Ayodele Harrison shares some insights on how to prepare Black Lives Matter classroom conversations in Part 2 of his PLTogether Lounge Talk discussion with Adam Geller from Edthena .

Here is a transcript of that conversation.
– Welcome to PLtogether Lounge Talks. I’m Adam Geller, founder and CEO of Edthena the video coaching platform. Today, we’re talking with Ayodele Harrison. He is a black male educator. He has taught math in California, in DC, and even overseas in South Africa. He is also a senior partner of education, the senior partner of education at Community Build Ventures. Ayodele thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you for having me.

– So, we’ve been talking about the context in which educator exists and a specifically black male educator exists. Now, I wanna kind of lean on that expertise that you have, but maybe zoom out that role that you might take with supporting a whole building. And I know that one of the things that you speak to is the idea that educators need to get the environment right for learning. So, I’m curious, what does that mean right now in the context of COVID especially when they may not be in person?

– Yeah, so, I think, a focus on getting the environment right is first understanding what the customer experience is within that environment. And we have to understand some people say customers, I usually say that they say stakeholders, that’s parents, students, educators, staff, and building leaders. And so it’s really about getting the environment right. There’s no one answer because every single environment is different, even if you’re within a school district, schools that are right next to each other, it’s really about understanding what the customer experience is. All of those who come into interaction with the learning environment, how are they experiencing it? What do they think about leadership in the building? How are they performing throughout the building? What is the physical environment? Do they feel welcomed coming into a particular building? Do they feel like their relationships with the people that they engage within the building are strong? So getting the environment right really means about understanding what the customer experience is first and then knowing, what are we getting right, what are we doing right, and then also what might be some weaknesses in some areas of growth that we can have to ensure that the environment is right. Because I think, we often think that there’s this perfect space that’s involved, but each school is slightly different. And so let me give one example. So I went to visit a school in Boston and this school happens to sit in a predominantly Cap Verdean community. And over 40% of the student population, identifies with their first language is a Cape Verdean language. And so, when you walk in the building, you would imagine you would see that culture represented, that country represented. There wasn’t any indication in the building that told me that this was the school, where the school sat. It wasn’t until we were in a meeting with the administration and they gave us the one-pager that describes the school and the variety of capacity. I was like, wait a minute, 40% of your population and I kind of like talk to myself and my colleague, like, I didn’t know that. And there wasn’t any sign of that. So a simple way to get the environment right in there is saying, we have a large population of Cape Verdean students. How do we make sure that they feel that their country, their culture is represented within our building? That is one example of seeing how we can get the environment right for learning.

– So, as educators are engaging you and your colleagues in kind of adjusting to online and distance teaching, I mean, suddenly the environment isn’t necessarily physical. So, do you have some pointers or ways to help steer them in thinking about how to translate what had been a physical environment into an online and virtual environment?

– Sure, I think one of the things that we can lift, that we strongly encourage all educators to do, whether you are a classroom teacher or a building leader or two a building leader, is to have community agreements. We actually have to be able to sit down and talk about what does it mean to be in this community and what do we- What guidelines agreements would be most beneficial that allow each of us to be our best selves in this community. One of the questions that- And this is virtually, so you do this. So when we run any type of professional learning experience, we construct community agreements because the community is brand new. We have to figure out how we’re gonna be our best selves together. So in the virtual space, it is about taking time to grow that. That is also a major step in building relationships with students because one of the ways we can build relationships with students is giving them a voice on what they believe is going to be, they need to do to be their best selves because one of the comments I was thinking about earlier this week was this idea of we as educators are being beamed into 20, 30 different classrooms at different homes at one time. Each of our students are also being beamed into other people’s homes. We have to have some agreements about how we navigate that because life happens. Just on the other side of this wall you might hear my daughter watching a Disney movie and she’s like, when I’m meeting and it’s in this now virtual space, she’ll come in and do kind of like this commando crawl into the room and then her arm will reach up over. So there’s these unforeseen circumstances. And so we it’s best to set some community agreements at the very beginning so that we know how to navigate this. And with students that’s really important. What happens if a curse word flies out of an adult’s mouth? What happens if you might see something in the background that you might not have seen being outside of the house. We need to talk about that and set community agreements so that we know, we won’t know everything that comes up, but at least we’ll have some agreement, some guidelines that will help us navigate unforeseen circumstances that we know are going to happen on camera some point in time over 180 days together.

