How the Arts Unlock the Door to Learning

 

Student achievement was down. Teachers were demoralized. Until a bold strategy — integrating the arts into curricula — helped students embrace their learning and retain their knowledge. Today the faculty, staff, and students of Maryland’s Bates Middle School are crafting a whole new vision of school transformation.

What do Mars and modern dance have to do with each other? How do you connect fractions with Andy Warhol? At Wiley H. Bates Middle School, in Annapolis, Maryland, the answer is arts integration. Every teacher there is committed to weaving the arts and standard curricula together to create a richer and more lasting learning experience for their students.

Arts integration goes beyond including art projects in class; it is a teaching strategy that seamlessly merges arts standards with core curricula to build connections and provide engaging context. For example, in a science classroom you might see students choreographing a dance using locomotor and nonlocomotor movements to demonstrate their understanding of rotation versus revolution of the planets (PDF). In a math class, you might see students learning fractions by examining composition in Warhol’s Campbell’s soup paintings.

(See more arts-integrated lesson plans from Bates.)

What we also saw in these classrooms were students who were enthusiastically participating in the learning process, and having fun. It’s not revelatory to say that the arts can engage kids. But that that engagement can also be leveraged to boost academic growth and improve discipline seems like a secret that really needs to be revealed. When you see how the kids embrace these lessons, hear them tell how art helps them remember concepts better, and learn about the improvements teachers have noted in student understanding and retention, it makes you wonder why more schools aren’t integrating the arts in every class.

A Whole-School Reform

Bates decided to become a fully arts-integrated school in 2007 as the primary initiative in a whole-school reform effort. Other initiatives in their school improvement plan (PDF) included Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS), an operational framework for implementing practices and interventions to improve academic and behavioral outcomes, and Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID), a college readiness system with research-based methods for elementary through postsecondary students. Their principal at the time, Diane Bragdon, had brought the school back from the brink of failure and now was ready to aim its trajectory squarely toward greater success. Bragdon got the support of Anne Arundel County Public Schools Superintendent Kevin Maxwell, long a proponent of schools of choice, who knew well the impact arts integration had had in other Maryland schools. The district applied for a four-year grant called Supporting Arts Integrated Learning for Student Success (SAILSS) from the U.S. Department of Education and was one of 15 districts and schools to receive it.

Arts integration goes beyond including art projects in class; it is a teaching strategy that seamlessly merges arts standards with core curricula to build connections and provide engaging context.

Since they started implementing arts integration schoolwide in 2009, Bates has seen a 23 percent drop in the average number of referrals and suspensions per student. The school’s percentage of students proficient or advanced in math has grown four times more than the state’s over the same period, and five times more in reading. Not all lessons are taught with arts integration, but Bates takes pains to diligently track those that have been in a regular log (PDF), and they report substantial improvements in student comprehension and retention.

Why Does Arts Integration Work?

Why does it work? Arts integration uses teaching practices that have been shown in brain-based research to improve comprehension and long-term retention. For example, when students create stories, pictures, or other nonverbal expressions of the content they are learning — a process researchers call elaboration — they are also helping to better embed the information. In one eighth-grade math class, students prepared for a test on linear equations by creating photo stories of the steps involved. This required that teacher Laura Casciato spend nearly a full class period teaching about basic principles of design (PDF). She explained the trade-off: “It was an easy decision to spend time on the art because we know that they retain that information better. They’re going to look at that test and say, ‘Oh yeah, I remember that information from my photo.’”

As with any new initiative, there are a number of factors that must be in place for it to succeed. With arts integration, high-quality professional development is essential. Teachers don’t need to be “artistic” to be able to use arts integration; they just need to learn some of the fundamentals so they will be better able to think of ways to merge art concepts with other content. For example, knowing the basic elements of design, such as emphasis, balance, contrast, and repetition, enabled Casciato to teach her students how to create more informative photo compositions to illustrate each step in solving a linear equation (PDF).

(Read tips for administrators and teachers for getting started with arts integration.)

