The value of multilingual and multicultural education

Now, more than ever, there is a genuine need for multilingual and multiculturally minded education in our increasingly global society. As the world around us becomes ever-more digitalised, connected and accessible, it is essential that we equip our young learners with the skills and tools that they will need to communicate, connect and thrive in their local and global communities.

In this blog, I will reflect on some of the benefits of teaching and learning in a bilingual, multicultural context: including the ability to support learners to develop critical skills in reflecting on and questioning the world around them, using the medium of language as a vehicle for teaching cultural awareness, tolerance and compassion.  

Yesterday’s events in Westminster, London struck close to home. As a born and bred Londoner, Westminster Bridge has a special place in my heart. Just a few short months ago, I stood on Westminster Bridge on a visit home, reflecting gratefully for having been raised in such a tolerant, diverse, and open-minded city so full of life and opportunity. Whilst in recent times, this gratitude has often been clouded by news of political decisions I’ve found hard to stomach, or attitudes expressed by a small minority of UK citizens that I have been ashamed to witness, the deeply saddening image of Tobias Ellwood, Conservative MP desperately trying to resuscitate a police officer as he lay bleeding on the ground (after being attacked defending the safety of those citizens inside and around the Houses of Parliament), reminded me of this: we are all human. Differences and viewpoints aside, we all feel pain. We also have the unique ability as humans to respond to pain, injustice or suffering with human compassion. If I can teach my students anything in my precious time with them before they embark on their journey to secondary education, it will be the ability to view others with compassion, tolerance and curiosity: to listen and seek to understand before seeking to be understood. To help others whenever they can, however they can, because at the end of the day, we all share responsibility for this space we live and all Earth.

As we continue to face an increasing number of global challenges –  political and social –  gone are the days when we can shy behind nationalistic attitudes or an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ attitude to global decision-making, or to global events and changes. As Hugh Evans points out in this article, “peace and prosperity here depends on peace and prosperity there”. We must act with a great sense of urgency in providing an education that empowers students to develop an outward-looking, global mindset, if our students are to be effective changemakers in the context of the societal challenges that they face.

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One of my student’s reflections on International Women’s Day 2017

Whilst London and indeed the UK’s response to yesterday’s tragic events have been admirable, brave and unified, what has also struck me is the call of solidarity that has followed from fellow nations and communities around the globe. A small but significant gesture was one minute of silence held at my school today by staff and students in Spain: a reminder that London is not just a special place for Londoners, it also represents a place of tolerance, diversity and openness –  values upheld and cherished by many citizens globally. The Spanish phrase “te acompaño en el sentimiento” bears an important significance in this context: today, my Spanish coworkers paid their respects in the same way as many UK citizens will also have done for the lives lost and the injuries endured in our capital city. Yesterday’s events were not simply an attack on London, but on the global values of tolerance, citizenship and democracy that we share worldwide with those committed to making our global community a fairer place to live. Together, we will continue working towards those values as a global society.

So, what does bilingual and multicultural education have to do with this?

Take today’s moment of silence, for example. Not one student questioned the validity of this silence (a difficult task for a group of talkative ten year olds), and many of my students were able to empathise with the impact of the events on their global community. Many of their questions showed great tolerance, acceptance of cultural difference, and open-mindedness.

‘Why did the man want to kill innocent people?”, one student asked.

“Terrorists attack innocent people because they want the whole world to sit up and take notice”, replied another. “They don’t care who is affected, as long as their message is heard”.

“But how can we be sure that he was a terrorist, or that he attacked London for those reasons?”, interjected a third student. “We should try to understand it from his point of view too even if we don’t like what he did”.

This led to an interesting class discussion about the potential dangers of assumption, neatly summarised by one student’s comment: “Sometimes people do things not because they are bad people, or because they hate other people. Sometimes they do things because they believe that it will change the situation, make it better, or get them noticed. I think that sometimes we forget that we live in a democracy [we recently learnt this word in a Social Science lesson on the history of Spanish politics!] and we have the right to say what we want to say or to question important people who make decisions if we don’t agree. But sometimes democracies don’t work: sometimes certain people don’t get a chance to say what they want to say. Maybe he didn’t have that, and he turned to violence as a cry for help”.

As a ten-year old, the ability to show such compassion and curiosity regarding the motivations of someone unknown to them and labelled a “terrorist” is something I consider truly remarkable. I have no doubt that this child is a special soul, in spite of any bilingual or multicultural instruction he has received over the early years of his life in a bilingual school environment. Clearly, his parents are also doing an awesome job or raising an inquisitive, compassionate human being. However, I do also believe that by teaching young learners about different languages, cultures and customs, we as educators can open doors to a world of differences and similarities, prejudices and injustices, cultures and customs. In doing so, we can enable our students to engage with the global community in an inquisitive, empathetic manner that will improve their ability to engage critically and curiously with the world around them: an invaluable set of tools for our modern, global society.

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Therefore, it saddens me that typically, language learning occupies so little time and space in the British National Curriculum. Through struggling to understand adverbial phrases, articles or gender pronouns in English, whilst inquiring about their place in the living and breathing cultures of the places that speak the language, I have seen over time how my students have become more tolerant of and curious about the people they encounter on their travels and in their communities. One student excitedly told me that he had made a new friend on his travels to Italy this summer: a Syrian boy around his age now living in Germany who didn’t speak any Spanish. English was the common connection between the two children. Proud not only that he had put his newly acquired language skills talking about “hobbies and free time” to use in order to discover that his new friend also enjoyed playing with LEGO, my student was thrilled to learn more about a different culture that he could share with his peers at school.

This student told our class what he had learnt about his new friend’s school in Germany, as well as his family’s reasons for fleeing Syria to seek refuge in Germany. My student spoke with significant reflection about the family, friends and culture that his friend had left behind. This was a special friendship born of mutual respect and curiosity about different cultures: a quality that enabled conversations beyond the latest computer game, film or device and into a highly meaningful, globally-minded discussion about cultural difference. The connection that this student built with his new friend through a shared language, and the impact of his friend’s story has inspired him to question his own responsibility in the Syrian refugee crisis, telling us that “now I really want to do something to help”.  I can’t wait to see the changes that he will make in his local and global community as a result, whether that’s right now or in the future.

