete the more challenging degree. Angela has been since impacted to invest in supporting students facing challenging intersections, especially those with few resources.
After obtaining a BS in biomedical engineering from Harvard University, the calling to teach resurrected with a strengthened volume, compelling Angela to return to Harvard and now obtain a Masters of Education. There she learned of education as a means to empower both individuals and communities, learning about educator Ted Sizer, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the constructivist approach to learning and education. The program advocated and promoted a “real inquiry based education for young people, that empower[s] young people, [one] that is relevant and creative, and generative, and really empower[s] teachers and educators to design schools in ways that are best for the community.” This epiphany fueled both her want to empower others and to be empowered as a teacher. Participating in such an educational program “started me thinking about what I really wanted to do and what really meant a lot to me.” It “really pushed me to think about [how to make to] a choice with my feet.”
Making a Difference in Urban Classrooms
Immediately after graduation, Angela sought opportunities to teach in urban high school settings. “I really wanted to teach Black kids. That was something that, graduating from a high school that was all Black, having lots of Black role models and mentors, it was really important to me to become a mentor and role model for Black kids. And to be a mentor and role model to kids who did not have a mentor or role model. That was critical for me.” She sought employment in schools that “availed teachers the power to create curriculum, and create school culture, and strong cultures of inquiry-based teaching.” One such school was Urban Academy in NYC, which she describes as “just an amazing place.” “Everything there was about students discovering their own knowledge and learning, shaped in a very strong Socratic way.” Her instructional facilitation supported students finding trends and patterns within the process of problem solving, such that “Once you see patterns, we can then create our own rules, or we can articulate what the rules are.” She did this in lieu of conventional direct transmission where a teacher may relay “this is how I solved the problem, now you solve fifteen more like it.” Consequently, “students understood a lot more math.” Science classes were thematic. Compared to just covering a textbook from cover to cover, Angela and colleagues taught courses in animal behavior, research methods, and the science of food, involving students in actual research. “I never gave a lecture.” After a year she returned to Boston and taught at Fenway High School, another small high school. Angela “focused on teachers and teacher-driven curriculum, culture, and more project-based learning, more than the traditional high school.” She situated teaching within a workshop model, and began a new venture in advising and mentoring students.
But after three years of teaching Angela felt incomplete because her support of students was primarily confined to classrooms. “I love being an educator and working with young people, but wasn’t sure the best way for me to do that was through running a classroom.” She explored harnessing her support on larger scales. Brown University afforded her a platform to do professional outreach and support of “at promise” students within post-secondary institutions.
Building Post-Secondary Bridges
For eleven years Angela worked as Associate Director of Admissions and Director of Minority Recruitment within the Office of Admissions at Brown University. Working in this office particularly allowed her to serve students “standing in the intersection between high school and college,” helping them navigate that transition, especially “for those who don’t have in their friends, families, and communities, a lot of people that have [previously] navigated that transition successfully.” Within her numerous positions, she targeted her work around recruitment and retention of underserved young people. Young people “who could, and should be succeeding in places like Brown, that would never have found them, if not for that person who either came to their high school, or emailed them, or encouraged their counselor to recommend people like them, or all those serendipitous things.” Angela forged “a culture in the admissions office of trying to look beyond some of the traditional markers for underrepresented students, looking to how we could really capture extraordinary potential, in ways that are measured beyond just test scores. Students who have been extraordinary leaders, students who have gone above and beyond their school community such as seeking out summer programs.” She helped to shift orientations toward assessing the potential success of underrepresented students. What resulted was an increased enrollment of students of color, particularly first-generation students.
Angela began to miss working within urban schools, and left Brown University to return working in them, this time as Network Manager for Diploma Plus. Diploma Plus is a non-profit organization which provides a competency-based education model focused on college and career readiness, targeting high school populations of predominantly over-aged and under-credited students. As Network Manager of schools in Massachusetts and Rhode Island, Angela’s work on the frontline spanned (1) providing professional development to principals, teachers and staff, (2) forging and sustaining collaborations between schools and community based organizations and higher education institutions, (3) mentoring students directly, (4) advocating for policy reform and educational initiatives in support of these schools both at municipal and national levels, as well as (5) supporting the national organization on myriad educational and political fronts. “It really gave me an opportunity to return back to the small schools where I got my start as an educator, really thinking about creating small schools that were supportive of students, with a culture where teachers had an opportunity to shape the instruction and the design of the school, AND working with students who were the opposite in terms of the academic achievement spectrum to those I worked with at Brown, for whom school had not been a good experience and had not been successful, but were still seeking it out, sticking it out even though school had not served them well for many years.” Angela’s work also culminated in the opening of a new and successful DP high school in Boston.