Bates used the bulk of their grant money for professional development, which they started in the 2007-08 school year. They have PD Thursdays every other week, and at least one per month is on arts integration. Last year (2011-12) was the final year of their grant funding. Teachers report they are now well versed in arts standards and know how to create arts-integrated lessons. Many now train their colleagues and new teachers entering the school.

Beyond engagement and retention, adults and students at Bates cite numerous other benefits of arts integration: It encourages healthy risk taking, helps kids recognize new skills in themselves and others, provides a way to differentiate instruction, builds collaboration among both students and teachers, bridges differences, and draws in parents and the community. Plus it’s just plain fun.

Lastly, there’s equity. If we agree that the arts can provide all kinds of benefits for kids, from intellectual to creative to social-emotional, then shouldn’t all kids have the opportunity to learn about and experience them? But far too few schools have either the funding or the bureaucratic support to make this a priority, a lack often born out of fear of sacrificing academic achievement. What Bates and many other arts-integrated schools across the country are showing is that by creating a richer, more memorable learning experience through the arts, they unleash not only a rising tide of academic achievement but they lay the foundation for what it means to be a truly creative community.

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Why Identity and Emotion are Central To Motivating the Teen Brain

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For years, common experience and studies have prescribed that humans learn best in their earliest years of life – when the brain is developing at its fastest. Recently, though, research has suggested that the period of optimal learning extends well into adolescence.

The flurry of new findings may force a total rethinking of how educators and parents nurture this vulnerable age group, turning moments of frustration into previously unseen opportunities for learning and academic excitement.

New evidence shows that the window for formative brain development continues into the onset of puberty, between ages 9 and 13, and likely through the teenage years, according to Ronald Dahl, professor of community health and human development at the University of California, Berkeley. Dahl spoke at a recent Education Writers Association seminar on motivation and engagement.

Adolescence is a tornado of change: Not only is it the period of fastest physical change in life – aside from infancy – but also newfound drives, motivations, and feelings of sexuality are amplified. There are profound shifts to metabolisms and sleeping cycles, as well as social roles – especially in the context of schools. During these years, motivation is propelled not by a tangible goal to work toward, but by a feeling of wanting and thirst. Within the tumult of pre-teens or teens is an opportunity to enhance their desire and interest to learn.

In the past decade, neuroscientists have been able to identify what makes the adolescent brain so geared for the kind of inquiry that can pay dividends in the classroom. As children enter adolescence, some developing neural systems have already stabilized, Dahl said. But puberty creates a whole new set of elastic neural systems that, when interacting with the already stabilized systems, offers unique windows of opportunity for engagement and experiencing the world around them in multiple ways.

“Adolescence is a perfect storm of opportunities to align these changes in positive ways,” Dahl said. “Learning, exploration, acquiring skills and habits, intrinsic motivations, attitudes, setting goals and priorities: There’s compelling need for transdisciplinary research to understand unique opportunities for social and emotional learning. But few people do it in fear of these challenges.”

These new scientific insights have large implications for how schools teach adolescents, which have traditionally viewed this age group astroublesome.

The feelings of acceptance, rejection, admiration, among others, are all the story of adolescence. Children in this age group also seek physical sensations and thrills. There’s heightened awareness of social status, especially as they realize that acts of courage can earn them higher social status among peers. Their wildly swinging neurological systems also mean that adolescents can readjust quickly – making those years critical for educators to engage students in “the right ways,” when the brain is learning to calibrate complex social and emotional value systems that use feelings as fast signals, Dahl said.

Contrary to common belief, children in this age range don’t actually have “broken brains.” Rather, these children are undergoing a profound update to how they process the world around them. Adolescents are often considered bad decision-makers who are thrill-seekers. These myths, however, stem from young people’s desire to display courage, which is valued across cultures — and adolescents constantly seek the emotional satisfaction of being admired. In fact, Dahl said that adolescents take risks to overcome their fears, not seek them out.

“[Adolescents] are learning about the complex social world they must navigate, including the hierarchies, social rules for gaining acceptance and status, and the mystifying discovery of a sexual self,” Dahl said. “This is a flexible period for goal engagement, and the main part of what’s underneath what we think about setting goals in conscious ways – the bottom-up-based pull to feel motivated toward things.”