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Another student recently told me that when she was older, she wanted to travel as far and wide as possible so that she could make friends around the globe and learn about their lives and languages. “Maybe I could teach them some Spanish and help them to see that we don’t all have an afternoon siesta and eat paella all day long too”, she half-joked. Despite being so young, this student was already aware that cultural stereotypes exist, and that we all make them. Sadly, prejudice and injustice is a daily experience for young people and adults alike. The good thing is, this student is one of a generation of many globally-minded young citizens that is keen to change that.

I’m currently teaching at a bilingual primary school in Madrid, Spain. You can read more about my vision for my pupils and our work together here.

 

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Helping students to find their voice in the bilingual classroom: a reflection on International Women’s Day 2017

A big part of my vision for my pupils is related to helping my pupils find their own voices and to empower them to make the positive changes they they want to see in their local and global communities.

There is an added layer of complexity (and richness) to this aspect of my vision for my pupils, since we are learning together in a bilingual environment. Our voices form a dynamic, powerful blend of two (and often more) cultures, languages and experiences. Sadly, an unintentional after-effect of the importance currently being placed on learning English in Spain (and for the most part in terms of providing equal opportunity, rightly so), often means that the Spanish language is “silenced” or given lesser priority in such environments, paving the way for greater contact time and verbal expression in English.

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Our class kindness notes, often written in a mix of English and Spanish. 

The more time that I have spent teaching and learning in a bilingual environment, the more I have grown to appreciate that teaching and learning another language is not about silencing or ‘minimising’ the native language to promote greater progress in the target language – it’s about celebrating language in all of its forms, for all of its richness, and its infinite possibility as a form of self expression. It’s about making connections as well as noting differences, and viewing language in all of its different shades of meaning as equally valuable, honouring its validity regardless of and depending on context. I see my job as promoting a love of learning English so that students feel excited and motivated to use it spontaneously, just as they would their native language, but never at the cost of valuing one above the other. 

Today, International Women’s Day, was about helping students – boys and girls – to find their voice and share their thoughts on what International Women’s Day means to them, in English, in Spanish, or both. After talking about what International Women’s Day meant to my students, we shared some final reflections in whatever form we wanted to, many choosing to create artwork or write short messages to hang on our class ‘learning line’.

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Our class ‘learning line’: full of student reflections on International Women’s Day 2017.

One student told me that he wanted to write down his thoughts in English today because he felt the word “change” was more meaningful for him in English than in Spanish. In English, he associated “change” with an action that symbolised something powerful, inspirational, and that carried a sense of possibility for new and greater things: “It’s more like movimiento in Spanish”, he explained, whereas cambio signified something more transactional, impersonal and process driven in this context.

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One student’s reflection on International Women’s Day in English.

Another student chose to write in “Spanglish” because for her, both languages are a “part of who I am and how I feel” about the place of women in society. “It wouldn’t be right for me to choose one [language] over the other”, she told me.

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Being bilingual: reflecting on International Women’s Day in Spanish and in English. 

Some reflections about International Women’s Day took us back to our own deeply painful and personal experiences. One student chose to write a message to her late mother in Spanish because for her, it was the best way to express her thoughts and feelings. “Plus, my mum didn’t speak a word of English” she smiled, finding comfort in how proud her mother would have been of her daughter’s language learning achievements.

Talking about our own language choice also promoted a discussion about its place in the global campaign for women’s rights: “not enough people speak out about women’s achievements in Spanish” said one student. “There are so many women who want to speak out but people only listen if it’s in English because they don’t understand or don’t think what we have to say is important enough if it’s in Spanish”. In English as a Global Language, David Crystal addresses some interesting issues relating to ‘language privilege’ and the impact of the English language’s increasingly global status on the political and social power of other languages. A large proportion of recent academic work –  I’ve been told anecdotally by tutors on my recently completed Master in Bilingual and Multicultural Education –  has been rejected by publishers as a result of not being translated to English, potentially silencing the voices of many academics with equally important messages to share in their native language.

Some students also chose to reflect on the power of language and word choice to form and shape opinions and values, one student recalling an experience he recently witnessed whereby a father lamented the inability of his daughter to quickly learn how to ride her bicycle: a ‘skills deficit’, in his eyes, which was attributable to the fact that she was female.

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Student reflections on their own experiences of gender inequality.

Another student told us of his own experience at a recent summer camp where boys and girls were asked to sit separately, because “they prefer it that way”. When this student (bravely) challenged this generalisation, he was “punished with more homework”.

Throwaway words and phrases like the examples above are sadly still prevalent in day-to-day interactions, forming harmful and self-limiting mindsets that have the power to crush confidence and self-belief with lifelong lasting effects. My role as a Primary teacher is such a privilege, providing the potential to transform the life chances of the children I teach, and it is stories such as these which remind me of the importance of using this privilege to its highest possible potential to create as many possible opportunities for my students to share their stories and make their voices heard, however they choose best to express themselves.

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Messages of gratitude for men and women in our lives who help to promote gender equality. 

Sometimes I’m hard on my students: I push them to express themselves fully in English because I know that this is the way that they will learn and grow and gain confidence in learning a language: making mistakes and learning from them. They know I speak Spanish, but we only ever communicate with each other (save the most exceptional circumstances) in English – it’s my way of saying to them: “You can do this. I believe in you”.

However, every now and again there are times like today when it’s important to cast aside the bigger picture of our language learning goals and be mindful of the moment. This is where empathy as a language learner myself often kicks in and says, “sometimes it just makes more emotional sense in Spanish for them”, and recognises the need to just let them be themselves.

Just as I’m here to share my language and culture with my students, they too have an important place in deepening my understanding of their lives and the things that matter to them by acknowledging and celebrating the importance of their heritage language. Ojalá, together we can fulfill our vision of being the changemakers that we want to see in our local and global communities, whichever language that may be in…

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‘Whose vision is it anyway?’ 2.0.