Advocacy Beyond Office Hours
Angela’s work to make a difference extends beyond the office or work hours. “So much of the personal is professional for me.” She is involved and invested in several volunteer initiatives. For the past four years, Angela has chaired the board of a local non-profit organization, College Visions, which mentors and supports first generation high school students in their post-secondary pursuits. Its mission is “providing individualized support so students get into and through college.” In addition, Angela serves on the board of the Harvard Alumni Association, through which she interviews perspective students, and is a past board member of the Women’s Fund of Rhode Island. She does volunteer work for the Rhode Island Black Storytellers. She is also called to speak at many functions and for numerous organizations. Angela has also received awards of recognition. The YWCA recognized her in 2013 as a Woman of Achievement. She also an Annie E. Casey Foundation Children and Family Fellow. Angela continues to contribute to the educational field by writing articles. Recent articles include one she co-authored for The New Educator titled, “Engaging City Hall: Children as Citizens,” and the Atlantic’s Quartz online publication titled “Americans Who Say ‘College isn’t for Everyone’ Never Mean Their Own Kids.”
Looking back on her career, Angela shares the following reflection. “I continue to be both exhausted and inspired by the work that I do to try as much as I can to improve the lives of young people in this society because so much of what we are doing is not working…and have been really focused on the systems, the ‘unsexy thing’ that we have to think about in making sure that there are big sweeping institutional changes because there are many things moving in directions that are not good for young people.”
Angela Nikki Romans is on a mission. It extends before attaining elaborate trappings or award-garnering recognition under bright stage lights. Where Angela lends her talents is in the junctions of neighborhoods and crevices of school systems where ostracized and high needs students are falling between the cracks, fading to black. It is within these obscure and unpopular yet over-populated spaces you will find Angela digging to make a difference. With her soul’s sleeves rolled up, Angela thatches hope, aerates opportunities, stakes possibilities, prunes budding talent. In all, she is working to harvest underserved young people’s academic, economic, and personal success.
On any given day, John R. Jenkins, Ed.D., can be found laboring in the fray, soldiering on the frontline of education. He is an irrepressible spirit who has embodied several educative incarnations. As English/Language Arts teacher, teacher trainer, instructional coach, consultant, researcher, faculty member, administrator, and currently Vice President of Programs for the School Leaders Network, his efforts are centralized in actualizing the potential and possibilities of urban youth. In a candid and intimate interview, Dr. Jenkins shares familial teachings that shape his professional pursuits, revealing how they inform the practitioner and person he is today. What unfolds is a compelling narrative of a man and educator with finger on the pulse, and reform on the cusp. He is a trailblazer who forges to create a difference in the lives of so many others. From student to administrator, he empowers people with tools and resources. The impact is exponential, as his investment empowers people to tool and empower one another.
Family Influence and Impact
John was born in 1968 to teen parents. Although he grew up poor in the South Bronx, New York, and Detroit, MI, two of the nation’s highest areas of poverty, his caste did not become his coffin. He thanks his family with inoculating him, as his economic status did not hinder his self-image and destiny. “We were a working class family with resources,” John rebuffs, with resources being familial and multi-generational.
Resounding in John’s self-perceptions and movements are the evidence of a hard-working, deep-loving, and spiritually-convicted family. His paternal grandparents’ entrepreneurial and industrious spirits triumphed in demonstrative alternatives. The Jenkins Luncheonette on Intervale Avenue was a prominent neighborhood fixture, a place for food, community meetings, and entertainment. Johnny and Dorothy Jenkins’ perseverance served as counterinfluence against the prevalence of unemployed neighbors disproportionately resorting to ulterior motives making ends meet. From them, “I got a whole lot about class consciousness early on about those people and these people and how I didn’t want to be among those people.” John did not interpret such admonishment as elitism, but as clear cautioning to do his best. Yet witnessing such circumstances laid the foundation for John directing his attention and talent servicing others within struggling communities. He would channel his professional investment into urban schools.
From very young, the roles of caregiver, protector and mediator aligned with an inner calling within John. “I’ve always taken the kind of caretaker leadership role.” Harboring a heart to look out for and help others, he enjoyed being put in charge of younger siblings and cousins. Babysitting and helping with homework were formidable experiences that informed his ethos to protect and support others. It is no coincidence that John’s favorite game was playing school, especially the teacher, as he relishes leading, teaching and serving others. Frequently he assisted elders in their errands, and cherishes in particular helping his paternal great-grandmother, Minnie Lee Felder. John attributes his experiences with her to imbuing him with a heart of reverence and service. Consequently, being there in times of others’ needs has become “part of my construct of myself.” Being peacekeeper and mediator were also important roles he filled, apprenticing him for future professional scenarios. To John, “Peace and equilibrium are really important. Avoiding conflict is very important.” Looking out for younger relatives, and being a helpmate to adults, foretold of labor done lovingly becoming a vocation.