Adding to the confusion over how best to respond to adolescents is a wave of research showing children around the world are entering puberty at younger ages. One report found that in the 1860s, puberty for girls began at age 16. In the 1950s, it occurred at 13. Today it’s closer to eight years old. The transition for boys is similar, according to the report. The earlier onset of these pronounced biological changes puts pressure on educators and parents to update their expectations for what it means to be young, and how youth plays into adulthood.

“This is an interesting potential opportunity, with the longer time to learn activated motivational systems, longer time to increase skills and develop patterns of developing knowledge,” Dahl said. “If kids grow up in opportune settings, they can take advantage of the scaffolding and freedom to go on to take adult roles. But the risks are probably more amplified than opportunities for kids in disadvantaged settings.”

It’s still unclear how the earlier development happening in children might create other sets of challenges, Dahl noted, but it’s evident that it’s a key development window of motivational learning, a time when the brain more intensely senses motivational feelings, strengthening the patterns of connections to heartfelt goals, and creates potential for deep, sustained learning.

This period of learning is exemplified by even the forbidden love of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. The young couple is brought together by a single brief encounter, after which all mental processes of planning, goals, motivations, longing, and desire are transformed. They begin to obsess over reuniting, and would sacrifice anything – including comfort, safety, family, and friends – to be together again.

Without the context that adolescents’ motives can explode entirely by the spark of a single passion, Romeo and Juliet’s story would be one of utter insanity, Dahl said. But adolescents’ abilities to rapidly reshape motivations and goals both supports their emotional volatility as well as presents a key period to find love – not necessarily romantically for others, but for academic activities and goals.

“With the feelings that pull you to persevere, maybe [adolescence is] a particularly opportune time to fall in love with learning itself, to love that feeling of exploring,” Dahl said. “There’s a new window to create that ‘Yes!’ feeling.”

This story was written for the Education Writers Association and originally appeared there.

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12 Ideas to Increase Productivity

December 13, 2014 There is no secret recipe to enhance one’s productivity. It all boils down to how much dedication and will power you have and are willing to invest in your work. But sometimes people do have the will power to be productive and achieve more  but they just can’t put it down  to action. The distractions in their lives are too many to let them work as they want. This is where…

How to Support Teachers for 21st Century Learning

via eClassroom News

Experts weigh in on how administrators can support teachers in implementing collaboration and creativity

Implementing broad concepts like critical thinking and communication may seem like natural next steps to educators, but unless teachers receive support from school policy and infrastructure, providing students with a true 21st century education may not be so easy.

This was a key topic of discussion during a recent Connected Educator Month webinar, hosted by the Partnership for 21st Century Skills (P21) and EdLeader21—a national network of school and district leaders focused on integrating the 4Cs into education.

The 4Cs–communication, collaboration, critical thinking, and creativity–are part of P21’s mission to help educators teach students 21st century skills. Webinar panelists said this task can’t be accomplished without support from school administrators in the way of space design, instructional practices, and school policy.

Dana Strother, chief academic officer at Douglas County School District in Colorado, said her district “looked at Bloom’s Taxonomy and vetted our state’s standards through the taxonomy” during an evaluation of instructional practice.

“Areas that were lacking we improved through what we call ‘World Class Outcomes,’ and instructional design that allows for the 4Cs. We also provided CIA curriculum and instruction alignment and wove authentic learning experiences into the curriculum for support,” she said.

The district also made it a priority to provide supporting infrastructure through district policy on risk-opportunities.

“It’s important to let teachers know, in various ways, but also through policy, that we support risk-taking opportunities, or new strategies, projects, or professional development opportunities that may be new or unique,” she said.

For example, Douglas County lets teachers experience inquiry-based professional development opportunities in order for teachers to learn through the same practices they’re expected to teach students.

“We’re asking teachers to incorporate new kinds of teaching that include the 4Cs, so why should teachers in turn be taught in a different manner? Sometimes by thinking outside of the box and going against traditional methods, especially from an administrator standpoint, the results are better,” Strother said.

Randy Fielding, chairman and founding partner of educational facilities planning and architectural design firm Fielding Nair International, said he believes school design also factors heavily into incorporating the 4Cs into a student’s daily life.

