Student Tips for Educators

October 2, 2020 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories | By

I reached out to one of the organizers of the Palo Alto Youth Art Protest by emailing the address printed on a poster. The young man, Hudson, who replied was gracious enough to answer my questions in detail, because, as he told me, “my little brother goes to Gunn, so I’m trying.” 

As an educator I asked Hudson what we could do to make our schools more equitable for students of color. He said he had “a lot of experiences that were less than pleasant and quite problematic” over his 12 years in our Palo Alto schools. “These ranged between racial slurs from administration to the erasure of support systems for BIPOC within the school.” (Email Aug 13, 2020) 

Hudson wrote detailed answers to questions I asked in email and then agreed to a follow up interview, which I have included in this blog post. Here, I will also summarize what, I believe, are his suggestions to Palo Alto Educators.

Deepen Our Curriculum

Many of his suggestions centered around more inclusion in all areas of our curriculum. He mentioned he did not learn about East Palo Alto history. “I wish I learned about systems of oppression within the everyday lives of people. Such as Education Discrimination, Job Discrimination, Housing Discrimination, Redlining, The School-To-Prison-Pipeline, The Prison-Industrial-Complex, just to name a few.” He would have liked to hear stories from more perspectives.

Which leads me to his second suggestion, which I will quote. 

Connect with our Students, Personally

“Something I think teachers could do in Palo Alto would be to always be aware of the socio-economic disadvantages that the people of color typically face in their classroom given that national housing discrimination, job discrimination other things like that force most of the kids of color in our area into East Palo Alto, East Menlo Park.  I think that can affect a child’s ability to learn and thrive in the classroom and I think if a teacher is self aware and aware of that, then they’ll be able to maneuver and help that student in the ways that they would need. Which would then create equitable solutions for the classroom.”

Those words spilled from him, as you will hear if you listen to the video. I am taking time to process their meaning myself. I believe what he was so diplomatically telling me was that I may have been teaching callously. He said, “You may not be aware, yes, but I think some people are aware and think that it does not affect their students. They still expect the same output from that student as another that doesn’t not face the same challenges in their day to day life.”

As a Teacher Librarian, I know I fail my students. I hope that I can build a strong enough relationship with each of them that they can tell me, honestly, when I do. I need to listen so I can do better. Hudson’s words challenge me to reach out. And to stop and listen – not react defensively – when a student trusts me enough to tell me a way I can improve.

Put Our Money Where our Mouths Are

His third suggestion revolved around creating and sustaining systems of support for our students of color. When I asked him for specifics, he mentioned a program he participated in at Gunn called College Pathways. It was “a system of support for students of color in order to try to orchestrate them staying on track and getting accepted into two year and four year colleges. It’s success rate my year was like 94%. So it was effective.” Hudson mentioned the Program was on the  list to be cut and students had to fight for it.  “A lot of Seniors and Juniors that came before me fought hard to try to make sure it stayed because they had older siblings that succeeded through the program. And I saw it work with my own eyes. That’s why I was like you can’t really take that away.”

Hire and Retain More Teachers of Color

A fourth area for improvement in Palo Alto schools Hudson brought up was recruitment and retainment of teachers of color. “And then – not to mention – there’s only like…at Gunn there’s not a single Black teacher. There was one Kenyan teacher, although, you know, he is of African descent, he cannot exactly relate to all the nuances of growing up in America for sure.” 

We can reform our curriculum to include more perspectives. We can reach out to our students of color personally. We can ask them what they need to succeed. We can invest in systems of support – including College Pathways – for our Black and Brown students. And, we can ask our District – and ourselves – why don’t we have more teachers of color?

We all want our schools to improve. I hope we can all follow Hudson’s example and take a few brave steps in a new direction. Our schools – our students – are worth it. If you have specific suggestions for – or experiences in – doing this work, contact me at KristinAkerHowellATgmailDOTcom to share them.

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PA Youth Art Protest Work Removed by City

September 20, 2020 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Community Art | By

In light of the ACLU/NAACP lawsuit recently filed against the City of Palo Alto, I wanted to highlight another instance of silencing the voices of color in our community.

Over the summer, a group of students of color organized called Palo Alto Youth Art Protest. They installed full color prints along University Avenue with wheatpaste, which is biodegradable. Hudson, one of the organizers and a recent Gunn graduate, explained: 

“It started as an idea early June with me and my friend Lucia, she went to Paly. We felt like… there wasn’t enough knowledge about inequities within our own community, in between Palo Alto and East Palo Alto so we wanted to bring that out into the forefront for at least a few days.”