John describes himself as a composite of several family members. His mother, Marcina Jenkins, exemplified for him a person of inner strength and resolve. She endured challenging circumstances while negotiating several roles and their obligations simultaneously. She was a teen wife coming of age while raising three children, a daughter balancing relationships with opinionated parents and at-times difficult in-laws, and unfortunately, becoming a single parent raising children on her own. She made an indelible impression upon him. He credits his mother with “model[ing] for me the importance of hard work and sacrifice.” In a larger context, seeing firsthand “what society does to [a] woman when you have to take care of children and you don’t have the chance to be yourself,” also laid the groundwork for him exploring the impingement of race, class, and gender in work and education.
John’s father, John Jenkins Sr., also influenced who he became as both a man and an educator. Briefly living with him in Yonkers, NY as a teenager, John culled poignant lessons about “presence and presentation.” His father emphasized “the importance of looking your best, being pressed and polished in front of folks” so “you can be trusted and get access to what you want.” Although by John’s accounts his father’s investment and commitment to this message were at times riddled with hidden agendas, dubious goals, and compromised ethics, he still heeds to this day his father’s advice of possessing a strong vocabulary, exercising gentility and channeling a charismatic image.
Educational History and Emerging Career Path
Dr. Jenkins’ high school and college experiences were pivotal to him identifying his strengths and designing a professional path for their expression. Although enrolled in Yonkers High School’s Gifted and Talented Program, attending college did not initially interest him. Having only one uncle attend and complete an Associate’s degree, “It was not a big thing on my radar that I had to attend college.” However, a small group of peers applied to the University of Albany in New York. John, influenced by them, followed suit. While he did not initially fulfill traditional admissions requirements, he was accepted into the university’s Minority Recruitment Program.
Dr. Jenkins’ college experience proved transformative. He began “coming into my own as a person.” He recalls key experiences that began shaping his identity as an African-American man, and compelling him to give back to the community. While a junior, he saw the dance troupe Black Gold Dancers, and was so impressed that he joined. “It was the first time that I had seen men as part of a dance ensemble and I just thought I could do that!” He credits the troupe with affording him the opportunity to artistically express himself, particularly within the allegiance of other men. He encountered brotherly love, and opportunities to serve a greater good, as a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. He acknowledges the organization instilling within him the conviction that while “I had a legacy of excellence to uphold as a Black man,” he was “responsible not only for me but particularly for other young Black men.” As member and president of the university’s chapter, and later as member of the graduate Kappa Xi LambdaChapter in New York City (affectionately known as the “Wall Street Alphas”), John fulfills the calling to shepherd young men of color. Efforts include partnering with local high schools and community centers to help young men graduate high school and matriculate into college. “We support and mentor [young boys] through the graduation process, help them with college and scholarship applications so that they can transition successfully into college. This is the program that I am most connected to.” He also mentors young boys coming of age in issues regarding responsibility and relationships, and in building life skills. Familial and childhood lessons he learned in how to take others begin to take shape and root within his actions as an adult.
John’s introduction into political and social issues began at the university. Taking several courses in Africana and women’s studies opened his eyes to how the world is different for people that in his words “did not fit the norm.” “I became aware of the different challenges people experienced based on the social, gender, and cultural groups they belonged to. And I realized that life was not the same for everyone.” Consequently, he applied his emerging epiphanies in issues of race, class and gender to his work within student government. As the Affirmative Action Officer for the Student Association, his responsibilities were to handle student complaints of discrimination within Student Association affiliated programs. Another was to provide mandatory trainings to student leaders around issues of diversity, “to educate every organization about their obligation to support all students and make every organization accessible and inviting to all Albany students.”
Heeding lessons of putting family first, John returned to the South Bronx after graduation in 1991. He moved in with his aging great-grandmother to take care of her until she passed. John attributes this experience as “a nice completion of a circle of giving.” Yet while being home, it was a chance conversation with a principal that led to his entre into education. Harkening childhood lessons of advocating for others and making a good impression, he stepped into the role of a liaison for his cousin who was trying to transfer to Lehman High School. After making the case with the principal for his cousin’s enrollment, the principal was so impressed with John’s argument and presentation he immediately offered John a job to substitute teach. A week later an English/Language Arts teaching position was vacated that the principal needed immediately to fill. He offered it to John. John accepted.