Fielding’s design firm tries to incorporate 20 “learning modalities” into school design, which include concepts, such as Independent Study, Peer Tutoring, Team Collaboration, and One-on-One Learning, to support the 4Cs of instruction.

“To have a truly 21st-century school, you have to inspire organic collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication, and focusing on design can help.”

“To have a truly 21st-century school, you have to inspire organic collaboration, critical thinking, creativity, and communication, and focusing on design can help. For example, you could have a ‘watering hole’ space off hallways where students could casually converse; you could have a ‘cave space’ where students could reflect for independent thinking; and you could have a ‘campfire space’ where everyone gathers to collaborate,” Fielding said.

Panelists emphasized that it’s also important for administrators and teachers to understand that instruction focused on the 4Cs doesn’t just work for certain kinds of subjects, students, or teachers.

“The 4Cs work for every kind of student and teacher in classrooms across the country,” said Donna Harris-Aikens, director of Education Policy and Practice at the National Education Association (NEA). “It’s less a series of requirements and more just authentic learning. For example, a math class could use its English and design skills to help draft a proposal to help senior citizens in their community make their homes more accessible. For this kind of project, you need the 4Cs in STEM, English, and community service.”

Fielding said it’s important that school and district leaders support teachers in working together to develop collaborative projects for their students.

One of the schools his firm works with has a student-run lunch program through which students negotiate with local farmers. They serve the week’s menu selections on carts around the school so students can taste-test their creations. Students in the program generate quarterly reports on profit and loss, and send those reports off to the school board.

“Students get credit for working in this program, which essentially teaches them collaboration skills, analytical skills, and even creative skills, thanks to cooking,” he said.

However, panelists said that there are still barriers for teachers who want to pursue the 4Cs, including getting first-world experience on how to actually teach broad concepts like creativity.

“That’s why we introduced the Creative Innovator Network in our district, which allows teachers to collaborate with not only their peers on different projects, but also local businesses to brainstorm ideas on how students can better serve the community,” said Strother. “We also bring students into the teacher professional development sessions to hear their voice and how they enjoy learning, so that teachers can adapt their instruction.”

“The biggest barrier for teachers is time,” said Harris-Aikens. “Finding time to make everything work effectively and collaborate is hard, especially because planning, or collaborating, time needs to be on a consistent and continual basis. Students also need a large amount of time to work on these projects, and to have time flexibility in case they make mistakes, as well. Administrators need to make sure teachers and students can have that time in their day.”

For more on this topic, watch the full webinar.

27 Ways to Reflect Upon Your Teaching Practice

February 23, 2015 Reflection and reflexivity are two meta-cognitive processes that we constantly need to exercise in order to guarantee an effective and healthy professional and also emotional growth. Unless you take a pause and think deeply about what you are doing and how you are doing it, you will never get to learn about your weaknesses and strengths. You won’t be able to stop navel-gazing and…

The 7C’s of Effective Communication

February 24, 2015 Following the post we shared here a few weeks ago featuring some useful resources to help teachers and educators master the art of presenting, somebody sent us this beautiful visual which ties in with the theme of that post. 7 Cs of Effective Communication is a work from Brainy Quote and Evan Carmichael. The visual  outlines some interesting strategies to keep in mind when…

5 Methods for Developing Problem Solving Skills

 

February 17, 2015 Here is a wonderful visual from Eye on Education featuring 5 methods for developing problem-solving skills. This work is adapted from Ben Johnson’s book “ Teaching Students to Dig Deeper; The Common Core in Action”. The methods advocated here include: brainstorming, word association, Inkblot test, solute vs solution, gallery walk. Each of these methods is explained and illustrated…

 

The Rise of Homeschooling Among Black Families

African American parents are increasingly taking their kids’ education into their own hands—and in many cases, it’s to protect them from institutional racism and stereotyping.
ashida s. mar b./Flickr

Marvell Robinson was in kindergarten when a classmate reportedly poured an anthill on him at the playground. After that, the gibes reportedly became sharper: “Why are you that color?” one boy taunted at the swing set, leaving Marvell scared and speechless. The slow build of racial bullying would push his mother, Vanessa Robinson, to pull him from his public school and homeschool him instead.