A (long) while back I blogged about vision.

Since then, a lot has changed. I moved country, moved from coaching teachers to being in the classroom myself again, switched from working with young adults who towered above me to waist-height humans, and studied a masters in the meanwhile.

‘What’s this got to do vision?’, I hear you say.

Well, I guess it’s safe to say that my vision – the ‘why’ in my work – has also changed a great deal since the last time I blogged about it. In this blog, I will share a few reflections on how my vision has changed, why having a clear vision is important given the current world reality our students face, and provide some practical ways to promote kindness – a big part of my vision – in your classroom.

It all started with the lottery.

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‘El Gordo’ national lottery: it’s kind of a big deal here in Spain.

Before you all get excited, I didn’t win the lottery and decide to set up a school / buy a lifetime’s supply of Cadbury’s milk chocolate buttons! That pipeline dream all depends on me starting to play the lottery in the first place …

Rather, it started with a conversation about the lottery. Every morning, we start class with a curious question of the day. The kids take it in turns to choose the question, and we try to make sure it’s a “meaningful” question: one that helps us to better understand each other’s personalities, hopes and dreams.

Around Christmas time, one of the kids came up with a pretty awesome morning question: “If you were to win the lottery tomorrow, what would you do with the money?”

At first, my heart sank as I envisaged responses of “buy 100 Lamborghinis” or “buy a mansion equipped with Playstations in every room”.

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Surely those notes would be worth more in euros, right?

Oh ye, of little faith, Sarah. Turns out, my kids have pretty developed ideas about how money can be put to good use. Amongst setting up their own social enterprises, donating their money to charities that they care about, and finding homes for the homeless, one of my little troopers said:

“If I won the lottery tomorrow, I would donate all of the money to children who can’t afford to go to school or university so that they can get a good education… because one day they might be able to change the world”.

WOW.

At that given moment, I realised that I was witnessing what every teacher that cares about educational inequality wishes to hear. They were finally getting on board with this whole “education isn’t fair” thing, I thought, and they want to do something about it.

I realised that after 9 years of living and breathing and banging the educational inequality drum in my own special way, this was my vision finally, truly coming to life in my classroom. Oh, how my heart skipped a beat on hearing one of my students so eloquently articulating everything I’d hoped that I would be able to communicate to them so that one day, all of this ‘fluffy’ (and quite frankly cheesy) vision stuff would work it’s way into the lives of future generations!

“My kids are going to change the world!”, I thought gleefully. But wait… I also realised that despite my students (apparently) taking on board my vision and really wanting to be a part of this movement for fair education, what they were actually telling me subconsciously was that they didn’t feel equipped to take action without the help of hard cash (precisely the thing that started this whole educational inequality business in the first place). Winning the lottery might allow them to take the easy route and give them the fast-ticket to addressing educational inequality in some shape or form, and let’s face it, on a relatively small scale, but it wasn’t about to bring about systematic, meaningful change if I was going to be real with myself about this.

I was reminded by this episode that this wasn’t and isn’t about my vision, it’s about them. And here they were, telling me that the solution to “the problem” could only be fixed by infinite amounts of money. “This isn’t what i want for them”, I thought. If they see money as the only way to fix this big ugly truth of inequality we’re trying to deal with, then I’m not doing enough to equip them with the skills or strength of character that they need to tackle some of the biggest challenges in our communities.

 

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Caution: vision roadblock ahead.

So, as you’ve probably guessed, ever since that morning I’ve been grappling with the difficult issue of how unfit for purpose what I’m currently teaching my students is in preparing them for the (increasingly) difficult world they face. So last week, I decided to ask the morning question: “What skills, knowledge, or character traits do you need to change the world?”

What did they say?

Kindness.

Yep, that’s right. Not one of them mentioned world-class numeracy skills, technological savviness, a first-class degree, or a fast-track passport to the White House (not that any of these things are necessarily a bad thing!)

The single most important thing that my students felt that they need to succeed and make a positive difference in the world was the ability to be kind to one another.

We talked as a class about why kindness can be hard to learn and ‘do’ sometimes: “Sometimes, it’s just easier to be mean because it gets things done quicker” and “being kind is hard when you don’t understand the other person – their culture, their ideas, or their interests”, according to my students.  We talked honestly about inequality: where they experienced it, how, and why. It got pretty ugly. (Cue tears, anger, and reconciliatory hugs). Finally, we asked: “Is kindness enough?” Well, no. It’s not enough if we are going to make a real profound difference, because there is a difference between being kind for the sake of being kind or to look good and in understanding when someone else is having a hard time so that you know how best to help them with kindness (woah, I think my kiddos just articulated their own version of Empathy Design). In short, we have to start from a place of kindness and empathy in order to achieve greater things.

We really began to grapple with vision in a way that I’d never been able to articulate for or with my students before. Here we were, tearing apart all those motivational posters about growth mindset and academic excellence and talking about something that really mattered to them: knowing how, and having the right skills to be kind when our complex, messy, modern world gets tough.

So, what’s the greatest work I can do to serve my students’ need right now?

My vision for my students continues to evolve as we keep on having what we’ve come to call “meaty but mighty” conversations. In the meantime, the way I see my role in bringing our vision to action, translated into small, practical steps for us in the classroom, is:

1. Showing my kids unconditional love and creating a safe space for them to feel and spread kindness: modelling the type of citizens I hope for my students to be, and giving them the space and opportunity to be kind is so important. This may sound obvious, but if you’ve ever taught or been a parent, you’ll know that sometimes the pressure of meeting targets, getting things done, or doing what the curriculum demands can get in the way of simply being kind and empathetic about your kids’ needs. One small thing our class has committed to is to develop kinder habits so that it becomes a daily practice. We are beginning by celebrating Random Acts of Kindness Week, this week! We’ve also made it a project to write a kind note to every single member of our class, from every single one of their peers to help build self-esteem and promote mental wellbeing. 