Teaching at Lehman High School became “the opportunity that showed up to meet the preparedness that I had been honing all of my life.” John taught 9th Grade Honors, 11th Grade Regents Prep, and a Regents-level African-American literature elective which he authored and developed. During his five years there, John created curriculum that was academically rigorous and socially relevant. He culled myriad educational, social and personal experiences, both personal and historical, to create content and assessments. His most memorable unit was “Fathers and Sons: Success and Manhood.” He taught two novels, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, and the play “A Raisin in the Son” by Lorraine Hansberry. These texts were lens for students to investigate and examine the development and consequence of the relationships shared between fathers and sons, examining “how the cultural, social and racial issues played out in each relationship.” Also, John encouraged students to further their education after high school. As the only faculty member of color within his department, John had personal stake in availing to students post-secondary possibilities. Frequently he shared his college experiences with them, “bringing it right to their doorsteps.” Consequently, several chose to follow in his footsteps and attend UAlbany.
John furthered his own education as he taught. He completed his M.S. in Secondary Education and English in 1994, and two years later received his NYS permanent teaching certification for grades 7-12.
From Teacher to Scholar to Leader
Ever pursuant of opportunities to improve schools and communities, John returned to teach in Yonkers, NY as a way to give back. He began in 1996 teaching English/Language Arts at Roosevelt High School. In the late 1990s, Yonkers was found in violation of providing disparate and unequal educational opportunities to students based on race. Again, John was placed in a situation to teach and mentor students, noting this time though their particularized needs for affirmation and self-advocacy. “The Yonkers students seemed to be more deprived socially and had greater struggles academically. They need[ed] much more social interventions to get them ready for learning and to keep them engaged in school. Thus I had to be much more nurturing and teach them how to advocate for their needs more.” This intersection of supporting students while transforming a school district would provide John not only new avenues to create change but unfold a new career path to do so.
As part of a court-ordered desegregation initiative, the Yonkers school district underwent a major training initiative in diversity. John was part of the human relations team designated to train adults in diversity and to implement changes. Through this training (facilitated by diversity expert and facilitator Dr. Cathy Royal), John became a Diversity Facilitator. In his new capacity as a Human Relations Officer (1998-1999), he was charged with addressing the district’s desegregation mandates. These spanned (1) creating and facilitating mandated diversity training, (2) providing principals with support in creating school-wide plans, (3) training teachers and school aides in human relations skills, and (4) designing workshops in listening skills, student management, assertive discipline and effective communication.
Both then and now, Dr. Cathy Royal’s work has been especially influential, particularly her Quadrant Behavior Theory. John explains it as follows:
Across all the major identifying social groups that exist—race, gender, class, ethnicity, nation of origin, language, sexual orientation, and class—there are two groups, the dominant group and the subordinate group, [that] exists within each of those categories. And the world organizes itself to provide access, privilege and opportunity to the dominant group member, and oppression to the subordinate group member.
Consequential of such grouping, John remarks that “[either] you have a certain access to opportunity or certain oppression around your access to opportunity.” Her theoretical framework and methodology for how she then works as an agent of change in supporting stakeholders in examining and understanding social, ethnic, racial, and cultural issues have made indelible impressions on John. For him, she provides an exemplary template of consultant work with an emphasis on self-reflection, examination of social and cultural dynamics, and working collaboratively with others in pursuing institutional change. Accordingly, her work informs his work in transforming schools and his model of consultation. John employs her theories within his work with urban schools to help stakeholders recognize how cultural and social variables come into play within their own school setting and impact it.
Recognizing he could catalyze change on larger scales, Dr. Jenkins pursued positions with more executive duties and managerial responsibilities. First, in 1999 he completed his NYS Certificate in Supervision and Administration. Then, he served two years as an Assistant Principal in two Yonkers public schools. In this new capacity, he created opportunities for students to receive public recognition for their academic achievement and citizenship, such as through school-wide assemblies. He provided in-school support for students by developing and participating within a mentorship program for at-risk students.
While Assistant Principal, Dr. Jenkins’ time was most invested in addressing and fulfilling students’ social needs. His biggest commitment was furthering the district-wide initiative by addressing in particular problematic dynamics between teachers and students, “[h]elping students learn how to best advocate for themselves in conflicts with teachers.” He noticed there remained racial tensions between the teachers and students, and thus committed to improving such dynamics by facilitating teachers in changing their paradigms and constructs about exactly who are their students. “Many of the students were angry and upset, and the teachers were angry and upset with them. They (the teachers) did not understand that the high school students are young adults, and they have their own perceptions of what they need, and they can’t just be told what to do. They’re not children.” On the other side of the equation, he empowered students with language and communication tools to advocate for themselves. “I found myself having to help students learn how to articulate their needs, wants and challenges to teachers so teachers could be more responsive.” Yet this facilitation made for contention at times, particularly with some faculty. While some teachers appreciated his coaching of students, others saw his efforts as subversive, misinterpreting his empowerment of students as teaching them “to dismantle the power structure in the school.” But in all, he attributes being an assistant principal with refining his skills in working directly with adults and to lead schools.