Marvell is one of an estimated 220,000 African American children currently being homeschooled, according to the National Home Education Research Institute. Black families have become one of the fastest-growing demographics in homeschooling, with black students making up an estimated 10 percent of the homeschooling population. (For comparison’s sake, they make up 16 percent of all public-school students nationwide, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.)

And while white homeschooling families traditionally cite religious or moral disagreements with public schools in their decision to pull them out of traditional classroom settings, studies indicate black families are more likely to cite the culture of low expectations for African American students or dissatisfaction with how their children—especially boys—are treated in schools.

Marvell, now 7 and in the second grade, was the only black student in both his kindergarten and first-grade classes, and one of only a few black students in his San Diego elementary school, according to his mother. And Marvell’s Asperger syndrome—a high-functioning form of autism that makes social interaction difficult—only added to the curiosity and cruelty with which his fellow classmates approached him, Robinson added. She was concerned the school wasn’t doing enough about it. “I just thought maybe I could do a better job myself,” she said.

“They said, ‘kids will be kids,’ and the only solution was for Marvell to be monitored—like he had done something wrong,” Robinson said. “In the end, I don’t think that anyone should have to monitor my kid” because of other kids’ behavior.

Robinson allowed Marvell to finish first grade there and began homeschooling him when he started second grade in September. Robinson adjusted her nursing schedule to include 12-hour shifts on the weekends so she could take on educating Marvell during the week. Her husband, a sous chef at a restaurant in downtown San Diego, continues to work full-time and participates in lessons when he can.

And while her primary motivation was giving Marvell individualized attention, Robinson was unable to separate her worries about racial bullying from the decision. “If he hadn’t been bullied I would have really looked into transferring schools, or going back to where I grew up in Kansas,” she said. “At least in Kansas it was more racially diverse. I assumed that’s how the schools would be in San Diego, but I was wrong.”

Robinson likely joins hundreds of other African American parents who’ve decided to homeschool their children because of dissatisfaction with the traditional campuses. Indeed, Joyce Burges at National Black Home Educators has watched her membership grow “exponentially” in the 15 years since the organization was founded, a trend also reflected in Marvell’s home state of California. While Burges’s national conferences in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, used to attract only around 50 people, they now attract upwards of 400, she said—a noteworthy number for the first organization for black homeschoolers in a sea of predominantly white organizations.

Research conducted by Marie-Josée Cérol—known professionally as Ama Mazama—also offers insight into the growing trend. A faculty member in the African American Studies department at Temple University in Philadelphia, Mazama began homeschooling her three children 12 years ago and realized quickly that there was little research on black homeschoolers.

“Whenever there are mentions of African American homeschoolers, it’s assumed that we homeschool for the same reasons as European-American homeschoolers, but this isn’t really the case,” she said. “Because of the unique circumstances of black people in this country, there is really a new story to be told.”

In a 2012 report published in the Journal of Black Studies, Mazama surveyed black homeschooling families from around the country and found that most chose to educate their children at home at least in part to avoid school-related racism. Mazama calls this rationale “racial protectionism” and said it is a response to the inability of schools to meet the needs of black students. “We have all heard that the American education system is not the best and is falling behind in terms of international standards,” she said. “But this is compounded for black children, who are treated as though they are not as intelligent and cannot perform as well, and therefore the standards for them should be lower.”

Mazama said schools also rob black children of the opportunity to learn about their own culture because of a “Euro-centric” world-history curriculum. “Typically, the curriculum begins African American history with slavery and ends it with the Civil Rights Movement,” she said. “You have to listen to yourself simply being talked about as a descendent of slaves, which is not empowering. There is more to African history than that.” Mazama’s studies show that black parents who choose to homeschool often teach a comprehensive view of African history by incorporating more detailed descriptions of ancient African civilizations and accounts of successful African people throughout history. This allows children to “build their sense of racial pride and self esteem,” she said.