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2. Teaching tolerance: modelling what it means to be accepting of differences and giving my students the opportunities to experience what it means to be a global citizen. From now on I will try to make connecting my kids to the things that they care about a priority in our classroom, so that they develop the understanding and the skills to make positive changes in their local and global communities. Storytelling is a really powerful way to teach tolerance and promote empathy. This term I am going to make as many of these books as possible available in our class library for kids to read and to open discussions about what it’s like to be a refugee.

3. Modelling and cultivating empathy: the single most important thing for me this year has been working on developing a mindset that seeks first to understand before being understood, so that I can understand my students’ needs better and create a culture whereby honesty and being empathetic is a natural choice. Here’s a great short video on why teaching empathy is difficult but essential to equip our young people to be “successful actors in a complicated world”.  

If you’d like to explore more ways to build kindness in your classroom, here are a few great resources:

  • The Random Acts of Kindness Foundation have some great resources for educators.
  • The Book Trust have some great suggestions for literature that promotes kindness, compassion and empathy.
  • This Pinterest page provides lots of inspiration for classroom displays, resources and activities that support children to practice kindness.
  • Kid President is my first port of call when it comes to breaking down kindness for the kids. He’s also a total dude.

 

So, all this considered, what does my vision for my pupils look like now?

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The truth is that it’s ever-changing. I remember talking to Arlene Casimir-Siar when I and a group of Teach First ambassadors visited her class at KIPP Believe in New Orleans, and she told me that she keeps her vision in her pocket at all times, ready to adapt, adjust and review it with her kids and the community she serves. Arlene’s class vision was everywhere we looked when we visited her classroom: on the walls, in the tasks she set her pupils, in the discussions she raised with them, and most importantly, in the life path that her kids were writing for themselves. From now on, I’m taking a leaf out of Arlene’s book. Our class vision is going to be in my pocket at all times and pinned proudly to the classroom wall, open to questioning, scrutiny, and challenge from those who shaped it in the first place: my wonderful kids.

 

Whose vision is it anyway?

As teachers and educators, we often talk about the importance of vision but can easily feel overwhelmed by the process of  creating one. Vision is complex, and is often perceived as ‘fluffy’ or abstract. In this blog, I share my thoughts on vision: why it is OK to find vision frustrating  – or why, in fact, frustration when working with a vision can be a good thing –  and the importance of listening to pupil voice when it comes to developing your vision and ideas about what you want for them.

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Before I go any further, I need to make a big shout-out to one of the teachers I work with – Jill –who has inspired me to blog about vision. Yesterday, Jill asked me some really BIG questions about vision. We mused about the difficulty of having a vision in the first place, and whether having a vision for your pupils in itself might steer or constrain the opportunities that your kids go on to access. Can vision, in fact, be limiting? Does deciding what you want for your pupils subtly deny pupils opportunities in the long-term? We also talked about why vision is sometimes so hard to explain, let alone measure. It’s ‘fluffy’ and abstract and sometimes really hard to articulate to others. After my conversation with Jill, I met with Kate, an NQT who tells me about her vision and how it has changed over time to become something quite daunting: it’s big, complex, and at times “ridiculously ambitious”, Kate told me; but “it’s more important than anything else for these kids”. It’s conversations like these that I love – they push my thinking forward and force me to reflect on the bigger picture of the work that we do as educators, and help me to question the ‘why’ of what we do.

Here are my thoughts on why having a vision as an educator is so important; why it’s not always a straight-forward concept; and why it’s OK – if not healthy – to find the process of working with a vision frustrating.

Having a vision for your kids vs. having a vision by your kids

Who is your vision for? That might sound like an obvious question, but it occurred to me that educators often talk about vision rooted in our values and what we want for our kids. Is there a difference between having a vision for your kids and having a vision crafted by your kids? I think so. This video documenting the thoughts of Zeke Cohen, Executive Director of The Intersection in Baltimore and pupil Dawnya Johnson at the Teach for All ‘Student Vision & Leadership Conference’ explains this point beautifully. (Don’t be put off by the 50 minute time frame – it is well worth the watch!)

As Cohen explains in this talk: “Your vision is not just your vision: it needs to be based in what already exists and in what’s already happened.”

Cohen and Dawnya both articulate vision as something driven by context and challenge educators to “lead by listening to what’s said and what’s not said”.

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Zeke Cohen and Dawnya Johnson speak to delegates at the Teach For All ‘Student Vision & Leadership Conference’

Approaching vision from a place of empathy is so important. During a recent visit to New Orleans, our group of teachers and Teach First staff heard Maggie from TrueSchool tell us stories of many failed visions (and as a result failed ventures), where leaders had “thought they knew the solutions because they thought they knew the problem”.  However, as Jill articulated so well in our conversation about the challenges of working with a vision; all too often it’s easy as educators to lose sight of vision in the midst of a system where school values, expectations and routines seem all-encompassing. Sharing another vision, a different vision with your kids can be confusing and overwhelming: ‘to whose norms are we committing here?’ is a question often asked by pupils and teachers alike as they bounce from one set of values to another. This is why, says Cohen, we must “lead with the curriculum of the corner and of the streets” as well as the “academic curriculum”. We must listen to the voices of our kids, and first understand their stories, not the version that the storylines wish us to hear. By understanding the narratives of our kids better, we can develop a “contextualised vision” that kids can relate to the other goals and aspirations that others may have for them.

Dawnya urges her listeners to remember that the narratives of those writing the storylines can be dangerous if accepted in isolation – or as universal truths –  and that we must seek to always investigate layers of experience, not just the common truth projected by those in positions of authority: “My contextualised vision is never to be silenced by power. Every pupil…has the potential to be a leader…seek to challenge the most challenging kids, and do so with love and respect for their identities.”

