By now, I’m sure you’ve been inundated with news and social media stories about ninth grade student Ahmed Mohammed who was arrested when he brought a “hoax bomb” to school. As it turns out the “hoax bomb” was nothing more than a homemade digital clock that the 14 year old created and brought to share.
This story has raised all sorts of questions about racism and religious persecution, and those are really important discussions that should be talked about and considered. But, for me, the conversation has to be bigger than just race and religion. The truth is, this is a systemic issue that impacts all students and the question that keeps coming to my mind is: How is it that the teachers in MacArthur High School, and it’s administration, know so little about Ahmed and WHO he is? Why didn’t they know that he has this passion for engineering, robotics and electronics? Why didn’t his English teacher know him beyond the color of his skin and his religion? Because if anyone in the building had taken the time to really get to know Ahmed, they would know that this is a brilliant student who is excited about learning. They might know that he had been working on projects like this, and that he would want to share his excitement of accomplishment with his teachers. They might not have made such a ridiculous judgement call based on race and religion because they would know who he is. When Ahmed showed his engineering teacher the homemade clock, the advice that was given was to hide it away and not to show other staff. Wait, what?! (If a student brought something like that to me, my advice would be to share it with all of his teachers and other students!) Why would we tell students, in a SCHOOL, to hide away an accomplishment like that? Ahmed did as he was told and kept his clock in his backpack, that worked well until an alarm went off in English class. When Ahmed showed the clock to his English teacher, it was followed by a threat of expulsion and interrogation by five police officers and handcuffs.
Students have names, and with those names stories. Consider the amount of time that parents consider what they are going to name their newborn. There is anticipation and excitement for this new person that they’ll soon meet. And each of the names being considered have a story. Sometimes it is a family name that they want to carry on because of the stories that come with the name, the fond memories, the accomplishment. Sometimes the name is a desire for parents to declare something new and unique. Sometimes the names come from a special place visited, or based on a memory. Names matter because they come with rich history and story and promise. Each one of the names is as unique as the student who carries the name, because it comes with that history and story. By the time that we meet that student as an educator, the name carries additional history of their individual experiences, personality, struggles, and accomplishments.
It seems that we know the weight of names in other facets of life. Consider the sommelier who not only knows the names of wines, but also the varietal of grapes, the climate they were grown in, the different hints and notes of flavors, the aging process, the vintner who made the wine, the bottling process, and hundreds of other idiosyncrasies of the particular wine. There are coffee masters who, by taste, can tell you what region of the world the coffee hales from, what that region is known for, how the coffee was roasted, and the hints of flavor that a particular bean has. Why don’t we have more education masters who know students?
In education, we’ve done the opposite. We’ve taken incredible individuals, students with names, and we’ve created a system where we see them as the same. We rank them and tell them their worth through test scores, we purchase boxed curriculum that exposes them all to the exact same material, in the same way, on the same day. We set the exact same standards for all of them. When they enter our classrooms we have no time to KNOW them, because the focus isn’t on the student with a name and a story, the focus is on external goals. Are they going to pass the test? Are they going to go to graduate? Are they going to make us look good when we compare ourselves with another country’s scores?
When they come to us with cool clocks that they’ve learned to program, we don’t know WHO they are well enough to celebrate that accomplishment with them. Instead we leap to conclusions based on assumptions, and misinformation, and fear.
The thing that I am most proud of at Anastasis Academy is that we know our students names, and the stories that go with those names. We take the time as a staff to get to know EVERY child in the building (it helps that we have a small population, but it is also one of the reasons we have a small population). Knowing our students colors everything that we do. It transforms the way we use classroom space, the way we assess, the way we interact as a community, the way we make decisions about choosing resources and learning excursions, the way that we do school. When kids are known, they bring their passions to school. Teachers don’t panic when a child brings their knife collection that their grandfather left them, because we know the story and can help the child share that story with others in a way that is appropriate. We can help students “stand again” (the literal translation of Anastasis) in who they are as learners, and the unique gifts/talents/perspective that they add to the world.
Ahmed’s story reminds me of all the ways that we’ve lost the humanity in education. When humanity is stripped away and the focus is not on the students with names and stories, fear and panic drive our decisions. Fear and panic are generally related to a lack of knowledge, so we make assumptions and fill in our own blanks. Pretty soon we have creative, innovative, amazing students who look more like robots. As a society, we’ve got to stop being okay with students as numbers. To truly transform education, we’ve got to focus on the humanity, knowing the students with names and stories. We have to know kids (at least) as well as well as we know wine.