Meanwhile, Cheryl Fields-Smith, an associate professor in the department of Educational Theory and Practice at the University of Georgia, has in her own studies found similar motivations among black homeschoolers. “The schools want little black boys to behave like little white girls, and that’s just never going to happen. They are different,” she said. “I think black families who are in a position to homeschool can use homeschooling to avoid the issues of their children being labeled ‘trouble makers’ and the suggestion that their children need special-education services because they learn and behave differently.”

What it means to be “in a position to homeschool” has long been a question in the homeschooling community. According to Mazama, regardless of race, homeschooling families tend to be wealthier and better educated because they must have the economic ability to have one parent stay home full time. Home education, she added, is “not a middle-class phenomenon.”

However, both Mazama and Fields-Smith say this is beginning to change; barriers that in the past might have left homeschooling out of the question for many working-class families are being lifted. Greater access to public-education resources is making homeschooling more appealing, too. Mazama pointed to the availability of subsidies ensuring homeschooled children have access to standard public-school nutritional offerings, for example, and public programs allowing homeschooled students to enroll in extracurricular activities and after-school sports as reasons why families are increasingly seeing homeschooling as a valid alternative to traditional education. In fact, Fields-Smith is in the process of writing a book on black, single homeschooling mothers because she sees “more and more families of less means” making the decision to sacrifice traditional career paths so that they can pull their children from school.

Rhonda McKnight would be an archetypical candidate for Fields-Smith’s book. As a single mother, she works about 45 hours per week as a contractor for the state of Georgia—often at odd hours and during the weekend—so she can homeschool her 8-year-old son, Micah. “It’s not easy,” McKnight said. “It’s extremely difficult to balance everything.” While a common criticism of homeschooling is a potential lack of socialization for children, Mazama said the growing number of homeschooling groups solves this problem. McKnight for her part joined a homeschooling collective that, in addition to providing Micah time with other children, also helps her manage her workload. The group gathers on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays to engage in extracurricular and hands-on learning activities that can’t easily be done in the home, giving McKnight some time to herself—and, of course, some time to work.

Micah, who like Marvell is autistic, didn’t learn well in a classroom with 25 students. McKnight also felt as though his teacher was misinterpreting the symptoms of his disability as behavioral problems and accusing him of “behavior that was not typical to him.” “I don’t know how racially motivated it was at the time,” McKnight said. “But even black teachers are taught certain things they are not even aware of. Our culture tends towards labeling our boys.”

The poor education, according to McKnight, left Micah significantly behind in several subjects, which means she’s now trying to pack as much into his schedule as possible to get him back on track. “He doesn’t really get a day off—not right now, because he’s just behind. I feel like he doesn’t really have time to relax,” McKnight said, explaining she wasn’t aware just how behind he was until she started to homeschool him. Most devastating, she said, was when she realized her son was reading well below his expected third-grade level: “I felt like I had totally failed him, and the school had totally failed him, and the only thing I could do was work with him one-on-one to get him caught up.”

To get Micah up to par in his academics, McKnight has employed a customized mix of purchased homeschool lesson plans and learning materials she developed herself—all on top of what he learns at the collective. When Micah is home, McKnight said her days are “totally dedicated to him.” They work for at least an hour on each of the core subjects, studying within the grade level that best suits him in each area. On days he returns from the collective, McKnight reads with him for two or three hours with the goal of getting him to a third-grade level by the end of the year. Lessons even continue on Saturdays and Sundays. He’s at his father’s place every other weekend, where he continues his reading schedule, and on the weekends that he’s home McKnight takes him on educational field trips—Atlanta’s many museums are frequent destinations.

It’s this ability to shape everyday activities and lessons to meet the personal needs of each child that Fields-Smith finds so promising about homeschooling—especially for black families. “There is no one way to homeschool,” she said, noting all of the families that she consulted for her study were “catering to their children and customizing their education for them” instead of using a single stock homeschooling curriculum.

Still, Mazama and Fields-Smith acknowledge that homeschooling is controversial, particularly in the black community. “For African Americans there is a sense of betrayal when you leave public schools in particular,” Mazama said. “Because the struggle to get into those schools was so harsh and so long, there is this sense of loyalty to the public schools. People say, ‘We fought to get into these schools, and now you are just going to leave?’”

