Excerpts from Opal School Summer Symposium Presentation, June 2020

Any fellow educator who really knows me is aware of my obsession with Opal School, which is in the Portland Children’s Museum in Portland, Oregon. I know, right?! What a great place for a school. Opal is a Reggio-inspired elementary school that serves preschoolers through fifth graders. The work the educators there do with children is breathtakingly beautiful because it is rooted in a deep respect for children and their families and a firm belief that children are not becoming, they already are brilliant, capable human beings.

I have learned so much from Opal School educators and children over the past several years. Every opportunity I have had to spend time at Opal School has left me overflowing with love for children and gratitude that I get to spend my life learning from them. Sadly, we had to gather online for this summer’s symposium. I missed seeing some of my favorite educators, but I was thrilled that they gave me an opportunity to be a featured speaker.

I wanted to share some excerpts of my presentation here to both give Opal a public shout-out and preserve the thoughts I am having in this moment. (And, if I’m being honest, to post without writing something new.) In case y’all didn’t know, this is really more of a public teacher diary than anything else. . .

I opened with a viewing of Keedron Bryant’s viral outcry:

“I Just Wanna Live”

Colleagues, I cannot protect your feelings or mince words with you today. The world, as my dear friend Sara Ahmed says, has given us a curriculum. It has been offering itself to us for an incredibly long time, actually. But the very system that purports to be the great equalizer, the foundation of our democracy — allegedly free and ostensibly appropriate public education — was never designed to listen to all of its stakeholders or serve all children. Our education system has always been, and currently is, a tool of white supremacy. Racism climbs inside fancy boxes that say “teacher-approved,” it slips between pages labeled “peer-reviewed research,” and hides itself between the lines of discipline referrals that read “non-compliant, disorderly, and distracting” in an attempt to dupe us. But those of us who refuse to be, at this point, willfully ignorant know the truth: For the Black, Brown, and indigenous children in our care, education requires assimilation to whiteness. And assimilation by its very nature is racist and stands in stark contrast to genuine listening. This dear boy, Keedron Bryant, every peaceful activist pounding the pavement, every author behind antiracist texts, every Tweeter, every artist, every anti-bias/antiracist teacher, even every brick hurler and every looter who are authentic protestors. . .all of these people who are crying out #blacklivesmatter, #mylifematters. . .are former or current students who have been systemically, perpetually unheard. I hope that you will listen to me today. 

I just wanna live.

I told a number of Black, indigenous, children of color’s stories before closing out the presentation as follows:

The trauma that the refusal to listen to and believe Black, Brown, and indigenous people causes has ushered our country into upheaval. And if we stop and do an honest analysis, we will discover that our classrooms are microcosms of society inclusive of the same problems. The only answer to the challenges we face is antiracism. Educators must become co-conspirators who actively work to dismantle a system that is oppressing all of their students. 

For Black, Brown and indigenous children, schools are places where they must shed their identities, and often endure affronts, in order to simply learn. Their schooling experiences are so contrived, so disconnected from the lives they lead in their communities, it is as if they are living two separate lives. This double consciousness weaves the tangled web of a colonized identity marginalized children will spend their entire lives untangling in order to “get free.” Surrendering ourselves is too high a price to pay for an education. 

I just want to live.

The centering of whiteness — a social, not a biological construct, designed for the purpose of subjugating people of color — is problematic for white children, too. What does it mean to grow up with your way of being in the world centered all of the time while you watch others get cast aside? How do you learn to listen to varied perspectives and live an inclusive life beyond Ethiopian food delivery if the world in which you live is always all about you?

The most powerful action we can take right now is to get proximate with our children and their communities and listen to them — both their verbal and nonverbal communication—with no intent to respond and without an expectation to hear what we want them to say. When educators truly listen, we develop the kind of empathy necessary to humble ourselves in the presence of our children and their communities. When we embrace a pedagogy of listening, we begin to see beyond our biases and the children and their communities begin to shed light on how we can be anitracist co-conspirators as they seize the power that Martin Luther King, Jr. referred to as “our birthright as inheritors of the American Dream.” 

We just want to live.

“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free”

I am so blessed to be able to think alongside the Opal School community. They have pushed me to continuously dig deeper and work harder to ensure that the children I am blessed to call my students never experience the tyranny of what Paulo Freire called “adultism” in our classroom. May the children in my care always know how it feels to be free. . .

Thank you, Opal School!

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