Reopening: Moving Toward More Equitable Schools
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Give Everybody the Education They Deserve

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    Meg Riordan

While my own schooling was traditional, my deepest learning was not. As a learner, the experiences that engaged me most deeply were those outside of my Catholic school classrooms: developing skills like dribbling a basketball, pivoting, and sinking a basket with a satisfying swish; a month-long Outward Bound course on which I learned to read a map, navigate lakes and land while paddling or portaging a canoe, communicate with my rock-climbing partner, and build a fire and shelter. To me, that kind of learning felt meaningful: I was problem-solving, thinking, collaborating, creating, and applying. My learning in those situations mattered more to me -- maybe because it mattered to others besides myself, too.

When I became an urban middle school teacher, I sought to engage my students in purposeful and authentic learning - what today we call Deeper Learning. Back in 1994, I didn’t quite know what to call it, but I knew that when my students were learning about issues that mattered, their passion and engagement were not accidental; they were a deliberate result of being empowered by real projects, grappling with real dilemmas, and needing real skills to educate themselves and others.

While reading The Outsiders with my 8th graders, primarily students of color and the majority receiving Free and Reduced-Price Lunch (FRPL), we researched incidents of teen violence in our Milwaukee community, created pamphlets, wrote letters to local politicians, and hosted a discussion panel to promote activism to stem the violence. It was deeper learning that included mastery of skills and content, and also critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, communication, self-direction, and an academic mindset. It is learning that matters. It is also learning that is deeply linked to equity, because as Jal Mehta noted in his Education Week blog, “students in more affluent schools and top tracks are [more often] given the kind of problem-solving education that befits the future managerial class, whereas students in lower tracks and higher-poverty schools are given the kind of rule-following tasks that mirror much of factory and other working class work.”

Several months ago, I was selected for the inaugural Deeper Learning Equity Fellows cohort, a group of 10 school leaders, policymakers, non-profit educators, and professional developers who aim to influence policies and practices that expand access to Deeper Learning in public education across the country. The aim of the cohort is simple, meaning that at its heart, our work focuses on helping all students – particularly the marginalized and underserved – have access to deeper learning; but it is not easy, because changing hearts and minds (and policy) is never easy. Essential? Yes. Easy? Not so much. But like Frederick Douglass said, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”

So, in an educational and political climate where sparking change seems tough at best and igniting a movement like wildfire may appear a daunting challenge, how can we advocate for, be activists of, and make possible deeper learning equity for all students?

During the recent 2016 Deeper Learning Conference conference keynote, High School for the Recording Arts student Carli Willis explained that students are engaged when leaders and teachers “expect greatness.” What does “greatness” look and sound like as we strive for deeper learning equity?

In EL Education, part of the network of Deeper Learning schools, we champion high quality work for all students that is authentic, complex, and refined with care - work like Polaris Charter Academy’s Peacekeepers of Chicago project detailed in Ed Week blog, “Empathy + Critical Thinking = Compassionate Action.”

It is no accident that research points to students’ engagement as vital to academic achievement; Carli’s call for us to engage our fellow human beings – students – in more than worksheets and memorization is central in our struggle for deeper learning equity. Learners are engaged by content that offers multiple perspectives, raises questions about issues that affect them and their lives, and that calls on them to create – not just receive – knowledge. Complementing EL Education’s focus on purposeful and engaging work, in this video, Leaving to Learn authors Elliot Washor and Charlie Mojkowski identify expectations for students to bring to their learning experiences – and these questions provide a distant mirror for educators, too: Are my teachers interested in my passions? Do they understand how my work contributes to my community and the world? Do I have opportunities to explore and make mistakes? Is the learning and work I do regarded as significant outside of school? These questions and more raise expectations for educators, students, policy-makers, and others involved in the struggle for deeper learning equity.

For me, as a Deeper Learning Equity Fellow, I realize that we can’t simply be accidental educators and that the very act of educating is itself an issue of civil rights. The teaching and learning we do matters, so that we can give all learners the education that they deserve.