A Trifecta of Aspirations
While Dr. Jenkins was at a pinnacle of success as a leader, he also was at an intersection facing critical decisions about where next to go. His aspirations of transitioning from teacher to leader, pursuing a doctoral degree, and creating his own consulting company would necessitate deep clarification. Going forward, he would need to be real clear on what he wanted to achieve, why he wanted to achieve it, and the best steps to actualize these achievements, without being at the expense of his physical energy or mental health. Yet there is a saying that if you honor your calling, the universe will meet you where you are. So it met John to mentor him through this potentially tumultuous junction.
The pursuit of a doctorate was activated by his grandmothers. His maternal grandmother gave him a graduation card saying “Excel. Excel. Excel.” John interpreted this message as her beckoning him to acquire his bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees. Then years later, out of the blue, his paternal grandmother passed him a note in church, asking him to get his doctorate. Ever respectful of his elders, he complied. While in Yonkers he received additional validation from the living examples of two men of color. They were Dr. Andre Hornsby, the first African-American Superintendent of Yonkers, and Dr. Fred Hernandez, the principal of Roosevelt High School at the time John worked there. Witnessing these two men possessing doctorates made John think he could too. So in 1999, while an Assistant Principal, he enrolled into the New York University’s Department of Educational Administration to complete his Doctorate of Education.
“My experience at NYU was life changing.” The only male student of color in his entire cohort, it brought him face-to-face with his own vulnerabilities of being a student.
I definitely felt like I was in over my head. I sat in those small intimate classrooms of 7-10 students and felt as if I was not smart enough or capable enough to do the work. I realized for the first time that there were quite a number of things that I was just not exposed to or prepared for. Reading critical theories and research and writing my own arguments, etc. were all so new to me.
Yet this multi-layered uneasiness gave rise to John recognizing his potential, and with this epiphany came renewed effort and commitment. It was being “resilient and focused and choosing a research topic on African-American middle school boys [that] helped me move through and I ended up being the first person in my cohort to finish.” His efforts were recognized by the school as well. “The department chose me to speak to other ED students about how to be focused and successfully navigate through the doctoral experience.” John also credits his dissertation advisor, Dr. Terry Astuto, as modeling and providing an example of how an educator supports a learner. “My dissertation advisor was an amazing supportive advocate and colleague and really taught me how an educator should advocate for his or her students and work with them to achieve high standards.” Her work “became a model of how I taught my students and taught teachers to advocate and support their students as well.”
Harkening to his own experiences of attending urban schools and teaching within them, John chose the topic of African-American boys and their middle school expectations. “I chose to study African-American boys in their middle school context to learn more about how they interpret their school quality and experiences.” John believed that he “had an obligation to reinform myself and informs other educators about what they needed to improve their school experiences.” He was tired of “all of the stats that show that African American boys were at risk and endangered and failing but there were no solutions.” His case study helped him articulate “that African American boys in middle school wanted rigorous instruction, high quality teachers who cared, and curriculum that was relevant to their needs.”
Concurrent with his doctoral program, John became the principal of several New York City and Yonkers public schools. Each experience would hone his skills as a leader, as well as reveal the places within his leadership he would need to grow. The years that followed situated him learning how to support schools under pressure, dealing with district-based political wrangling, innovating approaches to school leadership, and venturing into working within the world of charter schools. The catastrophe of September 11th, 2001, occurred with John as a new principal of Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School in Yonkers, thrusting him not only into the new role of running a school for the first time but also helping and supporting the mending of an entire community too. Following this event, wrangling between the superintendent and district occurred, whereby newly hired principals were caught in the crossfire, with them having to accept a substantial pay cut if they wanted to remain principal. John left and sought new leadership opportunities. He was recommended by his former superintendent for a principal position in the Bronx, and for two years served as principal there in two middle schools. In his second middle school, the NYC Department of Education piloted an innovative model, testing out the benefits of co-principalship and collaborative leadership. While the opportunity was appealing, John began to feel the compounding weight of the school’s needs, the demanding investment embedded within a dual-leadership position, completing graduate work and launching his consultant business, and left at the end of the school year.
Yet it was the needs of a failing middle school, and an opportunity to participate in the charter school community, that inspired John in 2003 to pursue and accept the position of principal at the Community Partnership Charter School in Brooklyn. Founded by parents in Fort Greene, in partnership with the Beginning with Children Foundation, the vision for the school was to provide an unprecedented opportunity for parents and educative stakeholders to collaborate in a holistic approach to educating, serving and supporting students. However, shortly after opening the school stood to lose its charter. “It was really high stakes and when I joined I was the 3rd leader of the school in 3 years.” Turning the school around was a “tall order for a new principal.” Though under extreme pressure, he deemed his priorities as working “to stabilize things, establish routines for safety and [create] a strong school community.” Through his two years of leadership and transformative efforts, integrating involvement from “dedicated staff and amazing parent body,” the school’s charter was renewed for five years, a rare occurrence. John appreciated “the autonomy of being able to make my own choices and decisions about instruction and programs.” “I was able to really do what we felt was right for our students.”