For Paula Penn-Nabrit, an African American scholar and writer who homeschooled her children in the 1990s, this struggle hits very close to home. Her husband’s uncle, James Nabrit, argued Brown v. Board of Education in front of the Supreme Court alongside Thurgood Marshall; he later served as the president of Howard University. When Penn-Nabrit decided to pull her three sons from public school, it angered many of her black friends. “A lot of people felt that because my family was intimately involved in the effort to integrate schools, that for me to pull my children out of schools was a betrayal of all that work,” she said. “But it really wasn’t. The case had nothing to do with what I, as a parent, decide I want for my child. That decision meant the state can’t decide to give me less than, but I can decide I want more than.”

In 2003, Penn-Nabrit published a book, Morning by Morning: How We Home-Schooled Our African-American Sons to the Ivy League, in an effort to help others repeat her successes with homeschooling. Her older twin sons, Damon and Charles, both attended Princeton, and her youngest son, Evan, went to Amherst College and then to the University of Pennsylvania.* The book, according to Penn-Nabrit, received “a lot of open hostility”—with several people accusing her of racism—because it detailed accounts of the discrimination her sons allegedly faced in public school and emphasized an Afrocentric approach to education.

Upon deciding to homeschool their sons, Penn-Nabrit and her husband, both of whom have degrees in the humanities, elected to teach them the subject areas they knew well.** For the remaining science and math courses, however, they hired black, mostly male, graduate students from the Ohio State University to take over—in large part so that the boys had exposure to successful people who looked like them.*** After all, according to the Department of Education, less than 2 percent of current classroom teachers nationwide are African American males; until their homeschooling, Penn-Nabrit’s children had never had a black man as a teacher.

“Most black people go to school and never have a teacher that looks like them, and this is particularly true for black boys,” she said. Similar concerns, she noted, led to the creation of single-sex schools—a particularly apt comparison for Penn-Nabrit, who attended Wellesley. “If women benefit from having a period of isolation from the larger group, that could be applicable to black boys as well.”

Mazama, meanwhile, said that rooting children in their heritage in an educational setting allows them to do better emotionally and socially. “If anything, homeschooled black children would be much stronger because they would not have been devastated at an early age by racism,” she said. She explained that the absence of these early destructive experiences, combined with a heritage-focused curriculum, ultimately allows children to recognize and deal constructively with racism—”not by denying it, but by confronting it because they are comfortable with who they are.”

“That’s the way I teach my own children,” she continued. “I have seen this work.”

Back in San Diego, Vanessa Robinson has also seen it work. Now that she’s been homeschooling Marvell for five months, she notices that he is better adjusted and has moved farther along academically than he did in public school.

“He’s a completely different person,” she said, reporting that his confidence is higher compared to where it was in public school, allowing him to make friends in his neighborhood and learn more quickly. Robinson said that, while she bought a set of lesson plans with a suggested timeline, Marvell now moves so quickly that she has to add lessons together from an array of instructional programs just to keep up. And when he finds something he loves, she lets him dive deep. “Right now, Marvell says he wants to work for NASA, so we’re really focusing on getting in depth into science and space,” she said. His new interest is a thrilling prospect for Robinson, a registered nurse with a background in science.

“I just want my son to be a free thinker and to question everything,” she said. “I wish that when I was growing up, I could have done that.”


* This post previously stated that both of Paula Penn-Nabrit’s sons graduated from Princeton with honors. We regret the error.

** This post previously stated that Penn-Nabrit’s husband had an advanced degree in the humanities. We regret the error.

*** This post previously stated that the graduate students Penn-Nabrit hired to instruct her sons attended the University of Ohio. We regret the error.

This story was produced in collaboration with The Hechinger Report.

Beating Procrastination

December 17, 2014 Procrastination is one of the social evils that has always accompanied us since the dawn of time.Some people crave procrastination and think they can do better when they delay tasks that require immediate attention. Others procrastinate because they lack motivation or interest to keep them focused and on task, some procrastinate because they think they have a  ‘skill deficit’…