This inspiring video capturing the voices of Teach for America teacher Clint Smith and his pupils is a great example of how important ‘contextualised vision’ is. As Clint says, “If you don’t define your own narrative, someone is going to define it for you.”  Life-changing vision starts with learning, not just a great idea. Perhaps the most humbling part of Clint’s vision is that he recognises the power of his pupils voices as the driver for his values and ideas: “my students push me…they give me perspective more than anything else I’ve ever done in my life.”

Vision is complex and messy

Vision is tough. I have always struggled with the concept of boiling a vision down to something that can be written on a piece of paper, or something that can be represented by a series of images or words when it’s often emotive and resists explanation. Historically, I have always viewed vision as something rooted in action: living and breathing the change that you want to see. That’s easier said than done, and I’m certainly no model of best practice when it comes to ‘being the change you want to see’. At times, I allow obstacles to get in the way of my vision, or shy away from the ‘difficult’ or ‘hard to explain’. My experiences in New Orleans have taught me that I need to work on asking myself, ‘is the work that you’re doing bold, or is it bashful?’, if I am to better model the value of courage that is so necessary in world that finds comfort in the status-quo (credit to 4.0Schools for asking this brilliant question of us in our visit to New Orleans). Above and beyond this, vision is really hard to articulate if it’s genuinely rooted in context: when vision comes from an authentic need, driven by the voice of many and grounded in their hopes and dreams, how can we possibly tell this story in so few words and through one mouthpiece?

My understanding of vision is evolving from one that looked like a neatly formed power-quote to one that is a tangle of annotations and illustrations – each one representing the voices of the people with whom I hope and dream.

Like Clint Smith and his pupils, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie warns of ‘The Dangers of a Single Story’ in this honest and thought-provoking TED talk. Adichie talks about being a young writer who wrote about things as she read them – unconsciously assuming the thoughts and values of other authors which led to the temporary silencing of her own cultural voice and her own identity. She also talks of the dangers of labelling others as “poor” in our attempt to show compassion in the quest for social justice: she found it “impossible to imagine” her neighbour as doing anything of worth or value because her mother described them as “having nothing” and tells the story of her American university roommate who similarly constructed a single story for Adichie and “felt sorry for me before she even knew me”.

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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie talks about her experiences of the ‘single story’

When thinking about vision in the world of education, we must embrace the positive and the negative narratives that tell the stories of our pupils if we are to empower them to demand justice by expressing their own stories. As Adichie warns:

“To focus only on negatives is to flatten my experience and to overlook the many other stories that shaped me. The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue but that they are incomplete.”

As Arlene Casimir-Siar, a teacher that we met in New Orleans at KIPP Believe Primary shared with us when articulating her vision, it’s about “the brutal facts of their circumstances as well as their current reality”. Every pupil has a voice in Arlene’s classroom, a voice which adds another layer of richness to her vision and helps to push, challenge and adapt the goals that “are always in [her pocket] and there to revisit, re-frame, and change at any given moment. In a touching moment during our visit to Arlene’s classroom, her pupils grappled with the complexities of their ‘inner beauties’ – character traits such as ‘Zest’ and ‘Curiosity’ – some of which come naturally and some that require cultivation. We are told by one pupil, Derek, that ‘Self-Control’ is the most difficult ‘inner beauty’ to exercise outside the safety of the four walls of the classroom because life at home can be tough, temptation to “do bad things” is rife, and sometimes “making the right choice is difficult”. It’s the complexities of these experiences that make crafting a vision for our pupils so challenging, and yet so essential if we are to empower them to create their own narratives.

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One of Arlene’s pupils, Jaheim, explains his role in shaping and living the class vision

Vision, it seems, isn’t simply something to display on a shiny wall plaque (although sharing your vision is a great idea – another blog post needed on that topic!) but is something to doodle, scribble, debate, discuss and constantly challenge. That’s why sometimes it’s so tough to articulate your vision to others, and that’s alright: vision is a work in progress. As Jason Calacanis said: “You have to have a big vision and take very small steps to get there. You have to be humble as you execute but visionary and gigantic in terms of your aspiration.”

If you would like to find out more about my trip to New Orleans with a group of South London Teach First ambassadors, you can read  my initial reflections on the exchange here.

A seat at the table: key learning on community in New Orleans

During October half term, a group of ambassadors and Teach First staff from South London visited New Orleans to find out more about the educational landscape post hurricane Katrina and to explore what has led to the district’s success in improving pupil outcomes. In this blog, formed mainly by the voices of those who shared their experiences with us during our time visiting schools, social enterprises, and community projects, I include some reflections on our learning about community following the visit.

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We came to New Orleans, Louisiana, during October half term to understand what has enabled the Greater New Orleans Teach for America alumni community to work together to create systemic change and improve pupil outcomes.  I leave now with far greater insight into the community that extends beyond the alumni network, and what we can learn from this and bring to our own schools and neighbourhoods in South London to improve the work that we do here.

How we view and define ‘community’ is important

The concept of community itself is complex and challenging in New Orleans. Eighty per cent of schools in New Orleans are now run by Charter operators, a number that increased significantly in the wake of hurricane Katrina.  Many stories we heard throughout our visit recounted the often tumultuous relationship between educational reformers and the neighbourhoods that they serve. It is easy to understand the existence of these tensions in New Orleans, where 7,500 Orleans Parish School employees were dismissed in the wake of the hurricane. Teach for America Alumni made up a large proportion of teachers filling the spaces of their veteran predecessors in New Orleans, with one-third of all children in the city now being taught either by Teach for America alumni or corps members. With “a new system by and large comprised of people who are not from here”, a question is raised by Teach for America’s executive director in the region, Kira Orange-Jones: “What do we do with that power?” Arriving at an answer to this question has been no small feat for educational reformers in New Orleans, and undoubtedly complicated the already challenging relationships between schools, Teach for America alumni and their communities further.