You can see the original artwork on Instagram. I’ve included part of an interview I did with Hudson here which includes his descriptions of the Art Protests. 

First Installation

Less than a day after the first installation, a man spray painted MAGA and other racist graffiti over the art in broad daylight. That man’s reaction garnered news attention. The art was removed and video of the man defacing the art was shown on local news stations for a couple of days.

Hudson recounts his reaction: “After the man – I still don’t know his name – after he went down and spray painted all the posters we set up a Go Fund Me in order to do it bigger and better because we felt like the news covered it in a way that was more about him instead of what we were talking about and what we wanted to get across. It took about two weeks because we have a lot more people send in art submissions. And do some more research on things so that one took about ten or so days to get it going.”

Second Installation

The group accomplished their goal. They completed the GoFundMe, raising $1,000 toward printing costs for  new installation, and over $1,600 for local charities. PA Youth Protest installed the work of over 30 or 40 artists on University Avenue. These works attempted to respond to the defacement, including the use of gold, a reference to the color of the spray paint used to deface to the original art. 

They sent an email to the City the same morning. Hudson explained his reasoning behind notifying the City: “If you guys want it off the ground, we’ll take it off because, at least in my experience, I’ve seen a lot of the City workers and janitorial staff tend to be people of color and I didn’t want them to scrape up that kind of stuff. They read the email, responded, ignored that last part, and went against our wishes. When I say they, I mean the mayor, Adrian Fine. I forget the other city council member.”

Hudson said, “It was only there for like fifteen or so hours before the City came and removed it. But, you know, at least the effort was there.”

Hudson’s reaction was measured, but the removal was swift. 

Which leads me to ask these questions: Why did the City remove these expressions? Were those items removed because they criticized City policies, or simply because they did not seek approval first? Is expression only allowed to remain that appears to support the City? Or, must artistic and other expression be pre-approved by City leaders? 

The will and resources are there to remove the art or even chalk – neither of which cause harm to property –  rapidly enough. For a city that does not have many leaders of color, this appears unjust to me. 

When our young people take their time and effort to express themselves – and their desires for our community – we should support their efforts and listen to their suggestions.

What do you think? I can be reached here: KristinAkerHowellATgmailDOTcom.

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Gina Sudaria Makes Ravenswood a Place Worthy of Our Kids

August 31, 2020 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Education Policy, teaching | By

Ravenswood City School District’s first official full year with their new Superintendent, Gina Sudaria, saw a new Strategic Plan implemented, a pandemic, and then a flip to online learning. The former principal at Costano hasn’t missed a beat, still planning for her District to be a place where educators will be happy to bring their own children to school. 

If you read the strategic plan for Ravenswood you will see lots of things we love in Silicon Valley: deliverables for things like communication, professional development, assessment. But if you listen to this interview with Ms. Sudaria you will see what I see: an educator whose bottom line is the heart. She considers a school great if educators will bring their own children to it. And Ms. Sudaria brought her son to Costano. Ms. Sudaria wants every school to be a place where students want to come on campus because they know the adults on campus want them there. In Ravenswood, that’s what she sees. And their focus is on delivering instruction to the diverse set of students they have focusing on the culture, race and language to meet the needs of all students.

The biggest barriers to this strategic plan are financial. As a Revenue Limit school district, nearly fifty percent of the RCSD budget is restricted, meaning the State determines how it is to be spent. The restrictions are so tight, those dollars can’t even be used for teacher salaries, which is a barrier for RCSD in recruitment and retainment. If you look at this comparison between Districts, you will see how the average per pupil spending differs between our Basic Aid Districts and RCSD. The Ravenswood Education Foundation is the best way to support the District in meeting the needs of the students because the Foundation works with the District to allow the restricted funds to be spent optimally, thereby freeing up use of unrestricted funds.

Ms. Sudaria envisions three ways to make equity a reality. Get rid of restrictions on state money, for one. Another suggestion she has is to stop funding penalties based on attendance. Basic Aid Districts don’t face those penalties. Ms. Sudaria’s third goal is to make sure our schools are meeting the needs of black and brown students and doing anti-racist work. 

