Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Return of Community History? Hope and Inspiration at C.A.S.A Middle School in the Bronx

Today, i paid a visit to a small middle school in the Bronx headed by a visionary principal named Jamaal Bowman, who I have been communicating with via Facebook for the last year. The school, called Cornerstone Academy for Social Action ( aka C.A.S.A Middle School) is  in a part of the Northeast Bronx i know well. It adjoins a small public housing complex called Boston Secor, which is the place of residence of a great Bronx DJ,. Danny Beat Mann Martinez and  of Leroi Archible, a long time Bronx polltical activist, veterans leader and youth sports organizer, who was a Community Researcher for the Bronx African American History Project .

I knew i was going to have great conversations with Jamaal Bowman, but what i saw impressed me as much as what i heard. The first thing i noticed was the way the students carried themselves. It is no secret that middle school students are the most difficult age to work with and are a challenge to the most gifted administrators, but the young people who entered the auditorium at the beginning of school were different than what i expected. They were shockingly well behaved, yet without the aura of intimidation you see in "zero tolerance" school settings. They looked - dare I say- relaxed to be at the school, an attitude helped by the fact that there were no metal detectors, no police and no hovering presence of security guards

The second thing i noticed what was on the screen in the auditorium,  where the students assembled, which was a quote from Afrika Bambatta about the positive values of hip hop culture- "Peace, Unity and Having Fun."  I shook my head in amazement.  Not only was the school promoting hip hop  as an integral part of community history, it was actually promoting "having fun" as a positive value, something very unusual in the era of high stakes testing

When Principal Bowman took me up to the fourth floor, where the school's classrooms were located ( the school shared the building with an elementary school and district 75 school with a high needs population) i realized that what I saw on the screen was not an apparatition! The spotlessly clean hallways and newly painted walls were covered with murals celebrating figures in African American and Latino history ranging from Malcolm X  and Martin Luther King J to Sonia Sotomayor and Fanny Lou Hamer. Alongside the murals were displays of written work in subjects ranging from math to history to science and language arts.

But what was most impressive was what was missing. There were no reference on the walls to testing! No data walls, no pep talks, no slogans about acing the tests!  While I had no idea what was going on in the classrooms- and given the sheer number of tests middle school students were deluged with test prep had to be part of the curriculum- it was clear that nobody in this school was making testing the centerpiece of school culture. That place was taken by community history and the history of the African American and Latino peoples who made up the overwhelming majority ( I would say 95% plus) of the population of the school

I got the same message when I went into Principal Bowman's office. I was blown away by an beautiful mural that dominated the wall that included portraits of Tupac Shakur and DJ Kool Herc. Clearly the message in this school, being promoted form the top down, was that these students were the carriers of a proud culture tradition created in the Bronx communities where they lived.

 I cannot tell you how moved I was by what I saw. Ten years ago, i was doing community history projects in more than 20 Bronx schools. All of them were pushed out when Test Mania took over the Bloomberg Administration and the NYC DOE began giving letter grades to schools based on test scores and closing them en mass (168 in all). To see a school, right now, in the midst of still fierce test pressures, put community history at the forefront was incredibly inspiring, especially since Principal Bowman wants to spread the model throughout the Bronx and the city.

 Though his mission is still in its early stages, what I saw today mad me incredibly optimisic


turnerj said...

Bravo Principal Jamaal Bowman on using community history as the invitation to learning. It’s provides an authentic culturally responsive curriculum that makes learning meaningful. Marcus Garvey said, "A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots.” Community history feeds the roots all young people need to know who they are. A little side note about using culturally responsive curriculum my dissertation was a 4-year of high school Upward Bound students. The study examined using culture, language, and heritage as the invitation to literacy on the Native American Tohono O’odham nation in Arizona. Reading, writing, listening, speaking, and visual presenting became our invitations to learn. Our retention rate went from 50% to 97.6%.
A far more important impact than the retention rate was our students became advocate for preserving their language, culture, and heritage. Many, many went on to college, became gainfully employed, and active in tribal affairs.
My suspicions are your students will grow to become protectors of their history, and will leave Cornerstone Academy for Social Action prepared to become active civic-minded citizens who reject silence and apathy. Prepared to fight for their rights, and living cornerstones for democracy and justice. I can’t wait to meet these young people on June 23.
Bravo Cornerstone Academy for Social Action,
Jesse The Walking Man Turner

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