On a recent trip to the snowy wonderlands of East Lansing, MI, I had the chance to meet up with National Writing Project (NWP) educators who are collaborating on the Sandboxes for Learning project under the warm, demanding guidance of Paul Allison. In preparation for a workshop Paul would take us through, we were asked to write a profile of a student who might earn one of the badges that we are designing along with learning "playlists" that will appear on the LRNG.org platform. I arrived in Michigan a little low on sleep, behind on my playlist draft, and strangely worried about the data privacy questions that I have heard in the last few years accompanying badging efforts in public education. The weekend, and a midwest snowstorm that locked me in a hotel room for an extra day, combined to help me catch some Z's, and catch up on my playlist draft. Conversations about data privacy with Paul and Christina Cantrill from NWP helped me solidify my thinking about student data- a complex and hotly contested issue these days.* Upon my return, I shared this profile with the Cris, the 11th grade subject in question. While Paul and Christina helped me untangle my thoughts about data, I wanted Cris's, my student's, feedback on the data narrative-ish profile I had already shared with that small, safe audience of NWP colleagues. After reading the profile below, he gave me the go-ahead to share it with any audience I wanted. That permission matters when we talk about student data.
Cris is a latino boy who loves soccer, which makes him just like a whole lot of other latino boys in Aurora, Colorado. When he made the varsity soccer team at Rangeview High School this year, he became the envy of so many of his peers who wish they could take the field in what they see as big time Colorado high school athletics. He walked our halls with the confidence of a young man whose high school plans were working out just the way he’d drawn up.
What his peers might not know is that Cris travels to Rangeview from the Montbello section of Denver, which has historically been seen by Denverites as a tough part of town, probably the toughest. Nor did his peers see the worry on Cris’ face at the start of the school year when he was arriving late, or not at all, to first period every day because he was charged with getting his younger siblings ready and off to school before he embarked on his commute. For a student open-enrolling in Aurora Public Schools from Montbello, a seat in my classroom is coveted but tenuous spot. Too many absences would put him in violation of the agreement his family signed and he’d be dispatched back to his home school. Such is the bargain we strike in Colorado, where per-pupil funding doesn’t pay for the educational costs of the living, breathing pupils.
“Mr Dillon, I’m sorry, but I’m not going to be able to get to this class on time,” he said. I saw the worry on his face.
I don’t know how his family made other arrangements after we called them and explained the deal, I just know he comes to class every day now and arrives just before the bell, never showing the early morning weariness that afflicts so many of his English 11 classmates. He usually tries to beat me to the punch with a morning greeting by saying something like, “How about I just teach this class today?” or “Look who’s early!” Another observer might see him as cocky, or as a jock who has the high school experience dialed in, but I see his relief.
A look at his transcript shows that he took honors English as a freshman, but takes general English now, probably to accommodate soccer, his part-time job, and his responsibilities caring for his siblings.
When I asked him to reflect on his view of literacy in a personal essay at the outset of the year, he reflected on Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED talk, The Danger of a Single Story, he wrote:
Shamefully I must admit I have stereotyped individuals from places that I knew nothing about, even Mexico. The media only shows the bad things that go on there like violence and poverty... I just took a trip to Juarez, Mexico this past labor day weekend and what I saw was not violence, and not as much poverty as the media makes it out to be. What I saw was my family living in a place where the community knows it’s people and everyone is a very hard worker from the time the sun rises until it sets. Children play outside more there than here in America. It’s a beautiful place to live. I now have more than one story.
What he wrote about the media portrayal of Juarez could be just as easily be said about the Denver media’s portrayal of Montbello, and Aurora for that matter. As I try to teach him about nuanced claims, marshalling evidence, and college ready writing, he teaches me about the American dream.
In his limited time on YouthVoices.live this year, he has left comments on youth poetry and posts about healthcare, race, texting and driving, and abortion. He’s suggested articles for youth researchers in Oakland, and the tone and thoughtfulness of his comments display a civility that I aspire to in my own work. Cris gives me hope, not just for this online community, but the future of the web. Just yesterday, I asked him if he’d be willing to provide other writers with feedback on YouthVoices.live the way he does with his tablemates in my class. “That’s one way I could let you teach,” I explained.
A broad grin spread across his face and he seemed excited at the prospect of having a platform for leadership. As I prepare to think what an LRNG badge might unlock for Cris, his excitement rubs off on me.
* In brief, Paul asked some variation of "So what?" and "How does that hurt kids?" while I described my paranoia about sharing student data and as I wove data privacy tales from my experience with badging work. His student-centered focus and critical questioning helped me orient my views as a teacher and student advocate. Christina shared with me what she understood about school districts' interests in badging work that she had gathered from conversations about badging in Boston, MA public schools. Essentially, she affirmed for me that schools need assurances about their ownership of, and access to badges and related data.