How pupils themselves view and define their communities is also riddled by post-Katrina complexities in New Orleans. ‘Doc’ (otherwise known as Dr. Eric Jones) made a useful distinction for us between ‘communities’ and ‘neighbourhoods’ – seen as two separate entities by many in New Orleans. Communities, Doc says, are a resource. Communities are changeable, influenced by many different cultures, beliefs, and provide a richness of experience drawn from a variety of people – those who ‘birth’ the community and those who ‘rebirth’ it. Neighbourhoods on the other hand are ‘fixed’; a place where one may identify with culturally and geographically – ‘home’ in both the literal and symbolic sense. This distinction of community and neighbourhood was illustrated unintentionally by Markeith, a pupil we met by chance on our ferry ride across the river to the Algiers district one morning. Markeith (like many of his peers) normally makes a long bus journey each morning to KIPP Renaissance High School, one of the many Charters in the Algiers district, where pupils join him from various wards from all over New Orleans. It is not unusual and is in fact the norm for pupils in New Orleans to travel from one side of the city to the other to attend school. Markeith tells us he’d rather go to Walker-Landry High School, where his cousins and older family members attended and were able to ‘take part in the band’ (brass bands feature strongly in many of the ‘traditional’ schools in New Orleans), although he values the discipline and hard-working ethic that KIPP Renaissance has afforded him. For Markeith, school and home culture are two distinct forms of community. Markeith told us of his dream to become an artist one day, sharing his artwork that he creates in the limited time he has outside school:

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Markeith, a pupil from KIPP Renaissance, shows us his artwork on our ferry journey to Algiers

 Later that morning, we attended a panel discussion with several community leaders including Mary Laurie, Principal of Walker-Landry High School. Laurie posed an interesting question to frame our discussion around how schools are working with local communities: “are the community a resource for the school, or the school a resource for the community?”  This prompted me to question to what extent the schools that we work with at Teach First view themselves as a resource for the communities that they serve. How many schools are actively seeking out members of the community – or local neighbourhoods – to take a seat at roundtable discussions about the school’s place in the community, and the community’s place in the school?

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Teach First ambassadors and staff members join a panel of community leaders at Walker-Landry High School

 Who are we inviting to take a seat at the table?

The importance of involving local community members in discussions about the future of education featured in all of our discussions last week. Whether we heard from educators, pupils, or community leaders, all saw the importance of community voices being heard as integral to strengthening partnerships and creating lasting change. With such rapid pace of progress in New Orleans, this has not always been easy. Ting Yu, Teach for America ’03 Alum and Editor in Chief of One Day (Teach for America Alumni Magazine) writes that “it’s hard not to wonder if, in our urgency to get results, we’ve unintentionally silenced important voices who also believe in what’s best for kids”.

For some educators, this fear of being ‘silenced’ resonated more intensely than others. Mary Laurie, Principal of Landry-Walker High School opened our panel discussion on the first day of our visit by posing the question to us as listeners: “Do you believe that there is validity to what we are going to say?” Laurie’s colleague, Dr. Payne, Assistant Principal at Landry-Walker High School, spoke similarly of her experiences of veteran educators being side-lined and asked us to consider, “who is writing the storylines” when we talk about educational reform in New Orleans.

In recent years, London has seen exponential growth in pupil attainment for those from low income backgrounds which in many ways mirrors the staggering upward trajectory that New Orleans has seen since hurricane Katrina in 2005. The comments of the community leaders we spoke to on our first day provided a stark reminder that underneath the surface level data lay many unwritten stories that document London’s successes, and its failures.

We have to stop having ‘drive-by’ conversations

Ironically, many of the conversations we had on our community immersion tour with Doc on our first day in New Orleans were ‘drive-by’ conversations, in the literal sense. As we made our way across the Algiers district (all ten of us huddled into Doc’s truck) every other street corner prompted a “How y’all doin’?”, usually involving Doc hollering out of the side of his truck to greet school Principals, pupils, and neighbours.

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Doc at the entrance to our first school visit in Algiers: McDonogh 32

 Doc knows everybody in New Orleans. Or at least it seems that way. We couldn’t walk more than a few yards without being stopped by local residents, eager to check-in with Doc and share their news. Whilst at times it is hard to comprehend just how long it must have taken him to build these relationships, Doc strikes me as a person who makes investing in people a habit: “there ain’t no value in drive-by conversations. You got to stop and listen, really listen. Through listening, you gain trust, and that way, people want to work with you and tell you their stories. That’s where real change starts to happen.” Common sense, right? But if we are honest with ourselves, how often are we having ‘drive-by’ conversations in the day-to-day work that we do?

We were privileged to spend an afternoon later in the week at Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary, where Teach for America alum and Principal Krystal Hardy invited us to participate in a whole-staff CPD session on increasing parental engagement. The school are considering ways to form more meaningful relationships with parents, following initial success in raising attendance at their most recent ‘Open House’ event from 53 to over 250 parents from the local community. “Relationships are our greatest currency”, Krystal tells us. “It’s all about changing culture by listening, and understanding the reasons behind parental disengagement. Then, it’s about establishing what it would look like if they were engaged, and working out how to bridge the gap.”

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 A corridor display at Sylvanie Williams College Prep Elementary School

 In New Orleans, the need to replace ‘drive-by’ conversations with meaningful is held with a great sense of urgency, heightened by the perceived ‘differences’ between educators and the communities that they serve. Arlene Casimir-Siar, a Brooklyn native ’11 Teach for America alum teaching Third Grade at KIPP Believe Primary School tells us of the challenges she faced when moving to New Orleans as an ‘outsider’, mistrusted by parents whom Arlene found it difficult to build relationships with when they had “never seen promises being delivered in the past”. “I had to show them that I genuinely wanted to listen”, Arlene tells us. “I had to open myself up to them and say: ‘I want to hear your voice. I’m not from here…I want to include you in everything’.”

Arlene’s classroom is full of examples of listening to her community of children and parents, her “family”. Having taught the class of 2028 from kindergarten – almost four years now – Arlene has been afforded a luxury to build lasting relationships with her pupils that many teachers simply do not have. Undoubtedly, Arlene has used this position to make a huge impact on the lives of her pupils and their parents – the relationships that she has formed with her class and the wider community are evident:

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Notes from pupils, parents and colleagues in Arlene’s classroom at KIPP Believe Primary

 However, Arlene insists that this culture of listening had to be embedded from day one in her classroom from a place of “engaging in meaningful discourse”. When Arlene shared her vision for her class with us, she told us that “back then, I wanted to hear and understand their voices as well as my own”.

