Why just read about the founding fathers when you can be one?
Edward Brown, Alumnus
Edward Brown, an alumnus of the Springfield Renaissance School in Springfield, MA, reflects on the early opportunities he had to take risks and take the lead at the EL Education Credentialed School which helped pave the way to his recent graduation from Brown University.
Last summer, when I took the stage to deliver a speech to hundreds of graduates and their families at a ceremony for black students at Brown University, you wouldn’t guess I had previously nervously stammered through a presentation to a panel of only five people. But that’s exactly what happened during my first student-led family conference at Springfield Renaissance, where I attended 6th through 12th grades.
Even in my first year at Springfield, my fellow sixth graders and I were tasked with defending our performance to our parents, family members, crew teacher, and crew members at our semester-end family conferences. I had to reflect on areas of excellence and opportunities for improvement, which positive character traits I was embodying successfully, and which deserved more of my focus. Once I had presented my case, my crew teacher and parents shared their assessment and feedback.
I would have to repeat this process on a grander stage many times along my journey at Springfield: for my 8th grade passage portfolio, 10th grade passage portfolio, and senior talk presentations, each with a wider audience and higher stakes. For my senior talk, I was called on to deliver a 10-minute speech defending my entire body of work to that point, my progress as a human being, my life goals and why I deserved to achieve them. That day, more than 30 people attended, including the principal. I was completely exposed and vulnerable, yet I successfully answered every question from the audience and defended myself and my work. It was taxing, but so is any path to success, like the one that brought me to a commencement podium at Brown University.
Most people will never have the chance to defend a dissertation to a panel of scholars, or even experience and interpret feedback from an employee review before they obtain their first jobs. I have been preparing for those experiences since I was 11 years old, thanks to my time at an EL Education school.
At EL Education schools, students are in charge of many aspects of their own education, not because we are ready on day one, but because we learn through practice. We’re allowed to make mistakes, and we’re trusted with the responsibility to take ownership of standards and turn them into high expectations for ourselves.
We’re also trusted with the care for each other’s learning, and for the wellbeing of our entire communities. As a sixth grader, Springfield honored me with the responsibility to sign the school’s founding document, where I was one of only a few student representatives who formally affirmed the school’s commitment to developing great scholars and active citizens, like all EL Education schools.
Etching my name in that founding document, I understood how our country’s founding fathers might have felt signing the documents that define our country and our lives to this very day. I had a responsibility to my fellow students and those who would follow in our footsteps, a responsibility to establish and protect a just and great learning community.
Many people don’t achieve a civic awareness until well past the voting age, if ever. They may never learn through personal experience how to influence the world to make it a better place, or how our democracy depends on us for the hundreds of small ethical decisions that make equality possible. My education at an EL Education school helped me learn those lessons first hand.
At Springfield, we learned the histories of people who were never allowed to sign our country’s founding declaration, who weren’t asked about the Constitution that still governs their ancestors’ lives. I had what I call my “Black Identity Realization” in tenth grade history, coming to terms with the fact that there is so much more to be done to level the playing field.
Many of my peers at Brown only recently came to connect their identities to the past and present political situations, and even then, often feel helpless to change their world. I won’t deny that it has seemed hopeless at times, but I had the chance to practice identifying and combating oppression through my learning from the earliest moments at Renaissance. Oppression wasn’t a distant history that only existed for the characters in our textbooks. It was something we were called on to face in our daily lives: speaking out when someone was bullied, mediating conflict when someone was being harassed or profiled, stepping in and keeping myself safe at the same time. Calling on positive character traits became second nature, as familiar as times tables or vocabulary words.
I take my responsibility as a founding student at an EL Education school seriously. Every time I’d come home from Brown for a break, I visited Springfield to speak to everyone it was possible to advise. From the sixth graders to the seniors, I would talk to them about college, about important social issues, about their ambitions.
One young black boy reminded me of a younger version of myself. He wanted to be a writer like me. The greatest advice I could give him is that we can be authors of a new kind of future, one that makes way for others to experience equal opportunity. To rewrite history, you have to start early, not when you graduate, but when you lead your first family conference at the end of the semester in sixth grade. That’s when you start to develop the courage to take responsibility for your own learning, and soon to take responsibility for your school’s growth, and later, even the health of your community.
Today I’m pursuing work on a fiction series, writing my own new world that represents people from all walks of life, ready to make an even greater impact on our society. Being tasked with writing about people of different backgrounds is a great responsibility, and I have a lot to learn, but thanks to Springfield and EL Education, I’ve had plenty of practice, and I’m ready to put my learning to work where it counts the most.
For more inspiration from Edward Brown, take a look at his speech during the 2015 EL Education National Conference.