– I’m thinking about some of the agreements I’ve made with my partner even before I have these videos, I’m like, all right, I’m recording, don’t walk through the living room. But I do hear you saying that I think is really resonating with me and it’s kind of like an aha, which is in the same way you have those first days of school routines as a teacher to build culture and talk about what the norms will be. You said that kind of idea of community standards that doing that in the virtual environment is still very important and maybe even more important because as the educator, you’re now operating in a space that’s less familiar feeling than the classroom routines that you may have used year after year.

– Yes. Definitely. I mean and the thing about it is community agreements are, they’re continuously being used and it’s something that is important to revisit on a daily basis. And when we see an agreement isn’t being lived up to the way that we had set and talked about in the very beginning. And another thing that’s really key is that, working with teachers and when I leave PD, I’m not the sole person, even I’m the facilitator. I’m not the sole person responsible to uphold these community agreements. It’s they are community agreements. So it’s empowering our students to be able to say, wait a minute, are we like maybe in a verbally or in a chat message or something to be able to say like, are we living up to this community agreement or I’m feeling hurt because this was not via, this was not respected in this particular way. And so, those are definitely important because we wanna do our best learning together, we wanna enjoy our time together, but we need to be our best selves together. And then that’s a way that we can talk about community agreements is a way that we could talk about dress code, lighting, when to turn the camera off, when the turn it off. Like there’s so many things that you can cover which is usually what happens in the first few days of school you can cover in that process. I think for educators, community agreements, I feel like community agreements are most effective when we’ve done some work together and maybe bumped up against each other a few times, and then we start to say, hmm, that might not have felt good. What might we need to make sure that we can navigate this space a little more effectively? So it’s not, we’re gonna say community agreements, day one, minute one, we’re gonna do this. It’s more of like, let’s do some activities, let’s do some getting to know you. And when situations arise, when we’re like, hmm, that was interesting, let’s pause and let’s talk about this. So I actually have a plan for building community agreements based upon what is actually happening minute by minute.

– So you gotta stay open, you gotta be flexible at setting these community agreements. I do think, to take us back to that question of getting the environment right, I mean, the environment is definitely driven by the context. One of the things informing the context is the virtual nature. I think another important thing that we should talk about that is informing the context of this school year for students is the kind of very pronounced national conversation about race, about Black Lives Matter, about police violence and police deaths. So as an educator, obviously how you discuss those topics is different depending on age level. But how do I navigate that? And also, let me personalize that and ask the question as if it was me going back into the classroom. If I as a not black educator needs to talk about that with my students. How do I start that conversation so that it can be something we are comfortable talking about together?.