In my next blog post, hear from one of the organizers of the Palo Alto Youth Art Protest. If you would like to share your thoughts about What Would Equity Look Like, write to me at KristinAkerHowellATgmailDOTcom. 

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Anne Campbell Envisions Closing the Opportunity Gap

August 18, 2020 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories | By

Last week Anne Campell, former San Mateo County Superintendent, spoke with me about equity in our mid-Peninsula Schools. She described the Opportunity Gap we have on the Mid-Peninsula. The Opportunity Gap here is the difference in the school experience for students in California based on whether they attend school in a Basic Aid or a Revenue Limit School. Students in Basic Aid School Districts, including Portola Valley, Palo Alto, Menlo Park, and others with high property taxes, are able to provide their students opportunities like reading supports, full-time librarians, PE teachers, music teachers and art classes, that other districts don’t have the funds to provide to their students. The term Opportunity Gap was first used, as far as I can find, by Camika Royal in Good to replace the term “achievement gap.”

To close this Opportunity Gap on our Mid-Peninsula, Campbell suggests re-examining our funding priorities at the State level. All students should be funded at the level of students in these Basic Aid Districts. Campbell has worked together with Debby Martin, a retired high school teacher, on an initiative called Every Kid, Every School to address school funding inequities and close the Opportunity Gap.

I include the entire interview here because I admire Ms. Campbell’s thoughtfulness, perspective and experience. If you watch, I think you will too. In the first ten minutes of the video Ms. Campbell shares her experiences as an administrator with the Tinsley Program. The second ten minutes she reflects on the impact she has seen the Tinsley Program have on students, families and districts. The final ten minutes contains her thoughts on how to close that Opportunity Gap in California. 

If you would like further reading on the history of the Tinsley Program you can find a bibliography and other sources on my Google website:

My next blog post will feature an interview with Gina Sudaria, Superintendent of the Ravenswood City School District in which she describes her dreams for Ravenswood City Schools, and some of the barriers she faces to those dreams. If you would like to share your thoughts about What Would Equity Look Like? And How Can We Get There? Please contact me at KristinAkerHowellATgmailDOTcom.

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Magic, Fun and Imagination for CYRM Intermediate Novels

August 1, 2016 | Posted in Blog: Story Stories, Book Reviews, Libraries, libraries | By

The novels nominated for the Intermediate California Young Reader Medal this year will bring your 3rd through 6th graders plenty of what they love: fun, magic and imagination. As always, readers must read all novels nominated in a category to be eligible to vote. Here is a quick summary of each novel in the Intermediate category.

Chock-full of puzzles, Escape from Mr Lemoncello’s Library by Chris Grabenstein is very popular with 2nd – 5th grade readers, who love to solve the puzzles along with the characters. The Public Library in Alexandriaville had been closed for 11 years. Mr. Lemoncello, world-famous game-maker and public library supporter, set out to right this wrong by holding an extravagant party/contest for 12 twelve-year olds to celebrate the opening of the brand new state of-the-art public library. This book details that contest by following the stories of a couple of those contestants. Librarians, like me, will enjoy the many references to children’s literature and the Dewey Decimal classification system. This book begs for group projects like create a game and the website mentioned in the back of the book has extensions galore.

The other two books nominated are both fantasies. Anne Ursu’s The Real Boy is the more adventurous of the two. Oscar knows he’s different but he doesn’t know why. He understands cats, but not people. The magician’s apprentice tells Oscar he’s useless; worthless. When something unknown attacks the village and the magician is gone, Oscar wonders if he can possibly help – and how. Ursu’s robust fantasy will have readers questioning the role of magic in fairy tales and in their own lives. This is good for fantasy and fairy tale readers 4th grade and up. I have a free Story Sheet called Sensing Magic which examines Ursu’s use of sensory words to convey Oscar’s changing attitude toward magic and challenges students to begin a magical story.

Liesl Shurtliff’s Rump: The True Story of Rumpelstiltskin is the most humorous of the three novels. This is a must-read for middle grade fairy-tale lovers and has just enough humor to attract those less inclined to read. Rump paints a sympathetic and believable backstory for a character whose motivation has never been clear: Rumpelstiltskin. Shurtliff’s unnamed fantasy-land (for names are important) is whimsical enough that readers will want to stay just to find out what quirky creature might appear next. The Story Sheet Back Together Again helps students deconstruct how Shurtliff re-told Rumpelstiltskin and challenges them to de-construct and re-tell Humpty Dumpty in a new way.

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