John’s other contribution to the charter school movement is serving as a founding board member and chair of the International Leadership Charter School in the Bronx. For three years he “support[ed] the leader in establishing a high-quality high-performing high school for students of color.” In 2012, after only being open for six years, ILCS was ranked #7 of the top ten high schools in New York City. In 2013, the school was recognized by U.S. News and World Report, making its list of “Best High Schools.”
An insightful observation that John made during his interview was the belief that each of his career experiences has been in service not only to that specific position, but as preparation for the one to come.
[T]he cycle has taught me is that at each level of my professional career, I am never doing the work that is only about that piece of my career. I am doing the work that is preparing me for what I need for the next career ahead, particularly when I am experiencing things that are new, that are challenging, that push me, I know I am experiencing them as a capacity builder to do the work at the next level, and that I need to ride it out, learn how to ride those rough places out in a way that I had not been able to do before in my career.
While discussing his several principalships, he shared that he carried around feelings of remorse, feeling at times as if he abandoned and deserted kids that needed him the most. Although believing he made the best decisions he could for himself, and not regretting doing so, he looks over the shoulder of his career with contrition. He shared that he carried this indictment of his performance around for almost a decade, until assuming the position of Regional Director at School Leaders Network, which gave him a different opportunity to harness his regretful reflections. During a training in which he facilitated principals in reflecting on their leadership over time, John created a leadership journey timeline of his own career as a model. In the process, he came to an epiphany that his own frontline experiences could be used in service to supporting principals currently on that same frontline, and the sharing of his experiences could benefit them. This reflective opportunity proved redeeming and restorative for John, as he would amalgamate his experiences to be in service to other school leaders in the years to come.
The ethos of family first resounds strongly in John’s beliefs and actions, even if at sacrifice of self. After completing his dissertation in 2003, two life changing events occurred. John was married, and later that year expected his first child. He sought ways to further his career aspirations while also expanding sources of revenue to support his growing family. So John pursued opportunities to do consulting work and teaching at the post-secondary level. These pursuits would later inform his future professional endeavors. Consulting work granted him access to discussing with school leaders their visions for their schools, and working collaboratively with them and stakeholders to employ tools and resources that actualized that vision. Teaching on a college/university level gave John access to being an agent of change within education. It provided him access and opportunity to educating and enlightening the horizons of new teachers and administrators entering the profession.
From 2000 to 2006, John was an adjunct professor in Bergen County Community College’s Department of Literature and Composition, Mercy College’s New Teacher Residency Program and Department of Speech and Communication, and New York University’s Department of Administration, Leadership and Technology. He taught courses in administration/supervision, educational philosophy, English composition and oral communication. John explains the ethos and rationale underlying his work with college students:
My chief goals were to help my students see the challenges, gifts and diversity of the student populations they were working with and not shy away from either of these things. I openly shared my journey as a student born and raised in the South Bronx and helped them to understand that they were the conduit and advocate to limitless life possibilities for their students. I did this by exposing them to theories of Quadrant Behavior and dominant and subordinated group memberships. We discussed privilege and oppression and I helped them to discover that they had to actively help their students break through barriers that had been constructed for them by society. I got them excited by sharing that education (their roles) was a key tool in shattering those barriers. I helped them learn tools and strategies to be able to communicate with families and students as advocates from an asset-based perspective and teach students to be strong academes and advocate for themselves as well.
As part of their “real world” experiences, he conducted site visits of his administration interns and teaching candidates in their field placements, providing them critical feedback about their performances. He supported new teachers through both instruction and field work. In this capacity he could be of service to the field of education by working to shape the educators emerging from it, and how they in turn would educate others. This juncture continued to cultivate and advance his skill sets in preparing and assisting stakeholders working in urban school systems.
John worked for several education-based consultative companies, learning different models to address school needs and implement change. He reflects what this line of work taught him about the importance of relationship building and how best to do so:
The chief asset of [these] experiences was that they built my capacity to work more closely with adults and develop stronger one-to-one coaching skills. These skills helped me to become a better listener and to assess problems in schools authentically through the lived experiences of the people in them. I also increased my tool kit of knowledge with the programs offered by Ramapo and Kaplan. They also helped me to learn how to balance my emotion[al] involvement as an external consultant so that I was not overly judgmental or engaged in an organization such that it hindered my ability to effectively coach.