Whilst Arlene’s high academic expectations of her class are undoubtedly having a positive impact on their learning, it is her pupils’ ability to articulate their own sense of social justice that strikes me as having the most profound impact. There is a culture of listening, and being heard in the class of 2028. When asked what makes her school experience different to her peers, one pupil Keisha tells us, “at my sister’s school…they don’t change the world there”.

 Powerful solutions require collaboration

New Orleans, like London in many respects, is a hub for innovation and has seen the social enterprise field spring into action post-hurricane Katrina. During our time in New Orleans, we visited several social enterprise incubators, including Propeller and 4.0 Schools who are working to support social entrepreneurs, including Teach for America alumni working in innovation for educational reform.

Andre Feigler, Teach for America alum and Founder of EnrichEd (an idea born of a frustration with ‘sub-standard supply teaching’, now working to provide schools and partners with a range of talented professionals to provide enrichment opportunities) sees community engagement as a vital resource for tapping into a rich bank of skills and expertise that can transform pupil experience. “What we need is often right on our doorstep”, Andre tells us, and simply involves “tapping into underutilized local groups of skilled people within the community”. We hear from a panel of Guest Educators at EnrichEd, who explain that collaborating with schools in this way is equally rewarding, including Tank, a poet and stage-renowned singer (born and bred in New Orleans) who tells us that, “I didn’t have anyone who looked like me [at school]. When I step into the classroom, I want to create a space that’s safe, comfortable and creative. Connecting to people from our own cultures, and other cultures, is central to making waves in education.”

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 EnrichEd Guest Teachers Brother Shack, Aaron and Tank speak to us at 4.0 Schools, along with Harry Schnur (Director, Collective Impact at EnrichEd) and Andre Fiegler, EnrichEd Founder and CEO

 Maggie Riddell, Teach for America Greater New Orleans alum at TrueSchool, shares with us the power of empathy as the bedrock of collaborative solutions in education: “people think that they know the solution because they think that they know the problem. We need to push educators to form solutions from a place of understanding their pupils’ problems and perspectives”.  TrueSchool is an applied research and action design firm partnering with schools and districts in New Orleans to enable innovative educators to redesign classrooms, schools, and systems.

Arlene at KIPP Believe Primary similarly sees her vision for her pupils as a collaborative effort and one based on an understanding of pupil perspective. It’s something that is “always a work in progress [and] always in my pocket; it’s a constant point of discussion and revision with my kids, and with their parents. If they’re not periodically saying to me, ‘This needs to change’ or ‘our vision needs revising’, then I need to ask myself, am I doing enough here? Who do I need to talk to in order to find out?” When confronted with what Arlene calls the ‘brutal facts’ (over 90% of Arlene’s Third Grade class know someone who is incarcerated, homeless or a victim of gun violence), she reflects that “it’s really hard work to do alone and you reach so few that way”. Again, this is a notion that doesn’t seem so complex in theory, but hard to achieve in reality when faced with the burden of everyday administration in teaching. “My vision and why I’m here is what gets me through the hard times. That, and knowing that I’m making a difference by working with them [the parents] and that I’m not alone in this”, Arlene tells us. The parents are both her advocates and her influencers when it comes to creating classroom culture.

Doc was able to provide us with some additional theory on this model of partnership. Every solutions-focussed community needs the following three characters, he tells us:

  1. Influencers
  2. Validators
  3. Advocators

“Identify those people in your neighbourhoods and communities, and get them on the bus. With those people on board, you gonna go places”, he assures us.

Chris Meyer, Greater New Orleans ’04 Alum and former deputy superintendent for the Recovery School District in New Orleans writes that too many educational reformers create “false choice” between getting results and working with the community. Meyer believes that both are possible, but educators being able to elect both community engagement and results hinges on being willing to “dig in and understand what really matters” to the community. “You can’t bring reform to a community; you have to do it with them.” Likewise, Kiera Orange Jones says educators must enter communities not as authorities but as listeners. Perhaps a lesson learnt for many in New Orleans and indeed across the Teach for America alumni network echoes the African proverb that says, “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together”.

“Until the day comes that every child succeeds, our community is not doing enough”.

In response to my original questions about what makes the work that the alumni community in New Orleans do so effective – I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not just a movement of people who care passionately about closing the attainment gap working together; it’s the involvement of the whole community that’s enabled this change to happen. Whilst the New Orleans district has made considerable gains in improving pupil outcomes, it has not always been a smooth ride, and there is still a long way to go until the neighbourhoods and communities of New Orleans are working together to eliminate educational disadvantage, or as Mary Laurie said: “until the day comes that every child succeeds, our community is not doing enough”.

Similarly in the UK, we now need to be thinking about who we are ‘inviting to the table’ so that no child’s educational success is limited by how much their parents earn, or where they come from. Whilst we are a powerful community of committed ambassadors and better together than we are in silo, we cannot do this difficult work alone. There are so many communities in South London and beyond, rich in knowledge and ideas about how to make education better that I’m now more excited than ever to get to know better.

Here’s to having fewer ‘drive-by’ conversations and making more ‘pit stops’ in our local communities!

Appreciations

I couldn’t possibly do justice all of the people and places who showed us great hospitability, kindness and trust in welcoming us into their schools and communities during our time in New Orleans. Each and every place we visited provided a point of inspiration or reflection, which simply couldn’t be accounted for in this (very long) blog. A big round of applause for making it this far!

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’12 Teach for America alumni Lucy Scholz (far left) and Torey Haywood (far right) welcome Teach First staff and ambassadors to Bonabell Magnet Academy High School, Kenner.