– Sure. I think that the first way to start is the first conversation you have about it shouldn’t be with your students. It should be with yourself and other and a community in which you can grow with. And understand and say, “Hey, I’m really looking”- And it’s kind of like listening to a conversation like this, but it’s actually sharing, right. It’s being able to connect with somebody that you can feel that you can grow with to be able to share like, this is an idea or to come to a place of my understanding of this movement. My understanding of this time, what do I need to know and be able to read books. To understand about being an anti-racist, to understand the context and the history that has brought us to this time. Not think about it a moment because I would say that it is- I wanna say it’s irresponsible for us to move in to have discussions with students around this if we haven’t understood from where we stand our own perspective, our own identity. How do we show up within our Black Lives Matter Movement or any other movement that exists? We have to be able to engage at conversations ourselves and think about what’s my role? What’s my responsibility? What learning do I still have to have? What connection have I investigated my identity? ‘Cause one of the things that working with educators that might be a white female working in a predominantly black school, have you taken a moment and this is any school, but in a predominately black school. Have you taken a moment to think about, one, have you analyzed your identity working in that space? Have you thought about how people are seeing you in that particular space? If you haven’t taken a moment to think about yourself as a professional, and how what role Black Lives Matter, this understanding of racism and oppression comes up, it’s gonna be challenging for you to actually lead a conversation, because I would say we’d be ill-equipped to lead a conversation with students if we haven’t really figured out ourselves. And so the key is not to like stop or damp down or be like, “We’re not gonna talk about that in this space.” It is really learning openly and saying, “This is something that I’m coming to an understanding with.” And so that’s if I end up engaging in that conversation with students, ’cause they inevitably might have that. And there’s this honesty of like, I don’t have all the answers. I am a middle class, black, African American male who went to all-boys Catholic school. And in this context, so it’s almost like in this skin that I’m in my intersectionality is helping me to understand. I have to come to terms with that before it’s ideal if I come to terms with that and are working with that before I actually enter that space. Then after I enter that space where I wanna lead it, I wanna make sure that I have the correct resources. I want to make sure that I ask a teacher, a colleague, someone that I trust, What happens if I do hear the N ward? What happens if I hear an antisemitic, What is the process to help kids engage around this? ‘Cause if we’re in a history class we need to hear and talk about this. If we’re in a math class and it comes up, maybe there’s some contextualization that we can have with that. So, it’s doing this play. I think I’d sum it up. Don’t- Be prepared- As you’re saying be prepared for the conversation. Don’t just say, “Oh I’m ready.” like, have a place. One of my colleagues, Dr. Philomena Prescott Adams, she said, “Many times what we have to do is we have to do role play with our colleagues or someone we trust to talk through and have a student push us.” So it’s about being prepared, preparing ourselves, and looking at who we are, how we stand, how we wanna show up and then practicing the language we’re gonna use with young people.

– I think what you just shared was, I know you’re not the full expert on this, right?. You’re providing some advice. I think that’s a good moment to say like, we’re not saying you’re the only expert on this, but I think as someone who is deep in these issues and understanding how to help educators evolve, what I’m hearing is, as the educator, I don’t necessarily need to “plan” for that conversation. That shouldn’t be my priority one. I should be prepared that it might happen and I should really plan for some professional learning as my first to-do item as I get into this year because the first and most important thing may not be to start a conversation with students, it may be to do more work to understand who I am and how I sit in the context with my students.

– Inevitably, excuse me, I’m sorry. It’s both right. It’s both. And this is where we have to model this idea that I don’t know everything and I’m working. There are many times whereas a male, there are many things that we’ll experience that patriarchy will rear its ugly head in a variety of different ways. And I have to turn to my wife and say, “What would I say in that moment? What should I say? What should come out of my mouth?” So there is this preparation because I might be asked at some point in time. As an educator, we got to know what’s gonna happen very soon. I mean, from somebody might come in with a Black Lives Matter T-shirt or with whatever other device that really will streamline this, what will be a catalyst for this conversation. We have to be ready. And I know that I used to think that I needed to know everything when really I needed to know how to guide a conversation that welcomes the voices, that provides a structure to welcome voices and have young people think about what they’re saying. I remember I had a student when I taught in South Africa, he’s a Finnish dissent. South Africa the school that I was at had families from all over the globe and he was Finnish and he said, we were talking one day, great kid and he was just like I don’t like refugees. And is like they cause all the problems back in Finland, like all these things, especially with Somalians and Sudanese. And I was like, well, tell me more. So instead of having this like shut down, “Oh my gosh, that’s wrong.” It was one on one. But I was just like, “Tell me more. What has brought you to that?” And what we realized was that, he had learned some things that his parents had shared. And what we did was take a moment to really unpack that. So I used before I knew, I didn’t know what they were at the time, but like coaching skills where you kind of flip it and say, well, “So what are you thinking about that? Where did that come? What has led you to this?”. So many times as educators, we don’t have to have the answers, but we have to understand how to create a conversation that is fruitful and building for kids that actually develop their own understanding and maybe think a little deeper about the words that have to come out of their mouth or the physical actions that they’ve done.

– Well, let’s take a break. I wanna talk in a minute about how teachers will do some of that learning to be better prepared. If you’re listening to this conversation or watching it, make sure you head to PLtogether.org to watch the rest of this conversation, as well as others. Ayodele, thanks so much for joining us.

– Thank you.

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