As a learning and development consultant for Kaplan K-12 Services, he facilitated NYC training teachers in test readiness strategies for city and state assessments, provided coaching and modeling, and developed training materials. As a Coach for Ramapo for Children, Inc., he supported NYC school leaders and teachers in implementing effective classroom management strategies. He also became a diversity instructor with the National Training Laboratories Institute for Applied and Behavioral Sciences (the organization who supported Yonkers’ diversity initiatives). His work spanned contributing in designing curriculum and co-facilitating training sessions. Working as a consultant helped John grow and develop his skill set supporting school leadership and providing professional development. Yet working as a consultant also spawned within him the creating of his own consulting company.
Unlike the model of consulting where a pre-packaged program is simply delivered and administered, the Jenkins Learning and Development Group was created to provide customized on-site support specific to the needs of a school and its staff, involving stakeholders in the process of change. John’s experience as a diversity instructor with The Diversity Facilitation Certificate Program under NTL and lead by Cathy Royal of Royal Consulting (the organization who supported the Yonkers initiative), inspired him to open his own consulting company, and shaped his consulting model. He details below the theoretical and experiential underpinnings of his work, and shares examples:
[I] saw a tremendous need for professional learning in schools that was rooted in both pedagogy and social justice. I began by just working with and for principals I knew and they remain my chief clients today. My work helps to build a sense of confidence, commitment and capacity in teachers and leaders to educate all students and develop all staff to be most effective in their roles….Building all of these skills allows me to go into schools and literally work in a seamless way from all angles in the system to achieve maximum impact. Through coaching I am able to help leaders and their teachers cut through the challenges and get to the opportunities they have to improve their practice and impact their students learning and take healthy, productive actionable next steps.
Using a participatory action research model, John discusses with clients their mutual interest and need for collaboration, determines the scope of work, gathers data, engages and inform key participants, decides priorities, mobilizes energy for change, targets ways to build capacity, validates changes, evaluates progress and determines next steps. He has worked for such clients as Youth Build USA, Bronx Lab School, Liberation Diploma Plus High School, and Eagle Academy for Young Men. Work has included facilitating whole staff retreats, designing and implementing project-based learning tasks, facilitating leadership teams, developing professional learning communities, creating protocols for classroom walkthroughs and providing feedback, mentoring new teachers, instructional coaching, and writing concept papers for new school proposals,. Services also span the onsite teaching of courses; examples of courses taught are Effective Communication with Acting Out Students, Planning for Quality Instruction, Classroom Management and Student Learning, and Improving Writing Instruction in the Classroom.
Coming Full Circle, Transforming the Landscape of Leadership
In 2006 John joined Diploma Plus as an Instructional Manager. Servicing urban students who are over-aged and under-credited, this position afforded John the chance to harness and amalgamate his wealth of knowledge and experience as an educator, administrator, instructor and consultant. For the next 3 ½ years he systemically supported networks of schools on both micro and macro levels. John’s success lay in creating intimate relationships with principals where they could talk in detail about their visions and aspirations for their schools, while also divulging their concerns, hesitations, and challenges. As he does within his consulting work, John’s orientation to supporting schools is to foster each principal’s analytic and introspective processes, to deeply reflect upon their strengths and areas needing improvement, and strategize around what is needed to actualize their visions for their schools. He helps them ascertain the ways they are enfranchising stakeholders in having a vested interest and stake in their school. After the development of a work plan, he hits the ground running.
As an instructionally- and systemically-oriented coach, he supported Diploma Plus schools and networks in implementing the Diploma Plus model. This implementation spanned one-on-one coaching of teachers in instructional methods and curriculum planning, supporting community-based organizations in integrating their support services within the school day, helping administration create measures of success and assess performance, etc. Consequential to his efforts, his support of school leaders and their schools, several achieved high grades on their yearly evaluations, as well as accolades from district leaders. Other than team meetings with the local NYC DP staff, John could rarely be found in the office or sitting at a desk. On any given day, or night, John would traverse several boroughs to be constantly accessible to school leaders and staff. He was also the informal coordinator of the new school process, where parties interested in opening DP schools would meet with him throughout the proposal development and preparation process. His support would encompass vetting potential leaders and school teams, supporting selected teams in the writing of their proposals, compiling necessary artifacts, assembling stakeholders to support the potential school, and preparing them for their presentation and defense with the NYC Department of Education. And this is not including the work and support he provided to the Diploma Plus organization on a local and national level. Such support encompassed facilitating summer institutes in training new staff and faculty in the model, meeting with the national team to plan and implement several initiatives, and developing tools and materials for the national network of schools. As well, the position required him to regularly interface with the city’s department of education, one of the largest in the nation. Duties spanned serving as a liaison between the NYC school network and the Office of New Schools.