 However, I’d like to make brief shout-outs of acknowledgement to all of the people and places who made this visit and our experiences possible, including:

Teach for America Greater New Orleans

‘The Krewe’
Renard and Rene Casimere
Jamar McNeeley
Mary Laurie
Dr. Payne
Dr. Eric Jones
Elliot Sanchez (mSchools)
Collegiate Academies
ReNEW Accelerated
New Schools for New Orleans
Edna Karr High School
KIPP Believe Primary
Sylvanie Williams Prep Elementary
4.0 Schools
TrueSchool
EnrichEd
Propeller
Youth Run NOLA
Bonnabel Magnet Academy High School
Firstline Schools

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Samuel J. Green School’s Edible Schoolyard, corridor displays at Sci Collegiate Academy, and Louis Armstrong Park, New Orleans

 If you would like to find out more about what our group of ambassadors and staff will be doing to make sure that we’re sharing and developing our learning beyond our visit to New Orleans, please get in touch. We’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions about how we can continue this conversation with you. 

New Orleans: Rebirth and Reconciliation: What I hope to learn

NB: This blog was originally posted on the Teach First Community Website. I’ve re-posted here to frame the context behind our visit to New Orleans this October half term:

I’m Sarah, South London Teach First Ambassador and staff member, leading our trip to New Orleans over the October Half Term. In this blog, I’m writing about why I’m so excited about our New Orleans project and what I’m looking forward to.

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New Orleans Louisiana, as well as being famed for its eclectic mix of culture, food and music, has experienced a complete overhaul in terms of its education system; recovering post-hurricane Katrina and from the deep-seated underachievement that preceded it. If you’re a Netflix user, ‘Rebirth New Orleans’ documents this far better than I can.

I’m really looking forward to visiting Café Reconcile, an innovative life skills and job training programme assisting young people from at-risk communities who want to make a positive change in their lives. I’m equally excited about going on a community tour and meeting some of the community leaders responsible for the transformation in New Orleans, including Mary Laurie (pictured below) who features in ‘Hope Against Hope’. Then there’s the music. This is going to be INCREDIBLE.

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That said, behind all of this excitement and anticipation lies something that is really important to me.  South London has the largest community of Teach First ambassadors in the country, yet we know that we need to do much more to connect, inspire and mobilise this group of people for us to have a lasting impact. Being an ambassador who has taught in South London myself, I know how easy it is to feel disconnected – even powerless – when it comes to tackling the challenges of educational disadvantage once you’ve left the classroom, or even within it. It’s huge. In some of the Outer London Boroughs that I work in now, such as Sutton and Merton, pupils are almost half as likely than their peers to achieve 5 A*-C grades at GCSE if they are eligible for Free School Meals. As a teacher, I knew all too well that I could make small, positive influences on the lives of my pupils but I couldn’t always tackle the huge, life-long obstacles that they face outside the classroom to overcome this inequity on my own.

In New Orleans, 860 alumni of the Teach for America programme are working together with each other and the local community to create organisations like mSchools, which are changing the pathways for young people across the district. Twenty-seven alumni are school leaders in New Orleans and many others are designing exciting new curriculum, driving city and state policy, working in advocacy, and innovating through social entrepreneurship. To top that, there’s a huge community of alumni committed to staying in the classroom and making a difference at the grass roots. Surely there’s something we can learn from this?

I believe that giving people the space and time to think, to explore new ways of learning and doing, and most importantly to see motivation and inspiration in action is the very bedrock of great ideas and innovations. Creating a shared experience undoubtedly brings people closer together, and supports them to make connections which will support the network beyond the experience itself. This is what we hope will make a difference for our group of staff and ambassadors visiting New Orleans. As a group, we are already beginning to consider how we will share our learning with our community and kick-start ideas and projects that will have a positive and practical impact on the lives of the young people in South London. We’re beginning to plan for our legacy as a group, and would love to hear your thoughts on what you think could help make a difference to the lives of young people in South London because after all, this project is not only about our learning but how we can share it with others to make it worthwhile.

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If you’d like to share your own experiences of New Orleans, tell us what we should be looking out for while we’re there, or simply follow us on Twitter for updates, stories and news from the Bayou then here’s your first port of call: #TFNOLA14

We can’t wait to share with you what we’ve been up to, and what we intend to do with this learning experience in the future. For now, wish us good luck driving on the other side of the road and finding ourselves suitably scary costumes for the Krewe of Boo parade!

Welcome to my blog

Hi, I’m Sarah and I’m new here!

First, let me start with a bit of context about why I am here.

Last week, I travelled with a group of nine people to New Orleans – all of us teachers or working in education and passionate about levelling the educational playing field for kids from low-income backgrounds. We were visiting New Orleans with two key questions on our mind:

  1. What has contributed to the narrowing of the educational ‘gap’ for pupils from low-income backgrounds compared to their peers in New Orleans post-hurricane Katrina, and what can educators in London learn from this?
  2. How are Teach for America alumni in New Orleans working together to create systemic change and transform the lives of young people in the city, and how can we create a similar legacy for our Teach First ambassadors in South London?

We return with many reflections on these questions (and more) that I couldn’t possibly do justice to in a short blog like this. However, one key learning point for me during the trip came rather unexpectedly during a session with 4.0 Schools, who offer support to social entrepreneurs in the field of education. Offering just 3 months of incubation, which means use of their office space and regular contact with consultants to move the idea on rather than the standard year-long programme of support – they work with a motto of ‘just ship it!’: if there’s a possible solution or idea that could help users, ‘ship it’ out there and test it. If it works, run with it.

I have been so inspired, challenged, and motivated by all that we’ve seen and heard in New Orleans that I’m embracing that very idea and ‘shipping’ this blog as a way of sharing what I’ve learnt, and what I hope to continue learning beyond the visit. I hope that this might inspire further conversations about the successes and challenges of educational reform, and the education sector more widely. It’s something I care about a lot, and would love to get more people talking about with a greater sense of urgency.

My colleague Charlie does a great job of explaining more about who went and why we went on this educational visit to meet schools, community leaders, entrepreneurs and communities in New Orleans if you’re interested in the background.

Thanks for stopping by!

Sarah