As an instructional program manager, John transferred his skills of supporting schools internally, to doing so across local and national networks. Although this two-tiered approach of supporting schools was new to John, he was able to broaden his emerging skill set of supporting schools systemically. It was then he sought a specific professional position that afforded him an opportunity “to build his skills as a leader of leaders.” In 2010 he became New York City Regional Director for the School Leaders Network, and in 2013, was promoted to Vice President of Programs.
Dr. Jenkins remains passionate in his work with instructional and administrative staff because they are an under-served, under-supported groups. “There’s still a system where principals either sink or swim…the good rise to the top and the ‘bad,’ well they drown, and ‘they’ believe that’s how leaders work. You’re a good leader or not a good leader.” The extreme focus on school performance, yet lack of investment within principals in particular, troubles him. “Little attention is given to building the capacity of principals to create strong communities of learners within their schools.” “I don’t think there is enough of a focus on developing leaders while they are in their position from school districts. And as a result, it is creating large scale failure, particularly in large urban schools that serve students who have been underserved in their education.” John sees the lack of support provided to school leaders having an exponential effect on students, particularly within schools with students of high need. “The things we know that are happening in highly performing schools are not translating to the schools that are struggling because there is not a real consistent support in place for principals.” Dr. Jenkins elaborates on this correlation between leadership and student success:
So the more challenges that the students are dealing with in their ability to learn, the more equipped the teachers have to be. And usually the more ill-equipped the teachers are because they are [not working within] institutions that do not structure their curriculum around dealing with students who have not been appropriately prepared.” “So you have this combination of teachers who are least prepared, being paired with students who are least prepared, and they are [both] led by principals who are least prepared . . .That coupling happens most often in school districts with students of color.
John’s observation and experience has been that the “fixing” of struggling schools is in the pre-packaged dissemination of supports on the teacher and/or student level. Yet John believes it is the support of the leadership that is pivotal to the success of these stakeholders.
People are trying to fix it on the student level with all these interventions . . . [and there is] a huge market on that…And then you have a lot of teacher preparation programs saying ‘We can prepare teachers better than other people.’ However, there is not enough focus on developing the leader that will be able to take all those great programs, and all those better prepared teachers, and create communities where they are working in tandem to accelerate student achievement. That’s why we keep having consistent failure, because at the top of the chain the leadership is not situated or prepared in a way to use all these new programs, all these new resources, to support the students who are struggling.
This disproportionate dynamic particularly troubles him regarding struggling schools, which is why he invests his life in supporting them.
John has also noticed that when schools within a given neighborhood or district experience similar depravity in the support of school leaders, the impairment and damage to student learning and achievement are exponential. “[O]ften, all those schools are all in the same area. And if you have no leadership above that, to effectively develop those leaders [of those schools] together, so they can actually support each other,” then you can’t have success. “A school cannot rise above its leadership.”
John notices that throughout several schools across several states that support of principals ends after the first 2 years, resulting, regrettably and too often, in “iterative, abominable failure.” The result? Collateral damage of teachers and students feeling “disenfranchised and disappointed.” This is why he feels his work and initiatives with SLN are so significant and meaningful.
In his current work with principals, John helpes them build their capacities to be “leaders of learners within their schools.” “All of the current research is pointing to that successful schools are those that get their teachers and other educators to take on equal ownership to the movement of the school and the students as the principal does.” He is trying to help principals move away from the top-down, do-as-I-say approach to leadership. John helps principals to be reflective practitioners, regularly engaging in cycles of introspection and application, operating as agents of change and capacity builders within their schools and school communities. Through cohort meetings, on-site visitations, one-on-one mentorship and staff development, he situates principals to regularly investigate and interrogate their effectiveness. He puts them through a protocol of inquiry, to contemplate such things as,
this is how I am structuring the needs of my staff, how I should be targeting my goals and objectives, this is how I should be providing effective coaching and feedback with teachers about their practice, this is how I should be empowering teachers to take this work and move it forward, this is what a real adult learning community looks like, this is how I build trust with my staff, this is how I help them believe I have the capacity to do the same work that I am asking them to do, this is how I show value to them, this is how I root for them to support them and energize them when they feel discouraged.
John empowers principals so they act “as a group of adults learning, sharing, and pushing each other,” and with that same impetus, “take back to their schools and create those same communities and schools.” He believes this is critical work for principals.
Dr. John R. Jenkins is a restless educator who vigilantly continues to inform and shape educational possibilities for several stakeholders, from student to administrator. Unperched from title, he ebbs and flows with the needs of the times, culling his skills to effectuate opportunities for urban education. Expansive in reach, and cataclysmic in impact, his exertions as an educator defy his modesty.